Is Sufism different from Islam? An interview with Dr. Seyyed Hossein Nasr

Q: Some say that one can be a Sufi and not Muslim. What do you say to non-Muslims that embrace Sufism as non-Muslims? 

A: For non-Muslims, Sufism can be a spiritual attitude, as far as ideas are concerned. As practices are concerned, no, a non-Muslim is not able to be a Sufi. As a spiritual attitude, yes, non-Muslims are able to embrace the spiritual attitude of Sufism which emphasizes charity, humility, unity. A Muslim should not wear a cross, just as a non-Muslim should not pray or associate with Muslim ritual symbols. Praying in unity with those of other traditions can be a powerful experience, but one should be careful in clearly delineating their purpose in doing so. As an orthodox traditionalist living in a modern world, I think it is important that we recognize the perennial philosophy as something different from religious syncretism. Perennialism encourages those of a particular tradition to embrace their own formal prayer, ritual, beliefs–but as not to blend various traditions into one form. This dilution of religious forms takes a believer away from their foundation.

I also want to emphasize one point. Historically, there have been Sufi masters who have had Hindu and Christian disciples who have helped untie the knots of the soul of their followers. Rumi had Christian disciples. So while one must be a believer of Islam to follow the Islamic form, being a Muslim is not necessary for one to help find his inner spiritual self in his or her own tradition. Sufi masters have been able to, and in fact continue to, guide non-Muslims upon their own spiritual path.

Q: Why is Sufism seen as a threat to various theologians in Islam?

A: Sufism/perennialism is not for everyone. People identify themselves with particular aspects of their faith. For example, most practicing Muslims strongly identify only with the Shariah or legalistic aspects of Islam. Most people of any religion or any ideology for that matter–capitalism, democrats, any ism really–are exclusivists and they are afraid of being inclusive. Spiritually speaking, their nafs, or ego, prevents them from embracing a universalist outlook. They are afraid that their form (their outer practice, their beliefs) will be melted away if they embrace an inclusive, universalist outlook.

Perennialism sees the universal truth of God in all its forms–it is inclusive and is the doctrinal heart of Sufism. Perennialism can remove that fear of losing one’s own religious form for it emphasizes universalism without destroying one’s own sacred forms. It emphasizes that the seeker follows his own tradition while seeking the truth in other traditions. It is through active seeking and continually knocking on God’s door and waiting that an appropriate path for men and women will emerge.

In opposition to exclusivism and least common denominator syncretism, Sufis transcend forms from above and not below. While a student in Boston in the 1950’s, I attended the lecture of a great Buddhist Zen master at Harvard, and a student asked, ‘Is it not true that the most spiritual seekers have to leave or destroy the sacred text in order to transcend it?’ You see, one must fully embrace the sacred text and the outer aspects of sacred forms before you can transcend it. It is a level or stage that you have to reach before seeking to go beyond it, and most people these days do not even reach it. It is not a question of which sacred form you embrace; that depends on your destiny. Rather, you must embrace a sacred form that speaks to you and sticks to it.

Islam is the religion that is among the most universalist of all religions in its total message. It speaks of all of the previous orthodox traditions and Prophets of God and speaks of them in an inclusive way. Islam is also the only religion that speaks of the finality of its Messenger as the “Seal of Prophets.” Each religion has certain doors that open to spiritual universality. While there are certain doors to the perennial philosophy in other traditions–for example, in Christianity, there is the saying, “there are many houses in my Father’s Mansion,”–the Qur’an speaks of this universality throughout its text.

Source: ICCNC