Imam Abū Hāmid Al-Ghazzāli in his Deliverance from Error talks about having investigated all the intellectual discourses in order to find certainty. The only discourse he couldn’t intellectually comprehend was that of the Sufīs. He read their books and tried to figure it out, but eventually acknowledged that this was one discourse that can’t be intellectualized – it must be realized. That’s the meaning of his statement:
فعلمت يقينا أنهم أرباب الأحوال، لا أصحاب الأقوال
I knew with certainty that they [Sufis] are people of states, not people of statements
Islam is a tradition about obtaining a state. This is embedded within the name of the religion, which unlike others is not named after a person or location. It’s a state where those who see you are automatically reminded of God. If the only way you remind people of God is through your tongue, know that your state hasn’t really been transformed by the statements you utter. People ask what Sufism is, wondering if it’s about dancing and whirling or asking dead people in their graves for blessings or just hanging out with the brothers or sisters and singing nasheeds. It’s none of that. Sufism is the transformation of Sharīa (outward practices of Islam) into Haqīqa (inward reality of Islam). It’s the transition from statements into states. It’s the movement of knowledge from your brain into your heart. It’s the transformation of seeing the world using your sight into seeing it using your insight. It’s the beginning of an intellectual acknowledgement of Nothing Worthy of Worship Except God (Lā Ilāha Illa Allah) and ending with complete consciousness of that acknowledgement with your whole being (to worship God as if you see Him and if you don’t see Him know that He sees you).
It’s unfortunate that many Muslims have developed a type of allergy towards anything that carries the scent of Sufism. This is in much the same way that many Muslims have also developed a type of allergy to anything that carries the scent of Salafism. Both of these terms are constantly used by scholars of Islam to indicate different realities – Sufism as that of an internal realization, and Salafism as that of an external one. An important principle in Islamic jurisprudence states that judgment of a thing is a branch of conceptualizing it. If the conceptualization is faulty, it’s highly likely that the judgment is also faulty.
The heart of Sufism is about setting on the path of fulfilling the Quranic commands to leave the outward of sin as well as the inward of it (Al-Anaam 6:120). It’s about having a constant concern over the state of one’s heart, because when all is said and done, only a sound heart will be of benefit (Ash-Shuara’ 26:88). Sufism is about taking the recitation of the Quran with the tongue and turning it into a recitation with the heart. It’s about adhering to the Sharia not because of an ulterior motive of obtaining Paradise or avoiding Hell, but because God is deserving of it. It’s the ultimate realization of the love of God and fearing not His punishment, but His not accepting our always deficient prayer and fasting. It’s the hope that He accepts our repentance for not being able to fulfil his due rights upon us. This type of worship and relationship with God is what Imam An’Nawawi, in his commentary on his 40 Hadith collection, calls the Worship of the Free People as opposed to the Worship of the Slaves or the Worship of the Merchants.
Rābi’a al-‘Adawiyya said in one of her famous supplications:
يا رب إذا كنت أسلمت طمعا في جنتك فاحرمني منها، وإذا كنت أسلمت خوفا من نارك فأدخلني فيها، وإذا أسلمت طمعا في رؤية وجهك الكريم فلا تحرمني منه
O Lord, if I submitted hoping for Your Paradise, then deny me it, and if I submitted out of fear from Your Fire, then enter me into it, and if I submitted out of hope of seeing Your Blessed Countenance then don’t deny me it.
In the current age of Islamic discourse that focuses on the rewards that await the believers and punishments that await the transgressors, this supplication of Rābi’a is usually met with great apprehension. Many have misunderstood it to indicate a belittling of Paradise and Hell. However, what Rabi’a showed here was her complete submission to her Lord, seeking nothing in return but His acceptance. It’s a realization of her answer to a simple, yet profound question: if you knew that Paradise and Hell didn’t exist and once you die you will not come back, would you still worship God?
