Jesse Miller: Sufi Role Models and The Quest for Unity

Sufis seek to succeed in completing a specific narrative throughout the span of their existence in order to reach The Real or The Center, the intangible embodiment of divine truth. This journey originates in the pure, unified love of God’s creation, then passes through the human realm of logical distinction and terminates in an annihilation of difference. This process upholds the indivisible oneness of the divinely ordered cosmos as it shirks material identity in order to arrive at a transcendent whole. For Sufis, role models play an integral role in actualizing the annihilation of their individual selves. Role models instruct their disciples in the art of spiritual practice, and they serve to physically embody the abstract process described above. Without them, the thickly veiled knowledge of how to be and how to become manifestations of humanity’s infinite capacity for loving unity would remain untapped, entirely theoretical and useless.

In his Introduction to Sufism: The Inner Path of Islam, Eric Geoffroy describes the importance of role models to Sufism by illustrating the function of the Prophet Muhammad, Islam’s central teacher. Geoffroy writes, “[The Koran] is not a guide that is explicit enough to cover all aspects of the lives of believers. The Prophet, whose ‘nature was that of the Koran itself,’ was obviously the person best suited to embody this message, and consequently he was the best model for Muslims to follow” (p. 43). Through Muhammad, Geoffroy defines role models as physical examples of the “nature” of certain objects. God’s words flow through Muhammad into the Koran, a text that all humans have sensory access to. However, without a personification of the text’s essence, most people would only be able to recognize to the contours of the language set in ink; they would not be able to access its wellspring of meaning. Muhammad offers his disciples direct access to knowledge of the divine. He unites this knowledge within his body, and it radiates outwards in a way that affects everyone who comes into contact with him.

Even though role models aid people in their processes of unveiling the veiled and realizing their spiritual potential, they unintentionally present some problems to Sufi and Islamic philosophy. More specifically, they threaten to divide the cosmic unity that lies at the center of the Sufi spiritual mission. Geoffroy writes, “During the first centuries of Islam, one concerned oneself primarily with the direct relationship between man and God; thereafter, this same relationship is experienced by aspiring to Muhammad’s model of perfection” (p. 54). It is clear that Sufis do not intend for Muhammad to be a symbol of difference from the divine. However, the act of mythologizing the human Prophet as a perfect expression of God could imply that he himself is The Center or The Real. It is problematic to place divine weight on physical embodiments because the united essence that they carry are fractured by the distinctions within their physical bodies. It might be too much to ask people to separate the heart from the vessel that carries it.