Naqshbandiya Foundation for Islamic Education

The Naqshbandiya Foundation for Islamic Education (NFIE) is a non-profit, tax exempt, religious and educational organization dedicated to serve Islam with a special focus on Tasawwuf(Sufism),

Wednesday, January 3, 2024

A Commentary on " What is Tasawwuf (Sufism)?-- An Anonymous Persian Poem: Alan Abd al-Haqq Godlas Ph.D. - Sufi Illuminations Journal 1996



An Anonymous Persian Poem – A Commentary on “What Is Sufism (Tasawwuf)?”                        Translated by Dr. Alan. Godlas , Associate Professor, University of Georgia

What is Sufism? Good character and awareness of God.
That’s all Sufism is. And nothing more.

What is Sufism? Love and affection.
It is the cure for hatred and vengeance. And nothing more.

What is Sufism? The heart attaining tranquility–
which is the root of religion. And nothing more.

What is Sufism? Concentrating your mind,
which is the religion of Ahmad (pbuh). And nothing more.

What is Sufism? Contemplation that travels to the Divine throne.
It is a far-seeing gaze. And nothing more.

Sufism is keeping one’s distance from imagination and supposition.
Sufism is found in certainty. And nothing more.

Surrendering one’s soul to the care of the inviolability of religion;
this is Sufism . And nothing more.

Sufism is the path of faith and affirmation of unity;
this is the incorruptible religion. And nothing more.

Sufism is the smooth and illuminated path.
It is the way to the most exalted paradise. And nothing more.

I have heard that the ecstasy of the wearers of wool
comes from finding the taste of religion. And nothing more.

Sufism is nothing but shari’at.
It is just this clear road. And nothing more.

By directly addressing the nature of Sufism , this anonymous Persian poem, “What is Sufism ?” contains a number of essential concepts that are helpful in gaining an understanding of Sufism . Direct statements about the nature of Sufism (also known as Tasawwuf) are an important aspect of Sufi literature. The renowned scholar Abu Nu‘aym al-Asbahani (Isfahani) (d. 430/1038) included one-hundred and thirty-four such assertions (often in rhymed prose) in his encyclopedic biographical collection, the Hilyat al-awliya’. The great English scholar of Sufism, Nicholson, collected and translated seventy-eight of these sayings. Most recently, Tamar Frank has devoted an article to studying Abu Nu‘aym’s sayings of this kind. The poem that is the object of this study, in answering the question “What is Sufism ?” makes a number of pithy assertions about the central concepts of Sufism by means of its technical vocabulary. Consequently, in this article we have sought to explain those concepts that may not be obvious even to the educated reader. In explaining these terms, we have relied mainly upon authoritative Islamic sources such as the Qur’an, hadith, and highly regarded Sufi authors.

Good character (akhlaq): The word akhlaq, translated here as “good character,” is at best an inexact translation denoting virtuous behavior that is an outgrowth of spiritual refinement. Hujwiri (d. ca. 465/1072), informed us that Abu al-Hasan al-Nuri (d. 295/907-8) stated, “Sufism is not composed of practices (rusum) and sciences (‘ulum), but it is akhlaq.” Hujwiri explained that what Nuri meant was that akhlaq should not be thought of as simply good comportment or good character in an ordinary sense. Akhlaq as used by Sufis consists of virtuous behavior that derives from the fact that the inner being of the Sufi has become cleansed and his or her heart has become purified. How such a Sufi behaves, then, is not so much the product of effort as it is the cresting of a wave, the origins of which is God. Hujwiri, in explaining Nuri’s remark went on to say, ' If it {Sufism} consisted of practices, it could be acquired by effort (mujahadat), and if it consisted of sciences, it could be gained by instruction (ta’allum); but it is akhlaq and it is not acquired until you demand from yourself the requirements (hukm) of akhlaq, conform your actions to them, and do justice to them. The distinction between practices (rusum) and akhlaq is this, that practices are contrived (bi-takalluf) actions proceeding from particular motives (asbab), such that their “outer form” (zahir) is at variance with their “inner truth” (batin); they are actions devoid of essence (ma’na). Akhlaq, on the other hand, are non-contrived praiseworthy actions not proceeding from particular motives. Their outer form is in harmony with their inner truth; they are actions devoid of pretension.

