A Brief Word 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.
Dear Shaykh, what would be the position regarding the less sober shaykhs in sufism such as Bayazid Bustami, Ibn Arabi, and Mansur al-Hallaj?
As you’re most likely aware, much has been said about the less sober/more ecstatic sufis. And much ink has been used in discussing two highly controversial individuals you have mentioned (al-Hallaj and Ibn ‘Arabi).
The best that can be said about those sufis known for their piety, general soundness of creed, and adherence to the Sunnah is that they are to be excused for their ecstatic utterances made whilst under the intoxicated state of dhikr, divine love and fana’ – where the intellect can no longer discern between created and Creator. This is not a sought-after state, but happens to whomsoever it happens.
As for the specific individuals, many of our scholars have spoken highly of them; even considering them to be among the leading awliya of this community, finding excuses for some of their utterances and writings. And this is a valid and common position taken by our great imams.
Others fiercely censured them, with a few even considering them outside the fold of orthodoxy (or, in some cases, the din itself).
Perhaps, for the likes of most of us, the safest path to take is what seems to be that of the scholarly majority: to keep our tongues safe from speaking about such issues, and leaving their affair to our Generous Lord.
There is enough in the sober sufism of the great Imams for us to get on with. The good from the above two has generally been incorporated into the writings and practices of the great scholars and awliya; and it is the likes of them who are our gateway to the prophetic legacy; and the Prophet himself, sallallahu ‘alayhi wa sallam, is our gateway to God.
And Allah knows best – and I seek refuge in writing about such things while I am not from its people.
Assalaamu alaikum Shaykh.
Maashallah yet another carefully considered and thoughtful response. Jzk
A wonderful, clear and succinct post maashallah though I noticed that you do not mention the issue of a spiritual guide, murshid etc which any adherents to this important orthodox aspect of our practice would see as also vital.
Would welcome your comments inshallah
Wa alaykum al-salam wa rahmatullah.
You’re spot on Waleed. The idea of a murshid or spiritual guide – in terms of having sound and seasoned spiritual companionship, or suhbah – is essential to growing in taqwa and in the realities of ihsan.
Indeed, keeping spiritual company with those who can instruct us in our shari‘ah duties and, more importantly, whose spiritual guidance and presence can help reform our inward state, is a crucial teaching of our religion – and one that is all too often forgotten, neglected or overlooked in today’s world: O you who believe! Fear God, and be with the truthful ones, says the Qur’an [Q.9:119].
As for whether it is required to formally take a shaykh or tariqah, as a means to realise spiritual ends, this is a question over which scholars have long differed. From what little I understand, it seems that most scholars do not hold it to be obligatory to do so. However, any person who wishes to take their suluk or wayfaring to Allah seriously cannot dispense with having companionship with a shaykh rooted in shari’ah-based tasawwuf. This is like one who wishes to seriously grow in fiqh: it generally cannot be done except by studying with a shaykh who is seasoned in fiqh.
Finally, in this regard, we may take a queue from the Companions, may Allah be pleased with them: they were sahabah primarily because of their suhbah with the Prophet, sallallahu ‘alaiyhi wa sallam.
And Allah knows best.
I have taken a tangential interest in the spiritual lineage of the Shadhili tariqa. I understand ḥadīth scholars have disputed the connection between Ḥasan al-Baṣrī and ʿAlī ibn Abī Ṭālib, may God be pleased with both. I would like to know about the content of what ʿAli may have passed onto Ḥasan. Would the Shadhili tariqa claim that their forty day exercises, for example, come from ʿAlī, or would it be more the case of general teaching were refined as time went along?
God grant you prosperity and well-being for your attention.
As far as I’m aware, hadith masters concur that al-Hasan al-Basri never heard anything directly from sayyiduna ‘Ali, radiallau ‘anhu; as masters in the field like Ibn Ma‘in, Ibn al-Madini and others have stated;. [cf. al-Dhahabi, Siyar A‘lam al-Nubala (Beirut: al-Mu’assasah al-Risalah, 1998), 4:566]
This is also the view of later hadith master, like al-‘Iraqi and Ibn Hajr al-‘Asqalani.
There are some reports that suggest he did, but such reports are questionable and are not at all conclusive. ‘Ali left for Kufa when al-Hasan was fifteen, and hadith scholars are pretty certain they never met after that.
As for sufi initiation chains that contain al-Hasan al-Basri relating from sayyiduna ‘Ali, I’ve not researched how such chains are explained – especially in light of the ruling of non-sama’ between the two.
And Allah knows best.
Assalamu Aleykum, I have a question regarding the Sufi Tariqa.
Imam Dhahabi has indeed praised the following Sheikh: “Shaykh Abu’l-Bayan, may Allah be pleased with him; Sheikh of the Bayaniyyah [sufi] tariqah. He was of outstanding status, a scholar who acted according to his knowledge, a renunciate (zahid), pious, an expert of the [Arabic] language, a jurist of the Shafi’i school, Salafi in faith, and an invoker of the Sunnah. [Tarikh al-Islam (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Arabi, 1995), 38:68.]
Nowadays I hear from many that Tariqa is an innovation and that it is forbidden to follow a Tariqa. These remarks come mainly from Salafis.
Imam Dhahabi has praised Shaykh Abu’l-Bayan who was a sheikh of a Tariqa. Could you please name me Salafi scholars (who are respected by the people who make this comment) with references who followed a tariqa themselves or spoke well about it.
Thank you very much for your time.
I, too, am not aware of any classical scholar who rejected the concept of formal tariqahs. Although some of them did critique certain practices current in some of them. Bless you for your comment.
I have heard that this is an innovation that should be rejected. This is also to be taken from this fatwa:
You said yourself that most scholars do not consider it necessary to follow a tariqa.
Could you please make a post in the future where you talk a little more in detail about this tariqa (Where you also name great scholars who just considered tariqa permissible, because this fatwa says exactly the opposite)?
Forgive me. I’ve just now seen this comment, after having reposted this four year old post today. I’ll endeavour to chase up the link and respond at some point. Again, sorry for the oversight, br Malik.
salam alaikom br Malik….
apologies to dear shk Sutkheel for answering or attempting to reply with little knowldge etc..but just even to start up a talk if can be said so to do….
am here on this article after reading alhmdullah true salalfism false salafism n ijmaa theology part 1…will run to read part 2 next in sha Allah..may Allah bless protect n preserve shk Surkheel as the sufis say….ameen
but as to what u mentioned..alhmdullah am no scholar hence my words carry no weight..but in sha Allah if wrong perhaps shk Surkheel can correct us..etc
as to tareeqa tablig jamaat another subject yes or to modern day salafis..(read the mentioned article)…tariqas as to ur link too have many defaults..as to tablig too..but so do neo salafists too…main thing..(n saw here something about 40 day spiritual retreat got to read)..main thing…all some sort of ijtihadaat..Alalh yalum if can b said so…ie not in time of our beloved alaih salam..but neither was ilm rijal or hadith n quran sciences..etc..(yes different topics or sub section of deen..)…but as to gr8ness of this deen n its movement with the times..things pop up etc…but with that said..it seems all has good n at same time all hv bad too….
wont go on..but hva dream of a tabligi sufi salafi jamaat going khrouuj..one with spirituality one with organisation apparatus n one with their knowledge..but all those firstly who r not too extreme etc
apologies if anything…
what u think br Malik..or plz shk Surkheel ..plz point out the faults etc
barek Alalh feekom