Sufis in the Muslim World
June 2004 version
One could read the Muslim Hadiths and conclude that Islam is primarily legalism that would make the Pharisees of Jesus’ feel at home. Sufiism is a large number of inter-related sects of Islam that is a reaction against this focus on rituals and practices. Orthodox Islam says little about the heart and desiring God; Sufiism says that true religion is inner truth, not outer practice. Christianity, by contrast, says both the internal and external matter.
We will discuss Sufi beliefs, Sufi leaders, Sufi "denominations" in general, and then focus comparing Sufiism with the Christianity.
Some Sufi Beliefs
Sufiism has always claimed to be Muslim, but it has had a troubled relationship with Sunni and Shi’ite Islam. Sufi writings mention Christians, Gnostics, and Zoroastrians (Magians). Various Sufi schools have apparently been influenced by these, as well as Indian influence. Some Sufis are monastic-like, perhaps showing Christian influence.
Strict Islamic Law and the five pillars of Islam are like a "schoolmaster" that Sufis say is fine for others, but they have gone beyond the need for it. Instead, Sufis follow books that other Muslims do not.
al-Khidr/Khadir (the Green) is an immortal being whom Sufis believe can renew his youth. The Khidr can kill people and still be blameless. Some Sufi leaders claimed the al-Khidr personally taught them.
Bukhari vol.1:124 (p.90-93) is a rather long hadith about al-Khadir, a contemporary of Moses who was more learned than Moses. Allah showed Moses how to meet al-Khadir, and Moses asked to learn from him. al-Khadir warned Moses that Moses was not patient enough. Then al-Khadir did three things:
1. They asked the men on a boat to take them aboard. The crew, recognizing al-Khadir, did so for free. Al-Khadir pulled up a plank to that the boat would sink, possibly drowning the sailors.
2. The two saw some boys playing, and al-Khadir plucked out one boy’s head, killing him.
3. Some people refused to give food to Moses and al-Khadir, and after that al-Khadir repaired a wall of theirs that was about to collapse.
People can be One with God is the key belief of Sufiism. Thus a Sufi who is "one with God" could be considered Allah himself, because he is one with Allah. This is similar to the heretical Christian mysticism of the Middle Ages, who emphasize experience and say they themselves could be God.
Seeking and experience a key motif of Sufism. The hunger to be filled and content are considered a gift, and the Sufi lives for today. Seeking after God is compared to them seeking after friendship, wine, being drunk, and unlawful sex.
The Secret Knowledge of Sufis: "Lordship has a secret which, if manifested, would destroy Prophethood; and Prophethood has a secret, which if divulged, would nullify knowledge, and the Gnostics have a secret which, if manifested by God, would set the law at naught." Attributed to al-Tustari (d.896 A.D.) (Fazlur Rahman Islam 2nd ed. p.142) A "secret" which can cause Sufis to be killed by other Muslims if other Muslims knew about it, is that they believe the divine is within them, so that they can be considered a part of Allah.
Dissimultude (taqiyya) is the way many ghulat sects, not just Sufis, survive in an orthodox Muslim world. Dissimultude is the doctrine that it is OK to lie about what you believe and practice to escape religious persecutions. For example, annihilation teachings are explained away as ‘non-responsible’ utterances in the ‘state of intoxication’ according to Rahman (p.135). The first Muslims practiced dissimulation in Mecca according to Bukhari vol.9:5 p.3.
Pain is an element of Sufism. They say that if pain brings someone closer to God, then pain is good. Therefore, some Sufis "flagellate" themselves with whips to bloody their back, and bring pain, because they think Allah wants them to do so.
Veneration (to use a Catholic term) is common in both Sufism and Shi’ite Islam. According to some Sufis, Mohammed was the primal light in his pre-existence, and the universe rotates around some of the Sufi saints.
Stages of Sufi Experience
Since about 859 A.D. in the earliest days of Sufism, the stages (called maqamat) a Sufi is said to experience have been one of the central beliefs. These vary based on sect, but here is a typical sequence.
1. Repentance of sins and the worldly life
2. Abstinence of the desires of the world.
3. Patience in waiting to experience God
4. Gratitude for their existence in God
5. Trust in God
6. Pleasure in experiencing the divine
7. Absorption of the self in the divine
8. Many teach annihilation of the self in the divine
Repentance: When the Qur’an says to trust in God, Sufis equate that with renunciation of the world.
