Assessing Sufism and how it relates to the Quran, in his article “Sufism (Islamic Mysticism) and the Quran,” A. Muhammad has addressed what he calls the 6 “main principles” of Sufism:
1) Mystic interpretation (of Quran)
2) Submission and allegiance to a sheikh
3) Powers given to the sheikh
4) Perception of God
5) Sufism as a sect of Islam, and
6) The Why and How of Sufism’s Formation
The present article is a response to the assertions made there, as well as an attempt to reconcile a Quranist understanding with Sufi practice.
Before beginning, kindly allow for a bit of context.
I consider myself a Sufi, in the sense that I have accepted a sheikh as my teacher. I have studied and practiced Sufi teachings for the past eight years, having reverted to Islam approximately 9 years ago. In the process of getting acquainted with Sufism, everything I encountered has been strictly filtered through The Quran Alone.
I had an unequivocal and undeniable experience of The Quran as The Sole Criterion of Allah’s message to humankind, with ample accompanying signs of confirmation as to its uniqueness, validity, and Absolute Authority, [the details of which are well beyond the scope of this article]. Suffice it to say, this remains my conviction today.
As a person whose surrender has been colored by both Quranist as well as Sufi teachings, I am perhaps uniquely qualified to respond to some of the accusations made in the aforementioned article. I will attempt to do so, taking each of the author’s “main principles,” one by one.
However, before getting on with it, let us seek refuge with The One Who Alone is Aware of all Knowledge, The One Who Understands every Heart. Let us shelter from the false identification with ego, and from the devaluing and debasing of every form.
Thankful for the Presence of Allah, so Precious, our awareness thereof, and His Love; residing in this Pleasurable Awareness, and abiding herein, we begin.
May we be ever-mindful of the way of debate to which The Quran calls us…
“You shall invite to the path of your Lord with wisdom and kind enlightenment, and debate with them in the best possible manner. Your Lord knows best who has strayed from His path, and He knows best who are the guided ones.” (16:125)
He Alone will judge us all regarding our disputes.
Before directly addressing each of the author’s principles, let me clear up one glaring oversight that was conspicuously absent from the initial article. ALL SUFISM IS NOT THE SAME!
In fact, I reject the very notion that Sufism is somehow separate from Islam itself, as an offshoot of sorts. I do not agree with the idea that Sufism is a sect. Sufism, (as has been thoroughly demonstrated elsewhere), is an innate aspect of Islam.
If anything, when one considers the circumstances surrounding the initial revelation, it is more appropriate to say Islam was the natural result of Sufi practices (i.e., While meditating in a cave The Quran was revealed).
“Then what is Sufism,” you may ask?
Of course, there are many answers to this question in the available literature. Probably about as many as there are Sufis to ask. And then you have those who have never subscribed to this way, and yet they presume to inform others of it. But that is another matter.
What is Sufism? Some say it is a description related to the wool clothing initially worn by those in the early days, who wandered about the northern steppes of modern-day Afghanistan and Iran, sharing these teachings. And, while there may be some epistemological evidence for this; whether it actually relates to the groups we know as Sufis today is anybody’s guess.
Others say it began as a descriptor of “The People of the Bench,” who were several close companions of the Prophet Muhammad, (for whom my heart desires nothing but peaceful blessings). There is no certainty to this assertion either.
What we do know is the term “Sufism” is generally applied to Islamic “mystics.” By “mystics” we mean those who are often shrouded in mystery; and who look beyond the obvious to the “hidden,” or “internal-core” meaning.
It is not that such mystics desire to be mysterious. Rather, their mystery is more a function of the depth of their knowledge. It is not knowledge that is obvious, or easily apprehended without much effort. It is the cream of all knowledge, the ripened fruit of a disciplined spiritual path.
Speaking as one traversing such a path, Sufism is simply the life sprouting from the seed, contained in the husk of what appears to be a religion named “Islam.” There may be no better way to put it.
Sufism like Islam in general, is more often than not, misunderstood.
Islam is NOT a religion, as some claim; although, every snail may have its shell. In other words, “The Religion of Islam” does exist. It has a real historical context and cultural significance. Many, if not most of those who testify to be its followers only don the dress of its forms. Despite claiming “Islam” as their religion, they remain forever unacquainted with its inner meaning and substance.
As Jesus, (for whom my heart also desires nothing but peaceful blessings), is quoted to have warned…
“What sorrow awaits you teachers of religious law and you Pharisees. Hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs—beautiful on the outside but filled on the inside with dead people’s bones and all sorts of impurity. Outwardly you look like righteous people, but inwardly your hearts are filled with hypocrisy and lawlessness.” (Matt. 23:27-28, NLT)
So, can it be with Islam.
