Table of Content
- Introduction: Journeying Through the Veiled Wisdom
- Unraveling the Mystery: Who Exactly Are the Sufis?
- Decoding the Sufi Path: Tracing the Transformative Sufi Path Across Time
- The Sufis’ Inspirational Love for God: Is Tasawwuf a Distinct Religion or an Integrated Spiritual Practice?
- Unearthing the Treasure: How Sufi Stories Touch the Souls of All Ages
- Books Revealing Sufis’ Personal Experiences: Insights from Journeys of the Soul
- Closing Thoughts: Insights and Takeaways from Sufi Wisdom
Introduction: Journeying Through the Veiled Wisdom
One day, during a conversation about piety, I remember asking my friend Aslam, “Have you read biographies of the Sufis?” Aslam who is deeply religious was horrified at my question. He cried out, “Oh no… no, no, no!!! I’m not concerned about the Sufis. They’re all focused on dancing, music, and similar activities.”
While I was taken aback by my friend’s vehemence, I was not surprised by his response. In my blog posts Journeying with Sufi Writers: My Path to Rediscovering Faith, I have shared how for a large part of my life, I too had a completely wrong perception of the Sufis. In my journey through the many spiritual practices, I eventually discovered the formidable power and wisdom in Sufi teachings.
It is said about the spiritual masters: “Those who know don’t speak and those who speak don’t know.” Sufi masters in general do not share their teachings publicly as it could be so easily misunderstood. It is a tradition among Sufi masters to share their knowledge only with a few chosen students. Their wisdom remains veiled to the world. The world sees the outward practices of some Sufi masters such as the poetry and music, and believes that the Sufi path is primarily about cultural innovations and laxity in religious tenets.
Many writers and translaters have discovered that a watered-down, culturally-diverse and fun-filled retelling of spiritual stories is very attractive to the modern readers. We all naturally love the promise of spiritual rewards without the need to work for it. The Sufi path as taught by the truly realized souls of bygone era such as Sheikh Abdul Qadir Jilani and Mevlana Rumi is lost in the mists of “new-age” retelling and purposefully misleading translations.
This post is part of an ongoing personal project to discover the wisdom of the ancient Sufis and their beautiful inspiring stories.
Unraveling the Mystery: Who Exactly Are the Sufis?
The Sufis are simple people. They spend their life in deep devotion to God. Their lives revolve around their abode and the mosque. Many of them also spend their time in solitary places which provide opportunities for undisturbed prayers and meditations.
While the word Sufi in a broad sense refers to devout people from time immemorial, in a more literal sense it refers to those who delve into the heart of Islam. The core group of such Sufis scrupulously follow the Sunnah and Hadith, that is the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him). This is highlighted in the poetry of Mevlana Rumi: “…I am dust below the feet of Muhammad...”
Why is it important to note that the Sufi tradition is based on the core tenets of the religion? Maryam Kabeer Faye, in her book recounting her spiritual journey, has observed that to take advantage of a spiritual tradition, we need to immerse ourselves in that tradition fully, including the religious foundation on which it is based. Religious frameworks provide the step-by-step path for the spiritual practitioner without which he or she would always be confined to the boundaries of knowledge. If our intention is not solely focused on the aesthetic, musical or poetic aspects of the Sufi path but on seeking a deeper connection with God, we must look beyond the external aspects of the tradition. We must recognize and appreciate the underlying foundation that inspired the words and actions of the Sufi masters.
The Sufis “innovated” by deepening their observance of the religious tenets – their innovations were not meant to be alternatives to the core religious practices. While remaining true to the core tenets of the faith, the Sufis go beyond the prescribed ritual prayers in their devotion to God. As an example, Hazrat Juanid used to immerse himself in many hundreds of units of Salah prayers every day instead of just the 5 units of prayers that Muslims pray.
The term “mystic” is sometimes used to describe Sufis because they seek a direct and personal experience of the divine. Sufis believe that to attain nearness to God, one must transform oneself by practicing the Quranic teachings of humility, kindness, and truthfulness in addition to the outer practices of religion.
The infographic below features a timeline of some of the well known Sufi mystics who have lived since the era of Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him). The dates refer to their probable dates of birth based on various sources.
Looking at the timeline of Sufis, it is obvious that the golden age of the Sufi tradition can be categorized into two distinct epochs.
