A lot has been said about Sufism, the English rendering of Arabic Tasawwuf, and many deviated from truth in judging it, especially those who don’t know much about the Sufi doctrine, yet dared to criticize it harshly, going so far as to label it a Bidaah, a term used in referring to any un-Islamic practice that is being faultily linked to the religion of Islam.
It therefore seems better to understand Sufism before issuing fictitious and beguiling accusations against the practice. But before listing the characteristics of the Sufi way of thinking, its pros and cons and what’s been said about it, one essential fact should be kept in mind- that all strands of thought, tradition, and belief that make up the Islamic religion, should be regarded with equal respect.
Sufism, usually referred to by scholars as the mystical branch of Islam, is not a cult or a sect that is separable from Islam as some claim, but it’s a practice of devotion linked to one’s (a Muslim’s) pursuit of the Truth, the path to God through love, contemplation, and meditation. A Sufi’s heart is always occupied with his creator, Allah, and this what the Almighty refers to as “Ihsan”.
Striving to attain this goal, i.e. reaching a particular closeness to the Almighty, puts a Sufi in a constant state of inner peace and harmony with his spiritual being.
A lot of those who feel imprisoned in the cage of materialism of modern life and are curious to know what it really means to have inner peace and enjoy ultimate state of spiritual tranquility would like to gain insight into what the Sufi path entails.
The most commonly used explanation is that the term is derived from the word Suf, or wool in Arabic, referring to the primitive material of robes early Muslim ascetics used to wear, an emphasis on the Sufi followers’ rejection of the growing materialism of life and devotion to a mystic life and asceticism.
Other scholars, in explaining Sufism, suggested that the word originated for the Arabic word Safa, stressing the process of spiritual purification and purgation of heart and soul a Sufi experiences.
There’s yet a third explanation to the term Sufism, offered by Al-Biruni, a 10th century Persian Muslim scientist, physicist, astronomer, chemist, historian, geographer, mathematician, and philosopher, who linked the word “Sufeya” to Sophia, or “wisdom” in Greek – But this explanation was refuted by the vast majority of present Sufi scholars.
Sufism first sprang to life in a place near Iraq. Almost all traditional Sufi scholars or teachers trace their schools and so-called chains of transmission back to our beloved Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) through Imam Ali Ibn Abi Talib, his cousin and son-in-law, but there’s one Sufi school, named Naqshbandi that traces its origin to Abu Bakr Al Siddiq. Later on, as it is commonly believed, the practice of Tasawwof, quickly spread throughout different parts of the Arab region, including countries that had been ruled by the Byzantines.
Also some scholars explained that “Ahl Al Suffa” are originally some of the companions of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) who spent much of their time praying to Allah, and engaging in nightly vigils.
But we can’t discuss Sufism without referring to the prominent Muslim theologian and thinker Abu Hamid Al Ghazaly, known for his major and significant contribution to the development of the Sufi school. The main concept prevailing in Al Ghazali’s way of thinking and works is that, as mentioned in Tahafut al-Falasifah, “Every piece of knowledge, whether ancient of modern, is really a corroboration of the faith in God and in the Last Day. The conflict between faith and knowledge is related only to the details superadded to these two fundamental principles.”
Actually I think the best and the most vivid explanation of the Sufi path is the famous Hadith by Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) that has been related by Imam Bukhari, Ahmad Ibn Hanbal, Al Baihaqi, among others.
According to the Hadith:
Allah Most High says; “he who is hostile to a friend of Mine I declare war against. My slave approaches Me with nothing more beloved to Me than what I have made obligatory upon him, and My slave keeps drawing nearer to Me with voluntary works until I love him. And when I love him, I am his hearing with which he hears, his sight with which he sees, his hand with which he seizes, and his foot with which he walks. If he asks me, I will surely give to him, and if he seeks refuge in Me, I will surely protect him. I do not hesitate to do anything that I am going to do more than My hesitation at taking the soul of a believer who does not want to die, for I dislike displeasing him”.
Responding to many of the faulty views about Sufism, Sheikh Yusuf Al-Qaradawi, the prominent Sunni scholar and preacher, presented a inclusive analysis of the Sufi path, explaining Islam’s stance from the practice to end much of the controversy that has long been going about it.
About Sufism, the eminent Imam was once quoted by Islamonline.net as saying:
“People tend to practice Sufism as a means of rescuing themselves from the throes of materialism that has taken its toll on them, thanks to the abundance of property and economic boom in which people found themselves. All this has made them enslaved by life’s luxuries in addition to being governed by baseless ideologies. Thus, religious beliefs have been attributed to the dictates of philosophy and theology, and this led to frenzied argument that completely made people neglect spiritual aspects of life. Meanwhile, those who engaged themselves in Islamic jurisprudence failed to go deeper in it; instead of trying to understand the spiritual aspect of worship, they merely stuck to its physical aspects. This gave birth to a religious group known as Sufis who came to fill the gap left by theologians and jurists; as I’ve just said, the latter failed to transform people spiritually.”
However, corruption crept into some of the Modern Sufi schools as some of the Sufi Masters elevated themselves to the state of Gods and Saints, inventing some ideas and practices that have no basis in Islam.
By and large, the Sufi path should be valued and respected as an Islamic way of thinking and school, yet it should be practiced only within the framework of Islamic theology and tradition, avoiding much of the controversial rituals that have been introduced by some of the modern schools of Sufism, (as mentioned earlier), as well as rejecting whatever that goes against the Islamic teachings and the Prophet’s Sunnah.