Home Articles and Notes Tasawwuf Tasawwuf: Islamic Spirituality By Shaykh Ahmad Hendricks

Tasawwuf: Islamic Spirituality By Shaykh Ahmad Hendricks

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The spirituality of Islam or the spiritual path in Islam is derived from the Qur'an and the Sunnah of the Prophet, may the peace and blessings of Allah be upon him, and was called in the first and second centuries of Islam the al-Tariq. A hadith of Prophet, may Allah's peace and blessings be upon him, transmitted by the Shadhili Masters says, " The Shari'ah is my words, the Tariqah is my behaviour and the the Haqiqah is my state". al-Tariqah acquired different and more specific meanings later as the expanding tradition of Islamic scholarship laid greater emphasis on the careful and exact use of language. At this time the al-Tariqah was, outwardly, mainly a path of intense worship, ascetic practices, long periods of vigils and travelling. The many sayings of the ascetics, however, indicate that, inwardly, they really searched for, a) a deepening of the Prophetic virtues and b) the experience of intimacy and closeness to Allah. Belief in Islam is not enough. A Muslim must find the means, like the Companions, to "taste" the Names and Attributes of Allah. He must strive to sincerely master and feel all the states and stations of those close to Him. The many sayings of the Prophet, may the peace and blessings of Allah be upon him, and the often moving descriptions of the Prophet's life, narrated by his Companions, are ample testimony that deep felt worship and communion with Allah, in an ambience of very simple and ascetic living, was indeed the Sunnah of the Prophet, may the peace and blessings of Allah be upon him. His life was not one of opulence and luxury. Indeed, there are numerous hadith that portrays a life similar to the spartan lifestyle of the Arab Bedouins.

The shift towards material development seen in the Umayyad and 'Abbasid periods spawned a lifestyle that increasingly became a violation of the simple and ascetic way of the Prophet, may the peace and blessings of Allah be upon him, and his Companions, may Allah be pleased with them. The activities of the ascetics and the men of spirituality increased. A generation of influential leaders of the tariqah emerged to the apparent dismay of their powerful but materialistic rulers. Ibrahim ibn Adham, may Allah be pleased with him, for example turned away from the opulent lifestyle of the ruling classes and pursued a very rigourous life of asceticism and poverty. Tension between the Jurists and the Sufis also increased and continued to simmer during the first three to four centuries of Islam. Imam Al-Ghazali, in the 4th century, was largely responsible for reconciling the two camps. This process of reconciliation, I believe, started much earlier. The Sufi current had long before Al-Ghazali’s time, already started to produce some of the finest Jurists like Imam Al-Juwayni and Imam Al-Qushayri. The final marriage of the two camps, (Jurists and Sufis), was therefore more a question of inevitability than one of possibility. Someone has correctly observed that what is potentially present in the original revelation must eventually actualise and unfold, like a tree that is potentially in the seed.

Sometime during the second century after Hijrah the followers of the tariqah came to be called Sufis. Many theories have been suggested to explain this. One theory suggests that the Sufis were thus called because of the austere clothing they wore. The word Sufi is derived from from the arabic word suf which means wool. The wearing of this kind of clothing, although not confined to the people of the tariqah, was evidently intended to convey the important message of tajrid or "divestment". Tasawwuf which is the theoretical side of the tariqah was later defined by Imam Ghazali as the divestment of the soul of all its evil characteristics and the donning of all the virtues. This figurative association of spirituality and clothing is mentioned in the Holy Quran, "and the clothing (libas) of piety (taqwa) is the best of clothing". Tasawwuf is also defined as "adopting the correct adab in all circumstances, and as such, all of Tasawwuf is adab". Others defined it as "self-purification is it's means and ma'rifah the goal". Imam Junayd defined it as "the severing of earthly bonds and being with Allah without attachments". All of these definitions touch on some aspect of Tasawwuf or each one looks at it from a particular perspective. The more plausible position to adopt, in my opinion, is an inclusive one. Tasawwuf includes all of this. From a linguistic point of view the first one enjoys more general favour amongst the scholars. And Allah knows best.

During the first and second centuries after Hijrah, informal groups of students gathered around their spiritual masters, amongst whom Ibrahim ibn Adham, Fudayl ibn Iyad and Sufyan al-Thawri are well-known. The tariqah had no formal structure at this time. The students gathered around them for suhbah and instruction with no formal initiatic structure. A loosely organised structure started to appear in the time of the great Sufi Master Imam Junayd al-Baghdadi. He studied with the great scholars and Sufis of his time like Imam Al-Muhasibi and Imam Abu Thawr and his uncle Imam Sarri al-Saqati. According to ibn 'Arabi, Imam Junayd was in fact the first to use the khirqah in a systematic way. This was either a turban, a jubbah, or any piece of clothing which the Shaykh handed to his student murid) at the beginning of his training. The khirqah signified entry into the discipline of the tariqah under the tutelage of the spiritual master who in turn had successfully completed a period of training under his Shaykh. Other ways of formalising the master-apprentice relationship also became well-known like akhdh al-bayah (taking the oath), talqin al-dhikr (orally transmitting the dhikr to the murid). Well documented tasalsulaat exists which traces all these practises, individually, back to the Prophet. But, collectively, as the formal means of initiation, they go back to Imam Junayd. It is now the standard means of Sufi initiation into the tariqah. We have been talking about the tariqah in the specific sense of practical tasawwuf, it must be noted that tariqah is often used in a more general sense. In this general sense it refers to the general method and ways of a school of tasawwuf. The members are usually connected through a silsilah or chain of Shaykh-murid that goes back to the founder or founders of this school. In this sense, for example, we speak of the al-Tariqah al-Shadhiliyyah (The Shadhili Path) or al-Tariqah al-'Alawiyyah (The 'Alawi Path).

