Tasawwuf – Sufism in Islam

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Early Islamic Sufism and Sharī’ah Sciences

Click on this article: BFLT-Volume 18-Issue 2- Page 301-318


A Closer Look at Sufism

Perhaps the biggest challenge in learning Islam correctly today is the scarcity of traditional ‘ulema. In this meaning, Bukhari relates the sahih or “rigorously authenticated” hadith that the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) said,

“Truly, Allah does not remove Sacred Knowledge by taking it out of servants, but rather by taking back the souls of Islamic scholars [in death], until, when He has not left a single scholar, the people take the ignorant as leaders, who are asked for and who give Islamic legal opinion without knowledge, misguided and misguiding” (Bukhari, 1.36: 100. S).

The process described by the hadith is not yet completed, but has certainly begun, and in our times, the lack of traditional scholars—whether in Islamic law, in hadith, in tafsir or “Qur’anic exegesis”—has given rise to an understanding of the religion that is far from scholarly, and sometimes far from the truth. For example, in the course of our own studies in Islamic law, our first impression from Orientalist and Muslim-reformer literature was that the Imams of the madhhabs or “schools of jurisprudence” had brought a set of rules from completely outside the Islamic tradition and somehow imposed them upon the Muslims. But when we sat with traditional scholars in the Middle East and asked them about the details, we came away with a different point of view, having been taught something about the bases for deriving the law from the Qur’an and sunna.

And similarly with Tasawwuf—which is the word we will use below for the English Sufism, since our context is traditional Islam—quite a different picture emerges from talking with scholars of Tasawwuf than what one is exposed to in the West. The follow essay presents knowledge taken from the Qur’an and sahih hadith, and from actual teachers of Sufism in Syria and Jordan, in view of the need for all of us to get beyond clichés, the need for factual information from Islamic sources, the need to answer such questions as: Where did Sufism come from? What role does it play in the din or religion of Islam? and most importantly, What is the command of Allah about it?

The Origin of Sufism

As for the origin of the term Tasawwuf or Sufism, like many other Islamic disciplines, its name was not known to the first generation of Muslims. The historian Ibn Khaldun notes in his Muqaddima:

This knowledge is a branch of the sciences of Sacred Law that originated within the Umma. From the first, the way of such people had also been considered the path of truth and guidance by the early Muslim community and its notables, of the Companions of the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace), those who were taught by them, and those who came after them.

It basically consists of dedication to worship, total dedication to Allah Most High, disregard for the finery and ornament of the world, abstinence from the pleasure, wealth, and prestige sought by most men, and retiring from others to worship alone. This was the general rule among the Companions of the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) and the early Muslims, but when involvement in this-worldly things became widespread from the second Islamic century onwards and people became absorbed in worldliness, those devoted to worship came to be called Sufiyya or “People of Tasawwuf” (al-Muqaddima, 467).

In Ibn Khaldun’s words, the content of Sufism, “total dedication to Allah Most High,” was, “the general rule among the Companions of the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) and the early Muslims.” So if the word did not exist in earliest times, we should not forget that this is also the case with many other Islamic disciplines, such as tafsir or “Qur’anic exegesis,” ‘ilm al-jarh wa ta‘dil or “the science of the positive and negative factors that affect hadith-narrators acceptability,” ‘ilm al-hadith or “the science of the prophetic traditions,” or even Islamic tenets of faith, the name for which, ‘aqida, is not mentioned even once in the entire corpus of the Qur’an or hadith. All of these sciences proved to be of the utmost importance to the correct preservation and transmission of the religion, yet none were known by name in earliest Islam, well illustrating why traditional scholars have said, La qadh fi al-istilah, or “There is no objection to terminology.”

As for the origin of the word Tasawwuf, it may well be from Sufi, the person who does Tasawwuf, which seems to be etymologically prior to it, for the earliest mention of either term was by Hasan al-Basri, who died 110 years after the Hijra, personally knew many of the Companions of the Messenger of Allah (Allah bless him and give him peace), and who said, “I saw a Sufi circumambulating the Kaaba, and offered him something, but he would not take it, saying, ‘I have four daniqs; what I have suffices me’” (al-Tusi: al-Luma‘,42). It therefore seems better to understand Tasawwuf by first asking what a Sufi is; and perhaps the best definition of both the Sufi and his way, certainly one of the most frequently quoted by masters of the discipline, is from the sunna of the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) who said:

Allah Most High says: “He who is hostile to a friend of Mine I declare war against. 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 hearing with which he hears, his sight with which he sees, his hand with which he seizes, and his foot with which he walks. If he asks me, I will surely give to him, and if he seeks refuge in Me, I will surely protect him. I do not hesitate to do anything that I am going to do more than My hesitation at taking the soul of a believer who does not want to die, for I dislike displeasing him” (Bukhari, 8.131: 6502. S).

This hadith was related by Imam Bukhari, Ahmad ibn Hanbal, al-Bayhaqi, and others with multiple contiguous chains of transmission, and is sahih. It discloses the central reality of Tasawwuf, which is precisely change, while describing the path to this change, in conformity with a traditional definition used by masters in the Middle East, who define a Sufi as Faqihun ‘amila bi ‘ilmihi fa awrathahu Llahu ‘ilma ma lam ya‘lam, “A man of religious learning who applied what he knew, so Allah bequeathed him knowledge of what he did not know.”

To clarify, a Sufi is a man 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,” and only through learning can the Sufi know the command of Allah, or what has been made obligatory for him. He has applied what he knew, because the hadith says he not only approaches Allah with the obligatory, but “keeps drawing nearer to Me with voluntary works until I love him.” And in turn, Allah bequeathed him knowledge of what he did not know, because the hadith says, “And when I love him, I am his hearing with which he hears, his sight with which he sees, his hand with which he seizes, and his foot with which he walks,” which is a metaphor for the consummate awareness of tawhid, or the “unity of 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 Allah that

“He who created you and what you do” (Qur’an 37:96).

