The Humble "I"

Knowing, Doing, Becoming

Critical Thinking or Just the Ego’s Attempt at Intellectualism?

Like the words “diversity,” “freedom,” or “moderate,” “critical thinking” is one of those unexamined buzz-words of our age that is banded around without much errr … critical thinking!

For what differentiates critical thinking from ordinary thinking? Or what level or depth is needed for thinking to be deemed “critical”? Can the critical thinking of two people on the same issue allow two completely opposite conclusions? And who decides what is or is not “critical thinking”?

We tend to refer to critical thinking as a way of approaching a given question that allows us to thoughtfully analyse and dissect the issue; highlight any nuances; and uncover any bias or faulty assumptions, in order to form a judgement or arrive at the best answer. And whilst everyone thinks; not everybody thinks critically, unbiasedly, calmly or rationally. A lot of our thinking is done haphazardly, emotionally, as a reaction and often by being only partially informed.

Critical thinking isn’t just required in academia, the sciences or the executive workplace. We use levels of critical thinking in our everyday life too. Deciding what are healthy food options that falls within our budget, for instance, requires some scrutiny, skepticism and critical thinking. So does (or should) the act of voting in elections or referendums. It goes without saying that correct facts and sound knowledge are crucial to critical thinking. If the information that the intellect is critically working upon is itself faulty, then even with the best intellect in the world, the conclusion will always be faulty. You simply can’t nail jelly to a wall!

It should also go without saying that not everyone is capable of critical thinking when it comes to the more academic or analytical level. That is not an insult; and nor is it a stain on their character or humanity or – if religion is involved – their piety. People are blessed with varying abilities and talents: If someone is an academic; another is a craftsmen or an artist. If one is a mathematician; the other a poet or author. If one is a doctor or a surgeon; the other is a sportsperson or a designer. If one is an accomplished politician; another is a loving and caring spouse, with a happy and successful marriage. Or if one is intellectually gifted; another is spiritually or emotionally gifted. Human beings are diverse, as are their talents and strengths. Furthermore, while critical thinking has a lot going for it, it doesn’t necessarily follow that such a talent will make one a good person (or – again, if religion of the monotheistic type is involved – a sincere or devout worshipper of God). It would very much depend on how one puts such talent to use.

For the remainder of this post I shall focus on critical thinking as it pertains to religious knowledge and scholarship in Islam, at both the spiritual and intellectual levels. I’ll also touch upon some principles that must be acknowledged – or at least not ignored – whilst discussing the type of critical thought that is reflective of the Islamic textual tradition:

Often, but not always, those who think they are cutting-edge critical thinkers suffer from large bouts of ‘ujb – vanity; conceit; being egotistically impressed, smug and self-satisfied with one’s own opinions or accomplishments. The Prophet ﷺ said: ثَلاثٌ مُهْلِكَاتٌ شُحٌّ مُطَاعٌ ، وَهَوًى مُتَّبَعٌ ، وَإِعْجَابُ الْمَرْءِ بِنَفْسِهِ ‘Three are [causes of] destruction: greed that is obeyed, whims that are followed, and a person vainly impressed with his ownself.’1 It’s not just a matter of being smug or egotistically impressed with oneself. ‘Ujb is usually accompanied by a failure to be appreciative and respectful of other peoples’ views or accomplishments, or by a need to put others down and deride them. That is, ‘ujb and kibr (pride, arrogance), are very often bedfellows.

When it comes to Islam and Muslim matters in our contemporary age, the need to re-visit our scholarly corpus and textual legacies so that, along with ensuring the Islamic rulings for new issues and circumstances are sound and contextual, we need to evaluate if earlier rulings require any modification or reappraising, in light of the juristic maxim: تَغَيَّرُ الأَحْكامِ بِتَغَيُّرِ الأَزْمَانِ – ‘Rulings change with the changing of time.’ And while this legal maxim isn’t a free for all, certain rulings – the changeable: mutaghayyarat (in contrast to rulings that remain fixed or unchanging: the thawabit) – can or do legally change due to: [1] Changes in social norms (‘urf, ‘adah); [2] dire necessity (darurah); [3] public benefit (maslahah); [4] deterioration or corruption of the times (fasad al-zaman); and [5] when afflictions or problems become endemic in society (ma ta‘ummu bihi al-balwah).2 In other words, while the shari‘ah is a firmly-planted rock that can weather the ages, it isn’t entirely immutable or unchangeable. It has built into it the capacity to adapt and to expand, especially in the area of social civil transactions (mu‘amalat).

