There does sometimes seem to be a dichotomy that exists between the exoteric and esoteric dimensions of a religion. During the period when I was attending prayers at the Islamic Cultural Center of Northern California, I was always careful not to discuss elements of esoteric doctrine or Sufism with my fellow Muslims. We were united through our common bond of Islam and Iman, that is, the fundamental practices of the Shari’a and the elements of Islamic Faith which constitute what we might call the religious life. These were sufficient grounds upon which to maintain a shared identity and cultivate fellowship amongst ourselves. Among the worshippers there was an emphasis on praying correctly with much accommodation to variety, though not necessarily inquiring into the meaning of the prayer. Generally speaking an emphasis was placed on action and devotion rather than knowledge and understanding. Even the Qur’an was more of an object of veneration than the focus of reverent and intensive study and application. The majority of the attendants were well meaning people who came together to pray, enjoy the company of like-minded individuals, eat, and socialize about whatever happened to be going on in their lives.
It would have been a great disservice for me to attempt the introduction of esoteric doctrines among individuals who are content with a religious life. It would have simply evoked disdain and the inevitable retort that these teachings do not correspond to their conception and understanding of Islam. Certainly, I could go to great lengths in justifying the orthodoxy of Sufism which has been ably done by its most skillful exponents, but this would do nothing more than provoke them to a greater disdain for my presumption to teach them their religion. Not only am I unqualified to do so, but I see no reason in trying to give people things that they neither want nor have the inclination to understand especially when I am deficient in my own understanding. It is counterproductive to speak of things of a very lofty nature when the general trend of conversation pertains to those things that appeal to the least common denominator of all participants. I tend not to broach the subject of esoterism at all if I am not asked about it specifically and I generally do not discuss my beliefs unless someone asks me for advice or information which I provide to the best of my ability.
According to the prevailing religious mentality, Islam consists solely of those beliefs and practices taught to us by Allah and His Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) in the Qur’an and Sunnah. The situation is similar to that of Protestant Fundamentalism in which the scriptures are interpreted in a literal fashion and no consideration is taken of those elements of tradition whether of music, art, ritual, spiritual doctrine, or method, that were passed on through the immediate disciples of the prophet and carried down to the present day or otherwise were present as potential adaptations and manifestations of various possibilities prefigured in the revelation. The religious law, including all forms of social practice and personal behavior are the primary preoccupation of the general mass of Muslims. Those qualified to interpret the law are trained in the traditional Islamic science of jurisprudence which specifically concerns these matters.
Judging from your friend’s responses to William Stoddart’s book he undoubtedly belongs to this general class of believers and seems to be content with his religion and perspective. I see no reason to make an effort to argue with him and prove him wrong with regard to his opinions, nor should he be held in disdain for possessing them. I remember once encountering an old woman reciting a litany for forty-five minutes or longer before Jumm’a Prayer. She seemed very simple-minded such that the existence of men like Frithjof Schuon and their teachings would simply not occur to her. She was excessively pious and in a word, completely and totally sincere in her Faith. She was a perfect example of the teaching of the Prophet Isa that “you must become as a little child to enter into the Kingdom of Heaven” and upon encountering her I immediately recalled to mind the words of Ibn ‘Ata’Allah in the Hikam, “If you see a servant whom God has made to abide in the recitation of litanies and prolonged His help therein, do not disdain what his Lord has given him on the score that you do not detect the signs of gnostics on him, nor the splendor of God’s lovers. For had there been no inspiration, there would have been no litany.”
Having stated all of this, I feel that I can address your friend’s objections which seem simply to constitute an oversight on his part. That someone “can claim to have some kind of superiority or special connection to God that will help him in his path” is prefigured in the existence of Allah’s Prophets and specifically in the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). The principle of Sufi initiation rests upon the reality of the transmission of power and authority from Muhammad to his disciples, principally Ali Ibn Abi Talib from whom most orders derive their lineage. The Shaykh is nothing other than a living Saint who serves as a representative of Muhammad who has received Muhammad’s grace and blessing in this function from his predecessors, just as Ali received it from the Prophet himself. It is true that Islam conceives of man as standing directly before God without an intermediary. However, because man is not presently reconciled to God owing to the existential limitation of the Fall, the Prophet Muhammad and by extension the Shaykh serve as supreme guides to religion and the spiritual life.
(Note: My impressions of popular Islam spoken of above were derived from and reflective of situations in American life and do not necessarily correspond to the prevailing attitudes held by believers in other parts of the world. In many parts of India, for example, there are prevailing trends of the “religion of old women” as spoken of by Muhammad and exemplified in the simplicity and piety of the old woman in my story.)
Greetings of Peace. This blog contains selections from my correspondence and other sources on a variety of subjects related to religion, philosophy, and spirituality. I hope that they may be of benefit to the interested reader. Concerning the title of the blog, read this entry.