In the name of Allah, Most Merciful, and Compassionate
Time has passed, its winds bringing debris and sand, its rains having eroded the edifices of what was established before and we the later people must struggle to cling to what remains of a glorious legacy, now barely discernible. The legacy of the days of Men.
I write as a humble slave, bewildered by his own insignificance and utter inability, in face of the mammoth task of simply being a slave in these times. After one year in “The Islamic University of Madina” in Madina al Munawara, Arabia, it became overwhelmingly obvious to my distress, that “The Methodology of the Pious Fore bearers” as I had previously conceived it, was sadly void of the slightest iota of spiritual realization. Confused, frustrated and lost I often found myself quite literally wandering the streets of Madina often in the late hours of the night, in some attempt to fill a void within me. A void which had manifest itself with sudden terror, as such that it threw me into a rather curious state. Several internal crises emerged relating to my Islam. It became starkly obvious that my knowledge was severely deficient and that the people I thought possessed it, in fact did not. I was caught between my identity as a Muslim and a westerner due to some strange Fiqh positions with which I had come into contact. Facts revealed themselves, the nature of the reality of which forced me to question many of the notions I held concerning Scholarship in Islam and my view of the little I knew of Islamic history. I began to rebel and question absolutely everything I read, investigating all that I could in a desperate attempt to find the proper orientation, but for all my effort, I was still on my own and quite lost.
“You can’t subscribe to a tenet of the Ash’aris they are at the very limits of Kufr!” Yet Imam An Nawawee’s well documented adherence to this school was dismissed as “a mistake” on his part. I supposed that if it were acceptable to tread the limits of kufr, on the premise that it is a mistake then why should the same not be said for an issue like isbal. Unfortunately, very few at the mentioned university agreed with my premise and would rather excuse the Imam for what in their view amounts to kufree persuasions on his part (and Imam An Nawawee is above them and what they accuse him of…may Allah’s mercy be upon him) than the thousands or millions who simply fancy western trousers or jeans. There were much graver and more disturbing ideological (and not personal, may Allah be praised for that!) absurdities which characterized my encounters in the Hijaz. These are not fit to mention here, or anywhere else for that matter. With these experiences I returned to my country and entered introvert mode. I did as little as possible by way of Islamic work, for fear of unwittingly perpetuating atrocities or heresies the likes of which I had, previously. This inactivity was also due to my being more keenly aware of my unstable state and the rage and bitterness it entailed, then any of my associates, al hamdu li Allah, who concealed that which was best left concealed.
The summer break ended with my acceptance into the Arabic Language Program at the University of Jordan in Amman, where I would continue my quest to learn Islam.
In the light of my previous year, The University of Jordan with its multitudes of Jeans and Tee shirts busy at work and play was more of what I was accustomed to where universities are concerned so was the civil and mature method of instruction. I quickly settled in and began looking for shuyukh from whom I could take knowledge. It was not long before I heard of Nuh Keller, the shaikh from Amreekah. Of course, it goes without saying that prior to my departure from Guyana to Jordan, I was warned to stay clear of this figure and his “deviance”. Many warned me of him including one very prominent author and Islamic worker who happened to be visiting my country at that time, and who al hamdu li Allah I had occasion to meet. Nevertheless, I was being referred to this shaikh by Arabs with whom I had made acquaintance, and I was rather taken aback by the fact that they referred to him as an ALIM. I thought it difficult enough for a westerner to become an alim, but to be of the caliber that Arabs would have to acknowledge and accept it was a stunning and rare achievement the like of which could not be claimed even by the prominent Islamic worker who had warned me about him. Faced with this reality and the conviction that I could not simply make Taqleed of the individual who advised me not to seek out Shaikh Keller, I agreed to attend one of his classes. This was the beginning of my road to TASAWWUF.
This is not a story of an encounter filled with proofs, debates and high level scholarship, as the narrator is far from a scholar. If this is what intrigues you then this article will not. What follows is an account of an experience, the realms of which are the heart and soul not the tongue and mind. And all good is from Allah.
I had agreed with a friend of mine to attend a class of Sheikh Keller, in his Amman home and was at the time reading some recommended works on the Schools of Jurisprudence orMathaahib, their validity and the need to adhere to one. Prominent in my thoughts at the time was the irony of the whole scenerio, that a firm anti-mathhabist such as myself could actually be found contemplating adherence to the Hanafee School by way of emulation or Taqleed. Still even more difficult to encompass was that I was on my way to visit the house of one of the most notoriously reputed of the “people of innovation” as some had labeled him.
We arrived in the area called Kharaabsha, a once simple outskirt village, now being transformed into a residential suburb, having been assimilated into the expanding city of Amman. I was rather surprised to see the modest building in which we were to find the Sheikh’s apartment. Simple and in many regards tucked away it seemed to be jealously, inconspicuously guarding some great treasure. So it seemed and so was indeed the case. We entered through the narrow opening of the neatly proportioned outer metal door, took off our footwear and placed it besides the multitude of other sandals and shoes that lay before the meshed door of the Sheikh. In session was a Fiqh class, being delivered by a student of his. The room was adequate though not large, soft cream dominated the walls, which, on that late fall afternoon made for a rather serene and sober setting. The student of the Sheikh, himself now on the verge of Sheikh-hood was Arab, Shafee’ee and from his confidence and ease of delivery, competent. I sat there enjoying what I could make out of his effortless elucidation of various points relating to Purity in hismathab. However, it having been the tail end of his class which I had caught, it was soon concluded. There was a brisk knock on the door directly to my back, upon which all in the room immediately stood up. The Sheikh entered. His pace was as brisk as the knock on the door. “As salaam alaikum” he greeted in a controlled, subdued tone as he took his seat on the ground. He gestured and we returned to our seats. My observation began.
Long since accustomed to a certain standard of “learned persons” and “students of knowledge”, I began my appraisal, it however became readily apparent that what I was accustomed to, was in fact of no particular standard at all. There he was, a red bearded white Sheikh, in eastern robes with an immaculate layer-wrapped white turban giving a class in Arabic to a group of attentive students (most of whom were Arab), seated on the ground. His entire comportment seemed deliberate and harnessed. Everything from his voice level to his gestures appeared be confirming to some pervading standard or will. The picture was one totally alien to me. I knew as I observed his students leaning forward to catch his every word that this was no run of the mill “sheikh”, such as we in the west are accustomed to. A penetrating oceanic gaze, complete certainty and serenity in his words and seemless erudite explanatory references and commentry characterized his dars of Ihya’ ‘Ilum ad Deen. I was impressed. Most captivating however, was the feel of his presence, felt in his gaze, Allah Exalted is my witness, the feel of his presence was absence. There was no choice in the matter, before me stood, not an “Islamic Worker”, nor “A Respected Da’ee” nor any of the other sadly defecient titles with which we have for too long been content in accepting from our community leaders. No, rather the truth was manifest, this initial encounter was a powerful indication of what was to become more apparent in sebsequent months. This Man’s mannerism, students and reputation all pointed to one undeniable fact; far from the ugliness of which his opposers accused him, he was indeed accomplished in his field as a Scholar…as a Sufi…as a Muslim. He was a living example of the teachings of our Beloved (Allah’s peace and blessings be upon him). Embodying Knowledge, Action and Spiritual Realization he immediately impressed and inspired me, as was the case of many before me and will continue to be the case of many more to come, Allah willing. My meeting Nuh Ha Mim Keller was my meeting Tasawuf, my entry into the reality of this Deen, my first taste of the vast expance of selfless reality…he had my pledge!
Wa al hamdu li Allahi Rab al ‘aalameen!
All praises are due to Allah. We praise Him, seek His help, and ask His forgiveness. We seek refuge in Allah from the evil in our souls and from our wrong actions. Whoever Allah guides, no one can mislead. And whomever Allah misguides, no one can guide. I testify that there is none worthy of worship except Allah. He is One, having no partner. And I testify that Muhammad is His servant and messenger. May Allah bless him and give him peace, with his family and Companions. Verily the best speech is the Book of Allah. And the best guidance is the guidance of Muhammad (sallallahu alaihi wa sallam).
With this opening invocation, I turn my attention to Tasawwuf – a realm of the Islamic sciences that is easily misunderstood without qualified instruction. Any discussion and/or comments on Tasawwuf must be backed by the knowledge of scholars in this field. Tasawwuf is one of the several Islamic sciences (ulum). Like most of the other Islamic ulum, it was not known by name, or in it’s later developed form, during the time of the Prophet (sallallahu alaihi wa sallam). This does not make it less legitimate. There are many Islamic sciences that only took shape many years after the Prophetic age; principles of jurisprudence (usul al-fiqh), for example, or the hadith methodology (ulum al-hadith). The essence of Tasawwuf is purely Islamic. To make this point, I will, in sha Allah, limit myself to reproducing opinions of scholars and taking extracts from several authentic sources.
I begin with a description of Tasawwuf in a recently published comprehensive work on Islam, The Oxford Encyclopaedia of the Modern Islamic World, edited by Professor John L. Esposito, Oxford University Press, Oxford, May 1995, 4 vols.: “in a broad sense, Sufism can be described as the interiorization and intensification of Islamic faith and practice. The original sense of sufi seems to have been ‘one who wears wool.’ By the eighth century the word was sometimes applied to Muslims whose ascetic inclinations led them to wear coarse and uncomfortable woolen garments. Gradually it came to designate a group who differentiated themselves from others by emphasis on certain specific teachings and practices of the Quran and the sunnah. By the ninth century the gerund form tasawwuf, literally ‘being a sufi’ or ‘sufism,’ was adopted by representatives of this group as their appropriate designation.
