Writing about fifteen years of practicing Universal Sufism gives me pause. For one, keeping personal matters personal–a tacit cultural feature of this region–seems polite and practical. Especially with spiritual matters, staying mum averts misunderstandings. Another reason I hesitate is that the essence of Sufism, an ancient form of mysticism, is famously difficult to capture in modern context. But since Appalachia Bare has asked me to contribute my understanding of the Sufi path, I’ve chosen to share a few of my experiences, if only to add a bit of savory to our Tennessee spiritual salmagundi.
Competing historical hypotheses about its origin confound Sufi mysticism (tasawwuf), a major factor informing how one discusses it. There’s also the problem of pinning down exactly what a “Sufi” is, since the nature of Sufism allows it to be practiced in myriad ways worldwide. Universal Sufism could be classified as what Aldous Huxley calls a “perennial wisdom philosophy,” a spiritual safe haven for those disenfranchised by mainstream religions. Unfortunately, its worldview always seems to be under suspicion by scholars and orthodox theologians.
I didn’t seek it out specifically; Sufism found me. Then again, you might say I was predisposed toward it. Like a lot of four-year-old kids, especially those escaping family drama, I had a whole cadre of imaginary friends in nature—plants, bugs, rocks, clouds. Just about everything, I found, was conversant, and we came to some fairly mutual understandings. About that time, perhaps due to childhood stress, I also started seeing photisms, shimmering lights visiting my room in the middle of the night who would talk to and protect me. Pretty soon, these apparitions appeared in the daytime, too. Without knowing what I was up to, someone even snapped a picture of me interacting with one of these “friends” at the church’s threshold at my sister’s 1969 wedding.
Although Appalachia is now where I’ve lived longest, back then, home was on the east coast as part of a big family. My older siblings, one by one, left the nest, and soon it was just my parents and I. Across the street from our house was a secret path to a tiny enclave—a strip of crushed shells and sand adjacent to a tremendous sea wall, lined with boulders. Every day at some point, I’d find myself encamped there in the ramparts, role-playing from an interior narrative set among the rocks, the rolling tide, and a lot of horizon stretching past Stamford Harbor to Long Island’s Oyster Bay. These early, numinous experiences of a living, natural world became less common with puberty, but the capacity for them still exists. When I started meditating some years ago, they changed form. These days, I’m more likely to experience prophetic dreams or suddenly hear comforting and repeating combinations of the notes F and F# or a chorus of voices or bells, especially while concentrating on something. What I’m sharing here led me to knock on a certain door, but it took me awhile to realize it had always been open simply because of how I am.
Again, Sufism is an elusive bird. The writer Doris Lessing, herself a Sufi, perhaps said best what Sufis are not:
Perhaps it is easier to say what Sufis are not: not bigots, not claimers of exclusive relations with God; not quietists; not religious in a narrow sense, though all religions are respected as the outer form of an inner truth; not political, while respecting people who genuinely believe in the efficacy of political faith; not to be defined in terms of any one country, race, culture, class. What Sufis are is what you learn while studying with a Sufi: this is a definition of the Sufi Way. But then it is a definition of any Way based on study with an Exemplar, a Guide. (“Sufism: A Way of Seeing”)
There’s an old saying: if you ask Sufis if they’re Christians, the answer is “yes”; if asked if they’re Jewish, again, “yes”; Hindu? “Yes.” Buddhist? “Yes.” And so on. It doesn’t matter because, to Sufis, as Lessing implies, there’s one essential truth at the center of all religious traditions and a prevailing moral ethic to treat others respectfully– whatever the cultural practices are for doing so. As we know from our recent election, people can delude themselves into thinking just about anything is true or right because they believe it is. As a Sufi, one commits to the opposite—to constantly scrutinize the source of one’s assumptions and automatic responses to situations and persons. As daily work, it’s like a perpetual serving of humble pie, not unlike the reflections on moral virtues that Ben Franklin experimented with and wrote about with much dry wit in Chapter IX of his autobiography. As an Enlightenment-era thinker and writer, Franklin took matters of morality into his own two hands, an admirable and humorous adventure, to be sure. But the Sufis got there first.
