Sufism – The Misunderstood Islam: By Aadil Farook
Sufism – The Misunderstood Islam: By Aadil Farook
One late night, Allama Iqbal called his faithful servant, Ali Baqsh. When Ali entered Iqbal’s room, he saw a buzurg (saintly man) with a very enlightened face sitting on a chair while Iqbal lie at his feet pressing his legs. He was very surprised to see this. Iqbal asked him to bring drinks from the market. Although surprised, considering the late hours, Ali went out nonetheless. Nearby, he saw another buzurg with a small shop. He got drinks from him but when he offered him money, the buzurg declined saying it was between him and Iqbal. After sometime, Iqbal called Ali again and asked him to take the buzurg outside and see him off. He went out with the buzurg but after a while, the buzurg suddenly disappeared. When he looked across, the shop had vanished as well. He was totally shocked and asked Iqbal about it. Iqbal requested him to not ask about it but he kept on asking with utmost curiosity. On his sheer insistence, Iqbal told him to never disclose it and said, “the buzurg in my room was Moinuddin Chishti and the one in the shop was Ali Hajweri”.
This incident took place about 850 years after Hajweri’s death and nearly 700 years after Chishti’s death. Muhammad Munawar Mirza, a prominent scholar of Iqbal Studies, is reported to have narrated this incident and was confirmed by Iqbal’s son, Javed as well. It happened during the later years of Iqbal’s life when the philosopher-poet had turned into a Sufi. To an ordinary man, such things are impossible to believe in but in the world of Tasawwuf, Mysticism and Sufism, it is nothing unusual.
There are four kinds of opinions about Sufism. The true Sufis claim it as the real Islam. The literalists shun it as a mixture of biddah, kufr and shirk. The pseudo-Sufis “follow” it without knowing anything about its reality. The rationalists deem it only for those who are superstitious, backwards and lack brains. Let us discuss all four with slight details.
The Sufis say that Islam is empty without Ihsan which is worshipping as if one sees God. They say that religion is way beyond acts with a ritualistic and heartless attitude devoid of any concentration. They say that Sufism is a higher dimension of Islam and the perfection of Iman. They aim far above the minimum requirements for salvation. Their focus is not just the quantity but the quality of deeds. They claim Sufism as the spirituality of Islam. Furthermore, they claim some portion of Sufism as a hidden Islam graspable only to them, not even to ordinary scholars let alone to laymen.
The literalists say that Sufism has nothing to do with Quran & Sunnah. They say that whatever Sufis say and do is either different or contradictory to what has been revealed to and practiced by the holy prophet. They say that Shariah is one for all without any distinction between the awaam (common man) and the khawaas (elite). They say that the holy prophet and his companions were the true elites and they didn’t practice Sufism.
The pseudo (fake) Sufis are the liberals who find the conventional, orthodox and traditional Islam as dry, boring and tough not knowing that it is a compulsory pre-requisite to Sufism. They take only the outer form of some aspects of Sufism without even a hint to their inner reality. For example, they are delighted with the artistic aspects of Sufism and find a way to follow their nafs under the guise of Sufi Art not knowing that before creating Sufi Art, one has to become a Sufi which is a lifetime struggle against nafs. Women who do not want to cover themselves as ordered by God, and, men who do not want to follow the Sunnah in appearance consider themselves as “Sufis”. The fact that Sufism stresses on the inner aspects does not mean that the outer is irrelevant; what it teaches is that the outer has to be combined with the inner. In the case of men, since beard and Islamic attire are both not compulsory, one may become a Sufi without Sufi appearance as an exception like Iqbal, but it is very rare. However, in the case of women, since the attire is a compulsion, it is impossible to be a Sufi without it.
The rationalists deny Sufi knowledge because according to them it has nothing to do with reason, logic and proof. This category has similarities as well as differences with the literalists. The difference is that where the later implies revelation as proof, these imply rationality or empirical information as proof. The similarity is that both deny religious experience and intuition as sources of knowledge because for them there are no higher levels of human consciousness than their own. Thus where one consists of those who are modernists to the bones, the other carries the germs of modernism.
