During his life, the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) prophesized that Islam will be divided into sects just as Judaism and Christianity did before it. Indeed this prophecy has come true with the prevalence of sects and deviant beliefs within the religion of Islam. One such sect is that of Sufism. Sufism began about three centuries after hijrah. Some believers began to engage in extra forms of worship and to deny the world around them through ascetic practices. At first these people were still considered Muslims, although what they were doing was an innovation. However, after time, a Sufi philosophy and practice began to develop that took those who practice it outside the religion of Islam into that of Kufar. Interestingly, there are many such extreme Sufi practices that have parallels in Christianity. These similarities show the extent to which the Sufis have deviated from the true religion sent by Allah and explained by the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH).
Both Sufism and Christianity are rooted in a mystical view of God and religion. This mystical view/experience of religion has the following characteristics (Armstrong, p.219). It is a subjective experience involving an interior journey of the soul towards God, rather than an objective experience involving facts. It is based on imagination rather than reason. Lastly, the experience is something deliberately created by the believer through physical and/or mental exercises; this experience does not come about by itself. The emphasis in a mystical approach is that of finding a "personal God", discovered through some interior journey involving meditation, imagination, chanting, dancing, music, to name but a few. Importantly, the messengers and prophets sent by Allah did not come with this mystical message, but rather that of a logical message appealing to reason and focusing on bringing the society as a whole back to the straight path. Although the reasons for the development of mysticism and how it came to deviate from that taught by the messengers are interesting in and of themselves, the focus of this discussion will concentrate on how Sufis and Christians have similar mystical worldviews, which demonstrates how they have left the true religion sent by Allah.
One point of commonality is that of God speaking directly to Christian and Sufi individuals. Christians believe that God speaks to them and guides them through the "Holy Spirit". The Holy Spirit is one part of a divine trinity, the other parts being God himself and Jesus. Each Christian believes that they can get to know God by knowing the Holy Spirit; this is done through prayer, meditation, and reflection. Some even believe that the Holy Spirit is manifest in each person as part of the divine as a result of Jesus dying on the cross to save and redeem humanity. The Holy Spirit can speak directly to people when they are awake or through dreams. One of the most infamous examples of this is the dream that Paul had where it was shown to him what is allowed and what is not allowed. Based on this dream, pigs became lawful for man to eat - even though Jesus himself never made pigs lawful! Catholics believe that the holy spirit speaks directly to the Pope and based on what the Pope receives, he can then make new laws for his followers. Those familiar with Christian culture will know that it is routine to hear Christians say, "the holy spirit spoke to me" or "the holy spirit guided me/ showed me what to do/ etc.". This amounts to each person having a direct line of communication from God to receive whatever insight or information or new revelation God wants to give him or her. This is reflected further in the popular culture as shown by the success of books where God speaks to people. The book "Conversations with God" (both Part 1 and Part 2) has been on the bestseller lists. In this book a man writes the conversations that he has with God and God's answers to his questions. Other "new age" books, such as The Celestine Prophecy, also on the bestseller list, describe how people receive insight and information through God speaking to them.
Sufis also believe that God speaks to them and reveals to them "special hidden knowledge" that is not known to others. This notion originates in the Sufi belief that Allah resides in their souls and that humans have divine qualities. Ibn Ataa Illaah said, "The entire being is darkness, however, it was lit by the manifestation of Truth in it" (As-Saleh, p89). This is exactly the same as the Christian idea of the human soul being illuminated and guided by the holy spirit. Sufis have written their own tafsir of the Quran in which they use taweel, which is uncovering the hidden meaning of words and passages that are not obvious from reading them. For example, Ibn Arabi interprets the verse "Allah has set a seal on their hearts and on their hearings" to mean that "They hear not except from Him (Allah) and understand not except from Him. They see not except by Him, and they neither turn to you nor to what you have because of what We have made and placed with them" (As-Saleh, p 169). Tbn Arabi implies that Allah has sealed the hearts and hearing of Sufis to all else except what Allah reveals to them directly through their meditation! Ibn Arabi believes that his tafsir was divinely inspired and written by way of Divine dictation and Allah putting the meaning in his heart (As-Saleh, p169). This verse actually refers to those who are disobedient to Allah and, as a punishment, Allah has sealed their hearing and hearts so that they cannot receive guidance from Him, and as a result, not go to Paradise.
