Is Sufism At Odds With What Is Conceptualised As Mainstream Islam?

Is Sufism At Odds With What Is Conceptualised As Mainstream Islam?
Ever since it began, history of Muslims has been studied as a succession of struggles between different groups and institutions over the right to define true Islam. The number of participants and voices in this discourse has increased over time, as the credulous masses often applaud the masquerade more than the
true devotion. Sufism is understood as the mystical or esoteric tradition of Islam, in both the typological and the historical understanding of the concept.  However, it seems that the spirit of total other-worldliness in later Sufism eclipsed a very important aspect of Islam as a social programme; but by offering the prospect of uninhibited imagination on its notional shores, it has fascinated and absorbed some of the best brains in Islam.

As a secret tradition, Sufism is at odds with what is conceptualized as mainstream Islam. Its traditions about outward (ẓahir) meanings of Islam in relation to inner (baṭin) dimensions refer tangentially to a verse in the Quran (3:7), which states that the revelation contains clear (muhkamatat) as well as allegorical (mutashabihat) connotations. Muslim attitudes related to such beliefs are also cited in some other traditions. For example, Shiite doctrines of knowledge of the hidden (ilm al-ghayb) accessible to the Imams & allegorical Quranic interpretations (tawil), aim at expanding the concept of hidden meanings. Same is the case with the doctrine of intercession (tawassul) or the belief that Muhammad (pbuh), the Imams and certain saintly persons can act as intermediaries between an individual and God. Such secrecy is an expansive strategy that transforms given knowledge into a precious resource, the possession of which bestows status or symbolic capital to its owner.

Since the first emergence of people who called themselves Sufis in the early 9th century, it was a disparaging nickname for individuals publicly displaying what was considered show off piety. In the present day, Sufism is cultivated into a complex tradition that claims to have access to, or to be striving towards a higher knowledge. The concept of secrecy is related to the claims of higher knowledge and the vision of truth as a master-key for answering the questions of humankind. The ability of Sufis to harmonize metaphysical teachings with the boring constructs of social and economic life has won them the support needed to outlive and outreach the other ascetic movements that rose and fell beside them. Islam has since become effectively inseparable from the personnel, concepts and institutions of Sufism. For an increasing number of Muslims throughout the Middle Ages, what they knew about Islam they had learned through the tongues and tombs of their communal Sufis.

In mystic states, one is supposed to become one with the Absolute and one becomes aware of one’s oneness. This is the perpetual mystical convention, hardly altered by differences of clime or creed. In Hinduism, Neoplatonism, and Christian mysticism, we find the same recurring theme - the unity of man with God, seeing through things to their centre, independence of time and space, mastering body and mind, and rule of nature by the sight of innermost formulas. Sufis are freethinkers, who appear to be more or less divergent from the conceptualizations of Islam. The influence of Greek philosophy, Indian Vedanta, Buddhism and Christianity are clearly seen as opposed to Islamic history and philosophy or the Quran and the Sunna as sources. Hence, Sufism, by being related to non- or pre-Islamic traditions, was simultaneously partly separated from what was considered normative or orthodox Islamic tradition.

Sufism as a tradition is considered as an equivalent of mysticism; but it is Sufism rather than mysticism that is found in all of the world’s religious traditions. Cowell (d. 1903 CE) claims that Sufism sprang up by a necessary law in the human mind as the inherent love of mysticism, therefore, Eleusinian mysteries, the Hindu Brahmanism, and the Persian Sufiism, are only developments of the same deep rooted sources in the soul. Others like Tholuck (d. 1877 CE) and Pfleiderer (d. 1908 CE) understood Sufism as an expression of Arian mysticism in opposition to Islam, which they regarded as a typical example of Semitic religion where positive expressions of Muslim culture were defined as ‘Sufism’, while ‘Islam’ itself was filled with negative connotations. Sufis were therefore regarded as nonconformists who had more in common with Christianity and Hellenistic philosophy than with Islam.

Sufism as defined through the prism of love poetry and mystical cosmologies, therefore, remains conceptualized as what Islam’s so called orthodox “zealotism” was not: high spirited, liberal, genuine, and above all as opposed to ritualism, literalism, and dry scholasticism. On the other hand, Christian faith based exclusively on the pure biblical message; rational philosophy based upon the legitimate but limited capacities of the human intellect; and everything else – not only any kind of pagan religion but, more seriously, any kind of infiltration of such pagan religion within the domain of the religion of the book. All the world’s religions at that level are perceived as expressions of a single original “perennial” religion, since lost to the humanity. This hypothetical “perennial” religion seems to have attracted many academics and writers including William Chittick, Martin Lings and Hossein Nasr.

