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The allure of Sufism

Published Sep 07, 2012 03:53am

SOME friends often ask why I so strongly support Sufi Islam when many Muslims not only disapprove of it but even call it deviation from Islam.

My simple answer is that Sufis love Allah, not fear Allah. Love is the central doctrine for them. Sufis like Muhiyeddin Ibn Arabi who espoused the school of Wahdat al-Wujud demolished all walls of separation between one faith and another and made love of all human beings the base of their religion. Ibn Arabi went to the extent of saying “hubbi deeni wa shari’ati” i.e. love is my religion and my Sharia.

It is a very meaningful statement for those who believe in humanity and want to build human civilisation on love, not hatred. Love not only leads to tolerance but also demolishes all movements based on extremism and exclusive truth. One who loves all of humanity always adopts an inclusive approach and feels the truth cannot be the monopoly of some exclusive group.

Sufis in that sense are far more democratic with their pluralist approach. They feel Allah has created diversity and we must respect diversity as Allah’s creation. One who has a doctrinaire approach believes in exclusivity and disparages diversity as for him diversity negates the concept of exclusive monopoly of truth by one group. And if the truth is not an exclusive monopoly, no one community can be privileged as possessor of the truth.

Moreover, Sufism is based on a deep spiritual approach and on looking into one’s inner self. Spirituality is like an ocean and narrow identities are like small rivers bounded by banks and their course predetermined. Spirituality is therefore far more inclusive. In fact it is inclusive of several rivers which all merge into oblivion. Only the ocean remains. Maulana Rumi, when asked what his identity was, replied “love” as love is inclusive of all identities.

Now the question arises, what is love? Often we think we possess the one whom we love. In fact such sense of possession is the very negation of love. We must respect the dignity and integrity of the one we love and that is possible only when we concede full freedom to that person. Where there is a sense of possession we deny freedom to that person. Thus when a man thinks he loves a woman his love cannot be genuine unless he allows her full freedom and respects her dignity and integrity.

For Sufis too, love of humanity is based on these principles and they respect the dignity and integrity of all faiths which are sincerely held by any human being or a community of human beings provided these faiths are sincerely held.

Also, love cannot be genuine unless it is pure and purged of all traces of selfishness and personal desires. All selfish desire has to be renounced to make love genuine and hence Sufis talk of tark (renunciation) and the highest degree of this is described as tark-i-tark (renunciation of renunciation).

Thus a Sufi renounces his material comforts and selfish desires for the sake of Allah whom he/she loves intensely. Sarmad Shaheed was beheaded by Mughal emperor Aurangzeb as he would not recite the Islamic kalima, La ilaha il lallah (there is no god but God) but only La ilaha (there is no god). Before his beheading he was asked why he didn’t recite Il lallah (except one God). He replied “how can I say Il lallah when so many gods of desire are still in my heart?”

In so doing, Sarmad maintained that when so many idols of desire were still in his heart, how could his love of Allah be sincere and genuine? Hence a true believer or lover of one God has to purge all idols of desire installed in one’s heart.

The lowest degree of love is one which is polluted by selfish desires and the highest degree is one which is purged of all desires. Thus great Sufi saints who renounced all desires (though living in this world and involved in all its affairs) managed to achieve the purest form of love.

Some people reject Sufi Islam saying they disapprove of invoking Sufi saints for achieving some personal desire and overcoming troubles. But I am not concerned with this invocation or intercession. I accept Sufi Islam for its adherence to love in its truest form and selfless love of entire humanity in all its diverse cultural manifestations.

Invocation of Sufi saints or seeking their intercession can be seen as a human weakness. In fact Sufi saints believe that total submission to Allah — the beloved — is part of their love of Allah. They also call it tawakkul i.e. total trust in Allah as He does whatever He does, for the good of His servant. A lover has to accept the will of his/her beloved having full faith in the latter.

One may say there is a contradiction here. Well, human behaviour has to bring about reconciliation in what appears to be a contradiction. Submission here does not mean submission without efforts. Amal (action, effort) is a vital part of human existence and one has to make constant efforts to overcome contradictions and conform to the fundamental values of one’s faith.

One has to make constant efforts to uphold values and curb desire, anger and greed. It is an absolute requirement of love and of relating to the beloved.

The writer is an Islamic scholar who also heads the Centre for Study of Society & Secularism, Mumbai.