Islamic Tasawuf : a type of behavior based on a well-defined ethical code

Islamic Tasawuf : a type of behavior based on a well-defined ethical code

Islamic Tasawuf : a type of behavior based on a well-defined ethical code
Islamic Tasawuf: a type of behavior based on a well-defined ethical code

Islamic Tasawuf: a type of behavior based on a well-defined ethical code [1]

In the name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful. Praise be to him lord of the worlds. There is no power and strength Save in Allah, Most high. Allah’s Prayers, Peace and Blessings be on Sidna Muhammad the noble, chosen Prophet, on his family on all his Companions.

Your Majesty King Hassan II, Ameer Al-Mumineen (Commander of the faithful), May Allah save you and guide your steps.

Most honorable Moslem brethren, Peace and blessing of Allah be on you.

These Hassanian lectures represent a praiseworthy practice decreed by his Majesty King Hassan II. Such a practice facilitates communication among Moslems and enhances Islamic unity, for Oulema from all parts of the Islamic world are encouraged to take part in it. This practice has a beneficial impact on people. These lectures are simultaneously gatherings of learning and worship; and are as such; a way of seeking a proximity to Allah, as Allah generously rewards the faithful connected with this practice, the Al mighty says:

“Allah will raise up to (suitable) ranks (and degrees) those of you who believe and who have been granted (mystic) knowledge”. (Al-Mujadilah “the woman who pleads:11)

It is therefore incumbent upon us to open this lecture by saluting this good practice.

Although Oulema of Islam considerably differ in regard to the meaning of the term ‘Al-tasawuf’, there is general agreement that ‘al-tasawuf’ designates a standardized code of behavior. Abou Muhammad Al-Jariri, one of the earlier moslem suffis, says: “Al-tasawuf involves subscription to levitating behavior and rejection of any low one”. Al-tasawuf is a process of substituting a particular ethical code for another in such a way that man will seek proximity with Allah and achieve communion with Him. Says Al-Katani: “Al-tasawuf is an ethical code; he whose ethical code is superior to yours is also superior to you in so far as Al-safa (purit) (i,e, Al-tasawuf) is concerned.” Abou Hafs Al-hadad says: “Al-tasawuf involves etiquette. Every age requires some appropriate etiquette, and so does every situation and context. He who conforms to etiquette will fulfill his wishes and achieve respectability in stature, whilst he who shuns etiquette will be ever-frustrated and discarded.” Therefore, Al-tasawuf is a kind of Islamic code of behavior in dealing with the other. Ibn Al-Qayim, Ibn Taimia’s disciple, says: “There is a general agreement among scholars that Al-tasawuf is a code of behavior”. If we reflect upon the definition proposed by the eminent scholar of Al Maghreb, Ibn Khaldoun, we will certainly be able to understand the original meaning of the concept. ‘Al-tasawuf’, Says Ibn Khaldoun, “is ascribed to the companions, Allah’s grace be upon them”. Ibn Khaldoun also points out that Al-tasawuf is the way to truth and guidance. He also adds: “when indulgence in the secular and the mundane pleasure prevailed in the second Hijri century, the pious were known as Al-Sufia or Al-motasawifa”. It would be beneficial to reflect upon Ibn Khaldoun’s following statement: “Al-tasawuf is a science of Al-Sharia since it is derived from the glorious Qur’an and the praiseworthy Sunna”.

The most common etymological interpretation of the term ‘Al-tasawuf’ is the claim reported by the majority of Oulema that the term has been derived from the Arabic equivalent of “Wearing wool”. Clothes made of wool had at the time the semiotic value of being emblematic of asceticism and austerity. But the suffis later refrained from considering the connection between Al-tasawuf and wearing wool necessary. They asserted instead that Al-tasawuf is in fact etymologically related to Safa ‘purity’, rather than to tasawuf ‘wearing wool’. They further objected to the connection conventionally made between Al­-tasawuf and woolen clothes on the grounds that this promotes fashion clothes which the Prophet (peace and blessings of Allah be on him) prohibited. The suffis emphasized that Al-tasawuf refers to ‘the purity that resides in the heart’, a motif which their poet Abou Al-fath Al-bosti reiterates in the following verse:

Some people disagree on the meaning of Al-suffi, Thinking the term is derived from wool, but I would only use the term in reference to a youth, whose ethical purity inspires ethical purity in others and is therefore Called Al-suffi.