Sufism, if properly understood, is the heart of Islam and the essence of deen. It comprises of tazkia-e-nafs (purification of soul) and tasfia-e-qalb (purification of heart). It involves the diminishing of ego, the dominance over animal instincts, abstinence from vain or worldly desires and the freeing of one’s heart from the love of all but God. The sole aim is an intimate relationship with Allah by self-negation.
No discourse on Sufism is worthy without a discussion on qalb (human heart). The entire Quran is full of verses which say that people who deny the truth have hearts with blameworthy traits. The sayings of holy prophet also convey the same theme. The Sufis claim that just as the denial of truth is linked to hearts that are diseased or hardened or blackened, the comprehension of truth to the extent of an almost direct “vision” of God is linked with the purity of heart. This fact is proved by prophet’s experience of miraaj. Although no heart can be purer than his heart but since this experience was of the highest order unmatched by Sufis, even his heart had to be washed thrice. Moreover, when his chest was ripped apart in childhood, even then his heart was washed.
The Sufis insist on nothing more than the act of zikr (remembrance of God) as it is the most supreme cleanser of hearts. However zikr has a much broader and deeper meaning in Sufism. It is not the repetition of a mere tongue-recital of divine names and words as non-Sufis do with the help of beads (tasbi). In general, it is a heartfelt awareness of Allah irrespective of whatever actions are on the limbs. A specific practice to develop this state is muraaqba (concentration) in which they do zikr in isolation in such a way that the tongue, heart and mind all converge on celestial verses while being forgetful of everything other than Allah. Both Quran and hadith have claimed zikr (whether general or specific) as among the most virtuous deeds.
The difference between calculating the height of Mount Everest and climbing it is not more than that between the theoretical conceptualization of and practical adherence to religion. That is why the main theme of Sufis is ishq-e-ilahi (love for Allah) as it is love that softens hearts and inspires men to reach heights, unmatched. Hence they differ from philosophers, theologians and jurists of religion who don’t go beyond mental comprehension. Instead of trying to understand God by reading or thinking, they believe in finding Him. Yet, due to the depth of Sufi thought, it is inevitable that some of the greatest intellectual contributions to both philosophy and literature came from Sufis.
A strong condemnation of Sufism is that since it is about renunciation and other-worldliness, if it is practiced, it will further stagnate the progress of ummah which is the last thing needed. This misconception is due to the lack of understanding of the word dunya in Islamic dictionary. Dunya, which is worthless in the eyes of God, is not attaining a high rank in the society itself but attaining it either for egoistic reasons or love of material things. If the same high rank is attained for a righteous cause with a godly intention, it is deen and not dunya. This proves we need Sufism all the more for two reasons. Firstly, since a Sufi cannot attain status through the wrong means, he has to rely on his brilliance alone and thus will be more competent. Secondly, if there will be Sufis at the top of society, there will be no dirty politics because they would not be sitting on high ranks for selfish motives. Thus Sufism has nothing to do with going to a forest and sitting under a tree doing zikr. Zikr is free from the limitations of place and time.
So far we have discussed aspects of Sufism which even its greatest opponents can only admire. What most don’t realize is that Sufism didn’t start with those categorized under the word, “Sufi”. All those since Adam who lived exclusively for God whether they were prophets or others were Sufis. Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) himself was the biggest ever Sufi and his companions were also true Sufis irrespective of when this word was introduced in any language. It was for a reason that Hazrat Ali Hajweri said that once there used to be Sufis but the name of Sufism was not there; now there are only Sufi terminologies but there are no Sufis left. However, there are two things that need to be understood at all costs. Firstly, someone who rejects all aspects of Sufism may enter the lowest ranks in paradise but cannot become a momin at all. Secondly, a momin who is considered as a non-Sufi is actually a semi-Sufi because he cannot become a momin without following a major portion of Sufism even if he rejects the minor portion.
