Saturday, 2 March 2013
‘Umar James Dunlap: My Journey from Salafi to Sufism
بِسۡمِ ٱللهِ ٱلرَّحۡمَـٰنِ ٱلرَّحِيمِ
The following is the journey of Ustadz ‘Umar James Dunlap. It is taken from his blog, “The Lettered Wayfarer”, which is no longer available.
“Likely, this will cause some controversy, so I hope my readers will forgive me if I try to lessen the blow so to speak by clarifying the title of this blog. I want to do so because, on the one hand I want a catchy title that will grab peoples’ attention, but on the other hand, I do not want the article itself to come off as a diatribe or apologetic. The whole of what I am about to write could be summed up by simply saying if someone wants to call himself ‘Salafi’, it is fine, and if someone wants to call himself ‘Sufi’, it is fine. The terms I wish to clarify, firstly, are the words themselves, ‘Salafi’ and ‘Sufi’, and each term has two definitions; the first being how its followers perceive it, and then how those who choose not to ascribe to themselves such titles see it.
Salafism according to its followers is ‘Pure’ Islam as it was understood by the Apostle Muhammad (s.a.w.), his immediate followers, their students, and the students of their students, that is, the Salaf asw-Swalih, with little interpolation; an attempt to revitalise the faith with pristine religion that is unadulterated by modernity. Salafism according to non-Salafis is a puritanical sect of Islam that has went against mainstream Islamic Orthodoxy on some issues, and which adheres, typically, to the strictest opinion that can be deciphered. Also, this particular brand of Islam is more focused on external religion, similar to Rabbinical Judaism, as opposed to internal religion, and may or may-not be the reason there are so many fanatical Muslims in the world.
Sufism according to its followers is Islamic Orthodoxy, that is, an Islam that is, aside from also being based on the Qur’an, the sayings of the Apostle Muhammad (s.a.w.), and the Salaf asw-Swalih, also recognises that Islamic scholarly opinions within the normative tradition have been vast, often times lenient, and that therefore there is room for everyone within certain parameters. Also, internal religion is not neglected, but considered a vital aspect of the religion, in addition to the shari’ah. Sufism according to non-Sufis is a group of heretical innovators who do strange things like dance in mosques, listen to musical instruments, pray to saints, and join little cults which they call ‘thariqa’’ none of which has anything to do with ‘pure’ Islam.
So, with the terms defined according to their followers and detractors, let us move on to how this relates to my particular journey. When I first became Muslim, 12 years ago, the other Muslims in my area were an incredibly small minority and were meeting in an apartment building for swalah al-juma’ah, Friday congregational prayers. The community was mostly Jordanian and Syrian, with a few other ethnicities sprinkled in, and maybe one other white convert in his late 30′s. There was no local scholar, no imam, no central figurehead that was qualified so to speak, to guide the community correctly, and this meant that all of my knowledge at that time came from three primary sources: whatever I got from the lay Muslims of my community; whatever I read in books, and whatever I read online.
Now, this approach is problematic because, as it concerns my first source, many average Muslims these days are religiously ignorant, and the extent of their knowledge is what they have seen some Islamic evangelist on TV say, or what they heard parroted in mosques in their home countries, often by underqualified and less-than-stellar, sometimes government-appointed a’immah; or what has been handed down from parents who were, possibly, even more ignorant of the religion than they are. As far as just reading from books goes, there is the problem that anyone can write a book these days, and every person has his own view which he is putting forth, and without a sound foundation, the new-Muslims can just drink it all up without questioning it, just because the author has an Arab name. And this is the same problem that occurs when getting ones’ information from online as well.
Little did I know that most of the ‘Islam’ that was presented to me online in the early years of my conversion was in reality Salafism. This is not as true today, but you have to think about the early days of the internet, and the organisation and oil-money-funding of the Salafi movement overseas. Aside from maybe Islam Online, the Salafi websites were dominating the scene in the late 90′s early 2000′s, usually by individual efforts. Allaahu Akbar and Islam Web are pretty big examples of early Salafi websites.
Also, most of what I was getting from practicing Muslims in my area was Salafi-oriented, even though these particular Muslims did not call themselves Salafi. And this is an issue that really needs to be addressed. I think a huge part of the ignorance of the modern Muslim is that he thinks, simply, ‘Hey, I don’t have a beard! I wear a suit and tie to work! I’m not a Salafi!’ In my experience, this is a statement that, in one way is true, and in one way is false. It is true in the sense that they do not only take from Salafis. They may accidentally have stumbled across some lectures by Habib ‘Ali al-Jifri or Imam Ramadhan al-Buwthi, or perhaps been involved with some Ikhwani brothers and the like. But the way that it is false is that Salafi thought has dominated the media and print in most of the Middle East due to oil funding, and therefore they are influenced by the Salafi manhaj, knowingly or unknowingly. I guarantee you more Muslims on the streets of Egypt will know who Muhammad Hassan, the Salafi preacher that appears on Egypt’s Rahma TV, is than who Shaykh Swalih al-Ja’fari is, even though the latter was a great scholar from just forty years ago, and the head of al-Azhar and consequently founded the Ja’fari thariqa’ in Egypt. So, even if a Muslim insists he is not Salafi, and he does not look like a Salafi, I guarantee you when you investigate his beliefs, you will find that they align 75% or more with modern Salafi thought and even he probably is not aware of it.
So, this is how things were for a while. I assumed Islam was something 90% agreed on, and if only the Shi’ah would jump on the Sunni bandwagon, the ummah would be united. And, to be honest, before about 200 years ago when the Salafi movement began, that was probably the case. But things as they were are not things as they are, and for everything Allah (s.w.t.) has a purpose.
Probably the first warning sign that made me start thinking outside the manhaj-box was a discussion I got in with a rather young Muslim. He was probably about 16 years old, who seemed to have an adamant dislike of a particular medieval scholar, one of the Salafi favourites, Shaykh ibn Taymiyyah (r.a.). His issue was on something that I thought, up until that point, was agreed upon, which was ‘aqidah, Islamic theology. He said that he believed that Shaykh ibn Taymiyyah (r.a.) was an anthropomorphist, and that he had departed from traditional Islamic scholarship on the issue of some of Allah’s (s.w.t.) Names and Attributes. I, having been influenced unknowingly by Salafi thought, defended Shaykh ibn Taymiyyah (r.a.) from this Muslim youth, to the best of my limited ability. But it left me a bit curious and confused because I had just assumed that everyone agreed that Shaykh ibn Taymiyyah (r.a.) was the Shaykh al-Islam as the Salafis called him. So, to see another Sunni Muslim who did not seem to be a fan was something that seemed a bit odd, and left me thinking.
Now, before I move on, I must say that I do not particularly have a problem with Shaykh ibn Taymiyyah (r.a.) and I have found some benefit in his teachings and in the teachings of his students. I am not one to jump on any bandwagon, and I feel that denouncing him, saying he is not Sunni, that he is a heretic, and all of the other calumnies that some reactionary Sufis have heaped upon him are a bit unfair. Even Dr. ‘Umar Faruq ‘Abdullah, a well-known Sufi who does not hide his dislike of the Salafi sect has said that Shaykh ibn Taymiyyah (r.a.) is one of the great wonders of the Islamic tradition. I think at issue here for the more reasonable Sufis is how much we are willing to give one scholar in preference to others, and why do we take his fatawa, opinions, over earlier scholars closer to the sources of the religion? Why, when there is ikhtilaf, differences of opinion amongst the scholars, must Shaykh ibn Taymiyyah’s (r.a.) fatawa be given precedence?