However, make no mistake. Islam is NOT a religion. But most will mistake the shell for the snail! But again, Islam is NOT a religion, anymore than today’s form of Orthodox Christianity is the message of the injeel that Jesus originally delivered.
Islam is NOT a religion. Rather, Islam simply names the act of submitting, or peacefully surrendering. As muslims, we are not properly considered members of a sectarian religion. We are simply those people who have submitted our will to God Alone—those who have peacefully surrendered.
“Peacefully,” you may protest! “Do all the terrorist acts transpiring around the globe look ‘PEACEFUL’ to you?” “Well,” I would respond, “Do they look like they are a part of what I am describing?” If it doesn’t walk like a duck; and it doesn’t talk like a duck; it may not be a duck!
Real Islam is about peacefully surrendering to God, Who Alone can save us; who Alone possesses All Power; and Who Alone we adore as the Only Adorable One! This is based on the straightforward verses of The Quran Alone. This is Real Islam, or Pure Islam. This is Islam as Allah intended, based on The Quran Alone.
Likewise, a Real Sufi is not a doctrine-restricted sectarianist. Nor is he to be an idolizer of his teacher, or sheikh. A Real Sufi is one who is seeking to “purify” the “nafs” or “conditioned-self” by “remembrance.” This “remembrance,” or “dhikr” is the essence of most, if not all Sufi orders. The fact that no mention was even made of this essential Sufi practice in the initial article is revealing, indeed!
So, the Real Sufi is one who seeks to be purified through remembrance of Allah.
And on what authority do Sufis practice such remembrance? On the authority of The Reminder, the very core of the Quran itself. There Allah clearly directs us, “Remember Me and I will remember you,” He also informs us that He…
“…sends astray whomever He wills, and guides to Him only those who obey. They are the ones whose hearts rejoice in remembering GOD. Absolutely, by remembering GOD, the hearts rejoice.” (13:27b-28)
Show me any muslim you like rejoicing in the remembrance of God, and I’ll show you a circle of dhikr in full force—you tell me who is rejoicing more! To criticize such believers is an offense. May Allah overlook and forgive our ignorance, as well as our mistakes. Both those of us who agree with what is written here, as well as those who do not.
Having laid a foundational understanding of what constitutes a Real Sufi, now we move on to the “main principles” of the article in question.
FIRST: Mystic Quran interpretation – The Quran itself affirms both esoteric (internal), as well as exoteric (external) meanings, (3:7):
“He sent down to you this scripture, containing straightforward verses – which constitute the essence of the scripture – as well as multiple-meaning or allegorical verses. Those who harbor doubts in their hearts will pursue the multiple-meaning verses to create confusion, and to extricate a certain meaning. None knows the true meaning thereof except GOD and those well founded in knowledge. They say, “We believe in this – all of it comes from our Lord.” Only those who possess intelligence will take heed.”
Please note the above verse affirms BOTH the “straightforward verses” AND the “multiple-meaning or allegorical verses.” Furthermore, it tells us “those well founded in knowledge” believe that “all of it comes from our Lord.” It also clarifies that the “straightforward verses… constitute the essence of the scripture.” It also warns that “Those who harbor doubts in their hearts will pursue the multiple-meaning verses to create confusion, and to extricate a certain meaning.” It is also worthy of mention that The Quran does not say everybody who pursues the multiple-meaning verses does so “to create confusion, and to extricate a certain meaning.” It only warns us that “those who harbor doubts in their hearts” will do so.
If Allah wished to only endorse those verses that are “straightforward” He would have done so. But he did not. In fact, He explicitly stated that “all of it comes from our Lord.”
So, it is really a question of one’s motives. If the heart is pure, both the straightforward verses, as well as the multiple-meaning ones will be beneficial. However, if the heart is crooked all benefit will be lost. It is highly unlikely the latter would apply to a Real Sufi. For a Real Sufi will be engaged in the best possible process to purify the heart of such doubts, or crookedness– the process of dhikr—remembrance of God!
It is true that some Sufis may discourage Quranic study or exegesis. However, this is certainly not true of all those who are Sufi. Quranic exegesis ITSELF began with Sufis!
On the other hand, when certain aspects of the Revelation are deemphasized, it may be that this is done to protect those neophytes who still do have traces of such doubts in their hearts. I cannot say for sure.
