Posted by: Dawud Israel | May 14, 2009

Age-Old Problems with Sufism

Bismillah, alhamdulillah wa salat wa salam ala Rasulullah.

From the little that I know, I have picked up on certain problems within Sufism. These problems have to do with the system and the Sufi tradition over time and are interesting to consider because they are obstacles we encounter in our journey to Allah. So overcoming and approaching them is important, even for a Muslim who isn’t a Sufi or a murid since they are problems all Muslims face in one form or another.

1) There has always been the classical problem: what should a murshid (Sufi shaykh) do with a murid (disciple) who isn’t progressing or is inept? If the disciple cannot and does not progress, what can be done?

2) Related to the above is that Sufi shuyookh, would be burdened with a lot of disciples to keep track of. In fact, from what I have heard is many murids are simply children of rich families, are spoiled or failed at everything else, or are disabled in some way or another so were sent towards the religious path. This is seen as a “last resort” and not a first option unfortunately. I hope I am not the only one who has noticed this, not just among Sufis but religious folk in general.

3) Fame is such a problematic temptation to the nafs (lower soul) and yet, most of these shuyookh would become famous at one point or another. There are massive personality cults surrounding these shuyookh now and it’s compounded now with the Internet and technology. And so here it the problem: Are they still awliya if they are famous or have they succumbed to fame?

4) And from the above, it’s the obvious question: How do you know who is a real wali of Allah and who isn’t? Really, any Muslim could be. There is a saying, “Every stranger is Khidr” and this is really true. On the same token there are always fake Sufis or individuals who aren’t genuine perfect awliya…so from what can you judge a person’s faith? It may be a murid surpasses his shaykh and thinks himself to be better than the shaykh, but in the end the shaykh is better and knows how to hide his spiritual strength. In cases where the shaykh is a total and complete fraud, I have read from one Sufi, since Allah is the One Who Guides, He will take this fake shaykh and transform him and make him genuine so he is able to guide people. I am apt to think, consider Allah’s Power and Majesty this is extremely possible.

These “problems” can be dealt with in many different ways. What is important to realize is despite these problems, Sufism has continued. Perhaps then, “obstacles” is a better word…only meant for those ready to overcome them.

I would end on a story my father told me. He was on a train somewhere in India and the other person he shared his train carriage with looked like a mullah to him with his big beard. So my father and him started talking and eventually the man told my father he was a Sufi shaykh and was traveling to a village where he would meet with his murids. He visited them a few times throughout the year for guidance. The one thing this shaykh said was he does enjoy the fact they respect him and treat him well, and this made me think this man was a fake…but my father continued. He would go and renew their baiyah (pledge) and make sure his murids were upon the deen- the basic 5 prayers and a few dhikrs. The man may not be one of Allah’s bonafide Walis but he most certainly was doing the work of Allah. If these villagers were going to be coming closer to Allah then what is the harm?

This is important to understand, because Sufism is more closely associated with lore of men flying through the air, and performing all sorts of miraculous feats, but Sufism now does not always require all this. In fact, people may call it Sufism, but its really just Islam- the shaykh and the murids share a unique relationship, but the Islamic tarbiyah (purification) isn’t anything uniquely Sufi. This Indian shaykh is just touching the basics. This is why it is important to understand to be content with one’s shaykh- just as we are content with Allah blessing us with food and water, we should be content with the guidance we are getting from Him and give it the due value it deserve. Remember the kuffar were not content with the Prophets but demanded angels come down to speak to them and this is why they were destroyed! Instead, of going wild searching for only the best awliya (how would we deduce this anyways? on what basis?) and not working on our nafs until we meet a bonafide miracle-worker, we should be content with the guidance Allah sends to us…because then perhaps He may lead us to men who are closer to Him. Just as we follow the example of the Sahabas in order to reach the example of the Prophet salallahu alayhi wasalam, we should work with what Allah sends us, as a manifestation of His Will, so we can achieve what He ultimately desires of us.

Trusting in Allah (tawakkul) seems to be the best answer to all of these problems.

Subhana kallahumma wa bihamdika ash-haduana la illaha illa ant astaghfiruka wa atubu ilayk, Ameen.


  1. Asalaam Alaikum

    #1. There are no inept students. Only inept teachers. Insan e kamil is a universal person who can inspire any personal level, A-Z. A great Sufi Shaykh in history, like Shaykh Najmeddin Kubra, who probably had hundreds or maybe even thousands of murids only brought a dozen or so to a high level of perfect and he is considered to be one of the most successful Sufi Shaykhs. But the benefit to the others in how to live a good life, attain wisdom, lessen the ego and false self, become humane and a good muslim member of society is undeniable. This should not be considered a problem. There are Sufi Shaykhs and there are Shaykhs who wish to be Sufi.

    2. Same issue. Shaykhs (shuyookh) who take on too many disciples are not under the command of Allah. If you say to a true Sufi Shaykh, “Allah has spoken to me and placed me at your feet as a murid.” The Shaykh should reply, “Now we must wait to see if Allah also speaks to me and asks me to accept you.” This decision is out of the Shaykh’s hands.

