November 30, 2017
Sufism and Sufis have been in the news more often of late, ironically, because of their greatest detractors – the likes of ISIS and other radical groups, who, as a matter of dogma, condemn Sufis.
The irony, of course, is that Sufism – the discipline of spiritual purification in Islam – and Sufis play pivotal roles in Islam and the development of Islamic thought and civilisation.
Extremists, and the trends from which they derive inspiration, are far more heterodox than the Sufis they condemn – as they did prior to the recent massacre in and around a mosque in northern Sinai.
The Sources of Sufism: The Qur’an and the Prophet
When trying to comprehend the role that Sufism and Sufis play in Islam, it’s important first to understand what reference points are used by Sufis themselves: those drawn from the most orthodox sources of Islam.
The elemental text that is used is a famous Prophetic narration which recounts an encounter between the archangel Gabriel and the Prophet Muhammad. In that encounter, which many latter Sunni Islamic authorities described as the source of the underlying “pivot” of Islamic education, the archangel asks the Prophet to define Islam (in this context, correct practice), Iman (which relates to correct belief) and Ihsan. This three-fold dimensionality of the religion of Islam has been commented upon by numerous religious authorities over the fourteen centuries of Islamic civilisation since.
From the dimension of the Islamic religion that relates to Islam, we see the development of practice and law, as described in discussions around canonical jurisprudence, and the eventual formation of rites, or schools of law (madhhabs): the shari’ah emanates from this dimension.
From the dimension of Iman, theological approaches developed, concerned with ‘aqidah (creed) and its branches of the religious sciences.
When it comes to Ihsan, which many translate as ‘spiritual excellence’, the Prophet defined it as “to worship God as though you saw Him, for if you do not see Him, most assuredly He Sees you.” From that particular religious dimension comes the word tasawwuf – or “Sufism.”
What is Sufism?
When asked to define tasawwuf, different medieval authorities propounded a variety of specific definitions. It is important to underline here that those authorities were regarded by Muslims writ large as noted Islamic authorities, not as “heretical” or “deviant.” Yes, they were dealing with an esoteric discipline, but they were historically regarded as Islamic as anyone else – if not more so.
One common definition of Sufism propounded by the eleventh-century polymath, Abu Hamid al-Ghazali, who was a Sunni legal jurist, is: “Truthfulness with God Almighty and good conduct with people.” And that definition permeates the variety of definitions that come about prior to and after Ghazali. As different approaches to fulfilling the science of Sufism became formalised, they did so by means of the establishment of followings around various teachers, similar to how the schools of law came about. The formalisation often resulted in the establishment of “orders” or tariqas, which then took on the names of their eponymous founders, much like those schools of law.
Some of the more well-known and widespread tariqas include the Qadiri order, the Shadhuli order, the order of the Bani ‘Alawi in the Yemen (not to be mistaken with the Alawite sect in Syria).
Different orders prescribe different practices to fulfil that quest to fully achieve “truthfulness with God” and “good conduct.” Those practices might be the recitation of litanies, drawn from the Qur’an and the precedent of the Prophet, or other practices – all of which would be discussed in relation to the shari’ah, or Islamic law. This is important to note: Sufism hasn’t historically been described as an aberration from Islamic law – rather, Sufi scholars insisted on being harmonious with Islamic law, and even more deeply involved with it. If we find that peculiar, it may have more to do with how we view what the shari’ah actually is in modern public life, as opposed to how Muslims have traditionally viewed it themselves.
Hence, adepts in such Sufi orders would not see themselves as veering away from orthodoxy – rather, they would see themselves as being even more committed to the orthopraxy of Islamic tradition, and fulfilling the dimension pronounced by the Prophet in his answer to the archangel.
Critics of Sufism
This does not mean the practice of Sufism has escaped criticism in the history of Islamic civilisation. On the contrary, the harshest critiques can be found in medieval works by Sufi scholars themselves.
There are numerous admonishments by Sufi scholars of many of those in their own eras who claimed to be Sufis, but whom were regarded as charlatans by the scholars. Those scholars considered themselves to be upholding the science of Sufism and fulfilling their responsibilities by critiquing pretenders. As one contemporary author indicates, “due to the valuable nature of this science, many have tried to pass off poor imitations of it, much like you see the fraudulent copies of many treasures.”
