Naqshbandiya Foundation for Islamic Education

The Naqshbandiya Foundation for Islamic Education (NFIE) is a non-profit, tax exempt, religious and educational organization dedicated to serve Islam with a special focus on Tasawwuf(Sufism),

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Sufism: Holistic Approach to Islam.Dr.Arthur Buehler-Part 2 of 2

Sufism: Holistic Approach to Islam. A lecture by Dr.Arthur Buehler, Professor, Islamic Studies, University of Victoria at Wellington, NZ, delivered at International Mawlid un Nabi Conference 1996, UIC, Chicago.Sponsored by Naqshbandiya Foundation for Islamic Education (



C. Islam and Sufism

In terms of personal experience islam and tasawwuf represent two aspects or modes (within the religion commonly known as Islam) of spiritual involvement. These are two of three levels or domains of Muslim practice described in “Gabriel's hadith,” which describes works (islam), faith (iman), and perfection (ihsan).
Abu'l-Husayn an-Nuri (d. ca. 295/908) and al-Hakim at-Tirmidhi (d. ca. 298/910) expanded this threefold pattern to a fourfold framework of correspondences in the heart (represented by concentric circles). Accordingly, the breast (sadr) is connected to the external aspect of religion, islam, the domain of jurists; the first interiorization is iman located in the heart (qalb), the specialty of theologians and philosophers; the inner heart (fu'ad) is the locus of intuitive “gnosis” (ma`rifa), associated with perfection (ihsan), and the innermost essence of the heart (lubb) represents the ultimate experience of Oneness (tawhid). The latter two domains are typically those of sufis.
Conceptually both Gabriel's and Nuri's framework are interlocking hierarchies, i.e., each of these inner levels of the heart encompasses and transcends the other. For example, one can perform the outward obligations of Islam, such as prayer or fasting, without any inner commitment whatsoever. The Qur'an refers to such a situation, e.g., Say [to the Bedouin] `You do not have faith.' Instead say `We have submitted;' since faith has not yet entered your hearts [Q. 49:14]. Faith transcends works while including them; just as perfection (ihsan) includes both faith and works. According to this normative Sufi construct one cannot practice Sufism without acting outwardly as a Muslim and having a sincere faith commitment.
The principle of encompassing hierarchies also applies to hierarchies of knowledge associated with these levels. Al-Hakim at-Tirmidhi in his Kitab bayan al-`ilm immediately refutes the jurist's equating of jurisprudence (fiqh) with the entirety of religious knowledge (`ilm), citing a hadith where the Prophet declares a tripartite knowledge. For at-Tirmidhi these three types of knowledge are jurisprudence (fiqh), wisdom (hikma), and gnosis (ma`rifa). The sufis are the only ones who combine all three types of knowledge and thus know both the lawful and unlawful and the realm of the supernatural (`alam al-malakut) while feeling God's majesty in their hearts.[1] As the notable sufi Abu'l-`Abbas al-Mursi (d. 686/1287) bemoaned, “We have partaken of the knowledge of jurists but they have not partaken of ours.”[2] Transformed by spiritual experiences, sufis found jurists who specialized in external visually observed actions to be particularly myopic when these same jurists claimed exclusive authority.
Sufis, particularly those who had studied hadith, respected the oral transmission of scripture but it was difficult for them to accept a limited notion of religious knowledge (`ilm) based solely on rote memorization of transmitted material. “Gnosis” (ma`rifa), claimed by sufis to be a higher form of infallible and certain knowledge, was devoid of the errors found in the ordinary, acquired knowledge of the ulama. One who had certainty (yaqin) through direct intuitive knowledge of God overshadowed ordinary ulama who had to rely on long chains of transmitters, some of whom might not have been reliable. In Abu Sa`id-i Abu'l-Khayr's (d. 440/1049) words, “Having seen who needs reports?”[3] Speaking from the depths of spiritual experience, Abu Yazid Bistami (d. 261/875) proclaims, “You have had your knowledge from a dead man who had it from a dead man while we had our knowledge from the living one who never dies.”[4]
Works are accomplished by observable bodily actions; faith is developed through increased knowledge (`ilm); gnosis (ma`rifa) unfolds through a purified, tranquil soul (an-nafs al-mu²ma'inna); and love, the most subtle of human expressions is communicated through the most rarified human aspect, the spirit. The main purpose is to visualize certain processes, one of which has already been illustrated above: as one moves inward from the outer circumference, one is moving into more encompassing and deeper/subtler experience.
