Recently  I read an article about Shaykh Adil Jum’ah, the Grand Mufti of Egypt. If one is a Grand Mufti, it means that one is in charge of the issuing of all religious decisions and that all such decisions have to go through him. This means in fact that Shaykh Adil is most probably one of the most learned scholars in Egypt or one of its top scholars. During an interview with him, he said: “Sufism is Islam and Islam is Sufism.” Now if a thing like that comes from a person of his calibre, then one has to take that statement very, very seriously because he does not talk from the top of his head. He is an extremely learned scholar, probably one of the best in the world today, and he will not just make a statement like that. What was he in fact talking about?
I have on numerous occasions spoken to you on aspects of this understanding of Islam but I want to go into further detail today. What do we mean when we talk about tasawwuf? A little over 100 years after the Hijrah there developed in Islam a group of individuals called Sufis. It appears that the term “sufi” was first used for a very pious person called Abu Hashim of Kufa. Scholars have differed as to the origin of the word sufi. Some of the origins suggested are: that it is derived from suffa or bench, the benches occupied by Companions (r.a.), called the ashabus-suffa, outside the mosque of Medinah; that it comes from the word safa, which means purity; or that it comes from the word suf or wool since many of the early Sufis wore woollen clothes. Whatever the case might be, the word came in general use later in Islam. Some of the opponents of Sufism argue that the word sufi was not in use during the time of Nabi Muhammad (ﷺ). But in the same way there were no terms such as Shafi’is, Malikis or Hanafis during his (ﷺ) time.
Of course, the question that arises is: What exactly is Sufism? Like with many such terms there are a large number of definitions available. The most common definition is that the term means
(tazkiyyatun nafs: the purification of the ego). My own understanding is that it is a process of intensive ibadat for spiritual purification, based strictly on the Divine Law, that one puts oneself through, under an authorized shaykh, in order to gain servanthood from Allah Almighty. I base this definition on the practices Mawlana Shaykh Nazim is putting us through, and what he has asked us to strive for. One other definition that I have come across and which I think I should mention is that Sufism is the strict observance of the Divine Law.
This understanding of Islam in which its teachings are used for spiritual purification was already there during the time of Nabi Muhammad (ﷺ), and even before him during the time of the other Messengers (a.s.). There are a large number of verses in the Qur’an dealing with processes of such purification (for example):
وَ لكِنَّ اللهَ يُزَكِّى مَنْ يَّشَاءُ
… but Allah doth purify whom He pleases (xxiv: 21)
قَدْ أَفْلَحَ مَنْ تَزَكّٰى
Those will prosper who purify themselves (lxxxvii: 14).
كَمَا أَرْسَلْنَا فِيْكُمْ رَسُوْلاً مِّنْكُمْ يَتْلُوا عَلَيْكُمْ ءَايَاتِنَا وَ يُزَكِّيْكُمْ …
Similarly we have sent among you an Apostle of your own, rehearsing to you Our signs and purifying you … (ii: 151).
This process requires the interaction of a number of matters. These include, amongst others, calling on Allah every day for help and support, placing oneself under an authorized shaykh, strict adherence to the Prophetic Practice, and focusing on ones negative characteristics and converting them to what is positive by intensive ibadat and the determination to change. Through this process one strives hard to have good manners, have a good disposition, be generous, live in peace with others, deal justly with others, honour other human beings, and control one’s passions. There are also other good characteristics that one can develop. And so one becomes a Muslim having the most excellent form of human behaviour based on the model of Nabi Muhammad (ﷺ). This whole process develops in one “a constant reaching out to Allah Almighty” and a deep desire for Divine Satisfaction. Most of the time, or some of the time, the words: “O my Lord, I desire to be for Thee. My face is in the dust for Thy sake” are in one’s heart. One calls to Allah that one’s heart should be purified from other than Him. This comes on the path of tasawwuf.
Other than this, let me give give you just three examples of how purification operates in Islam, how Islam has provided us with means to obtain such purification. Many of you have been through the ibadah of the haj. Those who have not been, desire to go. What did Nabi Muhammad (ﷺ) say about the haj? It is reported by Abu Hurayrah (r.a.) that Nabi Muhammad (ﷺ) said: “Whoever performs haj for Allah’s pleasure and does not have sexual relations with his wife, and does not do evil or sins then he will return as if he had been born anew.” He said that if Allah accepts our haj then we will be like the day our mothers gave birth to us. We all know this. What happened? The haj is a major process of purification. By the time we come to the end of all the rites and ceremonies of the haj, and our performance has been one of excellence, Allah erases from our books all bad things. Our books by him are cleansed. The performance of these rites and ceremonies has not only brought major spiritual purification in us but the Divine response to our effort is the erasing of all past recorded sins. This is
(tazkiyatun nafs). Another example of this is found in the following verse:
خُذْ مِنْ أَمْوَالِهِمْ صَدَقَةً تُطَهِّرُهُمْ وَ تُزَكِّيْهِمْ بِهَا وَ صَلِّ عَلَيْهِمْ
Take zakah from their goods, so that you may purify and sanctify them, and pray on their behalf (ix: 103).
