Sufism and Politics

Some Preliminary Thoughts by HealthWrights staff, 2005.04.10

This brief note is intended to serve as an introduction to the kind of Sufi thinking one finds in the work of Abdul Said and Nathan Funk. The reader is encouraged to explore these issues in greater depth in articles by Said and Funk and other like-minded people. A link is provided to facilitate that exploration.

The fundamental insight of the mystic derives from the intuition or experience of a profound “oneness” or “unity” underlying the multiplicity things. This unity within multiplicity can be designated by a word or a phrase; it can be pointed to by a metaphor; it can be “spoken of” in a piece of music; it can be hinted at in a poem. But ultimately it defies logic and eludes any adequate formulation in language. In the Sufi tradition this basic insight is designated by the term “tawhid” which means “unity of being.” In Sufi Prescriptions for World Politics: A Way to Global Community, Abdul Said and Nathan Funk speak about how this principle is understood in the Sufi traditions within Islam. “Through the testimony of such exemplars as Ibn ‘Arabi, Sufism has developed the view that all being is one, and that the purpose of human life is to discover this unity existentially – that is in the midst of action and experience and spiritual practice – and not merely to seek distinction or salvation as an individual.”

The fact that the unity is sought “in action” is politically important. The aim of the Sufi practitioner is not to escape the world. Although suffering is certainly real, the world is not just a “veil of tears” nor a “wheel of suffering.” The world is a place where we seek the underlying unity of being. This understanding is pivotal. If the world is simply a veil of tears from which we seek to liberate ourselves, then it is only logical to put politics behind us. If, on the other hand, it is a place where we seek the unity of being, then our spiritual quest becomes a political one. If we seek the unity of being in our intimate relationships, in our work places, in our dealings with the natural order, and in our way of relating to the needs of others who share the world with us, then the whole of life is both politics and spiritual path. How a person understands his or her spiritual path does not just determine how he or she will do politics, it determines whether he or she will do politics at all.

Said and Funk point out that “the globalization process is irreversible.” Indeed it is potentially a positive process. In globalization we have the possibility of finding unity within multiplicity in new and exciting ways. Therefore we should begin thinking of ourselves as “global citizens.” Said and Funk are, however, acutely aware that something is dangerously out of control in the way globalization is being pursued. The question they ask is “how can we reshape and redirect globalization?” That, indeed, is the question, and they provide us with some clues as to what must be attended to if we are to put globalization on a more promising track. Throughout their paper they hightlight the need for affirming global diversity, for overcoming the huge inequalities in wealth, for sustainable development, for participatory decision making and for social healing.

Many religious belief systems have been extremely reactionary, repressive and rigid. They have hindered the pursuit of knowledge, encouraged fanaticism, and walled people up in closed communities that prevent communication with anyone outside their boundaries. Because of this poor track record, many people feel that we must label all forms of spirituality as “superstition” and try to replace them with science. Although understandable, this way of dismissing the whole range of spirituality is not valid.

The Sufi understanding of reality does not pit science and religion against each other in a futile and destructive conflict. There may be some meta-scientific (philosophical) assumptions having to do with the nature of causality, and with the relationship between whole systems and their parts that are still open to question. There are also unresolved issues that touch on both science and religion, such as the nature of the basic stuff of reality, the nature of consciousness and the relationship of “mind” to “matter.” These are some of the questions that need to be addressed in an ongoing dialog between science and spirituality. But an enlightened seeker will welcome the findings of science, and will appreciate its rigorous method of verifying its hypotheses.

Authentic spirituality and science are not mutually exclusive ways of approaching reality. They are different ways of seeking truth, and deal with different fundamental questions. They are complimentary. As Said and Funk point out, not everything in human life is “fully accessible to positivist science.” Religion speaks to certain existential questions that science does not pretend to address – much less answer. What is the meaning of my life? How can I align myself with that which transends me? How can I understand and relate to the oneness of all being that I sense in so many ways? How shall I cope with the transience of all things, and with death? What is the meaning of my suffering? What is good and what is evil? These questions will not go away, and if answers are not found in valid and enlightened forms of spirituality, they will be found in violent, divisive and ignorant superstitions. Or a person may be left with no way at all for dealing with the ultimate questions – which tends to lead to emptiness and despair.

Religions that block free and open inquiry, that are used to repress people, and that justify the exploitation of any group by any other group must be opposed and replaced. But they need to be replaced with forms of spirituality that are liberating, life affirming, growing, and inquisitive.The Sufi philosophy described by Said and Funk is a good example of a life affirming spirituality. We need not be Sufis ourselves to learn from them.