Sufism, Civilization and Revolutionary Love

By Jahanzaib Choudhry.


Today many activists are focused on ideas of “revolution” based entirely on ideas of class struggle or various forms of identity oppression. Underlying them is often a sense of deep anger or resentment. The one idea missing from this discourse is “love.” Those who believe in radical politics miss the idea of a radical love. Yet many of the most important traditions of the darker nations are rooted in a concept of radical love. The core of their religious and spiritual expressions as well as their most organic art and music speak of this kind of love. 

There is a belief among contemporary Left intellectuals that only arriving at a correct analysis is sufficient for political struggle. This way of thinking privileges the mind at the expense of the heart. It often suffers from what King calls the “paralysis of analysis”. As Bulleh Shah says “Padh Padh Ilm Hazaar Kitaaban, Kadi apne aap nu Padhya Nahin” meaning “you read a thousand books to find knowledge, but you never read your own self”. This applies to both religious and world texts. This is not to suggest that intellectual work is unimportant, but to say that it must always be linked to the heart, which is the moral question, and to one’s connection to the masses.

A Painting of the 18th century Sufi Saint Bulleh Shah of the Punjab region of India by Serafina Harris

In a time in which Western Civilization is facing an unprecedented crisis, there is a great need for the unity of the darker nations. Beyond the shared history of oppression of these civilizations, we must give thought to what the values of such a unity will be. A shared value of radical love may be the most profound basis on which to build such a unity, for a moral, and not just political, transformation of the world order. 

 As the Pakistani revolutionary poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz, a Communist influenced by the Sufi tradition said in his 1962 Lenin Peace Prize address:

“I believe that humanity which has never been defeated by its enemies will, after all, be successful; at long last, instead of wars, hatred and cruelty, the foundation of humankind will rest on the message of the great Persian poet Hafez Shiraz: ‘Every foundation you see is faulty, except that of Love, which is faultless.’”

Such a concept of love can be found in all of the spiritual traditions of Asia and Africa as well as that of Afro-America. In this piece I will examine love in the context of the Sufi tradition and Afro-American spirituality. I will argue that both are important parts of the moral heritage of humanity and present us with a basis for unity between civilizations.

The Different Words for Love

The English language only has one word for love. In Islamic mysticism there are several words for love: ishq and hub, among several others. Mohabbat, a word whose root word means bubbles, as in the bubbles that appear in boiling water, refer to a loving kindness. Ishq, whose root word refers to ivy that surrounds a tree and sucks its strength, refers to a love that is so overpowering that it can be dangerous for the self. Ishq also has two inseparable parts: Ishq-e-Majazi, love for a fellow human being, which is a metaphor for Ishq-e-Haqiqi—love for the ultimate truth, the divine.

Ihsan means making real what is good and beautiful. Ihsan entails the responsibility to actualize love in the concrete world. This is a requirement to awaken spiritually. In one Prophetic tradition, Ihsan means the aspect of the path to God that is higher than “whole-hearted surrender to God” (Islam) and “faith” (Iman). 

The word “Ishq” in stylized Persian calligraphy

Martin Luther King found the word “love” insufficient for people fighting for justice in America. Similarly to the concept of Ihsan, Martin Luther King tried to bring love into action and have it inform people’s responsibilities to the world. To express this active and public idea of love, King drew upon the ancient Greek concept of agapic love, in contrast to eros (aesthetic or romantic love) or philia (brotherly affection for friends). In The Christian Way of Life in Human Relations, Address Delivered at the General Assembly of the National Council of Churches, King said:

“When we speak of loving those who would oppose us, we refer neither to eros nor philia. We speak of a love which is expressed in the Greek word agape. Agape means nothing sentimental or basically affectionate. It means understanding, creative, redeeming goodwill for all men. It is an overflowing love which seeks nothing in return. It is not set in motion by any quality or function of its object. It is purely spontaneous, unmotivated, groundless, and creative. It is the love of God operating in the human heart. When we rise to love on the agape level, we love men not because we like them, not because their attitudes and ways appeal to us, but we love them because God loves them. Here we rise to the position of loving the person who does the evil deed while hating the deed that the person does.”