The origin of the way of the Sufi thus lies in the prophetic sunna. The sincerity to Allah that it entails was the rule among the earliest Muslims, to whom this was simply a state of being without a name, while it only became a distinct discipline when the majority of the Community had drifted away and changed from this state. Muslims of subsequent generations required systematic effort to attain it, and it was because of the change in the Islamic environment after the earliest generations, that a discipline by the name of Tasawwuf came to exist.

The Centrality of Sufism to Islam

But if the foregoing is true of origins, the more significant question is: 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 Allah (Allah bless him and give him peace), 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 (Allah bless him and give him peace) bracing his knees against his, resting his hands on his legs, and said: “Muhammad, tell me about Islam.” The Messenger of Allah (Allah bless him and give him peace) said: “Islam is to testify that there is no god but Allah and that Muhammad is the Messenger of 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 (Allah bless him and give him peace) answered: “It is to believe in 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 (Allah bless him and give him peace) answered: “It is to worship 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 (Allah bless him and give him peace) said to me, “Do you know, ‘Umar, who was the questioner?” and I replied, “Allah and His messenger know best.” He said, “It was Gabriel, who came to you to teach you your religion” ( Muslim, 1.37: 8. S).

This is a sahih hadith, described by Imam Nawawi as one of the hadiths upon which the Islamic religion turns. The use of the word din in the last line of it, Atakum yu‘allimukum dinakum, “came to you to teach you your religion” entails that the religion of Islam is composed of the three fundamentals mentioned in the hadith: Islam, or external compliance with what Allah asks of us; iman, or the belief in the unseen that the prophets have informed us of; and ihsan, or to worship Allah as though one sees Him. Allah says in Sura Maryam,

“Surely We have revealed the Remembrance, and surely We shall preserve it” (Qur’an 15:9),

and if we reflect how Allah, in His wisdom, has accomplished this, we see that it is by human beings, the traditional scholars He has sent at each level of the religion. The level of Islam has been preserved and conveyed to us by the Imams of shari‘a or “Sacred Law” and its ancillary disciplines such as hadith and Qur’anic exegesis; the level of iman, by the Imams of ‘aqida or ‘tenets of faith’; and the level of ihsan, “to worship Allah as though you see Him,” by the Imams of Tasawwuf.

The hadith’s very words “to worship 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 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 Sufism, we must look at the nature of this change in relation to both Islam and iman, and this is the principle focus of the present essay.

Sufism and Islam

At the level of Islam, we said that 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 (Allah bless him and give him peace), but also his states, states of the heart such as taqwa or “godfearingness,” ikhlas “sincerity,” tawakkul “reliance on Allah,” rahma “mercy,” tawadu‘ “humility,” and so on.

Now, it is characteristic of the Islamic ethic that human actions are not simply divided into two shades of morality, right or wrong; but rather five, arranged in order of their ultimate consequences. The obligatory (wajib) is that whose performance is rewarded by Allah in the next life and whose nonperformance is punished. The recommended (mandub) is that whose performance is rewarded, but whose nonperformance is not punished. The permissible (mubah) is indifferent, unconnected with either reward or punishment. The offensive(makruh) is that whose nonperformance is rewarded but whose performance is not punished. The unlawful (haram) is that whose nonperformance is rewarded and whose performance is punished, if one dies unrepentant.

Human states of the heart, the Qur’an and sunna make plain to us, come under each of these headings. Yet they are not dealt with in books of fiqh or “Islamic jurisprudence,” because unlike the prayer, zakat, or fasting, they are not quantifiable in terms of the specific amount of them that must be done. But if they are not countable, they are of the utmost importance to every Muslim. Let us look at a few examples.

  1. Love of Allah. In Sura al-Baqara of the Qur’an, Allah blames those who ascribe associates to Allah whom they love as much as they love Allah. Then He says, “And those who believe are greater in love for Allah” (Qur’an 2:165)—making part of being a believer to have greater love for Allah than any other.
  2. Mercy. Bukhari and Muslim relate that the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) said, “Whomever is not merciful to people, Allah will show no mercy” (Muslim, 4.1809: 2319. S), and Tirmidhi relates the well authenticated (hasan) hadith “Mercy is not taken out of anyone except the damned” (Tirmidhi, 4.323: 1923. H).
  3. Love of each other. Muslim relates in his Sahih that the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) said, “By Him in whose hand is my soul, none of you shall enter paradise until you believe, and none of you shall believe until you love one another…” (Muslim, 1.74: 54. S).
  4. Presence of mind in the prayer (salat). Abu Dawud relates in his Sunan with a well authenticated (hasan) chain of transmission that ‘Ammar ibn Yasir heard the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) say, “Truly, a man leaves, and none of his prayer is inscribed for him but a tenth of it, a ninth of it, eighth of it, seventh of it, sixth of it, fifth of it, fourth of it, third of it, a half of it” (Abu Dawud, 1.211: 796. H)—meaning that none of a person’s prayer counts for him except that in which he is present in his heart with Allah.
  5. Love of the Prophet. Bukhari relates in his Sahih that the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) said, “None of you believes until I am more beloved to him than his father, his son, and all people” (Bukhari, 1.10: 15. S).

