The Garden of Truth

The Vision and Promise of Sufism, Islam’s Mystical Tradition 

By Seyyed Hossein Nasr 

The headlines are filled with the politics of Islam, but there is another side to the world's fastest-growing religion. Sufism is the poetry and mysticism of Islam. This mystical movement from the early ninth century rejects worship motivated by the desire for heavenly reward or the fear of punishment, insisting rather on the love of God as the only valid form of adoration. Sufism has made significant contributions to Islamic civilization in music and philosophy, dance and literature.

The Sufi poet Rumi is the bestselling poet in America. But in recent centuries Sufism has been a target for some extremist Islamic movements as well as many modernists. The Garden of Truth presents the beliefs and vision of the mystical heart of Islam, along with a history of Sufi saints and schools of thought.

In a world threatened by religious wars, depleting natural resources, a crumbling ecosystem, and alienation and isolation, what has happened to our humanity? Who are we and what are we doing here? The Sufi path offers a journey toward truth, to a knowledge that transcends our mundane concerns, selfish desires, and fears. In Sufism we find a wisdom that brings peace and a relationship with God that nurtures the best in us and in others.


According to Sufi metaphysics, and in fact other metaphysical traditions in general, all that exists comes from that Reality which is at once Beyond-Being and Being, and ultimately all things return to that Source. In the language of Islamic thought, including both philosophy and Sufism, the first part of this journey of all beings from the Source is called the "arc of descent" and the second part back to the Source the "arc of ascent." Within this vast cosmic wayfaring we find ourselves here and now on earth as human beings. Moreover, our life here in this world is a journey within that greater cosmic journey of all existents back to the Source of all existence. We are born, we move through time, and we die. For most of us, without knowing who we really are, we move between two great mysteries and unknowns, namely, where we were before we came into this world and where we shall go after death. The answer of materialists and nihilists is that we came from nowhere and we go nowhere; we had no reality before coming into this world, and nothing of our consciousness survives our death. They reduce our existence to simply the physical and terrestrial level and believe that we are merely animals (themselves considered as complicated machines) who have ascended from below, not spiritual beings who have descended from above. But if we are honest with ourselves, we realize that even the concept of matter or corporeality is contained in our consciousness and that therefore when we ask ourselves who we are, we are acting as conscious beings and have to begin with our consciousness. If we are intellectually awake, we realize that we cannot reduce consciousness to that which is itself contained in our consciousness.

Now, no matter how we seek to go back to the origin of our consciousness, we cannot reach its beginning in time, and the question again arises what our consciousness, its origin, and its end are. The spiritual practices of every authentic path, including Sufism, enable those who follow and practice them earnestly and under the appropriate conditions to gain new levels of consciousness and ultimately to become aware that consciousness has no beginning in time (but only in God) because "in the beginning was consciousness," and it has no temporal end because "in the end is consciousness." Once we discover who we are in the spiritual sense, we gain an insight into the mystery of where we came from before the caravan of our earthly life began its journey here below and also into the mystery of where we shall go after the end of this terrestrial journey. Self-knowledge also pierces the veils that limit our ordinary consciousness and ultimately leads to those higher states of consciousness that stand above the world of becoming. We are then able to be aware of our human reality and our ultimate identity beyond. the confines of time and space. Sufism makes possible the piercing of these veils as it leads the seeker on an inward journey within the journey on the road of the Sacred Law, or the Shari'ah, which is itself a journey within the journey of life, while life itself is a journey within the journey of all beings in their return to the Source. The Sufi path is an inward journey whose goal is to know who we really are, from where we came, and where we shall go. Its aim is also to know ultimately the nature of Reality, which is also Truth as such.


As we travel upon this road of self-knowledge with the help of the means provided by tradition-means without which such a journey is in fact impossible-we gain a new perspective concerning every kind of reality with which we had identified at the beginning of our journey. We come to realize that although we are male or female, that attribute does not really define us. There is a deeper reality, one might say an androgynic reality, transcending the male-female dichotomy so that our identity is not determined simply by our gender. Nor are we simply our body and the senses although we often identify ourselves with them. As we travel upon the Sufi path, it also becomes more and more evident that what we call "I" has its existence independent of sense perceptions and the body as a whole although the soul continues to have a consciousness of the body while being also aware through spiritual practice of the possibility of leaving it for higher realms.

Likewise, although we have emotions and psychological states with which we often identify, the spiritual path teaches us that they do not define and determine our identity in the deepest sense. In fact, often we say, "I must control my temper," which demonstrates clearly that there is more than one psychological agent within human beings. As St. Thomas said, confirming Sufi teachings," Duo sunt in homine" ("There are two in man"). The part of us that seeks to control our temper must be distinct and not determined by the part of our soul that is angry and needs to be controlled. Yes, we do experience emotions, but we need not be defined by them. In the same manner, we have an imaginative faculty able to create images, and most of the time ordinary people live in the lower reaches of that world of imaginal forms.Again, we are not determined by those forms, and journeying upon the spiritual path is especially effective in transforming our inner imaginal landscape. As for the power of memory, it is for the most part the repository of images and forms related to earlier experiences of life. Metaphysically speaking, however, it is also related to our atemporal relation to our Source ofBeing and the intelligible world to which we belonged before our descent here to earth. That is why true knowledge according to Plato is recollection, and in Sufism the steps of the path are identified with stages of the remembrance of the Friend. Most people, however, consider these everyday remembered experiences as a major part of their identity. Yet again, the center of our consciousness, our I, cannot be identified with our ordinary memory. We can forget many things and remain the same human being. The spiritual life may in fact be defined as the practice of techniques that enable us to forget all that we remember about the world of separation and dispersion and to remember the most important thing, which this world has caused us to forget, namely, the one "saving Truth," which is also our inner reality.

Many would say that if we are not determined by our gender, bodies, emotions, imaginative faculties, or memories, then surely we are what we think and are determined by our minds. Here we are reaching a more delicate realm. One can say with Aristotle that man is a rational animal, which means that it is in the nature of the human being to think. Even as great a Sufi figure as the thirteenth-century Persian master, Rumi, says,

0 Brother, thou art thought itself, 
The rest of thy being is but sinew and bone. 
Mathnawi 2:278 

But by thought Rumi did not mean simply everyday discursive thought, which skips from one concept to another without the whole being of the person who holds the thought participating in the concept (even if it be true), a thought that does not go beyond the level of mental play. Moreover, conceptual knowledge can be wrong and lead to error, and excessive cerebral activity can distract our consciousness from the center of our being. That is why mystics have also spoken of "unknowing," and more specifically, Sufis have stated explicitly that in order to reach the Truth one has to "tear the veil of thinking." In any case, while we have a mind, our true identity resides in an even deeper level of our being.

This deeper level is the heart/ intellect, the heart being the center of the human microcosm and also the organ of unitive knowledge associated with the intellect (in the medieval sense of intellectus, or the Greek no us, not in its current sense of reason). The heart is also where the Divine Reality resides in men and women, for as the sacred hadith asserts, "The Heavens and the earth cannot contain Me, but the heart of my faithful servant does contain Me."