Islamic and Friendship Studies at Oberlin College

Sufism, the Qur’an, and Islam

Clio Schwartz

RELG 272 Introduction to the Qur’an

Professor M. Jafar Mahallati



Sufism is an Islamic form of worship that is well-known for its mysticism and Persian poetry and thus often decontextualized from Islam. Nonetheless, Sufism is very Muslim. The Qur’an is the Sufi holy text, and Mohammed the Last Prophet. Sufism was born out of Islam, after the revelation received by Mohammed. Sufism began with a group of companions of Mohammed meeting to seek inner spirituality and divine love. They would perform meditations and certain disciplines in an attempt to achieve purification and an understanding of the greater reality. After the death of Mohammed, these companions returned to their homelands and spread this practice, leading to several different schools and orders of Sufism around the world. One of the most well-known Sufi mystics is Persian poet Rumi. Other famous Sufis include Salman Farsi, Ammar Yasser, Balla’al, Rabi’a of Basra, and Abdullah Masoud.

The relationship of Mohammed’s companions to Mohammed is viewed by Sufis as the beginning of the master-disciple dynamic that is key to Sufism. Meditation and seclusion, common Sufi practices, are derived from the time Mohammed spent in a cave on Mount Hira. Mohammed is also regarded as holding a level of cosmic authority as described in several hadith sayings. These sayings provide the possibility of imitating divine qualities, and thus are highly valued by Sufis. Just as in popular Islam, Sufis venerate Mohammed and his way of life as extremely holy.

Sufism is most frequently characterized by its mysticism. While mysticism is indeed an overarching element of Sufism, it should not be forgotten that the Sufi practice places high value on the search for internal spiritual ascension. This quest for internal spiritual ascension is inspired by Mohammed’s ascension to heaven, as detailed in several Qur’anic verses. (53:1-18)

“By the Star when it goes down, / Your Companion is neither astray nor being misled. / Nor does he say (aught) of (his own) Desire. / It is no less than inspiration sent down to him: / He was taught by one Mighty in Power, / Endued with Wisdom: for he appeared (in stately form); / While he was in the highest part of the horizon: / Then he approached and came closer, / And was at a distance of but two bow-lengths or (even) nearer; / So did (Allah) convey the inspiration to His Servant- (conveyed) what He (meant) to convey. / The (Prophet’s) (mind and) heart in no way falsified that which he saw. / Will ye then dispute with him concerning what he saw? / For indeed he saw him at a second descent, / Near the Lote-tree beyond which none may pass: / Near it is the Garden of Abode. / Behold, the Lote-tree was shrouded (in mystery unspeakable!) / (His) sight never swerved, nor did it go wrong! / For truly did he see, of the Signs of his Lord, the Greatest!”

This excerpt from the 53rd surah provides a blueprint for the individual who seeks such spiritual ascension. Because the Qur’an mentions that special knowledge is given to those who have an individual and favored relationship with God, Sufis seek to develop and attain closer relationships with the divine in order to obtain said spiritual knowledge, both inner knowledge of the soul and external, societal knowledge. The emphasis on understanding the soul and inner emotional state contributes to the mysticism of Sufism.

Sufism places high esteem upon nature as a manifestation of God. Every human and each natural element is thought to be sacred. God can be experienced in something as small as a bee, or as large as a waterfall. This emphasis on nature can be seen in many of Rumi’s poems.

“Listen to the story told by the reed,

of being separated.

‘Since I was cut from the reedbed,

I have made this crying sound.

Anyone apart from someone he loves

understands what I say.

Anyone pulled from a source

longs to go back.

At any gathering I am there,

mingling in the laughing and grieving,

a friend to each, but few

will hear the secrets hidden

within the notes. No ears for that.

Body flowing out of spirit,

spirit up from body: no concealing

that mixing. But it’s not given us

to see the soul. The reed flute

is fire, not wind. Be that empty.’

Hear the love fire tangled

in the reed notes, as bewilderment

melts into wine. The reed is a friend

to all who want the fabric torn

and drawn away. The reed is hurt

and salve combining. Intimacy

and longing for intimacy, one

song. A disastrous surrender

and a fine love, together. The one

who secretly hears this is senseless.

A tongue has one customer, the ear.

A sugarcane flute has such effect

because it was able to make sugar

in the reedbed. The sound it makes

is for everyone. Days full of wanting,

let them go by without worrying

that they do. Stay where you are

inside such a pure, hollow note.

Every thirst gets satisfied except

that of these fish, the mystics,

who swim a vast ocean of grace

still somehow longing for it!

No one lives in that without

being nourished every day.

