The Sharing Group Discussion on Sufism

بِسۡمِ ٱللهِ ٱلرَّحۡمَـٰنِ ٱلرَّحِيمِ

Sister Nounou Moumina posted this, on The Sharing Group, on the 31st March, 2015: “Please enlighten us, Brother Terence Helikaon Nunis, about Sufism, along with anyone who follows it.”

Brother Terence Helikaon Nunis: Sufism is simply another, Westernised, name for taswawwuf, spirituality, in Islam.  It is another of the religious sciences.  It is also known as ihsan or irfan.  The Sufis are the Ahl asw-Swafa’.  This term applies only to those who have mastered its sciences, not anybody else.  In the same vein, only those who have mastered fiqh are fuqaha’, not every Muslim who practices shari’ah.

Just as jurisprudence is the theoretical discussion and shari’ah is the practical application, then taswawwuf is the doctrine and thariqa’ is the vehicle of expression.  ‘Thariqa’’ means ‘path’ or ‘way’.  It is a school of thought pertaining to aspects of this doctrine.  Just as schools of thought in fiqh and ‘aqidah are known as madzahib, singular madzhab; in taswawwuf, they are known as thuruq, singular thariqa’.  There are 40 major thuruq; 39 of them trace their silsilah to the Prophet (s.a.w.) through ‘Ali ibn Abi Thalib (k.w.), and the last one through Abu Bakr asw-Swiddiq (r.a.).

One who has given bay’ah, an undertaking to apprentice and master this science, is known as a murid, or sometimes, a salik.  One who regularly sits in the circles of litanies and practise this ‘ibadah without delving into the depths of this science is a muhib.  One of the conditions of a scholar in Islam is that he must know both the sciences of fiqh and taswawwuf.  Shari’ah is that foundation.  Taswawwuf is the inner reality.  Essentially, every major scholar of the Salaf was a Sufi, or had a Sufi shaykh as one of his teachers.

As recorded by Imam Ahmad az-Zarruq (q.s.), one our foremost muhadditsin and a Sufi of the Shadzili thariqa’, Imam Malik (r.a.) said, “Man taswawwafa laa tafaqaha’ tazandaqa, man tafaqaha laa taswawwafa tafasaqa, man jama’ah humma tahaqqaha,” which translates as, “One who practises spirituality without jurisprudence is a heretic, one who practices jurisprudence without spirituality is a constant sinner, and one who practices both reaches the Truth.”

Brother Hamayoon Sultan Qurayshi: Shaykh Abdal Hakim Murad said, “Every Muslim is either a good Sufi or a bad Sufi.”

Brother Colin Turner: Every Sufi is either a good Muslim or a bad Muslim.

Brother Hamayoon Sultan Qurayshi: The meaning of the quote rests on exactly how Shaykh Abdal Hakim Murad was defining the word ‘Sufi’.  It is a bit of a thought experiment and I am not sure I have yet properly understood what he was trying to say.

Brother Terence Helikaon Nunis: A Muslim organisation I was involved hosted ‘Abdullah Hakim Quick.  And I had the misfortune of being the chairperson for his talk and I sat next to him when he made some comments I did not think befitted someone of his knowledge.  He mentioned in the first talk that the Sufis were those who stayed in the mosque to teach in the time of the Prophet (s.a.w.) since they ‘had no proper jobs’.  I am surprised and disappointed that he, as a historian, made such an error.  This is absolutely incorrect.  The foremost Sufis amongst the companions included Abu Bakr asw-Swiddiq (r.a.), from whom the Naqshbandi tradition comes from; ‘Ali ibn Abi Thalib (k.w.), who is the doorway for the forty thuruq; Salman al-Farsi (r.a.) and so many others.  They are the stars in the firmament of the faith.  They all had jobs.  The Sufi tradition is the detachment of the world, not absolute seclusion from it.  It is the sunnah of the Prophet (s.a.w.).

As taken from my article, A Muslim Convert Once More: What is a Sufi?, so who are the Sufis?  What does the term even mean?  A lot of people mention them all the time.  So who better to describe the Sufis than the Arch-Intercessor himself, the one whose feet are on the necks of all the saints?  He is al-Ghawts al-A‘azham wa al-Quthb al-A’azham Muhyi ad-Din Shaykh Abu Muhammad ‘Abd al-Qadir al-Jilani (q.s.).  According to Shaykh ‘Abd al-Qadir al-Jilani (q.s.), the Sufis have four interpretations for their names.  These names are given on account of what they represented to those who knew of them and their ways.  When some had looked at the exterior and seen the woollen garb of which they became famous for wearing, they were called thus after the Arabic word for wool which is ‘swuf’.  The garb is to symbolise humility by leaving that which is ostentatious.  But even that garb may be a veil for those who have humbled themselves may become proud that they are humble.  When others looked at their way of life, free from the anxieties of the world, at their submission, at their peace of mind; they called them Sufi after that state which in Arabic is ‘swafa’’.  For surely Allah (s.w.t.) is the Best of Planners.  And those who remember the Planner cannot be in a state of continual distress.

