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Muslim Movements and Schisms


1. Sufism - Islam's Great Mystical Movement.

Islam at the beginning was primarily a legalistic religion and placed before its adherents little more than a code of ethics combined with a set of rituals. The faithful observance of these was deemed sufficient to satisfy every man's religious quest and ensure him a place in heaven. There was no demand for spiritual regeneration through a rebirth experience and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit as in the Christian faith, nor for a highly spiritual form of devotion through which the worshipper could draw near to God in a personal way and discover the knowledge of his grace and favour.

During the Ummayad period, after Islam had made direct contact with Eastern Christianity and other oriental religions, a deeply mystical movement arose within its realm, in many ways, perhaps, indebted to the influence of these faiths for its motivation and principles, but nonetheless an independent theosophy developing purely within the framework of the Islamic society and heritage. The movement is known as Sufism (tasawwuf) and its followers are known as Sufis (pronounced "Soofies"). The word sufi almost certainly comes from the Arabic suf, meaning "wool", and implies that the Sufi is a wearer of a woollen garment. In pre-Islamic times ascetics often dressed in wool as a symbol of their particular course of life and the early Muslims who practiced austerity were duly nicknamed "Sufis". Later on the name was adopted by those who sought to obtain knowledge of God through various stages of spiritual self-denial as asceticism in Islam gave way to mysticism.

Sufism is principally a quest for a living knowledge of the Supreme Being. To the orthodox Muslim Allah ia the Lord of the Worlds, unique in his essence and attributes, ruling over all the universe and quite unlike anything in his creation. To the Sufi, on the other hand, "God is the One Real Being which underlies all phenomena" (Nicholson, The Mystics of Islam, p.80). He is everything and there is nothing but Him. Man's purpose is to lose his natural sense of a separate identity from his Creator and to be absorbed instead into his knowledge until there remains no distinction of consciousness between him and God. Through a series of stages (maqamat) and subjective experiences (ahwal) this process of absorption develops until complete annihilation (fana) takes place and the worshipper becomes al-insanul-kamil, the "perfect man".

The Sufi concept of a God who is "all in all" differs radically from the orthodox conviction that the further he is placed from his creation, the more he is glorified. Historically it is a marvel that Sufism grew out of the bedrock of Islam but its development will not surprise Christians who believe that man was made in the image of God and that his highest glory is to be conformed to the divine image and be partaker of the divine nature through the indwelling Holy Spirit. The mystical quest in Islam was perhaps to be expected for, as it has been put, there is a "God-shaped vacuum" in every human heart that no religion based purely on ethics and formal rites can ultimately fill.

To become a Sufi a Muslim must attach himself to a tariqah, one of the Sufi orders, and submit himself to a pir or master as we have seen. Only when this master adorns the disciple with a khirqah, a robe inducting him into the order, does he become a recognised Sufi, and only then can he embark on a valid pilgrimage through the various stages towards his goal of union with God.

The covenant by which the disciple is initiated into the particular order he enters is known as a bay'ah and it attaches him to his master and the silsilah (chain) from which the master himself derives his power (barakah) and authority (similar to the "apostolic authority" conferred on Roman Catholic priests through a progressive laying on of hands said to go back to Simon Peter himself).

The initial Sufi experience is not, as it is for true Christians, a rebirth experience in which the man, once born of the flesh, is now born of the Spirit, has a totally new relationship to God and knowledge of him, and can through his unity with God in the Spirit develop the relationship. Rather the Sufi really seeks only "to become aware of what one has always been from eternity (azal) without one's having realised it until the necessary transformation has come about" (Nasr, Living Sufism, p.7).

The major Sufi orders are the Suhrawardiyya (founded by one as-Suhrawardi), the Qadiriyya (attributed to Sufism's most famous personality, Abdul Qadir al-Jilani), the Chishtiyya (its master Mu'iniddin Chishti who is buried at Ajmer in India), the Shadhiliyya, the Mawlawiyya (a Turkish order founded by Jalaluddin Rumi who is buried in Konya in Turkey), and the Naqshabandiyya (which is prominent in Iran and other parts of Asia).

2. A Brief Analysis of Sufi Stages and Experiences.

The goal of the Sufi is to reach a personal knowledge of his Creator until knower and known are one and there is no awareness of any distinction of personality between them. Like all orthodox Muslims Sufis reject the concept of incarnation (hulul) and do not believe that God can become man. They also resist pantheistic tendencies, carefully distinguishing between God and his servants, while nevertheless teaching that man's aim must be to attain to such a high state of consciousness of God that his personality may no longer be distinguished from God's essence and character. Man does not have this knowledge by nature, however, and each prospective Sufi must prepare for a course which will take him through many stages and experiences before he completes his journey.

