There are many misconceptions about Islamic Sufi-ism. Some people mistakenly believe that it is some sort of inherent knowledge that has been transmitted from generation to generation, and runs parallel with the recognised laws of the shariat (Islamic law). They hold that it was originally secretly taught by the Holy Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) to Hazrat Ali, the fourth Caliph, and then passed on through him to the rest of the Muslim community. Hazrat Ali's name is most often associated with sufism because the leading sufis in many of the sufi orders trace their genealogy to Hazrat Ali. However, it is incorrect to ascribe the origin of Islamic Sufism to Hazrat Ali solely on this ground because the genealogy of sufis from some other orders leads to Hazrat Abu Bakr, the first Caliph.
The belief that Hazrat Ali was vouchsafed by the Holy Prophet some secret spiritual knowledge quite distinct from the shariat is not tenable. The Quranic injunction to the Holy Prophet on this matter is clear:
"O Messenger deliver that which has been revealed to thee from thy Lord." (5:67)
If the Holy Prophet had kept any of the revelation to himself and secretly conveyed it to one of his relatives (Hazrat Ali), it would be in clear violation of his duty as a messenger.
This belief in the secret transmission of knowledge, however, provided an opportunity to some people for trickery and deceit. In the name of tariqat (way) they innovated hundreds of false beliefs, and laid down the basis of another shariat besides the Islamic shariat. They justified these innovations on the grounds that it was the spiritual knowledge which had been transmitted by word of mouth from generation to generation and constituted a much more efficacious way of communion with God as compared to the known shariat.
Given these misunderstandings, my objective, in this essay, is to clarify the correct position of Sufi-ism in Islam. The best way to do this is to search for the answers from the Holy Quran, the repository of all spiritual knowledge.
The Holy Quran states :
"He it is Who raised among the illiterates, a Messenger from among themselves, who recites to them His messages and purifies them, and teaches them the Book and the wisdom, although they were before, certainly in manifest error." (62:2)
This verse gives the three duties assigned to the Holy Prophet for guiding mankind and delivering it from error. Firstly, he was to recite the Quranic verses to the people so that the messages of Allah were conveyed to every one. Secondly, he was to purify them, i.e., to cleanse their souls from impurities through his spiritual example and nurturing, thus enabling the development of their spiritual faculties. This would eventually lead to strengthening of their faith in Divine messages, enabling them to act upon them with fervour. Thirdly, the Messenger was to be a teacher, by his words and actions, of the great wisdom in God's revealed verses which he recited to the people so that they could act in accordance with the Divine commands. These verses are called a Book by God. Thus, in summary, a prophet of God who is appointed for the guidance of humanity has a threefold task: (1) Recite revealed verses. (2) Purify humanity. (3) Teach the Book and wisdom.
Certainly, the Holy Prophet Muhammad accomplished this task in an excellent manner. He recited the verses to the people of his time, purified them and taught them the Book and wisdom. As a result of this, these people abandoned their ignorant and evil practices and became true Muslims. They crossed all hurdles on the journey towards nearness to God and completed all stages of spiritual development towards this goal. The religion they practised was in its entirety called the Islamic shariat. It was composed of all the guidelines essential for mankind to achieve communion with Allah and His pleasure. In short, the Holy Prophet conveyed all guidance in open and public announcements.
After the Holy Prophet, his followers became the vicegerents of his prophethood and inherited these three essential duties:
(1) Recitation of the Holy Quran fell to the lot of every Muslim. They all recited the Holy Quran during prayer. Whether an intellectual or a common man, every Muslim considered it his primary duty to recite the Holy Quran and the first education imparted to a child was the recitation of the Holy Quran.
(2) The inheritance of the task of spiritual purification required deeds and devotion.
(3) The inheritance of the task of teaching the Book and wisdom required knowledge of religion.
Therefore, these last two duties fell to the lot of those who had knowledge of religion, worshipped with humility, and followed their beliefs with actions.
In the early period of Islam, the people who had benefited spiritually from the company of the Holy Prophet performed all of these three tasks. Thus, the first four caliphs, known as the rightly directed caliphs, and the venerable Companions of the Holy Prophet recited the Holy Quran and also purified the people who came in contact with them by their chaste companionship, exemplary lifestyle, and spiritual nurturing. They also taught them the Book and wisdom. This continued for a couple of generations after the generation of the Companions.
As time lapsed, the trappings of kingdom, power and wealth diminished the religious zeal of the Muslims and materialism gripped their souls. Extravagances and displays of vanity replaced the simplicity of Islamic teachings. Although the superficial structure of religion was maintained, the true spirit of faith was lost from their daily actions. The pursuit of worldly life made them forget God. The doctors of religion, who used to teach the Book and wisdom and were responsible for the spiritual purification and guidance of the people, became ineffective in performing these tasks because their deeds belied their words. In this crisis, they failed to live up to the great expectation from them to restore the departed spirituality and resuscitate the Muslim nation. Their teachings became mere verbiage and showmanship, devoid of the real essence of spiritual nurturing and purification. Although the recitation of the verses and knowledge of the Book and wisdom was still available through the doctors of religion, the real spirit of this education, the purification of the soul, was no longer obtainable from them.
