Sufism in the 21st Century Islam

Over the centuries — through the Islamic mystical dimension — Sufism, artists around the world have been able to create the most beautiful and transcendental forms of art that have aid the emergence of the idea of peace and love. Sufism enables its followers to attain spirituality rooted in the heart of Islamic traditions through simplicity and devotion.

Sufism is the demonstration of what Islam teaches about; it is the practical aspect of Islam, which could be understood through artwork and completely surrendering ourselves to Allah.

Sufis, people who follow Sufism, have been striving their best to bring peace and harmony to the world, through their forms of divine expressions. However, in the 21st century, traditional Muslims have a distinct view about Sufis and Sufism; they have taken a stance against the Sufis and have shunned the concept of Sufism from some of the major Muslim occupying countries. There seems to have a little tension between the Sufis and conventional Muslims, for what Sufism is. Even though Sufism is an integral part of Islam and some Muslims abide by it, there are Muslims, who see it as inferior to Islam and Islamic traditions. Through this research article, I would like to give some light on the 21st century Sufism and how it has been affirmed or dismissed by the people around the world, as well as how it could help reshape the distorted image of Islam. Hope you’ll enjoy reading it, as much as I enjoyed writing it.

Islam as a religion is composed of three dimensions the Islam (submission to Allah), Iman (belief), and Ihsan (spiritual purification). Fiqh is defined as the human knowledge of the Sharia, the divine Islamic law, which is revealed in the Quran and Sunnah, and by adhering to it Muslims submit to Allah, the basis of Islam.

All Muslims should obey the “Five Pillars of Islam”, which comprises of Shahadah — the belief that “There is no god but God, and Muhammad is the Messenger of God”, which is central to Islamic ideology, Salat — praying five times a day facing towards Mecca for staying connected to Allah, Zakat — the mandatory charity community members donate for the people in need, Sawm — fasting during the days of Ramadan so that they can renew their gratitude for everything God has bestowed in their lives, Hajj — making a journey to Mecca to pray at least once in one’s lifetime.

These five pillars are the basis of someone being a Muslim. Similarly, the study of the religious belief system, Aqidah, deals with the aspects of Iman. Muslims should abide by what is good and follow a righteous path, as God is very well aware of the decisions we might make in a given situation and we should always strive to choose the right path. According to Muslims, everything happens for a reason and since God is in the control, everyone should be patient and thankful for events that happen. Lastly, Sufism, is the field of knowledge and practice dealing with Ihsan, the idea of self-purification. There are Muslims who abide by the laws established in the Sharia law that restrict drinking alcohol, gambling, adultery, and any other wrongdoings, which intensifies Muslim’s faith and connection to God. By not indulging in any adulterous activities, some Muslims encourage the purification of their soul, adhere to the religion, and work towards being an ideal Muslim. Sufis strive to follow Ihsan to establish a connection with Allah, as it improves one’s spirituality and purifies anyone’s intentions.

Sufis follow a mystical orientation to understand existence while following any path of simplicity and non-materialism.

left: Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī, Poet || right: Turkish whirling dervishes

Initially, whenever I heard the word Sufism, the first thing that struck my mind was Qawwali, Swirling Dervishes, and Rumi. However, with the expansion of knowledge about Islam and its traditions, I have been able to get a broader perspective on Islam, as well as, Sufism and how it is an indispensable part of it. Supporters of Sufism, Sufis, try to get imminent to Allah by exploring religious knowledge to purify their soul, a Sufi path, termed as Tariqa. Sufis are divided into several Tariqa, mystical orders, each with its spiritual customs and guidance. The leader of each order is termed as a Sheikh, which is a hereditary position, representing the lineage back to Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). There are various ways in which Sheikh guides his Mureed, disciple, to Allah. The four principles that are the basis of all the Tariqa are adherence to Sharia, observance of all Sunnah (the word of God), Remembrance of Allah (Dhikr), and following love and compassion. Sufis typically wear modest attire that proves their renunciation of the luxuries of the material world.

