Sufism: More Thoughts on “That Thing” Some People Call “God”

sufi shrive sufis

One of the things I loved about being in Mumbai was the prevalence of Sufis everywhere.  The Sufis are the mystical wing of Islam, a profoundly devotional tradition, eminently peaceful and tolerant, respecting all religions.

When the Muslims conquered much of India, the devotional spirituality of the Sufis found much in common with the bhakti-yoga tradition of Hinduism.  And many scholars have noted that this connection helped Hindus and Muslims find common ground and acceptance of each other’s religion.

Rumi: Great Sufi Poet and Mystic

Rumi: Great Sufi Poet and Mystic

Two weeks ago I posted some thoughts about “That Thing” some people call “God,” about the ways different spiritual traditions talk about what is experienced in prayer and meditation.  I began with some thoughts on Taoist and Buddhist terms for “That.”

As I noted there, In Taoism, the term, “the Tao,” is used to refer to the fundamental nature of being, the reality behind the changing phenomena of the world.  It cannot be named.  We call it “The Tao,” or the Way.

Buddhism asserts that what exists beyond the changing phenomena of the world and what is encountered in meditation is “Emptiness.”  This term emphasizes the fact that that Reality cannot be embraced or conceived of by the mind.  It is beyond images, concepts, ideas, forms.  So, it’s just called Emptiness.   That doesn’t mean its just a big scary gaping void.   For although we cannot “think it”–we can experience it.

People describe the experience of it as spaciousness, freedom, a feeling of a connection, joy, bliss, compassion, love.  I noted how Lewis Richmond said that his “teacher Shunryu Suzuki said, “‘I do not mean voidness. There is something, but that something is something which is always prepared for taking some particular form.’  Another time, speaking of the feeling tone of emptiness, he said, ‘Emptiness is like being at your mother’s bosom and she will take care of you.'”

Now, this approach of not naming, not ascribing positive qualities to that Reality has a counterpart in Christina mysticism, in the apophatic tradition, the via negative.  In this tradition, any idea, name, or concept about God that arises in the mind in meditation is negated.  One says, “Not that.  Not that.  Not that.”  Because Reality is beyond any idea or image that can arise in the mind.  I will say more about this in a post about Christina mysticism later.

In this post, though leaping chronologically, and from East to West, I’d like to share something very interesting about the mystical theology of Sufism, the mystical wing of Islam, which parallels this “negative” approach to the contemplative life.

According to the Nasquabandi tradition of Sufism, the word Allah is composed of the article “al,” which means “the,” and “lah,” which mean “nothing.”

In Sufism, the greatest name for God is “The Nothing.”   Because God is experienced as Nothingness–No Thing, Something beyond the created world.

Shortly before his death, the Naqshbandi Sufi Master Bhai Sahib said, “There is nothing but Nothingness.”

The Sufi scholar-practitioner Irina Tweedie explains:

“There is nothing but Nothingness. . . . Nothingness in the triune, triple sense: Nothingness because the little self (the ego) has to go. One has to become nothing. Nothingness, because the higher states of consciousness represent nothingness to the mind, for it cannot reach there. It is completely beyond the range of perception. Complete comprehension on the level of the mind is not possible, so one is faced with nothingness. And in the last, most sublime, sense, it is to merge into the Luminous Ocean of the Infinite. I think this is how one has to understand it; that is how Bhai Sahib had meant it, when he spoke of the Nothingness and of the One.”

And as another Sufi scholar-practitioner Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee has written in “The Dhikr As An Archetype of Transformation” (“Dhikr” means “remembrance of God through repetition of the name “Allah” in meditation):

“Thus, the name Allah contains the essence of all Sufi teaching: to become nothing, to become annihilated in Him, so that all that remains is His Infinite Emptiness. This is the path of love, it is the cup of wine which is drunk by His lovers. In the words of Rûmî:

I drained this cup:
there is nothing, now,
but ecstatic annihilation.”

So, here, at the height of Sufi mystical theology, we find ourselves not far from the Buddhist notion of Emptiness, not far from the Taoist term for the unnamable Reality.

I love finding these connections among diverse spiritual traditions!

Happy (spiritual) trails!

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5 thoughts on “Sufism: More Thoughts on “That Thing” Some People Call “God”

  1. Great post, Michael. I learned so much. Thanks for pointing out the connections. (Coincidentally, the book I ordered from Amazon, “Daughter on Fire,” by Irina Tweedie just arrived today!!!) I’m also reading a book by David Chadwick who studied under Shunryu Suzuki Roshi! Worlds collide.

    • Thanks, Marilyn. I want to read that book, as well. I can order kindle books via amazon, and just finished one, so I’ll check that one out! so good to be in touch!

      The image did not come through. But so glad it arrived for you!

  2. In my practice of Kundalini yoga, we use the mantra Sat Nam — ineffable being as it manifests into being and recedes back into the ineffable. For split seconds, which are also infinities, I have glimpsed the emptiness and longed for it. Swami Agnivesh, whose ashram I visited outside Delhi, says that religions are the vehicles we use to travel towards spiritual awareness. He says the vehicles are crashing into one another and creating harm; it is time to get out and walk, since we are all trying to get to the same place anyway and can do so better hand in hand.

    • Thanks, Joy. Back in the 1970s I was very close to some Kundalini folks, through at the time I was on a different yogic path. The Sikhs are one of my favorite spiritual traditions. My guru was raised a Sikh, before she found her guru. I assume you know the kirtan music of Snatnam Kaur, Mirabai Ceba, and Guru Nam Singh? They are my favorite spiritual musicians and I owe them so much for the deepening of my spiritual life that my exposure to their music has fostered. Snatnam Kaur is my favorite. We play her music all the time at the meditation group I founded. The whole music company of Spirit Voyage has so many great Sikh musicians. Another I love is Simrit Kaur. I have an essay I’ll send you about visiting New Mexico and the Kundalini, 3HO, Sikh community there. Thanks for writing!

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