Islam, through the Quranic teachings, is a guideline for achieving an eternal closeness and spiritual purity with the divine. The Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) typified what Islam should mean to Muslims. Like all great people, though, the words and actions of the Prophet have been subject to interpretation by his followers. It is, however, undisputed that he is what all Muslims strive to be like. He had attained a level of spiritual purity with the divine like no other, and for Muslims, it is their duty to follow his example, in accordance with Quranic Law, so they can, one day, achieve the same purity and create the same link with the divine he enjoyed. It is how and when one can achieve it, where one of the greatest ideological conflicts in Islam arises. There are the Sufis who believe in the more mystic and ritualistic praise of God, and emphasize less of the Sharia and Sunna, where as, what have come to be known as “Mainstream” Muslims, preach the opposite. Both sides, in light of their differences, share the same spiritual goal.
In my post, I will prove that Sufis and Mainstream Muslims believe in achieving the same goal, which is to attain spiritual purity in the eyes of the divine at a level similar to that of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), however, the Sufi interpretation on how one can achieve this purity has made them the target of criticism from Mainstream Islam. I will prove this point by arguing the following: (1) The root cause for the difference between Mainstream Muslims and Sufi Muslims stems from their perception of the divine and the attainment of spiritual purity; (2) Mainstream Muslims view Sufism as incompatible with Islam because of the methods some choose to attain spiritual purity; (3) Sufism, because of its allegorical views on Islam has been continuously misinterpreted by those who do not share, nor understand the essence of the beliefs.
While there is a fundamental difference between Sufism and Mainstream Islam, the root cause for some of the greatest differences stem from the perception of the divine and the attainment of spiritual purity in the eyes of God. Both Sufis and Mainstream Muslims would agree that the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) was the embodiment of the Quranic text and thus, it is his life that should be emulated if one hopes to attain closeness to God.
Mainstream Muslims believe anything introduced out of the norm of Islamic tradition is considered bida; this includes the sacred Sufi ritualistic dances performed by “whirling dervishes”. Mainstream Muslims also believe that if one wants to attain closeness to God, they must follow the Sharia and Sunna as closely as they can, for following the Prophets’ actions in their entirety is the best way to attain closeness to God, since the Prophet had a closer connection to God than anyone else did.
According to Sufism, emulation of the Prophet’s Sunna and obedience towards the Sharia Laws do not necessarily guarantee closeness to God, one must also keep themselves in constant dhikr. Sufis believe that after you have passed the stage of mutasawwif, and reach tasawwuf, you can attain closeness with God in the physical realm by feeling God inside yourself during intense dhikr (in a manner similar to that experienced by the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) during the miraj).
Sufis justify their efforts to attain a link with the divine with many Quranic verses, one of which states ‘man’s “soul whispers within him, and We are nearer to him than the jugular vein”’ (50:16). This quote is used to prove their belief that God has manifested himself in human beings, and thus, to reach eternal closeness to the divine, one must look no further than inside oneself. Since the emphasis in Sufism is on Gods love more than his justice (though they absolutely believe in his justice too), to win God’s love, one must transform themselves from a self-centered mind-state to a God-centered mind-state. Only when one reaches the God-centered mind-state can one fall in favor and actually return to God briefly while in a temporary state of ecstasy (generally caused by the dhikr). This entrance into a mind-state where God is the sole focus is used as proof by Sufi Orders that a link can be formed between the divine and humans during this life so long as his/her heart is pure and is sincere in his/her love for God.
Mainstream Muslims would argue that the Miraj (the example Sufis use to justify their intense dhikr into a state of ecstasy) was a one-time phenomenon only experienced by the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), and no one else would ever be able to attain a link to the divine in the physical, regardless of how sincere their intent is or how pure their hearts are. Only through death will humans attain closeness to the divine. How close they get will be determined by their daily deeds, the strength of their belief, and obedience to the teachings of the Quran, and not the rituals surrounding dhikr or their elevation into a state of ecstasy where the mind is god-centered.
Mainstream Muslims view Sufism as incompatible with Islam because of the methods they use to attain spiritual purity. The controversy that lies within the context of this argument is not in what constitutes being a Sufi, but rather, what methods do particular Sufis use to achieve fana, and the details that accompany it. Islam, itself, was established to eliminate the worshipping of Pagan gods and the rituals that accompanied it. Among the rituals performed for the various gods were chanting at get-togethers, and playing music for the purpose of worship, etc.
