Somalilandsun – I am sure most of you have read, heard or came across someone preaching that Sufism or Tasawwuf is bid’a, and then such a person maybe went on to explain and give numerous examples of why he thinks it is bid’a. In this contribution, we are going to try to explain and clarify what is the meaning of the words Sufi/Sufism/Tasawwuf and then we’ll leave it to the readers to make up their minds on the issue!
First: What is Sufism or Tasawwuf? Where did it come from? What role does it play in the din or religion of Islam? and most importantly, What is the command of God-Allah about it?
Sufism is the English word for the Arabic term Tasawwuf. Therefore, a Sufi is the person who does Tasawwuf. The earliest mention of either term was by Hasan al-Basri who died 110 years after the Hijra, and is reported to have said, “I saw a Sufi circumambulating the Kaaba, and offered him a dirham, but he would not accept it.” So the best way to understand Tasawwuf is by first asking what a Sufi is; and the best definition of both the Sufi and the Sufism, is usually understood by looking at one of the most frequently quoted hadiths of the Prophet who said:
Allah Most High says: “… My slave approaches Me with nothing more beloved to Me than what I have made obligatory upon him, and My slave keeps drawing nearer to Me with voluntary works until I love him. And when I love him, I am his/her hearing with which s/he hears, his/her sight with which s/he sees, his/her hand with which s/he seizes, and hi/hers foot with which s/he walks. If s/he asks me, I will surely give to him/her, and if s/he seeks refuge in Me, I will surely protect him/her” (Fath al-Bari).
This hadith was related by Imam Bukhari, Ahmad ibn Hanbal, al-Bayhaqi, and others with multiple chains of transmission, and is considered sahih. From it Islamic scholars derive a definition of a Sufi as: Faqihun ‘amila bi ‘ilmihi fa awrathahu Llahu ‘ilma ma lam ya’lam, – ‘A person of religious learning who applied what s/he knew, so God-Allah bequeathed him/her knowledge of what s/he did not know.’
To further clarify: a Sufi is a person of religious learning, because the hadith says, “My slave approaches Me with nothing more beloved to Me than what I have made obligatory upon him/her,” and only through learning can a person know the command of God-Allah, or what has been made obligatory for him/her. S/he has applied what s/he knew, because the hadith says s/he not only approaches God-Allah with the obligatory, but “keeps drawing nearer to Me with voluntary works until I love him/her.” And in turn, God-Allah bequeathed him/her knowledge of what s/he did not know, because the hadith says, “And when I love him/her, I am his/her hearing with which s/he hears, his/her sight with which s/he sees, his/her hand with which s/he seizes, and his/her foot with which s/he walks,” which is a metaphor/symbol for the complete awareness of tawhid, or the ‘unity of God-Allah,’ which in the context of human actions such as hearing, sight, seizing, and walking, consists of realizing the words of the Qur’an about God-Allah that: “It is He who created you and what you do” (Qur’an 37:96).
How central is Tasawwuf to the religion, and: Where does it fit into Islam as a whole?
Perhaps the best answer is the hadith of Muslim, that ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab said:
As we sat one day with the Messenger of God-Allah, a man in pure white clothing and jet black hair came to us, without a trace of travelling upon him, though none of us knew him.
He sat down before the Prophet bracing his knees against his, resting his hands on his legs, and said: “Muhammad, tell me about Islam.” The Messenger of God-Allah said: “Islam is to testify that there is no god but God-Allah and that Muhammad is the Messenger of God-Allah, and to perform the prayer, give zakat, fast in Ramadan, and perform the pilgrimage to the House if you can find a way.”
He said: “You have spoken the truth,” and we were surprised that he should ask and then confirm the answer. Then he said:
“Tell me about true faith (iman),” and the Prophet answered: “It is to believe in God-Allah, His angels, His inspired Books, His messengers, the Last Day, and in destiny, its good and evil.”
“You have spoken the truth,” he said, “Now tell me about the perfection of faith (ihsan),” and the Prophet answered: “It is to worship God-Allah as if you see Him, and if you see Him not, He nevertheless sees you.”
