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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.
Yet another 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.
Similarly, the 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?
Among the 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?
The earliest 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 (published 2003).
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 successful.
Notwithstanding 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 be continued).




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