Every now and then one hears or reads about scathing attacks against the Awliya’ of Allah (ﷻ). In many cases, as in a recent case on one of the radio stations, there is very little understanding of the sources and the nature of what Awliya’ say. It is for this reason that over the centuries some of our greatest scholars, such as Imams Ghazali, Ibn Arabi and Rumi, for example, have been declared outside the pale of Islam. Their writings were misunderstood. In fact those who criticize them have almost no understanding of what we call internal knowledge.
We always have to go to the Qur’an to solve our problems. When Nabi Musa (a.s.), the representative of the Divine Law at the time, met Sayyiduna Khidr (r.a.), one who had received knowledge from his Lord’s Presence; it was a meeting of the exponents of external knowledge (Nabi Musa (a.s.)) and internal knowledge (Sayyiduna Khidr (r.a.)). One of the incidents that occurred during their travels together was the killing of a young boy by Sayyiduna Khidr (r.a.). Nabi Musa (a.s.) was appalled by this act because by Jewish law, Sayyiduna Khidr (r.a.) should have been heavily punished for murder. It was explained to Nabi Musa (a.s.) that Sayyiduna Khidr’s (r.a.) internal knowledge, from the Presence of his Lord, had made him understand the following:
وَ أَمَّا الْغُلاَمُ فَكَانَ أَبَوَاهُ مُؤمِنَيْنِ فَخَشِيْنَا أَنْ يُرْهِقَهُمَا طُغْيَانًا وَ كُفْرًا
فَأَرَدْنَا أَنْ يُبْدِلُهُمَا رَبُّهُمَا خَيْرًا مِّنْهُ زَكَوةُ وَ أَقْرَبَ رُحْمًا
As for the youth, his parents were people of faith, and We feared that he would grieve them by obstinate rebellion and ingratitude. So they desired that their Lord would give them in exchange one better in purity and closer in affection (xviii: 80-81).
[So Allah (ﷻ) blessed the parents with a pious daughter, who was married to a Prophet and in whose progeny there were seventy Prophets].
From this account in Surah Kahf, we come to learn to be very careful of what the Awliya’ say and do. We know that any disrespect to them, in any way, makes Allah’s (ﷻ) war upon such people permissible, according to the Holy Tradition on the matter. We know this. We should also take cognisance of how Allah (ﷻ) grants people different levels of understanding of the Divine Law and its day-to-day application in our lives. Nabi Musa (a.s.) was not aware of Allah’s (ﷻ) future Decree with regard to the parents of this young man. Sayyiduna Khidr (r.a.), as a recipient of knowledge from Allah’s (ﷻ) Presence, was, however, aware.
Today, when people read accounts of what Mawlana Shaykh Nazim says, they throw up their hands in disgust and rejection; little understanding that his words may have special interpretations since they may have come from heavenly sources. He says this about himself. He says that what he talks about, comes from heavenly sources. We, with only a limited understanding of religious discourse, read the superficial meaning of the words of the Qur’an and of the Prophetic Traditions. And we reject what we do not understand. In a small way our reaction to his words is very similar to the reaction of Nabi Musa (a.s.) to the actions and words of Sayyiduna Khidr (r.a.). The one of external knowledge was the Messenger (a.s.) and the other one of internal knowledge was the Wali. I am not placing any special status or station on either of the two of them, because I do not understand their stations. What I do understand is what Allah (ﷻ) says in the Qur’an; and that is, that He had granted Sayyiduna Khidr (r.a.) special knowledge from His Presence. Sayyiduna Abu Hurayra (r.a.) also once remarked that the Messenger of Allah (ﷺ) had given him two special kinds of knowledge, the one kind if he should have spoken about it, he would have been killed. I do not know, but I assume, that he was referring to a very special kind of knowledge that he received from the Messenger of Allah (ﷺ).
All of this means that we have to be careful. Some of the scholars of Islam have made decisions on the matter; fully aware of the special status that the Awliya’ have by their Lord. Two of such scholars were Imams Suyuti and Nawawi.
Imam Suyuti, [1445-1505], in his work Tanbih al-Ghabi (pp. 59-60) says that what is transmitted and attributed to the sufi shaykhs, may Allah (ﷻ) be well pleased with them, if it contradicts external knowledge, have various possibilities:
- We must check that the matter is authentic.