Sufis go to the Mosque just like every other Muslim, and practice all forms of Islamic worship, including Quranic recitation and salat. Beside those Islamic traditions, they also attend ritualistic get-togethers at a Khanagha, where they perform individual and group dhikr. Dhikr, the Arabic term used to describe, “remembering”, “mentioning” and even “prayer”, has become the focal means of worshipping God for Sufis.
Throughout Islamic history, Mainstream Muslims have widely been in agreement that music, for a variety of reasons, did not fit well with the concept of Islamic worship, and the only chanting that was acceptable was Quranic chanting or adhan chanting. Sufism changed that. Not only did Sufis introduce musical worship to the realm of Islam, but dance, which accompanied the music, played an important role in their worship rituals and traditions. Ahmad al-Ghazali was an advocate of this “spiritual” practice of dance and music, of which he wrote:
The dancing is a reference to the circling of the spirit round the cycle of existing things on account of receiving the effects of the unveilings and revelations; and this is the state of the Gnostic. The whirling is a reference to the spirit’s standing with Allah in its inner nature and being, the circling of its look and thought, and its penetrating the ranks of existing things; and this is the state of the assured one. And his leaping up is a reference to his being drawn from the human station to the unitive station
Looking at the Mainstream Muslim perspective on dance and music, one can see why they would have a problem with such rituals. Many Mainstream Muslims would argue that, while listening to music and dancing as a leisurely activity may not be harmful to ones iman (faith), it can be very dangerous when introduced as an aspect of the faith. It can be argued that Sufis may not be falling into a trance where they experience a state of ecstasy and become “one with the unity of God”, but rather, fall into the spell of the music and dance, and lose focus of their main objective, to worship God. Mainstream Muslims, for this reason, may argue that Sufism is incompatible with Islam, because when one is in a state where their intentions are only for the dhikr of God, music and dance may be a distraction. In addition, if there are rituals introduced that take away from the fundamental worship of God, and in doing so, the eventual attainment of purity, then one can conclude, from an Mainstream Muslim perspective, that Sufism may not be entirely compatible with Islam.
Sufism, because of their allegorical views on Islam, have been continuously misinterpreted by those who do not share, nor understand the essence of the beliefs. There are two particular reasons for the constant misinterpretation, and subsequent discrimination against Sufis by Mainstream Muslims, one of which is the existence of controversial figures in Sufi Islam who have said things that offended the Mainstreamy of the time, and the other is the refusal and/or inability to describe what is felt when one reaches fana.
When speaking on characters in Sufi Islam who have eternally distorted the image of Sufi Islam in the eyes of critics, two particular people come to mind, Abu Yazid al-Bistami, and Husayn ibn Mansur al-Hallaj. Al-Bistami, in the eyes of Mainstream Muslims, had committed blasphemy upon reaching an “intoxicated state” (for which his particular Sufi sect is labeled “Intoxicated Sufis”). He felt he had attained a union with God, and in light of his discovery proclaimed “Glory be to me! How great is My Majesty!”. Many Muslims scolded Bistami, whose claim was interpreted as praise for himself instead of the divine. His intentions and interpretation of those words were subject to much scrutiny, but some prominent Muslims still held him in high regard, including the “sober” Sufi, al-Junayd. Al-Junayd wrote commentary on the utterances of his Murid (Disciple), Bistami, and interpreted the sayings in accordance with Mainstream teachings. As for Bistami, his achievement of fana marked the beginning of the concept of ascension as a spiritual goal in Sufism, continued by other controversial figures like Husayn ibn Mansur al-Hallaj.
Al-Junayd, as a Pir (Master) who mentored such Murids as Abu Yazid al-Bistami, could not condone the actions of al-Hallaj. Al-Hallaj quickly became one of the more controversial and divisive figures in Islamic History. Beginning as a mutasawwif, he could not stay with one Pir for any given period, and continuously switched from one to another without the previous Pirs consent (an act condemned by many Pirs, because it violated the sacred bond that is supposed to exist in the Pir/Murid relationship). According to Denny, “al-Hallaj ended up as a martyr for his convictions”. His refusal to denounce his famous words “ana al-Haqq” (“I am God”) infused rage in the Mainstream Muslim community over such blasphemy; a rage that subsequently cost him his life. Mainstream Muslims interpreted his words in the literal sense, because, if one is not in the same mind-state, it is hard to interpret such a blunt phrase any other way. Al-Hallaj, however, was likely referring to his absolute identification with the divine after the achievement of fana.