This etymological interpretation of the term ‘Al-suffi’ is one among others; and although it is not linguistically warranted, it remains substantially accurate, since Al-safa ‘purity’ is in fact the quality that distinguishes Al-suffi from other people. It is necessary, in this respect, to remind ourselves of the fact the first generation that associated with the prophet preferred to be called the ‘companions’, hence the epithet, ‘the companions of the messenger of Allah’, was used in reference to the first generation. The second generation was known as ‘At-tabi’ine’, the followers, for they conceived of themselves as following the footsteps of the Prophet’s companions, Allah’s grace be on them. By the end of the second Hijrian century, the pious individuals who devoted themselves to the worship of Allah and strictly followed the practice decreed by the prophet were referred to by various appellations such as ascetics, hermits, Al-Bakkai’ne ‘the weeping ones’ (for they used to weep as a consequence of their experience of the awe of Allah), and eventually Al-­Sufia or Al-motasawifa. This explains why the appellation ‘Al-suffia’ was unknown during the lifetime of the prophet, Allah’s peace and blessings be on him. It would nevertheless be erroneous to suppose that, because no such term was known at the time, Al-tasawuf was a heresy. The claim that Al-­tasawuf was a heresy because it was unknown during the lifetime of the prophet is absurd, for neither At-tawhid, the science whose object is the investigation of beliefs, nor Al-fikh, nor what is known to us as juridical sciences was known during the lifetime of the prophet. It would obviously be untenable to dismiss anyone of these sciences as a heresy just because it was unknown at that time. It is very well known that the ethics in which Al­-tasawuf is grounded came to existence with the emergence of Islam. What is, therefore, posterior is the only recorded science known as Al-tasawuf and not the ethics constituting its object. The juridical sciences were recorded only at the age of At-tadwine; we cannot therefore claim that Al-tasawuf is a heresy, nor can we dismiss it as dispensable; for we cannot defend the claim that ethics is dispensable nor the claim that the Juridical sciences are dispensable just because it was not formulated during the time of the prophet as it now stands.

We shall now consider another point related to the ethical aspect of Al­-tasawuf. All the prescriptions of Al-Sharia are based on ethical principles. Without these ethical principles, the prescriptions of Al-Sharia remain letter without spirit. An example of the cruciality of ethics to the prescriptions of Al-sharia is the Islamic conception of belief in which ethics is foregrounded. “the true believer” says the Prophet, Allah’s peace and blessings be on him, “is the most virtuous”. This obviously stresses the inextricable link between faith and ethics. Thus, the Islamic concept of Al-tahara ‘purity’ extends to both body and soul and denotes the purgation of the individual from all such moral vices as mendacity, envy, spite, malicious gossip, slander, and calumny. The concept of Al-tahara ‘purity’ manifests itself in such precepts as prayer, fasting and Zakah.

Prayer is conceived of as a process whereby the soul is purified as a spiritual quest for communion between the worshipper and his Lord. The Prophet, Allah’s peace and blessings be on him, says: “is rewarded only for prayers performed in total devotion to the Lord”. The Qur’anic conception of prayer stresses its purifying function: “Prayer restrains from shameful and unjust deeds”. Fasting, likewise, has a purifying function and should similarly be observed in total devotion without which it becomes, as the prophet points out, tantamount to unrewarded endurance of thirst and hunger. Fasting is not only abstention from food and drink; it also involves abstention from sin. Allah will not accept the fasting of he who won’t abstain from fraud.