After this, things were relatively smooth sailing in Salafi-waters for several years. I parroted the usual Salafi taglines: Mawlid is bid’ah, following a madzhab is not from the sunnah, wasilah is shirk, thariqa’ is bid’ah and so forth. And, I think part of this came from a little bit of white privilege that Caucasian converts are given in mosques. We are always told, ‘Oh the converts are always better than born-Muslims!’ which is not always true. And, apparently, rather than being good, the immigrant community prefers to have an inferiority complex, pinning their hopes on Caucasian Muslim converts to effect change for them. So, I was feeling high and mighty and I had found an Islam that was free of culture, free of sectarianism, and was the true path. And I was going to show all these ignorant Mawlid-celebrating, bid’ah-making, mushrik immigrant Muslims what was what. I was going to show them the ‘saved’ sect.
I want to take a bit of a turn here for a moment and discuss what was happening with my non-Muslim family at this time in my journey. To the Salafi, more often than not the only real relationship you can have with non-Muslims is brief interactions to do da’wah, evangelism. Many of the hardcore Salafis cut themselves off from family and friends, often referring to them as ‘kuffar,’ which is the modern equivalent of calling someone an ‘infidel’ in my opinion, judging them for their non-Muslim lifestyle, as if everyone should suddenly quit eating pork and drinking alcohol just because they have found the ‘truth’, and talking to them like Shaykh Ahmed Deedat (r.a.) used to talk to people he was debating on stage in the 80′s. In other words, talking down to them.
I was no different. I would often go to my parents’ house, not out of love and respect for them as parents, nor with humility as the Qur’an Commands, but with arrogance and anger, a Bible in one hand and a Qur’an in the other, ready to stir up some drama and show them how stupid Christianity was, and if they did not accept the truth, hey, that was their problem, right? I was on the right path, a modern-day ‘Umar ibn al-Khaththab (r.a.) or so I thought, and I was ready to throw down some knowledge on these ignorant, misguided family and friends.
Surprise, surprise; they did not become Muslim. After a year or so of doing this, the relationships I had soured. My mother and I, who were once very close, were not, anymore. And that was a real heartbreaker for me, even if I did not show it.. I had to keep my Salafi-game face on. After a while, there were less and less pictures of me around my parent’s house, and virtually none of my hijab-clad wife. We did not call each other very often. I did not stop by for any of their holidays, secular or religious. ‘I ain’t celebratin’ no kafir holiday!’ I said. They refused to let me pray any of my daily prayers in their house, and I later found out someone in my family, in reaction to a religious argument that we had, actually burned a Qur’an I had given them in the yard. It was that bad. And, my non-Muslim friends that I had before my conversion, had a similar reaction. I imagine they got tired of being judged by me every time they wanted to have a beer or eat some ham, and before I knew it they were making fun of Islam behind my back, and for a little while they even all stopped talking to me over a summer, and I had to go to great lengths just to salvage the already-hanging-by-a-thread friendships.
The important thing here that I want my readers to realise is that these people that were so against Islam are not the bad guys. I do not want anyone to come away with the wrong impression here. They were reacting negatively to very rigorous attempts to convert them, out of the blue, by an arrogant, stubborn, foolhardy Salafi that they, just months before, knew and loved. And I think this story highlights the problem with the approach of the Salafi methodology, and one of the reasons why I had to ultimately embrace Sufism as the true Islam. The more extreme elements of the Salafi ideology often times neglect, completely, the science of tadzkiyyah, spiritual purification, which many scholars consider just another word for Sufism. And those Salafi groups that do not completely throw it out nevertheless do not emphasise it. They pretty much have one go to scholar for tadzkiyyah, the student of the aforementioned Shaykh ibn Taymiyyah (r.a.), Imam ibn al-Qayyim al-Jawzi (r.a.), who himself had Sufi influences. Aside from him, they can only throw together little scraps here and there of their short list of ‘acceptable scholars’ that may have said something in the neighbourhood of soul-purification.
Now, for those unaffiliated, when I refer to soul purification, or tadzkiyyah, I am referring to the religious or soft science of purifying ones inner self of all things sinful, of obfuscations about Allah (s.w.t.) and the reality of our place in the world, cleansing oneself of doubt by encountering what Imam al-Ghazali (r.a.), a great Sufi theologian of the Shafi’i school, called experiential knowledge of Allah (s.w.t.). Not that Sufis believe Allah (s.w.t.) literally Dwells within us despite what some Salafis claim we mean by Oneness with Allah (s.w.t.), but rather we experience what can only be described as Nearness or Presence, Hadhrah. It is an internal knowing, what Imam Malik (r.a.), a scholar from the actual Salaf, that is, the first 3 generations of Muslims, called a Light, Nur, in the heart of the believer. The science of tadzkiyyah actually is, in a sense, a manual on how to battle the ego, as codified and organised by scholar upon scholar of the Islamic tradition, most of whom are now criticised or downplayed by the Salafi movement. Tadzkiyyah deals with topics such as how to get rid of pride, of anger, of envy, how to devote oneself to Allah (s.w.t.) alone, to rid yourself of pessimism, ostentatiousness, and derision and in so doing, bring oneself into a state of Nearness to the Creator, and in harmony with the workings of the universe.
So, this is really the point, is it not? Are these things not what religion is about at its core? And yet, I had missed it. I did not know how to battle the nafs, the ego. I did not know how to deal with my pride, my anger at having been misguided for so many years, or my dislike of the sins I saw around me. All I knew was that I had discovered some little parcel of truth, that there was no god but Allah (s.w.t.) Alone, and that Muhammad (s.a.w.) was His servant and messenger, but I did not know what to do with that truth. I was still so spiritually diseased and did not even know it, and, naturally I did not know that I even had to learn anything about spiritual purification. And this is because many Salafis claim, such as the well-known Salafi writer and evangelist Jamal Zarabozo, that, ‘knowledge of tawhid purifies the heart,’ not tadzkiyyah. I had pretty sound knowledge and acceptance of Allah’s (s.w.t.) Unity, and yet I was still self-righteous, full of pride and anger, judgemental, and ruining relationships left and right. So much for that claim.
All of this manhaj madness came to a head when, after about eight and a half years being unknowingly Salafi and suddenly finding myself abandoned by family and friends, I decided that the best thing for me was to make ‘hijrah’ from the ‘land of the kuffar’ and go to Dar al-Islam, ‘the Land of Islam’, namely, Egypt. My wife and I planned everything in secret. I had a lot of enemies at that time naturally. And then, after the tickets were bought and the temporary apartment was set up in Cairo, I sent out a text to all my friends and called my parents and told them that in a month I would be in Egypt. I honestly expected most of them to be like, ‘Good.’ To my surprise, they were not. They actually wanted me to stay. For some reason I thought back to a religious argument I had two years prior with my best friend who was a nominal Christian at the time, whose only response after all of the drama that our ‘debate’ caused, was to post a picture of a younger, beardless me on his MySpace back when that website was relevant from just after graduating high school. And he wrote a caption underneath that said only, ‘I miss this guy.’ I mention that only because people need to understand how everyone around me felt. They felt like a friend and loved one had died, and was replaced by an uber self-righteous facsimile who was out to make their lives miserable. They wanted me to stay in the States only out of sheer hope that ‘I’ would come back, and this Salafi would go away.
Most upset, however, was my mother, who called me just a few weeks before our flight left. Her request that I stay in America quickly turned into a religious debate, which turned into a very heated argument. In the course of this argument I only remember two things: I told her to ‘watch what you say’ because ‘I love him - Prophet Muhammad (s.a.w.) - more than you’ and ‘I have heard it - the message of the Gospel - and I hate it!’ Now, think about this from the perspective of a sincere Christian mother. Your son just yelled at you at the top of his lungs that he loves a prophet you do not believe in more than you, and that he ‘hates’ the Gospel. Now, I did not mean it as she understood it. What I meant was, simply, ‘I want you to take my religious beliefs seriously!’ and ‘I hate the idolatrous teachings of modern Christianity because I feel they are opposed to the true message of Christ, whom I love.’ But a distraught mother being yelled at did not hear that. She heard. ‘I don’t love you,’ and, ‘I hate Jesus.’ The conversation ended right after that, and all I could hear were her gut-wrenching sobs through the phone before she hung up on me, something she had never done before. My dad called after that and told me never to talk to my mother again, a conversation which also turned into a religious debate, but, thankfully, gave me the opportunity to clarify what I meant and to ask him to apologise to my mother on my behalf.