What I have heard from those who practice Sufism in this way is that discouraging such study is not done to diminish the values of the Scripture, but rather on the basis of the character of the sincere believer, or sheikh, exemplifying the Quran. Their emphasis, as one such Sufi explained to me, is on community and fellowshipping with one another. It is by this living of the Quranic principles that they are to advance in their deen.
And while some Sufis strongly emphasize Quranic study, (as does my sheikh), all of them have this secret in common—this type of knowledge is not merely an informational transfer. It cannot be acquired from academic study alone. It is realized knowledge. And it is only realizable in association with others. It has to be lived to be understood.
One can study the Quran for years, benefiting in many ways. But when he encounters an enlightened purified heart, it is like striking a match to all the informational fodder he has accumulated over the years. It is his very self-conception that goes up in flames!
The article currently under consideration asserts that it espouses “the main principles upon which Sufism is based.” With all due respect, it did not even touch upon the foundation of Sufism. The evidence for this is obvious.
Sufism is about remembering Allah more than anything else. This article failed to even mention dhikr.
What the article does claim is that, “By ascribing a mysical (sic.) meaning to any Quranic verse, Sufi’s are able to uphold any concept they desire. On account of this, they have introduced concepts and words that are totally foreign to the teachings of Islam.”
Let’s see if that is true.
Are Wahabbis Sufis? ABSOLUTELY NOT! If anything, they probably despise Sufis, more than any other group.
The author of the article we are critiquing says above that it is on account of ascribing mystical meanings to Quranic verses that Sufis have introduced concepts and words that are totally foreign to the teachings of Islam.
Only the most radical right-wing Islamists (in the political sense) would agree with the innovations of Al-Wahab. He invented words by way of redefinition, (e.g., jihad, sahaba, etc.). He and his followers, (none of which ever claimed to be Sufis), justified such Quranically forbidden concepts as the wholesale slaughter of other innocent muslims in the name of their radical invented theology.
None of this had anything to do with internal, or “mystical meanings” of the Quran.
So, Sufism isn’t the cause of new words or concepts being introduced to Islam—at least not the sole cause. But, to be fair, have Sufism word meanings been exploited by those whose hearts burn with greed for power and possessiveness? YES. And, so has all of Islam and the very Quran itself! Does that make them reprehensible, to be forever rejected and condemned? God-forbid.
The truth is, those whose hearts burn with such a lust for power will use anything they can to achieve their selfish ends. The selfish act selfishly. There is no news here.
Just a few more quick points before moving on to the SECOND principle.
The article which we are countering asserts that the “Sufi claim” “that a normal believer on his own is not able to attain the mystic meaning unless he is under the spiritual guidance of a Sufi Sheikh… violates the Quranic assurance that the Quran is clear (12:1), easy to understand (44:58) and harbours (sic.) no ambiguity (39:28).”
If one believes verse 3:7 as quoted above, then it goes without question that “a normal believer” is not able to understand all verses of The Quran on his own. It clearly states, “None knows the true meaning thereof except GOD and those well founded in knowledge.” Sufis accept the Sheikh as one “well founded in knowledge.” If not him, then who? So, on this point we believe the author is arguing with his own Quran. In fact on the point of all three of these scriptures he quotes he seems to have absorbed himself in his own contradiction.
Is the Quran clear, as asserted in 12:1? Yes, it has a basic message that any competent man can see for himself. That doesn’t mean everybody understands everything. That would contradict 3:7; and while The Quran is above such contradictions, our various understandings and/or interpretations are not!
Is it easy to understand (44:58)? Yes, again in its basic message.
Does it harbor no ambiguity (39:28)? “Ambiguity” is not a proper translation for 39:28. Perhaps the best evidence from this comes from the translator’s own followers. Edip Yuksel, along with the other translators of “Quran: A Reformist Translation” break here with Rashad Khalifa, who uses “ambiguity.” Yuksel, et al. translate it as “distortion.” The more commonly accepted and proper translation of this word (عِوَجٍ) would be, “Crookedness, bent or deviation,” which means the Quran does not deviate or bend away from its central message, which is about peacefully surrendering to God, Who Alone can save us; who Alone possesses All Power; and Who Alone we adore as the Only Adorable One!
In this it is clear, easy to understand, and without deviation. This is the straightforward message of The Quran that any competent person can easily understand.
It should be noted that our understanding does not make a contradiction out of verse 3:7, while the article in question certainly does.
SECOND: Submission and allegiance to a sheikh – As far as bonding with one who is believed to be a “Wali” or “Friend of God,” this is only a problem if he is not what one takes him to be.
But, let us not be naïve here. The human element and its fundamental accompanying errors can spoil even the best of things. Just look at the history of Islam immediately following the passing of the Prophet. Assassination, civil war, even the killing of the Prophet’s family had all been thought, (at least by some professing Islam), to be justified.
