The Zahuri Sufi Web Site
A Contribution Towards Defining Sufism
There are many who like to define 'Sufism' in large and
universal terms that focus on the liberal attitude of Sufis
towards those who do not follow the Islamic faith or follow any
particular religious practice. There are those who, seeing
Sufism as the essence of of all religions, therefore try to be
eclectic in their religious practices and to describe themselves
thus as Sufis. There are those who see Sufism as having
nothing to do with religion per se. On the other hand there are
those who like to see Sufism as merely the tolerant face of
Let me here offer a humble suggestion to the ongoing debate
for what it may be worth. My suggestion is that the essential
and defining point in Sufism, the thing that makes it Sufism, is
the relationship between the spiritual guide and the spiritual
disciple. It is true that this is not unique to Sufism - the master
and disciple relationship is well established in Hindu and
Christian tradition for example. There are also examples of
Islamic mystics (the Owaisey) who do not admit an external
relationship to a spiritual guide and yet appear to come within
the fold of Sufism.
Let us take the second point first since it is easiest to answer. It
is true that there are and have been many mystics through the
centuries of Islam who have found their guidance from within -
usually in the form of another mystic or even a Prophet.
Nevertheless whether the relationship is inward or outward the
relationship is intrinsically the same. Still it is true that it may be
more useful to regard such figures as primarily mystics rather
than Sufis as such. What is sure is that they will have little
regard for such labels at any event.
With regard to the commonality of the master-disciple
relationship with other religious or cultural traditions this
actually reinforces the point. The follower or 'chela' of a Hindu
or Buddhist 'Guru' for example defines his form of mysticism or
yoga by his relationship with his master and through him with a
particular tradition in the same way a 'sufi' defines himself by
his relationship with a master and through him with a tradition.
The contemporary or westernised forms of non-Islamic 'Sufism'
generally receive a bad press both from academic students of
sufi history and from Muslims sympathetic to Sufism (not to
mention Muslims who have no such sympathy). They do not
receive a bad press from Sufis as such simply because they will
not care to enter into such criticism - which from their point of
view would be poor manners.
The relationship with the guide implies a giving up of self
direction, it implies putting one's heart unreservedly into the
hand of the guide. It implies leaving aside all personal opinion,
it implies even leaving aside ones own preference of religious
practice. It leaves aside the possibility of criticism, inward or
outward, even on what appears to be sound theological or even
humanitarian grounds. It implies being in love - in ignoring all
statutes, all prohibitions, all limits, reasonableness, all political
affiliation, or any other values unless those are espoused or
commanded by the guide. It does not admit of reservation, it
does not admit of evaluation, or judgment. It is not for the
fainthearted and it is also vulnerable to abuse from charlatans
and those with personal charm but hidden agendas. The guide
is not a commodity to be 'chosen' from the shelf in the
supermarket. It is a dangerous and difficult thing to contemplate
such a relationship and often requires genuine desperation to
enter into it. It is this that makes this such a central even
defining point of Sufism. The sufi is one who has made this
commitment with one hundred percent of his being. The model
of it is the relationship between the holy Prophet Muhammed
and Hazrat Ali.
This, I submit, defines Sufism on the basis that it differentiates
the sufi from the mystic without being critical of the mystic and
without implying that there is no common ground or universality
in the mystic view of life (irrespective of religion or culture) -
which there certainly is. Nawob Gudri Shah Baba spoke of
mystics of all faiths as being 'like beads on a single thread'.
When we count on the rosary one bead is much as another -
but for the purposes of counting the definition of one bead from
another has its value - and it is in this spirit we offer our humble
suggestion into an ongoing debate.
I will add one other point, which I think takes us beyond the
debate altogether. That is the reference that is found in so
many places in the the holy Qur'an in which God tells us to
believe - and do good, to pray and do good, and so on. Always
the emphasis is on the value of good deeds or actions as the
fruit of our belief or prayer. Therefore be a mystic, or be a sufi,
or be a pious religionist, or be a simple honest person but know
that it is 'by their fruits that ye shall know them'.
I wish you all a very happy and prosperous New Year for 2004.
Jamiluddin Morris Zahuri. (Southampton. Dec 24th 2003).