Since there is a priority on individual communion with the Divine, directly through God or the Holy Spirit, the religion itself takes on a very individualistic tone. The overall focus is taken away from the society and community, and their relationship with God as a whole, to the individual's relationship with God. The mystical journey is a uniquely personal one, all dependent on the self. The Christian and Sufi prays, meditates, etc - they may even attend church or group meetings. However, the emphasis is always on the self and the responsibility to the society is removed or lessened significantly. This is in opposition to the overall purpose of Allah's religion, as Allah sent messengers and prophets to communities and nations - not individuals. Allah also punished whole nations and communities, like those of Lot, Noah, Shuaib, for their sins. Islam is a whole system, where the political, social, economic, etc. spheres of life are all mixed together and thus inseparable. The religion is not something each person does away from the society on his or her own, but is done through every action that the person takes. In Christianity there is little to no emphasis on the community and the community's relationship to God. Each concentrates on their own personal relationship with God, while the society suffers. For example, there is a passage in the Bible that states that Christians should not take interest; however all do. The mystical worldview is responsible for this by relativizing what each person believes because the focus switches to concentrate on one aspect of the religion, the personal. Each person can have their own system and beliefs based on whatever they feel God wants them to do, not what God says they should do - as delivered through a messenger or correctly preserved scripture. (Note the acceptance of homosexuality in Christian society.) This exactly describes the mystical experience where imagination, not reason is used. This individual tone of Sufism and Christianity is a consequence, intended or not, which separates people further from God, because they are not following the way Allah gave them.
Another parallel of Christianity and Sufism is that of a hierarchical structure to the religion. Christians have priests, pope, bishops, ministers, and other clergy members built into the religion hierarchy. The Sufis have shaikhs, leaders and wise men, etc. The mystical journey requires that one have a leader to guide them and teach them the mystical ways, which people are incapable of learning on their own. It should be noted that this is because the "founders" of these groups have set up the religion in such a perplexing way. The Trinity is not something easily understood because it just does not make sense and the Sufi taweel and hidden meanings, etc also do not make sense because their meanings have nothing to do with the obvious intended meaning. Both groups have such an affinity to their leaders that they follow them no matter what and go to the extreme in believing them. For example, the Catholic system was set up on the principle that the common person could not figure out their own religion and needed a priest to teach them and interpret for them what they should do. This is evidenced by the fact that their Bible was not translated into common languages until about 1500 AD, until that time it remained in Greek and Latin. Catholics still believe that a priest is necessary to teach the religion. Priests have given themselves a lot of power; for example they believe that they can forgive sins through confession. The Pope is considered infallible and is able to make new laws or change existing laws for the church and its followers. Sufis have an equally unique relationship with their sheikhs and leaders. The Sufis take their sheikhs to be infallible as well and do not question them. al-Bakree wrote that the student should, "Submit the affair to him and do not question. Even if he comes with something sinful if that be possible. Be in his presence like a dead person since I (the student) am with one washing me to remove the filth from me" (AI-Madkhalee, p23). Others say that a student should not disapprove of the deeds of a Sufi sheikh - even if it is forbidden, he should not marry his master's divorcee or one who his master likes, and that seeing a sheikh is the same as seeing Allah (as-Saleh, p122-123). Both groups go against what Allah has intended for them by following their leaders in such a way. One should seek a religious leader or scholar for advice and help, but no go so far as to accept that they can forgive sins or should be submitted to blindly. In the Quran it says that the Jews and Christians took their priests and rabbis as their god. This is a commentary on what the Christians already did and a warning, not heeded by future Sufis. It shows us that this type of hierarchy is not acceptable to Allah and not part of the religion.