The hadith continues to where ‘Umar said: Then the visitor left. I waited a long while, and the Prophet said to me, “Do you know, ‘Umar, who was the questioner?” and I replied, “God-Allah and His messenger know best.” He said: “It was Gabriel, who came to you to teach you your religion” (Sahih Muslim).
This hadith is described by Imam Nawawi as one of the hadiths upon which the Islamic religion turns. The use of din in the last words of it, Aatakum yu’allimukum dinakum, “came to you to teach you your din/religion” entails that the religion of Islam is composed of the three fundamentals mentioned in the hadith: Islam, or external compliance with what God-Allah asks of us; Iman, or the belief in the unseen that the prophets have informed us of; and Ihsan, or to worship God-Allah as though one sees Him.
NB. Tasawwuf then, is the Ihsan aspect and dimension of the din/religion of Islam. And we find that historically, the level of Islam has been preserved and conveyed to us by the Imams of Shari’a or ‘Sacred Law’ and its subsidiary disciplines; the level of Iman, by the Imams of ‘Aqida or ‘tenets of faith’; and the level of Ihsan, “to worship God-Allah as though you see Him,” by the Imams of Tasawwuf.
The hadith’s very words “to worship God-Allah” show us the interrelation of these three fundamentals, for the how of “worship” is only known through the external prescriptions of Islam, while the validity of this worship in turn presupposes Iman or faith in God-Allah and the Islamic revelation, without which worship would be but empty motions; while the words, “as if you see Him,” show that Ihsan implies a human change, for it entails the experience of what, for most of us, is not experienced. So to understand Tasawwuf, we must look at the nature of this change in relation to both Islam and Iman.
At the level of Islam, Tasawwuf requires Islam, through ‘submission to the rules of Sacred Law.’ But Islam, for its part, equally requires Tasawwuf. Why? For the very good reason that the sunna which Muslims have been commanded to follow is not just the words and actions of the Prophet, but also his states [ahwaal], states of the heart such as taqwa ‘god-consciousness,’ ikhlas ‘sincerity,’ tawakkul ‘reliance on God-Allah,’ rahma ‘mercy,’ tawadu’ ‘humility,’ etc.
To clarify this let us look at another hadith of the Prophet reported by Muslim in his Sahih:
The first person judged on Resurrection Day will be a man martyred in battle.
He will be brought forward, and God-Allah will remind him of His blessings upon him and the man will acknowledge them, whereupon God-Allah will say, “What have you done with them?” to which the man will respond, “I fought to the death for You.”
God-Allah will reply, “You lie. You fought in order to be called a [national] hero, and it has already been said.” Then he will be sentenced and dragged away on his face and flung into the fire.
Then a man will be brought forward who learned Sacred Knowledge, taught it to others, and who recited the Qur’an. God-Allah will remind him of His gifts to him and the man will acknowledge them, and then God-Allah will say, “What have you done with them?” The man will answer, “I acquired Sacred Knowledge, taught it, and recited the Qur’an, for Your sake.”
God-Allah will say, “You lie. You learned so as to be called a scholar [sheikh], and read the Qur’an so as to be called a [Qari’] reciter, and it has already been said.” Then the man will be sentenced and dragged away on his face to be flung into the fire.
Then a man will be brought forward whom God-Allah generously provided for, giving him various kinds of wealth, and God-Allah will recall to him the benefits given, and the man will acknowledge them, to which God-Allah will say, “And what have you done with them?” The man will answer, “I have not left a single kind of expenditure You love to see made, except that I have spent on it for Your sake.”
God-Allah will say, “You lie. You did it so as to be called generous/charitable/philanthropist, and it has already been said.” Then he will be sentenced and dragged away on his face to be flung into the fire (Sahih Muslim).