And, of course, none of this deterred me from going to Egypt. Two months later, I was on a plane, soon to be working for the Salafi da’wah full time, for a well-known English language ‘Islamic’ satellite TV channel. But something happened before I went to Egypt that, for the first time, perked my serious interest in Sufism and it was life changing.
One thing about the more extreme branches of the Salafi movement is that they love tearing down non-Salafi Sunni Muslim scholars under the guise of ‘warning the ummah against deviation.’ They have a whole list of ‘off the manhaj’ shuyukh that, if you listen to, you might as well go ahead and declare yourself an apostate as far as they are concerned. They attempt to drown out moderates who call to unity, such as Ustadz Suhaib Webb, Imam Zaid Shakir, and others. And if you are one of the ‘out’ Sufis, that is, one of those uppity Sufi’s who proudly declares your Sufism and defend it with textual proofs, you are on their top ten ‘most wanted’ list. Most wanted as in, these are the shuyukh they most want to accuse of bid’ah behind their backs and make takfir on. Here I mean the well-known Sufi’s such as Shaykh Faraz Rabbani, Shaykh Nuh Ha Mim Keller, Habib ‘Ali al-Jifri and others.
Ironically though, the number one scholar on their ten Most Wanted character-assassination hit-list is a scholar who has never claimed to be Sufi. And in fact, he has denied it in several lectures. Of course, I am speaking of Shaykh Hamza Yusuf.
They are very direct in their attacks on this man who has studied traditional Islam here and abroad for over 30 years now in as many as six different Muslim countries: Saudi Arabia, Egypt, UAE, Morocco, Algeria, and Mauritania. Now, how this relates to me is, basically, as corrupted as I was by the Salafi methodology, I still was open enough to listen to scholars who were outside of the little box that the ‘real scholars,’ according to them, were kept in. True, if I needed a fatwa on some personal matter I was going to get it from a Saudi website, but for general knowledge, I did not have a problem floating outside of the parameters. This was particularly accurate as it related to Shaykh Hamza Yusuf because I listened to some of his talks before being ‘warned against listening to him’ by the Salafis, and thus knew that, Salafi or not, the man definitely had some knowledge. I mostly liked his deep understanding of the etymology of Arabic words, and his philosophical approach which appealed to my seeking nature.
But I also do not want to give the impression that I was a Salafi who was secretly spending all of his time listening to Shaykh Hamza Yusuf lectures. He was just someone I would listen to from time to time, here and there. I did not have any books by him, did not own any of his CD’s, nothing like that. My da’wah money went mostly to Anwar al-Awlaki, Shaykh Ahmed Deedat (r.a.), and Dawud Adib, if you can believe that. But how he was instrumental in my ‘conversion’ to Sufism was, a few months before leaving for Egypt, due to being caught up only in the externals of the religion such as fiqh, learning why ‘deviants’ are wrong, learning about the Islamic legal punishments and why they are better than kufr laws, learning the ‘Prophets (s.a.w.) Prayer,’ or, more factually, Salafi scholar, Naswr ad-Din al-Albani’s understanding of what it was. I realised I had never actually internalised the religion. My heart never felt peace or closeness to Allah (s.w.t.). I was always on edge. I was always upset or angry about something. I was always outraged at some new perceived slight, or busy judging people. It was not easy for me to avoid sins when I was alone, even though as far as everyone else was concerned I was a ‘good’ Muslim who prayed and fasted. Apparently, to many modern Muslims, that is considered ‘enough’ which is quite an unorthodox way of thinking, Islamically speaking.
In a word, I was unhappy. And everyone knew it. I knew it. My parents knew it. My non-Muslim friends knew it. My wife knew it. Probably the only people who did not seem to notice, oddly enough, were the Salafis. To them, because I simply prayed the five daily prayers, did da’wah, and listened to the ‘right’ scholars, I was a good Muslim and naturally must be happy, right? But I was not happy. Truth be told, I was depressed and pissed off most of the time, and the rest of the time I was being a hypocrite. I felt like I was pretending. Hardships started to fall on me that did not feel like tests, but more like punishments. And I started to supplicate to Allah (s.w.t.) from the depths of my very soul. On one occasion while praying, I even asked that ‘If this is all there is in this world for me,’ meaning, the spiritual and material state I was in, ‘then just let me die.’ And I started to cry.
But Allah (s.w.t.) did not let me die. No, instead, late one night, while perusing the internet, I came across a forum that had one of Shaykh Hamza Yusuf’s books, or, more accurately, a book by another scholar translated by him into English, abridged for micro lessons during Ramadhan. The book was Matsarat al-Qulub, Purification of the Heart. It was a poem used for teaching purposes, composed by West African Sufi scholar Imam Mawlud al-Mawritani (q.s.). Within the poem was a list of the twenty-five spiritual diseases that the author felt were most prevalent in his time, as well as the methods to struggle against and remove all of them. Shaykh Hamza Yusuf, in addition to translating it, provided an introduction to the science of purification, and a commentary on certain excerpts of the work.
The person who prepared the lessons had actually written out all of the twenty-five spiritual diseases that Imam Mawlud (q.s.) categorised into a single post on the forum, and as I looked at the names of these diseases I realised something profound - I had every single one of them. For the first time in my nine years as a Muslim, I was finally being told why I was unhappy. Why Islam had, as of yet, not been able to rid me of my hypocrisy, my feelings of distance from Allah (s.w.t.), or my anxiety, anger, and depression. It was like I had been a sick man going to general practitioners for nine years, and had finally gotten in to see a renowned specialist. I just sat there and stared at the list of spiritual diseases according to Imam Mawlud (q.s.), reflecting on them all one by one, and how they pertained to me: miserliness; wantonness; hatred; iniquity; love of the world; envy; blameworthy modesty and being shy to call out a wrong; fantasising about sinful things; fear of poverty; ostentation; relying on other than Allah (s.w.t.); displeasure with Divine Decree; seeking fame; false hopes and excessive reliance on Allah’s (s.w.t.) Mercy; pessimism; vanity; fraud and the desire to conceal faults for personal benefit; anger; heedlessness; rancour; boasting and arrogance; displeasure with blame; antipathy toward death; obliviousness to Blessings; and derision of others.
Now, as I said, the lessons were abridged online. But I was thoroughly convicted to my very core. I immediately purchased the book so as to obtain the full text, and read the entire thing in two days. My initial thoughts were, ‘Why has no one ever told me of all this?’ but this was a fleeting thought. My next order of business was to get even more information on this topic. It turns out that Shaykh Hamza had actually written this book after giving a series of lessons on Shaykh Mawlud’s (q.s.) poem back in the 1990s. At the urgent and insistent request of students and fellow scholars, he was convinced to put that lesson into book form. But the book was not enough for me. This was some life-changing information as far as I was concerned, and I wanted every single detail I could get. I found audio recordings of the lessons he gave in the 1990s on the topic and listened to them. It was the only time in my life that I ever found myself sitting at a computer writing notes from a lecture that I was listening to online.
The real kicker was, the wife and I did not have internet in our apartment at the time, but we were heavily involved with a local masjid and we had a key to the building. I got off work at midnight, and typically went straight to the masjid, unlocked the office, and listened to the lectures on the computer there. And, really, I feel like this was the Qadr of Allah Almighty, because as I began to internalise this religion with the help of Imam Mawlud (q.s.) and Shaykh Hamza, I also found myself wanting to do more. I do not mean more study, although that was a part of it, but more acts of worship; and what better place to worship than in the masjid?
