Elizabeth Foster: Sufism and Modernity

Prompt: The relevance and non-relevance of mystical views to modern life.


In a time when Islam is so often synonymous with inter-religious conflict, it is key to call attention to the often underlying messages of unity and acceptance. The Sufis manifest these attributes, approaching the universe with religious openness and tolerance. Considering the current tensions between Muslims and Hindus, particularly India and Pakistan, The Sufist view on Hinduism would be hugely beneficial in modern times. Specifically, many Sufis deemed Hindus “People of the Book,” viewing the Vedas as God-inspired texts.1 Further, the existence of religious pluralism within Islam works further as a mechanism for acceptance of other religions. Deeply engrained in this is the concept of tawhid, or Oneness, which, when viewed through a religiously pluralistic lens, refers to the union of all beings regardless of faith. In particular, the Prophet’s acceptance and acknowledgement of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob as legitimate prophets once again establishes Islam as force of spiritual unity.

Another important way to determine the relevance of Sufism in modern life is by looking through example. In particular, the popularization of Sufism in Iran serves as a perfect example of the role Sufism can play in societies dominated by traditionalism or fundamentalism. Sick of the mundanity and strictness of religious practice, such as the implementation of Shari’a Law, Sufism offered an esoteric, fluid approach to Islam. Further, in times of crisis such as the Iran-Iraq war, Sufism saw a popularization.2 I believe these reasons why many people were attracted to Sufism could be greatly applicable nowadays when stark opposition makes little room for mutual understanding. Another crucial example is that of the time when Sufism was founded. As a result of the Islamic Expansion, people became too attached to the mundane and material worlds, leaving a spiritual void. In response to such void, Sufism emerged, referring directly to the meaning of Sufi, a person who looks to purify themselves. Society today is highly materialistic and often distracts people from the true nature of being and the self. Sufism offers a relief from this mundanity, emphasizing self-knowledge, acceptance, and material minimalism. 3

In quoting Ibn ‘Arabi, the true universal acceptance becomes clear, ‘Arabi writing:

My heart has become capable of all forms,

A meadow for gazelles, a monastery for monks,

A temple for idols, a Ka’ba for the pilgrim,

The Tablets of the Torah, the Book of the Koran.

I profess the religion of Love, and whatever direction

Its mount may take, Love is my religion and my faith.4

Profound in this statement are two things: first, the comparison between “a temple for idols” and “a Ka’ba,” and second “the Torah” and “the Koran.” The first comparison is so critical for it shows compassion for the people deemed guilty of one of the greatest sins in Islam, polytheism. In ‘Arabi’s ability to not only accept polytheism, but compare a polytheistic temple to the Ka’ba is hugely radical, for because he opened his heart he is able to see the similarities between that in Islam is the most sacred, and the most deplorable. Secondly, ‘Arabi’s equating of the Torah to the Koran serves as proof of Sufism universal acceptance. This comparison is particularly important in a modern context, considering the deep conflict between Jews and Muslims currently, and especially the medias portrayal of Muslims as most often anti-Semites. This statement serves as proof that Islam itself, in particular Sufism, is in no way inherently anti-Semitic, but instead in many cases able to recognize Judaism in Muslim terms.

In conclusion, Sufism provides both a religious unity and universal acceptance, as well as an outlet away from materialism. In the modern world, each of these concept and beliefs are not only hugely relevant, but greatly needed.