However, Sufism is not as simple as we have disclosed so far. Its history is full of controversial statements and actions. Many Sufis have been labeled as either heretics or crazy. Few were persecuted or forced to leave their towns. Most were either never understood or many years after their deaths. The first criticism against Sufis is their distinction in knowledge between the common men and the spiritually elite ones. The question is when Islam is the same for everyone, who put this distinction? The holy prophet himself created this distinction. Hazrat Abu Hurairah narrates a hadith: “God gave me two types of knowledge. One, I have transferred to you. The other, had I transferred, people would have cut down my throat”. When the purpose of holy prophet’s life was to spread knowledge, why would he say such a thing had there been no distinction? Furthermore, another hadith is, “We, the assemblies of the prophets have been commanded to address men in proportion to their intellects”. It proves that prophets do not disclose everything to laymen.
The second criticism raised against Sufis is about their claim that there are hidden and higher dimensions to meanings of Quranic verses. Hazrat Ali narrates a hadith, “every verse of the Qur’an has four layers of meaning: an exoteric sense (zahir), an inner sense (batin), a limit (hadd), and a beware point (matla‘)”. It was for a reason that Al-Ghazali claimed four levels of Tauheed. He said that the first and lowest is the literal text of Surah Ikhlaas which is for ordinary men. The second is for the khawaas (elite). The third is for the elite among the elite. About the fourth, he said that had he disclosed, people would call him a kafir. Here, we cannot help but mention a very subtle aspect of a Quranic verse [Yousaf Ali 3:7]. “In it are verses basic (of established meaning); they are the foundations of the Book: others are allegorical…..but no one knows its hidden meanings except God. And those who are firmly grounded in knowledge…..none will grasp the Message except men of understanding”. Notice that the full stop between the bolded lines is put by the translator and is obviously not in the original Arabic text, without which it would be read: “no one knows its hidden meaning except God and those who are firmly grounded in knowledge”.
Religious knowledge is divided into two: evidence-based and experience-based; the earlier means the literal text of Quran and hadith; the later implies the one earned by actually walking on the path taught by the earlier and thus a more profound understanding of the earlier. The literalists reject the later one due to their shallowness, superficiality and short-sightedness. Hence, although they are fully qualified for eternal salvation, they deprive themselves of an immense treasure of knowledge. The Sufis believe in learning by doing it, a rule people otherwise follow in all walks of life e.g a doctor who has not practiced medicine or treated patients will never grasp the expertise through reading books alone.
In my last post I discussed intuition as a source of intelligence. The Sufis take this concept to another level. They claim intuition (ilhaam) with a pure heart as a source of higher knowledge beyond sense and reason. It is below only the prophetic revelation in the hierarchy of God-man communication. Since non-Sufis cannot see anything in between revelation and reason, they are divided into 2 categories – the ordinary religious man deems Sufis as deviants as he sees only revelation, whereas the modern rationalist deems them senseless as he sees only reason. Both are wrong as they don’t see anything in between. This intuitive aspect allows Sufis to have access to those channels of truth which non-Sufis don’t have and thus are deemed as crazy.
Now we will discuss the most “dangerous” part of Sufism – the things said by Sufis which seem totally outside the bounds of Shariah. Human language is lost for words to describe a state of spiritual witnessing. Few moments of mystical experience yield more knowledge than a thousand books. During such experiences, the levels of human consciousness reach far beyond a normal man. Thus mystics have access to those channels of truth which normal people cannot even think about. Here we discover another reason why prophets are greater than the Sufis. Both of them know and experience way beyond a common man but where the prophet’s superior wisdom doesn’t let him disclose everything, the childish ecstasy of a Sufi turns him vocal and thus leads to trouble among novices. That is why Sufis call themselves as intoxicated.
