WHAT IS SUFISM?

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What is Tasawwuf (Sufism)? What is the meaning of Sufism (Tasawwuf) in Islam? What are the features of Tasawwuf? What is Sufism (Tasawwuf) in Islam? You can read and find everything you want to know about Sufism (Tasawwuf) …

You have had a good example in The Almighty’s Messenger for whosoever hopes for The Almighty and the Last Day, and remembers The Almighty often. (Al-Ahzab, 21)

THE ORIGIN OF SUFISM

In addition to His innumerable blessings, Allah, glory unto Him has granted human beings a unique quality, an extremely precious and subtle quality at that. The Almighty mentions this fact in the Quran when He declares, “I have breathed into him of My spirit.” (al-Hijr, 29) In return, the Almighty wants His servants to sincerely love and worship Him, so that they receive a portion of the knowledge of from Him and thereby reach Him.

The Almighty has also given human beings certain special qualities in order to guide them to this direction. In addition to this general guidance, He also entrusted some of His servants, who were given even further special qualities, with the mission of prophethood. This is an additional Divine favor to human beings. During the times when there shall no longer hail any Prophets from among them, the Lord has continued gracing ordinary human beings by designating some of His righteous servants, who are in fact heirs to the prophets, to guide them to the right path.

The institution of prophethood marks an incomparable blessing of the Divine to mankind. In order to render prophethood all-embracing for humankind entire, the Almighty inaugurated this celebrated institution with Adam -upon him peace-, the first human being and, at once, the first prophet. After being articulated by more than a hundred-and-twenty-four-thousand prophets, this sacred path of guidance underwent a process of gradual perfection, compliant with the social and intellectual progress of mankind. And it was with the prophethood of the last prophet, Muhammad -upon him blessings and peace-, that this chain of Divine guidance reached its ultimate perfection.

Prophet Muhammad -upon him blessings and peace- possesses two distinctive characteristics that separate him from other prophets. Firstly, his light was created even before the creation of Adam -upon him peace-. Secondly, in terms of his bodily manifestation, he was the final prophet to appear on Earth. Prophet Muhammad -upon him blessings and peace- therefore represents the first as well as the last pages of the book of prophethood. To put it in another way, the institution of prophethood was launched with the Muhammadan Light (Nur-i Muhammadi), the very first entity to exist, and was ended with the Muhammadan Corporeality (Cisman-i Muhammadi); his appearance on the spatio-temporal conditions of the world. These two unique characteristics make him the last prophet in the temporal sense, but also the first one in terms of his original creation.

Since the underlying motivation for the entire creation to come into existence is the Muhammadan Light itself, the Almighty created the Blessed Prophet -upon him blessings and peace- with a unique quality, on the basis of which he has been designated as “the beloved” (habibi) of the Lord. By subjecting his exceptional earthly existence to a close training, both inwardly and outwardly, the Almighty sent the Blessed Prophet Muhammad -upon him blessings and peace- to humanity as a gift.

The exemplary character and personality of the Blessed Prophet -upon him blessings and peace- represent the unreachable apex of human characteristics, including those that are fathomable by ordinary human comprehension. The reason underlying this is the fact that the Almighty made him a quintessential example (uswa hasana), the most perfect model, for the entire human race. Being an example for the human race entire, the Almighty therefore made the Blessed Prophet -upon him blessings and peace- experience every aspect thinkable of human life, a life experience that included his birth as a vulnerable orphan, all the way to him later reaching the authoritative political and religious leadership of his community.  Therefore, every person, from different levels of society, can find a good example for himself in the life of the Prophet -upon him blessings and peace-, and learn lessons from it.

In the Quran, the Almighty declares that the Blessed Prophet -upon him blessings and peace- represents the best example for the entire humankind, for every person, from the beginning of his prophethood to the Last Day:

“You have a good example in The Almighty’s Messenger for whosoever hopes for The Almighty and the Last Day, and remembers The Almighty often.” (al-Azhab, 21)

This means that all human beings stand in need of properly learning the characteristics of the Blessed Prophet -upon him blessings and peace-, so that, through the blueprint set by his life and deeds, they can attain religious and moral perfection. In a broader sense, such perfection refers to the nature of the Sufi course of conduct.  Every person should practice what he or she has learned in proportion to his or her capacity. This process starts with a simple imitation (taqlid) and ends in realization (tahqiq), which ultimately occurs in accordance with and to the degree of the love and spiritual intimacy that a person feels for the Blessed Prophet -upon him blessings and peace-. Innumerable spiritual blessings and disclosures beckon in sharing the same feelings with the Prophet -upon him blessings and peace-. Being able to partake in some share of the physical, spiritual, and moral characteristics of the Prophet -upon him blessings and peace- to the extent our capacities allow, is the highest kind of honor attainable in this world and the world to come.

