Shaykh Ahmed Abdur Rashid

The Boulevard of Shari’ah and the Lane of Tasawwuf: One Reality

Alhamdulillâh, Allâhumma salli wa sallim alâ sayyidinâ Muhammadin, wa alâ âlihi wa sahbih

The status of Tasawwuf in Islam is clear. Sufism is Islam; and at the core of Islam, one finds Sufism.

One need not be an Arabic scholar to detect clues to this interrelationship in the roots of the words Shari’ah and Tariqah. Shar’ means a wide boulevard. In European terms, we might visualize it as a lovely thoroughfare, spacious and lined with trees. In American terms, we might think of it as a superhighway, with vehicles traveling in different lanes at different speeds. The word Tariq means a way or method, road or path. Tariqah is like a high occupancy vehicle (HOV) lane on the superhighway of Shari’ah. It comes from the same place and goes to the same place as Shari’ah. It is open to anyone who qualifies, just as the HOV lane is open to anyone with at least two passengers.

The outer law (Shari’ah) and the inner way (Tariqah), the orthodox Muslim and the ecstatic lover of God, are one. This is far more than a congruence of definitions. It reflects the essential construct of the human being. Allah (Subhaanahu wa ta’alaa) instills in each human soul a memory of having once been united with the Creator, and a desire to reunite.

This yearning is accompanied by the recognition of the need for outer structures and standards: that is, for Shari’ah. Shah Waliyullah, the eighteenth century Muslim scholar, observed:

    Shari’ah is…the result of the requirement of the [human] species itself. It has not been thrust upon [human beings] against their will but has been given to them at their request (Jalbani 120).

Shari’ah provides the framework whereby a working relationship can be established between humankind and the Divine Reality.

Observance of Shari’ah is uplifting and meaningful. For many Muslims, it is sufficient. Others are more acutely aware of their separation from the Source, and long to hasten their approach to the Divine. Tasawwuf addresses their need.

Tasawwuf has been described as “the internalization and intensification of Islam.” This intensification is not incumbent upon believers, but rather an opportunity available to those who pursue it. Even at the time of the Prophet Muhammad (salla-llaahu ‘alayhi wa sallam), only a select few among the Muslims inclined towards the more intensive, superogatory practices (Lings 211). The Qur’an states:

    Verily thy Lord knowest that thou [Muhammad] keep vigil well nigh two thirds of the night, and sometimes half of it or a third of it, thou and a group of those that are with thee… (73:20).

In all times and places, there have been individuals whose deep yearning (himma) and inner restlessness have led them to the Path of Tasawwuf.

Islam reveals that Sufism is not something outside of itself, but something contained within itself. When sincere spiritual yearning and practice are combined, the depth and breadth of Islam are revealed. Inner restlessness becomes profound fulfillment.

Recognition of the Inseparability of Shariah and Tariqah

Both the founders of the Sufic Orders and the founders of the Islamic madhabs (schools) recognized the value of Tasawwuf to gain ever fuller understanding of Islam, its inner and outer dimensions, and its relevancy to personal development and social order.

Shah Naqshband (radi Allaahu ‘anhu) said, “The correct way to the Path is to follow the Prophet (salla-llaahu ‘alayhi wa sallam).” According to Shaykh Ahmed al Rifai (radi Allaahu ‘anhu), “The Tariqah is the same as the Shariah; and the Shariah is the same as the Tariqah.” Abul Hasan as Shadili (radi Allaahu ‘anhu) cautioned students: “If extraordinary matters happen with you that contradict the laws of religion, the Book of Allah (Subhaanahu wa ta’alaa), or the Sunnah of the Messenger (salla-llaahu ‘alayhi wa sallam), then definitely leave them out and follow the rules of religion.” Imam Malik (radi Allaahu ‘anhu), to whom the Maliki madhab owes its origins, wrote: “[One] who practices Tasawwuf without learning Sacred Law corrupts his faith, while one who learns Sacred Law without practicing Tasawwuf corrupts himself. Only [the person] who combines the two proves true.” All of these individuals investigated and acknowledged the transformative effect of pursuing the Path of Tariqah on the broad boulevard of Shari’ah (Kabbani).

False Divisions Between Tasawwuf and Islam

The fact that any human being can experience the synthesis of outer and inner — and that this experience has been verified by personal testimonies throughout the millennia — should ensure recognition of the status of Tasawwuf in Islam. Unfortunately, it has not. Instead, we find so-called Sufis who disassociate themselves from Islam, and we find Muslims who have no understanding of Sufism and who, in their ignorance, judge it to be antithetical to Islam.

