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15.4: Islam and Sufism

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    The last of the Abrahamic religions to be established, Islam has also been a profoundly successful religion. It ranks second in numbers only to Christianity, with some 1.5 billion followers around the world. Muslims, those who practice the Islamic faith, consider Jesus Christ to have been a great prophet, but they do not consider him to be the Son of God. They follow the teachings of the one whom they believe to be the last and greatest prophet: Muhammad (Wilkins, 1967).

    The Foundation of the Islamic Faith

    Muhammad was born around 571 A.D., in Mecca (in modern-day Saudi Arabia). An upright and honest man, Muhammad used to take refuge in a cave at Mount Hera, where he would contemplate (meditate?) good and evil. The religion of his time and region worshipped many spirits in the desert, including one called Allah. Muhammad came to believe that Allah was the one and only God, the creator of the universe. Muhammad devoted the rest of his life to preaching Allah’s message, and was soon literally run out of town by the authorities. He fled to the city of Medina, in the year 622 A.D., a date which marks the beginning of Muhammad’s formal efforts to establish the religion of Islam. Muhammad became a great leader, in the name of Allah, and when he died in the year 632 he controlled most of Arabia. Within one hundred years, Islam had spread around the Mediterranean to Europe, throughout North Africa, and to India in the East (Wilkins, 1967).

    Muslims believe that Muhammad was directly descended from Abraham, through Abraham’s son Ishmael. Ishmael was the half-brother of Isaac, through whom the Jewish people trace their heritage to Abraham. He received his revelation from Allah through the angel Gabriel, and wrote it down in the Holy Qur’an, the holy book of Islam (the first English translation by a Muslim generally available in the West was originally published in 1917, and has seen numerous new editions since then; Ali, 2002). Like Judaism and Christianity, Islam has a fairly simple set of guidelines for living one’s life (Fadiman & Frager, 1997; Wilkins, 1967), known as the Five Pillars of Islam:

    1. Bearing Witness, or the Confession of Faith, to Allah and to his chosen prophet Muhammad.
    2. Daily Prayer, which occurs five times a day (dawn, noon, midafternoon, dusk, and night).
    3. Fasting, for those who are able, during the month of Ramadan (the ninth month of the Muslim calendar).
    4. Charity, or almsgiving, which involves giving one fourtieth (2½%) of one’s accumulated wealth to the poor at the end of the month of Ramadan.
    5. Pilgrimage to Mecca, once during the lifetime for those who are able and can afford to do so.

    Two elements seem to stand out from the Five Pillars. First, Islam requires an active demonstration of one’s faith in Allah. Second, every Muslim must follow through on that faith with good works, particularly the fasting during Ramadan and the giving of charity to the poor. Thus, neither faith nor good works alone are adequate for those who claim to be Muslim, they must incorporate both into their lives.

    discussion question \(\PageIndex{1}\)

    The Five Pillars of Islam seem to be much more directly related to demonstrating one’s faith in God than we saw with Judaism or Christianity. Do Muslims seem more religious than other religions? Is your answer just an impression, or is it based on real experience? In your opinion, how do the Five Pillars of Islam compare to the Ten Commandments or Jesus’ two commandments?

    Connections Across Cultures: Islamic Faith, Jihad, Ascesis, and Democracy

    When considering the Five Pillars of Islam, it is hard to imagine why there is such a negative view of the Islamic religion in the Western world, particularly in the United States. The answer is actually quite simple, but it is based on a terrible misunderstanding: radical Islamic fundamentalism, and its common element of terrorism, is viewed in the West as being synonymous with Islam itself. As noted in the main text, Maulana Muhammad Ali was the first Muslim to translate the Holy Qur’an into English (originally in 1917; see Ali, 2002). In addition, Ali published another lengthy book entitled The Religion of Islam (originally in 1936; see Ali, 1990).

    Many Americans believe that Muslims have a religious duty to wage jihad, a holy war, on all people who do not follow Islam and put their faith in Allah. This belief is mistaken. First, the word jihad is not synonymous with war, but rather it means to exert oneself, or to have the ability to resist one’s enemies. The enemies that must be resisted include the devil and one’s self (our weaknesses and our ignorance, which keep us from the path toward truth). This striving for the truth is reflected, of course, in the verses of the Holy Qur’an:

    And those who strive hard for Us, We shall certainly guide them in

    Our ways. And Allah is surely with the doers of good.

