Tasawwuf as Islamic Existentialism

Existence is a strange thing. While it permeates all that is and all that we experience, it eludes our grasp. Existence is the very ground upon which humanity stands and subsists. This ontological realization is known as existentialism. It concerns what it means to exist and its associated consequences, our freedom as beings in the world with intentionality, or even the constraints of our freedom as seen in our mortality. These realizations are not unique to any one person, place, and tradition of philosophy or religion. In the Islamic tradition, a novel and endogenous existentialism, taṣawwuf (known in English as Sufism) is the primary vehicle for systematic reflection upon existence and the means by which Muslims are able to make sense of their place in this world. This is not a typical view of Sufism, but one that finds this tradition as a type of existentialism, an Islamic existentialism. The definitions and explanations here are neither exhaustive nor indicative of a singular type of thought, but rather, serve as a meditation and grounding for what can become and be known as Islamic existentialism. They offer a shift in perspective, a parallax view of the Islamic tradition of Sufism to bring about greater contemplation upon our finite nature as human beings in the world.

Existentialism: a word which pertains to existence and being, to have life, and to have being (1). All of these are common definitions of the root of existentialism: exist. None of these definitions suffices to explain what it is and why it matters. The German philosopher Martin Heidegger stressed the difficulty of the defining existence in his magnum opus, Being and Time, “An understanding of Being is already included in conceiving anything which one apprehends in entities” (2). Despite the difficulty in defining existence or being, in the Islamic tradition of Sufism, this grasping for the ground of what we call existence is not as elusive. We begin with certain givens, like the belief in a singular and personal God known in Islam as Allah and that He revealed to humanity truths in books sent to His rightly guided messengers and prophets, like the Prophet Muhammad. Heidegger wishes to unveil being and existence without the help of any deity or theological principles, which greatly hinder his search for the grounding of being and existence. However, in Sufism, the basic beliefs and principles of Islam are a given and serve as the foundation on which we may tease out the appearance, function, and ultimately, the grounding of the reality of being and existence.

Sufism is the internal system of reflection and remembrance of the Divine, which invites its mūrīdūn (pl. aspirants or seekers) to tarry with their existence and being, but without ever forgetting or separating from the Creator. It is a journey to God, by way of God through His means. A great example of the aforementioned explanation is the life of the Prophet Abraham (Ibrahim in Arabic). Quite literally, Abraham travelled all over the ancient Middle East, from Egypt to the Levant to Mecca and back. Abraham’s trials and tribulations are a reminder to all Muslims that even the most pious are tested heavily, not as punishment, but as a means of purification and of experiencing the presence of God directly. There is also a clear ethical implication from this Islamic existentialism. The ethical in this approach is in establishing the proper conduct that a Muslim (particularly the aspirant on the Sufi path) must follow. 14th century CE Sufi master from Alexandria, Ibn Ata’illah al-Iskandari provides an example:

You should be aware that the true One opened wide the inner heart of Abraham with the light of contentment. The true One granted him the spirit of submission and preserved his heart from looking to other people for relief. Remember how the fire was transformed into a cool haven of safety? How could this be unless his heart had relinquished all control to God in absolute submission? (3)

In this explication of Abraham’s trial from his own people who attempted to burn him alive for desecrating their altars, God reveals in the Qur’an:

Verily among those who followed his way was Abraham. Behold, he approached his Lord with a sound heart. Behold, he said to his father and to his people, “what is that which ye worship?” “Is it a Falsehood – Gods other than Allah that ye desire?” (37:83-86) …Then did he turn upon them, striking (them) with the right hand. Then came (the worshippers) with hurried steps, and faced (him). He said, “Worship ye that which ye have (yourselves) carved?” “But Allah has created you and your handiwork!” They said, “Build him a furnace, and throw him into the blazing fire!” (37:93-97)

Ibn Ata’illah offers reassurance to the Muslim, “God will aid you, turning the flames of this lower world into coolness and safety while giving you subtle gifts and virtuous nobility” (3). We are also confronted with an ethical dimension of Abraham’s capture and attempted burning. Abraham, in his dedication to God, destroys his people’s idols and mocks the idols, “Then did he turn to their gods and said, “Will ye not eat (of the offerings before you)?” “What is the matter with you that ye speak not (intelligently)?”’  (37:91-93). Abraham sacrifices his own being in the name of God, for God, by God. Abraham, like other prophets in Islam, is a moral exemplar, with both his conduct and internal disposition meant to be emulated. In Islamic existentialism, the internal and external aspects of the human person are equally important and necessary. On the contrary, Christian existentialist philosopher of the 19th century CE, Søren Kierkegaard, creates a vision of Abraham that is portrayed in an anxious awe and terror, “One approaches him [Abraham] with a horror religiosus, as Israel approached Mount Sinai” (4).