So, for the months leading up to my exodus to Egypt, my time consisted of listening to Shaykh Hamza Yusuf explain the tenants of Sufism, and then going into the masjid to pray nawafil and do dzikr. I mention this because, according to the scholars, a sign that your good deeds are being Accepted by Allah (s.w.t.) is that they lead to more good deeds. So, for nine years, making no spiritual progress, I wonder how much I was truly benefiting myself, Yet, after simply studying one small part of Sufism, after reading one book by a ‘deviant,’ suddenly the floodgates to worship were opened for me. It was only then that signs that my worship of Allah (s.w.t.) was even being Accepted began to manifest. But the story does not end there. In a way, that is just the beginning. I did not identify as Sufi yet. All I could say was that my respect for Sufism increased. I still was due to go to Egypt. I still would find myself, in about three months, working for a Salafi da’wah TV channel, surrounded by key Salafi scholars and figures. And I was going to see, hear, and read things that ultimately were to lead to me not only affiliating myself with Sufism, but declaring my affiliation openly, consequences be damned. And there were consequences,
Before I left for Egypt, I had somewhat learned the videography trade, had some of my own film equipment, and had pretty much decided to dedicate my life to this particular trade if Allah (s.w.t.) so Willed it. Thus, once I found myself in Egypt, my first order of business was to try and find some English language Islamic television channels to work for since I had heard that a lot of these channels are based in Egypt. I Googled a few, emailed some on a long shot mentioning my qualifications, and actually ended up getting a response from one. This particular channel is still up and running today, and featured many of the most well-known Salafi scholars, preachers and du'at.
For the first few months, everything was business as usual, and I did not have much to complain about. I began broadening my horizons in my spare time, listening to lectures by increasingly more Sufi scholars and preachers. I had not thrown the Salafi da’wah out the window, but my taste in lectures and books had definitely become more eclectic. An undeniable result of this was that my character began to change for the better. I found myself praying nearly all of my daily prayers in congregation, I was doing all sorts of adzkar, and just generally felt at peace. One day I remember walking out of the office and one of the brothers followed me, took me aside and exclaimed, ‘I feel I have to tell you, whenever I see you, I just feel good!’ No doubt his heart was getting good reverberations from my own heart, which was being polished with Allah’s (s.w.t.) Remembrance.
As my dzikr increased, my thirst for it increased. I found myself wanting to learn more and more types of dzikr and do more and more worship. And this led me to looking online at various forms of Sufi dzikr, which was often done in groups, sometimes chanted in unison. On this, I was conflicted. Had I not always heard from the 'saved’ sect that this form of dzikr was bid’ah, heretical innovation? After all, I was not Sufi. At most I was just a Salafi with Sufi leanings. If I started saying this was okay, then the cat would be out of the bag, so to speak. Yet I could not deny that when I watched it, I felt good. It did not feel like bid’ah. But, I also knew that feelings alone are not enough. There must be some sort of proof for it before I was willing to accept it. And, really, this is what always kept me from being Sufi for years after I started getting interested in Sufi philosophy and practice, I was always thought that their rites have no basis in shari’ah whatsoever. They are extremists in ‘ibadah, deviants, and in some cases, disbelievers. So, before I was to accept it, I had to research it.
It is interesting that, at this time, there started to crop up more and more Sufi and Sufi-leaning websites made by scholars in the field, all of which began to vehemently defend their practices from the attacks of extremist Salafis. Also, some of the Sufis in Muslim countries were starting to utilise YouTube to get their views out. And then there was the fact that I worked with a particular brother who, though identifying as Salafi, nevertheless had many Sufi friends, some of whom were scholars, and he was actually fair in his approach. He would often tell me many of their arguments and defenses. And I think he did this to be a counter balance to some of the more hard-liner Salafis that he knew and worked with, which goes to show you that you can never paint all people with one brush, because to be honest, were it not for this brother, I am not sure if I would have ever openly claimed my Sufism.
At any rate, through his answers, and my own personal research, I began to discover that some of the defenses of certain criticised Sufi practices actually had merit. I remember very clearly having it pointed out to me that almost all of the ahadits which mention dzikr, actually mention it being done in congregations. For example, in Swahih al-Bukhari, ‘...there is a group of angels who patrol the earth and wherever they find any gathering of dzikr they call out to each other and form a circle around this gathering that reaches to the sky...’ The circle of angels described in this hadits is very similar to how many Sufis sit when they do their dzikr in unison. They are mimicking the description found here. Then there is the well-known hadits narrated by Mu'awiyah (r.a.) in Swahih Muslim, ‘We have congregated here to remember Allah Ta’ala and to praise Him for Guiding us to Islam and Blessing us with it.’ Again, in Swahih Muslim, ‘Any group of people who engage in the dzikr of Allah, the angels envelop them and Mercy Cascades upon them, Tranquility Descends upon them and Allah Remembers them in the presence of those who are by Him.’
For the first time since becoming Muslim, I remember feeling like the wool had been pulled over my eyes, and had only just been removed. I felt like I was starting to see things clearly. How was it that this had been called bid’ah when most of the hadits narrated on the subject mention the practice of dzikr being done as the Sufis are known for doing it, in congregation? How had I missed it all those years? I mean, I knew those hadits. It was not like I had never heard them before. But for some reason, it was like, I do not know, it never clicked. It was like the true meaning was hidden and had only come to be properly explained when the Sufis had explained it. Then, and only then, did I fully understand why my heart rejected the feeling that such gatherings were gatherings of bid’ah.
But still, I worked for a TV channel that was virtually entirely Salafi, and one or two issues was not enough to convince me that I was Sufi. It just meant, as far as I was concerned, that I agreed with the Sufis on a few issues, but was still ‘just Muslim.’ I had always rejected the Salafi title as well, even though my beliefs were Salafi. I fell victim to the whole ‘Avoid labels! No Sects!’ trend that has become popular among Muslims, and which is, as we shall see, a huge misunderstanding among us which needs to be corrected. However, one significant thing did arise out of this: I started to recognise Salafis by their teachings, and my heart started to pull away, ever so slightly, from their methodology. A major blow had been dealt to my trust of their doctrines, as opposed to before when I would just take everything a Salafi gave me without question. And my interest in Sufism was even more noticeable. I really started researching their claims after this, because I wanted to see what other misconceptions I may or may not have had.
Another thing which happened at this time was, a well-known da’i, evangelist, had visited the set to do a few shows for us, and when I say well known, I mean well known. He is the crème de la crème of Salafi preachers, and I was star struck. I remember feeling like I was so blessed because just a few years prior I was watching this guy on YouTube and now I was in a room with him doing a TV show. I could not wait to take pictures with him and upload them to my Facebook and show everyone who I was chilling with in Egypt. And there was a Blessing in his visiting us, but it was not the blessing I expected. The more I began to work with this brother, the more I began to notice that something was off. He seemed a little ruder than I expected. He is known more by his laughing and cutting up with people in YouTube videos, and telling jokes in his talks. He is the ‘happy face’ of Salafi da’wah in the West, although some more extreme Salafis are against him as well.
Aside from being rude, he was very demanding of people and made everyone very uncomfortable. He seemed to have a bit of an ego problem. He was always talking about how he was the da’wah expert and he ‘really knows how to do this.’ During the filming of one particular show with another presenter who had never presented a show before, and was probably nervous, the presenter interjected his own thoughts into the conversation, and this person stopped the show, looked right at him, and said quite bluntly, ‘Don’t interrupt me.’
But this was not the worst of it. I remember on one occasion walking back into the dressing room where everyone hung out after a show had wrapped, and he was sitting there with a group of little minions around him, and he was telling a story about Shaykh Hamza Yusuf. Apparently the two had met a few times, and how he was a Sufi and how he had, on one occasion said that the Arabic word for smell or aroma came from the same root word as the word for doctor, adding, ‘And that's not what the word means!’ I could tell from his quote of Shaykh Hamza that this is not what Shaykh Hamza meant. He meant that the two words shared the same trilateral root, not that they both meant the same thing, but this particular person was working very hard, it seemed to me, to have a problem with Shaykh Hamza. He also claimed that at Shaykh Hamza's college, they did group dzikr, and then concluded the story by saying, ‘I wanted to punch him in the nose.’
