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Sufism and Reform

Sufism and Reform 

By Essam Harrira
OnIslam Staff

A galaxy of 300 renowned Muslim scholars, mostly Sufis, intellectuals, and community leaders from more than 35 countries from around the world gathered in Cairo in September 24 to 26 in order to discuss the Sufi contributions to reform. The 3-day conference, which entitled “Sufism: An Authentic Way of Reform”, was held under the auspices of Dr. Ahmad At-Tayyeb, the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar and organized by Al-`Ashirah Al-Muhammadeyah, one of the Egypt’s leading Sufi bodies.

What Is Sufism?
To many people, the concept of Sufism is unclear and even distorted. There are various definitions for "Sufism", and it is important to shed light on the meanings of this thorny concept before reviewing the conference itself. Dr. Jasser Auda, an associate professor at the Faculty of Islamic Studies, Qatar Foundation, defines "Sufism" as follows:

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 (calledMureedun, 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).”[1]

Urgent Need for Reform
Convening scholars and researchers emphasized that the Arab and Muslim world is in bad need of real and comprehensive reform.
Throughout the conference 10 sessions, more than 70 papers were presented covering the following main topics:
1. The urgent need for reform in the Arab and Muslim societies
2. Sufism as an authentic way of reform
3. The problems of Sufism and reform
4. Sufism and possibilities of reform
5. Models of Sufi reformers in past and present
Convening scholars and researchers emphasized that the Arab and Muslim world is in bad need of real and comprehensive reform to rescue both individuals and societies from the prevailing corruption. Sufism, according to the gathering scholars, was and is still an authentic way of reform. It could reform both individuals and societies.
Moreover, they discussed major problems and obstacles that face Sufism as a way of reform and how the Sufis, either leaders or followers, can overcome such challenges.
Sufi Models
To practically prove Sufi contributions to reform throughout centuries, participants highlighted the efforts of eminent models of Sufi reformers from among the Companions of the Prophet (may Allah be pleased with them all), particularly Ahlus-Suffah, the early Muslims  (as-Salaf as-Salih) such as Ibrahim ibn Adham, Hatim Al-Assam, Al-`Ezz ibn `Abdus-Salam, Imam Ash-Sha`rani, and `Abdul-Qader Al-Jilani, and contemporary figures  such as Sheikh Muhammad Zaki Ibrahim,  founder of Al-`Ashirah Al-Muhammadeyah, Sheikh Mahmud Khattab As-Subki,  founder of Al-Jam`yah Ash-Shar`yah, Sheikh Hassan Al-Banna, founder of the Muslim Brotherhood, etc. They also introduced good examples of Sufi rulers and leaders such as Saladin (Salahuddin Al-Ayyubi).
International Union for Sufis
In the conference recommendations, the participants called for the establishment of an international union that gathers all Sufi scholars and sects. They, moreover, proposed a launch of a TV channel to focus on moral and spiritual enhancement and to encounter violence and extremism.
The conference, moreover, urged Arab and Muslim countries as well as the world organizations to support the Palestinian people in establishing their independent state with its capital “A-Quds”. Arab rulers were also asked to take quick practical steps in reforming their regimes and polices.