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The Way of Islamic Tasawwuf (Sufism)

By: Dr. Ahmad Shafaat

(1985)


What is Islamic tasawwuf (Sufi Islam) and why does it look so mysterious? Genuine Islamic tasawwuf is the very heart and soul of Islam itself. Like everything else, Islam has two sides: an outside (zahir) and an inside (batin). The outside of Islam consists of statements of beliefs that Muslims must profess as well as laws and principles that must govern their personal and collective lives. The inside of Islam is faith and love, light and a life of contact with the Unseen. The outside of Islam is the main concern of such Islamic sciences as kalam (theology), fiqh (jurisprudence) and Shari'ah (law). The inside of Islam is the main source of Islamic tasawwuf. The Holy Qur'an says that the purpose of the coming of the Prophet of Islam was, among other things, to bring men from darkness to light, give them gifts of faith and divine love in a way that gives them a new spiritual life:

"It is He who sends down from on high clear signs unto His servant (Muhammad) in order to lead you from darkness into light: for, verily, God is most kind to you and full of grace." (57:9)

"O you who believe (in earlier revelations). Be mindful of God and believe in His (present) Messenger. (As a result) he will grant you doubly of His grace, and will light for you a light wherein you shall walk, and will forgive you: for God is much-forgiving, full of grace." (57:28)

"Say (O Prophet): If you love God, follow me, and God will love you..." (3:31)

"Respond to the call of God and the Messenger whenever he calls you unto that which brings to you life (from your previous state of spiritual death); and know that God intervenes between man and (the desires of) his heart and unto Him you shall be gathered." (8:24)

A person may profess the beliefs that Shari`ah tells him to profess and he may also do by his willpower many of the things that he is expected to do and yet he may not have faith and love, light and life that the Prophet was sent to bring to men. His heart may still be devoid of faith and love, he may still be lost in darkness and his inside may still be dead spiritually. Referring to this reality the Holy Qur'an says:

"The desert Arabs say: We believe. Say (unto them, O Muhammad!) You have not yet attained to faith; you should (rather) say, We (want to) surrender (in Islam) - for true faith has not yet entered your hearts." (49:14)

The purpose of Islamic tasawwuf is to make true faith and its various fruits a reality in the lives of Muslims (and interested non-Muslims). Islamic tasawwuf thus breaths life into the body and structure of Islam. Unlike kalam, fiqh and Shari`ah, tasawwuf is not a science. It does not aim to study faith and love, light and a life of contact with the Unseen. It aims to experience them and then transmit the experience. As a Muslim saint has written:

"Tasawwuf is not a way of doing things nor a system of thought but a set of qualities and a way of being." (Abu al-Hasan) 

This way of being may be summed up as "freedom from slavery of desires, courage in confronting falsehood, a charitable nature and leaving this world to others with happiness." In conclusion, why does tasawwuf look so mysterious? Because the batin (or the Inner) with which it deals is mysterious. And the batin has to be mysterious because otherwise it would not be batin but be zahir.

* In a city there once took place a murder. Two men were apprehended as suspects; one of the men was innocent while the other was guilty. When the trial took place and the court finished its deliberations, the guilty man was acquitted while the innocent one was declared guilty and sentenced to hang. A friend of God was watching all this and wondered about the fate of the two men. He whispered in his heart to his Lord, "O zahir and batin of the universe, I know that Your ways are mysterious and man can never comprehend them. But still, it is puzzling my mind greatly why an innocent man was allowed to hang while the guilty one was let go." As the friend of God was thus talking to his Lord, he fell asleep and had a dream during which God revealed to him the answer to his question:

"I behave with men according to what they hope from Me. The man who was acquitted of murder even though he was guilty of it used to pray in jail, 'O the Gracious One! Have mercy on me.' So I had mercy on him and let him go free, for I am free to do with My creatures what I will."

"As for the innocent man who was hanged, he used to pray, 'O Just One! Do justice.' Now long before he was apprehended for murder he was sitting on the bank of the river with a twig in his hand. An ant climbed up the twig while he was watching. He dipped the twig in the water flowing beside him, and the ant drowned and died. Since he wanted justice from Me, I let him hang in exchange for the life of one of My creatures that he took without any reason."

So, O man, while you should do jihad for justice in the world, never seek justice for yourself from God. For, before God we are all guilty and it is only in His mercy that we can find safety.

* One day a man went to an 'arif (a knower of truth) and described how a certain other teacher was prescribing ridiculous exercises to his disciples. "The man is obviously a fraud. He asks his disciples to have meditation sessions during which they should think of nothing. Clearly, it is impossible to think of nothing."

The `arif then asked him: "Why have you come to see me?" The man replied: "I want to know what would you advise a person who wants to develop himself spiritually." The `arif then said: "Man cannot really develop himself spiritually. It is God who leads him to His way." The man replied: "But surely there must be something that a person can do to raise his spiritual level." The `arif said: "Maybe...Well, why don't you try this: find out what it is that you most dearly love in this world and give it up."

The man was very profoundly impressed by the advice. "What a sublime way to free oneself." The man went away and gave away some of the valuable items in his home. For a while the man felt very good about himself and sang praises of the `arif in front of everyone. But soon his condition began to return to its original state.

A student of the `arif learnt of the man's experience and mentioned it to the `arif, who made the following comment:

"Perhaps one day he will learn that his answer does not lie in one word of advice, one visit, one simple solution. Only by a continuous contact with a teacher does a seeker absorb, little by little, that which gradually accumulates into an understanding of truth."

Salih of Qazwin taught his disciples: "Whoever knocks at the door continually, it will be opened to him." Rabia Basri, hearing him one day said: "How long will you keep saying that the door will be opened? The door has never been shut."

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