Islamic mysticism, or Sufism, is a distinct tradition within Islam that aims to cultivate the inner spiritual life of the believer. Sufism has changed its focus and nature over the centuries as Islam has developed and expanded.
Initially subject to the notion of the fear of God, Sufism eventually adopted a doctrine of affirming love, and then later shifted to the concept of the individual’s spiritual journey to God. Sufism has certainly attracted many followers emotionally and Sufi masters and sheiks have, in turn, attracted many followers from around the world. The Sufi Brotherhood of Boutchichiya [i] in Morocco has millions of members, thousands of whom are from Europe, Africa, the Americas, and Asia.
Sufism is a religious domain specific to divine love. Since its genesis, the followers of the brotherhoods follow a specific itinerary. In Morocco, the followers of the brotherhoods are numerous but they share the same principle. In this mystical domain, one must follow to the letter the commandments of the Sheikh, the spiritual leader of the brotherhood. Sufism was and will remain a profound spiritual education that has made Morocco a country of religious influence between Africa and Europe. This religious facet has a direct impact on the cultural workings in the daily life of Moroccans. Thus, one will find a religious mosaic that makes this ancestral country a place of living together par excellence.
The Islamic world has undergone several changes since the death of the Prophet. Many sects were created by religious leaders in different Islamic countries. Khiari Bariza highlights the term Sufism. She says at this point: [ii]
“Many contemporary writings, sometimes ill-intentioned, address Islam but few mention Sufism, so that this path is known only to specialists or to the general public through famous manifestations, such as those of the whirling dervishes. The etymological detour is of interest here: according to a first hypothesis, the term Sufism comes from the Arabic safâ which means crystalline purity. Sufism would thus be a purified vision, full of clarity, of Islam. According to a second hypothesis, the term comes from the expression ahl al-saff, “the people of the bench”, those of the first ranks, the most blessed of the community. This term refers to the early days of Islam, in reference to the Sûfiyya who lived in the Prophet’s mosque in Medina.’’
The search for truth is a quest for a particular goal, a quest that is pursued no matter what path is taken – and for the most important truths, the path can be long and arduous. Tasawwuf, or Sufism, is the esoteric school of Islam, based on the search for spiritual truth as a specific goal to be achieved: the truth of understanding reality as it really is, as knowledge, and thereby the realization of ma’arifa, cognition. [iii]
In tasawwuf, when one speaks of understanding or cognition, one refers to this perfect understanding of oneself leading to the understanding of the Divine. This very logical principle is based on a generally succinct statement of the Prophet Muhammad: “Whoever knows himself, knows his Lord“.
The principles of Sufism are all based on the rules and teachings of the Qur’ân and the instructions of the Prophet and his conduct and actions. For a Sufi, there is no chasm of separation between the whole being, its creator, and its creations. The fact that the multitude cannot perceive this fundamental unity is the result of the impurity of the nafs (consciousness), the blurring of the rûh (soul), and the limitations of the material and physical tools that mankind possesses.
If man were freed from the limitations of matter, he would certainly witness this immense and eternal unity of being with his creator. However, there is a chance for mankind to reach such a level of understanding, a path that can be followed through purification and meditation for the realization of its fulfillment. When the heart is purified, the manifestations of the Divine are reflected in the mirror of the heart. Only then can a man move from the level of his animal nature to the level of a true human being.
To the question: what path does Sufism use for revelation? Adonis writes: [iv]
‘’The answer lies in the fact that Sufism distinguishes, at the cognitive level, between reason and the heart. The former serves to know the external world, the world of phenomena, and the latter for knowledge of the interior, of the real world. It distinguishes, therefore, between the world of religious law and the world of truth. Reason has its own method: analysis, argumentation. And the heart also has its own method: intuition, illumination and taste. Therefore, Sufism rejects rationalist methodology. But not only rejects its methodology, but also the system of life founded on its values, with the intention of better inserting itself in the undelimitable and infinite.
Sufism, as an attitude, upsets the order of the exterior world and its instruments of knowledge and, as expression, alters the usual order of language. This means that the Sufi does not establish rational relations between himself, nature and the things of nature, as he considers it as a set of symbols, images and allusions, and the relations he strikes up with all of this are cordial (of the heart), in the Sufi sense of the term.’’
The word “kabbalah” which derives from Hebrew Qabbalah, designates doctrines received by tradition. True Kabbalah is a system of mystical philosophy and metaphysics. Its originality lies in its approach to Genesis by the mystical path and the way of knowledge. It is a very old wisdom that reveals the functioning of life and the universe.
