This interview was taken originally from Ebru TV’s “Perspectives on Faith” program and was transcribed by Semazen.net.
Special thanks to Mehdi Aminrazavi for giving permission to share this interview with our viewers.
Mehdi Aminrazavi is currently a professor of Religion and Philosophy at the University of Mary Washington. Before we began the interview, let me talk a little bit about Professor Aminrazavi’s background. He originally hails from the city Mashhad in Iran. He arrived in the United States in 1976. He completed his B.A. in Philosophy and Urban Planning at the University of Washington in Seattle. Immediately following that he did an M.A. in Philosophy. And then he proceeded to go on to Temple University and he did an M.A. & Ph.D. in Philosophy of Religion. In 1992 he started his job as a professor at University of Mary Washington and he is currently the author of two monographs: one on “Suhrawardi and the School of Illumination” and most recently a book on Omar Khayyam entitled “The Wine of Wisdom, The life, poetry and philosophy of Omar Khayyam”. He is also the co-editor of a five volume anthology entitled “An Anthology of Philosophy in Persia”.
Mairaj Syed: My first question to you is lets just began by talking about what exactly is Sufism?
Aminrazavi: Well…first let me thank you and the television station for hosting this program. Sufism is a very very pertinent topic not only in and of itself but because of the relevance and the range of issues that it can address and possibly solve. As you know we live at the time when fundamentalism is on the rise in all religions, and esoteric dimension of religions in general and esoteric dimension of Islam in particular Sufism has a message that is very timely to give. Let me first say a few words about the etymology of the word Sufi and Sufism. There are generally three different views as to where this term comes from. The first one is a Greek based, the argument is that the word Sufi comes from the word sophia, meaning wisdom and that a Sufi is a wise man therefore. The second theory or perspective argues that the word Sufi comes from the Persian word ??? ?af?, which literally means pure, so a Sufi is a pure hearted one. There is also a term…there is another theory which relates Sufism to the notion of ??? ??f, which is also the type of material like a burlap type of material, and so the third explanation for where the term itself came argues that, since this rather rough type of material was being worn by Sufis therefore they were called Sufis.
Syed: And the significance of it being a rough material?
Aminrazavi: Actually it irritates the skin and Sufis are very much like monks…Christian monks, in fact the argument is that this notion came from the Sufis encounter…early Sufis encounter with Christian monks who also used to wear same type of material and since it irritates the body, it’s a form of a ascetic practice. It’s a form of zuhd. To these three existing explanations for the etymology of the word, comes a fourth one which I’ll try to incorporate that into the whole notion of where Sufism came from. And let me say just a few words about that. The first argument or perspective of where Sufism came from, according to some western scholars at least is that it represents the influence of Hinduism and Buddhism and the ascetic or monastic aspect of Christianity on Islam. In other words as Muslims came in contact with Christians first, eastern orthodox Christianity first and on the western part and on the eastern part with Hindus and later on Buddhists, they also learned the ascetic aspect of their tradition.
Syed: So Sufism wasn’t something that intrinsic to Islam, wasn’t there from the very beginning
Aminrazavi: That is at least one perspective. The second argument which is equally unacceptable to me is what some people called the Arian reaction, namely after the fall of the Persian Empire, since Persians did not take their defeat lightly, there was a reaction and so Islam was Persinised in a sense.
Syed: And Sufism kind of represents this Persinised tendency
Aminrazavi: Exactly. They did not feel comfortable with the harsh and legalistic aspect of Islam and so they took the heart of Islam and they kind of distanced themselves from the more legalistic or fethi part. And that also has been proposed. And then there is of course a third explanation and a more mainstream explanation which in my humble opinion is what lies at the heart of where Sufism came from and that is Sufism is an integral part of Islam itself. Sufism represents the mystical dimension of Islam.
Syed: So how exactly does Sufism then relate to other dimensions of Islam?
Aminrazavi: Very good question. To answer that question we really have to look at the bigger picture. Not only Sufism and Islam but in almost all religions, as someone who has taught comparative religion for the last two decades, we see this phenomenon in other religions. Most religions that I am familiar with lend themselves to two distinct interpretations; an exoteric and an esoteric, a dhahiri and a batini. You can see that for example, in Judaism there is the more legalistic Orthodox Judaism which puts emphasis on the law. And then there is the Cabbalists who represent the more esoteric and softer version of Judaism. In Christianity there is the exoteric level which is represented by Protestantism, and then there is the more esoteric, more spiritual, softer approach to the heart of religion which is more catholic, more monastic tradition.
