What is Tasawwuf:Pros and Cons,good,bad and What to do

This article has Been written in the famous book Tareekh e dawat o Azeemat/Saviors of islamic sprit in English by Abul Hasan Ali Nadvi who himself was a sufi but in the chain that fought against the misconcepts and misdeeds of some ignorant sufis. (Translation taken from with thanks)

saviours Of Islamic Spirit Volume 3; pg : 203- 218.  
Islamic concept of Sufism -The method employed for attaining proximity to Allah and avoiding worldiness through perfection of morals, which later came to know as tasawwuf or mysticism, was identical with tazkiya (purification) and Ihsan (sincere worship) in the Quranic and hadith terminology. it was , infact, one of the four objectives of the prophethood of Muhammed ( as explained in this verse of Qur'an:

"He it is who hath sent among the unlettered ones a messenger of thier own, to recite unto them revelations and to purify them , and to teach them the scripture and wisdom , though heretofore they were indeed in error manifest" (Q.LXII:2) 

The task of maintaining a judicious balance between the rituals and the spirit of religion , safeguarding the revelatory fountain to which the faithful returned again and again to refresh his spiritual vision was performed by the successors of the Holy Prophet (PBUH) and the rightly guided ulema. they took care to protect and devolope not only the external frame of theological discipline of the muslim society but also helped in promoting the spiritual health of its members which linked them with the intuitive conciousness of the prophet .

In the beginning the emphasis was more on the inner nature and vital principals of faith rather than on its amplification or finding new channels for its practical experience. However, with the expansion of the muslim rule over vast areas , accretion of great numbers of adherents of widely diverse spiritual and intellectual capacities and influx of wealth and riches and the means of comfort , new and embarassing issues began to crop up which theatened to transform the religious thinking of the muslim community. with the increasing distance of time from the days of the Holy prophet (PBUH) the new ideas started posing problems in the shape of spiritual and moral infirmities or novel concepts and philosophies , as of, in accordance with the Quranic dictum : And the term was prolonged for them , so their hearts Were Hardened.It was then , with the increasing range of intellectual activity that the tazkiyah and Ihsan were instituionalised under the name of Tasawwuf into a spiritual discipline.

Another devolopement of a similar nature could be seen in the fields of Arabic grammar and the rhetorics formerly grounded in the instinctive appreciation of the Arabic language by the indegenous people , which were stimulated by contact with non- Arabs and then compiled into elaborate sciences complete with experts , schools of Grammarians and thier distinctive syllabuses , each of which attracted a large number of students desirious of learning all about these rules.

During the initial period of Islamic era the Tazkiyah or Ihsan or the method of spiritual purification with a deep and real spiritual experiences was based upon the concrete injunctions of the Qur'an and sunnah and on following the Holy prophet's (PBUH) example. but, as the contact with non-arabs increased through thier acceptance of islam in large numbers , mysticism and gnosticism of the new converts to Islam stumulated mystical -ascetical attitudes in devotional exercises. Undue deference came to be paid to those admired as godly persons and a number of unauthorised rites and customs began to be introduced in those circles until some of the mystics accepted what could be called blatantly un-Islamic thoughts .

Trust in the philosophies professing to attain to the knowledge of Allah through spiritual esctasy, direct intuition and excessive supplications gave birth to the veiw that earnest and assidous devotions along with strict observance of all the obligatory and commendatory services enjoined by the shariah and sunnah helped in attaining a stage of knowledge which made a traveller of the path of spirit independent of the obligations of shariah meant for the common man. It was the stage known as Suqut-i-takhf or cessation of religious obligations. Those who entertained this belief adduced in their support the Qur’anic verse : “ And serve thy lord till there cometh unto thee the conviction”. Yet, it was a mischievious doctrine destructive of the shariah and the religious values of Islam, for it encouraged an attracted devotee to brush aside the divine services and mandatory obligations.

It seems that these innovations and aberrations had started emerging perceptibly from the beginning of the fourth century when the Abbasid power was at its zenith and the urban centers in the muslim world were thriving as fleshpots of luxury and culture. 