I recall during this person's two week visit, I walked in on him more than once telling this story to a different captive audience each time. I started to notice, by certain nuances and things he was saying, that the bottom line was that this particular person went to Zaytuna Institute and felt snubbed. He was not lavished attention, and as a result now tells this story to anyone who will listen. He seems to have nothing better to do with his free time than to slander Shaykh Hamza Yusuf behind closed doors. And this put me in a bit of a catch 22, because on the one hand, I could not rock the boat all by myself. It was clear that the people around me were not going to defend Shaykh Hamza Yusuf, and this person was touchy and certainly was not going to take my advice: Get Shaykh Hamza on the phone and straighten this whole mess out with a friendly conversation. And yet, I felt almost duty bound to defend Shaykh Hamza because it was his work, after all, that had changed my life and help me become a better Muslim.
Alas, I had finally worked up the courage to say something, but this brother did not tell the story again, at least not in my presence, and shortly thereafter left Egypt. Perhaps it is for the best. But the whole thing left a bad taste in my mouth. I remember thinking, this brother obviously has a diseased heart. It is kind of ironic he backbites the one man that could help him get over his issues and find peace. Imagine, a Salafi guy using a Sufi poem to diagnose a Salafi preacher with certain spiritual diseases that would be cured by studying under the same shuyukh he criticises. We recall earlier when I wrote that there was a Blessing in this particular brother coming, though it was not the Blessing I thought it was. The true Blessing was that, through his visit, I had finally put the extremist Salafis under the microscope, and began to see something quite significant about them: They were a group of spiritually-diseased individuals, criticising the very doctors that they needed to get well. It was a deeply profound, and deeply troubling thought. But one I could not deny.
I want to say something now about the Islamic satellite TV channel that I worked for that may not have come across in my last post. Simply put, while their ‘output’ on television was Salafi, nevertheless many of their employees were not Salafi. Two of my closest confidantes in the prep department both studied and followed a particular madzhab at al-Azhar university. The Salafis do not believe following a madzhab is a necessity, and one of the directors was barely a practicing Muslim at all from what I could tell. And then there was the aforementioned Salafi brother who had many Sufi friends and often defended them and explained their arguments. And many of the Salafi shuyukh, including the primary scholar of the channel, were perfectly nice and did not appear to be extremists. I got along well with them and even felt fine in their company. Surprisingly enough, at my insistence, they actually let me host a show based on Shaykh Hamza Yusuf’s translation of Imam Mawlud's (q.s.) book, after reading it over, of course.
All of this is to their credit. But it did not detract from serious issues I saw in some of the approaches of the Salafis, and in the bad behavior and akhlaq of some of them, many of whom had been Salafi Muslims for decades. Clearly, despite the fact that many of them were good, character wise, some of them clearly needed to internalise the religion more, and I could not ignore that internalising the religion is exactly what Sufism was about; yet, exactly what they most vehemently criticised. It is perhaps the most ironic, if not tragic aspect of the modern Salafi movement. They are poisoning themselves with debate, argumentation, refutation, backbiting, gossip; all of which is quite clearly condemned in the ahadits, and are badly in need of a spiritual medicine, but the medicine lies in what they spend all day refuting.
And this, I firmly believe, will be their end. It is why they cannot last. Verbose debate, being uncompromising in their doctrine, and oil money will only get them so far, after which their movement will assuredly begin to deflate once people see it for the philosophical, spiritual, and intellectual dead end that it is. It simply will not stand against the tide of an ever-increasing Sufi presence online, its arguments exposed, nor will it be able to hold a candle to the utter supreme morality and serenity that the true shuyukh of Sufism exude from their very character when seen in person or in videos. The nur, spiritual light, on the faces of men like Shaykh Hamza, Dr. ‘Umar Abdullah, Habib ‘Ali al-Jifri, and the like is a stronger proof than any narration or twisted argument that a Salafi can produce. And as more and more people have their hearts touched by the cleansing power of Sufism, the argument for it and against Salafism will be even stronger, until the roaring flame of neo-Salafism is reduced to but a candle-light flicker, and ultimately blown out by time.
And that is, perhaps, the best segue into what I think is important to discuss with this fifth installment of my story, namely, how the arguments of Sufism finally began to win me over. How it happened was, shortly after the incidents with the well-known da’i mentioned previously, I was motivated to then research the claims of Sufism even more. As I studied, started to get involved with more and more Sufi’s and Sufi groups online, initially, just to learn about them, I noticed that the key differences that separated them from the neo-Salafi’s, as far as I could tell, lay in the following areas: ‘aqidah; taqlid; thuruq; celebrating the Mawlid an-Nabi; the Status of Prophet Muhammad (s.a.w.) in life and death; wasilah; dancing while in hal; and shrines of the awliya’. As I researched these issues one by one, I began to see the truth of these matters, as opposed to what I had previously been indoctrinated with. It took roughly two years of studying each one of these issues, giving each one it’s due time and diligence, before I understood them in the light of Islamic Orthodoxy. My studies on these topics began while I was still in Egypt and had been there only a few months, and continued well into my return to the States. I lived in Egypt for just over a year. I will deal with each of them briefly, insha’Allah, in order of easiest to tackle, to most difficult.
First, a few points on the shrines of saints. What is meant by this is, simply, the traditional Muslim practice of building shrines over the graves of sacred patronages in Islamic thought, and in many cases there are mosques built as an add on to these shrines, the graves themselves typically inhabiting a separate room. This is problematic for the Salafis who, in their dry and unorthodox methodology, rely only on texts, atsar, of the sayings of Muhammad (s.a.w.), in preference to how traditional scholarship has understood these texts. It is true, as the Salafis claim, that there are many authenticated accounts of the Apostle Muhammad (s.a.w.) forbidding building structures over graves, and even on one occasion sending one of his disciples on an errand to Yemen, giving him the added responsibility of tearing down structures over grave sites.
Those well-known scholars of the Islamic tradition which traditionally were against building structures over graves, such as Imam an-Nawawi (r.a.), and Imam ibn Hajr (r.a.), considered the practice makruh - a legal status that, while having a negative connotation, nevertheless does not forbid it outright except on certain conditions. An example would be building a structure over a grave in a public graveyard. This is the strict view in normative Islamic thought, and is the mashhur, relied-upon opinion, of the Shafi’i school of shari’ah. However, more lenient views exist, such as those of Imam al-Ghazali (r.a.) who said that shrines of saints increases the people’s reverence of knowledge and spiritual aspiration. Perhaps the most telling in this regard is what the great hadits scholar Imam al-Hakim (r.a.) himself said after narrating hadits which prohibited building structures over graves: ‘Scholars have not acted upon these hadits, for the great scholars of the Muslims —east and west— have all had their graves built over, which is something that has been passed on from generation to generation.’
But then, do the Sufis not do crazy dancing in their gatherings of dzikr? As I began to research the issue, I came to the conclusion that Sufi dances, called raqsw by many practitioners, is of two types. One is a moderate expression of spiritual ecstasy which has many manifestations. In general, a person may smile and sway back and forth, occasionally hop up and down, not in an extreme way, rather merely as an expression of joy, and this typically happens after a session of group dzikr.
