I would like to discuss Tasawwuf(Sufism) in this sitting; what is its definition, need and reality? Allah has gifted man with immense intellectual ability and he has invented innumerable machines and gadgets to make life comfortable. These machines do the routine jobs of his life and they have relieved him of much of his workload but they haven’t brought him any peace. When he was doing all of his own work, he still had time to relax and reflect, but now, after operating and maintaining these machines, he has no time left at all. This busy life leaves him with no time to attend to his mandatory obligations. It is becoming increasingly difficult for him to find time for religion, family or even rest. In such a situation, what is the need or rationale to burden him with yet another obligation such as Zikr(Remembrance), which would certainly demand some portion of his scarce time and attention?
By nature, a human being seeks and trusts the opinion of experts and specialists for his problems relating to every aspect of his life. He would refer his health problems to a doctor, although it is his own body. He would similarly trust economists for his business and engineers for the construction of his house. Exactly on the same analogy, he must ask questions about human life from a specialist of this field. Questions about the origin and end of life, the Creator, His Attributes, the nature of His relationship with man, the reality of life and death, and the nature of life beyond life, could never be answered by an historian, philosopher, scientist, or for that matter, any expert of any field, because these are beyond the realm of their knowledge and perception. Their total knowledge about human life is bracketed between ones’ own birth and death; what is before birth and after death, they cannot answer. All these questions and many more like them are answered by a distinct class of specialists known as Prophets and Messengers. They don’t acquire this knowledge from any college or university because no such institution exists in the world. All institutions necessarily get this type of knowledge from Prophets, yet there is no institution where one could learn this subject and become a Prophet. The Prophets and Messengers are directly educated by Almighty Allah Himself. Now, as a matter of rule, the opinions and advice of these specialists should be trusted and followed in all matters relating to human life.
There is a fundamental difference between a specialist of worldly knowledge and a Prophet. A specialist can explain the theoretical aspects of his particular subject, but can never inspire anyone to acquire that knowledge. A technician, scientist or a doctor for example, can explain even the minutest details of their speciality but cannot produce an urge in your heart to adopt their professions. On the contrary, a Prophet doesn’t discuss theory alone, but along with it he also inspires very special feelings in the heart. For example, if someone believes a Prophet about the Unity of Allah, the Prophet has instilled a sublime feeling in the depths of his heart. Thereafter, even if the whole universe tries to negate him, he would remain firm about the truth of his conviction. That is the basic difference between a Prophet and a worldly expert.
The holy Quran describes this process as Tazkiyah (purification) and mentions that the holy Prophet-SAW invites mankind towards Allah by reciting Divine Revelation unto them. Then he infuses a sublime feeling deep into the hearts of those who accept his-SAW invitation which produces a remarkable change within them. It inspires in them the desire to achieve Divine Nearness, for which they don’t hesitate to make any sacrifice. We too make many sacrifices for comfort and status. There is hardly a family in this country whose members weren’t killed in the Second World War, some died in Hong Kong, some in Singapore, some lost their lives in the Arabian deserts, while some became POWs in Germany and Japan. The majority of them hailed from urban areas, simple village folk who had no interest in world politics. Then why did they stake their lives for a foreign government – the British? The reason was that they wanted to earn even a small salary for their families in order to live honourably. This is because worldly requirements and demands have a definite significance in our hearts and minds. We learnt about their importance from our elders and confirmed it through our personal knowledge and experience – we can see only that far. Therefore we endure many sacrifices for their fulfilment. When someone’s relationship with his Prophet grows stronger, it extends his vision to perceive and realise the facts and requirements of the next world also. A common Muslim, even an illiterate shepherd living in a jungle, knows for sure that he has been created by Allah and that death is not the total end of life but an entry to the next life where he would be confronting the consequences of his worldly actions. This realisation brings a revolutionary change in the life of a believer and rearranges his priorities in life. The sphere of his effort no longer remains restricted to this world but it extends to cover the comfort and honour of the next eternal life. He desires similar eternal peace and respect for his family, friends and all. This realisation flows into him through his connection with the holy Prophet-SAW and motivates him to make sacrifices not for the good of this world but for the betterment of the next. The effort to acquire this inner feeling and realisation which establishes the importance of the next life over this life and inspires a man to sacrifice his comfort, status and even this life for the next, has been described as Tazkiyah by the holy Quran.
