The Real Deal on Sufism

Dervishes, Konya, Turkey

Islamic extremists have one thing in common with many American media outlets: they don’t understand what Sufism is. Often referred to as “liberal Islam,” even major reputable news sources attempt to boil down an integral part of Islamic tradition into a single, ambiguous word. A growing number of Islamic extremists accuse Sufis of idol worship, or shirk, and have recently taken to violence, destroying Sufi shrines and killing Sufi worshipers in the name of purifying Islam. These extremists understand neither Sufism nor Islamic law justifying the killing of humans, and are part of an increasingly large group of both non-Muslims and Muslims that characterize Sufism in a way that benefits them.

Major media outlets, as this Newsweek piece points out, rarely provide any level of depth or context to a story or concept, and their characterization of Sufism isn’t any different. (For context on Sufism, see this.) “Liberal,” “moderate,” “peaceful,” “hippie,” “colorful,”and “different“are just a few of the terms commonly used to describe Sufism. The American media in particular uses Sufism as a counter to the violent extremist elements within Muslim communities, creating a “Good Muslim”-“Bad Muslim” dichotomy. The world is far from black and white, and Sufi Islam is no different.

Many people often associate Sufism and Sufis with whirling dervishes, spiritual trances, and the poetry of Rumi. While all of these are important cultural markers and/or contributions to Sufism, they are only a few aspects that make up this multilayered Islamic tradition.

So what is Sufism? Described by many scholars as the heart or spiritual essence of Islam (similar to the role of Kabbalah in Judaism), Sufism attempts to cleanse the heart and beautify the self through attaining and enacting praiseworthy traits–charity, compassion, humility, honesty, and justice. Sufis cite the various manifestations of one’s nafs, or ego, as the the cause of individual suffering and the world’s ills, and believe salah (prayer) and dhikr (meditation and the remembrance of God) are foundational to purifying the heart and understanding attaining tawhid, or oneness of with God, the ultimate goal of Sufism.

Sufis of all orders agree that the combination of knowledge, love, and action is necessary for the seeker to come close to God in this world and to prepare for the next. All Sufis are Muslims and adhere to Islamic Law. Being Sufi does not affect other aspects of one’s faith. One can be Sunni or Shi’a and Sufi at the same time.

This mystical tradition is Islamic in origin, and while there are many who follow Sufi principles and Sufi sheiks, or leaders, as non-Muslims, one cannot be a Sufi without being a Muslim. However, nearly all of the principles of Sufism are universal in nature and are shared by almost every faith tradition. Perennial Sufis, or those who see all religions as illuminating the same core truths, understand the Universal (as it’s called) to manifest in different ways in various contexts.

Any complex system of acquiring knowledge and wisdom, whether purely intellectual or spiritual (Sufism requires intellect, love, and action) cannot be done justice with a one-word summary. Sufism is no different. While the core Sufi principle of love is easy to digest, the metaphysical foundations of the tradition do not warrant the “liberal” categorization. Sufism and its followers are diverse and numerous in their beliefs and it’s time for the media to start acknowledging that reality.

For more information on Sufism, see Inside Islam’s recent interview with Dr. Syyed Hossein Nasr, Professor of Islamic Studies at The George Washington University, and his thoughts on non-Muslims embracing Sufi principles.

9 thoughts on “The Real Deal on Sufism

  1. Very true. Sufism is certainly misunderstood amongst all sorts of people.

    The “moderate, liberal,” even nonviolent Islam that western media outlets love is not necessarily synonymous with Sufism. The Naqshbandiyya Sufi order, for example, has a militant branch that has been active in Iraq. Even Hasan Al-Banna, the founder of the highly political Islamist group the Muslim Brotherhood, was said to have been a devout ‘Sufi’ (whatever that means).

    I’m saying this not to taint the notion of Sufism, but to reinforce the point that it’s not necessarily to be equated with ‘nonviolent,’ ‘apolitical’ or even ‘unworldly’.

    Meanwhile, as the post stated, even many Muslims misunderstand Sufism and equate it with being trampled upon by horses, hypnotic dancing, or worse.

    I suppose Dr. Nasr’s definition of Sufism, however, emphasizes the introspective, esoteric aspects of Islam (across all madhahib and sects), to be contrasted (but not completely separate from) the external, physical, societal aspects. It’s from this understanding that all sorts of people can learn.