Syed: Now are these supposed to be oppositional or are they describing different aspects of these religious traditions or how do scholars of religion think about this issue?
Aminrazavi: Very good question. They need not be oppositional. In other words there have been many many pious Catholics or cabbalists who also follow the law. But as far as the model of religion is concerned, the way the exoteric interpreters of religion see religion is that religion merely is a set of laws that you follow. If you consider a walnut for example, it has a shell, then it has a seed. The shell is merely a shell and what makes a walnut desirable is not the shell but what’s inside of it. And so the truth that lies at the heart of religion, that lies at the heart of Islam is really the desirable part of it, it’s really the heart and soul of religion. And the outer shell is merely a means to an end. And this model can be seen in Hinduism and Buddhism, in Judaism and Christianity, and in particular in Islam…and that shell, that heart is represented best by the Sufi tradition.
Syed: I see…so let’s take for instance a concrete example. So I’m guessing we can call the outer shells perhaps the Sharia [????? Šar?ah]…that is the Sharia in the instance of the Islamic tradition. And Sharia institutes a particular practice…prayer for instance. There is a command that you pray…most Muslims believe five times a day, so what does Sufism have to say about this particular practice…that is where does Sufism fit in to this the practice of praying?
Aminrazavi: That’s a very good question. Well…Sufism is not a monolithic entity. There are different Sufis, different Sufi traditions, different schools of thought, different paradimes. Generally speaking, the spectrum of Sufism ranges from the Antinomian Sufis…namely those who insist on breaking the tradition in order to get to the heart of tradition.
Syed: So they are saying that the outer aspect is not needed at all…it’s irrelevant or maybe even getting in the way. Let’s take al-Ghazzali [Ghaz?l?] on prayer for instance. Isn’t it also the case that for Ghazzali what Sufism adds is depth to the prayer…some way of getting at some kind of kernel of perfection.
Aminrazavi: That’s right.
Syed: I mean it’s not just that Sufism for Ghazzali for instance is consistent with these other practices like chanting or singing but it forms an integral part of the orthodox generally accepted practice of praying of five prayers
Aminrazavi: In the Sufism of Ghazzali and some of the other people who have utmost respect for the Sharia, what we see is a rapproachmont between the two dimensions of Sharia. Even Sharia has an outer dimension and an inner dimension. So there is the prayer of the body in which we perform the prayer, but there is also an inner prayer. There is fasting during Ramadan in which you abstain from eating, but there is also fasting of the eyes and the ears and the tongue…there is the inner fasting. So what Ghazzali does very beautifully is to add this other dimension in observance of Sharia, which, as you rightly mentioned, adds depth to it.
Syed: Throughout our conversation so far we’ve mentioned Rumi, we’ve mentioned Ghazzali…what are some other famous figures in Islamic history, both pre-modern and modern, that are Sufis?
Aminrazavi: First let me say few words about the three distinct phases in the evolution of Sufi thought, and mention a few figures in each period. What we have in the history of Islamic thought are three distinct phases. The early phase of Sufi tradition known as the period of zuhd or ascetic practice is a period in which we see people like R?bi’a al-‘Adawiyya, the first female and grandmaster of the Sufi tradition, put a great deal of emphasis on ascetic practices. The assumption is that as the famous hadith says Tukhallafu bi Akhalq Allah… “Become God like”. So the early Sufi said what is the difference between “I” and God. How can I unite with my original abode, how can I achieve unity? Well I have body and bodily desires and God does not, so if I diminish my bodily desires as much as I can then I will become Godlike. So they ate very little, they slept very little, some of them like R?bi’a practiced celibacy, they did not get married and so on. They abstained sexual pleasures, bodily pleasures and they went to extreme as in the case of R?bi’a and some of the early ones. This period lasted for about two or two and a half centuries roughly and was followed by a second period in which the Sufism of zuhd becomes the Sufism of ashk or love.
Syed: And the first period extends back to the very beginnings of Islam, from the time of the Prophet and his companions till about two hundred and fifty years afterwards.
