M Aamer Safraz concludes his series on Sufism, its history, meanings and dimensions
Once initiated, a murid passes through a door beyond the standard world of the phenomenal, placing him in the realm of symbols where he may put his essence in jeopardy. The hazards on this pathway are traditionally represented by demons and dragons. By entering a world of symbols, he becomes open to transformation – but he must be certain that the source of this transformation is God and not satanic forces. When the first four lata’if (psychospiritual competencies/gifts) have been returned to their origin, the murid enters the stage of wilayat alsughra or lesser sainthood. It is here in the ‘unity of being’ that this aspiring Sufi temporarily loses interest in the manifest world and experiences the first annihilation of the ego or fana’. When the “Arc of Ascent” becomes concluded, the “Arc of Descent” begins, where the seeker returns to the everyday phenomenal world. Following the remaining akhfa’ latifa(hidden psychospiritual gifts) being annihilated in the unity of being, the seeker enters the stage of wilayat al-kubra or unity of essence. The state of wilayat al-kubra is one of calm and quiet union with God’s unity of essence (baqa’).
At this juncture, the murid finally gets the reality that his pir is the key to reaching his ultimate goal fana-fil-Allah(annihilation in God) and vice versa. This is, therefore, called the maqam (station) of ‘the expanded breast’ (shar-i-sadr). This is where all is changed; murid is now a Sufi. The state of perfection he has acquired through mastering the akhfa’ latifa means total elimination of flawed habits and wicked desires from nafs. A sense of calm and tranquillity along with a huge awareness of supremacy rests with the Sufi due to his qualification. He wears a garment now, which has no pockets. He also believes that he can achieve anything (tasarraf) with the reality he has experienced. The true explanation of his experience is not the drop slipping into the sea; but the realization and the self-assured verification in an undying phase of the reality. This is the ideal revealed as the possession and enjoyment of the infinite through a unitary experience. Some go quiet at this stage while attempting further development; in others, the mystic consciousness achieved through the unitary experience tends to overflow its boundaries, and seeks opportunities for refashioning the dynamics of community life.
The Sufi, who goes out for providing moral and spiritual guidance to the community, sincerely imagines that he can heal, solve problems, predict future, and modify outcomes through his higher knowledge and the power of prayer. This is not necessarily the case if we examine his convictions from a rational point of view. Due to his belief system, he does not obviously comprehend that the potential achievements in his spiritual work are not due to Godliness but an outcome of the psychological powers (acute observation, intense concentration, appraisal of human thinking & emotions, analytical skills) he has acquired as a result of his strenuous training in Sufi method. After he has dealt with hundreds of scenarios and clients, his “spiritual skills” improve to such a level where he starts believing that he can read minds and perform marvels. In this journey, travelled by his numerous predecessors over the centuries, he never questions himself whether his success is due to practical knowledge of human psychology, intuition or even psychic ability. This line of thinking is described by the sceptics of paranormal phenomenon (psychologists & psychiatrists) as the “transcendental temptation”.
A successful Sufi, knowingly or knowingly, is a master of hot reading (use of client foreknowledge = name, sex, age, profession, address, etc.), cold reading (analysis of client’s appearance & behaviour = dress, self-care, facial expression, posture, body language, etc.), and warm reading (use of Barnum/Forer effect = employing vague statements which apply to almost everyone). Cold readings are essentially high-probability guesses crucial for subjects who are eager to make their own connections or reinterpret Sufi’s vague statements. Sufi may provide most of the words, but it is the client who provides most of the meaning and all of the significance. A Sufi also uses another psychological trick called “Shotgunning” that is closely related to cold reading. Similar to the manner a shotgun fires (cluster of small projectiles hoping that one or more will hit the target), a huge amount of general information is thrown by the Sufi at the client and his reaction is acutely observed. The Sufi then adjusts his position and refines his later statements in line with the client’s verbal, facial and body-language responses. This is a favourite technique of two famous Pakistani Sufis: Sarfraz Shah and Rafiq Akhtar.
The Barnum effect is about manipulating susceptible people who are desperate to fill-in-the-blanks in Sufi’s vague statements and then make connections between what has been said and an aspect of their own lives. An experienced Sufi can even intimidate them into conceding a connection even if they could not see one. You might find the following sample of statements, also called “rainbow ruse”, often used in cold reading amusing, but vulnerable people accept these readily while believing that the Sufi knows everything about them:
-“You are sometimes nervous, especially around people you don’t know very well.”
-“Mostly you are a very kind and generous person, but when somebody breaks your trust, you really get angry and find it difficult to forgive them.”
-“You are currently having problems with a friend or relative.”
-“One of your relatives passed away due to problems in their chest or abdomen.”