It is plain, if we consider the matter for a moment, that none of the states mentioned in these texts —whether mercy, love, or presence of heart—are quantifiable, for the Sacred Law cannot specify that one must “do two units of mercy” or “have three units of presence of mind” in the way that the number of rak‘as of prayer can be specified, yet each of them is personally obligatory for the Muslim. Let us complete the picture by looking at a few examples of states that are haram or “strictly unlawful”:

  1. Fear of anyone besides Allah. Allah Most High says in Sura al-Baqara of the Qur’an, “And fulfill My covenant: I will fulfill your covenant—And fear Me alone” (Qur’an 2:40), the last phrase of which, according to Imam Fakhr al-Din al-Razi, “establishes that a human being is obliged to fear no one besides Allah Most High” (Mafatih al-ghayb, 3.42).
  2. Despair. Allah Most High says, “None despairs of Allah’s mercy except the people who disbelieve” (Qur’an 12:87), indicating the unlawfulness of this inward state by coupling it with the worst human condition possible, that of unbelief.
  3. Arrogance. Muslim relates in his Sahih that the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) said, “No one shall enter paradise who has a particle of arrogance in his heart” (Muslim, 1.93: 91. S).
  4. Envy, meaning to wish for another to lose the blessings he enjoys. Abu Dawud relates with a well authenticated chain (hasan) of transmission that the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) said, “Beware of envy, for envy consumes good works as flames consume firewood” (Abu Dawud, 4.276: 4903. H).
  5. Showing off in acts of worship. Al-Hakim relates with a sahih chain of transmission that the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) said, “The slightest bit of showing off in good works is as if wor­shipping others with Allah . . . .” (al-Mustadrak, 1.4. S).


These and similar haram inward states are not found in books of fiqh or “jurisprudence,” because fiqh can only deal with quantifiable descriptions of rulings. Rather, they are examined in their causes and remedies by the scholars of the “inner fiqh” of Tasawwuf, men such as Imam al-Ghazali in his Ihya’ ‘ulum al-din [The reviving of the religious sciences], Imam Ahmad al-Sirhindi in his Maktubat[Letters], al-Suhrawardi in his ‘Awarif al-ma‘arif [The knowledges of the illuminates], Abu Talib al-Makki in Qut al-qulub [The sustenance of hearts], and similar classic works, which discuss and solve hundreds of ethical questions about the inner life. These are books of shari‘a, and their questions are questions of Sacred Law, of how it is lawful or unlawful for a Muslim to be. Their task and role in Islam is preserve the part of the prophetic sunna dealing with states.

Who needs such information? All Muslims, for the Qur’anic verses and authenticated hadiths mentioned above all point to the fact that a Muslim must not only do certain things and say certain things, but also must be something, must attain certain states of the heart and eliminate others. Do we ever fear someone besides Allah? Do we have a particle of arrogance in our hearts? Is our love for the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) greater than our love for any other human being? Is there the slightest bit of showing off in our good works?

Half a minute’s reflection will show the Muslim where he stands on these aspects of his din, and why in classical times, helping Muslims to attain these states was not left to amateurs, but rather delegated to ‘ulemaof the heart, the scholars of Islamic Tasawwuf. For most people, these are not easy transformations to make, because of the force of habit, because of the subtlety with which we can deceive ourselves, but most of all because each of us has an ego, a self, a “me,” which is called in Arabic al-nafs, and about which Allah testifies in Sura Yusuf:

“Verily the self ever prompts to do wrong” (Qur’an 12:53).

If one finds this difficult to believe, consider the words of the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) related by Muslim in his Sahih:

The first person judged on Resurrection Day will be a man martyred in battle. He will be brought forth, Allah will reacquaint him with His blessings upon him and the man will acknowledge them, whereupon Allah will say, “What have you done with them?” to which the man will respond, “I fought to the death for You.” Allah will reply, “You lie. You fought in order to be called a 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. Allah will remind him of His gifts to him and the man will acknowledge them, and then 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.” Allah will say, “You lie. You learned so as to be called a scholar, and read the Qur’an so as to be called a 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 Allah generously provided for, giving him various kinds of wealth, and Allah will recall to him the benefits given, and the man will acknowledge them, to which 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.” Allah will say, “You lie. You did it so as to be called generous, and it has already been said.” Then he will be sentenced and dragged away on his face to be flung into the fire (Muslim, 3.1514: 1905. S).

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 (Allah bless him and give him peace) “The slightest bit of showing off in good works is as if worshipping others with 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 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 well, 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 (Allah bless him and give him peace), for Allah says in the Sura Al ‘Imran of the Qur’an,

“Allah has truly blessed the believers, for He has sent them a messenger from 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, a fact that Allah explicitly confirms in His injunction in Sura Luqman,

“And follow the path of him who turns unto Me” (Qur’an 31:15).

These verses indicate the teaching and transformative role of those who convey the Islamic revelation to Muslims, and the choice of the word ittiba‘ for “follow”in the second verse, which is more general, implies both keeping the company of and following the example of a teacher. This is why in the history of Tasawwuf, we find that though there were many methods and schools of thought, these two things never changed: keeping the company of a teacher, and following his example—in exactly the same way that the Sahaba were uplifted and purified by keeping the company of the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) and following his example.

And this is why the discipline of Tasawwuf has been preserved and transmitted by tariqas or groups of students under a particular master. First, because this was the sunna of the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) in his purifying function described by the Qur’an. Secondly, Islamic knowledge has never been transmitted by books and writings alone, but rather from ‘ulema to students. Thirdly, the nature of the knowledge in question is of hal or “state of being,” not just knowing, and hence requires it be taken from a succession of living masters back to the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace), for the sheer range and number of the states of heart required by the revelation effectively make imitation of the personal example of a teacher the only effective means of transmission.

