As the anniversary of the September 11th attacks approach I thought it would be fitting to write about my understandings of Islamic Spirtuality and Islam. The countless examples of violence from Islamic extremism in the past decade, it has forced both Muslims and non-Muslims to deeply question what Islam is and what it teaches. I think that this has actually created a positive benefit for those willing to deeply study the subject from people who truly understand the religion. But more importantly it requires going beyond one's preconceived notions about Islam in order to find the truth. I have decided to share this essay with my family and friends and in attempt to convey my understanding of Islam and Tassuwuf.
I have been studying Tasawwuf for about seven years and I have found it to be an incredibly fulfilling and enriching spiritual journey. During this time I have deeply pondered and explored the relationship between Tasawwuf and Islam. Academically one could classify various groups that refer to themselves as "Mutassawufen" ranging from Islamic Spirituality to non-Islamic Spirituality or in other words groups that have little to no affiliation with Islamic tenants and values. In the earliest part of my journey I would even say that I was dubious towards traditional Islam, given the fact that most my initial impression of Islam came from the western media which tended to portray it as a violent and oppressive religion. In my studies however, I have come to believe that Islam is actually a peaceful religion when practiced and understood properly. Also I have come to learn that Tassawuf is in fact the inner essence of Islam and in fact the two are inseparable. My Mutassawufen teacher has said that Islam is like the bark of the tree, and Tassawuf is like the sap. The bark "outer teachings" protects the sap or the "inner essence" of the faith.
I believe that Tassawuf is intrinsically a part of what makes Islam a healthy and dynamic faith and I would personally say that the horrors that we see committed in the world today in the name of Islam are largely an effect of the Islamic faith having forgotten the inner principles of Islamic Spirituality. In fact many of the Wahhabi movements have declared Tassawuf to be a heretical innovation of the faith. Not surprisingly, it's the radical fringes of these same movements that end up turning into ISIS or other Islamic terrorist groups. This is why I feel it is of the highest of importance to revive the integral Tassawuf teachings to bring Islam back into balance.
So what then is Islam?
To start I would like to explain the etymology of the word Islam. For example you have probably heard the Muslim greeting "Asalaam Alaikum" which means, "Peace be upon you." So the word Salaam means "peace" in Arabic. "As-Salaam ", "The Peaceful" is also one of the 99 Names of God in Islam. So now when we look at the word "Is-lam" we can see it is partly derived from the word for peace "salaam." Traditionally Islam has been translated as "Surrender". However when you extract the deeper meaning from the etymology you can see that Islam really means, "The Peace that Comes through Surrendering To God." So from its essence you can see the word Islam is actually about peace. The idea here is that when one lives a life that is in harmony with divine will, the natural state of being that results is peace. Hamza Yusuf, an American Islamic scholar pointed out that ironically, all of these people advocating for forming an "Islamic State", are not themselves in a state of" Islam" or "inner peace."
So then what then is Tassawuf?
Within Islamic Theology there are various sciences, such as the science of "fiqh" or Islamic Jurisprudence. There is also the science of aqeeda or belief which uses rational proofs and argumentation to derive understanding as to the nature of God. Tassawuf then can be seen as one of the sciences within Islam, and those who understand what it is would agree it is the most important science. Tassawuf is the science of spiritual excellence or in other words it is a spiritual discipline for removing from the blameworthy qualities of the ego, such as arrogance, envy, anger, greed, stinginess etc from one's character. It is a method of purifying one's inner most intentions to seek to only please Allah or God. Unlike the other disciplines within Islam, Tassawuf is a path of tasting and therefore it cannot be learnt in a book but rather it must be implemented and experienced within one's life.
The Goal of Tassawuf
The goal of Tassawuf is to reach a spiritual state of Union with God known as "Fana" or "Annihilation". In this sense annihilation means the annihilation of one's egoic consciousness into the supreme divine consciousness . This is achieved through the purification of one's inner most heart of the aforementioned blameworthy egoic qualities. It is said within the Islamic tradition that the heart of the believer is the "Throne of Allah". So Allah can only really be found through journeying through ones innermost heart where the aspiring seeker can experience a state of union with God. It is also said there are 70,000 veils between the human being and God and it is through the purification of these veils that one begins to experience the divine. During these spiritual tastings, one can travel from intellectual understandings of God as being Merciful, Peaceful, Loving, etc, to actually experiencing these qualities of God within the depths of one's soul. It is said that there is a huge difference between knowing about God and Knowing God. It is the latter that the Sufi is interested in.
Understanding the Tenants of Islam
Although the topic of understanding the tenants of Islam is far to vast to be covered in this essay, what I can say is that it absolutely clear that Islam forbids killing civilians, and it sets very strict rules for engaging in warfare. According to BBC website on Islam there are only 4 valid reasons for war in Islam: 1. Islam allows war in self-defense (Qur'an 22:39), 2. to defend Islam (rather than to spread it), 3. to protect those who have been removed from their homes by force because they are Muslims (Qur'an 22:40), and 4. to protect the innocent who are being oppressed (Qur'an 4:75).
So you can see that the Islamic Terrorist groups do not have any legitimacy in their use of violence especially against civilians. Also, since suicide is prohibited in Islam, that also rules out suicide bombing. The truth is that human beings have been using religion or any other doctrine such as communism or fascism to justify horrific crimes against humanity. Groups ISIS in this sense are no different. If you want a more in depth understanding of where ISIS came from I highly recommend the Huffington Post article in footnote 1 called "You Can't Understand ISIS If You Don't Know the History of Wahhabism in Saudi Arabia" by Alistair Crooke.
Since people antagonistic towards Islam love to cherry pick quotes from the Quran that exemplify Islam as being violent, I too shall pick a quote from the Quran clearly demonstrate the opposite:
"Because of that, We decreed upon the Children of Israel that whoever kills a soul unless for a soul or for corruption [done] in the land - it is as if he had slain mankind entirely. And whoever saves one - it is as if he had saved mankind entirely." (Quran 5:32)
The second quote can be found almost verbatim in the Jewish text the Talmud.
"Whoever destroys a soul, it is considered as if he destroyed an entire world. And whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world." — Mishnah Sanhedrin4:9; Yerushalmi Talmud, Tractate Sanhedrin 37a.
In conclusion I feel a deep calling to help heal the Islamic faith by helping to return the understanding of Tassawuf both to Muslims and non-Muslims. Initially embarking on the Tassawuf path, I resisted referring to myself as being a Muslim for fear of being mis-understood and labeled as something which represents the opposite of what I believe in. I however feel that as part of my responsibility as one who practices this faith is to refer to myself as Muslim and to do the best to represent what I believe that to mean: one who has peacefully surrendered to God.