Ustadh Salman Younas discusses the concept of tasawwuf, its place in the Islamic sciences, and its role in growing human potential.
What is the first thing that comes to mind when a Muslim hears the word tasawwuf? Often, a person’s thoughts are directed to the institution of the spiritual path (tariqa) and the figure of a spiritual guide (murshid) to whom allegiance is pledged by an aspiring spiritual novice. Other times, this word evokes exotic and mysterious imagery: saints performing miracles; masses congregated around graves; dervishes engaged in ecstatic sessions of spiritual audition.
In the minds of many, these constitute essential elements and practices in the world of tasawwuf, which some embrace as valid expressions of the Islamic faith, while others view it in less favorable terms. This conflation of tasawwuf with one or another of its institutional or cultural expressions is not particularly surprising, but the reality of tasawwuf is far greater and much more profound than any of this.
Focusing on these aspects tends to distract people from a science whose ultimate aim and vision is not merely something Muslims should recognize and embrace, but one they would readily accept regardless of their particular attitudes towards the institutional, religious, and cultural aspects mentioned above. This vision is one centered around identifying and actualizing human potential in light of the worldview of tawhid, the most fundamental principle of Islamic thought.
Between the Animalistic and Angelic
Junayd al-Baghdadi (d. 298/910) defined tasawwuf as “a battle in which there is no peace.” The battle that all humans face stems from their essential nature: dirt and dust combined with a heavenly spirit. The Qur’an describes this basic human composition in the following verse:
Who gave everything its perfect form. He first created man from clay then made his descendants from an extract of insignificant fluid. Then He fashioned him, and He breathed into him of His spirit (ruh). He gave you hearing, sight, and hearts; how seldom you are grateful. (Sura al Sajda 32:7-9)
The human being is a paradox. He is insignificant and lowly when viewed from the perspective of the basic materials from which he is created, such as dirt, dust, and sperm. These materials do not reflect life. They are dark and inanimate. The spirit, on the other hand, is life endowing. It is lofty and angelic as seen in its ascription to God in the Qur’an: “Say, ‘The spirit is of the command of my Lord.’” (Sura al Isra 17:85)
For this reason, Imam al-Ghazali describes the human self (nafs) as a divine matter (min al-umur al-ilahiya) that gathers within itself indescribable mysteries and secrets regarding God. In other words, the human self serves as the vehicle through which one can know the divine on an experiential level, a level above and beyond mere acknowledgment with the lips or abstract ideas in the mind: “We shall show them our signs on the horizons and in their selves.” (Sura al Fussilat 41:53)
Human beings are constantly engaged in this struggle to see if the self assumes the characteristics of the spirit – heavenly, luminescent, and connected to God – or that of dead earth. The spirit pulls man upwards towards light; his earthly body pulls him downwards towards darkness. When the spirit dominates through reflection, submission, and good works, a person ascends to the level of angels; otherwise, he is worse than animals: “They are like cattle; nay, rather they are further astray.” (Sura al A‘raf 7:179)
The Higher Spiritual Stations
In discussing the positive transformation of the self and its spiritual ascent, the scholars of tasawwuf often refer to ‘stations’ or ‘states of being’. These terms are often incorrectly associated with notions of saintly hierarchies or miraculous gifts, but they actually refer to something more profound: the condition of the heart as a result of righteous action, acquiring praiseworthy character traits, and shunning that which is displeasing to God. The move from actions to states is vividly illustrated in the following hadith qudsi:
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. 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. (Bukhari)
The first part of this tradition concerns actions. The obligatory duties mentioned in this tradition are to be understood as including the actions of the mind, limbs, and the heart. These correspond respectively to sound belief, worship, and keeping away from inner diseases of the heart, such as envy, hatred, rancor, and the like. The supererogatory extends beyond this and entails going above and beyond base requirements in order to further nourish and purify the self. Fulfilling that which is obligatory and supererogatory results in the acquisition of a particular state of being where the will of the servant aligns with the will of God in a manner where the servant begins to see and interact with the world around him through the lens of pure tawhid.