In this verse we are taught that the giving of zakah purifies one and makes one more holy. This means that giving zakah from one’s wealth does not only purify the wealth for use but also brings about major spiritual transformation or progress in one. A person becomes more pure and more holy by giving away of his wealth in terms of the instruction of the Divine Law. This means that the paying of zakah is a form of
A further example of
(tazkiyatun nafs) is with regard to the salah. Abu Hurayrah (r.a.) reported he heard Nabi Muhammad (ﷺ) say: “If there was a river at the door of anyone of you and you took a bath in it five times a day, would there be any dirt on you?” (the Companions) replied: “Not a trace of dirt would be left.” Nabi Muhammad (ﷺ) added: “This is the example of the five salahs with which Allah blots out evil deeds.” And so haj, salah and zakah are three major processes of purification of oneself and the blotting out of past sins. This means that taskiyatun nafs is very well known in Islam. The people of tassawwuf say, the Sufis say, that one must engage in tazkiyatun nafs as much as possible in order to go through a constant process of spiritual purification for the attainment of a state in which one becomes aware that Allah’s Presence dominates one’s existence. And so one becomes primarily for Him. Is there anything more satisfying than this?
That is part of the story. Let me come to the other part. Allah Almighty had sent certain messages to mankind using Messengers for this purpose. Let us talk about Nabi Muhammad (ﷺ) because we understand that better. Allah sent His message, the Qur’an, to us. These Holy Words, these Sacred Words, were first inscribed on the Preserved Tablet, a special tablet in the heavens. Jibril (a.s.) was given the instruction by Allah to take His Words from the Tablet to His beloved Prophet (ﷺ) a little bit at a time. And so Jibril (a.s.) brought the Words of Allah and put them into the heart of Nabi Muhammad (ﷺ). This, of course, was the Qur’an. In addition to this, many other things were also brought to Nabi Muhammad (ﷺ). It is obvious that he (ﷺ) would never have spoken matters out of his own. Every thing that he brought was what Allah wanted and sent. Other than the Qur’an, Nabi Muhammad (ﷺ) gave us a massive collection of statements on our religious affairs. These statements have come down to us as Ahadith. Certain of his traditions we call Holy Traditions. Allah speaks in these Traditions but these Words are not part of the Qur’an.
There is one Holy Tradition that I have mentioned so many times because it is so important for one’s spiritual growth and for one’s understanding of Islam. I am sure that I shall mention it many more times because it gives us hope for the Hereafter,
إِنْ شَاءَ اللهُ
(insha Allah: if Allah so wishes). I have explained it before but I want to explain it again. In this tradition Allah says to Nabi Muhammad (ﷺ): “I am as My servant thinks Me to be”. What do these words mean and why are they so important? Allah says that the way His servant thinks of Him, that way He shall be for that servant. If His servant thinks of Him as All-Forgiving and All-Merciful, then that is how He shall be for him. This is very important for us to understand. If His servant, for example, thinks that He is wrathful then He shall be wrathful for him. If His servant thinks that He grants tawbah (repentance), then that is how He shall be for that servant. We must think of Allah like that. I hang on to that hadith. Yes, I hang on to it. This is because I think of my Lord as Most Merciful, as Most Forgiving, giving Repentance, as Most Compassionate. I want to think of Allah like that because if I think of Him like that, He will be like that for me. And so I always think of Allah: “My Lord, my Rabb is Most Merciful, my Rabb is Most Forgiving, my Rabb is Most Compassionate.” This is how I desire Him to be for me and this is what I desire when I come in the Hereafter one day. I want His Compassion, His Mercy and His Forgiveness.” This way one comes to understand on the path of tasawwuf.
There is another aspect of tasawwuf I want to talk about. If one looks at the world today, if we look at the practice of Muslims today, one of the questions we have to ask ourselves is: What is happening to our Islam? Why is it that things are going so badly with our Islam, with the Muslims? Surely we have the best religion, we have the best Book, we have the cream of the Messengers, the Seal of the Prophets (ﷺ), we have phenomenal religious figures, like Imam Shafi and Imam Abu Hanifa and others who came to explain our religion to us. We have all of these! Why is it that we are messing up things like that? Why is it that Muslims are in a major mess in the world today? What is happening? Let me first explain something else. Allah has sent us the Shari’ah or the Divine Law. This covers all our relationships: religious, social, personal, economic and international. This is the common definition of the Shari’ah. However, I have come across a very interesting definition of Shari’ah, and that is that it is everything that Allah has revealed to humanity. Part of this, of course, is our relationship with Allah, which forms the basis of all our other relationships. The Shari’ah provides us with the path we have to travel on. We sometimes call this path the
(the siratul mustaqim: the straight path). This path is a very wide path. Allah gives us a lot of room for the things we wish to do. On this broad path, there is a very narrow road called tariqah. On that very narrow road, those that walk there try to obey every single rule and regulation in Islam. They are especially careful with the obedience of the Sunnah. This strict adherence of the Sunnah is part of their strict adherence to all forms of the Prophetic Practice. They ask: “How did Nabi Muhammad (ﷺ) do it? That is the way we want to try to do it.” This is the essence of tasawwuf.