Tazkiyah is the focal point of all Quranic teachings. The holy Quran mentions it before knowledge, saying that the Prophet-SAW of Allah first purifies the believers and then teaches them the Book and the Wisdom, so that they can realise and comprehend that world which the Quran exhorts them to strive for. It is natural that human effort is directly proportional to the realisation of a requirement. Is not a mad person the one who doesn’t realise his needs; he doesn’t bother to eat, sleep or dress! If you try to convince him about the importance of food or sleep or dress, you would certainly gain nothing because he cannot comprehend his needs. The holy Quran has adopted a unique style which has first given the importance of a requirement and then enumerated the ways for its fulfilment. ‘Tazkiyah’ is the realisation of this requirement to achieve comfort and honour in eternal life, it is the building block of Quranic teachings. Without this realisation, the effect of Quranic teachings is no different than a lecture to a mad person, which is unlikely to achieve anything. Tasawwuf(Sufism) is the translation of Tazkiyah(Purification).
Those who are allergic to the word Tasawwuf might as well leave it – the word has not been revealed by Allah; yet nobody can ever deny the importance of Tazkiyah. If its significance is undermined, it would adversely reflect on Prophethood and the religion, and would practically render the whole system meaningless. How did the Prophets-AS purify their followers? Allahblesses every Prophet-AS with a strength and a light in his heart that can instantly illuminate the heart of anyone who decides to accept his invitation. The light is so strong that Prophet Musa-AS said to Pharaoh, “Do you want me to purify your heart, so that you can start seeing the path leading to your Lord? So that your heart may also establish a connection with Allah so that you will prefer His Pleasure over everything else and dread His Anger?” Which means that even a person like Pharaoh still retains the right to choose guidance for himself. Allah has given two basic rights to every human being, the first is the right to live – which means that nobody can kill a human being except by Allah‘s leave. If someone kills a person, for any reason or way other than the one permitted by Allah, it is … As if he killed the entire mankind (5:32). He shall be made to account for the murder of the whole of humanity. It is because the right to live has been granted to every soul by Allah and He Alone can take it back – we can’t deprive anyone of this right. The second human right is the freedom to accept religion. Allah Alone creates and provides for every soul, He blesses everyone with different qualities and gives them health or disease and whenever He desires, causes them to die. If He wanted to compel human beings to obey Him, could anybody ever stop Him? On the contrary, He chose to bless man with a unique capability of perceiving Him. The holy Quran mentions that Allah offered this sublime attribute to the earth, the heavens and the mountains, but they all expressed their inability and inadequacy to accept. However, man accepted the grand challenge, saying, ‘Give it to me. I shall observe Your Splendour and Greatness, and I shall try to gain Your Nearness.’
Every human being can thus perceive the Divine Being and His Attributes according to his own capacity. He can realise Divine Greatness vis-a-vis his own humbleness and decide to submit before his Lord and this independent decision grants him the ability to accept the truth. If he then finds the company of a Prophet-AS he becomes a Companion and within no time, can rise to the highest level of human greatness after Prophets. Companionship is not a mere adjective, it denotes that level of human excellence in belief, honesty, reliability, piety, Divine Nearness and Presence which a non-Companion can never achieve. In an instant, the most sublime human attributes are poured into his heart.
The earliest group to respond to the call of the holy Prophet-SAW in Makkah comprised of weak and poor people who had remained slaves for generations. They were the most down trodden class who could never dream of raising their heads in front of their masters. However, Islam infused great strength in them. It enabled them to perceive the Greatness of their Lord and they realised that they had no reason to fear their ‘so called’ masters who were also human beings like themselves. They also had to try to build the correct relationship with their Lord; if they had to face death, it didn’t really matter – it had to come anyway. This realisation made them so strong that all efforts by the Makkan chieftains miserably failed to break them.
