A CHRISTIAN APPRAISAL
The emergence of Sufism in Islam, its historic popularity and its long-term negative effects upon that religion, could all have been predicted beforehand by an informed, perceptive Christian. The reasons for this will become evident as we proceed.
First of all, this Christian observer of world religions would have recognized from history that there have really only been two paths traveled by human beings to the realms of spiritual experience. The first could be described as "natural spirituality," not because there is nothing supernatural about it, but because it is generally accessed by very natural, methodical means (e.g.; meditation, chanting, or ecstatic dancing). The second might be characterized as "supernatural" or "revelation" spirituality, for it is not entered upon by natural methods of altering the consciousness, but opens up to all who respond in faith and obedience to the revelation found in Jesus Christ and the Bible. To simplify matters, I shall summon the imagery Jesus employed in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt. 7:13-14) and refer to the first path as the "Broad Way," and to the second as the "Narrow Way."
Those on the Broad Way usually assume that what is natural is also right: that the way we humans are now is essentially how we were originally intended to be. Therefore, to be "spiritual" all we have to do — indeed, what we must do — is develop our own inherent spiritual potential. As this "natural spirituality" is cultivated, certain phenomena typically follow, including psychic powers, contacts with spirit entities, and ecstatic or mystical experiences.
Being universally accessible, the Broad Way appears, in some form, in virtually all religious traditions. The very universality of these experiences convinces the advocates of mysticism that it is the one true religion of mankind, and the various religious traditions are merely the cultural packages which contain it.
Since monism and pantheism are philosophical by-products of the mystical sense of oneness with all things, the proponents of natural spirituality also conclude that these world views, coming so naturally, must be the correct ones. Consequently, they often attempt to show that monism and pantheism lie at the esoteric heart of all the world's religions.
This thesis is challenged and ultimately destroyed, however, by the historic reality of the Narrow Way (a reality which often escapes the notice of these "natural men" — see I Cor. 2:14). In it, careful investigation will uncover a rich tradition of spiritual experience fundamentally different from that of the Broad Way. This tradition is centered in the redemptive activities of the one God who made a covenant of promise with Abraham, gave His law to Moses, spoke to His people through the prophets, and personally fulfilled these promises, laws and prophecies in the man Christ Jesus.
On the basis of information that would have been unavailable had God not historically acted to reveal it, followers of the Narrow Way understand that man's natural state is fallen—he is not now as he was originally created to be. Thus the only spiritual realm that he can contact by natural means is likewise fallen—and extremely dangerous. To "see the Kingdom of God" he needs a new nature; he "must be born again," supernaturally, by the regenerating work of God's Holy Spirit (John 3:3-8).
As the believer passes through the narrow door of Jesus Christ (John 10:7-9) an incomprehensibly vast realm of spiritual experience opens up to him. It is the kingdom of the infinite-personal God of revelation, and it is distinctively "not of this world" (John 18:36)—including that kind of spirituality which comes natural to this world.
The Narrow Way can lead to very profound encounters with the presence and glory of God. However, no matter how far one advances along it, he never experiences his "I-ness" vanishing, nor is he drawn toward belief in the oneness or divinity of all things. God is experienced as distinct from His creation, though omnipresent and intimately involved with it. God is also revealed as both awesomely righteous and holy, unwilling to tolerate or overlook sin, and yet also as infinitely loving and merciful, unconditionally forgiving and accepting those who come to Him through Jesus, the sin-bearer.
In contrast to the autosotericism or self-purification which typifies the mystical traditions, the dynamic force behind this supernatural spirituality is the activity of the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer, convicting him of sin, teaching, comforting, and progressively conforming him into the image of Jesus Christ. This work of the Holy Spirit and the teachings of the scriptures perfectly complement each other, pointing to the same truths, which are focused in Jesus.
In addition to identifying these two distinct varieties of spiritual experience, our Christian observer would also have recognized that there would be no authentic theism had there been no authentic divine revelation. Indeed, any student of man's religions should acknowledge that truly theistic world views can only be found in the "revealed" religions (i.e., religions that claim to be based on truths directly disclosed by God at particular points in history). The Christian can (and I believe should) argue from this fact that the theistic world view is too exalted to have been conceived by unaided human reason—it had to be revealed.33
Islam is the only fully theistic religion apart from the Judeo-Christian tradition. Whereas the New Testament fulfills the Old Testament, the Qur'an contradicts both Old and New Testaments, as we saw in Part Two. Therefore, the Christian maintains that Islam is theistic, not because of any direct revelation granted to Muhummad, but because he borrowed heavily from biblical sources.
Nonetheless, Islamic culture stood to gain certain benefits from its borrowed theism, unavailable to pagan cultures. Not the least of these was an absolute basis, in a moral, transcendent God, for defining good and evil; resulting in a firm, comparatively lofty moral structure to uphold society.
