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Sufism and the philosophy of Socrates

31 October 2021
Sufism and the philosophy of Socrates


Professor Dr. Anwarul Karim :
Sufism is neither a religion nor a cult.  It is a kind of knowledge of both the inner and the outer life. The word Sufism has its root in the Greek word 'Sophia', meaning 'knowledge' and 'wisdom'. It is not at all related to the word 'Suf' meaning of which is a kind of woolen garment or of Ashave Suffa, the companions of the Prophet Muhammad, (peace be upon him). They did not preach asceticism or monasticism.
Socrates as the Magi
Socrates is one among the earliest philosophers who spoke of    such kind of knowledge and promoted them to his disciples. 'Know thyself and you know God'. It means one should know the aim and purpose of life and the creation of the universe. He is believed to have been born in or around 469 B.C. and left 399 B.C. His philosophical, political and legal thoughts earned him a great fame. Even Karl Marx highly spoke of him. He came from a family of Athenian sculptors or stone masons.
Since his father was a sculptor, he devoted to the craft. But in his later life he seriously studied philosophy. His devotion to philosophy, historians say, was not abrupt. Socrates first studied, with all seriousness, physical sciences and this could not satisfy his urge for knowledge, because the physical sciences, in his opinion, contained only mechanical explanation about matter and phenomena.
Socrates spent his entire life in the study of philosophical and political problems and related issues. He discussed these problems with the ordinary members of society and tried to convince them of the inner meaning of various social and philosophical issues. Socrates was chiefly a philosopher. But at the same time he showed keen interest in the affairs of state, politics and law.
Socrates, in his analysis of political and philosophical problems and issues, applied the method of dialectic, and in this respect he departed from the Sophists who arranged the different topics in a systematic way and then discussed them.
Socrates, on the other hand, adopted the question-answer method. Needless to say, his disciple Plato also followed him.
In the view of Socrates ethics and politics are closely connected with each other. Without politics ethics carries no value, and without ethics politics becomes harmful. "The highest of all virtues is the political art which includes statecraft and makes men good politicians and public officials.
Socrates also discussed the concept of law. He divided law into unwritten divine law and written human law. He cautioned us by pointing out that there was no discrepancy between these two sets of laws. Justice was the root of all the laws. If a law is not justified by justice, it is useless. If anything is not approved by justice it cannot be legal. To be precise, Socrates gave priority to justice in his thought system and in this respect Socrates followed his predecessors.
Socrates dealt with a popular and at the same time important concept of politics popularly known as allegiance to law. He devised the theory of concord which means the citizens must show allegiance and obedience to law." Socrates admitted the diversities among the citizens and differences of opinion.
But notwithstanding they must unanimously obey the laws. He thought that without unqualified 'obedience to law there could not be unity and integrity in the Republic. His exaltation of law-abidingness did not rule out the importance and necessity of criticism. Laws, not in conformity with justice, might invite criticism.
It was democracy when all people were allowed to participate in the government. Socrates recommended only the rule of the wise. All other forms of government, in his opinion, were unsuitable.
Socrates had viewed the concept of rule from a different angle. The purpose of the ruler should not be to acquire pleasure or to satisfy personal whims and wishes, but to ensure the welfare of the common people. The ruler must keep a watch upon the needs of the people and he should never try to fulfil his own needs.
If a ruler pays more attention to the furtherance of his own interests he should be punished. Ascendency to power, in the opinion of Socrates, is not automatic at all. The above noted qualifications must be satisfied.
Related with the concept of justice is equality and Socrates greatly emphasized it. Equality is a political virtue and it is the utmost duty of the wise ruler to ensure it. A polis must be based on equality.
Violation of equality would result in disorder, chaos and disruption of normal activities of the polis. Socrates' equality is geometrical equality. "By geometrical equality Socrates means political justice and equity or right judgment in terms of political virtue as distinct from simple numerical or arithmetical equality".
He was a man of great courage and never hesitated to defy the order of the tyrannical ruler. The then rulers of Athens thought his lessons harmful and he was prevented from preaching further and his lessons were banned.
Socrates was against the acceptance of financial remuneration in exchange for giving lessons. We know that the Sophists introduced this system. He thought that taking of fees for lessons was tantamount to prostitution. This indicates how selfless a man Socrates was. Socrates scrupulously adhered to this principle though his family was in great financial crisis.
Socrates was severely penalized for preaching and upholding progressive ideas. He was charged of "corrupting the youth" and impious. The indictment against him was "Socrates is guilty of refusing to recognize the gods recognized by the state, and of introducing the other, new divinities. He is also guilty of corrupting the youth. The penalty demanded his death. The Athenian Court of 501 judges"
Socrates, as it turns out, proved himself to be excellent at dying.  Having upset the political and religious establishment of Athens by corrupting their youth and refusing to honor Athenian gods and institutions, he was condemned to death by drinking hemlock.  There are various accounts of his last hours - but he was literally stoical: dignified and courageous as he met his end.  He delivered a fine speech in which he calmly reflected upon death as a release, until the poison did its work."
Socrates was a preacher of God. His approach was like a prophet.  He did not take anything from those to whom he preached.  No prophets have ever taken anything as and when they preached God's religion.
Socrates never asked his men for searching of the soul. He guided them to the study of universe and the human life. It was not mystical as of the Sufis or other religious mendicants. He did not believe in gods and goddesses as created by the Greeks themselves but had faith in the Angels or Spirits. He was not at all an idolater. He was like Abraham whose life was similar to him. He called everybody to look around the universe and to find the truth and not to engage themselves with the searching of the soul that works in the human body by the order of the God. He was thus taken as the Sufi."  These all corroborate with the principles of Islam. The 'soul' is taken as an order of Allah and He has prevented all human beings from engaging themselves to the working of the so called 'soul searching' practice in the name of religion by a section of people who believe in monasticism, celibacy and ascetic way of life avoiding one's role to the community. Allah says in the Holy Quran, Indeed We  sent forth Noah and Abraham and established in their line Prophecy and the Book. Then some of them embraced the guidance and many of them are wicked.
(1) That We did not enjoin monasticism (ruh baniyyat) upon them. We enjoined upon them only the seeking of Allah's good pleasure.
(2) That monasticism was not enjoined by us. They of their own accord enjoined it on themselves, to seek Allah's good pleasure." (Sura Hadid). In both cases this verse makes it explicit that monasticism is an un-Islamic creed, and it has never been part of the true faith. There is thus no room for using the cult of Pir and Khanqah. It is also un-Islamic according to the Holy Quran and the Hadith (the Traditions of the Prophet)

(Prof. Dr. Anwarul Karim has been working as Dean, Faculty of Arts and Humanities and Executive Director, Northern University Bangladesh, Dhaka. He founded Lalon Academy in 1963 and Folklore
Research Institute in 1970 in Kushtia).

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