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Sufism in Islam

Most of what we see on the news today about Islam is the “external
manifestations” of Islam, that is, the actions of Muslims in adherence to its
basic tenets. Less often do we learn about the “internal dimensions” or the
mystical aspect of Islam, as seen in the pacifists and ascetics of the Sufi
tradition. Like other mystical and ascetics traditions, Sufism developed as a
response to a culture of materialism and worldly desire, this time in the
context of an Islamic empire concerned with gaining more land, wealth, and knowledge.
Its influences have followed the development and growth of Islam throughout
history. This mystical trend in Islam, which transcends sects or denominations,
is viewed by some to be a potential cure for extremism. I will examine in this
short work some of the major influences of Sufism, a little bit of its
background, and how it is viewed today. The best place to start in explaining
the phenomena of Sufism is in its name.

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Sufism (Al-Sufiyyah or Al-Tasawwuf) is the personal and mystical
aspects of Islam. It is a scholarly term coined by British orientalists to describe
the parts of Islam that especially appealed to them. As for the Arabic word’s
origin, there are a couple noteworthy connections to be made. “Sufi” as the
nisba adjective for “Suf”, wool, is what they called the early Islamic ascetics
and mystics, who wore wool robes. “Safaa'” or purity is another possible origin.
The purification of the self or of the spiritual heart in remembrance of God is
another aspect of Sufism. Ashab al-Suffa, meaning “fraternity of the bench”
were companions of the Prophet who lived next to his mosque in Medina after the
Emigration and studied from him there. These people were leaders of recitation
and memorization of the Quran. Yet another theory behind its etymological
origins is the Greek word “sophia”, meaning wisdom. Though it is a less plausible
origin, the influence of ancient Greek wisdom is nonetheless apparent in
Sufism. In the Sufi concept of Fanaa’, the passing away of the ego and realization
of fundamental unity with God, we see clear parallels to the Neoplatonic
concept of a cycle of emanation and return. Also concerning this cycle of
return we have the concept of Ihsan, which can be translated as “perfection” or

To understand the place of Sufism within the ideology of Islam, and
the importance they place upon their spiritual practice, one must only read the
Hadith of Gabriel, which serves as a summary of Islam. Muhammad is approached by
a man no one recognizes and who shows no signs of having travelled, who gets
all friendly with him and says to Muhammad “Tell me what is submission.”
Muhammad answers him with the five pillars of action in Islam. The man tells
Muhammad that he is truthful, while Muhammad’s companions are shocked by the nature
of this interaction. The man then says “Tell me what is faith,” and Muhammad
answers with the six foundations of faith. He said, “You have told the truth,”.
He said “tell me about perfection.” And Muhammad said “To worship God as if you
saw him, and if you cannot attain this state of devotion, then you must
consider that he is looking at you.” As opposed to Islam (submission), or “What
one should do”, or Iman (faith) or “why one should act”, Ihsan is concerned
with the believer’s intention, and it is believed that this excellence can only
truly be achieved with the help and guidance of God. This excellence in which
they strive for is at the heart of the Sufi practice. This intense focus on the
spiritual matters and internal development can be seen throughout Sufism’s history,
alongside a competing emphasis on the developing of laws, duties, and rights, which
nonetheless make up that outer dimension of Islam.

Being a personal, and internal matter, the origins of Sufism are
less concrete than those of the Sunni or Shia sects. The turuq (formal schools
or orders) of Sufism were each headed by a mawla (grandmaster) who could trace
a chain of teachers going back to the prophet Muhammad. h1 However, the
turuq themselves were not around at the time of Muhammad. They were established
in the centuries following the death of the Prophet. Still, Sufis insist that the
values and beliefs of such a mystical tradition were present among the Prophet,
his companions, and successors, but the phenomenon did not have a specific
name. As the following generations of Muslims became tempted by worldly
desires, those who remained completely dedicated in the worshipping and remembrance
of God, those who constantly read the Quran and meditated, were given the name
Sufi. Another noteworthy factor in the origins of Sufism is the large number of
Christian ascetics and monks in places such as Syria and Egypt, who were
brought under Muslim rule as Islam expanded into their territoriesh2 . Following the
rapid expansion of Islam, there were also many centuries of interaction with
the Buddhist and Hindu traditions. Outside influences and customs, as well as
the Sufi orders’ openness to adopt and adapt to them, helped them to become a widespread
movement. However, it was not without opposition.

Among the criticisms faced by Sufism is that it is bid’ah, or
impure innovation and that it practices shirk (polytheism). These criticisms
come as a result of Sufi attitudes towards saints and their practice of dhikr
(remembrance) ceremonies. While Christianity has countless saints across
denominations, the majority of Islamic saints, called awliyaa’, were of this
controversial Sufi tradition. Unlike Christianity, Islam does not have the
formal method of canonization for saints, rather, they are chosen by popular
acclaim. The Sufis practices towards their “awliyaa’h3 “, translated
more literally “friend of god”, have brought strong condemnation from puritanical
schools. These schools oppose Sufism and the veneration of saints because there
is no mention of saints in the Quran, and *emphasizes that only God is the wali
of believers and there is no helper but him. * For them, the acknowledgement of
saints, celebrating their birthdays, visiting of their graves, and any sort of
intercession with them, as it is un-Islamic. The other major practice in Sufism
that brings criticism is Dhikr, the practice of Remembrance of God. Though it
can also be done silently and in groups or alone, some types dhikr may include
singing, chanting, dance, music, incense, and entering states of trance. Again,
some Muslims view these as bid’a and a form of prayer not mentioned or condoned
in the Quran. With having brought light onto the opposition of Sufism, let us
talk about the future ahead of it.

Sufism continues to see opposition today from Islamic orthodoxy.
The Wahabi and Salafist schools oppose Sufism, seeing that its actions are
outside of sharia, and that it puts man on the same level of God. They see the
non-Islamic Sufis as well, and hold anger towards them for what they interpret
as an attempt to bypass their prescribed form of salvation based on the Quran
and Sharia. Sufism has been banned in Turkey since 1925, after Sufis resisted the
new secular order. Since the Islamic revolution in 1979, Sufism has been
repressed in Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. More recently in Iran, Sufis have
faced repression, arrests, detention, confiscation of property, destruction of their
places of worship, and disparaging attacks in media and in speeches by Shi’a
clerics. Even more recently, on 24 November 2017, the Jaririya Sufi order-affiliated
mosque in the town of Al-Rawda, east of Bir al-Abed, in Northern Sinai was
attacked by around forty gunmen, with over three hundred deaths and a hundred
injuries, in what was the deadliest attack in Egypt history. The attack was not
claimed by any group, though it was believed to be the work of the Sinai branch
of the so-called Islamic State.





 h2Sheikh Abu Bakr Muhammad Sibahi, Tareekhi Tassawuf aur uss
ka Irtaqa (Historical Tassawuf/Sufism and its Later Evolution) Lahore: Qurtaba
Press, 1966, pp.23-28

 h3John Renard, Friends of God: Islamic Images of Piety, Commitment, and Servanthood (Berkeley:
University of California Press, 2008); Idem., Tales of God Friends: Islamic Hagiography in Translation (Berkeley:
University of California Press, 2009), et passim.

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