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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.

The Need to Be Known and to Be Understood

lonely-man-bridge-by-Stefano-Corso-711x460Three core ingredients go into making up the religion of Islam. And they are expressed in three simple words: iman – the “faith” or “belief” one must have in God, His Prophets, as well as in the Afterlife; islam – outward “submission” to God in terms of such things like prayer, pilgrimage or moral uprightness; and ihsan – usually translated as “excellence”, which refers to internalising faith and outward submission, and bringing them to their peak and perfection. The Prophet, peace be upon him, described ihsan in these words: ‘It is to worship God as though seeing Him; and though you see Him not, know that He sees you.’ [Muslim, no.2]

Time and again, the Qur’an speaks of God, of Allah, as being al-Basir – “All-Seeing” and al-Khabir – “All-Aware”. We read in the Qur’an: Nothing in the earth or in the heavens is hidden from God. [Q.3:5] We are also told: He knows what is secret and what is even more hidden. [Q.20:7] And as Edwin Arnold versified in Pearls of Faith:

‘Al-Khabir! Thou Who art ‘aware’ of all,
By this name also for Thy grace we call.
Yes! pardon, Lord, since Thou dost know
Tomorrow, now, and long ago.’

So God sees us at every moment; and is aware of all things, at all times. But we need to tread very carefully here. For allowing hearts to nurture a healthy sense of fear of God, through awareness of Him being All-Seeing, All-Aware, is undeniably part of sound faith. But the notion that God is some sort of “Super-Spy”, eagerly waiting to catch us out and to gleefully punish us when we may slip, stumble, or harbour fleeting, shameful secret thoughts that we dare not acknowledge even to our ownselves, is not what such Quranic verses are about. That God is lying in ambush to see us hopefully slip or sin, so as to then pounce on us with divine punishment – well that sort of idea of God as being some sort of mean-spirited, cosmic Tyrant is utterly alien to Islam!

The Holy Qur’an wishes us to understand that God’s all-seeing presence isn’t suffocating. Rather the believer finds God’s all-knowing presence reassuring and comforting. In their deepest need to be known, the believer is aware that God fully knows them: and that is surely reassuring. And in their deepest need to be understood, the believer realises that God truly understands them: and that is comforting. The sense of loneliness which haunts so many people in our age, cries out for love; for friendship; for companionship. It cries out to be known and to be understood. What a relief, then, to discover that – in the only way it truly matters – we are fully understood, because we are truly known. For He who created us and fashioned us is in the best position to truly know us, meaningfully heal us, and ultimately forgive us. 

But while the divine Mercy cannot wait to forgive us our sins and stupidities, it’s a two-way street. Whilst the Holy Qur’an insists that God’s mercy embraces all things [Q.7:156], it also states: Your Lord has prescribed mercy for Himself, that whoever of you does evil and afterwards repents, and does right, [for them] God is assuredly Forgiving, Compassionate. [Q.6:54] Repentance, or tawbah, doesn’t mean self-pitying guilt. It means turning back to God when we had turned away from Him, admitting the simple truth of our predicament: that we have fallen short of what could reasonably be expected of us.

But if our theology doesn’t help stoke the fire of intimacy with, or yearning for, God, then we are likely going about religion in the wrong way. Does our theology reassure us that we have a God who we can bring our sadness, our sorrows, our loneliness, our fear, our hurt, our shame and sins to, or is it just a case of knowing what Islam has to say about those moments and for us to then mechanically carry out the external processes? When it’s the latter, we’ll always tend to stop there and not voice such feelings to God, thereby denying ourselves the whole point of God’s essential nature: When My servants ask you about Me, I am near, I answer the prayer of the supplicant when he prays to Me. [Q.2:186]

That God is All-Seeing, All-Aware is, therefore to be known and, even more importantly, to be understood. And behind His awareness is the beautiful and comforting religious reality of a God who says: ‘O My servants who have wronged their own souls. Despair not of God’s mercy! For God forgives all sins; He is indeed Forgiving, Compassionate.’ [Q.39:53]

May knowledge of this truth lead to knowing Him more, and being known by Him. May it lead to deepening our awareness of Him, and being understood and healed by Him.

