DISCIPLINE, PIETY, AND MYSTICISM
Sufis have done their best to make a science of the subjective. They have developed perhaps the most systematic, charted, and regulated progression into the mystical there is. For the serious seeker of mystical experience this aspect of Sufism is appealing, for it conveys the impression of a venerable tradition that can be trusted to produce authentic spiritual knowledge.
Believing in the perfectiblity of man, the Sufi way is very much concerned with the perfecting of the individual disciple. This endeavor is known as work (those familiar with Gurdjieff will recognize his debt to Sufism here). The work is prescribed by the Shaikh, performed by the Sufi, in the context of the community. It aims to break the hold of conditioned patterns of behavior which inhibit the desired spiritual awakening.
Most Sufi orders consider the first work of the disciple to be the observance of traditional Islamic piety: to perform the "five pillars." The Sufis' exceptional spiritual hunger, however, will characteristically drive them to go far beyond the prescribed observations. For example, in addition to observing the nightly fasts required during the month of Ramadan, Sufis frequently engage in voluntary fasts.
The use of dance for spiritual purposes has become one of the most distinctive characteristics of Sufism, though not all of the orders observe it. According to Martin Lings, many Sufis are under the conviction that "the body stands for the Axis of the Universe which is none other than the Tree of Life. The dance is thus a rite of centralisation... intended above all to plunge the dancer into a state of concentration upon Allah."24
Meditation is an essential part of the Sufi's work at self-perfection. Repetition of a dhikr or sacred formula (e.g., the name of Allah) is often combined with breathing exercises to induce altered states of consciousness.
As the natural (and, from the Christian perspective, God-given) mental barriers to psychic intrusion are broken down, and a link is established to the spirit world, the Sufi may
see visions, hear the voices of angels and prophets, and gain from them guidance.... It is a condition of joy and longing. And when this condition seizes on the "seeker," he falls into ecstasy. The dervishes in the monasteries may be seen working themselves up into a condition of "ecstasy."25
Such spectacles will not be viewed in the same favorable light by all observers. John Alden Williams points out that
the observer may encounter things which seem to belong in a case book of abnormal psychology, or witness what looks remarkably like demonic possession. But unless he is wholly unsympathetic, he may find also in these sweating ecstatics examples of pure and devoted attendance upon the Holy.26