Allama Iqbal, as a philosopher, accepted Sufism as a spiritual experience that is a source of knowledge and a useful way of approaching reality. He called it a religious psychology, which could not be ignored merely because it cannot be traced back to sense perception. It reveals different zones of the self yet its set phraseology shaped by worn-out metaphysics may have a deadening effect on the modern mind. He also believed that life was an activity; and a person having communication with God could not be a passive individual sitting in a Khanqah. The unworthy occupants of spiritual seats have destroyed its image and spoiled its usefulness. Sufi orders were the sources of inspiration for the masses as they provided refuge to socially dislocated and mentally anguished people.  However, Iqbal believed, they should lose their role for spiritual training and purification as they had collaborated with the political establishment and became the source of exploitation and caused breakdown of the social cohesiveness of the Muslim community.

While it is sometimes misconstrued as a sect of Islam, Sufiism is actually a broader style of worship that transcends sects by directing followers’ attention inward. Sufis try to get closer to God by seeking spiritual learning known as tariqa. In modern times, the predominant view of Sufi Islam has become one of “love, peace, tolerance,” leading to this style of worship becoming synonymous with peace-loving Islam. However, it still remains an attractive proposition to explore as to why and how Sufiism actually entered Islam.

Quran embraces revelation/wahy as knowledge given directly to the Prophets in letter and spirit as recorded for example in the Quran (hence called Kalam Allah). Whatever was revealed to Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) is totally secure in the Quran; nothing was left out as God has taken responsibility for its safekeeping. However, when the Prophet and his companions passed away, a wicked concept of two kinds of revelation was invented: wahy-e-jalli( recited or obvious revelation = the Quran) and wahy-e-mutlou or khaffi (un-recited or hidden revelation). This innovation had been borrowed from Judaism by Imam Shafi who hailed from Yemen, which was a stronghold of Shiites. He was summoned a few times by the caliph Haroonur Rashid for this indictment and other reasons. To give credibility to this concept, a hadith also came into being, “..I was given a Book, and something similar to it. Remember! there would be a time soon when someone on the throne would declare that you should hold on to the Book; and accept whatever you find halal or harm in it..”.

If you are wondering what was “something similar to it” – they were Ahadith. A significant number of Muslims and their religious leaders believe that Ahadith are as important as the Quran and denying one is equivalent to denying the other. They also claim that Gabriel used to bring both the Quran and the Sunnah/Ahadith to the Prophet; therefore, they do not discriminate between the two. If anyone happened to question why both were not included in the Quran, Maulana Maududi provided a very interesting answer, “…Doing this would have made the Quran as big as Encyclopaedia Britannica..”.  It (God forbid) means that to reduce the size of the Quran, revelation was divided into two parts. If there was any doubt, it was removed by ‘clarifying’ that wahy-e-jalli was revealed through words (as recorded in the Quran) and wahy-e-mutlou was revealed as thoughts (available as Ahadith in Prophet’s words). Wahiwas also called Ilham which they claimed has continued after Prophet Muhammad (pbuh); tasawwuf is essentially based on this very concept.

Allama Iqbal had strongly refuted this concept where thoughts could exist without the words. He explained in the 1stof his famous lectures how an impulse/feeling requires a thought and a thought requires words for conveyance – the latter two appear at the same time born out of the original impulse. Buck (1905) concurred with that view and wrote that every word has a concept behind and vice versa; both cannot exist separately. And also, that a new word cannot come into existence without a concept behind it and vice versa. Similarly, Professor Urban (1951) refuted that an intuition can exist without words; both are inseparable, and the language of a revelation needs to be understood as such. It drives the point home that if Ilham or Ahadith were supposed to be from God, their words should also have been those of God. Despite being a leading Sunni Imam, Shafi had borrowed the concept of wahy–e- khaffi from Judaism via Shiite theology; reportedly an influence from his childhood background. This also gives us a clue from where tasawwuf could have entered into Islam.

It is very interesting to note that Shiite believe in Vilayat and Imamate but they do not recognise Sufiism or Mysticism. However, all Sufis and Awwlia worth their salt would always take their Khirqa (frock of blessings) from Hazrat Ali.

(to be continued)

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily represent or reflect the editorial policy of NayaDaur Media

M. Aamer Sarfraz is a philosophical psychiatrist based in London.