Understood as Islam’s life-giving core, sufism is co-extensive with Islam. Wherever there have been Muslims, there have been sufis. If there was no phenomenon called ‘sufism’ at the time of the Prophet, neither was there anything called ‘fiqh’ or ‘kalam’ in the later senses of these terms. All these are names that came to be applied to various dimensions of Islam after the tradition became diversified and elaborated. In looking for a Quranic name for the phenomenon that later generations came to call sufism, some authors settled on the term ihsan, ‘doing what is beautiful,’ a divine and human quality about which the Quran says a good deal, mentioning in particular that God loves those who possess it. In the famous Hadith of Gabriel, the Prophet describes ihsanas the innermost dimension of Islam, after Islam (‘submission’ or correct activity) and iman (“faith” or correct understanding).” [vol. 4, pp. 102-104.]
The link between Ihsan and Tasawwuf is reiterated in the English translation of Sahih Muslim by Abdul Hamid Siddiqi in a footnote to the above hadith: “Ihsan means beneficence, performance of good deeds, but in the religious sense it implies the doing of good deeds over and above what is just and fair. It is indicative of the intense devotion of man to his Creator and Master and his enthusiasm for virtue and piety. What is implied by the term tasawwuf in Islam is nothing but Ihsan. The aim of Ihsan is to create a sense of inner piety in man and to train his sensibilities in a way that all his thoughts and actions flow from the fountainhead of the love of God.” [vol. 1, pp. 3-4.]
In his work, The Cultural Atlas of Islam, Macmillan Publishing Co., New York, 1986, Professor Ismail R. al Faruqi, a modern Islamic scholar and activist, devoted a chapter to sufism. The introduction to the chapter states: “Tasawwuf, or the donning of wool, is the name given to a movement that dominated the minds and hearts of Muslims for a millennium, and is still strong in many circles of the Muslim world. It nourished their souls, purified their hearts, and fulfilled their yearning for piety, for virtue and righteousness, and for closeness to God. It grew and rapidly moved to every corner of the Muslim world. It was responsible for the conversion of millions to Islam, as well as for a number of militant states and socio-political movements.” [p.295.]
In his work, The Concise Encyclopedia of Islam, HarperCollins, New York, Cyril Glasse describes Tasawwuf as “the mysticism or esotericism of Islam.” He writes: “The word is commonly thought to come from the Arabic word suf (‘wool’): rough woolen clothing characterized the early ascetics, who preferred its symbolic simplicity to richer and more sophisticated materials. The essence of sufism is purely Islamic. Sufism is found everywhere in the Islamic world; it is the inner dimension of Islam, from which the efficacy and force of Islam as a religion flow. Historically, the sufis have been grouped into organizations calledtawa’if (sing. ta’ifah), or turuq (sing. tariqah, ‘path’), the latter word being used more commonly in the later period, from the time of the Qadiriyyah order.Tariqah is now also a technical term for esotericism itself. Turuq are congregations formed around a master, meeting for spiritual sessions (majalis), inzawiyahs, khanaqahs, or tekkes, as the meeting places are called in different countries. These spiritual meetings are described in the words attributed to the Prophet: “Whenever men gather together to invoke Allah, they are surrounded by Angels, the Divine Favor envelopes them, Peace (as-sakinah) descends upon them, and Allah remembers them in His assembly.”
Sufism may take many forms, but it always contains two poles: doctrine and method. Doctrine can be summarized as intellectual discrimination between the Real and the unreal, the basis for this being found essentially in the shahadah: “there is no god but God” or “there is no reality but the Reality.” Methods can be summarized as the concentration upon the Real by the “remembrance of God” (dhikr Allah), the invocation of the Divine Name (dhikr means “remembrance”, “mention”, “invocation”). Both doctrine and method must, however, be complemented by perfect surrender to God and the maintenance of an equilibrium through the spiritual regime, which is Islam. In scholastic terms this is a movement from potency to act – in effect to the realization of the Oneness of God (tawhid), which is the goal of sufism. The Qur’an often underlines the importance of invocation in words such as these: “Remember God standing and sitting. . .” (3:191); ” . . . Those who believe and do good works, and remember God much. . . ” (26:227); and “Surely the Remembrance of God is Greatest” (wa ladhikru-Llahi akbar) (29:45). The principle of reciprocity between God and man is expressed by God’s revealed words: “Therefore remember Me; I will remember you” (fadhkuruni adhkurum) (2:152).
All spiritual method also necessarily involves the practice of the virtues, summarized in the concept of ihsan, the surpassing of self, which a Sacred Hadith defines thus: “Worship God as if you saw Him, for if you do not see him, nevertheless, He sees you.” To this, the sufis add: “And if there were no you, you would see,’ and make the summation of mystical virtue the quality of “spiritual poverty” (faqr). By faqr they mean emptying the soul of the ego’s false “reality” in order to make way for what God wills for the soul. They seek to transform the soul’s natural passivity into re-collected wakefulness in the present, mysteriously active as symbolized by the transformation of Moses’ hand. Humility and love of one’s neighbour cut at the root of the illusion of the ego and remove those faults within the soul that are obstacles to the Divine Presence. “You will not enter paradise,” the Prophet said, “until you love one another.” The disciple should live in surroundings and in an ambience that are aesthetically and morally compatible with spiritual interiorization, in the sense that “The Kingdom of God is within you.” The need of such supports for the spiritual life can be summed up in the Hadith: “God is beautiful and He loves beauty.” [pp. 375-8]
In his Al-Maqasid, Imam Nawawi, the great Shafi’i scholar, discusses sufism at great length. His conclusions may be summarized as follows: “The basic rules of the way of sufism are five:
The foundations of all of these consist of five things:
The principles of sufism’s signs on a person are also five:
One reaches Allah Most High by
These include, among others, the following verses of the Qur’an:
Let me turn to another scholarly work of the Muslim world and the most recognized and authentic English translation of Quran by Abdullah Yusuf Ali: “The soul of mysticism and ecstasy is in the Quran, as well as the plain guidance for the plain man which a world in a hurry affects to consider as sufficient.” Preface to first edition of The Meaning of the Holy Quran, Abdullah Yusuf Ali, Amana Corporation, Maryland, 1991, p. xi. “Then came philosophy and the mystic doctrine of the Sufi schools. The development of the science of kalam (built on formal logic), and its further offshoot, the Ilm al-aqa’id (the philosophical exposition of the grounds of our belief) introduced further elements on the intellectual side, while ta’wil (esoteric exposition of the hidden or inner meaning) introduced elements on the spiritual side, based on a sort of transcendental intuition of the expositor. The Sufi mystics adhered to the rules of their own Orders, which were very strict. But many of the non-Sufi writers on ta’wil indulged in an amount of licence in interpretation which has rightly called forth a protest on the part of the more sober Ulama.” Commentaries on the Quran, The Meaning of the Holy Quran, Abdullah Yusuf Ali, p. xv.
The origin of sufism was also discussed by a great scholar of sufism, Ali Ibn Uthman al-Hujwiri, in his book Kashf al-Mahjub (English translation by Reynold A. Nicholson, Luzac and Company, London, 1976): “Some assert that the sufi is so called because he wears a woolen garment (jama’i suf); others that he is so called because he is in the first rank (saff-i awwal); others say it is because the sufis claim to belong to the Ashab-i Suffa, with whom may God be well-pleased! Others, again, declare that the name is derived from safa (purity).” [p. 30]. He then describes Ashab al-Suffa or Ahl al-Suffa (the People of the Veranda) in the following words: “Know that all Moslems are agreed that the Apostle had a number of Companions, who abode in his Mosque and engaged in devotion, renouncing the world and refusing to seek a livelihood. God reproached the Apostle on their account and said: ‘Do not drive away those that call on their Lord morning and evening, seeking only to gain His Face’ (Qur’an 6:52). . . . . . It is related by Ibn Abbas that the Apostle passed by the People of the Veranda, and saw their poverty and their self-mortification and said: Rejoice! for whoever of my community perseveres in the state in which you are, and is satisfied with his condition, he shall be one of my comrades in Paradise.’ [p. 81]. The Ahl al-Suffa included, among others, Bilal ibn al-Rabah, Salman al-Farisi, Abu Ubayda ibn al-Jarrah, Abu Dharr al-Ghifari, Khabbab ibn al-Aratt, Abdullah ibn Umar, and Abdullah ibn Masud (RadiyaíLlahu anhum)” [p. 81].