This language of love is usually lost upon the ones who go through life treating their relationships as balance sheets with assets and liabilities. Meanwhile they forget the verses praising those who seek the highest calling:
ومن أحسن دينا ممن أسلم وجهه لله وهو محسن
And who has a better religion than one who submits themselves entirely to God while doing good? (An-Nisa’ 4:125)
ولا تطرد الذين يدعون ربهم بالغدوة والعشي يريدون وجهه
And do not drive away those who call upon their Lord in the morning and the evening, they desire only His favour. (Al-Anaam 6:52)
واصبر نفسك مع الذين يدعون ربهم بالغدوة والعشي يريدن وجهه
And withhold yourself with those who call on their Lord morning and evening desiring His goodwill. (Al-Kahf 18:28)
ومن يسلم وجهه إلى الله وهو محسن فقد استمسك بالعروة الوثقى
And whoever submits themselves wholly to God while doing excellent work has indeed taken hold of the firmest thing upon which one can lay hold
True knowledge of God, and in turn awe of Him – This is the final end every Muslim is seeking. When looking upon the world, most people are amazed by its harmony, balance, and overall beauty. Sufism is about turning that amazement by the Creation into amazement by the Creator. A Sufī is one who doesn’t see the effects or the material causes of these effects. A Sufī sees the efficient cause behind it all. Rather than seeing it as a creation, a Sufī sees it as a manifestation of the attributes of God. Sufism is the path of transcendence from the physical to the metaphysical, and seeing the metaphysical within the physical. A Sufī is at heart a Salafi who adheres to Sharīa as a means to attaining this Haqīqa.
There is a lovely story from the life of the Prophet Muhammad, remembering that a mysterious visitor came upon him and his companions. The visitor, later revealed to be the archangel Gabriel, proceeded to sit intimately next to Muhammad and quiz the Prophet. He asked Muhammad about three increasingly higher and deeper levels of religiosity, which the Prophet answered sequentially as Islam (wholehearted submission to God), Faith and, lastly, Loveliness (ihsan). This third quality the Prophet identified as worshipping God as if we could see the Divine, and if we cannot, to always remember that God nevertheless sees us.
The sequence is fascinating, as it reveals that what we think of as Islam (the attestation to Divine Unity, the performance of the prayers, the pilgrimage to Mecca, the paying of the alms tax, the fast of Ramadan) mark only the very first layer — though the foundational layer — of religiosity. Above that is faith, and above faith is the spiritual and mystical layer of spiritual beauty, for ihsan is literally the realm of actualizing and realizing beauty and loveliness (husn), of bringing beauty into this world and connecting it to God, who is the All-Beautiful.
Throughout Islamic history, this realm of ihsan was most emphatically pursued by the mystics of Islam, the Sufis. Historically, this mystical realm of Islam formed a powerful companion to the legal dimension of Islam (sharia). Indeed, many of the mystics of Islam were also masters of legal and theological realms. The cultivation of inward beauty and outward righteous action were linked in many of important Islamic institutions. In comparing Islam with Judaism, the mystical dimension of Islam was much more prominently widespread than Kabbalah. And unlike the Christian tradition, the mysticism of Islam was not cloistered in monasteries. Sufis were — and remain — social and political agents who went about seeking the Divine in the very midst of humanity.
After the Prophet Muhammad, many of the most influential of all Muslims were and remain mystics. Mawlana Jalal al-Din Balkhi, known to Turks as Mevlana and to Americans as Rumi, remains the most beloved of all Sufi poets, whose Masnavi was perhaps the only work ever compared directly with the Quran. Ibn ‘Arabi, the Spanish Muslim sage, remains the most widely read metaphysician, and his school of “Unity of Being” (Wahdat al-wujud) has been both influential and controversial from Spain to Indonesia. The most important Muslim theologian, al-Ghazali, identified the realm of Sufism as the highest Islamic quest for knowledge, one that dealt most directly with other-worldly matters.
Nor was the practice of Islamic mysticism limited to intellectuals and poets. At the level of popular practice, some of the Sufi shrines received as many (if not more) annual visitors that the Mecca does for the Hajj pilgrimage. Entire Muslim-majority regions (Iran, Turkey, South Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa, etc.) came to develop understandings of Islam that are and remain inseparable from mystical understandings of Islam. Much of the higher dimensions of Islamic aesthetics (calligraphy and poetry) have been inseparable from Sufism.
And yet, today, the word “Sufi” is a highly suspect one for many modern Muslims, and even thinkers and preachers whose frameworks and anecdotes are permeated with those of the mystical dimension of Islam eschew the mere mention of the word Sufi, either not wanting to alienate their suspicious audience or not wishing to “erode” their authority by connecting their teachings to anything other than the Quran and the example of the Prophet.
So how did such a powerful and beautiful dimension of Islam come to be viewed with such suspicion by so many Muslims?
