September 8th, 2010
09:00 AM ET

My take: What's a Sufi? (The imam behind New York's Islamic Center is one)

Editor's Note: Stephen Prothero, a Boston University religion scholar and author of "God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions that Run the World," is a regular CNN Belief Blog contributor.

By Stephen Prothero, Special to CNN

In my book, "God is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions that Run the World—and Why Their Differences Matter," I underscore the differences between the world’s religions. But the differences are significant—and underappreciated—inside these religions, too.

Muslims in Iran are almost all Shia. Muslims in Saudi Arabia are almost all Sunni. And Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, the leader behind the Islamic community center and mosque near ground zero (pictured), is a Sufi. But what is a Sufi?

Sufism is sometimes discussed as if it were Islam’s third denomination, alongside the Sunni and Shia traditions. But to be a Sufi is to stand in Islam’s mystical tradition, and that stance can be taken up by Sunnis and Shias alike.

During a recent visit to Jerusalem, I spoke with a jewelry salesman who turned out to be a lifelong Sufi. When I asked him about the importance of the Five Pillars of Islam (the core practices that are said to constitute Islamic life), he shook his head “NO!” and insisted that real Islam could stand up perfectly straight without any of those Five Pillars.

Real Islam, he said (and by this he meant Sufism), is about experience, not Shariah (law). It is about a heart-and-soul connection between the individual believer and God—the sort of love that sets your whole being into dance.

The term Sufi comes from the word suf, which means wool. So Sufi literally means “wool wearer,” which is to say someone who has opted for a simple life of contemplation and pious poverty along the lines of early Christian monastics and their scratchy wool garments.

This tradition, which emerged in the eighth century and was eventually institutionalized in hundreds - perhaps thousands - of different orders, is now known, however, more for its godliness than for its garb.

Like Jewish and Christian mystics, Sufis often stress the immanence rather than the transcendence of God. And while they are not as apolitical and pacific as William Dalrymple and other champions of Sufism contend, they do tend to focus more than many other Muslims on the spiritual side of religion.

In an effort to get a more scholarly take on Imam Feisal’s Sufi tradition, I emailed Omid Safi, a professor of religious studies at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and the author of Memories of Muhammad: Why the Prophet Matters.

Prothero: So what in a nutshell is Sufism all about?

Safi: Sufism is the most prominent mystical tradition in Islam. Above all else, it aspires to have a face-to-face encounter with God. Rooted in the Quran and the experience of the Prophet Muhammad, Sufis often emphasize the transformative power of Divine love.

How do Sufis differ from other Muslims? Are there distinctive Sufi beliefs or practices?

All Muslims seek to pattern themselves after the “beautiful example” of the Prophet Muhammad. Sufis go one step farther, however, saying that if Muhammad ascended to meet God face-to-face, they too want to have a face-to-face encounter with the Divine. Sufis often place a great deal of emphasis on chanting God’s name, and have a strong poetic and musical tradition.

How does one become a Sufi?  Are you born into the tradition or do you choose it?

There are multiple layers of involvement with the Sufi tradition. It is not a matter of birth, but one of deliberate and active involvement. At the generic level, there is an admiration for the teachings of a particular Sufi master. At the more advanced level, there is formal initiation into a particular Sufi lineage.

The 13th century Persian mystic Rumi is among the most widely read poets in the United States. How does he fit into Sufism?

Rumi is probably the most widely read and influential of all Muslim mystics. His masterpiece, the Masnavi, is frequently referred to as the “Quran in Persian,” and may be second only to the Qur’an in terms of influence in many Muslim cultures from Iran and Turkey to South Asia.

Recognized in his own lifetime as “the offspring of the soul of Muhammad,” Rumi is a great example of Sufis who emphasize passionate and transformative love - simultaneously human and divine - as the most powerful way of transforming one’s ego, and coming closer to the Divine.

Finally, as a historian of Islam can you say something about Cordoba, Spain? There has been a lot of talk recently about what the Cordoba Initiative and the Cordoba House (now Park51) signify. From the perspective of Islamic history, what does Cordoba mean?

Cordoba was a proud center of learning and interreligious Convivencia ("coexistence") in Islamic and European history. In pre-modern Europe, Cordoba was one of the only places where Muslims, Jews and Christians could live side-by-side, freely practicing their faiths and interacting meaningfully in philosophy, literature, science and politics.

The fact that Cordoba featured a Muslim ruling elite, at a time European Christian leaders were persecuting Muslims and Jews says a great deal about Islam's inherent pluralism. A Christian Saxon nun, Hroswitha, labeled Cordoba “Ornament of the World.” The Cordoba Initiative is evoking that legacy in speaking of today’s New York as the New Cordoba.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Stephen Prothero.