No discussion of Tasawwuf would be complete without mentioning the work of Imam al-Ghazzali. In his essay on Abu Hamid al-Ghazzali in The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Modern Islamic World, Professor Muntansir Mir writes: “. . . Abu Hamid al-Ghazzali, medieval Muslim theologian, jurist, and mystic. Few individuals in the intellectual history of Islam have exerted influence as powerful and varied as did Abu Hamid al-Ghazzali. When he died at the age of fifty-two, he had attempted, with an exceptionally perspicacious mind and a powerful pen, a grand synthesis of the Islamic sciences that has ever since evoked the wonder and admiration of scholars, both Muslims and non-Muslims. He gained distinction in the court of the Seljuk vizier Nizam al-Mulk, and at the age of thirty-four he was appointed professor at the Nizamiyah College at Baghdad. After teaching there for several years, al-Ghazzali suffered a crisis of confidence. Losing faith in the efficacy and purpose of the learning he has acquired and was now disseminating, he searched for the truth and certitude that alone could set his moral doubt at rest. He left his position at the Nizamiyah, withdrew from practical life, and spent eleven years in travel, meditation, and reflection. When he returned he had found the object of his search – in sufism. The details of al-Ghazzali’s quest for knowledge that would give certitude are found in his autobiography, Al-munqidh min al-dalal (Deliverer from Error). Al-Ghazzali tells us that, of the four groups of people who claimed to be in possession of the truth, only the sufis, who walked the right path, because they combined knowledge with action, had sincerity of purpose, and actually experienced the serenity and contentment that comes from direct illumination of the heart by God.
Al-Ghazzali’s critique of the philosophers, the esotericists, and the theologians constituted the critical aspect of his work, but there is a constructive aspect to it also; in fact the two aspects are closely linked. In a sense the principal motif of all al-Ghazzali’s work is spiritualization of religious thought and practice; form must be imbued with spirit, and law and ritual with ethical vision. Taking salvation in the hereafter as the final goal, and therefore the ultimate point of reference, he set out to identify and analyze the aids and impediments to that goal. This resulted in his best-known work, Ihya ulum al-Din, an attempt to integrate the major disciplines of Islamic religion – theology and law, ethics and mysticism. Here as in other works, al-Ghazzali seeks to demystify Islam. He maintains, for example, that in order to be a Muslim it is sufficient to hold the beliefs that have been laid down by God and his Prophet in the Quran and sunnah, and that knowledge of the complex arguments advanced by the theologians is not requisite of faith. The essence of religion is experience, not mere profession, and the sufis are the ones who are able to experience the realities that theologians only talk about. [vol. 2, pp. 61-63].
Recently one of the leading Muslim journals in US, the American Journal of Islamic Social Sciences, [a joint publication of the Association of Muslim Social Scientists (AMSS) and the International Institute of Islamic Thought (IIIT)], vol. 12, no. 4, Winter 1995, published a paper titled “Al Ghazali between Philosophy and Sufism” [authored by Professor Yasin Ceylan]. The author describes al Ghazali’s experience with sufism in these words: “Al Ghazali embarked on his investigation of four different schools of thought that were influential in his time – Batinism, theology, philosophy, and Sufism – in order to find truth in them. The first three did not satisfy him, while Sufism provided him the truth for which he had been searching. There have always been notable Sufis of varied backgrounds throughout the history of Islamic thought. Whereas most of them received the traditional education, some had so much interest in logic and philosophy that they pursued these fields in depth. However, none of them penetrated into these sciences as far as al Ghazali, who acquired an intimate knowledge of both philosophy and theology. Al Ghazali himself discloses why he was frustrated by philosophy in his quest for truth and why he choose to adopt Sufism instead. His account may be summed up as follows: His disillusionment with philosophy was derived from its destructive effect on the fundamentals of religion, while his attraction to Sufism was rooted in the fact that ethical refinement and the purification of the soul were necessary conditions in this discipline.” [p. 584] “Al Ghazali mentions three fundamental features related to his mystical experience: a) the purification of the soul from those evils and worldly desires that hinder moral perfection; b) those spiritual dispositions or explorations that occur after the process of purification reaches the level of maturity (described as extraordinary intellectual intuitions); and c) that these dispositions are not explicable through reason.” [p. 587]
In his work, The Cultural Atlas of Islam, Professor Ismail R. al Faruqi writes, “Reaffirming his view that Tasawwuf is both knowledge and action, al-Ghazali chastised those who sought to reach the mystical experience in a hurry. He also rejected the sufi claim that in the mystical experience one reaches God through fusion into or unity with the divine Being. Such a claim he regarded as blasphemous. The true perception of God is always perception of the presence of the transcendent as a commanding being; knowledge of Him is never a knowledge of His self but of His will. Al-Ghazali therefore could not countenance the preaching of Mansur al Hallaj who went about Baghdad claiming that through the mystical experience he and God had become one. By reaffirming that Islam implies action, al-Ghazali meant to repudiate those sufis who preached monkery and withdrawal from society, any form of asceticism or mortification, or nonobligation to observe the rituals and all other laws of the shariah. Al-Ghazali thus made Tasawwuf respectable and conformant with the shariah and spirit of Islam.
Thus al-Ghazali built his system on God as starting point and foundation, unlike the philosophers who started with senses or reason. He anchored reason in iman, whence it drew its ultimate postulates; and then gave it the freedom to be as critical as it wished. Without such anchoring, reason is fallible and untrustworthy. God is knowable through His works, His order and design of nature, His ubiquitous providence – all of which reason is capable of discerning in tentative but not definitive form. Between God and the world stands the realm of malakut and amr, by which al-Ghazali meant the realm of values constituting the ought of all that is or will be, a realm that is absolute, a priori and transcendent (malakut), as well as normative and imperative (amr). Knowledge of it is yaqin (apodeictic certainty) and such knowledge is the ground of all other knowledge. Al-Ghazali, we may concede, taught the primacy of axiological knowledge, which relates man to God, over the knowledge of the world, which would be faulty and groundless without the first.” [pp. 300-1]
Contrary to beliefs often held in the West, to set out on the path of sufism it is absolutely necessary to be a Muslim, for sufism’s methods are inoperative without this religious affiliation, and may even prove destructive to the individual who lack the protective and normative devotion of the religion of Islam, which is its vehicle. Ahmad Zarruq, the fifteenth century Maliki scholar and hadith specialist, states: “So there is no sufism except through comprehension of Sacred Law or Shariah, for the outward rules of Allah Most High are not known save through it, and there is no comprehension of Sacred Law or Shariah without sufism, for works are nothing without the sincerity of approach, as expressed by the words of Imam Malik (Allah have mercy on him): ‘He who practices sufism without learning Sacred Law or Shariah corrupts his faith, while he who learns Sacred Law or Shariah without practicing sufism corrupts himself. Only he who combines the two proves true.'” (Iqaz al-himam fi sharh al-Hikam, Ibn Ajiba, Ahmad ibn Muhammad, and Ahmad ibn Muhammad Ibn Ata Illah, Mustafa al-Babi al-Halabi wa Awladuhu, Cairo, 1972, pp. 5-6).
Sayyid Abul Ala Maududi, one of the most influential and prolific of contemporary Muslim scholars, echoed the same view. In his seminal introduction to Islam, Risalah-yi Diniyat (later translated as Towards Understanding Islam, Khurshid Ahmad, The Islamic Foundation, U. K., 1980 and The Message Publications, Islamic Circles of North America [ICNA], New York, 1986), he defined Shariah as “the detailed code of conduct or the canons comprising ways and modes of worship, standards of morals and life, laws that permit and prohibit and rules that judge between right and wrong.” [p. 95] He then explained how Fiqh and Tasawwuf complement each other in Shariah. He writes: “Fiqh deals with the apparent and the observable conduct, the fulfilling of a duty in practice. The field which concerns itself with the spirit of conduct is known as Tasawwuf. For example, when we perform salat, Fiqh will judge us only by the fulfillment of physical requirements such as cleansing, facing towards the Kabah and the timing and the number of rakaahs. Tasawwuf, on the other hand, will judge our prayers by our concentration, devotion, purification of our souls and the effect of our prayers on our morals and manners. Thus, the true Islamic Tasawwuf is the measure of our spirit of our obedience and sincerity, while Fiqh governs our carrying out commands to the last detail. An Ibadahdevoid of spirit, though correct in procedure, is like a man handsome in appearance but defective in character and an Ibadah full of spirit but defective in execution is like a man noble in character but deformed in appearance. The above example makes clear the relation between Fiqh and Tasawwuf. Tasawwuf, in the true sense, is an intense love of Allah and Muhammad (blessings of Allah and piece be upon him) and such love requires a strict obedience to their commands as embodied in the Book of God and the Sunnah of His Prophet. Anyone who deviates from the divine commands makes a false claim of his love for Allah and His messenger.” [p. 97]
