DISTINCTIVE SUFI BELIEFS
Based on experience rather than doctrine, Sufism has always been more open to outside influence than other forms of Islam. Because it took root and developed in the centrally located Middle East, it has quite naturally absorbed ideas and practices from several of the world's notable religious and philosophical systems. In addition to early influences from Christianity, one can find elements of Zoroastrianism, Neoplatonism, Hinduism, and other diverse traditions, around its Islamic kernel. As we proceed to examine Sufi beliefs and practices, these non-Islamic influences will be abundantly evident.
In the Qur'an, Allah (God) is not only absolutely singular (barring the Trinity of Christian theology), he is also radically transcendent—separate from his creation. How then can anyone claiming to be a Muslim possibly hold to a pantheistic conception of God in good conscience? Martin Lings, himself a practicing Sufi, gives us an example of how such reasoning is typically carried out:
It is necessary to bear in mind that each of the Names of the Divine Essence comprises in Itself, like Allah, the totality of Names and does not merely denote a particular Divine Aspect. The Names of the Essence are thus in a sense interchangeble with Allah, and one such Name is al-Haqq, Truth, Reality. We can just as well say that there is no truth but the Truth, no reality but the Reality as that there is no god but God. The meaning of all these is identical. Every Muslim is obligated to believe in theory that there is no reality but the Reality, namely God; but it is only the Sufis, and not even all those who are affiliated to Sufi orders, who are prepared to carry this formulation to its ultimate conclusion. The doctrine which is based on that conclusion is termed "Oneness of Being," for Reality is that which is opposed to that which is not; and if God alone is Real, God alone is, and there is no being but His being.19
As do all pantheists, Sufis run into a morass when they attempt to resolve the problem of evil. In their effort to reconcile the existence of evil with belief that God is all there is, they end up associating evil with the process of creation. E.G. Browne illustrates:
A thing can only be known through its opposite—Light by Darkness, Good by Evil, Health by Sickness, and so on.... Thus Eternal Beauty manifests itself, as it were, by a sort of self-negation; and what we call "Evil" is a necessary consequence of this manifestation, so that the Mystery of Evil is really identical with the Mystery of Creation, and inseparable therefrom. But Evil must not be regarded as a separate and independent entity: just as Darkness is the mere negation of Light, so Evil is merely the Not-Good, or, in other words, the Non-Existent. All Phenomenal Being, on the other hand, necessarily contains some elements of Good, just as the scattered rays of the pure, dazzling white light which has passed through the prism are still light, their light more or less "coloured" and weakened. It is from this fall from the "World of Colourlessness" that all the strife and conflict apparent in this world originate.20
Corresponding to their pantheistic denial of actual evil, the Sufis affirm the inherent goodness of man. The human soul is the microcosm of the Universal Macrocosm (God), related to God as rays are to the sun. It is restless because of its unnatural relation with matter and seeks union with its origin.... Its weakness is in its being tempted by the wrong notion of its being material."21
With such a gnostic-like definition of man's problem (the spirit's false identification with matter), we might appropriately expect a gnostic solution, and this is precisely what we find. Commenting on the most standard Sufi text, the Gifts of the (Deep) Knowledge, by Shaikh Suhrawardi (d. 1235), Idries Shah affirms: "By divine illumination man sees the world to be illusion."22 Browne adds:
Evil is, as we have seen, illusion; its cure is to get rid of the ignorance which causes us to take the Phantoms of the world of Sense for Realities. All sinful desire, all sorrow and pain, have their root in the idea of Self, and Self is an illusion.23
To the above summary of Sufi doctrines we can add belief in both the preexistence of the soul, and the soul's survival of physical death. Unlike Indian mystical systems, this is not generally viewed in terms of reincarnation. The soul's sojourn on earth is one stage in a long progression through various worlds of existence. Sufis believe that their homeland is beyond the stars, and to there they will ultimately return. For their time here on earth they purposefully submitted themselves to a state of forgetfulness, although one of the aims of Sufi discipline is to awaken from this sleep. At various. points in the soul's evolutionary journey it may take on the nature of an angel, a jinn, a human, a Master, etc.