I used to smile even as a child when a Lahore-based famous Sufi, Wajeh-ul-Sama Irfani (late) started his sermons to large gatherings with Barnum-effect statements like “There are five people in this gathering without wuzzu. Before I curse them, they must leave or repent that they would never do this again”.
A classical Sufi is supposed to operate successfully at both the low and the high end of the society. He bamboozles the elite with his wisdom and knowledge; and sustains the poor with his kindness and generosity. He can often be a “Robin Hood” who takes huge nazrana for his blessings to the rich and the powerful; only to distribute it among the destitute and underprivileged. As an egalitarian, the Sufi used to bring the rich and the poor to his langar to eat together in an endeavour to understand and accommodate each other socially. The true Sufi lived amongst the people and ate and slept with them and bought and sold in the market and married and took part in social intercourse, and never forgot God for a single moment. But as is often the case, something which starts as a natural process turns into something quite different over time. This seems to have been the case as the Sufism of the early period of Muslim history was quite different from what we see today. Instead of making the Islamic beliefs prevalent in Sufism, Sufi aspects have dominated Islam. Spirituality of Islam is a part of the whole being as it nourishes all aspects of Muslim lives; but later forms of Sufism departed from this and no longer play any meaningful role in human lives except in a limited circle of the faithful.
Science treats natural phenomena as subjects of research and exploration but Sufism has become another name for getting lost in dreams, and making bizarre claims about mysterious phenomena. In the hope of attaining spiritual powers, they have engaged people in futile mystical practices based on myths and meditation. While science encourages the study of external realities and engenders creative thinking, the Sufi mindset drew people towards mysterious esotericism and intellectual stagnation. The time when such trends in popular Sufism emerged, coincided with the period that witnessed the emergence of contemporary science in the West. When the West began to study natural sciences, Muslims under the influence of Sufism, turned their backs on acquiring such knowledge, associated research and its outcomes. When the scientific spirit nourished discovery elsewhere, morbid mysticism coached people to rely entirely on their Sufi master and to make no effort to open the doors of their minds. A result of this intellectual disparity is the discernible empirical difference that exists between the Western-inspired and the Muslim worlds today.
The first revealed verse of the Quran (96:1) is about reading (knowledge). In contrast, Sufism belittles the importance of knowledge – numerous examples can be found in the Persian and local Sufi literature. The spiritual practices Sufis developed through their self-proclaimed ijtihad about the act of worship were controversial to say the least; and were duly rejected by mainstream Muslims. The companions of the Prophet focused entirely on the Quran, and for them only God and His Prophet were of religious importance. The notion of personal holiness of a Sufi pir is a wrongful innovation from where the concept of personality-worship or ‘gurudom’ took root and spread among Muslims. The Quran (3:190) says that the secret to God-realization lies in pondering on the Universe; Sufis, however, claim that theirshaikhs were the sources all knowledge and power. The early Muslims were influenced by the ideology of the Quran, so they made great progress in the field of knowledge whether it was jurisprudence or natural sciences. But later Muslim societies unfortunately came under the dominance of Sufism and fell prey to intellectual stagnation prevalent until today.
The modern age is about intellectual progress as the scientific revolution has transformed human existence. Sufism belongs to antiquity because all its aspects have since been absorbed through academic progress (psychoanalysis, hypnotism, mindfulness, etc.) by the discipline of Psychiatry. Even its modern cousin, Parapsychology, the alleged study of psychic phenomena (extrasensory perception, as in telepathy, clairvoyance, and psychokinesis) is dying its natural death. It is very rightly considered a pseudoscience by scientists because it has no replicable empirical evidence. In first half of the last century, two US universities and the CIA established laboratories to test psychic phenomenon under the supervision of psychologists. They ended up abandoning these projects eventually because the statistical treatments of the data produced failed to reveal any cause beyond chance. There was an upsurge of interest in the 1970s and 1980s again but it also died because parapsychologists faced strong opposition from academic colleagues when their research results were considered inconclusive. There are still some universities who get private funding for research related to parapsychology but they have not produced any noticeable work for the mainstream scientific body or worth media attention.
Islam possesses tremendous attraction for humanity due to being a natural religion as presented in the Quran. The Sufis promoted and spread among Muslims and non-Muslims the altruistic beliefs and civilised values of Islam as a direct result of which, they facilitated the spread of Islam. If the walls of hatred that divide Muslims and others come down and peace and harmony prevail, Islam will spread on its own. Sufism has well past its own sell-by date; and this is not a judgement on any saints or revered personnel but on the ideology. It is only alive due to the lack of education, poverty, and pandemic social injustice, especially in the underdeveloped countries, which cause chronic stress and anxiety among vulnerable human beings.
M. Aamer Sarfraz is a philosophical psychiatrist based in London.