This point was further emphasized by Professor Muhammad Abul Qasim in his book, Salvation of the Soul and Islamic Devotions, Kegan Paul International, London, 1983. He succinctly summed up the mutual relation of Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh) and sufism. He writes: “The Quran teaches that the means to salvation in the Hereafter on the human side are belief or faith (iman) and action (amal): salvation cannot be achieved without these two means. Both of them are mentioned in most of the verses of the Quran containing references to salvation; in a few verses, however, only faith is mentioned explicitly, but action is implicit in them. That faith and action are the requirements of salvation on the human side is also the teaching of the prophetic tradition which is but an elaboration of what is briefly taught by the Quran. The prophetic tradition presents us with details of faith and action as means to salvation. Closely following this teaching of the Quran and Tradition, Islamic jurisprudence, theology and sufism have unanimously agreed that faith and action are the only two means to salvation. In working out the details of these means, however, they differ slightly among themselves. Thus jurisprudence accepts the outward meanings of the teachings of the Quran and Tradition, without feeling the need to explore their deep, inward meanings. Sufism, in addition to outward meanings, looks for inward meanings; it also adds material learnt from experience but not inconsistent with the Quranic teachings.” [p. 29]
“Sufis put a great emphasis upon the Quranic teaching that faith and action are both needed if a man is to ascend from the rank of lower animals to that of those who behold the beauty of the glorious face of God.” [p. 30] “Islam is a religion which enjoins moderation or the mean state of all affairs. In Islam there is place neither for too much of hardship nor for too much of lavishness, neither for excess nor for deficiency. Moderation is considered by Islam to be the most reasonable course of action and to enable man to achieve that at which the Islamic religion aims. A man has an outward aspect and an inward aspect, and moderation is to be observed in relation to both. His outward aspect is mainly the concern of Islamic law (fiqh) and hence in this field one often finds the prescription of moderation and middle course. The inward aspect of a man is mainly dealt with in sufism and Islamic philosophy and hence in these two discipline also we find that moderation or the mean is taught emphatically.” [Footnote no. 14, p. 54]
In fact, true sufis perform obligatory prayers and other duties (fard) which the Shariah has placed on them, and observe the sunnah of the Prophet (sallallahu alaihi wa sallam) which he has recommended. They never think that they can any time dispense with the Shariah. Those who violate the Shariah and commit sins are rather impostors, who use sufism to justify their evil deeds. There is general agreement among sufis that the only way to know what things are legal or illegal, and what acts are right or wrong is the Quran, the Sunnah of the Prophet (sallallahu alaihi wa sallam), the ijtihad of qualified jurists (mujtahidin), and their consensus (ijma). These are also the means for knowing the degrees of obligation, whether a thing is obligatory (fard/wajib) or forbidden (haram), commendable (mandub), undesirable (makruh), or permissible (mubah). The inspiration (ilham) or the kashf of the sufi has no rule in this regard, neither in determining the legality or otherwise of things, nor in fixing the degree of their obligation. Shaykh Ahmad Sirhindi, the great seventeenth century Indian sufi and religious reformer, states the common view in the clearest terms: ìIt is commonly agreed that in determining the rules (ahkam) of the Shariah, what counts is the Quran, the Sunnah of the Prophet, the qiyas of a qualified jurist (mujtahid) and the consensus of the Ummah. No other principle apart from these four is to be taken into consideration to determine the legality of rules. Inspiration (ilham) does not determine whether something is right or wrong, and the kashf of a sufi does not establish the degree of a rule, whether it is obligatory or desirable. The saints (awliya) have to follow, like an ordinary Muslim, the opinions of the mujtahids. Their revelations (kushuf) and inspirations (ilhamat) do not elevate their status and relieve them from following the judgments of the jurists (fuqaha). . . . They have to follow the judgments of the jurists (mujtahidin) in matters of ijtihad.’ [Maktubat Iman Rabbani, vol. II, p. 1041]. In the above statement, Sirhindi uses the term waliyat in the sense of nearness and intimacy with Allah Subhanahu Wa Ta’ala.
This vital Islamic science of sufism has been consistently expounded by the greater Muslim scholars of all time. The overwhelming majority of the Muslim scholars were actively involved in sufism. In fact, almost all the great luminaries of medieval Islam: al-Suyuti, Ibn Hajar al-‘Asqalani, al-‘Ayni, Ibn Khaldun, al-Subki, Ibn Hajar al-Haytami; tafseer writers like al-Baydawi, al-Sawi, Abu’l-Su’ud, al-Baghawi, and Ibn Kathir, aqidah writers such as Taftazani, al-Nafasi, al-Razi: all wrote in support of sufism. Ibn Khaldun, Muslim statesman, jurist, historian, and scholar of the fourteenth century, devoted a long section of in his monumental work, al-Muqaddimah, to discuss the science of sufism. He writes: “Sufism belongs to the sciences of religious law that originated in Islam. It is based on the assumption that the practices of its adherents had always been considered by the important early Muslims, the men around Muhammad (sallallahu alaihi wa sallam) and the men of the second generation, as well as those who came after them, as the path of true and right guidance. The sufi approach is based upon constant application to divine worship, complete devotion to God, aversion to false splendor of the world, abstinence from the pleasure, property, and position to which great mass aspires, and the retirement from the world into solitude for divine worship. These things were general among the men around Muhammad (sallallahu alaihi wa sallam) and the early Muslims. Then, worldly aspirations increased in the second (eighth) century and after. At that time, the special name of sufis (Sufiyah and Mutasawwifah) was given to those who aspired to divine worship.
The sufis came to represent asceticism, retirement from the world, and devotion to divine worship. They developed a particular kind of perception which comes about through ecstatic experience. When the sciences were written down systematically and when the jurists wrote works on jurisprudence and the principles of jurisprudence, on speculative theology, Quran interpretation, and other subjects, the sufis, too, wrote on their subject. Some sufis wrote on the laws governing asceticism and self-scrutiny, how to act and not act in imitation of model (saints). Al-Ghazzali, in the Ihya ulum al-Din, dealt systematically with the laws governing asceticism and the imitation of models. Then, he explained the behavior and customs of the sufis and commented on their technical vocabulary. Thus, the science of sufism became a systematically treated discipline in Islam. Before that, mysticism had merely consisted of divine worship, and its laws had existed in the breasts of men. The same had been the case with all other disciplines, Quran interpretation, the science of tradition, jurisprudence, the principles of jurisprudence, and other disciplines.” Ibn Khaldun’s al-Muqaddimah, translated from the Arabic into English by Franz Rosenthal, 3 Vols., Princeton University Press, Princeton, N. J., 1967 [vol. 3, pp. 76-81].
Even Shaykh Ibn Taymiyah and his theological successors, Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, the founder of Wahhabisim, and Ibn al-Qayyim al-Jawziyya, could not at their time avoid being associated at one point with sufi tariqah. In his book, “Natural Healing with the Medicine of the Prophet,” (English translation of Ibn al-Qayyim al-Jawziyya’s Tibb an-Nabbi), Pearl Publishing House, Philadelphia, 1993, the translator, Muhammad al-Akili, writes: “Later on, he (Ibn al-Qayyim) pursued his quest for knowledge at the hands of renowned masters and scholars of his epoch, as well as he studied the works and teachings of sufi masters known in his time.” [p. xi] “He (Ibn al-Qayyim) compiled a large number of studies besides his own books, including: 1. Tahthib Sunan Abi Dawoud (Emendation of Sunan Abi Dawoud); 2. Al-Kalam al-Tayyib wa-al-‘Amal al-Salih (The Essence of Good Works and Deeds); 3. Commentaries on the book of Shaikh Abdullah al-Ansari: Manazil-u Sa’ireen (Stations of the Seekers), which is considered the epitome of knowledge of sufi books; and Zad al-Ma’ad (Provisions of the Hereafter).’ [p. xiii]
Ibn Taymiyah’s views on Tasawwuf have been discussed in greater detail in the book titled “Sufism and Shariah : A Study of Shaykh Ahmad Sirhindi’s Effort to Reform Sufism” by Dr. Muhammad Abdul Haq Ansari, The Islamic Foundation, U. K., 1986. Dr. Ansari quoted from three well-known works of Ibn Taymiyah, Majmu Fatawa Shaykh al-Islam, compiled by Abd al-Rahman b. Qasim and his son Muhammad, Riyadh, 1398 A. H, 39 vols., Majmu’at al-Rasa’il wa ël-Masa’il, compiled by Rashid Rida, Cairo, 4 parts in 2 vols., and Al-Furqan bayn Awliya Allah wa Awliya’ al-Shaytan, edited by M. Abd al-Wahhab Fa’ir, Beirut, Dar ël-Fikr. Dr. Ansari writes “The popular image of Shaykh Ibn Taymiyah, which early Western writers on Islam in modern times have considerably helped to build up, is that he criticizes sufism indiscriminately, is totally against the sufis, and sees no place for sufism in Islam. Nothing of this, however, is correct. Ibn Taymiyah, to be sure, is a most thorough and most incisive critic of sufism; and his criticism is not limited to a few philosophical doctrines or some popular practices, as some writers have held, but covers the entire field of sufi thought and life. But he is certainly not indiscriminate; at times, he is bitter, but on the whole sympathetic. And far from saying that sufism has no place in Islam, he moves to define the perimeters of an Islamic sufism. Ibn Taymiyah’s general attitude to sufism is disclosed in this passage: ‘Some people accept everything of sufism, what is right as well as what is wrong; others reject it totally, both what is wrong and what is right, as some scholars of kalam and fiqh do. The right attitude towards sufism, or any other thing, is to accept what is in agreement with the Quran and the Sunnah, and reject what does not agree'” [Majmu Fatawa Shaykh al-Islam, vol. 10, p. 82].
Ibn Taymiyah applies this principle of judicious criticism to sufi ideas, practices and personalities. He divides the sufis into three categories. In the first category of sufis whom he calls mashaikh al-Islam, mashaikh al-Kitab wa al-Sunnah and a’immat al-huda, [Majmu’at al-Rasa’il wa al-Masa’il, vol. 1, p. 179, and Majmu Fatawa Shaykh al-Islam, vol. 10, pp. 516-7 and vol. 11, p. 233] he mentions Fudayl b. Iyad, Ibrahim b. Adham, Shaqiq al-Balkhi, Abu Sulayman al-Darani, Maruf al-Karkhi, Bishr ëa-Hafi, Sari al-Saqati, al-Junayd b. Muhammad, Sahl b. Abd Allah al-Tustari and Amr b. Uthman al-Makki. Later sufis whom he places in this category are: Abd al-Qadir al-Jilani, Shaykh Hammad al-Dabbas, and Shaykh Abu al-Bayan. These sufis, Ibn Taymiyah says, were never intoxicated, did not lose their sense of discrimination, or said or did anything against the Quran and the Sunnah. Their lives and experiences conformed with the Shariah (mustaqim al-ahwal) [Majmu Fatawa Shaykh al-Islam, vol. 10, pp. 516-7].
