I have no issue with sufism that is founded on and grounded in Islam. Many (though by no means all) of the Muslims I find most inspiring are students of that path. Furthermore, it is nigh on impossible to learn any Islamic science without the chain of transmission having passed through scholars of the tradition. One of my favourite books is described by some as a manual of sufism, though I would simply describe it as a guide to Islamic devotions, prayer and practical ethics.
But to speak of a sufism founded on and grounded in Islam is to acknowledge that there are instances of practices with the same name which are not. Alhamdulilah, I was blessed from the earliest days to learn that the spiritual path is the core of our faith, regardless of the labels we assign ourselves. Though a salafi would never use the term sufism to describe the process of purifying hearts, preferring a term like ihsan or tazkiya, it has nevertheless been emphasised by all I have ever had the good fortune to know and meet. As my salafi companions used to say: “God does not change the condition of a people until they change what is in themselves.”
Alhamdulilah, many set out on a spiritual path — emphasising the purity of intention, the soundness of their hearts, gratitude to God, love of God, hope in God, repentance and remembrance — without ever employing terms like sufism or tasawwaf. Indeed perhaps I am one of them, poor though I may be. Our hearts yearn for a nearness to God, a rest, that can only be found in remembrance of God.
But there are aspects of some groups that loudly proclaim their adherence to the sufi path which trouble me. I have seen dhikr appear to become an end in itself, supplanting the means to God prescribed in the obligatory acts of worship. That old maxim that there is no tasawwaf without fiqh has vanished from mind, and so the evening prayer comes and goes unuttered, because a sunnah was emphasised over a fard.
Is there not something wrong when we cannot build a community in our locality, because the worshippers have become intoxicated by their devotions? Is there not something wrong when we cannot spare a few minutes to stand in prayer with our brethren at the mosque, but can travel great distances to vast gatherings to spend hours absorbed in the poetry of the soul?
If you detect bitterness in my lament, it is because I crave a spiritualism which moves us to action, in which we serve those around us, instead of our own inner egos. Yes, I crave that humble community, where we each greet the other at the mosque at the time of prayer, standing together before our Lord as kindred spirits, and afterwards exchange good words, perhaps wandering home together, perhaps sharing a cup of tea or a slice of bread. But we don’t; we have neglected the core and made the peripheral central. And it is true: I too have stopped going, praying on my own instead.
I crave a community where I live in which I find companionship. But instead you invite me to a gathering far away, where no allowance is made for the time of prayer. Where you speak of your mystical love of God, but let maghrib prayer slip past unsaid. Do you not reflect? Dhikr which causes us to forget is hardly remembrance at all. Isn’t it a tragedy that our boundaries have become so insecure that we find our Christian family more accommodating of our faith than Muslims themselves? Why must you transport us to Fez, Cordoba or Istanbul, and back in time to supposed glory days, when here we are now in the present, in this place we call home?
Speak not of the glory days. Your brother fell sick and none of you visited him. Do you ever wonder what became of him, or is he just another drop-out who could not keep up with your programme of devotion? Have we transformed out communities? Do we provide services to the poor? Do we care about our neighbours? Do we answer the questions of our youth? Have we done anything to make our locality a better place to live? Or is it all just talk? And yes, this is all just talk. I am one of those who talks about what I do not do.
But I have been inspired. Yesterday I was blessed with an invitation to a beautiful gathering focusing on the spiritual plight of nascent Muslims. Perhaps we were carried far from our intended goals, to the regret of some; beyond the anticipated focus on the stirring soul and the heart kept alive. But for me it set in motion a train of thoughts about a rekindled faith — for my faith like many others’ just smoulders, effecting neither myself or others — one borne in efforts to build our own communities in our midst. To start a home group for the Strangers — those on the periphery of the community, for whom the mosque offers no refuge — to come together to recite from the Qur’an, to reflect on Allah’s signs, to read together and re-remember the shahada, to recall subhanullah, to seek God’s forgiveness and aid. And to bring and share: a cup of tea, a piece of cake, fruit salad. To pray together. To become whole once more.
We ran out of time yesterday to complete our thoughts, to properly think about our next steps, but there was something I wanted to share. Perhaps it was just the buzz of having a voice, living in a community where I have none, but for me a kind of clarity settled. There is a need amongst new Muslims all over the country — and by new Muslims I do not mean just the narrow definition of the convert to Islam, but also youngsters, teenagers, children, and older people discovering or rediscovering their faith anew — for a spiritual home, for a place to go to maintain a connection with our Creator.
And then there are those of us who have been Muslim for fifteen, twenty, thirty, forty years. We have a job to do. Not to go forth and multiply, but to go forth and satisfy the needs of the next generation. We are now established in our faith: we must stop infantilising ourselves as converts in perpetual need of a helping hand (that’s not a denial of the need for pastoral support in the community), and instead recognise that we need to be the helping hand.
A new Muslim should be defined as a person in the very early stages of their journey. The first five years, perhaps, when they are at their most vulnerable and in most need of guidance and help. But for us to start to make changes, we need to graduate, to come of age.
And so what would it be like if those of us established in our faith went out to sow seeds in our localities, wherever we might be in the country, establishing humble gatherings in our homes, once a fortnight? What if we adopted that as a model for fostering spiritual wellbeing in every locality around the country? We do not need to advocate anything grand: no committees, trustees, minutes of meetings: just modest fellowship, a pot of tea, recitation and prayer. Walks in the countryside, so that we might reflect on the Signs of God, on the beauty manifest in His creation.
What if the answer to our spiritual morass was a vision as simple as this? A letter sent to no-longer new Muslims, inviting them to switch roles, to become mentors, servants, tea-makers. Not to become pseudo-scholars, community leaders or the voice of reason: no, just a conduit to counteract isolation and spiritual stagnation. To foster growth, companionship, mutal-respect, healthy hearts, gratitude to God, patience, love, kindness and compassion.
From a tiny acorn grows the mighty oak.