Sufism is as old as humanity. Traditionally, however, Sufism has been associated with Islam. Although Sufi saints existed even before Prophet Muhammad, but before the Prophet they were not called Sufis. It was only after a few centuries that they were called Sufis. According to Qushayri (988 AD) and some other scholars like Shihabuddin Suhrawardi, the term ‘Sufi’ was first used at the end of second century Hijri i.e. in the early ninth century AD. The term Sufi did not find a mention either in the Sihah-i-Sittah compiled in the 9th and 10th century AD or in the Arabic dictionary, the Qamus compiled in the early 15th century AD.
Prophet Muhammad is said to have received a two-fold revelation. One, the knowledge of the Absolute Truth, in his heart and the other that is embodied in the content of holy Qur’an. While the Qur’an was conferred the status of the Holy Book to govern the conduct of the Muslims, the transmission of knowledge of the Absolute Truth in the heart of Prophet Muhammad was meant only for a few, from heart-to-heart, through the line of succession i.e. from the Master to the disciple and so on. All the Sufi tariqats (different Sufi Orders), therefore, trace their origin in Prophet Muhammad.
It is believed that a large number of prophets of God preceded Prophet Muhammad. In Islamic traditions, the number of prophets is put at 124,000 and that of messengers of God at 313. The early prophets were monotheists and they brought the message of the one true God. They wished to reform the society and opposed idolatry. The pre-Islamic monotheists are believed to exist widely amongst Arab tribes from about the fifth century AD. They did not believe in idol worship and openly disapproved of idolatry and desired to restore the religion of Abraham. They were the seekers of Truth, who engaged themselves in the search of Truth and believed in the unity of the Supreme Being. They laid a lot of stress on one’s own conduct; living a moral life; compassionate and sympathetic behaviour with others, especially with those in need; on taking care of widows and orphans and helping the poor and sick. These ideals had their influence on Islam and some of these basic concepts of Islam had already started finding acceptance by the learned and thoughtful people. Some of the Prophet’s companions including his relatives were also deeply influenced by such thoughts.
Sufism, to its followers meant to acquire the inner knowledge, the enlightenment that could enable them to realise the Truth, which is also the underlying objective of all the religions. This being central to all religions, the Sufi fundamentals existed in all religions and, therefore, Sufism travelled beyond the borders of religion. The essential of Sufism found an expression in all societies trying to achieve perfection. Mahatma Radha Mohan Lalji used to say that not all the occult knowledge is given out at one time. As the humanity progresses, more and more knowledge is received. It is also stated in the Qur’an (15:21), ‘We possess the treasuries of everything but We bring it down only in a known quantity.’ It is also related to Prophet Muhammad that he said that the Qur’an contains in it the knowledge of the ancients and the moderns.
The effort of Prophet Muhammad was to unite the Arabian tribes, make them believe in one God, reform them and to give them a religion adapted to their own requirements. In order to evolve them as a perfect society, they were asked to follow the Qur’an. The essential ingredients of Sufism are, therefore, found in abundance in the Qur’an. The mystical tendencies exhibited by some of Prophet Muhammad’s companions and friends also find justification and support from the Qur’an. The tendency of renunciation of worldly pleasures and intense fear of God and His judgments was profoundly manifested in the Sufism of these early Muslims.
The very early period of Islam witnessed it as a religion of reconciliation and concord with people being gently persuaded rather than being coerced into it. However, the infidelity and impious rule of the Umayyad immediately following the first four caliphs, created such political and social conditions that many Muslims became disgusted and adopted to asceticism and a life of seclusion to seek peace of soul. Towards the end of the first century Hijri, there were many who moved beyond the life of ascetics and seclusion to contemplation, to vision and to ecstasy. The life of austerity and poverty, which was hitherto conceived essential for gaining access to paradise, came to be reconciled as an expression of devotion to God. Not only that, gradually the focus shifted from material wealth to the lack of desire for possession i.e. a true detachment from all worldly things. Most of them were, however, orthodox Muslims in their beliefs and practices. They had yet not distinguished spirituality from the religion and laid great emphasis on the teachings of Qur’an and Traditions.
