Sufism and Its Place In Islam

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What is the definition of tasawwuf? What are the principles of tasawwuf? What is the concept of sufism in islam?

A – Definition and Scope of Tasawwuf

It is a name given to the way of thinking and living that emphasizes spirituality and spiritual life in Islam. The person who adopts this way of life and thought is called a mutasawwif and a Sufi. Tasawwuf, which takes its basic principles from the Qur’an, Sunnah, and the practices of the Companions, has passed through various stages throughout history and continued its existence until today by changing and developing.

Many definitions of Tasawwuf have been made. In a way, each definition reflects the spiritual and mental state of the one who has defined it. This characteristic of Sufism is expressed by the saying of mystics, “who does not taste does not know.” We will give below a few of the definitions made by famous Sufis to help understand the nature of the subject.

Tasawwuf means “Getting the truth, giving up hope and turning away from what is in the hands of the people”, “good character”, “God eradicating you from yourself and resurrecting you with Himself”, “letting yourself do what God wills, surrendering absolutely to His Will”, “Mutual friendship and love, which is to be with God without any worries. To have senses, to listen to the blows of the soul”, and “to leave behind what you have in your mind, to offer what you have, and not complain about what has transpired against you.” The definitions of three Sufis who have important works on Sufism and left important traces behind them are as follows: According to Kushayri (d. 465/1072), tasawwuf is “to withdraw from everything other than Allah, to choose not to be known and to avoid things that are not good”; According to Ghazali’ (d. 505/1111), tasawwuf is “to connect the heart to Allah and to cut off ties with those other than Him.”; Finally, Suhrawardi’s (d. 563/1168) definition of tasawwuf is that “Its beginning is knowledge, its middle is deeds and its end is divine grace.”

B – Principles and Evidence

We can list the basic principles and evidence that tasawwuf is based upon under the following headings:

1) Putting the love of Allah above all other types of love

Behaviors such as worship and morality that are not based on belief and love for Allah do not make any sense in terms of Islam. Those who love Allah, the Qur’an, which is His word, and Muhammad who is His Messenger, in brief, love everyone and everything that Allah loves.

In the Qur’an, great emphasis is placed on the love of Allah. In one verse, the measure and limit of love are determined as follows: “Say: If it be that your fathers, your sons, your brothers, your mates, or your kindred; the wealth that you have gained; the commerce in which you fear a decline: or the dwellings in which you delight are dearer to you than Allah, or His Messenger, or the striving in His cause; then wait until Allah brings about His decision: and Allah guides not the rebellious.”[1] Accordingly, a Muslim must love Allah, His Messenger, and struggle in the way of Allah, and should always put this love and desire ahead of other things.

This point is stated in a hadith “We were with the Prophet (saw) and he was holding the hand of Umar bin al-Khattab. Umar said to Him, “O Allah’s Messenger (saw)! You are dearer to me than everything except my own self.” The Prophet (saw) said, “No, by Him in Whose Hand my soul is, (you will not have complete faith) till I am dearer to you than your own self.” Then Umar said to him, “However, now, by Allah, you are dearer to me than my own self.” The Prophet (saw) said, “Now, O Umar, (now you are a believer).”[2]

The love between the human being and the Supreme Creator is a mutual love. The names of al-Wadūd and al-Walī mean that Allah loves His servants very much and takes them as friends. As a matter of fact, because Allah Almighty loved the Prophet more than anyone else, He called him “ḥabībullāh (Allah’s beloved one)”[3], and Abraham (as) is known as “khalīlullah (friend of Allah).”

The people whom Allah says that He loves in the Qur’an are as follows: a) Those who are just, b) People who are pure, c) Those who fear Him (have taqwā), d) Those who are honest, e) Those who put their trust in Him (tawakkul), f) Those who are patient, and g) Those who repent.[4] These subjects related to love are also the fundamental subjects of Sufism. Sufis and saints pay attention to fulfilling these matters in order to gain Allah’s love. In order not to be deprived of divine love, they prudently try to avoid their opposite situations. Moreover, the people whom Allah Almighty says in the Qur’an that He dislikes are as follows: a) Those who do injustice, b) People of unbelief, c) Those who commit sins, d) Those who consider themselves superior to others, e) Those who betray their trust, f) Those who corrupt, g) Those who waste, and h) Those who are unjustly aggressive.[5]