From the around the sixth century onwards the tariqah was transmitted, though importantly not exclusively, by organised brotherhoods. The chains (silsilah) of instruction in Tasawwuf runs, like veins in the body, throughout the Ummah. They extend far beyond the formal well-known tariqahs. However, the reasons for the appearance of the organised tariqahs and the creation of the Ijazah system are identical. We will discuss that a little later in this essay. The organised tariqah consists of a Shaykh who is either the founder or has specific permission ijazah khassah from the founder or the founder's successor, to act as the Shaykh of the Order. Suhrawardi in his "Awarif al-Ma'arif" gives a brief description of the qualifications and character of the Shaykh tariqah. The other important component of a tariqah is the Khalifah or Khalifah's of the Shaykh. They are the Shaykh's deputies in the geographic areas where the members of the tariqah reside or he is sent there to carry out Da'wah or calling people to Allah. The duties and qualifications of the Khalifah's are all clearly spelt out by either the founder or subsequent Shaykhs of the Order. Probably the first formal sufi tariqah was the al-Tariqah al-Qadiriyyah, founded by the great Imam Abdul Qadir al-Jaylani. Other outstanding figures of this period was Shaykh Ahmad al-Rifa’i the spiritual mentor of large parts of Iraq, the great Master of Northern Africa Shaykh Abu Madyan al-Fasi, al-Faqih al-Muqaddam Muhammad Ba-'Alawi the great Hadrami Shaykh, Shaykh 'Umar Suhrawardi author of the "Awarif al-Ma'arif". All of these spiritual masters founded tariqahs (brotherhoods) all still active to this day.

During those early years another important system was created, that of Ijazah or formal permission. The creation of this system was not accidental or arbitrary. Indeed, the Prophet, may the peace and blessings of Allah be upon him, said, "Undhuru mimman takhudhu dinakum." ("Look critically at those from whom you take or learn your Religion.) This system, as Al-Suyuti says, was therefore invented and organized by the 'Ulema, and fully adopted by the Sufis, to protect the Din from ignorant teachers and pretenders. It is standard practice for the intending student of any religious subject, and especially of Sufism, to request from the Master an ijazah either at the beginning for purposes of reading the awrad (litanies of dhikr and verses of the Quran) and\or at the end of his training. Ijazah is one of two kinds. Ijazah tabarruk or a permission to transmit religious sciences purely for the barakah of the Shaykh in question without completing the book or spiritual training under that Shaykh. Sayyid Muhammad 'Alawi al-Maliki, for example, hands out this kind of ijazah regularly to visitors at his school in Makka. The Shaykh usually gives this kind of certification if he is generally impressed with the work of the one requesting the ijazah. The second type, Ijazah tahqiq, is given to the student on completion of an entire book or series of books under the Shaykh. In the second case the student becomes a muhaqqiq (authority) of the science.

Organisations, however, like all things of this world have both their positive and negative tendencies. Serious problems can set in once the turuq (plural of tariqah) starts to own property or its members are given the administrative posts of lucrative trusts and so forth. The size of some of these Orders also exposed them to Political manipulation. Self-seeking and incompetent Shaykhs probably did the most extensive damage to the credibility of Tasawwuf. They were typically lambasted by every reformer throughout the History of Islam. So after flourishing for many centuries the turuq showed signs of decay and stagnation. This sluggishness that beset the spiritual orders in turn compelled leading figures to initiate movements of reform during the last two or three centuries. Notable among these reform groups are the Sanusiyyah, the Darqawiyyah and the Tijaniyyah of North Africa and also the Khalwatiyyah in Egypt under the leadership of Shaykh Ahmad Dardir and Shaykh Mustafa al-Bakri. There was also a great revival of Sufism in the Hadramawt under the remarkable guidance and tutelage of Imam 'Abdullah Alawi Haddad whose influence and leadership was acknowledged by the scholars of both Yemen and the Hijaz. The al-Tariqah al-Alawiyyah al-Haddadiyyah, in addition to other major Sufi movements like the Khalwatiyyah and the Qadiriyyah, has impacted profoundly on the local Muslim community here in South Africa. Ample proof for this is the wide and extensive use made of two central wirds or dhikrs of the Alawiyyah Tariqah, the Ratib al-Haddad (Known as the Gadat in the local dialect) and the Ratib al-'Attas, by the Muslims here.

The importance of the turuq must not be under-estimated. They played a crucial role in da'wah or the spread of Islam beyond the Persian borders into India and further eastwards into the Western provinces of China. They also played a key role if, not the only role, in the Islamisation of the entire Indonesian-Malay region. Islam also spread to eastern and central Africa through the activities of the turuq and here the Qadariyyah and the Tijaniyyah were major role players. Islam also spread to Northern Turkey and large parts of eastern Europe through the activities of the turuq.

Sufism made one of its profoundest impacts on Islamic Art, Architecture and Literature. Indeed there is a complete genre of poetry started by Sufi Masters like Shaykh Umar al-Farid and Mawlana Rumi known as mystical verse. The great Turkish poet and writer of eulogies of the Prophet, Shaykh Yunus Emre, was a Sufi. In our day the great eulogizer of the Prophet, Sayyid Muhammed Amin Kutbi, was a Sufi of the first order. Sinan, the great Turkish architect, sought inspiration from Sufi sources. The chief expounders of the art of calligraphy were artists with Sufi backgrounds. The designs that decorate the domes and walls of mosques world-wide - be they geometric or floral - were inspired by Sufism.


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