- The first phase of the Sufi tradition spans from Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) to the Mongol conquest of Baghdad in 1258 AD, led by Hulagu Khan, grandson of Genghis Khan. During this era, the Sufis, while adhering to the teachings of the Quran and the Sunnah, surpassed the prescribed religious obligations with their devotion and piety. Many enlightened masters penned books on the foundational aspects of the Sufi path during this time.
- The second period of the Sufi tradition starts after the Mongol invasion of Baghdad (1258 AD) and continues till today. In this time period, especially during the last 100 years or so, many books by early Sufi masters have been translated into English language. Unfortunately, numerous such translations are undertaken with the deliberate intent of diluting or distorting the original teachings. My blogpost Finding Mevlana Rumi: My Journey to Unveil Hidden Sufi Teachings highlights this trend.
Decoding the Sufi Path: Tracing the Transformative Sufi Path Across Time
Since time immemorial, the Sufi path, also known as Tasawwuf, has been about following the core tenets of the faith such as Salah, fasting, reciting the Quran and adhering to moral values such as truthfulness, honesty and love.
While Wikipedia’s page on Sufism provides a fascinating historical account of Sufi tradition; this post about Tasawwuf is written for the spiritual practitioner.
A spiritual practitioner in the Sufi tradition wants to experience a direct connection with God by doing things that God loves. In some ways it is similar to other facets of our lives. As an example, I remember working after-hours in office and thinking how much impressed my manager would be if he saw me now. As dedicated office workers, we are always aspiring to catch the boss’s eye through exceptional efforts that transcend our job descriptions. Sufis are propelled by a somewhat similar inner urge – just for a higher and more fulfilling purpose. They are driven by a profound longing to earn God’s pleasure.
Sufis continually seek to realize the presence of God. Every spiritual milestone further deepens their faith and prepares them for the next stage of nearness to God.
The Sufis do not regard the ability to walk on water, heal the sick, or conquer adversaries as extraordinary achievements. Their deepest aspirations lie in attaining a direct and intimate experience of God.
As a kid, I was fascinated by fantasy movies and stories of magicians. I was utterly spellbound by the tales of Indian jadugars and druids elixirs. I yearned for the extraordinary power to turn invisible at will or soar through the skies, weaving magic for the delight of my friends. Now, after exploring the corners of the world and savoring much of its delights, I have come to the realization that true fulfillment can only be found in the presence of God.
The Sufi path is about single-minded seeking of God. This longing for nearness to God is highlighted in Hazrat Rabia’s verses:
O Lord, if I worship You because of Fear of Hell,
then burn me in Hell;
If I worship You because I desire Paradise,
then exclude me from Paradise;
But if I worship You for Yourself alone,
then deny me not your Eternal Beauty.
While the key tenets spirituality such as piety and goodness of heart have been cherished by all true Sufis in history, there has been a distinct evolution in the Sufi path. The following infographic highlights how the Sufi path has evolved over time.
While in the past the knowledge of Tasawwuf was confined to small groups of Sufis, today the books of Sufi masters have been translated and their teachings are easily available over the internet. The Sufi path has evolved in other ways as well. Many of the contemporary masters such as such as Ostad Elahi who was a proficient Tanbur player, used music to sing God’s praise. Similarly Mevlana Rumi’s spontaneous whirling dances and poetry continue to inspire us.
Do Sufis use music or dance to connect with God? Music, poetry or dance are spontaneous outbursts of Sufi love for God not the other way around. That is, as far as I understand, the Sufis don’t rely on music or poetry as a tool to connect with God. Mevlana Rumi burst into a whirling dance on the street when he was consumed by God’s love. He did not come upon dancing as a tool to initiate a connection with God.
The Sufis’ Inspirational Love for God: Is Tasawwuf a Distinct Religion or an Integrated Spiritual Practice?
The Sufis emphasize love for God instead of worshiping Him only out of fear. They do not deny the possibility of God’s wrath. However many of the Sufis were raised to such a high station by God’s Grace, that they felt nothing but love for Him.
Fear is the easiest emotion to arouse. I believe that’s why many preachers in all religions play on this emotion. But fear is not an emotion which motivates fervent service. Only love can inspire undivided devotion.