So far we have spoken about Tasawwuf in respect to Islam, as a shari‘a science necessary to fully realize the Sacred Law in one’s life, to attain the states of the heart demanded by the Qur’an and hadith. This close connection between shari‘a and Tasawwuf is expressed by the statement of Imam Malik, founder of the Maliki school, that “he who practices Tasawwuf without learning Sacred Law corrupts his faith, while he who learns Sacred Law without practicing Tasawwuf corrupts himself. Only he who combines the two proves true.” This is why Tasawwuf was taught as part of the traditional curriculum in madrasa schools across the Muslim world from Malaysia to Morocco, why many of the greatest shari‘a scholars of this Umma have been Sufis, and why until the end of the Islamic caliphate at the beginning of this century and the subsequent Western control and cultural dominance of Muslim lands, there were teachers of Tasawwuf in Islamic institutions of higher learning from Lucknow to Istanbul to Cairo.

Sufism and Iman

But there is a second aspect of Tasawwuf that we have not yet talked about; namely, its relation to iman or “true faith,” the second pillar of the Islamic religion, which in the context of the Islamic sciences consists in ‘aqida or “orthodox belief.”

All Muslims believe in Allah, and that He is transcendently beyond anything conceivable to the minds of men, for the human intellect is imprisoned within its own sense impressions and the categories of thought derived from them, such as number, directionality, spatial extension, place, time, and so forth. Allah is beyond all of that; in His own words,

“There is nothing whatsoever like unto Him” (Qur’an 42:11)

If we reflect for a moment on this verse, in the light of the hadith of Muslim about Ihsan that “it is to worship Allah as though you see Him,” we realize that the means of seeing here is not the eye, which can only behold physical things like itself; nor yet the mind, which cannot transcend its own impressions to reach the Divine, but rather certitude, the light of iman, whose locus is not the eye or the brain, but rather the ruh, a subtle faculty Allah has created within each of us called the soul, whose knowledge is unobstructed by the bounds of the created universe. Allah Most High says, by way of exalting the nature of this faculty by leaving it a mystery,

“Say: ‘The soul is of the affair of my Lord’” (Qur’an 17:85).

The food of this ruh is dhikr or the “remembrance of Allah.” Why? Because acts of obedience increase the light of certainty and iman in the soul, and dhikr is among the greatest of them, as is attested to by the sahih hadith related by al-Hakim that the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) said,

“Shall I not tell you of the best of your works, the purest of them in the eyes of your Master, the highest in raising your rank, better than giving gold and silver, and better for you than to meet your enemy and smite their necks, and they smite yours?” They said, “What may that be, O Messenger of Allah?” and he said: “The remembrance of Allah Mighty and Majestic.” (al-Mustadrak, 1.496. S).

Increasing the strength of iman through good actions, and particularly through the medium of dhikr has tremendous implications for the Islamic religion and traditional spirituality. A non-Muslim once asked the author, “If God exists, then why all this beating around the bush? Why doesn’t He just come out and say so?”

The answer is that taklif or “moral responsibility” in this life is not only concerned with outward actions, but with what we believe, our ‘aqida—and the strength with which we believe it. If belief in God and other eternal truths were effortless in this world, there would be no point in Allah making us responsible for it, it would be automatic, involuntary, like our belief, say, that Chicago is in America. There would no point in making someone responsible for something impossible not to believe.

But the responsibility Allah has place upon us is belief in the Unseen, as a test for us in this world to choose between kufr and iman, to distinguish believer from unbeliever, and some believers above others.

This why strengthening iman through dhikr is of such methodological importance for Tasawwuf: we have not only been commanded as Muslims to believe in certain things, but have been commanded to have absolute certainty in them. The world we see around us is composed of veils of light and darkness: events come that knock the iman out of some of us, and Allah tests each of us as to the degree of certainty with which we believe the eternal truths of the religion. It was in this sense that ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab said,

“If the iman of Abu Bakr were weighed against the iman of the entire Umma, it would outweigh it.”

Now, in traditional ‘aqida one of the most important tenets is the wahdaniyya or “oneness and uniqueness” of Allah Most High. This means He is without any sharik or “associate” in His being, in His attributes, or in His acts. But the ability to keep this conviction in mind in the rough and tumble of daily life is a function of the strength of certainty (yaqin) in one’s heart. Allah tells the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) in Sura al-A‘raf of the Qur’an,

“Say: ‘I do not possess benefit for myself or harm, except as Allah wills’” (Qur’an 7:188),

yet we do tend to rely on our selves and our plans, in obliviousness to the facts of ‘aqida or belief that ourselves and our plans have no effect, that Allah alone brings about effects.

If one wants to test oneself on this, the next time one contacts someone with good connections whose help is critical to one, let one take a look at one’s heart at the moment one asks him to put in a good word for one with someone, and see whom one are relying upon. If one is like most people, Allah is not at the forefront of one thoughts, despite the fact that He alone is controlling the outcome. Isn’t this a lapse in one’s ‘aqida, or, at the very least, in one’s certainty?

Tasawwuf corrects such shortcomings by step-by-step increasing the Muslim’s certainty in Allah. The two central means of Tasawwuf in attaining the conviction demanded by ‘aqida are mudhakara, or learning the traditional tenets of Islamic faith, and dhikr, deepening one’s certainty in them by remembrance of Allah. It is part of our faith that, in the words of the Qur’an in Sura al-Saffat,

“Allah has created you and what you do” (Qur’an 37:96);

yet for how many of us is this day-to-day experience? Because Tasawwuf remedies this and other shortcomings of iman, by increasing the Muslim’s certainty through a systematic way of teaching and dhikr, it has traditionally been regarded as personally obligatory to this pillar of the religion also, and from the earliest centuries of Islam, has proved its worth.

