Sunni Spirituality

Sufism in the Sunni World

Many Sunni Muslims happen to be the members of Sufi orders. Their notion of piety is to live in accordance with the dictates of the Sufi fraternity (tarīqah) to which they belong. The early Sufis were Sunni Muslims from Persia like Abū Yazīd of Bastami (d. 261/ 874).

The main Sufi fraternities that have sprung up throughout the world, such as the Qadiriyah, the Shadhiliyah, the Alawiyah, the Tijaniyah, the Chishtiyah, the Naqshbandiyah, etc., are of Sunni background. Numerous Sunni Muslims in the Indian subcontinent comprising India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, in Southeast Asian countries, in North Africa, East Africa, and West Africa south of the Sahara happen to be murids (spiritual disciples) under the spiritual guidance and surveillance of the shaykhs (spiritual masters) of the respective Sufi fraternities to which they belong. As a result, many shrines of the saints (awliya' Allah) throughout these countries are frequented by the devotees hoping to receive barakah (Divine Blessing), which is associated with the saints both when they are alive and when they are dead. Unfortunately, a number of Sufi disciples have at times shown disregard for the standard forms of expressing true faith through the performance of salāt prayer), sawm (fasting), or hajj (pilgrimage) and have thereby earned for themselves the wrath and hatred of the orthodox Sunni community, but the vast majority are orthodox Sunnis. Moreover, most of the Sufi shaykhs have been and remain authorities in the study of the Shari'ah. For example, Shaykh Ahmad Sirhindi of India popularly known as Mujaddid al-Alf Althānī preached fervently that "tariqah is Shari'ah and Shari'ah is tariqah."

Sufi spirituality is, in fact, inseparable from that of Sunnism and constitutes its heart, from which it flows to the body and limbs of the Islamic community as a whole.

Sunni spirituality aims at determining the limits of genuine spiritual experience in accordance with the perfect model (uswāh hasanah) of the Prophet as manifested in his Hadith and Sunnah. The Sunnis judge the spiritual merits of the actions (a'mal) of Muslims on the basis of values and norms established by the Quran and the Sunnah of the Prophet. The most important of such values and norms is taqwa.

The Arabic word taqwa denotes a quality that is absolutely essential in the personality of every conscientious Muslim and comprises both the love and the fear of God. It can at best be loosely rendered in English as "God consciousness" combined with reverential fear and purity. More exactly, taqwa refers to a constant awareness of a person that he stands always before God and that God knows everything concerning him, even his most secret thoughts deep down within the recesses of his heart. This awareness produces in a person an intense love for God combined with reverence, so that he wants to do only what is pleasing to God and tries to avoid what is displeasing to God. It creates such a keen consciousness of God in a person that he never for a single moment imagines that God is unaware of what he does or that he will not be held accountable for all his actions.

The lives of all notable sahabah were immersed in taqwā as defined in the hadīth narrated by 'Umar ibn al-Khattāb: "You should serve God in such a way that if you do not see Him, He sees you." It is this firm īmān (faith) that brings about and increases love for God (hubb Allāh), love for Muslim brotherhood (al-ukhuwwat al-islāmiyyah), and love for all of mankind, which in turn generates efficient moral power leading to peace between man and his Creator as well as between man and man.

Taqwā is used in a general sense to indicate a religious attitude of devotional feeling resulting from the fear of God. The faith of a mu'min (believer) lies between khawf (fear of God) and raja' (hope in God). However, taqwā does not require a Muslim to practice austerity like a Christian monk. He has to curb his carnal desires, but not in any inhuman way. A Muslim with taqwā is expected to take up responsibilities in life, like contracting marriage and raising a family, with all that such responsibilities involve. Since Islam does not subscribe to the idea that intellectual knowledge (illumination), however correctly imparted, would rightly lead the human will by itself, it insists that a Muslim should strive to increase his taqwā or strengthen his īmān, by acquiring knowledge of the Quran and the Sunnah, by performing devotional acts ('ibādah) and by placing his reliance upon God alone (tawakkul).

The Quran indicates the qualities of men who possess taqwā in these words:

Verily, the Believers are those whose hearts feel fear when God is mentioned, and when His signs (or revelations) are recited to them they increase their faith, and who put their trust in their Lord. (VIII, 2) Verily, those who live in awe and fear of their Lord, who believe in their Lord's signs (or revelations), who do not ascribe partners to their Lord, who give what they give in charity with their hearts full of fear because they are to return to their Lord: It is these who hasten in all good acts and they are foremost in them. (XXIII, 57-61)

The caliph 'Umar ibn al-Khattab described graphically how a believer's īmān lies between fear of God and hope in Him. He said: "If God declared on the Day of Judgment that all people would go to paradise except one unfortunate person, out of His fear I would think that I am that person. And if God declared that all people would go to hell except one fortunate person, out of my hope in His Mercy I would think that I am that fortunate person."