- CNN Belief Blog contributor

Filed under: 'Ground zero mosque' • Islam • Leaders • Muslim • New York • Opinion

soundoff (34 Responses)
  1. Instant Karma Noodles

    did my post display?

    November 15, 2012 at 11:45 pm |
  2. James Perry

    Very Beautiful Siraj al-haqq ! May we all strive to to that reality and become true human beings.

    September 11, 2010 at 4:36 pm |
  3. Siraj al-Haqq

    "Islam" means "submission" and a true Muslim is one who has submitted his/her self (nafs / ego) to Allah / God. The most constant and pervasive theme of Islam, as given in the Qur'an, is ar-Rahman and ar-Rahim – invoking Compassion, Mercy, Beneficence and Graciousness – as manifestations of Love. This is consistently repeated throughout the Qur'an. Everything in the Qur'an must, therefore, be understood and interpreted within the context of ar-Rahman and ar-Rahim. And in order to truly be a Muslim, everything one thinks, feels and does must be in harmony with ar-Rahman and ar-Rahim, and with Love. There is a great difference between one who simply claims to be a Muslim and one who actually IS a Muslim.

    And the same is true for Christianity, whereby one must also submit one's self (ego) to God through Christ, and wherein the Golden Rule – to do unto others as you would have them do unto you – is an all encompassing guidance for understanding and implementing all of the teachings of Christ. Yet, how many who claim to be Christians actually qualify as truly being Christians? Very, very few. And similar observations can be made about those who claim to be practicing the Jewish religion, or following any other spiritual path.

    Sufism – or, more accurately, tasawwuf – has nothing to do with wool; that is simply one of the persistent myths about the origin of the word "sufi" which is actually unknown. Tasawwuf is a spiritual path through which one seeks to rise above and evolve beyond the limited teachings, beliefs, rituals, practices, etc. of organized religion, whether Islam or any other religion, and establish a constant awareness of the One so as to receive all guidance from the One through one's heart. Laws, including Sharia, are all creations of the mind and, as such, subject to the distorting effects of the fears of the ego. The mind can and does provide justification for anything it chooses to, typically through selective out-of-context quoting and creative interpretation (innovation), and each mind is free to make its own choices. True morals arise in the heart as manifestations of Love and it is this realization that those who travel the way of tasawwuf strive towards. And there is ultimately only one moral law which is based in Love.

    Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf is very clearly striving towards the ideals of tasawwuf. He is striving towards building bridges of understanding that will help bring diverse individuals and groups and cultures together. He is striving towards helping others rise above their personal, group and organizational differences in order to see that underlying all the diversity there is much that we all have in common, and that what we all hold in common is much more important than the differences we are all fearfully clinging to. The underlying message of Imam Rauf, of tasawwuf, of every true spiritual path is Love, and Love is that which brings us together and unites us in Oneness.

    September 9, 2010 at 5:16 am |
    • Ykcyc

      Thank you.

      September 9, 2010 at 8:22 am |
    • Rachel

      very well written!! I am not a religious person so I try to come at this issue from an outside perspective as someone who understands that taking away someones right to believe also harms my right to NOT believe. I would hope that many, many more Americans can see past the fearmongering of the unknown and embrace the diversity of all peace loving religions. I hope that your view of Islam becomes more well known in the American conciousness. If anything, I think that this controversy has opened up a dialog with Islamic Americans and has given followers of Islam a stage to express views that (in a normal news cycle) would not get any press. Maybe we can get some positive understanding out of all this and flush out the undercurrent of Islamaphobia that has been building even before 9/11. I know we have long way to go...but every religious minority has had to endure this period of restlessness in American history.

      September 11, 2010 at 3:14 am |
  4. James Perry

    Although to me the great Sufi saints came close Hafiz ,Rumi

    September 8, 2010 at 9:24 pm |
  5. James Perry

    See what I mean? What is true for you is what you think you know Muhammed and his followers did. Or what you've been taught... Therefore, Sufism can't be true Islam? Why would you want to separate yourself from your brother. Follow your path, let him follow his with your blessings, and let God figure out the rest. It's really a mystery. No one can ever say they know or understand this all. You can only live it you it you can never understand God or existence. Those who say they know don't know. Those who know... never say, because it can't be said. It's beyond words.

    September 8, 2010 at 9:23 pm |
  6. Ossama Khayat

    The word Sufi has nothing to do with Suf (Wool). Sufi صوفي comes from Tasawwof تصوّف and in most cases is VERY away from true Islam. They come up with things that our prophet Muhammed (Peach be upon him) nor any of his followers did.

