Sufism is in essence a “Mystical’ strand within the Islamic Milieu. Its interpretation ranges from an orthodox position entrenched within Islam and accepted or tolerated by the Orthodoxy to varying degrees. At the other end of the spectrum is an almost entirely esoteric understanding the world which is frequently at odds with Orthodox Islam. What are the points of differentiation?
Superficially or outwardly these revolve around practice. For Sufis, Prayer may be considered a personal matter rather than obligatory. A Muslim in the strictest interpretation cannot be Muslim if he does not pray 5 times daily or eats pork. This interpretation varies in the rigidity of its enforcement. And indeed enforcement is a trend that is re-emerging in the Islamic world after centuries of laxer practice of religious observances. It is true to say that many Sufi interpretations have progressively loosened their adherence to the central tenets of Islam. herein lies the crux of the current debacle in the Islamic world where orthodox interpretations are clashing with non-orthodox positions for leadership of the Islamic milieu with much ensuing violence.
Many forms of less Islamically driven Sufism emphasise the importance of meditation – internalized reflection on the eternal through constant remembrance or ‘Zekr’. This has taken rather cultural specific and sometimes superficial forms. Caucasian Sufis are famed for their epic energetic all night long dances in ecstatic states- men and women often mingling close together. Turkish Sufis – particularly the Mevlevi whirl in flowing gowns to haunting music. This can range from sincere expression of spiritual aspiration to rather less than spiritual performances for tourists or public entertainment.
The deeper aspects of meditation however involve constant remembrance of God, not through a verbal mantra of repeating Allah’s name but through attaining presence in the moment. Presence means to be stripped away of the elements of ones ego. And what then is ego ? – ego is the transitory aspects that make a humans form. Intelligence, learning, intellect, feelings, emotions, relationships, societal role, position, gender and wealth are in the Sufis eyes transitory passing forms. The Sufi seeks from within himself the peaceful state of the eternal that can only be found by truly living in the present. Simple exercises – service to others, concentration on breath, remembrance of the name of God voiced or unvoiced (Zikr)- that help take a person away from his ego help engender the process of self-awareness through stepping back from the aspects that make up the ego and a persons false identity. In other words, the Sufi realises all aspects of his or her ‘life’ are transitory and therefore illusory. they help bring him into and keep him in the ‘moment.’
It is in this realisation the Sufi can cast off the garment of relative form and step into real being.
What then are the earthly manifestations of this realisation?
Principally loving kindness the recognition of unity of all life by its very act of being. A deep insight into the interconnectedness of all life as one whole. This realisation might be something akin to the realisation that the atom is the universe and within the universe and that the universe is the atom and within the atom. It opens insight in a Sufis heart that divine love is the fundamental force that makes existence and form.The love of family is able then to extend outward to community, across communities. It knows no limits or prejudices. Its code is unity. As such a Sufi is at ease with all beings, sees no fundamental dispute with Christian or Jews, nor does he view a Hindu as a ‘Kafir’ or non-believer preferring to delegate judgement to the creator, for only the creator knows the true nature of all beings.
This state of mind naturally leads to a profound respect for all living things. A Sufi is kind to all people with no expectation of reward, he is not swayed by rank or position, nor does he use his own except in the execution of service to the divine. He treats animals with mercy and respect knowing no cruelty. A Sufi is mild in speech and gentle even in firm action. When the ego is so subsumed, heroic acts of self sacrifice are of little consequence to such an elevated soul.
These features are known as the principle traits of Fotawwat (Futavat) or Chivalry (Arabic) and many of these features have been recognised to be key aspects of traditional Chechen culture having been preserved by a strict adherence to a traditional way of life ‘Adat’ . Whilst these qualities belong to no one culture, but are features of mans humanity and express his understanding of his divine nature, that is eternal and unchanging regardless of time or place; Chechen culture has for centuries provided a sheltered haven in the natural fortress that is the Caucasus, for the flourishing of a culture of profoundly high ethics and nobility.
Let us hope that in the face of challenges of the modern world where secular modernity and orthodox interpretations of religion compete for the narrative of the future, these values may negotiate their way intact towards a future of mutual respect and loving kindness.