Sufism: Positive and Negative Dimensions. By MaulanaWahiduddin Khan


In order to promote love and understanding between Muslims and others and to remove the misunderstandings about Islam that abound, it is important to highlight the spiritual and humane aspects of Islam. This spiritual dimension of Islam is called Sufism, or Tasawwuf.
There are various theories about the origin of the word ‘Sufi’. One explanation, which is possibly the correct one, is that it is derived from the word ‘Suf’, which means ‘wool’ in Arabic. It is believed that early in Muslim history, some people, distancing them from crass materialism and political wrangling, sought to lead a spiritual life, a life oriented to the Hereafter. In their fondness for simplicity, they wore clothes made of wool. It is possible that this is what led other people to refer to them as ‘Sufis’.
Sufism and Shariah
Islam seeks to bring man close to God. It can be thought of as consisting of two halves. The first half is related to the external Shariah. The other half is linked to the individual’s own inner quest. The Shariah provides the seeker of Truth with the basic framework so that he can continue his journey while saving himself from going astray. But the higher stages of God-realization or one’s relationship with God depend entirely on one’s own inner level of preparation or spiritual thirst. The greater one’s spiritual thirst, the greater is one’s spiritual progress.
The Quran is God’s Book. We initially learn about it from the Prophet. But when we ponder deeply on the Quran, our inner insight begins to bear witness to this reality—the reality that this book is indeed God’s Book, and not something invented by a human being. And so, the Quran being a Book of God no longer remains just a matter of belief for us. Instead, it becomes something that we know to be true through our own personal realization.
The same holds true for the Shariah. The Prophet has provided us with knowledge of worship and the way it should be performed. When we engage in worship ourselves, we begin to feel that, at the psychological level, we are connected with God. This becomes something that is based on our own personal discovery. At this point, worship no longer remains something that we do as a mere ritual, out of imitation.
That we should remember God is something we initially learn from the Prophet. And when we practically engage in remembrance of God, we experience that we are travelling on a spiritual journey, wherein the veils that lie between man and God are lifted. At this time, we feel that we are not remembering someone who is very far away from us and simply through reciting some words, but, rather, that we have arrived in God’s presence and that we are directly conversing with Him.
This same thing applies for the rest of the Shariah that we have received from the Prophet of Islam. Initially, the Shariah is an external body of commandments. But when a true seeker truly practices the rules of the Shariah in his life, he or she is stunned to discover that something that was an external set of regulations has now become a personal realization for him or her.
In this way, the Shariah and one’s inner reality or spirituality are intimately linked to each other. This clearly suggests that the notion that the ‘religious’ or ‘spiritual’ domain, on the one hand, and the ‘worldly’ or ‘secular’ domain, on the other, are entirely separate and have nothing to do with each other is erroneous. Advocates of this notion wrongly believe that the social and political aspects of life have no bearing on spirituality. They also erroneously consider that spirituality or what they call ‘mysticism’ is something that is based entirely on an individual’s inner search. As a result of this dichotomous thinking, spirituality and the external world are seen as being completely divorced from each other.
In this regard, Islam provides man with the right guidance. On the one hand, it provides, in the form of the Shariah, the seeker of the Truth with basic signposts on the path that he is travelling on, which guarantee him a safe journey. On the other hand, it awakens his true nature, and by abiding by the Shariah, he reaches the final stage of the spiritual journey.
True Sufism is the second half of Islam, the first half being the Shariah. If they are separate from each other, both are incomplete. But if they join together, they become that totality that is called Islam
Love of God
The Quran teaches us both the love and the fear of God. The Sufis gave great stress to the dimension of love, drawing support for this from numerous Quranic verses, including the following:
‘God will replace them by others who love Him and are loved by Him.’ (5:54)
It was as a result of emphasizing the aspect of the love of God that the love for humankind became an absolute principle for the Sufis. They stressed gentleness, instead of hate; peace, instead of war; and reconciliation, instead of confrontation. Consider, for instance, these touching words from the Nafiʿal-Salikin, a Sufi text, about the Sufis of the Chishti order: “The principle of our Sufi order is to be at peace with Muslims and Hindus.” This sort of understanding and approach proved to be a great blessing for the societies in which Sufis lived and worked. They became an instrument for promoting harmony and peace between different communities.