Allah, glory unto Him, created the Blessed Prophet -upon him blessings and peace- upon the best natural disposition (fitrah), both inwardly and outwardly, and trained him accordingly. The Prophet -upon him blessings and peace- underlines this aspect of his personality, when he says, “My Lord has educated me, and how superbly has He educated me!”[1]

The Blessed Messenger -upon him blessings and peace- lived in a terribly violent and ignorant society for forty years before actually receiving prophethood. Still, he was under constant Divine protection and reared by Divine education. Never was he involved in any kind of blameworthy action for which the pre-Islamic society of Ignorance was known. Furthermore, in order to prepare him better for the heavy responsibility of prophethood, he had his chest cleft and his heart was cleansed and filled with spiritual blessings and lights.

Even before his prophethood, the Messenger of Allah -upon him blessings and peace- led a highly respectable lifestyle and believed in the oneness of The Almighty. Especially right before his reception of prophethood, he had increased his complete devotion to the Almighty, by retreating into seclusion in a cave on the Mount of Hira for long periods of time, on a regular basis, in order to contemplate on the essential questions for humanity. The outward reason behind his willful seclusion were his heartfelt sufferings from the wickedness, injustice and misery of the society in which he lived, taking their toll on his profoundly compassionate heart that exuded mercy towards all beings. As for the inward and real reason behind his seclusion, it was a preparatory stage in order to receive the Divine Message, namely the Quran, from the Almighty into the pure heart of the Blessed Prophet -upon him blessings and peace-. The disclosures and inspirations that his heart received during this momentous period of his lifetime guided his heart towards spiritual purification and made it a receptacle for Divine revelation. Becoming ready for revelation, his graceful heart then received spiritual signs and inspirations in the form of truthful visions for six months. The curtains of veiling the secrets of the spiritual realm were thereby parted for the Prophet -upon him blessings and peace-. This process helped him improve his unique inborn capacity for receiving revelation enabling to bear a huge burden otherwise hopelessly beyond the capacity of ordinary people; similar in ways to how iron turns to steel by virtue of the inherent characteristics it possesses.

SIMILAR ARTICLES

The Blessed Prophet -upon him blessings and peace- combined the authorities and duties of all previous prophets in his personality and conduct.  The nobility of lineage and conduct, the perfection of morals and disposition, reached their apex in his person. He established legal regulations. He taught how to cleanse the heart and purify the soul, which incidentally is the essence of Sufism. He also taught the correct way to worship the Almighty and pray to Him with a pure heart. Through his exemplary lifestyle, he embodied and represented a perfect form of morality. His age of forty marked a significant turning point not only for himself but also for humankind entire.

The essence of Sufism consists of uplifting our spiritual dimension to a certain degree of maturity and making it receptive to the knowledge and love of the Lord, and thereby imparting onto it that certain blend required for reuniting with the Real. Such a perfect blend is the spirit that will save us; a blend which, at once, is a sacred inheritance bequeathed to us from the caves of Hira and Thawr.  It was during specific times and at specific places, not only reserved to Hira and Thawr,  that the Blessed Prophet -upon him blessings and peace- went through an intense spiritual training, essential in preparing him for the weight of Quranic revelation; and it was this training constituted that the fruitful basis for purifying his heart and cleansing his soul.

Before receiving the Quranic revelation, the Blessed Prophet -upon him blessings and peace- had already reached a certain degree of spiritual maturity and moral perfection. However, after his return from the cave of Hira where he openly received the Divine Instruction for the first time, the Prophet -upon him blessings and peace- attained a much higher perfection, incomparable even to the exceptional characteristics he already possessed prior to his prophethood. There, the Prophet -upon him blessings and peace- had entered an intense and profound spiritual connection with the Almighty; he was given an enchanting taste of the light of Divine oneness and knowledge, elevating him to the peak of the spiritual state of being conscious of the Lord, imbibing a deep sense of piety in his every particle. Set in motion thereby, he would offer deeds of worship at night until daybreak until his legs would get swollen. Even when he is eyes were shut to asleep, his heart was always alert and awake in a deep, rousing contemplation of the Lord Almighty.

