Exploring Islam and Mysticism: A Brief Comparison

It seems that the most prevalent characterization of 21st century Islam nowadays, is through fundamentalist ideologies deeply rooted in political agenda. Consequently, the image of Islam as a faith that has primarily been based on spirituality and an oneness with God has been heavily shaken. Fortunately, that hasn’t always been the case for the Arab-Muslim world. There was a time when scholars and intellectuals encouraged discussions of religion classifying it into these three hierarchal orders: Theology, Philosophy, and Sufism. Sufism or “Tasawwuf” is a recognized branch of Islam that is concerned with achieving the highest form of spiritual perfection and purification of the soul. The aim here is to examine certain facets of traditional Islam vis-à-vis mystical Islam, and deduce whether the two are in fact compatible. The main questions which will be raised are: How does Sufism regard man’s relationship with the Lord? What is the status and significance of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) in Sufi Islam? Do Sufis practice spirituality and communication with God at the expense of set Islamic laws and regulations? Hopefully, there will be a logical and concise attempt at answering these questions.

I. Unity with God

The first and foremost pillar that differentiates any believer or non-believer from a Muslim is the shahada; to attest that “There is no deity save God, and Muhammad is the messenger of God” (Katz, 1983). What was fascinating about the Sufi movement, was that this affirmation of faith not only stressed the oneness of God, but later on went to conclude that “There is nothing existing save God” ( Katz, 1983), implying that this world and the creations in it shouldn’t and wouldn’t hold any magnitude to a Sufi. However, as part of the selfless love of God, they gradually abandoned the view of the world (Duniyya) as a “rotten carcass” and came to appreciate God’s creations as a part of Him. “This approach includes the careful and meticulous following of the Koranic prescriptions and the Prophetic tradition: To love God means to love obedience to Him.” (Katz, 1983). In traditional Islam, this view of an “absolute unison with God” (Saeed, 2006) and selfless love for the Creator was not so heavily stressed upon when the spread of the divine message first began in 610 A.D However, the deeper the mystic scholars delved into the Quranic verses and pondered their meaning, the clearer it was that the Quran encouraged (to some degree) spiritual freedom and questioning of the origins of Islam. Albert Hourani wrote in A History of the Arab Peoples:” The Qur’an contains potent images of the nearness of God to man, and the way in which man can respond.” Indeed here it can be understood that this proximity and mutual love between the Creator and the slave must have been largely stimulated by copious scriptural reference, otherwise it wouldn’t have paved the way for the Sufi tradition to grow and prosper at the turn of the 13th century.

“ The Story of Rumi, the founder of the Mawlawi order of dervishes, and one of the most powerful Islamic poets, goes back to the early VII/13th century, when his father Baha Walad emigrated from Balkh. After visiting Mecca he reached Asia Minor and settled in Konya. This detail from a Turkish manuscript of the late x/16th century illustrates a miraculous story in which a cow bowed down to the ground at the sight of him”

II. Prophet

  • Mysticism did not only considerably prioritize the remembrance of Allah (dhikr), but it also relayed a great deal of celebration and glorification unto the Prophet of Islam himself, Muhammad (PBUH). Naturally, traditionalists frowned upon this, since Muhammad was just an ordinary man, and to bestow upon him such distinct accolades in Sufi tradition, contributed to the idea of diminishing his humanity and amplifying his sainthood (Meier, 1976). This need to honor the prophethood, of course, was largely influenced by Quranic and extra-Quranic revelations. First, in the latter part of the shahada, recognizing Prophet Muhammad as a messenger of God is compulsory to enter the faith. Second, a good number of verses confer supreme authority to the Prophet and urge his followers towards complete submission to his orders: “Whatever the Messenger gives you take it and whatever he forbids you abstain from it. And be mindful of Allah; Indeed, Allah is severe in punishment.” [Q. 59: 7] Hence, for the Sufis, the prophethood symbolized an equivalent immaculate paradigm of holiness just as Allah did. “The prophet was transformed into a luminous spiritual power….the great hymn in honour of the Prophet served as a model for many later Sufis who never ceased expressing their love and veneration for the “beloved of God”.” (Katz, 1983).

III. Islamic Law (Shar’ia)

Around 900 A.D, orthodox Islam began morphing into a source of fear rather than solace, and it was around that period that Sufism grew to be embraced by many as it was perhaps considered a safe haven from the puritanical throes of orthodox religion. Prior to that, the widespread embrace of Islam in Central Asia and Northern Africa was primarily attributed to Islamic mystics as they used to roam the continents in search of divine truth and knowledge. Despite that, the movement had its share of detractors who viewed it as a distraction from the worship of Allah, a deviation from Islamic law, and some even conjectured that “the spiritual journey which the mystic could carry out in his own room, might be taken to imply that literal fulfilment of the obligations of religion was not important” (Hourani, 1991) Although Sufism emerged mainly as an extrapolation of the Islamic faith, that did not mean that its disciples were not thoroughly committed to the obligations and duties dictated by the creed. On the contrary, mystic Islam was almost inextricable from the religion it had stemmed from. This statement is better explained in this analogy: “As the Sufi masters would say: the shari’a, the Divine Law, is the highway, shar’, out of which the tariqa, the narrow path, can branch off- but there can be no path when there is no highway” (Katz, 1983), meaning that no mystical state can ever be achieved if the binding clauses of the shari’a are not followed devotedly. Also, according to the same author, some early Sufi masters had likened a Sufi who did not memorize the Qur’an by heart to a lemon without a fragrance, indicating that knowledge of the Holy Text was imperative to preserving the legitimacy of various Sufi orders.

So in conclusion, Sufism is a recognized branch of Islam that aims to achieve a unity with God, through frequent remembrance of His name and unselfish love for Him which is not devoid of love of obedience to Him, as well. Just like traditional Islam, mystical Islam acknowledges the pivotal importance the faith has placed on the status of the Messenger of God, whereby certain Sufi rituals were solely dedicated to revere him. It should also be noted that this particular order of Islam underwent a great deal of hostility, much like traditional Islam, so as to finally be embraced by the masses. Lastly, Sufism cannot be practiced and preached without completing the preliminary obligations and duties of Islam. In no way does Sufism contradict Islamic law, as attainment of the Path of truth is fully dependent on Shari’a in every way. If one were to describe Sufism in a few lines, then the following prayer as recited by the first Sufi woman, Rabi’a Al-Adawiyya (d. 185/801) serves as a solid paradigmatic resonance.


Hourani, A. (1991). The Articulation of Islam. In A History of the Arab Peoples (pp. 72–78). Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.

Meier, F. (1976). The Mystic Path. In The World of Islam: Faith, People, Culture (pp. 117–128). London, UK: Thames And Hudson.

Saeed, A. (2006). Mystical Thought: Sufism. In Islamic thought: An introduction (pp. 74–83). London, UK: Routledge.

Schimmel, A. (1983). Sufism and the Islamic Tradition. In S. Katz (Ed.), Mysticism and Religious Traditions (pp. 131–143). London, UK: Oxford University Press.

The Holy Qur’an. (n.d.).

Sufism — Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. (n.d.). Retrieved July 11, 2013, from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sufism#Islam_and_Sufism

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