Imagine the scene when Pharaoh called the magicians to compete with Prophet Musa-AS before a huge crowd wherein Allah blessed the magicians with the light of faith. We won’t divert from our subject to discuss the reason for this Divine Favour, because that is a complete topic in itself, but we will address only the relevant portion. The magicians received no opportunity to learn even the basic beliefs of their religion, they just cast their ropes which became snakes. Prophet Musa-AS also threw his staff which turned into a bigger serpent and swallowed all their snakes. Seeing this, they fell prostrate saying, ‘We believe in the Lord of Musa and Harun.’ That immensely annoyed Pharaoh, because just moments earlier, the same magicians were humbly requesting his favours as a reward for their victory in this grand competition and he had promised them seats of distinction and honour near his throne in his court. Previously they were reposing all their hopes in Pharaoh but as soon as they accepted Faith, the reflection from Prophet Musa’s heart to their hearts changed their priorities. When Pharaoh threatened them with dire consequences for their disloyalty saying, “I shall punish you severely and you will soon come to know who is more powerful. I shall cut your hands and feet on alternate sides and hang you on palm trunks.” they simply replied, “Do what you may. We don’t desire the power and wealth of this world but we want to please our Lord, Whom we have been disobeying so far.” No doubt it was the same Pharaoh with his might, awe and wealth for whom they were ready to sacrifice their lives only a short while ago, but now they were talking to him in a completely different tone. They said, “We can see what you can’t. Death is a reality which may come just now or after a while. Allah has given you the authority to kill us but our death will surely earn us Allah‘s good Pleasure and that is not a bad bargain – we are ready for it.” Those who had come for the reward of this life were now eager to embrace death. The rising sun had seen them bowing before Pharaoh but the setting sun found them slain in the way of Allah. The holy Quran has recorded their conversation with the Pharaoh. They told him, “We have to return to our Lord and account for all our deeds. It will be good that your swords cut our hands and feet which have been disobeying our Lord and you hang us by our necks, maybe that way we can attract His Mercy and earn His good Pleasure.” But who taught them about the Hereafter and the Final Accountability? It was the sublime reflection from the heart of Prophet Musa-AS which carried this knowledge to their hearts. They became the custodians of Prophetic knowledge and started talking about those facts which Prophet Musa-AS had not yet spoken. That is the difference between a Prophet and other experts. A Prophet does not only impart theoretical knowledge, he also saturates the hearts of believers with sublime feelings. The holy Quran calls these feelings as Tazkiyah and it has been translated as Tasawwuf.
People say Tasawwuf is not required, Tasawwuf may not be required but every Muslim certainly requires Tazkiyah which has been prescribed for him by the holy Quran. Now, what was the effect of Tazkiyah? It filled the purified heart with Allah‘s Zikr and His Lights forever and its every beat reverberated with His Name. The thought, speech and conduct of such a person reflected his realisation of Divine Greatness. His entire personality underwent a complete transformation. If you look at the lives of the earliest Muslims in Makkah, you will find that even though they were slaves or poor people, they were living quite peacefully before accepting Islam. But the three years of Shoab-i Abu Talib, following the acceptance of Islam, brought them intolerable hardships. They were compelled to live under the open sky in the scorching heat of the desert. They were driven to the extreme limits of thirst and hunger, where they had to eat the ashes of old and dry hides. They were the same people who could never dare to annoy the Makkan chieftains even for a moment but now they withstood their entire wrath patiently. They said, “We can endure every hardship but we can’t give up our relationship with Allah, for which we are being punished, in exchange for better food, drink or dress”. After all, there must be something that had changed the priorities of their lives.
That is the distinction of a Prophet that he pours these feelings into the hearts. The custodian of these feelings is known as a Companion. The holy Prophet-SAW transferred the whole religion to his Companions before his departure from this world. He-SAW didn’t teach them only theory, but he filled their hearts with these feelings and realisation. Similarly the Companions didn’t pass down only religious knowledge of the Book and Sunnah but they also transferred these feelings to those who visited them. Their hearts were also purified and they came to be known as the Taba’in. Anyone who couldn’t get the company of the Companions might have become a very good Muslim otherwise but he couldn’t become a Tab’i. He couldn’t remotely achieve the state that was produced in the presence of a Companion, he was like the one who couldn’t meet the holy Prophet-SAW. He may have become a good Muslim warrior, scholar or a pious person, but he couldn’t become a Companion – it is a reflective process of the hearts. Only that heart which came near, absorbed the reflection – others could not. The group of Tab’a Taba’in is similarly distinguished in the Ummah. Their qualification was that they had met the Taba’in and their hearts had also absorbed the excellence radiated by the hearts of the Taba’in. After their time, the religious knowledge was classified into various branches like Tafsir, Hadith, Fiqh and many people devoted their whole lives to learn each branch. You will however, observe that each one of them, without exception, whether a Mufassir, Muhaddith or Faqih, also acquired these inner feelings of the heart. Name any of them, Imam Abu Hanifah or Imam Ghazali-RUA(call them Sufis or not) they all were the custodians of these feelings – Tazkiyah has always remained a prerequisite. If you study the life of religious scholars, you shall find that after completing their religious education, all of them spent some time in the company of an accomplished Shaikh. The point to ponder is that if they had already acquired complete religious knowledge, why did they waste their time with a saint? In fact they didn’t waste their time, but tried to get the blessings radiated by him, which he had in turn acquired from his Shaikh, so that their knowledge could be transformed from abstract information into perceptible feelings or an inner state of the heart. There is certainly a lot of difference between knowledge, news or information. According to a Persian proverb, Knowledge which does not lead to truth, is actually ignorance.
