Recently, an ex-Muslim told me that he knew very little about Islam’s deep, spiritual tradition. And it’s worrying that so many people don’t. It’s one of the reasons why so many people doubt their faith.
Doubt is a good thing. It enables us to question what we believe and come to stronger convictions. Those too scared to doubt can become chained to their views, closed-minded and hostile to those who think differently.
Sadly, many people refuse to doubt simply because they cannot begin to face the prospect that, after all this time, they’ve been wrong. After all, for the ordinary religious believer, everything depends on their faith. Literally everything. The way they live their life in this world and their state in the next – either wretched or felicitous – is dependent on their faith or lack of it.
I, as a Muslim, have had my fair share of doubts. After all, I read philosophy, studied different religious traditions, and looked into the works of devout, missionary atheists. But doubting my faith was actually the best thing that ever happened to me.
During my childhood, I was brought up to believe that the Quran was miraculous and that the Prophet Muhammad was a great man who came to teach humanity how to live. And, depending on how I lead my life, I would go to heaven or hell. It was simple and, to a young, unquestioning mind, it made sense. But, as I grew older, I began to question my beliefs.
It is often said in the Islamic tradition that if one truly wants to know the Truth, God will pave the way. So, on my journey to discover the Truth – whatever that may have been – I stumbled across Muslims who understood their religion on a much deeper level. Their focus was directed towards improving the state of their souls, purifying their hearts and returning to God. According to them, the Return to God wasn’t just limited to the next life. You can Return to God in this life through annihilating the ego of its material and worldly desires. This type of religion seemed to strike a chord – it was certainly more appealing than the dry, outward version I knew.
It took me two or three years to discover that these Muslims practiced what is known as Sufism. I often wonder why it took me so long to realise this. Reflecting back on my past, it may have been because I thought Sufism was an aberration, some kind of weird, cult-like innovation in Islam – as some people still do. (This is because Saudi-funded Wahhabi/Salafi/whatever-you-want-to-call-it Islam have anathematised and labelled Sufism as heretical). Perhaps I was veiled from knowing they practiced Sufism, as it probably would have put me off from learning any more.
I eventually discovered that Sufism is the inner dimension and essence of Islam. It is not an innovation and has always been a vital organ of the religion – although during the time of the Prophet, it wasn’t labeled under a specific name.
It is often said that Sufism is like the heart and Islam is like the body. Take away the heart and you’re left with a mere shell. To extend the metaphor a little further: If the heart is dead, the body will enter into a state of rigor mortis. It will become stiff and, if it isn’t handled with care, bones may break.
So, what exactly does all this mean? Well, if you are doubting Islam (the body), you should check to see if your heart (Sufism) is beating. In other words, you must look into Sufism and see if the lack of it – or perhaps your complete incomprehension of it – is what’s causing your doubts and struggles.
The Sufi tradition, alongside facilitating a harmonious state within individuals, is rich with answers to life’s most fundamental and challenging questions.
To cut a long story short. It was Sufism that saved me.
Sadly, some Muslims never resolve the doubts they have and, after failing to shake them off, turn to unbelief. Of course, the reasons why somebody might leave their faith can vary. But, in my experience, it is the lack of contact with Sufism that leads many Muslims to abandon their religion– seeing nothing within it to answer their deeper questions.
It’s a growing problem. Shaykh Hamza Yusuf recently said that for the first time since he embraced Islam 35 years ago, he is receiving pleas from distressed parents about their children leaving the faith. In a time when access to all sorts of information is available, especially distorted information about Islam, doubts will naturally emerge.
What’s worse is when people are often told things that are anti-scientific, illogical and needlessly dogmatic. If someone is doubting, you can’t tell them just to stop doubting. Similarly, if someone is asking deep, philosophical questions, you can’t take them to the local Imam who has no grounding in philosophy or deeper spiritual concepts. It will make things worse. (To be clear: I am not saying people who know nothing about Sufism or even refuse to practice it, will doubt their religion. Of course not. For many, the simplicity of Islam by itself is sufficient to satisfy them throughout their life).
Throughout Islamic history, a great number of Muslim intellectuals were Sufis. The medieval Islamic scholar al-Ghazali, known as “the proof of Islam” because of his immense impact on the development of Islam through his works, had a crisis of faith during his life. It was this crisis that provoked his search through different philosophies and schools of thought. He eventually found exactly what he was looking for in Sufism.
Martin Lings writes of Ghazali’s search for Sufism, stating:
“It was contact with Sufism that saved him; and his autobiographical treatise The Saviour from Error is an affirmation of Sufism as the only reliable antidote to skepticism and as the highest aspect of the religion.”
(From What is Sufism?)
Lings further goes on to say:
“…Atheism or agnosticism can be the revolt of a virtual mystic against the limitations of exoterism; for a man may have in himself, undeveloped, the qualifications for following a spiritual path …[yet] he may be ignorant of the existence of religion’s mystical dimension.”
Lings also addresses the lack of understanding of this spiritual dimension by many religious authorities:
“His atheism or agnosticism may be based on the false assumption that religion coincides exactly with the outward and shallow conception of it that many of its so-called ‘authorities’ exclusively profess.”
