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SUFI

Sufi—
During the eighth and ninth centuries A.D., a new emphasis began to develop within the religion of Islam. This emphasis was a reaction against the prevailing impersonal and formal nature of Islam. For many Muslims the shari‘a, while seen as necessary, failed to satisfy their deepest spiritual longings and desires. The search for deeper meaning began with a pietistic asceticism, which in turn led to the development of the popular mystical side of Islam – known as tasawwuf or Sufism.

The controversial nature of the subject of Sufism becomes evident when one realizes that this short introduction already reveals a viewpoint which the Sufi would strongly disagree with. For, if the Sufi spiritual quest is to be viewed as legitimate, even within Islam itself, it must be rooted in the Quran and the sunnah of Muhammad. Andrew Rippin, in his work Muslims: Their Religious Beliefs and Practices, states that “Sufis.. in their search for legitimation of their spiritual quest [must show] whether Islam as a religion contained within it a spiritual-ascetic tendency from the very beginning.”1

In defense of Sufi legitimacy, some Muslims argue that it was simply a response to the growing materialism in the Islamic world.2 However; this argument skirts the basic reason for Sufism, as during early Islamic times under Muhammad’s leadership, wealth was enjoyed and served as a great motivation for the military expansion of Islam. Muslims, at the time, followed a legal system allowing unbridled materialism, though they were fully observant of the present religious doctrine. The formal and legal nature of the Islamic system never addressed the issue of materialism, and as a result was seen as inadequate by those who became Sufis in their search for deeper spirituality. Consequentially, Islam was to all appearances a religion of a decidedly unspiritual nature.

To admit this would be devastating to the religion of Islam. Yet, if Islam is to be defended as a spiritually adequate, Sufi doctrine and practice must be proven to be inherently Islamic in nature, as “to suggest that Islamic mysticism is, in fact, a borrowing from outside raises the spectra of denial of the intrinsically spiritual nature of Islam and thence the spiritual nature of Muslims themselves.”3

Thus we are left with several controversial, yet critically important questions. First, was Sufism present from the very beginnings of Islam, in the life of Muhammad and the Quran? Secondly, has Sufism borrowed from the outside – from other religions? And finally, how does the evidence for the answers to these questions reflect on the nature of Islam itself?

Sufism has influenced many Muslims, and is, especially in the West, portrayed and regarded as a valuable and legitimate part of the Islamic faith. Fazlur Rahman, in his work Islam, says that “considerable ink has been spent by modern scholarship on the ‘origins’ of Sufism in Islam, as to how far it is ‘genuinely’ Islamic and how far a product, in the face of Islam, of outside influences, particularly Christian and Gnostic.”4 Rahman seems to hint that some of this ink has been wasted, as he concludes that “outside influences must have played an accessory role and these no one may deny, but they must have supervened upon an initial native tendency.” However, aside from a vague reference to the ideas of trust in and love of Allah as being a result of “developments within the intellectual and spiritual life of the community,”5 Rahman fails to clarify or give any support to his claim that the essential and central basis of Sufism is Islamic.

Another Muslim scholar, Seyyed Hossein Nasr, in his work Sufi Essays, expresses his disdain of “[scholars of Islam in the West] following the older practice of explaining Sufism away as some kind of alien influence within Islam,” and rejoices with the fact that “many are now willing to accept the Islamic origin of Sufism and the unbreakable link connecting Sufism to Islam.”6 While these are responses to the questions initially posed, they seem to be more concerned with the maintenance of the outward appearance of Islamic unity, than with critical academic research and appraisal.

Not only do these statements seem one-sided from a scholarly standpoint, but they also run counter to what Nasr terms “indigenous puritanical movements of a rationalist and anti-mystical kind”7 found within Islam. As one author succinctly states, the fact remains that within Islam, Sufism is often “frowned upon by Muslim orthodoxy, yet quite amazingly fawned upon and romantically fondled by Muslim masses.”8

In response to critics, Sufis argue that tasawwuf has been present from the very beginnings of Islam, and profess to find evidence for their claims in the sunna and the Quran. On this basis they state that tasawwuf “is the esoteric or inward (batin) aspect of Islam.”9

According to Sufi doctrine a number of verses in the Quran provide clear support for their mysticism. Perhaps the most often quoted as a proof is Surah 24:35, “Allah is the Light of Heaven and Earth! His light may be compared to a niche in which there is a lamp; the lamp is in a glass; the glass is just as if it were a glittering star kindled from a blessed olive tree, {which is} neither Eastern nor Western, whose oil will almost glow though the fire has never touched it. Light upon light, Allah guides anyone He wishes to His light.”10 Another verse, often chanted in Sufi gatherings, and which the Sufis claim sums up the whole of Sufism is Surah 2:156, “Verily we are for Allah, and verily unto Him we are returning.”11 A third often used verse is Surah 50:6, “We (Allah) are nearer to him (man) than his jugular vein.”12 The Sufis believe that Muhammad has said that every verse of the Quran has ‘an outside and an inside’ – a belief clearly in line with their quest for the haqiqa.13 However, the very method of Quranic interpretation used by the Sufis in order to support their claims, can arguably be seen as a reliance on eisegesis rather than exegesis.14

Many of the traditions about the life of Muhammad which are often referred to by Sufis are not found in the major hadith collections (Bukhari, Muslim, Kulayni, Ibn Babuya), having been rejected by the collectors as unsound.15 However, within Sufi spheres the traditions are maintained – and viewed by Sufis as giving full legitimacy to the Sufi way of Islam. Yet, as Andrew Rippin suggests, “[this] simply indicates that they [Sufis] have, like all other Muslims, always gone back to the prime sources of Islam for inspiration as well as justification of their position.”16 The ulama regarding the shari‘a as the organizing principle in the life of the Islamic community, as the revealed way – guaranteed by Allah; have and continue to largely oppose Sufism.17 As one scholar has stated, “[opponents] have never been wanting; [Sufis’] beliefs have been refuted, their practices condemned, their dervishes ridiculed and occasionally executed, and their sheikhs castigated.”18 Thus the question remains whether the Quran and sunnah were used for justification or inspiration, an area requiring extensive research which does not yet seem to have been undertaken.

As there is clearly no consensus on Sufi legitimacy as derived from the Quran and hadith, and as an adequate answer will require much more detailed study, it is presently impossible “for modern historians to take ‘objective’ facts from this type of material.”19 By the same token, Muslims cannot objectively argue Sufi origins from the Quran and hadith. Thus we are brought to the question of whether Sufism has borrowed from the outside – from other religions.

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