Zakah, like the above-mentioned precepts, fulfills a purifying function. This is emphasized by Allah’ s words:

“Of their goods, take alms, that so you might purify and sanctify them”

Pilgrimage ‘Haj’, likewise, has an ethical purpose, since it is a means of purifying the soul and the body of the individual. Allah says:

“Let there be no obscenity, nor wickedness, nor wrangling in the Haj”

Here, it becomes crystal-clear that Islam aims at safeguarding ethics. All the prescriptions of Al-Sharia stress the importance of sincerity of the worshipper vis a vis the Lord. The Prophet, Allah’ s peace and blessings be on him, confirms this statement when he says: “I disown he who dares Cheat my Umma”. In this respect, Ibn Ata-Allah Al-Iskandari says: “Deeds are lasting tokens whose spirit consists in the sincerity with which they are performed”. Sincerity is the spirit of any act, be it religious or secular. Allah shall grant his consent and blessing to any act that is carried out in good faith.

‘Al-tasawuf’ could in fact be viewed as a diligent quest for self-mortification, such quest is intimated in the following verse from the glorious Qur’an:

“And for those who strive in Our (cause), We will certainly guide them to Our Paths; for verily Allah is with those who do right”. (Al-‘Ankabut ‘the spider’:69)

The struggle to achieve self-restraint entails what the suffis call “Al-maqamat” (Stations) and “Al-ahwal” (states). “Al-maqamat” refers to the virtuous qualities every moslem is required to possess, such as asceticism, endurance, gratitude to Allah, resignation to the will of Allah, and love for the Almighty. On the other hand, “Al-ahwal” refers to the moslem’s experience of such feelings as awe towards Allah, trust in Allah as well as to such other mystical experiences as “Al-qabdh” (“depression of the heart”, in reference to the the feeling of mystical joy experienced at times by the self), and “Al-fana” (i.e. “annihilation”, in reference to the “self-negation” effectuated by the sufi in his quest for unity with Allah). All these are mystical states of mind that can be experienced by man. These instances of “Al-maqamat” and “Al-ahwal” are all traceable to precepts adumbrated in both the Qur’an and the Sunna. The lineage of these concepts is in fact so easily traceable to the said sources that Ibn Taïmia, in his treatise “Al-tuhfa Al-Iraqia”, asserts that: “what the suffis would later term “Al-maqamat” and “Al-ahwal” substantially designated the qualities expected of every genuine moslem. The meanings of these terms are of necessity in perfect correspondence with the qualities of the believer and with the ethical guide-lines of conduct he ought to comply with”. “Al-­tasawuf”, therefore, consists in a continual struggle to bring the passions of the self under control, transferring the self thereby from a state in which it is restless and evil-inspiring to a state in which it enjoys absolute serenity. ln this respect, Ibn ‘Ata Allah Al-Iskandari makes the point that what the suffis refer to as “Al-ahwal” and “Al-maqamat” is nothing more than predispositions within the self, and he asserts: “were it not for the spheres brought into existence by the selves, no motion would have been possible. Walkers would not have walked; and there would have been no distance between you and them to be covered in your journey, nor would there have been any rupture between you and them to be bridged over by your reunion”. All this is obviously figurative, for all suffi nomenclature related to “Al-wusool” (i,e. arrival), such for example “Al-tariq” (the way), “Al-rnarahil” (the stages), and the various “Ranks” (Al-manazil), and “orders” (Al-toruq), is essentially tropic. Thus ‘Al-qat’u’ (the traverse) suggests the laborious journey through the steps of the self, for ‘Al- tasawuf’ is, as has repeatedly been stated, a struggle.

“Al-tasawuf” can also be construed as ‘Maarefa’ (Knowledge or wisdom, i.e. mental Illumination, the source of which is divine). For the suffis, ‘Maarefa’ is attainable through ‘Daouq’ (Taste), a concept they appropriated from the holy Hadith: “Surely he has savored the taste of faith he who has acknowledged Allah as his Lord, Islam as his religion, and Muhammad as the messenger of Allah”. In using the word “taste”, the prophet, Allah’s peace and blessings be on him, suggests that experience of faith can be either genuine or formal (i.e. affected). Thus, genuine faith is that which pervades the self, bringing man closer to Allah and protecting him from the temptations of sin. This protective aspect of faith is crucial to the believer’s conduct; for instance, faith is preventive of sinfulness. This brings to mind the holy Hadith that clearly illustrates this point: “The adulterer does not commit adultery nor does the thief steal as long as their faith is genuine”. For faith is, may Allah protect us, suspended at the time during which sins are being committed.

