Should you follow a tariqa?
Many people find the idea of their spiritual journey being fast-tracked by joining a tariqa (Sufi path) appealing.
They think that their connection with Allah will be strengthened, and accelerated and that showing obedience to their shaykh, who is already well-advanced on that journey, will be the shortcut to Jannah.
The most renowned Sufi shaykh of his time, Ibn ‘Abbad an-Nafzi (d.792 AH) was asked by Imam Abu Ishaq Shatibi (d.790 AH), the great classical scholar, whether it is necessary to have a shaykh of tariqa to tread the path to Allah. It was a debate which filled the social media airways of the time.[i]
Ibn Abbad the Sufi shaykh answered that it is not necessary for everyone to follow a Sufi shaykh or join a tariqa, and he elaborated on the two types of shaykh and the two types of student, as follows.
Types of shaykh
There are two types of shaykh:1- those who impart knowledge and 2- those, who in addition to imparting knowledge, practice tarbiya. Tarbiya is when someone nurtures and moulds you to improve your character.
Shaykh Abdul Fattah Abu Ghudda (d. 1997) in his introduction to Imam al Muhasibi’s (d. 243 AH) Risalaat al Mustarshideen summed up what Shaykh Ibn ‘Abbad rahimahullah said:
Shaykhs to whom you refer in matters of suluk (treading the spiritual path) are of two types: a shaykh who imparts knowledge and also tarbiyah, and a shaykh at-ta’lim who imparts knowledge without imparting tarbiyah. A shaykh of tarbiyah is not necessary for every salik. A person who is mentally foolish and has a refractory soul needs such a shaykh. As for that person who has sufficient intelligence and an obedient soul, it is not necessary for him to have such a shaykh. But it is preferable for him to do so. As for the shaykh who imparts knowledge alone, he is needed by every salik.
A person seeking to travel the spiritual path is called a salik and is known as murid when he becomes a disciple to one particular spiritual teacher (murshid) or a Sufi master.
Therefore the righteousness of the soul does not depend on being confined to a single shaykh or pledging allegiance (giving bay’ah) to him. One can improve the status of one’s soul by seeking knowledge of the Quran and the Sunnah and the way of the pious predecessors with sincerity and then applying it practically in his life.
Ibn ‘Abbad expounded to Imam Shatitbi that relying on the shaykh at-tarbiya is the way of the latter day Sufi imams while relying on a shaykh at-ta’lim is the way of the early Sufi imams.
Following a tariqa is not the same as following the shariah
It is very important to be clear that there is distinction between following a tariqa and following the shariah. They are not the same thing, and one must not confuse the two, as that could lead to disastrous consequences. Rather if one joins a tariqa, one must be vigilant that one’s practices are in line with the shariah, as not all tariqa’s necessarily follow it. The shariah is the foundation on which true tariqa is built.
Do not assume that by being in a tariqa everything you are told is automatically correct, particularly if you are told that you must park your reason and follow blindly.
Any tariqa which requires blind obedience to its shaykh is problematic, as Islam does not ask you to suspend your thinking, instead it encourages it. This does not mean that you can penetrate all knowledge with your own intellect, as you will certainly need guidance from those more knowledgeable than you, however it means that you should not delegate all your decisions to someone else.
You are not permitted to obey when a command is wrong
Ali (may Allah be pleased with him) narrated that the Prophet (peace be on him) sent a troop under the command of a man from the Ansar and ordered the soldiers to obey him. He (i.e. the commander) became angry and said “Didn’t the Prophet (peace be on him) order you to obey me!” They replied, “Yes.” He said, “Collect fire-wood for me.” So they collected it. He said, “Make a fire.” When they made it, he said, “Enter it (i.e. the fire).” So they intended to do that and started holding each other and saying, “We run towards (i.e. take refuge with) the Prophet (peace be on him) from the fire.” They kept on saying that till the fire was extinguished and the anger of the commander abated. When that news reached the Prophet (peace be on him) he said, “If they had entered it (i.e. the fire), they would not have come out of it till the Day of Resurrection. Obedience (to somebody) is required when he enjoins what is good.” (Bukhari)
There is no doubt that Islam has been passed down to us from the chests of scholars. However, at no point were we told to obey our shaykh 100%. Rather we have been told to obey Allah and His Messenger (peace be on him).
