What is Tasawwuf? What does tasawwuf mean?

Before moving on to discuss the matter of the noble Chain, it is first necessary to perceive what tasawwuf, which is the arena of the perfect guides, is, with an exact definition that includes everything that it is and is not. Otherwise it will not be possible to fully understand the people of tasawwuf and their teachers, or the Perfect Guides (murshid-i kamil).

The Origins of Tasawwuf

Tasawwuf is the aspect of Islam which focuses on the heart, on its essence and spirituality. It is a path of spiritual purification and perfection in which one tries to integrate the teachings of the Qur’an and the sunnah of the prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) into every aspect of one’s life. It is the spiritual and sincere aspect of all of the religions that Allah has sent down. It began with the breathing of the ruh into the prophet Adam (peace be upon him) and peaked with the last of the prophets Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) and is now continually reflected onto the hearts of those filled with love.

The ‘perfected human’ model that Allah desires from us was displayed in the blessed character of the prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him). Just as in every stage of his life, Allah’s Messenger constituted the best example (the uswat al-hasana), so too he was the best of ‘educators’ and ‘purifiers’. As a prophet he had great many duties and he was given great authority. Amongst these the following four responsibilities take precedence:

  • Receiving divine revelation:

The receiving of the revelation which came about through Allah’s will and favour was finally completed according to traditions with the verse: ‘This day I have perfected for you your Religion (with all its rules, commandments and universality), completed My favour upon you, and have been pleased to assign for you Islam as religion’ (Ma’idah, 5:3).

Since the prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) was the ‘seal of the prophets’ this duty ended when he migrated to the eternal realm.

2) Explaining the rulings and truths of the verses revealed in the Qur’an with his words and his actions:

This authority of knowledge was continued by the mujtahid scholars who gave their ijtihad (rulings) in the face of newly-encountered matters using original and derived proofs. This situation brought about the madhhabs (schools of law).

3) The prophet (peace and blessings be upon him)had political and managerial authority in which he applied and kept alive the commands and prohibitions of the religion, establishing them and ordering them:

This authority was taken on and continued by the caliphs (the ulu’l amr).

4) With his command over the spirit the prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) trained and purified their inner worlds:

The succession of this duty and licence of the prophet from generation to generation constitutes the foundation of tasawwuf. Just as it is of the essence that all of the duties, apart from that of receiving revelation, were taken up and continued by those who followed him, it is also necessary that his duty of purifying and refining the inner world of human beings, in order to allow them to reach a stage of spiritual maturity, continues until the end of time by the heirs of the prophets, the Perfect Guides. For the believers are in need not just of outer cleansing, but of inner cleansing and this is only possible as a result of such spiritual education and training.

Thus, the main origins of the practices and principles of tasawwuf are the Holy Qur’an and the hadith, and must be continued at all times and in all places. That is, tasawwuf is the living form of the establishment of the spiritual and immaterial authority of the prophet (peace and blessings be upon him). His spiritual authority lives on until this day, via his qualified Companions, Followers (tabi’een) and later generations.

The appearance of tasawwuf as, in its current definition, an organised and systematic science and a path to be travelled, corresponds to the events of his second year after the migration.

In the Age of Bliss the schools of theology, creed or law had not yet been established and had not been organised into various sciences. However, at that time, there were various rulings regarding beliefs and laws etcetera’s in existence and these were being applied and taught by the prophet’s Companions (May Allah be pleased with them). Later the ‘rulings’ (ijtihad) of the great scholars, who were considered authorities in the science of fiqh, were adopted by their students and systematised giving rise to various different methods that were later called ‘madhhabs’. They were named according to the name of those great scholars.

