Mindfulness in the Sufi Tradition

Based in Birmingham, Midlands Sufi Circle is part of an international network of zawiyas (Sufi centres of meditation and learning) in the Moroccan Sufi tradition.

The Sufi path is all about mindfulness. Mindfulness of what we do and how we do it; mindfulness of our intentions; mindfulness of how we speak to one another and mindfulness of how we interact with the world around us.

Sufism is the esoteric aspect of Islam, often referred to as the science of the interior (‘ilm al-bâtin). The Prophet Muhammad tells us that excellence in religion (ihsan in Arabic) is “that you worship God as if you see Him, for if you don’t see Him, know that truly He sees you”.

At the heart of the Sufi tradition is this mindfulness of God in every living moment, with every breath. One of the central pillars of the Sufi path is the practice of dhikr, or remembrance of God, the contemplative practice of meditating on the names or attributes of the Divine reality in order to cleanse the heart of all other concerns.

If we are to ‘remember’ God as the term dhikr implies, then we might ask what it is that separates us from Him in the first place. The acclaimed 13th-century Sufi scholar Ibn Ata Allah Iskandari provides us with a clear answer to this question: “The only thing that stands between you and God” he tells us, “is yourself”.

Another celebrated 13th-century Sufi figure, the much loved Persian poet Jalaluddin Rumi reiterates this truth when he says of dhikr “in reality there is nothing to remember, it is enough simply to forget oneself”.

The Sufi path is thus a kind of homecoming, a return to our essential nature or source which is the Divine Truth. The practice of dhikr is a striving to lift the consciousness from the temporal to the Eternal, from the relative to the Absolute. It is a letting go of the past, the future and our relative concerns.

By letting go, we’re allowing God’s attributes to be experienced directly, for Sufism is pure experience, it’s not a theoretical science. We can differentiate between belief and certainty, and Sufism is often referred to as the science of certainty. Certainty born of experience. We could use any number of elaborate metaphors to explain what a fresh fig tastes like, but our description, however effective it might be, would be very pale in comparison to the direct experience of tasting a fresh fig for oneself.

With regular practice, as we continue to home in on the here and now, focusing exclusively on the Divine Truth, we begin to experience flashes of inspiration, Divine epiphanies, as if a breeze momentarily stirred the curtains and the sunlight came flooding through, just for an instant. These flashes of Nur or Divine light that momentarily illuminate the heart are what we refer to in the Sufi tradition as hal – or spiritual states. With time and continued practice, these hal become more stable and durable and we refer to these lasting states as maqam – or spiritual stations. It is these spiritual stations that are the rungs on the ladder of our progression along the Sufi path. With each station, another veil is lifted from our hearts, God’s attributes increasingly shine through and our direct understanding of the Divine Reality deepens.

In the words of Saint Augustine, “You must be emptied of that of which you are full, in order that you might be filled with that of which you are empty.”

Panel 1

The Way of Beauty

There is a famous prophetic tradition that provides us with a philosophical argument for the creation of mankind and the need for mankind to love and worship God in His Eternal Beauty.

According to this sacred hadith, the prophet Da’ud asked God why He had created man to which God replied, “I was a Hidden Treasure, and therefore fain to be known, so I created creation in order that I should be known.”

This hadith tells us two things:

  • Firstly, that this world is only a reflection of the Truth and not the Truth itself
  • Secondly, that the very purpose of our existence is to know God

Indeed, if we take a closer look at the nature of Man’s soul, we can see that he belongs to two complementary worlds:

  • The tangible, material world, represented by the body (al-jasad) and accessible through reason (al-‘aql) and the senses (al-hawâss).
  • And the spiritual world, infinite and invisible, represented by the spirit (al-rûh) and accessible through the faculties of the heart (al-qalb).

Without these two dimensions, without a balance between these two aspects of his humanity, man cannot find his equilibrium and well-being. He lives in an illusory reality, attached to a myriad of substitutes in order to compensate for this imbalance; this sense of emptiness, of lacking which can only be rectified by returning to a real balance between the material and the spiritual.

Indeed, it is only through treading an authentic spiritual path that man can hope to achieve this unity.

The Sufi path aims at purifying the heart of all worldly attachments and the natural dispositions of the ego, such as pride, envy, anger and hatred, and to bind it instead to the attributes of the spirit. This is what the Sufis refer to as the polishing of the heart, the polished heart being likened to a mirror which is able to reflect the Divine Truth.

As the celebrated 13th century Sufi scholar and spiritual master, Ibn Ata Allah Iskandari observes:

“If the forms of phenomenal beings are embedded in the mirror of the heart, how can it be illuminated?

If it is fettered by its appetites, how can it travel to God? 

If it is not purified of the great impurity of its heedlessness, how can it aspire to enter the presence of God?”

For the Sufis, it is the heart that is the receptacle of Divine Epiphanies and inspiration.

In his acclaimed work, ‘A History of Ottoman Poetry’, the eminent 19th century Scottish orientalist Elias Gibb, describes the dualistic nature of the human condition:

“Man, like the phenomenal universe in which he finds himself, and of which he presents an epitome, is double-natured, partaking at once of Being and Not-Being, of Good and Evil, of Reality and Unreality. But as that side of him which derives from Being, and which therefore alone has a real and eternal existence, is necessarily an emanation of Divinity, he is, so far, ultimately and essentially one with God. This Divine particle in man, this spark of Pure Being, is ever seeking, consciously or unconsciously, to be reunited to its source; but so long as the phenomenal state lasts, the presence of the element of Not-being holds it back.”

So how is man to transcend this state of not-being in order to achieve absorption in the Divine? According to the Islamic mystical tradition, it is through overcoming the desires and caprices of one’s Self, for it is the Self that is the cause of our separation from God, and as such, the source of our principal sorrow.

It is through continued practice, the companionship (sohba) of a spiritual community and the guidance of an accomplished spiritual master that the disciple travels upon the spiritual path and can accomplish the purification of his heart. Invocation (dhikr) is the means by which one can combat the darker reflexes and negative suggestions of the carnal soul, along with all that perturbs one’s inner self. The Holy Quran tells us that:

Indeed, it is through the invocation of God that hearts find peace

As the veils are lifted and the Divine attributes begin to be reflected in the mirror of the heart, a deep sense of connectedness and well-being emerges from one’s innermost being; and increasingly one’s words and deeds are imbued with wisdom, compassion, veracity and insight.

Panel 2


For more information about the Midlands Sufi Circle and our programme of events, please complete the contact form below.