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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 sunna 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 spectre 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 shaikhs castigated.?18 Thus the question remains whether the Quran and sunna 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.

Titus Burckhardt, an Islamic scholar highly commended by Seyyed Hossein Nasr for his ?truly authentic expositions of Sufism emanating from genuine teachings,?20 objects, arguing in line with Sufi doctrine that ?there is no adequate reason for doubting the historical authenticity of the spiritual ?descent? of the Sufi masters… in an unbroken chain back to the Prophet himself.?21 While Burckhardt chides orientalists for ?being anxious to bring everything down to the historical level… and attributing the origins of Sufism to Persian, Hindu, Neoplatonic, or Christian sources,?22 the alternative he proposes is, as previously shown, simply inadequate from an objective and academic perspective.

In comparison to Nasr and Burckhardt, some Islamic scholars, such as Fazlur Rahman, take a more discriminate approach, admitting that popular Sufi preachers ?exerted a powerful influence on the masses by enlarging Quranic stories with the aid of materials borrowed from all kinds of sources, Christian, Jewish, Gnostic, and even Bhuddist and Zoroastrian.?23 Rahman even goes so far as to state that ?a number of [foreign] ideas were introduced into Sufism and thence into popular Islam.?24 However, rather than rejecting Sufism as essentially un-Islamic, he argues that Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (d.1111) was the great reformer of Sufism, ?purifying it of un-Islamic elements and putting it at the service of orthodox religion.?25 Rahman recognizes that Ibn al-?Arabi?s (d.1240) later and influential formulation of Sufi epistemology was absolutely unorthodox in its monism and pantheism, but seems to attempt to negate this by giving an immense list of Sufi and other Muslim thinkers who rejected portions of, or all of Ibn al-?Arabi?s epistemology.26 27 Rahman concludes his chapter on Sufi doctrine with the declaration that,

?[the synthesis of Sufism and orthodoxy] provides us with a shining example of the fundamentally catholic genius of Islam – a panorama of continued tensions and challenges and of equally persistent efforts to resolve these tensions and meet these challenges in a process of modification, adaptation and absorption.?28

While Rahman?s literary skills are clearly evident, his critical appraisal of Sufism essentially ends at al-Ghazali, subsequently revealing the tendency to act as an apologist by avoiding any further mention of un-Islamic elements in Sufism, focusing instead on the ?catholic genius of Islam?.

A thorough and critical examination of historical and present day Sufism, quickly reveals the influence of numerous religious ideas foreign to Islam. Seyyed Hossein Nasr, who so vehemently argues against the idea that Sufism is based on religious practice and doctrine inherently alien to Islam, does admit that in his opinion, Zoroastrianism ?had more intimate contact with Islam than did Manichaeism.?29 Nasr states that in Persia ?Zoroastrianism provided first of all a vocabulary for Sufi poets like Hafiz who often speak of the ?fire-temple?, the Zoroastrian priest, etc., as symbols of the Sufi center (khaniqah or zawiyah), the spiritual master and so on..?30 Nasr also states that ?Zoroastrian angeology and cosmology were also resuscitated by Shibab al-Din Suhrawardi, the founder of the [Sufi] school of Illumination or Ishraq, who made these symbols transparent in the light of Islamic gnosis.?31 Though these assertions have a solid scholarly basis, they fly in the face of Nasr?s earlier attempts to declare Sufism a legitimate and original development of Islam. Nasr appears to realize the quandary he has placed himself in, attempting to resolve the dilemma with the declaration that ?this manner of speaking, however, does not at all imply an historical influence of Zoroastrianism upon Sufism.?32 Most scholars would be perplexed by this rather illogical conclusion, especially when it is considered that Zoroastrianism as a religion predated Islam by over 1000 years.