However, the principle that some fatwas can and must be revisited, due to change in time, place or cultural norms, was sure to be a magnet for the cardinal sin of ‘ujb – given our spiritually crippling, egotistical age. And that’s precisely what we now see!

For it is becoming more and more fashionable (and has been for quite some time now) to flippantly challenge, or readily dismiss, classical juristic formulations of shari‘ah. There is indeed often a fine line between reprehensible innovation and thinking outside the box: but the latter does not always imply the former. Yet whilst the Muslim jurists and legalists have their work cut out for them, the re-evaluation task has unsurprisingly teased out the charlatans, the sellouts and those whose minds have been colonised by the values of the dominant culture. For even when we humans do think or act rationally, our rationality or logic are so often coloured by our assumptions (or what psychologists refer to as ‘confirmation bias’).

Creative or critical Muslim thinking cannot overlook these all-important principles, if it is to truly pass as being Islamically ‘authentic’:

1 – That no universal statements about the world or the human condition can be known by purely rational or inductive methods, for these cannot transcend the material context of the world in which they are framed. Only the guidance in God’s final Revelation can offer an intellectually rigorous escape from post-modernity’s many traumas.

2 – That we as believers can’t be mere armchair critics. True prophetic concern for human welfare means we cannot simply criticise, or forever be angry; always raging against the monoculture. True religion is about being healers. It’s about seeing the best in all things, and the Adamic potential in all people; while seeking to heal the world a day at a time. If we’re constantly agitated, instead of being in a state of tumaninah; of being calm (yet also concerned), then in all likelihood we are animated by ego, not God. True religion begets tranquility, even in the midst of turmoil: Indeed, in the remembrance of God do hearts find tranquility. [Q.13:28]

3 – As we begin to see the goodness and potential in people, as opposed to always fault-finding and criticising, then we should know that what counts in these labours of healing and renewal (tajdid) is method, more than end rulings. One hadith informs us: ‘Whoever interprets the Qur’an according to his own opinion, then even if he is right, let him take his seat in the Hellfire.’3 So it’s not just about getting the interpretation right, as critical as it is. But about using the right method of interpretation, rather than a layman’s guess or an unqualified opinion. The same is true in Islamic law or theology, as it is for Quranic exegesis or tafsir. So we needn’t take issue with whether a shaykh’s opinion has a liberal slant or conservative one; but issue we must take if the shaykh isn’t qualified to espouse this ruling, yet arrogates to himself the right to speak on behalf of Allah in the matter! If unqualified, the above hadith speaks to that scenario. As for the qualified, they get two rewards if they are correct in what they rule, or one if they err; but never are they sinful because of it. Of course, when determining what the divine intent is likely to be in any given situation (rather than conforming to the zeitgeists of the age), ikhlas is key.

4 – The correct method for an interpretation or view to be valid in Islam entails: [i] The opinion must stem from a jurist qualified to undertake ijtihad in the matter. [ii] That the view must not oppose a text that is qat‘i al-thubut and qat‘i al-dalalah – “unquestionably established in its authenticity” and “unambiguous in its meaning”. [iii] It not contradict an established ijma‘ or scholarly “consensus”. [iv] That it not oppose a sound analogy; or qiyas jali. [v] It must not violate a confirmed principle of the religion; and [vi] That it not be shadhdh, or “aberrant,” as per the canons of Islamic law.4 All this requires serious fiqh schooling: the more complex the issue (the issues modernity throws up are usually highly complex), the deeper or profounder the fiqh skills need to be.

5 – That a more thoughtful and spiritually-infused fiqh is required for our times, one that rejects a puritanical mentality and the tunnelled-vision fiqh that it has given birth to. This blinkered vision is unable to see Islam as anything but a purely legalistic religion, fixated on outward religiosity, devoid of deeply nuanced spiritual or literary possibilities.

6 – That said, our discourse can’t all (or even primarily) be about fiqh issues, despite their centrality to orthopraxy. We certainly do need sound fiqh solutions to raging issues like modern finance, bit coint currencies, environmental crisis, genetic engineering, modern weapons of mass destruction, and other pressing concerns which the modern mufti must grapple with today. But an over focus on the fiqh level, on micro management, instead of engaging the macro issues, will only delay Muslims from meaningfully coming to grips with modernity on our own indigenous religious terms.

