Analysing Sufi Beliefs In the Light of The Quran

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This is the fourth part of the insightful series on Sufism by M Aamer Sarfraz. In this article, the author talks about the ideas of Hallaj, Ibn e Arabi, Shams Tabraiz and Rumi. Read the earlier articles here

As opposed to Hindu mysticism and Neoplatonism, the Quran refutes the concept of world being a charade or a dream of Brahma (God) or for that matter a playground of Ishwar (God). It proclaims that whatever exists in the Creation is a reality, and a part of the greater purpose. Whosever denies this reality is a non-believer; and all his endeavours would end in vain (38:27). There are several verses in the Quran (e.g., 29:44; 44:38-39) which illuminate that the world is not created in vain, and contains numerous signs for those who want to acknowledge this fact, and flourish accordingly.

The Quran uses the word al-Ruh for human spirit/soul. God transmitted this al-Ruh as Divine energy/self/nafs into the man (Quran 32:9; 91:7-8) so that he develops his knowledge/skills by using his perceptive faculties (Quran 32:9). Every human being receives it uniformly in a rudimentary state and it is up to him to develop it further. There are ideal conditions for the development of self/nafs in a Quranic system of governance; the process is called tazkia, which is reflected in one’s character. While this Divine energy is awarded by God, it is neither His integral part nor required to return back to Him.

God has declared hunger and terror as His displeasure (Quran 16:112), and a result of defying His commandments, “He who defies Our message, will become destitute; and be raised as blind” (Quran 20:124). Unless it happens as a result of an accident or circumstances beyond one’s control, individual or communal poverty and destitution is the outcome of defying Divine laws. Similarly, renouncing the world by abandoning good pleasure is not something God has ever prescribed (Quran 57:27).

Sufism has a completely different take on the world. In line with Hindu mysticism, it propagates that after coming into man, the Divine Aatma (Ruh) is polluted with materialism. The more one withdraws from this world, the more likely it is for Aatma to reunite with the Divine. Therefore, one should renounce the world to find Reality; and withdraw from the world by living in caves or mountains to achieve union (yogh). Sufi literature is full of these non-Quranic aspirations:

* The world is a sickness, and the people living in it are mad – both are bound to each other (Fasil bin Ayaz d. 803 CE).

* Renunciation of the world is the way to succeed in the hereafter. The heart which loves the world; loses the hereafter (Abu Suleiman Durrani d. 830 CE).

* The world is like a slaughterhouse of dogs; the sooner one leaves is better (Ahmed Harare d. 847 CE).

* All Prophets and saints renounced the world. How can one remain a Muslim after defying this principle? (Sultan Bahu d. 1102 CE)

* Kill your nafs/self so that you come alive after death (Dhul-Nun al-Misri d. 857 CE).

There is no mention of the words Sufi or Tasawwuf in the Quran or Ahadith. Muslim history informs us that Abu Hashim Usman bin Shareek (d. 777 CE) was the first person to call himself a Sufi. He hailed from Kufa, and set up a Khanqah in Ramallah (Palestine). He was followed by other well-known Sufis including Jabir Ibne Ayaan, Saleh Ibne Alevi, and Ibrahim Ibne Bashar Khorasani. Western historians often regard Harris bin Asad al-Mohasibi (777-840 CE) as the guru of an original bunch of Sufis. It was claimed that these Sufis did not invent Sufism but received the knowledge from Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) through Hazrat Ali (using the Persian/Shiite doctrine). After Hazrat Ali, Hasan Basri often appears in the chain as the person who received this hidden knowledge from him. This is despite the fact that Basri could not have achieved such an elevated status because he was a teenager by the time Hazrat Ali was martyred.

Sufis, it appears, live beyond time and space; the knowledge gets passed secretly from teacher to pupil, usually without reference to any source of information. Some Ahadith are presented by Sufis to justify their beliefs according to Sunnah but they have been rejected forthrightly by all serious commentators. For example, it is mentioned in the foreword of Sahih Muslim (a collection of Ahadith) that Sufis are compulsive liars especially regarding Ahadith.

