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Spiritual Meditations ( 29 May 2010, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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Democratising Sufism

By Yoginder Sikand


The wali (pl. awliya) is a key figure in Islam. The term wali comes from the Arabic rootwala (to be near).’ The most widely accepted definition of wali is ‘one who is near’ or, more simply, ‘friend’. In the context of Sufism, the wali is believed to be particularly near to God and who, for that reason, enjoys His special favours. Such a central role does the wali play in Sufism that, as one writer puts it, wilayah (often, though incorrectly, translated as ‘sainthood’) ‘is indeed the very principle of Sufism itself.’[1]


The term wali, as used in the context of the Quran refers both to God in His capacity of a helper to His near ones, and to God's friends, that is, pious people in general. It appears that, originally, the term wali simply signified those Muslims who obey God, lead pious lives and abided by His Will. Nevertheless, overtime, popular Islam came to see the wali not just as an ordinary, pious Muslim but as a hallowed saint whose special closeness to God enabled him to mediate between the general body of believers and God. Many awliya were accredited with having supernatural powers and the ability to work miracles. They were believed to possess the mysterious attribute of barakah, a beneficent supernatural potential or virtue. The saints’ barakah was said to abide in their tombs even after their demise and, in many cases was believed to be transferred to their descendants and spiritual vicegerents or khulafa. Over time, therefore, their graves turned into shrines and became great centres of pilgrimage. In complete contrast to what the Quran teaches, it came to be believed that God could not be approached directly by the ordinary folk, who had to do so indirectly, through an entire hierarchy of saints. So popular did the cults centred on the shrines become that it led to forms of saint-worship, which were unambiguously labelled by the ulema as un-Islamic. Throughout the history of Islam, strenuous efforts have been made by the ulema to either wipe out completely, or else to reform, by bringing in line with the demands of the shariah, the cults associated with the awliya of God (awliya-e-Allah).


Such attempts have met with particular success in the present age, and many practices associated with popular Sufism are now increasingly being looked upon by growing numbers of Muslims themselves as superstitious, decadent, un-Islamic and a major cause of Muslim backwardness. They are seen as inculcating Muslim passivity in that belief in the miraculous powers of living or deceased saints tends to make their followers absolve themselves of their own responsibilities to do or change things for themselves. They are viewed as polytheistic, and, hence, as un-Islamic, because they are rooted in belief in the power of beings other than God to grant their requests. For many critics, the cults of supposedly miracle-wielding Sufis are nothing but a cunning ruse invented by the custodians of Sufi shrines in order to further their own worldly interests. These cults, based on the notion of a hierarchy of saints that are said to rule the world, are seen as a gross affront to both pure monotheism and the principle of spiritual democracy that are so central to the Quranic vision.



An Urdu tome that I recently chanced upon, Syed Ahmad Uruj Qadri’s Awliya-e-Allah(Friends of God), is a fascinating critique of the traditional Sufi understanding of the awliya of God.[2] Before I turn to this book, a brief account of the traditional Sufi concept of the waliand the hierarchy of the awliya is in order. According to the tradition known in Sufi literature as the hadith (saying) of Abdullah ibn Masud, there are 355 or 356 awliya, ‘upon whom the life and death of all nations depends.’ In popular Sufism, these awliya are considered spiritually exalted creatures, raised far above the level of the common Muslim masses, and ordered in a grand cosmic hierarchy.  Various Sufi shaikhs have been taken by their followers to be the qutb or the ‘pole’ or ‘axis’ around which the entire cosmos revolves, around whom are a host of lesser awliya of lesser ranks, such as the nuqabaawtadabrar,abdalakhyar and mijaba. These and other such cosmic hierarchies that the Sufis elaborated upon were believed to be the spiritual power through which the order and the continued existence of the cosmos were assured. Belief in this hierarchy of Sufis reflected the steeply hierarchical feudal system when this belief was evolved or invented.


It is in the contest of this extremely hierarchical understanding of the awliya-e Allah that Qadri's book needs to be viewed. His book is essentially a reformist plea for a reconsideration of the traditional beliefs about the awliya-e Allah, in order to bring Sufi thought and practice in line with the dictates of the shariah. In the process of doing so, he also democratizes it, by offering a different understanding of wilayah.


‘The views that have been spread about the awliya-e Allah’, writes Qadri in the Introduction, ‘have affected both the beliefs as well as the practices of Muslims. It is, therefore, necessary to see what the Quran and the genuine Prophetic traditions have to say about the awliya-e Allah so that our own beliefs about them should be in accordance with God's word and the Prophet's practice.’


