The Role Model in Sufi Islam

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Luke Nikkanen
RELG 373

The Role Model in Sufi Mysticism

The importance of a role model is something that is emphasized throughout the Sufi tradition. An examination of this reflects the fundamental philosophy of Sufism as a spiritual practice that emphasizes the importance of the individual’s path to God, without conforming to larger institutions that impose their will on the agency of the individual’s journey. Sufism is founded on the notion of the how and the why, that is, the understanding of the self and others. It focuses on the attainment of knowledge through proximity with others, and I feel that it is this relationship with the other that must be looked into to understand the role a mentor plays.
The mentor in the Sufi tradition also functions as a means to more intimately attain knowledge from the Prophet. A qualifying characteristic of the mentor in Sufism is that they must have some sort of genealogy to the Prophet, and therefore, create a chain of a relationship to divinity. Mohammed is widely depicted in the Koran as a role model, as one who must be looked up to and followed. Geoffrey claims that Mohammed was seen as a mediator, a source of light that acts as a link between the human and the divine spheres. (Geoffroy, 45) In this sense, we can see the importance of a role model in helping the individual get closer to God, through personal guidance. Geoffroy discusses the role of Mohammed in his work, citing the Quranic verse that claims “You have in the Messenger of God a beautiful model”. (Geoffroy, 43) In this sense, we can see the role model as one whose actions should be followed. The role model, in this sense, serves two purposes: that of a mediator, and that of a mentor. So says Ernst: “Eyes have insight by his guidance, and inner minds and hearts attain their knowledge through him.” (Ernst, 18)
Something I found interring in the Schimmel reading is the dichotomy between the imitation of Mohammad versus Christ. Schimmel cites Armand Abel in his idea that in Sufism, the Prohet’s actions are imitated, whereas, in Christianity, it is his suffering that is imitated. (Schimmel, 32) In this sense, it seems that what is understood about the role model in Sufi Islam is action, and the intent behind these actions. The mentor, therefore can be seen as the means to the end, not the end in itself. Notions of morality in Sufism, I find, are quite prominent. It is claimed that, on the Day of Judgement, everything is transparent; all of one’s moral actions will be apparent for all to see. In the Koran, the notion of the Prophet is that he is the Best Character, which means that what he is is more significant than what he’s done. It is the intent that must be emulated; it is not only performing an action, but doing it beautifully.
The mentor, I believe, also acts as a countercurrent to the rigidity and coldness of the Islamic legal system. One must not blindly follow actions, but be the true embodiment of these actions. Furthermore, the rigorous following of the rituals of Mohammed, including that of his daily life, brings forth the idea of the need for closeness. This idea is present in the notion of the hilya: “For him who sees my hilya after my death it is as if he had seen me myself…” (Schimmel, 36) Following Mohammed’s actions are a means of being able to evoke feelings of intimacy with him, and, indirectly, a greater intimacy with God.
I find the various qualities of Mohammad, that are then emulated by his followers, to be interesting. He chose to be a servant king rather than a king-prophet. These actions can be seen reflected through the various Sufi practices of poverty. The role model can aid in the detachment from the physical and bodily desires of the world, to help in the upholding of the values of poverty in Sufi. This can be further highlighted in Ernst’s piece, in which he quotes Mohammed as saying “The world was offered to me but I refused it.” (Ernst, 26) Poverty, in this sense, is something that must be embodied to cut off distractions from the material world, so one can focus on attaining closeness with the divine. I find it interesting that the role model in the Sufi tradition can also be depicted as one who is imperfect, one who is, above all else, human. Ernst expresses this idea through Mohammed’s outburst: “God! I am a man who gets angry like other men. If I have insulted or cursed any man, make that be his redemption.” (Ernst, 32) In this sense, it seems as if the role model can be a means of communicating God’s messages of forgiveness. So says Schimmel: “[Mohammed] alway appears aware of his own need for forgiveness.” (Schimmel, 54) The role model is imperfect because we are imperfect, bringing to light the reality of our relationship with God. We must be forgiven, and God must be willing to forgive us.
I will say, however, that I find Ernst’s passage describing Mohammed’s characteristics: “He never hit anyone with his hand, except in war for God” (Ernst, 29) to be slightly troubling. Since the importance of a role model is so ingrained in Sufi society, I hope that this characteristic, of Mohammed as a willing soldier for God, was, or is, not a source for a justification for violence. I hope that, instead of misinterpreting the words of Mohammed in this sense, followers of Sufi can use their own will, guided by their role model, to discern the true meaning of what it means to be a soldier for God. Perhaps the role model, in this sense, can aid Sufi Muslims to understand that the true battle lies within, the true notion of jihad, is the internal struggle between light and dark.
I like to think that, perhaps God, and the undying, eternal love that one desires in their attainment of Him, is present in the relationships that we have to one another. After all, a Sufi view of Hell is in isolation from others. Clearly, the way by which we, all as humans, interact with one another, is significant. On this note, the role model functions as a means to develop an intimate relationship with another human, and, I believe, is reflective of the relationship that God has with all of humanity. The ability to follow, learn from, and truly look up to another person is, in a sense, the attainment of the characteristics of God since, in Sufism, one can only think about His attributes and not his entire essence. Perhaps, in this sense, the mentor in Sufi culture acts as a means to uncover the true divinity in our relationships to one another.