Sufi philosophy

29 May 2020

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THE history of tasawwuf or Sufism is deeply intertwined with the spread of Islam in the subcontinent and it is generally accepted that the Sufis played a critical role in spreading the message of Islam across these lands. In fact, the subcontinent witnessed the very first wave of Sufis as early as 980 AD when Shaikh Safi Uddin Garzoni settled near present day Uch Sharif and Syed Ismail Bukhari arrived in Lahore in 1005, followed just a few years later by Syed Ali Hajveri, commonly known as Data Ganj Baksh, the author of perhaps the most definitive Persian treatise on Sufism, Kashful Mahjoob.

However, the authoritative work of those early masters was mostly written in Persian or Arabic, both languages being alien to the common people of the subcontinent. The latter-day Sufis recognised this disconnect and began writing in the local dialects; for instance, Baba Fariduddin Ganj Shakar used Punjabi as his mode of communication with the masses just as Shah Abdul Latif Bhitai used Sindhi. The primary aim of their work was to disseminate the true word of God in a manner that was easy to understand and to address the general public instead of the academics.

Many of those Sufi masters used the medium of poetry instead of prose and while their language was simple, the underlying message was truly profound and fully immersed in established Islamic philosophy. However, when their work was taken up and subsequently regurgitated by the common folk, it unfortunately began to lose its true meaning and their well-intentioned but otherwise uninitiated followers began ascribing curious terms like ‘universal peace’ and ‘heavenly love’ to their message without tapping into the true source of the wisdom of their masters.

The more recent Sufis grappled with this dilemma and realised that while the public was definitely in need of guidance, they lacked the requisite knowledge to understand the true nature of the Sufi message and would readily distort their philosophy. For instance, Hazrat Mian Muhammad Baksh (d 1907) beautifully alluded to this quandary which, loosely translated, means that discussing delicate matters among the common folk is as if one prepares a sweet pudding and then throws it to the dogs.

The underlying message was fully immersed in established Islamic philosophy.

Which brings us to the question: what is the underlying source of Sufi wisdom? One of my teachers, when I asked him this question, told me of his own experience when as a young man he went to see Baba Syed Lal Shah in Murree. On his way to meet him, he intended to ask Baba Ji to share his knowledge. Upon reaching there, he sat in front of Baba Ji, who looked at him and said: “I don’t know why they come to me looking for knowledge — what have I got to offer? The king of both worlds (the Quran) is sitting in their homes; they don’t listen to it, why would they listen to me?” It was not just Baba Ji alone; the Quran has always formed the very basis of all Sufi wisdom as narrated by Allama Iqbal:

Gar dillam ayenae be jowhar ast
War baharfam ghaire Quran muzmar ast …
Roze mehshar khuvar wa ruswa kun mara
Benaseeb az bossa-pakan mara.

(If my heart is a dull mirror
If my words have anything but the Quran
Then humble me on the day of gathering
And keep me from the privilege of kissing your feet.)

One of the great Sufi poets, Syed Abdullah Shah, commonly known as Baba Bulleh Shah was an eminent scholar who himself alluded to the source of his knowledge as follows:

Asan parhya ilm tehqeeqi ay
Uthay ikko harf haqeeqi ay.

Meaning, I have gained my knowledge through tehqeeq or research and contemplation (rather than taqleed or following the existing doctrine) from the one and only source of final truth or haq. The word haq means the absolute truth which remains as fact even if the whole world stands against it. For instance, the earth was thought to be flat for millennia, but now that we have recognised it is round, it has not changed that fact at all, it is just that we have become aware of it.

Allah says in the Quran (2:147); “the Haq has come from your Lord, so do not be among the doubters”. The book of Allah is the absolute fact and those who contemplate on it with an unbiased mind, will inevitably find the truth. Allah says in 47:24; “[Why] do they not contemplate on the Quran? Do they have locks upon their hearts?”

Here I have tried to establish a relationship between the Quran and Sufi writings. Subsequently, we may also discuss important but often misunderstood — and perhaps misrepresented — Sufi concepts like ‘nafs’, ‘tareeqat’, ‘zikr’, ‘qalb’, ‘mushahida’, ‘taqdir’, etc and their Quranic basis.

The writer is a freelance contributor.

Published in Dawn, May 29th, 2020