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The Place of Tasawwuf in Traditional Islam

By Nuh Ha Mim Keller 1995


Perhaps the biggest challenge in learning Islam correctly today is the scarcity of traditional `Ulama. In this meaning, Bukhari relates the sahih, rigorously authenticated hadith that the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) said,


"Truly, Allah does not remove Sacred Knowledge by taking it out of servants, but rather by taking back the souls of Islamic scholars [in death], until, when He has not left a single scholar, the people take the ignorant as leaders, who are asked for and who give Islamic legal opinion without knowledge, misguided and misguiding" (Fath al-Bari,

1.194, hadith 100).


The process described by the hadith is not yet completed, but has certainly begun, and in our times, the lack of traditional scholars—whether in Islamic law, in hadith, in tafsir `Qur'anic exegesis'—has given rise to an understanding of the religion that is far from scholarly, and sometimes far from the truth. For example, in the course of my own studies in Islamic law, my first impression from orientalist and Muslim-reformer literature, was that the Imams of the  madhhabs or `schools of jurisprudence' had brought a set of rules from completely outside the Islamic tradition and somehow imposed them upon the Muslims. But when I sat with traditional scholars in the Middle East and asked them about the details, I came away with a different point of view, having learned the bases for deriving the law from the Qur'an and Sunna.


And similarly with Tasawwuf—which is the word I will use tonight for the English Sufism, since our context is traditional Islam—quite a different picture emerged from talking with scholars of Tasawwuf than what I had been exposed to in the West. My talk tonight, Insha' Allah, will present knowledge taken from the Qur'an and sahih hadith,

and from actual teachers of Tasawwuf in Syria and Jordan, in view of the need for all of us to get beyond clichés, the need for factual information from Islamic sources, the need to answer such questions as: Where did Tasawwuf come from? What role does it play in the din or religion of Islam? And most importantly, what is the command of Allah

About it?


As for the origin of the term Tasawwuf, like many other Islamic disciplines, its name was not known to the first generation of Muslims. The historian Ibn Khaldun notes in his Muqaddima:


This knowledge is a branch of the sciences of Sacred Law that originated within the Ummah. From the first, the way of such people had also been considered the path of truth and guidance by the early Muslim community and its notables, of the Companions of the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace), those who were taught by them,

And those who came after them.


It basically consists of dedication to worship, total dedication to Allah Most High, disregard for the finery and ornament of the world, abstinence from the pleasure, wealth, and prestige sought by most men,

and retiring from others to worship alone. This was the general rule

among the Companions of the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him

peace) and the early Muslims, but when involvement in this-worldly

things became widespread from the second Islamic century onwards and

people became absorbed in worldliness, those devoted to worship came

to be called Sufiyya or People of Tasawwuf (Ibn Khaldun, al-Muqaddima

[N.d. Reprint. Mecca: Dar al-Baz, 1397/1978], 467).


In Ibn Khaldun's words, the content of Tasawwuf, "total dedication to

Allah Most High," was, "the general rule among the Companions of the

Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) and the early Muslims."

So if the word did not exist in earliest times, we should not forget

that this is also the case with many other Islamic disciplines, such

as tafsir, `Qur'anic exegesis,' or `ilm al-jarh wa ta`dil, `the

science of the positive and negative factors that affect hadith

narrators acceptability,' or `ilm al-tawhid, the science of belief in

Islamic tenets of faith,' all of which proved to be of the utmost

importance to the correct preservation and transmission of the religion.


As for the origin of the word Tasawwuf, it may well be from Sufi, the

person who does Tasawwuf, which seems to be etymologically prior to

it, for the earliest mention of either term was by Hasan al-Basri who

Died 110 years after the Hijrah, and is reported to have said, "I saw a

Sufi circumambulating the Kaaba, and offered him a dirham, but he

would not accept it." It therefore seems better to understand Tasawwuf

by first asking what a Sufi is; and perhaps the best definition of

both the Sufi and his way, certainly one of the most frequently quoted

by masters of the discipline, is from the sunna of the Prophet (Allah

bless him and give him peace) who said:


Allah Most High says: "He who is hostile to a friend of Mine I declare

war against. My slave approaches Me with nothing more beloved to Me

than what I have made obligatory upon him, and My slave keeps drawing

nearer to Me with voluntary works until I love him. And when I love

him, I am his hearing with which he hears, his sight with which he

sees, his hand with which he seizes, and his foot with which he walks.