    Chpt. 29:69; Holy Qur’an (Ali, 2002)

    What might come as a surprise to many Christians is that this internal battle between oneself and evil is by no means unique to Muslims. In Christianity the same need to strive for God exists, and the word used to describe this striving is ascesis, a word with essentially the same meaning as jihad (Clement, 1993). In St. Paul’s letter to the Ephesians he tells them to put on the armor of God and do battle with the devil. As for whom this striving is valuable, even Jesus makes it clear that one does not have to be Jewish or Christian. In a passage quite similar to the quote above from the Qur’an:

    John said to him, “Teacher, we saw a man casting out demons in your name, and we forbade him because he was not following us.”

    But Jesus said, Do not forbid him, for no one who does a mighty work in my name will be able soon after to speak evil of me. For he that is not against us is for us. For truly I say to you, whoever gives you a cup of water to drink because you bear the name of Christ, will by no means lose his reward.”

    Mark 6:38-41; Holy Bible

    There are times, nonetheless, when one must fight in order to defend oneself. When this occurs, the Qur’an makes it clear that Muslims should prepare to accept peace when it is possible to do so:

    And if they incline to peace, incline thou also to it, and trust in Allah.

    Surely He is the Hearer, the Knower.

    Chpt. 8:61; Holy Qur’an

    So if the Islamic and Christian faiths are not so different, and both are supposed to seek peace, why have we become so deeply involved with repeated military conflicts in the Middle East? The problem may simply lie with democracy, and our belief that it should be the basis for all government. In America we purport to believe in separation of church and state, though the reality of this is quite debatable. In Islam, however, every aspect of one’s life must involve submission to Allah’s will. Thus, any attempt to spread democracy to Islamic countries, particularly with the American emphasis on separation of church and state, is an act of war against Islam (Shedinger, 2004; see also Esack, 1999; Moghaddam, 2006). No matter how much we might want to disagree with this perspective, if it is their perspective, then we are the aggressors, and they are justified, according to the Qur’an, in fighting back. We believe that we are fighting back, and so the vicious circle of politics continues.

    However, there are those who believe that democracy is inevitable in Islamic societies. The critical difference is that they will be pluralistic democracies, not the secular democracy of America (Aslan, 2005, 2006; see also Manji, 2003). The Qur’an makes it clear that “There is no compulsion in religion…” (Chpt. 2:256; Holy Qur’an). Thus, the key to peace in the Middle East may lie in learning to understand one another, and in accepting the guidance of Yahweh, God, Christ, Allah, or whatever name you prefer for the Deity. The mystics sought to avoid the politics of the world, and to place themselves entirely within the presence of God.


    Keep your hands busy with your duties in this world,

    and your heart busy with God.

    Sheikh Muzaffer (pg. 35; in Fadiman & Frager, 1997)

    This simple expression of the Sufi way demonstrates how one can seek Allah while remaining actively engaged in life, allowing for continued spiritual growth and opportunities to practice awareness, generosity, nonattachment, and love (Fadiman & Frager, 1997). The beginning of Sufism, as with the other mystical approaches, is somewhat shrouded in mystery. Since Islam is a continuation of the monotheistic religion of Judaism and Christianity, the Judaic and Christian mystics might be viewed as early Sufis. Sufism in its proper sense, however, exists within Islam. When the prophet Muhammad died, there was conflict between the primarily Arab and the primarily non-Arab followers of Islam. The primarily Arab Muslims emphasized the teachings of Muhammad’s colleagues, and became known as sunni, whereas the primarily non-Arab Muslims followed Ali, the son of Muhammad, and became known as shi’ah. These two groups drifted apart, and their disagreements became serious, to say the least (Nurbakhsh, 1990). Those sociopolitical differences continue today, and provide much of the basis for the continuing violence in the Middle East. However, a third group also arose, a group that ignored the sociopolitical arguments of the sunni and shi’ah, and focused instead on inner prayer and devotion to Allah. These were the first Sufis.