In fact, through the content of the revelation of the Holy Quran, replete with knowledge and wisdom, the Blessed Muhammad -upon him blessings and peace- left even the most elite of his contemporaries helpless and in awe; and through his personal lifestyle and actions, he virtually became a miraculous ocean of virtue, unrivalled in both past and future. No invention until the Last Day will be able to falsify the Prophet -upon him blessings and peace-, nor will any educator be able to reach his standard of conduct.

This spiritual maturity of the Blessed Prophet -upon him blessings and peace- underwent a gradual increase until ultimately reaching its peak; and by means of the Ascension (Miraj), a unique gift from the Beloved (Mahbub) to another (Habib), he became a “traveler of eternity”.  On that night, as the special guest of his Lord, the Prophet -upon him blessings and peace- went beyond all the spatio-temporal limitations of the world by which human beings are bound, and attained the reality of the secret mentioned in the Holy Quran as “two bows’-length away, or nearer”. (an-Najm, 9)[2]

This immense Divine gift, called Isra and Miraj, was a present to the Prophet -upon him blessings and peace- and took place in accordance with a Divine regulation that decreed the temporary removal, for him, of all kinds of limitations set for human beings. On this occasion, the worldly conceptions of space and time disappeared, and a journey and visions that would normally take the lifespans of billions of human beings, took place within a very short period of time. The Prophet -upon him blessings and peace- travelled beyond the frontiers of the “Worlds”, “Throne”, and “Lote-Tree” and received the unprecedented privilege of being disclosed with the vision of the Lord and with talking to Him directly without any intermediary.

It was such spiritual maturity and perfection that the Almighty bestowed on the Blessed Prophet -upon him blessings and peace-. These Almighty-given characteristics continually accompanied him throughout his communicating of the Divine message to human beings and in his avid yearning to guide humankind entire onto the straight path. The Prophet’s -upon him blessings and peace- genuine desire and consciousness for fulfilling the heavenly duty he was entrusted with, delivered him to the zenith of human perfection. On the way, he categorically rejected all kinds worldly offers proposed to steer him away from delivering this message. In his eyes, worshipping The Almighty in the most proper sense of the term was preferable to everything else.

An event which took place in the early days of his prophethood perfectly explains the Blessed Prophet’s -upon him blessings and peace- priorities. The idolaters of Mecca sent a proposal to him through his paternal uncle Abu Talib, in order to dissuade him from, and put a stop to, his prophetic activities. In response to this proposal, the Blessed Prophet -upon him blessings and peace- said to his uncle, in a resolute tone, “I swear in the name of the Lord, my dear uncle, that even if they were would place the sun in my right hand and the moon in my left, I would never give up delivering this message. Either the Almighty makes this message spread all over the world and thus I complete my duty, or I breathe my last on this path.”[3]

Following their unsuccessful attempt, the idolaters, still ill-at-ease with the birth of Islam and its impending growth, took their proposal a step further. This time they came to the Blessed Prophet -upon him blessings and peace- and declared, “If you want to be rich, we can give you all the wealth in the world and you will be the richest man among the entire tribes in Arabia. If you have a desire for political leadership, we can make you our leader and you can be the ruler of Mecca. Should you wish to marry to a noble woman, we can wed you to the noblest and most beautiful woman in Quraysh…allowing you to pick and choose. We are ready to do everything you want…so long as you simply put an end to this all.”

The unconditional and final response of the Blessed Prophet -upon him blessings and peace- to the ludicrous offers of the flesh made by the idolaters, was his declaration, “I do not expect anything from you; wealth, property, authority, leadership, nor women. The only thing I want is for you to stop worshipping those powerless idols and to start worshipping the Almighty alone.”[4]

There is no doubt that these statements and actions present the most consummate examples for all human beings, especially in being firmly stable on faith and consciousness of duty, as well as an ideal and pure state of servitude. The improper proposals in question were about attaining some worldly pleasures in return for those of the eternal world. The history of humankind is full of examples of those who sold their ideals out in return for meager expectations and prosperities of the world.