Something changes in modern times, however. The rise of the following of Ibn Abdul Wahhab in the eighteenth century saw a set of objections to Sufis and Sufism by what later became known as the purist Salafi – or, to use the pejorative term of its detractors, “Wahhabi” – movement. Those Wahhabi critics claimed that much of Sufism was idolatrous in nature, for visiting the tombs or graves of saintly Sufi figures, for example. Such critics would thus argue that practitioners of Sufism were guilty of polytheism – a charge that Muslims take seriously. That is why numerous Sunni authorities wrote and preached harsh rebuttals of such criticism, insisting that such extremist critiques of Sufism went far beyond what was the norm, and pointing out that the visitation of graves is entirely in coordination with Islamic law, not in opposition to it.
The rebuttals from religious authorities maintained that not only were charges of polytheism were false, but that those making the charges were themselves veering away from Sunni orthodoxy, making themselves guilty of a type of deviancy. The further irony for that purist Salafi set of objectors to Sufism is that, in so doing, they set themselves against many of the medieval authorities they quote.
A favourite of self-described Salafi authors – many of whom predominate within today’s Saudi Arabian religious establishment – is Ahmad bin Taymiyyah. He was sharply critical of Sufism, but he also wrote positively of Sufism and of various Sufi figures, even to the point many consider him to have joined an order himself. That is important to note, particularly when evaluating claims that Saudi Arabia is moving towards a more “moderate” form of Islam. If so, a re-affirmation of the historically central role of Sufism in Islamic thought would have to be made (which is hitherto rather unlikely).
There is another movement that arises in the late-nineteenth century, described by many academics quite separately as “modernist Salafism,” which takes on Sufism in another way. Those ascribing to this movement do not generally accuse Sufis of being polytheists, but are deeply suspicious of its veracity vis-a-vis normative Islamic thought. This very modern movement becomes the philosophical underpinning of many modern Islamist political groups in various forms.
It is important to reiterate, however, that such modernist Salafis do not generally claim that Sufis are polytheists, but that they are nevertheless somewhat aberrant. For that charge alone, they are often critiqued by more mainstream Sunni religious experts.
Contemporary Sufi movements
When we thus consider contemporary Sufi movements, we see a variety of expressions which manifest in public life in particular ways.
For example, despite the common assertion that Sufis do not engage in martial conflicts, the historical record is very different. The examples abound in Islamic history. Just consider the defence of Libya against Italian fascism, led by the Sufis of the Sanusi order; or the repelling of the Crusader armies of King Louis in Egypt, in which Sufis of the Shadhuli order participated; or the campaign against the Russians in the Caucasus by Sufis in the Qadiri and Naqshabandi orders in the nineteenth century; or the Qadiri shaykh, Abd al-Qadir al-Jaza’iri, who fought against the French in Algeria in the same century. The list goes on.
In more recent times, Sufis participated in the defence of their homelands from foreign invasions in the colonial era or Crusader armies, organised against state abuses in apartheid South Africa or under the brutal rule of Bashar al-Assad. Many of them, also, have fought in campaigns against the likes of ISIS. Others preferred to stay out of politics altogether – some decided to be quietist, or even active supporters of status quo autocracies. The latter, nevertheless, also faced opposition from other Sufis, who insisted that propriety suggested either non-action to avoid perpetuating conflict, or alternatively, promoted an activist opposition to injustice.
Be that as it may, the central charge that Sufism is some kind of heterodox sect ought to be considered in light of the medieval statement of Imam Malik, one of the foremost jurists in early Sunni Islamic history:
“He who practices Sufism without learning Sacred Law corrupts his faith, while he who learns Sacred Law without practicing Sufism corrupts himself. Only he who combines the two proves true.”
As we try further to understand the centrality and function that Sufism has within Islam and Muslim communities worldwide, both presently and historically, it would behove us to pay attention to Imam Malik’s maxim. It is therefore hard to see Sufism as an aberration – rather, it’s central to Islam’s normative mainstream.
Dr H.A. Hellyer is senior non-resident fellow at the Atlantic Council and the Royal United Services Institute. He is the author of Muslims of Europe: The “Other” Europeans and A Revolution Undone: Egypt’s Road Beyond Revolt, and co-author of the forthcoming “A Sublime Path: The Way of the Sages of Makkah.”