The first book on tasawwuf was kitab-ul-lum’a written by Shaikh Abu Nasr Sarraj (d.378/998). A portion of this work is devoted to the methods of following the lead of the last Prophet (on whom be peace).
Thereafter Sayyid Ali Hujiri (d.465/1072) warned in the Kashf-ul-Mahjoob that the ‘ attainment of reality was impossible without following the law …Mystic reality without law was hypocrisy’.

Imam Abul Qasim Qushayri (d.465/1072), a comtempory of Hujiri , wrote Risalah Qushayriyah which became the principal manual of mysticism. In it he laments the antinomian tendencies of the sufis of his time in these words:

 Sanctity of the shariah has fled from their hearts ; indifference to religion has been taken by them as a course safe and dependable; they attach no importance to the performance of devotions ; and make little of prayers and fastings” (Risalah Qushayriyah. Cairo, 1319 A.H.p.1).

The Risalah Qushayriyah opens with the emphasis on faithful adherence to the shariah and then Qushayri proceeds to illustrate his veiws be a series of brief biographies of the prominent sufis and saints of old who had faithfully complied with the dictates of shariah and followed the practice of the Prophet (PBUH). In the last chapter of his book entitled ‘ Testament for disciples’ Qushayri writes that ‘ This affair (mystical enlightment) depends upon adherence to religious laws’.,

Among the religious scholars and mystics of conspicuous sincerety , holiness and intuition upholding the supremacy of shariah, Shaikh Abdul Qadir Al-Jeelani occupies a distinguished place. His teachings was firmly based on the Qur’an and Traditions ; his life set an example of walking steadfastly on the straight path of the holy law as well as attaining a state of proximity to god. His Ghunniyat-ul-Talibeen consolidated the bond of mysticism with the religious law of Islam. His other work , Futuh-ul-Ghaib lays emphasis on betaking the example of the Holy Prophet (PBUH) and avoiding every innovation in religious practices.

The second lecture of his work opens with the exhortation : ‘ Follow example of the Prophet (PBUH) and never give way to any innovations’. He occupied the place of a renovator of faith in as much as he delivered up the keys of Tasawwuf to the shariah. He commended that one should first observe what has been made obligatory by the shariah and then comply with the sunnah and voluntary observances : performance of an act of secondary importance in place of the primary one was, by the same token , denounced by him as self-conceit and foolishness.

The Awarif-ul-Ma’arif by Shaikh Shihabuddin Suharwardi (d.632/1234) was the most authoritative and popular compedium on mysticism which has ever since been esteemed as the principal study in the seminaries of the sufis. 
The second part of this book expounds the secrets and wisdom of the shariah and reckons tasawwuf as the means “of taking after the Prophet’s (PBHUH) example in speech, actions and bearings ; for, the firmness of a sufi on this path sanctifies his soul, lifts the curtain lying over reality and enables him to follow the Prophet (PBUH) in the minutest detail “. ( for a detailed description see tasawwuf-i-Islam by Maulana Abdul majid Daryabadi).

In the ninth century of Islamic era when the Mystical and gnostic currents were spreading out into the muslim world with a lightenining speed, Shaikh Muhiyuddin Ibn Arabi and his diciples transformed tasawwuf into a philosophical dicipline and took over a number of symbols and terminologies pertaining to Hellenistic philosophy and metaphysics. Wahdat-ul-Wujood (Unity Of Being), accepted by them as the basic principle of sufism , came to be admired both in sufi hospices and seats of learning. 

Indifference to the scripture and the sunnah coupled with unfamiliarity with the science of hadith gave rise to a number of irreligious practices in the monasteries of the mystics which could neither be approved by the fundamental theological thought of Islam nor was known to the earlier muslims.

India had been a center of Yoga and ascetism for thousands of years. The muslim mystics came into contact with the Yogis who had devoloped their telepathic and occult powers through constant yogic exercises and holding of breath. Some of the mystics even learnt these arts from the yogis. The country was, by that time , unaquainted with the Sihah Sittah and other authentic books of hadith. It was only in Gujrat that the contact with the scholars of Arabia had kept people conscious of this branch of Islamic learning.