Pleasure or Intoxicating experience is a distinctive of Sufiism. For some this means just an emotional experience. This is often compared to being drunk with wine, and other Sufis do drink wine and get drunk. Sufis can excuse the many references to wine and even taverns in their religion as being a metaphor for spiritual ecstasy. After all, even the hadiths say Muslims will drink wine in Heaven. However, many of them do believe it is OK to drink alcohol too. A few Sufi sects smoke Hashish as part of their religion, but the majority do not.
Absorption/Annihilation (fana’) is the doctrine of replacement of human attributes by the Divine. This was taught by Abu Yazid al-Bistami (d.874/877 A.D.) Some of his rather surprising statements are:
"Praise be to me; how great is my majesty"
"I am your Lord"
"my banner is greater than that of Muhammad"
While we do not know for sure the origin of the word "Sufi, it probably comes from the word suf for wool. Here are some of the more famous leaders.
Rabi’a/Rabiah al-‘Adawiya (died 801 A.D.) was one of the few women Muslim religious teachers.
Harith al-Nuhasibi (died 857 A.D.) converted from rationalist Islam
Dhu’l-Nun of Egypt (died 859 A.D.) formulated the stages of Sufism.
Al-Hakim al-Tirmidhi (died 898 A.D.) He is not related to the Tirmidhi who collected Hadiths
Junayd of Baghdad (died 910/911 A.D.) was a "sober sufi" who denied total absorption with God.
Al-Hallaj (Husain al-Mansur) taught the replacement of the humanity with the divine and he identified himself with God. He also taught you can go on the Hajj pilgrimage simply in spirit. In 922 A.D. he was flogged, publicly mutilated, hung on a giblet, beheaded, and then his body burnt. The orthodox Muslims were apparently displeased with him.
Abu Nasr al-Farabi (870-950 A.D.), born in Farab Turkistan, was a famous Neoplatonist philosopher and Sufi. He taught God as the unmoved mover and introduced many to Aristotle.
Al-Ghazali (1058-1111 A.D.) was first a skeptic before becoming a Sufi. He returned to teaching in 1106, five years before his death. Al-Ghazali was against Neo-Platonist influence in Islam, rather favoring Aristotelian logic. He wrote The Revival of the Religious Sciences where he spoke of ritual practices, social custom, vices leading to Hell, and virtues leading to Paradise. He was instrumental in gaining a degree of acceptance of Sufism among Sunnis.
Khararas was a Sufi who opposed self-annihilation and taught the doctrine of "survival" with God, recovery of yourself. Peace and integrity to carry out God’s duties
Maulana Jalal-uddin Rumi (Mohammed ben Mohammed bin Husain al-Balkhi) (born 1207 in Balkh Afghanistan and grew up in Rum, Turkey) He died in 1273 A.D.. He wrote one of the most popular collections of works on Sufism, and founded the Sufi Mevleviye/Maulawiya Order. We are not going to discuss Rumi here, as there is an entire paper on him.
Sufi Orders or "Paths"
Sufis were associated with some Berber movements, and Muslim fighting against Europeans in Africa. Many Janissary soldiers were Sufis, and Sufis are in both Sunni and Shi’ite Islam. The number of Sufi orders is very large according to the Islamic scholar Fazlur Rahman in Islam p.157. Here are a few of the main sects.
The Qadiriya were started by ex-Hanbalite ‘Abd al-Qadir al-Gilani b.1077 A.D.. They are one of the oldest sects, the largest, and the most peaceful. They recite , "I seek pardon of God the Mighty. Glory be to God, O, God! Bless our master Muhammad and his family and Companions." (100 times), "There is no god but Allah." (500 times) (Rahman p.160)
Mevleviye/Maulawiya Order was founded by Jalal al-Din Rumi (d.1273) Fazlur Rahman says this is the main urban order among Turkish Sufis. Not to be confused with them is the Mawlaniya order, which Turks have persecuted since 1925.
The Indian Chishtiya/Cishtiyya Order was founded by Mu’an al-Din Chishi (1141-1236 A.D.). They make pilgrimages to his tomb, as did Akbar, the Emperor of India. They are pacifists who differ from many Muslims in viewing revenge as wrong. Unlike many Sufis, they do not believe in dissimultude. While most Muslims want an Islamic state, they believe in having no involvement in government. This is in spite of the numerous Sunni hadiths on Islamic government. They practice breath regulation, as do Yogis. Their main book is ‘Awaif al-Ma-arif.
The Khwajagan Order in Central Asia spawned the Yasawiya, the oldest Turkish order. Baha’ al-Din of Bukhara (d.1389 A.D.) was a Khwajagan who left and founded the Naqshbandiya order in India. They said their order came from Abu Bakr though, which shows they claim to be Sunnis.
