I found many interesting things regarding 'Sufis' and 'Islam'
whilst researching this, and I intend to carry on, for the rest of my life, to find out
more. 'Islam' is the most fascinating subject for me.
In my research, and my conversations with Sufis and non-Sufis, I discovered that there is a bigger controversy regarding the practises of Sufis than I had originally thought. 'Sufi' indicated to me practically a monk; one who dedicated his life, UNLIKE the rest of us, completely to the worship of Allah. This is what I was originally led to believe.
Please, those of you who are cheering at this as an attack against Sufis, withdraw. I am not yet finished.
In Islam, there are as many disparate opinions as there are people. I have never been happy to call myself a Sunni or a Shia, and most Muslims that I know are not keen to identify them in that fashion either. Although many of them are quick to say that they are no Shia, to disassociate themselves from some of the practises of Shi'ite Iran.
The point is that although we do not have 'sects' as do Jews (Orthodox, Conservative, Liberal) and Christians (Catholic, Protestant, Calvinist), we do have room in Islam for those of differing opinion, as long as it is not shown beyond the shadow of a doubt that they are completely against Islam. It is by this rationality that the Nation of Islam in the United States, for example, should be not called Muslims, as too much of their 'theology' is absolutely contrary to Islam.
Some would say no. They would defend the Sufis as being
righteous, pious people who follow the rules of Islam properly and then some. The would
call the Sufis the followers of the spiritual part of Islam, in addition to following the
letter of Islam.
Others would disagree and vehemently so. They would quote from the Quran and Hadith to prove that Sufism as a whole is wrong and contrary to Islam. They would call the Sufis delusional; pretenders to Islam. They would accuse the Sufis of ignoring the world at hand and instead, too afraid to face the world, sit at home in a corner.
In my study, I have analysed the practises of some Sufis, but more importantly, the theological beliefs of their orders. The different 'Sufis' are all in schools of thought that each claim to follow the teachings of the Prophet, as passed down through the ages through a legitamate and unbroken chain of verified teachers. There are quite a few, so I will not go into all of their practises. All I can do is describe their beliefs, in relation to my own and Islam, as best I can.
Firstly, I will comment some of the many criticisms that people have made of 'Sufis' and 'Sufism'. To all those out there who blindly condemn those that call themselves 'Sufis', I ask you to read the following and reiterate your beliefs in a more concise manner.
The majority of 'Sufis' follow a system that starts with Islam. They fulfill the five pillars to the best of their ability. Their religion is Islam. But they go further. They believe that to reach spiritual awareness, they must be guided by a sheihk. This sheihk has been taught and authorised by his sheihk and so on, until the time of Muhammed (peace be upon him.) Muhammed is described as the first Sufi, and as such, the Sufis try to imitate his lifestyle in their pursuit to be closer to Allah. There are several different orders of Sufis, all of whom believe that their chain of teachers began with the Prophet.
A criticism of this is that the Sufi must swear loyalty to the sheihk of their particular order, and suffer great torment at his direction. The Sufi must be ready to do whatever the sheihk orders and has no personal choice of his own. If the Sufi disobeys, then he will never fulfill his objective of reaching Allah.
This is misleading and basically falsehood. According to what I have read, the Sufi does follow his sheihk quite strictly, but only if the sheihk shows himself to be a proper, upright Muslim, whose only interest is to help guide the Sufi on his path. The Sufi may break off contact at any time. The sheihk is no more than someone who has gone on a path, and has been requested by someone to show which way his path went. Not where it ends; for all paths, evil and good, end with Allah.
However, I am certain that as in all religions, there are those that may exploit the relationship as shown above. Undoubtedly, there are those 'sheihks' that embezzle and steal from the disciples.
On the other hand, there are those who beat and rape their wives and say that they are Muslims.
"Verily, the best of speech is the Book of Allah, and the best of guidance is the guidance of Muhammad (s.a.w), and the evil of all religious matters is their innovations. Every innovation is a bid'ah, and every bid'ah is misguidance, and every misguidance is in the Fire."
We have to decide whether or not the practice of Sufis are bid'ah or not, and if so, whether or not it is good bid'ah (as there are many Muslims who believe that some bid'ah are good and some are bad).
Many people point to the practises of the 'whirling dervishes' to discredit the practice of Sufis. The dances, that are some sort of ritual for SOME Sufis.
So far, I have never heard of any Quranic injunction against dancing amongst members of the same sex. In the Arab world, there are plenty of traditional folk dances where although the men and women do not dance together (i.e., are touching each other during the dance), they are dancing in a routine.
Qawwali music, which is said to aid in the meditation of some Sufi sects (most of, it seems) has also been pointed at. I have listened to some of this music myself, and the lyrics are praising Muhammed (peace be upon him) and Islam. There is nothing provocative. I believe that some Qawwali music is merely dhikr with some background orchestration. And dhikr, as we well know, is definitely not against Islam. The prophet himself used to practice it often.