For being a Sufi one should overcome their ego and consider God to be their master, someone who controls everything.

Being a Sufi, one must have a pure heart and surrender to god, even if they don’t have a lot of knowledge about Islam. They can also inculcate music into the way they surrender to God to help strengthen their devotion. We can see the aspects of Islam about having a pure heart and following god unconditionally by indulging in an expressive form, which helps us concentrate and keep ourselves composed. Initially, these aspects were confined to the different dimensions of Islam, but with the emergence of peace, unity, and willingness to have satisfaction over the years, these aspects have got a collective name to them, Sufism.

Nowadays, everyone is busy with their lives and runs behind materialistic things like money, possession, physical comfort, etc instead of running being the spiritual values in life, that would help in bringing out peace and unity. At this time, our egos are conducting us and impelling us to know that our actions are the cause of whatever events have taken place. Our arrogance and ignorance override the fact that God can take away whatever He has bestowed upon us. However, through Sufism, one could recognize the obscurity pertained in Islam, and train into seeing things as they are and worship God as if we can “see” Him. Also, it helps the person understand their significance in the universe and how they could help in restoring peace among various communities.

Today, we indulge in the lure of society for fleeting happiness. The inner happiness comes within us as we stray away from the riches and be in a state of mind that is independent of rage, grief, and anxiety. Three of the most valuable things in life are time, money, and energy, and to be able to spend them cautiously is an art through which we could live a happy and prosperous life. For instance, if someone is ready to start a business and we know starting a business involves a lot of risks like money loss if the business doesn’t do as anticipated. If by chance, the business didn’t do well for this person then he/she will have depression and anxiety, which would make him/her vulnerable to spiritual maturity, and their desire for God would grow.

Whirling Dervishes

Sufism enables people to have freedom of faith, i.e. each person can have a private connection with God, and they are liberated to choose the way they want to make this connection with God. One of the most famous Sufi practices is the Whirling Dervishes in Turkey.

Whirling helps the person performing it be a part of the universal whirling. Everything in the universe is whirling, the Earth, the cells within us, the stars, everything, and by performing whirling dervishes we could easily be a part of this universal prayer.

left: Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan || right: Abida Parveen

Another prevalent Sufi practice is the Qawwali, which has been made worldwide famous by Qawwali maestro Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, who is a prominent voice around South Asia, is praised for boosting the Sufi scene and promoting it around the world. Similarly, Abida Parveen, a famous woman Sufi singer, is shown to promote Sufism, despite restrictions placed on Sufism by mullahs, conventional Muslims.

Parveen says we have two eyes to see, but the eyes of the heart enable us to capture the unseen, and to view from the heart we have to take the path of music.

Even the modern Pakistani singers have taken Sufism to express their feelings and love for the god. another thing that is prominent in Pakistan is the Dhol drum beating, where Dhol drum players beating on their drums while whirling, which is less refined than the Turkish whirling dervishes. This shows the universal alikeness that we still forget to acknowledge.

Fes Festival of Sacred Music in Morocco

There is also the Fes Festival of Sacred Music in Morocco, where people from everywhere perform, irrespective of their belief or religion. This festival’s central aim is to aspire people into practicing Sufism as well as alter the perspective of people belonging to other religions about Islam, which is generally perceived as a religion of destruction and terrorism, mainly after the tragedy of 9/11.

The universality of music and rhythm unites people from all walks of life and evokes a soft side within souls, which is why it has been a major source that enables Sufis to enter the ecstatic state. The music could urge the emotions of love and peace and evoke the soul of a person.

