Sufism is a mystical path of love that leads to the experience of divine oneness, union with God. On the Sufi path the wayfarer is guided from the illusion of the ego, our sense of a separate self, to the reality that lover and Beloved are one. This is love’s truth that is awakened within the heart.
The Beginnings of Sufi Masters
In the early days of Sufism, which developed under Islam, very little was written down; there were just luminaries, saints, friends of God, walî, who lived their own spiritual passion, their deepest devotion. Gradually, small groups of Sufis gathered around their teacher, or sheikh, and the sayings of these teachers began to be collected—such as those of the ninth-century Bâyezîd Bistâmî, a God intoxicated mystic who became known for his ecstatic utterances of divine union, “Glory be to me! How great is my glory!” and “Under my garments there is nothing but God.” He achieved this state of absolute oneness through severe self-mortification and austerity, purging himself of himself until nothing remained.
Sufi Master #1: al-Junayd
In contrast to the ecstatic nature of Bâyezîd, the ninth-century master al-Junayd advocated a path of sobriety and the integration of Sufism into ordinary life. Al-Junayd lived in Baghdad, the religious and spiritual center of the time, and later Sufis were deeply in influenced by his teachings on love, unification, and the surrender of individual will to the will of God. Al-Junayd stressed constant self-purification and struggle, which lead to the passing away of the attributes of the lover as “the qualities of the Beloved replace the qualities of the lover.” Al-Junayd describes how the stage of annihilation of the self, fanâ, leads to baqâ, the unitive life in God in which the devotee just fulfills the will of God: “It is a stage where the devotee has achieved the true realization of the Oneness of God in true proximity to Him. He is lost to sense and action because God fulfills in him what He hath willed of him.”
Sufi Master #2: Ibn ‘Arabî
By the beginning of the twelfth century, these sayings of Sufi saints began to form a more detailed description of the mystical path. And then, in the second half of the twelfth century, one of the greatest exponents of Sufi mystical theory, Ibn ‘Arabî, was born in Andalusia, Spain, a center of cultural and religious diversity and freedom unique at the time. He became known in Sufi circles as the Greatest Master. Ibn ‘Arabî had his first mystical experiences, his first immersion in the oneness of God, when he was a young man. He left Spain and travelled throughout the Middle East, before finally settling in Damascus, where he died aged seventy five. He wrote over four hundred books, but at the core of his mystical teaching is the idea of the unity of being: that everything is one and everything is a part of God. Everything is God; He is the cause of everything, the essence of everything, and the substance of everything. There is no other existence than the Divine. Ibn ‘Arabî writes:
When the mystery—of realizing that the mystic is one with the Divine—is revealed to you, you will understand that you are no other than God and that you have continued and will continue…. Then you will see all your actions to be His actions and your essence to be His essence…. there is nothing except His Face “then, whithersoever you turn, there is the Face of God.”
Ibn ‘Arabî became known as the “pole of knowledge” for the tremendous mystical understanding and insights he left behind. For example, he wrote about the importance of the imagination as a way of transcending the physical world and gaining access to the inner symbolic world. In recent years this knowledge of his has been rediscovered and forms the basis of revaluing this faculty of the imagination, a faculty that has been sadly rejected by our belief in rationalism.
Sufi Master #3: Jalâluddîn Rûmî
Then, four years after Ibn ‘Arabî’s death in 1240, a meeting took place that was to inspire some of the world’s greatest writings on mystical love. A theology professor was walking home from school when he met a ragged dervish. The professor was Jalâluddîn Rûmî and the dervish, Shams-i Tabrîz. According to one story, Shams looked at the pile of books Rumi was carrying, and they burst into flames, symbolizing the fire of love that would take Rumi from the world of book knowledge into the passion of divine intoxication.
The piercing glance of Shams had awakened in the theology professor a fire that could only be satisfied with union—with the ecstatic loss of the self in the presence of the Beloved. And Rûmî knew how precious is this fire, this burning within the heart:
It is burning of the heart I want; this burning which is everything,
More precious than a worldly empire, because it calls God secretly, in the night.
Divine love is a fire that destroys us, that burns away the ego and all sense of our self. This is the traditional path of fanâ, the annihilation of the ego through the power of love. The Sufi knows this dark side of love. Love may be sweet and tender, intoxicating and blissful. But it is also painful and cruel, cutting away the attachments that bind us to this world and veil us from our Beloved. This is why the Sufi traditionally says, “Keep away, keep away from the lane of love,” because they know it is a one-way street that leads to the death of the ego.
Rûmî knew this dark side of love, its sweet poison, how it empties the human being and fills him with the wine of love:
Love is here like the blood in my veins and skin
He has annihilated me and filled me only with Him
His fire has penetrated all the atoms of my body
Of “me” only my name remains; the rest is Him.
Rûmî became the poet of lovers, expressing the crazy passion of the soul’s desire for God. He knew that lovers are madmen, gamblers, fools prepared to suffer the deepest devastation for their invisible Beloved. He spoke of the mystery that draws us into this burning, blissful obliteration:
Love is a madman, working his wild schemes, tearing off his clothes, running through the mountains, drinking poison and now quietly choosing annihilation.
Rûmî’s words, spoken centuries ago, ring in the soul of every lover, every wayfarer who seeks to follow this passion that is in the innermost of our being, the pathway in the soul that leads back to the Beloved.
That Rûmî is the world’s most popular poet today speaks of the need we have to hear these stories of divine love, to hear from a master of love how the heart can sing, cry, and burn with passion for God. Our culture may bombard us with material values, but there is an inward hunger for what is real—for a love affair that belongs to the soul and not to the personality. Rûmî covers the spectrum of divine love: the haunting cry of the reed flute suffering separation from the reed bed, the laughter of lovers, the need to be naked, how “the mystic dances in the sun, hearing music others don’t.” With the language of love he tells us of the mystery of things, a mystery so lacking in our contemporary world. He reminds us of an unlived sorrow and an uncontainable joy, of the limitless horizon of the heart and the need for our heart’s true Friend.
From the early Sufi masters who spoke of their experience of union with God was born the greatest mystical literature of love—stories of the heart’s sorrow and its longing for union, and the truth of this divine oneness that underlies everything in existence. The Sufi master al-Junayd, Ibn ‘Arabî, and Rûmî form poles of a living tradition of mystical literature that belong to our heritage—the love affair of the soul and the truth of the heart that can see behind the veils of illusion and reveal the divine oneness that belongs to all of life.
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