Just as obeying the Prophet means obeying Allah, loving the Prophet also brings the love of Allah. The following is stated in the Qur’an in this regard: “He who obeys the Messenger, obeys Allah…”[6], and “Say: “If you do love Allah, Follow me: Allah will love you and forgive you your sins: For Allah is Oft-Forgiving, Most Merciful.””[7]

In Sufism, the degree to which the love of Allah can reach a person is expressed in the following sacred hadith: “Allah said, ‘I will declare war against him who shows hostility to a pious worshipper of Mine. And the most beloved things with which My slave comes nearer to Me, is what I have enjoined upon him; and My slave keeps on coming closer to Me through performing nawafil (praying or doing extra deeds besides what is obligatory) till I love him, so I become his sense of hearing with which he hears, and his sense of sight with which he sees, and his hand with which he grips, and his leg with which he walks; and if he asks Me, I will give him, and if he asks My protection (refuge), I will protect him; (i.e. give him My refuge) and I do not hesitate to do anything as I hesitate to take the soul of the believer, for he hates death, and I hate to disappoint him.”[8] Sufism means the servant’s getting nearer to Allah. Allah is closer to his servant than his jugular vein.[9] One of the names of Allah is “al-Qarīb (One who is always close to everyone)” and He becomes even nearer to those who are His beloved servants. Servants who gain closeness to Allah are called “muqarrab-muqarrabūn”.[10] Another degree in which man approaches his Lord is the degree of “iḥsān”. In the narration known as the hadith of Jibril narrated by Umar (ra), after listing the six articles of imān and the five pillars of Islam, iḥsān which is the highest degree is defined as follows: “To worship Allah as if you see Him, and even if you cannot see Him then you must know that He surely sees you.”[11]

2) Believers are to love each other

The Prophet stated on various occasions that believers should love each other for the sake of Allah. In the Qur’an, the fact that believers are declared as brothers, that believing men and believing women are considered to be guardians of each other, that when the Meccan believers migrated to Madinah, “a brotherhood” was declared between the Anṣār and the Muhajirūn, and that the immigrants benefited from the homes and property of the local Muslims, demonstrate that Islam aims to achieve a strong social structure. The following is stated in a sacred hadith: “Allah says, ‘It has become obligatory upon Me to love those who love each other.’”[12]

The Prophet also stated the connection between love and perfect faith as follows: “You will not have faith until you love one another.”[13], and “None of you will be a believer until he loves for his believing brother what he loves for himself.”[14] This means that the believer is with his believing brothers on both good and bad days. It is stated in a hadith, “A person is with the one whom he loves.”[15]

The aim of Sufism is to enable a believer to worship Allah voluntarily based on love. It is essential to maintain the state of worship and obedience simply out of love for Allah rather than for worldly interests, without even the desire for Paradise or the fear of Hell. As a matter of fact, the famous Sufi Rabi‘a al-‘Adawiyya (d. 185/801) said, even if there was no heaven or hell, a Sufi would worship and obey Allah only for the sake of gaining His approval and would leave the result to Allah. Indeed, the Messenger of Allah (saw) said in a hadith, “What a beautiful servant Suhayb is! He does not sin even if he has no fear of Allah.” In like manner, he stated in another hadith, “Because of his love for Allah, Salim, freed slave of Abu Hudhayfa, would not sin even if he did not fear Him.”[16]

3) Preferring the hereafter over the world

Almighty Allah says: “For, unto him who shall have transgressed the bounds of what is right, and preferred the life of this world [to the good of his soul], that blazing fire will truly be the goal!”[17], “But nay, [O men,] you prefer the life of this world, although the life to come is better and more enduring.”[18], “…for the life of this world is nothing but an enjoyment of self-delusion.”[19], “The life of this world is but a play and a passing delight…”[20], “Know [O men] that the life of this world is but a play and a passing delight, and a beautiful show, and [the cause of]your boastful vying with one another, and [of your]greed for more and more riches and children…”[21], “Wealth and sons are allurements of the life of this world: But the things that endure, good deeds, are best in the sight of your Lord, as rewards, and best as (the foundation for) hopes.”[22], and “Say: “Short is the enjoyment of this world: the Hereafter is the best for those who do right: Never will you be dealt with unjustly in the very least!””[23]

