Sufism and its Place in Islam

“Well, everything I know, he sees[i]

The above quote by Avicenna, an eleventh century philosopher and a scientist, after a long conversation with a Sufi Shaykh Abu Sa’id Abi’l-Khayr is a good beginning point to explore the inter linkages of Sufism with Islam, and the place of the Sufi tradition within the broader Islamic thought.  The deceptively simple quote can be contextualized within the three dimensional structure of the religion Islam as described by the Prophet Muhammad: Islam (submission), Iman (faith) and Ihsan (virtue)[ii].  One enters the religion of Islam by Islam, i.e., verbally proclaiming to submit to God’s will and following His message as revealed to Prophet Muhammad.  Entering Islam at the very least involves practicing the five pillars–bearing Shahadah (bearing witness) and saying the kalima there is no god but God and Muhammad is the messenger of God, offering prayers five times a day, fasting during the month of Ramadan, paying Zakat (alms-tax), and performing Hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca) if one has the means to do so.  Once having entered the circle of Islam one has to establish iman (faith) in tawhid (the assertion of God’s unity), nabuwwa Prophet hood of Muhammad, and ma’ad (the Return to God).  And the third dimension of Islam is ihsan which can be literally translated to mean beautiful and good but is meant to signify perfection of virtue[iii].


The above diagram represents my understanding of the tripartite structure of Islam as described by the Prophet.  The first dimension of submission has traditionally been the domain of Islamic jurisprudence.  The jurists are those ulema who are experts in the five pillars and other activities prescribed by the Shariah (literally the way, but practically jurisprudence, as interpreted by the four main schools of Islamic jurisprudence).  This level also forms the basis of Islam.  One can have islam without the iman but one cannot have iman without islam.  One can also attain iman without attaining ihsan, but one cannot attain ihsan without attaining both islam and iman.  So the three dimensions of the religion can be thought of as a three tiered pyramid.  Sufism has traditionally been associated with the contemplation of iman and ihsan.  Of course locating the object of Sufi contemplation within Islamic thought begs the follow-up question, what is Sufism? and who is a Sufi?

The word Sufi is derived from the root suf, which means a woolen cloth.  In popular conception Sufis are mystics who are careless about worldly trappings and lead a simple life, symbolized by the woolen cloth that mystics wear, and which is their only property.  Moving on from why Sufis are called Sufis, which was a function of their life style in popular conception, one wonders what is so different about their contemplation of the religious matters, and what distinguishes them from philosophers and theologians?  Sufi ontology and epistemology both distinguish them from the better known schools of religious philosophy and theology.  Annemarie Schimmel’s quotation of a famous story by Rumi is instructive to understand the Sufi ontology[iv].

. . . the blind men . . . when they were made to touch an elephant, each described it according to the part of the body his hands had touched: to one elephant appeared like the throne, to another, like a fan, or like a water pipe, or like a pillar.  But none was able to imagine what the whole animal looked like. (p: 3)

Speaking in terms of the above metaphor, Sufis want to be rid of the blindness afflicting the general multitude and like the philosophers, want to understand the real nature of the proverbial elephant–Islam–in its entirety.  However the mystical Sufi conception goes even beyond the physical existence of the elephant–Islam– and actually seeks to understand the essence behind its physical or intellectually comprehensible form.  This is what Annemarie calls the ‘mysticism of infinity’, where the world is considered to possess only finite reality–wujud –which is conditionally derived from the necessary reality of the infinite divine being–wajib al-wujud.

Whereas the philosophical and theosophical epistemologies employ reason and some mysticism in limited doses, Sufi epistemologies rely heavily on revelation or direct knowledge given by God, which is called by names like Kashf  (unveiling), dhawq (tasting, Urdu zhawq), shuhud (witnessing), and basira (insight)[v].  Sana’i contrasted the Sufi with the Kufi, the learned lawyer Abu Hanifa from Kufa.  Whereas one relies on books and intellectual arguments and reasoning to understand the nature of things and of Islam, Sufi relies on contemplation and gnosis and often throws away the books once having reached the goal.