Here, King defines agape as the concept of love which is not merely internal or individual-centered, but centered on transformation of the outer world. By expanding the concept of love beyond mere sentimental affection, he encourages people to inform their life’s purpose with a love that instills a sense of responsibility to all men and that necessitates action for the transformation of the other and the self. This parallels the concept of Ihsan.

Single Garment of Destiny

Martin Luther King spoke of humanity wrapped in a “single garment of destiny,” in which the fate of one was inseparable from the fate of all. In response to charges that the Southern Christian Leadership Council (SCLC) were “outsiders coming in” and stirring up trouble in Birmingham, AL, King said that he could not sit idly by as injustice was being done elsewhere in the country. He drew his moral authority from Apostle Paul, who left his home village to travel outside to spread the message of God. He said 

“I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. Never again can we afford to live with the narrow, provincial “outside agitator” idea. Anyone who lives inside the United States can never be considered an outsider anywhere within its bounds.”

King would later go on to apply this concept to declare his opposition to the War in Vietnam, arguing that Civil Rights at home were inseparable from the rights of brown children being killed in Vietnam, as the money spent on napalm was money that could have gone to uplifting the poor of the United States and the world.

In the midst of the coronavirus and US sanctions on hard-hit Iran, the nation’s foreign minister released a video reciting the poetry of the 13th century Persian mystic Saadi Shirazi:

Humanity are members of one body Created out of the same essence
when one member of the body feels pain
others remain distraught
unfeeling to the suffering of others are unworthy
of the name human

In opposition to the US war on Vietnam and the broader Cold War, King spoke of the need of American Christians to reconcile with the enemies of the US. Speaking of his responsibilities as a part of the ministry of Jesus Christ, King said:

To me, the relationship of this ministry to the making of peace is so obvious that I sometimes marvel at those who ask me why I am speaking against the war. Could it be that they do not know that the Good News was meant for all men—for communist and capitalist, for their children and ours, for black and for white, for revolutionary and conservative? Have they forgotten that my ministry is in obedience to the one who loved his enemies so fully that he died for them? What then can I say to the Vietcong or to Castro or to Mao as a faithful minister of this one? Can I threaten them with death or must I not share with them my life?

In the same spirit, Rumi wrote on reconciliation:

Let’s cherish each other
Let us live
attuned to each other
Enmity takes the light out of friendship
Let’s banish all enmity from our hearts
Does it bring joy to your heart to imagine me dead?
Why are we like this? worshiping death hating life?
If I die
You’ll want to make up
Pretend I’m dead now Come,
let’s reconcile our hearts now
In submitting to God
our egos have already died
If I die
you’ll come to kiss my grave
We are now like this
and kiss my face

Earning One’s Death

Both the Sufi and the Afro-American traditions have a concept of the destruction of the ego, sacrificing the self for a greater truth. This means having a love which one is willing to endure suffering and ultimately even give one’s life for.

The ultimate goal of the Sufi is Fanaa, which is the destruction of all that is within oneself except God. Mansoor Al Hallaj was famous for doing this, destroying all that was within him except Al Haq: the Truth, one of the most sacred names of God in Islam. His proclamation “ana Al Haq” or “I am the Truth”  was called blasphemy by the then Islamic authorities of Baghdad who considered his statement politically threatening because it undercut their ideological basis for rule. As King said “Truth forever on the scaffold, Wrong forever on the throne. Yet that scaffold sways the future, And behind the dim unknown Standeth God, within the shadow, Keeping watch above His own.” In executing Al Hallaj, the rulers of Baghdad gained a temporary victory, but over time the message of Al Hallaj became the dominant one for the masses in the Islamic word. Al Hallaj became a martyr of love in the Sufi tradition.

In his 1973 work Revolutionary Suicide, Huey P. Newton published a short poem outlining his the titular concept:

The Execution of Mansur Hallaj. Illustration from Mughal India circa 1600
By having no family,
I inherited the family of humanity.
By having no possessions,
I have possessed all.
By rejecting the love of one,
I received the love of all.
By surrendering my life to the revolution,
I found eternal life.
Revolutionary suicide.

Huey Newton believed that in order to truly live, one has to be willing to die for what’s right. He understood that death was inevitable for everyone, and that as a black man in America, premature death was likely because of the forces of oppression. The best way to live is to oppose those forces and die in the struggle to change the world. He believed that the principle of self-destruction in pursuit of greater love meant dedicating his life to freedom of his people and all people. In knowing the truth and being driven by love and refusing to compromise on it, regardless of the consequences, Huey Newton lived a life like that of Al Hallaj.