Sufism as a method and style of existentialism pushes the mūrīd to reflect on his position, externally and internally, in this world and the next. Every moment of conscious existence and being is meant to serve as a locus of reflection upon the Divine. Non-Islamic existentialism, like the works of Søren Kierkegaard, also brings about reflections of the Divine but from the obverse side of human experience. Take for example, Kierkegaard’s Fear and Trembling. Kierkegaard retells the story of Abraham sacrificing his son Isaac (in the Islamic tradition, Ishmael is considered to be the son put up for sacrifice) because God asked Abraham to do so. “Why, then, does Abraham do it? For God’s sake and – the two are identical – for his own sake. He does it for God’s sake because God demands his proof of his faith; he does it for his own sake so that he can prove it” (4). Kierkegaard grapples with what he imagines to be Abraham’s internal wrestling with God’s command. “Therefore, although Abraham arouses my admiration, he also appalls me. The person who denies himself and sacrifices himself because of duty gives up the finite in order to grasp the infinite…” (4). How could a man live with himself knowing that God nearly allowed him to sacrifice his innocent son? How could a man carry on with life after such an event? A “suspension of the ethical” is what occurs on Mount Moriah (4). The Law or the ethical is suspended by God to demonstrate it. This negative dialectic of commandment to sacrifice, which is the suspension of the ethical, is then superseded by God for Abraham’s faith in God. God then nullifies the sacrifice by replacing Isaac with a lamb. The trial of Abraham in the Qur’an displays Abraham’s total reliance upon God and his submission internally and externally to whatever God ordained. Through this total reliance in God, Abraham is saved from a fiery torment. This offers the Muslim a means by which one may attain higher spiritual stations and cognizance. A practical and positive dialectical movement is established in the Islamic approach.

The term “Islamic existentialism” is not meant or intended is to invoke a particular, historical mode of existential, as one could say for its Western counterpart. There is a level of anachronism in the term. However, the term is necessary in this case because it is a descriptor of a method of investigation: to probe the human condition and experience, found in the Islamic science of Sufism. Sufism is not identical to the existentialism that is found in the works of Jean-Paul Sartre or even Søren Kierkegaard. However, both trends of existential thought share certain themes and styles that are useful and apt to explicate how Sufism is the premier Islamic science of existential thought and knowledge.

The Western examples of existentialism and the Islamic examples of existentialism share particular explanations of existence and being. Some may wonder why compare a historical example with an anachronistic one? Some may think that if one is true, then the other must necessarily be false. However, with a descriptive philosophy of human experience like existentialism, truth is found only in making the description itself, in how the object of study appears. The method bears its truth. It is not a syllogism that requires a verified set of premises that result in a valid and sound conclusion. Reality is not identical with symbolic logic or physics. They approach reality based on their own internal and external structures, theories, and principles. These other disciplines are mere expressions and abstractions of reality. What formula in mathematics can properly serve to represent Man’s existence? How can Being-qua-being (man’s existence and ipseity in the world) even be properly represented by a variable in a formula? Being, as conceived in such a manner, would be stripped of what it is, in the name of logical cogency, a means all too narrow. Every intellectual discipline has its objects of study, and to veer outside of that domain is to transgress into absurd speculation under the guise of science or philosophy. A descriptive philosophy of human experience is simply the best means to approach and ascertain the Real as it is and to apprehend the knowledge of existence and being.

Meditations, especially ones that deal with naturally contemplative topics should force us to stop what we are doing– to think and reflect upon the lessons and knowledge that can be derived from these loci, like Abraham’s destruction of his people’s idols and his subsequent attempted murder by immolation, or Abraham’s attempted sacrifice of his son. At any time in our lives, we as human beings can take a step back, remove ourselves from the picture, and thus, participate in thought and intuition with what it means to be a human being qua human. Each and every event is an invitation to ponder God, His attributes, and our place on this plane of existence, in relation to Him. This existential reality does not have to be a solicitation for anxiety and angst, but rather a call to remember our Divine origins and our proximity to God in the past and the present.

Works Cited:

  1. “Exist, Existentialism, Existence.”  Merriam Webster.com. Accessed September 23, 2018.
  2. Martin Heidegger, Being and Time (New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1962), 22.
  3. al-Iskandari, Ibn Ata’illah. The Book of Illumination. Translated by Scott Kugle. Louisville: Fons Vitae, 2005.
  4. Kierkegaard, Soren. Fear and Trembling/Repetition. Translated by Howard V. Hong and Edna H. Hong. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1983.
  5. Ali, Abdullah Yusuf, trans. The Holy Quran. 10th. Beltsville: Amana Publications, 2002.

About the Author: Andrew is a Sufi philosopher and historian. He was born, he lives, he will die. You can follow him on Twitter here.

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