The Spiritual Life in Islam

a. Sufism, spiritual orders, and community

There is no record for the existence of spiritual orders, (tariqa), as a social phenomenon, in Muslim history during the time of the Companions and their followers (tabiun). The last half of the period of tabiun and the subsequent century is when the first Sufis appeared. Yet during these two centuries, Sufism was more in the form of personal ascetic experiences, rather than a social phenomenon. A Sufi, like a philosopher, is one who seeks "the truth." The Sufi's search for truth takes place in the domains of willpower, conscience, and heart; in other words the realm of absolute freedom.

The non-Sufi philosopher rotates in a circle; he busies himself with disputes and struggles, disapprovals and predictions. In the end, what he attains is nothing but a truth without spirit with which he is unlikely to become one. The Sufi, however, enjoys a bounteous spiritual life. He reaches this happiness not through the knowledge of the truth, but by his desire to attain and unite with the truth. The Sufi speaks with a particular language using symbols and allusions in a manner which can be understood only by those who had the same experience. In this realm of spiritual and moral experiences philosophy has nothing to offer humankind. The vision of pure philosophic reason about the esoteric nature of a Sufi is limited. Islamic Sufi concepts like hal (state), maqam (station), zawq (pleasure), kashf (discovery) and ilham (inspiration) etc. are not products of the human intellect; they are products of a spiritual journey in the heart and the soul united with the knowledge of God (marifa). Sufism relies on insight and wisdom, not on knowledge. And this is attained only after one transcends his human, corporeal, and sensual qualities.

Sentimental faculties and conscience develop more than rational ones in Sufism. Sentimental profundity and intensity play an important role in a Sufi's life. The Sufi experience desires proximity between the lover and the beloved. Yet this proximity is not physical or bodily; it is experienced as joyous and spiritual state of proximity and union. The image of proximity designates reflection of the names and attributes of God. This is a kind of transcendental feeling. The existence of deep spiritual activity reveals a special experience which we call Sufi perception. The point where this perception starts is where our sense organs are exhausted. The conscious expansion of ego moves with intensity as it warily escalates to the upper strata of the perceptible. In a different dimension, the conscious heads toward a new transcendental spiritual object to which human nature will partake and re-unite by changing his personality. When this begins then commences a development in spiritual life. This is where Sufis find real life and existence.

Considered as a social phenomenon today the tariqas first came into existence as Sufism. Although Sufism was open to external influences during the period of institutionalization, it existed in Islam's subjective, political, social, cultural, intellectual, and religious conditions before its institutionalization. The primary raison d'être of Sufism is a desire to live Islam more profoundly. In other words, Sufism is an effort to internalize a religious experience in one's soul and perceptions.

The first Muslim Sufis concentrated upon asceticism, and in doing so, they focused on verses that determine their relations with this world and the next, with their carnal self, and with God. This became more evident with new expansion generated by new conquests. Until new expansions, the internal dynamics of Islam focused on fiqh (jurisprudence), kalam (Islamic philosophy and theology), and hadith narration and compilation. Sufis extended this focus by trying to comprehend Qur'anic concepts such as taqwa (piety) and muttaqi (pious) more profoundly. The earliest authorities on fiqh, kalam and hadith were indeed pious people; however, Sufis viewed such scholars as busing themselves more with outward and formal aspects of Islam. For Sufis the fiqh method was dry and formalist, while kalam scholars merely engaged in philosophy using their rational mind, a practice that leaned on dry wit which has no experience regarding Divine Attributes, Names, and the Essence. Formalists on one hand and confused intellectuals on the other. This vacuum explains the raison d'être of Sufism and it sets the stage Sufism emerges.

On the basis of Sufism lies a struggle with the self, a purification of the heart, and a feeding of the soul. This is accomplished with prayers and remembrance, and with increasingly extra forms of worships. If the methodology of fiqh constitutes a fundamental part of Islamic civilization, social mind, worship, and transactions; Sufism should be viewed as the most important manifestation of Islamic spirituality. Sufism is not solely a lifestyle. It is at the same time a special perspective that determines how the Sufi should establish relations with his Lord, with himself, and with the whole universe and all its contents. But this perspective is a perfect worldview in wider and philosophical meaning. Sufis are distinct from the majority of Muslims for their view of world, and from fiqh and kalam scholars in regard to their view of religion, and from philosophers in regard to their ideas of God, humanity, and the universe.

