Question: You have shown us how Sufism leads a human being to perfection and cleanses him or her from impurities. In this respect, what place should Sufism occupy in the life of a Muslim? Is it possible to lead a pious life without Sufism?

You have asked a very important question. I would like to answer this question by narrating the following story, related to me by my father Musa Efendi:

We had a neighbour who had converted to Islam (from Christianity). One day I asked him the reason for his acceptance of Islam. He replied:

“I have become Muslim due to the good morality of my neighbour Rabi Molla, who showed good conduct in his trade. He had cows and would earn his livelihood by selling milk. One day he came to our house and gave me a large pot of milk saying, ‘This is your milk.’ ‘You did not owe us any milk,’ I answered, thinking that he had made a mistake in delivering the milk to me.

This kind and noble person explained why he had brought the milk saying, ‘Unfortunately I have seen my cows grazing in your garden when I was unaware. Therefore this milk is yours and I will keep bringing milk to you until the grass is cleaned from its stomach.’

I told him, ‘Do not mention it. The grass the cows ate in my garden is nothing valuable and I do not ask anything in return.’ He insisted that the milk was my share. He kept bringing milk to my house until the grass was cleaned from the rumen of the cow.

The noble behaviour of Rabi Molla moved me very deeply and the veil of heedlessness (ghafla) was removed from my eyes. The light of guidance shone in my heart, and I accepted Islam saying to myself: ‘The religion of such an upright person is definitely the straight path. No one can doubt the truth of a religion which is professed by such kind, just, and perfect adherents like him.’ Hence, I pronounced the words of the shahada (the Declaration of Faith).”

As this incident and many other countless examples prove, Sufis and their method of perfecting the morality of a believer are an important reason for the spread of Islam. Sufism works in both ways: firstly perfecting the morality of the believers, and secondly spreading Islam through the exemplary conduct of Sufis. It shows the merciful face of Islam to the non-Muslims and helps in representing the correct form of Islam.

Islam is law and God-consciousness, fatwa and taqwa: the legal aspects of Islam, fatwa, are the pillars of its edifice, while the Sufi character, taqwa, is the complementary part of the building that beautifies and strengthens the main frame. Sufism helps Muslims to unite these two aspects of Islam in addition to perfecting their morality. Sufism also enables humankind to understand the Qur’an and the universe, helping them to know their place and responsibilities in the universe. Sufism, with its principles of love for Allah and knowledge of Allah, is like a vista on Mi’raj – ascension to Allah. In short, the Sufi way is a necessity in training the heart and the soul. Every Muslim is in need of it.

The question “Can we do without Sufism?” is like asking if we can we do without hadith, theology, Islamic law, Qur’anic commentary, and the other Islamic sciences. Regarding Sufism as an unnecessary part of Islam is like regarding such attributes as sincerity, knowledge of Allah, purification of the heart, and the realisation of service to Allah as unnecessary. Sufism is a term which refers to attaining all these good characteristics. Even those who practice these principles without mentioning the general term that covers them, or who reject the nomenclature of Sufism, can also be considered to be practicing Sufism. The name is not important, as long as its principles are put into practice. We can refer to Sufism as ‘renunciation’ (zuhd), ‘consciousness of Allah’ (taqwa), or ‘realization of religion’ (ihsan), as they all indicate the same reality and serve the same purpose. All these terms denote the practice of the most perfect master and teacher of humanity, the Prophet Muhammad, upon him blessings and peace, and the Companions whom he himself trained.

The heart also needs training in order to attain peace and tranquillity. Even the Prophet, upon him blessings and peace, who was blessed with reception of the Divine revelation, had special training before he attained Prophethood. He used to go to the cave of Hira and spend his time in worship and contemplation. This special dedication of time to worship is called i’tikaf in Arabic. The Prophet, upon him blessings and peace, continued this practice after he became a Prophet, and spent the last ten days of the month of Ramadan in the mosque dedicating all his time to worship. Similarly, the Prophet Moses spent forty days in worship and mortification of the flesh before he was blessed with being able to speak with Allah on the mountain of Sinai. The Prophet Joseph spent twelve years in prison before he became the ruler of Egypt. He went trough all sorts of difficulties and perfected his personality as through the worship of Allah. In this way, his heart was cleansed from trust in transient beings and was eventually dedicated to Allah alone.

Before the Mi’raj (Ascension), the Prophet Muhammad, upon him blessings and peace, grasped the meaning of the chapter entitled Inshirah (The Expansion). His spiritual heart was opened and cleansed. Allah Almighty filled his heart with knowledge and Divine light. In this way, he was prepared to see the extraordinary things his voyage to Allah showed him. He was cleansed from the material world and was prepared for the spiritual world.