Awareness of God (ihsan): The phrase “awareness of God,” is my translation of the word ihsan, which literally means “doing what is beautiful.” I have rendered it as “awareness of God” in view of the sound hadith in which the angel Gabriel asked the Prophet (pbuh), “What is ihsan?” He replied, “Ihsan is that you should worship God as if you see Him; and if you do not see Him, [you should know that] He sees you.” The concept of ihsan, with particular attention to its Qur’anic roots, occupies an entire chapter in what is arguably the best book in English on basic Islamic concepts, Murata and Chittick’s Vision of Islam. The first Sufi to compose a compendium on Sufism , Sarraj (d. 378/988-89), linked ihsan to “vigilant awareness” (muraqaba). He stated, “Vigilant awareness is for a servant who indeed knows and is certain that Allah is aware of and knows what is in his heart (qalb) and consciousness (damir). So he stays vigilantly aware of despicable thoughts that [would otherwise] preoccupy the heart and keep it from remembering his Master. Qushayri (d. 465/1072), like Sarraj, saw ihsan to be related to “vigilant awareness” (muraqaba). Specifically, he referred to the aspect of ihsan mentioned in the part of the hadith, “If you do not see him [know] that indeed he sees you” as alluding to “vigilant awareness” because “vigilant awareness” “is the servant’s knowledge of the Lord’s constant awareness of him.”

Love (‘ishq): The lexicographer Jawhari (d. 453/1061), a contemporary of Qushayri defined ‘ishq, literally, as “being excessive in love (al-hubb). While the Qur‘an speaks of love using a variety of words, it does not use the word ‘ishq or any words derived from it. Nevertheless, we do find a derivative of ‘ishq being used in the hadith. Ghazali (d. 505/1111) noted a hadith in which the Prophet (pbuh) spoke of “intense love” (‘ishq): The Messenger of God (pbuh) stated, “Whoever feels intense love, is virtuous, keeps his love hidden, and then dies, he will indeed die as a martyr.” In a strikingly ecstatic passage in his Alchemy of Happiness (Kimiya-yi sa‘adat), al- Ghazali considers ‘ishq as that which arises in the fourth and final stage of practicing the remembrance of God (dhikr). This fourth stage occurs when the object of the remembrance dominates the heart (and that object is God-Haqq – not the remembrance)…. This is the result of one-pointed love (mahabbat-i mufrad), which is called “intense love” (‘ishq). The heart of the lover who is burning with love (‘ashiq-i garmraw) is always with the Beloved (ma’shuq). It might even occur that on account of the intense degree of preoccupation of the heart with the Beloved, the name of the Beloved may be forgotten. When one becomes so drowned and forgets one’s self and everything – except God (Haqq) –one reaches the beginning of the path of Sufism . Sufis call this condition “passing away” (fana’) and “not existing” (nisti); meaning that as a result of the remembrance of God, everything has become non-existent; and such a person also has become non-existent, namely the one who has forgotten his or her self. Mawlana Rumi (d. 672/1273), in his collection of ecstatic poetry, the Divan-i Shams-i Tabrizi, exclaims in praise, " This love is so fine, this love that we have is so fine, O God! --- So exquisite, so good, and so beautiful, O God! " [ Zihi ‘ishq zihi ‘ishq, kah ma rast khudaya, -- Chi naghz ast u chi khub ast chi zibast khudaya.] While Divine Love might appear to some to be completely distinct from human love, for many Sufis such as Ahmad al-Ghazali (d. 520/1126), Ruzbihan (d. 606/1209), Ibn ‘Arabi (d. 638/1240), Rumi, and ‘Iraqi (d. 688/1289), there was a continuum from human love to Divine love that the aspiring lover of God could follow. By learning how to love through love of a person, the sincere Sufi could – in principle – transform his or her love of a person into love of God. The contemporary scholars Chittick and Wilson, in the introduction to their translation of ‘Iraqi’s Lama’at discussed this relationship of human love and Divine love. Speaking of ‘Iraqi’s understanding of love, they stated, “There is no irreducible dichotomy between divine and human love…There is a gradation from the love of forms, which is “apparent love” (‘ishq-i majazi) to the love of God, which alone is ‘real love’ (‘ishq-i haqiqi). The lower form of love can be, and for the Sufi is, the ladder to Divine Love.”

