Sunday, March 27, 2005

Sufi, Sufism, Tasawwuf

The generally accepted technical term among many
Sufi shaykhs for the mystical dimension of Islam
is "tasawwuf". Unfortunately, for a variety of
reasons -- some historical, some cultural, and
some linguistic -- the "S-words" (i.e., Sufi
and Sufism) have gained ascendancy in the West,
and even in some parts of the East, to the
almost total exclusion of the term "tasawwuf".

Having said the foregoing, I ought to point out
that from the perspective out of which many silsilahs
operate, the term "Sufi" actually is more defensible
to use than is the other 'S-word' "Sufism". Although
there is some discussion which still goes on in certain
circles, most people who have the minimal requisite
degree of knowledge about this area of study tend to
agree that, etymologically, the word "Sufi" is likely
to have been derived from the Arabic word "Suf"(in
its transliterated form).

It is believed by some (e.g., al-Hujwiri) that the
use of the term Sufi arose as a way of linguistically
referring to those faqirs or ascetics who, among other
practices, wore coarse woolen garments as a means of
helping to undermine the body's desire for comfortable
garments. In addition, the wearing of these woolen
garments helped put a lid on the ego's inclination
to wear fancy clothes as a means of gaining approval
and acceptance in the eyes of other people as a person
of standing in the community.

In the early days of Islam, there were few terms that
had common currency within the Muslim community which
seemed capable of embracing the spectrum of types of
people who were drawn to the Sufi path. For instance
the terms "faqir" and "dervish" were often associated
with particular kinds of practices and cultures but
these usages tended, rightly or wrongly, to be too
narrowly conceived in the minds of many people to be
used as a more generic, more inclusive term.

Through a complex mingling of historical, cultural
and linguistic influences, the term "Sufi" seemed
to catch on, across a number of linguistic and cultural
regions, as the word to use when talking about those
who were interested in, or practitioners of, the
mystical dimension of Islam. Yet, among the followers
of this path, the term "Sufi" generally would be used
only while communicating with people from outside
the mystical path since it was the term with which
the latter (i.e., the outsiders) were familiar,
whereas among the practitioners themselves (the
"insiders" as it were) the term "tasawwuf" frequently
was used to refer to the mystical path of Islam.

In contrast to the foregoing, the term "Sufism"
really is misleading in a variety of ways, some
more crucial than others. First of all, the mystical
tradition of Islam is not an "ism" like, say,
capitalism, communism, socialism, idealism, realism,
fundamentalism, surrealism, and so on.

The Reality to which mystical language and practice
alludes is not the invention of some human being or
group of people. At the same time, one must admit
that there are those who do invent their own
particular hermeneutic, or theory of interpretation,
concerning the nature, meaning and purpose of what
the aforementioned Reality is supposedly all about.

The true mystics are those who become absent to
themselves (that is, there ego) and present to their
Lord. The "inventors" of mystical hermeneutics, on
the other hand -- that is, those who impose a theory
onto the nature of Reality -- insist on becoming
present to themselves (i.e., their false sense of
self) and absent from the Reality of Divinity for
which human beings have the God-given potential of

Actually, true mystics are scientists in the best
sense of the word. The pseudo-mystics are merely
philosophers who have projected their speculative
meanderings onto the Face of Reality and, thereby,
veiled themselves from the actual nature of
existence in the process.

To be a scientist in the mystical sense of the
word, one must be willing, if necessary, to put
one's physical life (but not the lives of others)
on the line in one's quest for the true character
of issues involving, among other possibilities,
being, identity, purpose, meaning, justice,
knowledge, integrity, and love. And, even if
one is not called upon to sacrifice one's physical
life, one must seek to sacrifice one's ego or false
self on the altar of submission to Reality. In
short, in one way or another, one must be prepared
to die to oneself.

Contrary to the opinion of many, the statements of
the true mystics can be empirically tested. However,
one has to go through an appropriate process of
supervised training in order to become a competent
and qualified participant, God willing, in the
discipline of mystical science.

If a person called oneself a physicist, a chemist,
a medical doctor, or an engineer without having gone
through the necessary education and training, few
would accept his or her statements concerning the
reality of these disciplines, and even fewer people
would entrust one's technical problems to such people.
Although anybody has the right to voice an opinion, not
all opinions are informed, insightful or qualified in
the required, minimal manner and, thereby, renders
those opinions worthy of being listened to as coming
from someone who knows, within varying limits, whereof
she or he speaks.

For example, one doesn't come in off the streets and
begin doing physics and, and as a result, immediately
grasp the breadth and depth of the relationship between,
say, experiments in particle physics and the theory of
quantum mechanics. A great deal of time and study is
required to be able to reach a point of understanding
why and how various experimental outcomes do, in fact,
help verify various aspects of quantum theory.

