No religious group likes being told its laws and teachings are unimportant or even wrong. The mystical tradition does just that, seeking to transcend traditional laws and practices in search of a connection with God beyond what is practiced in prayer rooms. As just such a mystical tradition, Sufism was bound from the start to be a controversial practice of Islam. Many of its tenets and practices seem alien to Islam if not outside the boundaries of shari’a, the right path followed by Muslims. Yet although Sufism seeks to transcend the material practices prescribed by shari’a, its fundamental tenets are not incompatible with Islam and are closer to the spiritual experience of Muhammad and the spirit of his teachings than to the practice of Islam shari’a suggests.
Shari’a is a practical path to move followers towards a righteous society. This tradition encompasses social and devotional practices meant to deepen the individual’s spiritual connections and work towards a just, harmonious society. Shari’a was formed in the first Muslim community under Muhammad at Medina, “those who, if we give them power on the earth, shall establish prayers, pay zakat, command good, and forbid evil.”
These fundamental values were incorporated in the Five Pillars of Islam, the practices at the heart of the faith: vocal acceptance of the one and only God and Muhammad as his prophet; daily prayer at the five appointed times; paying zakat, a small tax for the benefit of the poor; fasting during the holy month of Ramadan; and making the arduous pilgrimage to Mecca, the Hajj, at least once during the devotee’s lifetime. Shari’a and its partner, fiqh, Muslim code law, aim to further a harmonious society in the model of the first Muslim community at Medina with rules inspired by the Five Pillars on matters ranging from marriage, inheritance, property, and business transactions. While Muslim law may seem to be overly concerned with worldly affairs, the ulamic tradition recognized that a more just and harmonious society was important to the continuity of Islam and formed a basis for the teaching of morals and devotion to God.
As a mystical tradition, however, Sufism has more interest in the devotional practice and the individual’s journey towards God than the formation of a just and pious society through legal and social paths. Sufism is the search for the true nature of reality, moving past the visible and apparent perceptions of the material world to deeper insight and direct experience of God. The tradition teaches ultimate devotion to God, casting aside social forms of class, familial obligation, and standard Muslim social practices in search of al-haqiqa, the true reality: God. Although Sufism sets aside traditional rules of society in favor of the disciple’s individual journey towards God, it is not without strict rules and practices. Early Sufis in particular followed the rites of ritual prayer, frequent fasting, and repeated pilgrimage.
The rules of practice and way of life laid out by the devotee’s master also required a strict, often ascetic way of life. While many Muslim customs became important to one’s social standing or even to ‘virtue police,’ these practices were done only to purify the devotee’s mind and focus it on God.
Although many followers of the Sufi path continued these customs and remained householders – and often prominent ulama, community and religious leaders and scholars – a life of simplicity, poverty, and devotion were at the heart of Sufi practice. If the goal of the Sufi devotee was understanding and love of God, then the Sufi master or sheikh was the guide on that path. Devotees followed the every word of their masters, often leaving their homes to live with and follow their masters. The duty of the devotee was service and absolute obedience. Many Sufi traditions included a period of mendicancy – wandering and reliance on God for guidance and even food and shelter – in search of the correct sheikh or after initiation, such as during the 40-day periods of prayer and fasting that punctuated the lives of many Sufi devotees. This period necessarily included much prayer and devotion but certainly did not include zakat or many practices prescribed in fiqh. Indeed, most Sufis were poor, unable to pay such taxes, and removed from society, neither interested in or able to participate in social customs.
Some Sufi traditions – particularly the path of the dervishes – openly violated principles of shari’a and were condemned as bid’a dalala, ‘reprehensible innovations alien to Islam.’
Intoxication with the love of God was not uncommon, and sometimes illicit alcohol or drugs were used to help generate such a state. Attribution of miraculous powers to the all-important sheikhs and ‘magic’ rites or amulets to invoke their power or guidance were also widespread. During the late 19th and 20th centuries one of the most common criticisms was of unconditional submission to the sheikh, a practice deemed dangerous and exploitative. Critics cited sheikhs who used their ‘disciples’ for manual labor or who initiated them, accepted a payment, and sent them on their way with no further instruction.
But perhaps the most dangerous aspect of Sufism was its challenge of conventional practices, laws, and authorities. Some of Sufism’s highest saints, such as Hallaj, openly flouted social norms and refused to repent in the face of the law.
Although Sufi orders were generally removed from society, their service to God often included service to man through soup kitchens or other forms of social welfare. This led to a potential for political involvement and social mobilization both through the poorest, who were beneficiaries of Sufi lodges, and scholars who followed Sufi paths themselves. Not a few revolutions were led by Sufis, in both the medieval world (the founding of the Persian dynasty) and the modern (revolutions in West Africa).
Many of the main sources of tension between Sufism and shari’a were in fact ways that Sufi beliefs and practices were closer to the original form of Islam than to what shari’a teaches. Most Sufi-led revolutions were in the name of Islam (jihad) and of justice – as was the revolution of Muhammad. Sufi mysticism and direct connection with God, as well as the outcast and mendicant path, is more similar to the experience of Muhammad than to rituals practiced in a mosque or prayer room. Challenging social conventions and traditional authorities as Sufism does were Muhammad’s entire mission, although he does not encourage followers to do this, commanding “Obey Allah and obey the Messenger and those charged with authority among you.”
While some practices are clearly outside the bounds of shari’a – public intoxication chief among them – others were simply different enactments of its principles. A tradition of Muhammad supported Sufis’ claim to live a different but equally valid Islam: “The shari’a are my words, the tariqa are my actions, and the haqiqa is my inner state.”
The letter of the law expressed in shari’a is only one way of being Muslim; following Muhammad’s actions in the (Sufi) path and seeking his understanding are also Islam. Some Sufi practices mirrored layman practices of shari’a; others were an internalization. Sufi lodges that participated in social welfare certainly lived up to the standard of social justice required by shari’a and zakat. Fasting as a form of abstinence was more frequent in many Sufi lives than the once-a-year practice of fasting during Ramadan. Some Sufis fasted every other day in order to keep the mind focused on God.
Although most Sufi devotees did not participate in social institutions from marriage to attending prayer at mosque, they filled this gap with life in a just and harmonious community of devotees and with constant prayer to God (not just five times a day).
The Sufi emphasis on the saintliness of the sheikh is also not outside the ulamic tradition or shari’a. Almost every religious tradition relies on the teachings of elders and guides; “religion consists of giving good advice,” according to Muhammad.
The Shi’a tradition in particular honors the “mystical” lineage of Imams as ma’amun, sinless, and regards them as “authoritative interpreters of divine law,”
trusting their guidance on all matters. Just as Sufi devotees revered the tombs and relics of sheikhs and saints, “public expressions of devotion to the House of ‘Ali… [and] pious visitation of the tomb… were important rituals for Shi’i Muslims.”
Tomb visitation and saint worship were even endorsed by “numerous learned, urban ulama,” upholders of shari’a.
Far from being a perversion of Islam, Sufism is a radical form of Islam emphasizing its core tenets: devotion to God and following the sunna (example) of Muhammad. While shari’a and Muslim law are the external practices of Islam in search of social harmony and laying the grounds for sincere devotional practice, Sufism is the internal and personal search for connection with God. Although their outward practices are dissimilar and even contradictory, their goals and their roots are similar, emphasizing devotion above all else.