If he asks me, I will surely give to him, and if he seeks refuge in

Me, I will surely protect him" (Fath al-Bari, 11.340–41, hadith 6502);


This hadith was related by Imam Bukhari, Ahmad ibn Hanbal, al-Bayhaqi,

and others with multiple contiguous chains of transmission, and is

sahih. It discloses the central reality of Tasawwuf, which is

precisely change, while describing the path to this change, in

conformity with a traditional definition used by masters in the Middle

East, who define a Sufi as Faqihun `amila bi `ilmihi fa awrathahu

Llahu `ilma ma lam ya`lam,`A man of religious learning who applied

what he knew, so Allah bequeathed him knowledge of what he did not know.'


To clarify, a Sufi is a man of religious learning, because the hadith

says, "My slave approaches Me with nothing more beloved to Me than

What I have made obligatory upon him," and only through learning can

The Sufi know the command of Allah, or what has been made obligatory

For him. He has applied what he knew, because the hadith says he not

Only approaches Allah with the obligatory, but "keeps drawing nearer

To Me with voluntary works until I love him." And in turn, Allah

bequeathed him knowledge of what he did not know, because the hadith

says, "And when I love him, I am his hearing with which he hears, his

sight with which he sees, his hand with which he seizes, and his foot

with which he walks," which is a metaphor for the consummate awareness

of tawhid, or the `unity of Allah,' which in the context of human

actions such as hearing, sight, seizing, and walking, consists of

realizing the words of the Qur'an about Allah that,


"It is He who created you and what you do" (Qur'an 37:96).


The origin of the way of the Sufi thus lies in the prophetic sunna.

The sincerity to Allah that it entails was the rule among the earliest

Muslims, to whom this was simply a state of being without a name,

while it only became a distinct discipline when the majority of the

Community had drifted away and changed from this state. Muslims of

subsequent generations required systematic effort to attain it, and it

was because of the change in the Islamic environment after the

earliest generations, that a discipline by the name of Tasawwuf came

to exist.


But if this is true of origins, the more significant question is: How

central is Tasawwuf to the religion, and: Where does it fit into Islam

as a whole? Perhaps the best answer is the hadith of Muslim, that

`Umar ibn al-Khattab said:


As we sat one day with the Messenger of Allah (Allah bless him and

give him peace), a man in pure white clothing and jet black hair came

to us, without a trace of travelling upon him, though none of us knew him.


He sat down before the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace)

bracing his knees against his, resting his hands on his legs, and

said: "Muhammad, tell me about Islam." The Messenger of Allah (Allah

bless him and give him peace) said: "Islam is to testify that there is

no god but Allah and that Muhammad is the Messenger of Allah, and to

perform the prayer, give zakat, fast in Ramadan, and perform the

pilgrimage to the House if you can find a way."


He said: "You have spoken the truth," and we were surprised that he

should ask and then confirm the answer. Then he said: "Tell me about

true faith (iman)," and the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him

peace) answered: "It is to believe in Allah, His angels, His inspired

Books, His messengers, the Last Day, and in destiny, its good and evil."


"You have spoken the truth," he said, "Now tell me about the

perfection of faith (ihsan)," and the Prophet (Allah bless him and

give him peace) answered: "It is to worship Allah as if you see Him,

and if you see Him not, He nevertheless sees you."


The hadith continues to where `Umar said:


Then the visitor left. I waited a long while, and the Prophet (Allah

bless him and give him peace) said to me, "Do you know, `Umar, who was

the questioner?" and I replied, "Allah and His messenger know best."

He said,


"It was Gabriel, who came to you to teach you your religion" (Sahih

Muslim, 1.37: hadith 8).


This is a sahih hadith, described by Imam Nawawi as one of the hadiths

upon which the Islamic religion turns. The use of din in the last

words of it, Atakum yu`allimukum dinakum, "came to you to teach you

your religion" entails that the religion of Islam is composed of the

three fundamentals mentioned in the hadith: Islam, or external

compliance with what Allah asks of us; Iman, or the belief in the

unseen that the prophets have informed us of; and Ihsan, or to worship

Allah as though one sees Him. The Qur'an says, in Surat Maryam,


"Surely We have revealed the Remembrance, and surely We shall preserve

it" (Qur'an 15:9),


and if we reflect how Allah, in His wisdom, has accomplished this, we

see that it is by human beings, the traditional scholars He has sent

at each level of the religion. The level of Islam has been preserved

and conveyed to us by the Imams of Shari`a or `Sacred Law' and its

ancillary disciplines; the level of Iman, by the Imams of `Aqida or

`tenets of faith'; and the level of Ihsan, "to worship Allah as though

you see Him," by the Imams of Tasawwuf.


