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Religion Library: Sufism

Sacred Narratives

Written by: Nancy Khalek

Sufism elaborates on the relationship between God and humans as it is found in mainstream Islam, and so it is initially derived from interpretations of the Quran and the hadith. Alongside those two texts, which all Muslims use as the bases for their spiritual, legal, and social systems, Sufi wisdom literature, in the form of sayings and biographies of Sufi masters and sages, articulates a vision and practice for the achievement of enlightenment through ultimate union with the Divine.

Thus in addition to the acceptance of mainstream Muslim narratives and points of dogma concerning the five pillars of Islam (prayer, charity, pilgrimage, testification that there is one God and that Muhammad is his Messenger, and fasting during the month of Ramadan), Sufism imparts an additional dimension to the life of the practitioner of mysticism. Many Sufi texts describe the path to spiritual perfection as a matter of passing from the realm of the Unreal to the Real, that is, from one's actual existence to one's intended spiritual perfection.

According to modern scholar William Chittick, Sufi beliefs about the difference between what is Unreal and what is Real stem from an interpretation of the standard Muslim testification of faith, the Shahada. In the statement "There is no god but God," there is a judgment about something that is and something that is not—about an unreality and a reality. From this, according to the logic of this argument, God exists in a manner that is unique and totally exclusive. Sufis came to define that unique type of existence as Absolute Reality. The quality of existing in an Absolute, namely unique and solitary way, belongs only to the One God. Since God alone has Absolute Reality, everything else in the universe belongs to the realm of the Unreal, the non-absolute, or relative world.

One of the most oft-cited texts for this theory of God's Absolute and therefore unique manner of existing is the Quranic verse "Everything is perishing except His (God's) face" (Quran 28:88). This verse is taken as proof that the world as we know it is not eternal, not absolute, and therefore not ultimately Real. The only thing that is Real is God (here embodied by the phrase "God's face") and therefore He is the only Reality that will endure when all Unreality has passed away. This theoretical dualism, oscillating between the Real and the Unreal, is also reflected in the poetry of the mystic and poet Rumi, who wrote "God turns you from one feeling to another and teaches by means of opposites, so that you will have two wings to fly, not one."

Also based on the language of the Quran is the belief that what the world can provide for believers are signs. The verses of the Quran are referred to, in the text itself, as ayat, which means signs. Therefore, even though the world is only relatively real, within it the believer can seek to discern differences among the various phenomena in the world, any of which may be a sign, ayah, sent by God. Different phenomena reflect different aspects and levels of God's communication with human beings. Thus a prophet, for example, reflects and conveys divine reality more significantly than the average person. The principle of discerning which signs are significant is therefore part of what practitioners of this mystical expression of Islam call "walking the Sufi path."