The Place of Tasawwuf in Traditional Islam

© Nuh Ha Mim Keller 1995

Perhaps the biggest challenge in learning Islam correctly today is the scarcity of traditional ‘ulama. In this meaning, Bukhari relates the sahih, rigorously authenticated hadith that the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) said,

“Truly, Allah does not remove Sacred Knowledge by taking it out of servants, but rather by taking back the souls of Islamic scholars [in death], until, when He has not left a single scholar, the people take the ignorant as leaders, who are asked for and who give Islamic legal opinion without knowledge, misguided and misguiding” (Fath al-Bari, 1.194, hadith 100).

The process described by the hadith is not yet completed, but has certainly begun, and in our times, the lack of traditional scholars whether in Islamic law, in hadith, in tafsir ‘Koranic exegesis’ has given rise to an understanding of the religion that is far from scholarly, and sometimes far from the truth. For example, in the course of my own studies in Islamic law, my first impression from orientalist and Muslim-reformer literature, was that the Imams of the madhhabs or ‘schools of jurisprudence’ had brought a set of rules from completely outside the Islamic tradition and somehow imposed them upon the Muslims. But when I sat with traditional scholars in the Middle East and asked them about the details, I came away with a different point of view, having learned the bases for deriving the law from the Koran and sunna.

And similarly with Tasawwuf which is the word I will use tonight for the English Sufism, since our context is traditional Islam quite a different picture emerged from talking with scholars of Tasawwuf than what I had been exposed to in the West. My talk tonight, In Sha’ Allah, will present knowledge taken from the Koran and sahih hadith, and from actual teachers of Tasawwuf in Syria and Jordan, in view of the need for all of us to get beyond clichés, the need for factual information from Islamic sources, the need to answer such questions as: Where did Tasawwuf come from? What role does it play in the din or religion of Islam? and most importantly, What is the command of Allah about it?

As for the origin of the term Tasawwuf, like many other Islamic disciplines, its name was not known to the first generation of Muslims. The historian Ibn Khaldun notes in his Muqaddima:

This knowledge is a branch of the sciences of Sacred Law that originated within the Umma. From the first, the way of such people had also been considered the path of truth and guidance by the early Muslim community and its notables, of the Companions of the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace), those who were taught by them, and those who came after them.

It basically consists of dedication to worship, total dedication to Allah Most High, disregard for the finery and ornament of the world, abstinence from the pleasure, wealth, and prestige sought by most men, and retiring from others to worship alone. This was the general rule among the Companions of the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) and the early Muslims, but when involvement in this-worldly things became widespread from the second Islamic century onwards and people became absorbed in worldliness, those devoted to worship came to be called Sufiyya or People of Tasawwuf (Ibn Khaldun, al-Muqaddima [N.d. Reprint. Mecca: Dar al-Baz, 1397/1978], 467).

In Ibn Khaldun’s words, the content of Tasawwuf, “total dedication to Allah Most High,” was, “the general rule among the Companions of the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) and the early Muslims.” So if the word did not exist in earliest times, we should not forget that this is also the case with many other Islamic disciplines, such as tafsir, ‘Koranic exegesis,’ or ‘ilm al-jarh wa ta’dil, ‘the science of the positive and negative factors that affect hadith narrators acceptability,’ or ‘ilm al-tawhid, the science of belief in Islamic tenets of faith,’ all of which proved to be of the utmost importance to the correct preservation and transmission of the religion.

As for the origin of the word Tasawwuf, it may well be from Sufi, the person who does Tasawwuf, which seems to be etymologically prior to it, for the earliest mention of either term was by Hasan al-Basri who died 110years after the Hijra, and is reported to have said, “I saw a Sufi circumambulating the Kaaba, and offered him a dirham, but he would not accept it.” It therefore seems better to understand Tasawwuf by first asking what a Sufi is; and perhaps the best definition of both the Sufi and his way, certainly one of the most frequently quoted by masters of the discipline, is from the sunna of the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) who said:

Allah Most High says: “He who is hostile to a friend of Mine I declare war against. 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. And 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” (Fath al-Bari, 11.340 41, hadith 6502);

This hadith was related by Imam Bukhari, Ahmad ibn Hanbal, al-Bayhaqi, and others with multiple contiguous chains of transmission, and is sahih. It discloses the central reality of Tasawwuf, which is precisely change, while describing the path to this change, in conformity with a traditional definition used by masters in the Middle East, who define a Sufi as Faqihun ‘amila bi ‘ilmihi fa awrathahu Llahu ‘ilma ma lam ya’lam,’A man of religious learning who applied what he knew, so Allah bequeathed him knowledge of what he did not know.’

To clarify, a Sufi is a man of religious learning,because the hadith says, “My slave approaches Me with nothing more beloved to Me than what I have made obligatory upon him,” and only through learning can the Sufi know the command of Allah, or what has been made obligatory for him. He has applied what he knew, because the hadith says he not only approaches Allah with the obligatory, but “keeps drawing nearer to Me with voluntary works until I love him.” And in turn, Allah bequeathed him knowledge of what he did not know, because the hadith says, “And 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,” which is a metaphor for the consummate awareness of tawhid, or the ‘unity of Allah,’ which in the context of human actions such as hearing, sight, seizing, and walking, consists of realizing the words of the Koran about Allah that,

“It is He who created you and what you do” (Koran 37:96).

The origin of the way of the Sufi thus lies in the prophetic sunna. The sincerity to Allah that it entails was the rule among the earliest Muslims, to whom this was simply a state of being without a name, while it only became a distinct discipline when the majority of the Community had drifted away and changed from this state. Muslims of subsequent generations required systematic effort to attain it, and it was because of the change in the Islamic environment after the earliest generations, that a discipline by the name of Tasawwuf came to exist ….

The Place of Tasawwuf in Traditional Islam – By: Nuh Ha Mim Keller 1995

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