By Mohammad Ali, New Age Islam
January 15, 2022
Sufis View Diversity In Thoughts, Culture, Race, And Even In Faiths, As Part Of The Divine Plan
1. This essay discusses how a Sufi defines himself today.
2. It discusses the characteristics of Sufi ideas that help Sufi relate himself to other human beings on a humanitarian level.
3. It also discusses that the Sufi ideas of religious tolerance and equality are inspired by the Quran.
In the modern world, the term Sufi refers to numerous connotations. For some people, it could mean a person donned in rags, covered in dirt, indifferent to the world, and free from any religious obligation. And for some Muslims, Sufi practices are an utter innovation and heresy. These all understandings that have been attached to the word, Sufi, may have some sorts of anchoring points in real-life experiences.
However, these meanings and representations of the word Sufi are misleading. Because this word is not about maintaining appearances and not subjecting oneself to a moral and religious code. It is about purifying one’s inner self from all types of negative feelings like anger, greed, enmity, jealousy, etc. that encourage a person to inflict harm to others. And a person can attain such purification only by abiding by certain moral principles which are provided by God Himself. By this understanding, a Sufi has a religion and follows a prescribed course of actions to purify himself/herself. Similarly, he can also not be indifferent to the world around him. For a Sufi, the creation is the manifestation of God’s attributes, meaning, the creation is a tangible display of God’s actions which one can experience and through it can attain the realization of God’s presence in the world. Every move a Sufi makes, every desire he wishes, he does so very cautiously, lest it may not be in violation of God’s command. His belief system is like that of the other Muslims in the world. However, the sole purpose of his exercises is to bring out the best of humanity from the inside of himself, which, he thinks, is the purpose of Islam as well.
The purification of self is a difficult skill that can be excelled only under the supervision of a master. Throughout Islamic history, these Sufi masters took it upon themselves to teach these skills that they had honed for several years. They built Sufi hospices, and under their supervision trained novices, passing on their tradition and skills to later generations. Therefore, thinking about Sufis as those who are dismissive and unconcern about the world is deceiving. Through their hospices and Khanqahs, they have influenced the world, and their contributions to human society are significant.
Sufis gave us a unique perspective about humanity. A Sufi envisions his relationship with other human beings of love and compassion. He tries to win people’s hearts, not through fear but kindness. Sufis draw inspiration for this idea from the Quranic conceptions about God and His Prophet Muhammad as a mercy for all creation in the universe. The Quranic idea that God and the Prophet are merciful for the entire humanity invites Sufis to imitate the attributes of God at their full capacity in order to get close to Him and His Prophet. Unlike Muslim jurists who divided humanity in legal terminologies, Sufis regarded all humans as the creation of God. Al-Khalqu ‘Ayāl Allāh (the whole creation is the family of Allah), is one of the formulas their lives are guided by.
Sufis view diversity in thoughts, culture, race, and even in faiths, as part of the divine plan. The Quran says, Had Allah willed, He would have made you one nation (united in religion). (Maidah, 48) But God did not do so, instead, He allowed people to follow their conscience. In this divine scheme, a Sufi imagines his role as a guide, who help people find the right course to lead their lives. There is a famous anecdote that relates that once in the morning, Khwaja Nizamuddin, a celebrated Chishti Sufi of Delhi, was strolling on the roof of his Jamat Khana (khanqah). He, then, saw some Hindus bathing and observing religious rituals at the banks of the Jamuna river. At the sight of the people of a different faith immersed in their religious practices, Nizamuddin uttered, everyone has his own religion and a distinct way of following it. This statement of Nizamuddin was a reflection of his sincere belief in the diversity and freedom of religion, meaning everyone is free to believe in the religion his/her conscience leads to. This also means that Sufis not only believe in diversity in faith, but they also do not believe in coercion in the name of religion. These views of Sufis are not the products of heresy. In fact, Sufis claim that the source of such ideas is the Quran itself. In many places, the Quran has declared that God does not allow coercion in religion. Faith should be a product of sincerity and purity of thoughts, which can only be attained if people are allowed to follow their conscience freely. This is the Quranic concept of freedom in religion, and this is what Sufis believe in as well.
Another important characteristic of Sufi practices is establishing and maintaining peace with every individual in this world. The underpinning idea behind this practice is that a Sufi must always rely on God’s providence and live without the fear of others. Since a Sufi does not seek or desire anything from people, he does not have any reason to quarrel with them. It is noteworthy that by seeking peace with fellow human beings, irrespective of their religion, a Sufi actually contributes significantly to the spreading of peace in the world. Sufi’s emphasis on establishing peace with the people of other religions is also inspired by the instances that they find in the practices of the Prophet Muhammad and his companions. In the early days of Islam, the Prophet established brotherhood among the people of Mecca and Medina and made treaties with the Jews of Medina and other non-Muslim tribes of the Arabian Peninsula. He also forgave the polytheists of Mecca after the conquest of the city.
After this brief discussion, it can be said that a Sufi is someone who is highly committed to the noble ideals that he has learned from the Quran and the life of the Prophet Muhammad, and he devotes his entire life to the propagation of those ideals in the society. A Sufi is not someone who is illiterate, rather a Sufi is a person who is highly trained in Islamic ethics and other sciences whom he acquires either through formal education in a madrasa or through the companionship of a Sufi master in a khanqah. In the modern period, the status of khanqahs deteriorated due to the lack of serious and excellent Sufi masters. However, there is still some reminiscence of the previous glory of this Islamic institution which can be found in some Indian khanqahs. And there are some Sufis who are trying to revive this age-old tradition.
Note: this essay draws on the address of Sheikh Abu Saeed Shah Ehsanullah Mohammadi Safawi, which he delivered at Jamia Millia Islamia in 2018. This address was later published in Khizr-e-Rāh Monthly, July 2018. Sheikh Abu Saeed is a Sufi master and rector of Khanqah-e-Arifia, Saiyid Sarawan, Allahabad.
Mohammad Ali has been a madrasa student. He has also participated in a three years program of the "Madrasa Discourses,” a program for madrasa graduates initiated by the University of Notre Dame, USA. Currently, he is a PhD Scholar at the Department of Islamic Studies, Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi. His areas of interest include Muslim intellectual history, Muslim philosophy, Ilm-al-Kalam, Muslim sectarian conflicts, madrasa discourses.
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