The hadith's very words "to worship Allah" show us the interrelation

of these three fundamentals, for the how of "worship" is only known

through the external prescriptions of Islam, while the validity of

this worship in turn presupposes Iman or faith in Allah and the

Islamic revelation, without which worship would be but empty motions;

while the words, "as if you see Him," show that Ihsan implies a human

change, for it entails the experience of what, for most of us, is not

experienced. So to understand Tasawwuf, we must look at the nature of

this change in relation to both Islam and Iman, and this is the main

focus of my talk tonight.


At the level of Islam, we said that Tasawwuf requires Islam,through

`submission to the rules of Sacred Law.' But Islam, for its part,

equally requires Tasawwuf. Why? For the very good reason that the

sunna which Muslims have been commanded to follow is not just the

words and actions of the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace),

but also his states, states of the heart such as Taqwah

`godfearingness,' ikhlas `sincerity,' tawakkul `reliance on Allah,'

rahma `mercy,' tawadu` `humility,' and so on.


Now, it is characteristic of the Islamic ethic that human actions are

not simply divided into two shades of morality, right or wrong; but

rather five, arranged in order of their consequences in the next

world. The obligatory (wajib) is that whose performance is rewarded by

Allah in the next life and whose nonperformance is punished. The

recommended (mandub) is that whose performance is rewarded, but whose

nonperformance is not punished. The permissible (mubah) is

indifferent, unconnected with either reward or punishment. The

offensive (makruh) is that whose nonperformance is rewarded but whose

performance is not punished. The unlawful (haram) is that whose

nonperformance is rewarded and whose performance is punished, if one

dies unrepentant.


Human states of the heart, the Qur'an and sunna make plain to us, come

under each of these headings. Yet they are not dealt with in books of

Fiqh or `Islamic jurisprudence,' because unlike the prayer, zakat, or

Fasting, they are not quantifiable in terms of the specific amount of

them that must be done. But though they are not countable, they are of

the utmost importance to every Muslim. Let's look at a few examples.


(1) Love of Allah. In Surat al-Baqarah of the Qur'an, Allah blames

those who ascribe associates to Allah whom they love as much as they

love Allah. Then He says,


"And those who believe are greater in love for Allah" (Qur'an 2:165),

making being a believer conditional upon having greater love for Allah

than any other.


(2) Mercy. Bukhari and Muslim relate that the Prophet (Allah bless him

and give him peace) said, "Whomever is not merciful to people, Allah

will show no mercy" (Sahih Muslim, 4.1809: hadith 2319), and Tirmidhi

Relates the well authenticated (Hasan) hadith "Mercy is not taken out

of anyone except the damned" (al-Jami` al-sahih, 4.323: hadith 1923).


(3) Love of each other. Muslim relates in his Sahih that the Prophet

(Allah bless him and give him peace) said, "By Him in whose hand is my

Soul, none of you shall enter paradise until you believe, and none of

You shall believe until you love one another . . . ." (Sahih Muslim,

1.74: hadith 54).


(4) Presence of mind in the prayer (Salat). Abu Dawud relates in his

Sunan that `Ammar ibn Yasir heard the Prophet (Allah bless him and

give him peace) say, "Truly, a man leaves, and none of his prayer has

been recorded for him except a tenth of it, a ninth of it, eighth of

it, seventh of it, sixth of it, fifth of it, fourth of it, third of

it, a half of it" (Sunan Abi Dawud, 1.211: hadith 796)—meaning that

none of a person's prayer counts for him except that in which he is

present in his heart with Allah.


(5) Love of the Prophet. Bukhari relates in his Sahih that the Prophet

(Allah bless him and give him peace) said, "None of you believes until

I am more beloved to him than his father, his son, and all people"

(Fath al-Bari, 1.58, hadith 15).