With the erosion of the real essence of spiritual learning among the institutional custodians of religious education, it became necessary for Allah, the Guardian of this Faith, to ordain such persons who were true vicegerents of the Holy Prophet. These persons, along with recitation and teaching of the Book, could also accomplish the task of spiritual purification. The people could sit in their goodly company and cleanse their souls of all dross and impurities by following their practical example. These persons were called auliya Allah (friends of Allah) and mujaddideen (reformers of religion), by the Holy Prophet. However, because of their Islamic simplicity, high morals and purity of heart, in comparison with prevailing materialism and its false display, they were given the title of those belonging to sufaya' (the pure group), or 'sufia' (the pure). Their striving in the way of Allah and the acts of worship they performed, which were exactly in accordance with the shariat law, became known as tasawwuf (the way of the sufis). In fact, tasawwuf (sufi-ism) was no different from the Islamic shariat.
The basis of Islamic Sufi-ism is purification of the soul, which is part of the duties of a Prophet or a Reformer. Prophets and Reformers not only purify themselves, but also those who benefit from their company. Every prophet who came to this world, taught and demonstrated with his practical example all the necessary ways of purification of the soul, the acts of devotion and means of striving in the way of Allah, whether by the mind, body, words or wealth. However, to obtain complete purification of the self, mere knowledge and demonstration is not enough, because the attractions of the world and the pursuit of one's desires and emotions detract from spiritual progress. These activities cover the human intellect with a veil of ignorance and tardiness so that a lifetime passes away without a person accomplishing anything spiritually. Therefore, whether it be a Prophet or one of his vicegerents, i.e., an auliya Allah, a mujaddid or a sufi saint, besides their teaching and education, the benefit of their company and spiritual nurturing also serves to accomplish the goal of purification. By these means, the God-ordained persons breathe a new spirit that cleanses the soul of all dirt, impurities, and love of worldly life and fills it with the love of Allah. This creates great eagerness and enthusiasm in their devotion, selflessness in their actions, and develops the spirit to strive against their own self with an intensity that is difficult to generate under ordinary circumstances. The higher the spiritual prowess of the purifier, the more intense is the desire for spiritual progress, stronger the struggle generated and greater the spiritual progress achieved in those who keep company with him and benefit from his spiritual nurturing. Correspondingly, faster is the speed with which spiritual depression and rancour is replaced by God consciousness and inner purification. By thus achieving purification of self, mankind inherits the external and internal excellences of the prophetic order. The speed with which the venerable Companions of the Holy Prophet traversed the stages of purification of the soul, is unique in the history of mankind. In the span of a few years, a nation involved in all kinds of polytheism and vile practices, far-astray from God, became radiant with the light of monotheism, God consciousness and inner purification, and became near and dear to God. This incomparable spiritual purification testifies to the unique spiritual excellences of the Holy Prophet, of which this is but a minor miracle.
Similarly, the speed and ease with which the stages of spiritual purification can be achieved under the blessings and spirituality of a mujaddid or a reformer, who is a perfect follower of the Holy Prophet, cannot be achieved in any other era. The endeavours and acts of worship necessary for purification are known, but the motivating force to put them into practice with great eagerness and enthusiasm has frequently to come from a person of spiritual eminence and possessor of spiritual blessings. The same acts of worship, which in any other time, are performed only ceremoniously and with great effort become easy and are accomplished with great fervour and enthusiasm by keeping company with these men of God. The soul becomes restless without these acts of devotion, and spiritual progress is achieved with great momentum. Thus the level of spiritual purification that the Holy Quran desires all mankind to achieve becomes easy to accomplish for a Muslim. The hazards and hardships of this spiritual journey turn into a labour of love and a source of pleasure for the spiritual wayfarer.
