Non-duality and Sufism

It is one of the glories of Sufism that it has never lost sight of the universality of ultimate Truth. It has not fallen into a narrow fanaticism. Jalaluddin Rumi tells in his Mathnawi how four comrades were once given a dirhem to spend between them. One of them, a Persian, said: ‘I will spend this on angur.’ The second, who was an Arab, said: ‘No, I want inab not angur.’ The third was a Turk and he said: ‘This money is mine. I don’t want inab. I want uzum.’ The fourth, a Greek, said: ‘Stop this talk. I want istafil.’ At last they were persuaded by a wise man to desist from their bickering. He pointed out that they were all calling in their own languages for a bunch of grapes. So they bought a dirhem’s worth of grapes between them and enjoyed them together.

The Truth and its realisation is like the grapes to the practising Sufis, who see the reality beyond the name, and who live the truth of the saying:

In the name of Him who has no name but who responds to whatever name you choose to call Him by.

Mohammed passed on the inner mystical teachings in private to his close disciples as well as laying the foundations of the outward creed of Islam and the procedures of public worship. These teachings were handed down through Ali, Abu Bakr and others who, in accordance with tradition, disclosed them to suitably qualified pupils who were deemed worthy of instruction. Many times in the Mathnawi, Jalaluddin Rumi begins to speak of these teachings and breaks off with the explanation that it is not permitted to say more. The truth is available to all sincere seekers who are prepared to undergo the necessary discipline under a teacher (Pir, Sheikh, or Murshid). In the same way, the masterpieces in the National Gallery can be seen by any visitor interested enough to go inside, but they are not hung at street corners to be subjected to dust and damage.

These teachings affirm the essential identity of the individual soul and God, and their seed can be traced back to verses in the Quran such as:

Wherever ye turn, there is the face of Allah.

If my servant ask thee about Me, lo, I am near! We (God) are nearer to man than his neck-vein.

And in the earth are signs to those of real faith And in yourselves. What! do ye not see?

Just as St Francis returned to the Christian ideal of poverty and renunciation, the Sufis broke loose from pomp and ceremonial, and looked within themselves for religious inspiration. Shri Shankara in the similar circumstances of his day had taken a leading part in urging that the living spirit of religion is not to be found in the mechanical repetition of symbolic rituals. So also the Sufis looked back to the verse of the Quran:

Righteousness does not consist in turning to the East or West.

Rumi wrote:

The true mosque is built in a pure and holy heart. There let all men worship God, for He dwells there and not in a mosque of stone.

The first Sufis were little concerned with constructing a self-consistent metaphysic, although this was achieved later with outstanding success by al-Ghazali. Sufism is intensely practical. It springs, says Junayd of Baghdad,

not from disputation, but from hunger and taking leave of the world, breaking familiar ties and renouncing what men deem good.

It flowered from the desire to discover God within one’s own soul. Abu Yazid (Bayazid) of Bistam, a celebrated early Sufi who extolled the path of complete submergence of the individuality in the will of God (Fana) cried:

Thirty years the high God was my mirror: now I am my own mirror.

And again:

I went from God to God until they cried from me in me: ‘O Thou I’.

In his book The Mystics of Islam, Professor Nicholson quotes a number of definitions of Sufism by Sufi teachers, among which are the following:

Sufism is to apprehend the Divine Realities.
Sufism is wholly self-discipline.
Sufism is to possess nothing and to be possessed by nothing.
Sufism is this—that God should make thee die to thyself and should make thee live in Him.
Sufism is control of the faculties and observance of the breaths.
It is Sufism to put away what thou hast in thy head, to give what thou hast in thy hand, and not to recoil from whatsoever befalls thee.
To be a Sufi means to abide continuously in God and to live at peace with men. Whoever abides and deals rightly with men, treating them with unfailing kindness, is a Sufi.

Sufis regard themselves as travellers on the path to the Rose-Garden of union with God. On this journey one passes through the successive ‘stations’ of Repentance, Abstinence, Renunciation, Poverty, Patience, Trust in God and Acquiescence in the will of God. The early part of the journey lies through the country of feelings and emotions, but later the landscape changes to the uplands of meditation and inner intuition.