It is plain from these texts that none of the states mentioned—whether

mercy, love, or presence of heart—are quantifiable, for the Shari`a

cannot specify that one must "do two units of mercy" or "have three

units of presence of mind" in the way that the number of rak`as of

prayer can be specified, yet each of them is personally obligatory for

the Muslim. Let us complete the picture by looking at a few examples

of states that are haram or `strictly unlawful':


(1) Fear of anyone besides Allah. Allah Most High says in Surat

al-Baqara of the Qur'an,


"And fulfill My covenant: I will fulfill your covenant—And fear Me

alone" (Qur'an 2:40), the last phrase of which, according to Imam

Fakhr al-Din al-Razi, "establishes that a human being is obliged to

fear no one besides Allah Most High" (Tafsir al-Fakhr al-Razi, 3.42).


(2) Despair. Allah Most High says,


"None despairs of Allah's mercy except the people who disbelieve"

(Qur'an 12:87), indicating the unlawfulness of this inward state by

coupling it with the worst human condition possible, that of unbelief.


(3) Arrogance. Muslim relates in his Sahih that the Prophet (Allah

bless him and give him peace) said, "No one shall enter paradise who

has a particle of arrogance in his heart" (Sahih Muslim, 1.93: hadith 91).


(4) Envy, meaning to wish for another to lose the blessings he enjoys.

Abu Dawud relates that the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him

Peace) said, "Beware of envy, for envy consumes good works as flames

Consume firewood" (Sunan Abi Dawud, 4.276: hadith 4903).


(5) Showing off in acts of worship. Al-Hakim relates with a sahih

Chain of transmission that the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him

Peace) said, "The slightest bit of showing off in good works is as if

Worshipping others with Allah . . . ." (al-Mustadrak `ala al-Sahihayn,



These and similar haram inward states are not found in books of Fiqh

or `jurisprudence,' because Fiqh can only deal with quantifiable

Descriptions of rulings. Rather, they are examined in their causes and

Remedies by the scholars of the `inner Fiqh' of Tasawwuf, men such as

Imam al-Ghazali in his Ihya' `ulum al-din [The reviving of the

religious sciences], Imam al-Rabbani in his Maktubat [Letters],

al-Suhrawardi in his `Awarif al-Ma`arif [The knowledges of the

illuminates], Abu Talib al-Makki in Qut al-qulub [The sustenance of

hearts], and similar classic works, which discuss and solve hundreds

of ethical questions about the inner life. These are books of Shari`a

and their questions are questions of Sacred Law, of how it is lawful

or unlawful for a Muslim to be; and they preserve the part of the

prophetic sunna dealing with states.


Who needs such information? All Muslims, for the Qur'anic verses and

authenticated hadiths all point to the fact that a Muslim must not

only do certain things and say certain things, but also must be

something, must attain certain states of the heart and eliminate

others. Do we ever fear someone besides Allah? Do we have a particle

of arrogance in our hearts? Is our love for the Prophet (Allah bless

him and give him peace) greater than our love for any other human

being? Is there the slightest bit of showing off in our good works?


Half a minute's reflection will show the Muslim where he stands on

these aspects of his din, and why in classical times, helping Muslims

to attain these states was not left to amateurs, but rather delegated

to `ulama of the heart, the scholars of Islamic Tasawwuf. For most

people, these are not easy transformations to make, because of the

force of habit, because of the subtlety with which we can deceive

ourselves, but most of all because each of us has an ego, the self,

the Me, which is called in Arabic al-nafs, about which Allah testifies

in Surat Yusuf:


"Verily the self ever commands to do evil" (Qur'an 12:53).


If you do not believe it, consider the hadith related by Muslim in his

Sahih, that:


The first person judged on Resurrection Day will be a man martyred in



He will be brought forth, Allah will reacquaint him with His blessings

upon him and the man will acknowledge them, whereupon Allah will say,

"What have you done with them?" to which the man will respond, "I

fought to the death for You."


Allah will reply, "You lie. You fought in order to be called a hero,

and it has already been said." Then he will be sentenced and dragged

away on his face and flung into the fire.


Then a man will be brought forward who learned Sacred Knowledge,

taught it to others, and who recited the Qur'an. Allah will remind him

of His gifts to him and the man will acknowledge them, and then Allah

will say, "What have you done with them?" The man will answer, "I

acquired Sacred Knowledge, taught it, and recited the Qur'an, for Your



Allah will say, "You lie. You learned so as to be called a scholar,

and read the Qur'an so as to be called a reciter, and it has already

been said." Then the man will be sentenced and dragged away on his

face to be flung into the fire.


