A critical essay by Shihab Thangal on the developments and present misconceptions about Mysticism in Islam. Translated by Jaihoon
Along with strengthening the individual’s bond with the Creator, Tasawwuf plays a significant role in securing the Islamic community’s culture and civilization. In this age of hatred, there needs to be efforts to reach its message deep into the human hearts to fortify the society from various evils.
However, Tasawwuf continues to be covered in a smokescreen of misconceptions. The criticisms levied against it forces one to perceive it with suspicion. The saint Sheikh Syed Abdul Qadir Isa’s “Haqaaiq ani Tasawwuf’ explains in great depth and detail the Islamic spirituality. It brings joy to me that its translation is made available to the Keralite readers.
The terms Tasawwuf, Sufi arouses feelings of marvel and ignorance in the minds of the growing generation. Society holds a vague perspective about it. One can even notice misconceptions in the minds of those who enroll in its path. Also, there are others who are stupefied by the sham practices among them as well as those who go to extremes in criticizing it.
At the time of Holy Prophet (sallallahu alaihi wa sallam), there was no separation prevalent in the society between the articles of faith and practice, social and financial transactions, laws and the patterns aimed at reforming the human hearts. Later when the Islamic nation prospered far and wide, it had to face many crises.
On one hand, political unrest and innovative practices led to a state of instability. This resulted in the formation of a strong intellectual force to determine the rulings about the social, economic and political matters in the society. The four madhabs defined the apparent character of the Islamic world.
At the same time, there arose new groups like Mutazilites, Murjite, Qadrites and Qaramites, which created fresh problems in articles of faith. The Asharite and Mauridite schools of thought were formed to defend the true faith against such deviating forces. Like the fiqhi schools, these also influenced the later movement sin the world of Islam.
However, there prevailed at the time of Holy Prophet (sallallahu alaihi wa sallam) very compelling efforts to strengthen the spiritual aspect of man. It was to this aspect that he gave great importance. Due to his noble spiritual attributes, he was successful in purifying everything around him. It was through this that he firmly brought forward the society to the faith and worship of One God and revolutionized the political and social setup that prevailed in those days; to have an insight into everything and unite the various differences among them.
When wealth became plenty and new political crisis began to take shape after the era of the Rightly Guided Caliphs, feelings of selfishness, arrogance, envy and vainglory arose in the hearts of the people. During such a period, those who firmly believed in Allah, the Last Hour and Hereafter refused to subscribe to these troubles. They were not ready to become the waste in the rainwater. They swam against the flow. With extraordinary tolerance, they worked hard with great hope in the Allah towards salvation and success in hereafter. Those who were part of the flow never understood them. They created misconceptions and looked upon them as a crazy lot.
Those who took refuge in solitude were forced to return back to the society. God ordered them to purify the impurities in the hearts of the people with their spiritual resources. Thus arrived the spiritual masters and society of students. Those who are in possession of Solitude and Meditation are seen to attract others towards their spiritual web. This type of people were there among other communities also, not just Muslims. However, those who gain such attributes through the path of Tawhid have the special help and protection from Allah. As they command what is right and forbid the evil, it is certain to attract the attention of the common lot.
The Satan, who creates obstacles in other spheres of human life, also hinders those who travel in the path of God. It is only by realizing such dangerous traps that one may venture in His Path. There arises the need for the spiritual masters who have become successful. By spiritual progress is meant not only purification of the outer attributes of man, but also safeguarding it from the black dots that may darken the heart of man. In this scenario, the bond with the Hidden World also increases. God gives much knowledge out of His Mercy. However, it still demands an experienced spiritual master. It is important to abstain from creating enemies by telling people of matters they cannot grasp.
It is often argued that Tasawwuf is outside Islam. However, it is too late to realize that Islam is incomplete without Tasawwuf. Those who blame Tasawwuf with such arguments should first understand it well. Fiqh, Aqeedah and Sufism that developed during times of crisis are not entirely strange to Islam. They are built on the foundation of Hadith and Quran. They are insights into the teachings of the two sources. Those who celebrate that Quran and Sunnah are suffice cannot rule out their implications in daily life. They should also understand that such reformative efforts rescued the Quran and Sunnah for the future generations. Such understanding demands only a little effort. Failing to do so, there are some worldly intentions behind it.
