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Sufism: A unifying movement with Islamic roots

Published:Friday | January 29, 2016 | 12:00 AMDr Glenville Ashby
Aqil Brown
The most famous Sufis are whirling dervishes.
Inayat Khan

Sufism, oftentimes referred to as the mystical branch of Islam, is emerging as a unifying force, a spiritual discipline that accommodates practitioners of every faith.

This is nothing short of ironic, given the sullied image that orthodox Islam has suffered globally.

'Sufi Thought' is a direct, ineffable experience that is realised after years of study and meditation and its adherents basks in God's magnanimity and love.

One such adherent is Aqil Brown, a Sufi teacher with over four decades of experience.

Brown is a member of the Inayati Order, a vibrant movement that emerged out of the Chisti Order and the teachings of Inayat Khan of India in the first quarter of the 20th century. Its presence is now felt in several continents.

He chronicled his quest for spiritual enlightenment and related "two profound experiences that brought alive the spiritual world".

According to Brown, he experienced an unfathomable love and beauty, beyond what the physical senses perceive. These sublime events proved transformational and paved the path for his deliberate and structured devotion to Sufi philosophy.

On the origins of Sufism, Brown explained that all spiritual teachings can be compared to a continuous, never-ending stream - without a discernible beginning and end. However, he conceded that some Sufis trace their origins to Ali ibn Talib and the Prophet Muhammad.

"Sufism's first initiation connects the practitioner to teachers and spiritual hierarchies - past and present," said Brown.

But the initiate has a long, challenging road towards enlightenment. Graduation to the second tier of the Order can prove a life long study, although each 'mureed' (student) varies in spiritual evolution.

Students are encouraged to meditate daily and seek counsel from their respective guide - absorbing and applying the principles of the Order's written material, such as, Caravan of Souls, Soul's Journey, Spiritual Dimensions of Psychology, In Search of Hidden Treasure.

While the Koran is not mandatory reading, Muslims and others belonging to Brown's Boston-based group study and uphold its esoteric principles.

Throughout, Brown reiterated the unifying thrust of Sufism. "We see the spirit of God in all religions. You develop respect for the Koran, the Bible and all sacred scripture that was brought to us from God's messengers. You begin to develop a love for others."

Brown decried the widespread use of the word 'tolerance' to describe inter-communal relations. "We should have accommodation and affection for each other."

This thesis is emblematic in the Order's Universal Worship - a practice that acknowledges religious pluralism through diverse symbols found in its uniquely created altar.




Not unlike Buddhism and Hindu yogis, Sufis work on cultivating awareness through concentration and meditation. This is performed by 'wazifa' or the repetition of sacred words for divine blessings. "We realise that outer reality is not the ultimate experience," said Brown.

Some Sufis, depending on their cultural setting, employ music and dance (movement) to attain the transcendental state. Brown noted that movement on its own is insufficient; that it must be used as a vehicle for the flow of energy within and around us. Cosmic unity is also attained through "training the breath".

On the subject of the pitfalls of meditation, Brown acknowledged that it could unearth deep-seated, subconscious wounds and traumas that cause psychological discomfort.

"This is why we diligently follow the progress of our students. And that is the reason why we stress that everyone must build resilience through spiritual practice. We all must build our eco-structure and have a solid foundation before we indulge deeply into the spiritual self.

"If there are unresolved issues that are adversely affecting an individual, we will refer him or her to an expert in spirituality and psychology, some of whom serve as guides within the Order."

During meditation, attention is drawn to the many saints, masters and prophets of humanity. It is an august lineage that serves as the spiritual compass for members.

Pilgrimages organised around the resting place of Sufi masters are a customary practice.

"Sufis gather at these shrines because the atmosphere there is refined and imbued with divine energy. Sufis at these sites are attuned to this consciousness," said Brown.

He argued that it is not uncommon for incredulous healings and other supranatural feats to occur during these outings.

The way of the Sufi emphasises attaining unity on earth. A Sufi meets the challenges of the world while undertaking a noble, sublime calling.

The soul originated from the Source and to the Source it will return. Identifying with this unity draws a Sufi closer to God. And through years of study and practise, a Sufi dies before death and resurrects now.

- Dr Glenville Ashby is the author of 'Anam Cara: Your Soul Friend and Bridge to Enlightenment and Creativity'. Feedback: or follow me on Twitter@glenvilleashby