The Holy Quran and its exemplary practice by the Blessed Prophet -upon him blessings and peace- constitute the essential principles of Islam. The former, being a theoretical source of guidance until the Last Day, begins by praising the Lord of all Worlds and ends by purifying the heart from all sorts of negative attributes and enjoining man to take refuge in the Lord, submissively and unconditionally. The latter represents the practical source of guidance for mankind; for following the Blessed Prophet -upon him blessings and peace- is the only means to acquire true happiness both Here and in the Hereafter. Nothing belonging to this world, however precious it may seem, can ever compare to this salvation; eternal and thus irreplaceable in nature.

The Holy Quran was delivered first to the Blessed Prophet -upon him blessings and peace-, and then through him, to entire humankind. The Quran is a Divine Word that calls mankind to acquire knowledge of the Lord and reach Him by following a natural reasoning on the basis of arriving at the Producer through the product, the Cause through the effect, the Artist through the art, and the Creator through creation. Consequently, the Holy Quran teaches the precise and proper way to frequently remember the Lord and to lead an observant and pious life, in which one minds the Divine commands as if he sees the Lord in front of him, and thereby acquire the love and approval of the Divine.

One should keep in mind that the single source of Divine love is the Blessed Prophet -upon him blessings and peace-; since to love the Prophet -upon him blessings and peace- is tantamount to loving the Lord, and likewise, obeying or disobeying the Prophet -upon him blessings and peace- is equal to obeying or disobeying the Almighty.

As mentioned above, the reason of the creation of existence was the Creators’ love for the Muhammadan Light, the first entity ever to be created. All of creation, therefore, was created for the sake of and as a cover for the Muhammadan Light. Mankind represents the most elite part of all creation in terms of receiving Divine gifts. The zenith of all mankind, in the same respect, it is the Muhammadan existence, in other words, the tangible existence of the Blessed Prophet –upon him blessings and peace- on Earth. Man includes the characteristics of all beings, for which reason he has also been referred to as “the little world” or “the micro cosmos”. The human being is therefore comprehensive creation in terms of containing the qualities, both good and evil, of all beings. At the same time, the human being represents the choicest portion and cream of all creation, because it is like a seed that includes a huge plane-tree inside, or in equal measure, like an individual that potentially includes a society within himself. On the basis of such unique characteristics, mankind holds the title of “the pearl of creation” (ashraf-i makhluqat); yet the Muhammadan existence goes far beyond this advanced point. Those who met the Blessed Prophet -upon him blessings and peace- in person were able to either distinguish his inner reality or act blind towards it, depending on the acuteness or the bankruptcy of their physical and moral abilities. Looking at him, some were able to discern and appreciate the goodness of him; while there were others, who would dismally fail and only see something bad. Abu Bakr and Ali ibn Abi Talib –Allah be well-pleased with them- had really met the same person as Abu Jahl did, but the former two saw completely different things in comparison to Abu Jahl. So deep was the love through which Abu Bakr and Ali –Allah be well-pleased with them- beheld the Blessed Prophet -upon him blessings and peace- that the two became the first link of the golden chain of the Sufi way.

Sufism aims at attaining an outward as well as inward togetherness with the Blessed Prophet -upon him blessings and peace-; a state of togetherness grounded on a boundless love for him. The primal concern of Sufism therefore centers on the spirituality of the Prophet -upon him blessings and peace-, both inwardly and outwardly, and guides believers to receive a portion from his spirituality conducive to reaching that state of togetherness with him. In other words, the Sufi way aims at underpinning faith with a sincere and intense love and fulfilling the deeds of worship amid a deep reverence towards the Almighty and pursuing an observant life. It is the inspiring reflections of this sublime gift that begun with the “Divine breath” breathed for the first time into Adam -upon him blessings and peace-, and which reached its perfection in the Blessed Prophet -upon him blessings and peace-. To be able to comprehend the reality of the spiritual and existential command that comprises the core of tasawwuf; it is imperative that one acquires a deep and detailed knowledge of the life of the Blessed Prophet -upon him blessings and peace.