In the Qur’an, it is advised to want happiness in the hereafter rather than in this world. “To any that desires the tilth of the Hereafter, We give increase in his tilth, and to any that desires the tilth of this world, We grant somewhat thereof, but he has no share or lot in the Hereafter.”[24]

In various hadiths, it is seen that the life of asceticism is encouraged and the preference for the hereafter is given priority. “Live like a stranger in this world like a traveler, consider yourself among those who lie in the grave.”[25] and “Visit the graves, because it will cool you from the world and warm you to the hereafter.”[26] In his daily life, the Prophet (saw) always prioritized the consent of Allah and limited worldly pleasures to necessity. In a hadith, he said: “If I had gold the size of Mount Uhud, I would not want the gold to stay with me for more than three days, except for the amount I would set aside to pay off my debt.”[27] Whereas, the Messenger of Allah (saw) was offended by his wives when they wanted to live a life at the level of wealthy Muslims and he asked them to make a choice between himself and the world. It was at that time that His wives informed him that they preferred him instead of the world.[28]

4) Encouraging cleanliness of the heart and having piety

In Islam, great importance is attached to the cleanliness of the heart. Because both revelation and inspiration come to the heart. The heart is also the place of the divine evil eye. The following verses indicate the importance of cleansing the heart. “The Day whereon neither wealth nor sons will avail, but only he (will prosper) that brings to Allah a sound heart.”[29], “It is He Who sent down tranquility into the hearts of the Believers…”[30], and “…for without doubt in the remembrance of Allah do hearts find satisfaction.”[31]

Just as faith consists of the confirmation by the heart, the reward to be received from worship also depends on the existence of a sincere intention. Genuine intention takes place in the heart. The heart forms the center of human emotions. The following is stated in the hadiths: “There is a piece of meat in a person’s body. If it is good, the body becomes completely good, if it is bad, it becomes completely bad. Beware, this piece of meat is the heart.”[32], “Even if others give you a fatwa, consult your heart for how it feels about the fatwa.”[33], and “Good is what pleases the heart, and sin is what makes the heart uncomfortable.”[34]

Taqwā (fear of God) is given great importance in the Qur’an and hadiths. The Prophet pointed to his heart and said, “Taqwā is here.”[35] The person who has taqwā is called “muttaqī.”

In 134-136 verses of chapter of Āl ʿImrān, the qualities of the people of taqwā are determined as follows: a) Spending for the sake of Allah in times of abundance and hardship, b) Overcoming anger, c) Being forgiving, d) Doing good constantly, e) When one commits a sin, remembering Allah immediately and repenting for that sin, and f) Not insisting on evil. It has been clearly stated that such good deeds carried out through faith will take a person to Paradise.

In the first verses of chapter al-Baqara, the qualities of those who have taqwā are listed as follows: a) Faith in the unseen (ghayb), b) Performing the ritual prayer in the best manner, c) Giving charity out of what Allah has given, d) Believing in the Qur’an and the books that were revealed before, and e) Believing in the Last Day. It has been stated that those who have these qualities are on the right path of Allah and will attain salvation.[36]

In another verse, Allah describes those who have true goodness (birr) and taqwā as follows: “…but it is righteousness to believe in Allah and the Last Day, and the Angels, and the Book, and the Messengers; to spend of your substance, out of love for Him, for your kin, for orphans, for the needy, for the wayfarer, for those who ask, and for the ransom of slaves; to be steadfast in prayer, and practice regular charity; to fulfil the contracts which you have made; and to be firm and patient, in pain (or suffering) and adversity, and throughout all periods of panic. Such are the people of truth, the Allah-fearing.”[37] In this verse, it can be observed that the deeds that will secure a person to heaven are five types: a) Having faith, b) Spending one’s wealth on relatives, the orphans, the poor, travelers, beggars, and freeing slaves despite the love for this wealth, c) performing the prayers and offering zakāh, d) Fulfilling promises and e) Being patient in times of distress, sickness, and violence. Regarding the aforementioned verse, the Messenger of Allah said: “Whoever acts in accordance with this verse will have perfected his faith.”[38]

