We gratefully acknowledge and thank the author, Akbar S. Ahmed for permission to reproduce these excerpts from his book 'Living Islam.'

For more articles by this same distinguished author on this web site please see:

Reflections on Muslim Family Issues
Islam in the Age of the Western Media
Muslims in the West
Muslims as Minorities

Sufism is Islam's tolerant, mystical and universal philosophy. Its message of sulh-i-kul, peace with all, has endeared it to both Muslims and non-Muslims alike. It appeals to all Muslim sects and social classes. One has only to visit shrines such as that of the Sufi saint at Ajmer in India and observe the stream of Muslim and non-Muslim visitors for confirmation of this (see chapter 3). Sufis see the unity of God, tawhid, in everything and everyone. Although in its vulgar or more populist forms Sufism has acquired distinctly un-lslamic practices, but nevertheless its origin is unimpeachable, tracing back to the Prophet himself. The Sufi must first master the Shar'iah, the true path of Islam, before venturing onto the tariqah, the Sufi way. 

Sufi masters are central figures for their disciples in helping to unravel the mysteries and ideas of Sufism. The first and primary function of the Sufi master is what may be called ego-busting and  that is to diminish the individual ego in order to establish the supremacy of God. To aid this, numerous exercises are devised, most of them baffling to the layman. Many stories are told of how Sufi masters instruct their disciples. There are tales of princes who, on entering the Sufi circle, are ordered to clean latrines. As with all things Sufic, many layers of meaning lie beneath the surface. The idea is first to deconstruct and then to reconstruct the seeker of truth before the tariqah can be understood. These esoteric practices allow Sufis to endure hard times, even times of persecution. One such practice is the ritual of dhikr, mention of the name of Allah. Each of the ninety-nine names is known to contain a special quality. Pronouncing and repeating the name in a special manner produces a spiritual state in the believer. Dhikr kept Islam alive in Central Asia during the harsh days of Soviet rule (see chapter 5). The following prayer sums up the spirit of Sufism. It is from the Naqshbandi order associated with Bahauddin Naqshband, the saint of Bukhara, who lived in the fourteenth century (and whom we shall meet again in chapter 5). The universal strands of Islam are clearly visible; it could be the prayer of any religion, anywhere in the world: 

Oh my God, how gentle art thou with him who has transgressed against thee: how near art thou to him who seeks thee, how tender to him who petitions thee, how kindly to him who hopes in thee. 

Who is he who asks of thee and thou dost deny him or who sought refuge in thee and thou dost betray him and drew near to thee and thou dost hold him aloof? And fled unto thee and thou dost repulse him? 

The all-pervading and tolerant spirit of the Sufis is not surprising when we consider their sources of inspiration. Although the Prophet [Muhammad] is their ultimate model, other spiritual figures - which include Abraham, Moses and Jesus - also mould them. This is enunciated in 'The Eight Qualities of the Sufi' by a well-known Sufi master, Junaid of Baghdad: 

In Sufism, eight qualities must be exercised. The Sufi has: 
Liberality such as that of Abraham; 
Acceptance of his lot, as Ismail accepted; 
Patience, as possessed by Job; 
Capacity to communicate by symbolism, as in the case of Zachariah; 
Estrangement from his own people, which was the case with John; 
Woollen garb like the shepherd's mantle of Moses; 
Journeying, like the travelling of Jesus; 
Humility, as Muhammad had humility of spirit. (Shah 1990:246) 
For me personally, Sufism's message of compassion, humility and universal love is attractive and inspiring. But what is a youngster, soaked in the materialist urban milieu in which television provides the greatest input, to make of Sufism? How would he or she understand Sufi stories? The following tale from the celebrated Mathnawi of the greatest of Sufi masters, Rumi, illustrates the point. A disciple seeking the Sufi path finally feels he has mastered it and arrives to announce this to his master. He knocks on the door and when asked 'Who is there?' answers, 'It is I.' The master says, 'Go away, you have not yet acquired knowledge. ' He leaves to return after he has performed more spiritual exercises, and this time when asked who is knocking says 'It is Thou'. 'Come in,' says the master. 'There is no room for two in this house.' 

This Sufi story illustrates the layers of understanding that lie in Sufism: the obliteration of the ego, the need for the master who will help the quest for knowledge along the divine path, and the search for the true way, the way of God, however difficult and esoteric. These stories are allegories, metaphors, stories within stories, and like the layers of an onion they require patience to peel and they sometimes end in tears. 

Sufism is not calculated to be popular or understood in an age that is dominated by the media, by the sound bite, by simplistic analysis, by the noise and thunder of the sound-track and by a cynical irreverence (see chapter 6). Our age demands simple heroes - Superman, James Bond, Indiana Jones. Themes that remind us of the transience of our life on earth, that point to the I mysteries of existence, the complexity of being, are not readily accepted. 

Living Islam, From Samarkand to Stornoway, by Akbar S. Ahmed, Published by BBC Books Limited, Woodlands, 80 Wood Lane, London, U.K. W12 0TT©1993. This book accompanied the BBC television series "Living Islam" which was first broadcast in 1993.