Frequently Asked Questions

Question: What is Sufism?


Sufism is an ancient learning and teaching technique. Its purpose: to connect you directly to the Divine. Its method: to learn how to know your heart and properly activate your mind up so you may become an integrated human being (insan-i-kamal). Other names for the teachings are Tariqa, Gnosticism, the Path, The Way, Alchemy, and many others.

Sufism adapts to the time, the place, the culture, the people, and the language.

The principles are simple. The practice is difficult.

Question: Is Sufism a cult or religion?

A cult is generally defined as a free-floating, one-time, single-teacher oriented religion. Sufism is considered to have begun when Abraham figured out that his father’s idols didn’t create the world. Since then the teachings have been handed down from teacher to teacher, (the silsillah or train of transmission).

What is a Shaykh in Sufism?
Every Shaykh or Shaykha must be given permission (ijaza) by his/her Shaykh to teach.
In Sufism, the Shaykh:
1. Follows the Prophet Mohammed (peace be upon him)
2. Acts from Sunnah (how Mohammed dealt with the world)
3. Points to Allah and not him/herself
4. Does not force students to give money
5. Must not be in intimate relationship with murids (students)
6. Must be a Wali- receive knowledge from the unseen and the lineage of Shaykhs
7. Practices what s/he preaches
8. Speaks what’s in your heart
9. You feel your troubles lifted
10. Brings contentment to your heart and you want to hear more from him/her

I’ve heard about Sufi dancing. Is that what you do?
“God has bestowed on his creation many ways to joy and exaltation-I speak primarily here of outer beauty/majesty; like song, dance, the beauty of the voice, calming essence of nature, laughter etc….What role do such activities play in the world? I know in many traditions that song and dance are frowned upon as disrespectful and for others it is integral, I have witnessed and experienced the joy of such things…the joy not of raw visceral sensory pleasure but you know those moments of…connection I suppose to something other than yourself. I know that music and movement are aspects of this path, how and why are they important? When can they be of decrease for the murid (student) and/or the everyday person?”

Music and Dance can be disciplines and paths for understanding the self and Allah. I am a composer and musician. It is something I have done since I was five. It is an extremely demanding practice that requires patience, fortitude, perseverance and the right teacher.
I think it might be more helpful to ask: what is the purpose of the music or dance? There are many purposes:

Entertainment (film, theatre, TV, sing-along’s, karaoke)
Soothing– lullabies, nursery rhymes, ballads
Nostalgia (remember that song we danced to?)
Rites of Passage–weddings, funerals, birthdays, celebrations
Martial- marches, anthems, patriotic songs
Courtship – love songs
Rituals and Religious– prayers, Ilahi, Kirtan
Joy, Sorrow and other expressions of feelings
Sales– commercials

There are many purposes. However, as regards your question, music and dance can be a distraction rather than an enhancement or focus. It depends on the purpose and intention. In zikr, we use movement and music to focus our attention on Allah. If it is a wedding, the purpose of the music would to focus our attention on the cultural form of the ritual because, of course, a wedding is culturally based and biased with specific cultural attachments and expectations.

Often, at certain stages of development, it is better for a student seeking spiritual knowledge to forego music dance or books because at this moment in their spiritual journey it is a distraction. At other points along the path it might be best for the student to go and become a rock and roll star. Sufism is not a religion. It does not tell you what to do. Each person has his/her own path. It depends on that student’s needs and character. Generally, it can be said for a Sufi that if it helps to praise and remember Allah then it certainly it may be appropriate. It depends on the murid’s Shaykh to help determine whether it is the right thing.

The basic determining factor is: what is the purpose or intention? Is that intention carried through? For example some people say that they pray to God through music and dance. However, if they are imagining, “how beautiful and spiritual I am” then the intention and action are not congruent. They would be hypocrites.

We want to avoid giving the nafs (ego-matrix) strength and power. So we do the things that our “self” doesn’t like, such as fasting, praying, being generous, patient, tolerant, soft, respectful and remembering Allah.

What are nafs?
Nafs is the collections of opinions and adaptations you have made over your life that makes you think you are you. It is the ego-matrix that interferes with you hearing your heart and Allah. There is an unending blessing of light and love constantly pouring down upon you, but your nafs interferes with this light. So the idea of Sufism is to help you get out of your own way. To do that, you need to recognize your nafs, and gain control over them. To help you with that recognition, to help you get out of the way, the most efficient is to find the right teacher. See

Do I have to be a Muslim to be a Sufi?