Affection (mahabba): The word mahabba is derived from the word hubb, both of which commonly mean love anf affection. In the Qur'an both words occur, although hubb is more common. The verbal form of these words, however, is used numerous times in the Qur’an. Two ayas involving love that Sufis frequently quote are “God will bring a people whom He loves and who love Him” [Q 5:54], and “Say, if you love God, follow me [namely, the Prophet (pbuh)]; God will love you” [Q 3:31]. A hadith qudsi in which mahabba is mentioned was included in the highly regarded Muwatta of Imam Malik (d. 179/795) on the authority of Abu Idris al-Khawlani (d. 80/699-700). He transmitted the following narrative, which contains this hadith qudsi as transmitted by Mu’adh ibn Jabal (d. 18/639): “Indeed, I heard the Messenger of God (pbuh) saying, ‘God said, “My love (mahabbati) necessarily belongs to those who love one another (mutahabbina) for My sake, sit together for My sake, visit one another for My sake, and give generously to one another for My sake.”  From the Qur’anic examples that we have cited, in addition to this hadith, it should be clear that mahabba (affection and love) is an important Islamic principle. In Sufi literature, along with an emphasis on the terms ‘ishq (passionate love), we also often see the terms hubb and mahabba (affectionate love).

The Heart Attaining Tranquility (itminan-i qalb): On six occasions the Qur’an links together the roots of the words itminan and qalb. In particular, one aya that is frequently cited by Sufis is in surat al-Ra’d, “Know that hearts find peace through the remembrance of God” [Q 13:28]. The emphasis in Sufism on the practice of the remembrance of God is directly linked with the Qur’anic assertion that hearts become tranquil and find peace by means of remembering and meditating on God. A certain shaykh quoted in the Qur’anic commentaries of Sulami and Ruzbihan said, “Hearts find peace in it [the remembrance of God], because they did not find other than God to be a place for intimacy (uns) and comfort (raha).” Another shaykh quoted by Sulami and Baqli stated, “The hearts of the folk of gnosis only find peace through God and only are tranquil through Him, because their hearts are the place where He looks (mahal nazarihi). Thus, Sufis, as lovers of God, only find peace in their hearts through God and the remembrance of God.

Concentrating Your Mind (jam’-i khatir): The Sufi technical term jam’ that I have translated by the word “concentration” is more literally translated as “the state of being gathered” or “collected,” sometimes even being rendered as “union.” It is often used in contrast to the term tafriqa (separation). Concerning them Qushayri wrote, “Affirming created existence (khalq) comes about through ‘separation;’ and affirming God (Haqq) derives from ‘concentration’ or ‘gatheredness’. The servant must have both ‘concentration’ and ‘separation.’ Whoever has no ‘separation’ has no servanthood; and whoever has no ‘concentration,’ has no gnosis (ma’rifa).’” Thus “concentrating one’s mind,” as we find in the poem, is more than simply the kind of concentration that one uses in one’s day to day activities in the world. “Concentrating one’s mind” for the folk of Sufism implies the transcendental knowledge of God that is called gnosis (ma’rifa).

The Religion of Ahmad (din-i Ahmad) (pbuh): The religion of Ahmad (pbuh) is none other than Islam, since Ahmad (pbuh) is one of the names of the Prophet (pbuh), as confirmed in both the Qur’an and hadith. In surat al-Saff we read, “…Jesus, the son of Mary, said: O children of Israel, Indeed I am the messenger  of God sent to you to confirm the truth of what is present of the Torah and to convey to you glad tidings of a Divine messenger who will come after me, whose name is Ahmad” [Q 61:6]. Both Bukhari and Muslim, in their authoritative collections of hadith, reported that the Prophet (pbuh) stated, “I am Muhammad and I am Ahmad; and I am the effacer (mahi) who effaces disbelief. And I am the gatherer (hashir), who will gather people behind me [on the day of resurrection]; and I am the final one (‘aqib) [after whom there will be no other prophets].