The spiritual stations that the great Sufi scholars identify on this transformative journey have little or nothing to with miracles in the popular sense. In al-Risala, Imam al-Qushayri dedicates the final third of his text to detailing these spiritual stations: repentance (tawba), God consciousness (taqwa), renunciation (zuhd), silence (samt), fear (khawf), hope (raja’), contentment (qanaʿa), trust in God (tawakkul), gratitude (shukr), patience (sabr), and sincerity (ikhlas), among several others.
These stations do not merely manifest as the righteous actions of the limbs, though such actions are necessary for their emergence and continued presence, but they pertain to one’s innermost being and the heart’s becoming firmly established with a particular quality. A person who fully actualizes the station of repentance, for example, never fails to manifest it in mind, body, and heart at every moment it is required.
The highest degree of each of these stations returns to beholding God (mushahada) with the heart. In Ihya Ulum al-Din, Imam al-Ghazali routinely explains these praiseworthy traits by listing their various stages and degrees. To give an example, the lowest degree of tawhid is to declare with the tongue and heart that there is only one God. This is the tawhid that is required of anyone to be deemed a Muslim. It is the tawhid that we comprehend with our intellects and whose details we study in creedal texts. Then there is the highest stage of tawhid where only God is witnessed and nothing besides Him.
This level of tawhid escapes description, but the words of Imam al-Junayd indicate its reality: “It is a reality in which all outward traces (rusum) disappear and all knowledge passes away, while God Most High remains as He always has been.” (Al-Qushayri, al-Risala) Meanwhile, Abu Saʿid al-Kharraz said that tawhid is that “any awareness of mundane things vanishes from the heart and one is left alone with God.” (Ibid.)
Indeed, the reality of mushahada is affirmed in the primary texts and by leading traditional scholarly authorities. This concept finds its basis in the saying of Prophet (blessings upon him), “Ihsan is to worship God as if you see Him, and if you do not see Him, know that He sees you.” (Bukhari) Explaining this, Ibn Rajab al-Hanbali states:
Some of the Salaf said that whosoever acts for God while witnessing Him (mushahada) is a gnostic (ʿarif), and whosoever does so while being aware that God is witnessing him is a sincere individual (mukhlis).
These are two stations. The first is the station of vigilance (muraqaba). It is for the servant to bring to mind God’s closeness to him and His knowledge of him. So, he imagines himself between the hands of God, and, therefore, is aware of Him in his movements and state of rest, and in private and public. This is the station of the sincere muraqib, and it is the lowest station of ihsan.
The second station is the servant witnessing this with his heart and so he is akin to someone who sees and beholds God. This is the highest station of ihsan, and it is the station of those who possess knowledge of God directly and experientially (ʿarifin). (Fath al-Bari)
It is worth pondering over the words of Ibn Rajab and realizing what he is stating. The absolute lowest station of ihsan is to have a constant awareness that God is witnessing one. Imagine then the highest station of ihsan. One is reminded of the words of Imam al-Junayd regarding those who have arrived at the utmost realization of tawhid: “They have arrived at bewilderment.” (Al-Qushayri, al-Risala)
The Path of the Prophet
This station of mushahada, or perpetually beholding the Divine, was the state of the Prophet (blessings upon him) who embodied it in its purest, loftiest, and most perfected form. In a report related by ʿA’isha, the Prophet, blessings and peace be upon him, was said to have remembered God in all of his moments. (Bukhari, Muslim) This ‘remembrance’ was not the typical verbal utterances often associated with the term dhikr for the moments of the Prophet, blessings and peace be upon him, covered the spectrum of everyday human action, such as eating, sleeping, worship, spending time with his family, speaking to his companions, and so forth. Rather, his remembrance of God related to his heart and soul being connected to God and constantly beholding Him.
The Prophet, blessings and peace be upon him, was therefore never engaged in a mundane action. His moments were never disconnected from God. Every moment of his manifested the highest form of repentance, God consciousness, renunciation, contentment, trust in God, gratitude, patience, sincerity, divine oneness, etc. His self and inner nature was pure spirit. Qadi Iyad describes this in al-Shifa’:
Their outward form, bodies, and structure are characterized by the qualities of men as far as non-essential matters are concerned, such as illnesses, death, and passing away, and human traits. However, their spirits and inward parts have the highest possible human qualities, associated with the Highest Assembly, which are similar to angelic attributes, free of any possibility of alteration or evil. Generally speaking, the incapacity and weakness connected with being human cannot be associated with them… Thus, they have the aspect of men as far as their bodies and outward parts are concerned, and that of angels in respect to their spirits and inward parts.