Even the first caliph, Abu Bakr did not demand blind following. Anas ibn Malik said:
“When the people pledged allegiance to Abu Bakr in As-Saqeefah, the next day, Abu Bakr stood on the pulpit, praised Allah and said: ‘O people I have been appointed over you, though I am not the best among you. If I do good, then help me; and if I act wrongly, then correct me. (Ibn Hisham in his Sirah and Ibn Katheer, good narration).
Seeking knowledge is incumbent on all Muslims
The shariah is guidance on what is lawful and what is not. It is clearly stated in the Quran and demonstrated in the sunnah. It is incumbent on every Muslim to have this knowledge, to be aware of the dos and don’ts.
The first revelation was (Iqra’ read), it’s an obligation to learn. So our religion is based on knowledge from day one.
Anas bin Malik (may Allah be pleased with him) reported that Allah’s Messenger (peace be on him said:
“Seeking knowledge is an obligation on every Muslim”. (Ibn Majah).
When one does not have much knowledge, it is easy to confuse being in a tariqa with knowing the shariah. However, a tariqa is means of spirituality, purification and Tazkiya. If one is not aware of what is permissible and what is not permissible in Islam, then one is vulnerable to being exploited and manipulated or even groomed while being under the impression that one is serving Allah by being in a tariqa.
Reputable shuyukh and tariqas would not accept murids who lacked basic knowledge until they had mastered essential knowledge, only then would they be given a daily wird (dhikr).
Of course not all tariqas exploit their followers, but any tariqa which tells its murids (followers) that they will be expelled if they do not follow a certain code of practice, which is above and beyond the shariah, is dangling a red flag to anyone joining.
Beware of odd rituals
Proper Sufism is a means of purifying yourself (tazkiya) and gaining closeness to Allah (ihsaan). Allah Almighty refers to the concept of tazkiya and ihsaan in the Quran and in the sunnah. This is the core of the shariah.
While we have to strive to purify ourselves and gain closeness to Allah, we have to do in the way that is from the sunnah, not through practices such as spinning, dancing, chanting in an unbecoming fashion, or going into a trance which are bizarre and should not be promoted. Anyone could say ‘I am gaining closeness to Allah by standing on my head’ but this would be ridiculous and we have to protect the dignity of our deen by not promoting quirky actions under the banner of mystical union.
Unfortunately, while proper Sufism focuses on introspection and self-improvement and brings people closer to Allah by improving their state, eccentric practices by certain Sufi sects have tarnished its reputation.
Beware of spurious claims
Moreover, tariqas which make claims that their shuyukh have special powers and can do things or will be able to enable you to have special powers or have sudden advancement in your spiritual journey are not reflecting real tassawuf (spirituality).
While we undeniably believe in the mu’jizat (miracles) of the anbiya (prophets) and know that those close to Allah Almighty (awliya’) have been given karamat (special gifts) which can defy the law of nature, it is suspicious for anyone to claim they have special powers, as the nature of the true awliya is to conceal themselves, not to draw attention to their identity or their gifts. If they do this, or others around them claim this about them publicly, one should be on their guard.
In some tariqas women have to wear their hijab all day long in their homes, because the shaykh has told them he can see them inside their homes! This would make anyone paranoid and feel stalked.
Excessive obedience to a shaykh
The basic premise of pledging allegiance to the shaykh is good on the surface, because you being held to account and say that you are agreeing to do what is good and refrain from what is haram.
However when you surrender yourself to the shaykh, this can open you to abuse. This is a very important point in an age where wolves in human form abound, and robbers lurk on the spiritual highways.
While one must have respect for one’s shaykh, a shaykh should not come between you and your family and should not put himself above your parents. Nor should he come between couples, or suggest that women leave their husbands to marry him.
Moreover, while the companions used to come to the Prophet (peace be on him) to do tahneek (putting the sweetness of the dates in the baby’s mouth) for their baby, and he named many babies, they did not go to the extreme of leaving their babies without names for two months because he was not there to name them. Yet some Sufi murids do not name their new born child until their shaykh gives the name, which may take some weeks if they are travelling. This is going beyond the sunnah.
With power comes responsibility, and sadly, while some tariqas have been established with sincere intentions, their shuyukh are treated with so much adulation, that they can become corrupted by their position and end up with a narcissistic streak, or domination syndrome.
Some shuyukh feel the need to control everyone. They delete the student’s personality and character. They are just summed up in him.
He becomes the supreme leader and the faith becomes the deen of the shaykh, rather than the deen of Islam, where he is consulted before taking all major decisions, such as marrying or taking a job, on the premise that he knows best.
