Sufism Vs. Wahhabism

Sufism and Wahhabism are very general words that people use to mean a variety of things, good and evil, from the Islamic point of view. So, I will try to clarify all the different views about them regardless of the names and labels.


Sufism: A Quest for Spirituality

Originally, Sufism (‘Tasawwuf‘ in Arabic) started as an Islamic branch of knowledge that focused on spirituality and dedication to Allah. Some Sufis say that Sufism derived its name from a group of Companions of Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) who were called “As-hab As-Suffah” . This was a group of poor Companions who were always in the Prophet’s mosque. So, they had a rough life, but very spiritual and very dedicated. Abu Hurayrah, the famous Companion and narrator of Hadith, was one of them.

Sufis, according to this definition, also derived from a group of pious scholars, who used to wear rough wool (Souf), such as `Abdul-Qader Al-Jilani and Bishr Al-Hafi. These scholars were not traditional faqihs, but rather a group of dedicated preachers who always reminded their followers of Allah and the hereafter and left a memory of a simple and spiritual life.

Sufism, afterwards, evolved into an educational method, where students (called Mureedun, pl. of Mureed, i.e., a seeker) follow a certain teacher (Sheikh). The Sheikh used to train those students according to a certain educational method, called Tariqah i.e a way or method. The goal of this training was to attain a certain level of spirituality by mentioning Allah or one of his names a certain number of times, fasting for certain number of days, praying at night, reading specific chapters of the Qur’an a number of times, etc. Before a student could join a Sheikh, he had to give an oath to obey the Sheikh and maintain a very high level of brotherhood between him and the rest of the students who follow the same Sheikh.

Over the centuries, the Sufi Sheikhs started to form specific organized groups called Turuq Sufiyah based on the methods they used for spiritual education and on the loyal students. These groups, historically, contributed a great deal to the Islamic reform movements and Jihad against invading forces (examples: Al-Mahdiyun in Africa and Al-Murabitun in Andalusia, etc).

Eventually, however, numerous Sufi groups (Turuq) appeared. Today, I would classify contemporary Sufis into two categories:

  1. Sufis who join Sufi groups (Turuq) to struggle in the way of purifying their souls while totally observing what is right and what is wrong in Islam, according to the Sunnah of the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him). They like to call their Sufism “As-Sufiyyah Al-Muhaqqaqah” (i.e. the verified Sufism). So, they verify their educational practices in order to pray, fast, remember Allah, etc, all according to the Qur’an and authentic Hadith. For example, they say that they isolate themselves in mosques for weeks following the example of Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) when he used to isolate himself in the cave of Hiraa’ for weeks. They mention Allah together in circles (Halaqat) and they cite relevant narrations about the Companions doing the same thing, etc.
  1. Some other Sufis, who join Sufi groups (also called “Turuq Sufiah”), do not care one bit to follow the Sunnah of the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him). Their Sufi groups, for them, are gangs that they join in order to socialize, eat, smoke, and have fun in special festivals they make around the shrines of some famous Sheikhs. They say that they dance and light candles around these graveyards so that these Sheikhs would intercede between them and Allah, so that Allah answers their prayers, etc. These kinds of practices are clearly un-Islamic and clearly jeopardize the Islamic core beliefs in Allah.

The above categorization is quite dramatic, I know. But I just wanted to show the two “farthest” cases in current Sufi groups, between which there is a spectrum of other cases with a mixture of good Islamic practices as well as sinful actions. It is not true that all Sufism is evil (as Wahhabis say, I will explain below), and it is also not true that all Sufism is good because there are things that are clearly on the wrong side that many Sufis do. What counts here is the action itself. If you join a Sufi circle to remember Allah and there is nothing against the Sunnah of the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) that you do, then it is permissible in shaa’ Allah.

It is not right to label all Sufism as bid`ah (innovation -in religion), just because “the Companions never called themselves Sufis,” as some people say. Well. The Companions never called themselves faqihs, usulis (theorists in law), mufassirs (exegetes), or muhaddiths (experts in narrations). These are branches of knowledge that appeared after the second century Hijri, and so did Sufism.


Wahhabism: Towards Purifying the Creed

Wahhabism, on the other hand, is an Islamic movement that was named after Imam Muhammad ibn `Abdul-Wahhab of the 19th century. Imam Ibn `Abdul-Wahhab led a reform movement in Arabia in order to retain the pure and original form of Islam and purify it from all the innovations that the Sufis of Arabia were really committing at that time.

Imam Ibn `Abdul-Wahhab followed the Hanbali school of thought, especially the opinions of Imam Ibn Taymiyah. The Wahhabi movement (now is generally called the Salafi movement) did contribute to Islam by removing a lot of mischief from the land of Arabia and, eventually, uniting it under the House of Saud (who were students of Imam Ibn `Abdul-Wahhab).

Some people mean by Wahhabism and Salafism extremism and roughness in dealing with people. But this is not necessarily true. Many Salafis are very pious and kind, while many ones are extreme and rough.

Wahhabis prefer to take the most cautious opinions about banning any shape or form of worship that was not literally attributed to the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him). For example, when Sufis sit in circles and mention the name of Allah as a group or read the Qur’an as a group, Wahhabis judge that these acts are sinful.

These kinds of issues are actually areas of difference in opinions among scholars; and Muslims ought to tolerate each others when it comes to these issues. However, other Sufi practices (in some Sufi groups) like mixed dancing, lighting candles at certain shrines, living in the mosque and never having a job or a life, etc, are clearly forbidden.

Finally, let us judge the actions not the labels and names.

* This article was published in 2011.
About Dr. Jasser Auda
Jasser Auda is a Professor and Al-Shatibi Chair of Maqasid Studies at the International Peace College South Africa, the Executive Director of the Maqasid Institute, a global think tank based in London, and a Visiting Professor of Islamic Law at Carleton University in Canada. He is a Founding and Board Member of the International Union of Muslim Scholars, Member of the European Council for Fatwa and Research, Fellow of the Islamic Fiqh Academy of India, and General Secretary of Yaqazat Feker, a popular youth organization in Egypt. He has a PhD in the philosophy of Islamic law from University of Wales in the UK, and a PhD in systems analysis from University of Waterloo in Canada. Early in his life, he memorized the Quran and studied Fiqh, Usul and Hadith in the halaqas of Al-Azhar Mosque in Cairo. He previously worked as: Founding Director of the Maqasid Center in the Philosophy of Islamic Law in London; Founding Deputy Director of the Center for Islamic Ethics in Doha; professor at the University of Waterloo in Canada, Alexandria University in Egypt, Islamic University of Novi Pazar in Sanjaq, Qatar Faculty of Islamic Studies, and the American University of Sharjah. He lectured and trained on Islam, its law, spirituality and ethics in dozens of other universities and organizations around the world. He wrote 25 books in Arabic and English, some of which were translated to 25 languages.