Ali Muttaqi of Burhanpur and Muhammad Tahir of Patan had kept the torch of Traditions lighted in that part of the country and endeavoured to descredit innovations in religious thought and usages. But the orientation of life in all its aspects as dictated by the authentic sayings and practices of the Prophet (PBUH), attempted by the scholars in Gujrat , was unknown to other parts of the country , nor did the people know anything about the Sihah Sittah or about the scholars who had devoted their lives to the sudy of Hadith and rebuttal of unsound norms and usages. 

The Jawahir-e-Khamsa by a celebrated Shattari mystic , Shaikh Muhammed Ghouse of Gwalior , offers the best example of the then sufi thought whih was permeated with the indigenous theosophic doctrines and practices. The articulate structure of sufi percepts and cults propounded in this book are based entirely on the supposed utterences of the earlier mystics or the personal experiences of the author who, it seems, did not consider it necessary to deduce his percepts from any authoritative collection of Ahadith or any book dealing with the Prophet’s (PBUH) life and character. Being a collectanea of orisans for special occasions and specific purposes, it includes supplications for offering Namaaz-e-Ahzaab ( Prayer of the confederates), Salaat –ul-Aashiqin( Prayer of the lovers) ,Namaaz Tanvir-ul-Qabr ( Prayer for the grave’s illumination)and a number of other devotions and supplications meant for different months of the year that cannot be traced to any saying or doing of the Prophet of islam (PBUH).

The second part of the book gives a list of asma-i-akbariyah (great names), coined by the shaikh , which are really names of the angels in Hebrew and Syriac with words normally prefixed to vocative names as if beseeching their help instead of Allah’s. there is another hym in the praise of certain beings, in the language of ancient jews , with vocative prefixes and and known as Dua-i-Basmakh. These mysterious appellations , which constitute the essential core of propitiating the so-called divine attributes , have even agents which are supposed to be cognizant of the secrets and significances of their principals. Similarly , the alphabets have implicit meanings and agents. It includes even a litany entreating Caliph Ali, as the worker of miracles.

Thus, when the Mujaddid took up his reformatory task, it was a period of exagerrations and eccentricities displaying an admixture of the Sunnah and the bid’ah (innovations), theology and philosophy, Islamic mysticism and Yoga- all intermingled indiscriminately. The Mujaddid has given a graphic discription of the then obtaining situation in one of his letters to Khwaja Muhammed Abdullah.he writes :

“ Innovations that hit the eye these days are numerous enough to make one think that a river of darkness and gloom is surging on all sides, while the lamp of Sunnah is quivering in this pitch-black darkness like the fireflies gleaming in a night shrouded with darkness” ( Maktubaat , Vol. II,No.23 to Khwaja Muhammed Abdullah)

It was the time when Islam was imperilled in India. The Muslim kingdom was trying to strike at its roots, the cloisters of mystics were paying scant regard to the sayings and doings of the Holy Prophet (PBUH), the Shariah and the Tariqah (mystic path) were presented as two distinct disciplines having different codes and prescriptions, and if anybody ever summoned up the courage to know the theological sanction for any mystical formulation the answer given to him was:
Drench thy Prayer mat with wine if the revered bartender so directs,
For the traveller is not ignorant of the runs and sounds of the track.

This was the time when Shaikh Ahmed Sirhindi (Mujaddid Alf thani) Thundered forth:

“ Tariqah ( the path) is subservient to and follower of the shariah ; to be perfect in law is much more desirable than to attain the spritual raptures and esctasies and perceptions through the eyes of heart. Observance of even one commandment of law is more edifying than a thousand year of spiritual exercises: taking of a brief nap following the practice of the Prophet (PBUH) is more salutary than the night-long vigil. The practices of the mystics provide no authority to decide what is permisible or impermissible for these things require the testimony of the scripture and the sunnah and the books of jurisprudence. Strivings of the soul by those who are misguided take them away from God instead of bringing nearer to Him. Visions and audtions of the mysterious world are just a means of amusement and recreation and they do not absolve anyone from following the commandments of the shariah”.