7 – That we stand in dire need of subjecting the conceptual paradigms, taxonomies and vocabulary of the humanities and the social sciences to a detailed and thorough Islamic theological and spiritual scrutiny before affirming or denying their claims, or co-opting them into our own Islamic vocabulary. Without doing so, we’re in danger of turning these taxonomies and concepts into overarching sources of guidance, to which even Revelation is now expected to pay homage. Currently, American Muslim narratives are awash with such terms, accepting them without much critical assessment. The Anglo-Saxon Muslim narrative isn’t that far behind. So we now talk of “leadership” skills and programs; or of “critical race theory”; “social constructionism”; or “feminist” and “gender” theories – all with their highly rarefied, secular jargon, but without the rigorous critical discrimination to Islamically sort out the wheat from the chaff

Perhaps we need less critical thinking and more criticism of our own thinking. So much of what’s currently alleged to be critical thinking is little more than a pale shadow of the real McCoy. Instead, it seems to be more the voice of the ego, self-promotion, half-truths, shoddy scholarship, or poor intellectualisation, than it does religious truth, intellectual beauty, or sincerely seeking the welfare of Allah’s servants.

Some of this ‘critical thinking’ is merely a veneer to mask the promotion of reprehensible innovations or religious heresies. Undermining ijma‘-theology, the well-attested hallmark of mainstream Sunni orthodoxy, is now the in-thing. While much of this opposition stems from egotism and from false desires, some comes from hastiness with sacred knowledge; youngness; inexperience; not allowing ideas to mature enough before letting them loose in the public domain; or not being spiritually rooted. Indeed, sin, committing haram and following false and forbidden desires, can seriously compromise the heart’s intellect and blur its vision! Ibn al-Qayyim reminds us:

‏ فَإنَّ إتِّبَاعَ الهَوَى يُعمِي عَيْنَ القَلْبِ ، فَلا يُمِيزِ بَينَ السُّنَّةِ والبِدْعَةِ ؛ أَو يُنَكِّسُهُ ، فَيَرَى  البِدْعَةَ سُنَّةً والسُّنَّةَ بِدعَةً

‘Following false desire can blind the heart’s [in]sight, so that it can no longer distinguish Sunnah from bid‘ah; or it can invert it, so that it sees bid‘ah as the Sunnah and Sunnah as bid‘ah.5

Thus while the rational or intellectual faculty of a person is still under the domination of its desires, and while one hasn’t taken any serious steps to tame or train the nafs through the heart’s purification, one cannot be sure if the intellect is primarily or significantly being driven by baser motives, or the ego’s deceptions and cunning. And when that is so, in what measure can that ever be called intellectualism, let alone critical thinking? And yet, as the prophetic warning states: ‘If you have no shame, then do as you wish.’6

We ask Allah for safety from the heart’s blindness or inversion; and we beseech Him for well-being in terms of faith, practice and right attitude.

1. Al-Bazzar, Musnad, no.80. After analysis of its various chains, it was graded hasan in al-Albani, Silsilat al-Ahadith al-Sahihah (Riyadh: Maktabah al-Ma‘arif, 1988), no.1802.

2. This has been discussed in an earlier blog piece, called: ‘Concerning Functional Fatwas & Dysfunctional Muftis.’

3. Al-Tirmidhi, no.2951, where he said: ‘This hadith is hasan.’

4. Consult: al-Zarkashi, al-Manthur fi’l-Qawa’id (Kuwait: Wizarat al-Awqaf wa’l-Shu’un al-Islamiyyah, 1985), 2:140; al-Shanqiti, Nathr al-Wurud ‘ala Maraqi al-Su‘ud (Jeddeh: Dar al-Manarah, 1999), 636-38.

5. Al-Fawa’id (Makkah: Dar ‘Alam al-Fawa’id, 2009), 224.

6. Al-Bukhari, no.3296.

Liquid Modernity & the Assault on the Fitrah

THE MODERN WORLD IS RADICALLY different to anything and everything that has gone before it. Defining what modernity actually is tends to be elusive, even to philosophers and to those in the social sciences. But it does have certain traits.

