Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Imam Rauf on Sufism

REVIEW. An October 7 post describes Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf as an activist and briefly reviews his book, What's Right with Islam is What's Right with America: A New Vision for Muslims and the West. His book does not openly advocate mysticism. An October 17 post explains that Imam Rauf and his book are thoroughly immersed in a religious worldview. Mysticism is an integral part of that worldview. He assumes mysticism as the norm.

This post explores Sufism, a thread woven throughout Rauf's book. Rauf does not make explicit the value of Sufism in his own life or Sufism's role in establishing his book's theme -- Christians, Jews, and Muslims share an "Abrahamic tradition" that provides a common ground for building a bridge between Western and Islamic cultures.[1]

WHAT IS SUFISM? As a religious worldview, Islam is a whole. It guides the individual in his outer life (particularly his actions in society, including rituals) and in his inner life (particularly his relationship with God). Shari'ia, the body of religious laws based on holy scripture, governs a Muslim's outer life. Following shari'ia is required of all Muslims. Shari'ia is exoteric, that is, instructions for following it are offered publicly to everyone. Islam has simpler expectations of Muslims' inner life. For example, all Muslims should "polish their mirror" (Rauf, pp. 69-70) by being virtuous so that they can reflect God's face when he looks at them. Part of being virtuous is rejecting vices, especially the vice of egoism. (Rauf, p. 65)

In contrast, Sufism, which provides a path for becoming spiritually closer to God, is elective; few Muslims choose to follow the path. Sufism is esoteric, that is, instructions are provided privately by a few teachers to a few students. As specialized Islamic mysticism, Sufism has two forms. In the metaphysical form, the Sufi strives to be in the presence of or even united with God. In the epistemological form, the Sufi tries to gain knowledge of God through direct experience of God. Thus, Sufism attempts to bridge "the gap between human reason and sure knowledge of the Divine," says one Muslim intellectual. (Glasse, "Sufism," p. 375, col. 2)

MOTIVATIONS FOR SUFISM. Why would anyone endure the reportedly arduous and long training that Sufis undergo? One answer comes from Imam Rauf: "A common feature of human life is suffering, whose primary cause is . . . the state of being separated from God." (Rauf, p. 66) Further, "Sufis are taught . . . to learn how to suffer so as to remain unaffected by suffering (even to die before they die so as to embrace immortality), to know how to . . . detach [oneself from this world] so as not to be affected by the . . . loss of possessions." (Rauf, p. 67)

A second major motivation for Sufis is to see "God who is Absolute (most real) Reality. To move closer to God, the Sufi leaves the world -- and the self -- behind because it is merely an appearance of the Real." (Glasse, "Sufism," CEI, pp. 377-378)

METHODS OF SUFISM. A Sufi walks a steep path in his ascent to God. (Rauf, p. 70) He moves upward from "station" to "station." At each station, he may experience a reward from God: a special state of mind, a "heightened consciousness." (Fakhry, p. 239) One way to achieve that heightened consciousness, Sufis say, is through dhikr, "divine remembrance." Dhikr is a ritual in which the Sufi repeatedly chants the names of God or verses that appear in the Qur'an. (Rauf, p. 63) Through this ritual, the Sufi may "remember" in this realm of earthly life the sights he has seen in another realm that is now closed off to him by veils. (Rauf, p. 71) "Chanting la ilaha illallah ["There is no god but God."] as a mantra has positive effects," Rauf says, "especially when done in a group. It can bring people to ecstasy, soothe, and calm, energize, and enable some to make more translucent the veil between them and God." (Rauf, p. 49)

Dhikr is one part of Sufi "technology." Another part is guidance. The Sufi path of ascent (tariqah) to God requires guidance from a spiritual leader (mudhakkir). (p. 70) Some spiritual leaders say they studied with earlier masters (shaykh) who studied with still earlier masters and so on in an unbroken tradition or "chain" (silsilah) leading back to Muhammad's companions and then to Muhammad himself. (Glasse, p. 376. col. 1) For an example of a chain, see:

These historical chains of teaching and studying show the survival of Sufism from the generation of Muhammad onward. What explains the geographic spread of Sufism? Muslim conquests opened doorways to other cultures, from Spain to Indonesia and Central Africa to Russia. Today, however, Sufism is expanding beyond the boundaries of Muslim political control -- and may serve as an advance guard of that control.

DISSEMINATING SUFISM TODAY. What is the state today of Sufism in the USA, one of the countries of the West that are under assault from many forms of mysticism? As an army may march in columns, so Sufism is entering US culture in several "columns." What distinguishes one column from another is each column's relationship to Islam.

