The Knowledge of Sufism: Understanding and Interpreting Revelation

Abdessalam Yassine

July 20, 2023

Excerpt from the book “Al-Ihsan
Translated from Arabic by: Editorial Board

My intention in these pages is to show the way to God and to illuminate the Path that leads to Him. My intention is to wake the sleeping, stir the lazy into action, and invite men and women of high aspirations to the banquet of God. My intention is not to present the discipline of Sufism as a thoroughly documented academic history; such knowledge is of no benefit if the only thing behind it is intellectual curiosity. I speak from my heart to liberated hearts. Nonetheless, our conversation requires that we use our minds to seek clarity and that we familiarize ourselves with the conditions of the Folk so that we can rise up to race them, competing with them to attain every sort of excellence, as God (the Most Sublime) has commanded us.

In our time, long-standing disputes about Sufism have become bitter and sharp. Some authors have thrown aside all pretense of caution and fairness, exceeding the boundaries that were respected by earlier critics of Sufism. They march in step with the students of Orientalists, who do their utmost to present Sufism as if it is a science foreign to Islam and make the Sufis seem like the students of Hindu Brahmans and Gnostic Christians. Those who do this are exactly like someone who sees a table decked out with a feast and surrounded with honored guests, but then notices flies buzzing around the guests. He claims that the table was in fact set up by the flies and the guests are nothing more than giant flies themselves!

After the first three virtuous generations, there was the wave of Hellenistic philosophy and the influence of the gnosticism of the Persians, Hindus and Sabaeans. And after Imām al-Ghazālī – who tried to reconcile between the scholars of legal rulings and the scholars of tarbiyaishrāqī[1] philosophy and the accursed doctrines of divine incarnation found their way into the Sufi tent. However, after saying all of this, we must underline the fact that the procession of light among the battalions of People of God could only flow through the generations from the Prophetic era onward on the basis of the unadulterated guidance of Revelation. Of course, new technical terms developed due to the need for effective communication between specialists. And new social bodies and groupings developed due to the need for cooperation. But all of this is no different from the new terminology and groupings that developed within the schools dedicated to other sciences, such as Qur’anic commentary, hadith, legal theory, sacred law, theology, language, and other branches of knowledge.

In order for our conversation to proceed on a foundation of trust, let us listen to the judgment of our scholars concerning the science of taṣawwuf. We cannot believe those who take axes of destruction to our righteous predecessors and attack faith in the Unseen, elevation of the soul, and the perfection of iḥsān while they deify the intellect and material existence. Nor can we believe limited imitators who, due to the clouding of their inner vision and deficiencies of their intellects, adopt old battles as their own without knowing the ins and outs of their contexts or indeed the very subject of disagreement itself.

Let us listen first to the knight and shaykh of Islam, Ibn Taymiyya, may God have mercy on him. We should listen to him for two reasons. First, many of our contemporaries consider his testimony concerning any subject to be the final word. Since they have not progressed beyond unconditional admiration of the man, we should not distress them by placing the noble knight in the relative position that he occupies – a position that is relative to other scholars, historical context, and the necessity of human limitations. The second reason is that Shaykh al-Islam, God have mercy on him, is among the most prominent of those who combated heresy and the internal logic of philosophy. To those who remain in the cradle of unlimited admiration, we offer the green light for growth and expanded horizons. To the abusive we offer a united Muslim front. Ibn Taymiyya is its knight and one of its sons. Its disagreements are internal disagreements, and they are a healthy phenomenon that proves the umma’s ability to criticize, converse and rectify mistakes.

Shaykh al-Islām wrote, “The correct position is that they (i.e., Sufis) exert their efforts to find the best way to worship God, just as others exert their efforts. Among them are Forerunners brought near to God in accordance with their efforts, and among them are people of modest effort, who will be among the People of the Right Hand. And among each of these two types are those who may be mistaken in their effort to reach a correct interpretation. And among them are those who commit sins, and then repent or fail to repent.”[2] He said elsewhere, “In this sense, they are like the jurists (fuqahāʾ) who exert their efforts in legal interpretation.”[3]

From Ibn al-Qayyim, Ibn Taymiyya’s student: “As for the Forerunners brought near, we seek forgiveness from God, alone in His Divinity, from describing their state without being characterized by it – indeed, we have not even smelled a trace of it. But our love for the Folk (a term of art referring to the Sufis) compels us to attempt to learn about their rank… Even if our souls linger in laziness, far removed from joining their ranks, there are many benefits in simply knowing the state of the Folk… Among them is that this knowledge (meaning the knowledge of Sufism) is among the noblest branches of knowledge. In fact, there is no branch of knowledge more noble than it other than the knowledge of God’s Oneness (tawḥīd), and it is only suitable for noble souls.”[4]

