Monday, 11 April 2011

Sufism and its Critics

Muhammad Maroof Shah

It is often said by critics that Sufism contravenes the Quran and the Sunna. But what constitutes the perspective of the Quran and the Sunna? In answering this question we are inevitably led to consideration of Sufism as the perspective of the Quran and the Sunna. You can’t judge higher (metaphysical, esoteric, universal, integral, supraindividual, supraformal, comprehensive, unconditioned perspective or dimension of the Quran) thing by the lower one (exoteric, theological, juristic, anthropomorphic, individual, limiting, formal, sentiment affected). Subjecting the essence of Sufism to exoteric critiques is an exercise in reductionist vein and there can’t be a greater heresy than this. Those who claim to know a priori the position or perspective of Islam and in light of that proceed to judge Sufism or traditional metaphysics are unwittingly applying this reductionism. A critic must first establish his credentials and then alone he will be heard. A blind man is no judge of colours. One recalls Rumi’s rebuttal of exotericist (zahir parast) authorities ‘I have taken the essence of the Quran and left bones for them.’ How can those who have tasted God heed those who have known only about God and that too through hearsay, through secondhand sources? This doesn’t mean exoteric dimension can be ignored but only that it can’t be absolutized.
Ibn Taymiyah, A Qadri Sufi himself, rightly guarded against any libertine spirituality that adopts the label of Islam and economic, political and social abuses to which Sufism is vulnerable. (One of the greatest figures in the history of Islam is Ibn Taymiyyah and one can’t imagine him to reject the essence of spiritual dimension of Islam called Sufism.) The leader of “wahabbis” rightly underscored the importance of sharia and purifying one’s worship for the sake of God alone and scrupulously avoiding anything that even remotely smacks of shirk. Sheikh Ahmed Sirhindi’s point was that the license to follow self will or hawa-i-nafs can’t be granted to any one in the name of unityism and syncretism - to be distinguished from universal orthodoxy and transcendent unity of religions which are based on the understanding of tawhid understood metaphysically as the essence of all traditional religions - is heresy. Iqbal’s point was that God is to be loved by developing human potential participating in his works as cocreators or coworkers, by attempt to keep their piety. Maulana Moududi’s worth reckoning point was that Islam’s world affirming, dynamic, history-valuing spirit can’t be compromised in the name of sick asceticism and fatalism of pseudo-sufis. All these critics of traditional Sufism were essentially Sufis if we don’t allow monopolizing of Sufism from certain quarters who claim to be the sole inheritors of Islam’s spiritual legacy. The generality of ulema rightly warned against the subtle influence of Satan (talbeesi iblis) in the name of mysticism. Critics of Sufism have mostly criticized its supposed deviations from shariah, its otherworldly or ascetic orientation, its irrationalism, its speculative flights, its transgressions against ethical norms, its tendency to fatalism etc. But all these charges apply only to abused Sufism or misinterpretation and misappropriation of Sufism. If we read its acknowledged masters such as Junaid, Abdul Qadir Jeelani, Ghazali, Ibn Arabi and the like, none of these charges could be really substantiated. One wonders how much ignorance prevails concerning the truth of Sufism. Let it be noted that there is no such thing as pantheism in Sufism even though most critics go on labeling it as pantheistic. To label wahdat-al-wajud as pantheism shows only ignorance of the critic. None of the great names in Islamic history could be characterized as antiSufi in strict sense. All Muslims are also Sufis, even the most literalist exotericist salafi or wahabi or “badaetiqadi.” The very proclamation of Islam implies one takes spiritual realm to be more fundamental, otherworld or eternity to be more primary, God to be the object of all of our endeavours and what else is real Sufism but perfection of these things. Of course one can’t deny that there have been certain extremists from both camps – Sufis and exotericist. Sometimes spirituality has been misidentified with ecstasy and loss of consciousness rather than a state of superconsciousness. At times people forgot that they are after all conditioned because they have a body or are situated in space and time and claimed to be gods. Man is a slave of Allah and nothing, no spiritual progress on his part, can erase his status as a creature and make him one with God in every sense.
The real Sufis have not looted credulous masses; rather they have spent everything for them and used to distribute food by way of free langar, provide accommodation in khankahs for the poor who couldn’t afford hotels. They have not made spirituality their means of livelihood though they did accept free gifts. They have not taught people to glorify themselves instead of God when their problems got solved presumably due to their prayers. They have not liked the shortcuts of drugs or bhang to transcend ordinary mode of consciousness. They have not thought themselves to be gods and have aspired for the station of ubudiyyat. Abduhu was the greatest station that the Prophet of Islam (SAW) attained and aspired for.