But if someone doesn’t want to hear

the song of the reed flute,

it’s best to cut conversation

short, say good-bye, and leave.”

In this poem, Rumi references the image of a reed flute being cut from its source. He describes its pain and likens it to the experience of a lover far away from their beloved. This poem can be interpreted as a reference to the soul and divine consciousness each natural organism has by virtue of being God’s creation. Additionally, it could further be interpreted as a call to conserve nature, by focusing upon the pain the reed feels at being cut. “Every thirst gets satisfied except/that of these fish, the mystics,/who swim a vast ocean of grace/still somehow longing for it!” Rumi writes, referencing the ceaseless quest of the Sufis to attain individual spiritual ascension and understanding.

The Qur’an plays a very important role in Sufism, as in all practices of Islam. It is the direct word of God. Much of Sufi practice involves spending time reading and interpreting the Qur’an. The required daily prayers are of course performed, as well as additional non-obligatory prayers. Furthermore, Sufis practice “dhikr,” in which they recite 99 Arabic names of God found in the Qur’an. This recitation is either aloud or silent, and is performed with the goal of attaining closeness with God and emptying the heart of anything but God. The one-hundredth name of God is only known by God’s most favored followers; it is allegedly God’s greatest name. God’s names are believed to be God’s attributes, through which God interacts with the created world. The recitation of these names is believed to bring Sufis closer to emulating these attributes. Dhikr is a direct manifestation of Sufi Islamic cosmology. Other chants performed by Sufis include “there is no God but God,” or “la ilaha illa allah,” which is also present in mainstream Islamic practice. This chant is also known as the shahada, which can be found in the third surah. “Allah Himself bears witness that there is no God but He; and likewise do the angels and the men possessed of knowledge bear witness in truth and justice that there is no God but He, the Almighty, the All-Wise.” (3:18)

Sufis are very well-known for their music and poetry, despite the fact that in some Islamic communities practicing fundamentalist and traditionalist sharia, music is often frowned upon. The spiritual role of the listener is equally if not more important than the performer. While Sufi poetry is often very similar to secular Persian poetry of the same era, the main difference is that the poems speak of a close and loving relationship with God. Rumi writes in his poem “I Am Wind, You Are Fire:”

“O you who’ve gone on pilgrimage –

             where are you, where, oh where?

Here, here is the Beloved!

             Oh come now, come, oh come!

Your friend, he is your neighbor,

            he is next to your wall –

You, erring in the desert –

             what air of love is this?

If you’d see the Beloved’s

             form without any form –

You are the house, the master,

             You are the Kaaba, you! . . .

Where is a bunch of roses,

             if you would be this garden?

Where, one soul’s pearly essence

             when you’re the Sea of God?

That’s true – and yet your troubles

             may turn to treasures rich –

How sad that you yourself veil

             the treasure that is yours!”

Rumi references here the hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca required of each Muslim. He calls God “the Beloved,” and implies that God is found within each individual, in accordance with Sufi cosmology. “You are the Kaaba, you! . . .” Islam has a strong presence in Sufi poetry and music, as one might expect.When Rumi writes of the Kaaba, he is invoking an extremely potent image of the holiest site in Islam. This poem is a perfect example of the way in which Sufi mysticism is predicated upon Islam and a form of worship rather than a separate religious endeavour. In Rumi’s poetic epic, “Masnavi-i ma’navi,” he tells of Sufi teachings in detail through images and narratives. Most Sufi poetry is written in Persian; however, there are many Sufi mystic poets who wrote in Turkish, as well as in the multitude of languages found in the Indian subcontinent. Another famous Sufi poet is Attar of Nishapur. Attar writes,

“In the dead of night, a Sufi began to weep.

He said, ‘This world is like a closed coffin, in which

We are shut and in which, through our ignorance,

We spend our lives in folly and desolation.

When Death comes to open the lid of the coffin,

Each one who has wings will fly off to Eternity,

But those without will remain locked in the coffin.

So, my friends, before the lid of this coffin is taken off,

Do all you can to become a bird of the Way to God;

Do all you can to develop your wings and your feathers.’”

This poem is from a collection titled “Conference of the Birds,” a work that serves as an allegory of the individual’s search for divine reunion. The inner reflection and piety that each Sufi practices allows them to “develop wings,” or attain closeness with God.