The second category consists of those sufis whose experience of fana and intoxication (sukr) weakened their sense of discrimination, and made them utter words that they later realized to be erroneous when they became sober [Majmu Fatawa Shaykh ël-Islam, vol. 10, pp. 220-1]. Some of them also did things [Majmu Fatawa Shaykh ël-Islam, vol. 10, pp. 382, 557] under intoxication of which the Shariah does not approve, but sooner or later they became sober and lived well. In this category Ibn Taymiyah mentions the names of Abu Yazid al-Bostami, Abu al-Husayn al-Nuri and Abu Bakr al-Shibli. But he neither censures their experience of fana and sukr, nor condemns what they said or did in that state. Instead, he offers apology for them on the ground that they were intoxicated (sukran), and had lost control over reason. [Majmu’at ël-Rasa’il wa ël-Masa’il, vol. 1, p. 168; Majmu Fatawa Shaykh ël-Islam, vol. 10, pp. 382, 557].
His criticism is directed to the third category of sufis who have believed in ideas and expounded doctrines which contradict Islamic principles, or who have indulged in practices which are condemned by the Shariah. The first sufi in this group is al-Hallaj [Majmu’at ël-Rasa’il wa ël-Masa’il, vol. 1, pp. 81, 83;Majmu Fatawa Shaykh ël-Islam, vol. 11, p. 18]. . . . Next to al-Hallaj, the sufis who draw strong criticism from Ibn Taymiyah are the ones who expound the doctrine of One Being (wahdat al-wujud), such as Ibn ël-Arabi, Sadr ël-Din ël-Qunawi, Ibn Sab’in and Tilimsani. . . . . Ibn ël-Arabi, who is the central figure in this context (of wahdat ël-wujud ), Ibn Taymiyah subjects him to detailed criticism. He is, however, fair to recognize that of all the exponents of wahdat ël-wujud he is closer to Islam, that many of his ideas are correct, that he distinguishes between the Manifest (al-Zahir) and the objects of manifestation (mazahir), and accepts the commands and the prohibitions (of the Shar’) and other principles as they are. He recommends many things in suluk which sufi leaders have prescribed concerning good behavior and devotion. This is why a number of people draw upon his writings in their suluk and benefit from them, even though they do not know their real import. [Majmu’at ël-Rasa’il wa ël-Masa’il, vol. 1, p. 176]
Ibn Taymiyah does not oppose the tariqah of the sufis as such, neither their concentration on some approved ways, nor adoption of new ones, provided they do not fall into the category of unauthorized innovation (bid’at). He does not object, for instance, to the experience of fana and union; what he requires is that one should not make it the goal of sufism, or entertain mistaken ideas about it. He would not object to intensification of some approved forms of dhikr, or reliance on some methods for purifying the soul, with the neglect of others, provided it is within the limits of the Shariah [Majmu’at ël-Rasa’il wa ël-Masa’il, vol. 4, pp. 86-87]. A sufi may, for instance, withdrew temporarily to a cloister (khalwah) [Majmu’at ël-Rasa’il wa ël-Masa’il, vol. 4, pp. 84-6, 92-3], provided he observes the salat in assembly and the Friday prayer, and renders his essential obligations. Ibn Taymiyah would insist that these practices should not change or alter the values of things which the Shariah normally attaches to them [Majmu Fatawa Shaykh ël-Islam, vol. 11, pp. 398-400]. “There is no way to God”, he says, “except following the Prophet externally and internally” [Al-Furqan bayn Awliya Allah wa Awliya’ ël-Shaytan, p. 145].
It is worthwhile to note that Al-Hallaj was executed in Baghdad in 922 for saying “Ana al-Haqq” (“I am the Truth,” i.e., God), and his former teacher, al-Junayd, was among those who gave the verdict that he should die. [See Abu Abd al-Rahman al-Sulami, in Tabakat al-Sufiyya, Edited by Nur al-Din Shariba, Maktaba al-Khanji, Cairo, 1986, pp. 307-8, for details.]
It is proper to discuss how Tasawwuf played a significant role in shaping two Islamic movements – the Muslim Brotherhood (al-Ikhwan al-Muslimun) and the Tablighi Jamaat. In his essay on Muslim Brotherhood in The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Modern Islamic World,, Professor Nazih N. Ayubi wrote: ìFounded in Ismailiyah, Egypt, in 1928 by Hasan al-Banna (1906-1949), the Muslim Brotherhood (al-Ikhwan al-Muslimun) is the parent body and the main source of inspiration for many Islamist organizations in Egypt and several other Arab countries, including Syria, Sudan, Jordan, Kuwait, Yemen, and some north African states.’ [vol. 3, pp. 183-7]
In his essay on Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt in The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Modern Islamic World, Professor Denis J. Sullivan writes: ìHasan al-Banna was born in October 1906 in Buhayrah Province, northeast of Cairo. His father was imam and teacher at the local mosque. By his early teen years, al-Banna was committed to sufism, teaching, organizing for the cause of Islam, nationalism, and activism. As an organizer, he worked with various societies. At the age of twelve, in his hometown of Mahmudiyah, he became the leader of the Society for Moral Behavior and soon thereafter, a member of the Hasafiyah sufi order. At age thirteen, he was named secretary of the Hasafiyah Society for Charity, whose goals were to preserve Islamic morality and resist Christian missionaries. Ahmed al-Sukhari, head of the order, later helped al-Banna develop the idea of the Ikhwan. Combined with the extracurricular influences of sufism, the thought of Muhammad Rashid Rida and the Salafiyah movement, nationalism, and his father’s instruction, al-Banna developed a diverse intellectual basis for his own mission.’ [vol. 3, pp. 187-191]
ìAl-Banna was involved with the tariqah (of sufi shaykh, Hasanayn al-Hasafi) for twenty years and maintained a respect for this strict style of sufism throughout his life. It appears to have influenced his organizational thinking in terms of the methods of instruction in his Muslim Brotherhood and the daily rituals required of its members.’ [vol. 4, p. 115]
In his essay on Tablighi Jamaat in The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Modern Islamic World, Professor Mumtaz Ahmad, writes: ìThe Tablighi Jamaat of the Indo-Pakistan subcontinent, also variously called the Jamaat (Party), Tahrik (Movement), Nizam (System), Tanzim (Organization), and Tahrik-i Iman (Faith Movement), is one of the most important grassroots Islamic movements in the contemporary Muslim world. From a modest beginning in 1926 with dawah (missionary) work in Mewat near Delhi under the leadership of the sufi scholar Maulana Muhammad Ilyas (1885-1944), the Jamaat today has followers all over the Muslim world and the West. Its 1993 annual international conference in Raiwind near Lahore, Pakistan, was attended by more than one million Muslims from ninety-four countries. In fact, in recent years the Raiwind annual conference has become the second largest religious congregation of the Muslim world after the Hajj.
The pietistic and developmental aspects of the Tablighi Jamaat owe their origin to the sufi teachings and practices of Shaykh Ahmed Sirhindi, Shah Wali Allah, and the founder of the Mujahidin movement, Sayyid Ahmad Shahid (1786-1831). These sufis, who belonged to the Naqshbandiyah order, considered the observance of the Shariah integral to their practices. It is in this sense that the Tablighi Jamaat has been described, at in its initial phase, both as a reinvigorated form of Islamic orthodoxy and as a reformed sufism. Maulana Ilyas, an Islamic religious scholar in the tradition of the orthodox Deoband seminary in the United Province and a follower of the Naqshbandiyah, . . . . .
