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Salafism and Sufism- is there real conflict?

By Asghar Ali Engineer,

Salafism or Wahabism, also referred to as cult of Ahl-e-Hadith is supposed to be directly opposed to the sufi strain of Islam. In India too the two sects are opposed to each other though here, due to democratic secular polity, nature of conflict is not very aggravated or violent. The partisans of both the ideologies apart, it confuses many Muslims as to what are their differences about and why they condemn each other?

The word salafi means what pertains to our forefathers – aslaf i.e. we have strayed from the pure Islam practiced by our early ancestors and must be restored. According to the ideologues of Salafi Islam, our practices should be based only on Qur’an and hadith, not on any fiqhi mazhab or school of jurisprudence like Hanafi, Shafi’i etc. Hence they are also known as Ahl-e-Hadith as they base all their juristic decisions on Qur’an and hadith.

The Salafis strongly condemn Sufi Islam as corrupt and destructive of all that Islam stands for. To visit Sufi mausoleums and to pray and invoke intercession (shafa’at) is totally against Qur’an and Islamic teachings. Only Allah’s name could be invoked, not of anyone else not even of the Prophet (PBUH), let alone of any sufi saint. One cannot pray even on the Prophet’s grave. One cannot even recite the Qur’an facing the Prophet’s grave. To invoke intercession, according to the Salafis, amounts to shirk (associating partners with Allah which is great sin).

Those who are supporters of Sufi Islam totally disagree with these views. They argue intercession cannot amount to shirk as intercession does not elevate a person from human to deistic status, human being remains human being though one who has achieved perfection (insane-e-kamil) through ones spiritual perfection. They quote hadith in their support. In hadith literature, according to the supporters of Sufi Islam, the Prophet Mohammad (PBUH) has been described as Shafi’ al-mudhnibin i.e. intercessor on behalf of sinners.

Here in this essay it is not our intention to support this or that ideology which has torn the Muslim world apart and caused much challenges, even violence. Our intention is to understand both the strains and understand the factors which gave rise to these ideologies among Muslims. It is certainly not easy to reconcile the two but understanding the underlying factors can probably pave the way for better appreciation of both the schools of thought.

The Sufi Islam

Before we understand the origin of Wahabi or Salafi Islam we must first understand the origins of Sufi Islam and its need for Muslims. One also has to understand why the Sufi Islam acquired tremendous popularity in the Islamic world and remained dominant for centuries. The Salafi Islam originated in Najd area of Hijaz now named after the Saudi dynasty Saudi Arabia as an ideology as late as 18th century.

What are reasons of tremendous popularity of Sufi Islam? Let us remember religion, and any religion for that matter, basically fulfills two human needs – moral and spiritual. Most of the great religions of the world have originated in the times of great moral degradation. When greed, crass materialism, war, pillage, loot, plunder and ruthless exploitation begins to rule, a reformer, a prophet and great moral thinker appears on the scene and either through divine revelation or his own thoughts tries to restore morality in the society.

Such a person does not normally rely on rational thought alone but also anchors his teachings deep into his inner spiritual resources. All great religious founders resorted to what one can call deep encounter with ones own self and searched for truth deep inside. It is this encounter with ones own self or solitude which provides resource for abiding truth and that appeals to the people. Mere rational thought, however philosophical or exalted it may be, will not have deeper emotional impact on people.

Rational thought, it may be noted, has its own significance and performs great social functions and ensures human development and progress and so there is no question of lessening its importance. But it appeals to the intellectuals and engineers and architects of society and scientific thought. However, either they are averse to or simply not interested in what is human deeper emotional self and its potential.

They are explorers of macrocosm, not microcosm. Their interest is in what is out there, not what is in here. The Sufis, mystics and bhaktas explore their inner self and for them self is more important than the whole universe as universe is much more important to intellectuals and philosopher and scientists than the inner self. The Sufis and mystics maintain that one who has deeper knowledge of oneself (self) can have knowledge of God (Rabb). God cannot be understood only rationally but through deeper spiritual resources.

Spiritualism brings deeper conviction and inner solace and certitude what Qur’an calls iman (faith). It needs both heart and mind to believe and hence, according to the Qur’an, those whose hearts are sealed can never believe. Belief has to be grounded in deeper spiritual forces and superficial rationality cannot achieve deeper conviction. The Sufis and mystics spend years fighting great impediments encountered in themselves and perfect their nafs through minimizing their desires and removing all traces of greed controlling acquisitive instincts.

Then they emerge as what we can call as role model for the masses of people in the society and gather around them large number of followers. One more social function of religion is to provide solace to troubled hearts and minds. No amount of material wealth can buy this inner solace and these Sufis become source of inner solace for these troubled souls.

The Sufis and mystics use rich cultural resources to achieve this purpose. Poetry and its powerful symbolic language on one hand, and, music, on the other, provide spiritual tools which have great emotional appeal. Also, Sufis assimilate different cultural values and express themselves through cultural values and language of the region they situate themselves in. This again greatly enhances their appeal to the masses of people.