State of taqwā takes place on the axis of fear of Allah to respect, and love for Allah. Fear of Allah is expressed in verses and hadiths mostly with the phrases “khawfullah-makhāfatullah wa khashyatullah”. These phrases mean that sinners and wrongdoers fear Allah’s punishment and wrath. Such fear is mentioned in the following verses: “Nay, it is Allah Whom you should more justly fear, if you believe!”[39], “Be you not afraid of them, but fear Me, if you have Faith.”[40], “Those who join together those things which Allah hath commanded to be joined, hold their Lord in awe, and fear the terrible reckoning.”[41], and “(It is the practice of those) who preach the Messages of Allah, and fear Him, and fear none but Allah…”[42]

All believers, especially the prophets and the saints, fear Allah. The Prophet (saw) said: “I am the one of you who knows Allah best and fears Him the most.”[43], and “The beginning of wisdom is the fear of God.”[44] Those who fear Allah do not fear anyone else, and this fear and respect makes one courageous. Furthermore, those who fear Allah in this world will have no fear and will not grieve in the Hereafter.[45]

5) Following the path of “sayr al-sulūk” to reach the goal of Sufism

A person who is engaged in Sufism as a discipline and in terms of practice is primarily responsible for fulfilling the farḍ, wājib, and sunnah acts. Apart from these, importance is given to the deeds recommended as supererogatory, which aid the person to earn rewards when they are fulfilled, and which hold no culpability if they are not carried out. Examples of such supererogatory deeds are supererogatory prayers such as the tahajjud prayer that is performed before the time of the dawn prayer, the mid-morning prayer that is performed 45-50 minutes after the sun rises, the awwābīn prayer that is performed after the evening prayer, and the two-cycle prayer that is performed after doing the ablution. Moreover, the fasting performed in the months such as Rajab and Shaban, and the minor pilgrimages and the charities can be referred to as well.

Praising Allah through a certain number of tasbīḥ, dhikr, takbīr, and certain prayers every day in order to train the soul and to establish God’s love in the heart in order to perform worship more sincerely, and to turn them into regular deeds is called “sayr al-sulūk” in Sufism. Each of these supererogatory acts of worship, which can vary in quantity and variety depending on the circumstances of the person, is basically based on the Qur’anic verses, hadiths, or the practices of the Companions. As a matter of fact, the Prophet (saw) often performed these aforementioned supererogatory prayers in addition to the five daily prayers and the sunnahs related to them, and he recommended these to his Companions, yet he did not hold them accountable for them. Such is also the case of the supererogatory fasts.

There are many verses in the Qur’an stating that everything in the heavens and on the earth glorifies Allah.[46] Tasbīḥ (glorification of Allah) means calling out and declaring that Allah is free from all deficiencies. For instance, it is meaningful, which today we know through the science of chemistry, that electrons move around the nucleus at a speed of three hundred thousand kilometers per second in atoms, which are the smallest building blocks of inanimate beings. We will offer only two of the Qur’anic verses that speak about the glorification of animate and inanimate beings and call people to glorify Allah: “The seven heavens and the earth, and all beings therein, declare His glory: there is not a thing but celebrates His praise; And yet you understand not how they declare His glory! Verily He is Oft-Forbear, Most Forgiving!”, and[47] “Celebrate Allah’s praises in the morning and in the evening.”[48]

There are many verses in the Qur’an that command and recommend the remembrance of Allah. Dhikr means to remember Allah, to think of Him, to keep Him in mind, to mention Him, and to recite one of His names. The practice in Sufism has been the repetition of the name of Allah, a certain number of times, in order to have an effect on one’s heart. Due to this reason, in the Qur’an, neither tasbīḥ nor dhikr has been given a clear number and the style in the Qur’anic verses is also general. Some of the verses that command and recommend dhikr and glorification are as follows: “(O Zakariyya!) then celebrate the praises of your Lord again and again, and glorify Him in the evening and in the morning.””[49], “And do you (O reader!) Bring your Lord to remembrance in your (very) soul, with humility, and in reverence, without loudness in words, in the mornings and evenings; and be not you of those who are unheedful.”[50], “Men who celebrate the praises of Allah, standing, sitting, and lying down on their sides, and contemplate the (wonders of) creation in the heavens and the earth…”[51], “And when you have finished your prayer, remember Allah standing and sitting and lying down…”[52], and “O you who believe! Remember Allah with unceasing remembrance, and extol His limitless glory from morn to evening.”[53]