Just as with the other Islamic sciences, such practices of ‘zuhd’ (abstention) and ‘taqwa’ (God-consciousness), inspired by the profound nature of tasawwuf, were practiced in the Age of Bliss, in order to allow people to reach a stage of ‘ihsan’ and a relationship with Allah. All of the principles that form the foundation of a sound understanding of tasawwuf are present in the Qur’an and were in practice during the life of the prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) and his Companions (may Allah be pleased with them).As time passed, pious scholars and gnostics continued on the prosperous example from that Age of Bliss and began to advice and counsel the people for the sake of earning the pleasure of Allah, to prevent people from yielding to the life of this world and sinking in to heedlessness. These individuals had no desire to blaze a trail or bring about a lifestyle. Their sole aim was to live Islam in accordance with its essence and carry out their worship in a state of ihsan and khushu, as dictated by the Qur’an and the Sunnah.

However, those who benefited from their words, their advice and their state, accepted them as their spiritual guide and teacher. These people then took their advice that is their method of training and purification, which allowed the believers to reach a state of spiritual maturity and to systematise it into a spiritual discipline. As a result, certain ‘tariqas’ appeared which took on the name of these teachers. Examples of these are Naqshibandi, Qadiri, Mawlawi and so on.

The name ‘tariqa’ is given to the method and practice followed by all branches of tasawwuf which take a person to Allah (swt). In time, various tariqas following various methods appeared. In this way, every believer has the opportunity to find a tariq that is suitable to their own character and nature, in order to be purified spiritually and reach a stage of maturity.

The Need for Tasawwuf

As we all know, the human being has two aspects, a spirit and a body. Both of these have demands related to their nature. Islam does not deny or reject these inclinations and tendencies, which are part of their nature. It accepts them as fact. In light of the basic principles that it puts forth it tries to encourage those inclinations that are acceptable and to limit those that are unacceptable. That is, Islam presents a balance between the physical and the non-physical. Worship cannot be carried out without the body. Prayer and fasting cannot be performed without the body. Other acts of worship also can only be carried out via a body. However, they likewise cannot be done without the spirit. When we remove the excitement felt by the spirit, passion, or the tenderness and sensitivity of the heart, religion becomes a dry skeleton, whereas Allah (swt) emphasises the notion of ‘taqwa’ in over 250 places in the Holy Qur’an;  taqwa is the sensitivity of the heart.

He says in the Holy Qur’an:

Prosperous indeed are the believers. They are in their Prayer humble and fully submissive (being overwhelmed by the awe and majesty of God)’ (Mu’minun, 23:1-2).

Tasawwuf is a method of training taken from the Holy Qur’an and the sunnah. It teaches one how to attain certain states of the heart, which are mentioned in the Qur’an, such as taqwa, khushu, tawbah, rida, and in contrast, how the diseases of the heart such as riya, ‘ujub, and kibr are to be removed.

If a human being remains in the realm of corporealism and observes everything from the perspective of materialism, they will see even the most removed events as personalised and within soulless moulds. This is in fact one of the main reasons that lie at the basis of the objections against tasawwuf.  However, tasawwuf in fact turns one’s attention towards the spirit, towards metaphysics and otherworldliness without rejecting our physical and outer needs. It thus shows a way of perfecting and satisfying the human spirit in accordance with a person’s capacity.

The Spiritual Masters say:

“To reach one’s physical provision is possible by the efforts of the limbs. Similarly reaching one’s inner provision is possible by the efforts of the heart”.

In accordance with Divine Will, Almighty Allah has created human beings with differing capacities, both physical and spiritual. He does not expect a servitude from His servants that is beyond their capacity; however, He has made them responsible for the degree of potential that He has bestowed upon them. Conversely, in assigning the obligations of religion which is obligatory on all of mankind, Almighty Allah has used the minimum degree of strength as the standard. Undoubtedly this is a manifestation of His endless mercy and compassion upon His servants. Together with this, He has left the door for spiritual ascension and perfection open for those who have, by their nature, the power, the enthusiasm and the potential to do more than the minimum requirement of the religion. That is, in addition to the duties required by the shariah, He has kept the door open by allowing those believers who have the potential to advance in the realm of the heart, to progress towards the peak of togetherness with Allah through various forms of worship, such as supererogatory (nafilah) worship, and virtues such as zuhd, taqwa and ihsan.