Islam means Surrender. To be a Muslim (mu-islam) is one-who-surrenders. You cannot be a Sufi without surrender. The name of the religion does not matter. Surrender means getting out of the way. Surrender means it’s not about you. Surrender means learning to listen to your heart, learning to think for yourself, learning about the prophets: the messages and lessons for which they gave their lives. The prophets are examples of what surrender looks like. We consider the Prophet Mohammed (peace be upon him) the best of Sufis. We choose to consider him an exemplar of what a Human Being is.
An authentic religion gives you a framework, foundation, root system to grow towards the light. No roots, no growth. Without a religion, the first storm will knock you over. So, it’s not about the name of the religion, it may be the one you were born with that you transform and then embrace the essence of the teachings of the prophet of that religion. From there you discover that all religions and prophets have the same message.
Can I be a Sufi without a Shaykh?
No. See the article below Why A Shaykh?
How do I know the right Shaykh for me?
Your Shaykh:
• Will speak what’s in your heart
• You will feel your troubles lifted
• Your heart is content and you want to hear more from him/her.
When you find the right Tariqa, it will feel as though you have come home.

“You mentioned to take the Shaykh or Pir as image; will this Shaykh or Pir know that we are doing the rabita connection? But if we don’t have their image will calling their names be enough? How does it feel and how do we know there’s a connection?”

Rabita is the heart connection, and is the beginning step to access Allah directly. You first need to be able to make contact with the shaykh through your heart. There’s a connection when you feel closeness and contact with the Shaykh or Pir. You then confirm this outwardly either by contacting by outward means or by looking for confirmation outside you.

“I observe that most tariqa people like to keep pictures of their Pirs (saints) in their house, just like how the Christians do for Jesus. I have read according to the Hadith (the actions and sayings of the Prophet Mohammad) to have any image figures, statues, and pictures is forbidden and angels won’t enter such houses. Please clarify.”

This hadith refers to a time of idolatry. The Prophet Mohammad understood the need to bring the various tribes’ focus to Allah.
Images today surround us. We don’t necessarily worship them as idols. When a sincere person is trying to get close to Allah, Allah and the angels know this, and will help that person attain closeness to Allah. If images of Allah’s helpers assist someone, then what’s the problem? Remember, we are doing this for Allah’s sake, not as idol worshippers or people who call them religious. We do it for the love of Allah. It is part of Sufi training to place our attention outside and away from us. It is also a way of changing our behavior by focusing our hearts towards a greater spiritual awareness.
This idea of pictures and music as being “non-Muslim” I personally find hypocritical. Some who call themselves Muslims watch TV and movies which, I imagine, have pictures, images and music. They also use computers and mobile phones that also use pictures and music. I believe some the money and Identification cards have pictures. This is the 21st Century and data and images flood our lives. How we filter and why is the nub of the question. Living your life in a state of surrender and service is most likely the ultimate state to achieve.

“Your comments about these topics are interesting and I have looked up some terms but I am still ignorant about the cosmology. I think I understand angels and know something about nafs, but not Jinn. Are they spirits? Are they relatives of nafs? What is their purpose, as opposed to angels (who, if I recall, you said do not have the power of choice), humans (who have the power of choice)? Are Jinn ‘devils’ in common parlance? (Possibly fallen minor angels?) Where does Shaytan fit in? Is this Iblis of whom you wrote recently? As always, forgive my ignorance.”

One way to think about this is to imagine that Jinn are like humans who live in an alternate dimension that occasionally intersects ours. They live faster than us, and are acknowledged in the Koran as having the potential to also have belief systems and religions. They have kingdoms, families, laws, good and bad people, wars, criminals, and can sometimes help, as well as hinder humans. Iblis was a Jinn who became Shaytan, a devil- who has the power to tempt but not coerce.

“Among the obligatory five time prayers, why only for the Fajar, Magarib and Isha in the beginning two rakaat Fathiha and sura recite loudly and remaining rakaat not loudly and other prayers as Noon, Afternoon in full recitation is not done loudly. I asked this to many many scholars, but unfortunately no proper answer. Please transfer this to them for the clear answer. It is always good to clear all doubts than keeping in mind, which always direct wrongly.”

My Shaykh (Pir Taner Ansari) says that the reason for this was that at the time of Mohammed (pbuh) unbelievers were present, and rather than creating a disturbance with them when praying, it was better to do it silently.