From this perspective, the status of Tasawwuf in Islam is shaky: not because of any genuine schism between the two, but because of widespread illusions of barriers between them. (Indeed, the very phrase “Tasawwuf in Islam” implies distinction where none exists.)

Our Responsibility to Re-Link the Chain

False barriers between Islam and Tasawwuf reflect the overall fragmentation of Westernized society. By the design of Allah (Subhaanahu wa ta’alaa), our himma (yearning), ikhtiram (sacredness and respect), ihsan, and innate predisposition towards discipline, values, and ethics are all linked to one another in the core of our being. As societies have become fragmented, these links have been broken. We have started to compartmentalize our lives. We distinguish between individual and community; we imagine conflicts between our spiritual, physical, emotional, and intellectual natures; we break knowledge into narrow disciplines; we disconnect our minds from our hearts.

When a chain is intact, lifting any one link lifts the whole chain. Once a chain is broken, it becomes possible to pick up a single link.

Individuals have been able to pick up fragments of Shari’ah and Tariqah because the chain is broken. It is up to us to repair it. People’s ears, eyes, and minds need to be re-attached to their hearts, their sense of sacredness, and their jethba (attraction) to the Divine.

The place to begin is by re-asserting the unity of our ummah (community) and the breadth and depth of Shariah and Sunnah.

Diversity within Unity

Allah (Subhaanahu wa ta’alaa) says in the Holy Qur’an:

    Verily, this ummah of yours is a single ummah, and I am your Lord and Cherisher: therefore, serve Me [and no other] (21:92).

We are a single ummah encompassing tremendous diversity. In recent decades, scientists have made discoveries that point to unity within diversity. In the case of the ummah, it is more accurate to speak of diversity within unity.

Human beings naturally seek to gather around shared beliefs. Ironically, this urge to come to unity — to form communities — becomes a source of division when carried to an extreme. Unity becomes confused with uniformity, and uniformity entails removing all that is “different.”

The Qur’an tells us:

    There is no compelling in religion… (2:256).

There is no compelling in religion, but there are those who seek to compel. Compelling takes many forms. It is not just insisting that a person recite the shahadah (profession of faith). Compelling also takes the form of distrust; of making takfir (accusing other Muslims of disbelief); of asserting one’s own school of thought to the exclusion of any other. All such forms of compelling impose narrow and restrictive definitions of Shari’ah and Sunnah.

From Reality to Name

While some confuse unity with uniformity, others mistakenly assert that unity means that anything is acceptable in the realm of spirituality.

The great Sufi master al-Hujwiri (radi Allaahu ‘anhu) quoted Abu’l Hasan Fushanja (radi Allaahu ‘anhu) as saying, “Today, Tasawwuf is a name without a reality, but formerly, it was a reality without a name” (al Hujwiri 44). What does it mean for Tasawwuf to be “a name without a reality”? As a consistent spiritual experience emerges into a name, people tend to use its name to embrace other forms that appeal to their nafs-i-amarra (desire nature).

So it is that we find the name “Sufism” associated with attitudes that would astonish the founders of the Tariqahs. Individuals take it upon themselves to twist the Shariah, the Sunnah, and the accepted practices to suit their desires, so that they themselves will not have to change. They have little or no apprehension in doing so, because they have little or no sense of wrong. Rather, their modifications are justified in the name of “modernizing” Islam and Tasawwuf.

Consequently, our ummah — once the leader in knowledge and thought — has deteriorated to the point that its essence lies scattered across the desert of the world. The result is either passivity or aggression, expressed in aberrated forms of Islam and degraded forms of Tasawwuf.

In the Holy Qur’an, Allah (Subhaanahu wa ta’alaa) speaks of those who

    …follow nothing but mere conjecture and the whims which their souls incline to, although the guidance has come to them! (53:23)

In an age when whims and conjecture predominate, is it any wonder that the intra-relationship of Tasawwuf and Islam should be largely misunderstood?

Understanding the Nature and Benefits of Our Diversity

Between the extremes of false orthodoxy and self-indulgent secularism lies a middle way. This is the way of appreciating and making the most of the diversity within our unity. According to a Hadith (of which the isnad is da’if, but the Hadith itself is sahih), the Prophet (salla-llaahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) said,

    The differences among my ummah are a mercy.

We need diversity in order to come to unity. Diversity sets a developmental process in motion. It stimulates purification, at-taskiyya. An analogy can be made to zakat. Zakat is much more than a way of helping those in need. It is a way of purifying the community. A pond of still water becomes stagnant; a running stream remains pure. Zakat keeps resources flowing within the community.

Similarly, diversity within the ummah enables us to develop true compassion, forgiveness, patience, and affection. It enables us to make the best possible use of our resources and our knowledge for the benefit of the world we inhabit. Only such wise use of the bounties of Allah (Subhaanahu wa ta’alaa) will guarantee our spiritual survival.