Other similarities are numerous and will be mentioned briefly. The Christians and Sufis both use the same types of activities to reach a mystical state, such as: music, clapping, breathing and other physical exercises, singing, trances, poetry using mystical phrases and meanings, asceticism (not marrying, ignoring food, etc). In Sufism knowledge is made known only to the elite, as in Christianity it is known only to priests and other learned scholars. Annihilation (Sufi term) and ecstasy (Christian term), or becoming one with God, is another commonality. Sufis deny their utter existence until they believe that they have become one with Allah, "I am my Beloved and my Beloved is Me, I am the Lover and I am the Beloved, next to whom there is none." (as-Saleh, p.81). The Christian Maximus the Confessor said that, "The whole man should become God, deified by the grace of the God-become-man, becoming whole man, soul, and body, by nature and becoming whole god, soul and body, by grace" (Armstrong, p222). In this annihilation/ ecstasy concept, both refer to God in terms of Love, personalizing Him beyond all reason, and writing as if Allah Himself were their lover. Note the Sufi quote above and the writings of Saint Augustine. Sufis and Christians engage in grave and ancestor worship; they pray to them for guidance and ask for their intercession with Allah. Sufi sheikhs and Christian scholars and do-gooders can achieve the level of sainthood and can even perform miracles, and to whom people pray and ask for their intercession. Both groups share the notion of religious relativism, where all paths or religions leading to God are considered acceptable. Christians do believe that their path is the right one. However, their understanding and belief in their creed has become so weakened over time that many now believe that all religions lead to God. It is the attitude of "If it is good for you - it is ok with me - and leave me to do my thing".
Sufis believe that since God is everywhere and appears in everything, that all paths to God are acceptable. Ibn Arabee believes that all religions, even pagan, are really one (Al-Madhkalee, p31). All practices mentioned are against what Allah has taught us through messengers, prophets, and the Holy Quran. Singing, dancing, and asceticism are not acceptable forms of worship; Muslims learned the proper ways from the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). The message of Islam does not include annihilation or ecstasy; enshaAllah Muslims that are good will be in Paradise and meet Allah, but never become Him. Muslims are to love Allah and the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) more than themselves, but not to think of either in such extreme ways. Grave and ancestor worship are forms of shirk in Islam, because the only one worthy of our prayer is Allah. Muslims know that the only true path is Islam, as taught by the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH); all other religions are on the wrong path.
Such parallels between the Sufis and Christians show how similar the religions actually are and demonstrate how far they have strayed from the true religion of Islam. The discussion of mysticism and its resulting influence on both religions proves that this mystical experience is not a way that Allah wants us to worship Him. These mystical ways are currently so popular because of the moral relativism of today's popular culture and society and because it allows each person to do what they want. There is little concern about what they should do, as each person receives individual guidance from God. Those engaged in dawah should be very aware of the similarities mentioned in this article because Christians who convert could easily become Sufis. People like what they are comfortable and familiar with. Since Sufism has so many of the same elements as Christianity, it is very likely, that without proper guidance, that Christians would turn to Sufism. This is very bad, as that person is converting from one state of Kufar to another!
It is the responsibility of all in dawah and all Muslims to ensure that this does not happen. It is also our responsibility to be aware of the deviant sects of Islam so that we can safeguard ourselves from these practices.
- Al-Madkhalee, Shaykh Muhammad ibn Rabee' ibn Haadee. The Reality of Sufism in Light of the Quraan and Sunnah. 1995. Al-Hidaayah.
- Armstrong, Karen. A History of God. 1993. Alfred A. Knopf.
- As-Saleh, Saleh. From the Treasures of Ibnul Qayyam (1): A Chapter on The Dispraise of Al-Hawa (Desire),, appended with Warning; the Muslims Against Deviant Creeds and Methodologies. 1998. Daar Al-Bukhaaree.