Sufism and Traditional Islam

For all of the reasons we have mentioned, Tasawwuf was accepted as an essential part of the Islamic religion by the ‘ulema of this Umma. The proof of this is all the famous scholars of shari‘a sciences who had the higher education of Tasawwuf, among them Ibn ‘Abidin, al-Razi, Ahmad Sirhindi, Zakariyya al-Ansari, al-‘Izz ibn ‘Abd al-Salam, Ibn Daqiq al-‘Eid, Ibn Hajar al-Haytami, Shah Wali Allah, Ahmad Dardir, Ibrahim al-Bajuri, ‘Abd al-Ghani al-Nabulsi, Imam al-Nawawi, Taqi al-Din al-Subki, al-Suyuti, and many others.

Among the Sufis who aided Islam with the sword as well as the pen, to quote Reliance of the Traveller, were:

such men as the Naqshbandi sheikh Shamil al-Daghestani, who fought a prolonged war against the Russians in the Caucasus in the nineteenth century; Sayyid Muhammad ‘Abdullah al-Somali, a sheikh of the Salihiyya order who led Muslims against the British and Italians in Somalia from 1899 to 1920; the Qadiri sheikh ‘Uthman ibn Fodi, who led jihad in Northern Nigeria from 1804 to 1808 to establish Islamic rule; the Qadiri sheikh ‘Abd al-Qadir al-Jaza’iri, who led the Algerians against the French from 1832 to 1847; the Darqawi faqir al-Hajj Muhammad al-Ahrash, who fought the French in Egypt in 1799; the Tijani sheikh al-Hajj ‘Umar Tal, who led Islamic Jihad in Guinea, Senegal, and Mali from 1852 to 1864; and the Qadiri sheikh Ma’ al-‘Aynayn al-Qalqami, who helped marshal Muslim resistance to the French in northern Mauritania and southern Morocco from 1905 to 1909.

Among the Sufis whose missionary work Islamized entire regions are such men as the founder of the Sanusiyya order, Muhammad ‘Ali Sanusi, whose efforts and jihad from 1807 to 1859 consolidated Islam as the religion of peoples from the Libyan Desert to sub-Saharan Africa; [and] the Shadhili sheikh Muhammad Ma‘ruf and Qadiri sheikh Uways al-Barawi, whose efforts spread Islam westward and inland from the East African Coast . . . (Reliance of the Traveller, 863).
It is plain from the examples of such men what kind of Muslims have been Sufis; namely, all kinds, right across the board—and that Tasawwuf did not prevent them from serving Islam in any way they could.

True Tasawwuf – an explanation


{ The day on which property will not avail, nor sons; except
him who comes to Allah with a sound heart.} (26-88/9)

“…Until, when no Alim [i.e. knowledgable, learned person in the religion of Islam] is left, people will take ignorant men for teachers. These will be questioned and they will reply without knowledge. They are themselves misguided and misguide others.” (Hadith of the Prophet ﷺ in Sahih al-Bukhari)
“It can be ascertained that the troublemakers (al-mushaghibun) in our time, who claim that they belong to the school of the Salaf, outwardly making a show of such affiliation, do not in any way whatsoever belong to it: neither in knowledge nor in practice. They are propagators of falsehood, deception, and misguidance devoid of all guidance.” (Munir ‘Abduh Agha)
To proceed a demonstration of the reality of the esoteric science of Sufism:

“Some formalists recognise only the science of the external religious law comprised in the Quran and the Sunna, and declare that the esoteric science, i. e. Tasawwuf or Sufism, is without meaning. In fact, however, the science of the religious law (Sharia) has an internal as well as an external aspect and inculcates inward as well as outward actions. The outward actions are bodily, such as hunger, fasting, almsgiving and the like, while the inward actions, or the actions of the heart, are faith, sincerity, knowledge of God, etc. The esoteric science signifies the science of the actions of the interior which depend on the interior organ, namely, the heart (al-qalb) and is identical with Sufism. The inward aspect of religion is the necessary complement of the outward aspect, and vice versa. Both aspects are inherent in the Quran, in the Traditions of the Prophet ﷺ, and in Islam itself.”
Abu Nasr ʿAbdallah b. ʿAli al-Sarrāj al-Tusi (Kitab al-luma fi l-Tasawwuf)

→ Sufism ( tasawwuf ) is a knowledge through which one knows the states of the human soul, praiseworthy or blameworthy, how to purify it from the blameworthy and ennoble it by acquiring the praiseworthy [qualities], and to journey and proceed to Allah swt Most High, fleeing unto Him [by taking a spiritual path – tarīq ].

→ Its fruits are the heart’s development, knowledge of God – Allah swt – through direct experience and ecstasy [ie. true experience of the Divine], salvation in the next world, triumph through gaining Allah’s pleasure, the attainment of eternal happiness, and illuminating and purifying the heart so that noble matters disclose themselves, extraordinary states are revealed, and one perceives what the insight of others is blind to.

→ The real meaning of the word “Sufi” means actually the one who is liberated [from the shackles of the dunyā & nafs] or has completed his spiritual realisation. Otherwise the beginner [of the path] should be called “Mutaçawwif” and never “Sufi” as long as he has not arrived at the final goal. 

→ It should be pointed out that Sufism has existed before its name since the very time of the Profet MHMD and according to Shaykh Abd Al Wahid Yahya the name actually means al-hikmah al-ilāhiyyah (knowledge of God)

Principles Of Tasawwuf

→ All the authentic principles of tasawwuf are to be found in the Qur’an and hadiths, so they are in the Sunnah.

→ He who dies without having entered into this knowledge of ours dies insisting upon his grave sins (kabā’ir) without realizing it.