In matters of religious beliefs and practices, the Tablighi Jamaat has consistently followed the orthodox Deoband tradition and has emphasized taqlid (following the established schools of Islamic law) over ijtihad (independent reasoning). It rejects such popular expressions of religions as veneration of saints, visiting shrines, and observing the syncretic rituals associated with popular sufism. The Jamaat can thus be considered an heir to the reformist-fundamentalist tradition of Shah Wali Allah, with its emphasis on reformed sufism and strict observation of the sunnah of the Prophet.’ [vol. 4, pp. 165-169]
In his book, The Faith Movement of Mawlana Muhammad Ilyas, George Allen and Unwin Ltd., London, 1972, M. Anwarul Haq dwelt a great deal on the life, work, and thought of Maulana Muhammad Ilyas, with an exclusive focus on the sufi origin of his movement. More evidence on the link between Tasawwuf and Tablighi Jamaat can be found in ìFaza’il-e-A’maal,’ Muhammad Zakariya, Waterval Islamic Institute, Johannesburg, South Africa, 1994. Faza’il-e-A’maal, a revised edition of Tablighi Nisab (Islamic Teachings), is a collection of treatises by a scholar of hadith (Shaikhul Hadith), patron, and close relative of the founder of the Tablighi Jamaat, Maulana Muhammad Ilyas. The book is part of the instruction readings of the Jamaat. I will present a few excerpts from this book: ìRequisites of good salaat suggested by sufis: The sufis write: There are twelve thousand virtues in salaat, which can be achieved through twelve points. If a person is to acquire full benefit from salaat, then, he must take care of these points. Sincerity is of course essential at every step. These points are as follows: 1. knowledge, 2. Wudhu, 3. Dress, 4. Time, 5. Qiblah, 6. Intention, 7. Takbeer Tahreemah, 8. Qiyaam, 9. Qiraat, 10. Ruku, 11. Sajdah, and 12. Qadah.’ [pp. 95-97] Salaat of few Sahaabah, Taabiees and sufis:’ [pp. 98-103] ìAn Important Note: According to the sufis, salaat is in fact a supplication to and speech with Allah, and therefore needs through concentration.’ [p. 103]
With all this, we observe a contradiction. Why is it, if sufism has been so respected a part of Muslim intellectual and political life throughout our history that there are, nowadays, angry voices raised against it? Apparently there are two reasons. First, there have been deviant manifestations of true devotional sufism. In his work, The Concise Encyclopedia of Islam, Cyril Glasse describes this issue as follows: ìAn offshoot of popular devotional sufism seeks reassurance above all in psychic phenomena, communication with spirits, or jinn, trance dancing, magic, prodigies such as eating glass, piercing the body with knives, and so forth. In psychic powers and extraordinary mental states it finds proofs of spiritual attainment. It has given rise to the European use of the word fakir (which comes from the word for an authentic sufi disciple, a dervish, or faqir, literally a ìpoor one’) to mean a market-place magician or performer, and has attained notoriety not only among Western observers, but also in Islamic societies.’ [p. 380]
ëAbd al-Karim Jili, the fourteenth century scholar of Sacred Law or Shariah, describes such an experience: ìMy brother, Allah have mercy on you, I have traveled to the remotest cities and dealt with all types of people, but never has my eye seen, nor ear heard of, nor is there any uglier or farther from presence of Allah Most High than a certain group who pretend they are accomplished sufis, claiming for themselves a lineal spiritual tradition from the perfected ones and appearing in their guise, while they do not believe in Allah, His messengers, or the Last Day, and do not comply with the responsibilities of the Sacred Law or Shariah, depicting the states of the prophets and their messages in a manner that no one with a particle of faith in his heart can accept, let alone someone who has reached the level of those to whom the unseen is disclosed and who have gnostic insight. We have seen a great number of their luminaries in cities in Azerbaijan, Shirwan, Jilan, and Khurasan, may Allah curse them all.’ (Idah al-maqsud min wahdat al-wujud, ëAbd al-Ghani al-Nabulsi, Matba’a al-‘Alam, Damascus, 1969, pp. 17-18).
Second, there is the emergence of what is known as ìfolk’ sufism. Some people are baffled by the dress, terminology, or demeanor of the sufis. They imitate the sincere sufis externally without experiencing spiritual struggle or self-discipline. Rather, they pounce upon and quarrel over wealth that is unlawful, doubtful, or from rulers, rending each other’s honor whenever they are at cross-purposes. In his Concise Encyclopedia of Islam, Cyril Glasse describes it and contrasts it with true devotional sufism in the following words: ìMetaphysical’ sufism, as taught by the great spiritual masters, is different from ìfolk’ sufism. In some countries hundreds of thousands of disciples have at times been attached to a single master, more than could possibly have had a true vocation for an integral spiritual path. A kind of sufism has evolved which reflects a popular idea of spirituality. As happens in every civilization, this popular spirituality confuses piety (augmented by great zeal and a multiplication of ritual practices) with pure spiritual intuition and lustral, transcendent knowledge. Needless to say, folklore hawked as the ìwisdom of idiots’ may be exactly that, but it has nothing to do with sufism of any kind, nor is it a ìself-development’ divorced from its religious framework. Metaphysical, or true, sufism is a spiritual way at the heart of Islam. Its starting point is discrimination between the Real and the unreal, its method is concentration upon the Real, and its goal is the Real. In the words of a Sacred Hadith: ìMy servant does not cease to approach Me with acts of devotion, until I become the foot with which he walks, the hands with which he grasps, and the eye with which he sees.’ Bayazid al-Bistami said: ìFor thirty years I went in search of God, and when I opened my eyes at the end of this time, I discovered that it was really He who sought me.’ [p. 380]
The rightly guided sufis very strongly oppose and condemn practices such as excessive veneration of saints, calling upon saints for aid or protection, praying to saints, annual celebrations and feasts at the grave of a saint (ëurs), and observing the syncretic rituals. It is stressed that the excessive veneration of a saint would probably lead to the worship of something other than Allah Subhanahu wa Ta’ala – to polytheism or associating partners with Allah Subhanahu wa Ta’ala (shirk) and that showy attractions during feasts are definitely contrary to shariah and should therefore be prohibited. A person who prays to a saint is probably attributing to the saint powers that should only be attributed to Allah Subhanahu wa Ta’ala. Professor William C. Chittick writes, ìAlthough the great sufi authorities set down many guidelines for keeping sufism squarely at the heart of the Islamic tradition, popular religious movements that aimed at intensifying religious experience and had little concern for Islamic norms were also associated with sufism. Whether or not the members of these movements considered themselves sufis, opponents of sufism were happy to claim that their excesses represented sufism’s true nature. The sufi authorities themselves frequently criticized false sufis.’ [The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Modern Islamic World, vol. 4, p. 104]. It is noteworthy that more recently hundreds of volumes have been published in the West on sufism and most of these were written by people who have ìadopted’ sufism to justify teachings of questionable origin, or who have left the safeguards of right practice and right thought – Islam and iman – and hence have no access to the ihsan that is built upon the two.
Scholars have strong warning for these pretenders to sufism. Imam Ghazali says: ìWhen anyone claims there is a state between him and Allah relieving him of the need to obey the Sacred Law or Shariah such that the prayer, fasting, and so forth are not obligatory for him, or that drinking wine and taking other people’s money are permissible for him – as some pretenders to sufism, namely those ìabove the Sacred Law or Shariah’ (ibahiyyun) have claimed – there is no doubt that the imam of the Muslims or his representative is obliged to kill him. Some hold that executing such a person is better in Allah’s sight than killing a hundred unbelievers in the path of Allah Most High.’ (Hashiya al-Shaykh Ibrahim al-Bajuri, Dar al-Fikr, Beirut, 1925, Abu Shuja’ al-Asfahani, Ahmad ibn al-Husayn, Ibrahim ibn Muhammad al-Bajuri, and Muhammad ibn Qasim al-Ghazzi, Dar al-Fikr, Beirut, 1925, vol. 2, p. 267).
ëIzz ibn ëAbd al-Salam, a Shafi’i scholar and mujtahid Imam, writes: ìIf one sees someone who can fly through the air, walk on water, or inform one of the unseen, but who contravenes the Sacred Law or Shariah by committing an unlawful act without an extenuating circumstance that legally excuses it, or who neglects an obligatory act without lawful reason, one may know that such a person is a devil Allah has placed there as a temptation to the ignorant. Nor is it far-fetched that such a person should be one of the means by which Allah chooses to lead men astray, for the Antichrist (al-Dajjal) will bring the dead to life and make the living die, all as a temptation and affliction to those who would be misled (al-Iman al-‘Izz ibn Abd al-Salam wa atharuhu fi al-fiqh al-Islami, Ali Mustafa al-Faqir, Mudiriyya al-Ifta’ li al-Quwat al-Musallaha al-Uduniyya, Amman, 1979, vol. 1, p. 137). Al-Junayd, ìthe master of all the sufis’ (Shaykh al-ta’ifah) was once told, ìThere is a group who claim they arrive to a state in which legal responsibility (such as salaat, siyam) no longer applies to them.’ ìThey have arrived,’ he replied, ìbut to hell’ (Iqaz al-himam fi sharh al-Hikam, Ibn Ajiba, Ahmad ibn Muhammad, and Ahmad ibn Muhammad Ibn Ata Illah, Mustafa al-Babi al-Halabi wa Awladuhu, Cairo, 1972, p. 210).
Sayyid Abul Ala Maududi reiterates the same view : ‘It is the misfortune of the Muslims that as they sank in knowledge and character with the passage of time, they also succumbed to the misguided philosophies of nations which were then dominant. They partook of these philosophies and patched Islam with their perverted ideas. They polluted the pure spirit of Islamic Tasawwuf with absurdities that could not be justified by any stretch of imagination on the basis of the Quran and the Hadith. Gradually, a group of Muslims appeared who thought and proclaimed themselves immune to and above the requirements of the Shariah. These people are totally ignorant of Islam, for Islam cannot admit of Tasawwuf that loosens itself out of the Shariah and takes liberties with it. No Sufi has the right to transgress the limits of the Shariah or treat lightly the primary obligations (Faraid) such as daily prayers, fasting, zakah and the hajj.’ [Towards Understanding Islam, p. 97]
I have stated views of scholars on sufism as faithfully as I could. These opinions of scholars are a real testimony to the Islamic character of the sufism. I hope that this presentation will remove many wrong notions that people have about sufism. It will not be difficult now for anyone to see that sufism, properly conceived, has a rightful place in Islam. And Allah Subhanahu wa Ta’ala knows best. I ask Allah Subhanahu wa Ta’ala for His forgiveness. May Allah Subhanahu wa Ta’ala guide us all to what is correct and pleasing to Him. Aameen!