As for the first form of raqsw, the textual proofs for it are obvious, and of varying degrees of merit. First there is the well-known report in Swahih al-Bukhari, in which the Abyssinians were dancing, the word used in the same hadits in Musnad Ahmad ibn Hanbal is ‘yarqaswun’, from the same Arabic trilateral root as raqsw, meaning ‘dancing’. And chanting, ‘Muhammadun ‘Abd asw-Swalih.’ This happened in the presence of the Prophet Muhammad (s.a.w.), and he did not condemn them, but rather watched with elation. But perhaps the most qualifying proof is the hadits in Musnad Ahmad ibn Hanbal in which the Prophet (s.a.w.) informed Zayd (r.a.) that he was his ‘mawlay,’ freedman, to which Zayd (r.a.), in spiritual joy, began to hop up and down own one leg, after which Ja’far (r.a.) and ‘Ali (k.w.), who were both present, began to follow suit and do the same. Commenting on this hadits, the accepted and well-known hadits master, Imam al-Bayhaqi (r.a.), declared, ‘In this, is swahih proof for hopping, which includes rising up or jumping in a state of joy, and also that of dancing being similar to it, is also allowed…’ This is related in Sunan al-Bayhaqi al-Kubra.
After this was the Mawlid, of which I do not intend to write much, as the proofs for it are exhaustive and easily accessible online. However, it was an issue for me, because for probably a decade, I had parroted at every opportunity that the Mawlid was bid’a, and even would get angry when I saw other Muslims giving each other salutations and holiday greetings on that day. I was rather shocked to discover that, in fact, the majority of the Sunni scholars throughout history allowed the celebration of the Mawlid, or, at least were silent about it. True, there were some Sunni ‘ulama, here and there, that had forbidden it as an innovation, but the majority of them simply did not. At best, this proves that the stronger opinion is that celebrating the Mawlid is a part of Sunni Islam, and at the very least establishes ikhtilaf, a difference of opinion among the scholars, which automatically disqualifies the practice as ever being able to be declared as sinful, and certainly not a bid’ah. Perhaps the most convincing arguments for me were those of the great Sunni scholar Imam as-Suyuthi (r.a.) who produced several proofs that the Prophet Muhammad (s.a.w.) actually celebrated the Mawlid in his own way, in his lifetime by fasting and performing his own ‘aqiqah after wahy had Descended upon him even though his grandfather had already done so upon his birth, and his informing his companions that it was a day of great bliss - all of which is established in hadits and sirah.
As far as following a madzhab goes, I intend to skip this rather complicated discussion for now. For those who wish to research the topic, I point you in the direction of a previous blog I have written on the matter, which I intend, insha’Allah, to update in the coming days with new information, and more up-to-date answers.
On the matters of wasilah, that is, seeking the intercession of the Prophet Muhammad (s.a.w.) even after his death, as I have understood it, the Salafis take issue with this particular act due to their misunderstanding of a few key points
They believe authentic method of wasilah is to ask the Apostle Muhammad (s.a.w.) to pray to Allah (s.w.t.) for us with full knowledge that it is Allah (s.w.t.), not the Prophet (s.a.w.), Who Answers our request. To the Sunni Muslims, it is not an act of shirk, but merely of the same status, fiqh-wise, as asking a righteous living person to supplicate for us when we are in need.
The Salafis seem to misunderstand the meaning of certain key Qur’anic verses which condemn pagans for calling on idols who can neither hear nor speak, and certain ahadits which liken du’a to worship. As to the Qur’an, indeed Allah (s.w.t.) is Correct to Condemn people who call on idols of wood and stone of their own manufacture, which can neither harm nor benefit, even as an act of intercession. However, this is different from calling on the Prophet Muhammad (s.a.w.) who is alive, and who can speak. As to the hadits, ‘Du’a is worship,’ this does not mean what we make du’a to, we worship but rather means, du’a is an act of worship. Average Muslims may not realise this, thinking that the Reward for the du’a is merely receiving what one asks for. However, the Prophet (s.a.w.) clarified that the act of du’a itself carries a Reward, that is, the Reward of any other act of worship, and this is the true meaning of the hadits.
According to the Salafis, the Prophet (s.a.w.) is dead, and therefore cannot be supplicated to. We shall address this in the section dealing with the status of Prophet Muhammad (s.a.w.) in life and death.
And finally, they seem to be unaware that there is textual proof for the practice of wasilah through the Prophet (s.a.w.), even after his death. For the sake of brevity, I will not elaborate much more beyond giving the reader a link to the well-authenticated hadits of the disciple, ‘Utsman ibn Hunayf (r.a.). Shaykh Hamza Yusuf mentions this hadits.
As to the final two points which I am going to cover in this particular blog, namely, the status of the Prophet (s.a.w.) in Sufism versus Salafism, and thuruq, let me start with the thuruq issue. And both of which I shall deal with very briefly. A thuruq, for those unaware, is known in the west as a Sufi Order. Typically, how it operates is, a trusted shaykh is the head of the thariqa’, and under him are muridun who have given bay’ah, the pledge of allegiance, to this shaykh, to obey him in all matters, and he thus orders them to do certain acts of dzikr which are particular to his thariqa’. It is decried as bid’ah by the Salafis, and various thuruq that have shuyukh who have ordered some strange practices and made outlandish statements are put forward as examples of Sufism in action in order to tarnish all practitioners of taswawwuf.
What needs to be addressed here, in my opinion, is the fact that the bay’ah in Sufi thuruq is a non-binding pledge, meaning, there are ways to get out of them should a need arise. Thus pointing to these pledges as evidence of cultish practices within Sufism is unfounded and unfair. Furthermore, it is true that some shuyukh of thuruq are charlatans, and that one should be careful which thuruq they join, should they choose to do so as it is not an important or necessary tenet of Sufism, and who they take knowledge from. But then, is not this true of any shaykh, whether bay’ah is given to him or not, and irrespective of his title? As far as the claim that this is bid’ah, after researching the history of the thuruq, I found it a dubious claim. It was, at the very least hypothesised as a beneficial practice by the early Sunni scholar, Imam al-Muhasibi al-Baghdadi (r.a.) as early as the late 700s, just under 200 years after the death of the Prophet (s.a.w.), during the era of the Salaf asw-Swalih, and was officially put into practice by his student, Imam Junayd al-Baghdadi (q.s.). All of this was around the same time the ahadits literature was officially being compiled and codified, and thus to claim that it is a bid’ah is a bit of a stretch. It is something that was initiated very early in Islam, and was started by well-known and respected Sunni scholars during the era of the Salaf.
My final thoughts in this fairly lengthy blog deal with what, exactly I ultimately decided was the apparent goal of the Salafi movement. It appeared to me, after learning these facts and many more, that Salafism was a brand of Islam that, in its initial zealousness sought to strip the religion of many folkloric practices which had crept in by the end of the Ottoman period of Islamic civilisation, and yet it ultimately morphed into a movement of ignorant Bedouins, who, without any knowledge whatsoever, began to throw out wholesale, authentic parts of Sunni Islam along with the ‘folk Islam’ which they sought to expunge. History attests that the earliest followers of the founder of the Salafi movement, Muhammad ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab, were almost all completely illiterate desert nomads in Arabia. Scholarship developed among them at a later date.
Unfortunately, this also means that they have almost succeeded in disconnecting Islam from its founder, the Holy Apostle Muhammad (s.a.w.), in a certain sense. We are told by the Salafis that the Prophet Muhammad (s.a.w.) is just an ordinary man. Sufis, of course, have never denied that the Apostle (s.a.w.) was mortal, but ordinary is another story. The Salafis have insisted that we can love him ‘too much.’ What’s more, they have insisted that he is dead, even though the position of traditional Islam is that the Prophet (s.a.w.) is in a state known has hayyun fi qabrihi, alive in his grave, as hadits on the matter attest. The Salafi movement insists that the ancestors of the Prophet (s.a.w.) were all disbelievers, doomed to the Fire forever, despite evidence to the contrary and scholarly opinions which contradict this view. So, then we may ask, what is left of Muhammad (s.a.w.)?