Sincerity: Is Our Motive Purely for God, or for Others Too?

The Qur’an says: And they have been ordered no more than this: to worship God sincerely, devoting religion purely to Him. [98:5] According to Imam al-Raghib al-Asbahani, sincerity or ikhlas requires the heart ‘to be emptied of all else besides God.’1 This emptying is never that simple, for it involves struggling against the lower self so as to strip away the heart’s love of praise or its undue reverence of created things. It demands that the heart’s motives or intentions are purified from conceit, deceit, showing-off or self-aggrandisement so that acts of worship are done exclusively seeking God’s good pleasure.

Imam al-Qushayri’s words of the topic are not only one of the most authoritative and most cited in the Islamic tradition, they get to the very heart of the matter too. He wrote:

اَلْإخْلاصُ إفْرادُ الْحَقِّ فِي الطَّاعَةِ باِلْقَصْدِ، وَهُوَ أَنْ يُرِيْدَ بِطَاعَتِه التَّقَرَّبَ إِلٰى اللهِ تَعَالى دُوْنَ شَيْءٍ آخَرَ، مِنْ تَصَنُّعٍ لِمَخْلُوْقٍ، أَوِ اكْتِسَابِ مَحْمَدِةٍ عِنْدَ النَّاسِ، أَوْ مَحَبَّةِ مَدْحٍ مِنَ الْخَلْقِ، أَوْ مَعْنًى مِن المَعَاني سِوَى التَّقَرُّبِ إِلى اللهِ تَعَالى. وَ يَصِحُّ أَنْ يُقالَ: الْإِخْلاصُ تَصْفِيَةُ الْفِعْلِ عَنْ مَلاحَظَةِ الْمَخْلُوقِيْن

‘Sincerity is to single-out the Real [God] as the sole object of devotion. Meaning that one desires by their obedience to draw closer to God, exalted is He, to the exclusion of all else, such as making a show [of one’s piety] for people; seeking their praise; taking pleasure in their compliments; or other such things besides drawing closer to God, exalted is He. It is right to say that sincerity is: Purifying the act from creation having any share in it.’2

Abu Umamah al-Bahili relates that a man came to the Prophet ﷺ and said: I saw a person who fought for reward [booty] and renown: what will he get? The Prophet ﷺ said: ‘There is nothing for him.’ He ﷺ then went on to say: ‘God does not accept an act, except if it is done sincerely seeking His face.’3 Ikhlas – doing an act of worship seeking to draw closer to God, or seeking God’s face – undoubtedly had degrees or depths. The lowest is to do an act of worship with the sole intent of pleasing God, seeking some worldly or otherworldly reward from Him. Deeper than this is when the act is done, as above, with the sole aim of drawing closer to God, but not desiring any reward; doing it purely for the love of God and nothing else. Deeper still is when the act is done purely for the love of God, but such is the depth of faith, such is the purity of devotion, that one doesn’t see their act as emanating from any effort or achievement on their part, but from God’s unmitigated grace. Masters of the inward life tell us that this is the degree of sincerity where the devotee is oblivious to their sincerity, for the heart is beholden only to God.

O Lord! make our actions correct and sincere,
seeking nothing but Your face;
and let no one have
a share of our
worship of
You.

1. Mufradat Alfaz al-Qur’an (Damascus: Dar al-Qalam, 2002), 293.

2. Al-Risalat al-Qushayriyyah (Jeddah: Dar al-Minhaj, 2017), 476.

3. Al-Nasa’i, no.3140. Al-‘Iraqi declared its chain to be hasan. See: al-Mughni ‘an Haml al-Asfar (Riyadh: Maktabah al-Tabariyyah, 1995), 3; 1177; no.4299.

What Now after Ramadan?