Islam has Outer and Inner aspects. Just as it marched forward in political scene conquering horizons and created comprehensive economic progress, it is possible to attain progress in the spiritual sphere also. We should not restrict this world within our limited senses. It would be a terrible mistake. How many worlds are revealed as we look through the microscope! Those who spend decades opening their hearts in Silence and Meditation dare to reach different worlds. The opposing parties should be prepared to evaluate them with maturity and detailed study. Meaningless criticisms give us no gain. However, they become a curse for the critics in the future.
There is a common accusation that Tasawwuf makes people inactive. This belief is rooted firm in the community’s mind. In this matter, we have to primarily realize which is action and in what aspect is the struggle required. One’s involvement in the society should be based on his own capacity and reflecting on area in which Allah has given him Khilafat (Caliphate).
It is either by performing Ijthihad on his own self or by the special knowledge bestowed upon him by God, that a Sufi determines his path. However, it is impossible to suppose that his influence will make the society inactive. Rather, it fulfils the duty of keeping a check on the undesirable developments within the society. There is no use of building a wonderful building without a strong foundation! It is only when the above-said Inner and Outer aspect of Islam is fulfilled will a true Islamic society take shape. It serves no purpose for the Outer aspect to prosper when the Inner aspect is in shambles.
We may learn of the Inner and Outer aspect from the Islamic history. Musa (peace be upon him) gave emphasis for the revolutions touching the Outer aspect of the community considering his nature and the goal of Allah’s Khilafat. In other words, he was liberating them politically. Therefore, we also see the pattern wherein the community was cut-off. It was in such an isolated condition that Isa (peace be upon him) made his advent to the community. It was a Sufi methodology that he adopted which was suitable for that community at that age. That great sage’s nature and Khilafat was suitable for the same. The former Prophet represents the nature of Judaism and latter of Christianity. Islam is the midway between both. We understand its significance just as Communism and Christianity, as body and mind, as science and poetry, as military and motherhood are vital for the existence of humanity.
It is only when we are able to handle the dual nature of Islam that we are able to understand it in its true nature. Although the Islamic movements formed in the twentieth century developed theories and philosophies for political revolutions and presented research papers for the socio-economic progress of the community, they failed to have a similar approach in the spiritual sphere of man. Either ignorant of the Spiritual path or supposing that it is the outer rites of worship, they are moving ahead proclaiming Islam to be comprehensive, modern and scientific. Whereas it becomes comprehensive only when the Inner and Outer becomes active.
Today’s circumstances demand complete spirituality. Modernity demands such. Only that which is comprehensive and modern can be determined as scientific. A community which has no spirituality or Sufistic vigor isn’t Islamic either. Political progress becomes a reality only when worldly desires are overcome and belief in hereafter is achieved and life is trained through Sufi path. However, one should not misunderstand that a balanced political and economic progress is meant Tasawwuf. The latter is the way of assimilating God and His Unity in one’s heart. It is built on the sincere love for Allah and his beloved Prophet sallallahu alaihi wa sallam. Real Sufis do not worship Him for the sake of Paradise or any other worldly benefits. Rather, for the pleasure of the moment of meeting Him.
It was the Orientalists who did modern and comprehensive research about Tasawwuf. Their writings were deceptive in nature. They misled others to assume that Islam borrowed Tasawwuf from the ancient Greek and Indian philosophies. These theories influenced in great depth the Islamic movements of twentieth century. But what is the reality? Islamic thought has existed even before the advent of Prophet Muhammad sallallahu alaihi wa sallam. There have been prophetic communities blessed with spiritual thoughts. It was natural for Islamic communities to have similarities with those thoughts, inspired by the Tawhid (Unity of God).
The modern reformative movements were not prepared to approach Tasawwuf from such an angle. They had other preoccupations. Or other interests. The advent of the mantra ‘La maujooda illa Allah’ strengthened the misconception that Tasawwuf and Advaita were one. Critics viewed it as a new school of thought, not as a mantra.
Some dragged the mantra to controversy whereas it meant that no being besides Allah has existence in reality and therefore one should put faith and love in Him. They failed to study the depth and the sincerity of ecstatic utterances (Subhani, Ana-al-haq) of some singled out saints’ like Abu Yazid Al Bistami and Abu Mansur Al Hallaj. Wahdathul Wujud was blamed. ‘There exits not two, but one’ was the realization out of intellectual progress made by saints. It was not a separate path or belief.
We should understand that those who attain Divine intimacy and presence forget their own existence at such times.
Originally written by Syed Shihab Thangal in the foreword to the Malayalam translation of Haqaiq Ani Tasawwuf by Allama Sheikh Sayyed Abdul Qadir Isa, Aleppo, Syria
Nov 27, 2007