Javed Ahmad Ghamidi appropriates the old Socratic philosophical method of raising questions regarding the opponent’s view. He hardly concedes anything to the opponent and puts up his case as an expert lawyer. However, his approach is deceptively simple. The same applies to his classic refutation of Sunni Sufi doctrine, especially Unitarianism and Sufi view of prophecy, especially its ending.
Today I use the same old Socratic method to analyze Ghamidi’s key arguments and hope that a refined group of students and scholars of Ghamidi responds to clarify.
Ghamidi Sahib, known for his semi-Salafi semi-Deobandi views, has a lengthy essay on Sufism in his Burhan, and a few televised debates and lectures, available on youtube. Some of his lectures and statements on this topic can be reviewed here: https://lubpak.net/archives/228942
He argues that Sufism is a parallel doctrine to that of religion (Islam), that unity of being can’t be corroborated from the Quran, that Sufi view of saint’s access to divine truths puts the thesis of khatmi nubuwwat in danger and that we can point out numerous statements in Sufi texts, including those on ethics and such notions as tawhid of elites, that plainly contradict the Quran. He is not for reforming Sufism who objects to this or that practice or doctrine but questions the whole edifice. He also points out that he grew in a Sufi family and his father was a Sufi teacher. He knows Sufism inside out and has read important classics firsthand. He refutes identification of tasawwuf with ihsan.
Ghamidi states that great people have supported the view that it is a parallel religion and is able to name only two – Ibn Tayyimia and Ibn Qayyim – major scholars in this connection. In modern times he refers to Amin Ahsan Islahi who saw Sufism as parallel religion to Islam. He states his categorical disagreement with all forms of Sufism including that advocated by Shaikh Ahmad Sirhindi. He thinks that esoteric conflicts with exoteric and thus is a separate thing. He uniquely maintains that there is no such thing as kashf that Sufis claim after the Prophet declared that nothing except clear dreams remain now for accessing the Unseen. These are significant points that can’t be tackled in limited space, in one go. However, one can state broad outlines of a response, and that is what I attempt.
Let me begin with a strong counter-statement: Nothing helps us better comprehend the Quran than the light of Sufi doctrine. Nothing is ultimately explicable from the scripture except in the light of symbolism, the tool that the Sufis have perfected. Every page of the Quran cries aloud God alone is real or God is Reality. It is inconceivable to divide being or consciousness, and if God is described in terms of Being/Consciousness, arguments against wujudi tawhid from any quarter lose force. If the Quran calls God Haqq, any endeavour that talks of realities or haqiqah, or truth is orthodox, and one need not prove its compatibility to exoteric reading. Let critics of Sufism refute in philosophical terms that the Quran implicitly endorses. Islam links salvation with intellect. The will – the domain of action – follows intellect. It is faith/gnosis/grace that saves and not action. As such any sharia centric viewpoint that Ghamidi implicates can’t legislate against the discoveries of esotericism, as it can’t and needn’t legislate against knowledge of facts or established scientific discoveries. Atheism, and most forms of irreligion, can’t be convincingly refuted if Sufi interpretation is not admitted. Most modern and postmodern criticisms directed against religion are best taken care of by turning to the tools of Sufism.
The legitimacy of the project of esoteric interpretation follows from recognition of multiple levels of reality that every Muslim accepts. How do we engage with Stace’s counter-statement that all theological statements are lies unless interpreted symbolically? Excepting the statement that God is Being could you defend literal meaning as the only meaning of any scriptural statement, especially those that describe God or His attributes, angels, afterlife, creation, Fall etc.?
The Sufis understand revelation as discoveries of Universal Intellect. If you refute this you have to explain, in precise technical terms of intellectual discourse, what is Jibriel if not universal intellect. If you find statements about meaning of revelation and Jibriel by such Muslim metaphysicians as Schuon (in easily accessible Glossary of Terms Used by Frithjof Schuon) and if you find them problematic replace them with better formulations. If we restrict it to mubasshiraat (clear dreams) and deny kashf altogether, we are strengthening atheism and removing the most respectable argument – the argument from religious experience – from the kitty of religionists. Mubasshirat are an aspect of nubuwwat, and Sufis are defending willayat that epistemically grounds nubuwat as well.