As a theistic religion, however, Islam is incapable of delivering a vital spiritual experience. This is because, on the one hand, the Broad Way, which generates pantheism, is inherently incompatible with theism. On the other hand, that which is compatible with theism, the Narrow Way has its origin in the revelation of God. To participate in this supernatural spirituality, one must remain in harmony with true revelation. The work of the Holy Spirit is to glorify Jesus Christ (John 16:14). Therefore, theists like the Muslims who resist His work turn aside from the Narrow Way.
In other words, the Narrow Way is so narrow that it can only be entered through the grace of Jesus Christ (John 14:6; Acts 4:12; 15:11). Those who deny that grace and seek instead to win entrance into God's presence through good works will find themselves haunted by a spiritual void and a lack of assurance concerning their personal salvation. Since theism originated in revelation, a theism in conflict with revelation is doomed to spiritual impotence.
Bereft from beginning to end (by rejection of the gospel) of any participation in the ministry of the Holy Spirit, the Islamic tradition was left with only one recourse for filling this spiritual void: common occult mysticism—the Broad Way.
This explains the rise and popularity, not only of Sufism in Islam, but also of similar mystical movements in other theistic traditions which either deny or largely ignore the gospel of grace.34 Each of these movements, hungering for something more than a dead, legalistic externalism, has fed on that spirituality which is available to all men. As a direct result, in each case the monotheism which originally upheld them degenerates into pantheism, and pantheism predictably opens the door to a wide range of pagan beliefs and activities.
Only conservative Protestantism, which on the whole has faithfully emphasized the cross of Christ and personal salvation, has remained almost impenetrable to the inroads of the Broad Way. The reason for this is clear: a personal relationship with Jesus Christ leaves no spiritual void.35
In the context of Islam's rejection of the Christian gospel, then, the rise of a mystical movement like Sufism was quite predictable. But mysticism is a dead end—as our previous consideration of Islamic history has indicated.
Nowhere is the bankruptcy of mysticism more evident than when mystics address ethical issues, such as the problem of human evil or sin.
Owing to Islam's Jewish and Christian influences, an emphasis on morality runs through Sufism that cannot be found in such purely pagan mystical traditions as Hindu Vedanta or Tibetan Buddhism. However, Sufis are unable to come up with a satisfying, sustaining basis for ethics out of their monistic, pantheistic world view.
As we saw earlier with E.G. Browne, "Evil is merely the Not-Good, or, in other words, the Non-Existent." Thus we find that the seemingly endless array of evils which stalk human history, mock mankind's potential for greatness, steal hope away from the human heart, and tempt a man to sell his soul in a moment of darkness, are all casually written off as unreal "colourings," necessary "self-negations" of Beauty-in-manifestation. Such shallow explanations of something as existentially profound as human evil fail to possess the sensitized conscience. Why should we commit our lives to resisting evil if in fact it is necessary, and, finally, unreal?
The Sufis' understanding of human sinfulness is painfully deficient. Ultimately, the true nature of man's dilemma was lost sight of amid the rapture of intoxicating mystical experience. This blindness can be discerned in Nasrollah Fatemi's affirmation that Spiritual perfection leads to the gnosis of the divine unity and the bridging of the gap between God and man when the latter's soul transcends the confines of personality by losing the conditioned self in the intuition of the one."36
Such talk of attaining spiritual perfection (typically mystic) is self-delusion (see 1 John 1:8), resulting from a bankruptcy of authentic "gnosis" (i.e., self-knowledge). The unpleasant but necessary truth was pointedly stated by the prophet Jeremiah: "The heart is more deceitful than all else and is desperately sick: who can understand it?" (Jer. 17:9).
Man is stricken with a moral sickness that runs to the depth of his being, defiling even his most sincere efforts to apprehend God (Isa. 64:6; Rom. 3:9-19; 7:21). The "gap between God and man" is the result of very real transgressions of the divine law (Isa. 59:1-2). The Bible, then, defines sin in moral and legal terms (1 John 5:17; 3:4), not as ignorance of a "divine unity" which in fact does not exist (the world and/or the human self are not a part of God—Ps. 113:4-6; Rom. 1:18-25; Ezek. 28:2). Therefore, subjectively man needs to be healed by a force external to himself, while objectively he needs to have his sins forgiven. Both of these are available only in the new covenant made by God Himself in Christ's blood (Jer. 31:33-34; cf. 1 Cor. 11:25).
If the Sufi trusts so strongly in his subjective 'intuition of the one" that he does not sense his desperate need to take advantage of God's merciful provision in Christ, he has not begun to attain useful knowledge. "The fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge" (Prov. 1:7), and such a one needs a healthy dose of it.
Historically the Sufis have always been caught in a bind. It is clear that most of them have desired to be true to the one God of revelation—the God of Abraham, whom Muslims claim to worship. At the same time, their earnest quest for an experience of that God has led them into the realm of pagan spirituality. They need to be shown that the only way to what they have sought for is the Narrow Way. They must face the realities of their own creaturehood and sinfulness, and the acceptance of Jesus Christ which these realities demand. Then they will know an inner fulfillment, peace and joy that neither Islam nor mysticism could ever provide (John 7:37-39; 10:10; 14:27; 17:13).