Tasawwuf can be called the inwardness of Islam. Islam, like most other faiths to a greater or lesser extent, consists firstly of certain beliefs, such as the existence of God, and the coming of the Judgement, and reward and punishment in the next life, and the outward expression of these beliefs in forms of worship, such as prayer and fasting, all of which concern man’s relationship with God; and secondly, a system of morality, which concerns man’s relationship with man, and has its outward expression in certain social institutions and laws, such as marriage, inheritance, and civil and criminal laws. But it is obvious that the basis of this faith, the spirit that gives it life, is man’s relationship with God. Forms of worship are simply the physical vehicles of this relationship, and it is this relationship again which is responsible for the origin, the significance and the ultimate sanction of the principles of morality and their formulation into a specific social and legal system. If the interior converse with the Supreme Being and inspiration from Him are present, then they are comparable to the soul within the body of the exterior religion; if they die away, or in proportion to the extent that they wither or become feeble, the outward form of the faith becomes like a soulless body, which by the inexorable law of nature swiftly succumbs to corruption. It is therefore man’s direct relationship with his Maker which is the breath and life of religion, and it is the study and cultivation of this relationship that the word tasawwuf connotes.
It may be wondered why the words ‘Sufi’, which means ‘woollen-clothed’, and ‘Tasawwuf’, which means the path of the Sufis, i.e. the woollen-clothed ones, should have become so universal in order to denote something which belongs properly to the realm of the spirit. This name is symbolic rather than descriptive. To be a Sufi does not require a person literally to wear woollen clothes, but presumes an inner quality which was at one time characteristic of those who wore them. In the early generations of Islam, through the closeness to the time of the Noble Prophet (peace be upon him) and the illumination of his incomparable spirituality, which encompassed so completely the inner and the outer, the comprehension of the inwardness of Islam enwrapped in its outward expressions was so general that no group of people who devoted themselves specially to this aspect of the faith was distinguishable. It was only when the inevitable course of development of human affairs began to run and the original trunk of universality began to throw out branches of specialisation, that Islamic knowledge was progressively divided into the interior and the exterior, and the general word ilm (knowledge) began to denote more the academic study of the Qur’an, Hadith and Fiqh than their spiritual content, contrary to its Qur’anic use in the sense of ‘knowledge of Allah’. At this stage that body of Muslims who devoted themselves more particularly to the cultivation of the spiritual heritage of their Prophet (peace be upon him), began to use the termMa‘rifat (Recognition of Allah) and arif (One who recognises Allah) to denote this inward aspect of knowledge, and indeed still do to the present day. So it was possible that instead of being termed Sufis they might have been called Ahl-i Ma‘rifat, or Arifin. But not every aspirant to spiritual development is anArif, and the average human mind seeks more the outward badge than the inner reality, which in this case is anyway difficult to describe, so the habit observed in certain Godly persons (in reaction to the excessive luxury of the times) of wearing coarse woollen clothes, which were then the mark of extreme poverty, was taken as the symbol of all those who sought the inner life; and this term’s convenience and simplicity has withstood all the vagaries of time and place throughout the Islamic world.
The visible formulations of Islam are therefore both enlivened by the spiritual and moral force behind them, and so they are the manifestations of this force, and at the same time they are the means of attaining these spiritual and moral quaities; this can be said to constitute their main purpose. Thus these two aspects of Islam are mutually generative, each one producing the other. It can be seen from the Word of Allah, the Qur’an, that wherever something concerning man’s outward actions is decreed, its inward content and purpose is also stressed. Take Prayer for instance; Allah says ‘Observe Prayer for My remembrance’ (20:14); or ‘The believers have attained success; who are humble in their prayers’ (32:1), emphasising that the object of Prayer is not the mere outward performance, but to remember Him with a humble heart. In the case of fasting, Allah says, ‘Fasting has been decreed for you, as it was decreed for those who came before you, that you may be God-fearing.’ (2:183) Regarding sacrifice on the occasion of Pilgrimage, He says: ‘It is not their blood or their flesh which reaches Him, but the devotion from you.’ (22:37) On the subject of marriage: ‘It is one of His signs that He has made for you mates of your own kind that you may find peace in them, and He has created affection and kindness between you.’ (30:24) On spending for the poor: ‘They (the righteous) give food to the needy, the orphan and the prisoner, for the love of Him; they say: We feed for the sake of Allah only, and desire no reward or thanks from you.’ (76:8,9) If we reflect on these and other similar indications in the Qur’an, we are led to the conclusion that if it is necessary to observe the outward ordinances of our faith, it is equally necessary to develop within ourselves those qualities which are their soul; that these two are complementary and one cannot exist in a sound state without the other. When the word ‘Shari‘at’ is used, one immediately calls to mind the basic beliefs of Islam, without which a person cannot be reckoned a Muslim, and the external decrees comprising forms of worship, rules of behaviour, and civil and criminal laws. In short, it is the outwardness of Islam which is normally referred to by this term. But we have seen that within this outer Shari‘at there exists an inner Shari‘at of equal importance, which constitutes both its inspiration and its goal. Like the word ‘ilm’ (Knowledge) which originally comprised both the inward realisation of divine truths as well as outward knowledge of Islamic tenets, the term ‘Shari‘at’ (the road) should really include the devotion of the heart to Allah as well as the specific beliefs, and the attainment of moral excellence as well as submission to the law. But just as ‘ilm’ came to mean only book-knowledge, so ‘Shari‘at’ came to mean only the law; as a result, the Sufis, the devotees of the spirit of Islam, began to use the word ‘Ma‘rifat’ for the inner relationship with God, and in place of the word ‘Shari‘at’, they chose the word ‘tariqat’ (the Path) to denote the way to spiritual perfection. Just as the outer shari‘at consists of two parts, belief and practice, so also does this inner shari‘at manifest itself in two main fields.
The first is man’s attitude to his Maker. From the Qur’an and the teachings of the Noble Prophet (peace be upon him) we learn that this attitude should be inspired by love, hope, fear, gratitude, patience, trust, self-sacrifice and complete devotion; and that He should be felt to be constantly near. This is the inwardness of belief. The second is man’s attitude to his fellow men: Allah and his Prophet (peace be upon him) have taught us that this should be inspired by sympathy, justice, kindness, unselfishness, generosity, sternness on matters of principle, leniency wherever possible, and that we must avoid pride, jealousy, malice, greed, selfishness, miserliness and ill-nature. These qualities will not be found explained in the books of Fiqh; it required a group of people distinct from the jurists to determine and develop the science of the soul. Of these two parts of the inner Shari‘at, it is the first, i.e. man’s relationship with God, which is the root, the moral attitude of man towards his fellows being derived from it. It is the realisation that all men are creatures of the One God, and that He wishes us to treat them with mercy and kindness, and at times justice, which should reflect His own sublime qualities, and that if we succeed in this we shall win His pleasure, that is the real basis of morality. Some have made the mistake of imagining that morality can exist by itself without the foundation of religion, and have tried to promulgate a non-religious ethical code as a substitute for faith. This is nothing but a mental illusion. It comes about in this way: through the medium of religious teaching, a certain moral outlook permeates a whole society, and colours not only the specifically religious life, but education and social customs and habits of thinking and acting. When at a later stage some people take to agnosticism and rebel against the established faith, they are unable to separate themselves from this moral attitude which has now become the very stuff of their mental being. Without realising the origin of their morality, they fall into the error of considering it self-existent, and imagine that they can reform society by simply calling upon people to be ethical. But it is a matter of observation that such inherited moral attitudes, when cut off from the tree of religion to which they owe their being, very quickly decay, and it is not long before the very basis of morality is questioned and finally denied, and non-moral philosophies are openly proclaimed. By contrast, the morality based on faith in God, derived from a revealed Book and given life by the consciousness of Divine pleasure, has in it the seeds not of decay but of growth and fruition.
That it is man’s inner relationship with Allah which gives meaning and value to his outward expression of belief and the performance of his religious duties is asserted most pointedly in one of the most famous sayings of the Noble Prophet (peace be upon him). The following incident is reported by Omar, the second Khalifa.
‘We were sitting with the Messenger of Allah one day when a man appeared with very white clothes and very black hair, with no signs of travel upon him. None of us recognised him. He came and sat before the Prophet (peace be upon him) with his knees touching his knees, and his hands placed on his thighs. He then said: ‘O Muhammad, tell me, what is Islam?’ The Prophet replied: ‘Islam is that you testify that there is no god but Allah, and that Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah, and that you establish prayer, and Zakat, fast the month of Ramadan, and make the pilgrimage to the House of Allah if you are able.’ The man said: ‘You are right’, and we wondered that he both asked and confirmed the answer. Then he said: ‘what is Iman?’ The Prophet replied: ‘Iman is that you believe in Allah, His Angels, His Books, His Messengers and the Last Day, and that you believe in the predestination of good and evil.’ The man said: ‘You are right. Now tell me what is Ihsan (good performance)?’ The Prophet replied: ‘That you worship Allah as if you are seeing Him and if you do not see Him, He surely sees you.’’
Then after asking about the Last Day, the man left, and the Noble Prophet (peace be upon him) informed his companions that this was the Angel Gabriel who came to teach them their religion.