The Persian Subhawardiya order was founded by ‘Umar al-Suhrawardi (died 1236). It claims it was actually from the caliph ‘Umar, so it also is in the Sunni camp. It is in India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan.
The Rifa’iya order was founded by Ahmad al-Rifa’i d.1182). It is in Turkey, Egypt, and Southeast Asia.
The Sa’diya/Jibawiya was allegedly founded by Sa’d al-Din died 1300 in Damascus.
The Sanusiya order is distinctive for their 60,000 lights doctrine. Their emphasis on light is reminiscent of some Gnostic teachings.
The Tijaniya order in Africa was started c.1781 at Fez by Ahmad al-Tijani (d.1815 A.D.) It came from the Persian Khalwati/Khalwatiya order, which was founded by ‘Umar al-Khalwati (d.1398). This order is in Turkey, Egypt, and northwest Africa. This order came from the Shadhili order. From the Shadhiliya came the Madoniyya order in 1847, which was a rival to the Sanusiya order.
More Strange Orders
The Bektashi/Bektashiya came out of the Yawawiya order, which came out of the Khwajagan order. It has elements of Shamanism, Shi’ite Islam, and some Christianity influence. It was the sect of Islam popular among the Janissaries, and survives today in Albania. They believe in a "Trinity" of Allah, Mohammed, and ‘Ali. They celebrate new members with (alcoholic) wine, bread, and cheese.
The Qalanders/Kalenders were a Sufi order not really bound by Islam, with many pre-Islamic teachings. They revolted against the Turks in 1526-1527. The Divan of Hafez mentions them negatively.
Ma-Ming Hsin in the last part of the 18th century started a Sufi order in China.
Ibn el/al-Arabi of Murcia (in Spain) founded a pantheistic order, saying that all is a part of God. One of the few women leaders was his Sufi teacher Fatima bint Waliyya (The Sufis p.159)
Experience Must Be with the Right God
Mohammed had mystic experiences according to the Qur’an. While most Muslims think that no others are to have this kind of mystical relationship, Sufis think that they should have these mystic experiences too. While non-Sufi Islam discusses about God, Sufis want to seek experience with God.
Experience that goes against God’s revelation is deceptive experience. Worship and prayer are not necessarily good; it depends on the object of the worship and prayer. Muslims agree with Christians that Moses, David, Jesus, and others gave us messages from God. If we do not follow that God has revealed, then we are not following God. Jesus said, "…If anyone loves me, he will obey my teaching. My Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him. He who does not love me will not obey my teaching. These words you hear are not my own; they belong to the Father who sent me. All this I have spoken while still with you. But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit [not Gabriel] whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives." (John 14:23-27a) – in manuscripts p66 c.125-150 A.D. and p75 175-255 A.D.
Is the goal of all religion action, or is it contemplation? The practical answer is different for Sufi versus non-Sufi Islam. Christianity has a third answer: the goal of true religion is God. Christianity includes action, contemplation, and belief, but it is centered on pleasing God first. It is not just following rules, and it is not just seeking experience.
Mainstream Muslim reactions to Sufiism
Sura 42:51 says, "It is not fitting for a man that God should speak to him except by inspiration, or from behind a veil, or by the sending of a Messenger to reveal, with God’s permission, what God wills: for He is Most High, Most Wise." Sura 42:51
Reactions to Sufiism include toleration, opposition, and execution. There is a anti-Sufi Hadith that is clearly fabricated. On the other hand, a many non-Sufi Muslims are familiar with Sufiism and have respect for it, and read some of the Sufi poetry. Early Sufis such as al-Hallaj were outspoken in saying that they were God; al-Hallaj was executed and then his body was mutilated. Later Sufis such as Rumi still speak with favor of al-Hallaj, including his famous statement "Praise be to me".
Sufis were persecuted in Iran under Khomeini, but many Sunnis persecuted them too. Others tolerated Sufis; and many in the Ottoman army were Sufis.
Comparing Sufism and Christianity
Sufism is an outgrowth of Islam, but they have a higher regard for the teachings of Jesus than most Muslims. At one extreme, a book by the Sufi master Javad Nurkhbhsh of the Nihmatullahi order called Jesus in the Eyes of the Sufis, says that Sufis look to Jesus much more than to Mohammed for inspiration, guidance and as their example! Most Sufis would not say this though, and all Sufis do not recognize that Jesus is any more divine than anyone else can be.
One could try to compare Sufi Islam with Christianity, because both focus on experience. The references are at the end so that can see if you can guess which is which.
"O LORD, our Lord, how majestic is your name in all the earth!" (Psalm 8:1 David is speaking)
"I am the well-preserved tablet" This is interesting, because Sura 85:20-22 says it is the Qur’an that is preserved on a tablet [in Heaven].