He has, if Salafism gets its way, been relegated to nothing more than an average envelope for Divine Revelation, empty of all mystical and spiritual truth himself, apparently being only a vehicle, the son of idol-worshippers, now dead and buried in a hole in the desert of Arabia, who left behind no clear method for human spiritual beautification, but instead his legacy belongs to mostly deviants who all went astray after him for well over a thousand years, until the movement was ‘revived’ by a group of highway robbers. The clan of Sa’ud, with whom Muhammad ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab allied himself, made their wealth from caravan raids in the Najd. Furthermore, we, as average Muslims, have no lasting connection with him, as his death has severed him from us spiritually until the Day of Judgement.
After studying these issues, and pondering on what the ultimate goals of the two movements were, one being to help us internalise the religion and connect us spiritually to the Prophet Muhammad (s.a.w.), and the other attempting, in my opinion, to decry most of the scholars who sought to help us internalise Islam, to sever us from the Prophet Muhammad (s.a.w.), and to put, in the stead of Sufism, or, as I prefer to call it, Sunni Islam, a host of rules and regulations alone, I was left wondering what this meant for me personally. Furthermore, realising that most of the acts which the Salafis condemn the Sufis for were not as clear cut as I was led to believe, developed within me a great sense of mistrust of the Salafi methodology as a whole. After two years of rigorous research, and after two years of coming face to face with these difficult truths, I could no longer deny it. I was not Salafi. I knew it now. I knew, for the first time what I was. I was Sufi. But the question burned within me. Do I dare say it? What would people think? Should I hide it? .No, I thought. I will not hide it. Is it not the truth? Can it not be defended? I will tell everyone the facts, come what may. And that’s exactly what I did.
The position of Sufism, which I will now refer to as ‘Sunni Islam’ for the remainder of this blog as I consider Salafism to be a departure from traditional Sunni Islam, with regards to ‘aqidah is that there are four acceptable schools of Sunni ‘aqidah, that is Ash’ari, which has historically been the majority school, Maturidi, which many Hanafi’s belong to, Thahawi, a small school that began in Egypt, and which many scholars consider to be a blending of the Ash’ari and Maturidi ‘aqa’id, and the traditional Hanbali ‘aqidah, which was the smallest of all of the theological creeds, typically now limited to Saudi Arabia. Sunni Islam, with the exception of only a few renegade scholars from the Hanbali creed here and there, has by and large accepted all four of these theologies as acceptable Orthodox schools that only differed on a few matters, for reasons based more so on circumstance than anything. They were, until the Salafis, all considered normative.
The Salafis contend that their creed is the Hanbali creed, and their detractors claim that, rather, the Salafi ‘aqidah is a new ‘aqidah which has its origins in some of the more extreme interpretations of Hanbali theology, which was then stretched further still by the puritanical ideologues, until it departed from any Orthodox tradition, and has now become an anthropomorphic aberration. This is a tangled knot to untie, and I do not intend to get involved in this controversy. For one, the specifics of it would bore the readers to tears, and also it is highly technical and deals with very problematic issues and is, admittedly, beyond my intellectual pay grade.
But I would like to offer a few thoughts in this general area. The extremist Salafi approach in their theological creed, which is to insist that the Hanbali creed is the only correct creed if we are to accept their claims that they are truly following the Hanbali theology to the letter certainly is to be rejected. The attempts to convince the Muslim world that the Ash’ari school of which they have a particular hatred is shirk, atheism and kufr - as the plebeians among them allege - is often not understood by the average Muslim as the unbelievably arrogant and disgusting claim that it actually is. What they are truly alleging, without the lay Muslim realising, is that the majority of all Muslims have become disbelievers and deviants. This claim by itself would be fantastic, but this is not the end of it. Furthermore, they are claiming that a significant majority of Muslims throughout time since the Ash’ari school got its footing in the 10th century, and held a strong position until fairly recently when Salafism began to spread were in fact disbelievers. The appalling diatribe goes further still, alleging that great Sunni scholars, such as Imam al-Ghazali (r.a.), Imam ibn Hajr al-‘Asqalani (r.a.), Imam al-Qurthubi (r.a.), Imam al-Haytsami (r.a.), Imam Zakariyyah al-Answari (r.a.), Imam an-Naswafi (r.a.), most probably Imam an-Nawawi (r.a.), and many, many other great Sunni scholars were all disbelievers in theology as these scholars and many others were all Ash’arites.
Certainly these claims are preposterous, and should be rejected by any sane individual. But yet a question which I do not think many Muslims ask themselves is, why do the Salafis have such a willingness to debate theology? What I mean is, while you will find several videos of Salafi scholars decrying wasilah as shirk, lampooning Sufi group dzikr, and declaring the Mawlid to be bid’a, you will never see them publicly debate other Sunni scholars who disagree with them on those points. On the rare occasion that they do have a public debate on a Salafi versus Sunni issue, it will always be on ‘aqidah. It will always be Ash’ari against Atsari, the title they give their ‘aqidah. Their go-to debater, Abdur Rahman Dimashqiah has several videos of himself debating Ash’ari’s and Maturidi’s, but very few, if any, of him debating the other issues that Salafis contend with Sunnis on.
My hypothesis is that this is because ‘aqidah itself, particularly as it relates to some of Allah’s (s.w.t.) Divine Names and Attributes, is an ambiguous topic. It is very easy to get lost in the various controversies, outward contradictions, and abstruse terms and meanings of this particular subject. Furthermore, the true way of the Salaf was to avoid involving themselves in such matters. They merely affirmed the text, meaning, when Allah (s.w.t.) Says in the Qur’an that He has a Hand, they neither said, ‘It means He has a Hand, just a hand unlike we know’, nor did they interpret it as metaphorical. Rather they affirmed the text and left the meaning to Allah (s.w.t.). As time progressed, and deviant theologies such as the Jahmites, the Mu’tazilites, and the Rawafidh arose, the need to respond to these deviant creeds also arose, and the scholars of the Sunni tradition stood up to the challenge, in the form of the four aforementioned creeds. This sometimes required them to give rationalist answers, begrudgingly, to the enemies of Orthodox Islam.
But that is the point, is it not? The true way of the true Salaf, not the neo-Salafis, is to avoid debating these matters excepting in cases of extreme necessity, such as prevalence of deviant theologies, precisely because they are so technical. The various theological schools only debated and rationalised certain aspects of ‘aqidah in order to defend Islam itself. When there was no need to do so, the scholars of these four creeds refrained. This is in contrast to the current Salafi movement, which has forums dedicated to spreading their theology and ridiculing other theologies. They have class after class in their mosques and website after website that deal specifically with this topic, and, what’s worse, the laymen among them get wrapped up in this. Now a brother has been Salafi for three years, and debates ‘aqidah on Facebook day and night, with no formal training in the science. But, to me, this is in fact a mercy to the discerning Muslims. It is a proof to us that the neo-Salafis are anything but orthodox in their approach. Does not Allah (s.w.t.) Say in the Qur’an:
He it is Who has Sent down to thee the Book: in it are verses basic or fundamental (of established meaning); they are the foundation of the Book: others are not of well-established meaning. But those in whose hearts is perversity follow the part thereof that is not of well-established meaning. Seeking discord, and searching for its interpretation, but no one knows its true meanings except Allah, and those who are firmly grounded in knowledge say: “We believe in it; the whole of it is from our Lord”; and none will grasp the Message except men of understanding. (Surah Ali ‘Imran:7)
Surely the nuances of meaning as it relates to Allah’s (s.w.t.) Names and Attributes are among the ambiguous verses, so by insisting that this always be the topic of debate, and by their obvious comfort in dealing with this topic, they have done nothing but exposed their own deviation, as per the words of the Divine Revelation itself.
