Sufism and freedom (H. Nur ARTIRAN, July 2009)

Speech by H. Nur Artıran at a conference of the Tariqa Alawyyia in Mostaganem, July 2009 

Distinguished guests, my friends, firstly I would like to express how happy it makes me to be here amongst you, in your esteemed presence. May I pay my deepest respects to every one of you and pray that this meeting at this time reaches all of its objectives and is instrumental in bringing beneficence to the World. 

‘Spirituality and challenges of our time‘ which is perhaps the most important item on our agenda, immediately brings to our memory some couplets from Mevlâna Celaleddin Rumi: 

‘You have not come to this World to feed your body which will eventually be prey for the worms in your grave1. You have learned a certain craft or art; you do have a certain profession to nourish your body, to meet its needs. And what have you done about nourishing your soul? Learn the Art of Religion to nourish that.2 Turn to ‘meaning’ (mana) for a change. Do not be attached to the transient delights of the world to live as a ‘free man’ so that you do not become a prisoner of possessions, position, food and drink and suchlike.’ 3

These precious words of Celaleddin Rumi enable us to widen our horizon and look at the notion of freedom from a different angle.

The first clause of the Declaration of Human Rights following the French Revolution of 1789 states that a human being is born free and lives a free life. Although this clause seems to be quite reasonable and acceptable, one believes that certain questions have to be raised regarding this notion of freedom.

How free are we really? Are we free when we are born? Does everyone live a free life? Is having the right to do whatever we want true freedom? Is it freedom to totally abandon all human values, ignore other human beings and above all ignore why we were created or the reason for our being? If living without any limitation or boundaries is freedom then one might suggest that the wild animals in the jungles of Africa are freer than the rest of us. If this is the case, should not the freedom and boundaries of a human being – which is the most sacred of all that is created – be redefined?

It must be accepted that one of the most important problems of the present generation arises from the wrong interpretation of freedom. To chase endless freedom without knowing the true meaning of it has put the present generation to an endless search of pleasure or satisfaction.

We have unknowingly neglected our spirit which is longing for freedom and persuaded ourselves that we can live our freedom guided by our desires and physical and material satisfaction. And because this has not corresponded to the truth, especially the young people in the so-called ‘developed world’ have been exiled to loneliness in a materialistic, luxurious life. The wrong interpretation of freedom has led to the emergence of a generation that believes in nothing, is unhappy and without hope.

In the last century, there has been an enormous increase in psychological disorders. The main reason for this is maintaining a life of material with nothing spiritual in it, with no meaning. For instance, one believes that the threats to modern life like obesity and drug-use can be tied to spiritual dissatisfaction.

Man is created to possess ‘spirit’, ‘ego’ and ‘intellect’. We have to learn to balance the Spirit and the Ego with the use of our Intellect. So long as we are not successful in finding this balance, to speak of our ability to create a ‘Healthy Society’ will remain as Utopia. If all our efforts are spent in pursuit of material benefits, it is only natural that our spirit will be lonely, helpless and unhappy. And this will reflect itself to an entire life span through our thoughts and feelings.

Individual unhappiness, in time will transform into social despair and when this happens even in the so-called developed world where the physical (material) freedom is highest, the people will not feel themselves as totally free and happy.

When one ignores the reason of one’s existence and spiritual responsibility and concentrates only on the satisfaction of that which has come from dust and will return to dust, one will always try to seek his/her freedom and peace and happiness in the outer world.

The wrong interpretation or the wrong ‘search’ will result in distancing one from his/her course hence making the discovery of true freedom – which is hidden in the ‘inner self‘ – and the discovery of peace and lasting happiness, difficult. Because reaching peace and happiness as part of this notion of freedom is possible not through the ability to do ‘anything we want’ but through living our spirituality i.e. spiritual freedom.

If one cannot release oneself from the invisible bonds within one’s inner world and discovers this Spiritual Freedom, no freedom of the physical world will suffice to create happiness and contentment.

As we can see, when one looks at freedom from a Sufi perspective a different picture appears.

The Divine Power has created the ‘physical’ and the ‘spiritual’ (or ‘madde’ and ‘mana’ as we say it in Turkish), has given the final choice to His servants. As we believe, human beings are the only creatures to have been given free will and a freedom of choice.

Freedom in Sufi interpretation is to be released from the bondage of worldly needs and desires and to discover a certain balance between the physical and the spiritual or the ‘outward appearance’ and the ‘inner meaning’.

No matter how free one is, if one pursues a material existence, one’s freedom will be curtailed. On the other hand if one finds a way to get closer to the ‘meanings’ going beyond the material world, Spiritual Freedom will expand.