From the first period—the period of asceticism—onwards, Sufism formulated an interpretation of the worldly life in a way that is different from other perspectives. It departed from the religious understanding of fuqaha and kalam scholars as of the beginning of the third century (AH), and from philosophers after the third century. In short, Sufism took on a revolutionary character. It has always had a profound effect on Muslims throughout the centuries.

Until the end of the second century, Sufi life and Sufi terminology was within the realm of individual practice than organized form. First Sufis dealt with concepts like heart (qalb), carnal self (nafs), conscience (wijdan), asceticism (zuhd), isolation (uzlat), piety (taqwa), fear (khawf), hope (raja), knowledge of God (marifa), perfect goodness (ihsan), affection (mahabba) and love (ashq), this worldly life (dunya) and hereafter (akhira). The next generation invented concepts like unity (wahda) and plurality (kasra), discovery (kashf) and witnessing (shuhud), annihilation (fana) and eternality (baqa), and deepened their spiritual experience around these concepts. In the third century AH, Sufism was first experienced in the form of isolation and travel, and then organized towards hângah (guesthouse), ribât, and zaviyahs (dervish lodges). In this period we observe rapid communization. Circles commenced in masjids turned to regular life under the direction of expert Sufi sheikhs in hangahs and zawiyas. Here Sufi schools formed under the leadership of the first founding sheikhs, and their followers learned the teachings and tenets of the community from these sheikhs in a special manner. These Sufi schools have become famous by the name of certain cities, thus revealing different central manifestations of Islamic spirituality. The first systematic Sufi terminology appeared in these centers.

Sufism progressed gradually towards a spiritual life and eventually formed formal rules as it progressed from an ascetic way of life with no fundamental principles and rules other than general principles established by the religion. Before transforming into a system with definite methods of asceticism, it experienced a transitory period. Here Sufism generally consisted of religious morality, and it focused of trying to understand the inner meaning and wisdom of worship. Though transitory, Sufis in this period observed a desire to establish a regular life in God's pleasure (rida), reliance (tawakkul), and asceticism (zuhd). Sufis like Ibrahim Edhem (d. 161 AH – 778 CE), Ma'ruf al-Karhi (d. 200 AH – 816 CE), Rabia al-Adawiyya (d. 185 AH – 801 CE), Fudayl b. Iyaz (d. 189 AH – 805 CE) were the leaders of this transitory period.

Following this period in the third and fourth centuries of Islam, Sufism entered its period of "ecstasy" (vajd), "discovery" (kashf), and "pleasure" (zawk). This was the golden age of Sufism. In the earlier transitory period, Sufism was considered a methodology that corresponded the science of fiqh, the former dealing mainly with inner meaning of worship, while the latter studied the outer forms of worship. In the new period, it became a self training practice and a new knowledge acquisition method that emerged alongside the learning methods of kalam scholars. Sufism was not only considered a method of training or combating the self, or as system of asceticism that focused on state and station (hal and maqam), this period also saw the emergence of considerations that shed light on new methods to acquire auxiliary elements of secret and perceptional knowledge.

Thus started the progression of Sufism as a spiritual institution that was later called "tariqa." Since the fourth century, following tariqa meant obeying entire teaching, manners, and ceremonies that were envisaged by one of these spiritual paths.

Sufism has two aspects. The first is related with practicing it with asceticism, worship, devotion to God, and leaving all bodily and worldly desires at bay by austerity (riyada) and sincere effort. The second aspect is spiritual. This pertains to the states the carnal self, the heart, and the soul go through. These states are generated by the practice of tough asceticism. In this aspect, everything is about ecstasy, pleasure, knowledge, affection, rapture etc. It is beyond the scope of this study to explore all aspects of Sufism. We do not touch on extremes and heterodoxies. Here is not the right place to discuss all of these. In sum, the organization of "tariqa" is a special aspect of Sufism. As expressed above, it is a form of subjective, material, social, political, intellectual, and religious conditions of Islam. Sufi approaches, of all kinds, have been significant aspects of Islamic spiritual life, and provided that they practice within the dictates of shariah, they are considered legitimate. Although there were some marginal and mystical teachings that went astray from the essentials and tradition of Islam, throughout Islamic history, Sufism survived as a way to transform spiritual unity in Muslim societies. It also provided potential for general Muslims to identify themselves with shariah laws and classical religious teachings. Compared to fiqh and kalam methodology, it developed an easier way to integrate changing conditions of social life. According to Seyyed Hossein Nasr, "Sufism in Islam, has been over the centuries the hidden heart that has renewed the religion intellectually, spiritually, and ethically, and has played the greatest role in its spread and in its relation with other religions."[1]

