In the centuries following the death of Muhammad, the Arabian peninsula was altered dramatically. The nomadic tribes, whose previous relationships had been mercurial and often violent, had become unified in a great empire, intended (at least by the devout) to reflect the great unity of Allah. Yet there were numerous difficulties in governing such a vast and culturally diverse area, not least of which was managing political power in accordance with Islam.
This focus on the material realities, practical considerations, and legalistic conundrums, led some Muslims to move away from mainstream Islam and focus more on the internal aspects of tawhid (God’s unity); these were the Sufis.
The name ‘Sufi’ itself is possibly derived from the Arabic word for wool (suf), in reference to the coarse wool clothing that early Muslim ascetics wore. Their approach aimed to unify the exterior shari’a (guidelines for living) with an internal experience of the divine truth (haqiqa) of Islam, by following a unique path (tariqa) of spiritual focus.
These spiritual techniques, in common with many other mystical traditions, included postures and breathing exercises, as well as recitation of the names of God. These were all intended to bring about a shift in consciousness that hinged on constant remembrance (dhikr) of Allah.
By taking God’s name into their heart through repetition of phrases such as La ilaha ilallah and Allahu Akbar, Sufis (and mainstream Muslims) aim to recognise their relationship to their creator; a relationship both of unity and also profound distinction. In some ways, this approach mirrors the wearing of tefillin by Jews, who follow the commandment to “…put these words of mine on your heart and on your soul…” (Deuteronomy 11:18) as an act of remembrance. The repetition of a word or phrase is also found in Hindu and Buddhist traditions, where it is called a mantra.
Some Sufis believe that to fail to recognise their fundamental relationship to God is to commit shirk, the sin of idolatry, as it presumes any causal agent sufficient in itself. Huston Smith, writing in The World’s Religions: Our Great Wisdom Traditions, uses the example of assuming that a lightbulb is illuminated by electricity: this assessment, without reference to the foundation of all existence, denies by omission the supremacy of Allah. Therefore dhikr helps to guide one through life, as a plant tilts its leaves toward the sun, so the individual re-aligns themself to Allah.
However, dedicated ascetics, such as al-Hallaj in the early 10th century, took this practice further. Al-Hallaj claimed to discover a profound sense of unity with Allah, similar to the merging of Atman and Brahman in Vedanta Hinduism, and Meister Eckhart’s mystical claim of the unity of the soul with God. Much like Jesus, he claimed to be al-Haqq (the Truth), and much like Jesus, he was executed after his activity became politically inconvenient.
The mystic claims of Sufis, which emerge from their dhikr, are generally interpreted in a poetic or metaphorical sense, but Sufi activities are not without controversy in the Islamic world, and they have faced persecution and violence over the years. Since the supremacy of Allah is one of the central components of the Muslim faith (and the first of the Five Pillars), it can sometimes be difficult to reconcile tawhid (Allah’s unity, distinct from creation) with the borderline pantheistic viewpoints of some Sufi mystics. Nevertheless, their passionate return to consciousness of Allah serves as inspiration for many Muslims around the world.