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Sirriyeh - Sufis and Their Critics

Sirriyeh - Sufis and Their Critics - 1 Sufis and their...

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Unformatted text preview: 1 Sufis and their Critics Before the Impact of Europe The eighteenth century has commonly been viewed as a dark age for the world of Islam, a time of political, economic and cultural decline in the three great Islamic states: the Ottoman Empire, Safavid Iran and Mughal India. Writing in the early 19703, Marshall Hodgson lamented: ‘Though the eighteenth century was not without its interesting and creative figures, it was probably the least notable of all in achievement of high-cultural excellence; the relative barrenness was practically universal in Muslim lands.’l Yet from the viewpoint of religion. and more especially of the Sufi spiritual tradition, it was not all dark and barren. There was a widespread sense of decline and concern over the debasement of Sufism among the masses, sunk in superstition and entranced by the extravagant claims of wonder- working Charlatans. But this apprehension led also to vigorous reform efforts, both by individuals and mass movements, gaining momentum into the nineteenth century. Such efforts would have far-reaching results for the revitalization of Islamic spirituality within the central lands of Islam. They would also work for the spread of the faith into those peripheral areas only superficially Islamized and. in some cases, not previously reached: in Africa South of the Sahara, South East Asia and on the northern borders in the Caucasus and the steppes of Central Asia and across into China. Most of this struggle for religious renewal would come from within Sufi ranks, whether from scholarly shaykhs noted for their intellectual achievements in other branches of Islamic learning or from those noted solely for their devotion to the spiritual life, or indeed from the many ordinary members of Sufi tariqas that espoused the reforming cause. Occasionally, however, discontent with the prevailing abuses of Sufism ran too deep for any reform of the orders to constitute an acceptable solution. Virulent anti-Sufism then erupted. taking its most famous organized form in the Arabian movement of the Wahhabis, ideological forerunners of many modern Muslim opponents of the Sufis. 1 SUFIS AND ANTLSUFIS It is proposed here first to note the nature of the anxieties about Sufi decadence in this period before examining some of the attempts to counter it. After exploring the contributions of two pivotal figures in the Sufi reforming thought of the eighteenth century, there follows an examination of mass reform within the Sufi orders with special focus on nineteenth century Africa, before a final consideration of the \Vahhabi radical rejection of the tariqas. The Mood of Decline In 1950 A. J. Arberry launched a savage attack on the later manifestations of Sufism, but especially that of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.2 He strenuously denounced the decay in Egypt and generalized beyond it across the world of Islam. The picture presented is one of outrageous violation of the Sharica, open immorality and fraudulent opportunism. Witchcraft is remarked as taking the place of reason with the calculated aim of deluding and exploiting the ignorant masses. Every village or group of villages acquired its local saint, to be supported and revered during his lifetime, worshipped and capitalized after his death. Few indeed were the voices that dared protest against this ruinous order of things, for politician and theologian alike feared to oppose the true masters, and found it easier and more profitable to share in the swindle.3 The 'true masters', the Sufi orders, are thus categorized as a vicious power in Egypt, conspiring to defraud the people, with the understanding that the same situation prevailed everywhere. Arberry proceeds to quote a ‘brave spirit of the eighteenth century', al-Badr al- Hijazi, but suggesting that his criticism. is an isolated case: 'Would that we had not lived to see every demented madman held up by his fellows as a "Pole".4 Their ulema take refuge in him; indeed they have even adopted him as a Lord, instead of the Lord of the Throne; For they have forgotten God, saying, “So-and-so provides deliverance from suffering for all mankind.” \Vhen he dies. they make him the object of pilgrimage and hasten to his shrine, Arabs and foreigners alike: Some kiss his grave, and some the threshold of his door, and the dust —-.