This leads to micromanagement of people’s personal affairs and excessive control. Yet, the shaykh himself is not held accountable to anyone, as there is no shurah (consultation).
This can lead to narcissism and egotism, as the shaykh is considered to be beyond criticism. Yet, in reality, rarely is he an expert in all fields, though he is portrayed by those under him as infallible. He may not be fit to give advice on all matters, but is nevertheless consulted, such as on parenting when he does not have children.
When there are problems within the tariqa, in order to downplay them, those in authority brush them under the carpet and may coerce followers psychologically and emotionally into adopting their alternative narrative.
When someone is dissatisfied, wants to raise concerns or wants to leave, they are made to feel they are betraying their tariqa and led to believe that they will be doomed, so they feel scared.
Some shuyukh tell their murids that even if their close friend leaves the tariqa they must no longer associate with them. This creates more fear among those who are in the tariqa and creates a great deal of pain for those who leave as they are immediately cut off from all those they were close to.
Such behaviour spoils the reputation of genuine Sufis, whom we respect and who have left very good literature and practices that we have benefitted from.
Narrowing of Islam
Often in a tariqa, one particular view is repeated until it blots out all other opinions, even when that view is harsher or more strict than other permissible views, as it is considered ‘the loftier of the two’ (azima). For instance, they may not allow combining prayers, which is a rukhsa (ease) given to the traveller.
Unfortunately, the tariqa preys on their followers’ desire for closeness to Allah. Many people, who are intelligent and educated, follow these leaders or shuyukh because they are filling a spiritual gap, and become brain washed.
They are told this eliminates your ego, so they should follow wholeheartedly, and dispense with their own judgment. The shaykh determines what his students are permitted to read or watch or listen to.
They have to follow their shaykh no matter what and they are not allowed to question anything otherwise they are labelled a rebel or Salafi.
They have to say: ‘sami’na wa ata’na’ (we hear and we obey) as if he is the Prophet (peace be on him).
There is a common statement in Sufi tariqas: ‘al muridu bayna yaday shaykhihi kal mayt bayna yaday mughasilihi’, which means:
In the hands of his shaykh, the murid is like a dead person is in the hands of the one who washes him (in preparation for burial)’; the washer turns him left or right – he has no say.
Another rule is la ta’tarid fa tantarid:
Don’t object to anything otherwise you will be expelled.
Essentially this is an attitude of ‘my way or the highway’ which does not fit the breadth and flexibility in Islam, which allows multiple view points to co-exist on a variety of issues without being wrong.
This shows how in the hands of ignorant people, Sufism has become a ruin, a wreck, a shadow of its former self.
The signs of a good shaykh vs a fake shaykh
In Knowledge and Wisdom, Imam ‘Abdullah bin ‘Alawi al-Haddad (d.1720) described the 4 types of people upon whose virtue and righteousness the proper working of the world depends.
The men of the world are four. And on their righteousness and integrity revolves the righteousness and integrity of the world.
(The first) is an upright worshipper, ascetic, detached, with complete knowledge of God Almighty, and a strong insight into religion.
(The second) is a scholar of shariah, well-established in knowledge of the Qur’an and sunnah, who acts according to his knowledge, teaches people and advises them, enjoins what is right and forbids what is wrong.
(And the third) is a just ruler, fair, of good character, with a good heart, and good leader.
(And the fourth) is someone rich and righteous, who has good and ample wealth that he spends on charitable causes, and from it he consoles the weak and the needy, and he fulfils the needs of the needy. He neither withholds the money, nor does he collect it except for those purposes, and for what it means of good deeds and honours.
And opposite each of these four is a man who looks like him without having his meaning and reality.
Opposed to the righteous man of worship is the confused deceitful Sufi, opposed to the scholar who practices what he knows is the depraved compromising sholar; opposed to the just ruler is the tyrant of iniquitous conduct, whose policies and management are evil and unjust; and opposed to the wealthy man of virtue is the inequitable rich man who accumulates wealth illicitly, witholding it when it should be spent and spending it when he should not.
The latter four (kinds) are the cause of the world’s corrupting and instability, the confusion of people’s affairs, and their abandoning of the right ways.
Imam al-Junayd al-Baghdadi (d. 297 AH) said: Our path is restricted by the Qur’an and the Sunnah, so whoever does not memorize the Qur’an, does not write hadiths, and does not understand Fiqh, cannot be followed.
Shaykh Imam Abu al-Hasan al-Shadhili (d. 656 AH) said: Whoever calls to Allah Almighty other than what the Messenger of Allah, may God bless him and grant him peace, called he is an imposter.
