By Nassim Chaoui Ghali
By Nassim Chaoui Ghali
Fez – Sufism is difficult to describe because it cannot be reduced or categorized. It is as elusive as the scent of a rose to someone who has never experienced it, and remains difficult to describe even for someone who has.
Labels such as mysticism, spirituality, or esotericism provide points of reference; nevertheless, they are often too limited to express Sufism and its associated phenomena throughout history (Chittick 2000, 1). The term Sufism is a misnomer in the sense that words ending with “-ism” indicate philosophies and social movements that have distinct beliefs and qualities, which is inappropriate for Sufism (Ernst 1997,19).
Muslims and non-Muslims oftentimes intermingle Sufism as a sect of Islam. Rather, it is more accurately depicted as an aspect or dimension of Islam. The 14th century Arab historian, Ibn Khaldun, described Sufism as:
“……… dedication to worship, total devotion to Allah most high, disregard for the finery and ornament of the world, abstinence from the pleasure, wealth and prestige sought by most men, and retiring from others to worship alone.”
Ibn Khaldun’s statements are a veracious description of the Sufi people. Sufis assert that Islamic knowledge should be learned through teachers instead of books because it is based on lived experience. Tariqas can trace their teachers via generations (Silsila) to the Prophet (peace be upon him). While the Sufi population is relatively small, it has made an impact on Islamic thought and history through precious contributions to Islamic literature. For instance, Imam Al-Ghazali, or the so-called Hujjat al-Islam (proof of Islam), wrote more than 70 books about distinct spheres including sciences, Islamic philosophy, and Sufism.
Imam Al-Ghazali’s influence has extended beyond Muslim lands and is quoted by Western philosophers and writers. Today, several of Al-Ghazali’s books are discussed and analyzed in many American and British universities, especially “The Revival of Islamic Sciences” and “The Alchemist of Happiness.” One should not forget, however, that Sufis were contributors to the permeation of Islam throughout the world.
Sufism remains one of the Islamic sciences that was established roughly in the first few centuries after the Prophet’s death (peace be upon him) to further the Hadith (an account, report, or speech, concerning the words or deeds of the prophet Muhammad, his tradition), Fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence) and Tafsir (discussion, interpretation of the sacred texts). Basically, these Islamic sciences were generated to prevent Islam from being modified or vilified. Hence, the representatives of traditional Islamic learning (ulamaa al-umah) decided to found the rules and principles of these sciences, which ensure continuity for religion and Islamic knowledge.
The efforts of religious scholars were split into many parts, and each body was responsible for realizing one genre of the sciences. For example, some scholars specialized in Hadith, others worked on Islamic law (jurists), and so on. In fact, all of these sciences were not present at the time of prophecy; nonetheless, they were established later on so as to return Muslims to the state of the age of prophecy. The Islamic sciences were not rejected or refuted by people, who agreed that they would operate in favor of religion.
Sufism itself was brought up in accordance with the Holy Quran and tradition of the Prophet as other schools were formed, such as Tafssir, Fiqh, and Nahw. The primary purpose of setting up the science of Sufism was to pave the way for spirituality and ethics to settle in peoples’ hearts, returning to the ways prevailing during the life of the Prophet.
There are several instances in the Quran and Hadith that discuss such meanings and their salience to Muslims’ lives. Furthermore, the spiritual and ethical life is paramount for those seeking knowledge of Allah. In Islam, these meanings describe the locus and intention of practicing religion.
To summarize, Sufis had to translate and record a science which serves to protect this knowledge, namely the “spiritual and ethical,” by grounding the legitimacy of this science with a manner conforming to the Holy Quran and Sunna (what the Prophet said, did, agreed to, or condemned).
Chittick, William. 1983. The Sufi Path of Love. NY: State University of New York Press.
Ernst, Carl. 1997. The Shambhala Guide to Sufism. Boston: Shambhala Publications Inc.
Ibn Khaldun. 1377. The Introduction. Page (3/989).
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