Practicing Sufism can often include a level of asceticism. Earlier Sufism rejected the vanity and corruption of this world in preparation for the afterlife. However, this asceticism grew less common as Sufism began to focus more on developing a loving relationship with the divine. This focus on love is associated strongly with a woman Sufi, Rabia of Basra. Known to be extremely pious, Rabia introduced the concept of divine love to Sufism, known as Ishq-e-Haqeeqi. Ishq-e-Haqeeqi is the belief that only God deserves loving. “And those who believe truly, love Allah intensely.” (2:165) The goal is that when one finally achieves this type of love, God will be dearer to the individual than their life, spouses, children, and all they hold close to their heart. Rabia was known to believe that she should worship God out of pure love for God rather than for the reward or punishment of paradise or hell, respectively. This belief underlies much of Sufi mysticism in that the pursuit of closeness with the divine is spurred from genuine love and desire for spiritual understanding rather than out of fear of eternal consequence. Rabia’s gender is a fascinating element as it is rare to see a woman hold so much spiritual power in early Islam. She chose to be celibate in order to supercede her gender and devote herself completely to God. Rabia never claimed to achieve unity with God; rather, she experienced self-realization and was reported to be able to perform divine miracles as a result of the intimacy with God she gained. The divine love to which Rabia devoted herself throughout her lifetime grew into the basis for much of the practice of Sufism.

Rabia is considered a Muslim saint. The phenomenon of sainthood is also particularly associated with Sufism. Saints may be referred to as “wali,” or “friend of God.” These saints guide mystics on their religious paths and have intimate relationships with the divine. One would become a saint when one achieved perfect spiritual wisdom, such as Rabia’s self-realization. Saints can enact small miracles and possess similar attributes to God. Persian scholar ‘Abd al-Karim ibn Huzan Abu al-Qasim al-Qushayri al-Naysaburi identified saints as those “whose obedience attains permanence without interference of sin; whom God preserves and guards, in permanent fashion, from the failures of sin through the power of acts of obedience.” Saints are largely Sufis because of the inner reflection spurred by mysticism that leads to self-realization and an intimate, loving relationship with God.

Ibn Taymiyyah, a Hanbali jurist, stated, “The miracles of saints are absolutely true and correct, by the acceptance of all Muslim scholars. And the Qur’an has pointed to it in different places, and the sayings of the Prophet have mentioned it, and whoever denies the miraculous power of saints are only people who are innovators and their followers.” Despite this, contemporary conservative Islamic movements like Wahhabism actively challenge the worship of saints and the tombs of saints as a modified form of idolatry. Sainthood and the worship of saints seems heretical to these conservative exegetes. Controversy surrounding Sufism in relationship with more conservative and fundamentalist schools of worship has sometimes manifested in violence against the Sufis, such as an attack on an Egyptian mosque in November of 2017 that left 305 Sufis dead. Some in the political sphere view Sufism as detrimental to the greater Islam; Sufism can be superstitious and adopt local customs, while popular Islam embraces modern science and technology. The superstitious nature of Sufism has led some to believe that it should be eradicated in order to preserve Islam.

A contradictory perspective is that Sufism is in many ways inextricable from Islam. The intense self-reflection and inner spiritual search that define Sufism are in many ways extremely important to larger Islam. Sufis focus on the Qur’an with the same centrality as do other schools of Islam. The elements that make Sufism different from popular Islam are still Qur’anically based, and Sufis believe in the same major tenets of the religion. Sufis follow the one God, believe that Mohammed is the Last Prophet, do charity, make hajj, pray at least five times a day, and fast during Ramadan. It is at its simplest a more introspective form of general Islam, and at its most complicated a mystical form of Islam that treasures individual relationships with the divine.


Works Cited

Attar, Farid ud Din. “Perfume of the Desert,” translation by Andrew Harvey and Eryk Hanut.

Ernst, Carl W. “Tasawwuf [Sufism],” Encyclopedia of Islam and the Muslim World, Macmillan Reference U.S.A., 2003.

Helms, Barbara Lois. Rabi’a as Mystic, Muslim and Woman.

Ibn `Abidin, Rasa’il, 2:277.

Radtke, B., et al., “Walī”, in: Encyclopaedia of Islam, Second Edition.

Smith, Margaret. Encyclopedia of Islam, 2nd ed., Vol. 8, “Rābiʻa al-ʻAdawiyya al-Qaysiyya”. Brill. pp. 354–56.

Smith, Margaret. Rabi’a The Mystic and Her Fellow-Saints in Islam, Cambridge Library Collection, 1928.

“The Origin of the School of Sufism.” Women in Islam | International Association of Sufism. Accessed May 16, 2018.

Voll, John O. and Kazuo Ohtsuka. “Sufism.” In The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic WorldOxford Islamic Studies Online, (accessed May 16, 2018).


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