Thu, 23 May 2024 Today's Paper

SUFISM The Forgotten Facet of ISLAM


28 May 2019 12:12 am - 4     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}



Sri Lankan Muslims pray during Friday noon prayers (AFP)


  • The inspired nafs (an-nafs al-mulhamah): At this level,  one becomes more firm in listening to one’s conscience
  • However, to confine the scrutiny of Islam to the laws of Shariah alone, bereft of the spiritual concepts of Tasawwuf, is like confining the study of the life and teachings of Gautama Buddha to the Vinaya Pitakaya, in isolation, without reference to the beauty of the Dhamma


In the aftermath of the terror that was unleashed  in Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday, by a group purporting to be followers of Islam, there is an understandable degree of probing about what ‘Islam’ actually is. One sees a cacophony of voices attempting to provide answers, from diverse perspectives.  

Much of the discussion and debate on Islam, is focused on the interpretations of the ‘Shariah’ (the laws of Islam) based on the teachings of Ibnu Wahab, whose austere version of Islam was adopted and sponsored by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, following its formation in 1932. With the spread of the restrictive construction of the Quran and Hadith propagated by Wahabism, the religion of ‘Islam’ was increasingly perceived as a compilation of arcane rules and conservative dogma. Essentially, that Islam is a religion devoid of any semblance of spirituality.

Though the traditional spiritual practices were continuously propagated by its ardent adherents in Sri Lanka and in other parts of the world, with the rising tide of Wahabism, the spiritual facet of Islam which formed the foundation of the religious practices among most Muslims around the world, including Muslims in Sri  Lanka, was gradually  drowned  into near obscurity. 
This has led to a blinkered perception of Islam and has veiled from the public discourse, the depth of the values, practices, doctrines  of ‘Tasawwuf’ (also known as Sufism),  the spiritual dimension of Islam. 

However, to confine the scrutiny of Islam to the laws of Shariah alone, bereft of the spiritual concepts of Tasawwuf, is like confining the study of the life and teachings of Gautama Buddha to the Vinaya Pitakaya, in isolation, without reference to the beauty of the Dhamma. 

It is this gap in the conversation, that this article will endeavour to address. 

The Religion of Islam consists of three central aspects, Islam, Iman and Ihsan.

5 Pillars  (Islam)

The 5 Pillars of Islam are the acts of outward submission to the will of God : 

Shahada: Declaration that there is no God, but God and that Muhammad (Peace be Upon Him) is his Messenger, 

Salat: Five daily prayers, 

Zakat: Alms to the needy, 

Sawm: Fasting in the month of Ramadan, 

Haj: Pilgrimage to Mecca if physically and financially able.

6 Articles of Faith (Iman)

The 6 articles of faith are belief in :



All God’s Prophets (e.g. Jesus Christ, and Moses), 

All of God’s Books (e.g. Quran, Bible, Torah,) 

God’s foreknowledge and power, and 

 Day of resurrection  and judgment.


Excellence in living the good and beautiful

What is Ihsan?

Ihsan, is the concept of worshipping God as if you see him, and if you do not see him, that he sees you and is the central focus of ‘Tasawwuf’ (Sufism).
The Sufi seeks to traverse a sphere beyond mere ‘belief’, in search of authentic religious experience in order to ‘know’ the ultimate of all reality, Such knowledge, is known as ‘Marifa’ (interior knowledge).


To understand Sufism the concept of ‘God’, as understood by the Sufi has to be understood.

The starting point is necessarily, the now maligned word ‘Tawheed’ or  ‘Oneness’. God alone is the sustainer of all existence. 

‘Allah - There is no deity except him, the ever-living, the sustainer of [all]     existence. Neither drowsiness overtakes him nor sleep. to him belongs whatever is in the heavens and whatever is on the earth. Who is it that can intercede with him except by his permission? He knows what is [presently] before them and what will be after them, and they encompass not a thing of his knowledge except for what he wills. His kursi extends over the heavens and the earth, and their preservation tires him not. And he is the most high, the most great. (Quran 2 :255)

Equally important, is the  assurance that ‘God’ is the ‘most gracious and the most merciful’  and that his mercy precedes his wrath.