° SUFIS AND THEIR CRITICS BEFORE THE. IMPACT OF EUROPE Allowing for the exaggerations of Arberry’s account, he, nevertheless, reflects the concerns of Sufism's critics of the period, who were somewhat more numerous than he seems to suggest. The poet was by no means alone in his distress at corruptions to the faith through popular innovations (bidac), especially those associated with local pilgrimages to the tombs of supposed Sufi 'saints’, ‘God’s friends' (awliyci’ Allah). The image of the mad 'saint’ (majdhfib), robbed of his sanity by an overwhelming experience of the Divine, would become all too familiar to eighteenth and nineteenth century European travellers. The concerns about the exaltation of such men and belief in their powers of intercession were indeed widespread among haluslims, whether Sufi or non—Sufi. Among those who felt particularly deep revulsion were the Arabian Wahhabis, who shared a passionate conviction of the urgency of purifying and revitalizing the faith. The voice of the Wahhabis’ founder. Muhammad b. CAbel al-Wahhab (1703792), is one of the earliest and most strident, seeing his own age as another Jfihiliyya, but darker and more decadent than the pre-lslaniic age of ignorance of true religion: The idolaters of our own time are worse in their idolatry than the ancients because the ancients were worshipping God in times of affliction and associating others with Him in times of prosperity, but the idolaters of our own time are always guilty of associating others with God whether in prosperity or affliction.” Not only were they guilty of association, but there was even greater harm and sinfulness in the act because those that they associated with God were immoral and corrupt Sufi shaykhs. Ibn cAbd al-Wahhab's son, Shaykh CAbd Allah, expanded on the disastrous state in mid- eighteenth century central Arabia before his father’s reforming campaign.7 Criticizing exaggerated popular devotion to Sufis, he noted that, for the masses, attendance at Sufi gatherings had become more important to them than regular prayers and that they flocked to saints' tombs, decorating them with gold and silver and marble, while avoiding the mosques. Listening to Sufi poetry, they wept with emotion, but recital of the Qur’an was treated casually by them and aroused no such feelings. Some even told stories of calling upon God in vain, but calling upon a dead Sufi and being answered and assisted. False Sufism had even corrupted their view of the Prophet and relationship to him. Such people made Islamically unacceptable claims for the Prophet’s knowledge and powers, and even for those of Sufi saints, so as to approximate the Christians’ belief in the lVIessiah. He comments: ‘The 3 SUFES AND ANTI-SUFIS Messiah for them (the Christians) is a name denoting divinity and humanity combined and this is what some extreme Sufis and Shi‘is say, speaking of the union of divinity and humanity in the prophets and holy men, just as the Christians say of the Messiah.’8 However, the voices of criticism also came from within Sufism. Thus a letter from a prominent shaykh, Ahmad b. Idris (1760b 1837), to his disciple travelling to the Sudan warns him of the dangers to his spiritual state from the ordinary people around him: Know, my son, that the people of your time, even if they flatter you outwardly, yet they are faint-hearted and this will bring them no benefit with God. And what God, may He be praised and exalted, ordered the Prophet was that he have patience only with "those who call upon their Lord morning and evening desiring His face” (Qur’an 18.28). The companionship of rabble. who in their companionship have no desire for God and His Prophet, is a lethal poison which instantly destroys faith unless God preserves it. So be wary of the people of your time, for they are not sincere in their love of God. And may God preserve you from the people.9 It seems that the shaykh has a low opinion of many African Sufis, although he recognized the existence of the genuinely pious among the Sufis of the Sudan. In North Africa similar feelings are expressed by his contemporary Ahmad al-Tijani (1737—1815) in a letter to one of his disciples in Fez; ‘And know that nobody in these times can keep away from sin since it falls on human beings like heavy rain.’10 On another occasion he lamented: rThis time is one in which the bases of divine ordinance have been destroyed. . .; and it is beyond the capacity of any person to carry out God's command in every respect in this time. . . 311 The mood of the times is one of gloom, for the common people, in the reformers' eyes, were failing to achieve true spirituality. The picture is less black than that painted by the Wahhabis, but it is black enough and the understanding is that illumination is rare, that this age is particularly sinful and the unenlightened masses bear a heavy burden of shame owing to their inability to live up to Sufi ideals. Sufi Reformers: Shah Wall Allah and Ahmad b. Idris Among the most forceful voices pressing for change were two outstanding eighteenth century Sufis: Shah Wall Allah of Delhi, a 4 ”my“ - . SUFIS AND THEIR CRITICS BEFORE THE IMPACT OF EUROPE major Indian intellectual Sufi whose influence has been deeply felt to the present among the Muslims of South Asia and more indirectly further afield, and Ahmad b. Idris of Morocco, already noted, who was to play a key role in inspiring the foundation of new reforming orders in Africa. Shah Walt Allah of Delhi (1703—62) A critical event that shaped Shah Wall Allah’s commitment to reform took place in 1731732. This