I sat down with Sufi and Co-Director of the Association of British Muslims, Paul Salahuddin Armstrong to ask him about Sufism, Islamophobia and Muslim responses to extremism.
Define your Sufism
Sufism itself is not really the correct term. The original term is Tasawwuf (inwardness), and Tasawwuf is the traditional science of purification. It is synonymous with working towards a state of Islam. There is a Hadith where the Prophet Mohammed, peace be upon him, said there’s Islam, there’s Iman, and there’s Ihsan. So those people who focus only on Islam have kind of missed the point, because you’ve also got to have faith, you’ve got to have firm belief, which is Iman (faith.) Ihsan is gnosis; it’s the knowing that’s deep within yourself. This is from the Hadith from the Prophet, Peace Be Upon Him. So the people who focus only on Ihsan; they’re actually missing the point of what Ihsan is working towards. But Sufism as well, being the esoteric part of Islam, it is also the heart of Islam. It is the essence of Islam, and not only of Islam but of all faiths, because Islam itself is not just a description of the modern religion of Islam, but the way of the previous prophets who are generally thought of as Jewish and Christian Prophets. And, of course, we are told in a hadith that there were one hundred and twenty-four thousand prophets. Well, that may have included Jews and Christians, it may have included people we may not necessarily think of as Prophets of Islam. People like Buddha, Lao-Tzu and Confucius from other cultures, whose traditions today don’t really strike us as related to Islam, but when we look at the Dhammapada, Tao Te Ching, or Analects of Confucius we see profound connections with what we believe as Muslims, which indicates to us that they could well be prophets of Allah even though they’re not mentioned by name. If we take all of the Prophets mentioned in the Qur’an and all of the Saints and patriarchs mentioned in the Bible, we come to nowhere near one hundred and twenty four thousand. So who were the others? Probably every spiritual tradition on earth originated with one of these messengers of God. Sufism tends to remind us of this reality because Sufism also reminds us that we are one human family. So it’s a way of drawing people together rather than dividing. If you go to Ajmer Sharif in India, there are always Christians, Hindus, Sikhs… everyone is welcome there as well as Muslims even though it is obviously the place of Muslim Saints. So this is how Sufism is. It is a more universal thing that transcends a single path. But it is also the path to Ihsan within the religion of Islam. Many scholars in the past have pointed out that you have to study both the Fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence) and you have to study Sufism, because if you just studied the Fiqh, but you didn’t study the Sufism, you’d become corrupt, and if you just studied Sufism and you didn’t study the Fiqh you could go astray, because you’d have no framework within which to live your life.
Would you share with us your journey towards Sufism?
My journey towards Sufism began with my journey towards Islam. I always believed in Tawheed (Oneness of God), even before I knew what it was called in Arabic. I was never a Christian, I never belonged to any religion, but I always believed in the oneness of God and a God who created the universe, as opposed to a God who looked like a man or a human being. My God is formless, and infinite, and a spirit of some kind, a being beyond any description that words could describe. So for me when I started reading the Qur’an, I recognised this as the same God as I believe in; this is my belief. This has just expanded upon it, built upon it. So although I was initially put off by Muslims, who seemed to be calling it something else, I was more and more drawn towards the Qur’an. In the end I prayed and asked God for guidance and I felt this was the right thing to do. Since then, I’ve been researching and trying to understand more and develop my understanding. I would say my belief has always been Sufistic as opposed to literalistic or focused on Sharia (Islamic Canon Law based on a literal interpretation of the Qur’an, Hadiths, and Sunna) or at least kind of dogmatic. I’ve never been one for dogma. But my initial reading of the Qur’an, I read it in a way which is more consistent with Sufism, so of course when I found out about Sufism and discovered this around six months to a year after embracing Islam, I was really drawn to it, and within that time I met my Sheikh, Sufi Mohammed Abdullah Khan, who recently passed away, who’s centre was based on Golden Hillock Road, Birmingham. I also regularly attended Zikr (God-conscious meditation) with mureeds of Mawlana Shaykh Nazim in Wolverhampton and Birmingham who I’m very close to as well. I have a lot of connections with various Sufi groups now.
You’re raising a young family. In what way do your beliefs affect the way you teach your daughters about the world?
