Centre College Assistant Professor of Religion Matthew Pierce has taught several courses on Islam, including a recent CentreTerm course on Islam in America; this semester, however, Pierce takes students down a particularly difficult and intriguing path to discover the essence of Sufism, a unique branch of Islamic philosophy and spirituality.
“Sufism is an aspect of Islam that often gets overlooked in the quick summaries of the religion,” Pierce explains. “Many non-Muslims are often surprised to see the profound depth of spiritual introspection that Sufis have advocated and pursued.”
Sufism focuses above all on the individual’s relationship with God and the pursuit of the all-encompassing love of God. For much of Islamic history, Sufism has played a central role in Islamic thought, and many Muslims consider it to be the very heart of Islam.
For Pierce, the course grapples with a difficult metaphysical concept of cultivating the spiritual pursuit of divine love.
“It’s a difficult process to imagine or articulate precisely because of its highly mystical nature,” he explains. “Sufis tend to focus extensively on the subjective experience of spirituality and ways to cultivate specific types of experiences. Sometimes it is through literature, sometimes music and occasionally dance. It is not uncommon for Sufis to explore heterodox ideas or rituals, but the goal is always to bring the individual into a deeper knowledge of God and humanity.
“And in that,” he adds, “they have a common goal shared by many of the world’s religions.”
Students will explore this topic in several different ways; each student will research a particular Sufi figure and give a formal presentation on the information they uncover, giving them a chance to practice formal academic presentation skills. They will also complete a research paper on a specific element of Sufism. Lastly, students will get to experience some elements of Sufism firsthand.
“Since Sufis tend to place such a high priority on experience, the students are also encouraged to gain some experiential knowledge of this tradition,” Pierce says. “Rather than simply being told what Sufis believe, we are attempting to have a more personal encounter with the traditions of Islamic spirituality.”
These experiences include classroom visits by several notable experts and/or practitioners of Sufism, as well as a Sufi-style meditation session in conjunction with MeditationCentre, a campus meditation group.
“I hope that by the end of the course, my students will not only be familiar with the key ideas, images and symbols that provide the backdrop for Sufi thought,” Pierce says, “but that they will also have a more intuitive understanding of what Sufis are trying to accomplish.”
Pierce is especially looking forward to watching his students unravel the mysteries and complexities of this element of Islam.
“Sufi literature is notoriously cryptic, multi-layered and imaginative,” he says. “It’s exciting for me to watch my students progress from being completely confused by Sufi writings to being able to recognize and grasp the central concepts.”
Learn more about the religion program at Centre.
by Mariel Smith
May 2, 2014
Pictured above: Shakyh Kabir Helminsky, a notable expert in the practice of Sufism, recently visted with students of Professor of Religion Matthew Pierce’s class to discuss Islamic philosophy and spirituality.