Sufism …. an Obligation or a Sleight of Hand ?

Sawt ul-Umma, Issue 101
November, 4, 2002

Who can hold the desert to account for the shimmering strip of water on the horizon? Who can hold the poor man to account for dreaming of riches, if only for a few minutes? Who can hold the saints (awliya) the chosen ones and the pious to account when they are constantly absorbed in the invocation of Allah’s Name (dhikr Allah)?

Abu Saied Al Khodary (r.a.a.) narrated that the Messenger of Allah (s.a.a.w.s) was asked: Which of Allah’s servants will be of the highest degree in the eyes of Allah on the Day of Judgment? He (Allah’s Messenger) said: those men and women who frequently invoke Allah’s Name. Then I asked:  O Messenger of Allah, even more than the one who fights in the way of Allah? Allah’s Messenger replied: Even if he strikes the infidels and the non-believers with his sword until it breaks and is stained in blood, those who invoke Allah’s Name are still of a higher degree.
(Al-Tirmidhy, Vol 5 pp. 428, No 3376)

It is with dhikr Allah they face the contortions, paper masks and primitive jungle drums around them. They are sufis (sufiyun). They journey through the very veins and arteries of faith, their hearts tranquil and perfumed with the rarest saffron. That is the truth. And yet sufism is almost universally misunderstood by muslims. More often than not sufism is seen by them as some kind of affliction, a mental disorder, a withdrawal from the mainstream of life, a refusal to take responsibility or a curtailing of an individual’s freedom. Moreover a person who is smartly dressed, active, thinks, creates and innovates cannot possibly be a sufi because he does not accord with the image people have of a sufi as disheveled, slovenly, dirty, lazy, unaware of what is happening around him  – in short a madman. As always, it will help us to put things into proper perspective if we define what we are talking about. Is sufism a religious school of thought? Is it something different from mainstream religion? Is it a nonsensical idea held by simple minded people?

There are some who say the Arabic word sufi is derived from the Greek word ‘sophia’   meaning ‘wisdom’. One might ask why we should be looking for the source of an Arabic word in a language other than Arabic? Others say sufi is derived from the Arabic word suf meaning wool, a reference to the coarse woolen garb said to have been worn by early sufis. It was once said that if this were true then sheep would have to be counted among the greatest of all sufis! Some say sufis derive their name from ‘the people of the bench’ (ahl as-suffa) a small group of the prophet’s companions who devoted themselves to memorizing the Quran and to whom others donated food and clothing. They lived in a time other than the one in which we live and this explanation is also unconvincing

What is more convincing and more logical is that the Arabic word sufi is not actually a name or a noun but the passive form of the past tense of the verb ‘to purify’. The phrase sufyia al-ragul means ‘the man was chosen and purified’. The Quran says: ‘O Miriam, Allah chose you, purified you, and chose you above all other women’ (Al-Imran: 42). Tasfiya or being ‘purified’ is the first phase in a process leading to as-safa or ‘purification’ which is evidence of al-mosafa or ‘emptying’ which is al-mokashafa or ‘revealing what is hidden’ Allah chose Miriam. He cleansed her. He then ‘purified’ her by revealing to her what was hidden

What is often more important than the name or the definition is what lies behind it…..the essence. What should we call a man who makes the testimony of faith (ash-shahada) prays, gives charity, fasts in the month of Ramadan and performs the pilgrimage to Mecca? We can call him what we want but whatever name we give him, this will not in any way change his being or essence as a muslim, and so too, the believer. A muslim is required to read the Quran even if it’s only once in his entire life and to carry out what the Quran tells him to do. Every time he prays it’s as if he is reading the verse ‘stand to pray’ (Al-Baqara: 43, 48 & 110).  Praying is better than reading the verse ‘stand to pray’ a thousand times and not praying. Fasting is a thousand times better than reading the verse ‘and whoever is present during the month should fast’ (Al-Baqara: 185) and not fasting. Islam is a religion of deeds not words. The Quran says: ‘And say: Work! Allah, His Messenger and the believers will see your work’ (At-Tawba: 105). This is the faith of ordinary muslims who carry out their religious duties without considering the benefits. If an ordinary muslim were to be asked why he fasts, he will say he fasts because that’s what the Quran tells him to do. He doesn’t fast because some well-intentioned doctors and philosophers advise that fasting builds the character or is good for the circulation. Ordinary muslims are not swayed one way or the other by any of this. They simply obey Allah’s commands.