Then a man will be brought forward whom Allah generously provided for,

giving him various kinds of wealth, and Allah will recall to him the

benefits given, and the man will acknowledge them, to which Allah will

say, "And what have you done with them?" The man will answer, "I have

not left a single kind of expenditure You love to see made, except

that I have spent on it for Your sake."


Allah will say, "You lie. You did it so as to be called generous, and

it has already been said." Then he will be sentenced and dragged away

on his face to be flung into the fire (Sahih Muslim, 3.1514: hadith 1905).


We should not fool ourselves about this, because our fate depends on

it: in our childhood, our parents taught us how to behave through

praise or blame, and for most of us, this permeated and colored our

whole motivation for doing things. But when childhood ends, and we

come of age in Islam, the religion makes it clear to us, both by the

above hadith and by the words of the Prophet (Allah bless him and give

him peace) "The slightest bit of showing off in good works is as if

worshipping others with Allah" that being motivated by what others

think is no longer good enough, and that we must change our motives

entirely, and henceforth be motivated by nothing but desire for Allah

Himself. The Islamic revelation thus tells the Muslim that it is

obligatory to break his habits of thinking and motivation, but it does

not tell him how. For that, he must go to the scholars of these

states, in accordance with the Qur'anic imperative,


"Ask those who know if you know not" (Qur'an 16:43),


There is no doubt that bringing about this change, purifying the

Muslims by bringing them to spiritual sincerity, was one of the

central duties of the Prophet Muhammad (Allah bless him and give him

peace), for Allah says in the Surat Al `Imran of the Qur'an,


"Allah has truly blessed the believers, for He has sent them a

messenger of themselves, who recites His signs to them and purifies

them, and teaches them the Book and the Wisdom" (Qur'an 3:164),


which explicitly lists four tasks of the prophetic mission, the second

of which, yuzakkihim means precisely to `purify them' and has no other

lexical sense. Now, it is plain that this teaching function cannot, as

part of an eternal revelation, have ended with the passing of the

First generation, a fact that Allah explicitly confirms in His

injunction in Surat Luqman,


"And follow the path of him who turns unto Me" (Qur'an 31:15).


These verses indicate the teaching and transformative role of those

who convey the Islamic revelation to Muslims, and the choice of the

word ittiba` in the second verse, which is more general, implies both

keeping the company of and following the example of a teacher. This is

why in the history of Tasawwuf, we find that though there were many

methods and schools of thought, these two things never changed:

keeping the company of a teacher, and following his example—in exactly

the same way that the Sahaba were uplifted and purified by keeping the

company of the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) and

following his example.


And this is why the discipline of Tasawwuf has been preserved and

transmitted by Tariqas or groups of students under a particular

master. First, because this was the sunna of the Prophet (Allah bless

him and give him peace) in his purifying function described by the

Qur'an. Secondly, Islamic knowledge has never been transmitted by

writings alone, but rather from `ulama to students. Thirdly, the

nature of the knowledge in question is of hal or `state of being,' not

just knowing, and hence requires it be taken from a succession of

living masters back to the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him

peace), for the sheer range and number of the states of heart required

by the revelation effectively make imitation of the personal example

of a teacher the only effective means of transmission.


So far we have spoken about Tasawwuf in respect to Islam, as a Shari`a

Science necessary to fully realize the Sacred Law in one's life, to

Attain the states of the heart demanded by the Qur'an and hadith. This

Close connection between Shari`a and Tasawwuf is expressed by the

statement of Imam Malik, founder of the Maliki school, that "he who

practices Tasawwuf without learning Sacred Law corrupts his faith,

while he who learns Sacred Law without practicing Tasawwuf corrupts

himself. Only he who combines the two proves true." This is why

Tasawwuf was taught as part of the traditional curriculum in madrasas

across the Muslim world from Malaysia to Morocco, why many of the

greatest Shari`a scholars of this Umma have been Sufis, and why until

the end of the Islamic caliphate at the beginning of this century and

the subsequent Western control and cultural dominance of Muslim lands,

there were teachers of Tasawwuf in Islamic institutions of higher

learning from Lucknow to Istanbul to Cairo.