In Sufism, there are four (04) central figures and fourteen (14) major orders/circles. The central figures are: Hazrat Ali (601-661 CE), Khawaja Hasan Basri (642-728 CE), Khawaja Habib al-Ajami (d.738 CE), and Abdul Wahid bin Zaid Karkheh (d.711 CE). The fourteen orders are: Habibie, Taighuri, Karkheh, Junaidi, Saqti, Gharzani, Firdausi, Tartusi, Suhuwardi, Zaidi, Ayazi, Odhami, Habiri, and Chishti. Other famous Orders include Qadria, Naqshbandia, and Quandaria.

Similar to the denominations in mainstream Islam, Sufism has schools based on their belief system. The two main denominations consist of those who believe that God and his creation are one (wahdatul wujud – the Unity of Being); and those who believe God and his creation are entirely separate (waḥdat ash-shuhud – Apparentism). There are also those who have faith in Hulool (incarnation) and ittihaad (union with the divine) – which are variations of the concept of waḥdat al-wujud. Hulool is fundamentally a Persian-inspired Shiite doctrine where God is supposed to have incarnated/merged into Hazrat Ali and his children. This concept entered Sufism while evolving further among the Nasiriya, the Kaisaniyah, and the Batiniyah sub-denominations of Shiites, and became rather extraordinary.

Husain Ibne Mansour al-Hallaj (858-922 CE) was the most famous crusader of Hulool. He believed that God has merged into him and therefore kept shouting Anal Haq (I am God) in the streets of Baghdad. He said, “I have renounced God’s religion because it was obligatory for me; but Muslims consider it intolerable”. He was executed for his beliefs by caliph al-Muqtadar Billah, cremated, and then his ashes were thrown into the river. Hulool never became popular afterwards; although Ibne Arabi and Nizam-ud-Din Auliya regarded Hallaj very highly. The latter said that if one eats a pinch of his ashes, one could transcend several spiritual stations. Among others who admired him, Ali Hujwiri wrote, “He was the one who immersed himself into Unity; and was truly a venerated mystic”.

Shaikh Mohiuddin Ibne Arabi (1165-1240 CE) is regarded as one of the foremost exponent of wahdatul wujud. He was an entirety – poet, philosopher, scholar, politician, and mystic. He was of a Sunni denomination but is regarded very highly by the Shiites. He was extremely talented but a complex and colourful character. Hundreds of works are attributed to him, out of which most have survived. He inspired Sufis and Islamic philosophers alike during and after his lifetime. His mystic writings are surprisingly similar to Jewish mysticism (regarding alphabets, numbers, dreams) as espoused in the Zohar. He had a knack of mixing Divine love with human passion and getting inspired from this interplay. As a married man, he enjoyed his paramour Fatima’s companionship while he was in Cordoba; but fell in love with his Hadith teacher’s daughter when he arrived in Mecca.

Beyond the Quranic stance, Ibne Arabi believed in Predestination. In line with wahdatul wajood, he considered that the man had no independent existence, therefore, he could not be held responsible for his actions (because his actions were God’s actions). He also had the audacity to justify wahdatul wujud from the Quran (20:55), which simply mentions, “We created you from the earth/mud, return you to it; and will raise you again from it”. He interprets this verse as, “We created you from the Unity. Eliminated you, and then obscured you in the Unity; and will raise you again”. He crossed the sacrosanct limits repeatedly in his works; once stressing, “Pharaoh had the right to claim Divinity because he was not separate from God; only his outer form was” (Fasoosul Hakam).

Ibne Arabi is responsible for introducing Tasawwuf and especially wahdatul wujud into Islam. The person who absorbed and made these a part of mainstream Islam is called Jalaluddin Rumi (1207-1273 CE). Ibne Arabi’s works are restricted to intellectuals due to their philosophical nature and representation. However, Rumi presented tasawwuf and wahdatul wujud in such a tranquil, charming, and legendary poetry that it became equally popular among the masses and the intellectuals. Rumi met Ibne Arabi in Damacus, got inspired, and became an acolyte of his protégé, Sadaruddin al-Qunawi (1207-1274 CE). By the time al-Qunawi died, Rumi’s knowledge and wisdom had become so established that academics travelled from far and wide to attend his lessons. This practice continued for the next thirty-seven years until the mystic, Shams Tabrezi, appeared in his life. Rumi fell so madly in love with him that he abandoned whatever he believed or practiced; and sang and danced in the streets of Konia at a mature age.