The early mysticism of Islam sought only a path of self-purification, a character renewal, until the personality was conformed to the divine image. Later it was believe that such growth must be accompanied by deliberate ecstatic experiences, confirming the progress of the soul. The decline Sufism in later centuries can perhaps be attributed to the interest of the masses purely in the experimental side of Islamic mysticism and the desire for emotional excesses.

Pure Sufism, however, sincerely seeks the fulness of the knowledge of God. Nevertheless it has been universally believed for centuries that such a search must accompanied by external manifestations. The goal will be obtained when the worshipper sees God alone in all that he contemplates and at the same time feels a total and ecstatic sense of his presence.

He then can be the Perfect Man, one "who has fully realizsed his essential oneness with the Divine Being in whose likeness he is made" (Nicholson, Studies in Islamic Mysticism, p.78). On the path towarts this goal, therefore, he must no only go through the progressive stages of self-annihilation but must also have trance-like experiences in which his normal consciousness is to be lost in ecstatic contemplation of the Divine Being alone. These experiences are the ahwal (singular hal) mentioned earlier and authenticate the developing discovery of the ultimate light and truth.

Such experiences are, to the Sufis, not to be regarded as hypnotic phenomena to which the human spirit is susceptible in appropriate circumstances but rather gifts from God confirming the Sufi's striving for his presence. Each stage reached by the disciple is the result of his own effort, each experience is a token of the divine favour upon the endeavour - "the hal is a spiritual mood depending not upon the mystic but upon God" (Arberry, Sufism: An Account of the Mystics of Islam, p.75).

A Christian must surely be affected by the whole nature of Sufism. True Christianity is by nature mystical and anyone born of the Holy Spirit will not only seek to become conformed to the image of his Lord but will also surely experience many proofs of the Spirit's presence in his soul. Indeed it is a New Testament principle that where such a relationship between man and God truly exists, the formal restraints of legal ethics and rituals have no binding effect as the believer has the motivation towards truth and right-living within him. It is hardly surprising that Sufis have often sought to break away from the dull strictures of formal Islamic law and have, in orthodox eyes, often shown scant respect for it.

A prominent Sufi in Islamic history, Sari as-Saqati, who lived in Baghdad at the same time as Islam's arch-conservative theologian, Ahmad ibn Hanbal, and was strongly opposed by him, made a profound distinction between the legal formalism of the Muslim masses and the spiritual quest and path of the Sufi elite:

There is a remarkable similarity here between the old and new covenants, the former legalistic, the latter based on "grace and truth" which came through Jesus Christ (John 1.17). Islam can hardly be regarded as a stepping-stone to Christianity but Sufism definitely is, and it is this writer's conviction that genuine Sufism is Islam's only endeavour to raise itself towards the glory of the Christian revelation. The difference between the two is this - the Sufi seeks in himself to attain to the knowledge of God through a series of spiritual stages; the Christian acknowledges that his natural tendency towards sin and separation from God prevent him from ever attaining such a goal, and he submits rather to God's redeeming grace in Jesus Christ and the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit within him to enable him to know God fully and become like him.

3. The Different Stages in the Sufi Quest.

It is not easy to define the various stages of the Sufi path, especially as there is no universal consensus as to the exact identity of each stage or even of the order in which they are reached. It is generally agreed that the goal is al-Haqiqah, "the True Reality", also known as fana, self-annihilation" or absorption in God. Very prominent in the Sufi stages is ma'rifah, "knowledge" of God, or the gnosis of his essence and presence. In some cases it is set forth as one of the stages towards the goal, in others it is identified with the haqiqah as the object of the quest. These two, together with the initial tariqah, "the path", constitute the three great stages of Sufism. A Sufi must attain to these after graduating from the basic laws of Islam which are set forth, Sufis believe, as a principal code for the unenlightened Muslim masses. The foundation of the shari'ah, the law, and the three ascending Stages of Sufism towards the goal of complete union with God through a loss of self-consciousness are defined as follows:

Famous Sufis have individually been responsible for identifying and emphasising different stages making up this threefold gradient and we shall mention some of them and their respective contributions later in this section. In time these became integrated into the catalogue of stages in the Sufi quest and we shall speak briefly of some of them.

One of the initial stages is said to be an attitude of indifference towards good or bad fortune. The Sufi believes that adversity, causing discomfort, depression or discourage is brought about through God's deliberate "contraction" (qabdh) and that prosperity, joyful circumstances and the like, come from his "expansion" (bast). He humbly resigns himself to both, seeking not to be affected by his circumstances but to fix his devotion purely on his Lord and Master. Qur'anic sanction is found for these contrasting acts of God and the Sufi's willingness to abide in them.