The Sufis in the period immediately after Prophet Muhammad spent their lives in fasting and in observing the rules of Sharia (the Islamic code of conduct), giving up the worldly pleasures-wealth, fame, feasts and women-and spent their time in solitude away from the society, seeking anonymity, hunger and celibacy. They usually lived on scanty food and wore little clothes. They were more concerned with the punishments and rewards for the infidels and the believers. In the ninth century AD, however, the Sufis recognized that spiritual progress couldn’t be achieved by following Sharia alone. It was necessary for guiding their conduct, but not enough. They started adopting various spiritual practices over and above Sharia, known as Tariqat (the path). They considered following Shariat and Tariqat essential to reach the Haqiqat (the Truth).
The early caliphs conquered large areas, accumulated lot of wealth and became supreme political powers of their time. This resulted in many ancient centers of learning and particularly the traditional schools of mystical teaching also falling under their stronghold. Buddhism by that time was firmly rooted in the Central Asia that had come under the empire of Islam together with Northwest India.
The external contacts had their impact on various Sufi practices. They adopted and evolved a variety of practices (apparently different from the ritual prayers) to enhance their spiritual experiences and to attain the state of ecstasy. Some of the people, while still remaining within the Islamic fold, started following an unorthodox way of life, as a result of which the orthodox Muslims considered them as being ‘outside the law’. These people started to believe that for the realisation of the Truth, it was not necessary to conform to a strict religious discipline. They believed more in the internal practices than observing outer rituals of offering prayers, observing fasts etc. One could perform a pilgrimage without taking a step out of the house. It is said that the great Sufi Master Bayazid while about to proceed for the hajj pilgrimage met an old man who said to him, ‘Circumambulate around me seven times. It is the same as going around the Kaaba and will save you time and trouble’. Bayazid complied with it and returned home. For them the real idolatry was blind adherence to the rituals. Many of the Sufis, therefore, did not stick to the Sharia and adopted the radical rules of their own.
This evolution of Sufi thinking was greatly influenced by many factors including emergence of Mutazilis-a rationalist group within Islam, Batinis-an esoteric group, Bisheriyas-an antinomian group; christological sects like the Gnostics and Manicheans and the mystical groups like the Hermetics and Neoplatonists. Sufi mystics are reported to be visiting monasteries of Christian monks, studying their devotional literature and having discussions with them on spiritual aspects. Many Sufis claimed their teachings were known even before the advent of Islam. They believed that these were received and handed down from antiquity through various saints and prophets in the form of knowledge transmitted from heart-to-heart.
The Sufis have been assimilating in themselves the best of various practices and thoughts in order to achieve the perfection. It is the ancient wisdom. According to Dr. S.S.Radhakrishnan, ‘Wisdom is not to be confused with theoretical learning, or correct beliefs, for ignorance is not an intellectual error. It is spiritual blindness. To remove it we must cleanse the soul of its defilement and kindle the spiritual vision.’ For the revelation of wisdom one needs to purify his heart and sacrifice his ego.
Mahatma Radha Mohan Lalji has said that, ‘the way of training of Sufis is not exclusive to them alone; in the Srimadbhagwadgita it is described in a similar way. Except that the Sufis developed a system of tavajjoh (transmission of spiritual energy from heart to heart by focusing one’s attention), which is the only difference.’
In this context it is important to mention that Lord Sri Krishna states in Chapter 4 (Shloka1 and 2) of the Srimadbhagwadgita that ‘this knowledge was given in the past to Vivaswan. From Vivaswan, it passed on to Manu and Manu passed it on to Ikshwaku. This knowledge thus passed on in succession from one to another, but was lost in oblivion with the passage of time.’ The great Sufi Master of the Naqshbandi Order, Hajrat Maulana Shah Fazl Ahmad Khan (19th–20th Century AD) has said that this occult science of Sufi Saints in fact belonged to the ancient Hindu saints, which was lost in oblivion by them and is being now reintroduced amongst them.’