Sufism is an ancient form of mysticism traditionally associated with Islam and its lineages of devout ascetic scholars intent on taming their egos to the point of achieving ongoing divine union (tawhīd) with Allah–or as the Sufi poets put it, of being a lover united with the Beloved. Remaining in that state of union is a matter of repeatedly polishing the mirror of the heart through study, practices, and reflection (muhasaba), so as to clear one’s perceptions of anything else but God, if only momentarily. Despite how poetic and otherworldly all that sounds, practical everyday Universal Sufism for westernized non-Muslims, along with the mirror polishing, is very much about cultivating love, harmony, and beauty within one’s everyday relationships–not necessarily hippy-dippy commune style but in roll-up-your-sleeves-as-a-citizen-of-the-world style. No one really has to know one is working all the time on something. Franklin would have approved of that part but not the endgame of a Sufi’s inner work: annihilation (fana) of the egoic self in God. Even for Franklin, marketing a false self could translate into some easy money, so why bother messing with a good thing?
Historically, Sufis have included such esteemed Islamic mystics, philosophers, and theologians as Al Ghazali and Ibn ‘Arabi as well as legions of fierce defenders of the downtrodden who confront such mean stuff as bullying, social injustice, imperialism, and genocide. My main Sufi teacher’s aunt was Noor Inayat Khan, codename Madeleine, a UK spy in occupied France during World War II who went to her death at Dachau defending the Allied cause. But like the first rule of Fight Club, one doesn’t really talk about being a Sufi (except with other Sufis) because the point of Sufism has nothing to do with being one; it’s about quietly striving to be accountable for the effects of one’s own behavior in the world, to nurture loving relationships, and to remove personal barriers to an ongoing union with God, even if for ten minutes.
Service to humanity is way of life for Sufis, so they tend to seek out service roles and professions. Many Sufi groups provide humanitarian aid in some of the world’s most impoverished communities. Put another way, a Universal Sufi aspires to have her “head in the heavens and feet on the ground.” That’s not to say there isn’t a sort of monastic aspect to it: even in the west, a Universal Sufi student (murid) spends a lot of daily time meditating, praying, reflecting, and performing practices, which include various breathing exercises, the repetition of sacred words (wazifahs) and an ecstatic remembrance of God (dhikr)–actions that engender elevated states of consciousness and spiritual clarity. Other Sufis teach one how to do this.
No one’s really sure who the first Sufis were. Many scholars maintain that the term “Sufi” points to the simple woolen robe (ṣūf) worn by the earliest devout 8th century Muslims known for their sincerity and purity of heart. Others maintain that the first Sufis were practicing alchemists who hailed from the ancient Khem region of Egypt and took their divine art and spiritual worldviews into several simultaneous directions–into the ancient Greek and Persian mystery schools, into the spiritual traditions of the Levant, and even into China.
I’m not sure it matters. There are Sufis everywhere today of various cultural stamps united by one common element: a sincere and private longing for glimpses of divine union with God in this life, not just the next.
Large groups of Sufis began proliferating in the 12th century and, through their close ties with the Ottoman Empire, spread Sufi philosophy widely into African countries, Southeast Asia, the Balkans, and Spain. During this proliferation, Sufi teachers incorporated local spiritual practices into their teachings so that, from the very beginning, Sufism’s spiritual pluralism allowed it to harmonize easily with local cultural traditions. Unfortunately, even to this day, radical Islamicists—Wahabbists and Salafist jihadists intent on purifying Islam of anything except mainstream beliefs/practices– brutally target Sufis as heretical; Sufism continues to be one of the most marginalized spiritual traditions on the planet, but in the Middle East they also are thought of as an antidote to Islamic extremism.