So, the notion of the ‘divine’ is that of an all-encompassing, all knowing, sustainer.


To understand Sufism, one has to also grapple with the enigma that is ‘man’.

In Sufi thought, man, though manifested by God, is in his primitive state, a creature that does not ‘know’ God, for he is created with multiple veils of ‘nafs’, that separates him from God. The ‘nafs’ is akin to the idea of ‘ego’. However, the concept of ‘nafs’,  is broader; it encompasses the entirety of man’s notion of an individual and distinct self. It captures man’s sense of  duality, as an entity distinct and separate from the ultimate reality, which is God.

Works on ‘Tasawwuf’, dwell  on the multiple layers and dimensions of the ‘nafs’. 

Nonetheless, a flavour of the concept can be gleaned  by focusing on some of the layers of ‘nafs’.

The inciting nafs (an-nafs al-ammārah):   This is the most primitive state of man, cloaked in pride, greed, jealousy, lust, backbiting, stinginess, malice etc.

 The self-accusing nafs (an-nafsal-luwwāmah): In this layer, the conscience is awakened and is self-accusing, for listening to the ego.  Here one repents and asks for forgiveness and the nafs aspires to perfection.

The inspired nafs (an-nafs al-mulhamah): At this level,  one becomes more firm in listening to one’s conscience, but has not yet surrendered to the will of God.

The nafs at peace (an-nafs al-mu-ma-innah): The person becomes tranquil, and satisfied with the will of God.

The pleasing nafs (an-nafs al-mar-īyyah): By this time, one is soft and tolerant with people and has good akhlaq (good manners).

The pure nafs (an-nafs a-āfīyyah):  Is the purest state of nafs, which has completely surrendered.  Here,”one is “in full agreement with the will of God”

It is said that each layer of nafs is veiled by the one before it.

Though man is thus immersed in his ‘nafs’, it is also said that he has in him, the potentiality  to be the vicegerent of God on earth:

‘Behold your Lord said to the angels: ‘I will place a vicegerent on the earth’.(Quran 2: 30)

Why did God create man?

The obvious question then is, why did this all-powerful, all-encompassing God, create such a man; a man caught in the throngs of his nafs, yet carrying within him the potential to be the vicegerent of God on earth?

In Thasawwuf,  the answer to this question is found in these words spoken directly by God to the Prophet Muhammed (PBUH):

‘I was a hidden treasure and I longed to be known. So I created the creation so that I may be known. (Hadith Qudsi)

For the Sufi, the act of creation was primarily for ‘God to be known’. To be known, not in a peripheral or superficial sense, but a far deeper knowing, in a bond closer and more intimate than the bond of two soul mates.

Union with God

Such a realisation of God is described by the Sufi as:  ‘union with God’: For those who seek textual support, works on Tasawwuf often quote the following:

‘and my servant continues to draw near to me with supererogatory  deeds until I love him. when I love him, I become his hearing with which he hears, and his sight with which he sees, and his hand with which he strikes, and his foot with which he walks. Were he to ask [something] of me, I would surely give it to him; and were he to seek refuge with me, I would surely grant him refuge.’ ” 

[saying of the Prophet reported by Bukhari]

‘And we have already created man and know what his soul whispers to him, and we are closer to him than [his] jugular vein. 

(Quran 50:16)

How can man achieve union with God?

For the Sufi, the first step in the process of moving towards God, is to find the place in man that is said to be closer to him than his jugular vein.  In Sufi teachings, this place is the ‘heart’. 
Here, the heart is seen as being distinct from the intellect. 

However, to begin the ascent of the heart to ‘God’ the heart needs to be polished  or purified to be ready for this journey.

The role model

The model for the Sufi path is the ascent of Prophet Mohamed (PBUM) to God. He is considered  to be,  Insan –il -Kamil (the perfect man) who aligned  his will, with will of God and achieved the ultimate station of union with God.