While all muslims agree they are required to carry out the obligatory acts of worship, there is one kind of worship about which there is unfortunately considerable disagreement. This is dhikr Allah which is often translated as ‘remembrance of Allah’. Some say all forms of worship are a form of ‘remembrance’. Sufis says that, while this may be true, we are also required to do dhikr which is a separate form of worship.

Abi Darda narrated that the prophet (s.a.a.w.s) said: Should I tell you what are the best and most pure of your deeds in the eyes of your Lord and the highest in your degrees and better for you than giving away gold and wealth and to meet with your enemies to strike their necks and they strike yours? They said: What is that Messenger of Allah? He said: Dhikr Allah (Al Mustadrik a’la Al Sahiheiyin, Part 1, Page 673 No. 1825). Mua’z ibn Jabal said: ‘A man would not do a deed that better protects him from Allah’s hellfire other than Dhikr Allah’

Those who have a superficial understanding say that normal acts of worship include dhikr, Those who are more precise and completely fulfill their obligations do not leave any order of Allah and His Messenger without fulfilling it. This is because they believe there is no repetition (in the Quran) without good reason. They do not acknowledge that two different words can have the same meaning.

Dhikr in the opinion of the first group is included in every form of worship. This is correct. It is like the water contained in food and drink. The Quran says: ‘Eat and drink’ (Al-Haq-qa: 24, Al-Mursalat: 43). Why does it say ‘drink’? Is the water present in food not sufficient? The answer is that water as water and not a constituent of food has a separate and important function. Allah tells muslims to pray, fast, give charity, perform pilgrimage, spread peace, be compassionate to orphans and to ‘remember’ Allah. No single form of worship removes the requirement to do the rest. They should all be carried out. It’s very strange that those who stubbornly refuse to accept dhikr Allah as a form of worship in itself are the first ones to accuse those who do of being outside the mainstream of religion and not the opposite. While one would expect the negligent to be trying to emulate those who fulfill their religious duties, they try to stop them! It’s as if they are saying: ‘Be negligent like us!’

It’s also strange how those same people have developed and propagated such a distorted image of the sufi as disheveled, lazy, ignorant and homeless to the extent that were someone intelligent and smartly dressed to tell them he was a sufi, they wouldn’t believe him. They would tell him: sufis are not supposed to be like that! The image has become so ingrained it has become a principle and one they teach to others.

Sayedena Abul-Hassan Al-Shazli (r.a.a) was well known for riding the finest horses and wearing the finest robes. One day he came across a man wearing coarse sackcloth. Although the man didn’t know him, he asked him: ‘Do you agree fine clothes and a fine appearance do not make a sufi?’ What the man meant to say in a roundabout way was that there was nothing of the sufi in Sayedena Abul-Hassan Al-Shazli (r.a.a). The man then answered himself by saying: ‘If I was a sufi I would wear what I’m wearing and I would abstain from all worldly pleasures.’ At this point Al-Shazli spoke. ‘Abstinence is not what you think it to be. It is to own something and then to abstain from it. It’s to feel you do not own what’s in your hand. How much of the mosquito’s wing (an allusion to worldly things) do you own so you can abstain from it? If you were to own the whole world it’s of less consequence than a mosquito’s wing. If it were to be equal to a mosquito’s wing then Allah would not give a mouthful of water to drink to those who deny Him. The appearance of the slave speaks of the wealth of his master. My appearance says my Lord is wealthy and generous. Allah likes to see the effect of His gifts on His slave. Your appearance says your Lord is poor and that He who created you cannot clothe you. Now you know the meaning of abstinence be careful. If you own, then you do not abstain but you cannot abstain from what you don’t own.’