Shaikh Ahmed expounds the matters discussed here in these letters:

“ Shariah is the guaranter of all the felicities of this world and next. There is not even one objective for the fulfilment of which one may require anything else besides the shariah. The tariqah (the path) and the haqiqah (reality), which form the distinctive marks of the mystics are subservient to the shariah i.e, nothing more than the means of obtaining the state of ikhlas (sincereity). Thus, the only purpose served by the tariqah and the haqiqah is to acualise the inner spirit of the shariah and not to achieve any objective lying beyond its reach. The mystical states and stations, ecstatic transports, intuitive knowledge and spiritual insights gained by the mystics during the course of their spiritual journey are not the ends ; they are simply images and ideas meant for cheering up and and inspiring hope in the novices of the spiritual path so that they move onward and reach the state of Rida (resignation) which is the goal of sulook and Jadhbah( i.e, the complaince of the shariah)”. (Maktubat,Vol.I, No.36, to Haji Mulla Muhammed of Lahore.)

In the same letter he further writes :

“ Those who are undiscerning take the states and stations as goals of the spiritual journey and its observations and manifestations as significations of reality with the result that they become prisoners of their own imaginations and mental creations , and remain unblessed by the quintessence of the shariah.“ Dreadful for the idolators is that unto which thou calest them. Allah chooseth for himself whomm he will and guideth unto himself who turneth (towards him).” (Q.XLII:13)

In another letter he explains the ascendancy and precedence of obligatory observances over those voluntary in these words:

“ The actions from which proximity to God ensues are either obligatory or voluntary , but the voluntary observances never make the grade of obligatory ones. Fulfillment of an obligatory observance at its due time and in all sincerity is preferable to performance of Voluntary ones for a thousand years”. (Maktubat, vol.I, No.29 to Shaikh Nizam of Thanesar).

That cleansing of the self and healing of the souls can eaisily brought about through complaince with the commandments of shariah than by means of penance and purgation is forcefully advocated by the Mujaddid in one of his letters in which he writes:

“ Discharging a commandment of the shariah is more efficacious for cleaning the self of its baser instincts than the strivings and exertions of a thousand years undertaken on ones own initiative. These troubles and pains not undertaken to meet the requirement of the shariah can rather whet the appetite of the self and increase its indulgence. The brahmins and Yogis hove not left a stone unturned in taxing their energies in travails but these have not proved of any benefit to them except in making them even more self-indulgent and immoderate”.In one of his letters the Mujaddid explains the significance of the shariah’s accomplishments in these words:

“ A majority of people live in fools paradise , well contended with the illusory almonds and walnuts. What do they know of the perfection of shariah and the reality of tariqah and haqiqah ?. They consider the shariah as the shell and the haqiqah as the kernel, but they are not aware of the inner realities. They have been duped by the superficial talk of the mystics and bewitched by the stages and stations of the spiritual journey”. ( Maktubat, Vol.I, No.40 to Shaikh Muhammed Chitri).

The merits of living up to the percepts and practices of the Holy Prophet (PBUH) have been thus delineated by the Mujaddid in another letter.

“ Excellence lies in conforming to the sunnah of the Prophet(PBUH) and the honour in abiding by the dictates of the shariah as, for example , taking a nap during daytime with the intention of living up to the Prophet’s (PBUH) sunnah is better than keeping vigils during inumerable nights. Similarly , giving away a farthing in satisfaction of Zakaat is more meritorious than expending a hillock of gold of ones own accord”. ( Maktubat,Vol.I, No. 114 to Sufi Qurban).

In yet another letter he writes:
“ Immature mystics trifle with the obligatory and commendatory devotions and give greater attention to the fikr (contemplation) and dhikr ( remembrance). In a like manner they take to ascetic exercises but neglect the congregational and Friday prayers. They do not know the performance of even one prayer with the congregation is more rewarding than a thousand rounds of sacraments. The fikr and dhikr with due deference to shariah are undoubtedly essential and meritoious. There are also misguided scholars who are hard at work in popularising the voluntary observances even at the cost of neglecting those that are obligatory”. ( Maktubat, Vol.I, No.260 to Shaikh Muhammed Sadiq )