If even the Prophets of Allah underwent spiritual training and purification of the heart, how can ordinary people like ourselves do without this process? Even a hair that remains polluted with worldly concerns cannot approach the Divine light of the spiritual world. A nose blocked with impurity cannot smell the aroma of flowers and roses. When a window is steamed up we cannot see through it clearly. A small amount of dirt can pollute a whole pot of pure water; similarly, spiritual dirt blocks the heart from the reception of Divine illumination and spiritual blessing.

In order to emphasise the significance of a purified heart from all sorts of worldly diseases, Allah Almighty states in the Qur’an: “The day whereon neither wealth nor sons will avail, but only he (will prosper) that brings to Allah a sound heart!” (Shu‘ara, 26:88-89.)

One can attain a heart which is sound and free from all sorts of evil thoughts only through spiritual training. Before such training, the heart is like a piece of raw iron. First it should be heated with fire and cleansed of all dirt. Then it should be hammered and moulded into the shape intended. Once the heart is perfected through spiritual training, it can see and understand what the physical eyes cannot see and the mind cannot understand. [As mentioned before,] Rumi describes his own state before spiritual wayfaring as being unripe, even though he occupied a high post in a Seljuk madrasa. However, when the secrets of the book of the universe were opened to him through spiritual training, he described his new state saying, “I was cooked.”

The Companions of the Prophet, upon him blessings and peace, constitute the highest examples of this spiritual perfection. Before Islam came, some of them had such cold hearts that they used to bury their daughters alive. However, after accepting Islam they became monuments of mercy and soft-heartedness.

In short, we could practice Islam without Sufism, but then we could never reach a level of perfection. When Sufi methods are excluded from the practice of Islam, none can reach the level of Islamic practice known as ihsan (or to practice Islam as though seeing Allah).

Question: Who are your spiritual friends on the Sufi path? We are certain that they will be awaiting the English version of your book, Sufism: A Path Towards the Internalization of Faith (Ihsan), in which you have given a detailed description of Sufism

In addition to what I have said so far, let me add some counsel that the Sufi spiritual masters have emphasised. Sufism is the method of moral training taken from the life and teaching of the Messenger of Allah, upon him be peace and blessings. It consists of turning one’s face with love and respect towards Allah and His Messenger. Those friends of Allah who have placed Allah and His Messenger at the centre of their hearts as the sole objects of love, have become the friends of all humanity. To keep friendship with the pious Muslims and take part in their spiritual gatherings (Sohbah) purifies one’s morality from evil. Those who have a high level of spiritual energy spread their energy to others. Since they have purified their own souls from the vices of the carnal soul, they can inculcate that same state of spiritual purity to those around them. Being around such people makes one beneficial to the community in all aspects of life.

Through love, Sufism establishes spiritual bonds between the seeker (murid) and their master (murshid). Once the murid loves and respects the murshid, the actions of the latter are imitated in all ways, and the morality of the murid is perfected. Therefore, as Muslims we should use the method of love more than other methods. The basis of Islamic morality is to worship Allah with sincerity and love. The proof of love and sincerity is to serve Allah and His creation. Through love, difficult tasks are fulfilled with ease and contentment. Sincere service is the indication of one’s spiritual perfection. The hearts of such people are the loci of the manifestations (tajalliyat) of Allah.

The closer one gets to Allah, the more his or her heart becomes receptive to spiritual realities. On the other hand, the more one is engulfed in their nafs(lower self), the more they lose their humanity.

Allah has the names Jamil (the Beautiful) and Jalil (the Majestic). However, his names Rahman (the Merciful) and Rahim (the Compassionate) are mentioned in the Qur’an more than any other of His names. Therefore, in attachment to their Lord, a Muslim should make mercy and compassion their second nature. The causes of injustice in the world are the result of a lack of mercy and love. Those who cannot love can easily become despots and tyrants. They use fear and hate in order to control others, remaining heedless of the fact that there is no heart that cannot be affected by love. It is impossible for the sun to refuse to give light and heat; similarly, it is impossible for righteous souls not to love and show mercy to other creatures.

If we would like to know our spiritual state, we should continuously analyse our actions and feelings. In particular, the baseless claims of our nafs should be kept under control. Otherwise we could fall into the state of Satan, who lost Divine favour due to his haughtiness and vanity. He was the teacher of the angels in Paradise, but he could not control his emotions and desires. He felt superior to human beings and was cursed due to his pride.

Rumi compares the vices of human nature to thorns on a rose bush. He advises us to make our nature like that of the sweet rose, not that of thorns. In the garden of the world the thorns harm us, but we should not let our soul become like them. Rather, we should strive to convert the wild soil therein into a rose garden.