The 13thcentury Baba Fariduddin Ganj-e Shakkar was a famous Sufi of the Chishti order. Once, it is said, a disciple from a town that manufactured scissors presented him with a pair of scissors as a gift. On this occasion, he said to this disciple: “What sort of gift have you brought for me? Scissors are an instrument to cut, whereas our work is that of joining together.” If he had to bring a gift for him, Baba Farid added, he could have brought him a needle and thread, because scissors cut things apart, while a needle joins them together.
The well-known poet, Allama Iqbal, was considerably influenced by Sufism. This is reflected, for instance, in this couplet of his:
Ho chuka go qaum ki shan-e jalali ka zuhur
Hai baqi abhi shan-e jamali ka zuhur
(The state of gloriousness of the Muslim community has made its appearance,
But the state of mercifulness and gentleness is yet to appear.)
This is something very relevant and significant in our present times. Today, people want peace, not war. Similarly, what Muslims need is not militant Islam but Sufistic Islam. Today, we need to give the greatest stress to this aspect of Islam.
The character of Sufis is beautifully brought out in the following tale. Once, a caravan of Sufis halted at a certain spot, all around which were a large number of trees. Shortly after, a large flock of birds arrived there. They settled down in the trees and began flapping their wings and calling out loudly, indicating that they were very upset about something.
The Sufi master asked the chief of the birds what the matter was. The chief replied, “A pair of birds from our flock was resting in a tree when a disciple of yours flung a stone and killed one of them.”
The master called this disciple and asked him about what had happened. The latter replied, “Your honour! I did not do anything wrong. These birds are food for us. It is permissible for us to kill them. And so, if I killed one of them, what wrong did I do?”
When the master conveyed this reply to the chief of the birds, the chief said, “We do not complain about this. Our complaint is that you people came here in the garb of Sufis but acted like hunters. When we saw you in Sufi garb, we were at rest, thinking that we would face no danger whatsoever from you. Had we known you were hunters, we would have taken measures to protect ourselves.”
The love and peace that the Sufis exemplified in their lives proved to be an important means for the expansion of Islam. The Muslim rulers who came to India from outside were like the hunters in the above story. Because of this, the inhabitants of this land sought to protect themselves from them. In this way, they distanced themselves from Islam. In contrast to this, the Sufis were harmless and full of love and goodwill. Because of this, people from other communities drew close to them. This closeness enabled them to learn about the beauties of Islam, as a result of which large numbers of them embraced the faith.
The noted 18th century Muslim scholar from Delhi, Shah Waliullah writes that his father was a great Sufi, and that he would often recite the following lines:
The comfort of the two worlds lies hidden in just two phrases:
Softness with friends and good behavior with foes.
Hafiz Shirazi, the famous 14th century Persian poet, beautifully encapsulates the Sufi approach in the following couplet:
I have not read the stories of emperors like Alexander and Dara.
If you have to ask, then ask me only about love and loyalty.
It was this love that the Sufis embodied that endeared them to everyone. People from all walks of life and from different religious and community backgrounds sought to be in their presence. If people opposed to them came to them, they were overwhelmed by their kindness, which melted their hearts. In this way, the Sufis played a key role in promoting peace and harmony in society. The love and understanding that they exuded and taught helped bring Hindus and Muslims together. The Sufis and the atmosphere that they helped promote enabled people of different faith backgrounds to closely interact with each other. A natural result of this was that people of other faiths learnt about the beauties of Islam, as a result of which large numbers of them embraced it.
Genuine Sufism is Not World Renouncing
There is a fairly widespread misconception that Sufism teaches the renunciation of the world. As far as genuine Sufism is concerned, this is definitely not true. What Sufism teaches is not renunciation of the world, but, rather, renunciation of worldliness.
A criterion for determining the correctness of an ideology is that it should not contradict any basic demand of life. A proper and meaningful ideology takes into account all aspects of life. This is the case with Sufism. Sufism emphasizes the inner values of human life and seeks to awaken the deeper realities of existence. And so, it provides appropriate guidance for all aspects of our life.