    September 8, 2010 at 8:06 pm |
  7. mike21954

    Interesting Mr Prothero mentions Rumi and not Gulen. Here I thought the article was going to tell me about the folks behind the mosque, but all I got was a fluff piece about Sufi and the Imam. Hmmm, good investigative reporting here! Edward R Murrow must be proud of this guy.

    September 8, 2010 at 7:37 pm |
  8. James Perry

    If you are trying to equate all Sufi's with radical Muslims ( by the way there are plenty of radical Jews, Christians, Hindus etc) and then taking it a step further by equating all Muslims with radicals. Maybe it would be wise to educate yourself a little. Innocent Muslims were killed on 9/11. These were normal humans who loved their children just like you. Sufi's are terribly discriminated by the radical factions of Islam. If you want to divide humans by generalized, uninformed, simplified positions. Then only fear and hate can follow. This Minister in Florida who wants to burn the Koran is the same as the fundamentalist of Islam or any religion who thinks he has the answers and therefore is justified in creating hate, violence and separateness. It's really all about his ego. He's not trying to unite and bring understanding. I don't know what faith you follow... but as an example, would you like to be equated with all the atrocities that your particular religion, or race or culture has committed. Maybe it would be good to see everyone as a human just like yourself. That would be a good place to start. One man's mumbo jumbo is another man's wisdom.

    September 8, 2010 at 7:30 pm |
  9. Ron

    Supporters of religions are especially insidious in that they conveniently use as evidence the very same questionable holy books that are the point of the question. How will the world ever will get beyond this crisis that is the question. Maybe if Islam does take over the world there will be an uprising from the oppressed bur seeing that it hasn't happened yet and that woman allow themselves to be controlled in every way , including being raped beaten and covered from head to toe and not allowed to socialize without male relatives present the question is "Will women destroy Islam from Within?" By the way by no means does this mean that I am particularly against Islam, I am also against Judaism, Christianity, and any unproven dark age manifestation of a all knowing, creator, If there was a god he sure does'nt need help enforcing his edicts and morals, remember that if there is a god then as many religions state, people will be judged upon there beliefs and sins after death and spend eternity in heaven or hell, so why is it so important for people to butt in and start trying to control each other and force people to believe in something that many think is absurd and insane.

    September 8, 2010 at 7:09 pm |
  10. SomeTruth

    If Sufis are truly peaceful - a fact which has yet to be proven to me - then, may they live well, love much and be happy.

    As far as I can see thus far, though, they are Muslims with a few added layers of mumbo and jumbo and magic, which doesn't automatically make them evil, of course - just not the truth.

    September 8, 2010 at 7:04 pm |
  11. James Perry

    He is not trying to divide people and create fear. He's trying to do the opposite. The one's who who try to divide and create fear are the one's you need to be wary of.

    All names of god are just different names for that which is beyond words.

    September 8, 2010 at 6:42 pm |
  12. James Perry

    With all religions there are a majority of people who are willing to believe or follow dogma. They've taken a position based on some scripture or laws. And will do anything to defend it. Which we are all too familiar with. It's a mental position it has nothing to do with spirituality or the Divine. It's ego based or mind based. There are mystical based traditions in all the major religions that are more focused that the divine lives within each one of us as our true self. Dogma and laws can never replace or give one the experience of the divine. This is why most people who blindly follow someone's interpretation of these Dogmas or laws or scriptures often separate themselves from the human family and lose the awareness that we all belong to each other. They only accept those who belong to their beliefs and therefore they can do unspeakable actions to those who don't agree with their position. This is ignorance and has nothing to do with God or Spirituallity. The Sufi's which are a mystical tradition are more concerned with the personal experience of the Divine that is Love and unites everyone. They teach spiritual practices to transcend the mind and ego. Because that's the only way to experience Divine love. The kind of love that unites all people and things with the Divine. The irony is that Sufi's are targeted and punished by the dogmatic factions of Islam that give rise to the extremist and terrorists. This by the way is not exclusive to Islam... It's an unfortunate reality that exist in all religion. If you find the true Mystics in every tradition who lived in that state of Divine awareness, You will find that they were free and natural and not bound by the dogma and scriptures. They acknowledge them but know that they cannot give you real knowledge or truth. This man is I think a good man.

    September 8, 2010 at 6:02 pm |
    • Conan the Librarian

      Spot on! Well said! I completely agree with you!

