While the term dīn refers to a way of life, linguistically, its connotations include those of indebtedness, submission, and the fiṭrah. It is the quality of a believer that he should strive to emulate the Prophet (ﷺ) in even the most minute of matters, and such requires one to cognize his indebtedness, and submit to the One (ﷻ) he is indebted to, thus bringing about a harmony between his actions, heart, and his fiṭrah, which by its nature yearns to submit to the will and the commands of the Creator (ﷻ) of the Soul.1
Such a state, however, is not attained through the mere pursuit of knowledge, insofar as the pursuit pertains to learning and comprehension. Knowledge must be accompanied by action and the purification of the heart, for knowledge that exists in one with an impure heart is knowledge that will be used for corrupted ends,2 and herein lies the significance of taṣawwuf. As Aḥmad Zarrūq writes, in spite of the differing definitions that exist concerning the term, all fundamentally refer to “the sincerity of man’s turning towards God.” It is the practice which man undertakes to purify his heart and attempt to rid it of its impurities so that he may reach an elevated station in the Sight of God (ﷻ).
As is the case with the majority of terms that are employed in the Islāmic Sciences, the term taṣawwuf was formally absent during the time of the Companions, although by no means did they forsake the practice. On the contrary, they are those who the practices of the foremost Ṣūfīs trace back to, with Imām Junayd al-Baghdādī’s chain tracing back to ʿAlī ibn Abī Ṭālib (رضي الله عنه).
Goals of Taṣawwuf:
Umar ibn al-Khaṭṭāb (رضي الله عنه) reported,
We were sitting with the Messenger of Allah (ﷺ) one day when a man appeared with very white clothes and very black hair. There were no signs of travel on him and we did not recognize him. He sat in front of the Prophet, rested his knees by his knees, and placed his hands on his thighs. The man said, “O Muḥammad, tell me about Islām.” The Prophet said, “Islām is to testify there is no God but Allah and Muḥammad is the Messenger of Allah, to establish prayer, to give charity, to fast the month of Ramadan, and to perform pilgrimage to the House if possible.” The man said, “You have spoken truthfully.” We were surprised that he asked him and said he was truthful. He said, “Tell me about faith.” The Prophet said, “Faith is to believe in Allāh, His Angels, His Books, His Messengers, the Last Day, and to believe in Providence, with its good and its harm.” The man said, “You have spoken truthfully. Tell me about excellence.” The Prophet said, “Excellence is to worship Allāh as if you see Him, for if you do not see Him, He surely sees you.”
Īmān, as the report shows, refers to belief as it takes root in the heart, Islām to the external actions of the believer, and Iḥsān to the state of spiritual excellence wherein the heart is spiritually well, or wavers towards spiritual wellness. While the three are separate, individual concepts, they necessarily intertwine. The strength of īmān is contingent upon the level of perfection one reaches in terms of his external actions, while the achievement of iḥsān depends on both the strength of the external manifestation and the purity of the heart. As such, it is a characteristic of taṣawwuf literature that they do not only prescribe the recitation of adhkār, but also aim to heal the diseases of the heart, and the habits and tendencies that may lead to such. The Science of taṣawwuf is in no way divorced from fiqh, but it is rather a Science that aims to perfect the application of fiqh. Imām al-Sirhindī writes,
The goal of treading the path of Tasawwuf is twofold: The first goal is to attain an increase in the conviction of religious beliefs, whereby we transition from the station of inference [istidlāl] to the realm of unveiling [faḍāʾ al-kashf] and from knowledge in general [ijmāl] to intimate exposition [tafṣīl]. Take, for example, the belief of Allāh’s being wājib al-wujūd (necessarily existent). At first, this is known through inference [istidlāl] or by blind following [taqlīd]; a corresponding level of certainty is obtained initially. When treading the path of the Sufis is made possible, the inference or blind following changes into an unveiling [kashf] and personal experience [shahūd]. The greatest level of certainty is thereby attained. Likewise will be the case for all other beliefs. The second goal is to attain ease in fulfilling jurisprudential duties [aḥkām fiqhiyyah] and removal of hardship (in doing so), which is caused by the evil-commanding soul [nafs ammāra]. It’s the conviction of this faqīr [al-Sirhindī] that the path of the Ṣūfīs serves the religious sciences; ṭasawwuf is not antithetical to the religious sciences. I have verified this in my books and letters.3
Imām al-Nawawī, in addition, states,