Modernity – this ‘brilliant series of distractions,’ as it’s been called – is the great leveller: Where once there was meaning, there is now anomie and meaninglessness. Where once there was optimism, there is now discontent and despair. Where there was religion and spiritual ambition, there is now a yawning gulf. And where there was direction, there is now a maelstrom of confusion and a lack of inner purpose.

To mask this bleak reality; to anaesthetise us, modernity offers us a plethora of gadgets and technology so as to distract us like kids with their new toys. A basic religious insight Islam offers us is that sa‘adah – human ‘happiness’ is to do with the soul. It’s to do with hope, optimism, security, and of having a sense of direction, purpose and meaning. And this is something modernity simply cannot supply.

Another religious insight concerns the fitrah, this primordial nature of man, in that it views some things as immutable. For modernity, though, all is up for grabs. Nothing is constant or unchanging. ‘Forms of modern life may,’ Zygmunt Bauman writes, ‘differ in quite a few respects – but what unites them all is precisely their fragility, temporariness, vulnerability and inclination to constant change.’ He explains that to be modern means to obsessively modernise; not ‘just to be’, but forever ‘becoming.’ He goes on to contend that what was not too long ago dubbed post-modernity, which he terms ‘liquid modernity,’ is the growing belief that ‘change is the only permanence, and uncertainty the only certainty.’1

All this stands in contrast to what Islam teaches about the fitrah. The Qur’an states: So set your face to the upright religion, the primordial nature which God has instilled in man. [Q.30:30] So as the assault on the fitrah – the Adamic norm that God created us upon – intensifies; and as we see war waged against traditional Abrahamic ethics grow ever more robust, where inversion of values seems to be the name of the game, the believers must ask God for the grace to remain firm on the upright religion. To not see that the monoculture is set on course to further corrupt the fitrah, is to be blind to the nature of the age, or to the way of living God’s purpose for us. As the Qur’an puts it: It is not the eyes that grow blind, but the hearts in the chests that become blind. [Q.22:46]

1. Bauman, Liquid Modernity (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2012), viii-ix.

The Goal of the Shari‘ah is Justice, Not Equality

IN SPEAKING OF JUSTICE, many well-intended Muslims are unconsciously secularised. For their discourse about justice (Ar. ‘adl, qist) is so often scarred by failing to grasp its Quranic essence: ‘To put a thing in its rightful place.’1 Which is to say, justice is to give things their proper due – at the due time, the due place, and in due measure.

This requires possessing knowledge about the value and measure of things, as Islam assigns to them, so as to give them their due. ‘Hence,’ Ibn al-Qayyim wrote, ‘knowledge and justice are the root of every good, while injustice and ignorance are the root of every evil.’2

The Quranic insistence on justice can be found in many verses, like: God commands you to render back things held in trust to their rightful owners, and if you judge between people, that you judge justly. [Q.4:58] And also: O you who believe! Be upright for justice, witnesses to God, even if it be against yourselves, or parents, or relatives; and wether it be against rich or poor. [Q.4:135]

But talking more from a marketable take on Islam than a textual, well-studied one, they mistakenly equate justice (‘adl) with equality (musawa). This though isn’t really Islam’s story. No doubt, there are areas of overlap between the two. But the Qur’an is couched in the language of justice, not equality. To describe Islam as ‘egalitarian’, or to claim it advocates equality isn’t just reductionist, the concepts are also not very meaningful. While some verses of the Qur’an do have an egalitarian temper to them, many others insist on difference, distinction and divine disparity.

While speaking about the disbelievers who harm and transgress against their own souls due to their disbelief, the Qur’an asks: Is he who is a believer like he who transgresses? They are not equal. [Q.32:18]

We also read: Not equal are the people of the Fire and the people of the Garden. It is the people of the Garden that are the [true] winners. [Q.59:20]

Then there are verses which speak to gender roles, functions and natures: And the male is not like the female. [Q.3:36]

Or as Islam legally requires men to financially maintain family and households, while women do not have any such duty, there’s this verse: God thus commands you concerning [the division of inheritance for] your children: to the male a share equal to that of two females. [Q.4:11]

All this is to say that the Qur’an speaks of justice, not the nebulous social construct of equality. It’s when we veer away from using the vocabulary of the Qur’an, using instead ill-informed substitutes, that distortions or deviations creep in to corrupt the Quranic message. Of all the modern voices guilty of conflating justice with equality, feminism takes first prize.