1. ISLAMIC SUFI ORDERS. One Sufi column is a stream of Islamic Sufi "orders." In a religious context, an order is a type of social organization; it is dedicated to a particular religious purpose. An order's members submit to religious regulation of their lives. These regulations are formulated and applied by the leaders of the organization. Catholic Christianity includes monastic orders (monks) and preaching orders (friars); each order has its own regulations. Islamic Sufi orders apply shari'ia to their members to closely regulate their lives. An example of an Islamic Sufi order is the old and traditional Naqshbandi Order. There are at least ten Islamic Sufi orders operating in the USA.

2. QUASI-ISLAMIC SUFI ORDERS. Imam Rauf is a member of the Nur Ashki Jerrahi Sufi Order, which was founded in the 1980s. (Padela) It is a recent "dervish" (ecstatic dancing) branch of a traditional order. It is open to men and women, Muslims and non-Muslims:

3. NON-ISLAMIC SUFI ORDERS. The Sufi Order International is an example of a non-Islamic Sufi order. Its supporters say that its Sufi doctrines and practices are independent of Islam because Sufism was alive in the Middle East and India before Muhammad.

4. SUPPORTING ORGANIZATIONS. Some organizations that are not orders nevertheless support Sufism. An example is the American Sufi Muslim Association, which Imam Rauf founded. (

All four classes of Sufi advocates and supporters aid the cause of mysticism, which is the common denominator they promote, no matter what competitions or conflicts arise between them or between the individuals in their organizations. The power of organizations is their ability to concentrate resources on particular goals. For Sufi organizations in a non-theocratic country, that power consists mainly in disseminating ideas through official events such as lectures, as well as through websites, books, and classes in which experts advise and teach novice Sufis. In affecting a culture, having more, but smaller, organizations can be more powerful than having a single, monolithic organization for two reasons. First, multiple smaller organizations are multiple voices bearing the same message from a variety of viewpoints. Multiple voices repeating the same essential message are more likely to catch the attention of nonbelievers.[2] Second, each of the multiple small groups, with its own special interests, can appeal to a different segment of the larger population.[3]

In the USA, Sufi centers appear across the country. The web page shows activity centers for one small order of Sufis, the Naqshbandi-Haqqani Order. Including the orders, more than fifty organizations in the West are spreading Sufism:

CONCLUSION. Sufism is a mystical movement that has flourished in Muslim countries and is now spreading through the West. Its core procedure is abandonment of one's self and this world in order to experience being closer to God and thereby come to know God directly. Sufism's advocates seldom appear in mass media news as Sufi advocates, yet their movement is well established. It is an example of a movement that has quietly built a sub-culture and sub-society while remaining largely unknown to the majority society.

Burgess Laughlin
Author, The Power and the Glory: The Key Ideas and Crusading Lives of Eight Debaters of Reason vs. Faith

[1] This post, like others on this weblog, is an entry in a journal. I am not documenting every statement. Page numbers in parentheses refer to Imam Rauf's What's Right with Islam or other sources identified in "For Further Study." [2] Onkar Ghate and Yaron Brook make this point in their lecture series, "Cultural Movements: Creating Change," at The Ayn Rand Center for Individual Rights website (Participate tab, Activism tab, right column on Nov. 3, 2010 or, if no working link, search for title). I highly recommend it. [3] Leonard Peikoff describes a similar situation, in Ch. 7 ("United They Fell") of Ominous Parallels. Various political parties in Germany in the 1920s competed with each other for power while generally supporting the same fundamental principles.

(1) Ernst, Carl W., "Tasawwuf" (Sufism), Encyclopedia of Islam and the Muslim World, The Gale Group, Inc., 2004; High Beam Research, 9 Aug. 2010, Posted by Worldwatch on (Ernst is the author of books such as Guide to Sufism.)
(2) Fakhry, Majid, Ch. 8 ("The Rise and Development of Islamic Mysticism"), A History of Islamic Philosophy, 2nd ed., New York, Columbia University Press, 1983.
(3) Glasse, Cyril, The Concise Encyclopedia of Islam, New York, HarperCollins, 1989. (A newer ed. is available.)
(4) Kinney, Jay and Henry Bayman, "Sufism, the West, and Modernity," University of Georgia, (A brief description of the four kinds of Sufi organizations, including particular orders in the West.)
(5) Padela, Aasim I., "Imam in the Middle, But Is He in the Center?," Huffington Post, posted Sept. 5, 2010, 10:30 am, at (Padela, a scholarly Muslim who has met Rauf, examines Rauf's standing in the Muslim community.)
(6) Rauf, Feisal Abdul, What's Right With Islam Is What's Right with America: A New Vision for Muslims and the West, Harper Collins, 2004.
(7) Wikipedia, "Sufism", as of August 30, 2010.