Thus many great sufis happened to be from Iran and hence they wrote in Persian. The Persian poetry was greatly enriched by the Sufis of Iran. They did not hesitate to use symbols like wine, cup of wine or sip bearer of wine saqi for spiritual purposes giving it entirely new meaning and significance. Also, the Sufis spoke language of love, not of power. It is language of love which has emotional appeal, not language of power which reflects ambition and exploitation.

Thus it is rich cultural resources and language of love which tremendously enhances appeal of sufi Islam. For example what Maulana Jalaluddin Rumi could achieve through his Mathnavia Ma’navi could not have been achieved through hundreds of toms written by great scholars in terms of emotional appeal. The Mathnavi was even called Qur’an in Pehlavi language (i.e. Persian).

It is also important to note that Jalaluddin Rumi was as great a scholar of Arabic as of Persian. Arabic was language of Islamic learning whereas Persian was language of culture and administration and Maulana Rum chose Persian for writing his Mathnavi precisely because it was language of the people and their cultural expressions were in that language and it was this powerful cultural tool that made Mathnavi popular over ages.

The Indian Sufis, on the other hand, also wrote either in Persian or even in regional languages like Brij, Avadhi, Khari Boli, Bengali, Marathi and in Urdu and used symbolism of local culture. Also, since they spoke language of love there was no rejection of the other, only acceptance. But ideological puritans, on the other hand, speak language of rejection, one who is not purist, is not acceptable. Thus they narrow down their circle of followers. One who does not believe in their ideology is not a believer and hence a kafir.

Also, the Sufis, through assimilation of local cultural symbols, even rituals made it easy for the local masses not only to flock to them but also convert to Islam which became much nearer to their way of life. In India, the rituals around sufi mausoleums bear close resemblance to those of a Hindu shrine replacing the idol with a sufi grave. Conversion should not result in cultural rupture. Culture is much closer to ones heart than any intellectual belief.

There is another dimension which one has to take into account for origin, development and popularity of sufi Islam. Islam did not remain confined to Arabian Peninsula with scarce cultural resources but spread to far and wide with highly developed cultures and civilizations like those of Iran and India, besides others. While Islam impacted on these cultures it was also in turn impacted by them and new composite strains of cultures developed in these regions. Both Iran and India developed highly enriched composite cultures due to entry of Islam.

It was this composite and enriched culture which using all native and foreign cultural resources Sufis adopted unhesitatingly. Thus it made easier for the people of those regional composite cultures to identify themselves with Sufis and their creative endeavors like poetry, music and in some cases even dancing in trance. Mehfil-e-sama’ (the divine musical session) became an important institution in the sufi Islam. The ulama opposed it saying music is haram (prohibited) in Islam. However, for masses it was important means to be drawn towards Sufis. Amir Khusro, Nizamuddin Awliya’s disciple made very rich contributions to the world of sufi music.

Salafi Islam

The Sufi Islam began, according to some scholars right from the Prophet’s (PBUH) time as some of his companions, drawing inspiration from him, indulged in rigorous spiritual practices and ahl-e-suffa (those who sat on a place outside the Prophet’s house and used to practice very simple life). Some people consider them as the first Sufis. Sufis were subsequently divided in several schools of thought one of which is known as Wahdat al-Wujud school. This school was founded by Muhiyuddin Ibn Arabi, a Spanish Sufi of great eminence.

This school which believes in One Real Being and that all others are His manifestations, was most open and liberal and hence became very popular in India and attracted maximum number of following. It produced great Sufi saints who were highly revered by Hindus and Muslims alike. They were truly spiritual and role models for many. Among Arab countries too, Muhiyuddin Ibn Arabi and Sufis of his school were quite popular.

However, after decline of power and onslaught of western colonialism, Sufism lost its original thrust and vigour and degenerated into superstitious practices, amulates and charms and Sufis also encouraged that. Such degeneration resulted in inaction and total submission to whosoever was in authority. Masses flocked to Sufis or their graves not for any spiritual inspiration but for mere solace and seeking solution to their problems through charms and amulates or mere invocation of sufi saints.

This degeneration created its own reaction. This reaction came in its strongest form from Najd which was predominantly Bedouin area with simple style of life with no complex cultural traditions like in Iran or India. Salafi movement was founded by Sheikh Muhammad bin Abdul Wahhab (1703-1792) of Najd. The name Wahabi movement draws from his name. He was educated in Madina. He was quite studious and acquired his expertise in hadith from well known Muhaddith (scholar of hadith) Sheikh Muhammad Hayat Sindhi.