But there is a second aspect of Tasawwuf that we have not yet talked

about; namely, its relation to Iman or `True Faith,' the second pillar

of the Islamic religion, which in the context of the Islamic sciences

consists of `Aqida or `orthodox belief.'


All Muslims believe in Allah, and that He is transcendently beyond

anything conceivable to the minds of men, for the human intellect is

imprisoned within its own sense impressions and the categories of

thought derived from them, such as number, directionality, spatial

Extension, place, time, and so forth. Allah is beyond all of that; in

His own words,


"There is nothing whatsoever like unto Him" (Qur'an 42:11)


If we reflect for a moment on this verse, in the light of the hadith

of Muslim about Ihsan that "it is to worship Allah as though you see

Him," we realize that the means of seeing here is not the eye, which

can only behold physical things like itself; nor yet the mind, which

cannot transcend its own impressions to reach the Divine, but rather

certitude, the light of Iman, whose locus is not the eye or the brain,

but rather the ruh, a subtle faculty Allah has created within each of

us called the soul, whose knowledge is unobstructed by the bounds of

the created universe. Allah Most High says, by way of exalting the

nature of this faculty by leaving it a mystery,


"Say: `The soul is of the affair of my Lord'" (Qur'an 17:85).


The food of this ruh is dhikr or the `remembrance of Allah.' Why?

Because acts of obedience increase the light of certainty and Iman in

the soul, and dhikr is among the greatest of them, as is attested to

by the sahih hadith related by al-Hakim that the Prophet (Allah bless

him and give him peace) said,


"Shall I not tell you of the best of your works, the purest of them in

the eyes of your Master, the highest in raising your rank, better than

giving gold and silver, and better for you than to meet your enemy and

smite their necks, and they smite yours?" They said, "This—what is it,

O Messenger of Allah?" and he said: Dhikru Llahi `azza wa jall, "The

remembrance of Allah Mighty and Majestic." (al-Mustadrak `ala

al-Sahihayn, 1.496).


Increasing the strength of Iman through good actions, and particularly

through the medium of dhikr has tremendous implications for the

Islamic religion and traditional spirituality. A non-Muslim once asked

me, "If God exists, then why all this beating around the bush? Why

doesn't He just come out and say so?"


The answer is that taklif or `moral responsibility' in this life is

not only concerned with outward actions, but with what we believe, our

`Aqida—and the strength with which we believe it. If belief in God and

other eternal truths were effortless in this world, there would be no

point in Allah making us responsible for it, it would be automatic,

involuntary, like our belief, say, that London is in England. There

would no point in making someone responsible for something impossible

not to believe.


But the responsibility Allah has place upon us is belief in the

Unseen, as a test for us in this world to choose between kufr and

Iman, to distinguish believer from unbeliever, and some believers

above others.


This why strengthening Iman through dhikr is of such methodological

importance for Tasawwuf: we have not only been commanded as Muslims to

believe in certain things, but have been commanded to have absolute

certainty in them. The world we see around us is composed of veils of

light and darkness: events come that knock the Iman out of some of us,

and Allah tests each of us as to the degree of certainty with which we

believe the eternal truths of the religion. It was in this sense that

`Umar ibn al-Khattab said, "If the Iman of Abu Bakr were weighed

against the Iman of the entire Umma, it would outweigh it."


Now, in traditional `Aqida one of the most important tenets is the

wahdaniyya or `oneness and uniqueness' of Allah Most High. This means

He is without any sharik or associate in His being, in His attributes,

or in His acts. But the ability to hold this insight in mind in the

rough and tumble of daily life is a function of the strength of

certainty (yaqin) in one's heart. Allah tells the Prophet (Allah bless

him and give him peace) in Surat al-A`raf of the Qur'an,


"Say: `I do not possess benefit for myself or harm, except as Allah

wills'" (Qur'an 7:188),


yet we tend to rely on ourselves and our plans, in obliviousness to

the facts of `Aqida that ourselves and our plans have no effect, that

Allah alone brings about effects.


If you want to test yourself on this, the next time you contact

someone with good connections whose help is critical to you, take a

look at your heart at the moment you ask him to put in a good word for

you with someone, and see whom you are relying upon. If you are like

most of us, Allah is not at the forefront of your thoughts, despite

the fact that He alone is controlling the outcome. Isn't this a lapse

in your `Aqida, or, at the very least, in your certainty?