Qadri begins by referring to several verses of the Quran wherein the term wali has been used (such as al-Baqara: 257, Qaf: 5, al-Infal: 34, Bani lsrail: 11l, Maryam: 145 and 6). In these verses, he says, the term wali has been employed to mean one of the following:


1. That Allah is the wali of the muminun (true believers);

2. That the muminun are the awliya of Allah;

3. That shaytan (the Devil) is the wali of the kafirun (unbelievers) and the mushrikin(polytheists);

4. That the kafirun and the mushrikin are the awliya-e shaytan (the awliya of the Devil).17


When Allah calls Himself the wali of the muminun, Qadri explains, what is meant is that He is their friend (dost) and helper (madadgar). On the other hand, the Devil as the wali of thekafirun and the mushrikin makes him their helper and master. This world is thus but a battleground for the awliya-e Allah and the awliya-e shaytan, who constantly war with each other. Allah has given full freedom to his slaves to choose which of these two groups they wish to join. Qadri here quotes several verses from the Quran, among which the most significant is the following:


‘Allah is the Protecting Friend (wali) of those who believe. He bringeth them out of darkness into light. As for those who disbelieve, their patrons (awliya) are false deities (taghut). They bring them out of light into darkness. Such are rightful owners of the Fire. They will abide therein (al-Baqara: 257).


Having thus clearly divided humankind into two opposing camps — the awliya-e Allah and the awliya-e shaytan—Qadri goes on to show who precisely he believes the awliya-e Allahare. In this regard he quotes the following verse of the Quran:


“Lo! Verily the friends (awliya) of Allah are (those) on whom fear cometh not, nor do they grieve. Those who believe and keep their duty (to Allah), theirs are good tidings in the life of the world and in the hereafter — There is no changing the words of Allah — that is the Supreme Truth’ (Yunus: 63-65).



This verse, says Qadri, refers to two attributes which compound the status of wilayat-e-khassa, the higher stage of wilayah. These are, firstly, taqwa (piety) and secondly, iman(faith). Taqwa is, in fact, the way to acquire closeness to God. In other words, Qadri writes, the awliya-e- khassa, or those who attain the status of wilayat-e khassa, are none other than the muminun, who are also called the muttaqin (pious souls), ordinary Muslims who live pious lives according to the dictates of the shariah. Qadri puts it thus: ‘In the Quran and the Prophet’s sunnat, the term awliya-e Allah has been used for those ordinary (sidhe sadhe) God-fearing and obedient Muslims who love God and His Prophet.’ Here Qadri forcefully questions the traditional understanding of wilayah which attributes wilayat-e amma(general sainthood) to the ‘sincere faithful’ while carefully distinguishing it from the wilayat-e khassa of the ‘advanced mystics who have been annihilated (fana) in God’.


In popular Sufism it is generally believed that one of the attributes of the wali is his capacity to perform miracles (karamat). Qadri, however, disagrees and suggests that as the Surah Yunus (63-65) makes clear, karamat and other such things are not a necessary condition forwilayah. The ‘true’ Sufis, he says, also testify to this. He goes so far as to say that in fact, many supposed miracle-workers are actually ‘devils in the guise of men’ (insan numa shaytan). Actually, he insists, the only condition for attaining wilayah is taqwa and abiding by the Quran and the Prophet’s sunnah.


The true muminun and muttaqin (in other words, the awliya-e Allah), Qadri argues, are not saints with supposed supernatural powers as they are commonly thought to be. Further, he says, taqwa lies not in devoting oneself entirely to prayer or meditation while ignoring one’s social responsibilities, as some Sufi recluses are known to have done. This socially-engaged understanding of the awliya-e Allah, Qadri says, is evident from the following verse of the Quran, according to which:



‘ [R]ighteous is he who believes in Allah and the Last Day and the angels and the Scripture and the Prophets, and gives his wealth, for love of Him, to kinsfolk and to orphans and the needy and the wayfarer and to those who ask, and to set slaves free; and observes proper worship and pays the poor-due. And those who keep their treaty when they make one, and the' patient in tribulation and adversity and time of stress. Such are they who are sincere. Such are the God-fearing. (al-Baqarah:177)



‘The popular belief in the saints and the rapid growth of saint worship’, writes the well-known scholar of Sufism Reynold Nicholson in his acclaimed The Mystics of Islam, ‘tended to aggrandize the wali at the expense of the law and to foster the conviction that a divinely gifted man can do no wrong, or at least that his actions must not be judged by appearances.’ Qadri vehemently dissents from this belief in the infallibility of the awliya. He refers here to the following verse of the Quran about the muttaqin (in other words, the awliya), wherein it is written that,


‘[…] when they do an evil thing or wrong themselves, [they] remember Allah and implore forgiveness for their sins — Who forgives sins save Allah only? — and will not knowingly repeat [the wrong] they did. The rewards of such will be forgiveness from their Lord and Gardens underneath which rivers flow, wherein they will abide forever — a bountiful reward for workers! (Al-Imran: 135-36).