Now that Ramadan has come to an end; and now that the spiritual energy and barakah we’ve been surfing on for the past month is subsiding, there is always that conundrum of letting ourselves spiritually unravel and allowing our material concerns to eclipse our spiritual ones. 

And whilst we are not expected to be in fifth gear (or overdrive, even) as so many people were during Ramadan, our striving should still continue and our greater focus should still be al-tahabbub ila’Llah bi ma yarda – ‘seeking to become beloved to Allah by doing what pleases Him.’

It would be truly tragic if we only made it a point to strive to draw closer to Allah only in Ramadan, and to then abandon this commitment once the month was over. It was once said to the reknowned pietist, Bishr al-Hafi, that there are some people who only strive and devote themselves to Allah’s obedience and worship just in Ramadan. So he said: بِئْسَ الْقَوْمِ لا يَعْرِفُوْنَ للهَ حَقّاً إِلاَّ فِي شَهْرِ رَمَضَان – “What a wretched folk, who don’t really know Allah except in the month of Ramadan!”1

That said, here are a few suggestions to help keep the Ramadan spirit alive and well, and to answer the question, “What now after Ramadan?”:

[1]: Remember that the reward of fasting; that is to say, the rewards of denying ourselves certain worldly delights only for the sake of Allah, does not stop with Ramadan. No, the greatest reward for those who fast is yet to come – as we learn from the following hadith: لِلصَّائِمِ فَرْحَتَانِ يَفْرَحُهُمَا: إِذَا أَفْطَرَ فَرِحَ بِفِطْرِهِ، وإِذَا لَقِيَ رَبَّهُ فَرِحَ بِصَوْمِهِ. – ‘For the fasting person there are two joys: a joy when breaking the fast, and a joy when meet their Lord due to having fasted.’2 And it is for this Meeting; this Tryst, that lovers yearn and seekers seek. 

[2]: Realise that pursuing the path of becoming beloved to Allah begins by fulfilling the obligatory deeds, or fara’id. One hadith qudsi states that Allah says: وَمَا تَقَرَّبَ إِلَيَّ عَبْدِي بِشَيْءٍ أَحَبَّ إِلَيَّ مِمَّا افْتَرَضْتُ عَلَيْهِ – ‘My servant doesn’t draw closer to Me with anything more beloved to Me than the obligatory duties I have enjoined on him.’3 Obligations aren’t limited to just the acts of worship such as prayer, fasting or pilgrimage. They also include: fulfilling promises, pledges or contracts; doing justice and being fair; not cheating or defrauding people; and fulfilling the rights and responsibilities we owe others. 

[3]: Ramadan teaches us the importance of sacred time. It teaches us that we can – with some effort, planning and tawfiq – make our lives revolve around Allah; and that where there’s a will (a desire to seek God), there’s always a way. The Qur’an tells us that key to this is mujahadah – “spiritual striving”: وَالَّذِينَ جَاهَدُوا فِينَا لَنَهْدِيَنَّهُمْ سُبُلَنَاThose Who strive in Us, We shall guide them to Our ways. [29:69] One hadith states: الْمُجَاهِدُ مَنْ جَاهَدَ نَفْسَهُ فِي طَاعَةِ اللهِ – ‘The warrior in Allah’s path is he who strives against his ego/lower soul in obedience to Allah.’4

[4]: A core part of this struggle is to reinstate the neglected practice of zuhd, of “worldly detachment”. One hadith states: ازْهَدْ فِي الدُّنْيَا يُحِبَّكَ اللَّهُ – “Detach yourself from the world and Allah will love you.”5 This detachment has degrees or levels, the first of which is working to eliminate the haram from our lives – haram not just in terms of what we eat and drink, but in terms of what we see and hear; what we wear and say; how we earn and spend; and the way we behave and interact with others. It states in one hadith: اِتَّقِ الْمَحَارِمَ تَكُنْ أَعْبَدَ النَّاسِ – ‘Guard against the forbidden and you will be the most devout of people.’6