It is said once Abdul Wahhab was standing near the chamber of the Prophet and people were indulging in what according to Sheikh Hayat Sindhi bid’at (innovative and false practices). This was, it is said, the turning point in Sheikh Abdul Wahhab’s mind. He decided to purify Islam of all these innovative practices and founded his movement. Some high lights of his movement was firstly tawhid in its purest form without any traces of shirk (association of others with Allah), opposition to taqlid (blind following of any authority), invocations of saints (one does not need invocation of any living or dead person to seek nearness to Allah or visiting dead sufis’ mausoleums and kissing their graves and praying there).

Thus it would be seen that Sheikh Abdul Wahhab tried to attempt ideological purity of Islam and such a purist Islam, it would be interesting to note can appeal more to desert Arabs which lacked rich and complex cultural traditions. It mainly spread only in these areas and could not attract followers in Iran, Central Asia, India and other parts which had such traditions.

One more factor is important in this respect and that is political. As we all know the colonial period had begun and the Arabs were under domination of Turks and the British had established its foothold over Egypt. There was power struggle in the air. Sheikh Muhammad Abdul Wahhab was acquiring popularity in the Najd region and could influence the local ruler of the region Amir Muhammad bin Saud and this gave political power to the movement. Thus religious appeal of Sheikh Abdul Wahhab and political power of the Saudi family made the Salafi movement a power to be reckoned with.

Slowly the Saudi power increased and it captured whole of Najd, the Karbala and even temporarily Mecca. This began to ring alarming bells in Turkey, Egypt and alerted the British that they may loose hold over the region. Political conspiracies began and Sheikh Abdul Wahab’s movement was labeled as Wahabi movement to give it a bad name. When a religious movement takes resort to political power it also has to face certain political consequences.

However, we do not want to go into political history of the movement, its defeats and victories, neither we want to pass any judgment on its religious merit or otherwise as our main aim is to attempt socio-religious roots of the movement and its appeal or otherwise. Salafi movement, as pointed out, did not arise with political ambitions but with a zeal for ideological purity. Sufism and its various practices were seen as a deviation from pure Islam and as a compromise with its concept of tawhid.

It should also be noted that zeal for ideological purity in any religion or political movement leads to extremism and denunciation of all those who do not agree with them. Also, concept of such purity appeals only to small number of people as in this complex world it is very difficult to ensure such purity. And ordinary people see no great need for such purity as their very existence demands compromises on every step.

Moreover such ideological purity and extremism in its advocacy, besides limiting its appeal, also makes it unsuitable for peasant and non-tribal cultures which tend to be much more complex, ritualistic and dependant on vagaries of nature. Islam could not escape the local hues and traditions of peasant cultures when it spread to these regions. Also, these regions produced much agricultural surplus extracted from peasants which in turn produced a leisurely class consuming this surplus which indulged in creating high culture, philosophy and abstract concepts.

Many Sufis were greatly attracted, like other Muslim intellectuals and philosophers by philosophy of neo-Platonism, and spiritual practices which helped them understand ones inner self. The Muslim ruling classes were engaged in extending and consolidating their rule and thus constantly engaged in warfare which created revulsion among those who were intensely religious.

Thus they withdrew themselves from political Islam and concentrated on spiritual Islam. Thus they became much more tolerant and open to other religions and cultural traditions. Salafis, on the other hand, reversed this trend, gave preference to political Islam and associated themselves with political ruler to survive. Rejection of others leads to isolation and isolation needs external props to survive and need for political support.

Should then hostility continue between Salafis and Sufis? I do not think such a course could be advisable. While the Salafis have to realize that total rejection leads nowhere and only to extremism, the advocates of Sufi Islam should understand that Sufism is much more than mere visiting graves and indulging in charms and amulates. Sufism is nothing if not intense religiosity and spiritualism.

The ideological purity of Salafism and tolerance and inclusiveness of Sufi Islam must be wedded together to make our world more livable. We live today in a multi-religious and multi-cultural world no matter where we live and exclusivistic trends would only lead to extremism. Peace and tolerance is possible only if we accept others rather than reject them. Inter-religious dialogue and understanding will ensure harmonious co-existence whereas extremism will bring nothing but peril for all of us.

King Abdullah has also realized this and has launched initiative to start inter-religious dialogue and organized one in Spain last year. It is very welcome initiative. We must abandon old positions and adjust to our own realities without compromising of course on fundamental values and principles. Love, compassion and tolerance have enriched all cultures throughout human history and we need these values much more than before.

In India though there is no struggle for power between Barelvis (advocates of Sufi Islam) and Deobandis (advocates of Salafi Islam) but polemics duel continue between them. This leads us nowhere. Coexistence, while respecting each others positions and doctrines, is the only way out. India is a secular democracy and allows full religious freedom and every Muslim sect could subscribe to its own doctrines and dogmas and hence there is no need to denounce the other.

All Muslims, however, must unite to denounce the terrorist and al-Qaeda violence. Killing innocent people is most irreligious act. Only vested interests and those in pursuit of power would encourage such acts, never a religious person for whom religion is a great resource for peace and security of everyone. Let us look inside us and see are we really religious in this sense?