Mohit Dubey: Four Fundamental Sufi Concepts

The following are what I consider to be four essential ideas in Sufi mysticism. This is not to say that there are many other important ideas, and that much importance also derives from the overlap of the ideas. However, I believe these four to be essential to understanding the broader context of Sufism as it is practiced. Many of these ideas also play off of dualities, and so will be presented in pairs. Interestingly, mystic duality and paradox is one of the most foundational concepts of Sufism as well, but I have chosen to focus on more specific topics in this paper.


The first and, in my opinion, most fundamental Sufi concept is the dualism of sharia (“the broad path”) and haqiqa (“the most real”). In the Sufi context these are best categorized as the exoteric and esoteric dimensions of Islam, respectively. As depicted by Geoffroy, sharia can be thought of as the circumference of a circle, the universal law that applies to all creatures created by God, while haqiqa can be thought of as its center, the kernel of Islam that can only be reached by traveling along the radius. This inward radial route is known as tariqa (“the narrow path”) and requires rigorous mystical initiation, placing Sufis in a position of the spiritual elite. By using the circular metaphor, Geoffroy emphasizes the fact that “it would not be possible to have authentic esoterism without exoterism” [1], enhancing the paradoxical Sufi interplay of sharia and haqiqa. This interplay was well expressed by Qushayri in his famous treatise on Sufism in the phrase “No divine law unsupported by haqiqa is acceptable. No reality unbound by divine law is acceptable” [2]. In this simple explanation, Qushayri exposes how the law and the reality are intertwined, with the first being “that you worship it” and the second being “that you witness it” [2]. This tension and resolution between sharia and haqiqa has defined Sufism as it gained prominence throughout the centuries in much the same way that the stress and strain of tradition and creativity have shaped artistic traditions such as Western classical music.


The second most important concept in Sufism pertains to the aforementioned path of tariqa, which is achieved through a double helix of maqamat (“initiatory stations”) and hal (“spiritual states”). The key difference between these two components is that maqamat are more lasting “fruits of spiritual discipline” that must be attained while hal are “divine favors which are granted to the mystic without his having caused them and which therefore assume a fluctuating and elusive character” [3]. The primary goal of the Sufi is to attain deeper and more lasting maqamat by mastering his hal and polishing his character in the pursuance of haqiqa. As we discussed in class, there are typically thought to be seven principal maqamat, which include “character traits” such as repentance and patience, and that these seven are further split into beginner, intermediate, and advanced levels of attainment, based on the personal growth of the mystic. In his notable Sufi treatise, Qushayri explains that “an essential condition of the station is that you cannot rise from one station to another until you have fulfilled the provisions of the first…whoever has not attained watchfulness is not ready for renunciation” [4]. This gradation imposes a sense of constant spiritual striving and growth that forms the basis of many other Sufi practices such as dhikr and the necessity of a role model.


The third important Sufi concepts I will discuss are the notions of fana (“extinction in God”) and baqa (“subsistence in God”). The profundity of these two ideas has guided Sufi thought since its earliest days when they were developed by three foundational mystics: Hallaj, Bistami, and Junayd. To Hallaj, an early radical Sufi who was martyred in 922 C.E., fana implied “the infusion of God in man (hulul)”, while to Bistami, a ninth century mystic who was known for his enthrallment with intoxication, fana “operates through the union of man and God (ittihad)” [5]. Both of these early interpretations of fana capture its intense and rapturous spirit, but were considered too extremist by the early Islamic jurists and therefore are only common in far Eastern Sufism. It was the interpretation of Junayd, that fana meant “the extinction of the ego in the divine Oneness” [5] that gained popularity in the Arab world and was further developed by metaphysical scholars such as Ibn Arabi. It was also Junayd, known for his sobriety, who proposed that ecstasy of fana was only the entryway into a deeper state of baqa, “a state which is lucid but filled with the perpetual presence of God” [5]. The achievement of baqa, as we discussed in class, is considered the most important part of the Sufi’s four-stage journey, in which they return from God as a guide to the people.


The fourth and final central Sufi topic I will present is the notion of dhawq (“taste”) and how it pertains to knowledge and experience. In Sufism, rationality is considered to be a path towards knowledge, but it is considered inferior to the direct experiential “taste” of knowledge bestowed by the divine. This is dhawq. In the words of Ibn Arabi, “if someone enjoins you to prove the existence of the knowledge of divine secrets, demand that they in turn prove the smoothness of honey” [6]. This metaphorical, natural, and very sensational approach to explaining knowledge is a central idea of Sufism that was expanded greatly during the Persian poetic golden age of the 13th and 14th centuries. Alongside the metaphor of wine-drunk for mast (“intoxication with God”), dhawq was developed into a very profound notion in the writings of Hafiz and Rumi. In fact, in the legendary meeting of Rumi and his teacher Shams, it is said that when asked the source of his knowledge, Shams replied “dhawq and hal. Why should you care about these?” [7]. This notion of direct experience of knowledge is a reflection of the Sufi sensation that knowledge must both be lived and eventually lead to a deeper love for existence.


Works Cited


  • Geoffroy, Eric, and Roger Gaetani. Introduction to Sufism: The Inner Path of Islam. Bloomington, IN: World Wisdom, 2010. Page 10
  • Sells, Michael Anthony., and Carl W. Ernst. Early Islamic Mysticism: Sufi, Qurʼan, Miraj, Poetic and Theological Writings. New York: Paulist, 1996. Print. Page 141
  • Geoffroy 10
  • Sells 102
  • Geoffroy 72
  • Geoffroy 8
  • Harvey, Andrew, and Jalāl Al-Dīn Rūmī. The Way of Passion: A Celebration of Rumi. Berkeley, CA: Frog, 1994. Print.