Who have believed and whose hearts have rest in the remembrance of Allah. Verily in the remembrance of Allah do hearts find rest! (Surah ar-Ra’ad:28)

Another group noticed the purity of their hearts and the sincerity of their ‘ibadah.  And they were the ‘Pure Ones’ and thus named Sufi from ‘swafi’ which means ‘pure’ in Arabic.  They have been purified of the self.  For when the self is absent, the Divine is Present.  The Divine is Inherent.  Still others took note that they were the people of the first row or ‘swaff’, the ahl asw-swaff.

The earliest written use of the term ’Sufi’ is in reference to a student of Imam Ja’far asw-Swadiq (q.s.), Shaykh Jabir ibn Hayyan (r.a.) in the 2nd century after Hijrah.  This is not new term.  Neither are the practices of the Sufis anything new since they are all from Prophet Muhammad (s.a.w.). These are not the people of shara’.  They are the people of wara’.  They have moved beyond the Path of the Law to the Path of Caution.  The doctrine of taswawwuf and Islam as espoused by Quthb al-‘Arifin, Shaykh Tayfur Bayazid al-Bistami (q.s.) is thus: “Follow the Qur’an and the sunnah; always speak the truth; free the heart from hatred; avoid forbidden food; and shun innovation.”

According to this: A Muslim Convert Once More: What is Sufism? Sufism is a path of spiritual advancement.  By a process of purification, Sufi practices allow light to enter our hearts and our faculties of perception.  This may lead to the development of our innate spiritual and intuitive abilities, in the same way that when you open a window to a dark room light floods in and you can suddenly see more.  Thus the practice of Sufism leads to an expansion of consciousness - an increase in our self-awareness and our awareness of the universe we live in.  We become less prone to acting and thinking in conditioned ways.  This in turn leads to a self-transformation - a transformation in the way we conduct ourselves and interact with the world.  We find peace and contentment and a growing awareness of a Higher Plan.  Ultimately, the Sufi path brings us closer to the Supreme Reality, which is Allah (s.w.t.).

According to the Sufis, man is asleep.  By this, they mean than the vast majority of us are oblivious to the realities of life and death, existence and Allah (s.w.t.), and we live life as if in a dream or a metaphor.  And yet the other side of sleep is wakefulness, and Sufis also teach that mankind is equipped with subtle centres of consciousness which are largely unused, but which can gradually be awakened through practical guidance and sincere effort.  Once awakened, these inner faculties of perception enable us to witness realities which previously appeared to us as obscure mysteries.  It is possible to move into the light when previously we were in the dark.  Sufism is the path of the gradual awakening of the heart, whereby we turn away from all that is illusory, and subsist in Reality.  This was the condition that Muhammad (s.a.w.) described when he said, “My eyes sleep but my heart does not sleep,” as recorded in Swahih al-Bukhari.

Brother Tim: Has anyone read the following book about ‘Ali ibn Abi Thalib (k.w.) which I remember Brother Abdur Rahman recommending once?  It seems to address a crucial moment when jurisprudence, sacred justice, and Sufism, remembrance, were poised beautifully and harmoniously before the classification of Islamic sciences.  This is the book: Justice and Remembrance: Introducing the Spirituality of Imam Ali.

Brother Colin Turner: You are dangerous, Brother Tim.  I have just had to dip into my pocket again because of you 

Brother Tim: Well, I hope it is illuminating, Brother Colin.  I am not altogether satisfied with saying that taswawwuf is a science amongst others when it is about realising the truth for oneself in one’s own being as much as mastering a discourse about truth.  Unless I am mistaken and every Islamic science is consummated in practice?  I think the point about Sufism being experiential is equally important.

Brother James Harris: Brother Tim, I have never been happy with the translation of the word ‘‘ilm’ as ‘science’.  I think ‘branch of knowledge’ or perhaps, ‘discipline’ is closer to the mark.

Brother Tim: Do any of these English terms adequately convey the experiential and practical aspect of learning or is that missing from the Arabic itself?

Brother James Harris: The meaning of that particular term is more general than ‘science’, which is tied more specifically to the natural sciences in its connotation.  It refers to any knowledge that is gained through some effort or learning.

Brother Tim: The words ‘effort’ and ‘discipline’ come close to the jihad of the scholar to my Sufic understanding, working on oneself as much as furthering knowledge.

Sister Shahla Khan Salter: Sufism is about the heart of Islam, spirituality, not just dogma.  But how rituals and practice strengthen our hearts and what they mean, there is no Islam without Sufism.  There are more details here: The Threshold Society.


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