What is Sufism and why does it bother some Muslims?

Audio 15:00
Egyptian Sufi Muslims practice ritualized Zikr (invocation) to celebrate "Mawlid al-Nabawi" or the birth of Prophet Mohammad outside the Al-Hussein mosque in old Cairo, Egypt, December 1, 2017.
Egyptian Sufi Muslims practice ritualized Zikr (invocation) to celebrate "Mawlid al-Nabawi" or the birth of Prophet Mohammad outside the Al-Hussein mosque in old Cairo, Egypt, December 1, 2017. REUTERS/Amr Abdallah Dalsh

When a mosque in Egypt’s Sinai region was attacked by affiliates of the Islamic State armed group in November leaving over 300 people dead the attackers said they were targeting what they described as 'heretics of Islam', known to the wider world as Sufis.Who are the Sufis and why have they been singled-out by some other Muslims?


The term ‘Sufi’, will, for many, conjur up images of poets like the Persian Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī from the 13th century, or the Abū 'Abdillāh Muḥammad ibn 'Alī ibn Muḥammad ibn `Arabī from Andalusia in Spain from the 12th century, or even Turkey’s whirling dervishes.

While poetry and dervishes can be part of different Sufi orders, at the heart of Sufism, is Islam, and its interaction with the prophet Mohammed.

Sufis, however, have always differed because they have evolved and adapted their practice of Islam. According to Hamza Malik, a lecturer in Sufism at the department of the Near-and-Middle-East at SOAS, University of London, Sufism strarted to distinguish itself from mainstream Islam in the 1800s.

Malik explains that those studying Sufism often sought something that didn’t resemble the strict interpretation of Islam, but instead included some elements closer to Christianity.

Such differences become more apparent during the wave of colonization in the 19th century. It's at this point that Muslims began to question where they had gone wrong since they were losing control of their lands.

"The answer generally lay in [the fact that] they had moved away from [the] original teachings of Islam” explains Malik.

21st century Sufis

Getting a true number of practicing Sufis is hard to come by, since it depends on the order and how one defines a Sufi. In fact, many do not consider themselves Muslim.

One article by Stephen Schwartz, a practicing Sufi himself, says out of the roughly 1.3 billion Muslims worldwide, five percent are Sufis. But much of the confusion in defining Sufis as Muslims stems from the fact that Sufism evolved differently than mainstream Islam.

Malik explains that this willingness to look deeper into the “spiritual essence of Islam” rather than just its literal adherence to routine, is what attracted people.

Different Sufi communities follow different Sufi orders. The orders are based on individual Sufis in history who inspired followers. Rabia and Hasan are two practicing Sufis who grew up in the United States as Presbyterian Christians, but later converted to Sufism. They practice the Sufism developed by Hazrat Inayat Khan, an Indian musician who worked in the early twentieth century.

“He [Hazarat] was a court musician in India and was also a Sufi. This was [in] 1910, and he believed very strongly that Islam and Hinduism and [other religions] and Christianity were all facets of the same thing” explains Hasan.

“They were all trying to reach something deeper. So he felt that you didn't have to be a Muslim, or a Hindu as such. You weren't being locked into one thing.”

Not being locked into one thing is why Sufism was never about a religion, adds Rabia. “Sufism was never a religion. Islam is a religion.”

Sufism and Islam

But most specialists disagree and insist that Sufism comes from Islam and the Koran. Hisham Hellyer is a senior non-resident fellow at the Atlantic council and a professor at the Centre for advanced study of Islam, science and civilization in Malaysia. He says the two cannot be separated because he believes it's “historically not true”. He adds:

“Very basic practice of all Sufis is to read the Koran and that's the Islamic revelation part par excellence and to imagine that is something that can be separated from Islam, I'm not sure how you can do that."

But for hundreds of thousands of people around the world, Sufism has become a means of achieving a spirituality that is rooted in Islam, but that is not necessarily part of the religion.

This ability of Sufis to draw in more followers by adapting the religion to the local culture is how it was able to adapt to local cultures and taken in those customs.

“To give an example, when Islam came to India, they conquered the original people, but a lot of the people who became Muslim became Muslim through the Sufis. And what the Sufis did was they learned the local languages, and then they wrote poetry in the local languages,” explains Malik.

The fact that Sufism has an ability to evolve and to adapt, unlike traditional branches of Islam, means it is criticised by some conservative Muslims.

“…In essence the Sufis don't do anything too different in their day shift, they don't do anything too different than normal Muslims do, but they definitely have a particular kind of outlook. And historically they've always been quicker and faster in taking the local culture and be able to see what's not harmful about the local culture and try to bring it into focus” adds Malik.

Sufis as targets?

But at what point did Sufis start becoming targets for fellow Muslims?

Malik points to when Sufis began introducing changes to the religion. Such deviation from the “pure form” was seen as something to be purged. “So Sufis began to be seen perhaps as a people who were stuck in their own ways and promoting more cultural aspects and aspects from other religions” which in turn gave fuel to those hardliners who believed “we must cleanse and go back to a pure origin”.

Many of the main opponents to Sufis are conservative Muslims, like the Salafists or Wahabbis in Saudi Arabia. Hellyer points to a more recent emergence of Salafism beginning in the 1700s, which was “very critical of Sufism” and put itself in direct opposition to what mainstream Sunni Islam had actually relied upon.

But what exactly is the basis for Sufism in Islam? Hellyer says the starting point is in the life of the prophet Mohammed.

The story goes that at one point in his life when he is out with some of his companions a man comes upon them who is dressed in white. This man is the archangel Gabriel and he proceeds to ask the prophet to define Islam.

He does so referring to the five pillars of Islam. Gabriel then asks Mohammed to define Iman, which means faith. And Mohammed provides an answer referring to certain articles and the belief in the day of judgement. A third question is then put to Gabriel asking to define Ihsan, which means perfection.

This “third dimension relates to spiritual matters, excellence. And from that you'll get Sufism. And they'll be other names of disciplines, sometimes not Sufism but it all relates to that dimension of Ihsan” explains Hellyer.

This story is a pivotal moment for Sufism according to most Islamic authorities, because it is the basis for correct form and practice for Sufi Muslims.

But, for Malik, it’s not the only basis. “There's quite a few different verses and traditions that are used and the Gabriel one is definitely often used as being the third aspect that fits in nicely.”

While many practicing Sufis today may not consider themselves Muslims, Sufism has always been an element of Islam for some who are trying to reach a higher level of spirituality.

It has had the room to interpret and question its evolution and this has given it a place in modern times, but also, as we've seen, a reputation for being something separate, and something different, to mainstream Islam.

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