Tasawwuf corrects such shortcomings by step-by-step increasing the

Muslim's certainty in Allah. The two central means of Tasawwuf in

attaining the conviction demanded by `Aqida are mudhakara, or learning

the traditional tenets of Islamic faith, and dhikr, deepening one's

certainty in them by remembrance of Allah. It is part of our faith

that, in the words of the Qur'an in Surat al-Saffat,


"Allah has created you and what you do" (Qur'an 37:96);


yet for how many of us is this day to day experience? Because Tasawwuf

remedies this and other shortcomings of Iman, by increasing the

Muslim's certainty through a systematic way of teaching and dhikr, it

has traditionally been regarded as personally obligatory to this

pillar of the religion also, and from the earliest centuries of Islam,

has proved its worth.


The last question we will deal with tonight is: What about the bad

Sufis we read about, who contravene the teachings of Islam?


The answer is that there are two meanings of Sufi: the first is

"Anyone who considers himself a Sufi," which is the rule of thumb of

orientalist historians of Sufism and popular writers, who would oppose

the "Sufis" to the "Ulama." I think the Qur'anic verses and hadiths we

have mentioned tonight about the scope and method of true Tasawwuf

show why we must insist on the primacy of the definition of a Sufi as

"a man of religious learning who applied what he knew, so Allah

bequeathed him knowledge of what he did not know."


The very first thing a Sufi, as a man of religious learning knows is

that the Shari`a and `Aqida of Islam are above every human being.

Whoever does not know this will never be a Sufi, except in the

orientalist sense of the word—like someone standing in front of the

stock exchange in an expensive suit with a briefcase to convince

people he is a stockbroker. A real stockbroker is something else.


Because this distinction is ignored today by otherwise well-meaning

Muslims, it is often forgotten that the `ulama who have criticized

Sufis, such as Ibn al-Jawzi in his Talbis Iblis [The Devil's

Deception], or Ibn Taymiya in places in his Fatwa, or Ibn al-Qayyim

al-Jawziyya, were not criticizing Tasawwuf as an ancillary discipline

to the Shari`a. The proof of this is Ibn al-Jawzi's five-volume Sifat

al-safwa, which contains the biographies of the very same Sufis

mentioned in al-Qushayri's famous Tasawwuf manual al-Risala

al-Qushayriyya. Ibn Taymiya considered himself a Sufi of the Qadiri

order, and volumes ten and eleven of his thirty-seven-volume Majmu`

al-fatawa are devoted to Tasawwuf. And Ibn al-Qayyim al-Jawziyya wrote

his three-volume Madarij al-salikin, a detailed commentary on

`Abdullah al-Ansari al-Harawi's tract on the spiritual stations of the

Sufi path, Manazil al-sa'irin. These works show that their authors'

criticisms were not directed at Tasawwuf as such, but rather at

specific groups of their times, and they should be understood for what

they are.


As in other Islamic sciences, mistakes historically did occur in

Tasawwuf, most of them stemming from not recognizing the primacy of

Shari`a and `Aqida above all else. But these mistakes were not

different in principle from, for example, the Isra'iliyyat (baseless

tales of Bani Isra'il) that crept into tafsir literature, or the

mawdu`at (hadith forgeries) that crept into the hadith. These were not

taken as proof that tafsir was bad, or hadith was deviance, but

rather, in each discipline, the errors were identified and warned

against by Imams of the field, because the Umma needed the rest. And

such corrections are precisely what we find in books like Qushayri's

Risala,Ghazali's Ihya' and other works of Sufism.


For all of the reasons we have mentioned, Tasawwuf was accepted as an

essential part of the Islamic religion by the `ulama of this Umma. The

proof of this is all the famous scholars of Shari`a sciences who had

the higher education of Tasawwuf, among them Ibn `Abidin, al-Razi,

Ahmad Sirhindi, Zakariyya al-Ansari, al-`Izz ibn `Abd al-Salam, Ibn

Daqiq al-`Eid, Ibn Hajar al-Haytami, Shah Wali Allah, Ahmad Dardir,

Ibrahim al-Bajuri, `Abd al-Ghani al-Nabulsi, Imam al-Nawawi, Taqi

al-Din al-Subki, and al-Suyuti.


