by Charles Upton
There is nothing essential in Sufi doctrine that is not ultimately a commentary on the Noble Qur‘an and the prophetic ahadith—the flawed scholarship of the orientalists and the fantasies of the anti-traditional pseudo-esoterics notwithstanding. Those so-called Sufis who try to separate Sufism from Islam, no matter how sincere they may be, are like cut flowers in a vase. Until the water that sustains them evaporates, they bloom and give off fragrance—but in reality they possess only the semblance of life, and the power to reproduce is forever denied them. God in His Mercy may save them in view of their sincerity, because He has the power to save whoever He will—but the norms He Himself has laid down for the soul’s return to Him will form no part of that saving act. To reject the religion brought by Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him, is to cut the silsila that stretches back to him, and from him to Gabriel, and from Gabriel to Allah—to deprive it of all meaning, and of any effectiveness except (perhaps) a temporary and fading one.
Sufism is not a revelation in itself—a truth that some Sufis may lose sight of in view of the fact that the basic practices and some of the lore of tasawwuf clearly pre-date Islam. The Christian practice of the Prayer of the Heart, carried on by the Eastern Orthodox Hesychasts and referred to in several places in the New Testament, as when St. Paul recommends that we “pray without ceasing”, or when St. Peter speaks of the moment when “the day-star shall arise in your hearts”, is almost identical in form to the Sufi dhikr. Certain indications in the Old Testament also appear to refer to the practice of the invocation of God’s Name, such as passages from the Psalms like “our heart will rejoice in Him because we have trusted in His Holy Name” [33:21] and “unite my heart to fear Thy Name” [86:11]. And certainly some Sufi lore and practices came into the tradition from pre-Islamic Central Asia. The question is: Did lore and practice from the ancient Near East and Central Asia enter Islam so as to become part of Sufism? Or did Sufism depart from Islam to seek that lore and practice in foreign lands and religions? The answer is obvious: the pre-Islamic and non-Islamic lore and spiritual practices were the guests, but Islam was the host. And it is the host who provides the nourishment. To say that Sufism is not intrinsically Islamic is no different from saying that the Dalai Lama is not really a Buddhist, since many of the practices of Tibetan Buddhism originally derived from the shamanic religion of Bön. Certainly Vajrayana Buddhism drew upon Bön, but whatever entered Buddhism from that religion became essentially Buddhist, not just accidentally so. No spiritual lore or practice is spiritually effective unless it sits at the table of one of God’s great revelations to humanity; to attempt to carry on such practice outside one of these revelations is to turn it over to the self-will of the ego, to the nafs al-ammara. As every Sufi silsila attests, living contact with God’s baraka comes through His revelation to humanity in the Noble Qur’an and the way of the Prophet Muhammad, peace and blessings be upon him; every special unveiling or grace given and received in the course of spiritual practice and attainment, even in the case of the greatest Sufi masters, is only effective in that context. It may seem as if the existence of spiritual seekers and masters who reached high stations outside, or between, the great revelations—such as Waraqah the Hanif or Uways al-Qarani—proves that such revelations are unnecessary and can be ignored with impunity. Such is not the case. Waraqah was a Christian, and was waiting for the new revelation destined to come through Muhammad, which he gladly embraced. And although Uways al-Qarani, who is sometimes given as an example of a “Sufi” master outside Islam, never met the Prophet, he did embrace Islam when news of it came to him; this is undoubtedly what Muhammad meant when he said, referring to Uways, “I feel the Breath of the Merciful coming from the direction from the Yemen”. When God opens a clear path, and we still foolishly think we can invent our own path or find a better one, then God help us.
Many Sufis who emmigrate from nations with oppressive Islamicist regimes go to pieces in the comparative religious freedom of the west. They are so relieved not to be under the thumb of the Wahhabis, the Ayatollahs, the religious police that they gladly dump the shari’ah, even the Five Pillars, and revel in their new-found liberty. It is one thing to abbreviate the shari’ah, sometimes radically, so as to make it possible to practice it in a balanced way in non-Islamic nations; it is quite another thing to abandon it entirely. I cannot think of a single historical example where an esoterism such as tasawwuf deserted its parent religion without eventually—or immediately—turning into a heterodox cult, a political cadre, a universalist pseudo-religion, or all three at once. And though it is understandable that some Sufis in the west would want to publicly distance themselves from Islam—particularly after 9/11—the fact remains that the persecution faced by Muslims in western nations is nothing compared to the persecution faced by Sufis in certain Islamic nations. Whether or not they openly admit it, some Sufis who immigrate to the west feel relieved to be “freed” from Islam itself, forgetting that they are Islam, that as traditional Sufis they are much more truly Islamic than the Islamicists ever could be. What they don’t seem to realize is that in drifting aimlessly away from Islam over the seas of western secularism, they are actually obeying the orders of the Wahhabis, the Ayatollahs, the religious police. Those heartless oppressors would like see Sufism ejected from Islam entirely—and those westernized Sufis who separate Sufism from its Islamic roots are blithely and unwittingly doing their work for them. The Islamicists slander Sufism by calling it heterodox and anti-Islamic, and then the westernized Sufis prove them right by transforming themselves into the very image of the heterodox, non-Islamic Sufi, perfectly validating the Islamicist ideology upon whose false image of Sufism they have patterned themselves. Westernized Sufis sometimes justify dumping the shari’ah by pointing to the all-too-common example of those Muslims who become obsessed with it, who use the law as a whip against others rather applying it to themselves in an attempt to become true human beings. But whether the ego of the exoteric Muslim obsessed with the law or that of the so-called Sufi who prides himself on being above the law is the hungrier beast, God only knows.
The Sufis of the west should stand against the Islamicists, not obey them. They should not abandon Islam to the Wahhabis and the other anti-Sufi Muslims, but should claim it for their own. This need not be done in a politicized or “activist” way, with public demonstrations and denunciations; all that is required is that western Sufis should stand in the tradition of their own great exemplars of the past, in the lineage stretching back to the first Sufis, in the days when Sufism was a reality without a name, not a name without a reality—to Ali ibn Abi Talib and the Prophet Muhammad himself, peace and blessings be upon them. It is in the west alone that they are almost entirely free to do this; it would be a tragedy if they did not fully avail themselves of that freedom, while it still exists.
If there is one thing that immigrants to the west from dar al-Islam need to understand—something that under present conditions it is very difficult for them to get a clear picture of—it is the history of the west’s religious opposition to its own secularization, and of the relentless ejection of religious doctrines and values from the arena of public discourse. They do not realize that religious freedom, which is a good thing in itself and a necessary aspect of any humane, religiously-pluralistic society, is inseparable in practical terms from a militant secularism that devalues all religion, relegating it to the “private” realm alone—and that religious freedom in the west has already begun to be seriously curtailed by the very “democratic” secularism that brought it into being. To the degree that Sufis abandon their Islamic roots, and are content to occupy only the shapeless “interfaith” zone designed by the secular globalists as a sort of theme-park to keep the traditional religions pacified, subject to a false sense of security calculated to blind them to their increasing marginalization under the “oppressive tolerance” of the west, they will not be able to stand together in any effective way, either vocally or silently, with their brothers and sisters of the other world religions, against the forces of militant secularism and official denial of God that menace them all.