According to the suffis, knowledge or wisdom amounts to taste, which is explicitly expressed in the dictum: “Whoever has tasted necessarily knows”. But what links can be made between taste and Intellect? The answer to this is that they are inextricably bound. “Intellect”, says Imam Ibn Al-Jazzari, “is man’s faculty of judgment granted him by Allah, whereas taste, thanks towards its proclivity towards ethics and passion, serves as assistant to the Intellect”. Taste, likewise has a bearing on such ethical and mystical issues as the recognition of Allah and his messenger, peace and blessings of Allah be on him, submission to the will of Allah, patience, trust in Allah, love and so on and so forth. The locus of all these virtues is the heart of man. I, for instance, sense the love of Allah and his messenger in my heart, a fact which represents one aspect of the religious experience. The role of the heart is hence important in all the spiritual and ethical aspects of the religious experience, as distinct from the rational experience. The latter is clearly exemplified by the situation in which it becomes necessary to rely primarily on intellect in order to deduce from specific evidence ordinances legislatively derived from Al­-Sharia Since the heart alone can partake of the spiritual aspect of the religious experience, it is incumbent upon us to keep it alive to the spiritual, and this can only be done through constant prayer and observance:

“For without doubt in the remembrance of Allah do hearts find satisfaction”.

We therefore need to commemorate and obey Allah incessantly in order to preserve our hearts whole.

“… but only He (will prosper) that brings to Allah a sound heart”.

Concerning the importance of taste to the experience of the suffis, it is reported that one of the disciples of Ibn Arabi approached the master and asked him: “some people who do not share our belief in taste deny the derivability of knowledge from taste, how can we vindicate our belief?” Ibn Arabi’s reply was: “should anyone take issue with you concerning the attributability of knowledge to taste, ask them what evidence there is for the sweetness of honey; they will then have to concede that such instance of knowledge can only be acquired through taste, in which case you will simply assert that our conception of knowledge is in no way different from this instance”. This is indeed a sound argument, for it is through authentic religious experience that man is able to gain luminous insights into such spiritual emotions as, for example, love. Thus, the suffis were very much concerned with love and were in actual fact able to undergo a full experience thereof. The importance of love is emphasized in the glorious Qur’an where Allah says:

“Say: if you love Allah, follow me; Allah will love you and forgive you your sins”.

The fact that the word ‘Love’ in this verse occurs twice, flanking as it does the injunction “follow me”, suggests that the Islamic Sharia obtains in the reciprocal love uniting Allah and his worshipper. This is why love and adoration for Allah lead the worshipper to “follow’ Allah, i.e. obey him, obtaining thus the love of Allah as a graceful reward for his obedience. Such noble spiritual emotions are accessible only through taste, which, in the suffi lexicon, refers to the faculty for spiritual prehension. As has earlier been stated, Al-tasawuf obtains in the belief that knowledge is acquired through taste.

The emphasis of the suffis on the spiritual dimension of the religious experience does not imply that Al-tasawuf disregards the fact that man lives in society, nor does such emphasis in any way imply that commitment to Al­-tasawuf entails withdrawal from social life. We now live in an age in which materialist concepts have atrociously prevailed to the extent that it has deformed our ethical standards and negatively affected our behavior, leading us to the point where we suffer the disruptive experience of witnessing our values under the constant threat of being shaken and undermined. It is at this point that we desperately need Al-tasawuf, which, based as it is on Islamic ethics, is capable of facing up to the corrosive effects of materialist doctrines, which reduce knowledge to mere matter and a series of evolutionary laws, and doctrines of the absurd, which deny all meaning to human life and regard existence as being without values. The prevalence of such absurd and nihilistic doctrines has led man in western societies to a state of mind in which he has to bear the full brunt of depression and pessimism. This condition has now infiltrated our societies and its symptoms have started to show on some individuals in the Islamic community. The cure of this depressive condition is provided in the glorious Qur’an, specifically in the verse where Allah addresses the prophet saying:

“We do indeed know how your heart is distressed at what they say. But celebrate the praises of your Lord, and be of those who prostrate themselves in adoration. And serve your Lord until there come unto you the hour that is certain”. (Al-Hijr “the rocky tract: 97-99).