The ‘aqidah issue was a digression that I took only because I had promised in previous installments to do so. Now, back to my particular journey. Before explaining what happened when I started referring to myself as ‘Sufi’ openly, which is still problematic for some, I want to address a significant point as it relates to titles. I know that many brothers and sisters will object to calling themselves Sufi, simply for one of two reasons. First, they are afraid that by referring to themselves as Sufi they are being sectarian, and thus condemned by Allah’s (s.w.t.) Words in the Qur’an which prohibit breaking off into parties and sects. Second, they object because, traditionally speaking, someone who refers to himself as Sufi probably is not one, at least, not a true one. The term itself, after all, implies piety. There are several possible derivations of the word, all of which denote purity, asceticism, shunning the world, having a pure heart inclined to worship. And to ascribe piety to oneself is precisely a sign of impiety in Islamic thought.
As to the first point, traditional Sunni scholarship has not considered referring to oneself as Sufi as necessarily a mark of sectarianism. One can be a Sufi and still be a ‘Sunni’, as well as still be a Hanafi or a Shafi’i and so forth. Sectarianism from an academic standpoint has always referred to cutting oneself off from the majority of Muslims, and rejoicing in a unique doctrine. For example, the Shi’ah are condemned, not necessarily because of their beliefs per se, but because they became a sect. They separated themselves from the jama’ah of Muslims, declared the rest as deviants, and rejoiced in their own ‘special’ dogmas and beliefs. They have their own collections of hadits, their own authoritative figures, and so on. However, as a Sufi, I still consider myself a Sunni. I can walk into any Sunni Mosque and pray without a problem. I read all the same hadits, and I have not separated myself from the jama’ah. This is why great ‘ulama of the Sunni tradition have had no problem identifying themselves as Sufi. The title can become sectarian, if one begins to use it as a reason to elevate themselves over others, but then, this is antithetical to Sufi thought, which teaches humility as a core value, and may Allah (s.w.t.) Save us from that.
As to the second point, I am not using the title as a means to declare my own piety, but rather simply as an expressed desire. If someone asked me if I was Sufi in person, my real answer would be, ‘Insha’Allah.’ As Muslims, we are to have what is called himmah, or high hopes in terms of spiritual aspirations. Few of us will, for example, be granted wilayat, sainthood, but this does not negate the necessity of striving for it. When I say I am Sufi, what I really mean is that I am not a neo-Salafi. It is a term I use in protest to what I consider a deviant and harmful way of thought, and is mainly in use by me online. Would you, after all, read a blog titled, ‘My Journey from Salafi to Maliki?’ It is also an attempt by me to remind others as, according to the Qur’an, reminders benefit the believers, that taswawwuf or, Sufism, if you prefer, the science of internal religion, is a legitimate part of Sunni Islam, despite what the extremists claim.
I first declared my Sufism subtly, by merely changing my religion indicator on Facebook from Muslim, to Muslim-Sufi. No one noticed. Then, when the neo-Salafis desecrated the grave of the great Sufi scholar, Imam Ahmad az-Zarruq (r.a.), I decided to come out like a lion due to my own outrage. I posted a video of Shaykh Faisal Hamid, a well-known Sunni scholar in Canada decrying this act and the Salafism which spawned it, and declared myself Sufi for all to see.
However, after just a few moments, a Salafi who had known me from some of my television shows that I did in Egypt sent me a scathing response in my FB inbox and blocked me, and this made me consider that perhaps the best way to do this was gently, and not harshly. After all, I want to win hearts to the truth, and it is easier to do that with simple facts, objective reasoning, and kindness, as opposed to reactionary rhetoric. Thus I deleted the post very soon after posting it, and waited until a later date.
A few weeks passed, and I finally posted a long explanation on Facebook, clarifying that I referred to myself as Sufi, but this was not out of hatred of any other Muslims, rather just a title I was using to give myself an excuse to be closer to my Lord. The declaration went unnoticed, or so I thought. Little did I know that there were many spies, according to my understanding of the word, that had infiltrated my Facebook page, and were reporting my posts back to Salafis in my area, particularly in a certain organisation that I was involved with locally. The result was that a convert support group that I led was cancelled by the organisation due to my Sufi leanings. Other Muslims, in their intolerance and love of fitnah, fabricated information against me to tarnish my reputation and the reputation of other converts who supported me. And yet still, other Muslims would come up to me smiling, with a pretense of also being Sufi, only to lure me into debate and fitnah in the masajid in front of other Muslims.
What the Salafis thought they were accomplishing by this propaganda war I do not know. It is only against them, and not for them. It certainly did not make me want to return to the ‘saved’ sect but rather only served as further proof that my summation of Salifism is correct. It is a deviant and poisonous ideology, accepted mostly by the ignorant masses. I feel sorry for the untold numbers of Muslims who, in their love of Islam, were duped by the false call of ‘a return to the true religion of the first three generations’ when it is anything but. And this is why I am opposed to Salafism but not the Salafis themselves except the loudmouths in their camp. I feel that most Muslims entered into Salafiyyah unknowingly, trying to find the pristine Islam of the past. The call of the Salafis, on the face of it, is certainly tempting in that regard. It is easier to follow a hadits upon first glance rather than researching the hundreds of scholarly opinions on that hadits before acting on it. But that does not represent an Islam that is open to everyone, that is lenient or flexible, and that accepts various cultures. The deceptive call of the Salafi approach has, unfortunately, duped many of the average Muslims due to its seductive claims, using their love of Islam and its Prophet (s.a.w.) as its pretext.
Perhaps what surprised me the most, however, was the Muslims who, after debating all of these topics with me and performing poorly, not because I am something special, but rather because the true Sunni Islam is a great and weighty thing, al-Hamdulillah, nevertheless remained Salafi. I had always considered Islam as the logical religion and assumed that when proofs within the religion were provided, Muslims would correct themselves accordingly. I was disheartened to find that this was not the case. Perhaps this speaks volumes to the degree with which Salafi thought has infiltrated the common Muslim mind. I firmly believe that most Muslims are truly terrified to leave it, and Allah (s.w.t.) forbid anyone should speak against it. They fear what will happen were they to even slightly criticise the ‘saved’ sect. As if not supporting neo-Salafism is tantamount to kufr and worthy of the Hellfire.
And perhaps I will end it with this thought. If you are Sufi, or if you have been convinced by these blogs, you need not hide it. Perhaps you do not need to shout it from the street corner, but one should expect that if they are on the path of truth and say so openly, even if it is merely when asked, they will face tribulation as the prophets and saints have. Do not let that be a deterrent. What friends do you need other than Allah (s.w.t.) and His Elect? What companionship is better than being connected with the Holy Apostle Muhammad (s.a.w.)? What words of comfort are better than those written in the books of the Sufi saints? Say the truth, and do not worry about the consequence. The Holy Prophet (s.a.w.) only became more forbearing when persecutions increased. Indeed, persecution is a sign you are on the truth. Imam al-Ghazali (r.a.) wrote in his magnum opus, Ihya ‘Ulum ad-Din, the following: ‘If you see Allah, Mighty and Magnificent, Holding back this world from you, frequently Trying you with adversity and tribulation, know that you hold a great status with Him. Know that He is Dealing with you as He does with His awliya’ and chosen elite, and is Watching over you. Have you not heard His Saying:
Now await in patience the Command of thy Lord: for verily thou art in our eyes ...’ (Surah ath-Thur:48)
And this concludes the story of my journey from Salafi to Sufism. I hope it has been of some benefit. I pray it opens eyes and hearts and minds. I pray it has even some small contribution to the separation of truth from falsehood, and that it is counted for me and not against me. I can say without doubt that, despite the trials handed to me by other Muslims still wallowing in ignorance and prejudice, every other aspect of my life has been bettered. My spiritual life has excelled and I have seen great wonders and miracles, my marriage has increased in blessing, my overall contentment and patience has increased, as has my certainty in Allah’s (s.w.t.) promises. I have all but healed the rift that Salafism had caused between my Christian family and friends, and we are all now on great terms and very close. They even ask me to pray for them on occasion. al-Hamdulillah, Allah’s (s.w.t.) Blessings are countless. Only the mistakes are mine.”