Kabbalah grants, like the Pythagoras school, a mystical value to numbers. Three senses can be discovered in each sacred word. Hence three different interpretations of kabbala. Despite its relatively late systematization, the Kabbalah is the heiress of a whole Jewish Gnosticism whose Essenes were already penetrated.
Kabbalah is like an introduction to the holy life and the love of God. But the Kabbalah is also a book: the famous Zohar (which means illumination), or Book of Splendor. Kabbalah is the path of Hebrew esotericism. It is even the specifically Hebrew form of the primordial tradition, as Sufism is its Muslim form, and Christian esotericism is the specifically Christian form. The Christian Cabal is sometimes called the “philosophical cabal” or “Renaissance cabal”. It is a Christian philosophical current inaugurated by Pic de la Mirandole (1463- 1494) in the 15th century.
As for Sufism, it is the mysticism of Islam, an ontological and religious quest in Islam. It covers very different realities in this religion. It emphasizes union with God. It is an inner way that appeared with the prophetic revelation of Islam, a momentum of the soul far from the orthodox theism of this religion. Its speech is contemplative and its verbal aesthetics is poetic.
The message of Sufism is that of the miracle of union between the individual soul and the absolute divine nature. Man receives revelation and can deploy his soul. This deployment is done in ecstasy, the dissolution of the ego and the self. Then directly touching all being and everything, the soul of the individual becomes divine consciousness.
Sufism requires that the soul strips the limitations of man, its habits, and its prejudices which had become a “second nature” and is covered with the characteristics of the primordial nature of man, which is to say purity, sincerity, generosity, etc.
Sufism like Freemasonry has grades and initiation degrees: the apprentice “tâlib” who, following a long and difficult initiatory journey, will become an aspirant “murîd“. This will go through “maqâmat“, that is to say, stages of successive initiations, and will access the dignity of “murshid“, spiritual director, guide of disciples, collaborator of the master, guardian of the rules and rites. When the time comes, all the overtones overcome, the master will authorize the “murshid” to become a “sheikh”, i.e. a master having the “baraka” (grace) and the secret of divine science “al-ma’rifa“. [v]
At this stage, it is said that the master knows how to distinguish man (his past master) from his teaching. [vi]
For Michael Laitman : [vii]
[‘’Sufism is not contrary to the wisdom of the Kabbalah. They talk about the same thing. But Sufism does not explain the technique of creating creation, the creation system and its behavior. It is more suitable for the masses, because he talks about the solution to human and spiritual problems, but in our world.
Sufism does not explain the structure of the upper world in the precise form that is explained in the wisdom of the Kabbalah: Sefirot, Partsoufim, Olamot, Ohr, Nrnhy, KHB Zon, Tsimtsoum, Massakh, Ohr Hozer and all the rest of the concepts. Only the wisdom of the Kabbalah gives a description of the “celestial mechanics.’’]
‘’Le soufisme n’est pas contraire à la sagesse de la Kabbale. Ils parlent de la même chose. Mais le soufisme n’explique pas la technique de la construction de la création, le système de la création et son comportement. Il est plus adapté pour les masses, car il parle de la solution aux problèmes humains et spirituels, mais au niveau de notre monde.
Le Soufisme n’explique pas la structure du monde supérieur dans la forme précise qui est expliquée dans la sagesse de la Kabbale : Sefirot, Partsoufim, Olamot, Ohr, NRNHY, KHB ZON, Tsimtsoum, Massakh, Ohr Hozer et tout le reste des concepts. Seule la sagesse de la Kabbale donne une description de la ‘’mécanique céleste.’’’’
The image of the restless human being who walks the paths in search of the Most High, driven by an insatiable thirst for the Absolute and animated by the desire to meet the One, evokes the Muslim mystic. The Sufi is in short a pilgrim who has made the search for God the ultimate goal of his life.
Asceticism, in fact, was an essentially practical attitude, characterized by fasts, penances, vigils, and prolonged prayers, which aimed at perfecting the soul with a view to the hereafter, and, as such, never an object of contention. Sufism, on the other hand, aspired to realize the divine presence in man from this life on earth.
The realization of the divine Unity would have its archetype in the mystical experience of certain prophets, among them Moses, who was called to the Mountain to speak with God, and Muhammad, who in the Celestial Ascension saw God. Another fundamental difference is that, unlike the early ascetics, the Sufis, especially in the early centuries, were initiated by a master, with whom they made a pact in memory of the one the Prophet had made with his Companions, according to the Sura of Victory (48:10):
‘’Those who swore fealty to you, (O Prophet),1 in fact swore fealty to Allah. The Hand of Allah is above their hands.1 So whoever breaks his covenant breaks it to his own hurt; and whoever fulfils the covenant that he made with Allah,1 He will bestow on him a great reward.’’