Al-Arif Al-Sha’rani (d. 973 AH): In the introduction to the Tabaqat said: the consensus of the scholars of Tasawwuf is that it is not suitable for leadership in the path of Allah Almighty except for those who delve into the knowledge of shariah.
Intolerant attitude towards questions
Any teacher who discourages questions should make you concerned. Learning does not happen by passively, by osmosis; it is a process of active engagement. Intellectual enquiry is necessary for knowledge and understanding to grow. If you are being told to shut down the faculty which makes you reason there is serious problem.
Of course adab (good manners) particularly with one’s teachers is important, however in some tariqa’s this is taken too far, and students are told they must not ask questions because it is rude, wastes time, disturbs others and shows that they did not pay attention when listening in the first place.
In one tariqa students were told not to burden their shaykh with details of their problems, because he would recite Fatihah to resolve them so it would be a waste of time to hear what they had to say in the first place.
In other tariqas, some shuyukh ask their students to confess their sins to them. This is not from the Quran or sunnah. Your sins are between you and Allah. You have been commanded to veil your sins, and telling them all to someone regularly is giving them power over you as well as the means to control or blackmail you.
If anyone encourages you directly or indirectly to make financial contributions to the shaykh, you must be careful that you are not being exploited.
Murids often have to make huge sacrifices in service of their shaykh, and to be close to their shaykh. They will uproot their lives to be close to their shaykh. However this may cause so much hardship, that they end up leaving the tariqa or Islam altogether.
Any Shaykh or member of tariqa who suggests to a woman, particularly a married woman, that she should marry him in order to advance her spiritual journey is an abuse of the trust placed in him and his position of responsibility.
To ask a married woman to leave her husband is breaking the shariah. Allah Almighty stated clearly in the Quran:
Also ˹forbidden (to you) are married women. (4:24)
Abu Huraira reported God’s Messenger (peace be on him) as saying:
وَعَنْ أَبِي هُرَيْرَةَ قَالَ: قَالَ رَسُولُ اللَّهِ صَلَّى اللَّهُ عَلَيْهِ وَسَلَّمَ: «لَيْسَ مِنَّا مَنْ خَبَّبَ امْرَأَةً عَلَى زَوْجِهَا أَوْ عَبْدًا عَلَى سَيّده» . رَوَاهُ أَبُو دَاوُد
“He who makes a wife disaffected towards her husband or a slave towards his master is not one of us.” (Abu Dawud)
Some shuyukh abuse the bay’ah by taking three or four wives from their followers. It is very easy when you are in a position of authority to abuse this position, and there are plenty of temptations.
There is a clear sign that something is wrong when a tariqa causes separation between children and parents or between husband and wife, or relatives and when the person on the tariqa thinks that anyone not on the tariqa is misguided.
If people do not invite their family to their children’s wedding because they are not on the tariqa, they are putting the tariqa and their shaykh above the blood ties which Allah holds sacred.
Once a wedge has been driven between families and spouses it causes a ripple of pain through them and the impact is wide ranging. It can be devastating for marriages and recovery can take years, if at all.
Jabir reported Allah’s Messenger ( peace be upon him) as saying:
“Iblis sets his throne on the water, then sends forth his detachments to tempt mankind, the one who is nearest him in station being the one who can cause the severest temptation. One of them comes and says, ‘I have done such and such,’ but he replies, ‘You have done nothing.’ Then one of them comes and says; ‘I did not leave him till I separated him from his wife.’ He then brings him near to himself saying, ‘What a fine fellow you are!’ ” A’mash said he thought he said, “Then he embraces him.” (Muslim)
Psychological abuse under the guise of breaking the nafs
Another thing that can happen is that followers become stifled and broken as they are put down while being told they should be grateful for everything the shaykh is doing for them. If they experience trauma it is downplayed and their hurt is not acknowledged.
Where does the concept of taking bay’ah come from?
Many tariqas require their followers to take a pledge (bay’ah) of allegiance to their shaykh.
The tradition of bayʿah can be traced back to the oath of allegiance that the Prophet Muhammad (peace be on him) took from people and tribes, by reciting the basic statement of the faith expressing his faith in the oneness of God and the prophethood of Muhammad (peace be on him) which showed their willingness to follow and obey him. The wordings of the oath differ in different traditions.