We should not fool ourselves about this, because our fate depends on it: in our childhood, our parents taught us how to behave through praise or blame, and for most of us, this permeated and colored our whole motivation for doing things. But when childhood ends, and we come of age in Islam, the religion makes it clear to us, both by the above hadith and by the words of the Prophet “The slightest bit of showing off in good works is as if worshipping others with God-Allah” that being motivated by what others think is no longer good enough, and that we must change our motives entirely, and henceforth be motivated by nothing but desire for God-Allah Himself. The Islamic revelation thus tells the Muslim that it is obligatory to break his habits of thinking and motivation, but it does not tell him how. For that, he must go to the scholars of these states, in accordance with the Qur’anic imperative: “Ask those who know if you know not” (Qur’an 16:43).
There is no doubt that bringing about this change, purifying the Muslims by bringing them to spiritual sincerity, was one of the central duties of the Prophet Muhammad for God-Allah says in the Surat Al ‘Imran of the Qur’an: “God-Allah has truly blessed the believers, for He has sent them a messenger of themselves, who recites His signs to them and purifies them, and teaches them the Book and the Wisdom” (Qur’an 3:164), – which explicitly lists four tasks of the prophetic mission, the second of which, yuzakkihim means precisely to ‘purify them’ and has no other lexical sense. Now, it is plain that this teaching function cannot, as part of an eternal revelation, have ended with the passing of the first generation of Muslims, a fact that God-Allah explicitly confirms in His injunction in Surat Luqman: “And follow the path of him who turns unto Me” (Qur’an 31:15).
Ilm al-tasawwuf, “the science of Sufism” came into being to preserve and transmit a particular aspect of the shari’a, that of ikhlas or sincerity. As mentioned earlier; the sunna of the Prophet was not only words and actions, but also states of being: that a Muslim must not only say certain things and do certain things, but must also be something. The shari’a commands one, for example, in many Qur’anic verses and prophetic hadiths, to fear God-Allah, to have sincerity toward Him, to be so certain in ones knowledge of God-Allah that one worships Him as if one sees Him, to love the Prophet more than any other human being, to show love and respect to all fellow Muslims and all human beings, to show mercy, and to have many other states of the heart. It likewise forbids us such inward states as envy, malice, pride, arrogance, love of this world, anger for the sake of one’s ego, and so on.
If we reflect upon these states, obligatory to attain or to eliminate, we notice that they proceed from dispositions, dispositions not only lacking in the unregenerate human heart, but acquired only with some effort, resulting in a human change so profound that the Qur’an in many verses terms it purification, as when God-Allah says in surat al-Ala, for example: “He has succeeded who purifies himself” (Qur’an 87:14). Bringing about this change is the aim of the Islamic science of Sufism/Tasawwuf, and it cannot be termed bid’a, because the shari’a commands us to accomplish the change.
At the practical level, the nature of this science of purifying the heart (like virtually all other traditional Islamic disciplines) requires that the knowledge be taken from those who possess it. This is why historically we find that groups of students gathered around particular sheikhs to learn the discipline of Sufism from. While such tariqas or groups, past and present, have emphasized different ways to realize the attachment of the heart to God-Allah commanded by the Islamic revelation, some features are found in all of them, such as learning knowledge from a teacher by instruction and example, and then methodically increasing ones iman or faith by applying this knowledge through performing obligatory and supererogatory works of worship, among the greatest of latter being dhikr or the remembrance of God-Allah.
Why do some Muslims consider Sufism bid’a?
For the longest period of Islamic history – from Umayyad times to Abbasid, to Mameluk, to the end of the six-hundred-year Ottoman period – Sufism has been taught and understood as an Islamic discipline, like Qur’anic exegesis (tafsir), hadith, Qur’an recital (tajwid), tenets of faith (ilm al-tawhid) or any other, each of which preserved some particular aspect of the din or religion of Islam. While the details and terminology of these shari’a disciplines were unknown to the first generation of Muslims, when they did come into being, they were not considered bid’a or “reprehensible innovation” by the ulema of shari’a because for them, bid’a did not pertain to means, but rather to ends, or more specifically, those ends that nothing in Islam attested to the validity of.
For example, the Prophet never in his life prayed in a mosque built of reinforced concrete, with a carpeted floor, glass windows, and so on, yet these are not considered bid’a, because we Muslims have been commanded to come together in mosques to perform the prayer, and large new buildings for this are merely a means to carry out the command.
