Tasawuf-e Islami - an elementary initiation into the meditations of the sufi school

Dr F. Biria, M.Sc, D.E.S.L., Paris (Borhan-od-din FA 'EQ-e Tabriz!)

In the name of He, "who is the cosmic light; a likeness of his light is like a pillar on which is a lamp, the lamp is in a glass, and the glass is as it were a brightly shining star, lit from a blessed olive tree, neither eastern nor western, the oil whereof almost gives light though fire touch it not- light upon light. He guides to his light whom He pleases, and He sets forth parables for men."*1 "He brings creation to its goal of completion"*2 and "gave to man the knowledge of true liberation."*3 With great respect to the memory of my first spiritual teacher, a knight of the paths of love and devotion, of Tasawuf, a seasoned guardian of orthodox tradition and an incontestable commentator of scriptures, who has initiated this humble person in the Art, and with homage to Swami Satyananda Saraswati this series of articles is being written.

What is a Sufi?

The word 'sufi' is probably an Arabic word, but its root is not exactly known. Its composition according to the rules of etymology (Figh-ul-lugha) yields nothing about its root. According to texts on history of religions and philosophies, it may be derived from one of the following words:

  1. Saf (pure and limpid): The aspirant must purify his physical body, his mind and his spirit, by processes comparable to kriya yoga, to become "sari zamir" (pure within), akin to a mirror or still mountain water reflecting the full moon, able to see God everywhere in everything and everyone.
  2. "The knights of God tore away the curtain of illusion, Coming to see everywhere nothing except God." Furughi-ye Bastami
  3. Thus, the sufi receives Him in this very body, which is considered as "the golden cage of the bird of spirit" (Rumi), realizing the "kingdom of God within him" (St. Luke, XVII, 20-21). So that, the bird of spirit becomes like a parrot seeing his reality in the mirror of self. The sufi then reflects the light of his realized self everywhere, to everything and everyone, becoming finally light itself. Rumi tells about his master Shams-e Tabrizi (the Sun of Tabriz) in this way: "Shams-e Tabrizi who is the Absolute Light, Is the Sun and the ray of Supreme Reality." In this poem the word 'sun' referring to the name of Rumi's master (Shams-sun) symbolizes the union of individual-universal consciousness as in yoga. We can find the same symbolism in Gathas which are the mystic hymns of Zoroaster.
  4. Saff (rank): Because in the beginning of the Prophet's mission some disciples who later became the sufi masters (or are taken by sufis as great spiritual masters), confronted great difficulties through which they struggled as one, surrounding and protecting their beloved master:
    "Surely, Allah loves those who fight in his way in Ranks as if they were a firm and compact wall.",*4
  5. Saff a (veranda): The same disciples were living on the veranda of the mosque of the Prophet so as to be always near their master. It signifies also material detachment... Arriving at Madinat-un-Nabi (The City of the Prophet) they did not require a house saying: "The divine home is enough for us." The composition of this group is very interesting and symbolic:
    • a) Salman-e Parsi, a wise Persian prince who, disputing the authority of both empire and religious fanaticism was in flight, and in quest of a real master when he reached Mohammad.
    • b) Abu-zar-al-Ghaffari, an ex-bandit about whom the Prophet said, "The sky and the earth have never seen between them a man more truthful than him." He was the founder of theistic socialism.
    • c) Belal-e Habashi, an Ethiopian ex-slave, liberated by the Prophet.
    • d) Meytham-i-Tammar, a seller of dates.
    When the aristocracy of Mecca captured the power after the Prophet these disciples all followed Ali who was the first initiated by Mohammad, his chosen disciple and the second ring of the line of spiritual transmission.
  6. Sof (wool): These same disciples, and following them, the orthodoxy of Tasawuf always wore very rough woollen clothes in summer and winter alike to accustom their bodies to difficulties and hardship and to be at all times aware of the physical body and its continual searching for comfort.
    A sufi initiate has the permission (and it must come of his personal discrimination) to wear rough woollen cloth, if he feels it is for his riyazat (sadhana) and not for egotistical reasons or for hiding his spiritual weakness and poverty by a powerful mask. There must also be no lack of respect generated for his spiritual path; he must not put it on unless he is sure that he will be able to respect the symbol that he carries. This is nicely portrayed in the following story:
  7. A sufi came to Imam Ja'far-ibn-i Mohammad-al-Sadeq and, being surprised to see this great and genial initiate wearing a nice fur garment, he criticized him accordingly. Imam opened his garment, revealing a very rough wool cloth beneath. Then Imam, in turn, asked the Sufi to open his wool garment and underneath was a very nice soft cloth!
  8. Safi (faithful friend): This is the attribute of first man, first prophet, first master, the first who has been taught the "high knowledge of true liberation"*5 (tantra, yoga, Tasawuf, Islam, Mazdiyasnan, Christianity, Buddhism, Kabbalah, Tao, Zen... the name is not important) and who has held, kept and transmitted it to humanity. According to tradition, Adam lost his absolute faith in God due to the temptations of Satan. In trying to attain power and immortality, he lost the real meaning of sex (these three being the greatest factors of alienation in man). Thus, being separated from the infinite, he found himself on the earth in Sarandib (Ceylon). But by practicing the "high knowledge of true liberation" given to him previously by God, he was able to purify himself and again become the faithful friend of his creator.
  9. Sophia (Greek-science): Here, sufi means he who searches, knows or has realized "the high spiritual science of true liberation". This science is usually called Sana'at (Art) by alchemist masters (Jabir-ibn-i Hayyan-i Tarasusi "Geber" and followers). Dhul-nun of Egypt was a great sufi and alchemist, and he was also very near to Neo-Platonic and Christian mystics, but whether Tasawuf originated in Greece is not certain. Surely the high science of true liberation has existed in ancient Greece (the masters of Delphi, Pythagoras, Anxagoras and their disciples) as in other parts of the world, but under other denominations. On the other hand, in Tasawuf we can recognize many common elements with Christian and Zoroastnan mysticism, Buddhism, Greek philosophy, the sciences of Magus and especially with tantra and yoga. Here this does not mean that Tasawuf is an offshoot of these paths, on the contrary, this shows the common and unique source of all spiritual sciences and explains why a sufi master will utilize the elements of all traditions which are coherent with his own. Although a master belongs to one tradition, his understanding is universal and all embracing.