Contemplation (fikr): Contemplation (fikr or tafakkur) is an important aspect of the methodology of Islam in general and Sufism in particular. In both the Qur‘an and the sunna, people are instructed by God to contemplate. In surat al-Nahl, God states, “And we have revealed to you this [revelation as a] reminder (al-dhikr), so you will make clear for humankind what has been revealed to them and so that they will contemplate [Q 16:44]. Similarly, in surat Al ‘Imran, we read, “Indeed, in the creation of the heavens and the earth, and in the succession of night and day, there are indeed signs for all who possess [awakened] hearts, those who remember Allah when they stand, sit, and lie down and contemplate the creation of the heavens and the earth” [Q 3:190-91]. One hadith that clearly expresses the significance of contemplation in the Sunna was cited by Ghazali, “An hour’s worth of contemplation is better than a year’s worth of worship.” Contemplation is so important in the Qur’an, Sunna, and Sufism that Ghazali devoted an entire “book” (kitab) in his Revival of the Religious Sciences to it.

Certainty (yaqin): The classical Sufi doctrine of certainty involved three degrees: the knowledge of certainty (‘ilm al-yaqin), the eye of certainty (‘ayn al-yaqin), and the reality of certainty (haqq al-yaqin). Hujwiri (d. ca. 465/1072) discussed them in the following manner: “By ‘ilm al-yaqin the Sufis mean knowledge of (religious) practice (mu’amalat) in this world according to the Divine commandments; by ‘ayn al-yaqin they mean knowledge of the state of dying (naz’) and the time of departure from this world; and by haqq al-yaqin they mean the unveiling (kashf) of the vision (of God) that will be revealed in Paradise, and of its nature. Therefore, ‘ilm al-yaqin is the rank of religious scholars (‘ulama’) on account of their correct observance of the divine commands, and ‘ayn al-yaqin is the station of gnostics (maqam-i ‘arifan) on account of their readiness for death, and haqq al-yaqin is the annihilation-point of lovers (fana’gah-i dustan), on account of their rejection of all ‘existent beings and things’ (mawjudat)” In these three degrees of certainty, one clearly sees a hierarchy of states of consciousness, one which corresponds to a three-fold hierarchy of human identity: the scholars, the gnostics, and at the highest degree, the lovers. According to a later Sufi, Najm al-Din Razi (d. 654/1256), “certainty” arises when one strives to become aware of the spiritual world, while living in accordance with shari’a. If one simply tries to use one’s rational mind, one will fall into mere philosophy and unbelief. The key to certainty is the practice of shari’a, which leads to the awareness that everything is a manifestation of an attribute of God. In the following passage, Razi discusses the nature of certainty: But [in contrast to the mere philosopher and the heretic] …the possessor of true felicity nourish[es] the seed of the spirit in accordance with the law of Shari’at until all his senses attain perfection. He will then perceive, through his outer and inner senses, all the three hundred and sixty thousand realms that constitute the material and spiritual worlds (mulk va malakut)…He sees every atom in each of these worlds to be a manifestation of one of the divine attributes containing within it one of God’s signs; he removes the veil from the face of the manifestations, and the beauty of God’s signs is displayed to him. [As the poet Abu al-‘Atahiya stated,] In every thing is a sign (aya) of His pointing to the fact that He is One (ahad). This is the threshold of the world of certainty (iqan)…Then the pure essence of God may be known in its unity, and the attributes (sifat) of divinity may be contemplated with the eye of certainty (‘ayn al-yaqin).” Razi makes it very clear: in order to follow the path that leads to certainty and the awareness of the very “essence of God,” one must discipline and perfect one’s senses by means of shari’a, and one must be aware that there is nothing in existence that does not derive from an attribute of God.

The Most Exalted Paradise (khuld-i barin): Khuld is one of the many terms in Islamic languages for paradise, which can be spoken of as consisting of various degrees. The highest degree of paradise is sometimes referred to as khuld-i barin. Some writers of Sufi literature – such as the author of the poem about which we are remarking – have seen Sufism as a path to the highest degree of paradise, a path that is more certain than that offered by Islam in general, since Sufism is more demanding and rigorous, going beyond the minimum degree of conformity to God’s will required in Islam. Other Sufi writers have used terms for paradise as metaphors alluding to aspects of Sufism or to experiences encountered on the Sufi path. In this way, Sufis bring paradise into this life or, conversely, they raise up to paradise an aspect of this life. An example of such a metaphorical usage is expressed by the Persian poet Hafiz, who has written perhaps the best known couplet using the term “the most exalted paradise” (khuld-i barin): [ Rawda-yi khuld-i barin khalvat-i darvishanast - Maya-yi muhtashimi khalvat-i darvishanast ] ' [ The garden of the most exalted paradise is the retreat of solitude of the dervish -- The substance of magnificence is the retreat of solitude of the dervish.]

