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Spirituality

Tasawwuf in Traditional Islam-Part 7
By Nuh Ha Mim Keller


We tend to rely on ourselves and our plans, in obliviousness to the fact that Allah alone brings about effects.


Strengthening Iman through dhikr is of methodological importance for Tasawwuf. We have not only been commanded as Muslims to believe in certain things, but have been commanded to have absolute certainty in them. The world we see around us is composed of veils of light and darkness: events come that knock the Iman out of some of us, and Allah tests each of us as to the degree of certainty with which we believe the eternal truths of the religion. It was in this sense that ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab said, “If the Iman of Abu Bakr were weighed against the Iman of the entire Ummah, it would outweigh it.” Now, in traditional Aqida one of the most important tenets is the wahdaniyya or ‘oneness and uniqueness’ of Allah Most High. This means He is without any sharik or associate in His being, in His attributes, or in His acts. But the ability to hold this insight in mind in the rough and tumble of daily life is a function of the strength of certainty (yaqin) in one’s heart. Allah tells the Prophet (Pbuh) in Surah al-A‘raf of the Quran,  “Say: I do not possess benefit for myself or harm, except as Allah wills” (Quran 7:188), yet we tend to rely on ourselves and our plans, in obliviousness to the facts of Aqida that ourselves and our plans have no effect, that Allah alone brings about effects.


If you want to test yourself on this, the next time you contact someone with good connections whose help is critical to you, take a look at your heart at the moment you ask him to put in a good word for you with someone, and see whom you are relying upon. If you are like most of us, Allah is not at the forefront of your thoughts, despite the fact that He alone is controlling the outcome. Isn’t this a lapse in your ‘Aqida, or, at the very least, in your certainty? 


Tasawwuf corrects such shortcomings by step-by-step increasing the Muslim’s certainty in Allah. The two central means of Tasawwuf in attaining the conviction demanded by ‘Aqida are mudhakara, or learning the traditional tenets of Islamic faith, and dhikr, deepening one’s certainty in them by remembering of Allah. It is part of our faith that, in the words of the Quran in Surah al-Saffat, 


“Allah has created you and what you do” (Quran 37:96). Yet for how many of us is this day to day experience? Because Tasawwuf remedies this and other shortcomings of Iman, by increasing the Muslim’s certainty through a systematic way of teaching and dhikr. It has traditionally been regarded as personally obligatory to this pillar of the religion also, and from the earliest centuries of Islam, has proved its worth. 


What about the bad Sufis we read about, who contravene the teachings of Islam? 

The answer is that there are two meanings of Sufi: the first is “Anyone who considers himself a Sufi,” which is the rule of thumb of orientalist historians of Sufism and popular writers, who would oppose the “Sufis” to the “Ulema.” I think the Qur’anic verses and hadiths we have mentioned about the scope and method of true Tasawwuf show why we must insist on the primacy of the definition of a Sufi as “a man of religious learning who applied what he knew, so Allah bequeathed him knowledge of what he did not know.” 


The very first thing a Sufi, as a man of religious learning knows is that the Shari‘ah and Aqida of Islam are above every human being. Whoever does not know this will never be a Sufi, except in the orientalist sense of the word—like someone standing in front of the stock exchange in an expensive suit with a briefcase to convince people he is a stockbroker. A real stockbroker is something else.

(To be continued)