As is known, this is the path of tasawwuf.

We can illustrate this with the following example:

Shaykh Shibli was once asked: “How much zakat should be paid for five camels?” He replied:

“What is obligatory is one sheep; but according to us, all of them should be for Allah”.

He was then asked: “What is your proof for this?” And he replied:

“Abu Bakr (may Allah be pleased with him). He gave his entire wealth for the cause of Allah. Whoever gives their entire wealth for the sake of Allah, freely and generously, he has the spirit and character of Abu Bakr. Whoever gives a large portion of their wealth and property, he is of the temperament and character of Uthman ((may Allah be pleased with him)… Knowledge that does not lead one to abandon the world (with one’s heart) is not true knowledge[1]”.

As this example illustrates, with the elevated capacities of their hearts, each of the great Companions, with each of their particular characteristics, are considered to be imams and leaders in tasawwuf.

For the heart to reach a state of peace and tranquillity is dependent on the degree that one reaches spiritually. This is why it is necessary for the servant to pass through a process of spiritual training. For the heart to be filled with knowledge and wisdom, to become aware of the elevated truths of the religion, and for the servant to be perfected spiritually, is only possible after a series of various operations and procedures.

Likewise, even the prophets who were sent as examples for all of mankind passed through such a period of preparation before they received revelation.

Before the prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) was appointed with the duty of prophethood, he would retreat to the cave of Hira in the Mountain of Nur (meaning light). Before the prophet Jesus (peace be upon him) heard the first divine words, he spent forty days and forty nights, hungry and thirsty in the Mount Sinai. Likewise, before his conversation with Allah the prophet Moses (peace be upon him) fasted without a break for forty days on Mount Sinai, entering a type of abstention. The prophet Joseph (peace be upon him) was imprisoned for twelve years before he was made Viceroy of Egypt. There he was made to pass through various stages of pain, abstention, struggle and difficulty. In this way his blessed heart was cleansed of all refuges, havens, points of support and matters of concern other than Allah.

In tasawwuf, the idea of tawbah from masiwa, indicates a stage of preparation in which one shuns, in ones’ heart and spirit all things that distance one from Allah, and melt in nothingness and annihilation. This is because spiritual transformation begins when one reaches the point of nothingness and annihilation[2].

In addition, before the Messenger of Allah (peace and blessings be upon him) set out for his Ascension (Mi’raj) he was subject to the mystery of the chapter Inshirah from the Qur’an. As had happened to him twice before, his blessed chest was opened up and his noble heart cleansed and filled with the light of knowledge and wisdom. This was because he would encounter such strange and wonderful events and such Divine mysteries and subtle scenes, on the Night of the Ascension that would have been impossible for him to perceive with the denseness of human nature.

Whereas the Messenger of Allah (peace and blessings be upon him) had the purest heart of any human being who had ever lived or would ever live. Even the staunchest of pagans admitted this. In that case, if Allah made His most elect of servants, the prophets, pass through such a purification of the heart, then we can understand how much other people’s hearts are in need of such purification. It is impossible for one with a dense and hardened heart to approach Allah Almighty who is al-Latif (The Subtle One).

Another piece of evidence regarding this matter is as follows:

Almighty Allah says in the Holy Qur’an:

‘Abandon wrong action, outward and inward’ (An’am, 6:120).

Thus, just as the human being is required to stay away from outward sins he is also required to stay away from inward sins. In fact inward sins such as kibr, riya, hasad, spite, anger and miserliness are even more dangerous. The prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him)is reported to have said:

“”Whoever has an atoms worth of kibr (pride) in his heart will not enter Paradise” (Muslim, Iman, 147).