Ecstasy and “finding” (wajd): Literally, the word wajd means “finding,” but for the Sufis it also means a moment of ecstasy in which one experiences an unveiling – and hence a “finding” - of some aspect of God’s reality. Ruzbihan (d. 606/1209) defined wajd as, “The heart’s perceiving the sweetness of contact with the light of “eternality before time” (azaliyat), the purity of witnessing, and the delight of the [Divine] address. Wajd is often portrayed as the intermediary stage of a three-stage process consisting of tawajud, wajd, and wujud. Qushayri defines tawajud as “willfully seeking to have wajd; one in this state does not actually possess true wajd.” Concerning wajd itself, Qushayri wrote, “Wajd is that which encounters your heart, entering [it and coming] over you, without will or effort on your part.” Abu al-Husayn al-Nuri stated, “For twenty years I have gone between wajd (ecstatic finding) and faqd (loss). Namely, when I find my Lord, I lose my heart; and when I find my heart, I lose my Lord.” Qushayri defined the third stage, wujud, as being that which occurs “after one progresses beyond wajd;” [it is truly realized only] “after the cessation of of human qualities ( khumud al-bashariya ), because human qualities cannot remain present during the manifestation of the sovereignty of the Truth (sultan al-haqiqa).” A succinct summary of each of these three stages was expressed by Qushayri’s shaykh and father-in-law, Abu ‘Ali al-Daqqaq: “Tawajud necessitates the rebuking of the servant; wajd necessitates the drowning of the servant; and wujud necessitates the annihilation of the servant.” Hence, as one advances from tawajud to wajd and wujud, one experiences a progressive dissolution of one’s egocentricity and a surrendering of one’s identification with one’s self.

Wearers of Wool (suf pushan): In Persian the literal meaning of the word sufi would be translated as “suf push” (wearer of wool). Hence the phrase in the poem “wearer of wool” is synonymous with Sufi. It is generally agreed that the first Sufis were pious, ascetic Muslims who were called Sufis because they wore clothes of coarse wool (suf) rather than more refined garments. Some scholars have pointed to a Christian influence upon this practice. Nevertheless, these early Sufi ascetics were following the example of the Prophet (pbuh), who (as reported by Ibn Sa’d [d. 230/845] through reliable transmitters) was known to wear woolen garments. Moreover, the great hadith scholar Bayhaqi (d. 458/1066), in his Shu’ab al- iman, includes numerous reports about the virtues of wearing suf. In one report the Prophet (pbuh) states “You should wear clothes of wool (suf). [In so doing,] you will find the sweetness of faith in your hearts.” In spite of the criticism leveled against this and other reports that the Prophet (pbuh) wore wool, the isnad of Ibn Sa’d’s report mentioned above was not criticized and appears to be flawless. Hence in wearing wool the Sufis were not departing from the record of the Sunna of the Prophet (pbuh).

Taste (dhawq): Generally, one’s spiritual proclivity or capacity is referred to by the term “taste” (dhawq). More specifically, Qushayri (d. 465/1072) hierarchically defined dhawq (tasting) along with shurb (drinking), and a less commonly used term riyy (being quenched). He stated, "These terms denote the fruits of ‘theophany’ (tajalli), the results of unveilings (kushufat), and the appearances of inrushes (waridat) that they [meaning the Sufis] experience. The first of these is ‘tasting,’ then, ‘drinking,’ and then ‘being quenched.’ One who is characterized by dhawq (tasting) tries to be intoxicated (mutasakir). One who is characterized by shurb (drinking) is intoxicated (sakran). And one who is characterized by riyy (being quenched) is sober (sah)". The sense of the term “taste” in the poem “What is Sufism?” seems to have both the general meaning and the more specifically Sufi sense as noted by Qushayri. The general meaning is conveyed in the expressions the “taste for religion,” where the sense is that the Sufis’ “appreciation” for religion is the basis for their ecstasy. The more specific meaning of which Qushayri speaks is alluded to in the poet’s linking together these two hierarchical states of consciousness (“taste” and ecstasy”). The poet states that “ecstasy” is derived from “taste,” implying that Sufi ecstasy only comes about after a foundation in the appreciation of and commitment to following the religion (namely Islam). Hence the poet says, “I have heard that the ecstasy of the wearers of wool (suf) comes from finding the taste for religion.

