Common Myths And Misconceptions About Sufism

A devotee prays at the shrine of Sufi saint Syed Usman Marwandi, also known as Lal Shahbaz Qalandar, in Sehwan Sharif, in Pakistan's southern Sindh province, September 5, 2013. Picture taken September 5, 2013. To match Feature PAKISTAN-SUFI/ REUTERS/Akhtar Soomro (PAKISTAN - Tags: SOCIETY RELIGION)

Sufism, also known as tasawwuf, is a form of mysticism that emphasizes introspection and spiritual closeness with God. It is generally described about having the life experienced as something more complete. This is supposed to be a state where no matter how troubling things are, one never allows oneself to enter the vale of gloom. Even when all doors stay closed, a Sufi is grateful not only for what he has been bestowed but also for all that has been declined. The spiritual path is a journey of exploring and then revealing the nearness to God – “He whom we seek is always with us”.

What could ever be wrong about something that is a concept and tradition beyond race, faith, humanism, and agnosticism? Because Sufiism was conceived to be like a pure stream that had the power to breathe life into even the most rotted of the milieus. It does not exist in the way we perceive reality, rather it subsists as smidgeons in the parts of our minds. When enough of such streams start flowing from the nucleus of many enlightened minds, the whole world could turn into an ocean of kindness and love. We would then be in a place where public dialogue and intellectual discourse celebrate idealised notions of mysticism with its enthralling music, inspiring poetry and the transformative and emancipating potential of the message of the great mystics.

Most of us can appreciate that human nature can be best realised through the understanding that essential human self is a reflection of the spirit of God. Therefore, to become truly human is to attain a tangible awareness of that spirit through the education and training of the soul. However, when we trace the institutional legacy of mystics down to their present-day heirs or pirs, we find that they are often well-entrenched in the political status quo. Consequently, it is interesting to examine the historical relations that mystic orders have had with the ruling classes. This credibly contradicts the notion that mystics are resistant to power dynamics, and are too immersed in contemplation of the divine to have anything to do with the mundane affairs of this world. Even Ayatollah Khomeini is known to encouraged Michael Gorbatsjov to read the works of mystical philosophers like Ibn Arabi and Suhrawardi to understand Eastern politics.

Sufi shaikhs (masters) advise renunciation of worldly possessions, cleansing of the soul and the mystical reflection of God’s nature. However, in Indo-Pak and elsewhere, many have lived very much in the world, not unlike nobles and kings and some classes of the clergy.

Naqshbandis have a history of involving themselves in political affairs, and for favouring fellowship over seclusion. Even after Mughal Emperor Babar left his Central Asian homeland, he and his descendants maintained strong ties with the Central Asian Naqshbandi orders. Saint Bahauddin Zakariya (d. 1262 CE) is reported to have negotiated the peaceful surrender of Multan to the Mongols. He was close to Sultan Iltutmish and was given the official post of Shaikhul Islam. In the Ottoman and Safavid Empires, various Sufi tariqas (orders) were supported both financially and ideologically by the sultans, which, in return, assured the loyalty of many shaikhs. Given a chance, they are prepared to work with the clergy in the pursuit of shared religio-political objectives, e.g. in the Khilafat movement.

Sufism is supposed to be a mystical form of Islam; a school of practice that emphasizes the inward search for God and shuns materialism. The offsprings of Sufi shaikhs, however, were often favoured marriage partners for royal princesses. Babar and Humayun’s daughters were given in marriage to the descendants of Naqshbandi shaikhs. Two emperors had married into the family of the shaikhs of Jam in Khorasan. Akbar’s mother, Hamida Banu (Maryam Makani), had descended from the renowned shaikh Ahmad-e-Jam. Mughal king Jahangir was named after Shaikh Salim Chishti and Babar’s name ‘Zahiruddin Muhammad’ was chosen by Naqshbandi Shaikh Ahrar. The combined spiritual and temporal power of influential Sufi shaikhs and the rulers was hence used across various Islamic cultures for mutual benefits.

The expression ‘Sufi’ invokes images of poets like Rumi from Persia or mystics like Ibn Arabi from Andalusia or even Turkey’s present-day whirling dervishes. While hypocrisy and deception are perceived to be associated with clergy, mysticism appears to be free of such things. As a result, contemporary spiritual seekers often remain blind to the dark sides of Islamic mysticism even though the Sufis themselves have recognised and condemned them for centuries. The faithful, nonetheless, are forever ready to immerse themselves in all sorts of confused spiritual practices with no concern for the religious sensitivities and social inequities. Drugs are taken throughout some pilgrimages to holy places or during certain mystical rituals at Sufi shrines. Power-plays that can arise in the master-pupil relationships during spiritual development can sometimes become unhealthy where the shaikhs demand unquestioning submission and are known to exploit their pupils in malicious ways.

