|A Closer Look at Sufism|
Page 6 of 9
Pretenders to Sufism
The last question we will deal with in the present essay is: What about the bad Sufis we read about, who contravene the teachings of Islam?
The answer is that there are two meanings of Sufi: the first is “Anyone who considers himself a Sufi,” which is the rule of thumb of Orientalist historians of Sufism and popular writers, who would oppose the “Sufis” to the “‘ulema.” I think the Qur’anic verses and hadiths we have mentioned tonight about the scope and method of true Tasawwuf show why we must insist on the primacy of the definition of a Sufi as “a man of religious learning who applied what he knew, so Allah bequeathed him knowledge of what he did not know.”
The very first thing a Sufi, as a man of religious learning knows is that the shari‘a and ‘aqida of Islam are above every human being. Whoever does not know this will never be a Sufi, except in the Orientalist sense of the word—like someone standing in front of the stock exchange in an expensive suit with a briefcase to convince people he is a stockbroker. A real stockbroker is something else.
Because this distinction is ignored today by otherwise well-meaning Muslims, it is often forgotten that the ‘ulema who have criticized Sufis, such as Ibn al-Jawzi in his Talbis Iblis [The Devil’s deception], or Ibn Taymiya in places in his Fatawa, or Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyya, were not criticizing Tasawwuf as an ancillary discipline to the shari‘a. The proof of this is Ibn al-Jawzi’s five-volume Sifat al-safwa [The characteristics of the finest], which contains the biographies of the very same Sufis mentioned in al-Qushayri’s famous Tasawwuf manual al-Risala al-Qushayriyya. Ibn Taymiya considered himself a Sufi of the Qadiri order, and on his death was buried in Damascus in the cemetery reserved by endowment (waqf) for Sufis; volumes ten and eleven of his thirty-seven-volume Majmu‘ al-fatawa are devoted to Tasawwuf. His student Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyya wrote the three-volume Madarij al-salikin [The successive stages of travellers of the path], a detailed commentary on ‘Abdullah al-Ansari al-Harawi’s tract on the spiritual stations of the Sufi path, Manazil al-sa’irin. These works show that their authors’ criticisms were not directed at Tasawwuf as such, but rather at specific groups of their times, and they should be understood for what they are.
As in other Islamic sciences, mistakes historically did occur in Tasawwuf, most of them stemming from not recognizing the primacy of shari‘a and ‘aqida above all else. But these mistakes were not different in principle from, for example, the Isra’iliyyat or “baseless tales of Bani Isra’il” that crept into tafsir literature, or the mawdu‘at or “hadith forgeries” that crept into the hadith. These were not taken as proof that tafsir was bad, or hadith was deviance, but rather, in each discipline, the errors were identified and warned against by Imams of the field, because the Umma needed the rest. And such corrections are precisely what we find in books like Qushayri’s Risala, Ghazali’s Ihya’, and other works of Sufism.