Sufism: Common Ground Between the Muslim and Christian Tradition


Sufism: Common Ground Between the Muslim and Christian Tradition

By T. Renee Ruthven






With an awakening of American concern about Islamic radicals, a new found prejudice in the modern generation deflects the original ideals of the Muslim faith. Those who neglect the study of that which is believed evil never come to realize the interconnectedness of the Muslim and the Christian. Sufism, dated more than one thousand years, is not the New Age fad some believe it to be, but rather an ancient manifestation of the Orient practiced in similar form and with the same principal intent by both Muslims and Christians.The Sufist teacher, Bûshanji (d. 959), described the tradition as "a reality without a name." The concept, in both Sufism and Christianity is "to develop a heart that knows God" (Thomas Merton speaking to a group of Catholic Sisters in Alaska, 1968). One comes to know God by praying in the heart. How to arrive at the place where one is able to pray in the heart is a daunting task, a struggle both Muslim and Christian mystics have fought to comprehend and master since their inception. A Sufist must begin the journey by understanding the flaws of man and accepting the notion that the material world as we know it, from the grass beneath our feet to the water based matter of our bodies, is not reality.

The only "real" reality is God.
The Sufi distinguish between two holy wars or jihad. The greatest war, or the jihad al-akhbâr, is the lifelong battle against self. Every stage in the Sufi path is condemned with trials. As Thomas Merton explained to the novices at the Abbey of Gethsemane in Trappist, Kentucky, "you can't live for God without trial...love and trials are inseparable." The primary trial is the struggle with the soul (nafs), the constant battle with the natural instinct.

The core duty of the pious is to overcome this inner turmoil by acting contrary to the desires of the soul. God, the only "real" reality, comes out by wrestling with the soul and overcoming by the grace of God. To the Sufi, the soul (nafs) incites evil and this evil can only be cured by love.


The Islamic dhikr and the Christian hesychasm are forms of prayer modeled after Sufist thought. Dhikr, translated from the Arabic words for remembrance, recollection, and invocation, transforms the human psyche by means of its practice. It is the glorifying of Allah with certain fixed phrases, repeated in a ritual order, either silently or aloud, with either a spiritual father or alone, using specific breathing patterns and physical movements. In the Qur'an, God declares, "Remember Me, and I shall remember you" (2:235). "Therefore glorify Me, I will make you eminent, and give thanks to Me and be not ungrateful to me" (2:152). In practice, then, the one in prayer first gains an integrated soul. In the dhikr, the soul is offered to God in the supreme form of sacrifice.

Finally, in annihilation (fanâ), the one in prayer realize he/she was never separated from God. In the dhikr experience, the whole body meditates so that the entire being is filled with the name of God. The aim is to completely center the whole person on God.
Hesychasm,-also known as the Jesus Prayer-believed to be founded by Arenius the Great (d. 449), aims at human integration through constant remembrance of God. Following the Biblical order to "pray unceasingly" (1 Thes. 5:17), hesychasm is referred to as the "prayer of the heart." The practice of the prayer of the heart and the dhikr are similar in that they both focus on the Names of God. In both practices, what begins as a verbal prayer (rational, analytical/distance of God) comes to flood the whole body of the one who prays (bewilderment, hope/nearness of God).In both, the goal is human transformation, to experience the reality of God. The one in prayer, either alone or in front of a spiritual father, starts breathing rhythmically. His/her chin usually rests on the chest, symbolizing the heart in prayer, refocusing the breath on to the heart. The spiritual father recites the prayer and the disciple listens. If alone, the disciple recites the prayer either aloud or silently. When breathing out, the one in prayer says, "Lâ ilâha illa'Llâh (there is no God except the one true God)." The Jesus prayer, in the same manner, substitutes this line with some variation of "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner." This out-breath is a rejection of all that is not God, all physical and material in the whole world, the non-reality. The in-breath takes God into the heart of the one in prayer. This process is repeated. Prayer becomes tied with this deep breathing. The idea is to think of the breath as being blessed by God. What is important in both the Christian hesychasm and the Muslim dhikr "is the sharing of the experience of divine light (Thomas Merton in a letter to Abdul Aziz).Without being sidetracked by the accidents of interpretation as seen throughout history, the Sufist tradition, seen in both the Muslim and Christian faith, find distinction beginning with the question of salvation. "...Personally, in matters where dogmatic beliefs differ, I think that controversy is of little value because it takes away from the spiritual realities into the realm of words and ideas...But much more important is the sharing of the experience of divine light, and first of all of the light that God gives us even as the Creator and Ruler of the Universe. It is here that the area of fruitful dialogue exists between Christianity and Islam (Thomas Merton, The Hidden Ground of Love, 54). 
So much more can be said about Sufist, Muslim, and Christian worship and practices, but time cannot afford the space. As a society of faith, no matter where we call home, we cannot afford to stray from the real root of evil by viewing the whole with blind hate because of the false interpretations of the wayward few with the loudest voices. Our purpose should be, as the Trappist monk, Thomas Merton said, to penetrate the central spiritual core of any tradition to find our common bond under the One True God. Only then will distinctions blur and drown in love's unity, a love, God's love, which knows nothing of created distinctions. It is here, in this final stage of the Sufi progress, where man is overwhelmed and reduced to nothing, a heart tested, proven, and destroyed. Some Sufists interpret this final stage as the death of the human body and passage of the soul to heaven. Others see it as a metaphor, an end to the time of prayer when the one in prayer returns to the earthly realm with helping hands. It is at this moment when the reality of God manifests itself in the sphere of our daily existence. The purpose of the Sufi is not to dispute the wars within the world. Whether internal or external, all trials are seen as a "sober" necessity essential if the one in prayer is to reach a "drunken" state in which the traveler is open to the effusions of divine love, mercy and knowledge.
When and if the goal of human transformation is reached, the traveler discovers the truth that God alone is real, that God alone is the light that shines in the darkness of the world, and that human beings made and remade in His image, are nothing except the full radiance of His shining. The trick for us all, while living in a world of paradox, is to strike a happy medium between sobriety and drunkenness.
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