  2. Tawheed is the oneness OF god, not oneness WITH god. Read Q-112. Especially the last ayat. This belief that we can attain oneness WITH god is pure shirk.

  3. These are my humble questions to all the followers of Sufism:
    1. Isn’t the Quran and the tradition of the Holy Prophet (pubh) sufficient for a Muslim?
    2. Isn’t the Prophet (pubh) is the best to follow?
    3. Aren’t the Muslims supposed to avoid and leave all the innovations in Islam?
    4. Aren’t the Muslims supposed to be cautious enough to remain free from any thing extra-Islamic?
    5. Isn’t sharia from Allah, the Almighty?
    6. Isn’t Islam for all the ages?
    7. Aren’t the prophets practice only Islam?
    10. Doesn’t the practice of Sharia purify heart?
    11. Aren’t there so many practices in Sufism which were not present at the time of the Holy Prophet (pubh)?
    12. Isn’t recognizing all the religions as having some way of emancipation in the name of perennialism un-Islamic, against the basic spirit of Islam that Islam is the only truth and Muhammad (pubh) has come to purify the wrong practices among peoples in the name of religion?
    13. Isn’t the term ‘Muslim’ sufficient to describe a true and perfect human-being?
    14. Is there any mention of the terms ‘Sufism’ or ‘Sufi’ in the entire Quran and in the Hadiths of Prophet (pubh)? If not how dare a Muslim term himself as a Sufi? How is his faith in Quran who prefer the term ‘Sufi’ over the term ‘Muslim’?
    15. Why a Muslim should be called a Sufi whereas Muslim means ‘the person who submit himself/herself completely to God’ and Sufi means just ‘the person who wear woolen cloth’?
    16. Isn’t a Muslim supposed to be loving to all, honest, modest, decent, benevolent, non-violent etc and to have all kinds of virtues a human can have?
    17. Aren’t there so many practices in Sharia to purify the hearts of the Muslims such as – Salat, Zikr, Saom, the ‘tahajjud’ salat and thinking of the Creator and His creation which is meditation?
    18. Doesn’t Allah asks all the humans to ponder over His creation and different aspects of life and death?

    The questions go on and on………………………………..

    Oh Muslims open up your minds…………………see how simple is the truth and for that very reason how beautiful Islam is!

    Let’s not forget we may not get time to repent, there may not be a tomorrow for you and me. This is the last phase………………..
    Be aware of all clandestine traps.

  4. Rashid, to answer your questions:

    1. No, we live in the world of Allah. Allah has bestowed us with knowledge we ourselves are not aware of yet.
    2. Yes, but not only Muhammad but any pious [wo]man.
    3. ?
    4. ?
    5. Yes and no. Sharia is cranal interpretations of Allahs command.
    6. Sure as is any other belief system “right” or “wrong”
    7. No. They practice mysticism.
    10. No. The practice of love (self-understanding) purifies the heart.
    11. No. They were present before Islam was introduced.
    12. ALL religions claim to be the only truth. ONLY YOU have the only truth for yourself.
    13. NO!
    14. Sufism is indirectly mentioned in the 2nd chapter of the Qu’ran “IN the name of the merciful and compassionate God.

    A. L. M. That is the book! there is no doubt therein; a guide to the pious, who believe in the unseen, and are steadfast in prayer, and of what we have given them expend in alms; who believe in what is revealed to thee, and what was revealed before thee, and of the hereafter they are sure. These are in guidance from their Lord, and these are the prosperous.”
    15. Symbolic. The woollen cloth represents poverty and divorce from the world. Not all Muslims act upon their title.
    16. Yes, but they’re not. Those are the descriptions of a Sufi.
    17. Sure. But one must think and not just follow. Be honest with self.
    18. EXACTLY. No go re-read what you asked and how it has ALL been conditioned into you.

    Questions are good, but would benefit more if you questioned what you believe as well and where those beliefs come from.

    “Open up your minds”. My thoughts exactly.

    Beware of self-deception and deception from those self imposed authorities that are blind and misleading. Repent happens at all times. Follow the truest of truths from the deepest reaches of darkened fear within and light the candle of Allah.

  5. Salam to all muslims,

    I will share you my thoughts on sufism. If i am wrong please correct me.