However, evil could arise from this as well, I suppose. Not dhikr, but the dancing rituals. However, the dervishes who practice this often are too engrossed in their remembrance of Allah to even think about sexual activity with the opposite sex, who at any rate are usually not in physical activity with them.
"The believer who intermingles with people and endures patiently their mischief will have greater reward than the one who does not intermingle with people and does not endure patiently their mischief."
In some Sufi sects, part of the process of becoming a dervish (follower of the order) is to keep yourself in seclusion for a period of time (ranging from 10-20 days, depending on the sect) after the sheihk has deemed you worthy and ready for such a task. You keep yourself away from all people and all things; you stay in complete and utter seclusion. During this time, you only indulge in food, sleep, meditation and prayer.
To myself, this does not sound bad. The person who undergoes this trial dedicates himself completely to purifying himself and seeking within himself. And this practice is not alien to Islam. L'itkaf is quite similar; a Muslim stays in a mosque for the last ten days of Ramadan in total seclusion, as above.
It could happen, though, that there are those who take this to extreme. I have met Sufis who have decided that the meaning of Islam, of submission to the divine will means that you have to accept all actions in this life and not bother with them. For example, if you see an injustice, not rush to intervene but to accept as being God's will.
This was something I myself could not accept. It has always been my belief that life is a trial and that Allah tests us each and every day of our lives. The injustices, whether we can truly change them or not, are trials for us, and we show ourselves as worthy human beings in our efforts to pass that trial.
At the same time, I have met Sufis who do not hold this view. Certainly it was not the view of Sufis who lived in Chechneya and fought against their oppressors. Or the view of Palestinian Sufis. They remember the advice of the prophet: "Fight for your right."
The cause to free yourself from a vile oppressor is a just and righteous jihad. And we should always participate in such things.
But there is a greater jihad, and it is that jihad that all Sufis participate in. The jihad against the nafs, the lower selves. As Muslims, we all know that we are imperfect. We will make mistakes, we will not think pure of heart all the time. And we know that, for a fact. But the difference between some Muslims, who take the letter of the law of Islam, and some Muslims that are also Sufis is: the former fight the outer jihad whilst ignoring the inner one, and the latter fight the inner jihad whilst ignoring the outer one.
This is obviously not the view of all Sufis; there are many Sufis that believe that as followers of Islam, their way of outer life as well as their way of inner life is defined through Islam.
I have tried to be completely objective of some aspects of 'Sufism'. There are some aspects, however, that I cannot be.
They have beliefs that in some place would be considered blasphemy and be executed for. The belief that the path to God is different for each person. The belief that there were many different prophets that have not been described in the Quran. The belief of complete equality between the sexes. The absolute tolerance and respect of other religions and faiths. Love being paramount.
The belief that in each of us, therein is Allah.
Before I even knew what the five pillars of Islam were, I knew about Islam. All children are born with Islam in their hearts, and it was so with me.
And when I heard these things about 'Sufism' I was struck. Because they were elements of my own faith.
The path to Allah has to be different for each person, because we each follow a different life to one another. If I tried to imitate the life of someone else completely and absolutely, I would not succeed. The time would be different, my weight, height, soul? This does not mean that we do not follow the prophets(peace be upon them). They were our guides.
There were many prophets that have not been described in the Quran. The Quran speaks of specifically 25, but assures that there were many more whose stories have not been told.
"There has been a guide sent to every nation."
This is not surprising to know, since there are so many
commonalties amongst the teachings of Islam and the teachings of other religions that one
has to ask, 'were these faiths started by a true messenger of Allah, and then altered over
The Native Americans, for example, believe in living a moral life, believing in one and only one Creator, praying to this Creator and not defiling the earth, which is a creation of His. The Zulus believe in much the same thing, and one of their sayings corresponds almost precisely with the words of the Sura 'Al Ikhlas'.
And does it not say in the Quran:
"Say: We believe
In God, and in what
Has been revealed to us
And what was revealed
To Abraham, Isma'il (Ishmael);
Isaac, Jacob, and the tribes,
And in (the Books)
Given to Moses, Jesus,
And the Prophets,
From their Lord:
We make no distinction
Between one and another
Among them and to God do we
Bow our will (in Islam)."
Holy Quran 3:84
"Verily, those who believe (in the
And those who follow the Jewish (scriptures)
And the Christians and the Sabians;
Any who believe in God
And the Last Day,
And work righteousness
Shall have their reward
With their Lord; on them
Shall be no fear, nor shall they grieve."
Holy Quran 2:62
However, Islam does state the belief that there will be no more
after Muhammed (peace be upon him).