Finally, both Sufi and Afro-American saints and revolutionaries have a concept of earning one’s death by living for love, and that the final judgment has to do with how a human has loved in their life.

In The Fire Next Time James Baldwin wrote:

Perhaps the whole root of our trouble, the human trouble, is that we will sacrifice all the beauty of our lives, will imprison ourselves in totems, taboos, crosses, blood sacrifices, steeples, mosques, races, armies, flags, nations, in order to deny the fact of death, which is the only fact we have. It seems to me that one ought to rejoice in the fact of death, should decide to earn one’s death by confronting with passion the conundrum of life. One is responsible to life: It is the small beacon in that terrifying darkness from which we come and to which we shall return. One must negotiate this passage as nobly as possible, for the sake of those who are coming after us….  It is the responsibility of free men to trust and to celebrate what is constant–birth, struggle, and death are constant, and so is love, though we may not always think so– and to apprehend the nature of change, to be able and willing to change.”

Baldwin critiqued white America for being fixated on material things in order to deny the fact of death. He criticized those who cling to rituals and evade the responsibility to live a meaningful existence. He considers a life worth living as one driven by high principles, particularly in embodiment of love for those who come after. He says that while there is impermanence, there are constant things like birth, struggle and death, as well as love, which human beings must accept and remember as guiding the decisions they make.

Rumi writes similarly about the power of love over rituals and other chimeras:

“On Resurrection Day,
All of one’s deeds will be weighed
On the cosmic scale:
Then love will be brought forth
Love doesn’t fit
Even in that scale”
Photograph of James Baldwin by Allan Warren, 1969

Conclusion: A New Spiritual World Order

The Sufi tradition has been studied by scholars as a great example of morality and humanism in the civilizations of the East. The same recognition has yet to be given to the Afro-American spiritual tradition, as it has been ghettoized as “black” theology or politics not recognizing its universality and world significance. The racism within Western academia and theology has diminished the Black tradition and blocked those around the world from accessing it. Similarly racism and sectarianism within the Western Left has prevented it from learning from these ideas, leading to a fatal weakness in connecting with the Black working-class.

Especially for those living within the West who seek a spiritual anchor outside of the bounds of Western rationality, the Afro-American tradition is the natural anchor. It presents us with a richer example of living our lives as well as with a moral basis for transforming the world around us. These traditions provide those who seek to change the world with moral guidance on how to do it, a way of connecting with the lifeworlds of the masses, as well as a rich source for self-transformation.

The coming together of Afro-American spirituality with the traditions of Eastern civilizations can be the basis for the transformation of the Western world order into a human one. We must have the courage to imagine radical love as the basis for international relations, economics, and governance. We must also imagine a concept of citizenship guided by empathy, compassion, and moral striving. In today’s society, a more expansive understanding of love would lead to a social structure which feels responsible for everyone in society, a world community that values the dignity of people over profits, and in which violence and killing are considered to be unacceptable ways to resolve problems. It must be marked by the emergence of a renewed spirituality in which worship is inseparable from service for mankind and in which spiritual strivings are inseparable from striving to uplift this world.

Further Readings

One thought on “Sufism, Civilization and Revolutionary Love

  1. Hey just wanted to say this is so beautiful and necessary. I agree, it has become “very out of fashion” In this day and age to link moral striving to politics and activism. I wonder sincerely, how could anyone come to a “correct Analysis” without having defined a projected ideal for society? Correct on what terms, right?Also, more deeply, how one can project an ideal without the striving to know what inspires in a person and a society a sense of “goodness” or “humanism” that make up our ideals. I love that this article reminds me that these influential revolutionaries, even non-religious ones, like Huey, were deeply connected to a higher striving and sense of love for the people that made them willing to be self sacrificing of their material body and lives. Thanks for bringing up how love is foundational to revolution both conceptually and in action! I feel like, because of social conditioning, I’ve often felt that “love”sounded almost too challengingly lofty and abstract for me to address politically… but I’m grateful for you and others who push me and others to reckon with that challenge and spend their time and energy trying to manifest love into the concrete.


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