Sufism can be a root of motivation for youth investigating interfaith discussions around the world. It is a melange of “modernity” (which includes the current means of entertainment, unveiling, or mixed dancing and chanting) and traditional Islam, which is what makes it attractive to the western world as well as Islamic youth. Sufism is not only confined to shrines, but it could be practiced anywhere through the reenactment of holy expressions. It is a way through which Muslims can remain Muslims, but have freedom of choice in what way they want to establish a holy connection with God. It allows people to be modern in the sense they could be confined to their conventional Islamic law, and also being a part of the modern revolution. Sufis consider themselves as liberal Muslims and perceive some of the Islamic regimes in the Middle East with extreme distaste, as they feel those regimes are backward in this modern world. There has been an emergence of Sufi movements that draw on the New Age for influence, which makes the world a little more safe pace for the Sufi. Sufis feel comfortable living within a “secular” western society and observe no conflict of such a lifestyle with conventional Islam.

An assembly of poets & Sufis in medieval India

In the eyes of the westerners and people who don’t belong to Islam, Sufism appears as a sect of Islam like Sunni and Shii rather than Islam’s mystical dimension, as it is somewhat distinct from the orthodox practices in Islam. Even Muslims who follow standard Islam, don’t recognize Sufis to be genuine Muslims, as Sufism has tendencies to deviate from the core Islamic traditions mentioned in Sharia law and the Quran. The hallmark of traditional Sufism is its ability to adapt to the socio-cultural environments where it found itself in. Sufism differs Sharia- oriented Islamic traditions in a way that the Sufis are zealous to dig deeper in Islam, rather than just adhering to the literal meaning by the following routine rules, which is what the Sharia-oriented traditions are about. Islam through the Quran and Sharia law provides us an overview of the religion, not the experience of being a part of religion, but Sufism provides a way through which Islam could be experienced. For instance, a majority of people know about Rumi and his creations, but they don’t necessarily know about Sharia and the Quran, which is not surprising as we learn more things through doing and experiencing them than theoretically learning them.

One of my fav quotes by Rumi

Sufism is a great way to put the influence of Islam out in the world, and by doing this people would get more knowledge about the essence of Islam.

Conventional Islamic thinkers abide by the holy text, the Quran, and Sharia law, to attain knowledge about Islam. Holy text and scriptures could be understood by the people who are familiar with how to understand and read Arabic, which helps them build up narrative models of the world, but words don’t help non-Muslims and Muslims who don’t understand Arabic, to come up with such models. Music, however, has always been a language that everyone understands, and through music, Sufis have united people from all around the globe and aided them to connect with God. Music unifies our consciousness and physical being into one incorporated presence. There are different forms of Sufi music acts going on around the world, but one of the aspects that have remained constant are the rhythms to help followers to attain an ecstatic state and meditate. They help establish an association with mind, body, and spirit, which helps in the creation of one incorporated presence.

One of my fav Sufi Music

Sufism can be molded, unlike other aspects of Islam that could make it criticizable by extremist Muslims, the pureness of Islam seems to decline as Sufism spreads. The goal of Sufism is more metaphysical orientation-based, which is why we tend to see it as distinct from the conventional Islamic policies. Sufism has got its rules within Islam, which should be followed to be a Sufi. Some of the common examples of Sufi practices are dancing (e.g. the Turkish Dervishes), singing (Sufi songs), and writing. Through Sufi’s creativity in music, dance, literature, art, they experience the divinity of Allah before the Day of Judgment. Sufis lose themselves intellectually in search of something bigger.

However, after all of the positive aspects, Sufism has started to come under attack in the modern world particularly with the rise of Salafism. Salafism is a form of Islam, a search for purity to eradicate the modern influences from the Islamic practices and to induce Muslims into being conventional. Salafis, people who follow Salafism, are a group of conservative Muslims who seek to restore Islam to how they believe it was during the time of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). Salafis consider Sufism to be a “change” that conflicts with Islam’s conventional ways. Both Salafis and Sufis argue that they aspire to self-purification and purification of Islam in general, although they each do it in their way.