The Sufi Path (Thariqa)

The Sufis believe that the Prophet passed on the esoteric knowledge contained in the Quran and the wisdom given to him by God to just two of his closest  associates, namely, Ali, his son-in-law and Abu-Bakar, his dearest and closest companion.

They, became guides to others, who in turn became Sufi Masters (Sheiks). 

The ultimate goal of the Master who has himself realised union with God, is to guide his disciples.

Over time different Sufi orders, (known as Thariqa) were formed. Each order has a spiritual lineage or (Silsilah) tracing back to the Prophet through whom the divine light is said to transcends. Each Thariqa, or path, adopted different practices to journey toward the union with God. 

The Sufi Master (Sheikh of  the Thariqa)

At the stage of initiation into a Thariqa, there is a formal pledge of allegiance  to the master by the disciple. This process, called the ‘Bayah’, is a conscious confirmation of the connection between the Master and his disciple.  Upon taking of the Bayah, the Master becomes fully responsible for the spiritual journey of the disciple.

The Master is said to duplicate the prophetic realities, and acts as an intermediary between the creator and the created. 

Such training, is not simple. Then, the veils are gradually swept away by the Master and finally, when all the veils are discarded, the disciple is placed in the divine presence.

Fana & Bakah

The works on Tasawwuf, identify numerous stages and stations along this arduous path. Here, it would suffice to mention the two main stages in the Sufi path:

Fana (to die before you die) : This stage is not a physical death, but inner death.  It is the annihilation of the self. Everything in man that is anything (e.g.the ego,  desires, sense of identity, wishes, aspirations, ideologies) dies.

Such annihilation happens in stages, first in the Master (Fana-fi Sheik), then in the Prophet (Fana-fi-Rasool) and finally in the God (Fana fi Allah). 

Baqa (re-birth): After the stage of Fana, everything you think you are, has died and you are empty. From emptiness, the stage of Baqa, is said to be born. From darkness comes the light of God to be lit inside of you. From this stage you live life in the state of excellence, ‘knowing’ the good and beautiful.

How is the heart polished?

As noted above, the polishing of the heart through the trials and tribulations of life, is accelerated by pledging allegiance to a spiritual master and engaging in spiritual practices. In the main stream practice of Sufism, there are the general spiritual practices, common to all disciples, e.g.

Zikr (chanting divine names)

Murakabah ( meditation)

Sohbeth (discourse)


Zikr is generally a loud  incantation or chanting of the names of God and praises of the Prophet (but some groups concentrate on silent zikr). It is said to be source of transmitting power down the chain, from God, to the Prophet to the Master and finally to the disciple’s heart. 

Muraqabah – Meditation

This process of watching over the spiritual heart and focusing on the divine essence, is said to unravel new realms of awareness. Through the process of meditation, the master carries the disciple through numerous stages, some of which are: 

Ghanood : the state between sleep and wakefulness

Idrāk: the sleepiness decreases and the seeker can receive the spiritual knowledge from the subconscious  mind. 

wurūd : Mental concentration is sustained and the spiritual eye is activated.  

kashf: The stage of unveiling of  knowledge. The disciple starts to get information that most other people are unable to observe and with practice, the mind gets so energized that it can get this knowledge at will.

shuhūd (evidence): By this time the disciple can get any information about any event or person at will 

fat-(victory): Finally, the person is freed from both space and time and can see, hear, taste, and touch anything, present anywhere in time and space.


Sohbeth, is discourse and discussion. The Prophet Muhammed (PBUM) said: ‘an hour of  contemplation is better than seventy years of worship.’ 

Therefore, Sufi Masters engage in discourses, lectures and intimate discussion with the disciples, in order to enhance their understanding of God and the reality of things.

Knowing God

By overcoming the ‘nafs’, though trials and spiritual practices, it is said that man may acquire knowledge of God.  

In this process three  degrees of certainty (yaqeen) have been expounded upon:

‘Ilm ul yaqeen - “ knowledge of certainty “ 

‘Ayn ul yaqeen - “ eye of certainty ”

Haqq ul yaqeen - “ truth / reality of certainty”

The three degrees of certainty have been described with an apt comparison:  

‘knowledge’ of certainty is like being told about a forest fire from a reliable source.  The ‘eye’ of certainty is like seeing the forest fire with your own eyes and the ‘truth’ of certainty is like being in the forest fire, or, actually becoming the forest fire.