Thus Islamic Sufi-ism was another name for the struggle of self-purification. As long as there was conformity between the beliefs and actions of a Muslim, he was truly a momin (believer) and wali (friend of God), just as the Holy Quran states that, "Allah is the friend of Believers." However, when the men of learning lost the ability of righteous action, and those who claimed to be the teachers of the Book and wisdom, did not practice what they professed, they lost their closeness with Allah. A clear distinction then became evident between them and the class of men who, along with knowledge and purity of soul, were excellent exemplars of their beliefs and were radiant with spirituality. These people came to be called Ulama-e-Rabbani (the Learned of God), Auliya Allah (Friends of Allah) and Sufiya (the Pure). They were the true successors of the Holy Prophet, because they possessed all three assets of prophetic inheritance, that is recitation of the verses of Allah, spiritual purification and teaching of the Book and wisdom. All their words and actions were in accordance with the Book and traditions of the Holy Prophet, and they were its best exponents. The men of the religious establishment who were only superficially learned and devoid of the real understanding of religion, opposed these truthful souls and labelled them as heretics. However, like the fragrance of musk, the respect and acceptance of these saints spread far and wide in the world and everywhere men of understanding acknowledged their piety and spiritual grandeur. These saints had rejected the trappings of worldly life, but the world at large revered, honoured and respected them. They did not have a desire for such respect, because whatever they did was in answer to the call of duty. However, God created esteem for them in the minds and hearts of the people, because of the service they did to humanity.
There is no dearth of people in this world who are seekers of fame and fortune. Besides the hundreds of ways of acquiring wealth and fame, some selfish people saw an opportunity of setting up shop in religion. Capitalising on the respect for the sufiya that existed in the minds of the people, these exploiters popularised acts of worship and exercises in the name of religion that were totally deceptive, misleading and devoid of any spirituality. Many of these fraudulent and morally depraved people disguised themselves as sufis and set up their businesses in the shrines of the true sufis and auliya Allah. They started cheating the people out of their money under false pretences. They realised that in order to deceive the people they needed to resort to cunningness and disguise. The true sufiya were distinguished in their outward appearance only by simplicity of their dress and living, but these charlatans started wearing special robes and coverings, made of thick cloth, dyed green or black and sometimes with patches on them. They also adopted special postures to impress the people and sat with their eyes closed, with a rosary called tasbih in their hands whose beads they would be pushing constantly. When they opened their eyes to cast a glance at a visitor, their eyes were bloodshot, giving the impression of great anger and strong sentiments. This was a carefully rehearsed play to dupe the unwary visitor. However, these tricksters soon realised that their guises were not durable enough to fool the people for a long time.
The Muslim conquests brought them in contact with the cultures of Iran and India. Amongst the Magians and Hindus there was no dearth of ascetics and mendicants called jogis and faqirs, who had strengthened their inner faculties by appropriate exercises. Through the use of mind concentration and will power, they had learned to perform unusual and extraordinary acts, much like hypnotists and psychics of modern age. These techniques had no relationship to spiritual purification and these people had no concern for closeness to God, His love, good morals and civility of soul. In fact, some of them took undue advantage of their powers to commit acts of moral depravity. The urge for acquisition of knowledge had made the Muslims ardent learners of new disciplines, which they quickly and completely incorporated in their system. They, thus, also became familiar with some of the techniques of the jogis and faqirs. When the knowledge of these techniques became popular among the Muslims, the true sufiya, who were recipient of Divine communion, saw that these experiences had nothing in common with the real objective of religion. They, therefore, did not approve of these techniques and shunned them. However, the charlatan, false Sufis who were seekers of fame and fortune saw a great opportunity to exploit these techniques for furthering their business. They mastered some of these techniques and exploited the poor Muslims to their hearts content. They propagated these techniques of showmanship to such a degree that in the eyes of worldly people these techniques became synonymous with Sufi-ism. In fact, true Islamic Sufi-ism did not have even a distant relationship with this. How could purification of the self have any connection with this self aggrandisement?
The Reformers of every age and the great auliya Allah have been forthright in exposing the practices of these deceptors and warning the Muslim public of their danger. In recent times, a debt of gratitude is owed to Mirza Ghulam Ahmad of Qadian, the Reformer of the present age and the Promised Messiah. On the one hand, he exposed the narrow-mindedness and illogical literal interpretations of the so-called maulvis (religious scholars) and other men of superficial knowledge. On the other, he took the lid off the strange sacrilegious acts and the newly innovated techniques of worship of the false sufiya that were totally opposed to the sunnat (way of the Prophet). He identified the true way leading to Divine communion for the seekers of truth.
There is no other path of guidance besides the Quran and sunnat. In short, what is misrepresented today as Sufi-ism is not, in fact, true Islamic Sufi-ism. Islamic Sufi-ism means striving in the way of Allah in pursuit of spiritual purification, and is inseparable from the shariat. In fact, it is the substance of the shariat. It is certainly not secretive knowledge that is transmitted from one generation to another. It is the same knowledge that the Holy Quran and our Holy Prophet has taught.
The honoured Companions of the Holy Prophet and those that followed them, all auliya Allah, reformers, the true men of learning and all righteous persons have benefited from and are still taking advantage of this knowledge. There is no path outside the Quran and sunnat, everything is included within it. The Holy Quran clearly states:
"This day have I perfected for you your religion." (5:3)
Also it states:
"Say, If you love Allah follow me, Allah will love you and grant you protection from your sins." (3:30)