One is reminded of Paul's words in Philippians 4.11-13. Another typical stage is that of "gathering" (jam) in which the Sufi begins to turn away from the state of separation from God (tafriqah - "dispersion"), the distinction being between God himself and the world of everything but God.

There are many different stages, too many to cover in detail here, but perhaps some attention should be given to the ultimate stage - fana - for all the intermediate stages are different forms of disassociation from all that is "under the sun", to use a Biblical expression (from Ecclesiastes), in the cause of being absorbed into the consciousness of the Supreme Being. (Alternatively, the Sufi seeks to shake off the identity of his nafs, his individual soul with all its ungodly tendencies, similar to the concept of "the flesh" as it is set forth in opposition to the way of the Spirit in the New Testament, especially the eighth chapter of Paul's Epistle to the Romans).

Fana is the ultimate goal - a dissolution of the Sufi's consciousness of his own identity through a total absorption in the knowledge of God. "As a technical term in Sufism, the word annihilation signifies the annihilation of the attributes of human nature and their transformation into Divine Attributes. In the state of annihilation, the Sufi is completely immersed in the contemplation of the Attributes of God and oblivious to his own self" (Nurbakhsh, Sufism, p.86). It should again be emphasised that this does not lead to a pantheistic theosophy, for Sufis, true to the Muslim faith, are always careful to distinguish between God and his servants. The union comes in the realm of consciousness and spiritual perspective. The distinction is well set forth in this comment: "The mystic does not become one with God, he becomes conscious of his oneness with Him" (Tritton, Islam, p.101).

It is true to say that the Sufi should never be able to proclaim that he has reached this stage for his complete absorption in God and self-annihilation, his fana fit-tawhid, fil Haqq ("Union with the Unity, the Reality"), will surely make him lose all consciousness of his own identity and personal state.

Let us briefly look at one of the ways in which Sufis seek to induce a state of ecstasy. Though a means is employed to create this state, they insist that the experience itself is from God.

4. Dhikr - The Remembrance of Allah.

The commonest means of inducing a state of ecstasy is the dhikr ceremony. A group of Sufis will gather together and begin a series of chantings, either of the ninety-nine names of Allah, or just simply of the name of Allah himself, until the devotees collapse in a state of trance. The famous "whirling dervishes" obtain their name and fame from this very ceremony. Today it has become customary for numerous adherents of Sufism, who know nothing of true Sufism or a deep spiritual quest coupled with acts of self-discipline to attain to a higher state of spirituality, to seek purely the supposed state of "ecstasy" that can be obtained through regular concentration on and recitation of the name and attributes of Allah.

The Qur'an commends the remembrance of Allah in these words: Wa aqimis-salaah ... wa lathikrullaahi akbar - "and establish prayer ... and the remembrance of Allah, which is greater" (Surah 29.45). Orthodox Muslims take this verse simply to mean that prayyer without a consciousness of Allah has a very limited value. Sufis interpret it to mean that the practice of dhikr through repetitions of Allah's name and attributes is greater than the formal acts of the prescribed salaah, the basic Islamic form of worship.

A dhikr ceremony is something to behold, though Christian observers can be excused if they become bored after a while with a monotonous repetition of religious cliches, e.g. la ilaha illullah - "there is no God but Allah", which supposedly bring the devotee into the realm of God and a conscious awareness of his presence simply because they result in a trance-like state. In all religions there are those who seek, through various means, to enter into such trances and these means are all very similar to one another. The end result seems to be a self-induced, hypnotic state rather thhan a God-ordained experience.

5. How Sufism Relates to the Quran and Hadith.

If Sufism is a later development within Islam, how does it reconcile itself with original Islam, the religion of Muhammad as set forth in the Qur'an and Hadith? The Sufi answer is that this original Islam has the germs of Sufism and that both the Qur'an and Hadith contain numerous passages indicating the deeper nature of true Islam, that which later blossomed out into its great mystical movement.

Expressions such as these in the Qur'an are produced by Sufis as proof that Islam is, at heart, a spiritual religion: "To God belong the East and the West: whithersoever ye turn, there is the Presence of God. For God is All-Pervading, All-Knowing" (Surah 2.115); and "We are nearer to him (man) than his jugular vein" (Surah 50.16). Although Muhammad himself could hardly be described as a mystic, let alone a Sufi, there are verses in the Qur'an which do at least support the Sufi contention, prompting one scholar to say: "however un-favorable to mysticism the Koran as a whole may be, I cannot assent to the view that it supplies no basis for a mystical interpretation of Islam" (Nicholson, The Mystics of Islam, p.22). As the Qur'an is believed to be the uncreated Word of God it is little wonder Sufis seek to authenticate their movement with reference to its teaching and it is not surprising that they make much of these verses. "For these mystical texts are the chief encouragement and justification of the Sufi in his belief that he also may commune with God" (Arberry, Sufism: An Account of the Mystics of Islam, p.17).