The Sufi school

Sufi is really the attitude or state of physical, mental and spiritual harmony and union with the cosmos that the aspirant must realize by developing his awareness. The Sufi state is not a practice or a name but the real meditative state which is reached by the practice. It is very near to the yogic concept described by Swami Satyananda Saraswati as "the process in which you see your own consciousness; consciousness sees itself through itself without any intervening medium and without any support and without any agency".

This voyage to become a Sufi is called Tasawuf and the general name given to its travellers is Muta-sawwef. However, as these names can be difficult to pronounce by those unfamiliar with classical Arabic or Persian, it can be called the Sufi school.

Now, the clear mind will perceive that using the word sufism for this spiritual path is as mistaken as using the word Hinduism to designate sanatana dharma. This kind of nomenclature, invented generally by some western authors, at least for the beginners, can be very misleading. The technical vocabulary of the Art must be studied at the feet of a master and not in dictionaries. In some mystic traditions like Mazdiyas-nati (Zoroastrian mysticism) the scriptures can be read and understood in several manners (by utilization of ideograms or huzvareshs). It is the same for many texts in Islamic esotericism. The Anhar-e Jariya of Sheikh Ahmad-e Ardabili, which is a treatise on the noble art of numbers, will be read by a non-initiate only as a boring book of syntax, phonetics and the life of saints.

Tasawuf is a pure tradition of spiritual evolution and true liberation of man. Although there have been some branches, due to difference of conception of various masters and sometimes the inventions of lesser disciples, its central trunk continues growing and giving fruits according to the necessities of the age. The literature of Tasawuf is one of the world's richest, consisting of poems and many theoretical treatises and texts, but only a few texts on practice. This is because the real practice is continually evolving according to the necessities of the time and place, being passed on directly from master to disciple.

According to the scriptures, the Art of true liberation has always and everywhere existed under different names. All the real aspects of this Art are valuable; they are all mountain paths leading to the same unique summit. They are all shelters under the same roof, but

"Not to the roof of the Universe which is blue
But to a roof higher than the universe." (Rurai)

"The number of paths to God are as numerous as there are beings created." (Mohammad)


*1. Koran XXIV, 35

*2. Koran I, 2

*3. Koran II, 31

*4. Koran LXI, 4

*5. Koran II, 31