Sufism: beyond the veil
October 27, 2005
For next week's session of my Deep Ecumenism class, we're reading William C. Chittick's Sufism: A Short Introduction. I devoured the book in a single long gulp, copying out some four pages of quotations. It's fantastic, and though I wouldn't be so arrogant as to say that I understand Sufism in any deep way now, I'm intrigued by what I've read, and I'm really looking forward to talking about it with my colleagues! Meanwhile, I figured I'd talk about it with y'all.
In his introduction, Chittick cites a hadith (saying of the Prophet) which outlines the three basic dimensions of Islam: submission (islam), faith (iman), and "doing the beautiful" (ihsan). Islamic jurists, he says, focus on the first of these by expounding on sharia, which defines Islamic practices; Islamic theologians focus on the second of these by elucidating dogmatic theology and credal teachings. "It is the Sufis," Chittick writes, "who take doing the beautiful as their own special domain."
Before reading Chittick, I would have said that Sufis are Islamic mystics. Chittick prefers the term "Sufism" to "mysticism" for reasons of linguistic precision, but I think it's a useful simplification, especially for an outsider looking in. One way or another, Sufis are interested in what one might call intimate knowledge of, or union with, God. No small wonder I find them so congenial; I have a longstanding interest in this kind of thing. (Allow me to note that this blog post will offer only a bare taste of the feast Chittick makes available for us. If there's lack of clarity here, it's certainly mine, and not his.)
One of the first places that drew me in was Chittick's explanation of the shahadah as meaning, "that there is 'no reality but God' and that all the so-called realities of our experience are secondary and derivative." (Given an understanding like that, it makes perfect sense that Reb Zalman was so easily able to assert the shahadah among the Sufis of Hebron!) Chittick talks a lot about the tension contained in the shahadah, between the negation of the first clause and the affirmation of the second, and how that reverberates in the Sufi understanding of God as beyond all oppositions.
I blogged earlier this week about the lived Torah of human experience. I found some resonance between that and Chittick's explanation of the three "books" written by God: the Koran, the universe, and the self. Muslims are commanded to hear the signs of God in all three of these. "The Koran calls its own verses and other divine revelations 'signs' (ayat), and it employs the same word to refer to the things of the universe. If the Koran is God's Book, displaying His 'signs,' so also the universe is God's Book announcing His revelations."
One of the book's recurring themes is dialectical tension: between God's judgment and God's mercy, between the first half of the shahadah and the second, between the way the universe manifests God and the way the universe disguises God. Phenomena, he says, can be "signs" or "veils," showing God to us or hiding God from us. He relates this to the notion that each existent thing has two faces, an eastern and a western face:
If we look at the western face of things, we find no trace of the sun, since it has set. If we look at the eastern face of the same things, we see the sun shining in its full glory. Everything displays both faces at the same time, but the vast majority of people see only the western face. They have no awareness that everything is a sign of God in which He is disclosing His own reality.
God's nearness and God's distance -- immanence and transcendence -- are both true. The difference lies in which face of reality we choose to see. Sufis seek to look at the eastern face, the immanent face, the face to which humanity can relate with love. This approach relates, in turn, to how they understand the relative importance of unity and multiplicity:
Islam's theological axiom, tawhid, declares that God is one, but it also asserts that the world is many. All of Islamic theological thinking addresses the issue of how to correlate multiplicity with unity. Those who look more at the divine side of things place greater stress on unity, and those who look more at the world emphasize multiplicity. As a general rule, rational thinking about God focuses on His separation from the world and the world's utter difference from His unique reality, and hence it highlights multiplicity and diversity. In contrast, imagistic or "imaginal" thinking about God tends to see the immanent unity established by Gods presence in all things.
Neither standpoint, Chittick writes, is complete in itself. Seeing things "as they truly are" demands a balance between understanding God's distance and God's nearness, between rational understanding and imaginal unveiling.
The Western conception of Islam is often distorted by a wide range of social and historical factors. One of those distortions is an overfocus on one aspect of the tradition, and underfocus on the others. The news gives us plenty of stories about sharia, which makes it easy to imagine that Islam is purely legalistic. But Chittick is saying, I think, that islam is not complete without iman and ihsan; that right actions can't exist without right thought and right heart-practice; that genuine living Islam combines law, theology, and devotion.
On a related note, if this stuff interests you, definitely check out God's Mercy, a podcast of a lecture Chittick gave some years ago, about Islam's understanding of the story of Adam. (The lecture was subsequently modified into chapter nine of Sufism.) It's well worth a listen, and is especially resonant this week given that the Jewish Torah-reading cycle places our version of the Adam story this Shabbat.
Chittick closes the book by exploring the Sufi metaphor of the hijab or veil (and the piercing or lifting thereof.) "The paradox of the veil is simply that things are not God, but God is present in the things," he writes. God cannot be seen with the eyes or understood with the mind, but God can be seen "by the unveiled heart."
Coming to this text as a Jew, I couldn't help drawing comparisons. Sharia is like our halakha; the shahadah, expression of God's oneness, is like our shema. And who could read "When I wake up from sleep, I see the whole world as God's Thou-ness" (written by Baha Walad, father of the Sufi poet Jalal al-Din Muhammad Rumi) without seeing resonance with Martin Buber's famous I-Thou formulation?
It's reductive to say that the Sufis are the kabbalists of Islam (or vice versa), and I don't want to elide the differences between Muslim teachings and Jewish ones. But even so, I'm fascinated and moved by the resonances between the Sufi paradigm and the Jewish mystical one. Surely the desire to see God with the unveiled heart is one we share, and we can benefit from recognizing that we're walking in tandem down parallel paths.