was his journey from India for a fourteen-month stay in the Holy Cities of Mecca and Medina. Once in the Hijaz, he studied Hadith with some of the senior scholars of his day and received guidance in Sufism and initiation into four Sufi orders from the noted mystic Ahfi Tahir Muhammad (d. 1733).12 But in addition to his exposure to different legal schools and a variety of scholarly views on religious questions, he experienced visionary dreams which were to affect the pattern of his life. On 14 August 1731, he records how the Prophet’s grandsons, Hasan and Husayn, appeared to him in a dream: Hasan carried in his hand a reed-pen, of which the point was broken. He stretched out his hand to give it to me, and said: "This is the pen of my grandfather, the Messenger of God." Thereupon he (withdrew his hand and) explained: “Let Husayn mend it first, since it is no longer as good as when Husayn mended its the first time." So Husayn took it, mended it and gave it to me. Husayn then proceeded to clothe him in the Prophet’s mantle. Through this and other dreams Shah Walt Allah developed a deepening spiritual relationship with the Prophet, spending much time in Medina in contemplation at his tomb and on his return journey to India underwent a vision of him, in which the Prophet personally clothed Shah Wall Allah in a mantle. Through his experiences, his external journey to the Hijaz and his internal spiritual journey, he was awaking to an awareness that not all was well with the contemporary state of Islam, as symbolized by the broken reed-pen of Prophet Muhammad, but also that he had a major role to play in rectifying that state of affairs, being the recipient of the mended pen and the Prophet’s mantle. His belief in his own very special position is in ample evidence from his writings, for he 5 SUFIS AND ANTI-SUFIS understood himself to be entrusted by God with the reform of religion in his age as a renewer (mujaddid), as the Prophet’s plenipotentiary (was?) to command worldwide obedience and as the pole of the age (qutb), the head of .all God's saints on earth. Perhaps it is understandable that those who did not share his convictions would find him almost insufferably conceited and be shocked by some of his claims, which would appear to go well beyond those of even Ibn al-‘Arabi. Nevertheless, Shah Wall Allah's image has survived remarkably well and he has won respect among many in the twentieth century subcontinent and beyond as a great pioneering reformer, presenting the acceptable face of Sufism and paving the way for a much broader renewal with a modern tinge. He has Seemed to mark a clear break with the medieval past and with the perceived corruptions of his own day. However, a large part of his endeavours for which he has earned this kind of reputation has little or nothing to do with his Sufism. It concerns his radical efforts for the overhaul of Islamic jurisprudence, where he seems to foreshadow modern juristic reforms in his calls for a new systematic comparison of the four Sunni legal schools with the Qur'an and Sunna. his demands for a fresh independent interpretation (ijtihdd) in opposition to the imitative following (taqlfd) of medieval authorities. It emerges also in his bold attempt to provide an annotated Persian translation of the Qur’an for an educated Indian readership, despite the opposition of the religious scholarly establishment. Finally, Western observers have been particularly attracted by his revolutionary and distinctly modern- looking social and economic ideas. But our concern here is with the specifically Sufi aspects of his career. Much of his initial training in early life was undertaken by his father, a specialist in jurisprudence, but also a noted Sufi. It was his father who initiated him at the age of fifteen into the widespread Qadiri and Naqshabandi tariqas, and also into the Chishtiyya, one of the great orders of medieval India. Two years later he died, but this was not the end of his spiritual guidance as far as Shah Wall Allah was concerned. The son continued to visit the father’s tomb in the years preceding his journey to the Holy Cities of Arabia, seeking communion with his spirit as practised in the Sufi tradition. This time may be seen also as a period of preparation for the dramatic experiences of that journey which would cause him to perceive serious problems within the Sufism of his own time, as also in other branches of the faith. Shah Wall Allah was disturbed by the popular regard for wonder- working Sufis, admiration for their ecstatic poetry to the neglect of the 6 SUFIS AND THEIR CRITICS BEFORE THE IMPACT OF EUROPE Qur’an and Sunna and obsession with the visitation of tombs for purposes other than the pursuit of spiritual progress. His position in this respect was not, however, new, but is evidently very close to that of the great Hanbali jurist Ibn Taymiyya (cl. 1328), whom he admired and whose views he shared on a number of issues, including the dangers of shrine cults. Where Ibn Taymiyya had been troubled by corruption of the faith through Jewish