I’ll tell you one thing, I’m glad I married after my faith had matured, and that I had children after my faith had matured, because despite being attracted towards the Sufi tradition and being open minded, I did have that convert zeal just after embracing Islam. I had all these other influences. I was bombarded with Wahhabis, Salafis and Tableeghis and all these other groups wanting to pull me into their group; Alhamdulillah (praise God), unsuccessfully. But it doesn’t affect how I raise my children that much to be honest with you, because I want to bring my children up in a balanced way. I teach them about all religion. I don’t put any pressure on them regarding their own religion. That’s entirely up to them as far as I’m concerned. So I will pass on what I understand as best I can, and then it’s up to them to make up their own mind about what path they want to follow as far as religion and spirituality is concerned. The way I understand religion is that it’s a journey. It’s a journey that each person has to make. So we cannot, and it’s actually impossible to, push religion on our children because what we’ll be doing is indoctrinating, and we’ll be denying them a spiritual journey of their own. So for me, it’s actually incompatible with my understanding of Islam to do that. I take that from the Qur’an itself, where it invites us to research, to read the Qur’an, to look at all the science, to reflect upon creation; and surely in all these things are signs of people understanding. That is not dogmatic. It is an invitation to go on a spiritual journey. That is what I pass on to my children. I remind them that there are good people, and people of faith and virtue in all traditions. Even atheists are good people and people of virtue, though they do not believe in God. In fact my daughter recently asked me about atheists. My older daughter, she said “It’s just ridiculous that some people don’t believe in God.” I said, “How can you say that? They have their reasons. They don’t see God. They think the world around them just appeared naturally through natural processes and from their perspective they don’t see enough evidence to believe in God. It’s not my belief but it is their belief. We can’t say that they’re wrong because nobody can conclusively prove one way or the other, no matter how strongly they feel, that God exists or does not exist. So we must be respectful to all people.”
You mentioned earlier this idea of togetherness, and of a human family. Does the Sufi tradition move you towards social action?
You’ll see this within the Sufi shrines, tekkes, all around the world. Most of them have soup kitchens of one form or another and they’re constantly serving curry or daal, and there are big pots in some of these centres in India that were dedicated by the Mughal rulers. They feed the whole community from them and they’ve been doing this for centuries. So very much within the Sufi tradition is this feeding of people, looking after of people at the base of the Sheikh, whether he’s in a Mosque or a Dargah, in his place of repute, in a place where anybody in need of help can go and seek help, and the people there will do their best to help him. My Sheikh’s Mosque in Birmingham always has food in their kitchen. Even when the gates are locked there is always somebody on site so that if someone rings the bell they can get access if they need it and if they are hungry. The instruction of Sufi Abdullah was that they should always be fed, whoever they are, it doesn’t matter what their religion is or where they are from, if they come seeking help it is a duty upon us to serve them and to help them. This tradition goes back to all the Sufi groups around the world. You will find that they have their own versions of this.
What has been your experience as a British Muslim?
Oh gosh! Wide and varied!
Any overwhelmingly positive or negative experiences?
I’ve had loads of positive experiences. See, for me, Islam is my personal faith. It is my journey. But at the same time, I am very religious so I have this spiritual aspect of myself that I’ve been cultivating over the years and that empowers me and enriches my life. It gives me a sense of peace and tranquillity that I didn’t really have before then. It’s been part of my life for, gosh, fifteen years now! So I almost don’t remember what I was like beforehand. It’s been so long. I’ve just got vague memories of my life beforehand because it’s so much a part of who I am that I don’t really know how to answer the question.
What do you make of the rise in Islamophobia here in the UK?
Wow, well this is a huge problem. The thing about Islamophobia is that a lot of the propaganda we see seems to be very similar, almost identical, to propaganda against Jews living in the 1920’s and 1930’s. So it is worrying. And it is worrying that this is not seen as a problem by a lot of people in society. They’re not recognising that. So I do worry where it’s heading. As someone who is very British in the way I dress and the way I am, I don’t always feel straight away how other people might feel who dress differently. Probably if I grew my beard a bit longer and dressed differently then I’m sure I would get a lot of negative comments and probably worse, because I am aware that there is a strong Islamophobia within society. I’ve had a lot of abuse. People in right wing groups have called me a traitor to my country, a traitor to my race, which is interesting because Turkish people are Europeans as well! But then I’ve met people within the EDL who have left because they got to know a lot of nice Muslims and realised that Islam wasn’t what they thought. Some of them are actually working positively to still counter Islamism, but also Islamophobia at the same time. I think the problem with some of these groups is they attract people who are not necessarily that well educated and clued up, and they don’t see the nuances; they don’t realise that there are different types of Muslims. Sometimes they fall foul of the propaganda and get misled, in much the same way as when you deal with Islamists. There are striking connections between right wing groups and Islamism and the fact that they start off as being disaffected individuals who feel disempowered within society, who do something radical and crazy to feel better about themselves and do some good from their perspective. It’s not everybody else’s perspective but people get into these things because they’re trying to do some good; they’re trying to protect their country or their religious community or something like this. In so doing, they can end up doing a lot more harm, depending on how far they take it.