The Sufi brotherhoods, the orders, have played a significant role as to define what Sufism is and how one could be a Sufi. Through the emergence of orders, Sufism has got a defined path and has become easy to be followed. However, it has lost its meaning for the conventional Muslims, as they see Sufism, which has moldable tendencies, and its spiritual disciplines differ from central Islam. Orthodox Muslims don’t consider adopting any modern or western influences and want to adhere to conventional Islam. Today, “Sufism is a name without a reality. It was once a reality without a name”. It is true as Sufism has always been an integral part of Islam, but because it has got a name, it has lost its significance and looked upon as something other than Islam.

Groupe de derviches tourneurs by A. Pascal Sebah

Muslim majority countries like Turkey have banned the Whirling Dervishes, to support the conventional Muslims and their ideologies. Similarly, the Islamic State (IS) targets Sufis because it believes that only a fundamentalist form of Sunni Islam is valid. Also, traditional Muslims are against the idolatry of any saints or Allah, but Sufism is expressed through an art form, which is why Sufis are being victims of modern hatred. The Islamic extremists think, because of their limited Islamic awareness, that Islam should be spread through violence and suppression, and the fact that Islam is the superior religion. Because of these ideologies Islam has got a bad reputation.

The significance of Sufism can be recognized after what happened in the 9/11 attack, as it helped in the deeper understanding of Islam by the westerners, who thought Islam is all about terrorism and violence. The practice of Sufism will guide the people through Islam and its fundamental aspects, rather than what has become of it in Modern times.

Sufism is indirectly involved in shaping Muslim responses to the west, as well as it, gives inspiration to Muslims for how to overcome the modern challenges and accommodate in the modern world. Famous people like Oprah Winfrey and others are following and understanding Sufism, which helps them dig deeper into Islamic ideologies. When someone begins to move on the path of Sufi life he/she will experience and know the answers to their questions. As we know a Sufi is one who follows Sharia, the Quran, and Sunnah, as well as, lives life like that of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH).

Sufism conducts mankind in all ages and will remain to do so in the future. All religions have some fundamental principles while having plenty of secondary principles. The basic tenet of Islam is the belief in God and the Prophet Muhammad. Today, people are becoming oblivious of those constant yet esoteric principles of Islam as well as other religions. Humanity has lost track of brotherhood and human relations. There is neither adherence to the tenets of religions, nor there is any following of the lifestyle of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH).

There seems no love, affection, and justice; what remains is manipulation, exploitation, dishonesty, violence, terrorism, and greed. Sufism grants a solution to these degradations in modern times. In today’s modern world Sufism offers support to the individual by training them in the required values such as honor for relations and living, appreciation for love, and living in peace and unity.

In conclusion, Sufism has been playing an important role in shaping Islam in modern times, even if some Muslims are against it. It will continue to thrive and continue to be a more connectable aspect of Islam for the outsiders. It helps people to perceive the world that is beyond our imagination. A genuine Sufi is one who continues to have a pure soul and who rises above arrogance, greed, and other undue ruthless ambitions, as well as, believe in the mind, body, spirit’s development into an incorporated presence, which could establish a direct divine connection with God.

p.s. I’ve written this article out of love for Sufism and Islam, and if anyone finds anything offensive or incorrect, please let me know in the comments. I in no way intend to harm anyone’s feelings.

I know this is a lot to read and retain, so here’s is a short video to grasp some of the modern Sufism ideas by Viking Oceans Cruises. :)

Works Cited

“Sufi Soul: The Mystic Music of Islam”. Dir. Simon Broughton. Perf. William Dalrymple. 2008. Riverboat/World Music Network. Web. 6th April 2020. https://www.youtube.com/watch? v=aLICOQypyJE

“Sufism in the Contemporary Age”. The University of Glasgow. 2019. Research. 15th April 2020. https://gtr.ukri.org/project/C37A5295-32D8-4271-A9C9-A41DAE1E50AC

Specia, Megan. Nov. 24, 2017. “Who Are Sufi Muslims and Why Do Some Extremists Hate Them?”. The New York Times. Article. 7th May 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/ 2017/11/24/world/middleeast/sufi-Muslim-explainer.html

A sucker for creative coding, poetry, hauntingly beautiful songs of despair, serendipity || CS