and Christian contacts in Syria, Shah Wali Allah was similarly anxious to eradicate Hindu influence in the Indian context. He agreed with Ibn Tayrniyya also in his concerns over the potentially pernicious influence of Ibn al-CArabi's theosophy but differed from him in retaining a high regard for the Greatest Shaykh and locating the real difficulties in certain misguided interpretations of the ‘unity of existence’ (wahdat al—wujfld) and popular misunderstanding of it that led to a perception of God and the world being identical, rejected human accountability and denied God's forgiveness and punishment. He held the fifteenth century poet Jami to be one of those especially blameworthy. However, he claimed to support those interpreters who understood Ibn al-“Arabi as maintaining that the Universal Existence proceeds from the Divine Essence but is not to be identified with it. Thus he was anxious to uphold the uniqueness of God and also His readiness to forgive and punish. Much of W’ali Allah’s reputation for reform rests on his presumed success in revising and modifying the concept of wahdat al- wujfld. Unfortunately, it is by no means clear that he was sufficiently consistent and convincing to claim such a success for his efforts.14 His deep concern for the broader reform of religion drove Shah Wali Allah to insist that ‘Sufis without knowledge of Qur'an and Sunna, and scholars who are not interested in mysticism are brigands and robbers of the din (religion).’15 His stress on the need for Sufism to have an underpinning of essential Islamic learning and for scholars to appreciate the value of the direct personal experience of the mystic is certainly not novel, but points in a direction increasingly favoured by subsequent reform—minded Sufis. Where he is perhaps at his most forward—looking and a harbinger of change is in his desire to overcome the differences and divisions among the tariqas and his position here would bear comparison with his wish to resolve a similar situation in relation to the Islamic legal schools. Before his return from the Hijaz. he showed a definite preference for the Naqshabandiyya, describing it as ‘the most illustrious and pure and the least heretical tan’qaflf’ Later he was more ready to recount the virtues of other major orders in India, the 7 SUFIS AN D ANTI-SUFIS Qadiri, Chishti and Suhrawardi, noting with respect the latter’s strict adherence to the Qur'an and Sunna. However, the culmination of the process of bringing together many competing visions, as exemplified in the many orders and sub-orders, is closely tied to Shah Wall Allah's conviction of his own special role in ushering in a new and better age of mysticism. In his own words: God blessed me and my contemporaries by granting a path (tarfqa) which of all paths affords the closest proximity to God. . .. And my Lord revealed to me: "We appoint you as leader (imam) of this path and We will show you its most lofty aspects. “Because of the introduction of this tan'qa all other tariqas and methods of traversing the path (madhrihib) can be abolished. This will produce a beneficial effect, since the existence of various madhhabs in mystical practice gives rise to factionalism among the people.17 in this way he reflects growing trends from this period towards exclusive allegiance to an order as well as the urge to build a super- tariqa to be witnessed in the obvious spectacular case of the Sudanese Mahdiyya. Shah Wali Allah’s vision for the new mystical order inspired a line of distinguished followers, although the dream of his new way superseding all other tariqas remained unrealized. Ahmad b. Idris (1750 or 1760—1837) Unlike Shah Wall Allah, Ahmad b. Idris might not be classed as an outstanding intellectual Sufi. He was not a prolific scholarly writer and would surely not claim attention for any brilliant theosophy. Yet recent scholarship has focused on him as a seminal figure for the emergence of the new dynamic Sufi organizations that would come to prominence in the nineteenth century.13 Three of his closest students would go on to become the founders of such orders: the North African Muhammad b. CAli al-Sanusi of the Sanfisiyya in Libya, the Meccan Muhammad CUthman alAMirghani of the Khatmiyya in the Sudan, the Sudanese Ibrahim al-Rashid of the Rashidiyya and its offshoots in the Sudan and Somalia.” Ibn ldris seems to have made his greatest impact through his personal contacts and oral communication rather than through his writings, which are mainly compilations of his students’ lecture notes and survive in the form of short Sufi treatises and fragments of 8 m- wax-wwwm .flflv-......_..,s,.._,__.s,.. _....._._ .. quww“nmqm,WI w SUFIS AND THEIR CRETICS BEFORE THE IMPACT OF EUROPE commentary on Qur'an and Hadith. To the followers of those tariqas influenced by him, he is most familiar through his prayers and litanies. The following short prayer is characteristic of his style: 0 God, cleanse me of every impurity, every error, every malady, every sickness, e...
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