Islam and Sufism: the false dichotomy of mystics and jurists

The ceiling of the Tomb of Sufi poet Hafez in Shiraz, Iran. Credit: Pentocelo/Wikipedia.
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It is too often erroneously claimed that Sunni Islam is divided into a legalistic conservative mainstream presided over by jurists, and a mystical, liberal marginalised minority comprised of mystics. However such a perception came to emerge, it is inaccurate. From the beginnings of Islam in the Qur’an and in the person of the Prophet Muhammad himself, through to his companions and the jurists who established the four Sunni schools of Islamic Law, the external application of the law and the internal cultivation of the spirit have always been intertwined.

Consider the ritual prayer, performed by Muslims five times a day, as this most demonstrates the interdependence of the external and the internal. In the Qur’an it is said, “Perform the Prayer to remember Me.” In this it is made clear that the Prayer is not simply a series of movements and supplications performed in accordance with an established formula. Rather, its objective is the remembrance of God. The Prophet Muhammad elaborates that, “When performing the Prayer, one is conversing intimately with one’s Lord.” However, he makes clear that, “A man gets credit only for that part of his Prayer of which he is conscious,” and it is not sufficient to merely perform the outward action. The prayer, as with all acts of worship, ceases to be intimate communion, it ceases to truly be worship, if engaged in heedlessly without devotion. Therefore, both the essence and the purpose of the prayer is the pure and sincere intention with which it is performed. This centrality of intention applies to all action, as the Prophet teaches that, “All actions are according to intention.” The cultivation of sincere and pious intention is a fundamentally spiritual, mystical process, and those who have undergone this process most exemplify the unity of the internal and the external. They are the mystics of Islam, the Sufis.

It is often taken for granted by some that the Sufis, though emerging from Sunni tradition, have gone beyond it. It is assumed that they have discarded those alleged cumbersome codes of conduct and dry dogmas which confine the legalistic Sunni mainstream in favour of a freer, mystical approach which was once Islamic but no longer. Arguably, no Sufi evokes this image more than Mawlana Jalal ad-Din Rumi, the renowned 13th century mystical poet, who’s deeply profound and intimate poetry speaks to millions such that it is a U.S. bestseller. Yet, it was Rumi who said, “Act and word are witness to the hidden mind; from these twain infer the inward state”- that is, correct word and action are a manifestation and an indication of one’s spiritual condition. If the action is bad, the heart is bad, and vice versa. Rumi was not exceptional in this regard, he was articulating an oft spoken principle voiced by many Sufis that, “with regard to the Law, mere formality is defective, while mere spirituality is vain.” For the Sufis, then, the mystical is not the polar opposite of the law, it is its completion, and the law is the correct means through which the mystical is cultivated and manifest.

Should the arbiters of the law, the Caliphs who ensure its implementation and the jurists who interpret it, not also be mystics? Indeed, the Prophet’s companion and the first and foremost of the Caliphs, Abu Bakr as-Siddiq, is referred to as “the Imam of the Muslims in general, and of the Sufis in particular.” Many Sufis trace their spiritual lineage from teacher to student back to him, as they do also the fourth Caliph, ‘Ali ibn Abi-Talib, the Prophet’s cousin. Rumi lovingly proclaims of him, “A lover, I am, of Murtaza ‘Ali; in rapture, my very being cries out: ‘Ali ‘Ali.” The prominent jurists who came two generations after these companions, who established the four Sunni schools of Islamic Law, were also mystics, or had studied under them. For example, Imam Malik and Imam Abu Hanifa, founders of the Maliki and Hanafi schools of Law respectively, both studied under the renowned jurist and mystic, Imam Ja’far as-Sadiq, who was himself a descendent of the Prophet. Just as the Sufis of later generations exhorted correct adherence to the Law when traversing the spiritual path, the lawmakers themselves had walked upon it, further illustrating the intimate relation between the legal and the mystical, the external and the internal.

In examining the foundations of the Sunni Islamic tradition, the Qur’an, the Prophet Muhammad, his companions and the early jurists, we can see that the contention Islam has one community of dry legalists and another with rich spirituality is wrong. The exemplary individuals who have carried this tradition from its beginnings to contemporary times, from the early scholar-saints such as Imam al-Ghazali and Mawlana Rumi, to more modern names, such as Mawlana Shaykh Nazim of Cyprus and Shaykh Ninowy of America, make this point clear. For myself and many others, rather than there being a contradiction between the law and the spirit, you can’t have one without the other.

Hamza graduated from the University of Manchester with a BA (Hons) in Religion and Theology, and is continuing his studies to MA with the intention of pursuing a PhD. His research focuses particularly on Islam in Britain, and on understanding denominational difference. He writes in a personal capacity.

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