In addition, diversity challenges culturally-based interpretations and prompts us to return to the universal truths of Islam.

According to the Holy Qur’an:

    …Henceforth the Truth stands out clear from error. And he who rejecteth false deities and believeth in Allah hath grasped a firm handhold which will never break… (2:256).

If we trust that Truth stands out clearly from error, then it follows that the best way to help individuals evolve an understanding of Truth is to let them hear and weigh different views. Diversity cannot obscure Al Haqq. Rather, it makes the Truth all the more evident.

Allah (Subhaanahu wa ta’alaa) has created us as a diverse community inspired by the highest common denominators: shared faith, shared practice, and shared responsibility with one purpose.

    Thus We made you a community of the center (ummate wusate) that you might be a witness to the people, and the Messenger, a witness to you (Qur?an 2:143).

As Muslims, we all believe in Allah (Subhaanahu wa ta’alaa); we all affirm that Muhammad (salla-llaahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) is Allah’s (Subhaanahu wa ta’alaa) Messenger; we all pray; we all do wudu; we all believe in all the prophets — whether we are Shi’a, Salafia, Sufi, or any other label (Durkee). Based on the strength of these common bonds, we can address even the most difficult questions. We can share differing viewpoints with openness and tolerance, rather than fearfully defending our views and attacking others’.

A Call to Action

Everyone who calls himself or herself a Sufi or Muslim needs to speak as a representative of the ummate wusate: the community of the center. We need to work together to recapture Islam and Tasawwuf from extremist thinking. We need to redirect our focus to the core responsibilities that we are enjoined to fulfill: to feed the poor, house the homeless, educate the ignorant, and assist others in the attainment of al hayyat-e-tayyibah (the good life). Real unity begins when we place ourselves second.

We must be the models of the high status of Tasawwuf in Islam. This entails examining our own state. Allah tells us in the Holy Qur’an:

    None is there in the heavens and the earth that does not come to the All Merciful as a servant (abd) (19:93).

Let us consciously embrace our roles as ‘abd’Allah, as people of ibaada (worship). Let us be “in the world and not of the world,” gaining skills and fulfilling our duties in a balanced and appropriate manner, and preparing the generations after us to take responsibility. Let us purposefully re-make our shahadah and re-affirm our Islam.


In sum, the status of Sufism in Islam is central and unquestionable. However, consciously or unconsciously, individuals have erected false divisions between Shari’ah and Tariqah, between the broad boulevard and the special lane. These divisions are symptomatic of the overall fragmentation of our ummah, a fragmentation that has its roots in the failure to appreciate the benefits of our diversity.

I come from the Mujaddadiyya Order — the line of the mujaddids, the revivers. Each person present here today has a responsibility to be a reviver: to restore vitality to Islam where deterioration has set in. The status of Tasawwuf in Islam will be made clear as each of us becomes a model of ‘ibaada.

‘Ibaada is a love of Allah and of all His creatures. It leaves no room for exclusivity, rejectionism, or condemnation of others. It allows only compassion, hope, effort, truth, and prayer — prayer even for those who are lost, blind, and deaf to the Divine admonitions of Allah (Subhaanahu wa ta’alaa). These are our tools for repairing the chain. Our task is to apply them. The rest is up to Allah (Subhaanahu wa ta’alaa).
Jazak Allaah khair. Thank you very much.

Wa Llahu lahu ul-haqqi wa huwa yahdis-sabil.
Hasbuna Llahu wahdahu wa ni?mal-wakil.
Wa salli ?ala sayyidina Muhammadin
wa alihi wa sahbihi ajma?in
wal-hamdu li-Llahi rabb il-?alamin.

Truth belongs to Allah; it is He who shows the way.
Allah, alone, suffices us, and what a fine guardian is He!
Blessings upon our Master Muhammad
and his family and Companions altogether
and praise is due to Allah, Lord of the Worlds.


Durkee, Shakyh Noorudeen. Lecture delivered in Columbia, South Carolina, 18 July 1998.

al Hujwiri, Ali b. Uthman al Jullabi. The Kashf al-Mahjub. Translated and edited by Reynold A. Nicholson. London: Luzac and Company, 1976.

Jalbani, G.N. Teachings of Shah Waliyullah of Delhi. Third edition. Lahore: Sh. Muhammad Ashraf, 1979.

Kabbani, Muhammad Hisham. What the Scholars Say about Tasawwuf. The Muslim Magazine. April 1998: 50-51.

Lings, Martin. Muhammad: His Life Based on the Earliest Sources. Kuala Lumpur: A.S. Noordeen, 1983