Sufism, based on the Koran and the teachings of Prophet Muhammad (610 CE), was influenced in its formation by Christian asceticism and Hinduism (Nizamie, Katshu, & Uvais, 2013). Its origins are disputed but traced to the 8th and 9th centuries; some claim it is older than Islam.
Sufis have been known for a rich tradition of literature, poetry, story telling and using clever metaphors in stories, music, and dance. What is it about Sufism, a mystical tradition in Islam, that helped Sufis to be creative and what can they offer to facilitate our creativity? While the Sufis’ search focused on finding the divine essence, their approach to this search was probably instrumental in stimulating their creativity in art, music, dance, and literature. This essay examines how their basic tenets can serve as useful metaphors to enhance everyday creativity.
Love, Faith, Experience, and Knowledge
Sufism regards love, faith, experience, and knowledge as central concepts in resolving our existential dilemma to ultimately understand and experience the divinity in oneself or the union of self with the Supreme through a process of progressive lifting of veils, which hide true beauty and knowledge. Rumi regarded love as the “creative force in nature” (Arasteh, 1965, p. 10); thus love is the basis for all creation and creativity.
For Sufis, the Supreme is their beloved, and this love for the Beloved forms a central basis of their search. This love is unconditional and without regard for any personal gains in wealth, fame, or power; a Sufi’s principal goal is to experience the divine within and be united with life’s essence. The path to the divine involves lifting veils, which hide true beauty and knowledge. Erich Fromm (1956), possibly influenced by Sufi thought, observed that “Love is the only way to knowledge—the union results in the end of search” (p. 31).
In psychological parlance, seeking knowledge can be described as progressive problem solving to reveal the “hidden treasure” behind veils—true knowledge in the form of unity with essence. Derived from unconditional love, this search is intrinsically motivated. Many contemporary researchers regard intrinsic motivation and the love of search for searching sake, as critical to the creative process.
Fromm argues that creative work involves seeking unity with the material one works with, a world outside of one self, to make it his or her own.
Whether a carpenter makes a table, or a goldsmith a piece of jewelry, whether the peasant grows his corn or the painter paints a picture, in all types of creative work the worker and his object become one, man unites himself with the world in the process of creation. (p. 17)
Uniting with the materials of creation implies a full knowledge and understanding of the nature of materials that facilitate using them in novel ways.
Faith in one’s vision can be a driving force in dedicated search. Fromm makes a distinction between irrational and rational faith. The former is conviction in an idea or belief based on an irrational authority; the latter is a vision derived from experience, feelings, and “productive intellectual and emotional activity” (p. 121). He further notes that creative thinking in any field often starts with a rational vision based on study, reflection, and observation resulting in a hypothesis. With further data, the hypothesis is refined resulting in its inclusion in a broader theory. He notes:
The history of science is replete with instances of faith in reason and visions of truth. Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, and Newton were all imbued with an unshakeable faith in reason. For this Bruno was burned at the stake and Spinoza suffered excommunication. (p. 122)
Disregarding Dogmas and Authority
Memon and Yousaf (2013) note, “Sufis were rebels of their time” (p. 50). Consistent with their religious teachings, they stood for the oppressed and wrote poetry that challenged oppressions by orthodox clergy, landlords, and emperors. They also demanded equality and an end to all oppression.
Sufis suggest discarding personal and religious dogmas, past learnings, and cultural trappings to lift the veils in pursuit of truth. Rumi advises “limit the worldly I and be yourself, the former restricts you” (as cited in Arasteh, 1965, p. 52). Blind acceptance of authority is believed to hinder the lifting of veils; rather, the seekers must use their intuition and experience to seek true knowledge. Sufis value learning by experience under the mentorship of a person who has traveled the path.
Sufis reject the dogma of a single path to salvation. They believe using such strategies as breathing, meditation, music, and dance, often rejected by the more fundamental religious groups, enhances their search experience. Sufi’s ideal that there is no single path to the Supreme has enormous implications for the current day conflict-ridden world where religious ideologies prevent acceptance and appreciation of diverse religious views. A culture dominated by rigid ideologies channels its energies to preserve and disseminate them, in turn limiting individuality of expression and creativity. This cultural value of rejecting dogmas possibly played a central role in Sufi’s creative accomplishments as it allowed them to take risks they normally would not have taken.
The creative process often requires taking risks to challenge extant ideas, theories, and practices, relying on one’s own experiences and intuition, yet being open to diverse viewpoints. This openness to diverse viewpoints from other cultures possibly helped the early Sufis to incorporate new ideas into their thought and practice and stimulated their creativity in the arts and literature.
The centuries old Sufi thinking, although based in religion, still offers us several insights into the creative process. Borrowing Sufi metaphors, creativity may be seen as the process of lifting veils to reveal true knowledge. Sufism’s tenets call for love, faith, experience, and rejection of personal and religious dogmas as paths to true knowledge. Love, a central tenet of Sufism, is essential to bringing dedication and passion to creative search processes, whether it is for the Beloved or whatever one seeks. Love, combined with faith and rejection of dogma, is important to providing inspiration, persistence, and openness to diverse views in our search for true knowledge. Rumi expresses the significance of “love” beautifully:
Love makes bitter sweet,
Love turns copper to gold,
Love makes dregs into wine,
Love turns pain into healing,
Love brings dead to life,
Love makes kings into slaves-- (as quoted in Chittick, 2008, p. 83).
Arasteh, S. R. (1965). Rumi The Persian: Rebirth in creativity and love. Lahore: Pakistan.
Chittick, W. (2008). Sufism. A Beginner’s Guide. Oxford, U.K.: One World.
Fromm, E. (1956). The art of loving. NY: Harper & Brothers Publishers.
Memon, Q. B. & Zeeshan Yousaf, Z. (2013). “I am a poet of Workers and peasants.” World Literature, 87(6), 47-50.
Nizamie, S. H., Katshu, M. Z. U. H. & Uvais, N. A. (2013). Sufism and mental health. Indian Journal of Psychiatry, 55, S215-S223,