Talking of Sufism…

Peace, one and all…


I spent yesterday evening teaching my AS Level Islamic Studies class.  The topic of last night’s class was mysticism.  Specifically, we were looking at Islamic mysticism – or Sufism, in other words.

The class itself is made up entirely of 17 year olds, all of whom are Muslims.  It was therefore an interesting session insofar as it offered a kind of barometer reading of popular Muslim thought (or at least that seemingly evident in Cardiff).

Their reactions to the Sufism were interesting.  Most of the class seemed utterly unfamiliar with the topic – to the point that some even doubted its wider relevance to the course.  Most knew little about Sufism itself (even to the extent of being seemingly unaware of some of the practices associated with it in the popular Muslim imagination).  Those that had heard of the subject before were (broadly) divided into two groups.  The first group argued that Sufism, as a whole, represented a going to extremes, a movement in some sense beyond the pale.  This group argued that Sufi ideas were, at best, suspect and at worst, outright heresy.  However, these opinions were based on seemingly little information/experience.  That is, such practices were dismissed out of hand before we had even really begun to explore them.  We had much the same response earlier in the course when we looked briefly at the different legal schools and at Shi`a Islam.  In other words, there seemed to be a broad and largely unchallenged assumption that what we might call ‘background Salafism’ was the default Islamic position, so to speak.  This is not to disparage Salafi thought.  Rather, it is merely to describe the views of the class as a whole.

The second (much smaller) group was more favourably inclined towards Sufism, being more broadly aware perhaps of its influence in Muslim history.  However, even here, it was interesting to note that this group felt a need to defend itself and its views regading Sufi practices (‘music’ in particular).

What did strike me as revealing was the idea that there was only one correct orientation towards Islam – all others being somehow limited, derivative and essentially heretical.  Not that there was unanimity regarding the nature of this rarified Islam – far from it in fact.  In previous sessions, this idea of theological and ritual uniformity was linked to the concept of the Ummah, or to unity in other words.  I have offered a few thoughts on this topic elsewhere.

Perhaps such ideas and ways of looking at the world characterise the very young.  Perhaps this grasping for external certainty is a feature of teenagers.  At any rate, I can certainly remember feeling this way when I was younger.

And my response to all this?  Well, I don’t think it is my task to unravel their assumptions completely – to do that would be to directly challenge their emerging identities (and their foundations).  Rather, I think it is task to set up boundaries within which these ideas can be discussed safely and to gently suggest that there are other possibilities, other potentials, other ways of being Muslim

And, as in all things, what they choose to do with those potentialities is up to them.

And may God bless them all in their choices.

Ma’as salama,
Abdur Rahman

22 thoughts on “Talking of Sufism…

  1. The more that i have studied Islam the more i find the experts at the masjid do not have any idea what they are talking about. I have had leaders at the masjid make outrageous statements based on no knowledge what so ever. the is most espeacily true when they talk about Shias, there are many types, and sufis, there are even more types.
    by the time most of these people eliminate everyone who is a heretic they leave a very small group of people to be muslims.

  2. Asalamu Alaykum Abdur Rahman

    I certainly remember those formative teenage years and my own absolute ideas on religion.

    Sometimes, it’s through active seeking and investigation that a person comes to find their ‘path’ and other times you tend to stumble upon openings and roads which eventually lead you down your ‘path’.

    Whichever of the ways a person takes in their life, i think respect and the ettiquette of difference ‘adab-e-ikhtilaaf’ should always be taught to our youth from a young age so that when they do come across new ideas and ways of thought as your class have been experiencing, they’re able to deal with it adequately.

  3. AA- AbdurRahman,

    “Rather, I think it is task to set up boundaries within which these ideas can be discussed safely and to gently suggest that there are other possibilities, other potentials, other ways of being Muslim.”

    Masha’Allah! What an amazingly beautiful approach. How I wish that everyone would adopt such a beautiful style!

    Thanks for the nice post!

  4. As-Salaamu `Alaykum,

    Well, ignorance is always a problem, especially when people are fed ideas about any philosophy in which the consumers are void of independent study.

    I would, however, like to give these young students the benefit on the doubt in regards to two point.

    For one, there are people that claim to be “Sufis”, especially in this current New Age movement that have totally perverted Tasawwuf. We should be honest about this point. These are the people that have abandoned the shari’ah when it comes to salaat, zakaat, fasting, etc. Some of them even say that they aren’t Muslim, just Sufi. There is a small, but growing number of these Pseudo-Sufis.

    Two, don’t most Muslim feel that their school of thought or path is the truth to the exclusion of others? I’ve met mureeds of various paths that praise their shaykhs and in the process, belittle or almost invalid those who are not mureeds in a path that they aren’t practicing valid, “traditional Islam.” Of course, the harshness and percentage is less than Salafis, but those who claim to be Sufis aren’t immune to this exclusive mentality. I’ve met too many of them in person, and ran across even more over the internet.

    Let us simply pray that ALLAH guides these youth aright and guides all of us, forgives us and has mercy on the souls of the pious. AMEEN!


