Sufism, Nonviolence and Peacemaking

When I was 18 years old, I had been in the United States for about a year–in this very foreign, interestingly different and rigorously individualistic culture as opposed to the social and group oriented pampering I was very much used to back at home, in Turkey. My engineering studies were not so interesting. I was more inclined towards reading philosophical works and engaging in deep theoretical debates about meaning of justice and truth. I changed my major from engineering to philosophy and so my second year in college began with a feeling of emptiness, lack of purpose coupled with loneliness brought by being a young boy away from home equipped with no survival skills such as cooking, doing laundry or taking care of oneself in general.

All of these factors contributed immensely to my introduction to Sufism. I needed a release, perhaps, a peace of mind from all the chaos and doubts I was living through; from all the pains of growing. Moreover, I was a seeker of truth in general, that is, I always wanted to learn the reality behind everything. That was the main reason I chose philosophy over engineering. Sufism took this urge to another level, grasping my attention by offering the hidden truths of the universe.

My studies of Sufism grew with me and with my life experiences. Sufism was with me as I was struggling with identity issues, as I was trying to understand the concept of “home” and most importantly as I was trying to find a purpose for my life. The single most important purpose in the life of a Sufi is to fall in love, as it is usually referred in Sufi literature, or to die before dying in Prophet’s own words or in more simpler words: to be one with God, to reach Tawhid–the ultimate state of Divinity of being one with the Universe and with the Great Spirit.

This, unfortunately, could not be my “job.” This process of maturation and reaching such understanding had to be “on the side” as I had to work. Being the person who chose philosophy over engineering, I clearly wanted do something I believed in rather than getting a job just for the purposes of monetary income. I thusly searched for a purpose, a guidance in Islam. It did not take me long to come across the word “peace” more than hundred times in Qur’an and so verses such as the ones below were my beacon of light in my complete state of confusion:

“(As for) those who believe and do good/peace, surely they are the -best of men.” (98:7)

“Except those who believe and do good/peace, and enjoin on each other truth, and enjoin on each other patience.” (103:3)

Hence, in my quest to devote myself and my life completely to God, I decided to study and do what is regarded as the most nobel cause in Qur’an: ways to make good/peace.

After my undergraduate degree was completed in December of 2006, I went back to, home, Turkey, to await the fall term of 2007 to study conflict analysis and resolution in the U.S. Being away from home for almost five years, except for occasional holidays, reconnecting with my friends, with the land and with my house, even, was heavenly, to say the least. After all the revitalization home, I was severely anxious to come back to the U.S. –the place away from home where I had a chance to taste the most painful hurts life yet brought–to study. Yet I did. I came here and studied conflict resolution, and despite setbacks and disappointments, I will hopefully continue to study and contribute to peace away from home, with the hope of devoting my life to and being useful in a Divine cause. I can safely say, only my faith (and a few people who support me) gives me the strength to walk in this direction. It would be much easier and less painful to forget all the conflicts in the world and let go the sense of responsibility towards them, go back home and find a 9 to 5 job.

Allow me, very briefly, to talk about the understanding of the Divine that propels me to be on the path I am. To understand the idea of conflict resolution/peacemaking/non-violence in Islam (which is a tad different than the non-violence brought forth via Jesus), it is important to understand the concept of God according to Sufism.

Just like it is the case in other mystic traditions, Sufism refuses to seek the Divine only on the outside. Just like a 13th century Sufi Master who lived in Anatolia (contemporary and close friend of Rumi), Hacı Bektaş Veli, adequately put:

“Heat is in the flame, not in the pan

Miracle is in the mind, not in the crown

Whatever you seek, seek within yourself

It is not in Jerusalem, nor in Mecca, nor in Pilgrimage”

This is, perhaps, best explained by Ibn-Arabi, a 12th century Sufi Master who lived in Andalusia. In his masterpiece book Fusus Al-Hikam (The Ringstones of Wisdom), there are twenty-seven chapters, each dedicated to the spiritual meaning and wisdom of a prophet. In the first chapter, “Of the Wisdom of Divinity as Embodied in the Word of Adam,” Ibn-Arabi talks about creation and about the understanding of God according to Sufism. The first sentence of the chapter: “God, with His endless beautiful names… wished to witness His names one by one in an ever encompassing creation, and through this creation, He wished to disclose His secret to Himself… To do this, He created the Universe like a soulless body.” Ibn-Arabi further explains this in his own summary of the book:

“God only taught the Perfect Man His Most Beautiful Names and placed them within him… God manifests Himself to the heart of the Perfect Man, who is His vicegerent. Therefore, or because the world is like the body and the Perfect Man is like the spirit, it is said that the world is a “great man”, for just as man consists of a body and a spirit which governs it, the world is made up of these two, although it is larger than man in form; but this statement is only true on condition of the Perfect Man’s existence within it, or the world, for if he did not exist within it, it would be like a discarded body without a spirit… And He made him, or the Perfect Man, the sought-after goal and the desired end in the creation and maintenance of the world, like the rational soul, which is the goal in making perfect the body and harmonizing the natural and bodily constitution of the human individual.”

