Tasawwuf: Islamic Spirituality

By Shaykh Ahmad Hendricks



The Holy Prophet (may the blessings and peace of Allah be with him) is reported to have said: "The shariah is my speech and the tariqah is my behaviour and the haqiqah is my station." Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal (may the mercy of Allah be upon him) reports in his musnad that 'Abdullah ibn 'Amr ibn al-Aas (may Allah be pleased with him) said: "If a slave is on a straight path (tariqatin hasanatin) of 'ibadah and he falls sick, the Angel that is assigned to him is told: "Write down an equivalent to his good deeds ...". The Prophet (may the peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) also said: He who walks a path (tariqah) in pursuance of knowledge Allah will open up a path (tariqah) for him to paradise."

The spirituality of Islam or the spiritual path in Islam is derived from the Qur'an and the Sunnah of the Prophet and was simply called in the first and second centuries of Islam the "tariqah" or the "Path of Allah". This usage can be traced to the ahadith quoted earlier except that the word "tariqah" gained a more specific meaning later as the systemisation of knowledge gathered strength and greater emphasis was laid on the careful and exact use of language. At this time, however, the tariqah was mainly a path of intense worship, ascetic practices and long periods of vigils and travels, all of which had the effect of both deepening the Prophetic virtues in the soul of its practitioner and of opening up his soul to an experience of closeness to Allah and of His overwhelming Greatness. The many sayings of both the Prophet himself (may the peace and blessings of Allah be upon him), and the often moving discriptions of his companions (may Allah be pleased with them) about the way he lived 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). The life of the Prophet was not one of opulence and luxury. Indeed, there is enough evidence that it was similar to the spartan lifestyle of the Arab Bedouins.

The emphasis on material development seen in the Umayyad and 'Abbasid periods spawned a lifestyle that increasingly became something distinct from and even alien in the eyes of the simpler folk, and more importantly 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 gifted leaders of the tariqah emerged sometimes to the dismay of their powerful but materialistic rulers. Ibrahim ibn Adham for example was a member of the ruling class, who rebelled against the establishment and pursued a very rigourous life of asceticism and poverty. Tension between the Jurists and the Sufis also increased and continued to simmer for many centuries. Many scholars believe that Imam Al-Ghazali was responsible, a few centuries later, for reducing the conflict between 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 in the second century after Hijrah the followers of the tariqah were called Sufis. Many theories have been suggested to explain this. The more plausible one according to many scholars is 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 Al-ghazali as the divestment of the soul from all other than Allah and the donning of all the central virtues of the Prophet (may the peace and blessings of Allah be upon him). This figurative association of spirituality and clothing is also referred to in the Quranic verse "and the clothing (libas) of piety (taqwa) is the best of clothing".

At first, groups of students would gather around well known spiritual masters amongst whom Ibrahim ibn Adham, Fudayl ibn Iyad and Sufyan al-Thawri have become legendary. The tariqah had no formal organization at this time but some kind of structure did appear in the time of the great Sufi Master Imam Junayd. He studied at the feet of the great scholars and Sufis of the third century like Imam Al-Muhasibi and Abu Thawr. From this time on the khirqah started to be used in a systematic way. This was either a turban, a jubbah, or a thawb - or it could be any piece of clothing which the Shaykh handed to his student (murid) either at the beginning of his training or on completion of his period of training under the master. The donning of the khirqah signified the entry into the discipline of the tariqah under the tutelage and guidance of a spiritual master who in turn had successfully completed a period of training under his Shaykh. The donning of the khirqah was one way of initiation into the tariqah. Other ways also became well-known like akhdh al-bay’ah (or taking the oath), talqin al-dhikr (or passing on of dhikr) and ijazah (permission). All of this is traceable back to Imam Junayd and has ever since become the standard means of initiation into the tariqah. It must be noted here that the word tariqah also has a more general connotation. It is often used to refer to a specific silsilah or chain of Shaykh-murid that leads back to the founder or founders of a particular method of spiritual training. In this sense we refer to the Al-tariqah al-qadariyyah (The Qadiri Path) or Al-tariqah al-alawiyyah (The ‘Alawi Path), for example.

The creation of this system of ijazah we alluded to earlier, however, was not accidental or arbitrary. Indeed, the Prophet (may the peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) himself 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 Sufis and other scholars, 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 entry and\or at the end of his training.

A few centuries later the tariqah (the spiritual path) was transmitted by, and it must be noted not only by, loosely organised brotherhoods under the able guidance of great Imams like Sayyid Abdul Qadir al-Jaylani whose specific methods and emphases in training and teaching the path came to be called the Al-tariqah al-qadiriyyah. Other outstanding figures of this period was the gifted Shaykh Ahmad al-Rifa’i the spiritual mentor of large parts of Iraq and the great Master of Northern Africa Shaykh Abu Madyan al-Fasi. All of these spiritual masters founded tariqahs (brotherhoods following the specific methods of their founder Shaykhs) of their own that still bear their names to this day.

Organisations, however, like all things of this world have both their positive and negative sides. After flourishing for many centuries the turuq (plural of tariqah) showed signs of decay and stagnation. This sluggishness that beset the spiritual orders in turn compelled leading figures to generate and lead 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 (Gadat, etc) 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 Tijaniyyah was the major role player. 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 Amien Kutbi, was a Sufi of the first order. Sinan, the great Turkish architect sought inspiration from Sufi sources. The art of calligraphy was for centuries inspired and sustained by 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.

And it is this very spirit , seen in the legacy of our forefathers that kept Islam alive in the Cape at the foot of Africa. Tasawwuf or Islamic Spirituality, is as indigenous to South Africa as is the Protea; a captivatingly beautiful but hardy flower capable of surviving the hottest summers and the coldest winters.

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