2. Sufism in Gülen's thought

The Gülen movement is not a Sufi-oriented movement. Throughout his life, however, Gülen has often mentioned and emphasized Sufi concepts and terminology in his sermons, talks, and articles. In the strict sense of the word, he may personally be accepted as a "modern Sufi." His Sufism, however should be narrowed to the individual level. He does not rely on an ascetic understanding like forsaking the world or society as observed in some Sufi orders. To him, asceticism in the in the form of clergy is not something upon which Islam approves. This is because Islam is essentially a social religion. Gülen, however, disapproves of total social indulgence, that is, of people consuming all personal and material fancies. Asceticism neither forsakes the world nor does it teach one to engage in all his worldly desires. The Holy Qur'an teaches that we behave moderately in this manner. "Forsaking world" in the Qur'anic meaning" is not escaping or quitting the world entirely. It is a discourse warning against total indulgence in this worldly life in ethics, in one's soul, and actual life. The world has three aspects in the Muslim understanding: first, the aspect that faces itself; second, the aspect that faces His names (asma), i.e. as a place of manifestation of God's names and attributes; third, the aspect that faces the other world. The first warning presented to humanity in the Qur'an is to be wary of the world's illusiveness and temporary nature.[2]

Of these three, the second and third constitute the center of the Sufi's perception of world. Sufism is not interested in the first aspect. The ascetic approach in the classical period of Sufism taught Muslims to forsake the world in the name of Qur'anic roots and Muslim foundations. Disparaging this world is emphasized in many Qur'anic verses. From these verses, Sufis have systematized a disapproval of the world and have converted this to a practical and spiritual attitude. Indeed, as an outcome of this approach Sufis introduced a magnificent spiritual and cultural heritage equipped fully with experience and terminology. This cannot be overlooked. Yet in the first century of Islam—sahaba and tabiun—we observe many distinguished believers among the Companions who did not partake in this type of total abandonment/disengagement from the world. Total abandonment of the world was not relevant with the Companions, for they gave priority to spreading the message of God (i'lay-i kalimatullah) and teaching Islam (tabligh and irshad) over all their personal life, and over all aspects of their spiritual, moral, and social experience and welfare. For them, the most important aspect of life was not to systemize the revolution Islam generated in their souls, but to convey Islam to humanity, although they experienced the feeling in their heart at a personal level.

In the second and third Muslim centuries, conquests and encounters with foreign cultures resulted in a decisive inclination to worldliness and politicization problem. This transformation drove some to abandon the world and social life. In addition to this, during this time Islam gained status, form, and strength as an international civilization. The population had grown, and society was stratified into scholars (ulama), army (mujahid), governors, and citizens. This social change coupled with the emergence of intense contentions in the fields of philosophy and kalam, pushed some people into seriously considering abandoning this world and practicing asceticism. Though the organizational abandonment of worldly life generated a bountiful form of spiritual life to develop, this style of life style was not practiced during the time of the Companions. As his predecessors, Gülen interpreted the abandonment of the world as to "abandon in the heart, not in practice."[3] This interpretation has brought his understanding of asceticism (zuhd) closer to the Companions. In his first speeches, sermons, and articles, Gülen often made references to the zuhd of the Companions, emphasizing their piety, profundity in worship and obedience, and their zeal and devotion in conveying the religion. In hundreds of occasions, he emphasized central Sufi concepts like asceticism (zuhd), piety (taqwa), abstinence (wara), heart (qalb), carnal self (nafs), fear (khawf), knowledge of God (marifa), love (mahabba)... All of these Sufi tunes emerged as personal religious transcendence and personal living. He has never turned Sufism into a social phenomenon. Instead, he placed more emphasis on the social existence and collective personality (şahs-i manevi) of the community. The community mission he meticulously stressed was comprised of religious and social elements including spreading the word of God, sacrifice, devotion to Almighty, service to the people. Again, for this he interpreted differently some principles of classical Sufism, terms such as seclusion (uzlat) and privacy (halwat), which together strive to isolate individuals from the society. Gülen's brand of asceticism perceived seclusion and privacy as personal, and at the same time, he focused on the benefits of sympathizing with the troubles and sorrows of other people in society. In brief, Gülen stresses Sufi profundity and terminology in personal meaning. Socially, he advocates communal activity, collective body, and service to the Almighty and to people in a systematic format. This actually complies with the religious conduct ascribed to the Prophet, peace be upon him, and to his Companions and the way they conveyed the message of Islam. They lived under extremely dire conditions, but they always manifested utmost care in their conduct, and they were by no means behind later Sufis in spiritual excellence and profundity. Unlike those early Sufis, the initial community of the Prophet never adopted notions of seclusion or privacy away from society. They preferred to strive for God and to convey His message. Gülen's communal activity and central mission emerges from this tradition.