In the realm of knowledge, books of detailed interpretation of the Qur’an, verse by verse and sura by sura, were not known to the first generation of Islam, nor was the term tafsir current among them, yet because of its benefit in preserving a vital aspect of the revelation, the understanding of the Qur’an, when the tafsir literature came into being, it was acknowledged to serve an end endorsed by the shari’a and was not condemned as bid’a. The same is true of most of the Islamic sciences, such as ilm al-jarh wa tadil or “the science of weighing positive and negative factors for evaluating the reliability of hadith narrators”, or ilm al-tawhid, “the science of tenets of Islamic faith”, and other disciplines essential to the shari’a. In this connection, Imam Shafi’i has said, “Anything which has a support (mustanad) from the shari’a is not bid’a, even if the early Muslims did not do it” (Ahmad al-Ghimari, Tashnif al-adhan).
The ‘ulama who have criticized Sufis, such as Ibn al-Jawzi in his Talbis Iblis [The Devil’s deception], or Ibn Taymiya in places in his Fatawa, or Ibn al-Qayyim al-Jawziyya, were not criticizing Tasawwuf as a subsidiary discipline to the Shari’a. The proof of this is Ibn al-Jawzi’s five-volume Sifat al-safwa, which contains the biographies of the very same Sufis mentioned in al-Qushayri’s famous Tasawwuf manual al-Risala al-Qushayriyya. Ibn Taymiya considered himself a Sufi of the Qadiri order, and volumes ten and eleven of his thirty-seven-volume Majmu’ al-fatawa are devoted to Tasawwuf. And Ibn al-Qayyim al-Jawziyya wrote his three-volume Madarij al-salikin, a detailed commentary on ‘Abdullah al-Ansari al-Harawi’s tract on the spiritual stations of the Sufi path, Manazil al-sa’irin. These works show that their authors’ criticisms were not directed at Sufism or Tasawwuf as such, but rather at specific groups of their times, and they should be understood for what they are.
As in other Islamic sciences, mistakes historically did occur in Tasawwuf, most of them stemming from not recognizing the primacy of Shari’a and ‘Aqida above all else. But these mistakes were not different in principle from, for example, the Isra’iliyyat (baseless tales of Bani Isra’il) that crept into tafsir literature, or the mawdu’at (hadith forgeries) that crept into the hadith. These were not taken as proof that tafsir was bad, or hadith was deviance, but rather, in each discipline, the errors were identified and warned against by Imams of the field, because the Umma needed the rest. And such corrections are precisely what we find in books like Qushayri’s Risala, Ghazali’s Ihya’ and other works of Sufism.
To summarize, the Shari’a – the Qur’an, and Sunna oblige the Muslim to eliminate haram inner states of arrogance, envy, and fear of anyone besides God-Allah and to acquire such obligatory inner states as mercy, love of one’s fellow Muslims, presence of mind in prayer, and love of the Prophet. These inward states are not dealt with in books of fiqh, whose purpose is to specify the outward, quantifiable aspects of the Shari’a. The knowledge of these states is nevertheless of the utmost importance to every Muslim, and this is why it was always studied under the ‘ulama of Ihsan, the teachers of Tasawwuf, in all periods of Islamic history until the beginning of the 20th century.
Tasawwuf, as a subsidiary discipline to ‘Aqida, emphasizes the systematic increase of this certainty through both mudhakara, ‘teaching tenets of faith’ and dhikr, ‘the remembrance of God-Allah,’ in accordance with the words of the Prophet about Ihsan that “it is to worship God-Allah as though you see Him.”
The biggest problem of many Muslims today is that they practice Islam without spirituality and they study the Shari’a without Tasawwuf. But if we read the classical works of Islamic scholarship, we learn that Tasawwuf has been a Shari’a science like tafsir, hadith, or any other, throughout the history of Islam. The Prophet said: “Truly, Allah does not look at your outward forms and wealth, but rather at your hearts and your works” (Sahih Muslim).
The author Jumah Imran is a regular Somalilandsun contributor and a lecturer at Gollis University Hargeisa Somaliland
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