God bless you, Ibn al-Qayyim! We find the following with al-Ghazālī, who is among the greatest of the Folk: “In the earliest era of the umma, the term fiqh was used to refer to knowledge of the Path of the Hereafter, the subtle ailments of the soul, the factors that corrupt the purity of works, a deep realization of the insignificance of the Lower Life, an intense longing for the bliss of the Hereafter, and the possession of the heart by fear. This meaning is indicated to you by His statement (Glorified and Exalted be He): ‘…in order that they gain understanding of the religion (li-yatafaqqahū fī-d-dīn) and warn their people when they return…” (9:122). The warning and exhortation are brought about by this sort of fiqh, not detailed legal derivations concerning the rules of divorce, emancipation, mutual imprecation, forward sales, and leasing.”

We find more detail with the great jurisprudent and legal theorist, al-Imām al-Shāṭibī. Sufism, for him, is of two types: “One of them is to become imbued with every elevated characteristic and to shed every base one. The second is annihilating the self and abiding with God. In reality, the two types lead to a single meaning, the difference being that one is a fitting expression for the beginning of the Path and another is a fitting expression for its end. There is no blameworthy innovation (bidʿa) attached to discussing Sufism according to the first meaning… It is a sound discipline of understanding whose roots in the Book and the Sunnah are obvious.  Something like this cannot be termed an “innovation” unless the issues of jurisprudence that were unknown to the Righteous Predecessors are also termed “innovation,” such as the legal derivations on the topics of forward sales and the prostration of forgetfulness… As for the second meaning of Sufism, it should be analyzed in its varieties. One of them has to do with the incidental perceptions that occur to Travelers on the Path when they encounter the Light of Experiential Oneness (al-tawḥīd al-wijdānī). The Traveler’s expression of such perceptions depends on the moment, his spiritual state and his needs in relation to that particular experience. These needs are determined by the Shaykh of tarbiya, to whom the significance of the experience becomes apparent due to his true Insight (firāsa) into both the Traveler and his perception. The Shaykh then dispenses a cure to him consisting of the appropriate acts of worship and litanies prescribed in the sharīʿa. There is no innovation in such things since they are based on a principle of sharīʿa.”[5] Al-Shāṭibī, God have mercy on him, goes on to mention the other varieties. There is no innovation attached to the second, which is the Miracles of Saints. The third, which is speculation regarding the Unseen world and the quiddity of Angels, Devils and the world of Souls, is innovation. And there is no innovation attached to the fourth, which is consideration of the reality of Annihilation (al-fanāʾ), or fiqh of the desires of the Self.

With Imām al-Suhrawardī, one of the luminaries of the Folk, God be pleased with them, we find the following: “The knowledge of the Folk cannot be obtained with love of the world, it is only revealed when desires are brought under control, and it is only studied in the school of God-consciousness (al-taqwā).”[6]

He means, God be pleased with him, the knowledge that is kindled in the hearts after they are purified with righteous works, Remembrance, and spiritual exercises, not the knowledge written down on paper.

The Folk, God be pleased with them, were not idle people. They did not entertain themselves by chewing on fancy terminology like those who make a show of their cleverness. Rather, their sole concern was God and attaining His Pleasure. That is why they were people of action and inexhaustible effort. The fiqh that they laid down and enriched was nothing but precepts derived from Revelation, memoirs that the Travelers of the Path left behind to point towards the stages of their spiritual progress. Righteous generations after them inherit these memoirs as sincere counsel, as a challenge, and as an invitation to a meeting in the elevated Stations in the Presence of God.

Imām al-Ghazālī wrote in his Revival: “And among the signs of a scholar of the Hereafter is that most of his attention is directed towards inner knowledge, guarding his heart, knowing and travelling the Path of the Hereafter, and hoping ardently that the Path be unveiled to him through sincere effort and careful observance. Indeed, sincere effort leads to direct witnessing and the subtle knowledge of the heart arises from the source of wisdom deep within it. Books and formal instruction are not enough to bring this about.”[7] And he also wrote: “And among them is that he depends for his knowledge [of the Path] on his inner vision and the perception of a purified heart, not on pages and books and not on following what he hears from others.”[8]

[1] [Translator’s note:] The ishrāqī (illuminationist) philosophy was founded by as-Suhrawardī (1155-1191 CE), a sufi and philosopher who attempted to create a synthesis between sufism and philosophy.

[2] Fatāwā Ibn Taymiyya, 11/18.

[3] Fatāwā Ibn Taymiyya, 10/370.

[4] Ṭariq al-hijratayn, 261.

[5] al-Iʿtiṣām, 2/280.

[6] ʿAwārif al-maʿārif, 1/247.

[7] Iḥyāʾ, 1/63.

[8] Iḥyāʾ, 2/69.