The state in which al-Hallaj was in, during the time of his blasphemous utterance could be understood in an allegory he liked to use; a human soul was like a moth and God was like a flame, engulfed with fascination for the flame, the moth eventually drifts closer until finally consumed. Mainstream Muslims, however, interpreted al-Hallaj’s utterances one way, literally. Perhaps this can be attributed to the influence of the Hanbali School of Thought on the Caliphate of the time. Hanbali thinking proclaimed all things in relation to God must be taken in the literal sense, that one should not ask questions about God, and that if one committed a “grave sin”, they must be punished accordingly and proclaimed a non-Muslim. Al-Hallaj was punished for his blasphemy; Mainstream Muslims did not believe one could attain a union with God in the present life, and to claim unity with God was questioning the very foundation of Islam; the oneness of God.
Misinterpretation of Sufi Mystic rituals also stems from their unwillingness to describe many attributes of their experiences. While some Sufis claim that description of the attainment of unity, or closeness to God is indescribable, others claim one must not describe the experience.
Those that claim one must not describe the experience to the curious are told to say the following, according to al-Ghazali, “There was what was of what I do not mention: So think well of it, and ask for no account”. Those that cannot grasp the concept must not be granted the knowledge that is attained when one enters such a state. This concept adheres to the exclusivity and exoteric notions of Sufism. Since most Sufi rituals and practices are very personal to the practitioners, it is natural that the attainment of closeness with God remains an experience between man and God. It is also believed that only arifs can achieve fana, and it is unlikely that one who does not possess piety or marifat would be able to comprehend the beauty of such an experience, and for that reason, they should not be told.
There are also those who believe that the experience should be shared, but it is indescribable in actual words, and thus, to portray the beauty of such an experience, one can only use metaphors, similes, and allegories. For example, Rumi gives the example in one poem, where he states,
Me and you join,
happy, released from delire and delusion
Me and you, laughing like this,
reach dimensions where celestial birds suck sugary cubes
If the notion of achieving an absolute God-centered state is possible, according to Mainstream Muslims, then, like the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), Sufis, too, should be able to describe their experience. Mainstream Muslims perhaps cannot see past the esotericism in Sufi practices because they, themselves, have never truly attempted to experience fana. It may also be because of the greater emphasis on esoteric Islam practiced by Mainstream Muslims that makes it difficult for them to understand the exoteric aspect of Sufism.
This lack of understanding of esoteric and allegorical Islam is then the cause for misinterpretation of Sufi rituals and practices by Mainstream Muslims.
The ideals that accompany the existence of Sufism have always been in stark contrast to that of Mainstream Islam. Since Mainstream Muslims have always been the majority group in Islamic history, they have always sought to suppress the Sufi tradition. Scholars within Mainstream Islam have also made Sufis the target of vast criticism because of the misinterpretation of Sufi interpretations on particular aspects of Islam. The misinterpretation generally came from the concept of Mainstream Islam being more focused on the esoteric aspect of the religion, while Sufism has always sought exoteric explanations and deeper, allegorical meanings to the same general questions.
Throughout Islamic History, since Mainstream Muslims have always sought to eliminate many practices that they believed complicated the religion and were bases for bida, they have always sought to eliminate the threat of exoteric Sufism. The deeper, allegorical explanations for unfathomable experiences enjoyed by Sufis, the traditions of dance and music for worship of God, and the opinions held on the role of the divine have always caused Mainstream Muslims to propagate against the Sufi Orders. Both parties agree on the fundamental aspect of Islam, the Shahada, which is the belief in One God and Muhammad (pbuh) is his messenger. The disagreement is in the interpretation of the importance of the Miraj by Sufis and how it relates to the attainment of spiritual purity in the Sufi Quest, and how one wants to reunify the self with God.
Both parties would agree that one must work in this life to attain closeness to the divine. Sufis, though, believe that the closeness and eventual reunification with the divine can be achieved in this life, whilst Mainstream Muslims believe that this life is used as a basis for proving oneself, and only in the after life will one be able to determine whether they have attained a spiritual closeness to the divine. Sufi Orders, like Intoxicated Sufis, have introduced these concepts that many Mainstream Muslims feel is incompatible with Islamic teachings. It is Orders like these that introduce new concepts to Islam, which are taken as abstract and controversial in the esoteric sense, to Mainstream Muslims, but exoteric and allegorical to Sufis, which have left the intentions of Sufism as a whole, to be misinterpreted by Mainstream Muslims, and thus a target for consistent and continuous criticism.