The further one delves into Sufism from an academic perspective, the more clear it becomes that both the origins and content of Sufism clearly show the inclusion of religious ideas and influences contrary and contradictory to orthodox Islam. The scholar Elliot Miller states that ?[being] based on experience rather than doctrine, Sufism has always been more open to outside influence than other forms of Islam… in addition to early influences from Christianity, one can find elements of Zoroastrianism, Neoplatonism, Hinduism, and other diverse traditions.?33

Martin Lings, himself a practicing Sufi, in his work What is Sufism?, states that ?Prince Dara Shikoh (d.1619), the Sufi son of the Mogul Emperor Shah Jahan, was able to affirm that Sufism and Advaita Vedantism [Hinduism] are essentially the same, with a surface difference of terminology.?34 Prince Dara Shikoh was also responsible for the translation of the Bhagavad-Gita, the Yoga Vasishtha, and the Upanishads into Persian.35 Seyyed Hossein Nasr acknowledges that ?many Sufis in India called Hinduism the religion of Adam,? and, ?[the] orthodox Naqshbandi saint Mirza Mazhar Jan Janan considered the Vedas as divinely inspired.?36

While Sufi teachings have been influenced by various religions, their practices also bear close similarities to those of Hinduism and other mystical religions of the East. The Sufi orders are led by shaikhs, who play the same role as Hindu gurus. Some of the shaikhs were described as having ?pronounced psychic powers.?37 The master-disciple relationship was seen as an essential facet of Sufism by the reformer al-Ghazali who stated,

the murid [disciple] must of necessity have recourse to a shaikh [master] to guide him aright. For the way of faith is obscure, but the Devil?s ways are many and patent, and he who has no shaikh to guide him will be led by the Devil into his ways. Wherefore the murid must cling to his shaikh as a blind man on the edge of a river clings to his leader, confiding himself to him entirely, opposing him in no matter whatsoever, and binding himself to follow him absolutely. Let him know that the advantage he gains from the error of his shaikh, if he should err, is greater than the advantage of his own rightness, if he should be right.38

Most Sufi orders still consider the five pillars of Islam to be essential, and practice them piously. However, under the leadership of the shaikh they go far beyond this, aiming ?to break the conditioned patterns of behaviour which inhibit the desired spiritual awakening.?39

The mystical quest is pursued through a number of mental and physical exercises. These include whirling dances ?intended above all to plunge the dancer into a state of concentration upon Allah.?40 Martin Lings states that ?the body stands for the Axis of the Universe which is none other than the Tree of Life. The dance is thus a rite of centralization, a foretaste of the lost Centre…?41 A Morrocan Sufi order reduces the dance to a rigorous ?rhythmic up and down movement of the body,? combined with ?a rhythmic rise and fall of the breast as the lungs are filled and emptied.?42 As a result the Sufi may ?see visions, hear the voices of angels and prophets, and gain from them guidance… it is a condition of joy and longing, and when the condition seizes the seeker he falls into ecstasy.?43 Breathing exercises are also combined with meditation in order to induce altered states of consciousness.44

Central to all of these practices are ritual ?invocations of the Divine Name,? also known as dhikr, which can be done either silently or in a chant.45 Here similarities with Hindu mantras are unmistakable. One author declares, ?the Sufi doctrine of the dhikr coincides with that taught by the nineteenth-century Hindu saint Rama-krishna, who succinctly summed it up in the phrase: ?God and His Name are one.??46

The Rifa?iyya, a major Sufi order which spawned numerous sub-groups and associated branches, was named after Ahmad b. ?Ali al-Rifa?i (d. 1182). The practices of this order reveal the extremes to which some Sufi rituals went as the Rifa?i dervishes ?became famous for their extreme practices like eating live snakes and performing various feats with fire.?47 This preoccupation with snakes and fire is clearly paralleled in the practices and rituals of Hinduism.

In response to Sufi rituals, John Alden Williams states that ?the observer may encounter things which seem to belong in a case book of abnormal psychology; or witness what looks remarkably like demonic possession.?48 Elliot Miller says, ?the natural (and, from the Christian perspective, God-given) mental barriers to psychic intrusion are broken down, and a link is established to the spirit world.?49

The evidence of Sufi borrowings from other religions such as Hinduism and Zoroastrianism is certain. The similarities in teachings and ritual are overwhelming. It is no surprise then that the goals of Sufism reflect the pantheism and monism of Hinduism and other Eastern religions.

Idries Shah, a famed twentieth-century Sufi thinker, states that Sufi practice in the mystic quest culminates when ?by divine illumination man sees the world to be illusion.?50 Numerous other Sufi saints also clearly reflect monistic and pantheistic beliefs in their sayings:

Mansur al-Hallaj (d.922): ?I saw my Lord with the eye of the heart. I said: Who art Thou? He answered: Thou.?