When I was a kid, I remember visiting a prayer service during a festival, in which the priest was shouting in anger at all the sinners. I went home depressed that all my family and I were surely destined for misfortune in our afterlife. The priests words made me so sad that I remember those moments vividly even though decades have passed away. But interestingly the priest’s words didn’t motivate me into observing my prayers anymore than what I was already doing. I just felt unhappy by his words.
Need is another strong emotion. Need does encourage action – and for many years I prayed in the hope that God will support me in examinations, in finding a job and then helping me survive day to day.
In contrast to fear or need, the Sufis encourage us to deepen our love for God who is Loving (Al-Wadud) and Extremely Kind (Al-Rahim). When I read the books written by Sufis about their experiences of nearness to God and about His Mercy and His Grace and His Love – I feel reassured by His Kindness and Benevolence. I feel so refreshed and positive. The writings of Sufis fill me with hope and gives me the confidence that God listens to those who pray with devotion.
The Sufis don’t have a separate religion. Nor do they espouse a lax approach to religion. Rather, they advocate for a more fervent commitment and more rigorous adherence to the fundamental principles of the religion. For instance, Hazrat Junaid opted to perform hundreds of extra units of Salah instead of merely observing the obligatory five daily prayers. Similarly, Hazrat Abdul Qadir Jilani would recite the entire Quran every night, instead of the customary practice of reciting it only during Ramadan. Hazrat Shams, who was Hazrat Rumi’s companion and guide, emphasized the importance of adhering to the path demonstrated by Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) as a fundamental principle for Sufis. Hazrat Shams’s story presented in this book Sufi Stories of Wisdom, Calm and Wondrous Mystique, was an eye-opener for me, as we had been led to believe that Hazrat Shams and his friend Hazrat Rumi lived on the fringes of religion with their poetry, dance and music.
Unearthing the Treasure: How Sufi Stories Touch the Souls of All Ages
Sufi stories are either biographical tales about well-known Sufi personalities, or they are interesting anecdotes related to them.
- Biographies of Sufi Masters (Non-Fiction): We have many ancient manuscripts in libraries that allow us to construct authentic pictures of Sufi lives. The Lamps that Illuminated the World: Mystical Journeys of 3 Great Sufi Masters is one such book that traces the mystical journeys of three great Sufi masters: Sheikh al-Junaid, Hazrat Bayazid Bistami and Sheikh Abdul Qadir Gilani, and is based on extensive research and fact-checking.
- Moral Stories (Fiction): Sufi stories that are anecdotes (as opposed to true Sufi biographies) aim to impart spiritual wisdom and insights by using allegories, symbols, and metaphors. The Elephant in the Dark Room is one such story. They are often told in a parable-like style, with characters and settings that represent deeper spiritual truths.
Sufi stories are a timeless source of wisdom and inspiration that can benefit people of all ages, from kids to adults. Sufi stories can help you feel better when you’re going through a tough time by giving you comfort and hope. They’re like a warm hug for your heart and can help you stay strong and positive even when things get rough.
The Sufis, similar to us, were a highly varied group of people. Through these stories, we may discover someone with whom we can identify with. For instance, Hazrat Sultan Bahoo enjoyed going on countryside walks, in contrast to Sheikh Junaid who preferred city life. Additionally, while Hazrat Bayazid preferred a simple lifestyle, Hazrat Muhasibi did not shy away from creature comforts. By reading stories about various Sufis, we can find a spiritual guide who can assist us in advancing on our spiritual journey.
Sufi stories explore common themes and messages, such as the importance of love, kindness, humility, and self-realization. They invite readers to reflect on their own spiritual journey and the obstacles they may face along the way. For example, Hazrat Bayazid’s journey taught me the need for humility.
The Quran teaches us to be humble. In Sura Al-Isra, God tells us, “Do not walk proudly on the earth. You cannot cleave the earth, nor can you rival the mountains in height.” However, it’s only when I read the biography of Hazrat Bayazid Bastami, that I realized the true meaning of this verse in Quran.
Hazrat Bayazid recounts that God asked him what he has to offer. When Hazrat Bayazid offered to renounce the world, God replied that the riches of the world do not mean anything to Him. He would not care for such a sacrifice. Then Hazrat Bayazid offered humility as a virtue to God and God accepted this.