Surely there have been many movements, communities, and formations that have accepted Sufi lifestyle in their ways of personal manner and social action. It is not our project to generate an opinion about their manners and opinions here. Rather, our goal has been to point out that Sufism has existed in different modes in the history of Islamic spirituality.

Here it is appropriate to touch upon another point. Tariqa has another wider meaning. Spiritual life, that is, the life one experiences on his walk to God, in whatever form, is called tariqa. This devotion does not have to comply with any Sufi order. Tariqa, in this meaning, is personal. For every person who set off the path to God has a personal life as experienced in a spiritual world. Early Sufis state that "paths (tariqs) to God count to the number of initiates."[4]

This definition of tariqa is more valid for the second and pre-second century Sufi life. After the second century, however, tariqa attained an organizational structure with a particular terminology, form of teaching and ceremony, rules and methods. It ceased to be solely a spiritual ascetic experience of devotion to God. Although it has not been unanimously agreed neither as a social phenomenon, nor cognitively, many consider Sufism to be different than tariqa. If we are to acknowledge this difference, then we can place Gülen's understanding closer to Sufism rather than to tariqa. Nevertheless, today's tariqa forms are widely differentiated as compared to those of the third and fourth century. Modern tariqas, along with retaining Sufi understanding based upon personal spiritual and moral experience, expanded their understanding of service to the social sphere. This massive spiritual and social transformation in our time should not be ignored, as well.

In this regard, today's tariqa converge with "community" forms. Seclusion, privacy, and abandonment-based asceticism have widely diverged from classical tariqa forms. However, formally traditional methods and ceremonies are being preserved. Several modern rituals and symbols have been added to older methods and principles. Despite such discrepancies, however, many define their existence as "tariqa."

While Gülen can be considered a modern Sufi, his movement/community cannot be characterized as a formal Sufi movement or tariqa. It does not identify with a particular Sufi or tariqa tradition by way of rules, methods, or hierarchical structure. As already mentioned, Gülen admits that Sufi terminology, in general, are necessary for the development of one's personal aptitude. Beyond this, he emphasizes the significance of these concepts in guiding Muslims' social life. However, he does not postulate a tariqa organization as a social movement. For these obvious reasons, defining his movement as a tariqa contradicts with both historical realities and basic dynamics of the movement.

Footnote[1] Seyyed Hossein Nasr, The Heart of Islam: Enduring Values for Humanity, NY: HarperSanFrancisco, 2004, pp. 64–65.

[2] See An'am 6:32; Ankabut 29:64; Muhammad 47:36; Hadid 11:20.

[3] SeeGülen, Kur'an'dan İdrake Yansiyanlar, Vol. 2, pp. 307–313; Kirik Testi, p. 203.

[4] See, Afifi, p. 116.
Pin It
  • Created on .
Copyright © 2020 Fethullah Gülen's Official Web Site. Blue Dome Press. All Rights Reserved. is the offical source on the renowned Turkish scholar and intellectual Fethullah Gülen.