→ Reaching substantial, true belief in Divine Oneness and living in accordance with its demands.

Tasawwuf – The Way Of The True Sufis

The reality of tasawwuf is defined by truthful self-orientation (sidq al-tawajjuh) to Allah swt Most High.

→ Know that tasawwuf is two things:
Truthfulness with Allah Almighty and good conduct with people. Anyone who practices these two things is a Sufi …

→ Sufism is not as some people think; merely gathering together to engage in remembrance and recite litanies. What many are unaware of is that Sufism is a complete and practical method for transforming people from loathsome (i.e. causing hatred or disgust; repulsive) individuals to complete and model human beings. This is all done through having sound faith, sincere worship, good and correct actions, and virtuous character.

The Foundation Of Our Path

These foundations of the path are 5:
* taqwā (godfearingness, mindfulness of Allah), privately and publicly,
* Adherence to the Sunna in word and deed,
* Indifference to whether others accept or reject one,
* Contentment with Allah swt in times of hardship & ease,
* Turning to Allah in prosperity & adversity.

5 Principles For Treating The Soul’s illnesses:

* lightening the stomach by diminishing one’s food and drink,
* taking refuge in Allah swt Most High from the unforeseen when it befalls,
* shunning situations involving what one fears to fall victim to,
* continually asking for Allah’s forgiveness and His blessings upon the Prophet ﷺ night and day with full presence of mind,
* and keeping the company of him who guides one to Allah swt

Concerning The Opponents Of Tasawwuf

→ The detractors of tasawwuf often invent odd things about Sufism, either totally misunderstood or without any basis in tasawwuf, in order to be able to attack it, while presenting themselves as “the true followers of the religion” of Islam.

→ Nevertheless there those who go to extremes and there are deviatiant groups  parading as followers of Sufism, while being lax on the law (Sharia), culturally inherited customs, inventing new matters. These things have nothing to do with the religion whatsoever.

→ Certain opponents of tasawwuf adduce two reports, one chainless and one weak-chained, originating in a man from the city of Naseebeen (Iraq) who has been critiqued as munkar al-hadith or ‘disclaimed in his narrations’ to claim that Imam Malik derided group dhikr. [ Imam Malik and the Sufis ]

→ “No one is allowed to wag his tongue to malign a folk whose knowledge and state he doesn’t know, whose stations and intentions he has not discovered. Whoever does that will fall into destruction, even though he thinks he is from the sincere advisers. May Allah protect us!”

→ When you detect the slightest whiff of disrespect for (the schools of tasawwuf), you have been given the first sign that you are in the presence of a disconnected, unbeneficial person. 

→ As for the statement “being a sufi, he is from among those who have gone astray in the history of Islam” it would be fair to say that this statement constitutes kufr because it attributes misguidance to the massive majority of the elite of this Umma … 

→ Remember Imam Ghazali’s advice in al-Munqidh min al-Dalal: “Think good thoughts (about Sufis) and do not harbor doubts in your heart”; and of Ibn Hajar al-Haytami’s fatwa concerning critics of those who respect tasawwuf and believe in awliya’: “Bad thoughts about them (Sufis) is the death of the heart.

→ Although there is no evidence that the word “Tasawwuf” (the Arabic word for “Sufism”) was used by the Prophet ﷺ  (peace be upon him), he certainly used the word ‘Ihsan’ or spiritual sincerity. Sufi Shaykhs have said that Sufism itself is nothing other than this sincerity, or the perfect following of the way of Muhammad, both inner and outer.

Sufism Is Self Purification

→ Hadith of the Prophet ﷺ  on the heart:

“… truly in the body there is a morsel of flesh which, if it be whole, all the body is whole and which, if it be diseased, all of it is diseased. Truly it is the heart.” (narrated by Bukhari and Muslim) [hadith 40 Nawawi]

→ The process of self-purification means that a Muslim undertakes to rid himself of repellant characteristics and acquire praiseworthy ones, so that he perfects his worship of his Lord and attains His nearness.

→ The Sufi is that Muslim whose inner and outer behaviour are in harmony with the Shariʿah (Divine Law), so that he realizes (thqq*; tahqīq) his iman, islam and ihsan.

Famous Quotes On Sufism

→ Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal said about the Sufis: “I don’t know people better than them.” Someone said to him: “They listen to music and they reach states of ecstasy.” He said: “Do you prevent them from enjoying an hour with Allah?” [Ahmad ibn Hanbal]

→ Imam al- Shafiʿi said: “Be both a faqih and a sufi: do not be only one of them! Verily, by Allah’s truth, I am advising you sincerely. [Imam al- Shafiʿi]

→ Imam Malik radiyaa said: “He who practices tasawwuf without learning Sacred Law corrupts his faith, while he who learns Sacred Law without practicing tasawwuf corrupts himself. Only he who combines the two proves true.” [Sufism in Islam]

→ For Abu Madyan, an aspirant’s spiritual progress could never be separated from his social responsibility:
“Sufism is not the (mere) observance of rules, nor does it consist of degrees or stages. Instead, Sufism consists of personal integrity, generosity of spirit, the emulation of what has been revealed, knowledge of the (divine) Message, and adhering to the way of the prophets. He who deviates from these sources finds himself grazing in the gardens of Satan, submerged in the ocean of lusts, and wandering in the darkness of ignorance.” [Bidayat al-murid (Basic principles of the Sufi path); Abu Madyan]


Tasawwuf Shuyukh

→ The scholars of the Sufis are the genuine followers of the salaf due to their fully connected chains leading back to them. This is the fact of the matter and is not a mere claim. They are the Muhammadan inheritors; those in whom Allah has gathered the inheritance of Sacred Knowledge and the inheritance of spiritual states. Some of the following are:

Muhyi al-Din Ibn ‘Arabi

al-Hasan al-Basri

Abu Hanafa
Sufyan al-Thawri
Imam Malik
Imam Shafi
Imam Ahmad
al-Harith al-Muhasibi
al-Qasim ibn ʿUthman al-Juʿi
Imam al-Junayd al-Baghdadi
al-Hakim al-Tirmidhi
Imam Abu Mansur ʿAbd al-Qahir al-Baghdadi
Imam Abu al-Qasim al-Qushayri
Shaykh Abu Ismaʿil ʿAbd Allah al-Harawi al-Ansari
Hujjat al-Islam Imam Ghazali
Abu al-Wafa’ Ibn ʿAqil al-Hanbali
Shaykh ʿAbd al-Qadir al-Gilani
Imam Ibn al-Jawzi
Abu al-Hasan al-Shadhili
Sultan al-ʿulama’ al-ʿIzz ibn ʿAbd al-Salam al-Sulami
Shaykh al-Islam Imam Muhyiddin Yahya ibn Sharaf al-Nawawia
al-ʿIzz b. ʿAbd al-Salam b. Ahmad b. ʿAnim al-Maqdisi
Ibn Taymiyya
Ibn ʿAta’ Allah al-Iskandari
Shaykh al-Islam Taj al-Din al-Subki
Imam Abu Ishaq al-Shatibi al-Maliki
Ibn Khaldun
Imam al-Sakhawi
Imam Jalal al-Din al-Suyuti
Shaykh al-Islam Zakariyya Ansari
Shaykh al-Islam Ibn Hajar al-Haytami
Abd al-Wahhab al-Shaʿrani
Mulla ʿAli al-Qari
Imam Ibn ʿAbidin


The Basics of Tasawwuf

1- Definition: Purification of the heart.
True devotion to Allah in the ways He likes by the means He likes.
… Acting upon knowledge;
Acquiring the good characters and getting rid of the bad.

2- Subject: Allah, as how He can be known; or hearts & souls, as how to purify them.

3- Fruit: The purification of the heart and knowing the Master of the worlds and attaining the Station of ihsān.

4- Merit: Tasawwuf is of high merit. Its nobility stems from its subject. Ihsān is one of the three levels of this deen and the highest.

5- Relation: to other disciplines: It is the base of the Sharia; without it acts of worship become imperfect. It is the core of Quran and Sunnah and the tissue of Muslims spiritual life.

6- Name: The word “tasawwuf” is derived from souf (wool). Tasawwuf has been known by this name since the second century of hijra, i.e. the time of the salaf. It has been frequently called ʿilm as-Sulūk (initiatic traveling & spiritual behaviour), ʿilm al-Ihsān, ʿilm at-Tarbiyah (cultivation) or ʿilm at-Tazkiyah (purification).

7- The pioneer: The pioneer of this branch of knowledge is of course the Prophet ﷺ. Many hadiths highlight the spiritual dimension of a Muslim’s life.The earliest scholar who elaborated on it is al-Hasan al-Basriy.

8- Sources: Tasawwuf is derived from Quran and Sunnah. The sayings of the great scholars represent a rich treasure for the seekers and the masters.

9- Ruling: Acquiring tasawwuf is fard i.e. obligatory; since all human beings are susceptible to sins save for Prophets. Imam Abul Hasan ash-Shadiliy said:
“He who does not truly acquire this discipline will die persisting on major sins without being aware of it.”

10- What it tackles: Tasawwuf tackles some of the cardinal elements of the deen such as sincerity; truthfulness; religious caution (wara’); conscious awareness (khushū’) reliance; asceticism; love; and similarly their opposites, which are the diseases of the hearts such as insincerity; hypocrisy; arrogance; greed etc.
It also tackles subtle subjects such as the passing of thoughts; the states of the heart; inspirations. One of its most important subjects is dhikr, the remembrance (i.e. in the evocation & recitation of the name) of Allah and its virtues; another is the shaykh and his qualifications, the disciple, murid, and his adab.

11- Basic works in tasawwuf:
– The Beauty* of the Righteous by al-Hafiz Abu Nuaym al-Asfahani
– The Revival of the Sciences of the Deen- (Ihya) al-Imam al- Ghazali
– Al-Risalah of Imam Abul Qasim al-Qushayriy
– The Aphorisms, al-Hikam, of Imam Ibn Atta’illah
– Revelation of the Unseen by Imam Abdul Qadir al-Jaylaniy
– Awarif Al-Ma’arif, by al-Suhrawardi
– Qawa’id Al-Tasawwuf, by Imam Ahmad Zarooq

* (”The purpose of beauty is to draw the soul nearer to the Truth.” Sh. Umar F AbdAllah)

Proof from Quran & Sunna

As a matter of fact the amount of proof is too numerous to list here, and this is so, because Tasawwuf – Sufism is nothing less than the heart of the religion (dīn):

“Being the heart of the Islamic message it is, like the physical heart, hidden from external view, although again like the heart it is the inner source of life and the centre which coordinates inwardly the whole religious organism of Islam. The Tarīqah is the most subtle and difficult aspect of Islam to understand at the same time that its external effect is to be seen in many manifestations of Islamic society and civilisation.”

Tasawwuf in Traditional Islam

There are the evident corrupt acts, to be seen by everyone and the concealed corrupt acts:

{Say: My Lord has only prohibited indecencies, those of them that are apparent as well as those that are concealed,-} (7-33)
It is the function of the science of Tasawwuf to heal (the heart of) the believer even from the concealed corrupt acts, such as blind hatred, ostentation, envy, hypocrisy. For this there are methods, disciplines and doctors of hearts.