“Why does Allah make things hard for humans? First He created Adam, and then asked him not to touch the fruit, why? If it is not edible then why is it created? If it is bad to eat why not inform in advance the disadvantage of eating that fruit?”

Perhaps this was to show Adam that all things come from Allah, and that Adam can choose to begin asking for forgiveness from Allah. This is the difference between Adam and Iblis. Iblis did not ask for forgiveness, he was full of pride. But Adam, being made from mud, was humble, and knew his origins. This humility made him spiritually closer to Allah than Iblis, who had been Allah’s right hand advocate for many millennia. Who says the fruit was inedible? My understanding is that the fruit was very good and tasty. .

“Why did Allah create Shaytan? Allah is great and could simply vanish Shaytan if Allah finds him a bad boy? Why created human with a flexible mind and [given] towards the material aspect? Why the beautiful material things are created? On top of it [why did Allah] give all permission to the bloody Shaytan to penetrate and spoil the human from the straight path? I am really confused to all this? May Allah forgive me if I am wrong. This is out of curiosity and common sense.”

Perhaps it is that Allah wants sincere lovers. To be sincere, there must be a choice. Free choice. The choices of this material world are sometimes wrapped in shiny packages. The secret within your heart is simple, clear and needs unwrapping. Allah wants you to know His love, and wants you to love Him. But since this is a relationship, there is to be no one else- not the world (Dunya), not the clothes, not the car, not the money. So you have to choose. Do you want the shiny packaging of Dunya or the inner world of Love and Light? Because Allah wants you to feel that these are equally weighted choices, He has created this world. Shaytan is only allowed to whisper and tempt, if you choose his way, then that is your choice. Not his. If you choose Allah, then you have chosen a way of Love and Blessing. Whichever you choose, it is still Allah. Jalal – the power side, or Jamal – the beautiful side. Allah is everywhere. As Sufis we prefer to choose the Jamal side of Allah, which is why we are known as lovers of Allah.

Keeping Watch
In the morning
When I began to wake,
It happened again— that feeling
That You, Beloved,
Had stood over me all night
Keeping watch,
That feeling
That as soon as I began to stir
You put Your lips on my forehead
And lit a Holy Lamp
Inside my heart

(Hafiz – rendered by Daniel Ladinsky)