Critics of Sufism need to note that Sufism is not an ideology; it is not occultism and faith healing business. It is not an opium that lulls the suffering victims to political inertia. It is not a theory about anything but realization, tasting. It is not a philosophical school among other schools but a darsana or vision. It is not one particular interpretation of Islam that rivals other interpretation but the core, the essence of all approaches that contribute in any sense towards elucidation of truth or reality behind the words or symbolized by the words. It doesn’t negate theology but only verifies it at a higher plane and gives it more universal and deeper metaphysical grounding. Sufism is not a system of beliefs but a code of discipline for the self and it is open to anybody and its claims can by verified or tested by anyone serious enough to make all kinds of sacrifices for the discovery of truth. Very few dare to be such great adventurers of the territory of spirit as very few can sell everything dear to them (or detach themselves from them) that is prerequisite for the knowledge of truth or God may necessitate. Sufism is not pir parasti and grave worship. It worships the Living God (Al-Hayy), the principle of all life. It acknowledges ultimately no external authority of pir but finds true guide or sheikh within.
Sufism results in peace within and peace without. When we see a Sufi we are immediately reminded of God and we get a glimpse of such great virtues as trust in God, humility, poverty of spirit, selfless service of people. If we don’t see these things or find anything that smacks of egoism, pride, lust, desire, covetousness, love of money etc. be assured that we need to seek refuge from him.
We need to hold to the mean with which Islam has always associated itself. And in matters spiritual we have Ghazali, Junaid and Abdul Qadir Jeeelani among those moderate Sufis who have always been respected by Muslims (of course a few extreme exotericist have no respect for any Sufi) and we need to uphold this moderate Sufi tradition that is integral combination of exoterism and esoterism.  Who can deny that Islam is a religion which emphasizes sobriety, affirmative transcendence, law and balances the rights of the body as well as the soul and spirit, deed and idea or action and contemplation, time and eternity, historical and the metahistorical, the self and the other or non-self,  this world and the otherworld, the dualistic plane of ordinary consciousness and unitary plane of higher consciousness, science and faith etc? It is moderate Sufism that comes closest to this ideal of respecting both the poles of binaries and ultimately transcending the whole world constituted by dualities in Unitarian tawhidic vision. Ultimately it is idle to debate on the orthodoxy or truth of Sufism and what is urgent for all of us is our conquest of suffering and alienation and getting proximity to divine presence, to be true to our theomorphic nature, to partake of the great treasures of the spirit. Life asks all of us some very fundamental existential questions and wisdom lies in seeking to deal with them at individual level. The relevant question is not is Sufism true but are we true to ourselves. Who can disagree that we need to know ourselves? If we know ourselves we know God. The question is do we know our essence, our real self. Let us try to answer that question and answering this question we answer all questions. Fools debate while the wise people enjoy the feast that God is serving every moment. God is not a thing to be debated or argued but something to be realized or tasted or enjoyed.
Qayshari, Junayd, Ghazali, Ibn Arabi, Sirhindi and other great masters of Sufism have always been critical of corruptions in Sufi practice at the hands of ignorant dervishes, addicts, madmen, occultists, guardians of the shrines, womanizers, so-called pirs posing as Sufi masters and libertine pseudo-sufis. Modern forms of sama would be loathed by most Sufi authorities. Just a few remarks of Ibn Arabi on his contemporary dervishes:"They have no knowledge of the prohibited (al-harâm) to make them return"; and "They don't know the conditions of the sunna or the obligatory works, they aren't even fit to serve as a servant in the toilets." Ibn Qayyim Jawzi and such things as the chapter on Sufism in Talbeesi Iblees have great value for separating the satanic from the divine in what poses as Sufism. Most pirs selling amulets and involved in the business of jinns are not real Sufis. Most of true Sufis are hidden – extraordinarily ordinary persons – whom you can’t guess easily as being elevated souls. A very simple test of a good Sufi is his character – how far he resembles the Prophet Muhammed (SAW) whose function was perfection of morality or virtue – , in his state of sabr, raza, tawakkul etc.. He can’t be self centred. Apparently supernatural things, predictions, mind reading, faith healing can’t be trusted as evidence of being genuine Sufi. Self praise and boosting are indications of one’s degradation. Genuine Sufis have no interest to be respected, praised, served and in money minting. They respect shrines but are not asthan parast as the greatest shrine is the human heart and God’s residence is there only. They will help the poor more than they will be interested in celebrating urses with great pomp. They are not great debaters to be interested in takfeer of rivals, to dispute doctrinal matters, to slander other believers. They believe only in themselves – even Gabriel is a prey in their net – so they cannot be accused of shirk. They will not readily beg even God for mundane things – their prayer is not petition – not to speak of going from asthan to asthan. They are more interested in saving their souls rather than in processing the files of the clients regarding worldly matters.

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