The Sufi Understanding of God
Many of us come to the Shadhiliyya Sufi path from other traditions and many of us have turned away from the ideas of God we learned in the past. Many of us have been deeply and irreconcilably scarred by beliefs or images they have been taught and some of us subsequently have denounced the existence of God. Others come to this path as self-described atheists who want nothing to do with the G.O.D. word. We were and are seeking a different understanding of what one may call God.
All who are attracted to this path are drawn by the love, mercy, heart-centered spirituality, mysticism, community, and poetry of Sufism. But regardless of where we come from, we all have some limited ideas around our understandings of God.
What Is God?
When attempting to grapple with such a question as “What is God?” it’s far easier to begin with what is not a quality or aspect of God. In Sufi teachings God does not have arms, legs, a beard or a staff. God does not live in the clouds. God is nothing like a human being in form or actions.
In Sufism, the reality of God cannot be conceived of or imagined. God may be better described as a reality, an essence, or the source of all that is ungraspable by the mind, yet we can experience the “qualities” of God and can have a relationship with God.
How to Build a Relationship with God
How do we relate to something we can’t even imagine? It is not through the limitations of the analytical mind that we attempt to seek and relate to God. It is not with the physical eye, physical ear, or physical hand that we connect with and thus relate to God. It is through the faculties of the heart that we see God everywhere, hear the sound of God everywhere, and touch the manifested Essence of God everywhere.
Your heart is the portal that opens into the reality of God. Sidi tells us to, “Look with the eye of the heart and listen with the ear of the heart.” This is why Sufism is a very heart-centered practice. The heart remembers what the mind cannot grasp. The heart has spiritual knowledge through experiencing God that is different than what the intellectual mind can offer us.
There is a famous Sufi saying attributed to God Himself speaking through the Prophet Muhammad (may the peace and blessings of God be upon him and his family, always), “Neither my heavens nor my earth can contain Me. Only the hearts of my humble, believing servants can contain Me,”
With practice, the Sufi begins to experience a downpouring of the qualities of God. These qualities, such as love, mercy, and beauty, become thick in the air and one feels consumed and permeated by them. Some people become temporarily lightheaded or feel intoxicated. This is a very visceral and powerful sensation that comes and goes and continues to grow and accompanies the Sufi as he/she travels through the stations, deeper towards this truth or source we call God or Allah.
God is experienced by the heart and no picture or image can fully grasp or quantify that experience. The phrase “Allahu akbar” means “God is greater,” meaning greater than anything you can imagine, greater and vaster than any image you can create, greater than our capacity to comprehend. Whatever you can picture or think about God, God is greater and beyond the bounds of your picture or thought.
The Arabic Word for God: Allah
Sufis use the name Allah when they speak of God. The name Allah has been around since before Judaism, Christianity, or Islam. Allah is an Aramaic and Arabic word that simply means “The God.” In the Qur’an (which was revealed in Arabic), Allah is the name God uses for Himself, making it a Divinely revealed Name, not a name made up by human beings.
When Christians and Jews who speak Aramaic or Arabic speak of God, they also use the name Allah. It is simply the word these languages use to denote, God, the one God shared by the three major monotheistic religions, Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. One God, Allah, who sent “messenger prophets” including Noah, Moses, Abraham, Jesus, and Muḥammad, and the 124,000 other prophets and messengers total were sent.
The other important thing to know about the name Allah has to do with sonic theology. This means that the sound vibration of the name Allah: “ahhhh” and “laaa,” help to open the heart. Sidi instructs us in many places to specifically use the name Allah because of the “secrets contained in the Name.”
“Actions are judged only by intentions, and each person has only that which they intend. Whoever’s emigration is for Allah and His Messenger, then his emigration is for Allah and His Messenger. Whoever’s emigration is for some worldly gain which he can acquire or a woman he will marry, then his emigration is for that for which he emigrates.” This is a hadith of the Prophet Muhammad, may the peace and blessings of Allah be upon him.
Intention is very important to the daily life of the Sufi. Why do we rise in the morning? Why do we pray? Why do we eat our breakfast? Why do we go to work? Why are we picking up the phone? Why are we stepping through this door? What is the intention of our actions? Are we doing for the sake of Allah or for our own personal gain?
Are you praying so that others will think you are pious and holy, or only to please Allah? Actions are right, corrupt, accepted or rejected, rewarded or unrewarded according to the intention. If you intend good, good will come from it, and if you intend evil, evil will come about from it.
If your intention is to do good, but fails, then you still get full credit. If your intention is to do some form of harm, and also fails then you are still held accountable as if it was successful. It is your intention that Allah sees and judges you on, not the outcome of what you intend. If your intention is to receive praise from people and appear righteous in their eyes with no regard for how Allah sees you, then this is considered a form of idolatry, and will ultimately lead to your demise. If your intention is only to serve and do what is pleasing to Allah, and for the sake of Allah alone then you will be given the ultimate reward.
So be conscious of Allah and the intention of your actions. Before you do anything remind yourself “why am I doing this?” and you will be rightly guided and justly rewarded. Your intention is between you and Allah, and He sees what is in your heart.
The most basic definition of adab is politeness, but like most things in Sufism, that is just the beginning. Adab on the outside is certainly about how aspiring Sufis treat one another. We are carful with our words and actions and especially careful of how we hold and treat one another’s hearts. Our guide Sidi would say, “Take care of your brothers and sisters. Don’t break any hearts!”
Inside your heart and soul and secret, adab becomes a much richer and deeper subject. The essence of adab is to see the pure holiness in each person. Adab reminds use that behind whatever is on the outer of a persons presence or the outer expression of any thing, behind that is Allah. Adab invites you to listen, see and act according to the simple truth that you are always face to face witnessing and responding to the presence of Allah. We may forget this and get caught in the many pictures we make. Pictures such as that you are arguing with your neighbor or the picture that you are sharing a warm exchange with a friend, but Adab reminds us that there is only one voice, one conversation we are hearing and only one Truth that we are witnessing and that is the voice and Truth of Allah.
So when we realize that every interaction, every conversation, despite outer appearances is in reality, you face to face speaking and responding to your Lord and Creator, then you become very polite, very soft and very gentle with your words and response. When you know Who speaks to you, then you can begin to receive what is being given. Adab opens the doors of the down pouring of the love and the mercy of Allah which is happening in every moment. Though on the outer a person may be upset and yelling, behind all of that is the face of Allah Who is holding in front of you something very difficult and asking you to respond in a way that will bring peace. If you loose sight of Allah, you loose everything. Be polite with Allah and Allah will be polite with you.
When the lovers are with the Beloved, they are careful not to offend or cause any separation to form between them. From this deep love for Allah we are gentle with our approach, with our manners, with our words and actions. The love is so vital, yet so delicate. We pay close attention to keeping this unbroken bond with our Beloved Lord and Sustainer despite the changing pictures that are presented. There is nothing deeper nor more treasured by the student than this open flow of love from Allah. Our understanding of adab and its necessity is what keeps this flow open. This adab is nourished by humility, sincerity and witnessing the Real and discarding all illusions. You cannot reach without adab, the sincere politeness of the lover courting the Beloved.
The Practice of Remembrance
The foundational spiritual practice for all Shadhiliyya Sufis in the remembrance. Remembrance is practiced by saying Allah, silently or aloud, or by looking at the name Allah written in Arabic, or by visualizing the name Allah in Arabic in your mind. Learn more about the remembrance here.