In Sufism what is important is not the freedom of our organs but the freedom of the Soul that gives life to those organs. The person, who is so liberated, will feel free and happy even in the worst circumstances. Perhaps one of the best examples of this is Philosopher Epictetus who lived 2000 years ago and who had reached such liberation when he was a slave – the slave of another person but obviously not a slave to his desires nor his suffering.

His body was captive but not his soul. The words he uttered whilst he was being whipped by his owner have been a lesson to learn for every generation including the present society. To those who were bragging about their freedom and who were in contempt of him, he submitted that they were the ones who were captive and the true slaves: 

‘In reality there are small slaves and big slaves in this world. The small slaves are captives of small ambitions and desires, the big slaves are captives of bigger ambitions and desires. A so-called free person who is captivated by high position or various worldly ambitions is actually more captive than a slave‘.4

To understand whether or not a person is free, stop looking at his worldly position or accolades. It is the reverse. The greater the rewards, the higher the station, the more captive you are. You think of me as a slave. But God has given me my freedom. And I abide by his commands. In this way none can take my freedom away from me. The true happiness comes from true freedom. To be pure, clean, to have patience and determination to obey God’s commands, to be empty of sorrow, worry, fear which are all a result of our desires. This is freedom. You see for this reason I am not a slave but a free man. ‘ 5

It is hard to imagine that the deep meaning of these words of wisdom which are still not properly understood today were understood or accepted two thousand years ago.

Indeed Mevlâna Celaleddin Rumi, who broke loose from all the invisible chains with the force of that mysterious Divine Love upon him; when all worldly desires were made captive and air, water, earth, fire, all the six directions and five senses were deemed irrelevant, liberating himself from all attachments and finding existence in non-existence and total servitude, also expressed a similar view: 

I have become a servant, a servant, a servant. Every slave rejoices when liberated. Oh God I am so happy that I am your servant, I am so joyous. Hatred, anger, jealousy, pride, arrogance, lust, and those other habits of hellish nature, are bondage of iron weighing hundreds of kilos. Many persons have been tied down with these invisible ties in such a way that they are not even aware of their captivity. 6 The feelings and thoughts of the Nafs can be so enslaving that it is worse than being tied by an iron chain. 7 One can save oneself from a prison by digging a tunnel,8 an axe can cut an iron chain but no one can cut through these other chains the eye cannot see. 9 Those who are liberated from hatred, anger, violence, wrath and various other negative and harmful feelings, consider them as genuinely free. 10

Mevlâna Celaleddin Rumi, recognized by the whole world as the sultan of Divine Lovers and Epictetus who lived many centuries before him as a slave, were both free men. Both of these men in different centuries have concurred that doing ‘whatever you want’ is not freedom. That true freedom requires a total liberation from all desires and ambitions.

Whether we accept it or not, it is fact that many people in this World are enslaved by something or another in some way. The awareness of this fact will provide a new beginning and help appreciate the importance of Respect.  Not only towards the human race but to all the parts that make the whole; the flowers, the insects, the stones, the soil in fact everything that has been created to fulfil their purpose. Within ourselves, we must always try to bring out the feelings of love and friendship for everyone without any discrimination due to race, colour, gender and religion. Try to liberate ourselves in the light of all those values that make a human being, from avarice, ambition, selfishness.

As it is of immense importance, I would like to repeat once again that unless the human race finds true spiritual freedom, it will carry on searching in vain. Unaware of our own ambitions, we shall carry on nourishing on the ambitions of others and will never be able to discover true happiness and peace.

When one cannot reach one’s ambitions, one will revert to deceit, dishonesty and become more and more aggressive, trying every avenue to satisfy one’s own personal aims. Without the freedom of the Soul, we cannot be part of Love, Peace, Friendship, and Brotherhood.

I conclude my talk with my deepest respects to all of you. Thank you for being so gracious as to listen to these humble words. 


 1.Şefik Can, Mathnawi Vol. 4. 3608

 2.Sefik Can, Mathnawi Vol. 2. 2592

 3.Sefik Can, Mathnawi Vol. 3. 2260

 4. Epictotes Thoughts and Conversations. M.Eğitim pub. 1989 page 118

 5. Epictotes Thoughts and Conversations. M.Eğitim pub. 1989 page 124

 6. Sefik Can, Mathnawi Vol. 1. 3240

 7. Sefik Can, Mathnawi Vol. 1. 1546

 8. Sefik Can, Mathnawi Vol. 3. 1661

 9. Sefik Can, Mathnawi Vol. 1. 3247

10. Sefik Can, Mathnawi Vol. 2. 1469