Although Sufism is unique in that it has won a pre-eminent place in Islamic culture through the unrelenting work of Sufi giants through the ages, its diversity of method are so strange and unfamiliar that it must be considered from a certain special viewpoint if it is properly to be understood. In adapting itself to the blindness and opposition of narrow-mindedness and constriction originating in limited minds, Sufism has taken as its province the area of life and action which is partially invisible to the ordinary person. In this short sketch I shall touch on some of these points. In conformity with the Sufi practice, no attempt is made to present the materials in accordance with the limited framework of ordinary literature.
Let us take the journey-motif of Sufism, as a start. Sufism is seen and described by Sufis as a journey, or a series of journeys. There is a path, and a Guide. What confuses the ordinary person about this journey is, for instance, is the journey literal or metaphorical? In fact it can be both. The Sufi aspirant may undertake long and trying journeys to obtain completion. There is an inner as well as an outer journey. Therefore a Sufi journey must be understood in both senses. This is a parallel to the tradition that there is a Great Struggle and a Lesser Struggle. One is of the body, the other of the mind.
From the Caspian Sea in the west to the Bay of Bengal in the east stretches a vast and undulating tract of the planetary crust marked by soaring peaks, scorched deserts, and fertile river valleys. In the Bronze Age, a migratory people known as the Arya swept into this expanse from the north, establishing the sibling civilizations of Aryana-Vaejah (Iran) and Bharata (India). In Iran arose Mazdaism; India gave rise to Hinduism, Jainism and Buddhism. In the seventh century C.E., Islam appeared in Arabia and began to spread eastward. By the High Middle Ages, the land of the Aryas was also the land of Islam.
Ideas do not occur in a vacuum, and spiritual ideas are no exception. Sacred visions emerge from the disposition of human personalities, from the shape of historical events, and from the momentum of hallowed customs, but perhaps most fundamentally (transcendental sources aside), they emerge from “airs, waters, and places,” from the character of the landscapes in which they are born.
So often has Islam been portrayed as an exclusively masculine, patriarchal faith that many have never suspected the central importance of the Feminine in Islam and would be astonished to realize that it has been there from the beginning. Perhaps in part due to the metaphysical interiority of the Feminine, this aspect of Islam has lived a largely hidden existence — but it is no less vital for that. In recent years there has been much discussion and controversy over how to reshape Christianity to include the Feminine on the divine level, but in Islam that has never been an issue, for the feminine element in Islam has always been present, especially in Sufism.
Although both masculine and feminine equally have their origin in the Divine, I would like to take a special look at the feminine in Islam to help redress the balance because the feminine side of Islam has been mostly overlooked so far. Moreover, in the sources of Islam and in the Sufi tradition growing from there, we find a distinct, explicit preference for the feminine aspect of Allah, especially the nature of ultimate Divine Reality as essentially feminine.
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