"I said *** you are my Lord; apart from you I have no good thing," (Psalm 16:2 The *** is LORD)
He also said, "I saw the *** walking around me." Of God it is said, "Your obedience to me is greater than my obedience to You." The *** are "Ka’aba"
(Said by Bayazid Bestami (died 874/877 A.D.) and taken from The Essential Rumi p.288.)
"Remain in me, and I will remain in you. No branch can bear fruit by itself; it must remain in the vine. Neither can you bear fruit unless you remain in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing." Jesus in John 15:1:4-6
View of Ourselves
"Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than ourselves. Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others. Your attitude should be the same as that of ***" (Paul is speaking in Philippians 2:3-5a. *** is Christ Jesus.)
"Praise be to me… How great is my majesty/glory … I am your Lord … My banner is greater than that of ***." (Bestami d.874/877 *** is Mohammed.)
"I seek you with all my heart; do not let me stray from your commands. I have hidden your word in my heart that I might no sin against you." Psalm 119:10-11
"O God, you are my God, earnestly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you, my body longs for you, in a dry and weary land where there is no water." (Psalm 63:1 David is speaking from the desert of Judah.)
"This drunkenness began in some other tavern. When I get back around to that place, I’ll be completely sober. Meanwhile, I’m like a bird from another continent, sitting in this aviary." (From the Safa Anthology, taken from The Essential Rumi p.2)
"Show me your ways, O ***, teach me your paths; guide me in your truth and teach me, for you are God my Savior and my hope is in you all day long. Remember, O ***, your great mercy and love, for they are from of old." Psalm 25:4-6 (David is speaking. The *** is LORD)
Prayer and Meditation
"Listen to my cry for help, my King and my God, for to you I pray. Morning by morning, O LORD, you hear my voice; morning by morning I lay my requests before you and wait in expectation." (Psalm 5:2-3 David is speaking)
"May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be pleasing in your sight, O LORD, my Rock and my ***" (Psalm 19:14. *** is Redeemer.)
"*** was told a secret doctrine by *** and told not to tell it, so he whispered it down the mouth of a well. Sometimes there’s no one to talk to. You must just set out on your own." The first *** is ‘Ali, and the second *** is Mohammed. (The Mathnawi 4:275-486, taken from The Essential Rumi p.195)
Metaphors of Wine
"You have filled my heart with greater joy than when their [others’] grain and new wine abound." (Ps 4:7)
"I am the wine drinker and the wine and the cupbearer" (said by Bestami who died 874/877 A.D.) from The Essential Rumi p.288)
"Do not get drunk on wine, which leads to debauchery. Instead, be filled with the Spirit." Ephesians 5:18
"Happy is my head: and with loud shout, I speak; Saying: ‘Life’s breeze from the cup I seek.’ On the face of wine sickness, sitteth not the sullenness of austerity. The disciple of the khirka, dreg-drinker, pleasant of disposition, I am. … Wine, bring that, by *** decision, down from the pure heart, Hypocrisy’s dust, with the goblet’s grace, I may wash." (Divan of Hafez p.399. The *** is Hafiz, the poet’s nickname.
Metaphors of Food and Giving
"My soul with be satisfied as with the richest of foods; with singing lips my mouth will praise you." (Psalm 63:5)
A *** knocked at a house to ask for a piece of dry bread, or moist, it didn’t matter.
"This is not a bakery," said the owner.
"Might you have a bit of gristle then?"
"Does this look like a butcher shop?"
"A little flour?"
"Do you hear a grinding stone?"
"This is not a well."
Whatever the *** asked for, the man made some tired joke and refused to give him anything.
Finally the *** ran in the house, lifted up his robe, and squatted as though to [use the bathroom]
"Quiet, you sad man. A deserted place is a fine spot to relieve oneself, and since there’s no living thing here, or means of living, it needs fertilizing."
(The Essential Rumi p.116-117 from The Mathnawi 6:1250-1257) The *** is dervish.
Sufi Religious Books
‘al-hikam (Wise Sayings) compiled by Ibn ‘Ata’ Allah (d.1309)
The Mathnawi/Mesnevi - six books by Rumi with 30K-40K verses (1258-1273 A.D.)
Divan of Hafez - There are twelve or so major genres of Persian poetry, and Hafez stands out as a "Shakespeare" of one of them.
References on Sufism
Shah, Idries. The Sufis. Anchor Books1971 451 pgs.
McCurry, Dan. Introduction to Islam : Sufism tape
Rahman, Fazlur. Islam, 2nd edition. University of Chicago Press, 1979.