"Fearlessness is the first requirement of spirituality. Cowards can never be moral." -- Mahatma Gandhi

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Rumi, Sufism and the Light of Islam

"Allah is the Light of the heavens and the earth,
The parable of His Light is as if there were a niche,
And within it a Lamp: The Lamp enclosed in Glass;
The glass as it were a brilliant star;
Lit from a blessed Tree,
An Olive, neither of the East nor of the West,
Whose oil is well-nigh luminous, though fire scarce touched it;
Light upon Light!"
["The Holy Koran" Surah 24:35 ('The Light')]
* * * * * * * * * * * * *

Jalalludin Rumi (1207-1273)
As a 'heretic' from, yet a student of, all the world's great wisdom and religious traditions, I have long been interested in Sufism, the mystical branch of Islam. Indeed, my first spiritual teacher advised me to "study all religions until you can see the 'sameness' in them all. Another, told me that if I was serious about my spiritual quest I should read Patanjali and "The Incredible Rumi" - Coleman Barks' translation of the poetry of the renowned 13th-century Sufi poet Jalalludin Rumi. I have found both to be essential.

"Throughout Islamic history, th(e) realm of ihsan [worshiping God as if we could see the Divine] was most emphatically pursued by the mystics of Islam, the Sufis," writes Omad Safi on the Huffington Post. "Historically," he notes, "this mystical realm of Islam formed a powerful companion to the legal dimension of Islam (sharia). Indeed, many of the mystics of Islam were also masters of legal and theological realms. The cultivation of inward beauty and outward righteous action were linked in many of important Islamic institutions. In comparing Islam with Judaism, the mystical dimension of Islam was much more prominently widespread than Kabbalah. And unlike the Christian tradition, the mysticism of Islam was not cloistered in monasteries. Sufis were -- and remain -- social and political agents who went about seeking the Divine in the very midst of humanity."

Indeed, the great Rumi's father, Bahuaddin Valad, was a renowned Islamic jurist known as the "sultan of scholars," and a teacher at a school specially built for him in Konya, in what is now Anatolia, Turkey. Rumi, himself, succeeded his father as the head teacher at this school upon his father's death.

The question of why Sufism is little known or publicized in the West, and why it seems to be frowned on, or at least viewed skeptically, within manistream Islam has always perplexed me. Anyone, who reads Rumi, it seemed to me, could not help but be transfixed by the high spiritual plane from which the master poet writes (Rumi is known as Mevlana, or "master," in Arabic). And, yet, Rumi's teachings along with Sufism are discounted and largely absent (at least in the West) in most discussions of Islam.

In his Huffington Post article, Safi attributes the downplaying of Sufic teaching in Islam to three sources: (a) its early embrace by European Orientalists in the 19th century, who were enthralled with the Sufi poets like Rumi and Omar Kayyham; (b) the rejection of the 'mystical branch' of Islam by conservative/modernist Moslems in the past and current century who are concerned with carving out a separate functioning Islamic sphere which would hark back to the expansive, Koranic times of Muhammad; and, (c) the embrace of Rumi and other Sufi poets and teachers by so-called "New Agers" who are "spiritual, but not religious."

"So what we have had for the last few decades ," Safi observes, "is a situation of Orientalists and Salafi Muslims seeking to construct a "real Islam" that is untainted by Sufi dimensions, and many new agers seek(ing) to extract a mysticism that stands above and disconnected from wider, broader and deeper aspects of Islam."

These are not the only paradigms, however. Just as many Christians, Jews and others are looking at the more esoteric teachings of their respective religions to provide greater meaning to their largely material lives, so too many Muslims are looking to Sufic teachings to embue their lives and religious practice with greater meaning. (A largely unmentioned fact in the hotly contested "mosque at Ground Zero debate" is that it is a planned Sufi Center headed by Sufi scholar Imam Faisal Abdul Rauf that is in question, not a more 'conservative' mosque that has raised the hackles of prejudice in NYC.)

An example of how many modern Muslims are looking to the ancient teachings of Sufism is demonstrated in a wonderful talk on TED.com by Imam Rauf. In it, Rauf combines the teachings of the Qur’an, the stories of Rumi, and the examples of Muhammad and Jesus, to demonstrate that only one obstacle stands between each of us and absolute compassion -- ourselves," or the human ego.

"Judge a moth by the greatness of its candle," Rumi urges.


  1. sufism is one of the most followed path by people.

  2. There is much to inquire, and much to know before deciding what is right or wrong...unfortunately we are much less eager to learn and much too ardent about teaching....

  3. Thanks for sharing such a great post about sophism and its rules. I didn't read all the post but will bookmark it for the future, for sure. You look like master in these subjects:)

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