In one of his letters addressed to Mir Muhammed No’man, Shaikh Ahmed criticises the misguided mystics in these words:
“ There is a group among them which has not cared to aquiant itself with the reality of prayers and their characteristic excellences. They want to remedy their ills through alternative recipies which, in their opinion , can fulfill their heart’s desire . there are some among them who even assume that the prayer, founded on the relationship between the divine and the devotee , is of little use to them. They consider fasting as more propitious than the prayer since the former is held by them as expressive of the divine attributes of eternity. And , then, there is a multitude who seeks to assuage its troubled soul through melody and tune and considers whirling and dancing as consummation of spiritual experience. Have these people not heared that God has not endowed the things impermissible with the properties necessary to work a cure. Had they known even a bit of the accomplishments of prayers , they would not have gone after musical recitations or ecstatic sessions”. ( Maktubat, Vol.I.No.261 to Mir Muhammed No’man).

Shaikh Ahmed discusses, in one of his letters , the purification of inner self sought by the non-Muslim ecstatics who devolope certain occult powers despite their indulgence in wickedness and immorailty, he writes :

“ Real purification depends on adherence to righteosness as approved by God, and this rests upon the teachings of the prophets as already explained by me. Thus purification of self and heart cannot really be attained without the help of Prophethood. The purification attained by the infidels and the wrong doing people is the expurgartion of self and not of heart. The cleansing of self alone , however , does not increase anything but waywardness. The mysterious and magical powers sometimes devoloped by the infidels and wrong doing people through expurgation of self are surely Istidraj ( illusory magical power) which leads them by degrees to hell and destruction”. ( Maktubat, Vol.I, No. 266 to khwaja Abdullah and Ubaidullah ).

The mujaddid held that the antinomian tendency of brushing aside the authority of established religious institutions and observances was extremely dangerous . dismissing these thoughts as misguided and unsound he writes in a letter addressed to Mian Shaikh Badi’uddin.

“ Immature mystics and inconsistent disbelievers desiring to get rid of the shariah’s obligations maintain that its observance is meant for the commonality. They hold the veiw that the elite is required to attain gnosis just as the kings and rulers are duty-bound to administer justice to others. Their argument is that since the end of shariah is attainment of gnosis , when one attains the knowledge of reality the obligations of shariah automatically wither away. They bring this verse of the Qur’an in their support: And serve thy Lord until there cometh unto thee the certainty” (Q.XV: 99 ; Maktubat, Vol.I, No. 276 to Mian Shaikh Badi’uddin )
The actions of the mystics can never be taken as standard, according to Shaikh Ahmed , for deciding the things made permissible or prohibited by the shariah . he makes out this point in another letter in which he says:

“ No practice of any mystic is authoritative enough to decide which is lawful or unlawful. Will it not be sufficient that instead of reproaching them we pass over their actions and leave them to the judgement of God ?. This is a matter in which the opinion of Imam Abu Hanifa, Imam Abu Yousuf or imam Muhammed should be considered authoritative rather than the practice of Abubakr Shibli or Abul Hasan Nuri. The half-baked mystics of our day have taken to dancing and whirling as an accepted religious rite and raised it to the level of divine service. These are persons who have taken their religion for sport and pastime “ . ( Q.VII : 51. ; Maktubat, Vol.I, No. 266 to Khwaja Abdullah and Khwaja Ubaidullah)

Such is the Mujaddis’s approach to whole hearted affirmation of every commandment of shariah that whenever he is told about any practice or doctrine of the mystics which is incomptible with the proper Islamic beliefs or which seeks to prove any unsound dogma on the authority of any seer or saint rather than placing reliance on upon the book of God or example of the Prophet (PBUH), it becomes difficult for him to hold his pen from denouncing and assailing the non-conformist veiw. Once , when an unsound utterance of a mystic Shaikh ( Abdul Karim Yamani ) was related to him by one of his disciples, Shaikh Ahmed could not tolerate the erroneous remark and expressed his disapproval to it in a very forceful and poignant style.

“ My Lord ! this meek-spirited is not accustomed to endure such observations which stir his Farooqi blood and do not allow him to think out any explanation by streching their sense . such things might have been acceptable to Shaikh Kabir Yamani or Shaikh Akbar Shami, but what we require is the testimony of Muhammad (PBUH) and not those of Muhiyuddin Ibn Arabi, Sadr-ud-din Qunawi or Shaikh Abdur Razzaq Kashi. We require nass , and not fus. The conquest of Medina has made us independent of the conquest of Mecca “. (Maktubat, Vol.II, No.100 to Mullah Hasan of Kashmir).