We have some friends from the press here journalists who collect news about the whole world, and everyday they receive assorted news about numerous murders, robberies, marriages, deaths, changes in governments, political victories and the like. All of this is nothing more than news which they write only to sell their papers. They collect and convey this information as a matter of routine, it doesn’t affect them any way. They neither cry over any death nor rejoice about any marriage. Similarly, someone may learn all of the knowledge of this world but if it fails to affect his practical life or produce any feelings within him, that is not really knowledge but information. Knowledge is that information which produces specific feelings in the heart, may it be a small sentence. Sad news causes grief and happy news fills the heart with joy. Information about something good arouses the desire to acquire it, and the news of an impending danger produces the urge to protect oneself against it – that is real knowledge. The collection of information is not knowledge but it requires Tazkiyah to convert that information into knowledge. Some fortunate ones found Tazkiyah from the same teacher from whom they had gone to get knowledge. However, those who couldn’t find them both at one place, went to an accomplished Shaikh for Tazkiyah after completing their education, and the information that they had gained was then converted into real knowledge. During the present time when we have become extremely busy in the pursuit of our requirements, the importance of Tazkiyah has also multiplied manifold; only that person whose heart contains some Tazkiyah will remain on the right track. It is not correct to argue that Tazkiyah is an extra obligation; on the contrary, it is the base and the foundation. It has assumed an even greater importance today, because a human being won’t then forget himself and his Lord in this busy life, and will then acquire the strength to reform his conduct according to the Will of his Master. New ideologies, orders and revolutions of the world should fail to impress him and his heart should remain occupied by only those thoughts and feelings which please his Lord.
You can see that since the time our hearts are bereft of these feelings, nothing seems to affect us. We are neither reformed by Tabligh (preaching) nor Hajj, our prayers also fail to influence our practical life, we only discharge our religious obligations as a matter of routine. Isn’t it correct that when we go to the market, we expect a similar level of honesty from two shopkeepers, the Hajji as well as the thief? There should have been at least some difference between a person who has performed Hajj and offers Salah, and the one who gambles and never prays. However, our apprehensions about both of them are absolutely similar and we don’t feel confident to trust either one of them. Above all, why isn’t there any difference between the two? The reason is that neither one of them has passed through the process of Tazkiyah. Therefore, the hearts of both of them are possessed by the lust of this world. The first one was weak and mild, so he chose the safe and easy way to earn the world; while the second one being courageous, adopted the difficult course to the same goal. We praise the first and condemn the second, whereas in actual fact their aim had been similar, only the methods were different. Their hearts remained alien to the feelings which Allah, His Messenger-SAW, and Islam wanted to infuse, for that reason, their conduct remained identical in practical life. However, if you pass the same thief through the process of Tazkiyah, it would reform his heart, correct the priorities of his life and purify his intentions. He will remain a thief no more, but will become better than many pious people.
The earliest people who were transformed by Islam, were neither imported from abroad nor created from any different material, and as such, were given to the holy Prophet-SAW. They were the same people who belonged to the most notorious society of the world. But when Tazkiyah set in their hearts, they became the torch bearers of civilisation and spread the light of peace and justice to all corners of the globe. This grand edifice of excellence was erected on the strong foundation of Tazkiyah. If you discard the word Tasawwuf and adopt the actual word Tazkiyah, it would further enhance its importance and necessity. The fruit borne by Tazkiyah is described by the Quran as, ‘Their skins and hearts soften at Allah‘s remembrance’. It indicates that Allah‘s Name didn’t penetrate only their hearts but it suffused each cell of their bodies right from the outer most skins to the inner most self. That was the fruit of Tazkiyah. It is an established law of nature that the fruit of every tree is also its seed. In the case of the Companions, the seed of Prophetic blessings bore the fruit of continuous Zikr. Therefore, Allah ordained continuous Zikr for all Muslims, including the Companions, to acquire the fruit of Prophetic blessings. Each chapter and page of the holy Quran contains an explicit or implicit Divine Command to perform Allah‘s Zikr, and also highlights the disadvantages of eluding Zikr.
