If we are the tide, then Islam is the moon that offers us balance, rhythmically cradling us day and night in calming peace. There is a harmony in our community and in our relations, and it’s what continues to draw us together as a brotherhood, or the ummah. Yet there is a bigger community, an ummah beyond the world of man that stretches out to the natural world. Believing in the Oneness of God means we witness His creation and see His signs everywhere. Ibrahim Abdul-Matin, author of Green Deen, reminds us that as Muslims, we are khalifahs of the Earth with a faith that requires us to honour ‘the trust we have with God to be protectors of the planet, moving toward justice, and living in balance with nature.’ It’s a simple guideline that calls for respecting life in all its forms.
Despite being known for encouraging simplicity in life, Islam is weaved with complex layers of meaning that need to be teased through for more refined understanding of a faith that some say requires a lifetime of study to be fully appreciated. Whirling between its deeper-seated meanings are the beliefs drawn upon by Sufis, followers of the third-largest denomination of Islam.
For many, knowledge of Sufism begins with Rumi, a 13th-century Sufi mystic known for his poetry, and ends with an image of whirling dervishes, the ‘men in long robes and tall hats who turn continuously on one foot,’ as described by leading Sufi scholar Stephen Schwartz in The Other Islam. Though Sufi dervishes, who take a vow of poverty and shun the material world, are only a small fraction of the diversity of Sufi Muslim followers, they best epitomise the core belief of a Sufi. To the Sufi, there is a thin veil between the world of man and the natural world. In the iconic images of their trance-like dance, we find the heart of what a Sufi believes. As above, so below, a Sufi would say. The cosmic order of the heavens can be found in the smallest element here on Earth.
The journey towards the divine is most poetically captured in Elif Shafak’s The Forty Rules of Love: A Novel of Rumi. In the inspiring Sufi work of fiction, Elif best captures the Sufi relationship with the natural world when he notes there’s a balance, a music, or rhythm ‘underlying all forms of life… Don’t they see that all nature is singing?
Everything in the universe moves with a rhythm – the pumping of the heart, the flaps of a bird’s wings, the wind on a stormy night, a blacksmith working iron, or the sounds an unborn baby is surrounded with inside the womb… Everything partakes, passionately and spontaneously, in one magnificent melody. The dance of the whirling dervishes is a link in that perpetual chain. Just as a drop of seawater carries within it the entire ocean, our dance both reflects and shrouds the secrets of the cosmos.’
Sufi Muslims don’t just care for the environment; they entwine themselves into this duty. For us, the Earth isn’t just our charge; it’s where we find God. The goal of any Sufi is to find and connect with God in the here and now. We’re impatient and our love for the Divine leads us to seek Him in all the places He might be.Essential Sufism, a guidebook of quotes and inspirations, says a Sufi knows that ‘God is found in the world; this world does not stand between us and God unless we put it there. Everything in this world can remind us of God.’
Sometimes considered the heretical madmen of Islam, Sufis get ‘lost’ in the moment, in a thought or in a pursuit. We call this dhikr, or remembrance of God. As Rumi would say, there are a thousand ways to kneel and kiss the ground, and so there are a thousand ways to pray or offer dhikr to God. Having shunned the physical material world of man, and opting instead for the spiritual, Sufis know that nature is a doorway to God. In nature, Sufis can find Oneness with Him – an ecstatic moment for a Sufi who pines for God as if a lost lover.
- Sufism arose from within Islam in the 8th and 9th centuries
- Between the 13th and 16th centuries, Sufism heavily contributed to a flourishing intellectual culture
- Sufis strongly protest corruption that comes from love of the material world
- Considered mystics and spiritual ‘drunks’, Sufis strive for love of the Divine
This article originally appeared in the April 2013 Earth issue of Aquila Style magazine.