It is said that Shams Tabrezi belonged to the occult Batiniyah order initiated by Hasan bin Sabah. Rumi’s infatuation with Tabrezi became so overwhelming that his work and status were being compromised due to its public displays. In one of his verses, Rumi proclaimed about Tabrezi, “My pir, my murid, the pain and the remedy of my heart/To say it explicitly Shams! you are actually my God”. The whole affair became so embarrassing that his pupils and his son ended up killing Shams Tabrezi. However, this was not the end of Rumi’s foray into the forbidden. He fell in love first with Salahuddin Zarkob, and then with the 20-year-old Hisamuddin Chalpi. The latter is described as an inspiration, and was the main instigator for the famous Masnavi Maulana Rum (it was initially named ‘Hisami Nama’) getting written. Shaikhs in the Moulvia order are still called “Chalpi” (the beautiful) after his name. When he died, he was buried beside Rumi’s tomb in Konia.

The Masnavi addresses those who leave the world, try to know and be with God, efface their selves and devote themselves to spiritual contemplation. Rumi used the Quran, Ahadith, and the religion in an explorative way, often challenging conventional understanding. This professor of Sharia wrote some of the world’s most widely read love poetry, “Out beyond ideas of rightdoing and wrongdoing, there is a field / And I will meet you there.” Rumi’s appeal was so intriguing that Allama Iqbal considered Ibne Arabi a heretic but accepted Rumi, who transmitted the same message, as his Murshid (guide). It is interesting that he advocates rationality when faced with any dilemma, but gives it up completely when Rumi enters the arena.

(to be continued)


Sadia rai May 10, 2020 - 3:55 pm

Good thorough research, bold analyses and a very convincing and concise write up! Thank you for sharing your knowledge ……. anxiously waiting for the sequel article!

Dr Humayun Iqbal May 11, 2020 - 12:28 pm

Very interesting but I think the history and facts hence the debate appears to be too brief considering the importance and punchy nature of the topic and personalities discussed.
I understand that as a writer you may have to keep it brief to capture wider audience or they loose interest. But it leaves a vacuum firstly strong further evidence to support your point but more so to see the other side point of view or interpretation with the other lense.
Especially if Iqbal regarded Rumi very high – then there may be another missing angle in all this debate.
In my experience , Rationality is a very relative phenomenon, its very fluid with so many variables hence judgment from outside someone else shoes with partial knowledge especially of the mental state/exact internal and external circumstances, it’s extremely difficult to interpret that for a given person at that specific space and time, what is/was rational and what’s not. I think for a given person with their level of intellect/circumstances/mental states even if we consider external factors as fixed variables ( and even after we know all the genetic makeup of personality which is beyond personal control etc ) although they are not still humanly it’s almost impossible to get the right judgment, most of the people at most of the time are making rational decisions given their resources (mentioned above) which may appear as irrational to others (with different or better internal/ personality or external resources), anyway it’s my opinion.
And all this rational thinking debate is perhaps relevant in this debate about the shape or intensity of a person’s relationship with his or her Creator / God. Perhaps That is why one finds highly intettelctual and resourceful people on both sides of debate (rather more on so called Sufi side for some reason) and many are very credible otherwise untill one starts digging and start finding humanly mistakes (some true and some propagandas which opens another topic of debate ) among both sides.
But overall it’s still an interesting read – it starts the debate though not enough for conclusion.

Aamer May 16, 2020 - 9:28 am

Thank you

Aamer May 16, 2020 - 9:37 am

Thank you for reading the article and your comments Dr Iqbal.
Your observations are right this is just a review of the complex concepts in Sufism and their important exponents. This is in line with editorial guidelines as well as public appetite.
There is no debate here; these are just observations of a student of the Quran. Finally, I have not discussed rationality in this article or this series. But you views are, of course, welcome.

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