Tafakkur

by Shaykh Ahmad Hendricks


Many years ago a book called " Penny for your thoughts" was published. It would be interesting to see whom of the modern generation read this book or heard of it. The cliched title shouldn’t fool one. The intention of the author is to explore the content and quality of everyday thought. This book is not a treatise on logical thinking or the rules of correct reasoning. The systematic study of logic has to be looked for in other works and is usually the forte of experts and scholars. The subject of this book is more humble but extremely important. People you meet often are so deeply steeped in some thought or issue. A look of utter surprise comes into their faces when you ask them, " Penny for your thoughts?". What is of great interest to me is the fact that often people fail to recall the stream of thought that so deeply engrossed them. Yes we are aware of some of the many reasons why this happens. But for a Muslim to be so entirely taken over by everyday worries and concerns is not good enough. The author of this book suggests interesting and useful methods to help gain control over ones propensity to sink into purposeless thinking and well worth a read.

The quality of our thought is a very serious and important subject for any Muslim to consider. Says Allah, the Most High, in the Quran surah al ‘imran verses 190 – 191, " Surely in the creation of the heavens and the earth and the rotations of the day and night are signs for the ulul albab. Those who remember ( dhikr) Allah, the Most High, standing, sitting and whilst reclining on their sides and who think ( tafakkur) about the creation of the heavens and the earth, [ They say] O our Lord You have not created this in vain, Glory be to Thee and protect us from the fires of hell". In this verse Allah, the Most High, speaks highly of the ulul albab or literally the possessors of mind or the intellectuals. Qualities of this kind are mentioned in the Quran precisely because Muslims are expected to emulate them. The second important attribute of this level or quality of Muslim is remembrance (dhikr). We will discuss that in a later article. Our focus in this article is on the crucial matter of tafakkur.

Imam ‘Abdallah ‘Alawi al-Haddad says in his Book of Assistance, " Know that the reformation of both the din and the dunya depends on sound purposive thinking (tafakkur), and the individual who has mastered this ability has gained a portion of every possible good. It is said: Purposive thinking ( tafakkur) for an hour is better than a years worship. It is also related that Sayyidna ‘Ali, may Allah bless him, said: There is no worship ('ibadah) like purposive thinking (tafakkur). A certain gnostic is reported to have said: Purposive thinking ( tafukkur ) is the lamp of the heart, if it removed the heart has no light."

The reader will notice I’m translating the word tafakkur as "purposive thinking" not simply ‘thinking" or "contemplation". Imam Ahmad al-Haddad in his excellent book "Key to the Garden" defines tafakkur as follows: "And tafakkur is the focus and movement of the heart and mind through the meaning of things in order to reach the underlying intention, and by this, the pearls of truth is reached." Tafakkur is the art, if you like, of churning a matter around in ones mind. The intention driving this process must be to discover the truth behind a saying or clarify the real nature of a principle of belief. We shouldn’t be fooled, this is a skill one has to learn. Thinking to some purpose is a skill we have to acquire. It is also important to note that this kind of "quality thinking" formed an integral part of the texture and culture of Muslims since the time of the Prophet, may Allah’s peace and blessings be upon him. A saying attributed to both ibn ‘Abbas and Abu Darda, may Allah be satisfied with both of them, goes like this " Tafakkur for an hour is better than a whole nights salaah." This ability and capacity to think deeply about things is the light of a Muslim. The author compares the human heart to a house and tafakkur to the lamp that provides the light in it. The heart is steeped in darkness without the light of tafakkur. Indeed the full and even basic understanding of our din is beyond the scope of the unthinking.

Tafakkur in the context of din is traditionally divided into four types.

The first is the level of the ordinary people (al-‘ammah). This level involves the search and discussion proofs and arguments to arrive at some conviction. Interesting to note is that the requirement or need for proofs before you believe in Allah, for example, is placed at the most basic level.

The second type of tafakkur is that of the worshippers ( al ‘abidin) whose main interest is to know the rewards of a particular ‘ibadah. They want to get on with the work. Knowledge of the rewards inspire them to greater activity.

A third type is the tafakkur of the ascetics (zuhhad). At this level the main focus is on the contingency of existence. They are deeply impressed by the truth of verses such as " everything will disappear and only the Face of Allah will remain". The results of that kind of thinking, which is often inspired by Allah, is a complete break from this world. They loose interest in wealth, fame, power and position.

The fourth type is the tafakkur of the gnostics (‘arifin). They are the great searchers of the truth behind the universe and its creation. They delve into the secrets of the Names and Attributes of Allah, the Most High. And often they speak of things that far exceed the capacity of ordinary people. They are also the great lovers of Allah, the Most High. Love flows from knowledge of the Beloved. The greater our knowledge of the Beloved the greater out love for Him. So as Imam Ahmad al-Haddad says, " Knowledge comes from tafakkur and from knowledge adoration, and from adoration love".

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