Later Sufism
It is often the case that something that starts off as a natural phenomenon turns into something quite different. This happened with Sufism, too. The Sufism of the early period of Muslim history was quite distinct from later trends. Instead of making the Islamic aspect of Sufism dominant, these later forms of Sufism sought to make the Sufi aspect of Islam dominant. In this way, along with its many benefits, some negative aspects also crept into Sufism.
Islam is undoubtedly a religion of spirituality. But the spirituality of Islam is linked to the whole of our being. It seeks to nourish every aspect of our lives. But later forms of Sufism that emerged departed from this. They no longer played any effective role in human life except in a very restricted sphere.
Unfortunately, this development occurred in the period when the world was entering a new age. The traditional age was coming to an end and the scientific age was rapidly taking its place. Because by this time Muslim societies had come to be heavily influenced by later forms of Sufism, Muslims, as a whole, were cut off from this global process that was underway. A result of this was the backwardness that is apparent all across the ‘Muslim world’ even today. The Islamic Sufism of the early Muslim period had promoted research in various sciences, but the forms of Sufism that subsequently emerged became a major barrier to the promotion of such sciences among Muslims.
More than half a century ago, the Lebanese scholar-activist Amir Shakib Arslan (1869-1946) penned a book in Arabic titled Li maza taʾakhkhara al-muslimun wa taqaddam aghayruhum (‘Why Muslims Became Backward and Other Communities Went Ahead’). From then till today, literally thousands of books and articles have been written on the very same topic, but the real question remains unsolved. Muslim (and other) intellectuals are unanimous in agreeing about the backwardness in the field of science among present-day Muslims, but there is no agreement as to the cause of this.
I am of the opinion that at least one major reason for this predicament are forms of Sufism that later emerged, which were extremely one-sided and that had come to exercise a pervasive influence in many Muslim societies. Modern science treats natural phenomena as objects of research and investigation. In contrast, these forms of Sufism are but another name for getting lost in dreams, claims of mukashifa or ‘unveiling’ and alleged mysterious happenings. This sort of extremism in later forms of Sufism played a crucial role in shaping Muslim opinion, encouraging Muslims to turn their minds away from the realities of this world. It was roughly in the same period when these forms of Sufism emerged that people in the West began turning to investigating natural phenomena. A result of this intellectual difference is the very obvious empirical difference that exists between the Western and the Muslim worlds today.
To further clarify this point, I would like to cite an incident from the life of a well-known Sufi. This example symbolizes almost the whole Sufi fraternity of later times.
Shah Waliullah of Delhi is regarded as a great Sufi. He writes that his father, Shah Abdur Rahim, was a great blessing for him. Few other fathers were such a blessing for their sons, he says. And what was Shah Abdur Rahim’s method of education? This can be gauged from the following incident.
Shah Waliullah writes that once, when he was a child, he went off with some of his friends to a garden for an outing. When he returned home, his father said, “Waliullah, what did you obtain [from your outing] that will remain with you? In the period that you were out, I read durood (invocations for the Prophet) several times.”
Shah Waliullah says that on hearing this he lost all interest in going to gardens to stroll around and to enjoy himself, and that after this he never wanted to do so again (MaulanaAbulHasan Ali Nadvi, Tarikh-e Dawat-o-Azimat, Part 5, p.103).
This incident symbolizes the particular mindset of later Sufis. In the hope of attaining God-realization, they thought that certain mystical practices were enough—practices that were based on meditation, the recitation of certain words and phrases, and so on. They came to believe that reflection and research on the world of nature—of which a garden of the sort in which Shah Waliullah went for a stroll as a young child, as mentioned above, is a part—was something inessential, and so they abandoned it. This abandonment became a direct cause of the backwardness of Muslims in the natural sciences.
The period when this sort of one-sided trends in popular Sufism emerged coincided with the period that witnessed the emergence of modern science in the West. At a time when Westerners had begun to study the world, Muslim peoples, under the influence of this sort of Sufism, had begun to turn their backs to such research, imagining that meditating in a corner somewhere or isolating oneself in a room was something that was religiously greatly meritorious. In such a situation, what else could be expected but that they should fall far behind other peoples in the age of science?
