What is Sufism? A notion that must be corrected.
I have seen numerous times Sufism being described as a ‘mystical branch of Islam’, as though it is a separate ideology or a ‘different’ form of Islam. This was highlighted to me by a recent BBC news article on the attack of the shrine of Baba Farid, where the same common mistake was made again.
‘Sufism’, or tasawwuf in Arabic is a science within Islam, just like Usul al-Fiqh, Tafsir, Aqeedah, Tajweed, and like these sciences its name is not found in the Sunnah. In the Sunnah it is referred to as Ihsan (or excellence), which is defined by the Prophet (SAWS) as worshipping Allah as though you seem Him, or knowing that you do not see Him, He sees you. It stands out amongst other sciences in that in a strange way it is not a real science. Whereas other subjects such as Hadith, can be studied by reading books, there is a limit to what can be learnt from a book regarding tasawwuf. In the science of tasawwuf one reaches a higher level not by reading more and more books, but by increasing his character and purifying his heart. It can be seen as the spirituality within the religion of Islam. If a faith has no spirituality, then what is to become of it?
A general feeling I seem to get is that tasawwuf is seen as a ‘liberal’ branch of Islam, compared to a more ‘conservative’ form. In certain circles the Deobandi school is generally seen as being one of these ‘conservative’ branches, despite the fact that even they practice tasawwuf. I recently discovered that Mufti Taqi Usmani, one of the towering figures of Islamic scholarship today, whose background is Deobandi, is himself a Shaykh in the Ashrafiya tariqa. A spiritual path that traces its roots back to the Prophet (SAWS) through numerous other classical Tariqas.
Due to the number of great Sufi masters of the past being scholars of the ‘Ashari school of creed, many have come to believe that Sufism entails following a different creed to other Muslims. The consensus of scholars is that there are three valid schools of Aqeedah, or creed, just as there are four schools of jurisprudence or fiqh. But unlike the latter, it is not considered obligatory to follow one of these schools. They are the Athari, ‘Ashari and Maturidi. The ‘Ashari and Maturidi schools are considered to be the same save for differences on 12 points, and both schools form the basis of belief followed by around 90% of orthodox Sunni Muslims. The Athari school of Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal is what adherents of the modern Salafi school claim to follow, yet many of their teachings based on the great school tread the thorny path of anthropomorphism, much like some of the misguided “Hanbalis” of old. It is perhaps due to their rejection of the validity of tasawwuf and their apparent adherence to the Athari school, that this notion of Sufism being a separate creed is manifested. The simple response to this is that there have been numerous great Hanbali Atharis who were also great Sufis. Such as Shaykh Abdul Qadir al-Jilani, as well as Shaykh al-Islam Ibn Taymiyyah. The adherence to a particular school of Aqeedah has nothing to do with taking a Sufi path.
Then comes the issue of certain practices undertaken by adherents of Sufi tariqas, such as loud group dhikr, or holding certain primordial and existentialist ideas regarding the Prophet (SAWS). Again these have very little to do with the spiritual paths themselves. They can be looked and studied in other sciences such as fiqh and aqeedah. An individual who is told by a faqih, a jurist, that these practices are permissible can carry them out without taking a Tariqa, or even potentially be completely oblivious to the codified science of tasawwuf.
Finally, the biggest thorn in the orthodox Sufis’ side, are the tree huggers. Left overs from the 60s hippies era when people went looking to break from the norm of their mundane lives for something a bit more ‘exotic’. If they didn’t find it in Buddhism or Hinduism, they took it from the incoherent ramblings of people such as Inayat Khan. Hijackers of Sufism who used the term to justify their universalistic ideas and principles conjured up from their own imaginations. There are tree huggers in the East too, especially in my ancestral land of Pakistan and the sub-continent in general, who have yet to shake off the remnants of Hinduism. They partake in gatherings at shrines (Which were produced at a cost that would have fed the people of the locality numerous times over), where dancing of men and women and the intake of drugs is common. Again these people label their actions as ‘Sufism’ to justify what is essentially a night out on the town. No much different to the standard non-Muslim in the west heading out on Friday night, the only difference being he’s not attempting to make a mockery of the one true faith of Allah. The simple response to these fools are the words of Imam al-Junayd al-Baghdadi, known as the Shaykh of the Sufis, who said, “Our way is based on the Qur’an and the Sunnah. Who does not memorise the Qur’an or write Hadith should not be followed in it”. Shaykh Abdul Qadir al-Jilani, arguably the greatest Sufi of history mentions in his book, al-Sirr al-Asrar (The Secret of Secrets), that the people who claim to follow the way of tasawwuf, and then mix freely, dancing and playing instruments, have transgressed against the bounds set by Allah. It is permissible to shed their blood. A far cry from some these flower-power ‘mystics’ we have seen both in our age and in times gone by.
What I have attempted is a relatively quick look at some of the misunderstandings people have of tasawwuf or “Sufism”. Though I dislike using the English term for a number of reasons, it has become necessary so as to make what I have said and the ideas I have presented clear to the reader. Shaykh Abu Ja’far al-Hanbali was once asked by a dear friend of mine about Sufism, his response was he disliked the term, it’s not from the Sunnah he said, “I prefer to call it Ihsan”. This is coming from someone who is a Shaykh in the Qadiri tariqa, and I for one agree with him. The term has become polluted with miscreants over the years, it may be worth those of us who hold onto it in its true form to change the outward form back to the Sunnah of Ihsan, so that perhaps its inward may go back to where it truly belongs.
And to Him is our return.