Digital art by Rahal Eks - tile pattern 5 for an imagined contemporary Sufi center
When "I and you" no longer exist,
what is mosque, church,
synagogue, or fire temple?
Once upon a time (it seems a long time ago from the perspective of my current "now"), I had a dear friend during the period I spent in San Francisco, whose goal was to become a poet and a writer. Actually he was quite poetic and a quite original writer in his own way, even though he had no idea of these facts. One of his punchline expressions was "words are dicey" and I didn't get his point at the moment of hearing or reading it. Meanwhile a lot of water has come down the Nile, I pondered about the issue and nowadays I utterly agree with this saying. Words can indeed be like dice, doing a random effect number or in other words: language can be precise or it can be misleading, it can surprise, have one or multiple levels of meaning or tell a lie or the truth. Language is just one means of communication and not always the best, it does have its limitations, and I say this as a writer. Luckily I'm also into music and visual art and therefore I won't always opt for verbal ways to get a point across and express myself. After having painted or done some digital art my writing will automatically be somewhat different than before, the same could be said when I engaged in music, dance or whatever else it may be. Please don't get me wrong, I'm far from wanting to put down words and writing - au contraire! Language(s) is/are a definite part of a person's vital identity which keeps growing and expanding in the course of one's life.
Let's look at it in a very mundane way. For example when getting angry I prefer to bark in Spanish, or when I'm really upset in Arabic. French would not serve the purpose in such a situation. I'm sure different people with different languages have different relations and make different choices for diverse circumstances and that is good that way. The same is of course vital in which tongue you prefer to give a romantic rap (lesbian, gay, queer, trans, bi, straight or otherwise), express mysticism, write a scientific paper, do a political discussion, or crack a joke. In order to communicate successfully it all depends on the time, the place, the culture, and the people and above all selecting the right language and tone of voice. Yes, the world is sound, even music! Ideally speaking.
I just finished the Thursday Mushkil Gusha Sufi night, the night of the famous Problem Dissolver, and I was reflecting on the difference between the essential meaning of religion and spirituality. There is a huge difference. Religion comes from the Latin ligare, meaning to bind, to connect, to reunite. Religion is used interchangeable with faith and belief. It also leads you right away to a set of rules, duties and dogma. Another meaning is having respect for what is considered sacred, moral obligation and worship of the Divine.
As an example let's take Islam as a symbol of a religion and the Sufi Tradition as one form of spirituality. Some people say that the Sufi Tradition is the mystical core of Islam and that Sufis are also Muslims.
Well, yes and no, it depends, this can be quite dicey. There are Sufis who are Muslims, some are Sunni, some are Shia, some are none of the above or Alevi/Alawi, or don't belong to any organized religion, or come from a Jewish, Christian, Shaman, Hindu or Buddhist background. Almost anything is possible among mystics.
However, not all Muslims are automatically Sufis and certain Muslims are even strongly opposed to any manifestations of Sufism - so here seems to be one major difference to be considered and looked at.
Spirituality, in contrast, seems to be more about the personal transformative work on the commanding self, the good old nafs, and yearning for ecstatic union with the Beloved, the Friend, with the aim to go through fana, annihilation, and reach eventually the maqam of baqa, subsistence in Allah/Khuda/Dios/Dieux/Gott/God/Hu/He/She/It or however you want to call or name the Divine who is at the same time transcendent and immanent. At least that is the position of those who follow Ibn 'Arabi's school of philosophy which has later coined the expression wahdat al-wujud, the unicity of being - also meaning hameh ust in Farsi.
Other people say that the Sufi Tradition existed prior to Islam and has taken on the name Sufi since the time of Mohammed, the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him).
We may as well ask: "What was first, the egg or the chicken?" Or try to crack the meaning of a Zen koan with the intellect...
The secret is to be found in the heart center, the Latifa Qalbiyya. It is the seat of the higher knowledge and the Divine who is closer to us than our jugular vein.
Now in Islam we have the imam - male or female - whose function is to lead the prayers in a mosque, give religious advice and counsel people. He or she can also marry folks etc.
While in the Sufi Tradition we have the Sufi murshid, guide, also called sheikh or pir, master, depending if you speak Arabic or Persian. While others prefer the more modest label "friend and teacher" and are not getting carried away by fancy titles in any tongues. After all the position of a Sufi teacher is a very practical and vital function on the Sufi Path, not always a popular one because he or she is often used as a projection screen and/or has to say not always pleasant things to help the student on the way. No matter what is said or pointed out, the Sufi teacher, including the one most malamati-like, will always function from a space of love - even if the student's nafs or commanding self is having another interpretation on the issue taking place. The Sufi path is not always just milk and honey, it is hard work and often not so easy to face the shadow and transform the lower ego qualities with patience and persistence and not get lost in the wilderness.
There have been imams who have been Sufis and even Sufi teachers, but not all Sufi teachers are automatically imams. The combination is actually rather rare. It does exist though. One of my teachers was of that type, another was a malamati sheikh, those who walk the path of blame, and another came from a totally different spiritual corner and space. In my queer case all of them were vital on my personal path and I'm most grateful to all of them and everything they have said and done, even the most unorthodox at the time bewildering action to rattle my cage. It sure enough did the trick - as the Native Americans would say: "It grew corn!"
Ishq bashad, saludos Rahal