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What Is The Relationship Between Sufism And Islam?


Among Sufis there is a debate over whether Sufism is a universal truth at the core of all religions or a thoroughly Islamic movement in-and-of itself. Some Muslims don’t consider Sufism genuinely Islamic, but a forbidden innovation. To settle this debate, the first thing we need to consider is what Islam itself is.


The root of the word Islam s-l-mprimarily means submission and peace. In the context of the Prophet Muhammad’s message, this is submission to God, and by extension, the peace and well-being that comes with it.


Muslims believe that a complete obedience to God’s will results in all the benefits humans are meant to enjoy, in this world and in the next. As Christianity expanded beyond the Near East, several different civilizations became monotheistic. Islam also promotes a universal God, but unlike Christianity, it lacks the notion of original sin and the belief that Jesus saves our souls. In Islamic theology, humans are born with a pure nature (fitra), but as we enter the world lose touch with it (ghaflah). To keep humans on track, God sent messengers to all lands. Twenty five prophets (nabi) are named in the Qur’an, and the Hadith state there have been 124,000 prophets in history.


Islam is founded on the notion of tawhid, meaning that God has no partners, divisions, or offspring. Since God is considered utmost in importance and completely unique in relation to creation, all creatures created by God have equal value and inherent rights. While there is no personal messiah we must worship in order to get into heaven, there are signs to remind us of how God intends for us to live. Since God’s will is all-encompassing, everyone is a Muslim by default, which is why one does not actually convert to Islam as in Christian ritual, with baptism and having one’s soul saved. Rather one accepts Islam. God protects us, as long as we follow the message of the prophets we will reach paradise.


Muslims believe that Muhammad completed a line of divinely appointed prophets called “rasul,” whose message is recorded in holy books. Adam was the first human being and the first Muslim. Abraham (Ibrahim) revealed that one God created the world and cares deeply about its well-being. When nations went astray, Noah’s compassion rescued a world almost completely destroyed by excess. Moses (Musa) fought slavery by renouncing the tyranny of the god-king, and he gave us the Ten Commandments common to Judaism and Christianity. Jesus (Isa) taught selflessness, an unconditional love of God and creation (especially your fellow human beings, regardless of social categories). Muhammad’s  mission was to apply this ethos to his society. Terrified by an encounter with the archangel Gabriel on Mt. Hira, he was told to recite (quran) the sacred speech of God to his tribe, some of which included a warning about the dangers of injustice. These messages continued for the rest of his life for over 20 years, written down and compiled into a book by his followers.


It’s important to understand the religious climate where Islam was born. Most Arabs at the time of Muhammad were polytheists and/or animists who seemed to worship deities mainly for earthly sustenance. It is likely that only a few, if any, Arabs at that time had a coherent concept of the afterlife. There were some Jewish tribes in Medinah, as well as Christians living mainly around the periphery of Arabia, Nestorians and Monophysites considered heretics by the Papal states and the Orthodox Church.  There was also a growing movement of “Hanifs” who only worshipped Allah; at the time, the head of the Arab pantheon of gods and goddesses. Some Hanifs started to view Allah as same God that Jews and Christians worship.


The Prophet Muhammad was likely a Hanif, however, he was not just a contemplative hermit but was active in business affairs. He understood the full significance of Allah in the daily life of Arabs and became a leader by conveying a revelation in the Arabic language. He united Arab monotheists, believing that this was a return to the original path of Abraham before it was split up into the different religions of Judaism and Christianity. For Sufis, the principle of tawhid (unity) is extended to mean that not only is there no god but God, but no reality but God, and thus is more like monism than monotheism.


Historically, there are many possibilities for how Sufism came about, and it’s a difficult thread to untangle. Among Muhammad’s first followers were ascetics who gathered under the front porch of his masjid. Their name may derive from a label given to them by the companions of the Prophet - “ahl as sufa” (those in the canopy). Their name may also derive from “al sifa” (the row) because they would pray in the front row. However, most scholars believer Sufi comes from the Arabic “suf,” meaning wool, as in garments worn in imitation of Christian monks. Other possibilities are the Arabic derivation “safaa” (purity) or the Greek word for wisdom “sophia.”


The first known official Sufi orders arose after a caliphate was established in Baghdad. It’s not difficult to see how Persian religious movements, such as Manichaenism and Ishmaelism, came together to produce Sufi culture. (Ishmaelis are a Shi’a sect. Shiites take their leadership from the Prophet’s cousin and son-in-law Ali, whom they believe was his true successor. They are devoted to a succession of secret Imams they consider divinely appointed). There is a strong link between Sufi cosmology with Gnostic and Neoplatonic philosophy, particularly with the Ishraqi (Illumination) school of Suhrawardi. In addition, Sufis adopted practices from Central Asia and Siberian Shamanism. To me, the most logical explanation is that some Muslims historically absorbed all of these different influences as they were in a process of understanding the Qur’an on a deeper level.


For conventional Muslims, the arkan ud-deen, or five pillars[1] of the faith are sufficient, but for Sufis, Islam is more than a set of rules (fiqh) that govern life. Sufism is the shedding of accumulated layers of impurity from the heart. All adult Muslims who are able to are expected to be married, have children, and be employed. This is true of Sufis as well, though Muslim critics contend that some Sufis are shiftless beggars who contribute nothing to society. However outwardly conventional a Sufi may be, inwardly they are supposed to detach themselves.


Another complaint conservative Muslims have is that Sufi practices violate Islamic tenets. Fundamentalists believe that practices which developed after the original community of Muhammad and his followers are bi’da (innovation) and thus a corruption. While it’s understandable that certain practices that have come under the banner of Sufism are questioned by other Muslims, this is a narrow view of Islam. It can be argued that the best way to say for certain what constitutes an authentic form of Islam is how closely it adheres, not only to the letter of the Qur’an, but to its overall tone and spirit, that is whether it emphasizes purity, mercy, and pious striving.


Sufis argue that the Qur’an itself can support a mystical interpretation. Allah is called both “the manifest” (az-Zahir) and “the hidden” (al-Batin). (Qur’an 57:3)  Muslims are instructed to keep constant prayer. There are five required daily prayers and additional voluntary prayers. In addition to prayer, the Prophet Muhammad practiced night vigils in the cave of Mt. Hira. This meditation is called “muraqaba,”or watching over, a practice which inculcates the Islamic virtue of  “dhikr,” the continual remembrance of Allah. Sufis do this by contemplating the 99 names of Allah used in the Qur’an.


Some scholars speculate that medieval chivalry codes in Europe descended from the habits of Christian soldiers influenced by Sufis they encountered during the Crusades, not to mention the influence of Moorish Spain on the rest of Europe. Whether or not this is true, Sufism was certainly a force that bridged cultural barriers, while its followers tried to maintain purity in worldly affairs. Hopefully, the “Islamic renaissance” that many Muslims today are so fervent about will eventually lead to this spirit of tolerance and sophistication in Muslim countries, not the virulent, anti-liberal radicalism of numerically small, but visible and growing movements currently terrorizing the world.


[1] The five pillars of Islam are: 1.) Testimony of faith (shaha’adah) or simply faith (iman) 2.) Prayer (salat) 3.) Charity (zakat) 4.) Fasting (sawm) and 5.) Pilgrimage (hajj). Sunnis regard these pillars as the complete duty of all Muslims. While shiites practice additional forms of worship, the five pillars are accepted by all major sects.