The Sufi Way–a talk at Common Ground

Fatima Imam, a professor of Indian history at Lake Forest college, gave an introductory lecture on Sufism for those members of the interfaith group Common Ground at their satellite “campus” in Flossmoor, Illinois on July 10, 2013.    This post is a summary of the main points of her talk. 

The popular definition of sufism is that it is a form of Islamic mysticism, but that then gets the question of what “mysticism is”.   If you define “mysticism” as the individual’s search for God (or Allah), then this is something that does not necessarily contradict the “outer garment” of the religion of Islam.    However, when you use the phrase the “experience of union with Allah”, then that presents some theological issues.

Islam, like Christianity and Judaism, are religions of relationship with God, not of identity with the divine principle as the religions of the East (Hinduism and Buddhism).   Thus mystics in Islam, as well as mystics in Christianity, have always skated on thin theological ice, because the experience of union with God seems to go against basic religious precepts.

And yet, the whole thrust of Sufism is experiencing God rather than just trying to pray to God.    The American psychologist William James once said, “religion is a defense against religious experience.”   What he meant was that a religion can be a set of concepts or ideas known to the mind, but a religious experience can involve one’s whole being, and can go beyond the mind.    It is this “beyond” of the direct experience of God that Sufis try to capture.

How do they do it?   Well, that’s where practices such as music, dancing, poetry, etc. come in that are considered “haram” or forbidden in more traditional forms of Islam.   They are ways of taking you beyond yourself as you know yourself, and thrusting you out beyond your usual comfort zone to experience God in some direct manner, beyond the reach of one’s familiar precepts or concepts.

Another Sufi tradition, beyond various spiritual practices that encourage the direct experience of God, is the tradition of having a teacher that can challenge you in your quest for that experience.

In reality, the entire religion of Islam, whose touchstone is the book of scripture called the Qur’an, started with a religious experience.   Mohammad would go into a remote cave and meditate, and meditate, and finally, he experienced the voice of the angel Gabriel telling him to “write”, what eventually became the first words of the Qur’an.   So the distinction between a direct religious experience and the reading of a spiritual text is something which came later; in the beginning of Islam these two were united the experience of Mohammed.

There were many questions from the audience, and I think Prof. Imam did a good job in explaining that, although it may be called “mysticism”, it still retains its Islamic character by using the Qur’an as its starting point.    I appreciated  her attempts to explain this enormously complicated and immensely varied tradition in the space of two short hours.

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