Abu Maydan (d. 1197): ?Everything outside of God is unreal, everything taken individually or collectively, when you truly know it… Whatever does not have root in his Being, can in no wise be real.?

Muhammad al-Harraq (d. 1845): ?Seekest thou Laila [Divine Reality], when she is manifest within thee? Thou deemest her to be other, but she is not other than thou.?51

Jalal al-Din Rumi (d.1273): ?Though the many ways [diverse religions] are various, the goal is one. Do you not see there are many roads to the Kaaba??52

In some Sufi orders the goal of the mystical quest is ?personified as a woman, usually named Laila which means ?night?… this is the holiest and most secret inwardness of Allah… in this symbolism Laila and haqiqa (Divine Reality) are one.?53 This, and the above statements appear to be distinctly contrary to Muslim orthodoxy in their blatant echoes of Eastern mystic religions. Yet, for Sufis this is not a problem. As Ibn ?Arabi stated,

My heart has become capable of every form: it is a pasture for gazelles and a convent for Christians, and a temple for idols and the pilgrims Ka?ba and the tables of the Torah, and the book of the Koran. I follow the religion of Love: whatever way Love?s camels take, that is my religion and faith..54

Another Sufi saint, Mahmud Shabistari, in his work Gulshan-i Raz (The Mystic Rose Garden) concurs, declaring, ?..what is mosque, what is synagogue, what is fire temple? … ?I? and ?You? are the Hades veil between them.. When this veil is lifted up from before you, there remains not the bond of sects and creeds.?55

Thus, not only has Sufism been influenced by other religions, but its mystic quest for spirituality has led it to embrace all sorts of religion, as abundantly shown in the writings of the great Sufi saints. To try to deny this as a scholar is incomprehensible. Yet, those scholars who are sympathetic towards Islam, as previously shown, have a marked tendency to minimize or altogether ignore these facts.

How then, in conclusion, does the evidence presented, reflect not only on the nature of Sufism, but on the very nature of Islam itself?

Sufism is clearly a reaction or response to what was lacking in early Islam. The argument for Muslim materialism lends support to the concept of a spiritual void in Islam – keenly felt by many Muslims as their civilization began to expand and come into contact with other religions. There was a hunger for more spirituality, along with the realization that despite all of the shari?a Islam did not effectively deal with the problems of materialism.

The very strength of Islam, in its reliance on a simple creed and the five pillars of practice, proved to be the very weakness of Islam. While the Islamic system had allowed for rapid expansion, and the five practices were a uniting force, it soon became evident that one could accept this framework and step right through it into whatever they pleased. In the early days this meant earthly success, as Islam spread rapidly through the desire for wealth and gain. Yet, just as those caught up in materialism had accepted and stepped through the framework of the shari?a, all the while continuing in their materialistic lives, so also the Sufis in reaction to the materialism of the Islamic civilization, stepped through the framework of legality into a world of mysticism. However, in their reaction, the Sufis created a more serious problem for Islam, as due to their religiosity, they introduced new teachings, reinterpreting the Quran and sunna.

Another area of weakness in Islam, which helped lead to the problem of Sufism, is found in the teachings of Muhammad. Here the vagueness of character caused by the doctrine of the indescribability of Allah allowed for the influence and development of pantheistic and monistic ideas, in essence creating a contradictory belief system. The orthodox ulama developed their theology in line with what they viewed as their ?Judeo-Christian? roots, while the Sufis were largely influenced by Eastern mystics. Consequently, the influences of Hinduism, and other forms of mystical religions on the development of Sufism, can be seen, in part, as a result of the doctrine of the indescribability of Allah.

Sufism does contribute a lacking spirituality to the religion of Islam. Growing out of the weakness of the Islamic system of belief and practice, it, however, added a dimension which has diversified and further weakened the structure of Islamic belief and practice.

Reflecting on the evidence presented, and conclusions given, we see that to assume Sufism, with its radical concepts, is a legitimate part of Islam introduces definite problems for anyone who then attempts to try to defend Islam as a logically coherent set of beliefs. For Sufism not only points to a lack of spirituality in Islam, but also contradicts orthodox Muslim teachings – in the process clearly opening the door to all the world?s religions.


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