      September 19, 2010 at 7:54 am |
  13. JPo

    "Real Islam, he said (and by this he meant Sufism), is about experience, not Shariah (law)."
    Yet the Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf fully supports Sharia. This man is a politician, Folks. Islam may be his "faith" but his soul is power and he knows political power is imperative. If he were truly peace loving he wouldn't insist on building this monstrosity. He would see the discord it's sewing and seek to make peace. Oddly enough, that's what peace lovers do! He's a cancer.

    September 8, 2010 at 1:32 pm |
    • Conan the Librarian

      Fundamentalist Christian churches are the breeding ground of hate and evil, should I protest when they want to build a new church?

      Catholic churches are a place of refuge for pedophiles, should I protest if they want to build a new church?

      The Muslims do have a point when they talk of the US as being the land of Satan. But we are still the best place to live, even with our faults. There is hope for us yet 😉

      September 19, 2010 at 7:50 am |
  14. Reality

    Prothero noted:

    "All Muslims seek to pattern themselves after the “beautiful example” of the Prophet Muhammad. Sufis go one step farther, however, saying that if Muhammad ascended to meet God face-to-face, they too want to have a face-to-face encounter with the Divine. Sufis often place a great deal of emphasis on chanting God’s name, and have a strong poetic and musical tradition."

    Mohammed was a beautiful example???? Give us a break!!!

    Mohammed and Islam 101

    Mohammed was an illiterate, womanizing, lust and greed-driven, warmongering, hallucinating Arab, who also had embellishing/hallucinating/plagiarizing scribal biographers who not only added "angels" and flying chariots to the koran but also a militaristic agenda to support the plundering and looting of the lands of non-believers.

    This agenda continues as shown by the massacre in Mumbai, the assassinations of Bhutto and Theo Van Gogh, the conduct of the seven Muslim doctors in the UK, the 9/11 terrorists, the 24/7 Sunni suicide/roadside/market/mosque bombers, the 24/7 Shiite suicide/roadside/market/mosque bombers, the Islamic bombers of the trains in the UK and Spain, the Bali crazies, the Kenya crazies, the Pakistani “koranics”, the Palestine suicide bombers/rocketeers, the Lebanese nutcases, the Taliban nut jobs, the Ft. Hood follower of the koran, and the Filipino “koranics”.

    And who funds this muck and stench of terror? The warmongering, Islamic, Shiite terror and torture theocracy of Iran aka the Third Axis of Evil and also the Sunni "Wannabees" of Saudi Arabia.

    Current crises:

    The Sunni-Shiite blood feud and the warmongering, womanizing (11 wives), hallucinating founder.

    September 8, 2010 at 12:32 pm |
    • RZ

      No body cares about what you think and no one is falling for your false propaganda. Go watch cartoons or something. -Born a Muslim, living a Muslim, and will die a Muslim.

      September 8, 2010 at 1:35 pm |
    • Ykcyc


      I don't think anybody is telling you how you should live. I think you should do the same. When you die, you will not be anything, just like everybody else. So, you are not as "special" as you think. All your believes and ideas of your "God" will be gone, because they exist only in your head and nowhere else.

      September 8, 2010 at 2:23 pm |
    • Reality


      We do care very much for you and your 1.5 billion Muslim sisters and brothers who unfortunately have been brainwashed in the myths of Islam for 1400 years.

      To counter this, we have a free Five Step Process for Deprogramming Islam: See below (analogous Five Step Processes are available for all religions).

      o Using "The 77 Branches of Islamic "faith" a collection compiled by Imam Bayhaqi as a starting point. In it, he explains the essential virtues that reflect true "faith" (iman) through related Qur’anic verses and Prophetic sayings." i.e. a nice summary of the Koran and Islamic beliefs.

      "1. Belief in Allah"

      aka as God, Yahweh, Zeus, Jehovah, Mother Nature, etc. should be added to your cleansing neurons.

      "2. To believe that everything other than Allah was non-existent. Thereafter, Allah Most High created these things and subsequently they came into existence."

      Evolution and the Big Bang or the "Gib Gnab" (when the universe starts to recycle) are more plausible and the "akas" for Allah should be included if you continue to be a "creationist".

      "3. To believe in the existence of angels."

      A major item for neuron cleansing. Angels/de-vils are the mythical creations of ancient civilizations, e.g. Hitt-ites, to explain/define natural events, contacts with their gods, big birds, sudden winds, protectors during the dark nights, etc. No "pretty/ug-ly wingy thingies" ever visited or talked to Mohammed, Jesus, Mary or Joseph or Joe Smith. Today we would classify angels as f–airies and "tin–ker be-lls". Modern de-vils are classified as the de-mons of the de-mented.