The way of tasawwuf involves following the Prophet (blessings upon him) in all of his outward actions and inward states. Though non-prophetic figures can never attain the rank of a prophet, they do possess the ability to ascend to a higher, more angelic plane where the whisperings of the lower-self abandons one and thoughts about anything else but God never enter the heart: “As for those elect adherents of the Prophet’s sunna, blessings and peace be upon him, who kept every breath they made with God and who protected their hearts from the onslaughts of forgetfulness, they were distinguished by the name ‘Sufism.’” (Al-Qushayri, al-Risala)
The Modern World
If Islam is orienting the mind, body, and soul towards a single center that constitutes the truly real and the cause of all things, the modern world is increasingly characterized by the opposite. It lacks a single center, a single purpose, and a single orientation. This does not mean that there is no goal, orientation, or meaning as people do not exist in a complete vacuum, but that the object of ‘worship’ in modernity is a plethora of mini-‘gods’ that are either impossible to subordinate to a supreme God or they are subordinated to one that is the product of ideologies. William Chittick defines some of these modern objects of worship:
To mention some of the more important ones would be to list the defining myths and ideologies of our times – freedom, equality, evolution, progress, science, medicine, nationalism, socialism, democracy, Marxism. (Science of the Cosmos)
Modern thought is, therefore, antithetical to tawhid, the major pillar of Islamic thought that defines the way things really are. In place of the unity, coherence, balance, and order established by tawhid, the result of the modern world’s stepping away from this transcendent principle is incomprehension, chaos, disorder, and disintegration on an individual, social, and cosmic level. Tawhid demands that humans see the world as interrelated and interconnected, all arising from, subsisting through, and returning to God.
Even an act as fundamental as the daily prayer involves a connection not simply between God and humans, but between humans and the entire created order who together turn their focus to the One: “Do you not see that all those who are in the heavens and earth praise God, as do the birds with wings outstretched? Each knows its own way of prayer and glorification.” (http://tanzil.net/#24:41) In contrast, the modern world increasingly sees the world around it as disconnected and lacking any unifying principle or source in the Real, which results in universal disharmony.
The importance of tasawwuf in the modern world cannot be understated. Muslims may recognize God through the mind or express their submission through particular actions, but the fundamental reorientation that humans require is one that relates to their hearts and actualizing the spirit that God has bestowed them with through adherence to His commands. The core of tasawwuf returns to tawhid, which is not merely creedal points rationalized in the mind or movements of the limbs, but a state of being that follows emerges from these that fundamentally alters the manner in which one understands and interacts with the divine, oneself, and the cosmic realm. In other words, tawhid is not something one thinks or writes about but a reality that is experienced and lived.
As Abu al-Tayyib al-Maraghi said, “The intellect demonstrates and gnosis witnesses and experiences [God] directly.” (Al-Qushayri, al-Risala) It is only through attaining the high stations aspired to in the path of tasawwuf that people can harmonize their minds, actions, and being with God and grasp the true nature of things around them by viewing them through the prism of their transcendent source. This brings about good in both the worldly and next-worldly contexts.
While discussions on tasawwuf often revolve around peripheral points in popular discourse, such as particular Sufi practices, Muslims should not lose sight of the essential aims of this science and its grounding in a deeply profound understanding of Islam’s fundamental pillar of God’s oneness that serves to ameliorate and make wholesome the condition of the individual, society, and the entire cosmic order. People should recognize that history and the scholarly tradition attests to individuals having attained these high levels of realization, figures such as Sari al-Saqati, Imam al-Junayd, Abu Sulayman al-Darani, Imam al-Qushayri, Imam al-Ghazali, Ibn Ata’illah, and numerous others who strived to follow in the footsteps of the Prophet blessings and peace be upon him.
Then, at the very least, one may reflect on where one stands in relation to these figures in terms of understanding, recognizing, and submitting to God. Tasawwuf is ultimately about God, but it also lays out a vision of limitless human potential. Every person should be cognizant of this if only to raise their hands to the sky in order to seek forgiveness from God for not truly realizing who He is and for not worshiping Him in the manner He truly deserves.