[5]: An excellent way to help keep the Ramadan spirit ticking along is by: keeping the six recommended fasts of Shawwal. One hadith has this to say: مَنْ صَامَ رَمَضَانَ ثُمَّ أَتْبَعَهُ سِتًّا مِنْ شَوَّالٍ كَانَ كَصِيَامِ الدَّهْرِ – ‘Whoever fasts Ramadan, then follows it up with fasting six days in Shawwal, it shall be as if he has fasted the whole year.’7

[6]: Let’s end with what Ibn al-Jawzi said about the types of Ramadan fasts, which serves as our final lesson: ‎الصَّوْمُ ثَلاثَةٌ: صَوْمُ الرُّوحِ وَهُو قِصَرُ الْأَمَلِ، وَصَوْمُ الْعَقْل وَهُو مُخالفَةُ الهَوى، وَصَوْمُ الْجَوارِح وُهُو الإمْساكُ عَن الطَّعام وَالشَّراب وَالْجِماع – ‘Fasting is of three types: the fast of the soul, which is not to have prolonged hopes [about the world]; the fast of the intellect, which is to oppose one’s false desires; and the fast of the limbs, which is to refrain from food, drink and sexual intimacy.’8

May Allah make us of those who are successful and whose deeds meet with His approval and pleasure.

1. Cited in Ibn Rajab al-Hanbali, Lata’if al-Ma‘arif (Riyadh: Dar Ibn Khuzaymah, 2007), 496. 

2. Al-Bukhari, no.1805; Muslim, no.1151.

3. Al-Bukhari, no.6502.

4. Ahmad, Musnad, no.23958; al-Tirmidhi, Sunan, no.1671, not including the words: ‘… in obedience to Allah.’ Ibn Taymiyyah declared its chain to be jayyid, or excellent, in Majmu‘ Fatawa (Riyadh: Dar ‘Alam al-Kutub, 1991), 7:7.

5. Ibn Majah, Sunan, no.4102. After analysis, it was graded sahih in al-Albani, Silsilat al-Ahadith al-Sahihah (Beirut: al-Maktab al-Islami, 1985), no.944.

6. Al-Tirmidhi, Sunan, no.2305. it was declared as hasan in al-Albani, Silsilat al-Ahadith al-Sahihah, no.930.

7. Muslim, no.2614.

8. Bustan al-Wa‘idhin (Egypt: Dar al-Rayyan, 1984), 316-17.

Satan’s Deceit, Adam’s Slip & the Tree of Immortality

This read starts with the question: Does it matter how one sins? To answer it, it explores the deeper layers of the story of Adam, Satan and the divine command to not eat from the Tree of Immortality, in order to understand why it is that at the end of the story Adam is bathed in grace, while Satan is utterly disgraced. For at the heart of the saga, we discover the theme of divine love.

Are all sins equal? No, they are not. Are some sins worse than others? Yes, indeed! Does how you sin make any difference to Allah? This may come as a surprise to some, but yes, how one sins does make a difference to Allah. This last point is taught to us in a gem of a saying from the exemplary scholar and saint, Sufyan ibn Uyaynah, who said:

مَن كانَتْ مَعْصِيَتُهُ فِي الشَّهْوَةِ فَارْجُ لَهُ، وَمَنْ كَانَتْ مَعْصِيَتُهُ فِي الْكِبْرِ، فَاخْشَ عَلَيْهِ فَإنَّ آدَمَ عَصى مُشْتَهِيًا، فَغُفِرَ لَهُ وَإِبْلِيْسُ عَصى مُتكَبِّرًا فَلُعِنَ.