The ability of Sufis to draw in more followers by adapting the religion to the local culture is how Sufiism was able to adopt the local values and got taken into local customs. A pitfall, however, is the manner in which the status of a mystic is exploited. Flagrant examples can be seen among some ‘pirs’, ‘faqirs’ or ‘dervishes’ who do not just preach spiritual messages but also offer their services as supernatural healers. Without any medical knowledge or training, they try to treat psychological as well as physical illnesses with all sorts of rituals, prayers, and trickeries. Their dubious ‘skills’ often do not alleviate the problem but make it worse. As often seen in several reports on media outlets, it becomes extremely grim when such interventions turn into criminal behaviour where murids (disciples) are exploited for financial and sexual gains.

A few years ago, I met a famous mystic in Pakistan though a common friend. He wanted to “show” me something that I had never seen before. The “show” was soon postponed to our next meeting because he spent the whole time trying to find out how I diagnose and treat psychiatric disorders. I departed with some difficulty as he had cancelled all his appointments, and the faithful were growing in number outside his residence. He made several attempts to meet me again afterwards but I politely declined on ethical grounds. I had completely forgotten about the incident until recently when I treated his nephew’s psychological problems successfully. His life had hitherto been ruined by his Sufi uncle’s reckless advice.

Ibn Taymiyya (d. 1326 CE) had criticised aspects of Sufism as a bogus innovation (bidat) not rooted in the tradition. In a commonly quoted extract, the famous saint Ali Hujwiri (d. 1077 CE) wrote that Sufism used to be a reality without a name, but it has now become a name without a reality. What he probably meant was that ‘real’ Sufism was no different from the religion of Muhammad (pbuh) and his companions, but it had developed in a direction that deviated from that tradition. Persian Sufi Ruzbihan Baqli (d. 1209 CE) had said, “I looked into Hell, and I saw that most of its inhabitants were those donning a patched frock and carrying a food bowl”. Leading proponents of Islamic reform – al-Afghani (d. 1897 CE), Muḥammad Abduh (d. 1905 CE), Rashid Riḍa (d. 1935 CE) and Parwez (d. 1984 CE) – all came from Sufi backgrounds but ruthlessly criticised Sufism.

The proponents of Islamic reform were concerned about the stagnation of Muslim cultures in relation to European civilizations, which had colonized and humiliated Muslims. Sir Syed and Allama Iqbal argued that Islam was a rational religion in harmony with modernity and scientific progress – but it had been perverted through un-Islamic innovations and practices found partially in Sufi rituals and theologies. In order to compete with the European civilization, Muslims had to cleanse Islam from such innovations and backward ways, and return to the genuine Islam. Rida believed that Sufis had brought Zoroastrian influences into their practice to undermine Islam from within. Abduh debunked many traditions associated with Sufism; such as veneration of saints’ tombs, and belief in the intercession and in  miracles. Abduh, like Hujwiri, still revered what he imagined as aspects of Sufism as practised by the first generations of Muslims.

Sufis are often perceived as quirky and even eccentric in Muslim societies. The hardliners often see the shrines and living saints as idols whose existence and worship violates the uniqueness of God and the object of worship. They also consider Sufism as a threat, and its adherents as heretics or apostates. However, Islamic governments often support the Sufis for being peace-loving, unlikely to engage in political activity, and for having their priorities oriented inwardly. Sufis also accept the legitimacy of the states, which can lead to tensions with militant groups who oppose these governments and are willing to act on their dissatisfaction. This tension has led to sporadic attacks on Sufi shrines and their devotees in the last couple of decades.

The age of Farid, Ibn Arabi and Rumi, represents the climax of Sufi achievement. Sufism’s healthy protest against religious conventions and rituals has since given way to the rejection by many of religious adherence. Devotional songs and dance have resulted not in spiritual intoxication but often in drunkenness and erotic fantasies. Mindfulness of the divine manifestation in creation has become a validation for the incorporation of saint’s worship, fetishism, and all manner of superstitious practices. Stress on the drawbacks of reason and the need for direct knowledge to experience the divine has diverted the attention from the importance of just societies within Islamic tradition. The escalation of superstition is contributing to the decay of Islamic communities. According to Arberry (d. 1969 CE), one can appreciate a romanticist evaluation of true Sufism as a mysticism of times long gone and places far off because modern Sufism is best described as naive and imposturous.

Arberry’s words are very similar to Kemal Ataturk’s (1925) in which he said that the Turkish Republic could not be a “..nation of shaikhs, dervishes, and mystics [as the] essential aim of the tekkes is to keep the people in ignorance and make them act as if they were insane..” and banned Sufism.

(to be continued)

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Nayadaur Media’s editorial stance.