Let us consider the most extreme case of the great Mansur Al-Hallaj who uttered probably the most controversial words in the history of Sufism, “I am the Truth”. If his words are taken literally, how can a non-Sufi accept it? It took another great Sufi, Rumi, to explain it three centuries later after experiencing the same level of proximity to God. As a person travels the path of Sufism, his own “I” (as standing in opposition to Him) gradually gets diminished as it continues to attain unification with “He”. There comes a point when the mystic doesn’t even possess an individual “I”. When Hallaj said “I”, since his own “I” had diminished in the love of “He”, he meant “He is the Truth” with the highest possible conviction. Such apparent contradictions arise due to the fact that a Sufi has two centers of consciousness – human and divine. Outside his state, he speaks from the earlier one; during his state he speaks from the later one.
Some Sufis recognize two deep layers within qalb. The first is called ruh, the spirit and the second which lies even deeper is called sirr, the secret. The sirr is the deepest layer of consciousness and is infact “beyond consciousnesses”. It is the sacred core of the soul where the divine and the human become united, unified and fused. In other words, it is in this dimension of the soul that the “uniomystica” is realized. The ego-consciousness which is actualized in this dimension and which naturally is the highest form of ego-consciousness in Sufism is no longer the consciousness of the mystic himself. It is rather the consciousness of the divine I speaking through him.
Ibn-al-Arabi’s Wahdat-ul-Wajood (Unity of Being) is another serious example. It implied that God alone has existence, and, was misunderstood as Pantheism by the Western Orientalist, Nicholson. It took someone as great as Shah Wali Ullah to admit that far from being false, it was the ultimate realization of Tawheed on a most superior level. Amazingly, Quantum physics, the enemy within secular science, has recently proved exactly the same thing. We live in a spiritual (rather than material) universe. There is a universal consciousness right from an atom to a human being. There is no dead matter. The intensity of this universal soul differs among creations and thus creates the hierarchy from matter to plants to animals to humans. The scientific explanation is not part of this topic but it proves that both extremes were wrong – the dualism of Creator-creation as well as that everything is God – the right view is that “in everything there is God”. Reading scientific proof of Wahdat-ul-Wajood sounds almost unthinkable but the relationship between a high intuition and ordinary rational intellect was best expressed by Iqbal:
“Where thought grasps Reality piecemeal, intuition grasps it in its wholeness. One fixes its gaze on the temporal aspect of Reality; the other on the eternal. One slowly traverses, specifies and closes up the various regions of the whole for exclusive observation; the other is present enjoyment of the whole of Reality”.
Since Thought (brain) will grasp that, much later, which a high Intuition (heart) grasped much earlier, it took 1000 years for scientists to understand that which a mystic understood in a moment. The incommunicability of a mystical state, in the form of an argument, between the one undergone and the one challenging its authenticity raises serious doubts. It is because intuitive knowledge, despite being valid, is unverifiable. However, as discussed earlier, it is even verifiable for those who reach that spiritual level. The great Rumi once said that “whatever exists in the unseen realm has its roots in the seen realm; the forms may change but the essence remains the same”. The multiplicity of different beings that we observe in the universe with the physical eyes is reduced to unity when witnessed with the eye of heart. Thus the mystic, in that state, “sees” or rather experiences nothing but one being in the form of a light (nur) (or some other inexpressible entity) everywhere.
Modern man finds such subjective experiences impossible to believe in. How can we rely in matters of knowledge on something as unreliable as experience of others? What about History? Why, then, does he believe in Aristotle or Plato? Has he himself seen, heard or touched them? The whole recorded history is nothing but an account of other’s experiences. “If a man could say nothing but what he can prove, history could not have been written” – Michael Jackson. Not only this but when we closely study the lives of these Sufis, their truthfulness even in ordinary matters of life was undeniable let alone in a matter as big as the experience of God.