To conclude: highlighting the core nature of the shari‘ah, Imam Ibn al-Qayyim says that justice is its essential feature. He wrote: ‘Indeed, [God] transcendent is He, has clarified in the paths He legislates that its purpose is: to establish justice among His servants and equity between people. Thus any path by which justice and equity are drawn out is part of the religion, and can never be in opposition to it.’3

Elsewhere he says: ‘The shari‘ah is based on and built on wisdom and [achieving] public welfare, in this life and in the next. It is justice in its entirety, mercy in its entirety, welfare in its entirety, and wisdom in its entirety. Any issue which departs from justice to injustice, or mercy to its opposite, or public welfare to corruption, or wisdom to folly can’t be part of the shari‘ah, even if it is claimed to be so due to some interpretation.’4

1. Al-Raghib, Mufradat Alfaz al-Qur’an (Beirut: Dar al-Qalam, 2002), 537.

2. Madarij al-Salikin (Riyadh: Dar Taybah, 2008), 4:556.

3. Al-Turuq al-Hukmiyyah (Makkah: Dar ‘Alam al-Fawa’id, 2007), 31.

4. I‘lam al-Muwaqqi‘in (Riyadh: Dar Ibn al-Jawzi, 2002), 4:337.

Qur’an Contemplations: Openings of Timeless Truths

FROM THE OUTSET, the Qur’an establishes a link between worshiping Allah and knowing Him. The first half of the ‘Opening Chapter’ of the Qur’an, Surat al-Fatihah, states:

.‎الْحَمْدُ لِلَّهِ رَبِّ الْعَالَمِينَ. الرَّحْمَنِ الرَّحِيمِ. مَالِكِ يَوْمِ الدِّينِ. إِيَّاكَ نَعْبُدُ وَإِيَّاكَ نَسْتَعِينُ

All praise be to Allah, Lord of the worlds. The All-Merciful, the Compassionate. Master of the Day of Judgement. You alone we worship, and Your help alone do we seek. [Q.1:1-4]

The first three verses teach us who Allah is, so that hearts may love, hope, fear and be in awe of Him. Only then does Allah ask us to declare our singular devotion and worship of Him. It is as if the Qur’an is saying: ‘You can’t worship or adore whom you don’t know.’

Thus in the first verse, Allah describes Himself as rabb – ‘Lord’. In the Quranic language, rabb is Master, Protector, Caretaker, Provider. And just as water descends from above as blessings and rises again to the skies as steam or vapour, so to the sending down of divine blessings and gifts; they are transformed into declarations of loving thanks and praise that ascend to the Lord of the Worlds. Reflecting on Allah’s care and kindness to us, as rabb; as Lord, then, nurtures an abiding sense of love for Allah in our hearts.

Allah then reveals that He, by His very nature, is al-rahman – the All-Merciful, and by dint of His divine act is al-rahim – the Compassionate. It has been said that al-rahman is like the blue sky: serene, vast and full of light; a canopy of protective care over us and over all things. The divine name, al-rahim is like warm rays, so to speak, touching, bathing and invigorating lives, places and events with this life-giving mercy. Those who flee from this joyous warmth, and opt to cover themselves from the light, choose to live in conditions of icy darkness. Knowing Allah is al-rahman, al-rahim, invites optimism; it instils hope (raja’) in Allah’s impulse to forgive, pardon, pity, overlook and, ultimately, to accept what little we offer Him as needy, fragile and imperfect creatures.

The Prophet ﷺ and his Companions once saw a woman frantically searching for a person among the warn-out and wounded. She then found a babe, her baby. She picked it up, huddled it to her chest and gave it to feed. On seeing this, the Prophet asked if such a woman could ever throw her baby into a fire or harms way? They all resoundingly replied, no; she could never do that; her maternal instincts of mercy would never permit it! The Prophet ﷺ went on to tell them:

 لَلَّهُ أَرْحَمُ بِعِبَادِهِ مِنْ هَذِهِ بِوَلَدِهَا – ‘Allah is more merciful to His creation than that mother is to her child.’ [Al-Bukhari, no.5653]

The final name of Allah that we encounter in this surah is: Malik – Master, King, Owner of all. It is Allah as Master, as King of Judgement Day, who stands at the end of every path. All things come finally to Him to be judged, recompensed and given their final place for the beliefs that defined who they are, the deeds that defined what they stood for and the sins that stand in their way. To know Allah as Malik, therefore, is to be wary, as well as apprehensive. It is a reason for hearts to be filled with a certain sense of fear (khawf) as well as trepidation concerning the final reckoning and one’s ultimate fate.

