In his compilation, Mishkat al-Masabih, an anthology of authentic prophetic traditions, Khatib al-Tibrizi quotes Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) as saying: “Your leaders will be a reflection of yourselves.”
What we learn from this hadith is an interface between two distinct things: politics and ethics. On the one hand, there is the mentality of people, their likes and dislikes, and so on; and, on the other hand is the leadership of a society. The political structure and the nature of the leadership of any society are indelibly shaped by the former, as the above hadith tells us. Thus, we also infer from this hadith that spiritual masters, Sufis and mystics are impelled to shape people’s minds and guide their souls on the path of love, leaving the task of governing people to political leaders.
It can be understood in this context as to why the head of the Sufis, Ibn Arab? persistently focuses on the wadat-ul-wujd (unity of existence). He actually seeks to reduce man’s moral and ethical choice to an illusion until s/he realises himself or herself to be one with the Divine.
Ethics and politics occupied a central position in the thought of another Sufi giant and the 11th century’s Islamic philosopher, Imam Ghazali. Most of his books on ethics, theology and metaphysics offer a candid exposition of his Sufi ideas on ethics. In his magnum opus entitled Ihya ‘ul-uloom (Revival of Sciences), Ghazali defined ethics as “the science of the secrets of religion” (ilm asraf al-Deen) and “the science of the path of hereafter” (ilm tareeq al-Akhirah).
Contemporary Sufi thinkers like Abdullah bin Bayyah and his disciple Shaykh Hamza Yusuf who loosely adhere to the Ghazalian school of Sufism, observe a distinction between ethics and politics. Some Sufis even warn of the toxic effects of mixing religion with politics. But this is not a complete rejection of politics, given that Indian Sufis like Shaikh Sirhindi and Shah Waliullah termed politics as “Siyasat-e-Batiniya” (internal politics or self-governance). They encouraged the ulema to engage in the “right sort of government” and believed that if people’s thoughts are corrupted, their rulers will be no different. Therefore, these Sufis charged themselves with the task of Siyasat-e-Batiniyah to improve the condition of what they called “Siyasat-e-Kharijiya” (external politics).
In fact, a number of Sufis led a non-violent resistance against the colonial forces. The first fatwa in the 1857 revolt against the British in India was issued by the Sufi ulema — Sadruddin Azurdah Dehlvi, Fazl-e-Haq Khairabadi, Inayat Kakorvi and many others who became prisoners in the Andaman and Nicobar islands because of their contributions to the Freedom Movement.
Amadou Bamba, the founder of the Muridiya Sufi order in West Africa, led a non-violent resistance against the French colonial forces and penned this poetry:
They said to me, dwell at the doors of Sultans:
“You will receive enriching bounties every now and then.”
I said: God alone suffices me and I am content with Him.
I only covet knowledge and my faith.
I plead not, nor fear except my King,
Because only Almighty can enrich me and save me.