Do you think the response of Muslims to domestic and international incidents involving extreme acts of violence by people claiming to act in the name of Allah has been adequate?
To be honest, all of these attacks have been roundly condemned by all mainstream Islamic leaders, including those we might think of as being a little more radical. Even the ulama (scholars) of Deoband in India. And I say that because the Taliban were largely Deobandi in affilation, but for the most part, the ulama of Deoband condemn these things. So the problem here is that often we find that these messages don’t get in to the mainstream media. What I feel is there is a lack of awareness within the media, and also a focus there to push more radical stories because it creates ratings, so they’re just thinking about their media ratings, rather than reporting honestly and fairly because that would be even more boring; that wouldn’t sell as many papers and they wouldn’t get as many viewers on their news networks. So they would lose advertising probably. But also, I think it’s a lack of professionalism on the side of many Muslim organisations in terms of dealing with the media. We definitely have to improve on this, so that we can project ourselves more effectively and get our message across. Even if we take ISIS, for instance, there are estimated to be around thirty thousand people involved in ISIS, and that is a lot but actually it is also a small number. There are about 1.6 billion Muslims in this world. Thirty thousand people in ISIS is a tiny percentage. It’s like 0.1 percent. The vast majority of those 1.6 billion loathe ISIS with a passion, and groups similar to them. So, seriously, there is obviously an issue with the way we are marketing ourselves, that people don’t realise that. One in every four people in the world is a Muslim. Now if all these people were nutcases the world would be over. There wouldn’t just be a problem in Nigeria, or Iraq, Syria…
Back from international conflicts to Sufism! When one reads generic definitions of Sufism, one encounters words like mysticism and spirituality. Are these words appropriate?
I think spirituality is. It’s basically what Sufism is, spirituality! It’s definitely not dogmatic. Mysticism…well it’s difficult to define what mysticism actually is. If people mean spirituality by mysticism then yes, but if they mean magic then no. It depends what they mean. Mysticism is such a broad term. Esoteric is often another description that’s applied to Sufism. Esoteric meaning the opposite of exoteric. Exoteric is outward, esoteric is inward. Sufism is the inward way. It’s not about what you dress like on the surface, what you look like on the surface. It’s about who you are inside as a human being. You can wear any uniform or outfit on the outside but it’s irrelevant. Depending on the different cultures we’re living in, we dress in different clothes. But what matters is the contents of our hearts. It’s what we will ultimately present to Allah Subhanahu Wa Ta’ala (May God Be Glorified) on the Day of Reckoning, and it won’t be how we dress. It won’t be what labels we went by in life. These things are just descriptions, outward appearances. I say this because this is a very big differentiating feature between authentic Sufism and its imposters and also exoteric Islam, whereby as soon as you embrace Islam the first thing they tell you is to grow a beard and wear a long shirt, as if that has any relevance whatsoever. A beard is facial hair. Iman is not found in facial hair or in clothing. Iman is found within the heart. Even if you look at so-called Islamic clothing, which is actually predominantly of early Muslim cultures around the world, you will find that within those cultures traditionally Christians and Jews dressed in similar clothes. You will also find that from Saudi to Egypt to Palestine to Afghanistan to India to Malaysia, they all had so-called Islamic clothing. But this is not Islamic clothing, it’s just the clothing of those cultures. There isn’t really any such thing as Islamic clothing. Even the clothing that is predominantly in the West today, trousers and shirts, are most likely based upon Ottoman clothing due to the connections between Britain and the Ottoman Empire. Up until the nineteenth century, Britain and the Ottoman Empire were very close allies. Now obviously if you look back five hundred years ago in Britain, they were wearing tights and outfits that nobody would wear now except in a theatre. Within that period of time you had Ottoman ambassadors here who were wearing trousers and shirts. And if you look at Turkish clothing and if you look at English clothing, it looks like English clothing is a slightly more refined version of Turkish clothing. The funny thing is, there are Muslims who want to call it Kafir (unbeliever) clothing. Which is really stupid because actually there is a belief within Islam that everything in creation is a Muslim, except for some people and some Jinn (spirits,) because we have the choice as to whether we want to believe that God exists or we don’t. Everything is already in tune with the natural laws so it’s already in a state of Islam.