Aminrazavi: I would say roughly about fifty years or so after the Prophet when Sufism began to form somewhat of a coherent and independent identity. The second period is if I were to compare it to something like karma yoga in which love is a very very powerful instinct, which can be directed towards love of the world, love of one’s family and possessions, or it can be redirected towards the love of God. And when you direct it towards God, it opens your psyche, it opens the possibilities of the psyche to other realities and so Sufis in this period saw God as “beloved” and themselves as a “lover”. And so the relationship is that of a lover and a beloved.
Syed: And you said there is a third phase.
Aminrazavi: There is a third phase. Now this phase is also a period which put emphasis on piety and so on but not extreme asceticism. The body is not something… the bodily desires are not something that you want to destroy or eliminate
Syed: They are not inherently bad.
Aminrazavi: They are not inherently bad because the prophet Muhammad (pbuh) after all is a model for the Sufis and he ate and he slept, and he was pious but not ascetic in the strict sense of the word. So…and then there is the third phase which really incorporates the first and the second one but also a third element namely the element of knowledge. This is the period when we see the phenomenon called irfân [eerfan] or gnosis. This is when Gnostics, Muslim Gnostics come on the scene.
Syed: So you talked a little about how the desire for love of God has the ability to impart knowledge or the pursuit of God and a love of God has the ability to…through it you can gain cognitive access to realities beyond the sensory realm that we live in, and this sounds somewhat philosophical.
Aminrazavi: That’s right. It’s actually does. And it came to be for two reasons primarily: First by now, which is about the seventh to eighth century and onward after that, we see the full impact of Hellenic and Greek thought on Islamic civilization, and so Plato, Aristotle, and in particular Plotinus became very very important. The second reason was that whenever you have spirituality…purer spirituality, it also lends itself to mischief…as I said in the case of antinomian Sufis who broke the law, and the fact that some of these practices went to extremes. And so what we see is in a sense the more sober Sufis, the more learned Sufis put the break on and said wait…we are approaching spiritual chaos and what we need is discipline, and this discipline is done…first of all the Sharia must be observed, and so they bring that element in.
Syed: So that reaction against the antinomian tendency happened around what age period?
Aminrazavi: This I would say is from the twelfth century onward…we begin to see this is as the common era. We see the rise of this more sort of what I called sober or serious side of it. So in this period we see philosophy, we see philosophizing, we see the intellectual dimension of Islam being taken very seriously by some Sufis, we see ascetic practices as being part of the tradition and we also see love, which is why we have figures like Muhyiddin Ibn 'Arabi Shaykh al-Akbar the great master, and we see a flowering of these periods like the School of Isfahan [???? ??????] which began from the fourteenth century onward.
Syed: And this is a philosophical school?
Aminrazavi: This is a philosophical school but not as we understand it in the west. It’s not analytic philosophy per say, it’s a combination of philosophy, theology, mysticism, intellectual intuition and these people also wrote poetry, they also practice asceticism, and so…
Syed: But there is a systematic philosophical aspect to Sufism also.
Syed: And what are some of the main figures in the systematizing tendency within Sufism?
Aminrazavi: Well…such figures as Shihab al-Din Suhrawardi who was also the founder of the School of Ishraq, there is Muhyiddin Ibn 'Arabi and his school of unity of being wahdat al-wujud. And then we go further to such figures as the school of Isfahan…a person like Mir Damad and his student Sheykh Bahaee [Shaykh Baha' ad-Din al-`Amili, Shaykh Bahai], and the grandmaster of it all Mulla Sadr? [?adr ad-D?n Mu?ammad Sh?r?z?] and his students. It was some of these grandmasters whose fame went all the way to India such that some of the Mongol Muslim leaders asked the Safevid kings to send some of these philosophers to India.
Syed: You talked a little bit about or you’ve mentioned some of the practices that are distinctive to the mystical tradition in Islam, Sufism. What are, I mean some of the…if you can talk a little bit more at length. What is it that makes a sufi a sufi?
Aminrazavi: Very good question. First and foremost humility and humbleness and a burning desire for truth is the necessary condition for a person to become a sufi. But that is the necessary condition but not the sufficient condition. The sufficient condition to be a practicing sufi is to first and foremost join an order. You cannot be a sufi on your own. Even though there are those who are known to have done this from time to time, but mainstream Sufism consist of different orders.
