Sufi, Sunni, Shia – What’s Right for Me?

Sarah asked—

My faith has been weakening gradually for the past few months. I don’t feel at peace when I pray like I used to, and I can’t concentrate no matter how hard I try. I’ve asked God to bring me closer to Him, but even then the request doesn’t come from the heart. I found that Sufi descriptions and explanations of some Islamic practices are very gentle and beautiful. I’d like to pursue this approach if it will bring me closer to Islam, but I heard that Sufism is not really Islam. Any thoughts on this? Thank you.

Salam, dear sister. I am sorry that you are going through such a difficult time with your faith, and pray that you will find peace again. I want to start out by asking if you know the reason that your faith is weakening. Was it something you read, something you saw, something you heard? What triggered your feelings? If you can find that out, then it becomes easier to remove that trigger from your life. My personal struggles with faith began when I was told that I could not be a true Muslim if I was a feminist. It took a lot of research for me to realize that the opposite was truer – I could not be a true Muslim without being a feminist. Once I realized this truth, my faith came flooding back. If you can change the aspects of your life that are causing discord, you will be one step closer to reclaiming your peace.

Sufism is a controversial topic amongst scholars. Many believe that it is a form of innovation, and that one who practices Sufism is a deviant. This assumption is flawed, for it assumes that those who practice Sufism must practice it without taking into account the teachings of the Qu’ran and Sunnah. As long as you heed the Qu’ran and Sunnah, and do not disobey it, or manipulate it to create new forms of “worship,” it is not wrong to follow Sufism. Sufism, very simply, involves giving one’s self to Allah (SWT), body and soul. It values self-control, and complete devotion to Allah (SWT). There is, according to many scholars, nothing wrong with Sufism, in theory. As long as the practice of Sufism involves no innovation, and as long as you keep to the Qu’ran and Sunnah, it should be perfectly in line with Islam.

Of course, at the end of the day, Allah (SWT) knows best, and may He guide you to the path that is best for you.

Amina asked—

The country I come from is mostly Sufi. I’m first generation born in America and I don’t blindly follow tradition. I think Sunni makes more sense and if it was up to me there wouldn’t be different sects. The reason my parents are all Sufi is only because my great uncle was a very big Sufi leader, my mother does a lot of things Sufi Islam requires but won’t even pick up the Quran. How do I solve this? I really don’t want to be Sufi but if I don’t my whole family will gossip about me and call me extreme.

Salam, sister! Religion and culture intermix a lot, no matter who you are or where you were born. Just like cultural traditions, religion is often passed down from one generation to the next, without the slightest reflection or revision. We grow up practicing our religion just like our parents practice it, a mere form of mimicry when we are young. And then, when we’re finally possessed with enough self-awareness, we go through a period of reflection, where we take our parent’s beliefs as our own true beliefs, or reject them for something else. I can tell you that while I am, like my parents, Muslim down to the marrow of my bones, my beliefs about Islam don’t always correspond to my parents’ beliefs. I believe this is true for many, many Muslims. As individuals, we learn and grow and experience things that make us and our thought processes unique. As first-generation American, your experiences will vary even more from your parents’ because you have been exposed to a different culture. My own American upbringing means that I was able to learn about topics such as feminism, which then influenced how I viewed and practiced Islam. My Pakistani parents were never exposed to such ideologies, and therefore do not necessarily see things through the lens that I do.

The point of all this being that you can hardly expect your understanding of Islam to align precisely with your family’s understanding of Islam – and that’s okay. Islam is a journey, and we all make a majority of that journey on our own. Your family will inspire you and teach you, but they cannot control your inner beliefs and values. They cannot control how you see Islam, or what it is about Islam that you value and hold dear. Maybe they will talk about you, and maybe you will simply have to learn to ignore them. Your soul is on a journey. You are trying to grow closer to Allah (SWT), not because someone told you to, but because you want to. This is your jihad, and no jihad – no struggle – is easy.

My sister, my mother, and I are the only women in our extended family who wear the abaya, and only a few other women in our family cover their hair. The first time we visited my grandfather’s house, after we began covering, we were met with shock and discomfort. Why were we dressed like extremists? They wanted to know. They told us that wearing the abaya was not obligatory; they suggested that my father was behind the whole “charade.” Could we stop them from saying any of that? Perhaps — but we could not stop them from thinking it. Although we asked them to respect our decisions, that alone could not change their mindset.

Your family’s mindset may be similarly set in their specific ways. They practice Sufism and do so proudly, and that is fine for them. However, if you feel that your journey is taking you towards Sunni Islam, or any other sect of Islam, then you must follow your heart.

I hope that your family is not one to forbid you from reading the Qu’ran, or from practicing Islam however you see fit. You must ask them to respect you, as you respect them, and remind them that at the end of the day, you are all Muslim. And in your heart, you must remind yourself that your struggle is for Allah (SWT), and that even in difficult times, you are being rewarded for your dedication and determination.

And Allah (SWT) knows best.

Disclaimer: I do not consider myself a scholar or an authority where Islam and Islamic jurisprudence are concerned. The responses to the questions are formulated after much reading and research. If there are any glaring errors in the logic, or in the factual accuracy of the sources, please do not hesitate to point them out.

Dear MuslimGirl is our weekly advice column, published every Wednesday. If you have questions on Islam, faith, or need some lifestyle advice: Email!