Writing on Sufism, an Islamic mysticism and spiritualism, is very difficult. Here is a field that is widely misunderstood by two factions, one with weapon of mass destruction to see the end of the personal struggle and the other with an iron shield defending what he doesn’t understand. The former castigates sufists for the actions of pseudo-sufists, the later uses the shield of saints to defend every stupid and un-Islamic practices in the name of sufism.
The language of mystics is too deep, poetic, symbolic and vague, that, in a world seeing a fast rate of secularisation of everything, people, literalists in particular, with anthropocentric view of world can hardly understand. I can only describe what the sufism is, not what really it is, so that with the advent of these “pseudo-sufists” (known as “Yan hakika”), one shall not contaminate the flow of pure water of the Islamic mysticism.
Sufism, just like Philosophy, is for elites in religious circle. Aristotle said that we should not teach Philosophy to a student in his twenties, the ages he considered as tumultuous and turbulent that may produce zealots, similar to what psychologists describe the attitudes of a teenager. The irony here is I start learning Philosophy and Sufism in my teens! Rumi advised that no student of sufism (murid), at lower level, should be taught the art of mysticism.
Not only sufists and philosophers, theologians also take their field as elitist. Imamul Haramain, Abu Hamidil Gazzhali, Moses Maimonides and later Thomas Aquinas, warned that, unless necessary like in refuting atheists, skeptics and agnostics, teaching Theology to general public will add to their confusion. This knowledge is for elites in the religious circle. A primary school pupil can not understand rocket science.
Sufism is the last stage in the hierarchy of Islamic thought. Perhaps this is the reason many medieval Islamic philosophers turned to sufism at the end of their life, discarding philosophy and rationalism (in the case of Gazzhali) or combining them (in the case of Avicenna). We can find this in the Gazzhali’s “Almunqidh Minad Dhalal” (Deliverance from Error), Ibn Sina’s works, especially on Aristotleanism and Neoplatonism, and Suhrawardi’s Ishraqi philosophy, among others. The practice of mysticism requires that you should be intellectually(?), morally and spiritually sound to understand its terminologies. It is purely subjective experience with liberal understanding of religion.
A novice in the art of sufism is required to go to a master to train him, otherwise he’ll be lost. Among the Jewish mystics of Kabbala, one is required to live and devote his life to a rabbi that can take him to ascension. Similar to the Christian and the Buddhist mysticism, Sufism is a way of talking to God through silence. The highest form of worship is in silence as God can not be understood even with parables. To the mystics, God is “Everything” and “Nothing” (N and E capitalised), in the sense that His manifestations can be seen in everything, but nothing is like God. The meaning of “Nothing” and “Everything” should not be taken literally as anti-sufists and pseudo-sufists take, it is symbolic expression of silence.
Sufism is not a sect in Islam like Mu’utazilism, Shiism or Sunnism. Sufists can be found in all the sects of Islam and sometimes similar spiritualism can be found in some religions like Hinduism and Zoroasterianism. To the sufists, Truth is universal and there is a form of unification of Truth in all the religions of God. Even those who attacked sufism, like Ibn Taimiyya, sometimes refer back to mysticism. You can find this in the works of his students like Ibn Qayyem Aljauziyya. Ibn Taimiyya was adherent of Qadiriyya sufi order and, from what I could understand, his writings on Sufism (though transgressed) was against pseudo-sufists similar to the Batinis (sufists from Ismai’ili-Shi’i-Sevener Isamic sect) that Abu Hamidil Gazzhali fought, intellectually, in his writings – similar to the people that are known as “Yan hakika” in contemporary Nigeria.
Sufists, Pseduo-sufists included, contrary to the fears of some policymakers, are not violent. They think religion is personal struggle. The philosophy of relativism is central to the practice of Sufism – it is subjective experience. Sufists are known as peaceful everywhere in the world. However, I’m not saying that some sufists, albeit in small scale, are not violent at all. There are sufists with different identities. Someone can be peaceful sufi in a mosque and violent jihadi with the feeling of the ummah being oppressed outside it. Someone can give fatwas of war using Hanbali school of jurisprudence in the circle of his students and be devout sufi when in isolation. But most of the sufists are peaceful with the thinking that lesser Jihad (taking arms) is not for everyone. The greatest Jihad is personal struggle, for everyone.
Violence may arise when followers of Tijjaniyya and Qadiriyya sufi order, salafi or Izala sect start attacking the pseudo-sufists, that are considered heretics, with arms instead of refuting them verbally. This, I believe, will force them to retaliate with arms and thereby leading to sectarian clash.
Nigeria is a secular country, though not irreligious. To maintain peace in a country that is volatile, I think government should not help one sect over another in any cosmic war. What the government should do is to punish whoever insult particular religious figure (as the “yan hakika” do) by arresting him and letting the court of law decide his verdict. No any religious zealot from any sect should be allowed to be above law or take it in his hands.