You’ve just now reminded me of something I read that Turkish writer Elif Şafak said: “the more I read about Sufism the more I unlearned. Because that is what Sufism does to you, it makes you erase what you know, what you are so sure of. And then start thinking again. Not with your mind this time, but with your heart” Would you agree with her words?
Very much so! One of the Hadiths says that the greatest Jihad, the greatest struggle, is the Jihad of nafs, struggle with the self. It is reforming the self, to understand the self. Then to magnify the good qualities and to counteract the bad qualities so that we become better more rounded human beings. This is the basic principle within Sufism. It’s part of the journey of becoming in tune with the will of Allah (SWT.)
For someone who knows nothing about Sufism, can you describe why Sufism is distinct from Islam? We talk about them as though they are the same, so is Sufism an interpretation of Islamic texts? Why the same but different?
Islam is generally understood in terms of Sunni and Shia. Now I respect both, I want to make that clear. But because I’ve been educated within the Sufi tradition, a lot of the definitions I use are going to be Sufi. You’ll find similar things within Shia tradition though. I’ve spoken to Shia scholars and there are analogues of all these things. So for instance, they all refer to Ihsan as Irfan (gnosis), which is basically the same thing from what they described to me. Basically, Islam has the Sharia and Tariqa. Now these are general terms. Sharia is basically the wide road. Tariqa is the inward road. Now people make the mistake of thinking that Sharia is the be-all-and-end-all of Islam, but basically the best way to understand this is like a house. This is my own description, my own understanding. You can have a building, just the framework of the building, no plaster on the walls. You’ve got your brick walls, you’ve got your floorboards, you’ve got the structure of the house. Could you call it a home? It would protect you from the rain. But could you call it a home? This is Sharia. To make it a home you have all of the furnishings. You put carpets in and central heating. You plaster the walls. Preferably before you put the carpet in! And you paint or paper them. You beautify your home, you put sofas in there, you put beds in, you make it nice and comfortable so that it’s truly a home. Now, if you put all those things out in a field, you’d run into problems! When you have the two together, you have a beautiful home. That is Islam. Sufism is the homely aspect of it. It is the spiritual side. Sharia is basically not really anything to do with religion because Sharia generally describes the types of Fiqh, and Fiqh is jurisprudence in English. It’s basically law. It is how you govern a society. Now in previous societies what you tended to find was the way the society was governed was tied up with an aspect of religion. If you look in Europe you’ll find Canon Law was, for most of Europe, the law of the land, but it was actually also the law of the Church. England was slightly different; we had Common Law. Common Law comes from Maliki fiqh believe it or not, so when we moved away from the Kings’ Law, we actually took inspiration from Islam. So British Common Law has a lot in common with Maliki fiqh But in Europe they used Canon Law which was religious law. Now within predominantly Muslim countries they developed Sharia. Most of what Sharia talked about was how to organise society. Nowadays we’ve taken that out of religion and it’s become a secular thing that governs people. So we don’t need to have that focus on religious law anymore. The problem is when people focus too much on that and they don’t have a spirituality. What happens is that they get corrupt and they go completely off the rails, and they can do a lot of harm in the name of religion, which you could even call evil in many cases because it’s got no grounding in anything which is good. So they can make stupid laws about sleeping with dead people and things like this which really should have no place within any kind of religion. Sufism, on the other hand, focuses on Iman and focuses on Ihsan which is gnosis. This is really the heart of all religions. If you don’t have a connection with God, then what kind of religion do you have? Rules and regulations are not going to get us anywhere spiritually. So they’re not going to give us any sense of peace or satisfaction. Sufism is the heart of Islam. Fiqh becomes meaningless without Tasawwuf and we see this in Saudi Arabia.