Answered by Sayyidi Habib Umar bin Hafiz (may Allah protect him and benefit us by him)
People are often critical of Sufism and those that subscribe to it. How do we respond to them?
The only meaning of the word Tasawwuf (Sufism) that we know is the desire to purify the heart and perfect one’s following of the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ. If that is what is meant by the word Sufism, then its usage is only positive. This is what we understand from the Imams of the early generations who were known as the Sufis. Imam al-Kalabadi authored a work more than a thousand years ago entitled ‘Introducing the Methodology of the Sufis’ and we do not find in it anything other than what we find in the books of the scholars who have been affiliated with Sufism and those who spoke about those scholars over the centuries.
They all agree that Sufism is a call to noble character and implementation of the Sunnah of the Prophet ﷺ according to one’s ability and attempting to rid the heart of impurities.
If this is what we understand Sufism to be, then any Muslim who strives to purify his heart and perfect his transaction with his Lord can be said to be subscribing to Sufism. However, people have false impressions of Sufism or of Islam in general. Some believe Sufism to be submissiveness or remaining aloof. Some associate it with pipes and drums, yarns or superstitions or innovation in affairs of the religion. All of this is baseless and untrue and cannot be ascribed to the Imams who were known as being people of Sufism over the centuries who were themselves masters of the Islamic sciences of Hadith, Jurisprudence and Tafsir. You will always find scholars among those who narrated the canonical books of Hadith who were known as being people of Sufism.
We should not let a word become a barrier preventing people from truly understanding the concept. What we ask is that people do not over-react on merely hearing a particular word. Instead, we ask that they look at the concept that is behind the word. Call it by another name if you do not like the word Sufism: call it ‘Ihsan’ or ‘knowledge of the inward’ or ‘purification of the soul.’ Call it what you will, but the concept remains the same and we will not allow a mere word to become a cause of conflict and something which prevents people from knowing the reality of the concept and it will not stop us from making our brothers aware of the duty which we must all attend to.