  5. Interesting topic! One is almost inclined to be politically correct. As the numerous interpretations of the Bible for the different Christian religious categories, the same holds true in Islam; Shi’a vs. Sunni, and they’re killing each other over it! Saint John of the Cross was a ‘mystic’ Catholic monk, son of Palestinian parents in Spain, and as mystics of the different religious traditions, he suffered persecution from the mainstream, because his experiences were more profound (Allah chooses who “HE” wills). The word “mystic” in ANY religious tradition inspires distrust, and we distrust what we don’t know or understand… Personally I can’t compare the comfort of riding in a Mercedes to the Toyota high rise pick-up I drive, so obviously how can I miss what I don’t know?

    The majority of ‘any’ population are not well versed in anything, and tend to be followers like herds…if you guide them one way, they’ll all stampede in that direction without taking the time to “personally” inform themselves before taking any type of action. I like this saying, let me share it with you.

    “Watch your thoughts, they become words,
    Watch your words, they become actions,
    Watch your actions, they become your habits,
    Watch your habits, they become your character,
    Watch your character, it becomes your destiny”

  6. it shows what a sad state our communities are in really, not that the young are so definite and fixed, because that is typical, but that the dominant thought that prevails is so ignorant of Muslim history.

  7. I think that as humans are created to be different: with different approaches to life: We even see the world around us slightly differently: coloured by the set of our individual minds. It is inevitable that there are then slight variations in the perception and implementation of religion, according to the way our minds experience and evaluate our impressions.

    If we acknowledge our inherent differences, and respect and understand them, then there is no breaking up of unity.
    As it was the prophet’s(pbuh) express desire that muslims should form a unified group-identity (Ummah) One could argue that it is every muslim’s duty to explore and respect the individual differences between people, and the way they deal with/practise Islam.

    And for me, not being muslim, that goes for the whole gamma of religions: I could never see it other than normal, and inevitable, that different people, cultures, in different parts of space and time should find different ways in their quest for ultimate enlightenment.

  8. A most excellent class, no doubt. And from your description, it sounds like the vast majority of Muslims would fall into the same categories as the students. The macrocosm seen in the microcosm 🙂 No doubt an excellent teacher such as yourself, dear Abdur Bhai, made it really interesting 🙂

    Ya Haqq!

  9. I was recently introduced to Sufism as a form of wisdom and mysticism. I was not aware that is was a form of Islam. I find that fascinating. When Khabala came onto the stage, many were unaware of the Judaic history, as with Gnosticism. If we can find a way to reach people and break the barriers of religious archetypes… what a world this would be… can you see it?

  10. Salaams Edward,

    I have experienced this myself on numerous occasions. All I can say of such ideas really is simply – why seek to limit the mercy of God (as if that were possible in any case)?

    For myself, I’m far more concerned with my own unworthy self to worry about who’s ‘orthodox’ and who’s not. Indeed, the older I get, the less I care about such things.

    Abdur Rahman

  11. Salaams Rehnaz,

    Welcome! How are you? Well, insha Allah.

    Yes. I can remember being so judgemental myself. You’re right. Adab-e-ikhtilaaf is what we need to encourage. Moreover, I’ve found that harsh words rarely (if ever) change another’s point of view.

    Allah bless you always

    Abdur Rahman

  12. Salaams Dawud,

    Allah bless you for your sensible words.

    You’re right! Ignorance is the problem, and the only cure for it I have found is to ask questions. So, in that sense, my students are doing exactly the right thing. Allah bless them in it.

    I hope it didn’t seem as though I was being judgemental, for that was not my intent (I seek refuge with God from such a thing)! Really, the purpose of this post was simply to draw attention to ideas and attitudes, but to also maintain my firm respect for my students. Apologies if this didn’t come across.

    At any rate, there are many ‘pseudo-Sufis’, as there are pseudo-everythings it seems. Perhaps this is different from differences of emphasis and teaching? But, indeed, there are many charlatans around. God preserve us all.

    Yes, Muslims (as do all people) view their own path as the true one. In a sense, this is correct – after all, the path we walk is true, wherever it happens to be at any given moment. As for praising our teachers, etc, yes – you’re right again. This used to concern me until I came to view that kind of thing as a somewhat exaggerated outpouring of emotion/love.

    Perhaps my term ‘background Salafism’ was somewhat poorly chosen. All I meant by this was simply that ideas associated with a more literalist reading of Islam seemed to be the default setting. As I tried to point out (perhaps not strongly enough), I have no problem with ‘Salafi’ ideas per se. Moreover, I certainly accept that many ‘Sufis’ (and indeed others) have been just as guilty of such stereotyping.


    Amin to your du’a.

    Abdur Rahman

  13. Salaams Barbara,

    Thank you for your words of wisdom, as beneficial and as welcome as ever. God bless you for them. Thank you as well for the quote. In the end, it all comes down to the personal – that is, what am I going to do? Am I going to struggle to make the world a better place, or am I going to add to the confusion?

    Abdur Rahman

  14. Salaams Saha,

    Indeed! However, it’s not hopeless. And, the very fact that Muslims and others are seeking answers is the first step in the right direction.

    Allah bless you and all of us.

    Abdur Rahman

  15. Peace Aafke,

    A big yes to your thoughts!

    If you follow the link to my earlier post, this is what I attempted to argue (though not as concisely as you have)!


    Abdur Rahman

  16. Salaams Baba Darvish,

    Thank you for your kind thoughts. Allah bless you. I’m not sure about being excellent teacher, but thank you.

    Macrocosm in the microcosm indeed!

    Abdur Rahman

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