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.
People were always asking me what I was going to do after I retired from boxing. My response then was as it is now: During my boxing career, you did not see the real Muhammad Ali. You just saw a little boxing and a little showmanship. It was after I retired from boxing that my true work began. I had more time then to develop my spiritual being the way that I once developed my muscles and agility.
When I look at the world, I see that many people build big beautiful houses but live in broken homes. We spend more time learning how to make a living than we do learning to make a life. What I hope to share with you are the beliefs that I have come to live by: Many of the philosophies, stories, and ideals that have touched my soul and inspired my heart I learned from my study of Islam. I have shared this knowledge with my family and friends; now I offer it to the world.
Over the years my religion has changed and my spirituality has evolved. Religion and spirituality are very different, but people often confuse the two. Some things cannot be taught, but they can be awakened in the heart. Spirituality is recognizing the divine light that is within us all. It doesn’t belong to any particular religion; it belongs to everyone.
People have asked me if I still work on my faith. The truth is, I can talk all day about my faith because more than anything else in my life, I believe in God. If all of the oceans on Earth were ink, and all of the trees were pens, they still would not be sufficient to write down the knowledge God has. Knowing that God has power like that keeps me humble. The more I study about God and Islam, the more I realize how little I know. So, I am still studying, and I’m still learning because there’s nothing as great as working for God.
Truly great people in history never wanted to be great for themselves. All they wanted was the chance to do good for others and be close to God. I’m not perfect. I know that I still have things to work out, and I’m working on them. There are certain things I have done that I am not proud of, especially when they caused pain to others. I ask God for forgiveness.
No matter where I go, everybody recognizes my face and knows my name. People love and admire me; they look up to me. That’s a lot of power and influence for one man to have, so I know I have a responsibility to use my fame the right way. That’s one of the reasons I’ve always tried to be good to everyone no matter their color, religion, or position in life. Though some people may see themselves as better or more important than others, in God’s eyes we are all equal, and it’s what is in our hearts that matters.
People say that I gave away too much money during my boxing career. They write about how some people took advantage of me, stole from me, and how I let them get away with it. Even when I knew people were cheating me, what was important was how I behaved, because I have to answer to God. I can’t be responsible for other people’s actions: They will have to answer to God themselves. Throughout my life, I never sought retribution against those who hurt me because I believe in forgiveness. I have practiced forgiving, just as I want to be forgiven. Only God knows what’s in a person’s heart, his true intentions. He sees and hears all things.
Many people around me had their hands out, and I tried to help as many of them as I could. There’s nothing wrong with that. I gave to people in need, even when I could have used the money myself, because God had made me rich enough. Now, as I look back, it seems that the more I gave in the name of God, the more he has given back to me. I try not to speak about the charities and people I help, because I believe we can only be truly generous when we expect nothing in return.
At night when I go to bed, I ask myself, “If I don’t wake up tomorrow, would I be proud of how I lived today.” With that question in mind, I have tried to do as many good deeds as I can, whether it is standing up for my faith, signing an autograph, or simply shaking a person’s hand. I’m just trying to make people happy and get into heaven.
My concept of religion has broadened over the years. My mother was a Baptist, and my father was a Methodist. They both believed that Jesus was the son of God. I don’t believe that, but I believe he was an important prophet like Moses. I believe that on judgment day, my parents will be in heaven, not because they were without fault, but because they were decent, loving human beings, and they believed in God. We all have the same God, we just serve him differently. Rivers, lakes, ponds, streams, oceans, all have different names, but they all contain water. So do religions have different names, and they all contain truth, expressed in different ways, forms, and times. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a Muslim, a Christian, or a Jew. When you believe in God, you should believe that all people are part of one family. If you love God, you can’t love only some of his children.
This book is a reflection of my life, it describes some of my most memorable experiences, and tells the story of how I came to be the man I am today. I have come a long way since I started boxing. I’ve traveled all around the world and met all types of people. I believe that God beautified the planet by spreading everyone out and making us different. The goal of our nations should be to work on understanding, respecting our differences, and celebrating our similarities. We should appreciate the beauty in the diversity. It would be a boring world, if every flower were the same shape, color, and size.
One of the most important aspects of my spirituality has been gradually recognizing all of the moments in my life when God was working through me, inside and outside the ring. Growing up, I had trouble reading and spelling. I barely graduated from high school. They have a name for what I have, dyslexia. But back when I was in school, teachers figured that kids with learning difficulties were stupid. School was challenging for me, but I found a way to work it out. When I came to a brick wall, I didn’t give up and quit; I found my way around, under, or over it. I found a way to work with what God gave me. When I read or hear something that I think is valuable, something that speaks to me of the world as I feel it, I focus on those parts. I memorize them. When something seems true to me, it becomes part of me. That is how I learn.
I felt God was always working through me. He filled me with wisdom, confidence, self-assurance, and awareness. I studied life and I studied people. I may be poor at reading and writing, but when it comes to love, compassion, and other feelings of the heart, I am rich. There is an old saying that I’ve recited over the years. It goes like this: “Where is man’s wealth? His wealth is in his knowledge. If his wealth is in the bank, he doesn’t possess it.” My wealth is in my knowledge of self, love, and spirituality. I’ve tried to use my knowledge to be a good representative of my people. I can’t be blind, because if the blind lead the blind they all fall into a ditch.
My soul has grown over the years, and some of my views have changed. As long as I’m alive, I will continue to try to understand more because the work of the heart is never done. All through my life I have been tested. My will has been tested, my courage has been tested, my strength has been tested. Now my patience and endurance are being tested. Every step of the way I believe that God has been with me. And, more than ever, I know that he is with me now. I have learned to live my life one step, one breath, and one moment at a time, but it was a long road. I set out on a journey of love, seeking truth, peace, and understanding.
I hope that one day all nations great and small will be able to stand up and say we lived in pursuit of peace for all. Maybe then there will come a day when instead of saying, “God bless America,” or “God bless some other country,” everyone everywhere will say, “God bless the World.”
( Extracted from the book by Muhammad Ali with Hana Yasmeen Ali, The Soul of a Butterfly )
Muhammad Ali (1942 – 2016) – A legend, A humanitarian, A fighter for social equality and justice, A poet, A man who loved all people, A boxer, An athlete, A champion and much more passed away on June 3, 2016 (26 Sha’ban 1437 AH). May God accept him among the most honored of paradise (Ameen).