‘Whoever sins due to a desire, have hope for him; while whoever sins out of pride, fear for him. For Adam disobeyed out of a desire, but was forgiven, whereas Iblis disobeyed from pride and so was cursed.’1

The reference to the Prophet Adam, peace be upon him, and to Iblis or Satan, lies at the heart of the human drama. The story is recounted at the start of the Qur’an at 2:30-9, and also at 7:11-25; 17:61-5; 20:115-23 and 38:71-85. In the Adamic story, both Adam and Iblis are subject to a single divine command. For Adam it was: ‘O Adam! Dwell you and your wife in the Garden, and eat as you wish, but do not come near this tree.’ [2:19] For Iblis: ‘Prostrate yourselves before Adam!’ and they all fell prostrate, except Iblis, who was not of those who prostrated. [2:11] In both instances, Allah’s order was not followed through: Adam [and Eve] ate from the tree; Iblis refused to prostrate. One could be forgiven for assuming that both these actors would be recipient to similar consequences for having failed to uphold a divine command? But they were not.

On being asked why he disobeyed the command to prostrate, Iblis replied in this defiant and arrogant tone: ‘I am better than him. You created me from fire, while You created him of clay.’ [7:12] Being made of subtle fire, Iblis presumed himself to be better than Adam, who was heavy and clay-like in nature. So driven by pride, and exercising his own reasoning in defiance of the Divine Command, Iblis set himself up as a god against Allah and thus was cursed. Yet what Satan, in his hubris, failed to acknowledge was the heavenly, luminous substance called ruh or “spirit” that was insufflated into Adam: ‘So when I have fashioned him and breathed into him of My spirit, then fall down prostrate before him.’ [38:72] Inspite of Adam’s opaque, earth-like nature, it is this God-knowing spirit which grants mankind the potential to rise above all other sentient creatures.

As for our father Adam, peace be upon him, his is a story of love; in terms of what drove him, deprived him and distressed him. We read in the Qur’an: But Satan whispered evil to him, suggesting: ‘O Adam, shall I show you the tree of immortality and a kingdom that never decays?’ [20:120] His eating from the Tree of Immortality was not out of defiance of Allah’s will, rather: We made a pact with Adam before, but he forgot. [20:115] However, some of the scholars hold that his forgetting doesn’t refer to eating from the tree, but to not recalling that Satan is his avowed enemy: ‘O Adam, this [Satan] is an enemy to you and your wife; let him not drive you both from the Garden.’ [20:117] In this reading, it is Adam’s love for Allah and his aching desire to remain in His presence that drives him to eat from the tree. Let us hear from Ibn ‘Ajibah on this point:

‘Realise that Adam’s eating from the tree was not out of obstinacy or wilful disobedience. It was either due to not recalling the command, so he ate whilst being forgetful; which is what some have said, and is what may be meant in Allah’s saying: but he forgot. [20:115] If, however, he ate whilst remembering the command, he did so because: ‘Your Lord forbade you this tree lest you become angels or become of the immortals.’ [7:20] So his love for Allah and his deep attachment to Him made him to want what would lead him to dwell forever in Allah’s company and abide with Him eternally. Or [he wilfully ate because] he desired to become angelic. For Adam, peace be upon him, held the angels to be closer to Allah, so he wished to eat from the tree to be an angel who – as far as he was concerned – were the best [of creation].’2

Satan whispered to Adam and Eve, in order to lead them by deceit: And he swore to them: ‘Truly, I am a sincere advisor to you.’ [7:21] Adam, in his innocence, believed him, thinking that no one would ever swear by Allah’s holy Name falsely!3 So he used Adam’s love for Allah and his yearning to be in His presence as a means to make him eat of the tree. Adam was thus deceived into thinking that if he were to become an angel or an immortal, he too would be able to abide in Allah’s holy presence forever – perpetually adoring, glorifying and worshiping God as the angels do. Hence the lover ate.4

Ironically, love deprived him – for a while, at least – of dwelling in Allah’s presence: He said: ‘Go down, both of you, from the Garden.’ [20:123] And: ‘There will be for you on earth a habitation, and a provision for a while.’ [7:24] It was this very same love that caused him to then weep a thousand tears and be utterly heart-broken and remorseful. For unlike Satan who refused to own his sin, but sought instead to justify it, Adam and Eve acknowledged their slip and were remorseful, repentant and longed for God’s acceptance: ‘Our Lord! We have wronged ourselves. If you forgive us not, and have not mercy on us, we shall be among the losers!’ [7:23] Ibn al-Qayyim wrote:

‘By Allah! Having committed the error, Adam neither profited from his rank: ‘Bow down before Adam!’ [2:34]; nor from his nobility: He taught Adam the names of all things [2:31]; nor his distinction: ‘that which I created with both My hands’ [38:75]; and nor his glory: and breathed into him of My spirit. [15:29] Instead, he profited only from his humility: “Our Lord! We have wronged ourselves. If you forgive us not, and have not mercy on us, we will be among the losers!” [7:23]’5

One last point, and it’s an important one. When we say that Adam “sinned” – Thus Adam disobeyed his Lord [20:121] – it’s not the usual type of sin that is driven by the ego’s wilful opposition to Allah. Rather, as the Qur’an says elsewhere, it was an unintentional sin; an inadvertent “slip”: But the Devil caused them to slip. [2:36] Both courtesy and creed; adab and ‘aqidah, demand that we acknowledge this. Courtesy because when one speaks about God’s chosen prophets – the crown of all His creation – one does so in the most respectful and reverent way possible; salawatu‘Llahi ‘alayhim ajma‘in. Not to do so could, in certain cases, amount to disbelief (kufr). As for creed, then this is because the texts of the Qur’an and Hadiths, when taken collectively, teach us that the prophets are ma‘sum – “infallible” in the sense of being protected from sin and wilful disobedience. Al-Qurtubi stated: ‘The prophets are protected from major sins and the reprehensible minor sins, by consensus.’6

Although Adam and Eve are the first humans to violate a command from God, Satan is the first of all Allah’s creation to wilfully disobey Him. His decision to rebel came purely from himself and his pride; no one else lured or persuaded him. Furthermore, his decision to continue to disobey God after his initial defiance ensures that God will not forgive him. In contrast, both Adam and Eve immediately felt remorse and sincerely repented. We could say that while Iblis was driven by pride; Adam’s slip, in stark contrast, was driven by love and his longing to be with his Lord. Love is what drove Adam to eat – and there is always some special consideration for Allah’s true lovers.

The example of the Prophet Adam, peace be upon him, remains as valid today as it was then. For having turned to God, Adam did not transmit the curse of an “original sin” to his descendants. Instead, he was received into divine grace and a state of harmony was once again restored between him and his Maker: Then Adam received words from his Lord, and his Lord relented towards him. [2:37] A similar grace awaits all those who sin, but turn to Allah in remorseful repentance, following the Adamic example. The key is in pondering God and His grace, which allows one to become closer to Allah and more devoted to Him. In the Adamic saga, Iblis contemplates only himself: Adam constantly contemplates God and being close to Him.

So here’s to contemplating closeness!

1. Cited in al-Dhahabi, Siyar A‘lam al-Nubala (Beirut: Mu’assasah al-Risalah, 1998), 8:461.

2. Ibn ‘Ajibah, Bahr al-Madid fi Tafsir Qur’an al-Majid (Cairo: al-Maktabah al-Tawqifiyyah, n.d.), 4:320, citing Ibn Ata‘illah, Kitab al-Tanwir.

3. See: Qadi ‘Iyad, al-Shifa’ bi Ta‘rif Huquq al-Mustafa (Damascus: Maktabah al-Ghazali, 2000), 692.

4. Cf. Muhammad Idris Kandhalawi, Ma‘arif al-Qur’an (Sindh: Maktabah ‘Uthmaniyyah, 1422H), 3:85-90. I am indebted to Shaykh Jaleel Ahmad Akhoun, hafizahullah, for bringing this point, and this superb Urdu tafsir, to my attention.

5. Al-Fawa’id (Makkah: Dar ‘Alam al-Fawa’id, 2009), 51-2.

6. Al-Jami‘ li Ahkam al-Qur‘an (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, 1996), 3:194.

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