The mystical side of Islam

The Garden of Truth: The Vision and Promise of Sufism, Islam’s Mystical Tradition” by Seyyed Hossein Nasr

This book is 50 years in the making. It comprised of scholarly studies and existential participation in Sufism, where the author, Seyyed Hossein Nasr, also paid a respect to the predecessor books on Sufism and each of their strong points, which eventually contributes in shaping this one ultimate book on Sufism.

Like classical Sufism texts, the book is filled with Quranic citations, Hadiths (sayings of the Prophet (PBUH)), and poetry. And the title of the book refers to the traditional Islamic symbolism of the garden, where Dr. Nasr explains, “[t]he Quran refers to Paradise itself as the Garden. Moreover, the Sacred Text speaks of levels of Paradise. The Sufis have drawn from this symbolism and speak of the Garden as designating not only the various levels of paradisal realities but also the Divine Reality beyond Paradise as usually understood.”

And there are two main gates to the garden of truth: knowledge and love, in which Dr. Nasr remarks, “in Sufism the highest form of worship is knowledge of God, which is always combined with love”, and that “[t]he Prophet of Islam said, “Whosoever knows his self, knows his Lord”; that is, self-knowledge leads to knowledge of the Divine.”

Dr. Nasr then continues, “[a]lthough there is no way to enter into intimacy with God save through knowledge and love—which also require faith—action remains, therefore, of the greatest importance on the path to the Garden, action not in itself but in how it affects the soul and how it reflects its intentions, both hidden and manifest.” This, is ultimately the core approach of Sufism.

And according to Sufism, the first steps on the path to this Garden of Truth consist of “detachment from the world and surrender to God, which means attachment to Him. By world we mean here not theophanies and signs of God that surround us even in this terrestrial abode, but the world as the veil that covers the truth and disperses our soul.”

As you may have noticed with the last paragraph, Dr. Nasr has a certain writing style that, let’s just say, is not really my cup of tea, as I find it difficult to navigate around the main points wrapped under poetic words that distract us from the core messages. Another example, in other chapter he writes “[t]he book of the Sufi is not the black ink of written words, It is none other than an unblemished heart like snow.” Which is beautifully written, poetic, but with vagueness of what it actually means.

Moreover, for a book of everything about Sufi, one would think that its history is vitally important, but we only get to read about it at the very back of the book, in the appendix. Weirdly, the distinctive feature of the Sufi order and the Sufi gnosis (its codified philosophy) are also put in the appendix by Dr. Nasr, where he extensively cover the many orders spread across Iraq, Persia, Central Asia, Indian subcontinent, Arab East and North Africa, sub-Saharan Africa, the Balkans, South East Asia, China, and perhaps most iconically, in Turkey.

Had these 3 core features of Sufism written at the front, the book would’ve been much easier to read, with the essential background knowledge and the mapping of the spread of Sufism could give us the necessary context to proceed with the contents.

But perhaps the vagueness in the words is indeed within the Sufi nature, since in its core Sufi strips down all the power structures within Islam and focused directly on the spiritual (and we cannot really measure spiritualism). Hence, it may never intended to be something set on stone, but instead, just like Rumi’s poetries, they are a bunch of beautiful passages filled with possible multiple interpretations.

And to be fair, it’s not all blurry. The most fascinating revelation from this book for me is how the author shows Sufism is similar with other metaphysical religion like Buddhism, Hinduism, Kabbalah, or Christian metaphysics, with the language of love, compassion, and above all,
truth. Which reiterates that famous saying in Rig Veda “truth is one, the sages call it by different names.”

Sufism, in the end, is a beautiful spiritual fraction of Islam, one that are both mysterious and enigmatic at the same time. And this book gives justice to this, with its poetic words a true reflection of the religion.