The Unavoidable Question
Wherever we are and in whatever time we happen to live, we cannot avoid asking the basic questions of who we are, where we came from, what we are doing here, and where we are going. In everyone's life, especially when one is young, these basic questions arise in the mind, often with force, and demand answers from us. Many simply push them aside or remain satisfied with established answers provided by others in their family or community. In traditional societies such answers always came from the teachings of religion, and to a great extent they still do for the majority ofpeople in many parts of the world. But there have always been and still are today the few who take the question "who am I?" seriously and existentially and who are not satisfied with answers provided by others. Rather, they seek to find the answers by themselves, trying with their whole being to delve into the inner meaning of religion and wisdom. They continue until they reach the goal and receive a response that provides for them certitude and removes from them the clouds of doubt. In any case, how we choose to live in this world—how we act and think and how we develop the latent possibilities within us—depends totally on the answer we provide for ourselves to this basic question of who we are, for human beings live and act for the most part according to the image they have of themselves.
Sufism addresses the few who yearn for an answer on the deepest level to the question of who they are and in a manner that would touch and transform their whole being. The Sufi path is the means within the Islamic tradition of finding the ultimate answer to this basic question and of discovering our real identity. Throughout the ages religions have sought to teach us who we are and through their inner teachings to provide the means of"becoming" our True Self. Islam is certainly no exception. It unveils the complete doctrine of our true nature and also the nature of the levels of reality issuing from the One, who alone is ultimately Real, and provides teachings that, if put into practice, lead us back to the One through a path of spiritual effort combined with joy and felicity. The Quran asserts majestically, "Verily we come from God and to Him is our returning"(2:156). The One is of course that Supreme Source and End of all things whom Abraham, Moses, and Christ addressed as the One God and whom the Quran calls by His Name in Arabic, Allah.
It is no accident that the Sacred Law of Islam is called the Shariah, which means road. It is a road that all Muslims are obliged to travel if they are to die in a blessed state. For most, however, the journey on this road is limited to the plane of action, the performance of good acts, and faith in the reality of God. Few wish to take a step further to discover the ultimate nature of who they are and carry self-knowledge to its end. Sufism, which is the inner or esoteric dimension of Islam, while beginning with the Shariah as the basis of the religious life, seeks to take a further step toward that Truth (Haqiqah), which is also the source of the Shariah. Sufism, which is also called the Tariqah, or the spiritual path, is the divinely ordained means of providing an answer to that ultimate question and leading us to the Truth or Haqiqah contained within that answer. The Shariah is the circumference of a circle whose radii are the Turuq (plural of Tariqah) and whose Center is the Haqiqah or Truth, that is, the Source of both the Law and Way as well as the Center for one who begins on the circumference, journeys along one of the radii, and finally reaches the Center, which is also his or her own center. To reach the Center means not only being in a blessed state but also reaching the state to which various mysticisms refer as union with God.
The Prophet of Islam said, "Whosoever knows his self, knows his Lord"; that is, self-knowledge leads to knowledge of the Divine. Sufism takes this saying (hadith) very seriously and also puts it into practice. It provides, within the spiritual universe of the Islamic tradition, the light necessary to illuminate the dark corners of our soul and the keys to open the doors to the hidden recesses of our being so that we can journey within and know ourselves, this knowledge leading ultimately to the knowledge of God, who resides in our heart/center.
Not only were we created by God, but we have the root of our existence here and now in Him. When we bore witness to His Lordship as mentioned in the Quranic verse, "Am I not your Lord?" the world and all that is in it were not as yet created. Even now we have our pre-eternal existence in the Divine Presence, and we have made an eternal covenant with God, which remains valid beyond the contingencies of our earthly life and beyond the realm of space and time in which we now find ourselves.
The answer to the question "who are we?" is related in a principial manner to our ultimate reality in God, a reality that we have now forgotten as a result of the fall from our original and primordial state and the subsequent decay in the human condition caused by the downward flow of time. We have become forgetful beings, no longer knowing who we are and therefore what our purpose is in this life. But our reality in God, who resides at the depth of our being, is still there. We need to awaken to this reality and to realize our true identity, that is, to know who we really are.