Sufism in the Bigger Picture of Islam

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The missionary Phil Parshall reported on a Baul Sufi ceremony in Bangladesh and these were the words that he heard:

 "Forgive me, O God, of all my sins and look at me, your servant for all time. I am a poor creature who has gone astray but now I seek forgiveness from you, the Savior and Lord of the whole world."  [Cross and Crescent, p. 211]

These words could easily be repeated during the time of confession in a Christian Reformed Church liturgy. So what was really being said? Shortly we will examine them.

A thumbnail sketch of Sufism:

The word Sufi is derived from a woolen garment [ ṣūf] that early Islamic mystics wore. They looked for direct contact with Allah, often took vows of poverty, were concerned to put down their inner passions and attempted to amplify an inner light.  In a nutshell, they attempted to become one with Allah and that required disciplines that would enable that quest. Some of these disciplines included multiple repetitions of phrases to aid the process of remembrance [d̲h̲ikr], or perhaps the better-known dances of Sufi dervishes. The Sufi mystic Abu Yazid al Bistami (d. 875) for instance, said,  “Glory be to me, how great is my worth…; within this robe is naught but Allah.” He talked about how he had become extinct and the only thing left was his god Allah.

Sufism in the big picture of Islam:  

In a recent article, entitled "Nature and Revelation: The Fractured Foundations of Islam," Joe Boot sketches out the tension between Islam as a nature religion and its revelatory aspects. As he examines the deity of Islam from Islamic sources, he shows that Allah is essentially unknowable. He compares and contrasts this to John 17:3 where the Bible speaks of eternal life as "knowing" God the Father and Jesus the Son. His view is that Sufism is a response to this unknowability of Allah, and a way to gain mystical union with him. The article is found here.  

So how do we interpret the words that Parshall reported on?

Recall the words from a Sufi Baul ceremony:

 "Forgive me, O God, of all my sins and look at me, your servant for all time. I am a poor creature who has gone astray but now I seek forgiveness from you, the Savior and Lord of the whole world."  [Cross and Crescent, p. 211].

  • "Sin"

     As much as at first flush they sound very Christian, they are not. The main sin of the Sufi is forgetfulness. Likely this Sufi felt like they had not done enough to remember Allah at every chance possible. Secondly the next Sufi sin is an unwillingness or inability to crucify the inner passions.  Instead of Holy Spirit empowerment to "crucify the old nature and walk in a Godly life" the Sufi tries to do this in his/her own power. It is self-salvation.

  • "Savior"

The term Savior in the ceremony can refer to an external Savior who is simply the model Sufi as he never married, was not known to cavort with women and so lived a life of extinguishing his earthly passions, and was said to have a mystical union with God. This is the Sufi Jesus, but it is not the Biblical one.

The term Savior can also refer to Muhammad as part of Sufism is a quest for fana fi’sh-shaykh [annihilation in the master]. The Sufi follower attempts to become annihilated in their Sufi master, who in turn attempts to become annihilated in Muhammad. Sufi's say that he is the Perfect Man and so the Sufi master attempts to lead his followers in the haqiqa muhammadiyya [way of Muhammad]. The Sufi master is a kind of Savior and so is Muhammad as they are both said to give direct guidance from Allah. Perhaps the person saying that they had gone astray, had not followed their Sufi master as they should have.

Finally, the term Savior can refer to the person themselves. This is how  Abu Yazid al Bistami would have interpreted the term.

  • "The Lord of the whole world"

Again, it would be easy to assign Christian meanings to this phrase,  however, in this case,  one must read it from within Sufism and not impose a Christian reading on it. The Sufi 'Ibn Arabi used the metaphor of light to show the prominence or the higher ranking in value and dignity [tafāḍul]  of Muhammad. He said,

 "The revealed religions are lights. Among these religions, the revealed religion of Muhammad is like the light of the sun among the lights of the stars. When the sun appears, the lights of the stars are hidden, and their lights are included in the light of the sun. Their being hidden is like the abrogation of the other revealed religions that takes place through Muhammad's revealed religion." 

It is easily observable that 'Ibn Arabi placed Jesus, the light of the world [John 8:12] and the "Savior of the whole world" [John 4:42] in a subordinate place to that of Muhammad. This is consistent with Islamic thinking.

Conclusion:

If a rather Christian sounding phrase is quoted from a Sufi source, recall the words of the wise shopper 'caveat emptor' :buyer beware. Likely the person making the statement of contrition at the Baul ceremony had failed to achieve some kind of union with their Sufi master, or with Muhammad the Perfect Man, or Allah, due to the sins of forgetfulness or failing to deny their inner passions and so short-circuiting their attempt to gain the mystical inner light and its secret knowledge. These are not sins according to the Bible, but Sufi-Islamic ones.

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