The Blessed Prophet -upon him blessings and peace- represents the quintessential example for mankind in every aspect of life, including his prowess in educating people and purifying their hearts. As a prophet, he was entrusted with many duties for which he exercised numerous commands. Among these duties, especially four kinds come to the fore:

  1. Receiving Divine revelation (wahy): The Blessed Prophet -upon him blessings and peace- received the revelation from the Almighty through the archangel Jibril –upon him peace-. This receipt of divine revelation, which took place on the basis of Divine will, came to an end with the departure of the Prophet -upon him blessings and peace- from this world.
  2. Explaining the Quranic teachings: The Holy Quran contains concise judgments and realities, which the Blessed Prophet -upon him blessings and peace- explained and elaborated during his years of prophetic duty. Muslim scholars (mujtahid) have assumed this scholarly authority after the passing away of the Prophet -upon him blessings and peace-. The purpose of explaining Quranic teachings is to render them actual and practicable in life. Carried out by authoritative Muslim scholars, this undertaking is called “independent reasoning” (ijtihad). In principle, ijtihad is a continual process in Muslim society, but its incumbency depends upon the availability of qualified scholars at a given time. In any case, this duty belongs to knowledgeable Muslim scholars who have attained to the level required of ijtihad.
  3. Carrying out administrative responsibilities: In order to implement Divine commands and prohibitions on individual and collective issues, the establishment of an administrative structure was necessary for the Blessed Prophet -upon him blessings and peace-. The Islamic government he thus established was assumed, after him, by his righteous successors or caliphs.
  4. Purifying the souls of mankind: The Blessed Prophet -upon him blessings and peace- was able to touch the hearts of people and influence them, through the spiritual command he was given. After his departure from this world, subsequent Muslim generations took all of his responsibilities upon themselves, only with the exception of receiving and delivering Divine revelation. This last duty, that of reaching people’s hearts and purifying them, was among his essential responsibilities, and it is natural to expect it to continue on until the Final Hour; for a balanced religious life can only be based on a harmony of the outward and the inward. It is especially this duty that has been carried out and perpetuated by Sufis, the source and principles which come directly from the Prophet’s –upon him blessings and peace- practice of the instructions of the Quran. Sufis have placed special emphasis on spiritually-oriented religious teachings to help people become better human beings and more mature Muslims. Islam will doubtless continue to the Last Day, and endless journey which naturally and necessarily includes its spiritual dimension. It is exactly in this context that the continual existence of Sufism and its authoritative representatives form an essential part of this journey.

The Blessed Prophet -upon him blessings and peace- represents the ultimate perfection of humankind with regards to exoteric and esoteric virtues in servanthood, worship, social interactions, and morality. For thirteen years in Mecca, the Prophet -upon him blessings and peace- underwent a kind of preparatory spiritual training; and when he was immigrating to Medina, he became subjected to a further spiritual training in the cave of Thawr, where he was to witness certain Divine disclosures. This cave functioned for him as a special place to experience Divine wisdoms and advanced spiritual realities. The Prophet -upon him blessings and peace- stayed in the cave for three days. His companion was Abu Bakr -Allah be well-pleased with him-, the noblest of mankind after the prophets. From start to end, this companionship was a great honor and privilege for Abu Bakr, underlined by the Quran’s reference to him as “the second of the two” in the cave (at-Tawbah, 40). The Quran also mentions the Prophet’s -upon him blessings and peace- comforting of Abu Bakr –Allah be well-pleased with him-,

لاَ تَحْزَنْ اِنَّ اللّٰهَ مَعَنَا

“Sorrow not; surely The Almighty is with us.” (at-Tawbah, 40) This Quranic statement further indicates the fact that the Prophet -upon him blessings and peace- taught the secret meaning and inner gist of togetherness with the Almighty. According to the Sufi understanding, this incident was the earliest example for remembrance of the Almighty in silence (dhikr-i khafi) and an indication of how such a deep state of togetherness with the Almighty imparts tranquility onto hearts. Sufis draw further emphasis on the fact that, historically speaking, the cave of Thawr was the birthplace of the transferal of spiritual secrets from one heart to the other in the Islamic tradition. Thus, accordingly, Abu Bakr –Allah be well-pleased with him- was the earliest Muslim figure to receive spiritual training directly from the Blessed Prophet -upon him blessings and peace-, one of the integral reasons as to why he is celebrated as the most authoritative Muslim, after the Prophet -upon him blessings and peace- himself, in the traditional chain of transmission of the Sufi way. The cave of Thawr, therefore, virtually became a particular place in the world from which a servant could reach his Lord, Who is beyond all kinds of spatio-temporal conceptions.