Self is veritably killed, and God pays his blood money, by giving himself to man.

At this point man achieves Haqq -ul-Yaqeen, the ultimate knowledge of God.

Sufi Path of Love

The Sufi path therefore is one of passion, and is often described as a tryst between a lover and the beloved. God ‘was’ and nothing was with him, and God was and will be the only truly existent being. Therefore, annihilation in the Lord – fuelled by love, yearning and passion is the ultimate goal of the Sufi path.

Famous Sufis of Sunni Islam

Whilst the constraints of space will not permit scrutiny of the life and works of the great Sufis, a glimpse at the sayings of a few Sufis, will demonstrate their legacy of  spirituality:
Rabia of Basra (713 – 801) :  The famous lady Sufi, is known for the early articulation of the idea that God should be loved for God’s own sake and not out of fear:
she prayed “O Allah! if I worship you for fear of hell, burn me in hell, and if I worship you in hope of paradise, exclude me from paradise. But if I worship you for your own sake, grudge me not your everlasting beauty.’

Ibn ‘Arabî: (1165 -1240) : Observed about the knowledge of God: ‘Such knowledge can only be had by actual experience, nor can the reason of man define it, or arrive at any cognizance of it by deduction, just as one cannot, without experience, know the taste of honey, the bitterness of patience, the bliss of sexual union, love, passion, or desire. ‘
Abdul Qadir Jilani: (1079 -1166) : “Listen to your heart and not your ego. Your ego prompts you to boast of vain assertions to obtain the glory of this world. Turn away from vanity and seek Him in the recesses of your heart and soul.”  

Jalalluddin Rumi : (1207 -Death 1273)

‘love cannot be carried or contained in words love’s an ocean of unfathomed depth: infinite, the ocean’s drops of water yet the seven seas, tiny, next to love ‘(Masnavi 5: 2731-2)
Nazım Adil: (1932 -  2014)

The lord gave of his love to people in general, not only to the young and beautiful. 

The journey of the Sufi, helps foster excellence in work and social interaction. 

Indeed, the concepts may be termed Nirvana by Buddhists, Moksha by Hindus or Marifa by Muslim. The ‘emancipated’ man may be called, ‘saint’ by the Catholic, ‘Wali’ by the Muslim, ‘Rishi’ by the Hindu or ‘Arahat’ by the Buddhist. Nonetheless, all scriptures, properly understood appear at its core to teach the same underlying truth; each distinctly beautiful in its score and arrangement. 

Therefore, when caught up in the current explosion of mistrust, mayhem and marauding mobs, one must not be deaf to the symphony of the creator:

Oh men! Behold, We have created you all out of a male and a female, and have made you into nations and tribes, so that you might come to know one another. Verily, the noblest of you in the sight of Allah is the one who is most deeply conscious of Him. Behold, Allah is All-Knowing, All-Aware” (Quran 49:13).

  Comments - 4

  • Haafiztine Goldman Tuesday, 28 May 2019 04:46 PM

    Very Informative article

    Shahid Malik Tuesday, 28 May 2019 06:47 PM

    Well written, a lot to be learnt, only if the eyes of the readers are truly open.

    Isfahan Hassan Tuesday, 28 May 2019 08:02 PM

    There is third way of Thariqa, where spiritual transmission through the spirit, rather than physically. prophet of Islam, gave spiritual knowledge to Uwais of Karnain through this method. Prophet didn't meet him physically. A spiritual master could transmit knowledge in this way.

    V.Kumar Thursday, 30 May 2019 01:50 AM

    You can come up with all explanations and excuses about Islam, yet it is a gutter religion. So called Muslim countries are basically cesspools who practice this gutter religion.

Add comment

Comments will be edited (grammar, spelling and slang) and authorized at the discretion of Daily Mirror online. The website also has the right not to publish selected comments.

Reply To:

Name - Reply Comment