To remove ugly traits such as kibr and hasad (envy and miserliness), which are diseases of the heart, is at least as important as staying away from outward sins.

In essence, outward sins are the products and results of inward sins. Moreover inward sins are more common. People generally make light of these types of sins and do not show the necessary attention and sensitivity to be freed of and protected from them.

The aim of tasawwuf, then, is to cleanse one’s outer and inner worlds with methods taken from the Qur’an, the Sunnah, our scholars of ijtihad and our perfect guides, and to reform the state of one’s heart and prepare the foundation for it to live with love and certainty of faith.

Thus we can state the following: tasawwuf is an inseparable part of the whole of the Islamic sciences. In particular, fiqh and tasawwuf, which secure compliance with Allah’s commands and prohibitions –both outward and inward-  are like the two halves of an apple, and like two brother sciences that complete each other.

In principle, tasawwuf, fiqh and aqidah (creed) are basically different aspects of the same Islam. Abu Hanifa defines fiqh as follows:

Fiqh is to know what from a religious perspective is to one’s advantage and what is to one’s disadvantage”.

Marifatullah’, or having a correct concept of one’s Lord and knowing Him through one’s heart is the most vital aspect of this knowledge and of the utmost importance for a person’s eternal happiness or destruction. This is why the text in which Imam Abu Hanifa’s views on matters of creed can be found and which has reached us today has been called ‘Fiqh al-akbar’, that is the ‘Greatest Fiqh’.

Even though this is how it was in the beginning, later with the development and growth of these kinds of sciences, the fuqaha, that is the scholars of fiqh, left rulings about aqidah, morals, and tasawwuf, outside of fiqh and limited it only to rulings about acts and lawful rulings. This is what we understand fiqh to mean today.

Tasawwuf is to know what is to a person’s advantage and to their disadvantage from both the inward and the outward aspects and to inculcate one to live one’s life accordingly. Just as fiqh informs us about the outward conditions for the soundness of act such as wudu (ablution), cleanliness, ritual prayer (salat) and fasting, tasawwuf inculcates the state of the heart which must be reached in order to be able to perform these in the most perfect way.

In this respect, tasawwuf has been called ‘fiqh al-batin’, which has the meaning of being the spiritual basis for the science of fiqh.

Learning the outward sciences does not free one from the responsibility of learning the inward sciences. Having learned the outward sciences, many of the scholars of the past and later, have come to believe in the necessity of learning the inward sciences through training and service and have become travellers upon this path. For instance, Hanafi scholars such as Ibn Humam, Ibn Shalabi, Shurunbulali, Khayr al-Din al-Ramli, Hamawi and others… also the Shafii scholars such as Sultan al-Ulama Izz ibn Abdussalam, Imam Ghazzali, Taj al-Din Subki, Imam Suyuti, Shaykh al-Islam Qadi Zakariyya, Allama Shihab ibn Hajar al-Haytami and others…also the Maliki scholars such as Abu al-Hasan al-Shadhili, Shaykh Abu al-Abbas al-Mursi, Shaykh ibn Ataullah al-Iskandari, Arif ibn Abi Jamra, Nasiruddin al-Laqani, Ahmad Zarruq and others… also from the Hanbali scholars such as Shaykh Abdulqadir al-Jilani, Shaykh al-Islam Abdullah al-Ansari al-Harawi, Ibn al-Najjar al-Futuhi and others…

(There are also many famous scholars such as Sayyid Sharif Jurjani, Molla Jami, Abdulhakim Siyalquti, Abdul Ghani Nablusi, Ibn Abidin, Shihabuddin Alusi and Zahid al-Kawthari, who entered upon the path of the Naqshibandis).

Like these, many great scholars have become learned in the inward sciences from Sufi masters after having learned the outward sciences. They have benefitted from learning such sciences and adorned themselves with beautiful virtues such as sound belief, sincerity (ikhlas), abandoning sin via conversation, service and sayr u suluq[3].