Syed: So this knowledge of the reality that Sufis talk about can’t be gained from books
Aminrazavi: It cannot be gained from books, in fact there is a sufi proverb that says there was this very learned sufi who was sitting by a pool with these piles of book all around him…and this is before he became a sufi. He is a learned scholar, and a sufi master comes and throw all these books in the pool, and he screams and says all these books are very valuable and so he reaches and takes them all out of the pool and puts them back and they were all dry and so the scholar is bewildered and asks how did you do it? To which the master says, “all of these years which you have been writing with a pen on a tablet, I have been erasing what is written on the tablet. I have been purifying my heart.”
Syed: So the central idea seems to be that there is some kind of knowledge deep within all of us that…
Aminrazavi: Has to be polished.
Syed: Has to be polished, and only once you are polished, once you have a good moral character you can somehow get access to that knowledge that is already there.
Aminrazavi: That’s right, that’s right. Every one of us is potentially capable of running ten kilometers, twenty kilometers, but in actuality we couldn’t do it unless we have the training to do it. The potentiality is there, but in actuality it can’t be done. And so once a Sufi talib, a seeker of truth, joins a sufi tradition, then comes the training. And these trainings range from very a mundane observance of what you eat and who you associate with and things of that nature, to being under strict guidance of a master. And this is where the role of a master comes into the picture. These practices cannot be done on your own, you have to be supervised closely, with a person who has journeyed.
Syed: And what are some examples of these practices?
Aminrazavi: Well, of course there are the daily prayers, there is the contemplation, there is dhikr or invocation of divine names, there is meditation, there is fasting occasionally or on a longer period of time. There is observance of one’s behavior. There is avoiding…
Aminrazavi: Muhasabah, that’s right. There is Sufi poem which says:
Sahat wa sawm wa sahar wa khalwat wa zikr bi mudam
Na-tamaman-i jahan ra konad in panj tamam
Spiritual health, fasting, early rising, solitude and continuous invocation,
The spiritually incomplete, will be perfected by these five rules
Syed: So basically this is kind of like a training program, that you are under a specific master’s tutelage, and through participating in these exercises, you grow spiritually and you ascend the spiritual hierarchy.
Aminrazavi: That’s right, levels of reality
Syed: What are some of these levels?
Aminrazavi: Well, there are two distinct concepts in Sufi with respect to your progress, spiritual progress, what is called hal and maqam, states and stations. Hal is generally described as states of feelings that come over a person, like when you listen to your favorite music, you are overcome by certain feelings. And it is precisely these feelings which Sufis wrote poetry and composed music from and they have this outburst of creativity. These are temporary though, they come and go. And then there is maqam, or stations of wisdom, which as you work towards your ultimate goal (which is annihilation of the self in God), these stations are also obtained. I like to describe them in terms of military ranks. Once you become a colonel, you are no longer a foot soldier, and once you are a general, you know, you can’t go back, technically. And so, some of these include stations like ridha, submission, contentment, fear, abstinence, hope… And so there are different schools of Sufism, according to some there are seven, according to some twelve, according to some forty, but the end generally is—there is a consensus as to the end of where you will be…and that end is none other than annihilation of one’s self in God, fanâ fî 'llâh, when a person becomes one with God.
Syed: Prof. Aminrazavi, there is a famous hadith, one that is used often by Muslim theologians to explain what exactly Islam is. And this hadith divides Islam into three aspects: the first aspect is islam, the second aspect is iman and the third aspect is ihsan. Now how does Sufism relate to this hadith?
Aminrazavi: It’s very good question. And it’s a very central hadith as you mentioned, and Sufis often quote that on various settings. Well these three concepts of course constitute a coherent and unified theory as far as Sufism is concerned. First of all there is submission, submission to the will of God.
Syed: That’s the Islam.
Aminrazavi: That’s the Islam. We have to submit ourselves to our nature, a nature that is given by Allah. So if you are a man of exoteric nature, then you have to follow the laws. If you are a man or woman of esoteric nature, then you have to follow the more inward path that you have. But the key element, as far as the Islamic part is concerned, is to render, to give yourself to the path that you are destined to follow.
And then there is iman of course, faith. Faith, which is the most fundamental part of Sufism, faith in the metaphysical reality of God, to the reality of being, to the fundamentals of Islam, which is the creation, which is the separation, which is the hope for reunity.