Here, the Perfect Man refers not only to the known Prophets that existed throughout the human history, but also to mostly unknown people who attained spiritual perfection through spiritual evolution who will exist as long as human race exists. To attain such perfection, as I have mentioned in the beginning, is the ultimate goal of creation and it is open and possible to every human being. That implies the potential to attain spiritual perfection exists in everyone and so does God’s manifestation both as outward–attributes–in the Human Form, and inward–the Self–in the Human Mind.

Such an understanding of Divinity means that every existence in the Universe, every piece of atom, is a part of a whole which is greater than its sum. Not only we are one with every piece of existence within the Universe, everything is just another manifestation of everything else. Every bit of being is essentially same: you, the reader, are just another manifestation of myself and vice versa, in another image, with another name. This idea is reflected beautifully in Qur’an:

“O mankind! We created you from a single (pair) of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that ye may know each other (not that ye may despise each other). Verily the most honored of you in the sight of Allah is (he who is) the most righteous of you. And Allah has full knowledge and is well acquainted (with all things).” (49:13)

What does this signify for people who strive for peace? Such implication bears a great ethical responsibility. We are surrounded, not only externally, but also internally with the Attributes and the Self of the Divine. This requires that we act responsibly and honor such presence. Since everything in the Universe is a manifestation and reflection of Self, it is simply foolish to try to hate or destroy someone; since the only thing we really hate or destroy is just another part of ourselves. In the words of Yunus Emre, a famous Sufi poet who lived around 13th century in Anatolia:

“Whatever you wish for yourself

Wish the same for the other

This is the meaning of four books

If there is any”

Yunus tells us if there is just one meaning to be learned from any teaching, any religion, it is the lesson of empathy. This can be, perhaps, the simplest, the most advanced and the most important basis from which we can derive a non-violent understanding from Islam or Sufism. In an interfaith dialogue or mediation, if we can create a safe space in which we allow a party to think what they want for themselves and make them contrast this to what they want for the other party, this surely would create a sense of internal tension on the basis of such understanding of morals.

Moreover, a very significant concept in Sufism is the idea of “cleaning your own house.” Ones palace needs to be dust-free so the Sultan can take its seat. This metaphorical speech refers to the aforementioned falling in love. To accept and welcome God completely to one’s heart, it needs be purged of ego, desires of money, fame or evil. Prejudices, hate and violent thoughts are considered as manifestations of ego and since God’s purity and perfection does not allow for even the slightest bit of ego, a devotee cannot fulfill his or her desire to unite with the Lover when he or she even has a conception of “other.”

Achieving the ideal of Perfect Man (which can be translated more accurately as “Fully Matured Man”) requires a constant attention and tending to the aforementioned garden of heart, to keep it clean, so that flowers of Divine love and unity can bloom. This concept brings us to the idea of spiritual evolution and finally to the understanding of non-violence in Islam.

Spiritual evolution, according to Sufism and also according to other esoteric traditions, occurs through conflicts: conflicts within ourselves and conflicts with other people. Both of these conflicts drive us to make important moral choices which either contribute or hinder our spiritual evolution towards our goal. To build upon the rather pacifist understanding of non-violence introduced by Jesus, which is “turn the other cheek,” Sufism advocates to block the hand trying to hit you, but do not hit back. That way, not only we prevent harm coming our way, but we also prevent the other to do an action which would hinder his spiritual evolution. Such understanding of non-violence allows both parties to mature spiritually and can be used to create space for reflection for one’s actions.

It is not in the interest of any Sufi disciple to convert or force such heavy philosophy or morals unto anyone else. It is thus unthinkable to introduce and use these ideas as “Islamic” or “Sufi” for mediation or for conflict resolution purposes for anyone who does not feel attached to them. On the other hand, the moral core of the above theology–empathy and spiritual/personal growth–is also at the center of many other philosophies, whether religious or not (although mostly atheist, existentialism, for instance, cheers the same principles). These principles, thusly can be the underlying philosophy of a practitioner. Through his work, he may try to achieve spiritual maturity both for himself and others who are involved.

© Marc Gopin