- If it is authentic it may have figurative meanings (i.e. the use of figures of speech such as metaphors). If one is not sure then one should rather say: “Perhaps it has a figurative meaning for the people of internal knowledge and the knowers of Allah (ﷻ)”.
- They might have said so in a state of spiritual intoxication and distraction. In this case, they are not responsible for what they said or did.
Imam Suyuti warns us not to have a bad opinion of such shaykhs.
Another great Islamic scholar was Imam Nawawi, [1234-1278]. In his book, Bustan al-‘Arifin, he says: “Someone who imitates jurists without understanding may imagine wrong and object to this, (the statements of sufi shaykhs), out of ignorance and stupidity. To imagine wrong is plain recklessness in giving vent to suspicions against the Friends of the All Merciful. The wise person must be aware of such behaviour. On the contrary, if one did not understand . . . , it is his duty to understand them from one who does. You may witness such happenings about which the superficial person gets the illusion of deviation, but which are actually not deviant. On the contrary, it is obligatory to interpret figuratively the actions of the Friends of Allah (ﷻ).”
The only people who understand Tasawwuf, are the masters of Tasawwuf in the different Tariqahs. In my very limited understanding and experiences of certain spiritual expressions by Awliya’, I have come across the fact that some of them, especially during times of intensive ibadat, go into states of sobriety or of intoxication. In the former case, they are always in a state of awareness of what they say and do. In the state of intoxication, they not always aware because of the overwhelming presence of spirituality on their hearts, and they say or do things which appear to be outside the law. We must understand this. Those of us, who are always in states of sobriety, never experience this. Others, who float between sobriety and intoxication, sometimes experience this.
A good example of intoxication is when a poet at a very high level of sensitivity, writes lines of poetry, or a composer at a very high level of sensitivity, composes bars of music, that they would not ordinarily have done in states of sobriety. Their intoxication is at different levels. The Awliya’s intoxication has to do with an overwhelming spiritual experience that makes their tongues utter things that may appear to be contrary to the Law. We must be careful. We must not pass judgement on that which we do not understand. We do not understand, for example, how a person can compose a bar of music “out of the blue”; so how can we understand the spiritual states of the hearts of those close to their Lord? The hearts of the Awliya’ are not like our hearts. They are always in a state of remembrance. They always vibrate with such remembrance. And in special cases, these vibrations send messages to the mind which come out on the tongue in the strangest of forms. We do not understand the nature of the hearts that are under the command of their Lord, so how can we pass judgement when our levels of understanding are so superficial? I have always said, and let me repeat, one of the reasons that the followers of Nabi Isa (a.s.) could not understand him was because of the intense spirituality of his heart. This was so intense that we, as Muslims, refer to him as the “Spirit of Allah (ﷻ)”. When he spoke of his Father, he was referring to the spiritual station that his Lord had granted him. In one of his (ﷺ) traditions, the Messenger of Allah (ﷺ) refers to purification as being half of faith. People of external knowledge have interpreted this to mean that wudu, tayammum and ghusl, are half of faith. How can that be? People of internal knowledge have interpreted this to mean that the purification of the soul, through a variety of intensive forms of worship, is half of faith.
We must leave the utterances and affairs of the Awliya’ alone. They are people engaged in a remembrance so intense, that Imam Rumi says if one wants to be near one’s Lord, one must be near to His Friends. Over the centuries, the carriers of the Law have not understood the nature of the hearts of remembrance of the Awliya’. They have not understood this. So today, they do not understand the extent of the engagement of the hearts of the very pious with their Lord. It is for this reason that when we talk about our proximity to our Creator, we have to look at the proximity of the Awliya’ to their Lord through their intensive remembrance of Him; of the understanding of the importance of their Lord to them; and of their functioning in their Lord’s Presence. None of the critics understand; not remembrance, not proximity and not Presence. These stations are of the stations of the special servants of Allah (ﷻ). They are not our stations and it appears that they are not going to be our stations. It tires one when one has to listen, on a regular basis, to statements on the Awliya’, which tell us that the authors of these statements do not know and do not understand. We ask our Lord for guidance for such persons, and for us, amin.