Hazrat Bayazid Bastami made the cultivation of humility the central goal in his life. It is said that he used to protect himself from pride by taking extreme measures. Once during the month of Ramadan, when he was traveling home, many people from the city came out to welcome him. Hazrat Bayazid took out a piece of bread and starting chewing it. The crowd melted away quickly as the people thought that they had been mistaken about his piety and he did not deserve their welcome. In truth, Hazrat Bayazid did not want people to show him respect as he feared that it would cause pride in his heart.
I find my life changing as I read such stories and try to practice the teachings contained in them. Despite being centuries old, Sufi stories remain relevant today, even in a modern world. They provide a window into the human experience of spiritual realms, and offer insights into universal truths that transcend time and culture. Sufi stories can help readers find meaning in their lives, and inspire them to connect with their inner selves and the divine.
To fully appreciate the richness of Sufi stories, it’s important to read them with an open mind and heart, and to look beyond the surface level of the tale. Pay attention to the symbolism and allegory used, and reflect on how they relate to your own life and spiritual journey. You may find that different interpretations of the same story can offer new insights and perspectives.
It is very important to identify the correct translations of Sufi writings as I have explained in this post: Finding Mevlana Rumi: My Journey to Unveil Hidden Sufi Teachings.
Many of the modern stories and movies are today are produced in the context of contemporary issues. The focus even in kid’s TV serials, YouTube/TikTok videos and movies seems to have shifted away from celebrating the simple life-values to stories about a world of artificial intelligence and fantasy games.
Interestingly many of such modern story and video themes have subtle stress inducing effects that we only realize when we completely step away in a digital detox environment. I came across one such story in which the children were sitting around having a ‘Kellogg Breakfast.” Obviously the story was in a children’s story book published by a multi-national and the kids can not see through such advertorial stories. The kids reading or watching such a story would then clamor for a similar treat and become discontent with wholesome food.
The question arises: Is it possible to offer a cleaner entertainment? Is there more to enjoying life than the tablet screen which has sneaky advertising? I believe that Sufi stories are a great way to instill important values and perspectives in our minds of our kids, that can shape their lives for years to come.
Books Revealing Sufis’ Personal Experiences: Insights from Journeys of the Soul
Here are some classics about the Sufi path written by – as far as I know – truly enlightened masters
For most of the books listed below, I haven’t provided specific translations or links to purchase on Amazon.com. If you have a genuine interest in the Sufi path, you can easily search the internet to find suitable translations or information on where to obtain them. However, I have included translations that I know to be of higher quality than others, such as those on masnavi.net.
I have intentionally avoided many popular treatises, including those by Idris Shah, as I am uncertain whether their purpose is true spiritual exploration or a sensationalized portrayal of mystical and magical sciences in a historical context.
I have made a conscious effort to avoid books that rely solely on anecdotes as sources and lack verified facts. As one reviewer write about such a biography about Hazrat Rabia: “The book gives us a biography of her life and her experiences, but it is difficult to know if it is correct or not, considering the author admits to the false claims of her life that have been recorded. Perhaps she is better to be in the hearts of those who actually knew her, or who make dua for her.”
In the process of creating the following list I discovered books that I have not read and would love to read. This is a living list. If you come across books that you would like to be included pleaset let me know.
- Sufi Light: The Secret of Meditation by Ahmed Javid. This book is my personal favorite. It is a practitioner’s handbook written by a Sufi who has himself experienced everything he writes about. I have written a review about this book in my blogpost, Journeying with Sufi Writers: My Path to Rediscovering Faith.
- Nur-ul-Huda – The Light of Guidance by Sultan Bahoo. Available on sultanbahoo.net
- The Sufi Path of Knowledge, Ibn Al-Arabi’s Metaphysics of Imagination translated by William C. Chittick
- Journey to the Lord of Power, A Sufi Manual on Retreat by Ibn Arabi
- Alone with the Alone, Creative Imagination in the Sufism of Ibn Arabi translated by Henry Corbin, Ralph Manheim
- Mystical Dimensions of Islam by Annemarie Schimmel
- Al-Ghazali’s Path to Sufism: His Deliverance from Error (al-Munqidh min al-Dalal)
- The Masnavi, by Mevlana Jalal al-Din Rumi (masnavi.net)
- The Poems of Hafez by Shamseddin Hafez
- The Risalah: Principles of Sufism Paperback by Abul Qasim Abd al-Karim bin Hawazin al-Qushayri
- Kashf Al-Mahjub: The Revelation of the Veiled, An Early Persian Treatise on Sufism translated by Reynold A. Nicholson
- Me and Rumi The Autobiography of Shams-i Tabrizi Shams-i Tabrizi, translated by William C. Chittick and Annemarie Schimmel
- The Man of Light in Iranian Sufism by Henry Corbin. This is an analysis of the writings of the great Persian mystics such as Suhrawradi, Semnani, Najm alDin Kubra on the quest for enlightenment in their spiritual journeys.