The cure is therefore possible only through constant worship and total devotion to Allah and this is again corroborated by the Qur’anic verse:

“…they two were in the cave, and he said to his companion, “Have no fear, for Allah is with us”. (Al-Tawbah “the repentance”: 40).

The latter verse suggests that it is impossible for anyone to experience simultaneously two discordant feelings, i.e. the feeling of depression and the feeling of togetherness with Allah. By virtue of its spiritually therapeutic effects, Al-tasawuf does indeed have the extremely important role of protecting society from the devastating consequences of adherence to errant doctrines, be they materialist or racialist. The glorious Qur’an and the praiseworthy Sunna are thus the ultimate source for the line of conduct we need to adopt in our struggle with these doctrines.

Al-tasawuf, brethren, always allows for hope and never leads to despair, a fact that represents one of its noblest qualities. The importance of this quality becomes obvious when one considers the fact that the suffis based their doctrine on tolerance, eliminating thus all forms of violence and coercion. In so doing, the suffis have indeed drawn on the holy Hadith in which the Prophet, Peace and Blessings of Allah be on him, affirms: “Tolerance renders everything graceful whilst violence renders everything disgraceful”. This is why the suffis’ view of man is considerably realistic, purporting that man is, by instinct, subject to error. It follows from this premise that the option of repentance and redemption ought to remain open since man is basically fallible. Whatever his sin, man should never despair of Allah ‘s clemency; he, instead, ought to show repentance and remain obediently steadfast in his quest for the forgiveness of Allah. This point is very well made by Ibn Ata-Allah who admonishes a disciple of his thus: “Never allow your own conception of the magnitude of your sin to undermine your trust in Allah; for whoever is aware of the boundless generosity of Allah will certainly find their sins, however grave, dwindle into insignificance …”. what is essential is that you persist in showing repentance until you attain the grace of Allah. In a similar view, Ibn Abbad Al-Rundi, another suffi, urges us: “proceed with tenacity – of – purpose towards the grace of Allah even if you have to limp”. This suggests that the quest for the grace and clemency of Allah should under no circumstances be abandoned; the grace of Allah is, however adverse one’s circumstances may be, ultimately attainable. Thus, the suffis promoted the idea that the hope for the grace of Allah must forever be entertained. They never considered a sin too grave to be forgiven. But this in no way means that the suffis were permissive; for they made it perfectly clear that sins should not in the first place be committed. However, should one inadvertently sin, one’s sin must not affect one in such a way as to make one deviate, in despair, from the path of obedience to Allah. For Allah forgives all sins, however grave, save infidelity.

To recapitulate, Al-tasawuf is a form of ‘jihad’, involving such spiritual experiences as “Al-ahwal”, “Al-maqamat”, and “Al-maarifa”. Al-tasawuf also bears on the life of man as an individual living with a Society and interacting with other individuals. Last, but not least, Al-tasawuf involves the intensification of man’s hope for the grace of Allah. It is the latter consideration that has enabled the suffis throughout history to convert the most notorious rebels and criminals, attracting them to a godly life and guiding them towards the grace of Allah.

May Allah endow us with beneficial obedience and sincere intentions. Give us enough determination to refrain from misdeeds and Grant us wisdom.

May Allah protect Ameer-Al-Mumineen. Provide him with His guidance and support.

May Allah grant Ameer-Al-Munineen triumph and success and help him keep peace.

May Allah guide his steps and allow him to remain an exemplary model to the Islamic Umma.

Peace and Blessings of Allah be on you.


[1] A Hassanian lecture delivered by Pr Abou Al Wafa ATTAFTAZANI (Egypt), before H.M. King Hassan II, blessing of Allah be on Him, on Ramadan 5, 1409 AH. (April 11, 1989).