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Sufism: Searching For The Truth, Finding Oneself

Maulana Rumi tomb, Konya Sharif---TurkeyPersian poet Hafiz’s collected works, composed of a series of poems called dīwān, can be found in the homes of most Persian speakers in Iran. I became familiar with Hafiz’s poetry at a very young age, having been raised in a traditional Persian family. Hafiz, and later Rumi and Attar’s poetry, became my doorway to the exotic world of Sufism.

Sufism, or tasawwuf, as it is called in Arabic, is generally understood by scholars and Sufis as the inner, mystical, or psycho-spiritual dimension of Islam. Although today, many Muslims and non-Muslims believe that Sufism is outside the sphere of Islam.” [1] Sufism emphasizes its seekers toward a path of unity with God. This path is diverse, with many means, including chanting names of God, prayer, meditation, poetry, Koranic recitation, praise and music. In the words of Sufi teacher Ahmad ibn Ajiba, Sufism is “a science through which one can know how to travel into the presence of the Divine, purify one’s inner self from filth, and beautify it with a variety of praiseworthy traits”. According to the medieval Iranian scholar Abu Rayhan al-Biruni, the word Sufi is derived from the Greek word Sophia, meaning wisdom.

It was through Rumi that I discovered Attar, one of the most influential Sufi teachers. Of Attar, Rumi wrote: "Attar has roamed through the seven cities of love while we have barely turned down the first alley." In Attar’s book Tadhkerat al-Awlīya, I learned about the persecution of Sufis like Mansur al-Hallaj – renowned for his claim "Ana-l-Haqq" (I am The Truth). His refusal to recant this utterance, which was regarded as heresy, led to a long trial. He was imprisoned for 11 years in a Baghdad prison before being tortured and publicly dismembered. He is still revered by Sufis for his willingness to embrace torture and death rather than recant. It is said that during his prayers, he would say "O Lord! You are the guide of those who are passing through the Valley of Bewilderment. If I am a heretic, enlarge my heresy." His death is described by Attar as a heroic act. When they were taking Hallaj to court, a Sufi asked him: "What is love?" He answered: "You will see it today, tomorrow, and the day after tomorrow." They killed him that day, burned him the next day and threw his ashes to the wind the day after that. "This is love," Attar says.

Such persecution against Sufism was not limited to the 12th century days of Attar. Criticism and controversy has faced Sufism throughout history, especially because it has often been associated with esoteric aspects of Islam. In the last month, a radical religious group destroyed Sufi shrines in Timbuktu, Mali. 

Sufi Influence in Islamic Cultures

The spread of Sufism has been considered a definitive factor in the spread of Islam and in the creation of integrally Islamic cultures, especially in Africa and Asia. Persian Sufi poets and philosophers such as Rumi and Attar greatly enhanced the spread of Islamic culture in Anatolia, Central Asia, and South Asia. Sufism also played a role in creating and propagating the culture of the Ottoman world and in resisting European imperialism in North Africa and South Asia.

The typical early Sufi lived in a cell of a mosque and taught a small band of disciples. The extent to which Sufism was influenced by Buddhist and Hindu mysticism, and by the example of Christian hermits and monks, is disputed, but self-discipline and concentration on God quickly led to the belief that by quelling the self and through loving ardour for God it is possible to maintain a union with the divine in which the human self melts away.

Although Rumi’s contribution to the spread of Sufism is undeniable, he was neither the founder of Sufism nor even one of the first Sufis. Any other assertion is not based on historical facts. In fact Sufis trace the origin of Sufism back to the Prophet Mohammad through Imam Ali (except the Naqshbandis, who ascribe their spiritual lineage to the first successor of Mohammad, “Abu Bakr”)

Recently, Syrian-Canadian filmmaker, Amar Chebib, teamed up with Palestinian-Kuwaiti film producer, Dima Alansari, and they launched Salam Films. Amar’s journey of self-discovery to his ancestral homeland of Syria led to the creation of a documentary about Arab-Ottoman music and its delicate relationship with Islam and the state. Through Amar’s journey to Syria, Turkey and back to Vancouver, the film reveals how religious dogmatism, nationalism and Eurocentrism suppressed the expression of this music and the Sufi tradition it stems from.
Music in Sufism

While orthodox Islam looks down upon music, many Sufi traditions seek to utilize its emotive and communal power towards the goal of dhikr. Frequently, a spiritual leader or sheikh (called a pir in certain languages) will lead disciples in these practices in communal rites of remembrance. One central form of group dhikr is called sama'. While sama' literally means "listening," it has the connotation of a spiritual concert of sacred music, often with dance. [2]
Sufi communities or orders are found throughout the Muslim world, from South and Central Asia through Turkey, Iran, the Levant and northern, eastern and western Africa. With that wide a geographical and cultural spread for Sufism itself, Sufi musical practice is itself equally diverse. Each Sufi order or brotherhood has its own traditions, and forms of Sufi practice vary greatly from region to region. It's not surprising, then, to find that Sufi musical forms are wildly distinct and varied; to the newcomer, it might seem quite startling to discover that, for example, qawwali from Pakistan and India is linked spiritually and historically to, say, the whirling dervishes of Turkey or the Wolof-language praise songs from Senegal. However, all these different facets of ritual and performance have the same goal in mind: to lose oneself in remembering God and in drawing closer to the divine.
Hafiz and Rumi broke the national barrier with their poetry, spreading Sufism beyond the Muslim world. It is in accordance with their tradition that Amar and Dima strive to transcend national, religious and racial divisions by using the universal languages of images and music in their film. Such work deserves support from all of us – particularly from those who have criticized Muslims for the past ten years, accusing them of maintaining silence in the face of extremism. One cannot deny that they are speaking, and their message is one of love and unity. Will you listen?

Patricia Marcoccia has contributed to this article.
1-    Dr.  Alan Godlas, University of Georgia
2-    National Geographic Magazine

 For more information about the documentary, visit

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