The Sufis further relate that similar to his teaching of the principles of remembrance of the Lord in silence (dhikr-i khafi) to Abu Bakr –Allah be well-pleased with him-, the Blessed Prophet -upon him blessings and peace- also instructed the remembrance of the Lord aloud (dhikr-i jahri) to Ali ibn Abi Talib -Allah be well-pleased with him-. On the basis of such a historical background, the instructions regarding the remembrance of the Lord, which are of primary importance in Sufi training, have their origin in the teachings of the Blessed Prophet -upon him blessings and peace-, which, in turn, have been passed on by two of the earliest and most reputable Muslim religious authorities.

In characterizing the essence of religion, Sufism has in fact been present since Prophet Adam -upon him peace- to Prophet Muhammad -upon him blessings and peace-. Many principles of Sufism readily present themselves in the life of each prophet. As for its appearance as theoretical and practical discipline as it is known today, however, Sufism was systematized for the first time in the second century after the Hegira; that is the Blessed Prophet’s -upon him blessings and peace- emigration from Mecca to Medina in 622 A.D.

None of the Islamic theological and legal schools (madhhab) of thought came into existence during the lifetime of the Blessed Prophet -upon him blessings and peace-. At the same time, however, the Prophet -upon him blessings and peace-did issue certain theological and legal principles for his Companions to make them more knowledgeable in matters concerning Islam. These instructions were not written down during his lifetime and compiled as systematic scholarly disciplines. After a certain period of time, however, students of the great scholars of Islamic jurisprudence, for instance, started collecting the opinions of their teachers and putting them together. This process marked the beginning of the emergence of Islamic schools of thought, where the opinions of a great scholar were collected under his name, by which each scholarly legacy came to be known as; such as the Hanafi, Shafii, Maliki, and Hanbali schools of Islamic jurisprudence. In accommodating for the needs of practical life, these legal schools were subsequently embraced by the masses.

Similar to other Islamic disciplines, tasawwuf encourages people to follow the abstinence and piety of the earliest Muslim generations, who in effect had practiced the essence of Sufism. In time, Muslim people generally found themselves all the more engaged in matters and pursuits of the world, where those who had managed to remain steadfast on religious objectives were reduced to a small minority in their society. This last group, the saints, burdened the responsibility of warning people against the deceiving pleasures of the world and offered precious advice to guide them onto their essential direction. They did not aim specifically at establishing a new way of thinking or an organized spiritual order. Their sole objective was pursuing a decent life in accordance with Quranic and prophetic instructions. Appreciating their exemplary religiosity, both their contemporaries and subsequent generations embraced these saintly advices, by attending their spiritual sessions and taking lessons from both their words and deeds. This process culminated in acknowledging saints as spiritual guides and teachers. People who welcomed such eminent religious figures in their practice of religion then started collecting the words and instructions of their masters and systematized them as a spiritual discipline. In the end, Sufi orders came into existence bearing the names of their masters, such as the Qadiriyya, Mawlawiyya, Naqshbandiyya, and the like.

The word tariqah means a method (literally “way” or “path”) which each branch of Sufism uses to reach the Lord by helping flourish the moral and religious characteristics innate to human beings. Depending on their methodologies, there are three kinds of tariqahs:

  1. The path for the good (tariq-i akhyar): These are the tariqahs that focus on the deeds of worship and piety.
  2. The path for the virtuous (tariq-i ebrar): These are the tariqahs that concentrate on purifying the human soul through spiritual exercises and services.
  3. The path for lovers (tariq-i shuttar): They are the tariqahs that aim at attaining the same goal through love.

Each of these three kinds of tariqats welcomes people in accordance with their personal characteristics. Each person joins a tariqat that is the most suitable for his spiritual purification and perfection. Since people are of different temperaments, it is only natural that there should be different tariqats. The Almighty says in the Quran,

“To each of you We prescribed a law (shir‘a) and a method (minhaj).” (al-Maida, 48)

The word minhaj in the Quranic verse has been defined as an “illuminated way”, specifically denoting the path of servanthood that should be followed in order to gain spiritual closeness with the Lord. A celebrated Sufi adage in fact states that “The number of the ways to the Lord is as great as the number of breaths of every created being.”