But ihsan is probably the most fundamental of them all from the Sufi perspective, because, it is roughly translated, as compassion, good deeds…but virtue, virtue is really perhaps the best translation that comes to mind. And, it’s a basis for a very very large school of ethics and philosophy, Aristotelian ethics is often called “virtue ethics.”
Syed: Akhlaq, in Islamic terms.
Aminrazavi: Akhlaq, in Islamic terms, exactly. And what this concept amounts to is that once your character becomes noble, once it’s polished, then what comes from that is inevitably ethical. You see we have one school of ethics attributed to Immanuel Kant, known as deontological ethics, or “dutiful/ duty-based ethics”, which says I have to do something not necessarily because I believe it or don’t believe it, but out of a sense of duty. I’m compelled to do it. And so that’s one type. And then there’s the other school of ethics which is utilitarian, and says something is good or right if and only if it benefits the greatest number of people. And virtue ethics says, well, let’s wait and look at those, those are both problematic in a sense. What one ought to do is to polish his pungent substances, his razail (vices.)
Syed: The vices.
Aminrazavi: The vices, right. The base part of human ethics. And once you become this shining star, once you become luminous, then from you comes light.
Syed: You almost don’t even have to try to be a good person. Whatever you do is by definition good because you have attained moral perfection. And it’s almost like you don’t even have to try.
Aminrazavi: Exactly. And there’s a beautiful story in Rumi that illustrates this. These are all wonderful narratives. Rumi tells us that there was this king who had two palaces, built two palaces, and wanted these to be decorated and very ornate, and painted and so on. So he gave one palace to Chinese painters who are known for being very meticulous and very detailed, and the Chinese painters began to paint every corner of this with very very sophisticated, beautiful patterns. And then he gave the other one to the Persians, who did nothing but took sandpaper and began to sand it under cover. So they covered the palace and they sanded and sanded. So the day comes when the king wants to see the final result. He asks the Chinese painters to remove the cover and they remove it, and there is this beautiful palace, painted with sublime designs. And then he asked the Persians to unveil the palace, which they do. And they have polished it so much that the entire palace has become nothing but mirrors, which not only reflects all the designs of the Chinese, but also reflects the entire palace. That palace is the human heart. And virtual ethics is really that; once you polish your heart, your inner being; once you become beautiful and pious and virtuous, from you emanates beauty and piety.
Syed: And Sufism teaches you how to do that polishing.
Aminrazavi: Exactly, Sufism is really nothing but a practical instruction in how to perform catharsis of the soul.
Syed: So, in a sense…I mean you talked about deontology or Kantian conception of ethics verses utilitarian verses virtue ethical and Sufism is kind of the practical way of achieving that perfection. And it’s not so much the case that Sufism or even virtue ethics is about following the rules or trying to determine what set of institutions is going to benefit the most number of people…
Aminrazavi: That’s right
Syed: It’s about ordering your inner self. It’s about how do you have the right dispositions, have the right passions and temperaments to produce…and once you do that, once you order your inner self you produce virtuous actions almost automatically.
Aminrazavi: That’s right…how to achieve balance. Balance in every facet of life and thought. And this is why Sufism is so invaluable to the everyday life of people, it not only brings the sense of balance but also it encourages the purification of morals.
Syed: And all of the various thinkers that we’ve talked about Ibn 'Arabi, Rumi, Ghazzali…in some way or another draw upon this tradition in different ways. Rumi is a poet, and Ibn 'Arabi …he is also a poet but he wrote more systematically, and so did Ghazzali…
Aminrazavi: And every single one of them has either written a separate treatise on ethics…the famous Ihya al-Ulum al-Din or Ihya'ul Ulumuddin of Ghazzali revival of Islamic sciences as is often translated as a major major work on ethics, or in the case of Rumi and some of the other Sufis who incorporate ethical elements into their poetry and there is so much of them.
Syed: Oftentimes and especially in modern academia poetry is set against philosophy. There are two completely different disciplines or different endeavors and practices and they satisfied different human yearnings…both from the title of most recent book Omar Khayyam who is famously a poet and perhaps he is known as a poet more than anything else. And you wanted to describe his philosophy. And it seems like you’re doing a little bit of the same when you are describing Rumi’s poetry. So how exactly does philosophy relate to Sufi poetry?