So, what is sound in principle often fails in practice.
That being said, if one is actually a Wali of Allah he will be pure in heart to a point beyond our capacity for conception. As such, his will is perfectly aligned with Allah. Therefore, there would be no question of following any “other” will. In fact, as evidenced by countless Sufi experiences, distinction itself is at consummation, eventually annihilated. This is why Allah states,
“Those who pledge allegiance to you are in fact pledging allegiance to God.” 48:10
He also mentioned elsewhere, “It was not you who killed them; GOD is the One who killed them. It was not you who threw when you threw; GOD is the One who threw. But He thus gives the believers a chance to earn a lot of credit. GOD is Hearer, Omniscient” (8:7).
So, there is firm Quranic support for the idea that the boundaries we conceive of between our nafs and Allah are illusory.
As far as “any questions [being] deemed as a betrayal of trust,” I do not have experience of this. My Sheikh has never taught this to me. Nor has he ever hesitated to answer any question I may have. I have also witnessed other Sufi Sheikhs inviting questions.
As for submitting to any other than God, it is out of the question. But, if I am aware of Allah sending his personal representative, or ambassador to me, will I treat him in any way other than how I would treat the one he represents?
The only way I know of a teacher (or sheikh) delivering anyone is by delivering the message of Allah, Who Alone can save us. I have never been told or taught to accept a middle man or mediator, anymore than Muhammed acted as a middle man by delivering God’s Message of The Quran to us.
THIRD: Powers given to the sheikh
I don’t know what sheikhs are being referred to here. This whole concept is foreign to my experience. In 8 years of studying Sufism I have never encountered such a thing.
FOURTH: Perception of God
As for the Sufi doctrine of Wahdat ul Wujood (The Unity of Existence), it is not properly understood, nor explained in the article in question—nor could such a short summary ever do it justice. I would refer the interested reader to the writings of Ibn Arabi, or the Ibn Arabi Society for as complete an understanding as one foreign to this path could hope to get.
As far as the criticism of the doctrine of Wahdat ul Wujood (The Unity of Existence) being an indictment against Sufism, how could it be? All Sufis are not unified in their acceptance or rejection of this teaching!
The most famous example of this doctrine in practice is probably Al-Halaj. As Wikipedia attests:
“He is best known for his saying: ‘I am the Truth’ (Ana ‘l-Haqq), which many saw as a claim to divinity, while others interpreted it as an instance of annihilation of the ego which allows God to speak through the individual… Although most of his Sufi contemporaries disapproved of his actions, Hallaj later became a major figure in the Sufi tradition.”
Incidently, Hallaj was a Sufi. So was the leader who had him put to death!
To indict Sufism on these grounds is, therefore baseless.
I could argue this point further here, pointing out for instance that if God is actually Absolute, then there can be absolutely nothing outside of Him. Therefore, the way we think of this world as “other than” that which contains all that is, is itself ludicrous.
I could make such points. But I absolutely won’t!
I could even go further, addressing the authors second point by getting into the understanding of God’s Greatness being such that He can be simultaneously One with, and yet Transcendently apart from, His creation. I could. But I absolutely will not!
I could establish these grounds, as well as others—but the truth is they are BEYOND the scope of an article such as this.
FIFTH: Sufism, a sect of Islam
This point has already been refuted, in my prefacing remarks.
SIXTH: Why and how did Sufism form?
1- Sufis do not disbelieve in God. Nor do Sufis reject the Quran or any other pristine Revelation.
2- Sufis use the Quran; some even accept the authentication of the code of 19—although it is not a point of doctrine.
3- As one who walks the Sufi path, I do believe in the preservation of The Quran by Allah Alone.
a. Human and jinn devils have fabricated lies against every prophet. Muhammed is no exception. I do NOT accept them as a new source of religion; nor as a way of interpreting the Message. The Quran is the ONLY Source of Authority for me. I do not believe anything essential for the practice of Islam has been left out of The Quran.
b. I follow 17:36 of The Quran. I do NOT depend upon Sufism, nor hadith for the meanings of the Quran. I research and study, with all the resources available to me, like any other Quranist would. I believe it is expected of anyone who has been granted temporary talents and benedictions, to use them wisely in the service of the Highest Good.
As a Sufi I do not worship or idolize my sheikh.
That being said, when I am made aware that someone has details of where my Beloved resides, and that they may share them with me if I ingratiate myself to them—I will. This has to do with valuing wisdom and the experience one has with The Quran and related topics. Nothing more.