- The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam
- Sirr al-Asrar by Hadrat Abd al-Qadir al-Jilani (1077-1166AD)
- Divine Governance of the Human Kingdom Including What the Seeker Needs and The One Alone Ibn Arabi, al-Jerrahi al-Halveti
- I Am Wind, You Are Fire, The Life and Work of Rumi by Annemarie Schimmel
- Sufism: Veil and Quintessence A New Translation with Selected Letters: Veil and Quintessence – A New Transformation with Selected Letters (The Writings of Frithjof Schuon)
- Daughter of Fire, A Diary of a Spiritual Training with a Sufi Master by Irina Tweedie
- Miftah al-falah, a thirteenth century Sufi text, written by Ibn Ata Allah. This book offers a glimpse into the Sufi world of the 7th Islamic century, allowing readers to witness firsthand the guidance provided by Sufi masters to novices.
- Signs on the Horizons: Meetings with Men of Knowledge and Illumination by Michael Sugich.
- When You Hear Hoofbeats Think of a Zebra by Shems Friedlander. Shems Friedlander has studied with Sufi Shaykhs throughout the Middle East – in Makkah, Madinah, Cairo and Istanbul and this book is a curation of his knowledge.
- What is Sufism? by Martin Lings
- Early Islamic Mysticism: Sufi, Quran, Miraj, Poetic and Theological Writings by Michael Anthony Sells
- The Ecstasy Beyond Knowing: A Manual of Meditation Kindle Edition by Pir Vilayat inayat Khan.
- The Oblivion Seekers Paperback – Jan. 11 2001 by Isabelle Eberhardt. Stories and journal notes by an extraordinary young woman—adventurer and traveler, Arabic scholar, Sufi mystic and adept of the Djillala cult.
- Memorial of God’s Friends: Lives and Sayings of Sufis Kindle Edition by Farid Al-Din Attar, translated by Paul Losensky.
- The Conference of the Birds, by Farid Ud-Din Attar
- Sufis of Andalusia by Muhyiddin Ibn Arabi. A delightful 12th-century spiritual travel book.
- The Book of Strangers, by Ian Dallas. Ian seeks and finds wisdom and solace in the deserts of Sahara under the guidance of a Sufi master to whom he dedicates his short but powerful book.
- Beauty and Light by Cemalnur Sargut. I have not yet read this book, but one reviewer states that reading this beautiful book reminds us that the “gates to heaven are still open.”
- Journey Through Ten Thousand Veils by Maryam Kabeer Faye
- The Lamps that Illuminated the World: Mystical Journeys of Three Sufi Masters: Sheikh al-Junaid, Hazrat Bayazid Bistami and Sheikh Abdul Qadir Gilani by SagaTeller.
- Sufi Stories of Wisdom, Calm and Wondrous Mystique by SagaTeller. Through a skillful weaving of anecdotes from tradition and history, this book contains several stories which have been carefully researched for authenticity.
- Essential Muslim Prayers & Living a Devotional Life: A Beginner’s Guide to Salah, Prayers from Quran and Spiritualism in Islam by SagaTeller.
Closing Thoughts: Insights and Takeaways from Sufi Wisdom
Sufi stories are a treasure trove of spiritual wisdom and insight. The beauty of Sufi stories lies in their ability to transcend time and culture, inspiring generations to come.
Through these timeless tales, we can connect with our inner selves and the divine.
While my personal experiences are those of a seeker beginning his journey, I have included a list of books that I believe are written by truly realized masters. I hope you will find inspiration in the stories and teachings in those books.
This site is dedicated to an authentic retelling of Sufi stories to bring their timeless wisdom in an engaging language that resonates with today’s readers. I would welcome suggestions for improvements and any guidance that the readers of this blogpost have to offer.
- Sufi Literature on Wiki – This is a good starting point for exploring more about Sufi literature and stories: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Category:Sufi_literature