This verse suggests to Qadri that the difference between a wali and one who is not is not that the wali cannot commit any sin. Even a wali can be guilty of an aberration as a result of lack of knowledge, Qadri says, although in case he does deviate from the straight path, he immediately recognizes his error and sincerely repents for it, fervently imploring God for forgiveness and resolves to strive not to stray away in future. Even some among the companions of the Prophet, Qadri says, ‘who, undoubtedly, were the unsurpassable awliyaof God’, are known to have committed sins but that did not affect their exalted status ofwilayat-e-khassa.


In the concluding portion of his book, Qadri talks of five major deviations that have crept into Sufism as a result of what he sees as the intrusion of un-Islamic beliefs. The first misconception, he says, is that God has created a special category of people, who alone have been bestowed with the title or status of awliya-e Allah. On the other hand, other muttaqinand muminun, pious Muslims who abide by the shariah, are usually (though mistakenly, Qadri believes) not thought of as also being among the awliya-e Allah.


The second misconception is the belief that in order for one to be qualified to be a wali of God, it is not enough just to possess what the Quran lays down in this regard (piety and conforming to the shariah) but one must also experience kashf (lit. ‘illumination’ from God),ilham (inspiration) and wajd (ecstasy), give bayt (initiation) to disciples and must also set upkhanqah or Sufi hospice of one's own.


The third misconception, a consequence, Qadri writes, of ghulu-e aqidah (‘exaggeration in belief’) people have come to imagine that the awliya-e Allah are perfect beings, capable of doing anything they desire. Their supposed supernatural powers are believed to live on in their graves after their death. These beliefs, says Qadri, are not in accordance with the teachings of Islam.


The fourth misconception, Qadri says, is the notion that wilayah is superior to nubuwwah or prophethood. This erroneous belief, Qadri opines, is but a natural consequence of the powers that came to be wrongly attributed to the awliya-e Allah. In fact, he points out, ‘many Sufis began to claim for themselves such great qualities which even the prophets of God did not possess.’


The last misconception,  Qadri points out, is that as a result of the distortions that entered Sufism, ‘it began to be believed that ibadat and abiding by the dictates of God consisted simply in such ritual acts as performing namaz, giving zakat, observing roza, performing the hajj, reciting the Quran and engaging in zikr.’ As a consequence of this narrowing down of the understanding of ibadat or service to God, Qadri says, Muslims began to lose interest in the affairs of the state and society at large, which too, according to Islam, come under the sphere of ibadat. These affairs were then wrongly labelled as ‘worldly’ (duniyavi), and were therefore treated as outside the sphere of religion (deen). Qadri seems to suggest that the later decline of the Muslims was caused, at least in part, by the creation of this hiatus betweendeen and duniya, which he traces to the distortions which he believes entered Sufi thought and practice over time.


Qadri does not deny Sufism any legitimacy, and here he contrasts strikingly with both some modernist Muslims as well as ‘Wahhabis’, who claim that Sufism is wholly un-Islamic. What he pleads for is a Sufism that is in accordance with the shariah, one which, as he explains, would challenge some of the major beliefs so central to popular Sufism, such as the near infallibility of Sufi saints, the notion of a grand hierarchy of Sufi saints controlling the entire cosmos, and the ability of Sufi saints to perform miracles on their own and to grant requests. Using Quranic arguments to redefine popular notions of wilayah, he critiques as un-Islamic the other-worldliness of some strands of popular Sufism as well as the structures of hierarchy and control that these forms of Sufism have traditionally supported.


Yoginder Sikand works with the Centre For the Study of Social Exclusion at the National Law School, Bangalore


[1] Herman Landolt, ‘Walayah’, in The Encyclopedia of Religion, (henceforth, ER), ed. Mircea Eliade, (London: Macmillan Publishers, 1987), vol. 15, p. 321.