[Advaita-l] On the place of Sufism in Islam and Advaita in Hinduism

Siva Senani Nori sivasenani at yahoo.com
Sat Jan 27 22:57:25 CST 2007

Sometime back there was a suggestion that Sufism is considered heretical by many Muslims and a reaction that so is advaita, by many Hindus, and then the discussion veered off. I have tried to summarise below the key concepts relevant to Sufism, based mostly on SAA Rizvi’s “The Wonder that was India Part II” and show that while Sufism is not generally heretical, it does not hold the same place in Islam as Advaita does in Hinduism.
As early as 657 (the Prophet died in 632), a movement called ‘ilm-al-kalAm (the science of defending orthodoxy by rational arguments) crystallized, with free will of man being a major topic of controversy. Thereon kalAm (dialectics) developed along with ijtihAd (individual reasoning or reasoning by analogy), the latter culminating in the four mazhabs (Sunni dharma SAstras) of MAlikI, HanAfI, Shafi’I, and HanAbila. Till this stage logical reasoning was used to support and explain orthodoxy in the Muslim world. 
Then in the early eleventh century, Ibn SIna (or Avicenna) introduced the concept of WAjibu’l-WujUd, the Necessary Being. His theory distinguished between the essence (mAhiya) and existence / experience (wujUd); and necessary (wAjib), possible (mumkin) and impossible (mumtani’). Unity (of the Essential with the created world) and existence are only accidents which may or may not be added to essence for contingent humanity, but in the Wajibu’l WujUd, essence and existence are inseparably united. This cosmological doctrine of Ibn SIna that the world is eternal, is condemned by the orthodox kalAm scholars who hold that the world was created by Allah at a specific point in time.
The one common feature amongst all sUfIs (sUf is wool and a sUfI is one who wears woolen garments, and not the more comfortable cotton or silk ones) was the belief in Wahdat-al-WujUd (the Unity of Being), which basically held that the Creator cannot be different from the Created. Even as the philosophy underlying Sufism was rigorously expounded only in the second millennium after Christ, the underlying beliefs were evident from much earlier. Many consider Prophet Muhammad to be the first sufI saint; in the last quarter of the ninth century, BayAzId of Iran declared: “Glory be to me! How great is my majesty! Thy obedience to me is greater than my obedience to thee.” Then, in the first quarter of the tenth century al-HallAj, also of Iran, declared ‘Ana’l-Haqq’ (I am the Truth or God), and for that he was later imprisoned and executed. Some sUfIs in their ardent identification with God sometimes believe that they are above sharI’a (law) and that made them
 heretical. However, most sUfIs, and a very important sUfI textbook, ‘AwArifu’l-ma’Arif, did not hold that sUfIs were above sharI’a.
The sUfI saints are certainly very popular (think of Data Ganj Baksh or KhwAja Mu’Inuddin Chishti and his tomb in Ajmer), maybe more than the orthodox kalAm scholars. Where the core beliefs of Sufism and Advaita seem similar, the methods are quite opposed. Dialectics is the chosen method of Advaitins, the sUfIs meditate, contemplate, and are often overpowered by ecstasy and frenzy. The sukr (mystical intoxication) was later moderated in the sahw group of sUfIs, but mysticism is strongly associated with sUfI saints; not so with advaitic saints. Most advaitins are also the most orthodox amongst Hindus; not so with sUfIs, though there are exceptions like ShAh WalI’ullAh, who combined both sUfI and kalAm traditions. Where sUfI saints would be considered heretical if they held themselves above sharI’a, the Dharma SAstras specifically state that Samnyasins are above the Law; that karma does not stick to them; and yet, most Samnyasins follow the Law, to set an example for
 lay followers. Finally, what strikes me most is that the ideal amongst Hindus is to first master the Vedas, then Vedanta (of whichever flavour) and finally attain salvation. Mastery of Vedanta is the stated highest learning for Hindus; I am not sure it is so with Islam and Sufism.


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