In order to tread the path with any hope of success, Sufis depend on the guidance of the teacher (Pir). Small Sufi groups centred round a teacher were common before AD 1100 and from them arose in the course of time the formal orders of Dervishes, each with their fixed ‘rule’, something like the religious orders of Christianity. Dervish means ‘beggar’ and several of the orders, of which there were eventually as many as 32, were in practice mendicant. But the sense of the word was rather that the dervish was ‘poor’ because he had emptied his heart of all desires for wealth, power and other seeming advantages offered by the world. One of the most famous orders of dervishes, the Maulavis or dancing dervishes, was founded by Jalaluddin Rumi, of whom it is recorded that:

when he was drowned in the ocean of Love, he used to take hold of a pillar in his house and set himself turning round it.

The Sufis use the methods of meditation, japa (repetition of a sacred name or mantram) and kirtana (repetition accompanied by dancing or swaying), as a means of transcending body- consciousness and releasing the mind upward into the region of the Spirit. Essential to successful meditation, they insist, is to create a state of calmness and relaxation in the mind which is yet not sleep but more a sort of positive expectancy. Nuri was seen meditating for hours at a time in perfect relaxation without moving a muscle. When asked about it, he said he had learned the secret by watching a cat in front of a mousehole.

Recollection (dhikr) has an important place among the practices. Dhikr is primarily repeating the name of God (Allah) or a mantram ‘until the words come forth from the lips even when asleep’. According to al-Ghazali, there are three stages of dhikr; the first is when the words are said with the tongue only, the second is when the heart is identified with the words but there are still distractions, and the third is when the words take complete possession of the heart. Finally, he says, dhikr itself disappears and that is the end sought. Professor Nicholson quotes an interesting passage from al-Ghazali on dhikr:

Let one reduce the heart to a state in which the existence of anything and its non-existence are the same. Sitting alone, one should limit the religious duties to what is absolutely necessary… One should then see to it that nothing save God most High enters the mind. While seated in solitude, do not cease saying continuously with the tongue ‘Allah, Allah’, keeping one’s thought on it. At last, one will reach a state when the motion of the tongue will cease, and it will seem as if the word flowed from it… Still persevere until the form of the word, its letters and shape, is removed from the heart, and there remains the idea alone, as though clinging to the heart, inseparable from it. So far, all is dependent on one’s will and choice; but to bring the mercy of God does not stand in one’s will or choice. [The devotee] is now laid bare to the breathings of that mercy, and nothing remains but to await what God will open, as God has, after this manner, to prophets and saints. If we follow the above course, we may be sure that the light of the Real will shine out in our heart.

The same path is not necessarily prescribed for all. It depends on the make-up of the personality. The elements defined by Yoga as knowledge (jnana), devotion (bhakti) and service (karma), are given more or less prominence. Rabia of Basrah typified the devotional path of dependence on God. Intensely personal and poetical, borrowing expressions of the mystical states from the vocabulary of wine and love, she was an embodiment of the dying to self and living in God. A saying of Rabia is:

O God, if I worship Thee in fear of hell, burn me in hell, and if I worship Thee in hope of Paradise, exclude me from Paradise. But if I worship Thee for thine own sake, withhold not Thy everlasting beauty.

One of the earliest Sufis, Dhul Nun the Egyptian, gave a doctrine of knowledge (ma’rifat) very similar to the teaching of Shri Shankara, as two short examples will suffice to show. The first is a poetic quotation from Rumi which re-expresses the teaching of Dhul Nun:

You name His name; go, seek the Reality named by it!
Look for the moon in the sky, not in the water.
If you desire to rise above mere names and letters,
Make yourself free from self at one stroke.
Become pure from all attributes of self
That you may see your own bright essence;
Yea, see in your own heart the knowledge of the Prophet
Without book, without tutor, without perception.

The second example is the well-known Sufi image that 70,000 veils separate Allah from the world of matter and sense—not only veils of darkness, but also veils of light. This can be recognised as the fundamental non-dual teaching that the Reality in us is to be unveiled, not created anew or transplanted from outside.

Many such examples could be discovered by the student, but enough has been written to show that the spirit of non-duality underlies the humanity, the compassion and consideration for others which permeate Sufism.


This article is from the Winter 2024 issue of Self-Knowledge Journal.