Islam: Day 16 – Is Sufi Mysticism the Solution to Worldly Excess?

Whirling Dervishes
Whirling Dervishes  Source:

I constantly stop whatever I’m doing during the day and take a second to ask, “What’s the point of all of this?”

The modern secular world has answers. Wealth, pleasures, stuff, careers, prestige, sex, are all (unsatisfactory) answers to this question. It surrounds us, we buy into it, and it causes us pain.

Most successful philosophies and religions teach people to detach themselves from the pursuit of those things, as they won’t lead to happiness.

And most successful philosophies and religions propose an alternative instead: God.

They may not use the term God, but there is always something greater to connect to, something transcendent.

I think the most extreme desire to connect to God manifests in the various mystic traditions of every religion and philosophy.

For Islam, the most prominent mystic group is the Sufis.

The Sufi movement came to prominence in a time of excess during the Umayyad dynasty, one of the great Islamic empires during the 7th and 8th century CE.

“With the rapid growth of the empire, wealth began pouring in from all corners of the world, and a lot of otherwise faithful Muslims began to overindulge in worldly pleasures. (Islam, on a very basic level, is against overindulgence, and Muhammad’s personal example was one of frugality and self-denial of most of life’s pleasures.) 

In addition, as the legal schools of thought, or madh’habs, were being formulated by the scholars of Islamic Law, some people felt there was too much emphasis on the rules and not enough on the spirit behind them.” – Yahiya Emerick

Much like Stoicism rose to prominence during the peak of the Greek empire and the rise of the Roman empire, Sufism grew in reaction to the prevailing culture of the time.

I believe we’re at “peak-consumerism” today, and as a culture, suffer from excessive love of worldly goods and pleasures.

“Conscientious individuals began to see the rise of opulence, legalism, and pageantry among the Muslim community as a kind of deception. The dangerous life of the world was about to engulf the pure message of Islam and leave nothing but an empty shell in its wake.”

Maybe I’m unnecessarily worried about modern culture and values, but I don’t want to be risk becoming an “empty shell.”

“These spiritually minded people [the Sufis] started to renounce the world live very simple lives to promote an example for others to follow. The very name Sufi comes form the Arabic word for wool, which became the preferred clothing of these people (who shunned silk and other fineries). This train of thought was not something invented out of then air, however, for the Qur’an often spoke of the deception inherent in the life of the world. It also emphasized God’s love and the importance of making His remembrance the focal point of one’s life.”

The thought of living a simple life is incredibly attractive. Granted, my life isn’t that complicated at the moment, but I still have this very deep-rooted desire to pull a Thoreau and go live in a secluded cabin somewhere (a beach-side bungalow would also work).

The Sufi’s believed a simple life combined with ritual chanting, fasting, meditation, prayer, and study of the Qu’ran could lead to enlightenment.

Think how your nature and outlook would change if you lived in the woods and frequently reflected on quotes like these

“The world exists only as an appearance. From beginning to end it is a playful game.” – Shabistari

“Just take one step outside your self. The whole path lasts no longer than this step.” – Ni’Matullah Wali

“Bewilderment is your entrance ticket into the Mystery of the Presence.” – Rumi

Now, compare those sayings to this link-bait article, “21 Ways Rich People Think Differently Than Average People,” which includes such gems as

Average people think selfishness is a vice. Rich people think selfishness is a virtue.

Average people believe you need money to make money. Rich people use other people’s money

Average people teach their children how to survive. Rich people teach their kids to get rich.

Ugh. It this what we should strive for? To adopt the mindset of the rich so we ourselves can become rich?

Some of the points in that article were ok and the book this article is derived from probably has more nuanced points about the attitudes of the wealthy, but the reason people read this stuff is to find out what they’re doing wrong so that they too can become rich.

It seems so…empty.

We should do our best to mimic the behavior and attitude of the Sufis, who learned to separate the vulgar from the divine and focus on what truly matters for living a rich and meaningful life.