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Religion Library: Sufism

Human Nature and the Purpose of Existence

Written by: Nancy Khalek

Like all Muslims, Sufis believe that human life is but one part of the soul's journey, and that there will be an afterlife that consists of either Paradise or Hell following a Day of Judgment. For practitioners of Sufism, the purpose of life is to cultivate the kind of relationship with God that draws them close to God, in order that they may experience the presence of the Divine while they are alive as well as once they die.

As opposed to a system of belief that recommends storing up good deeds in order to benefit from the Divine only in the afterlife, Sufism holds that one can and should strive to behold the divine in this life, through achieving transcendence of the self.

Fitra is the Arabic term used in the Quran for the primordial state of purity with which every human is endowed at birth. According to some Sufi interpretations, as humans age, taking on the trappings of earthly life such as family and wealth, they become more corrupted and distant from the original state of fitra, which is a state of being directed toward God, instilled in humans at birth by God. Sufis believe that the best way to please God is to train in order to return to the state of childlike fitra. Once there, one is unable to sin or displease God. In that state, one is not driven by fear of hell or hope of heaven, and is driven to do good deeds solely out of love for God, which is the ideal.

This concept is echoed in a famous story about the 8th-century female mystic Rabia al-Adawiyya, who is said to have walked around with a bucket of water and a hammer, symbolizing her wish to put out the fires of hell and destroy heaven in order that she not be motivated by fear or hope, but love for God alone. By seeking only God's pleasure, Rabia embodies a selfless love, one that does not fear punishment or seek praise. This kind of ascetic quality, one that shuns the trappings of worldly emotions (fear, pride, hope) as well as worldly goods, is part of the Sufis' mission to cultivate the purification of their souls.

All ideological and doctrinal branches and belief systems within the broader Islamic tradition have relied on various schools of law for the elaboration of how to perform required religious practices such as fasting or prayer. This is the outer dimension of the law. In Sufism, there is also an inner dimension to the law that has to do with repentance, abasement of desire, and discipline of the self, or the elimination of the ego. Ironically, this can only be achieved in the context of finding a community within which one can train. By affiliating with a teacher or joining a Sufi order/tariqa, a Sufi embodies the belief that the Sufi path is one that cannot be undertaken alone or through independent learning.

Ibn Arabic composed a poem in which he wrote, "Every special (ascetic) effort (mujahada) which is not ordered by a master (shaykh) can't be relied upon—and likewise with every sort of spiritual discipline (riyada). For (such) disciplines entail harm for the soul, and (such ascetic) efforts entail harm for the body." By learning from a teacher who is part of a tariqa, the Sufi joins his or her life and practice to a tradition that ostensibly derives from the lifetime of Muhammad. It should be remembered that Sufism is said to have arisen precisely as a reaction against the wealth and power of the Islamic empire, issues that were not part of Muhammad's life, but were features of the later Empire. Sufism's concentration on the avoidance of worldliness and the discipline of the soul redirects the believer's attention to what is believed to have been the original and pure message delivered by Muhammad to the first believers: to worship God as if one could see Him at every moment.

 
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