اِنَّ الَّذِيۡنَ يُبَايِعُوۡنَكَ اِنَّمَا يُبَايِعُوۡنَ اللّٰهَ ؕ يَدُ اللّٰهِ فَوۡقَ اَيۡدِيۡهِمۡ ۚ فَمَنۡ نَّكَثَ فَاِنَّمَا يَنۡكُثُ عَلٰى نَفۡسِهٖۚ وَمَنۡ اَوۡفٰى بِمَا عٰهَدَ عَلَيۡهُ اللّٰهَ فَسَيُؤۡتِيۡهِ اَجۡرًا عَظِيۡمًا
It is important to note, first of all, that the term hitbodedut [viii] comes from the Muslim Sufi rites, which are translated into khalwa (spiritual retreat) in Arabic. The hitbodedut means the spiritual isolation by which the initiate withdraws to a cell or cave in order to concentrate essentially on God. Here a very important remark, namely that this religious practice has characteristics that come from Islam.
The pietists consider hitbodedut as a religious tradition that was inspired in the thirteenth century by Muslim renunciants. The Kabbalist Abraham Abū l-‘Afiya אברהם אבולעפיה (1240-1291) considered this religious practice as that of independent piety, and this at the end of the thirteenth century.
From this perspective, one notes that the ideas marked out by Abraham Abū l-‘Afiya in this religious rite are similar to those of Muslim mysticism. This is due to his friendly contacts with the Muslim Sufis as well as his initiatory wanderings in the East.
There is a concordance between the advice of Abraham Abū l-‘Afiya in his manual on the hitbodedut and those of Shaykh Ibn ‘Aṭā᾿ Allāh al-Isakandarī (1259-1309). The latter recommended spiritual retreat in his treatise by saying:
“If you are the one who is performing khalwa (seclusion), then perform your ablutions, and purify your clothes. You should also get closer to your Lord. It is advisable that you go on the path of khalwa (seclusion) in secret, so that no one will know of your seclusion.’’
One can observe from the two manuals that there is a reciprocal influence between the Sufis and the Kabbalists. In fact, both treatises emphasize cleanliness of clothing and purification of the body. In addition, it is necessary to conceal one’s khalwa, which is intended to achieve the humility through which the initiate can become attached to God.
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[i] Mejdoubi, Sara. « À quoi sert le nous islamiste dans le discours ? », Cahiers de praxématique, 77, 2022,. http:// journals.openedition.org/praxematique/8093
[ii] Khiari, Bariza. Le soufisme : spiritualité et citoyenneté, in série ‘’Valeurs D’Islam 4’’, 2015, fondapol.org. https://www.fondapol.org/app/uploads/2020/05/070-SERIE-ISLAM-B.Khiari-2015-12-09-web-D%C3%A9f-1.pdf
[iii] Harvat, Arvan. ‘’Sufi Cosmology’’, KHEPER, 2004. http://www.kheper.net/topics/Islamic_esotericism/cosmology.html.
[iv] Adonis. ‘’The Sufi Aesthetic Dimension’’ in QUADERNS DE LA MEDITERRÀNIA 12 SPIRITUALITIES AND REPRESENTATIONS IN INTERCULTURAL DIALOGUE, IEMED, https://www.iemed.org/publication/the-sufi-aesthetic-dimension/
[v] Ambrosio o.p., Alberto F. « À la rencontre du soufisme. Les mystiques en héritage », Études, vol. 415, no. 10, 2011, pp. 351-360.
[vi] Bisson, David. « Soufisme et Tradition », Archives de sciences sociales des religions, 140, octobre – décembre 2007. http://journals.openedition.org/assr/11343 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/assr.11343
[vii] Laitman, Michael. ‘’La Kabbale et le Soufisme’’, Laitman, 8 janvier 2014. http://laitman.fr/2014/01/08/la-kabbale-et-le-soufisme/
[viii] Hitbodedut (Hebrew: התבודדות, Withdrawal) refers to a meditated, unstructured, spontaneous and individualized prayer that Rabbi Nahman of Bratslav (1772–1810) taught.
Cf. Kaplan, Rabbi Aryeh,( trans.). Rabbi Nachman’s Wisdom. Jerusalem: Breslov Research Institute, 1973.