    Practice and understanding in Sufism goes through four stages, with each one building upon the others: understanding the teachings of Islam, practicing Sufism by making the teachings part of one’s everyday life, discovering the Truth (or realizing the inner meaning of the teachings and practices), and finally, having the deep level of inner knowing, or superior wisdom, that transcends the Truth. The great Sheikh Ibn El-Arabi has described these stages as a progression from “yours and mine” through “mine is yours and yours is mine” and then there is “no mine and no yours,” and finally there is “no me and no you” (Fadiman & Frager, 1997; see also Shah, 1971). This perspective is reminiscent of a combination of Kohlberg’s stages of moral development (Kohlberg, 1963) and Eastern perspectives on nonattachment and selflessness.

    Similar to Christianity, Sufism considers love to be of utmost importance in transforming the self. As we pursue a path of love in our lives, God begins to reach out and draw us in toward the divine presence. If we are willing to surrender to God, we will awaken and be taken in by Him. To assist with this loving pursuit of God, a number of great Sufi teachers have also been poets. Most notable among these Sufi teachers are Jalaluddin Rumi and Omar Khayyam (see Fadiman & Frager, 1997; Hall, 1975; Khan, 1999; Shah, 1971; Yogananda, 1994). In addition to his poetry, Rumi is recognized as the founder of the Order of the Whirling Dervishes. The whirling dance that distinguishes this group of Sufis is intended to help the Dervish achieve religious ecstasy, and it is far more ritualized than might be apparent at first sight. As strange as such a practice may seem in the Western world, the practice was apparently used on at least one occasion by the renowned St. Francis of Assisi, who lived at the same time as Rumi (Shah, 1971). Omar Kayyam is most famous for a collection of verses known as The Rubaiyat (see Yogananda, 1994). This strange and deeply symbolic poem almost defies interpretation, particularly for those raised in the Western world, unfamiliar with Sufi mysticism. The renowned Indian guru Paramahansa Yogananda, who also made an extensive study of the relationship between Christian gospel and Yoga (Yogananda, 2004a,b), has provided a marvelous interpretation of The Rubaiyat. For example, consider verse VII:

    Come, fill the Cup, and in the Fire of Spring

    The Winter Garment of Repentance fling:

    The Bird of Time has but a little way

    To fly - and Lo! the Bird is on the Wing.

    Translation by Edward Fitzgerald, reprinted in Yogananda, 1994

    In this verse, fill the cup refers to filling one’s consciousness (as one does during meditation), in the warmth of spiritual enthusiasm (the fire of spring). One should set aside regret caused by unfulfilled desires and disillusioning sensory indulgences (the winter garment of repentance fling). The bird of time represents fleeting, ever-changing human life, and it is flying away, leaving little time to establish purpose in one’s life. In other words, don’t waste your life worrying about, or punishing yourself for, either the past or your own shortcomings. Life is short, and there is a great spiritual truth to be discovered!

    As with the Christian mystics, there have been many well-known Sufi women, including a number of Black women (Nurbakhsh, 1990). The following is an amusing story that both teaches a Sufi lesson and demonstrates that a woman can be every bit as faith-filled and wise as any man:

    Maymuna was reputed to be her brother’s equal in asceticism, piety and reliance on God. Ahmad Ebn Salem recounts the story of a man who went to see Ebrahim Khawass. When he knocked on the door, he was met by Maymanu, Ebrahim’s sister, who asked his name and what he wanted. He introduced himself and asked for Ebrahim Khawass.

    “He has gone out,” she told him.

    “When will he return?”

    Maymuna replied, “How can someone who has surrendered his life to another know when he is returning?”

    (pg. 182; Nurbakhsh, 1990)

    Discussion Question: What impression have you had of the whirling dervishes? Can you think of any religious groups within Christianity that demonstration such fervent, physical worship in their churches? What effect might this have on the sense of community within the church?

    This page titled 15.4: Islam and Sufism is shared under a CC BY 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Mark D. Kelland (OpenStax CNX) via source content that was edited to the style and standards of the LibreTexts platform; a detailed edit history is available upon request.