The ultimate goals are not attained instantaneously. The heart blackens due to the accumulation of sins over time, and purifying it, likewise, requires time, patience, and commitment. It is through the repeated exercise thereof, and frequent engagement with what purifies the heart that man is able to attain a higher station.4
Ibn Khaldūn writes,
This science is from the sciences of Sacred Law that originated in this religion. The basis of this is that the spiritual path of these people (the practitioners of this science) was considered guidance and truth—from the time of the salaf and major Companions and the followers after them. The basis of the spiritual path is dedication to Allah, abstinence from the adornment and ornamentations of this worldly life, renunciation of what most people crave — pleasure, wealth and prestige, decrease of one’s interaction with the creation and being free for worship. These states were generally present with all of the companions and the salaf. After the second generation, when people started to rush headlong into the world and mix into it, those who were known to be dedicated solely to worship were known by the name Ṣūfī (practitioner of taṣawwuf).5
Taṣawwuf, clearly, was not an innovated matter, but a practice derived from the lives of the Prophet (ﷺ) and his (ﷺ) Companions—one that, over time, came to be formalized, with newer ṭuruq (sing. ṭarīqah) being developed for the fulfillment of its purpose, all with the intent to purify the heart, annihilate the nafs, and turn the heart of man towards God (ﷻ). The Ṣūfīs are explicit in their adherence to the sunnah. As Junayd al-Baghdādī said, “The Way of Allāh (ﷻ) is closed except to those who follow the Prophet (ﷺ) and adhere to his (ﷺ) sunnah.”6 Al-Sulamī mentions the same, as does Shaykh Aḥmad Zarrūq throughout his Qawāʾid.7
Shaykh ʿAbd al-Qādir ʿĪsā writes,
With the lawgiver, the actions of the heart are more important than the actions of the body—although both are important. This is because the inner self is the basis and source for what appears on the outer-self. The deeds of inner-self are the starting point for the deeds of the outer-self. When it is corrupted, all of the outward actions are corrupted as well. Regarding this Allāh said: So Whoever hopes in meeting with his Lord, then let him work acts of righteousness and associate no one as His partner.8
As the Messenger of Allāh (ﷺ) said, “Verily, in the body is a piece of flesh which, if sound, the entire body is sound, and if corrupt, the entire body is corrupt. Truly, it is the heart.”9 He (ﷺ) said, moreover, “Verily, Allah does not look at your appearance or wealth, but rather He looks at your hearts and actions.”10
Ḥārith al-Muḥāsibī, Junayd al-Baghdādī, Abū Bakr al-Shiblī, and Abū Ṭālib al-Makkī (some include Rabīʿah ibn al-ʿAdawiyyah as well) are generally credited with laying the foundations of taṣawwuf as a formal Science, with the existing ṭuruq tracing their origins back thereto. Those even slightly familiar with the Tradition will be aware that certain groups in one field were mostly, or even necessarily, associated with groups pertaining to a completely different field. The Mālikīs and the Shāfiʿīs were associated with the Ashʿarīs in Creed, the Ḥanafīs with the Māturīdīs, and the Ḥanbalīs with the Atharīs. In the Maghreb, particularly following the conquests of the Almoravids and the Almohads, the leaders began to perpetuate Mālikī Jurisprudence, the Ashʿarī Creed, and the Shādhilī ṭarīqah. Although how such a combination formed and began to spread is not fully known, it is speculated that local leaders allied with Imāms to propagate it. And while the Maghrebīs were Shādhilīs, the Ottoman Ḥanafīs were Naqshabandīs. The Ḥanbalīs, as Khaled el-Rouayheb notes, historically had varying associations. While many may have been Qādirīs, following in the footsteps of Sulṭān al-Awliyāʾ ʿAbd al-Qādir al-Jilānī (a Ḥanbalī himself), there are reports of those who adhered to the Khalwatī ṭarīqah, and such was not a rare occurrence either.11
The accusations of taṣawwuf being a bidʿah, and making tabdīʿ of those who formally engage in the practice, arises due to misconceptions and misinterpretations, and places the accuser himself in a precarious position. Declaring the practice a bidʿah is itself, ironically, a bidʿah, as one would be innovating a baseless notion to overturn a practice undertaken throughout the entirety of Islāmic history. The accusers view tazkiyyah as a praiseworthy means of purification, but the difference between the two, needless to say, is merely semantical, if it exists at all.
Pushing aside definitions and terminological preferences, however, certain practices, in particular, are assailed, and it is due to the association of such practices to the realm of taṣawwuf as a whole that leads some to hold negative stances. The matter of raqṣ—dancing—would be one example. While one may certainly disagree with it as a means of engagement in taṣawwuf, it should be kept in mind that this is a matter of fiqh, and the fuqahāʾ themselves have differed concerning the practice.