The marginalization of Sufism came about through an initially unlikely perfect storm, an alliance of European Orientalists and conservative/modernist Muslims, whose agenda in demarcating Islam from Sufism ironically supports that of certain New-Agey Universalists who sought to extract Sufism out of Islam. Let’s explore this somewhat odd association a bit more closely.
The Orientalist scholars (whose approach began in Europe and dominated much of the American scholarly engagement with Islam) based their approach on a study of Islam that privileged “classical” legal and theological Arabic texts from 800-1100 C.E. Of all those texts, the most important ones were held to be the ones closest historically to the “foundational” period. The Orientalists became interested in Sufism very early on, almost as early as their translations of the Quran. They found themselves attracted to the deep beauty and wisdom of Sufi poetry, particularly from Persian. Quite inconveniently for them, they were also committed to a bifurcated view that divided the world into Semitic (Arabs and Jews, characterized primarily by law, monotheism, and dry deserts) and Indo-Europeans (Hindus, Europeans and Iranians, who lived through philosophy, art, mysticism and logic). The Orientalists had no problem thinking that entire blocks of humanity share certain “mentalities” and “temperaments” connected to their languages. Even though they admired the poetry of mystics like Sa’di, Hafez and Rumi, they could not admit that Muslims (who were “Semitic” after all) could come up with such beauty, mysticism and poetry. Therefore, the Orientalists decreed that Sufism must be “un-Islamic” and due to Christian, Persian, Hindu or Neoplatonic “influences” — anything but Islam, anything but the experience of Prophet Muhammad in encountering God, which is what the Sufis have always claimed as the primary source of their inspiration!
The Muslim conservative/modernists (what we broadly refer to as the Salafi tradtion) came to have a profound distrust of what might be termed “the tradition(s) of Islam,” believing that the historical tradition of Islamic scholarship — and the scholars who had been the authoritative interpreters of Islam — were increasingly irrelevant to the historical trials and tribulations through which 19th and 20th century Muslims were suffering. They wanted to remain pious and observant Muslims, but believed that the way to return to the “glory days” of Islam was to “return” to the original spirit of vitality and authenticity of Islam, before the influence of “foreign ideas” crept into Islam, sapping its authenticity. These foreign ideas they equated both culturally (the contribution of Persians, Indians, Turks, etc.) and intellectually (the traditions of philosophy, mysticism and all non-scriptural sciences).
The idea for the Muslim modernists was that the remedy for Islam consisted of a textual return “away from the blemishes … of the later phases” back to “yearning for truth” of the founders of Islam. In this, they found themselves oddly in full-agreement with the orientalists. They came to be suspicious of many traditions of Islamic thought and practice that developed through time, including that of Sufism. Perhaps most polemically, they identified Sufism as having contributed to a corrupt and inward-looking mentality that allowed the colonial powers to dominate Muslims. Throughout Islamic history, particular Sufi ideas and practices (such as the “Unity of Being,” certain meditation techniques and commemoration of the Prophet’s birthday) had always been contested by other Muslims. It was in this modern and modernist context that the whole of Islamic mysticism came to be viewed with great suspicion as being un-Islamic if not outright anti-Islamic.
So where do the New Agers come into play? It was only in the 20th century that human beings became capable of uttering a sentence like “I’m not religious, I’m spiritual.” Historically all religious traditions have had mystical dimensions, and their mystical traditions have arisen within the very depth of each tradition, partaking of its key symbols and emulating the spiritual experiences of its main exemplars. It was in this modern context that a deep and new suspicion of the outward forms and institutions of religion was cultivated, with people who believed that they were on the edge (or already inside) a “New Age” of human consciousness. It was these new Agers who, dissatisfied with their own experiences of Judaism and Christianity, turned “East” to the mystical traditions of Buddhism, Hindu traditions and Islam to obtain the mystical truth that they so yearned for — without necessarily wanting to adopt the legal and institutional aspects of those traditions. In many cases, the engagements were complicated by colonial politics, as the “eastern” traditions of wisdom were connected to colonized countries that many of the same Westerners looked down upon, even as they were fascinated by them.
So what we have had for the last few decades is a situation of Orientalists and Salafi Muslims seeking to construct a “real Islam” that is untainted by Sufi dimensions, and many new agers seek to extract a mysticism that stands above and disconnected from wider, broader and deeper aspects of Islam.