The second dynamic involves lateral movement around the circumference, (the jurist expression of religion), a legitimization process, and centripetal movement toward the center across the circles (the sufi expression of religion), a transformation process. Jurists are interested in the external symbols and outward behavior that are associated with maintaining and outwardly legitimizing Islamic social structures through a system of law, schools, and mosques. For this reason their activities and interests overlap considerably with that of the rulers who have the power to enforce such concerns and who need such legitimacy to keep their power. It is ulama who justify war in the name of jihad and who provide the basis of salvation to give meaning to such endeavors (martyrs go immediately to heaven). This outer level supplies soteriological formulae, important psychologically, to enforce the dictates of society (if you do these things you go to heaven otherwise you go to hell). This is the stick approach to human psychology which has its usefulness. The jurist's expression of religion integrates and stabilizes society. The sharia is the “kernel” that protects, legitimizes, and tempers the precious “seed” of spiritual practice.
This spiritual practice is required for the integration and stabilization of the outer social structure, presumes movement, change, and transformation within the individual. Instead of jihad as war, sufis stress the “inner struggling (jihad) in the path of God,” controlling the desires and ignorance of one's lower carnal nature (nafs). The transformation process implies an unfolding, a transcending of prior states and perceptions. Often this transformation in the Sufi environment is associated with the spiritual experiences associated with performance of Sufi exercises.
Gifted and persevering travelers on the Naqshbandi-Mujaddidi path may reach a stage of greater intimacy, returning to the everyday world transformed by their experiences; they normally show no outward signs of their extraordinary achievements: they are extraordinarily ordinary. After having traveled in the spiritual depths, they appear to bend over and prostrate in prayer just as they had before embarking on the Path. Rather than being merely the appearance of worship (surat-i `ibadat), however, their ritual practices have manifested the reality of worship (haqiqat-i `ibadat). When the traveler has come back radically changed to the temporary abode of the phenomenal world, every action performed in this world takes on an extraordinary quality. In Muhammad `Umar Birbali's words, it is a “revolution of Reality” whereby, “the disciple experiences such a revolution in his own ego that, having lost his first [way of] being, he experiences in his existence the certainty of another [way of] being. [It is] in regard to this great revolution [that] I have named my book Revolution of Reality (Inqilab al-haqiqat).”[5]
In actual human life abstractions such as circles, vectors, and radii have little meaning. Practicing sufis work and live in the everyday world and attempt to recreate a quasi-monastic life in the world, which includes an emphasis on ritual purity, the segregation of sexes, and a plethora of utterly mundane details. Yet, it is precisely the genius of Sufism that enables the life of the ordinary householder to be imbued with spirituality. Although this study emphasizes the importance in Sufism of training in a meditative discipline, this is only a minuscule slice of what Sufism means to contemporary South Asian Muslims who visit sufis. A tour of Sufi lodges in South Asia demonstrates that the primary activities of sufis are assisting believers in their worldly affairs, counseling them in mental/physical health problems, and making amulets to protect them. One conclusion of this study is that Sufism has always had this worldly component, especially since the development of the Sufi lodge in the tenth century. I suspect that only a minority of those going to Sufi shaykhs have ever yearned for mystical experience (those relative few had importance beyond their numbers). Few twentieth-century Indian Naqshbandi shaykhs have emphasized a contemplative discipline and guided others along the Path. The scholarly and popular western notion that simply equates sufis with mystics needs to be properly nuanced.
[1] Franz Rosenthal, Knowledge Triumphant: The Concept of Knowledge in Medieval Islam (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1970), pp. 179-181.
[2] Tarif Khalidi, Arabic Historical Thought in the classical period (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), p. 213.
[3] Muhammad b. Munawwar, Asrar al-tawhid fi maqamat Shaykh Abi Said, 2 vols., ed. Muhammad Rida Shafi`i Kadkani (Teheran: Mu’assasa-yi Isharat-i Agah, 1987), p. 102.
[4] Kamil Mustafa Al-Shaibi, Sufism and Shi`ism (Surrey: LAAM Ltd, 1991), p. 65.
[5] Muhammad `Umar Birbali, Inqilab al-haqiqat, 2d ed. (Lahore: Aftab-i `Alam Press, n.d.), pp. 6-7 (introduction).


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