Here the word Ihsan, which means to perform something in the best manner, is explained as ‘the worship of Allah as if you are seeing Him, and if you do not see Him, He surely sees you.’ This means that the consciousness of the presence of Allah, and the feeling of Love and awe which accompany it, must permeate both our faith and practice (Iman and Islam) and it is in proportion to this consciousness that our excellence in religion can be judged. Clearly this sense of presence is not to be confined only to worship, but to all our actions (one version of the above incident, in fact, has ‘to work for Allah as if you are seeing Him’). It is precisely this awareness of the nearness and presence of Allah that the Sufis have as their ultimate goal in all their activities.
So far we have been speaking of the Muslims’ relationship with Allah in a general way. But Tasawwuf has a more specific content, that is to say, it aims at bringing the novice to the direct spiritual experience. The fountainhead of Islam (a fact which is often forgotten) is the direct spiritual experience of the Noble Prophet (peace be upon him) by means of which the message of God was conveyed to man. This spiritual experience had many forms, and was continuous throughout the period of the Prophet’s prophethood, starting from the initial vision of the Angel when the call to the divine mission was sounded, and persisting throughout the inspiration of the Divine Book, with other manifestations such as Hadith Qudsi (Divine inspirations apart from the Qur’an itself) and revelations of the next world. It is illustrated particularly in the Mi‘raj (the Ascension), which culminates in the vision of the Supreme Reality. When the essence of prophethood is the spiritual experience, it would be strange indeed if some portion of this aspect of the prophetic life were not inherited by the Prophet’s companions and those who followed them. So we find a tradition of spiritual experience alongside that of the more obvious branches of religious teaching concerned with beliefs and practices. In the early stages it was not considered proper to publish such experiences and considerable reticence was observed; it was thought sufficient only to hint at them. As time passed, reticence was lessened and gradually the science of Tasawwuf was outwardly formulated, although the very nature of these most inward matters makes some reticence inevitable at all times.
Abu Huraira, one of the intimate companions of the Prophet (peace be upon him) used to say: ‘I acquired two vessels from the Messenger of Allah (peace be upon him), one of which I published; but if I published the other my throat would be cut.’ This is an interesting allusion to the danger of making a show of spiritual experience before those who do not understand them. If the experiences are believed, then some people out of ignorance are inclined to raise the one who is spiritually gifted almost to divinity, if not to make him into God Himself. If they are disbelieved, the doubters become guilty of denying what is true, and deprive themselves of certain special benefits which it is the Will of God that they should have. This is the reason why ‘sufis’ have always counselled great caution in the matter of describing some of their spiritual states in detail as these can only be appreciated in the tasting, and not in the description. In spite of the obvious references in the Qur’an, the Hadiths and the lives of the companions, some have tried to deny this spiritual heritage of the Noble Prophet (peace be upon him) and claim that the early Muslims were only ‘ascetics’ and not ‘mystics’. But to perceive spirituality where it exists is not given to everyone, even to perceive it at all; let it suffice to say that the extraordinary dedication to Allah and His Prophet (peace be upon him) and their commands by the leading companions and followers would be inexplicable without a profound spiritual experience.
I have said that in the early period the outer and the inner aspects of Islam, that is, the outward observance and its spiritual content, were not divided but formed a homogeneous whole, but as time passed and specialised knowledge increased, it became necessary and inevitable that a body of Muslims should devote themselves more particularly to the inwardness of Islam which came to be known as Tasawwuf. If we consider the development of Tasawwuf as a science, that is the science of the soul, we find that it provides a close comparison with the development of other sciences based on the principle of the Divine Book and the life of Allah’s Messenger (peace be upon him). To take the science of Hadith as an example, we find that during the first century, which was the time of the Companions and the followers, things remained very much in the original form of personal teaching from those who sat in the company of the Great Ones, with little sign of elaboration and formalisation. During the second century we begin to find a more or less comprehensive collection and criticism, which culminate in the third century in critical recensions based on now thoroughly elaborated and determined principles. In the case of Fiqh we find a similar process; after the first century of the direct and practical teaching of the companions and followers, the second century produces elaborate compendia of legal decisions and the formulation of principles of jurisprudence which again by the third century had been built up into a relatively independent science. Tasawwuf, too, was constructed into a spiritual science on the firm foundations of the spiritual heritage of the Prophet of God; here again, the elaboration begins in the second century in the recorded sayings and treatises and books of the early Sufis, and in the third century Tasawwufappears as a fully developed and formulated spiritual science. It is just as gratuitous to talk critically of later innovation in the matter of Tasawwuf as it is in the matter of Fiqh, Hadith and Tafsir. There is a world of difference between elaborations and innovations, which people with muddled minds find difficult to distinguish.
Although the development of Tasawwuf can be historically compared with that of the other sciences, there is an intrinsic superiority in Tasawwuf which should be well remembered. This superiority lies in that the expansion of the science of spiritual development is based on experience and direct observation confirmed in its broad pattern by thousands of travellers on the upward path of the soul, whereas the other sciences mainly owe their formulation to reason and conjecture. All, of course, are founded on tradition, that is, the Qur’an and its living commentary by the Noble Prophet (peace be upon him) and his followers, but the process of later elaboration has this fundamental difference. It cannot be contested that direct experience, especially when it is common to large numbers of people, is a vastly more authoritative source of knowledge than rational speculation. For instance, after the data provided by revelation and tradition the chief instrument in the development of Fiqh is Qiyas (analogy) or Ra’y (opinion). The main pillar of the science of Hadith is Jarh and Ta‘dil, which means the critical examination of the reliability of the reporters of a certain Hadith in addition to its subject matter. Obviously these processes are rational and speculative. The development of Tasawwuf, however, has consisted in the progressively more detailed expounding of the spiritual experience constituting the inner heritage of the Noble Prophet (peace be upon him) and has no content of conjecture and opinion. This vital element has resulted in a remarkable unanimity among the proponents of this science throughout the ages, and whatever differences that exist are those of emphasis or mode of expression and do not show any real cleavage in the essential unity.
We have already alluded to the function of Tasawwuf, which is to perfect the relationship of man first with his God, and secondly with his fellow men. Now it is obvious that only very few people have the call to devote themselves entirely to spirituality and become, as it were, specialists in the inner life. This appears to be the result of some innate urge which so drives those who possess it as not to allow them to follow any other vocation. This is not to say that even these specially gifted few entirely abandon all usual worldly activities. On the contrary, we find in Islam, in distinction from other religious communities, that its greatest scientists of the soul were mostly married, had children and conducted their household and similar affairs like other men. It is another matter that during the period of training for spiritual development a certain retirement, either total or partial, is usually required, as indeed it is during the acquirement of other branches of specialist learning. It is also true that even after reaching expertness many of the Islamic spiritualists paid very little attention to the earning of their livelihood and spent their whole time in teaching and giving solace, help and encouragement to the common people. Their physical wants were looked after by their pupils and admirers, as was the practice until recently even in the case of those who taught children how to read and write. In this deliberate neglect of their own material needs in order to devote themselves more unhamperedly to their mission, they observed the utmost selflessness and resignation to Allah, and never expressly or by implication gave any sign of the poverty or even hunger which they often had to undergo. If they neglected the world, it was only as far as their own wants were concerned; they never neglected the wants of those who came to them for spiritual nourishment, or even for physical nourishment if they had any to spare, for in addition to being at the service of those who were hungry for the things of the soul, they often conducted public kitchens for the feeding of the poor, and engaged themselves in the healing of the sick in body as well as those who were sick in spirit, as is well-known to those who have studied their lives.
Just as spiritual specialists are few by the nature of things, so also the number of the pupils who shape their lives in close conformity to those of their masters is also very small. These selected followers are those who, having the inner call, are later charged with the duty of carrying on the work of teaching and exhortation in a new generation. But the majority of those who visit these inheritors of the more inward traditions of Islam are those who, while engaged in their daily vocations, wish to refresh themselves from the toils of the world at the pure springs of sincerity and devotion which they find so abundant with the Sufis. It is here that we see the influence of the Sufis working and giving new life to the whole wide land of the community. The ordinary men and women who spend a part of their time with the Sufis acquire some measure of inspiration for their spiritual and moral betterment, and to this measure their whole lives are affected. It is the spiritual orientation and the moral attitude which constitute the fountain-head of human thought, and so of human action. Events in man’s history, and the growth, flourishing, and decay of peoples, can always be traced back to these inner sources. The contact of people of the world with the Sufis, whether they be kings, princes, captains, merchants, administrators, artisans or peasants, indirectly affects the whole movement of the nation along the uneven road of time. It is from these most intimate wells of inspiration that a certain quality is given to the thought and life of a whole culture; what a pity that some superficial intellects are unable to perceive these undercurrents of history. Economics, politics, and social life are all controlled by the mental processes of man; he can only ignore at his peril these deep directive forces from which his mental processes emerge. The apparent obscurity and detachment of the Sufi conceal an activity of radical importance to the whole Muslim nation.
(The writer (1915-1978) was an English convert to Islam who became a Shaykh of the Tariqa Chishtiyya, living a life of simplicity in Karachi, Pakistan, where his holiness gained him the love and devotion of thousands of Muslims from all walks of life. May Allah show him His mercy, and grant him light in his grave. Amin.)