Sufism is built on the invocation of Allah’s Name (dhikr Allah) and ‘the prayer for the prophet’ (al-sala al al-nabi) Ibn Massaoud narrated that Allah’s Messenger (s.a.a.w.s) said: Those who are most deserving of me on the Day of Judgment are those who pray for me most (Kitab Shoab Al Iman Part 2 Page 212 No. 1563)

In addition there is the love of the prophet’s family (ahl al bayt) about whom Al-Imam Al-Shafe’i (r.a,a.) wrote: ‘O family of Allah’s Messenger, Allah in the Quran has made loving you an obligation.’ Elsewhere he wrote: ‘Whoever does not pray for you his prayers are void’ This is the sufism of Al-Shafeءi, the founder of one of the four schools of sharia or religious law who replied to those who accused the sufis of ‘innovation in religion’ (bida’a) by writing: ‘If my love for the prophet’s family is innovation then this innovation should suffice me for my entire life. Accused of being one of the ‘Lost’ or ‘Rejected’ as they were called at that time, Sayedi Ahmed Al-Rifaءi (r.a.a.) echoed Al-Shafeءi’s sentiment when he said ‘If love of the prophet’s family is apostasy (Rafdan)) then let all humans and jinn know I am an apostate

Al Abbas Ibn Abd Al Mutalib (r.a,a.) said: We used to see members of Quraysh when they were talking. Then they would stop talking upon seeing us. We mentioned this to Allah’s Messenger (s.a.a.w.s) who said: ‘ What about those who talk and when they see one of my family they stop talking. By Allah, faith would not enter the heart of a man unless he loves them for Allah’s sake and for their relationship to me (Sunan Ibn Maja, Part 1, Page 50, No. 140)

Love of the prophet’s family brings believers closer to the principles of religion. It doesn’t draw them away.

Sufism is built on the invocation of Allah’s Name (dhikr Allah ) the prayer for the prophet (as-Sala ءala an-Nabi) and love of the prophet’s family all of which are obligatory on believers even if they don’t call themselves sufis. Sufism is love. To love is to follow. To follow is not to worship but to obey. To love is not to worship but the basis on which faith is built. The Quran says: ‘Whoever among you turns his back on his religion, Allah will bring a people whom He loves and who love Him.’ (Al-Maida: 54).  It is only ignorance and misunderstanding that has led people to attack sufis and to denounce what they do as innovation.

There are many sufi ‘ways’ (turuq sufiya)  The difference between them is a difference of approach not of substance. They are different expressions of love and methods of learning. These differences are positive not negative. Because the prevailing image of sufis is so ingrained in peoples’ minds, it comes as a shock to them when they discover an innovative scientist or well-known politician doctor or artist is a sufi. However, while the majority of sufis in Egypt, for example, hold university and college degrees and excel in their chosen fields, it cannot be denied there are also pretenders and con-artists who call themselves sufis. But is this sufism? If some muslims have bad traits, are those traits to be attributed to Islam? There are criminals who call themselves muslims but is this Islam?

The prophet did not deny there were those among his people who cheated. He was walking through a market one day and stopped to look at some food for sale. Touching it, his hand felt wet and he said: ‘Whoever cheats us is not of us.’ Abu Huraira (r.a.a) narrated that Allah’s Messenger (s.a.a.w.s) said ‘ Whoever carries weapons against us is not one of us and whoever cheats us is not one of us (Sahih Muslim Part 1, Page 99-101 No. 164). He did not say ‘Whoever cheats us is not among us’ because there are those who cheat among them. However, the moment such a person cheats us they are not ‘one of us. The presence of an individual who does wrong among a group does not allow us to label the group with the wrongdoing of that individual.

Sufism is a large book. We have only read the first line. We have taken only the first step. We have breathed in only the first dew drops in the dawn of love and faith and the rest will follow with Allah’s permission and his provision.

Only Allah preserves from error and gives strength to do right.