The Sufis and the Salafis
By Professor Nazeer Ahmed
Extremism is the
death knell of religion. And intolerance is its poison. Both have crept into the
Muslim body politic. Among the schisms that divide Muslims, the row between the
Sufis and Salafis is a growing one. Islam in America has the existential
potential to heal this wound.
Islam, as a
divine faith preaches moderation. Increasingly, it is squeezed between extreme
positions taken by interested parties, breeding intolerance in the process and
dividing communities into a plethora of jama’ts, groups and subgroups. It is as
if the occupants of a house are slugging it out when the house is burning all
around them. What is astonishing is that the vocabulary, the debates and the
positions taken have their roots in history rather than faith, reinforcing the
conviction that Muslims are increasingly turning Islam into a religion based
more on (misunderstood) history rather than revelation.
Every Muslim is
both a Sufi and a Salafi. This may shock some readers. Others may find it
offensive. However, even an elementary scanning of history would confirm this
observation. In the next two articles we will offer some insights into this
growing feud and provide a basis for reconciliation so that our young readers,
if they so chose to, may use them to build bridges of mutual understanding.
The term Sufi is
of historical origin. We have it on the authority of Abu Huraira (r) that a
group of Suhaba, called As-hab e Sufa, lived in the courtyard of the Prophet’s
mosque in Medina. They had no other home or shelter and their number varied from
time to time, increasing on occasions to as many as seventy. The Prophet fed
them from the meager rations in his house, and whenever he came out these Suhaba
followed him around, observing, copying, learning and inculcating in themselves
the Sunnah of the Prophet. One possible explanation for the term Sufi is that it
is derived from As-hab e Sufa.
The word Suf
means wool. On occasions, the Prophet wrapped himself in a blanket of wool. In
Urdu poetry the Prophet is sometimes referred to as “Kamli Wale” (the person
with the blanket). So, the term Sufi may connote an allusion to the cloak of the
Prophet. Some Sufis associate it with the person of Fatimat uz Zahra (r),
beloved daughter of the Prophet, who is known to have knit wool. Just as a
weaver takes strands of wool and knits a woolen robe from it, so does tasawwuf
integrate a holistic worldview from the disjointed mundane inputs. In Sufi
terminology, the “knitting work of Fatima” connotes molding of the soul and its
integration into a holistic self.
explanation is that it is derived from saf, meaning purification. In this
explanation, the term becomes synonymous with tazkiyah or tazkiyat un nafs
(purification of the soul). Tazkiyah is of Qur’anic origin.
Whatever be the
origin of the word, there is no question that tasawwuf runs like a sub-stream
throughout Islamic history, turning its vast landscape into a veritable
spiritual garden. It grew in the cradle of Islam and was not imported from Greek
or Buddhist sources as some claim. The Prophet was the embodiment of
spirituality. Most Sufis trace their spirituality to the Prophet through a
continuous and uninterrupted chain of transmission to Ali (r) ibn Abu Talib.
Some trace it to Abu Bakr (r). They express their love through constant
remembrance of the Divine Names (dhikr), selfless service, sublime poetry,
ecstatic music, lyrics replete with their longing for divine presence and
disengagement from worldly attachments.
term Salafi is of historical origin derived from the term S-l-f which is
repeatedly used in the Qur’an to draw attention to the deeds or misdeeds of the
ancients. In the current context it refers to the earliest Companions of the
Prophet. Hence Salafi means one who follows the practices of the earliest
Companions. The Sunni schools of fiqh draw upon the Sunnah of the Companions, in
some schools on their collective opinions (as in the Maliki school), in other
schools on the opinions of some of them (as in the Hanafi school). The Shi’a
schools draw upon the Sunnah of Ali (r).
Now, let us ask
the question: Were Abu Bakr (r) and Ali (r) Sufis or Salafis? If the Sufis claim
their knowledge through a chain of transmission from the Prophet through Abu
Bakr (r) or Ali (r) and the Salafis claim their practices from the same sources,
why this row?
Companions of the Prophet, Abu Dhar al Ghafari (d 652) had a Sufi disposition.
Among the most notable Sufis of early Islam were Hassan al Basri (d 728), Imam
Ja’afar as Sadiq (d 765) and Rabiah al Adawiyah (d 802). Imam Ja’afar as Sadiq
is also the source for Hadith including at least one Hadith e Qudsi. In the
modern parlance, was he not both a Sufi and a Salafi?
method of instruction in Islam was through a halqa (a study circle) at the home
of a scholar or in a mosque. The subjects taught were both exoteric and esoteric
and included the Qur’an, Hadith, Jurisprudence and tasawwuf. Among the best
known of the earliest halqas was that of Imam Ja’afar as Sadiq which was
attended, among others, by Imam Abu Haneefa (d 768), founder of the Hanafi
school of fiqh which is followed by a great majority of people from Pakistan,
India, Bangladesh, Turkey and Central Asia. Imam Abu Haneefa is reported to have
said: “If it were not for the two years I spent with Ja’afar as Sadiq, I would
still be wandering”.
In the tenth and
the eleventh centuries, the halqa gave way to the formal madrassah. In earlier
articles, we have covered the historical evolution of the madrassah (Please
refer to the articles titled The Seven Lives of a Madrassah). The curriculum
became more comprehensive and included philosophy, astronomy, mathematics and
logic in addition to the Qur’an, Hadith, Jurisprudence and Tasawwuf. It may
surprise some that the best known scientist of classical Islam, Ibn Sina
(Avicenna), was an active practitioner of tasawwuf. The interested reader may
refer to the classic work by Professor Seyyed Hussain Nasr, titled Science and
Civilization in Islam. One of the most comprehensive expositions of tasawwuf,
Bayan al-Farq bayn al-Sadr wa al-Qalb wa-al-Fu’ad wa-al-Lubb (A Treatise on the
Differentiation between the Outer Heart, the Inner Heart, the Vision and the
Intellect) was written by the well-known muhaddith and mufassir Imam Al-Tarmidhi
(d 912 CE). For the interested reader, an English translation of this
masterpiece by Nicholas Heer is available from Fons Vitae, Louisville, KY
It should be
clear from this brief discussion that the antagonism between the modern Sufis
and the Salafis are based on an incorrect understanding of history. In early
Islam, the Sufis were Salafis and the Salafis were Sufis.
Imam al Gazzali
(d 1111) brought tasawwuf within the mainstream of orthodox Islam. Through the
sheer power of his dialectic he waged a two pronged battle with the rationalists
on the one hand and the esoteric Ismailies on the other. On both fronts he was
the influence of his work, differences between the Sufis and the Salafis
persisted. The Salafis saw the risks to Tawhid in some of the beliefs and
practices of the Sufis and sought to curtail them. For instance, the sama’
(literally, rotation or ecstatic dance and music) of the Chishtiya Sufis was
challenged by the Salafis in the imperial Tughlaq courts of Delhi (1325). The
Emperor decided in favor of the Chishtiya Sufis, sama’ continued in the Indian
subcontinent and gave birth in later centuries to qawwali, naat and ghazal. (To