Sufism and the Classical Scholars

While today there are many Muslims, influenced by either Wahhabi or Orientalist agendas, who believe that Sufism has always led a somewhat marginal existence in Islam, the reality is that the overwhelming majority of the classical scholars were actively involved in Sufism.

The early Shafi’i scholars of Khurasan: al-Hakim al-Nisaburi, Ibn Furak, al-Qushayri and al-Bayhaqi, were all Sufis who formed links in the richest academic tradition of Abbasid Islam, which culminated in the achievement of Imam Hujjat al-Islam al-Ghazali. Ghazali himself, author of some three hundred books, including the definitive rebuttals of Arab philosophy and the Ismailis, three large textbooks of Shafi’ifiqh, the best-known tract of usul al-fiqh, two works on logic, and several theological treatises, also left us with the classic statement of orthodox Sufism: the Ihya Ulum al-Din, a book of which Imam Nawawi remarked:

“Were the books of Islam all to be lost, excepting only the Ihya’, it would suffice to replace them all.” al-Zabidi, Ithaf al-sada al-muttaqin (Cairo, 1311), I, 27.

Imam Nawawi himself wrote two books which record his debt to Sufism, one called the Bustan al-Arifin (‘Garden of the Gnostics’, and another called the al-Maqasid (recently published in English translation, Sunna Books, Evanston Il. trans. Nuh Ha Mim Keller).

Among the Malikis, too, Sufism was popular. Al-Sawi, al-Dardir, al-Laqqani and Abd al-Wahhab al-Baghdadi were all exponents of Sufism. The Maliki jurist of Cairo, Abd al-Wahhab al-Sha’rani defines Sufism as follows:

‘The path of the Sufis is built on the Quran and the Sunna, and is based on living according to the morals of the prophets and the purified ones. It may not be blamed, unless it violates an explicit statement from the Quran, sunna, or ijma. If it does not contravene any of these sources, then no pretext remains for condemning it, except one’s own low opinion of others, or interpreting what they do as ostentation, which is unlawful. No-one denies the states of the Sufis except someone ignorant of the way they are.’ Sha’rani, al-Tabaqat al-Kubra (Cairo, 1374), I, 4.

For Hanbali Sufism one has to look no further than the revered figures of Abdallah Ansari, Abd al-Qadir al-Jilani, Ibn al-Jawzi, and Ibn Rajab.

In fact, virtually all the great luminaries of medieval Islam: al-Suyuti, Ibn Hajar al-Asqalani, al-Ayni, Ibn Khaldun, al-Subki, Ibn Hajar al-Haytami; tafsir writers like Baydawi, al-Sawi, Abu’l-Su’ud, al-Baghawi, and Ibn Kathir[12] ; aqida writers such as Taftazani, al-Nasafi, al-Razi: all wrote in support of Sufism. Many, indeed, composed independent works of Sufi inspiration. The ulema of the great dynasties of Islamic history, including the Ottomans and the Moghuls, were deeply infused with the Sufi outlook, regarding it as one of the most central and indispensable of Islamic sciences.

Further confirmation of the Islamic legitimacy of Sufism is supplied by the enthusiasm of its exponents for carrying Islam beyond the boundaries of the Islamic world. The Islamization process in India, Black Africa, and South-East Asia was carried out largely at the hands of wandering Sufi teachers. Likewise, the Islamic obligation of jihad has been borne with especial zeal by the Sufi orders. All the great nineteenth century jihadists: Uthman dan Fodio (Hausaland), al-Sanousi (Libya), Abd al-Qadir al-Jaza’iri (Algeria), Imam Shamil (Daghestan) and the leaders of the Padre Rebellion (Sumatra) were active practitioners of Sufism, writing extensively on it while on their campaigns. Nothing is further from reality, in fact, than the claim that Sufism represents a quietist and non-militant form of Islam.

With all this, we confront a paradox. Why is it, if Sufism has been so respected a part of Muslim intellectual and political life throughout our history, that there are, nowadays, angry voices raised against it? There are two fundamental reasons here.