Sufism is nothing but Shari‘at (Islamic Law): A problem that arises in the final couplet of “What is Sufism ?” is that in equating Sufism and Shari’a, the poet brings up and then resolves an apparent tension between Sufism and Shari’a. Such a tension, however, exists only to the degree that one defines these two terms as being mutually exclusive. While various extremists persist in excluding one from the other, we do have many inclusive statements - such as that of the poet of “What is Sufism ?” – in which Sufism and Shari’a are interwoven, similarly defined, or equated. Qushayri (d. 465/1074), for example, defined “Shari’a” as “assiduous observance of servanthood.” Defining Sufism in a comparable fashion, Abu al-Hasan al-Shudhili (d. 656/1258) stated: “Sufism is training the self (nafs) through servanthood and subjecting it to the commands (ahkam) of Lordship.” Supporting the close relationship between Sufism and Shari‘a, the Sufi Abu Yazid al-Bistami (d. 260/874) asserted that observing the Shari‘a was a touchstone for judging a person’s spiritual degree: “Were you to see a man who performs miracles such that he ascends into the air, do not be deceived by him. Instead, observe how well he is following the Divine commands, abstaining from what is prohibited, keeping within the limits set by God, and observing the Shari‘a.” Similarly, Abu al-Husayn al-Warraq (d. before 320/932), asserted the futility of trying to reach God without conforming one’s actions to Shari‘a and the Sunna: “A servant will only reach Allah through Allah and by being in harmony with his loved one [the Prophet (pbuh)] through his laws (Shari’a). And whoever believes that he can follow a path without emulating (al-iqtida) [the Prophet (pbuh)] will become lost, on account of imagining that he is being guided.” Undoubtedly, for all but a minority of Sufis throughout history, carefully observing the Shari’a has been a crucial and on-going component of their spiritual practice. One way of understanding the interrelationship of Sufism and Shari’a was expressed by the Kubrawi Sufi, Najm al-Din Razi (d. 654/1256). Using the term tariqa (path) to denote Sufism – as Sufis commonly do – he clarified its relationship to Shari’a: “The shari’at has an outer (zahiri) and an inner (batini) aspect. Its outer aspect consists of bodily deeds… The inner aspect of the shari’at consists of deeds of the heart (qalbi), of the inner mystery (sirri), and of the spirit (ruhi) and is called the tariqat.” Hence, for Razi, the tariqa (or Sufism ) is not separate from Shari‘a, it is, rather, its inner dimension. In summary, it should be clear, then, that in spite of extremist views that see Sufism and Shari’a as mutually exclusive, the author of “What is Sufism ?” – like most Sufis – bridges the false dichotomy between Sufism and Shari‘a.

Conclusion: The poem “What is Sufism ?” provides answers to a question that has perplexed people since the term first began to be used, over 1200 years ago. Its answers to this question involve technical terms referring to many of the key concepts of Tasawwuf (or Sufism, as it is commonly called today). In this commentary we have not discussed the more obvious phrases and answers expressed by the poet, phrases such as “faith” (iman) and “the affirmation of unity” (tawhid). The terms that we have addressed are the following: good character (akhlaq), awareness of God (ihsan), love (‘ishq), affection (mahabba), the heart attaining tranquility (itminan-i qalb), concentrating one’s mind (jam’i khatir), the religion of Ahmad (din-i Ahmad) (pbuh), contemplation (fikr), certainty (yaqin), the most exalted paradise (khuld-i barin), ecstasy (wajd), wearers of wool (suf pushan), taste (dhawq), and the close relationship between Sufism and Shari’a. From this study, it should be evident that there are numerous dimensions of Sufism , including actions in the world, consciousness of God, spiritual states and practices, and Shari’a. And nothing more – nor less.            
             **** Notes not included *****

Source: Sufi Illuminations Journal, Volume 1, August 1996, published by Naqshbandiya Foundation for Islamic Education (NFIE)

Persian Poem Source: Tadhkira -yi Naqshbandiyya Khayriyya


Post a Comment

Subscribe to Post Comments [Atom]

<< Home