Another verse cherished by the Sufis is this one: "To God we belong, and to Him is our return" (Surah 2.156) as it seems to synchronise with their whole philosophy that man's objective and duty on earth is to strive spiritually until he comes back to the knowledge of his Creator. The "return" must therefore be one in which the soul can be re-united with its Maker through a thorough spiritual devotion.

The Hadith contain certain "hadith qudsi" (divine sayings of Allah), allegedly reported from Muhammad himself which contain mystical elements even closer to the heart of Sufism than the verses quoted from the Qur'an. A famous saying of this kind is:

One writer comments that "the whole of Sufism - its aspirations, its practice, and in a sense also even its doctrine - is summed up in this Holy Tradition, which is quoted by the Sufis perhaps more often than any other text apart from the Qur'an" (Lings, What is Sufism?, p.74). Another similar saying is: I was a hidden treasure and I desired to be known; therefore I created the creation in order that I might be known (quoted in Nicholson, The Mystics of Islam, p.80; but: fabricated?). These traditions are, for the Sufis, their motivation for earnestly desiring to know God and their belief that he does indeed desire that his servants should thus seek him. One writer says of the last saying:

There is, of course, the possibility that the hadith quoted are symptomatic of later developmenta in mystical Islam, just as many legislative traditions betray evidences of an advanced juristic process in Islam as we have seen. Accordingly they may well have been invented. Nevertheless, for the Sufis, they authenticate Islamic mysticism, enabling them to trace it back to statements allegedly reported on the authority of Muhammad himself.

6. Some Famous Sufis in Muslim History.

There are a number of Sufis who stand out in the history of Islamic mysticism, all of whom have made their contribution in one way or another to the development of Sufism. One of the most famous of the early Sufis was Junayd, the head of a large body of disciples, who died in Baghdad in 910 AD. He "was the greatest exponent of the 'sober' school of Sufism and elaborated a theosophical doctrine which determined the whole course of orthodox mysticism in Islam" (Arberry, Muslim Saints and Mystics, p.199).

Junayd, being one of the early Sufi masters, was not given to excesses in his mystic devotions and sought chiefly through a process of self-denial to discover the way to God. The following saying, which seems to be far more Christian than Muslim in origin and emphasis, is attributed to him: "Sufism is that God makes thee die to thyself and become resurrected in Him" (quoted in Nasr, Living Sufism, p.57). It was this very principle of dying to self that later became the foundation of the Sufi concept of fana, being lost in the consciousness of God, and Junayd was one of the first to use this expression.

At the other extreme we find the famous Persian Sufi master Bayazid al-Bistami, "first of the 'intoxicated' Sufis who, transported upon the wings of mystical fervour, found God within his own soul and scandalised the orthotox by ejaculating, 'Glory to Me! How great is My Majesty'" (Arberry, Sufism: An Account of the Mystics of Islam, p.54). Sobriety was not at the heart of this man's mystic experiences. He not only established the concept of being so united to God that the identities of the Creator and creature become one but also gave the ecstatic character of this experience its impetus. As was to be expected, he was highly unpopular with the orthodox Muslims of his day. He is credited with many bold and daring statements, of which the one quoted above is an example. Here is another:

He also greatly emphasised the ultimate state of fana but gave it a far more experimental character. He is accordingly regarded as the founder of the "drunken" school of Sufism, a description implying that a true falling away of the separate consciousness of the believer in his Lord would be manifested through a state of spiritual intoxication. From Bayazid's example grew the interest in Sufism in outward manifestations of the inward experience.

Some Muslims say that a true Muslim on pilgrimage will see the Ka'aba the first time, the Ka'aba and the Lord of the House the second, and only his Lord on the third. Bayazid went further:

This experience illustrates the whole meaning of the fana state - a lost consciousness even of God himself as the Sufi pilgrim becomes one with him. Another symbolising this same concept is:

Another famous mystic from the golden age of Sufism was Abu Sa'id ibn Abul-Khayr, a prominent member of the group of early masters who emphasised the doctrine of losing one's human consciousness and subsisting in the knowledge of God alone. These men all believed that by renouncing earthly pleasures, by mystical hours of devotion, and by seeking out the higher virtues of the soul, one could walk the road towards this goal. Self-love had to be replaced by a disinterested love for God alone.