Yes we have learned that the human yearning for the Divine, for beauty, for love and for loveliness is too deeply engrained in the human spirit to be partitioned off or exiled. Today, many Muslims world-wide are increasingly dissatisfied with what they see as dry as stale bread interpretations and practices of Islam, and want — and demand — something more spiritual and more beautiful. They know about the deep spiritual experience of the Prophet Muhammad, who came face to face with God, and they too yearn for their own spiritual experiences.
All Muslims seek to emulate the Prophet Muhammad. The Quran reminds them that if you love God, follow Muhammad. The mystically oriented among Muslims take the emulation a bit more literally: If Muhammad arose to have his own face-to-face encounter with the Divine, they too aspire to rise in the footsteps of the Prophet, to have their own meeting with God. As it was said of the great Rumi, they too want to be “off-springs of the soul of Muhammad.”
Omid Safi is a Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina. He is the Co-Chair of the Islamic Mysticism Group at the American Academy of Religion, and the author of ‘Memories of Muhammad: Why the Prophet Matters’ (HarperOne, 2009).
From Sheikh Zaid Shakir’s New Islamic Directions
The sayings gathered here, entitled Wisdom, are extracted from, Alerting The Self Deceived, a book written by the great Islamic scholar and mystic, Abdul Wahhab ash-Sha’rani, d. 973 AH/ 1565 AD. In this book Ash-Sha’rani gathers the aphorisms of the early pious scholars of the Islamic tradition as part of an effort to demonstrate to his contemporaries the lofty religious and human character of their spiritual ancestors. In writing this book, Ash-Sha’rani hoped to encourage the sincere seekers of spiritual excellence to redouble their efforts by reflecting on the way of their righteous predecessors, just as he intended to expose as fraudulent those who claimed to be spiritual guides, but were themselves far removed from the path trod by the luminaries whose words he highlights in the book.
By making these sayings available to the English-speaking public, we intend to encourage the Muslim to reflect on the great spiritual legacy bequeathed to us by our righteous forebears, and to begin to live that legacy, while simultaneously encouraging the non-Muslim to look beyond the propagandistic rhetoric that presents Islam as an empty purveyor of irrational violence. These sayings should help all to understand that Islam is a great world religion that has left a deep and indelible, beautifying mark on human history.
Imam Zaid Shakir
Part One: Sincerity in Religious Acts.
1. Wahb b. Munabbih would say: “Whoever seeks worldly advancement through his religious acts, God will invert his heart and record him amongst the people destined for Hell.”
2. Al-Hasan al-Basri relates that Jesus, Peace upon Him, said: “Whoever endeavors to implements his religious knowledge is a true friend of God.”
3. Sufyan b. Tahwri used to say: “My mother advised me: ‘My son! Only seek religious knowledge if you intend to implement it. Otherwise, it will be a source of torment for you on the Day of Resurrection.’ ”
4. Dhun-Nun al-Misri was asked: “When does the servant know that he is sincere in religion?” He replied: “When he asserts himself to the fullest in worship while desiring to gain no esteem with the people because of that.”
5. Muhammad b. al-Munkadir used to say: “I love to see the brothers being at their very best during the night [in humble devotion] for surely that is nobler than being at ones very best during the day. The reason for this is that during the day one is seen by people while during the night one is seen by the Lord of the Worlds.” Read more…
By Sheikh Hamza Yusuf
An Interview with Shaykh Hamza Yusuf by Nazim Baksh
Q: The convenient response to those who revile your religion is to return the favor. The more virtuous position however is to forgive. Forgiveness as you know, while less in virtue when compared to love, nevertheless, can result in love. Love, by definition, does not require forgiveness. What many Muslims today seem to forget is that ours is a religion of love and our Prophet, peace be upon him, was the Habib, the Beloved. How did love, the defining virtue of our community, come to be replaced by an urge to redress wrongs, to punish instead of to forgive?
From Seeker’s Digest
Sufism is a knowledge through which one knows the states of the human soul, praiseworthy or blameworthy, how to
purify it from the blameworthy and ennoble it by acquiring the praiseworthy, and to journey and proceed to Allah Most High, fleeing unto Him. Its fruits are the heart’s development, knowledge of God through direct experience and ecstasy, salvation in the next world, triumph through gaining Allah’s pleasure, the attainment of eternal happiness, and illuminating and purifying the heart so that noble matters disclose themselves, extraordinary states are revealed,
and one perceives what the insight of others is blind to.
– Muhammad Amin Kurdi