The Prophet ﷺ once visited a young boy on his death bed, and asked him how he was. The boy replied: ‘O Messenger of Allah, I am between hoping in Allah and fearing for my sins.’ To which the Prophet ﷺ said:

‎لاَ يَجْتَمِعَانِ فِي قَلْبِ عَبْدٍ فِي مِثْلِ هَذَا الْمَوْطِنِ إِلاَّ أَعْطَاهُ اللَّهُ مَا يَرْجُو وَآمَنَهُ مِمَّا يَخَافُ

‘The like of these two qualities never unite in the heart of a servant except that Allah grants him what he hopes for and protects him from what he fears.” [Al-Tirmidhi, no.983]

Only after being made aware of these four names of Allah which, in turn, instil in hearts a sense of love, fear and hope in Allah, are we led to stating: You alone do we worship, and Your help alone do we seek. In other words, the order to worship comes after the hearts having come to know Allah – the object of their loving worship, reverence and adoration.

The surah concludes by teaching us to give voice to the universal hope, by asking to be guided to the path of Allah’s people and to help steer clear of the paths of misguidance and perdition:

‎اهْدِنَا الصِّرَاطَ الْمُسْتَقِيمَ. صِرَاطَ الَّذِينَ أَنْعَمْتَ عَلَيْهِمْ. غَيْرِ الْمَغْضُوبِ عَلَيْهِمْ وَلاَ الضَّالِّينَ

Guide us to the Straight Path; the path of those whom You have favoured; not of those who incur wrath, nor of those who are astray. [Q.1:5-7]

Amin!

Imam al-Dhahabi on Sufis, Sufism & Spiritual Wayfaring

Far from being foreign to Islam, sufism – the science of spiritual excellence (‘ilm al-ihsan) and purification of the soul (tazkiyat al-nafs) – is a central aspect of the religion. In fact, it is its very core or heart. This is especially true when such sufism reflects the spirit of the early traditionalists or ahl al-hadith renuncients and pietists; like Ma‘ruf al-Karkhi, Sari al-Saqati, Bishr al-Hafi, Sahl al-Tustari, Junayd al-Baghdadi, Yahya ibn Mu‘adh al-Razi, or other illumined souls mentioned in Qushayri’s Risalah or orthodox “Epistle on Sufism”. This was a sufism tightly-tethered to the Sunnah; severe against bid’ah; averse to the over-rationalising of the kalam practitioners; and devastating towards the metaphysics of the philosophers. It was a sufism ‘ala tariqat al-salaf – “upon the path of the predecessors”; a tasawwuf al-‘amali or “practical sufism”. Al-Dhahabi sketches the contours of this sufism (tasawwuf) and spiritual wayfaring (suluk), thus:

العَالِمُ إِذَا عَرِيَ مِنَ التَّصوف وَالتَألُّه، فَهُوَ فَارغ، كَمَا أَنَّ الصُّوْفِيّ إِذَا عَرِيَ مِنْ عِلْمِ السُّنَّة، زَلَّ عَنْ سوَاءِ السَّبيل

‘The scholar, if devoid of sufism or devotional practice, is empty; just as the sufi, if devoid of knowledge of the Sunnah, will stray from the correct path.’1

إِذِ اَلقَادِحُ فِي مُحقّ اَلصُّوفِيَّةِ دَاخِلٌ فِي حَدِيثِ «مَنْ عَادَى لِي وَلِيًّا فَقَدْ بَارَزَنِي بِالْمُحَارَبَةِ» وَالتّارِكُ لِإِنكَارِ اَلبَاطِلِ مِمَّا سَمِعَهُ مِن بَعضِهِم تَارِكٌ لِلأَمْرِ بِالْمَعْرُوفِ وَالنَّهْيِ عن اَلْمُنكرِ عاص لله تعالى بذلك

‘The critic of a genuine sufi becomes the target of the hadith: “Whoever shows enmity to a Friend of Mine, I shall be at war with him.”2 While one who forgoes all condemnation for  what is plainly wrong in what he hears from  some of them, abandons the commanding of good and forbidding of evil.’3