    3. Same problem. Quality of the Shaykh. Are they under the command of Allah or their ego? A bad teacher and followers attract each other like birds of a feather. Ruzbihan Bagli addressed this. Read his account. It is instructive.

    4. None of your problems are problems of Sufism. They are short comings of human beings. Sufism cannot change the general failings and weaknesses of humanity. The Holy Prophet (s) said, “I am a man like you…” and showed humanity it was possible for a human being to shed their weaknesses and attain Divine Qualities. Every individual can follow the Path to their capacity, small or large, freely and without the burden being placed on another. How does a person know the real Khezr from the fake? By having a honest and truthful heart. Truth knows truth as deceptions leads to deception. This is why similar people attract.

    Be truthful so that you will see truth.

  2. I don’t want to pretend like I know anything, but with the exception of too many murids, all of these “obstacles” might be considered necessary for the path of the seeker.

    I think we can find from many stories that part of the deen is going through an ordeal to find spiritual guidance in the form of a teacher. If we look at the story of Salman al Farisi Radhiullahu Anhu, we will find that he went through many hardships to find a spiritual guide. He sacrificed his relationship with his father, he became a slave, he sacrificed his wealth, and spent years under the guidance of different Christians, some of who were corrupt.

    And after going through all of that it was then that he found the Prophet Sallallahualayhi wassalam. IMO, these aren’t really “problems” with tassawuf, they are milestones that most must go through in order to find the truth, and to become strong and steadfast in the deen.

    It’s that “beautiful struggle” that purifies the heart and makes it ready for the path of tassawuf.

    Very good article.

  3. Have you found an answer to these obstacles I am curious to know or hear more from you

  4. Seeker2008:

    If a person is sincere in their wanting guidance- and keeps trying their best in turning to Allah and following the religion- then in my view, at some point, Allah will indeed reward him and guide him. Ahmad Zarruq said there are 2000 definitions of Tasawwuf, and the one thing they all have in common is ikhlas- sincerity- because even if one has a shaykh- they still need to be very sincere in order to progress. Sufis will mention it all depends on the shaykh- this is too superficial an answer, it all depends on your haal (condition and relationship) with Allah.

    I have no shaykh, it would help if I did, but even without a shaykh- one can make progress. There is no denying that. We just need to look at the Sunnah- be content with that, and Allah will guide us. Least of all, you have the historical example of pious Muslims who encountered Khidr and he gave them guidance- so there is at least one bonafide murshid out there that Allah can send your way if you are sincere.

  5. Excellent piece Dawud. In our day, many Murshids go around collecting Mureeds while the Mureeds feel satisfied that somehow they will be saved by mere bayah without putting in any effort themselves.

  6. Bismillah,

    Salaam ‘alaikum,

    I’m not qualified to talk about this subject, but I can say that I’ve not seen anyone progress more quickly with more steadfastness than those who keep company with people who are better than them.
    Perhaps this is because Islam is a communal endeavour or perhaps it’s simply in our nature (fitra) to recognize the good in others and emulate it. Or maybe it’s something else.
    But regardless, it works. And at the end of the day that’s what we are all looking for- an effective means of drawing nearer to Allah.

  7. Fair enough Ilyas.

    Thanks for your comment.
    Wa aleikum salam

  8. This was a very great blog post. It brought a lot to my mind of past struggles. There were manycases where seeking itself was a barrier to finding.

    Sometimes myself I am still at a loss as to what I feel and believe is true sincerity is in fat sincerity in the eyes of God. The Human comprehension, cannot be said to exist in in the presence of God’s omniscience. To me that fact has been quite beautiful, it is the perfect set up for surrender.

    I remember some point in my search I kept arriving back at the same point. LIke Green child hints to, a lot has to be willing given up. In my head whenever i think of willfullly giving of one’s self I remember Majnun willfuly cutting off strips of flesh because Layla said that would be the sign or proof of his love.

    As you can see I tend to talk on a lot without prompting. I will end my plethora of words with 2 quotes.

    One from Hafez: In love’s domain, do not take even one step without a guide. For on this road, one who has no guide will lose the way for sure.

    The other from a source I cannot find but is written in my notebook: If anyone wishes to enter your domain O bewitching source of my torment, The first step is made by sacrificing one’s head.

    Nite nite


  9. Sufism has been made more complicated than it actually is.

  10. Dear author.
    I met 2 times fake sufis as i suspect. May Allah forgive me if i am mistaken. But fake sufis is more evil than not proper educated imam. As they close doors to Allah for people really in love and admiration. So decision of it i see only in reveiling their lie by natural sufi. In this aspect no one thinks about islam. Yes time of Fitna is opened after Umar. As he was just. We dont need pure ones we need just ones sufi. Pure is for yourself just is like guider from wolves. We have will. 1 so called sufi on my question replyed Give me picture of your man.. hahaha… tarikat in big corruption and sufis left us to deal ourself.
    Yes islam is really going to end.

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