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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.

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