Friday, April 30, 2010

What is Tasawwuf or Sufism?

Abdul Hakim Murad

'Outward conformity to the rules of religion is simple enough; but it is only the first step.' 

As we noted earlier, our din is not, ultimately, a manual of rules which, when meticulously followed, becomes a passport to paradise. 

Instead, it is a package of social, intellectual and spiritual technology whose purpose is to cleanse the human heart. 

In the Qur'an, the Lord says that on the Day of Judgement, nothing will be of any use to us, except a sound heart (qalbun salim). And in a famous hadith, the Prophet, upon whom be blessings and peace, says that:
"Verily in the body there is a piece of flesh. If it is sound, the body is all sound. If it is corrupt, the body is all corrupt. Verily, it is the heart." 

Mindful of this commandment, under which all the other commandments of Islam are subsumed, and which alone gives them meaning, the Islamic scholars have worked out a science, an ilm (science), of analysing the 'states' of the heart, and the methods of bringing it into this condition of soundness. In the fullness of time, this science acquired the name tasawwuf, in English 'Sufism' - a traditional label for what we might nowadays more intelligibly call 'Islamic psychology.'  

At this point, many hackles are raised and well-rehearsed objections voiced. 

It is vital to understand that mainstream Sufism is not, and never has been, a doctrinal system, or a school of thought - a madhhab. It is, instead, a set of insights and practices which operate within the various Islamic madhhabs; in other words, it is not a madhhab, it is an ilm. And like most of the other Islamic ulum, it was not known by name, or in its later developed form, in the age of the Prophet (upon him be blessings and peace) or his Companions. This does not make it less legitimate. There are many Islamic sciences which only took shape many years after the Prophetic age: usul al-fiqh, for instance, or the innumerable technical disciplines of hadith.  

Islam, as the religion designed for the end of time, has in fact proved itself eminently adaptable to the rapidly changing conditions which characterise this final and most 'entropic' stage of history.  

What is a bid'a, according to the classical definitions of Islamic law? We all know the famous hadith:  

Beware of matters newly begun, for every matter newly begun is innovation, every innovation is misguidance, and every misguidance is in Hell. 

Does this mean that everything introduced into Islam that was not known to the first generation of Muslims is to be rejected? The classical ulema do not accept such a literalistic interpretation. Basic distinction between acceptable and unacceptable forms of bid'a is recognised by the overwhelming majority of classical ulema. 

Among some, innovations fall under the five axiological headings of the Shari'a: the obligatory (wajib), the recommended (mandub), the permissible (mubah), the offensive (makruh), and the forbidden (haram). The above classification of bid'a types is normal in classical Shari'a literature, being accepted by the four schools of orthodox fiqh. There have been only two significant exceptions to this understanding in the history of Islamic thought: the Zahiri school as articulated by Ibn Hazm, and one wing of the Hanbali madhhab, represented by Ibn Taymiya, who goes against the classical ijma' on this issue, and claims that all forms of innovation, good or bad, are un-Islamic.  

Given the importance that the Quran attaches to obtaining a 'sound heart', we are not surprised to find that the influence of Islamic psychology has been massive and all-pervasive. 

In the formative first four centuries of Islam, the time when the great works of tafsir, hadith, grammar, and so forth were laid down, the ulema also applied their minds to this problem of al-qalb al-salim. This was first visible when, following the example of the Tabi'in, many of the early ascetics, such as Sufyan ibn Uyayna, Sufyan al-Thawri, and Abdallah ibn al-Mubarak, had focussed their concerns explicitly on the art of purifying the heart. The methods they recommended were frequent fasting and night prayer, periodic retreats, and a preoccupation with murabata: service as volunteer fighters in the border castles of Asia Minor.  

The spirit is the ruh, that underlying essence of the human individual which survives death. It is hard to comprehend rationally, being in part of Divine inspiration, as the Quran says:  

"And they ask you about the spirit; say, the spirit is of the command of my Lord. And you have been given of knowledge only a little." 

According to the early Islamic psychologists, the ruh is a non-material reality which pervades the entire human body, but is centred on the heart, the qalb. It represents that part of man which is not of this world, and which connects him with his Creator, and which, if he is fortunate, enables him to see God in the next world. When we are born, this ruh is intact and pure. As we are initiated into the distractions of the world, however, it is covered over with the 'rust' (ran) of which the Quran speaks. 

This rust is made up of two things: sin and distraction. When, through the process of self-discipline, these are banished, so that the worshipper is preserved from sin and is focussing entirely on the immediate presence and reality of God, the rust is dissolved, and the ruh once again is free. The heart is sound; and salvation, and closeness to God, are achieved.  

This sounds simple enough. However, the early Muslims taught that such precious things come only at an appropriate price. Cleaning up the Augean stables of the heart is a most excruciating challenge. Outward conformity to the rules of religion is simple enough; but it is only the first step. Much more demanding is the policy known as mujahada: the daily combat against the lower self, the nafs. As the Quran says:  

'As for him that fears the standing before his Lord, and forbids his nafs its desires, for him, Heaven shall be his place of resort.'

Hence the Sufi commandment:  
'Slaughter your ego with the knives of mujahada.' 

Once the nafs is controlled, then the heart is clear, and the virtues proceed from it easily and naturally.  

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