In general spiritual-minded people today have few advisors and teachers who are able to counsel them and to educate them in the teachings of the prophets and saints. Unfortunately, they rarely find guides capable of leading them in the teachings of Sufism on that high road of morality and ethics that constitute religion’s essential character.
Guiding Force of the Sufi Way
These individuals, in time, came to be known by the name of Sufi, a word derived from the Arabic Safa’a which means “to purify,” because of the assiduousness with which they applied themselves to holding firmly to the prophetic example and employing it to purify their character from all defects in behavior and morality.
The Schools of Purification (at-turuq as-sufiyya)
We know for example, that in the first century after the Hijra, renunciation of the world (zuhd) grew as a reaction against worldliness in the society. Derived in principle from the order of The divine to His Righteous Apostle to purify people [Qur’an 2:129, 2:151, 3:164, 9:103, 62:2], the practitioners of this way clove firmly to the Prophetic way of life as it was reflected in the lives of his Companions and their Successors, in the ways they employed to purify their hearts and character from bad manners and to inculcate in their own selves and in those around them the manners and upright moral stature of the Best of humanity, the Prophet Example.
Through slow evolution, this regimen ended up as a school of practical thought and moral action endowed with its own structure of rule and principle. This became the basis used by Sufi scholars to direct people on the Right Path. As a result, the world soon witnessed the development of a variety of schools of purification of the ego (tazkiyat an-nafs). Sufi thought, as it spread everywhere, served as a dynamic force behind the growth and fabric of sufi education. This tremendous advance occurred from the first century after the Hijra to the seventh, in parallel with the following developments:
Bases of Divine Law and Jurisprudence (fiqh), through its Imams.
Bases of the system of Belief (`aqeedah) through al-Ash`ari and others.
The science of Traditions of the Prophet (s) (hadith), resulting in the six authentic collections and innumerable others.
The arts of speaking and writing Arabic (nahu and balagha).
Learned Sufi Shaykhs were solid cornerstones upon which to build an ideal society. Tariqat or “path” is a term derived from the Traditions of the Prophet (r) ordering his followers to follow his Sunnah and the Sunnah of his successors. The meaning of Sunnah is “path” or “way,” also the meaning of tariqat referred to in the Qur’anic verse, “Had they kept straight on the path (tariqat), We would have made them drink of a most crystal-clear water.” [72:16] Tariqat thus came to be a term applied to groups of individuals belonging to the school of thought pursued by a particular scholar or “shaykh,” as such a person was often called.
Core Teachings on the Path
Though these shaykhs applied different methods in training their followers, the core of each one’s program was identical. The situation was not unlike what we find in faculties of medicine and law today. The approach in different faculties may be different, but the body of law, the state of art in medicine remains essentially the same everywhere. When students graduate from these faculties, each student bears the stamp of its character. Yet, none are considered less a lawyer or doctor because their respective affiliations differ. In a similar way, the student product of a particular shaykh will bear the stamp of that shaykh’s teaching and character. Consequently, the names given to various schools of Sufi thought differ according to the names and the perspectives of their founders. This variation manifests itself in a more concrete fashion, in the different supererogatory spiritual practices, (known as awrad, ahzab or adhkar), used as the practical methodology of spiritual transformation. Such differences, however, have nothing to do with the religious principle.
The Sufi regimen under which individuals undertook the path to The Divine, was a finely-honed itinerary which charted the course of inward and outward progress in religious faith and practice (deen). Following the tradition of the Companions of the Prophet [s] who used to frequent his company named Ahl as-suffa (“People of the Bench”), the practitioners of this regimen lived a communal life. Their dwelling places were the mosque-schools (zawaya), border forts (ribat), and guest-houses (khaniqah) where they gathered together on specific occasions dedicated to the traditional festivals of the Islamic calendar (`id). They also gathered on a regular basis in associations for the conveying of knowledge (suhba), assemblies to invoke the names of The Divine and recite the adhkar (plural of dhikr, “remembrance”) inherited from the Prophetic Tradition, and circles of study in spiritual realities. Yet another reason for their gathering was to hear inspired preaching and moral exhortations (wi`az).
Epitomizing Community Activism and Social Reform
The shaykhs exhorted their students to actively respond to The Divine, to cleanse their hearts and purify their souls from the lower desires prompted by the ego and to reform erroneous beliefs. All this was accomplished by cleaving to the Prophetic example. The methods of remembering The Divine, which they instilled in their students, were the very same methods passed down from the Prophet (s). In this way, they propagated upright behavior both through word and deed, while they encouraged the believers to devote themselves to The Divine Almighty with their whole hearts. The aim of their endeavor then was nothing less than obtaining The Divine’s satisfaction and inspiring love for His Prophets. In short, what they aimed for was a state where God would be pleased with them even as they were pleased with God.
These shaykhs therefore were the radiant beacons that dispelled darkness from a believer’s path as well as the solid cornerstones upon which the Community could build the foundations of an ideal society. The ideal here was the spirit of sacrifice and selflessness that characterized their every effort. These values, in time, imbued the entire social fabric of Islam. The guesthouses, for example, were more often than not found in neighborhoods of the poor and economically disadvantaged. Needless to say, for this reason they became remedies for many social ills.
As a result of such teaching and training we find that many students of Sufi shaykhs graduated from their course of studies fully empowered to carry other people’s burdens, even as they strove to illumine the way of Truth. Furthermore, through their training and self-discipline they had developed the manifest and decisive will to do so. Genuine scholars and teachers of tariqat leave no stone unturned in conducting their effort, a word which means both the physical struggle against oppression and injustice and the spiritual struggle against the unseen allurements that trap the soul.
Sufism has upheld the highest values of social consciousness, religious inquiry and science.
Sufism – the Path of Struggle in the Way of God
History books are filled with the names of Sufis who struggled in the Way of God. who devoted their lives to calling mankind to the Divine Presence of God. They accomplished this with wisdom and they were effective. Their names and stories are too numerous to list in the span of a single book, even if it had hundreds of volumes.
It suffices to say that the lives of these Sufi Shaykhs are overwhelming evidence that Sufism—far from encouraging escapism and retirement from the world that impedes social progress—upheld the highest values of social consciousness as well as religious inquiry and science.