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Religion Library: Sufism

Principles of Moral Thought and Action

Written by: Nancy Khalek

Contemporary scholars of Sufism often express their dismay that Sufism is often dismissed as the "mystical" version of Islam, as if it implies an unorthodox school. In fact, being a member of a Sufi order is an entirely separate matter from one's sectarian or legal affiliation with one or another school of Islamic law. That is, Sufis could be Sunni or Shi'i, they could be Hanbali or Shafii in terms of law, and the practice of Sufism in no way implies the abandonment of the basic pillars and requirements of mainstream Islam. Neither is there necessarily a sense, on the part of Sufis, that their way of life should be prescribed for all Muslims. Rather, Sufi practitioners emphasize additional dimensions of their own spiritual life, and devote themselves to cultivating and purifying their souls through their relationship with a murshid, guide.

Because of Sufism's emphasis on the teacher-student relationship, the heart of moral training in Sufism is education. Equally important is the value of charity, and Sufi teaching also emphasizes material provision for the needy. This is part of the reason Sufi lodges often include housing for wayfarers or travelers.

Although there is no formal monasticism in Islam, a corollary to asceticism, called zuhd is regularly practiced by Sufis who seek to limit if not eliminate their dependence on material luxury. This could include fasting, extra prayers, and abstaining from wealth and luxury, though celibacy is not a widespread practice in Sufism. Muhammad actually frowned on celibacy and is said to have proclaimed, "there is no Monkery is Islam." And while some famous Sufis were celibate, they are the exception and not the norm.

Along with material renunciation, Sufis also practice repentance and the purification of the soul under the broader rubric of humility before God. In seeking to transcend the self and cultivate a purity of heart, Sufis are constantly on guard against the sins of pride, comfort, and preoccupation with their own worldly desires. By organizing one's life around a discipline that involves both physical and spiritual exercises, the Sufi attempts to prevent the corruption of body and soul, and to eliminate the attachment to the material world.

Sufi discipline is often described in terms of adab, which means etiquette, or futuwwah, which means chivalry. These also indicate comportment, culture, or correct ethical attitudes and etiquette. The model for adab for Sufis, as for all Muslims, is Muhammad. He is known for having lived a life of relative poverty, when on some days his stomach growled from hunger. In one famous Sufi anecdote, the Prophet and his family were very hungry, and when he asked his daughter, Fatima, if she had any food she nearly panicked until God miraculously provided some. Muhammad was also known for his nightly prayers, which were so long and arduous that according to his wife Fatima he would sometimes pray until his feet cracked and bled.

For the Sufi moral vision, proper adab also implies curtailing the passions and disciplining the body so as to cultivate its dignified nature, emphasizing the beautiful and shifting away from the profane world. The goal of the Sufi in this regard is to act with love and compassion, as opposed to greediness and anger, and to detach from the world so as to be better able to perform God's will. The reliance upon God by virtue of detaching from the self is called taqwa, a generic term found in the Quran that simply translated means "piety." From a Sufi perspective, taqwa necessitates detaching from the world to the extent that one's actions are attached only to God, and in effect, become pure. Efficacious moral action is therefore a product of the Sufi's spiritual discipline.

 
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