According to the sunnah of the Prophet (peace be on him), the oath was taken from men, as a group, or as individuals; from women, as a group or as individuals. Ubada ibn as Samit (may Allah be pleased with him) narrated that the Prophet (peace be on him) said:
‘Give me your pledge and oath not to associate anything with Allah, not to steal, not to commit adultery, not to kill your children, not to backbite, not to fall into sin; and who keeps his promise, then his reward is from Allah, Almighty and Exalted.’ And then we gave our pledge to the Prophet (peace be on him) and our oath.” (Bukhari and Muslim)
However, as many tariqas are focused purely on tassawwuf (the purification of the soul), consequently the rest of the deen is marginalised. Many shuyukh focus a great deal on the doctrine of the tariqa and the teachings of their imams, rather than the basics sunnahs, or mainstream Islam.
Having a community
Having a group or community around you is good as it strengthens your faith and helps you stay on the right path because you are in good company. Your friends can remind you, and you may do dhikr as long your actions are in line with shariah.
However this becomes problematic when you stop mixing with people outside your community, and if your dhikr involves dubious practices like jumping. Then there is something very wrong. Many of these practices which take place in some tariqas are based on fabricated hadith, which have no basis in Islam or the sunnah of the Prophet (peace be on him).
In order to reach Jannah, you need to seek knowledge, and practice with real understanding. There is nothing in the Quran or hadith to indicate you have to belong to a particular group in order to take a path closer to Allah. It is a core principle of Islam that we should be with the jama’ah (majority).
Ironically, subscribing to a tariqa can lead to isolation, narrowing down your experience of Islam and your exposure to only those who are on the same path, with a perception that you are the saved sect.
Once in the tariqa it is easy to become disconnected from those who are not in the tariqa, even though they may be close family members. When family members leave the tariqa, they are shunned.
This ‘us and them’ mentality becomes cultish. It means that they are not able to deal with and live in the real world.
Children brought up in a bubble, out of touch with reality
In order to keep children in the tariqa they are kept in a vacuum and often the teaching methods used for them are out of date and are no longer acceptable, having been displaced by better methods.
They can end up in their teens without a proper education in a no man’s land.
It would be better to equip them to deal with living in the real world with all its challenges and temptations, than placing them in an artificial bubble.
Ibn ‘Umar (may Allah be pleased with him) reported that the Prophet (peace be on him) said:
“The believer who mixes with people and endures their annoyance is better than the person who neither mixes with people nor endures their annoyance.” (Al-Adab al-Mufrad by Bukhari and Ibn Majah)
Islam is neither Sufi nor salafi extreme
The bad practices of certain Sufis do not make all Sufism bad. Sufism is a part of Islam ( if we understood it as Ihsān) but not all of it. The whole region of Shaam, Egypt, Iraq has been traditionally dominated by Sufis for centuries.
Indeed, I lived with Sufi’s while I was learning the deen; all my shuyukh were Sufis and I make dua for them in every salah. Most importantly, they were moderate and their practices were in line with shariah. They had good knowledge and good characters. They never advocated practices that were outside the shariah.
I don’t disagree with the concept as long as it is in line with the shariah. However many of those who came into this later abused their power.
The Salafis and the Sufis meet where they both respect and follow to the letter the Quran and sunnah, and where the Sufis partake of the Salafis precision in scholarship and determination to stick to Kitab and Sunnah, and the Salafis partake of the Sufis turning towards Allah and away from this world with their whole being (in a realistic way that doesn’t cause harm to their families and their society). The problem with the extremists on both sides is that they “throw the baby out with the bath water”, i.e. they deny not just the other side’s extremes, but their whole practice.
Inspiring Sufi predecessors
I do not wish to attack Sufism, many Sufi imams used to be great Mujahids who defended their countries, for instance Imam Sanusi from Al Maghrib, and they fought enemies on the ground.
This is what real Sufism is all about: action and protection of the deen and its power. It’s not about abusing this power and controlling women, controlling the murid’s money and building mansions from their donations.
Being at either extreme is wrong; Islam is in the middle.
Whether you are Sufi or not, your beliefs and actions MUST be in line with the shariah. If any shaykh or Sufi tariqa commands you or recommends that you do something that is against the shariah, it is against Islam. No matter who they are, what their credentials are or what they claim about themselves, you are not permitted to go against the grain of your faith or the tenets of your faith.
May Allah Almighty make our actions and intentions purely for His sake and forgive us our shortcomings and make us from amongst those whom He loves. Ameen
Shaykh Haytham Tamim
[i] Reference: Risalat al Mustarshideen by Imam al Muhasibi. (The Sunnah Way of the Sufis)
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