    Sufism in its early days was kind of pure with small mistakes and free from shirk and biddah. This was the time during Sheikh Abdul Qadir Gilani , Junayd Baghdadi and likes. Salafis and other Fundamentalists muslims appreciate these great scholars and hold them in high respect. Sh. Abdul Qadir Gilani and others like him never propagated asking from those inside the graves(including prophets or Awliyah). These things are falsely attributed to these Great Scholars. The books on Sufism attributed to them are mixed with falsehood , even though you may find truth in it. When Books like Injeel , Taurat itself were corrupted its very much possible for Books written by scholars to be done the same. Even Hadith was not spared of mixture.Only Quran is Promised by Allah SWT to be free of errors till Qiyamah.

    However, in the later centuries innovations began entering into many sufis. Like asking from the Graves, making Mawlid with green flags and drums. Many of these invented practices were due to influence of Hinduism,christianity.
    My Question to the Sufis running this website is :

    1. If what you do in the graves i.e ask from the Prophets, Awliyah or others is permissible , then why did the Prophet SAWS himself never go to the graves of earlier Prophets and ask from them. Or for that matter to simplify things why didnt the Sahaba like Hazrat Omar,Osman R.A ever go to the grave Prophet SAWS and ask him for help. Why did they ONLY ask from Allah SWT and HIM alone ??

    2. When you say that you believe that Awliyah have no power to grant things , they are only a means to reach Allah SWT for help. I will say to you that , when i have asked hindus why do they worship idols…they tell me the same thing that they use the Idol only as a means to reach the One God. Now i see a big similarity between hindus and this sufi practice !! This is not Islam!!

    3. If practicing Mawlid is permissible , why didnt the Sahaba , Tabein or Taba Tabein ever celebrate Mawlid ?

    4. A Sufi sheikh called Nazim Qubrisi says that if you are his true follower , then you dont have to worry in the grave about the questions angels ask you , becuase this sheikh will be there to help you answer those questions. Astaghfirullah what a Big Lie this is !!
    And Beyond that , he says that Muslims should stop Jihad, and that jihad should be done only when Imam Mehdi comes. Can you even believe this nonsense this crazy individual called nazim is propagating?

    I am not a Salafi. So please dont attack me with “Wahabi” term.Yes, i have met Salafis and i have also met sufis and got explanations from both , but i never got proof from Sufis ever about these innovated practices. Whereas from the Salafis and fundamentalist they have given me Clear proofs from the Quran and Hadith.
    So i thought i should give the owners of this Website a Chance for a fair judgement on my side.

    I dont have any hatred to anyone even if they do biddah because all of us are the ummah of Prophet SAWS. I just wish that everyone is guided to the right path. So no offense please.You all are my brothers in Islam.

  6. Salams
    Brother Abdul
    It was very refreshing to hear the questions you posed and with so much clarity and righteousness of thoughts. It gives me the opportunity as a Muslim to defend Islam and understand the sectoral system that is taking huge numbers of people in various directions of Islam. I am not an extremist, a strict Wahabi or any kind of names that people label each other; but when I see Islam being used as a tailor made commodity to suit themselves and then also preach others with force and false convictions, it really hurt me inside as I just consider myself a Muslim who must protect one’s religion. We read your thoughts and I agree with you in all recpects as what you have raised are the questions that each an every person who consider modern Sufism the true path, must ask himself or herself, before they taint the name of the true religion even further. yes, there were great Sufis of Islam, but they never taught the false practices by any means.. JazakAllah Brother for such an eye opener post for us.. May Allah reward you in abundance.. Aameen.

  7. Dawud ibn Salih says: “[The Caliph] Marwan [ibn al-Hakam] one day saw a man placing his face on top of the grave of the Prophet. He said: “Do you know what you are doing?” When he came near him, he realized it was Abu Ayyub al-Ansari. The latter said: “Yes; I came to the Prophet, not to a stone.”

    Ibn Hibban in his Sahih, Ahmad (5:422), Tabarani in his Mu`jam al-kabir (4:189) and his Awsat according to Haythami in al-Zawa’id (5:245), al-Hakim in his Mustadrak (4:515); both the latter and al-Dhahabi said it was sahih. It is also cited by al-Subki in Shifa’ al-siqam (p. 126), Ibn Taymiyya in al-Muntaqa (2:261f.), and Haythami in al-Zawa’id (4:2).