The ontological and epistemological differences between philosophical and theosophical schools and the Sufis imply radically different conceptions of human interaction with God.  In the philosophical and theosophical schools, humans and God are two separate entities and their relationship is like that between a slave and a master, or a lover yearning for the beloved.  In the philosophical school humans can only meet God upon death while in the Sufi conception of things one can encounter God while already in this world.  Humans and God are not necessarily separate entities, and the object of Sufi contemplation is to try to regain union with the One infinite God.  A common theme in Sufi thought is rejection of heaven or hell, dismissing them as incidental to the real purpose of mystical striving, which is to seek that communion with God and God alone.  The mystical life for the Sufis, as described by Schimmel, is a permanent striving to[vi]:

return to one’s origin, that origin that was in God and from which everything proceeds, so that eventually the mystic should reach the state “in which he was before he was.”  That is the state of the primordial covenant (Sura 7:171), when God was alone and what is created in time was not yet existent.  Only then can man perfect tawhid; only then can one witness that God is one from eternity to eternity (p. 58).

Hallaj the great Sufi martyr phrased the same project in the words that “it is enough for the lover that he should make the One single”–i.e. the lover’s existence is an impediment to that final union and therefore must be removed from the way to consummate the love.

Over time Sufism developed from austere asceticism of the early year into a mystical creed of selfless love of the One with a theory of intuitive knowledge of God ma’rifa, or gnosis, as opposed to ilm (discursive learning and knowledge).  Arif, people who have attained ma’rifa according to Dhu’n-Nun are defined in following words[vii],

They are not themselves, but in so far as they exist at all they exist in God.  Their movements are caused by God, and their words are the words of God which are uttered by their tongues, and their sight is the sight of God, which has entered into their eyes.  So God Most High has said: “When I love a servant, I, the Lord, am his ear so that he hears by Me, I am his eye, so that he sees by Me, and I am his tongue so that he speaks by Me, and I am his hand, so that he takes by Me.”

The above emphasis on the possibility of a living human to have the mystical experience suggests that the codified, and latter ossified Islamic law and societal norms did not always bind the practitioners of the Sufi way.  Whereas on the one hand this provided wonderful opportunity for individuals to strive for their own communion with God it also opened the door for people who had pretensions to being mystics but had no substance to their claims.  The earlier reverence that the general public had developed for the wisdom and piety of the Sufis was cashed upon subsequently by many a deranged and at times even sane people pretending to be deranged, whose apparent lack of regard for social norms was considered to be a sign of their mystical credentials.  So prevalent did this practice become from tenth century onwards that even genuinely pious people at times winced at being called a Sufi, lest they should be identified with the fakes.  Unkempt appearance and incoherent talk were mistaken as signs of mystical powers, and many a street fools were raised to the pedestal of Sufis by the general public.

As with the quote at the beginning of the paper, Sufism is an alternative system of inquiry into the subtleties of spiritual Islamic life, with different ontologies and epistemologies from the dominant and better known philosophical modes of inquiry.  Being able to internalize a certain concept to the extent of proverbially seeing it, as opposed to just knowing it, may involve a higher level of consciousness and proximity to the truth but one cannot falsify what another sees.  And therein lies the major pitfall of Sufism.  It may offer a universe of spiritual possibilities, but it is so personal, and shall we say so mystical, that nobody can really tell the true mysticism from pretense.  So it is hardly surprising that for every true Sufi over time, we observe scores of pretenders.

[i] Avicenna, as quoted by Chittick, William C. 1992: Faith and Practice of Islam: Three Thirteenth Century Sufi Texts, State University of New York Press, Albany, NY, USA, p. 18.

[ii] Chittick (1992: 2).

[iii] Chittick (1992).

[iv] Schimmel, Annemarie 1975: Mystical Dimension of Islam, The University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, NC, USA.

[v] Chittick (1992).

[vi] Schimmel (1975).

[vii] Schimmel (1975: 69).


2 thoughts on “Sufism and its Place in Islam

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