Scholars usually approach Sufism from the perspective that the current state of affairs in Sufi orders is representative of what is referred to as contemporary Sufism. The present is often compared with ancient times, and hence the periods of revival and decline in Sufism are referenced against the times when its rise and flourishment produced the most brilliant mystical and poetic texts of their kind. From this perspective, contemporary Sufism is at a low ebb today, as signs of stagnation and degradation are seen in many current Sufi orders’ activities. However, this tendency is not recent; it began several centuries ago and now we simply see its aftermath. This approach is research-based, reflects the perspective of a scientist, and there is no value in challenging it, because it has its own rationale and merit. Yet, another story is that Sufis can see and understand things that are inaccessible to any scholar.
As an example, modern Sufism is no different from Sufism a thousand years ago. Sufism is contemporary at all times and in all places, in that its essence is invariable and the way it is imparted is adequate to the time and region where the Sufis perform their Work. The core of Sufism—as an experiential teaching that leads people to experience Truth and reside in God—never changes. Its form can change, but not its essence, and the Sufi Path to God remains unaltered and preserves all its main stages. However, in certain periods, the living connection with God becomes interrupted in the event that a Sufi group has no one left to support this connection: For example, a sheikh or Master passes away with no true successor to take over who has reached the stage of accepting the Will of God or of residing in God. All that the group left behind can do in such a case is to continue the work following the teaching texts and guidance received earlier. In the case of success, a new sheikh emerges; if that does not occur, the seekers will preserve the form of the mystical work, but lose its essence.
Sufism has never been, and never will be, a religion, because the Path to God cannot have a fixed form and “fossilized” rituals. Serving God by performing ceremonies and rituals is fulfilling for the mind, but a Sufi seeks perception through his Heart, in which the Will of God manifests itself directly and explicitly, so that the service acquires a different meaning and flavor. A place that is void of a person who possesses such a perception and follows the Will of God is also void of Sufism and Sufis. If a seeker reaches the stage of the Path where the perception of the Higher Will becomes available, they are free to call themselves a dervish, a sãlik, or anyone else, but not a Sufi. Only when a seeker progresses to what is called Bakaa in Tradition, that is, accepting the Will of God and losing one’s own will—will they become a Sufi.
Knowledge that is not supported by practical experience is dead. Sufism is dead if there is no Sufi Work in place. Emulation of Sufi Work that is practiced here and there in Sufi-oriented groups does not help resuscitate it. Sufism is not a discourse or set of practices; it is living in contact and interaction with the Highest, the Gracious, and the True.
When rigid form begins to substitute for the essence of work, Sufism disappears. Yet, people who are involved in formally correct activity still continue to call themselves Sufis. At times, the pressure of traditions that are thousands of years old leaves no opportunity for the true Work to emerge, as strict and unswerving conformity to ancient precepts is not consistent with a mystical search. Maintaining contact with the Divine requires regular rejuvenation, and traditional forms very often stand in the way. When everything has been discovered already, there is nothing to search for and all that one is left to do is comply. When mystical search is forced to rest on a Procrustean bed of rules, guidelines, and laws, it is bound to fail. Everyone holds the same single question in their hearts, and there is always the same single answer to it, but every person arrives at this answer in a different way. Sufis say that there are as many paths to God as there are people on Earth, and this is pure truth. The mystical Path encompasses the entirety of human diversity and uniqueness and provides each seeker with his own path, but one that takes him through the same stages to reach the same destination as all others.
Mystic Work cannot vanish from this world, as the world needs it for its existence. Similar to the legendary phoenix, mystic Work obtains new life by arising from the ashes. It leaves places where people prefer form over content and revere formulas that have become obsolete and moves to those places that are free from the pressure of the past and willing to support it. New Sufi groups emerge and begin new Work which, in its essence, always continues the preceding Work. Through mystical Work, the Path that leads a human being to God manifests and revives itself. Such is Sufism, and by all means, it is contemporary at all times.