Abu Sa'id followed in the footsteps of Bayazid, making many bold statements calculated to antagonise the orthodox. On one occasion he told one of the fuqaha, the Muslim jurists, that he could read his thoughts (many anecdotes have been recorded of his alleged power to discern the thoughts of men). The jurist had thought to himself that he could not find Abu Sa'id's teaching in the seven-sevenths of the Qur'an (that is, the whole Qur an). Abu Sa'id replied that his doctrine was contained in the "eighth-seventh" of the book, meaning a special revelation given by God to his favourite servants. This concept of an independent revelation given to a Muslim after the revelation of the Qur' an is diametrically opposed to the Muslim doctrine of the finality of prophethood.

Among the great mystics of Islam was a woman, Rabi'a al-Adawiyya, who lived in Basra (in Iraq) in the very early days of Sufism. Her chief contribution to the growing mysticism of Islam was her insistence that God should be loved, not out of fear of wrath or for the prospect of reward, but purely for himself. One of her sayings was: "O God! If I worship Thee in fear of Hell, burn me in Hell; and if I worship Thee in hope of Paradise, exclude me from Paradise; but if I worship Thee for Thine own sake, withhold not Thine Everlasting Beauty!" (Arberry, Sufism: An Account of the Mystics of Islam, p.42). She was once seen carrying a burning torch in one hand and a bucket of water in the other. When asked why, she replied: "I am going to set fire to Paradise and quench the fires of Hell so that men may worship God for his own glory alone".

The most tragic figure in Sufi history is al-Hallaj, one of the "intoxicated" mystics who was also inclined to complete indiscretion in making bold statements which outraged the orthodox. He openly claimed ana'l Haqq - "I am the Truth", and for refusing to recant was brutally dismembered and crucified. (It is striking to find that he suffered the same fate as Jesus Christ who made exactly the same claim, albeit more worthily).

Later Sufi mystics considered him a true martyr even though many at the time disowned him. They charged him with teaching hulul, i.e. incarnation, in that he suggeated that God himself joined in union with man in all his essence rather than that man attained to a state of identifying with God in his attributes and personality. The later Sufis, however, endeavoured to interpret al-Hallaj's doctrine as distinct from the concept of hulul and "they have also done their best to clear Hallaj from the suspicion of having taught it (Nicholson, The Mystics of Islam, p.151).

Although Abdul Qadir al-Jilani is held to be the founder of the Qadariyya, the greatest school in Sufism, and is so venerated that he "has very nearly displaced Muhammad himself in the eyes of the Sufi-worshipping public" (Rahman, Islam, p.153), the extent of his devotion to Sufism cannot be ascertained fully. He was a dedicated follower of the legalistic school of Ibn Hanbal and many myths surround his life. Nevertheless he is universally regarded to this day as the greatest of the early Sufi masters.

After the heyday of Sufism in the early centuries of Islam the movement began to lose credibility and it took the great Islamic scholar Abu Hamid al-Ghazzali to give it a more sober image and respectability among the general public. Al-Ghazzali was a renowned orthodox theologian and, after a period of cynical agnosticism and depression, he declared himself a champion of Sufism, claiming to have found peace and purpose at last through a personal experience of refuge in God alone. His mysticism was chiefly of a less emotional kind than his predecessors, concentrating on intellectual insight and understanding, and it is therefore not surprising that "he is not regarded as being a practising Sufi by the ecstatics and gnostics" (Trimingham, The Sufi Orders in Islam, p.52). Yet it was he who reconciled Sufism with orthodox Islam and a fine example of the way he did this is found in his definition of the four stages of the knowledge of tawhid, the "unity" of God, in his greatest work:

Here the orthodox dogma is almost imperceptibly fused with the whole foundation of Sufism. Al-Ghazzali's chief contribution to Sufism was to remove its stigma in the eyes of the orthodox by tempering its character and bringing it more into line with fundamental Islam.

Not only did he save Sufism from extinction by softening its dramatic character but at least one writer considers that he also delivered orthodox Islam from the dead-weight of formalism: "Had not mysticism in the course of time acquired a place in official Islam, chiefly through the influence of al-Ghazali, the Muslim religion would have become a lifeless form" (Wensinck, The Muslim Creed, p.58).

Sufism is a remarkable phenomenon in Islam and Christian readers must, after reading this section, have recognised how similar it is to Christianity in so many of its facets and objectives. In many ways its spiritual character is far more consistent with Christianity than orthodox Islam. The Christian witness to Islam has here its greatest potential for making its message heard and understood.

Muhammad and the Religion of Islam: Table of Contents

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