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Sufi Islam: Reclaiming Muslim Spirituality

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After two bombs recently claimed dozens of innocent lives at the shrine of esteemed Sufi Ali Hajviri, fingers were pointed at the al-Qaeda-linked militants who see Sufism as the work of heretics. The New York Sufi Music Festival was brought to U.S. to showcase the spiritual dimension of Islam and the rich heritage of Pakistan, counteracting a view that Pakistan is predominantly a country known for its terror factories. Sadly, the image of militants waging war is overwhelming and hard to supersede.

Hearing Abida Parveen sing Bulleh Shah's ecstatic poetry, which enriched the centuries-old Sufi tradition of the Indus valley, made me realize how the Islamists have stripped away spirituality from the religion and left believers with rituals, sketchy interpretations of the divine laws and fear of God's wrath. Sufi Muslims of the subcontinent, who converted to Islam in the pre-partition era, were drawn to the Sufi path of knowledge that has been hijacked by the al-Qaeda ideology of violence.

The rapturous quality of Sufi poetry continues to fascinate me, but the very idea of loving and seeking God while listening to radical mullahs (like the clerics of Red Mosque) is deeply troubling. Prostration to God devoid of spirituality is no different from doing sit-ups. Surely, the label Sufi is not necessary. What's important is the sentiment. It helps the cause of clarity to call those on the path "Sufis" rather than "mystics," which will more likely conjure images of Aladdin on his flying carpet.

Islam is the fastest-growing religion but has too few religious scholars with requisite understanding to link rituals and divine laws to creative spiritual ascension. I reached a level of comfort with my faith through good guidance from prominent Muslim thinkers such as Hamza Yusuf, Faraz Rabbani and Zaid Shakir, who drink deeply of the Quran's spring of wisdom.

Faith is ineffable; so is our search for God. Ecstatic poetry and Sufi treatises speaking of "annihilation of self" and "Oneness with the Creator" are merely tools to evoke the Sufi sentiment, which is not peculiar to Islam. Teresa of Avila's "Libro de la Vida," Bulleh Shah's ecstatic poetry, Allama Iqbal's intimate conversation with God in "Shikwa" (complaint) and Mansoor Al-Hallaj's proclamation "Anal-Haq" (I am the Truth) are all expressions of the acquired wisdom gleaned from deep introspection.

Though unsuccessful, Iqbal tried to revive the true spirit of Islam. He was quick in identifying that the hardline mullah was a hopeless case. But the Sufis were either consumed in "other worldliness" or digressing from the core of Sufism. For Iqbal, a profound religious experience is one that benefits humanity, which is most unlikely if the seeker retreats to constant seclusion.

Saudi Arabia's government is often accused of demolishing tombs of the companions of the prophet, fearing veneration of graves, and of discouraging Muslims from praying at prominent sites like the Cave of Hira (where Muhammed received his first revelation). Why they discourage is another column, but one thing is certain: visiting graves and sites mentioned in the Quran will not miraculously lead to divine illumination. The essence of Sufism is to dig into the depths of your soul to seek the One. In the shrines of Sufi masters in the subcontinent, one can expect to find numerous vagabonds pretending to be Sufis, who earn a living by giving false hopes to troubled wives, jobless men and childless couples. This defeats the premise of Sufism -- absolute reliance on Almighty.

In a phone conversation, a prominent Sufi scholar, William Chittick, said, "The core of Sufism is to strive for nearness to God." Even though God is absolutely Other, he presupposes a direct relationship with the seeker. No doubt. Allah says in the Quran (50:16): "I am closer to you than your jugular vein."

It is our egos that have created boundaries between sects within Islam and ensuring rivalries with non-Muslims. Reviving the spiritual dimension of Islam may be the only way to fight intolerant radical elements internally.

Around the Web

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YouTube - Introduction to Sufi Islam

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SUFISM: THE MYSTICISM OF ISLAM