Firstly, there is again the pervasive influence of Orientalist scholarship, which, at least before 1922 when Massignon wrote his Essai sur les origines de la lexique technique, was of the opinion that something so fertile and profound as Sufism could never have grown from the essentially ‘barren and legalistic’ soil of Islam. Orientalist works translated into Muslim languages were influential upon key Muslim modernists – such as Muhammad Abduh in his later writings – who began to question the centrality, or even the legitimacy, of Sufi discourse in Islam.

Secondly, there is the emergence of the Wahhabi da’wa. When Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, some two hundred years ago, teamed up with the Saudi tribe and attacked the neighbouring clans, he was doing so under the sign of an essentially neo-Kharijite version of Islam. Although he invoked Ibn Taymiya, he had reservations even about him. For Ibn Taymiya himself, although critical of the excesses of certain Sufi groups, had been committed to a branch of mainstream Sufism. This is clear, for instance, in Ibn Taymiya’s work Sharh Futuh al-Ghayb, a commentary on some technical points in the Revelations of the Unseen, a key work by the sixth-century saint of Baghdad, Abd al-Qadir al-Jilani. Throughout the work Ibn Taymiya shows himself to be a loyal disciple of al-Jilani, whom he always refers to asshaykhuna (‘our teacher’). This Qadiri affiliation is confirmed in the later literature of the Qadiri tariqa, which records Ibn Taymiya as a key link in the silsila, the chain of transmission of Qadiri teachings.[13]

Ibn Abd al-Wahhab, however, went far beyond this. Raised in the wastelands of Najd in Central Arabia, he had little access to mainstream Muslim scholarship. In fact, when his da’wa appeared and became notorious, the scholars and muftis of the day applied to it the famous Hadith of Najd:

Ibn Umar reported the Prophet (upon whom be blessings and peace) as saying: “Oh God, bless us in our Syria; O God, bless us in our Yemen.” Those present said: “And in our Najd, O Messenger of God!” but he said, “O God, bless us in our Syria; O God, bless us in our Yemen.” Those present said, “And in our Najd, O Messenger of God!”. Ibn Umar said that he thought that he said on the third occasion: “Earthquakes and dissensions (fitna) are there, and there shall arise the horn of the devil.” Narrated by Bukhari. The translation is from J. Robson, Mishkat al-Masabih (Lahore, 1970), II, 1380.

And it is significant that almost uniquely among the lands of Islam, Najd has never produced scholars of any repute.

The Najd-based da’wa of the Wahhabis, however, began to be heard more loudly following the explosion of Saudi oil wealth. Many, even most, Islamic publishing houses in Cairo and Beirut are now subsidised by Wahhabi organisations, which prevent them from publishing traditional works on Sufism, and remove passages in other works considered unacceptable to Wahhabist doctrine.

The neo-Kharijite nature of Wahhabism makes it intolerant of all other forms of Islamic expression. However, because it has no coherentfiqh of its own – it rejects the orthodox madhhabs – and has only the most basic and primitively anthropomorphic aqida, it has a fluid, amoebalike tendency to produce divisions and subdivisions among those who profess it. No longer are the Islamic groups essentially united by a consistent madhhab and the Ash’ari [or Maturidi] aqida. Instead, they are all trying to derive the shari’a and the aqida from the Quran and the Sunna by themselves. The result is the appalling state of division and conflict which disfigures the modern salafi condition.

At this critical moment in our history, the umma has only one realistic hope for survival, and that is to restore the ‘middle way’, defined by that sophisticated classical consensus which was worked out over painful centuries of debate and scholarship. That consensus alone has the demonstrable ability to provide a basis for unity. But it can only be retrieved when we improve the state of our hearts, and fill them with the Islamic virtues of affection, respect, tolerance and reconciliation. This inner reform, which is the traditional competence of Sufism, is a precondition for the restoration of unity in the Islamic movement. The alternative is likely to be continued, and agonising, failure.

Source: Islamic Spirituality: The Forgotten Revolution (


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