A very strong criticism against Sufism is its extremeness and lack of balance. The Urdu word Ishq, which has no equivalent in its English translation “love”, does true justice to Sufism. Ishq itself turns something finite into infinite but when the subject of that ishq is Himself Infinite, then how can there be balance in it? The holy prophet, again, due to his superiority above Sufis could combine the mutually exclusive combination of Ishq and moderation; otherwise, there is no greatness without a touch of madness. A Sufi sees neither heaven nor hell but only his Beloved. For him, deeds done for the fear of a fire or want of a garden is a trade, not worship.
The various orders (tariqah/silsila) of Tasawwuf have often been criticized as they involve a kind of exaggerated relationship between a Shaikh (master) and a mureed (disciple) in which the later “blindly follows” the earlier by a “slavish imitation”. Even religious people, influenced by contemporary thought, criticize it. It is true that Islam is submission to God and not to someone else but before that one has to learn submission itself and it is not an easy or an overnight process at all as it is harsh on the nafs. The purpose behind such a relationship is learning the “art of submission” which once learned makes following Islam in totality easy on the nafs. Otherwise a genuine Shaikh never goes against Quran and Sunnah in both speech and action.
Secondly, since the Shaikh has walked the path, he knows exactly all the traps and webs of both Satan and nafs and how to avoid and conquer them as well. Thus he makes the aspirant’s journey much easier. The traveler’s spiritual progress is accelerated as a result. Those who do not follow anyone remain stagnant in tarbiat (training of nafs) and islah (self-rectification). When a 1000 things told by a Shaikh are followed, since he is only human, there maybe 10 wrong things as well but who would deprive himself of the benefit of the other 990?
“Every Sufi order is descended from the Prophet. The rite of initiation (bait) is a crucial moment in the history of Islam when, sitting beneath a tree, he called on his Companions to pledge their allegiance to him over and above the pledge they made at their entry into Islam. The prototype of the pact between Master and disciple is mentioned in the Quran[XLVIII:18]: God was well pleased with the believers when they pledged allegiance unto thee beneath the tree. He knew what was in their hearts and sent down the Spirit of Peace upon them and hath rewarded them with a near victory”.
Islamic Education, Culture and Civilization is incomplete without the concept of adab. One may explain everything about Islam in the most convincing manner but he cannot become a scholar unless he has adab for those above him in knowledge, taqwa or experience. Today we come across students and professors of Islamic studies who reject Sufism simply because they cannot understand it. Rather than considering their own lowliness, they reject something followed by the greatest Muslims in history, both qualitatively and quantitatively. The only explanation behind this severe lack of adab is arrogance.
This raises a very serious question. Is there anyone other than the holy prophet who was so pious or knowledgeable that he was infallible? No. Ghazali or Ibn-al-Arabi or Rumi or even the Sahaba (Companions) didn’t have that right at all. But the point that modernists miss is that only those who themselves reach that or near that level have the right to refute them, not us. The hierarchy among scholars cannot be broken; one cannot jump without crossing the intermediate levels. When someone of the caliber of Ibn-e-Taimiyah criticizes Sufism, then it is intellectual difference worthy of respect. But people like us have no choice but to be silent when we don’t understand a Sufi or find him contradictory to Quran due to our own low understanding of Quran.
What it is about Sufis that they deserve knowledge and experiences of a different level altogether? Here, they can be clearly differentiated from other religious people. Religious people may follow all the compulsory acts and abstain from all prohibited acts but when it comes to negating oneself, no one tolerates anything that hurts his pride among others. There is no veil between man and God thicker and most hard to lift than his own ego. No one wants to be considered inferior at any cost and would do anything to avoid such an opinion among peers. What makes Sufis the greatest after the prophets is their willingness to suffer humiliation for God because of their ishq (intense love) for Him. They, because of their humbleness, attain indifference to how much people look down upon them. Their selflessness is their highest virtue and their key to unlock the Divine mysteries kept hidden from everyone else.
Article produced with permission and compliments of our dear friend Aadil Farook. Also published at his personal website, www.aadilfarook.com.