Now, let me ask you a question. And I’m talking to all of you who are having doubts. What is troubling you? What is it?
Is it The Quran?
The Quran is often described as a mirror: the way you interpret it is a reflection of your state. For many people, the Quran utterly transforms them. But, for others, it appears confusing, jumbled and shallow.
According to the Prophet Muhammad, the Quran has several layers of meaning, and Gai Eaton in his masterpiece Islam and the Destiny of Man, writes:
“For the Quran to contain more than a thimbleful of the message it must rely upon images, symbols and parables which open windows on to a vast landscape of meaning, but which are inevitably liable to misinterpretation.”
Rumi, in his book, Kitab ﬁ hi mā fīh, says you can’t just expect to remove the veil from the Quran and for it to automatically open up to you. While, according to St Augustine, God has purposely strewn difficulties in Sacred books so that we may be stimulated to read and study them with greater attention and by using our intellects.
Remember: Treasure can only be found by digging.
Is it the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ ?
Before I came across Sufi scholars, the Prophet of Islam was a distant figure. But as I continued to read his life, certain things began to stand out. I soon realised that although he was a human being, he possessed within him an extraordinary secret, and a reality only known by his Lord.
Despite being offered a life of luxury, he preferred poverty. And, while others slept at night, he preferred solitude with his Lord – standing for hours at a time in prayer, adoration and intimate discourse with his Beloved.
It seems strange that those who malign him tend to disregard the milieu in which he lived. This was the pre-modern world, a world that would be largely unrecognisable to modern people. Arabia was deeply entrenched in patriarchy, hostility, conflict, war, the burying of female babies, idol worship and instability. The Prophet strove to reform his society, and his decisions and teachings must always be contextualised.
Is it The Evolution theory?
Don’t listen to Muslims who flat out reject the evolution theory. They don’t know what they are talking about. Islam has no problems with evolution, provided we recognise God as the sole force behind that which happens in creation. While the evolution of non-human species has undoubtedly taken place, we are a unique creation made in the image of God, imbued with intellect, awareness of the Divine and the capacity to transcend our animalistic instincts.
Is it Reward and Punishment?
An Islamic scholar once said:
“Amongst the people and their purposes there are two stations: the purpose of common people is to gain rewards…but the purpose for the people of distinction is nearness and presence, to feel near to God and feel his Presence.”
The purpose of doing good and avoiding evil in Islam is for goodness to become habitual to us. We should reach a level where our heart only emanates goodness. This is known as Ihsan, the highest level of religion. (Read about the different levels of religion here).
Hell, admittedly, is a problem for many thinkers. But it’s important to understand that it’s not so much a place of eternal barbarous torture.
Gai Eaton says:
“Islam and Christianity offer a highly synthetic, condensed view of the ‘hereafter’. The simple alternative heaven/hell, provides the ordinary believer with as much information as he needs for his salvation. But these doctrines also employ a symbolism which, if it is understood by those who have a need to understand, extends the horizon beyond the images of heavenly joy and infernal flames. The language of myth and symbol is the only universal language.”
According to Shaykh Hamza Yusuf, it’s a place of “alienation from the Divine”. Islamic scholars have even argued that the pain of hell is not eternal.
Is it The Sharia?
The corporal punishments in Islam only account for a small percentage of the Sharia. The bulk of Sharia is to do with one’s spirituality, like praying, fasting and giving to charity.
The Sharia is also profoundly nuanced: not only is it open to interpretation but is also flexible and able to move with the times.
According to Shaykh Hamza Yusuf (yes, I know, I keep quoting him) corporal punishments should be avoided in Islam. Shaykh Abdullah bin Bayyah, one of the most prominent Islamic scholars alive, says the punishments in Islam are largely intended to act as deterrents to warn people of the severity of what they are doing.
Shaykh Abdal Hakim Murad, says:
“The Sharia has been thoroughly veiled by almost everyone in the modern world by the fact it has been applied in such an abusive way [in places like Nigeria and Pakistan].”
Most people’s understanding of the Sharia is limited, limited to what we see in the media, and the flawed practices of some ‘Islamic’ countries.
The inner dimension or Sufism was never meant to be separated from Islam. As I mentioned before, the dangerous form of Islam that is being spread around the world from Saudi Arabia, not only rejects Sufism, but is an ugly, distorted version of Islam. It is this version that often makes headlines and that has, sadly, spread to many of our own homes.
There will always be things that, no matter how strong one’s faith, will trouble the mind. Metaphysical notions in religion would be suspect if they contained no contradictions in terms of our experience here. We are bound by our limited senses and flawed dispositions.
Here’s another thing. Don’t be put off by negative or confusing experiences with Muslims. And don’t do yourself the disservice of wallowing perpetually in doubt, or even leaving the faith, before you explore all avenues, especially Sufism.
Dive deep into the vast ocean of the Islamic tradition, but do so gently. Keep descending until you pick up all the ocean’s jewels that you need. You will ascend to the top of the ocean refreshed and crowned with jewels of knowledge.