Saturday, October 14, 2017

Who are the Sufis? Defining the indefinable

Not surprisingly, the most often asked question asked by visitors to the Fez Festival of Sufi Culture is "What is Sufism and who are the Sufis?"
Ahmad Ghazali (d. 1123), brother of the famous Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (d. 1111), talking to a disciple

It is a question that is almost impossible to answer, except in the most superficial way. The eminent English orientalist, Reynold Nicholson, (1868 – 1945),  one of the greatest Rumi scholars and translators, once observed that Sufism was "fundamentally indefinable".

Even the origin of the word "Sufi" is disputed by scholars. Sufism or Taṣawwuf (Arabic: الْتَّصَوُّف is often defined as "Islamic mysticism". The term is said to come from suf - a reference to the wool in which many early Sufis dressed. Others say the term comes from either safwe (elected) or suffa (purity). This is disputed by etymologists.

A Sufi in Ecstasy in a Landscape.
Iran, Isfahan (c. 1650-1660)
Sufism is far from being a unified movement, but instead a diverse medley of philosophical and religious beliefs and practices. As the acclaimed scholar, Reza Aslan, wrote in his book, No God but God, "...(Sufism) is like an empty caldron into which have been poured the principles of Christian monasticism and Hindu asceticism, along with a sprinkling of Buddhist and Tantric thought, a touch of Islamic Gnosticism and Neoplatonism, and finally, a few elements of Shi'ism, Manichaeism and Central Asian shamanism thrown in for good measure."

The earliest Sufis were often individuals who travelled throughout the Muslim lands seeking an intimate knowledge of God. Many of them eventually settled into schools and seperate "orders" under the supervision of a Shaykh (Arabic) or Pir (Persian). When disciples reached a level of mature understanding they would be sent off to transmit the teachings of their master.

Emphasis was placed on individual attainment and annihilation of the ego, rather than simply collecting intellectual knowledge. The Sufi master Shaykh Fadhlalla Haeri summed it up perfectly when he said, "There is a big difference between merely collecting recipes and actually cooking and eating".

This anti-intellectualism is one of the defining characteristics of Sufism. It manifested in Sufis moving towards asceticism and away from the influence of the Ummah (the religious community) and the orthodox Ulama (the clerical establishment). Sufi's regarded Islam as the prelude to Sufism.

It is understandable that most Muslims regarded Sufism with suspicion. Especially as Sufis adopted or absorbed a wide variety of local beliefs as well as developing an entirely new canon of poetry and songs.

Being unwelcome in most mosques, Sufis developed their own rituals, most notably that of dhikr, the physical act of remembering God, performed by rhythmic and repetitive chanting and physical movement. Though dhikr is central to the practices of most Sufi tariqas (Orders,) its form varies widely from "vocal dhikr" of tariqa such as the Qadiri, to the "silent dhikr" of the Naqshbandi Order. Most well known is another form of dhikr that involves no chanting at all, but rather the whirling spiritual dance of Turkey's Mevlevi Order - the "whirling dervishes".

It becomes clear that defining Sufism is impossible, being as Reza Aslan puts it so succinctly; "Sufism is the secret, subtle reality concealed in the very depths of the Muslim faith and only by mining those depths can one gain any understanding of this enigmatic sect."

I am a dreamer who is mute,
And the people are deaf.
I am unable to say,
And they are unable to hear.
- Saadi of Shiraz

During the Fez Festival of Sufi Culture there is the opportunity to experience a range of different Sufi Brotherhoods; Tariqa Qadiriya Butchichiya, Tariqa Wazzaniya-Sqalliya, Tariqa Sharqawiya, Tariqa Naqshbandiya, and the Tariqa Rissouniya.

The View From Fez is an official Media Partner of the Fez Festival of Sufi Culture


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