This ancient wisdom is the wisdom of the men who have realised the Truth. In the Srimadbhagwadgita Lord Sri Krishna reveals this ancient wisdom in the form of Sankhyayoga, Buddhiyoga and Karmayoga, the essence of which is that every one who has been born will have to die one day but the soul is eternal. The changes in the body do not mean changes in the soul. For a wise man pain and pleasure, loss and gain, victory and defeat are the same. He remains unperplexed in these. One, however, should not neglect his duty, as not performing one’s duty is a sin. When there is a struggle between the right and the wrong, one who stands away out of false sentimentality or cowardice commits a sin. The path of selfless action is the right path in which there is neither loss of effort nor any fear of adverse result. One has to engage in one’s duty with steadiness of mind. Performance of rituals for fulfillment of desires does not lead one to the enlightenment. One needs to perform his duty without seeking its fruits, with the evenness of mind in success or failure. Such an action releases one from the bond of birth and leads him to the blissful supreme state. One, whose mind has crossed the mire of delusion, grows indifferent to theoretical knowledge and attains insight, the wisdom.
One, who has overcome attachment, who neither rejoices in meeting with the good nor recoils in meeting with the evil, is said to have attained stability of mind. Dwelling on objects of senses produces attachment; attachment springs desires and desires result in anger. Anger in turn causes loss of reason and thereby complete ruin. The mind, therefore, needs to be disciplined to attain the purity of spirit, which ends all sorrows. Cessation of all desires, sacrifice of ego and giving away attachments results in peace and tranquility of mind. With the purity of mind, the soul experiences self-realisation and attains the Divine bliss.
There are two ways of self-realisation-one through the path of knowledge (renunciation) and the other through the path of action. Abstaining from action, however, does not give freedom from action. Nor by mere renunciation can one attain perfection. Besides no being can live without action even for a moment, as compelled by the nature everyone is driven to action. One, who outwardly restrains the organ of senses and abstains from action but dwells in mind is a hypocrite and deludes himself. On the other hand, one, who controls the organs of senses and action by the mind and performs his duty with a detached mind, is a superior being. By desisting from duty one cannot even maintain his body. One, who does not perform his duty, lives his life in vain. However, one, who is absorbed in the Self and takes delight and is contended with the Self, has no duty left for him. He has no selfish interest in things done or in things left undone. By performing one’s duty selflessly, one attains the Supreme.
The conduct of great persons sets an example for the others. If they do not perform their duties, the others would imitate them and this would result in the ruin of the world. Knowledge is covered by the insatiable fire in the form of desires, which is the eternal enemy of the wise. Desire is never satisfied by fulfillment. One, therefore, needs to control his mind by reason. The senses are greater than the body; mind is greater than the senses and intellect is greater than the mind. The Self is, however, beyond the intellect. One, who has realised the Self and controlled his ego becomes truly invincible. The one whose actions are free from desires attains freedom from action, as all his actions are burnt by the fire of wisdom.
One in quest of knowledge should receive it by humble reverence and service from the man of wisdom (the Master), who have realised the Truth. This real knowledge reduces all actions to ashes, as the blazing fire reduces the fuel to ashes. One attains the tranquility of mind gradually through practice and having established the mind in God, one should restrain it from all other objects and should bring it back to the concentration on God. One, who so unites with the all-Pervading Consciousness, sees the God present in all beings and all beings existing in the God. Such a person is greater than the man of action, knowledge or austerities. He is truly a realised man.
It is important to mention that this wisdom is revealed not as a theoretical knowledge but was a transmission from Lord Sri Krishna to Arjun from heart-to-heart. This revelation took place in the battlefield, where undoubtedly there was no time at the disposal of both Lord Sri Krishna and Arjun to enter into any intellectual discourse at the physical plane. This wisdom is also not a sermon of book-knowledge for a man to sit in the comfort of his house and to contemplate on it and thereby achieve the understanding or the realisation. Lord Sri Krishna asks Arjun to act in one of the most difficult situations of fighting against one’s own kith and kin, leaving his self behind and with perfection. This exactly is the Sufi way, to live conciously and learn through practice and participation and through one’s own experience. It is a positive way of living in action and not that of an idle.
The Sufis thus are ancient spiritual freemasons and Sufism is very much older than Islam and even Buddhism. It took on the terminology of Islam but this was due to the customs and religion of the country where it was allowed to flourish; that is in Arabia and later in Persia.