While discussing Zikr, the Quran addresses the whole of humanity and not men alone. Once some women submitted to the holy Prophet-SAW that the Quran addresses only men and not women. He-SAW replied that the Quran, being a book of guidance for the entirety of mankind, addresses humanity as a whole, therefore, men and women are both equal members of the human race. Allah liked their observation and the Quran included women in the detailed description of laudable human attributes. It began with, Men who surrender (to Allah) and women who surrender, and men who believe and women who believe, and men who obey and women who obey, and men who speak the truth and women who speak the truth, and men who persevere (in righteousness) and women who persevere, and men who are humble and women who are humble, and men who give alms and women who give alms, and men who fast and women who fast, and men who guard their modesty and women who guard (their modesty), and it climaxed at, Men who remember Allah much and women who remember, for them Allah has prepared forgiveness and immense reward (33: 35). The Quran recounted these praiseworthy qualities like prayers, fast, piety, honesty, trust and modesty as the root, trunk, leaves and flowers of a tree, and compared Allah‘s Zikr with its fruit, thereby implying that Allah‘s Zikr is the fruit of all worship. Here, the Quran has placed men and women as equal because both are human beings. Their duties and responsibilities may be different but as human beings both are equally important and answerable and their deeds will be judged under the same law, by the same Lord.
We forgot the basic concept of leadership given by Islam that the departing Amir or the public should appoint the most suitable and capable person to manage the affairs of the state. Islam had prescribed ability alone and neither colour nor creed as the pre-requisite of leadership. But once one of us seized power he ensured that it was passed down his line. This practice introduced all sorts of good and bad people who affected the system in their own way. We treated Tasawwuf in exactly the same way. When a real eminent Shaikh, who illuminated the hearts of a host of people with his enlightened heart died, we didn’t bother to appoint his best student to succeed him, but brought his son to succeed the father in spite of the fact that the son never cared to even greet his father and acquired nothing worthwhile from him. Such successors who didn’t possess anything real, had to portray something, so they concocted baseless rituals and customs. They introduced music, songs, feast and the like. Truth was relegated to the background and rituals and ceremonies dominated the scenario. Such rituals certainly caused damage and the knowledgeable scholars rightly criticised them. This criticism spread so far and wide that now Tasawwuf appears to us to be the root cause of all evil. Actually, our actions which cast evil effects are diametrically opposite to the teachings of Tasawwuf and Tazkiyah, but we hold Tasawwuf responsible for all our problems and advocate its discard. On the contrary, Tasawwuf offers the fundamental protection against this nonsense. It is the real attribute of a Muslim which makes him a better human being. A Muslim is not a recluse, but an outstanding member of his society who maintains an excellent relationship with Allah and His creation, while a Wali is an outstanding Muslim who has an even better relationship with Allah and His creation.
Tasawwuf was our basic necessity. It was the guarantee for our survival and the nectar of our life, without which we can never exist as good Muslims or good human beings. It has assumed an even greater significance in the commotion of the present time. You can try it yourself. If you start performing Zikr, you will certainly feel the difference. Those of your friends, who may have been offering Salah since a long time, would also discern the difference of feelings in their prayers after performing Zikr. The criterion for the delinquents like me is that, if I start committing nine sins daily instead of ten, I have started improving. My journey towards the good has begun and I can see a ray of hope at the far end of the tunnel. For a healthy person, a temperature of 102 degrees will signify high grade fever but for a patient who has been running 104 degrees for years, it will indicate a sure sign of recovery. Everyone doesn’t transform into an angel overnight, a human being shall always remain a human being, ever prone to error. The process of Tazkiyah will however, revive within him the realisation of his relationship with his Creator and would inspire him from within to strive for His Pleasure. Previously, we unwillingly forced ourselves to offer Salah, but now we will feel an urge to pray because that is our requirement. We may not have been telling the truth in the past but now it will become our natural habit. We may have been dodging work and wasting our time, unwatched at the office, but the light of Tazkiyah revives the sense of responsibility and bestows the realisation that The Omnipresent, before Whom I am answerable, is always watching me. This realisation redirects life on the path of goodness. I think Tazkiyah is our essential requirement, without which a Muslim can’t really survive. In the absence of Tazkiyah, we can’t fully absorb and adopt the grace and excellence that Islam bestows on us. Although our names are still like Deen Muhammad, but we have seen that, without Tazkiyah, the essence of the Deen of Muhammad-SAW has disappeared from our lives. Tazkiyah is our requirement which has become even more important for us today. May Allah grant us this realisation, faculty and blessing!
Ameer Muhammad Akram Awan (RH)