For Universal Sufis there is no one Sufi playbook. No Commandments. If there’s any doctrine, it is one centered within living life from the heart, dedicated to God, to love, and to serving humanity. More accurately, it’s about all spiritual doctrines, all beliefs, all ways of being that strive to put God front and center, whatever their cultural flavor and without expecting the same priorities from others. Universal Sufism has a lot in common with forms of Christianity with an “inner light” orientation, the kind of stuff that got you kicked out of Puritan New England towns. Sufis, in their quiet way, don’t wait around for the afterlife for divine union; they work within this life to live within a theosis, a view that nothing exists except God. The idea is if God is all there is, the barriers keeping us from experiencing God qua God are of our own making, a problem with human perception that can be overcome.
But as I said, this worldview found me. There was a process to that happening. When my family moved south to Georgia, my close rapport with nature transformed into noetic experiences during Episcopal church services. There the atmosphere was much different than nature but just as magical. The liturgy, full of gravitas, was strangely beautiful, words and images shifting with the rhythms and tones of the liturgical year, something I found quite comforting. Language and its hidden meanings took shape in me, and as I grew, my dreams turned words and symbols into yet another way of communing with the unseen. These experiences led to my first awareness of an inner life. But all this was not your ready-for-primetime Christianity, and any sharing of these experiences with my parents, or anyone else, was quickly met with eye rolls and ridicule. Until I read William James’s The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902) many years later, I had no way of processing and understanding those ineffable experiences in nature and church.
Perhaps most of all, Sufism is about finding out who one really is, the punchline being that it’s always an inner journey, not so much a matter of outer pursuits. Central to its practice is a clear experiential encounter with the divinity of one’s being and its inseparability from God, the current of love pervading all forms of life. In Sufism, there is a direct relationship between this current and sound. Sufi teacher Hazrat Inayat Khan writes, “Before its incarnation the soul is sound. It is for this reason that we love sound” (The Mysticism of Sound and Music).
But let’s back up a little. There is a particular initiating moment in my story, and it happens to deal with words and their sounds. One day as an eighteen-year-old journalism major, I found myself listening from the back of the room to my English professor introducing a poem of the English Romantics. It could have been “Tintern Abbey,” I’m not sure, but for some reason the spoken poem was suddenly (and strangely) a transmission, a download. The professor’s voice merged with and carried the imagery in such a way that I was overtaken by an unseen force. Accompanying this epiphany smack in the middle of literature class, I had what can only be described as an out-of-body experience: my heartbeat quickened and the back of my head felt opened by unseen hands. Although very much in the room absorbing it all, my consciousness now floated above, as witness. This first total body response to sound meeting essence mystified me; it’s happened countless times since then, including years later in an auditorium when I heard my now-husband recite lines from a lecture about Plato’s Phaedrus on the transmigration of souls.
I immediately knew I wanted a date with this guy.
Well, that was it. I changed my major to English and dove headlong into poetry and ideas and philosophy. And soon, even as a teen, I started noticing a pattern of interconnected voices and ideas that, whenever I encountered them, triggered those same bodily sensations—like I had plugged into THE cosmic radio station.
I couldn’t get enough of tapping into this frequency, so I started reading voraciously. Foundational writers in the western tradition demonstrated it–Goethe, those English Romantics, Emerson, Whitman, Yeats, Rilke, Stevens. Modern ones did, too, especially women writers such as Annie Dillard and Mary Oliver. There was something very much alive and intuitive connecting their words and perceptions, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. Their images gained power when voiced. Years later, I read Robert Bly’s take on what I was detecting in their writing, which he called the ability to write with “a twofold consciousness.” That’s about the best explanation I’ve found, and it still falls short. All I knew then is that when I read certain authors, I immediately recognized them as part of the same lineage, one united with a larger reality and consciousness that interpenetrated this quotidian one.
My first “spiritual” teacher arrived simultaneous to the literary discoveries. Anything but spiritual and much older, he drew me at nineteen into a long and difficult entanglement, a liaison lasting years that would, these days, set off all the #MeToo sirens. The sum of it was traumatizing, but there were moments of illumination . . .
Check back Thursday for Part 2 of Qudsiyah’s faith journey, “Caravansary of Sound and Light: Universal Sufism.”
Qudsiyah Gray is a college professor in East Tennessee and a student and teacher in the Inayati lineage of Universal Sufism.
**Featured image “Caravansary” by Solayman Haque on Pixabay