In the same way many learned scholars from the Naqshiband tariq have reached the peak of the outward sciences and received their licence (ijazah). These include Yusuf Hamdani, Shah Naqshiband, Alauddin Attar, Yaqub Charhi, Dervish Muhammad, Imam Rabbani and Khalid al-Baghdadi.

Imam Malik has said:

“Whoever occupies himself with fiqh (the religious legal sciences) and does not pass through a process of training in tasawwuf will become a sinner (fasiq). Whoever occupies himself with tasawwuf and does not learn the religious sciences will become a heretic (zindiq). Furthermore, whoever combines the two will have attained the truth”[4].

Since the integrity of the heart determines the spiritual quality of a human being’s deeds, which are his capital for the hereafter, the patent need for tasawwuf, which aims to gain for the heart an acceptable and perfect integrity, becomes apparent. In this respect then, the view of certain circles which try to see and present our elevated religion as being a mere compilation of dry rules and their subsequent rejection of tasawwuf becomes clearly unacceptable.

It is very wrong to judge and reject the reality of tasawwuf on the basis of the acts and approaches of certain ignorant or unworthy and incompetent people who think that they are practising it or those with ulterior motives.

Just as mistakes, errors and abuse can be found in all areas, so too they are present within those who practice the religious sciences. These can be easily distinguished by competent people. Just as there are various baseless madhhabs that have strayed from the truth, so too there are false and baseless tariqs that have strayed from the reality of tasawwuf. We must not confuse the true masters of tasawwuf with members of such false paths.

Another aspect of the need and importance for tasawwuf in our day is the method and style it follows in order to reform people. Today many people are in a spiritual crisis as a result of distancing themselves from religion and having committed many grave sins. For such people it is obviously easier to try to reform them and present them with an opportunity for salvation, showing them forgiveness, tolerance, mercy and compassion, rather than becoming angry with them.

To present Islam as a form of divine consolation, atonement, and treatment to those spirits which are suffocating under the tyranny of their minds and their nafs, to be able to throw them a life boat, to refrain from transferring the hate felt for the sin to the sinner but rather to view the sinner as a bird with a broken wing, and to approach them with kindness and compassion, is a much more helpful way of guidance.

On the other hand, throughout history tasawwuf has been a means to preventing or forestalling lethargy, laxity, and excess, and has ensured the continuity of spiritual vigour and vitality in times of both economic and social ease; and for those hearts that have become constricted in the confusion and suffocation of the periods of enemy invasion and oppression, it has opened up lofty windows allowing them to breathe; it has been a salve for wounded hearts, a consolation for exhausted minds, and a fountain for thirsty spirits.

Hence, this is a completely prophetic approach. Whenever the prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him) encountered any bounty or met with any success he said: “O Allah! The real life is that of the hereafter”, thereby preventing the heart from inclining towards this world or becoming overcome with pride and egoism. Furthermore, whenever he met with any suffering, pain or struggle he would again say: “O Allah! The real life is only that of the hereafter”. He thus warned the believers of falling into despair due to fleeting distress or complaining and becoming drowned in excessive sorrow and harming their state of contentment (rida). He gave his community a spiritual prescription for remaining content, at peace and in balance for all circumstances and situations.

In reality, as long as the human spirit remains distant from spirituality, it will not be able to free itself from being dragged into a state of depression, both in times of affluence or poverty. In the first of these situations a person is required to control himself while in the other he is in need of consolation. This is why the human being is in need of the teachings of tasawwuf, which are established on the prophetic method of education, both in times of ease and in times of distress.

However we need to state, before all else, that tasawwuf is not a theoretical science but rather an applied one.

