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The Path of Love:  Jesus in Mystical Islam

Orville Boyd Jenkins

We wish to focus on the wide-spread mystical movement called Sufism.  This is a branch of the Sunni division of the religion of Islam (submission to the One God).  It must be seen, however, not as a sect, or "denomination," but rather as a movement.

Though the Sufi movement is basically Sunni, it is not restricted to anyone Sunni sect or national grouping.  It is rather a movement or attitude of mysticism which adds the dimension of personal relationship to God to the already accepted Sunna (historical foundation of law and tradition based on the Qur'an).

Certain verses in the Qur'an have been inspirational to the Muslim mystics, such as, "We [God] are nearer to him [man] than the vein of his neck" (sura 50:16).  The Sufis, who sought to lose themselves in divine love, were touched most by the verse in sura 5:59: "A people whom he loveth and who love him."

Sunni Mystics

Sufis have a firm in the Qur'an and the hadith (traditions of interpretation), but are a fervent people, and in contrast to traditional sunnis believe belief strongly in a personal relationship to God (Allah).  They are "mystics.

There are within the movement many different schools of method and discipline, providing techniques or principles for meditation and worship, devotion and union with Allah, and having different theological systems, or sometimes specific "non-systems."

The Sufis emphasize the Spirit and the relaof the Muslim (devotee, believer) to Allah, the goal of oneness with Allah, the depth and completeness of personal relationwith Allah.

Yet the movement has progreat social activists, like Abd al-Qadir al-Jilani of the 12th century, founder of the Qadiriya fraternity of dervishes.  His collected sermons show a man of "noble, religious and philanthropic spirit....  He was a powerful preacher who was said to have converted many criminals in Baghdad and organized relief for the poor and needy."2

The theologian Abu Hamid al-Ghazali, of the 11th century, recognized universally as a great Islamic systematic theologian, was converted to Sufism in 1095, yet continued in his theological reflection and writing.

Ibnul 'Arabi was a Spanish Sufi who elucidated the doctrine of Reality (wahdatu 'l-wujud the unity of existence) in the eleventh century, using a concept of logos (the "word").

Spiritual Union

The movement has often emphasized asceticism in various forms and degrees, and the concept of discipline in devotion is prominent.  The familiar term "dervish" (darwish) refers to one caught up with God in personal devotion, approaching spiritual union with the Divine, caught up out of the world, leaving evil and pain behind.

The various schools have their particular techniques for inducing or enhancing the mystical trance, one of which is popularly referred to in the phrase "whirling dervish," depictthe whirling dancing orders, or fraternities, of mystical devotion.

These dervish orders spread all over the Muslim world from the twelfth century.  These were mostly semi-monastic fraternities, with many brothers returning to their normal occupations after meetings of "litani" or "ecstacy" (dhikr).

The Sufis get their name from the asceticism of the early mystics.  The name comes from the Arabic word suf (wool), used to refer to the garments made of the fiber.  The countrymen of the early Persian mystics called them by this nickname because they wore a garment of undyed wool like the Chrismystics.

Sufism as an ascetic discipline reflected the strong asceticism of "the more serious of the early Muslims, who were disgusted at the wide-spread luxury and loose living which marked the Caliphates of Damascus and Baghdad.  They enjoined austerity and prayer and gave themselves up to a life of contemplation and religious exercise."3

The Sufis have existed from the earliest days of Islam.  They spread to all areas of Islam.  In reference to East Africa, most Somalis in Somalia and Kenya are attached to various Sufi groups.

Personal Relationship

Performance of ritual observances is important, but held to be meaningless witha personal relationship with God.  The Sufis often spoke of a need for personal conversion, followed by development of true Islam (submission to Allah, and in Sufi terms oneness of spirit with Allah).

The sense of mystical relationship to Allah went far beyond the trance of transcendent union, however, and formed a basis of continuing relationship and life commitment to Allah — very similar to the evangelical Christian concept of the new birth, a personal inner communion with the Creator.

Thus the Sufis had conflicts with the orthodox Sunnis who did not think of God in terms of redemption and personal relationship.  For Allah was above all creatures and man was so unlike Allah, that it was inconceivable that the created might be unified with the Creator.

Yet it was this sense of personal devotion and spiritual communion (relationship) with Allah that led so many mystics to apply themselves to serious theological reflection as a part of their testimony and service.  This devotion was the basis of their prophetic role in calling the Muslim community to return to true active religion.

As al-Ghazali proposed, love of God leads the believer to make all actions an expression of love.  The motive for all actions is to increase one's knowledge of God, which in turn leads to a greater love of God.

"When the Sufis accepted the scholastic theology and law as defining the rational and moral imperatives of Islam in external terms and set themselves to seek out and to practice their inner content, they raised the whole level of religious thought and action in Islam to a higher plane of consciousness and purpose."4

Role of Jesus
Because of this emphasis on love, Jesus figured prominently in Sufi thought, philoso and devotion.  This book will examine briefly the place of Jesus in Sufism.  Because the Qur'an is basic to such a study in Islam, we will begin our investigations there, and after basic insights, we will progress to the thought of al-Hallaj, who, more than any other mystic, took Jesus as a model.


2 Guillaume, p. 151.

3 Ibid., p. 144.

4 Watt, p. 22.


Originally published in The Path of Love (Nairobi:  Communication Press, 1984.)
Posted on Thoughts and Resources 19 November 2007

Orville Boyd Jenkins, Ed.D., Ph.D.
Copyright © 1984, 2007 by Orville Boyd Jenkins
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use.  Other rights reserved.

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