Allah mentions in the Qur’an:
قُلْ أَطِيْعُوا اللهَ وَ الرَّسُوْلَ
Say: “Obey Allah and the Messenger” (iii: 32).
This verse tells us that we must not only do what Allah tells us but we must also do what Nabi Muhammad (ﷺ) tells us. In another verse Allah mentions the use of Nabi Muhammad (ﷺ) as the best model for our own religious behaviour, but a large section of the Muslim population is predicted to be excluded from this. Allah says:
لَقَدْ كَانَ لَكُم فِى رَسُوْلِ اللهِ أُسْوَةٌ حَسَنَةٌ لِمَنْ كَانَ يَرْجُوا اللهَ وَ الْيَوْمَ الآخِرَ وَ ذَكَرَ اللهَ كَثِيْرًا
We have indeed in the Apostle of Allah a beautiful pattern for those whose hope is in Allah and the Last Day, and who celebrates the praises of Allah much (xxxiii: 21).
In this verse we are told that in the Messenger of Allah (ﷺ) we have the best model to copy. However, the verse limits those who will follow his example. Only those who have hope in Allah and the Last day and remember Allah much will follow his (ﷺ) example. Let me repeat this Qur’anic verse to you. What does it say to us? Allah tells us: “I have sent My Messenger to you, the best of creation, the most beloved by Me, the Seal of the Prophets, I have sent to you, and only certain people will obey Him.” This verse is in fact a prediction. Only certain people are going to obey him (ﷺ). Only certain people are going to use him (ﷺ) as a model. This verse cannot be interpreted in any other way. It’s a prediction of what was going to happen in the future. Allah says that there is only one category of people who will listen to His Messenger (ﷺ), who will take him as a model, and that is those who have hope in Allah and the Last Day. It is those who say: “O My Lord, my hope is with Thee. I depend on Thee. Thou art Creator. I depend on Thee. I take Thee as my Guardian. Thou provideth. All my hope I have in Thee on the Last Day.” These are the people who spend large parts of their time celebrating His praises. Now we can start adding and subtracting. We can start asking ourselves: Are we like that? You must ask and I must also ask! Are we like that? Is our hope in our Creator? Do we place our affairs in His hands? Do we say: “O Allah, Thou art sufficient for us.” Do we place ourselves under His care? Do we do that? Does it mean anything to us? And the Last Day, when we stand in His Presence, will we be hopeful that He will place us in Paradise? Or is it that when we need things, we don’t think of Allah but we place our hope in people. Am we like that?
Allah says that if we place our hopes in any other than Him, we will not use Nabi Muhammad (ﷺ) as a model. We will not be able to do that. If we are not persons who sit down, remembering Him at all times by making dhikr we will not use His Messenger (ﷺ) as a model. There’s no other explanation for this verse. This verse is a major prediction of what was going to happen to the Muslims, otherwise Allah would not have used the words li man (for those). What about the others? If one says “for those”, one is excluding the others. This is a major prediction of how Muslims were going to neglect the Prophetic Practice. Today we ignore the model that Nabi Muhammad (ﷺ) has set. Of much of his practice, we say that it is “only sunnah” and it need therefore not be done. And so, Tahajjud? Not to worry, it’s only sunnah. And Duha? It is only sunnah. I will not be punished. And Awwabin? It is only sunnah. And so we can go on and on. And we say that with regard to many of those things that Nabi Muhammad (ﷺ) gave to his Companions (r.a.): “Don’t worry, they are only sunnah.” I’m going to repeat this to you. Many of those things that Nabi Muhammad (ﷺ) gave to his Companions (r.a.) and which helped to make them spiritual giants, we ignore. This is a major neglect of Islam. Allah does not say that He has given Nabi Muhammad (ﷺ) to us to be followed partly. He said: “Follow him! Do what he does!” That’s why the salih people have become as they are because of their obedience to all of the Prophetic Practice. This is tasawwuf, the obedience of the Prophetic Practice as closely as possible (under the guidance of an authorized spiritual master).
If we accept that Nabi Muhammad (ﷺ) is a model, and we are supposed to accept that, then we must say: “O Allah, everything that Thy Messenger (ﷺ) did, I will try my very best to do.” The mistake today by all of us, throughout the world, is that we push aside certain parts of the Prophetic Practice because these practices are classified in certain ways in the field of jurisprudence. My word, the Prophet (ﷺ) himself did these things without fail. And he is the most pious of the pious. This neglect of sections of the Prophetic Practice is one of the major causes of the spiritual decline of Muslims, and for the fact that pious people are found so few and far between. The people of tasawwuf are correct. The path that they are walking is the most correct path in Islam because on this path the totality of the Prophetic Practice is respected, and also because this path is producing the pious people amongst the Muslims.
We ask for repentance through the blessings of Suratul Fatihah …
And Allah knows best, and I ask forgiveness for any mistakes or distortions in what I have said, Amin.
Selected Talks by Yusuf da Costa [Published 2008]