Among the Sufis who aided Islam with the sword as well as the pen, to

quote Reliance of the Traveller, were:


such men as the Naqshbandi sheikh Shamil al-Daghestani, who fought a

prolonged war against the Russians in the Caucasus in the nineteenth

century; Sayyid Muhammad `Abdullah al-Somali, a sheikh of the

Salihiyya order who led Muslims against the British and Italians in

Somalia from 1899 to 1920; the Qadiri sheikh `Uthman ibn Fodi, who led

jihad in Northern Nigeria from 1804 to 1808 to establish Islamic rule;

the Qadiri sheikh `Abd al-Qadir al-Jaza'iri, who led the Algerians

against the French from 1832 to 1847; the Darqawi faqir al-Hajj

Muhammad al-Ahrash, who fought the French in Egypt in 1799; the Tijani

sheikh al-Hajj `Umar Tal, who led Islamic Jihad in Guinea, Senegal,

and Mali from 1852 to 1864; and the Qadiri sheikh Ma' al-`Aynayn

al-Qalqami, who helped marshal Muslim resistance to the French in

northern Mauritania and southern Morocco from 1905 to 1909.


Among the Sufis whose missionary work Islamized entire regions are

such men as the founder of the Sanusiyya order, Muhammad `Ali Sanusi,

whose efforts and jihad from 1807 to 1859 consolidated Islam as the

religion of peoples from the Libyan Desert to sub-Saharan Africa;

[and] the Shadhili sheikh Muhammad Ma`ruf and Qadiri sheikh Uways

al-Barawi, whose efforts spread Islam westward and inland from the

East African Coast . . . . (Reliance of the Traveller,863).


It is plain from the examples of such men what kind of Muslims have

been Sufis; namely, all kinds, right across the board—and that

Tasawwuf did not prevent them from serving Islam in any way they could.


To summarize everything I have said tonight: In looking first at

Tasawwuf and Shari`a, we found that many Qur'anic verses and sahih

hadiths oblige the Muslim to eliminate haram inner states as

arrogance, envy, and fear of anyone besides Allah; and on the other

hand, to acquire such obligatory inner states as mercy, love of one's

fellow Muslims, presence of mind in prayer, and love of the Prophet

(Allah bless him and give him peace). We found that these inward

States could not be dealt with in books of Fiqh, whose purpose is to

Specify the outward, quantifiable aspects of the Shari`a. The

Knowledge of these states is nevertheless of the utmost importance to

Every Muslim, and this is why it was studied under the `ulama of

Ihsan, the teachers of Tasawwuf, in all periods of Islamic history

Until the beginning of the present century.


We then turned to the level of Iman, and found that though the `Aqida

of Muslims is that Allah alone has any effect in this world, keeping

This in mind in everyday life is not a given of human consciousness,

But rather a function of a Muslim's yaqin, his certainty. And we found

that Tasawwuf, as an ancillary discipline to `Aqida, emphasizes the

systematic increase of this certainty through both mudhakara,

`teaching tenets of faith' and dhikr, `the remembrance of Allah,' in

accordance with the words of the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him

peace) about Ihsan that "it is worship Allah as though you see Him."


Lastly, we found that accusations against Tasawwuf made by scholars

such as Ibn al-Jawzi, and Ibn Taymiya were not directed against

Tasawwuf in principle, but to specific groups and individuals in the

times of these authors, the proof for which is the other books by the

same authors that showed their understanding of Tasawwuf as a Shari`a



To return to the starting point of my talk this evening, with the

disappearance of traditional Islamic scholars from the Umma, two very

different pictures of Tasawwuf emerge today. If we read books written

after the dismantling of the traditional fabric of Islam by colonial

powers in the last century, we find the big hoax: Islam without

spirituality and Shari`a without Tasawwuf. But if we read the

classical works of Islamic scholarship, we learn that Tasawwuf has

been a Shari`a science like tafsir, hadith, or any other, throughout

the history of Islam. The Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace)



"Truly, Allah does not look at your outward forms and wealth, but

rather at your hearts and your works" (Sahih Muslim, 4.1389: hadith 2564).


And this is the brightest hope that Islam can offer a modern world

darkened by materialism and nihilism: Islam as it truly is; the hope

of eternal salvation through a religion of brotherhood and social and

economic justice outwardly, and the direct experience of divine love

and illumination inwardly. 


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