The ihsān-hadith expressed by the Angel Gabriel:

The Messenger of Allah MHMD replied to angel Gabriel’s (pbuh) question on Ihsan (perfection), that it is “to worship Allah as if you see Him, and if you cannot (yet) see Him, then be sure that He is seeing you.
A sound and famous hadith in Al-Bukhari, vol. 1, no. 47; narrated by Abu Huraira.

Prophet Muhammad ﷺ also used to say:
“Truly, Allah does not look at your outward forms and wealth, but rather at your hearts and your works.”
Allah swt  does not need our outward accomplishments, building records, material goods etc. when everything we have is only from HIM! But He said (in the Quran) that HE will scrutinize our inner being, our heart or soul:
{ The day on which property will not avail, nor sons; except him who comes to Allah with a (sound) heart* free (from evil).}

Heart, Soul, Inner Aspect

*Sound heart (~ the organ of knowledge):

“ A heart in which the affectations of the mind do not arise, and which is safe from the distractions of all that is not God.”

*Diseased heart:

Shibli said: “A heart ruled by the present world (dunyā) is debarred from feeling the sweetness of the world to come.”

Allah swt warns us from the disease of the heart, which results in eternal damnation:

{ In their hearts is a disease, and Allah has caused their sickness to intensify.} (2-10)

The illness of the heart is of two types:
– suspicion and doubt, and
– desire, allurement and wantonness*.
*(i.e. cruel, violent, sexually immodesty)

One’s inward diseases: are enough to cancel out one’s good deeds – even if they are numerous.

“For every object there is a thing which polishes it and that which polishes the heart is remembrance (dhikr) of God.”

{ For without doubt in the remembrance (i.e. in the evocation & recitation of the name) of Allah do hearts find comfort.} (13-28)

“Those who believe, and whose hearts find comfort in the remembrance of Allah. For without doubt in the remembrance (i.e. in the evocation & recitation of the name) of Allah do hearts find comfort.} (13-28)”

The Science Of Tasawwuf

There are several aspects to it, and all have to be taken account of. The beginning of it is when the servant accuses his own soul, the continuation of it when he takes account of himself in all states, and strives against his ego, seeking recourse in Allah swt . Then there will be blessings (barakah) and ease:
{ With hardship comes ease.} (94-5)

A Difficult Science, With Great Benefit

It is a science which is easy to hold speeches about, but difficult to implement and practice! Nevertheless one must not avoid the effort, but start the journey at once, before it is too late.

{ Ah, what will convey unto you what the Ascent is!}(90-12)

This science is “mixed with what is bitter and distressful. It saddens the heart and brings tears to the eyes…The ego has no portion in its journey … because its pre-condition is the killing of the ego and abstinence from one’s wants. This is why scholars have deserted this science and occupied themselves with the sciences of juridical rulings and differences of opinions … they are lighter upon the souls that are disposed to following their caprice and averse to rights. Allah swt knows best.”

An Individually Obligatory Science For Everyone

The Prophets – peace be upon them all – are singled out from the generality of believers due to their extra certainty (yaqīn), faith and Prophetic proofs. For the believing Muslim – nay for every Muslim – it is very important to gain deep understanding,* according to the word of the Prophet.

“Whoever Allah wishes good for, he grants him deep understanding of religion.”
Al-Bukhari, vol. 1, no.71

*“Deep understanding (fiqh*,) is to know one’s self: what is for it and against it.”
Imam Abu Hanifa

*For or against:
The Muslims who implement tasawwuf don’t engage in disputation and quarrelling about religion, and certainly not in showing off, but they hold that it is better “for one to occupy himself with what is for and against him,” and they focus on seeking Sacred Knowledge.

“The states, stations, and spiritual struggles (which the Muslims who implement tasawwuf) seek to understand and speak of are needed by all the believers. Knowing their rulings is obligatory upon all and universally relevant. These include qualities such as: truthfulness, sincerity, remembrance, and the avoidance of heedlessness. Nay, the servant must know his intentions, aims, and inner thoughts at every passing moment. If it is a right among the various rights, he must stick to it and if it is his own portion*, he must abstain from it.”Allah swt says:

{ And do not obey him whose heart We have made heedless of Our remembrance, who follows his desires, and whose affair is in neglect.} (18-28)

*That means the servant has to scrutinize his own niyyāt and goals at all times in order to discover if they are according with God’s satisfaction and stick to them and if they are only for ego’s or nafs’s portion, he should abstain from it.

A Warning Of False Claimants

”Among the latter day adherents of Sufism there are claimants who, despite their meagre portion of knowledge and intelligence, claim Divine gnosis and enlightened spiritual unveilings for themselves. This is wrong and deviancy.
May Allah bring them back to the Straight Path!

A Measure For The Strength Of One’s Struggle (jihād)

Now if we remind ourselves of the strong love or desire for wordly goods (and grown-ups have this passion, not children) as mentioned in this verse:

{ And lo! In the love of wealth he is violent.} (100-8)
then – for reaching the balance –
→ this can be a measure of the strength of our struggle (jihād) or the force we apply against our nafs for the commands of the LAW and the good pleasure (ridwān) of Allah.


This strange idea that Islam can be (understood as being) complete without taking recourse to the treasure of spiritual, guiding knowledge of the centuries of (the saints and ʿulema’) of the Muslim Ummah has now been disproven and shown to be a grave misunderstanding, a forbidden change, an innovation (bidʿa) in our noble religion of Islam and a ridicule for all the rest.

May Allah swt increase us with knowledge and mercy (marhamah)!
May Allah guide us the correct path!
May Allah’s peace and blessings be upon Sayyiduna Muhammad, his family and his companions.



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