(Fus- i.e Fusus Al Hikam by Muhiyuddin Ibn Arabi.; Nas – nusoos ; conquest of mecca- the allusion is to Futuhat-i- Makkiyah by Muhiyuddin Ibn Arabi.)

Vigorous defence of the sacred law of islam leads Shaikh Ahmed to hold that every action in compliance with the shariah can be classified as dhikr or remembrance of God. He writes to explain his veiwpoint in one of his letters to Khwaja Muhammed Sharaf-ud-din Hussain:

“ One should continually engage oneself in the remembrance of God. Every action in accordance with the shariah comprises dhikr, even though it be of the nature of sale and purchase. In every action and behaviour the dictates of Shariah should be kept in veiw so that each one of these actions qualifies to be reckoned as dhikr. The dhikr is basically meant for putting away mental inadvertance and thus when one is heedful of legal doctorines of the lawful and unlawful in every act, one automatically becomes absorbed in God’s remeberance who is ultimate lawgiver. This would by itself save one from remisses and bestow the wealth of perpetual engrossment in God “. ( Maktubat, Vol.II, No.25 to Khwaja Muhammed Sharaf-ud-din Husain)

It was on the basis of absolute superiority of shariah , as preached by the Mujaddid, that he severely criticised Sijdah-i-Ta’zimi (prostration of Honour) which had come into vogue in the circle of certain mystics. On being informed that some of his disciples were not cautious enough in this regard , the Mujaddid warned them against that practice.(Maktubat, Vol.II, No.92 to Mir Muhammed No’man and Vol.I, No.29 to Shaikh Nizamuddin of Thanesar)

Similarly, he refuted and condemned such polytheistic customs and usages , taken lightly in those days , as rendering honour to paganistic rites , seeking help of beings other than God, participatin in festivals and customs of the infidels , vows and obligations in the names of saints and keeping of fasts to propitiate the blessed saints or daughter of the Prophet (PBUH). In a letter ( Maktubat, Vol.III, No.41 to Saliha) to a female disciple , the Mujaddid has mentioned a number of such unsound practices which had come into vogue among the muslim masses in those days.

The restoration of sound and authoritative Islamic beliefs and practices and refutations of all innovations containing antinomian and polytheistic elements constituted a distinguishing feature of the great movement of revivalism and reform initiated by Shaikh Ahmad after a long time in India. These unislamic practices stimulated by contact with non-Muslim majority in the country and gaining strength with the passage of time were then threatening to misdirect the religious life of the Indian Muslims by corrupting the whole level of Islamic religious thought and action in the country. The reformatory endeavor of the Mujaddid was brought to consummation by the later mystics of the Mujaddidi –Naqshbandi school like Shah Waliullah (1114-1176/ 1702-1762)and his sons

( Among whom the efforts of Shah Muhammed Ismail Shahid (d.1246/1831),the grandson of Shah Waliullah, deserves to be mentioned . see Saiyid Ahmad Shahid brought out by the academy , for the heroic struggle launched for the revival of faith in the nineteenth century.) 

And finally by Saiyid Ahmad Shahid and his disciples who built up one of the strongest movements in history for the propagation of Islamic teachings through popularising the translations of Qur’an and hadith in local languages as well as exemplified Islamic behaviour through their personal conduct.
... concluded from Saviours of islamic Spirit.

Ultimately , this torch of Islam was handed down to Hazrat Haji Imdadullah Muhajir makki (rah) and his worthy disciples Hazrat Maulana Rasheed Ahmed Gangohi (rah), Hazrat Maulana Qasim Nanotawi (rah), Hazrat Maulana Yaqub Nanotawi (rah) to climax into being founding stones of one of the strongest fortress of Islam – The Darul uloom Of Deoband. Which produced not just individuals but singular institutuions of Islamic learning ranging from Tafseeer, Hadith, Fiqh,Tableegh, Jihad and Tasawwuf.

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