Ghamdi is able to invoke only a handful of names as his predecessors and I doubt if he can cite (the Salafist cleric) Ibn Taymiyyah on his side as the latter talked about reforming Sufism and not Sufism per se. Let us not forget that there is virtually an ijma (consensus) over Unitarianism in one or the other version not only amongst Muslim Sufis but Ulama (Ask greats in Deobandis and Sunni Berelvi school, for instance). If we note that in non-Semitic traditions and in the mystical/metaphysical formulations of other Semitic traditions there is also this consensus your case (as does that of Ibn Taymiyyah) appears idiosyncratic to an extreme degree. Note also that we have little difficulty in reconciling what emerges as unanimous traditional (wujudi/shuhudi) doctrine of tawhid across traditions with traditional formulations of great scholastics/Ulama in last 1300 years. Even Ibn Taymiyah was initiated in a Sufi order and had disagreement with certain formulations of certain Sufis and wholeheartedly affirmed legacy of many great names of Sufism included Gowsul Azam Abdul Qadir Jeelani.
Ghamidi’s system has no room for key claims of even Gowsul Azam (R.A). Granting Ibn Taymiyyan criticism of ecstasy school, of wahdatul wujood as popularly (mis)understood in pantheistic terms and certain excesses in practice of zuhd and rather wild claims regarding their status in certain Sufis, one can assert that Ghamidi’s criticism of Sufism is wide off the mark that even mainstream Ulama can’t accept, not to speak of professional scholars of Sufism. One needs to compare Sufi interpretations of every Quranic verse with other commentaries and appreciate for oneself which captures the spirit and the deeper meanings better, and how wujudi tawhid is the best approximation to scriptural statements. I simply request consulting Sufi tafseers point by point to other more popular exoteric commentaries like that of Ibn Kaseer.
Occasionally we do find Sufi commentary farfetched but note that as half truth exoteric approach is only occasionally fully convincing. It is the inadequate or faulty metaphysical background that contributes a lot to controversies on either side of the debate. Metaphysics has its own set of terms to explicate scripture and without mastering them or engaging with them one can’t afford to reject countless volumes from the best minds of Islam. Ghamidi fails to explain why the best minds of Islam have been either Sufis or influenced by it. And we have not a single great scholar in the history of Islam who has rejected Sufi approach lock, stock and barrel. There have been critics of this or that practice associated with Sufism but not of spiritual-intellectual dimension of Islam. Even Ghamidi can be read as Sufi in his ethics and if we don’t grant his key premise that there is a real contradiction between the Quran and key Sufi doctrines, we can ignore his criticism as of minor difference in approach. We have countless volumes against this thesis of contradiction and one can’t refute them by citing passages that argue the case of relative autonomy of spiritual/intellectual approach. If the Quran is the criterion then the rights and testimonies of intellect or theonomous reason, the right use of which is a key message of it, are to be considered. And philosophers or Sufis simply ask for the same. The claim that Sufi drinks from the same fount from which prophets drink follows from the fact that it is theonomous reason or intellect that constitutes prophetic faculty that accesses the Unseen.
However it must be admitted that occultist mystifying anti-sha’ria narratives that have sometimes been confounded with Sufism are given a deathblow by Ghamidi. That is why he is to be read as a critic of Sufism. Much of conventional apologia for Sufism doesn’t stand his scrutiny. He forces advocates of Sufism to be sophisticated in their views. That Sufism is some secret story accessible to elite only, that occult powers have essential connection with spirituality, that Sufis can contravene or suspend prophetic authority, that soul-healing can become a business in its name, are all forcefully questioned by Ghamidi. Ghamidi succeeds in problematizing certain view of Sufism and not Sufism as such. Comparing Ghamidi-on-Sufism with Schuon-on-Sufism as I propose in future will help to show why Sufism as spiritual/intellectual aspect of Islam is irrefutable. It needs scholars of Schuon’s or Nasr’s calibre to explain Sufism in a way that resists Ghamidi’s critique and shows why nothing in Islam makes sense except in light of Sufism.
Understanding Sufism helps to marry philosophy and religion and answer key criticisms against religion. Sufism is nothing but perfection of virtue and what accompanies this. It is knowledge, gnosis. Gnosis can’t be refuted by those who don’t know it firsthand. If the Prophet invited us not just to be Muslim or Mumin but to be Mohsin as well we can’t refute Sufis in the name of Islam or Prophecy. We need to carefully read Ibn Taymiyyah on Sufism, point out if there is any misreading and then situate modern critics of Sufism who appropriate him to comprehend the issue in a perspective. Ghamdhi scores many points in his critique of khanqahi business but can’t dislodge the idea which such institutions seek to embody.