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Sufism & the Meaning of Islam (Book excerpt)

Guest Author: 
Imam Jamal Rahman

A question I am often asked is, "What is a Sufi?" Sufis are Muslims who emphasize essence over form and substance over appearance in their spiritual practices.

If the institution of religion can be compared to a cup and the water in it is the spiritual message, Sufis lament that we spend too much time polishing the outside of the cup and neglect to drink the water.

They do subscribe to outer rituals, but are mostly eager to do the inner work. They aspire to taste and live the essence of their faith. To give an example of the Sufi approach to teachings, a conservative Islamic theologian might say that a Muslim who does not perform the five cycles of daily prayers will suffer punishment in the hereafter. A Sufi teacher, on the other hand, will liken prayers to attendance at celestial banquets. A practitioner who fails to pray is missing out on the joy of the feast. That loss is the punishment.

Sufism is not a denomination in Islam. The two main denominations are Sunni (85 percent) and Shia (15 percent). The differences between Shia and Sunni are rooted in a historical dispute about the choice of a community leader after the death of the Prophet in 632 CE. Although both denominations share the same fundamental articles of faith, their historical conflict has created differences in forms of practices, which, to some, are significant. There are both Sunni and Shia Sufis. It is generally accepted that the spiritual beauty of the Sufi teachings is largely responsible for the spread of Islam in South, Southeast, and Central Asia, where the majority of Muslims live, and in China, Russia, Europe and parts of Africa.

Can a non-Muslim be a Sufi? Sufi teachers reply yes, and explain their answer with a metaphor. Muslims point their prayer rugs in the direction of the Kabah in Mecca. What happens if they become enlightened and find themselves praying inside the Kabah? In that state, does it matter in what direction the prayer rug is pointing?

The Meaning of Islam 

The word Islam refers both to the religion of Muslims and to the universal path of self-surrender to God... [In other words,] giving up attachment to the little self in exchange for union with the higher self... By any other name, the path of surrender is an integral part of every religion, but it is also a path we tend to avoid. Such avoidance is detrimental, according to the Qur'an:

"We believe in Allah, and in what has been revealed to us and what was revealed to Abraham, Ismail, Isaac, Jacob, and the Tribes, and in [the Books] given to Moses, Jesus, and the prophets from their Lord: We make no distinction between one and another among them, and to Allah do we bow our will [in Islam]. If anyone desires a religion other than Islam [submission to Allah], never will it be accepted of him; and in the hereafter he will be in the ranks of those who have lost [all spiritual good]." (3:84-54)

It is crucial to understand that this passage is not about the superiority of a religion called Islam, as many mistakenly assume. Rather, it is about the path toward union with the Source and Sustainer of all that is, as prophets and sages have taught since ancient times. The word submission might better be rendered surrender, and Sufi masters teach that the true meaning of these verses is that mere mental investment in religious beliefs is ineffective if we eschew the work of self-surrender to divine Heart. We may spout any creed we want, but if we don't do the inner work, we are, in Rumi's words, "all husk and no kernel."

...The surrender that we are talking about is not a craven submission to some demanding God in the sky; it is a deep honoring of our True Self. It is the soul's dynamic and co-creative role in the will of God, giving up limited will to participate in cosmic will. When you set in the west, says Rumi, your light rises from the east. The ascendance of the human to God becomes the descendance of God to the human. A popular hadith [saying of the Prophet Muhammad] promises, "Whoever belongs to God, God belongs to him."

Imam Jamal Rahman is co-founder and Muslim Sufi Minister at the Interfaith Community Sanctuary in Seattle and adjunct faculty at Seattle University. Originally from Bangladesh, he is a graduate of the University of Oregon and the University of California, Berkeley. The above passage, quoted with permission, comes from his 2012 book Spiritual Gems of Islam: Insights & Practices from the Qur’an. He is also a member of the Interfaith Amigos, who were keynote speakers at the SDI Conference in 2017. http://www. jamalrahman.com/



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