Why a Shaykh?
By Ibrahim Ansari
The Shaykh is your soul’s gardener. S/he takes you from where you are right now, and uses your inner materials as fertilizer to grow your heart. Parts of you- the garden- need weeding, some need hoeing, planting, landscaping. The Shaykh represents your highest potential. By putting your trust in the Shaykh as a guide, you make the first step towards unifying yourself. On a personal basis, the Shaykh goes within you, sees the distinction between yourself and your True self, and helps you to initiate the process of unification.
Much of what a Shaykh deals with at the beginning involves trust.
For many people, especially Australians and those of the Western world, trust is an issue. In this society, trust in not a common virtue. The first step of learning is to learn to trust the guide. Trust is paramount before any other teaching can take place.
Trust happens over time and through experience. You cannot trust Allah if you cannot trust your Shaykh. A Shaykh sees you as you truly are. S/he sees through your clothes, your attachments, and your nafs. Nafs is the ego matrix giving you the impression that you are your things, memories, and habits. The shaykh sees you with your habits, and compares that to your true self. Part of a shaykh’s job is to be a mirror for you. What you see is what you get, in this case. If you are scared, fear comes right back at you. If you love, love comes right back to you. In this and many other ways, your shaykh is here to help you overcome your nafs. Being a mirror to you is one of the quickest and perhaps most startling ways to break old habits. Imagine, for example, that you see yourself in a special kind of video, one where you can also hear your thoughts and see what is in your heart.
The Shaykh is your best friend and your nafs worst enemy.
The teacher works with each person on an individual basis, and in a vocabulary that that person can understand. The Shaykh is like a taxi driver. You get on wherever you are, and the driver takes you where you want to go. The choice is always yours.
At times, the Shaykh will talk directly to your soul (Ruh). The outer form may not understand as well as the inner soul. You may find yourself arguing, disagreeing, defending what you “know” to be right. Defense of you, however, is contrary to the goal of a spiritual practice. Defending yourself indicates a lack of surrender, mistrust of your guide and reliance upon your nafs.
As a piano teacher, there have been many students who, when they’ve made a mistake, argue with me about it.
“I did play an F sharp!”
I know the truth, that without doubt, this student absolutely did make a mistake. If I record the session I play it back and the student hears what I heard. Eventually, if there is perseverance, the student eventually begins to hear just the sound, not what is being imagined in the mind. You see, in music, just as in Sufism, when your mind and preconceived ideas are quieted, you can hear the sound (God, Allah, the Divine) without distraction, without attachment. Then you can place your heart into the sound and turn that sound into music.
This is the same with a true spiritual teacher. Your time with your teacher is the same as a music lesson. What you’ve practiced so far (or not) is apparent and cannot be hidden.
Through time and experience rabita develops. Rabita is the spiritual/mental/heart connection between you and another person. In Sufism the primary rabita is between the murid (student) and the Shaykh. Over time, many people experience a profound deepening of this connection. When you can begin to trust the spiritual teacher, it means that the process of surrender can begin. Surrender, in Sufism, is giving up what your nafs want and learning to listen to what Allah wants. In Christian mysticism this is “Not my will but Thine, Oh Lord.” For some people, not even with death is the link with the teacher broken. At some point, there is the experience of Fana fa-Shaykh- losing your self through your Shaykh. This is an important step on the path of Sufism.
The Shaykh’s job is to help you prepare the soil to grow your heart-tree. Your heart- in its pure, cleansed state- is the greatest treasure you will ever have. The teacher knows its worth and works with you constantly to cleanse it of personal and cultural accretions. This is a labor of love and service. The Shaykh knows that when the heart is cleansed, it is as though a child is born. A child, who sees, hears, speaks, and knows the languages of all living things. The rain of blessings shower down upon a clean heart.
A clean and pure heart is the beginning point for a dervish. When the eyes of the heart see the world and life for what they truly are, a new life has begun. That is why adab (right action) is so strongly taught. The heart-child is new and innocent, but because there is an awareness of the need for proper social interaction, harm because of wrong action is avoided. The heart child deserves our deepest respect, and so we prepare for that meeting with adab.
How does the shaykh know how to do all this?
A master teacher has gone through the same turmoil as you, and come out the other side. Where you feel you might need a little help and already know a lot, the master teacher knows that s/he knows very, very little and needs much help, but has learned to live with equanimity knowing that. Emptiness is the key here. Without emptiness Allah cannot pour blessings in. The Shaykh has visited the well of life and brought back the water for the thirsty to drink. Some complain about the cup, some say it is the wrong time of day to drink. Some say they don’t like the cupbearer. The point, of course, is who cares about any of that as along as one gets the water to drink. If you are thirsty, you want water. First, though, you must realize what thirst is and then discover that you are thirsty. Then find the water carrier.
Being able to recognize a true teacher or Shaykh requires in itself a certain spiritual development. You must have developed enough humility and truth about yourself to ask for help. Asking for help means to leave your “independence” behind.
Nasruddin walked into a bakery shop one day. He asked the salesperson, “Have you ever seen me before?”
“No.” replied the baker.
“Well, then,” said the Mulla, “How do you know it’s me?”
A spiritual practice, like Sufism, is like any other practice – be it music, sculpture, painting or plumbing – a time comes when you must seek out a teacher. This requires an emptying out of parts of you in order to take in new ways of thinking. You can’t fill a full cup. This is an important moment for the emptying requires humbling yourself to a higher authority. We Australians have an especially difficult time of doing this. We think we are individuals and do not need anyone else-especially someone telling us what we don’t want to hear. With John Wayne, Bruce Willis, and Sylvester Stallone as folk heroes, individualism plays a key role in the mythology of the self.
How can you be really independent? Everything you wear, you eat and all the things you depend on are the result of and because of the works of others. There is no independence. We depend on each other in so many ways. It seems that when we can recognize our own strengths and weaknesses, when we have taken a fairly honest stock of ourselves, I think most of us would agree that we need help. We need help because we all have habits.
Nasty habits. And we all need help going through them and picking out the ones we don’t need. And to do that we need help plus.
Professional help.
If you don’t think you need help, then without doubt you need professional help even more. This is a job you cannot do by yourself. Remember, though, that it is not the product but the process. The goal is to be at peace with God, to walk always with God, to know God, and to be grateful to God. A Shaykh may be able to help.
For more information see your local Shaykh.
Salaam Alaykum – Peace be with you.