I do not mean to say that the Sufis directly and explicitly instructed Muslims to stay away from science and forbade them to acquiring knowledge of various scientific disciplines. My point, rather, is that the mentality that was nourished by the forms of Sufism that later emerged was the total opposite of the scientific mentality.
The scientific temperament encourages the study of external realities, but the mindset developed by this sort of Sufism drew people only towards mysterious esotericism. The scientific temperament engenders creative thinking, while this sort of mystical mindset leads to intellectual stagnation. The scientific temperament nourishes the spirit of discovery, while this sort of mysticism teaches people to rely entirely on their Sufi master and to make no effort whatsoever to open the doors of their own minds.
In the very first verse of the Quran (96:1) revealed to the Prophet, he was instructed to read. In contrast, later Sufis went about belittling the importance of knowledge. The Quran (3:190) says that that the secret to God-realization lies in pondering on the universe. Contrary to this, later Sufis began to claim that Sufi shaikhs were treasuries of all sorts of powers and that if one were to connect to them, one could acquire all sorts of worldly and spiritual blessings.
The early Muslims were influenced by the ideology of the Quran, and so they made great progress in the field of knowledge—starting first with religious knowledge, and then worldly knowledge or the natural sciences. But later on, Muslim societies came under the dominance of later forms of Sufism, which caused them to fall prey to intellectual stagnation. If in their early history Muslims were the leaders of the world’s intellectual caravan, they now became the dust that the caravan threw up as it raced ahead.
The spiritual practices that later Sufis developed through ijtihad (independent reasoning) was without doubt controversial because these were related to worship, and the ulema are unanimous that ijtihad is not permissible in matters of worship. Later Sufis did not keep in mind this limit. Along with the methods of worship that were practiced by the Prophet Muhammad they added a large number of what they termed ‘assisting practices’ and popularized them among their disciples. This act of theirs undoubtedly went out of the bounds laid down by the Shariah.
In addition to this, another development emerged, deliberately or otherwise, among later Sufis that was not present at the time of the Prophet’s companions. This was the notion of personal holiness of certain individuals. The companions of the Prophet focused entirely on God, and for them it was God and the Prophet who were of religious importance. But in later Sufism a wrongful innovation emerged as people began to consider, whether consciously or otherwise, the Sufis to be holy. In this way, personality-worship or ‘gurudom’ took root and spread among Muslims, although this has no room in Islam at all.
Yet, as mentioned earlier on, the Sufis did two very important things, and their contribution in this regard cannot be ignored. Firstly, they promoted and spread among Muslims the humane values of Islam. And secondly, as a direct result of this, they facilitated the spread of Islam.
Islam possesses in itself a tremendous force of attraction. If the walls of hatred that divide Muslims and others come down and peace and harmony prevail between them, Islam will spread on its own. And this is what the Sufis did. Yet, in order to explain Islam to highly educated people, it needed to be presented according to modern intellectual standards, which was something that the Sufis did not do. That is why the expansion of Islam that occurred in their period was mainly at the mass level. Because of this, Islam spread rapidly among the poor, while the intellectual elites remained aloof. In terms of quantity, the Muslim population may have registered considerable increase, but in terms of quality, the gains were not so impressive.
The modern age is an age of intellectual progress. The scientific revolution wrought an enormous transformation in human thought. As the modern age dawned and people began taking to modern education in a big way, it was necessary for Muslim scholars to present Islam in terms of the intellectual standards of modern times, using modern logic, evidence and arguments so as to draw the attention of modern educated people to it. Yet, this urgent task was not undertaken—and the simple reason for this was that because of their unawareness, Muslims did not take up this task.
While Sufis played a key role in spreading Islam among the masses, the elites did not come under the influence of Islam. The result of this is that today, the Muslim population is greater than ever before, but in terms of power and influence, Muslims have little to count for, because power and influence come through higher intellect. And if the intellectual elites among Muslims themselves were not able to be drawn to Islam, how could the intellectual elites among other communities have done so?

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