On the other hand, Quranic judgments are of three types:

  1. Creedal (the principles of faith)
  2. Legal or jurisprudential
  3. a) of worship
  4. b) Social interactions
  5. c) Punishments
  6. Ethical or comprehension of the heart (fiqh-i kalbi)

Fiqh-i kalbi means the betterment of one’s inner world or morality, constituting thereby the inner dimension of creedal and practical principles. Fiqh-i kalbi aids to mature human action to the point of producing righteous deeds (amal-i salih). According to the Quran, piety (taqwa), abstinence (zuhd), and the beautifying or internalization of faith (ihsan) represent the most significant characteristics of praiseworthy states of the heart.

Piety (taqwa), in the sense of constantly being conscious of Allah, glory unto Him, means protecting the heart by means of diligently observing Divine commands and prohibitions in a state-of-mind acutely aware of the ceaseless responsibility before the Almighty.

Abstinence (zuhd) is to empty the heart of everything other than of the Lord.

Beautifying or internalizing faith (ihsan) is to embark upon a ceaseless spiritual contemplation with an awareness of being under constant Divine surveillance.

(اَالْاِحْسَانُ) أَنْ تَعْبُدَ اللّٰهَ كَأَنَّكَ تَرَاهُ فَأِنْ لَمْ تَكُنْ تَرَاهُ فَأِنَّهُ يَرَاكَ

The Blessed Prophet -upon him blessings and peace- says, “Ihsan is to worship the Lord as if you see Him; for even if you do not see Him, He sees you.” (Bukhari, Iman, 37, Muslim, Iman 1) In other words, ihsan refers to training the psyche to the point where one feels and knows that he is being watched by the Almighty every step he takes. Such a psychological condition improves the state of the heart and enables a believer to organize his entire life in accordance with Divine regulations. It is through this process that the heart becomes purified; and from this perspective, Sufism is about leading the heart to purification.

Religion aims at bettering people and refining them spiritually. One can fulfill this objective only after one comes to a profound realization of being the servant of the Almighty. According to the Islamic understanding, the ideal human being is he who embodies the attributes of the Lord as his own; and the way to this ideal passes exclusively through the spiritual education of the heart. In order to render the essence of the heart a polished mirror in reflecting these Divine traits, the servant needs to reserve a central place for the remembrance of the Lord (dhikr) in his heart. Turning the heart towards the Almighty in this manner, ultimately allows it to enjoy the reflections of these brilliant manifestations.

Islam keeps the door of spiritual advancement open for believers through zuhd, taqwa, and ihsan. Otherwise, had Islam required and implemented only exoteric regulations for believers and closed the door to the Lord in an absolute manner, reaching the Lord would have been impossible for those graced with a spiritual capacity in this direction, which would have been a great injustice indeed. And this would have proven an insurmountable barrier between the Almighty and His devout servants. But on the contrary, the line of communication between the Almighty and His servants is unreservedly open, in many ways, to those who have the capacity to reach Him; a capacity whose fulfillment marks the ultimate level of perfection for human beings. Since the acts and judgments of the Almighty are full of wisdom, it is unthinkable that He should close the way to Himself, for His dedicated servants, entirely shut.

In one respect, for pious servants, ihsan represents a spiritual miraj or ascension of spiritual intimacy to their Lord, insofar as the term refers to a steady psychological condition man is called on to embody, in which he becomes conscious of the closeness of the Lord at all times. This notion of ihsan is grounded on its aforementioned definition given by the Blessed Prophet -upon him blessings and peace-, where ihsan is explained as the mindset of worshipping the Almighty as if one sees Him right before his eyes; and though he might not see the Lord, the Lord does indeed thoroughly see everything, including him. Those who comprehend this inner signification of ihsan regulate their entire lives accordingly, whereby they provide a continuous dwelling place for ihsan deep in their hearts.

From this point of view, ihsan is a spiritual reality, which Sufis seek to attain. Striving for this purpose ultimately enables one to obtain a deep spiritual connection with the Lord and whosoever establishes such a sound connection with Him becomes ‘a friend of His’, a saintly character who assumes the attributes of the character traits of the Lord as his own. A servant unable to taste a spiritual maturity of this caliber becomes stuck in the exoteric surface understanding of the religion and remains only on the level of imitation. Nonetheless, the Blessed Prophet’s -upon him blessings and peace- moral and spiritual characteristics were not only put into practice by the Companions they were also diligently passed onto following generations. Every single Muslim therefore enjoys irrevocable access to and the opportunity to experience the spiritual dimension of Islam; and in this sense, there is no elitism in the Islamic religious tradition.

