Two major Muslim groups exist, the Shi’ites and the Sunnis, and their differences are largely historical in origin. But Smith takes a moment to describe a more minor, mystic sect of Islam, one that other Muslims may regard as heretical. Choosing to omit the details of the Shi’ites and Sunnis, he
“take[s] up instead a division that has universal tones. It is the vertical division between the mystics of Islam, called Sufis, and the remaining majority of the faith, who are equally good Muslims but are not mystics.” (258)
The Sufis (Suf means wool) came about when some started noticing a worldliness among several of the Muslim leaders; they decided to symbolize their lack of this by wearing wool and seeking “to purify and spiritualize [Islam] from within” (258). The goal of Sufism is “to encounter God directly in this very lifetime” (259), and so, in groups called tariqahs, they join together to sing, dance, pray, recite and listen to the teachings of their shaikh. They developed three ways of reaching Allah – three mysticisms, as Smith calls them. These three are love, ecstasy and intuition.
The love mystics are apt to use poetry to express their longing during their separation from Allah (that is, as long as they live). They seek to become one with him, and to unite the material and divine, their finite souls with his infinite soul, together.
The ecstatic Sufi draws from the story of Muhammad’s journey through the seven heavens to the ‘Divine Presence.’ They believed he experienced joys too great to describe that night and wish to follow his footsteps. Through meditation, they focus on obtaining this gift from Allah. The joy they receive from this leaves other Muslims to refer to them as drunk; other Sufis feel that they do not need to seek Allah in the next world via ecstatic mysticisms in order to encounter him in this one.
The intuitive mystic leads Sufis to see through their ‘eye of the heart.’
“Love mysticism yields ‘heart knowledge,’ and ecstasy ‘visual or visionary knowledge,’ because extraterrestrial realities are seen; but intuitive mysticism brings ‘mental knowledge.’” (261)
These Sufis are rather obsessed with symbolism, finding seven to seventy hidden meanings in each verse of the Koran.
All Sufis, however, excessively symbolize. A Muslim removes his shoes to show respect; Sufis remove footwear and consider it as symbolic of “removing everything that separates the soul from God” (262). Muslims frequently ask Allah’s forgiveness; a Sufi begs Allah forgive his existence, for mere life means they are separate. Sufis replace the Shahadah’s “There is no god but Allah” to “There is nothing but Allah,” and teach fana, or extinction of the self, for this allows the emptiness to be filled with Allah. As (intuitive) Sufi Al-Hallaj wrote, “I saw my Lord with the eye of the Heart. I said: ‘Who are you?’ He answered: ‘You’” (Smith, 262).
All of this is rather unsettling to the orthodox Muslim. They do not like Sufis interpreting their absolute commands as allegorical or as something of changing value in new circumstances, and they are especially wary of a Sufi’s claim to new knowledge gained directly from Allah with their visions. Most Muslims see Sufis as heretical or even blasphemous.