      "4. To believe that all the heavenly books that were sent to the different prophets are true. However, apart from the Quran, all other books are not valid anymore."

      Another major item to delete. There are no books written in the spirit state of Heaven (if there is one) just as there are no angels to write/publish/distribute them. The Koran, OT, NT etc. are simply books written by humans for humans.

      Prophets were invented by ancient scribes typically to keep the un-educated masses in line. Today we call them for-tune tellers.

      Prophecies are also invali-dated by the natural/God/Allah gifts of Free Will and Future.

      "5. To believe that all the prophets are true. However, we are commanded to follow the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him)

      Mohammed spent thirty days fasting in a hot cave before his first contact with Allah aka God etc. via a "pretty wingy thingy". Common sense demands a neuron deletion of #5. #5 is also the major source of Islamic vi-olence i.e. turning Mohammed's "fast, hunger-driven" hallu-cinations into horrible reality for unbelievers.

      Accept these five "cleansers" and we guarantee a complete recovery from your Islamic ways!!!!

      September 8, 2010 at 3:49 pm |
    • Kate

      So, is there any way to deprogram Reality? Take away his mouse?

      September 8, 2010 at 3:56 pm |
    • Reality

      Hmmm, how do we deprogram Kate and her one-liners? Humbug upon her head?

      September 8, 2010 at 4:08 pm |
    • Kate


      You want humbug? You can't handle humbug!

      Just paraphrasin'

      September 8, 2010 at 4:32 pm |
    • Reality


      Bring on all that "katey" humbug!!!!

      September 8, 2010 at 11:09 pm |
    • Kate


      Not as long as you keep spreading the propaganda and lies about Northern Ireland.

      Just layin' it down

      September 8, 2010 at 11:22 pm |
    • Conan the Librarian

      Live and let live! Love is all you need! All the rest is just window dressing.

      There is a huge difference between the Sufis and the Wahhabis. The Sufis are cool peace-loving mystics. The wahabis are scary fundamentalists.

      I would much rather have a Sufi mosque near me than a Fundamentalist Christian church...


      September 19, 2010 at 7:41 am |
  15. Asim

    Why can't one see islam for what it is? Why do you pretend to be blind to all its hateful teachings? Most muslims are not evil, but being forced to believe in the hateful divisive teachings of islam simply because they are born muslim and the koran threatens anyone who leaves it (apostates) with the most horrible fate. Encouraging islam by looking at only a few nice things in it is not helping save nice people from such an evil ideology.

    September 8, 2010 at 12:17 pm |
    • RZ

      I have actually studied it and have been learning it for the past 8 years. And it was a CONSCIOUS choice for me to follow it and i LOVE IT. I'd rather die than to give it up!

      September 8, 2010 at 1:37 pm |
    • Rachel

      Have you read the Bible? It is also full of violent, dogmatic, contraditctory text but Christians choose to either overlook thoes text or only apply what they feel speaks to them or is convienant to uphold in their life in the modern world. I think that maybe it is true that a higher percentage of Muslims try to adhear to a more traditional interpertation of the Qu'ran. I really don't know this for a fact but I can only assume because I don't see alot of Christians walking around in traditional garb abstaining from shelfish and stoning disobedant children. I would think the reason for Muslims living in that way has more to do about culture than the Qu'ran. I don't think that you can say, if you hold up one religion next to another, that either one is more "evil" or has a flawed idealoligy. I think all religion is fundementally flawed because it was written by the hand of man.

      September 11, 2010 at 1:51 am |
  16. jspitzer

    How can a scholar of religion make such generalizations? You say Shia as if there is one flavor of Shi'ism. You do know that the Ismaili Shias differer greatly from the 12 Imam Shias and that the Bektashi Sufis differ greatly from the Naqshbandi and Nimatullahi Sufis?

    “Quran in Persian" Does this really need to be addressed?

    "as a historian of Islam" – I would expect a more nuanced article. This is just full of broad brush generalizations.

    And finally regarding Cordoba – I would mention that it was ruled by the Visigoths before the Muslims and the Spaniards who came after the Muslims were not inheritors of Cordoba's pre-Islamic past.

    September 8, 2010 at 11:56 am |
  17. Ykcyc

    Body changes and dies. LOVE is eternal.

    September 8, 2010 at 11:09 am |
  18. Sufism World

    Sharia is the body of Islam, Sufism is the soul.

    September 8, 2010 at 11:01 am |
  19. Ykcyc

    God is LOVE.

    September 8, 2010 at 10:43 am |
About this blog

The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.