Aminrazavi: That’s a very fine and profound point you raise…I’m very glad you did that. As you know outwardly poets are condemned in the Holy Quran, in fact there is a famous verse which condemns poets and so on. And that has puzzled a great many people particularly because Arabic poetry is so so much part of the culture and so how could Islam and Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) have condemned the poets. But because there is poetry and there is poetry. In fact even if we go back to some of the early writings of Plato and Socrates, the Socratic dialogs as they are called, one of the charges they raised against Socrates was that he was a poet. And poetry is closely associated with being a sophist. And sophists were people who got paid to write poetry or rhetoric in order to instigate or stimulate emotions.
Syed: So, they weren’t necessarily concerned about the truth.
Syed: They were there to sway public opinion for this or that policy.
Aminrazavi: Somewhat of a modern politician, right?
Syed: Spin doctors…
Aminrazavi: Spin doctors…exactly. So there is an emotion-based poetry, a poetry that is simply based or intends to achieve certain ends by stimulating emotions by philosophers, and that poetry has been condemned in the Holy Quran, and is not what you would consider authentic poetry as a means to an end. And then there is the poetry in which the poet doesn’t recite the poems but the poet becomes the poem. Once your very being becomes harmonious, then from harmony comes harmony, from beauty comes beauty, from the One comes one. And so poetry being the most excellent form of harmony, the very being of these Sufis who have gone through stages of wisdom…who have suffered and worked to cleanse their inner being…it becomes so shiny, it becomes so harmonious that poetry emanates from them. Very much like sufi dancing, sema is often mistaken as this well-rehearsed set of dancers…which it is anything but that. The real sema, which is done in hanaqa (khanqa), zawiya, and sufi centers, is more like convulsions…
Syed: It’s ecstatic, spontaneous…
Aminrazavi: Ecstatic, exactly. You can’t say I’m going to perform sufi dancing from ten to eleven a.m. That’s not an authentic one. Just as a poet can’t say I’m going to write beautiful poetry from ten to eleven o’clock tomorrow. You have to do it when you are inspired. And so the kind of poetry that Rumi wrote, that Hafiz [Hafez] wrote, that Ahmad Ghazzali wrote, that the great poets of the east and the west have written, are poetry that comes from the heart. Not in the emotional sense of the word.
Syed: And there is no external purpose that…or external end that the poetry is being used to sway the public for.
Aminrazavi: Exactly. It’s a commentary of their state of being, of their spiritual accomplishments, of where they are in life.
Syed: We’ve talked a lot about Sufism and this tradition of Islam. What do you think is the function, the use, the benefit of Sufism in the modern age both for individuals living in modern societies and urban spaces and for society in general. I mean is there anything different about the modern age, and how does Sufism respond to that or answer to that?
Aminrazavi: I believe at no time has Sufism been more relevant imperative to our society than the present time. We live in very very dangerous times when the theory…such dangerous and destructive theories as the clash of civilizations are looming large and they have many believers and adherents. The picture that has been painted of Islam in the west is that of a very violent, aggressive phenomenon, a religion that thrives on violence, that supports it, condones it. Everyday whether you watch television, read newspapers, or listen to radio, we hear and see and read acts of violence committed by Muslims all around the world. So one has the right to ask the question, namely what is the nature of Islam? Is this really Islam that we see. The fact remains that Islam not only is a civilization that has produced its own art and philosophy, its own language and culture…not only it is a religion and a civilization, but also lends itself to many different interpretations. It is imperative for us to propose, to illustrate, to present the mystical side of Islam not as something marginal, not as something that is sort of “on the side”, but as an interpretation…the mystical side, the sufi side, as something that is very very central…it’s in fact the heart and the soul of Islam.