فَمَا أَحلَى تَصُوفَ الصَّحَابَة وَالتَّابِعِيْنَ! مَا خَاضُوا فِي هَذِهِ الخَطَرَاتِ وَالوسَاوِسِ، بَلْ عبدُوا اللهَ، وَذَلُّوا لَهُ وَتَوَكَّلُوا عَلَيْهِ، وَهم مِنْ خَشيته مُشفقُوْنَ، وَلأَعدَائِهِ مُجَاهِدُوْنَ، وَفِي الطَّاعَة مُسَارعُوْنَ، وَعَنِ اللَّغو مُعرضون

‘How beautiful was the sufism of the sahabah and tabi‘un! They never probed into such phantasms or whisperings. Instead, they worshipped God, humbled themselves before  Him and relied upon Him. They had immense  awe and fear of Him, waged jihad against His foes, hastened to His obedience and shunned vain talk.’4

بَلَى، السُّلُوْكُ الكَامِلُ هُوَ الوَرَعُ فِي القُوتِ ، وَالوَرَعُ فِي المَنْطِقِ ، وَحِفْظُ اللِّسَانِ، وَمُلاَزَمَةُ الذِّكْرِ ، وَتَرْكُ مُخَالَطَةِ العَامَّةِ ، وَالبُكَاءُ عَلَى الخَطِيئَةِ ، وَالتِّلاَوَةُ بِالتَّرْتِيلِ وَالتَّدَبُّرِ ، وَمَقْتُ النَّفْسِ وَذَمُّهَا فِي ذَاتِ اللهِ ، وَالإِكْثَارُ مِنَ الصَّوْمِ المَشْرُوعِ ، وَدَوَامُ التَّهَجُّدِ ، وَالتَّوَاضُعُ لِلْمُسْلِمِيْنَ ، وَصِلَةُ الرَّحِمِ ، وَالسَّمَاحَةُ وَكَثْرَةُ البِشْرِ ، وَالإِنْفَاقُ مَعَ الخَصَاصَةِ ، وَقَوْلُ الحَقِّ المُرِّ بِرِفْقٍ وَتُؤَدَةٍ ، وَالأَمْرُ بِالعُرْفِ ، وَالأَخْذُ بِالعَفْوِ ، وَالإِعْرَاضُ عَنِ الجَاهِلِينَ ، وَالرِّبَاطُ بِالثَّغْرِ ، وَجِهَادُ العَدُوِّ ، وَحَجُّ البَيْتِ ، وَتَنَاوُلُ الطَّيِّبَاتِ فِي الأَحَايِينِ ، وَكَثْرَةُ الاسْتِغْفَارِ فِي السَّحَرِ ، فَهَذِهِ شَمَائِلُ الأَوْلِيَاءِ، وَصِفَاتُ المُحَمَّدِيِّينَ ، أَمَاتَنَا اللهُ عَلَى مَحَبَّتِهِم

‘Rather, the perfect suluk entails being circumspect in one’s food and speech; guarding one’s tongue; making dhikr continuously; not socialising with people too much; weeping over one’s sins; reciting the Qur’an calmly, distinctly and by pondering over it; detesting one’s ego  (nafs) and rebuking it for God’s sake; increasing in the prescribed fasts; praying tahajjud regularly; being humble with people; maintaining ties of kinship; being tolerant and largehearted; smiling alot; spending on relatives and dependants; speaking the truth, even if bitter, mildly and without haste or frustration; enjoining good; having a forgiving nature; turning away from the ignorant; guarding the frontiers; waging jihad; performing pilgrimage; only eating what is lawful, at all times; as well as seeking forgiveness of God abundantly in private. Such are the characteristics of the awliya, and the qualities of the Muhammadans (sifat al-muhammadiyyun). May God cause us to die loving them.”5

Pointing to the worldly detachment required to purify the nafs and to wean it away from worldliness; and that it is the doing that counts, not mere book knowledge, Junayd said: ‘We did not take sufism from “he said this” or “he said that”; but from hunger, worldly detachment and abandoning comforts.’ After citing this, al-Dhahabi remarked:

 هَذَا حَسَنٌ، وَمُرَادُهُ: قَطْعُ أَكْثَرِ المَأْلُوْفَاتِ، وَتَرْكُ فُضُوْلِ الدُّنْيَا، وَجُوْعٌ بِلاَ إِفرَاطٍ. أَمَّا مَنْ بَالَغَ فِي الجُوعِ – كَمَا يَفْعَلُهُ الرُّهبَانُ – وَرَفَض سَائِرَ الدُّنْيَا وَمَأْلُوْفَاتِ النَّفْسِ مِنَ الغِذَاءِ وَالنَّومِ وَالأَهْلِ، فَقَدْ عَرَّضَ نَفْسَهُ لِبَلاَءٍ عَرِيْضٍ، وَرُبَّمَا خُولِطَ فِي عَقْلِهِ، وَفَاتَهُ بِذَلِكَ كَثِيْرٌ مِنَ الحَنِيْفِيَّةِ السَّمْحَةِ، وَقَدْ جَعَلَ اللهُ لِكُلِّ شَيْءٍ قَدْراً. وَالسَّعَادَةُ فِي مُتَابَعَةِ السُّنَنِ، فَزِنِ الأُمُورَ بِالعَدْلِ، وَصُمْ وَأَفْطِرْ، وَنَمْ وَقُمْ، وألزم الوَرَعَ فِي القُوْتِ، وَارْضَ بِمَا قَسَمَ اللهُ لَكَ، وَاصْمُتْ إِلاَّ مِنْ خَيْرٍ، فَرَحْمَةُ اللهِ عَلَى الجُنَيْدِ، وَأَيْنَ مِثْلُ الجُنَيْدِ فِي عِلْمِهِ وَحَالِهِ؟

‘This is excellent, and what is meant here is forgoing most comforts, renouncing what is superfluous of the world, and hunger without extreme. As for one who goes beyond limits in hunger, as monks do, or renounces the world and all comforts of the self – like food, sleep or family – he exposes himself to huge tribulation that can even impair his rational mind, and by which he forfeits much of the easy-going monotheistic religion. For every thing God has made a measure; and happiness lies in following the prophetic ways. So weigh matters justly. Fast and break fast, sleep and pray, cling to circumspection with regards to sustenance, be content with what God apportions for you, and keep silent save for good. May God have mercy be upon Junayd. Where is the likes of him in respect to his knowledge and spiritual state?’6

In order not to be, as al-Dhahabi put it, “empty”; hollow; a mere shell without substance, we must each have a serious regime of spiritual practice where prayer, fasting, dhikr and other religious practices are internalised; where true sincerity is cultivated; and where the ego is tamed and trained. And this is what sufism or tasawwuf – the normative scholarly term for this science – is all about. Of course, the rule to follow here is, as Ibn Taymiyyah writes, that there are two extreme tendencies in respect to sufism: ‘One type that affirms all that is true or false from it, and a type that rejects whatever is true or false from it – as certain theologians and scholars of law have done. The correct stance, as with any other thing, is to accept whatever conforms to the Qur’an and the Sunnah, and to reject from it whatever opposes them.’7 And, of course, the other scholarly maxim to follow is: al-‘ibrah bi’l-haqa’iq wa’l-ma‘ani la bi’l-alfadh wa’l-mabani – ‘Consideration is given to the realities and meanings, not to the jargon or terminologies.’

Attempts to kick the whole of sufism into the long grass is thus a retreat from normative Islam and a digression from Sunni orthodoxy. A firm commitment to our fiqh, to the outer duties of Islam, is admirable and obligatory. But any following of the outward that is not illumined by a wise and transformative spiritual life, will only breed those who are harsh, hostile, self-righteous, who lash out against the innocent, and who thrive on schisms and controversy. Such has long been the received wisdom in Islam: our present state of affairs being the product of its collective neglect.

1. Siyar A‘lam al-Nubala (Beirut: Mu’assasah al-Risalah, 1998),15:410.

2. Al-Bukhari, no.6502.

3. Al-Muqizah fi ‘Ilm Mustalah al-Hadith (Beirut: Dar al-Bashshar al-Islamiyyah, 1991), 89-90, citing Ibn Daqiq al-‘Id.

4. Siyar A‘lam al-Nubala, 18:510.

5. ibid., 12:90-91.

6. ibid., 14:69-70.

7. Majmu‘ Fatawa (Saudi Arabia: Dar ‘Alam al-Kutub, 1991), 10:82.

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