Ibn ʿĀbidīn, from the Ḥanafīs, held that it is makrūh,12 and the Ḥanbalīs hold the same position.13 Al-Dardīr, from the Mālikīs, opines that it is ḥarām.14 Al-Nawawī, from the Shāfiʿīs, writes that it is not ḥarām unless his movements resemble those of the mukhannathīn.15 Al-Ghazālī also upholds its permissibility.17 All, however, have unanimously upheld the prohibition of exhibiting movements similar to those of the mukhannathīn.
If one, thus, resorts to the Shāfiʿī stance, it is not necessary to disavow him, as the principle that there is no inkār in matters of khilāf would apply. (Other misconceptions, including and particularly those that concern adhkār being recited in group settings, would arise due to warped perceptions of bidʿah itself. We will not elaborate further on the topic, as it is beyond the scope of this article.)
When addressing misconceptions regarding the Ṣūfīs, it is equally important, along with particular practices, to address the distinction that must be drawn between Ṣūfīs and the Mutaṣawwif—the pseudo-Ṣūfīs. As the statements from some of the most fervent practitioners of taṣawwuf have already portrayed, it is impossible for one to be a Ṣūfī when his external practices are lacking, and that alone should render it unnecessary for us to discuss the state of the one who forsakes such practices. As Taqī ʿUthmānī writes, following a discussion on the exploitation of maṣlaḥah,
And due to this, the statement of many of the contemporary revivalists, who call for altering [certain] rulings [that cannot be changed] due to changing public interests, are invalidated. For this is a dangerous statement through which the rulings of the Sharīʿah can be overturned, as it is possible for one to say, “The wisdom behind ṣalāh lies in returning to Allāh, the Exalted. I can achieve this through my heart, and therefore, ṣalāh is no longer obligatory upon me,” as some ignoramuses, pretending to be Ṣūfīs, claim.17
Qutb al-Dīn al-Shīrāzī, a Ṣūfī himself, writes, furthermore,
Taṣawwuf, in our times, consists of chasing after bearded goats, heightening and one’s sensual desires, dancing with movements that manifest existing curvatures, and detaching from every human moral, and contravening the Prophet (ﷺ) in matters of īmān.18
Ibn al-Jawzī, in his Talbīs, produces similar narrations condemning some “Ṣūfīs”. However, it should not escape us that condemnations directed towards such individuals who claim the label for themselves do not imply that the entirety of the group—consisting of individuals who are befitting of the label—should be disavowed, particularly when the actions of the aforementioned individuals contradict the very fundamental purpose of taṣawwuf.
The fiṭrah yearns to submit to the Commandments of God (ﷻ), and it is our responsibility to grant it what it yearns for. It is submission to the fiṭrah that yields harmony, and transgressing against it—and acting in contravention to what it desires—that yields discontentment. Happiness, from our perspective, is not a mere feeling, but rather a state that man is able to attain through submission to his Lord (ﷻ), and this can only properly occur through the eradication of its obstacles, and through purifying the heart of what blackens it. As Ibn ʿAṭāʾ-Allāh writes, “The heart is a tree that is irrigated by the water of obedience, and its fruits are the states that it experiences: the fruit of the eyes is reflection; the fruit of the ears is listening to the Qurʾān; the fruit of the tongue is the remembrance [of Allāh]; and the fruit of the hands and feet is striving towards good deeds. If the heart dries up, its fruit will perish.”19
- Al-Aṭṭās, Islām and Secularism.
- A similar statement is also attributed to Imām Mālik, who said, “He who follows the path of Ṣūfism while neglecting jurisprudence is a heretic; and he who learns jurisprudence while neglecting the Path commits transgression. But he who combines both has attained the realization of the Truth.” (Taken from Qawāʿid al-Taṣawwuf by Aḥmad Zarrūq.)
- Muqaddimah, 239.
- Abū Nuʿaym al-Isfahānī, Ḥilyat al-Awliyāʾ, 10:257.
- Ṭabaqāt al-Ṣūfiyyah, 365.
- Realities of Ṣūfism
- Bukhārī, 52.
- Muslim, 2564.
- Khaled el-Rouayheb, Islāmic Intellectual History in the Seventeenth Century, 263-264.
- Durr al-Mukhtār.
- Ibn Mufliḥ, al-Mubdiʿ Sharḥ al-Muqniʿ.
- Balagha al-Sālik li-Aqrāb al-Masālik.
- Rawḍat al-Ṭālibīn.
- Iḥyāʾ ʿUlūm al-Dīn.
- Uṣūl al-Iftāʾ.
- Ibn Maʿṣūm al-Madanī, al-Riḥlah.
- Refinement of Souls.