That is, it is a science that cannot be perceived fully by merely reading words, but rather by experience. Muhammad Parsa has expressed this truth as follows:

“The words of these Khwajagan people are not words that are passed down by rote, but are rather experienced states and tasted spiritual pleasures. This is why the people of discernment say about these words that they are fiqhu al-akbar (The greatest science of knowing Allah) and burhani-i azhar (the most obvious proof). The yaqin (certainty) that arises from contemplating on the words of these blessed people is better than the certainty that arises from witnessing miracles”[5].

That is, it is impossible to explain with the limitations of language, what tasawwuf, which can only be perceived by experience, really is. Now taking this into consideration, the friends of Allah, who have looked at the crystal of tasawwuf, which reflects light of various colours from each of its aspects have come up with many definitions of tasawwuf. This is why it would be more correct to state that tasawwuf is the sum of all of these definitions.

Definitions of Tasawwuf

TASAWWUF: To abandon undesirable and objectionable traits and adopt good character.

TASAWWUF:   Purification of the nafs and cleansing of the heart. A sacred method of education and spiritual training in which one learns to keep under control the tendencies towards evil that are present in human nature and also allow the seeds of ‘taqwa’ to grow and flourish.

TASAWWUF: The art of reaching the state of ‘taqwa’.

TASAWWUF: The skill of living uprightly. Uprightness (Istiqama) is to firmly embrace the Book and the Sunnah, to perceive the divine and prophetic instructions in the depths of one’s heart and apply them with a passion to every stage of one’s life. It is when living with the spirituality of the Book and the Sunnah becomes the greatest form of pleasure for the heart.

TASAWWUF: A state of contentment and submission. It is to avoid becoming affected by the ups and downs of life, to maintain one’s equilibrium in the face of changing situations, to abandon complaint and reach a state of maturity, of being ever content with the decree of Allah.

TASAWWUF: It is the skill of being a righteous slave of Allah via love (muhabbatullah) and knowledge (marifatullah) of Him.

TASAWWUF: The responsibility felt by those believers who have perfected themselves both physically and spiritually, and approach other creatures with a selfless heart, trying to compensate for their deficiencies. It is when compassion, mercy, love and service for creatures on behalf of the Creator becomes a part of one’s nature.

TASAWWUF: It is a sacred journey that takes the servant to Allah, via true love and friendship.

TASAWWUF: It is to perceive in truth that the real life is the life of the hereafter and to free one’s heart from becoming attached to the nafs’ fickle and inconstant desires for the world.

TASAWWUF: To become one with the blessed life of the Messenger of Allah (peace and blessings be upon him), both outwardly and inwardly and connect to him with a deep love. Tasawwuf is the ‘state’ of the Messenger of Allah (peace and blessings be upon him), both his outward and inward manifestations. This is why tasawwuf consists of the struggle to take one’s share from the spirituality of the prophet (peace and blessings be upon him).

In conclusion, what we have tried to define as being tasawwuf, is a life of ‘taqwa’, lived by the Messenger of Allah (peace and blessings be upon him) and his blessed Companions (may Allah be pleased with them), in a state of ecstasy. Anything other than these (definitions), which do not take their essence and their standard from the Qur’an and the Sunnah are baseless and false, however they much they may be attributed to tasawwuf.

[1] Ahmad Zarruq, Qawaid al-Tasawwuf, Qaida:33

[2] Nothingness (mahfiyah) here meaning feeling one’s nothingness compared to Allah and annihilation (fana) means giving oneself entirely to Allah, so that no sense of self remains, independent of Allah.

[3]. See Muhammad ibn Abdullah al-Hani, Adab, Istanbul 2009, p 8-9.

[4]. Ali al-Qari, Mirkat al-Mafatih, Beirut, 1422, I, 335.

[5]. Muhammad Parsa, The subhah of Muhammad Bahauddin, (translated by Necdet Tosun), p. 19, Erkam Publications, İstanbul 1998.

Source: Osman Nuri Topbaş,The Golden Chain of Transmission Masters of the Naqshinandi Way, Erkam Publications

Prayer (Dua)