The belief of sexual equality has always been a part of Islam, if not shown
by some Muslims:
"For Muslim men and women, for believing men and women, for devout men and women, for true men and women, for men and women who are patient and constant, for men and women who humble themselves, for men and women who give in charity, for men and women who fast and deny themselves, for men and women who guard their chastity, for men and women who engage in Allah's praise, for them has Allah prepared forgiveness and a great reward."
That is the 35th verse of the 33rd chapter of the Holy Quran..
The love part of 'Sufism' is complete and utter orthodox Islamic teachings. The love of God, the love of humanity, the love of all things. Because in all things, there are signs of God. Ultimately, love of the Almighty is all that matters.
The last idea is probably the one that produces the most animosity towards the Sufis. The idea that Allah is in each of us? Surely this goes right down the path that ends with saying.," Man is God incarnate!" And this surely would be false.
But it is not saying this. It is saying that Allah is in each of our souls. That our humanity, the greatest of all time, is a reflection of the Divine. There is a Hadith that says, "God says,"I, who cannot fit into the universes upon universes, fit into the heart of a righteous believer.""
This point has been debated for many a year; nay, centuries. Is it possible that Allah, who has no associate, or partner, has "vessels in the human heart"? We can never be completely sure. But Muhammed, peace be upon him, said that in a hadith.
The uniqueness of the human soul has always been debated. Where does it flow from? What is it's source? The 'Sufis' say 'Allah'. I tend to agree.
I went into a khanaqua, a place of Sufi meditation, a while ago. We sat and listened silently to Qawwali music, after which we prayed. I have seldom felt in a state of such strange tranquillity.
I read a book written by Imam Al Ghazali, who is often regarded as the greates Muslim after Muhammed. He was an expert in Shariah and followed it. He was also a believer of 'Sufism', as tasawwuf, which he regarded as being essential to Islam. Like the author of this article, he believed that Islam could not be competely followed if one did not follow the Shariah (law), but that one could not completely follow the Shariah without following the tasawwuf (spirit).
At the beginning of this article, I showed how there could be so many different opinions under the umbrella of a single faith. I reiterate that now. We are not Sunnis or Shias. We are not Sufis. We are followers of Islam. And we have been defined as Muslims, meaning, one who submits to the will of God. That includes the legitamate and proper laws of Islam, as shown in the Quran, and, to a lesser extent, the Sunnah of the Prophet Muhammed, peace be upon him.
But this is only the outer shell of Islam. There is more, which we have ignored for far too long. The deepness; the connection with Allah within us all. I personally do not believe that we can truly experience this connection without following the laws of Islam, but I do believe that we can miss it completely by only following the laws of Islam.
As one person I communicated put it, " Islam without Sufism is Islam without its soul."
But this does not neccessarily mean that we have follow an order, or that we must take heed of all the Sufis and their writings; if this research has shown anything, it has shown that there are good Sufis and bad Sufis, same as any other school of thought. We can find our own way. Or we can ask for the guidance of a 'sheihk'. In the end, it will not matter how we go about our search; it will only matter that we searched.
We must examine our faith, spiritually and mentally, so that we can accept it 100%. To do otherwise would be lose out on a magnificent prize.
I hope I have successfully given a complete introduction to 'Sufism'. It is not enough to explain the whole of 'Sufism' in such a short time, for as it is a part of Islam, and Islam would take more than twenty lifetimes to fully articulate, 'Sufism' would take quite a while to understand. Proper 'Sufism' can best be described as tasawwuf. The esoteric part of Islam. And tasawwuf is, in my opinion, the most important part, without which the other parts are incomplete.
But that does not mean we have to forget the rest of Islam. Ibn Arabi dsecribes the Sufi path as being in four stages, all of which are a part of Islam. The first is Shariah, the second is Tariqah (mystical path), the third is Haqiqah(Truth) and the fourth is Marifah (Gnosis). It starts with Shariah, and it is kept throughout the path. It is NOT discarded, as some critics believe. I read something somewhere that perfectly describes the relationship between 'Sufism' and Islam:
"Sufism without Islam is like a candle buring in the open without a lantern. There are winds which may blow that candle out. But if you have a lantern with a glass protecting the flame, the candle will continue to burn safely."
This is the best short description of 'Sufism' I can come up with.
"Keep your body occupied with your worldly duties. Keep your heart and soul occupied with God. In both, remember love. And then will you be a follower of Islam."
To be full, upright Muslims, meaning that we follow Islam,
completely, we have to remember that. Shariah is a part of Islam that we must
fulfill.....but without 'Sufism', without the mystical part, without the spirit, it
becomes little more than law.
And Islam is not simply law.
It is life.
"Righteousness is the key to a good life. A good life is the key to the hereafter. And love points the way to righeousness."
22 December 1997.
[Currently, he is at the University of Sheffield undertaking a multi-disciplinary degree in law. He has lived in Abu Dhabi, Cairo and London. His main interests delves into peace, equality, righteousness and spirituality.]