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Religion Library: Sufism

Sacred Narratives

Written by: Nancy Khalek

Similarly, the second half of the Shahada, "Muhammad is the Messenger of God," reflects the value of beings in the world while ultimately acknowledging that only God is Absolute. In singling out Muhammad and staking a claim in belief in his status as a Messenger, one acknowledges that God uses people in the world to reflect and communicate about Himself. The revelation communicated by Muhammad is therefore coming from God, and is a manifestation of God's uniquely Real Being. Once the Sufi, applying this mystical interpretation of the Shahada, initially discerns between the Unreal and the Real, she/he can then discern between the human and Divine aspects of all objects and people in the world.

Through rigorous practice and perfection of the soul (called tazkiyat al-nafs), the Sufi practitioner seeks to achieve a proper understanding of the universe, at which point she/he will discern the only Ultimate Reality, God. These practices include invocations, prayers, and communal gatherings, and may also include superogatory (i.e., beyond the month of Ramadan) fasting. By becoming inured to the bodily or merely physical demands of earthly existence, this training aids the Sufi in banishing a preoccupation with the material self, the nafs, after which it will cease to exist and in this way, allow the Sufi to turn solely to God.

It is important to stress that the broader cosmological framework within which Sufism operates is not different from general Islam. This is because Sufism is not a denomination or a sectarian affiliation, such as Sunnism or Shiism. Rather, Sufism is the mystical expression of the Islamic ethos, which is not strictly Sunni or Shii. Thus, Sufis also believe, like all Muslims do, that God created the world, that he sent messengers and prophets such as Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad with messages and scriptures to guide humankind. All of this is consistent with mainstream Muslim belief.

Sufis do not so much differ from as add to that tradition, accompanying what is seen as traditionally orthodox practice with an additional layer of personal and inwardly-directed spiritual attention. The purpose of this additional dimension is to develop a personal relationship with God that happens to follow specifically Sufi principles of renunciation and spiritual training. As stated above, however, Sufism is not exclusive or generally prescriptive: that is, every Sufi is a Muslim, but not every Muslim must be a Sufi.