The diversity and unity of Sufism: a conversation with Peter Samsel

SUFISM is sometimes called “the inner power” of Islam because of its focus on the Qur’an, the Prophet Mohammad, and tawḥīd— the ultimate divine oneness of God. Nevertheless, it is often misunderstood by both well-meaning newcomers and those seeking to strip Islam of its authenticity. While recognizing the complexity of all religions, independent scholar Peter Samsel wants to simplify Sufism in his book A Treasury of Sufi Wisdom, which includes a collection of and commentary on Sufi works. His aim is to provide a unifying concept to Sufi thought and practice, introducing the newcomer to its depths and diversity while also sharing its simplicity.

Samsel said that his background “is best summarized as a lifelong quest for the real” and that his journey with Sufism was, and is, driven by comparing religion and seeking wisdom in Sufi masters. Hence, his desire to share the wisdom of Sufi luminaries with a broader audience in this Treasury. At the core of Islam and its expression in Sufism, according to Samsel, is the concept of “divine unity” — tawḥīd.

Often, Sufism is conceived as the mystical dimension of Islam. What does that tell us? Ready to admit that Sufism adapts and changes with time and according to its social, political, and cultural context Louis Brenner attempted a definition of Sufism as, “a spiritual discipline intended to liberate the human spirit from its corporeal shell and enable it to move closer to God” or as “spiritual work that…aims at the transformation of the hidden or inner aspect of the human being.” This inner work has to do with the divine breath, or spirit, that is imbued in each individual, which is both visible and hidden. The idea is to transfer what is hidden into what is manifest and thus transport the Muslim from one state of being to another, moving from hidden and removed from God to being in his presence. 

What is the spiritual work and/or discipline associated with Sufism? The three primary means are education, rituals, and initiatic relationships. Sufis are often believed to join the aforementioned tariqas and to begin an ascetic, discipled, relationship with an emir or wali or “saint” or “friend of God.” This relationship is perceived as central to the progression of a Sufi as the wali is seen to have a particular and blessed relationship with God, which in turn gives him a powerful baraka, or spiritual power and blessing. Certain spaces and places, either associated with that saint or deemed holy by Sufis, are also filled with baraka such as caves, shrines,  tombs, mountains, or other natural areas. In the context of such an order, and in contact with the baraka, the Sufi disciple will learn the “science of Sufism” through education practices centered first on the outward and sensual aspects of the Qur’an, Shari’a, and Islamic law before coming to consider the mystical, inner, and hidden aspects of the above that can only be appreciated through spiritual senses. Spiritual senses are honed through ritual prayer, dhikr — remembrance of the names and attributes of God, wird — secret litanies passed on through emirs and saints or revealed directly by God, ascetic practices, seclusion rituals, dance, movement, and the like. These are the oft presented “spiritual disciplines” associated with Sufism, both as a concept and as a phenomenon. 

Furthermore, Sufis are often conceived as mystical Muslims in pursuit of “the greater jihad” of inner spiritual struggle and more likely to merge Muslim concepts and practices with local, indigenous, beliefs and observances. This has led some researching Islam in Africa to speak of Sufism — with its seeming improvisation, contextualization, and leniency in pursuit of inner transformation — as representative of “African Islam” in contradistinction to “Islam in Africa,” typified by Salafis bent on reform and strict adherence to commanding right and forbidding wrong according to universal/global Muslim faith and piety. Beyond Africa Sufism is held up as a paragon in the “good Muslim”/“bad Muslim” dichotomy. Again, Sufis appear to outsiders as mystical monk-like Muslims pursuing peace and a piety of transformation in the face of violent and radical Muslims hell-bent on world domination and enforcing their brutal and unbending interpretation of Islam through “the lesser jihad” of physical war. 

However, these conceptions of Sufism are more indicative of an etic analytical concept than any type of self-identifying or emic understanding of what Sufism is or is not. Furthermore, using this term to refer to a broad and complex sodality such as “Sufism” obscures as much as, if not more than, it may reveal. Sufism is not a defined sect or denomination of Islam, as it is often represented to be. While it can be organized into formal networks and brotherhoods it is more often diffuse and integrated into other streams of Islam (Sunni, Shi’i, etc.). Furthermore, the phenomena associated with Sufism (e.g. wird, dhikr, asceticism etc.) are not universally observed among those seeking inner transformation through Islam. Moreover, Sufis are not always apolitical or necessarily peaceful. Tijaniyya and Muridiyya in Senegal have long been involved in politics (one Murid serving as president) and the Naqshbandi of the Levant being heavily involved in sectarian violence following the U.S. led invasion of Iraq. Kane notes how the “Baro brothers” — the sons of a significant Tijaniyya family — use shrine pilgrimage to consolidate power and “prove their spiritual rank” more than as a ritual practice of devotion or transcendence. Sufis can also prove patriarchal, as Joseph Hill argued in the context of Sufi leadership in Senegal among Taalibe Baay, and be advocates of reform and the enforcement of standards of universal Islamic practice. Indeed, it is difficult to construct or conceive of Sufism as any sort of essentialized entity or sui generis sensation.

And yet, Samsel said that the, “aim and fruition [of tawḥīd] is to clarify the overwhelming, singular Divine reality in all its ramifications.” In a world that threatens to inundate the spiritual seeker in complexity and chaos Samsel contends Sufism offers a path that unifies the self in the face of the manifestation of Divine unity in one’s life. 

To present this path and share it with an audience outside of traditional Sufi orders and brotherhoods involved a tremendous amount of reading in the primary literature of Sufism, said Samsel. He also had to ponder the question of what exactly Sufism is. Scholars, practitioners, and the public are often uncertain or inexact in their estimations of what Islamic mysticism is all about. Samuel believes this “Path of Unity” leads people into the core of Sufism and even of life itself. 

In addition, Samsel hopes the work will correct distortions of Sufism and Islam. Samsel said, “the most typical misrepresentation of Sufism is that it is not authentically Islamic, whether this is claimed by Muslim fundamentalists, Muslim modernists, or Western spiritual seekers. However, scholarly consensus has long recognized Sufism as intrinsic to Islam.” Samsel is convinced that, “Sufi writings are, in fact, profoundly grounded in Islam’s foundational sources, as the anthology readily serves to demonstrate.”

In final estimation, Samsel intends for the Treasury to provide “orientation and inspiration.” He said he hopes the book will appeal to both Western spiritual seekers and Muslims. For the former, that they may “be attracted to a spiritual way that nourishes the conjoined perspectives of both love and knowledge,” said Samsel. For the latter he said, “I hope it may also appeal to Muslims who may be caught in a dry, legalistic understanding of their faith with perhaps little notion of the spiritual depths it possesses.” While such an anthology, he said, “cannot capture every subtlety of a lived path such as Sufism,” Samsel believes this is a great place for anyone to start on the path to Sufi wisdom or to get a solid basis in Sufi thought and its inherently Islamic philosophical foundations. 

January 19, 2016

*To read the book for yourself, click HERE