Syed: It’s been there from the very beginning
Aminrazavi: It has been there from the very beginning and hundreds and hundreds of Sufis who have written on this have done so to precisely illustrate and to fight bigotry, to fight exclusivism, to fight fundamentalism, to struggle against a one-sided narrow dogmatic version of Islam which has been so destructive both to Muslims and outsiders. Again, since we are in a Rumi forum, I want to bring Rumi into the picture. Rumi tells us that even pursuing the truth is incumbent upon those who desire it. But don’t think you will get to the end. And don’t think that there is a place where you can get to and then speak authoritatively, and say I know the truth…let me tell you what it is. In one of his beautiful poems he says: “If you seek the worlds above, beyond for a hundred centuries, you like other seekers of truth are on the same ladder.” So even though going towards perfection is a duty…a desire, but perfection can never be achieved, because by definition only God is absolute and perfect. And since we all are on this ladder, I mean this is a beautiful imagery…think of this ladder which has no end and humans are simply on this ladder depending on how spiritually accomplished you are. And no one can decide, determine, no one has the final word, no one can say I know the truth and I want everybody else to follow us. So these images of fundamentalist Islamic leaders who issue fatwas and the more radical elements who come up with these bizarre statements telling other Muslims to do this and that…commit acts of violence, have no place in not only traditional mainstream Islam, but certainly amongst Sufis and Sufism.
Syed: You talked a little bit about the need, what you perceived as perhaps even a greater need for Sufism in the modern age. When you say that what exactly do you have in mind? Are you thinking that you know maybe we should think about tariqahs, joining a tariqah, or are you talking about institutional Sufism…are you talking about just an amorphous idea that moral perfection should be taken seriously? I mean what do you have in mind?
Aminrazavi: Well…of course all of them would be fine. I’m not opposed to that, but what I have in mind primarily is to promote and use Sufism as a model for ecumenical and interfaith dialogue. We live in the global village. I personally have been involved in various ecumenical discussions for the last two decades and there is more and more interest in that. There is a silver lining in every phenomenon and one of the silver linings if there is any that came out 9/11is a great interest in Islam in the west in general and in America in particular. There are so many Jewish, Christian and Islamic dialogs that are currently going on. And I think Sufism, representing the more for the lack of a better term liberal, inclusive, tolerant aspect of Islam, presents itself as a form where ecumenical discussions can take place.
Syed: And it seems like you know from our conversations that Sufism has rich resources. Sufi poets and sufi theoreticians have already addressed the problem of how do we deal with the religious other. How do we deal with the other religious traditions from a perspective that is authentically Islamic, but at the same time charitable towards the other that is not Islamic.
Aminrazavi: Exactly. In fact this might be a good place both to bring the discussion to an end and also to respond to your question. There is another very very beautiful allegorical story that Rumi tells us in the Mathnawi…it’s a famous story of an encounter between prophet Moses and a shepherd. Prophet Moses is on top of Mount Sinai and he has had an encounter with Yahweh, with “the One who is”, and he is completely absorbed in the ecstasy of divine presence and he is walking on Mount Sinai and he overhears this shepherd, a very illiterate shepherd who is praying. And he is praying to God and he says “O Lord, if you come to my house, my humble abode, I will make you the greatest goat cheese you’ve ever had and make you bread the best bread you had and I’ll make you shoes, and so on. So the prophet Moses becomes angry and he yells at this man and says God doesn’t need your bread and your shoes and so on. And so the man apologizes, his heart broken, and Moses walks away. Then there is this thunderous voice from heaven that says, “Moses! What did you do?” And so Moses says, you know, “I tried to correct him.” To which God says, “Let the God of Moses be the God of Moses and let the God of a shepherd be the God of a shepherd”…each to his own. And this is a beautiful portrayal of a world in which there can be spiritual democracy, respect for each other, and acknowledgment of the other without trying to impose one’s perspective on the other.
Syed: Professor Aminrazavi, it’s been a wonderful conversation…just to kind of recap the variety of things we discussed…we talked a little bit about Sufism…exactly what is it, how does it relate to other dimensions and aspects of Islam. We talked about the relationship between Islamic philosophy and Sufism. We talked about some of the variety of concrete practices that characterized Sufism, what exactly does a Sufi do, what are the practices that a Sufi engages in that makes him a sufi. We talked about Rumi and the Mathnawi, and the jewels of wisdom in Rumi’s Mathnawi. And we’ve talked about the relevance…the serious and dire relevance…of Sufism for the modern age, and I think that it would be wonderful if perhaps we can end with a recitation of a poem from the Mathnawi. So please…
Aminrazavi: Yes, one of my favorite ones is the following:
“Yesterday the master was bewildered in the town looking for a human.
I told him, “I have sought…you shall not find him.”
He said, “The one whom I cannot find is the one whom I am searching for.”
And this is the spiritual master who eventually was able to turn Rumi into a giant whose message has endured for centuries.