Friday, 29 November 2013

What is Sufism?

Most men are content to accept the world as it appears to them, whereas a noble minority wishes to tear away the veil of appearances so as to behold the true nature of things. This is not hyperbole; this has been the main philosophical project of all our great thinkers. Kant, who was perhaps the greatest philosopher since Aristotle, attempted to grasp the reality behind the appearances, and he was forced to draw to a rather depressing conclusion: the real did not admit of being apprehended by man - it was forever to remain the unknowable x.

The hopeless romantic that Kant was, he was not to give up so easily. Because the world as it really is cannot be known, man is better off concentrating on acting in such way that the world becomes as it should be. What had begun as a ambitious metaphysical project, degenerated into a rather pitiable kind of moralism: with the introduction of his thou shalt, Kant had reverted to the Pietism of his childhood. If Kant had been an Orthodox Christian, his solution is likely to have been very different from the one offered to him by his Pietist tutors.

According to Orthodox Christianity, the ultimate reality is knowable and there are methods that can be employed by man so as penetrate beyond the world of appearances. In the Eastern Orthodox Church, the favoured method is known as Hesychasm. With recourse to breathing exercices, man can attain an altered state of consciousness, and while in this state, man can know things that otherwise would have remained unknown to him.

Hesychasm is a method with some striking similararities with the technique employed by the Hindu yogis: (i) the vairocana posture aids us in regulating our breathing with a view to avoiding aimless volition, while (ii) ekagrata enables us to concentrate all our energies on a single point. Hesychasm recommends the formula "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner" in conjunction with inhalation and exhalation. In carrying out this respiratory exercise, it is recommended that one does not follow the manual on which one is relying too mechanically. The right breathing technique is acquired by means of trial and error, and it will take you approximately six months to master it. Here it must be emphasised that your ability to acquire this technique is wholly dependent on your mental constitution and character. Some people are contemplatives by nature, with a strong aptitutde for concentration, which is a prerequisite to rigorous philosophical thinking, whereas others are men of action with restlessness dwelling inside them. The latter are men who excel in the active realm, and they have little to gain from any dabbling in mysticism.

Russia, the land of a polymorphic race with a strong propensity to mysticism, is today the main custodian of the Christian Orthodox mysticism. In tune with the somewhat erratic Russian character, Hesychasm in Russia assumed an almost Dionysian form qua the whirling dances of the Khlysti. Those Russian Orthodox Christians who are tempted write off the Khlysti as heretics, tend to forget that almost all Russian saints of note lived on the edges of orthodoxy, with a behaviour so startlingly unconventional that these extraordinary men came to be known as Fools for Christ.

It is worth noting that the former Soviet Union is also the heartland of Sufism. It is my view that both Sufism and Hesychasm has found fertile ground precisely in those territories where shamanism has been the main vehicle of religious expression. Shamanism is the original religion of the whole mankind, and every religious tradition that followed had no choice but to submit to this primordial religion. Both Christianity and Islam have accomodated shamanism to such a degree, that shamanistic techniques, such as the erratic Hesychasm of the Russian Fools for Christ and the Sufis with their equally erratic sessions of Dhikr (remembrance of God), are considered paragons of Orthodoxy.

Contrary to the popular view, Sufism is not a heterodox sect within Islam. Sufism forms an integral part of Islam. Indeed, Sunni Islam and Sufism are inseparable. The only Muslims who reject Sufism are the Salafists of Saudi Arabia and the equally odious Shia fundamentalists of Iran. The Sufis are persecuted in both Saudi Arabia and Iran; in both of the mentioned countries, the tombs of the Sufi saints are desecrated by the authorities.

We turn now to the question of what Sufism is. Here I leave it to Ibn-Khaldun (1332-1406), perhaps the finest Muslim philosopher and the author of one of the greatest books ever penned: the glorious al-Muqaddima, to explain its essence:

'There are men who attempt to obtain supernatural perception through exercise. They attempt an artificial (state of) death through self-mortification. They kill all corporeal powers (in themselves), and wipe out all influences of those powers that color the soul in various ways. This is achieved by concentrated thinking, and doing without food for long (periods). It is definitely known that when death descends upon the body, sensual perception and the veil it constitutes disappear, and the soul beholds its essence and its world. (These men) attempt to produce, artificially before death, the experience they will have after death, and to have their soul behold the supernatural. Other such people are the men who train themselves in sorcery. They train themselves in these things, in order to be able to behold the supernatural and to be active in the various worlds. Many (Sufis) shun (supernatural perception) when it accidentally happens to them, and pay no attention to it. They want God only for the sake of His essence, and nothing else. It is well known that (supernatural perception) occurs among the (Sufis). They call their supernatural experiences and mind reading "physiognomy" (firasah) and "removal" (of the veil of sense perception, kashf). Their experiences of (supernatural) activity they call "acts of divine grace" (karamah). None of these things is unworthy of them.'