In various hadiths where the Prophet explains the above-mentioned verses and the like, it is observed that various numbers are given for the invocations, dhikr, and glorification. We will give some of them as examples. It is stated in a hadith that “Subḥānallah” should be said 33 times, “Alḥamdulillah” should be said 33 times, and “Allāhu akbar” should be said 33 times after ritual prayers for the glorification of Allah, and that those who carry this out can be forgiven even if their sins are as much as the foam of the sea.[54] Musʿab ibn Ṣaʿd narrated that his father said: “We were with the Messenger of Allah (saw). He said: “Is one amongst you powerless to get one thousand virtues every day.” Amongst those who had been sitting there, one asked: How can one amongst us attain one thousand virtues every day? He said: “Recite: “Hallowed be Allah (Subḥānallah)” one hundred times for (by reciting them) one thousand virtues are recorded (to your credit) and one thousand vices are blotted out.”[55]

In another hadith narrated by Abu Huraira, the number for another invocation and glorification is again one hundred. The hadith is as follows: “He who uttered these words, “Lā ilaha illAllāhu waḥdahu lā sharīka lah, lahu al-mulku wa lahu al-ḥamdu wa huwa ‘alā kulli shay’in qadīr (Meaning: There is no god but Allah, the One, having no partner with Him. Sovereignty belongs to Him and all the praise is due to Him, and He is Potent over everything) one hundred times every day there is a reward of emancipating ten slaves for him, and there are recorded hundred virtues to his credit, and hundred vices are blotted out from his scroll, and that is a safeguard for him against the Satan on that day till evening and no one brings anything more excellent than this, except one who has done more than this.”[56] In a narration of ‘Amr ibn Maimun, the number is ten and the end of the hadith is as follows: “This person receives a reward as if he is like one who emancipated four slaves from the progeny of the Prophet Isma‘il.”[57]

In another hadith, the number is again one hundred. “He who utters: “Subḥānallahi wa bi ḥamdihi (Hallowed be Allah, and all praise is due to Him)” one hundred times a day, his sins are obliterated even if they are equal to the extent of the foam of the ocean.”[58]

On the other hand, when the head of the hypocrites, Abdullah Ibn Ubayy, fell ill, the Messenger of Allah (saw) prayed at the request of Abdullah’s son, but a verse was revealed that such a prayer would not be accepted even if he asked for forgiveness for the hypocrites seventy times.[59] Following this event, the Messenger of Allah (saw) asked for forgiveness over seventy times, but when he wanted to lead the funeral prayer after Abdullah’s death, he was prohibited from doing so with another revealed verse.[60]

According to the needs of the people, the murshid, or the master who is the guide in Sufism, determines the amount of this dhikr, tasbīḥ, taḥlīl, and invocations, which are ordered and recommended as supererogatory acts, and shows the way and method to those who want to act with it. This assists them to live a life on the straight path. This is similar to the way the Messenger of Allah (saw) recommended some virtuous dhikr, supplication, and tasbīḥ in certain numbers, directly to some or according to the situation of the Companions who would have a specific question for him.