In light of the elucidations offered thus far, we may give an outline the basic understanding of Sufism in traditional Muslim circles as follows: Being based on the Quran and thus indigenous to Islam, Sufism is an essential dimension of the Islamic religious tradition. In stark contrast to this authentic understanding and legitimacy of Sufism, however, some look to the origin or origins of Sufism outside of Islam. They speculate on various potential origins, based on etymology or historical contacts. They, for instance, assert that Sufism comes from the ancient Greek word “sophia”, a term alleged to be the Arabic “tasawwuf”. In similar vein, there are others who try to conjure an origin for Sufism in the pre-Islamic Judeo-Christian religious tradition; and still others who claim that the Sufi way has roots in Hindu mysticism. The common denominator of all these approaches is that they remain superficial in understanding and appreciating the essence of Sufism.

Muslim scholars have in fact presented a copious amount of solid and convincing arguments in duly exposing the origin of the word “tasawwuf” as embedded in Islamic sources. It has been commented, for instance, that etymologically speaking, the term “tasawwuf” is derived from the Arabic words “safa”, “safwah”, and “istafa”, all of which denote ‘purity’ in differing significations. Some Muslim scholars draw a sound historical relation between the word “tasawwuf” and a fraction of the earliest Islamic community, whose members specifically devoted themselves to constant acts of worship and abstinence, who were referred to as the “ahlu’-suffa”, literally “the people of purity”. It is reported that they would wear woolen mantles; in other words, mantles made from “suf”, the Arabic word for wool. A “sufi” or a “mutasawwif”, in this sense, is a person who wears woolen clothing, on the basis of the historical fact that the “ahlu’-suffa” would prefer the same clothing, out of abstinence and humbleness.

As a fundamental principle, Muslim scholars base their personal interpretations of religious notions on the ground of the Quran and the Sunnah. Thus, just like a Muslim jurisprudent who does not stray from the Quran and Sunnah when affording rulings in Islamic legal matters through independent reasoning (ijtihad), Sufis base their spiritual interpretations of religious topics unswervingly upon the Quran and the Sunnah. In this regard the Sufis are no different to jurisprudents, insofar as both are expected to act with feelings of piety and the consciousness of the Lord (taqwa) and underpin their arguments with evident proofs from the Quran and the Sunnah.

On some occasions, however, some Sufi writers with insufficient knowledge of conventional or exoteric Islamic disciplines and momentarily intoxicated under the grip of spiritual ecstasy, may make errors of judgments or utter intricate, baffling statements. Sufi orders whose sheikhs were knowledgeable scholars also of exoteric sciences, were able to remain immune to such mistakes. The Naqshbandiyya and similar Sufi orders that keep themselves very close to the outward principles of the Quran and the Sunnah have coined a widespread rule in this regard, that says, “The stable foot of the compass is the Shariah (the Law).” Rumi similarly elaborates:

“We are like compasses. Our stable foot stands firm on the Shariah, and with the other, we travel amid the seventy-two nations on earth. The Shariah is like a candle; it illuminates and shows the way. One cannot move forward only by taking the candle in one’s hand, but one cannot proceed without taking it in the hand either. Once you begin to progress under the light of the Shariah…it is this that which we call tariqah.”

Sufism is the effort to pursue a lifestyle that is harmonious with the essence of religion, by virtue of purifying oneself from material and moral defects, and embodying, in their place, a beauty of moral conduct.

Source: Osman Nuri Topbaş, Sufism, Erkam Publications

[1]        Suyuti, Jamiu’s-Saghir, I, 12
[2]        Qaba qawsayni aw adna: At the night of Miraj, the Blessed Prophet -upon him blessings and peace- was uniquely allowed to cross beyond the point of the Lote-Tree (Sidrat al-Muntaha). No other created being, including Jibril –upon him peace-, was ever allowed to come this close to the Almighty. The Quranic statement, “two bows’-length away, or nearer”, denotes a confidential meeting between the Almighty and the Prophet -upon him blessings and peace-. Grasping the reality of this meeting lies beyond the capacity of ordinary understanding.
[3]        Ibnu’l-Athir, al-Kamil fi’t-Tarikh, II, 64.
[4]        Ibn Hisham, as-Sirah, I, 236.

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