Unfortunately, when it comes to the mystical sciences,
many physicists, chemists, doctors and engineers do not
see the irony of their proffering opinions on various
facets of mystical science despite not having gone
through even step one of the long training and learning
process which is necessary to become, God willing, a
bonafide, qualified mystic -- someone who knows something
about the issues entailed by mystical sciences. Many of
the same people who would reject, out of hand, the
pronouncements of people who did not possess the appropriate
sort of credentials of expertise in their respective fields,
somehow seem to feel that all this should change when it
comes to their own pronouncements about a discipline like
mystical science in which they have no expertise, training,
education or credentials.

At the very least, such people are being very
inconsistent, if not hypocritical, in their use of
ideas such as 'expertise', 'competence' and 'mastery'
with respect to a given discipline. A more problematic
ramification is when such people attempt to use their
authority as scientist of one kind to cast aspersions
on scientists of a kind with which they are unfamiliar.
It is as if a non-mathematician were to ridicule
mathematics simply because such an individual had no
idea what the field actually involved due to a lack
of education, experience and understanding.

Of course, this very same kind of argument can be,
and often is, used by spiritual or mystical frauds
in an attempt try to cover up their spurious deeds
and pronouncements. Precisely because true mystical
science lies beyond the horizons of most
people, almost anyone can come along and say
something and claim that what they have said
is the truth.

If someone were to express skepticism in relation
to such behavior or statements, the come-back of
the pseudo-mystic can always be: "You just don't
understand. Unfortunately, there have been so many
of these charlatans, the whole area of mysticism
-- and in what follows I am taking poetic license
with a statement made by Winston Churchill in a
much different context -- is something of a mystery,
wrapped up in an enigma, surrounded by a seemingly
impenetrable cloud of unknowing.

One of the ramifications of this muddying of the
waters has been to lead many people to confuse
the occult, magic, astrology and spiritism with
the mystical path. The latter has absolutely nothing
to do with the former four areas of study, and vice

Furthermore, most people are not prepared to
take the time which is required to be able to
begin to sift out the true from the false when
it comes to mystical issues and questions.
Consequently, many people withdraw in utter
frustration from the whole area and consider
these matters to be mere figments of the

In some cases these people would be correct.
In other cases they would be quite wrong.
The ability to distinguish which is which
is a function of Divine guidance.

The mystical path is not irrational, but
it does have trans-rational dimensions at
its core which extend beyond the handling
capacities of linguistic and rational modalities
of logic. These trans-rational dimensions can
inform rational processes, and, thereby, help
generate, God willing, spiritual insight and
personal transformation, but rational analysis
has no access to these realms.

The mind can either work in concert with these
dimensions and, thereby, be in a position to make
use of the numerous treasures which can be brought
back from the realm of the Unseen for the betterment
of all creation. Or, the mind can act in opposition
to the trans-rational dimensions alluded to earlier
and, as a result, enter into a mind-set of oppression,
denial, and antagonism in relation to mystical issues.

In any event, because of the trans-rational, ineffable,
relatively inaccessible qualities which are associated
with the esoteric dimension of Islam, some people --
unilaterally, and, frequently, quite arbitrarily --
have taken it upon themselves to contend that if
'they' do not understand what the mystical tradition
is all about, then, it must be the invention of some
overly active imagination.

As a result, in the minds and hearts of such
people, the mystical realm tends to be reduced
to an "ism", like so many other conceptually
invented 'isms'. Whether we like it or not,
words have the capacity, both connotatively
and denotatively, to influence the way we
think about a variety of issues -- from
religion, to politics, to society, justice
and the nature of life.

The term "Sufi' has an actual historical root
which attempts to make identifying reference to
a specific kind of rigorous perspective, whereas,
in many respects, the word "sufism" has become
divorced from the historical and ontological
realities out of which the word "Sufi" originally
arose. Consequently, all too frequently in our
times, "sufism" has come to mean whatever any given
person wants it to mean, and, in the process, tends
to becomes conflated with the occult, the vague,
the magical, the mythical, the strange, and the

The best term is "tasawwuf". After that, the word
'Sufi' is more given to misunderstanding than is
tasawwuf, but is less problematic than the term
"sufism", and, moreover, the word "Sufi" is
historically and etymologically, more defensible
than is "sufism".

"Sufism" carries the connotation of all isms --
that is, of being made by human beings. Furthermore,
"sufism" is a derivation of a derivation and, therefore,
twice removed from the original situation. In being
twice removed, it has accumulated some questionable
philosophical baggage.

Unfortunately, the term "Sufi" is, by association",
becoming increasingly undermined in its meaning by
the problems surrounding many of the current usages
to which "sufism" is applied. Nonetheless, it is
better, in many respects from the other "S-word".

Nevertheless, until such time as the word "tasawwuf"
becomes more prominent, if it ever does, then, one is
kind of stuck with the lesser of two evils, so to speak.
For reasons outlined in the foregoing, one can use the
term "Sufi" rather than "Sufism" in order to engage
western vocabularies, and, in the mean time, whenever
one has the opportunity, such as right now, one can
indicate that "tasawwuf" is the proper word to use.

Anab Whitehouse

1 comment:

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