It has been suggested the black and white moral code of Islam originates from it’s immediate physical surroundings; in the desert you either live or you die and the line between the two is often invisible. Night falls at the drop of a hat in Arabia and the day arrives in the same way. Even the emotions of the people are generally of absolute welcome and generosity or else anger and violence.
So it was only natural that within Islam a movement should arise to meet a spiritual yearning that floated beyond the rulebooks. Sufism is not a sect of Islam but rather an esoteric aspect. Through the ages Sufis have sought to find Allah through love, often referring to God as the Beloved. They evolved practices ranging from ecstatic dance to self-mutilation to stories and poetry in highly unorthodox paths to commune with God.
Naturally they came under a good deal of persecution from the authorities who suspected them of heresy. Many Sufi saints were martyred and it’s perhaps for this reason that Sufism took on a political aspect with hundreds of societies and brotherhoods spreading around the Muslim world.
The most accessible forms of Sufism come in the stories and poetry that even today are hugely popular all around the world. The greatest was perhaps Rumi, a Persian mystic whose poetry and stories express the best of Sufi philosophy and spirit:
“Dance, as though no one is watching,
Love, as though you’ve never been hurt before,
Sing, as though no one can hear you,
Work, as though you don’t need the money,
Live, as though heaven is on earth.”
Or with stories such as the man who was off to market with his camel. He stopped on the way to pray in a mosque and spent 3 hours prasing the virtues of Allah. He returned to the street only to find that his camel had gone. He looked up at the sky and shook his fist:
“Fuck you, Allah! I trusted you and now look what happened!”
A passing dervish heard this outburst and cautioned him:
“Brother, trust in God – but tie up your camel.”
Perhaps thr best known image of Sufism is that of the whirling dervish, spinning in circles for hours on end. Sufis are known to be a little extreme and the dervishes in particular. The word dervish means one who has nothing ie. Nothing except God. They often rambled the country in their quest to burn up in love for Allah and were regarded as holy men wherever they went.
Today Sufism is largely on the decline, thanks to MTV, Hollywood and Nike Air trainers. The long slow path of meeting on Thursday nights to sing from the Koran and recite old stories is somehow less attractive to the young than the dream of riding in a convertible with Californian girls.
Sufism still endures in the far flung parts of the world such as Iran, Albania, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India . In the latter two it’s customary to visit the tombs of dead Sufi masters where there will be much song, food and pilgrims hoping that their wishes will be granted.
Though Sufism is heavily on the decline in the Muslim world yet the essence of it lives on in the hearts of those who read the stories and poetry now available in any bookstore in the West. The likes of Coleman Barks have given the ancient poetry new life by retelling the tales in modern English.
Read more about Sufis in Iran