[1] Al-Tawba, 9: 24.[2] Al-Bukhari, al-Ayman wa al-Nudhur, 12.[3] Al-Tirmidhī, Manaqib, 1.[4] See al-Baqara, 2: 222; Āl ʿImrān, 3: 76, 146, 148, 159; al-Mā’ida, 5: 13, 93; al-Tawba, 9: 4, 7, 108; al-Hujurat, 49: 9; al-Mumtahina, 60: 8.[5] See al-Baqara, 2: 176; al-Nisā, 4: 107; al-Mā’ida, 5: 64, 87; al-Aʿrāf, 7: 31; Al-Shūrā, 42: 40; al-Ḥadīd, 57: 23.[6] Al-Nisā, 4: 80.[7] Āl ʿImrān, 3: 31.[8] Al-Bukhari, Riqāq, 38.[9] Qaf, 50: 16.[10] Al-Waqia, 56: 88, 89.[11] Al-Bukhari, Imān, 37; Muslim, Imān, 57. See al-Baqara, 2: 195; al-Mā’ida, 5: 93.[12] Malik, Muwaṭṭā’, Şiir, 16; Aḥmad ibn Ḥanbal, Musnad, V, 233.[13] Muslim, Imān, 93; Abu Dawud, Adab, 131.[14] Al-Bukhari, Imān, 7.[15] Al-Bukhari, Adab, 69; Muslim, Birr, 165.[16] Al-Ajlūnī, Kashf al-Khafā, II, 323.[17] Al-Nazi’āt, 79: 37-39.[18] Al-Aʿlā, 87: 16, 17.[19] Āl ʿImrān, 3: 185.[20] Muḥammad, 47: 36.[21] Al-Ḥadīd, 57: 20.[22] Al-Kahf, 18: 46.[23] Al-Nisā, 4: 77.[24] Al-Shūrā, 42: 20; al-Baqara, 2: 200.[25] Al-Bukhari, Riqāq, 3; al-Tirmidhī, Zuhd, 25; Ibn Maja, Zuhd, 6.[26] Ibn Maja, Janā’iz, 47.[27] Al-Bukhari, Zakat, 4; Muslim, Zakat, 31.[28] See al-Aḥzāb, 33: 28; al-Bukhari, Tafsir, 66; Muslim, Ṭalaq, 5.[29] Al-Shuʿarā, 26: 88, 89.[30] Al-Fatḥ, 48: 4.[31] Al-Raʿd, 13: 28.[32] Al-Bukhari, Imān, 39; Muslim, Musaqāt, 107.[33] Al-Darimi, Buyūʿ, 2; Aḥmad ibn Ḥanbal, IV, 228.[34] Aḥmad ibn Ḥanbal, IV, 194, 228.[35] Aḥmad ibn Ḥanbal, V, 379.[36] Al-Baqara, 2: 3-5.[37] Al-Baqara, 2: 177.[38] Al-Nasafī, Madārik al-Tanzīl, I, 249.[39] Al-Tawba, 9: 13; Al-Aḥzāb, 33: 37.[40] Āl ʿImrān, 3: 175.[41] Al-Raʿd, 13: 21.[42] Al-Tawba, 9: 18; al-Aḥzāb, 33: 39.[43] Al-Bukhari, Adab, 27; Muslim, Faḍā’il, 35.[44] Al-Ajlūnī, Kashf al-Khafā, I, 421.[45] Al-Baqara, 2: 38, 62, 112, 262, 274, 277.[46] See al-Ḥadīd, 57: 1; al-Hashr, 59: 1, 24; al-Ṣāff, 61: 1; al-Isrā, 17: 44; al-Raʿd, 13: 13; al-Nūr, 24: 41; al-Jumʿa, 62: 1.[47] Al-Isrā, 17: 44.[48] Al-Aḥzāb, 33: 42; Maryam, 19: 11.[49] Āl ʿImrān, 3: 41.[50] Al-Aʿrāf, 7: 205.[51] Āl ʿImrān, 3: 191.[52] Al-Nisā, 4: 103.[53] Al-Aḥzāb, 33: 41, 42.[54] Muslim, Masājid, 144-146.[55] Muslim, Dhikr, 37.[56] Muslim, Dhikr, 28.[57] Muslim, Dhikr, 30.[58] Muslim, Dhikr, 28.[59] Al-Tawba, 9: 80.[60] Al-Tawba, 9: 84. See al-Bukhari, Tafsir, 9/12; al-Qurtubī, Jamiʿ, the commentary of the chapter 9 verse 84.

Source:  Basic Islamic Principles (ʿilmi ḥāl) According to the Four Sunni Schools With Evidence From The Sources of Islamic Law, Prof. Hamdi Döndüren, Erkam Publications

Schools of Islamic Law And Their Imams

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