Diversity within Sufi Tradition

Sufism transcends the boundaries from ‘spiritualism’ and finds its way in almost all the realms of life, particularly in political revival. To understand this diversity, it is essential to fathom the etymological roots of Tasawwuf or Sufi. Different theories have been put forth about the etymological derivations of the words Tasawwuf and Sufi – take for example the monumental works by Abu Bakr Muhammad b. Ibrahim al-Kalabadhi and Ali ‘Uthman al-Hujwiri.

These scholars conversed diverse opinions regarding the etymological sources of the word Sufi, like; Safa (purity), Saff (rank), Suffah (the platform), Suf (wool) and Safwah (the chosen or selected ones), first rank (Saff-i-Awwal), Ashab al-Suffah (people of bench), Safa (purity). There are others who contend that the word Sufi is derived from Greek word Sophia (Wisdom and wise). Al-Hujwiri concludes by asserting that the word Sufi has, in fact, no etymology.

So, this explains that within the Sufi circles there is no consensus regarding the etymological derivations of the word Tasawwuf and Sufi and every Sillsalah has its own theory and definition.

The diversity is not confined only to etymology derivation, but in broader continuum, differences are apparent in Sufi epistemology and beliefs too. For instance, the Andalusian mystic had formulated a doctrine of ontological monism, in which he maintained that only God exists and all else is non-existent.

The Naqshabandi order, through its chief Indian disciple Shaykh Ahmad Sirhindi, challenged the doctrine of ontological monism by posting an alternative, appearance or phenomenological monism. Some scholars are also of the opinion that Sufi derivations are mingled with Indian, Greek and Monastic philosophy.

In the recent years, it is bewildering to see how the ‘political experts’ and Islamic ‘scholars’ unheeded Sufism’s political existence. They nurse Sufism as a spiritual and apolitical movement that speaks only of ‘peace’. In fact, the elements of Sufism that promote human rights, peace etc. are also prevalent in non-Sufi interpretations.

Thus, the idea that Sufism alone has the ability to contribute towards peace often belittles other Islamist movements. This narrative condenses the otherwise complicated discourse on relation between Islam and politics, and neglected Sufi(sm) participation in politics.

But, there are many historical cases which show that the Sufi leaders/orders, who are seen as peace makers, have, in fact, been quite active in politics on both distinctive as well as collective levels. Generally, their involvement wasn’t on specific horizontal sphere; sometimes it was either against an established institute, injustice and oppression, or, on flip side, in support of a ruling power.

During the Mughal period, the Naqshbandi order, which had a concrete custom of association with kings in central Asia, became prominent in political affairs. Shaykh Ahmad Sirhindi wanted modification of Mughal religious policies, and protested against Akabar’s Din-Ilahi.

Another such scholar is Shah Waliullah Dehlavi – a charismatic Islamic scholar who authored profound works on Quranic sciences, Hadith studies, Jurisprudence, and Sufism etc. Shah Waliullah theorised the political divisions and disintegrations and encouraged many socio-political movements.

He witnessed the final breakup of the Mughal Empire, and rise in its place smaller and weaker states. When Nadir Shah invaded Delhi in 1739, making Muslims more vulnerable to the aggression of other communities in India, Shah Waliullah prescribed political solution. He invited the Afghan king Ahmad Shah to invade India and fight the Marathas and illegal invasion of Nadir shah.

Shah Waliullah believed that political authority is important for practical purpose. He argued that political corruption is an outcome of the scholars’ neglect in performing their duties properly.

The central role of scholars (Ulama) is not only restricted to mere religious rituals, but should be open to participation of community at large. Such participations ensure the program for intellectual as well as socio-political revival. Similarly, another Sufi scholar, Najm al-Din Razi claimed that a just king is a true vicegerent of God, and manifests the divine attributes of lordship. Razi’s argument was furthered by Husayn Waiz Kashifi, who regarded kingship as equal in some respects to Prophethood.

The founders of different Sufi orders also encouraged to aspire for political power, occasionally in revolt against established authority, and sometimes in founding a dynasty. The most remarkable example of such movements were Sokoto Caliphate in West Africa, which traced its origins back to a leader Uthman den Fodio.

who followed the Malki school of Jurisprudence and the Qadri branch of Sufism. Fodio began his career as a wandering teacher. Around 1795, the emphasis of his teaching and writing gradually shifted from personal instruction to a broader concern with socio-political question. He declared jihad in 1804 which culminated in the establishment of Sokoto caliphate in 1806. The caliphate he built consciously flourished under his successors and inspired many other movements in West Africa.

Another such example is the Sanusiya movement which traces its origin from Muhammad Ali al-Sansui, born in Mustaghanim (Algeria). Al-Sansui was a famous theologian and the founder of Sanusiya Sufi order. He was a loyal disciple of Ahmad ibn Idris al-Fasi, founder of the Idrisiya (Ahmadiya) order. After his death, al-Sansui founded his first zawiya on Mount Abu Qubays (outside Mecca). In 1842, he established his first headquarter on al-Jabal al-Akhdar, halfway between Tripoli and the Egyptian border.

From this zawiya, he dispatched his missionaries to the southern and western parts of Libya. Upon his death in 1895, tens of zawiyas where already established throughout Libya and elsewhere in Egypt, Algeria and the Sahara. The Sanusiya movement flourished under the leadership of Al-Sansui’s two sons only to be halted by the expanding French power.

Omar Mukthar was one of the most significant leader of military campaign of this movement. Later the followers of this order were active in the resistance against the Italian occupation. This Sufi movement played a central role in Libya’s Freedom from Italy. After the independence, the head of the order became the first king of Libya.

In Algeria, Qadiriyya Sufi order embarked upon a rebellion against French colonialism. Before the defeat of French forces, Qadiriyya controlled significant parts of the country and stood in defiance against the invaders. There were many other Sufi orders active in fighting against colonial powers in North Africa. In Sudan, Umar b. Said al-Futi of the Tijaniyya order fought the colonialism expansion.

These groups mounted against outsider aggression with the goal that their orders and leaders would have a political power as ruler of territory in those states. This debate establishes that the role of Sufism in political grounds holds prime importance in Islamic history, and outdoes the limitations of ‘spiritualism’ and finds its way in almost all major domains of life.

Owais Manzoor Dar is a Research Scholar, Dept. of Islamic Studies, JMI, New-Delhi.