Why Sufism is capable of integrating the postmodern appreciation for the uniqueness and freedom of the individual

Why Sufism is capable of integrating the postmodern appreciation for the uniqueness and freedom of the individual
with the spiritual demands of traditional wisdom.
Kabir Helminski, Konya, September 30, 2007

Today we are faced with not so much a clash not of civilizations but a clash of paradigms. The prevailing post-modern paradigm is built upon individuality and individual freedom. It sees all perspectives as relative, subjective, conditioned by social forces. The post-modern paradigm is secular and implicitly materialist. It proclaims its independence and freedom, but in reality it is more and more influenced by commercialism, commodification, consumerism, and relativism.

There is another emerging paradigm which we might call the global wisdom paradigm. It attempts to rescue the best of traditional spiritual wisdom from the accretions of culture, religious dogma, and sectarian belief. It includes the people we could call “cultural creatives”, people who are aware of environmentalism, sustainability. sensitive to issues of gender, race, and multiculturalism. These people are fundamentally spiritual.

Fundamentalism, on the other hand, is a narrowly conceived perspective, a worldview based on a self-righteous conviction that the truth belongs exclusively to a particular belief system. It doesn’t matter whether a belief system is Christian evangelism, Islamic orthodoxy, Communism, or the secular fundamentalism we witness in highly secular France or Turkey. All of these tend toward authoritarianism, and, in the case of the religious Fundamentalisms, toward Puritanism as well.

Sufism, and especially the Sufism of Rumi, is a spirituality that is capable of reinventing itself, transcending itself, while remaining true to its essential principles. Sufism is a highly nuanced expression of the global wisdom tradition. While affirming its roots in the Divine Revelation of the holy Qur’an and the character of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), it is capable of revealing a universal, yet particular, embodiment of the wisdom tradition. It is capable of integrating the postmodern appreciation for the uniqueness and freedom of the individual with the spiritual demands of traditional wisdom.

Sufism leads toward transformation of the self, freeing the self from its separation, defensiveness, insecurity, doubt, shallowness, and opening toward humility, generosity, service, and love. It is effective because it has both a methodology for reducing our slavery to the ego, and for making a connection to the spiritual dimension.

As a social phenomenon Sufism can present itself in forms that vary from a simple, salt of the earth practicality to a profound and learned esotericism, from the conservative orthodoxy of some orders to the progressive spirit of the Mevlevis, to the nearly invisible spirituality of the Melamis, who distance themselves from all rituals and outer appearances of spirituality, preferring to keep their spirituality as invisible as possible. The Melami approach, which is implicit in the Mevlevi approach, is used as a means of depriving the ego of any satisfaction in merely “appearing” spiritual.

Sufism has a distinct advantage today because it is an expression of the universal wisdom tradition while still offering a living tradition that is grounded in centuries of practice, a sophisticated methodology, a vast literature and culture, and a coherent metaphysics of Divine origin.

At a time when people are often either skeptical or disinterested in institutional religions, awareness of the spiritual dimension of life has become more and more rare. It is left to a minority of people open to the mystical wisdom traditions of mankind to keep a certain kind of work alive. Sufism is like a software program that has functioned within the operating system of Islam. The extent to which it can function independently of that operating system is still debated by a few, although the great majority of practicing Sufis in the world today function within the Islamic operating system. The exception is in the West where a certain number of Sufis may have so far allowed Islam to fall into the background or disappear altogether.

One should not make the mistake, however, of thinking that the Sufi understanding of Islam is equivalent to either our Western notions of institutional religion, or to that Islamic orthodoxy which is often presented as a strict, legalistic paradigm. For Sufis, Islam is actually a system that allows the transcending of paradigms. La illaha il Allah; there is no divinity but God. This deserves to be better understood.

Our understanding of revelation, virtue, and character is based on direct spiritual perception. We are transformed by our experience of the Divine, both through the contemplative experience and, just as importantly, in the transformed relationships that are cultivated within the community of Sufis.

This is a practical process, an applied spirituality. This process takes place within a metaphysical context that orients us in such a way that it increases the possibility of experiencing the deepest Truth within the context of everyday life. In the end we grow in the experience of living on all levels of our being simultaneously. Sensory experience is enhanced, but we are no longer enslaved to it. Intellectual clarity is sharpened, but we depend less on our thinking mind. The heart becomes sensitive and open, and yet we also acquire inner strength and invulnerability. We let go of our preconditions, demands, expectations, and we find we have more and more to be grateful for.

As the ego is subtly, gradually transformed, making it more transparent, humble, and loving, we experience life with greater depth, meaning, subtlety, and mystery. Tonight, and in recent nights here and in Istanbul, we have sung the joyous hymns of our tradition, worshipped among the ranks of lovers, let our bodies sway with remembrance, and kissed the hands of brothers and sisters from America, Ireland, Australia, Turkey, Iran, Lebanon, and Syria. We have come to know that we are in the hands of Hu. Now let us look at what we hold in our own hands.


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