Monday, June 8, 2009
Lately, I’ve been receiving many questions about Sufism: “What is Sufism?” “Is it Islam?” “What does it teach?” I think there are many misconceptions about Islam’s spiritual dimension, especially from Orthodox Muslims. I decided to share some of my knowledge about Sufism in order to help clarify what it’s really all about. I hope you all find it helpful.
I think the best way to understand Sufism is to know that it is not different or separate from Islam. Sufism is Islamic mysticism (or spirituality). And mysticism is essentially one’s journey for Self, Love, and God. It’s a journey that emphasizes more on the inner struggle and dimensions of a human being, but since we’re not secluded monks, we have to also establish a bond with the outside world, i.e. our purpose. The Qur’an says [28:77] : “Seek — among that which God has bestowed upon you — the Hereafter. But do not forget your portion of this world either.” To me this refers to the balance that we must establish in the inner and outer worlds. If I am too spiritual, then I will miss out on my purpose. If I am too secular, then I will truly be dead. I will have no knowledge about who I am, who I Love, and where I am going.
This is a little something I wrote about Sufism on a discussion board one time: “Sufism” is merely a word if treated like a word. Just like “Islam” is simply a word if treated like one. The meaning is what’s important. Islam is submission, i.e. to the One and Only Eternal God of the Universe. Whatever you may call it, spirituality did not begin at a certain time or place, it has always been Present, even before the creation of the Universe. The Law of Submission exists in all created things, it exists in the Universe, in the air we breathe, in our cells, in everything we touch, feel, and hear. It doesn’t matter what you call it because that Divine Beauty is always Present because its Source is Eternal.
Here is another thing I wrote about it when I was speaking to someone who was asking if Sufism and Islam are different:
Sufism is the heart of Islam, just because something didn’t have a label or name in the past doesn’t mean it never existed. The spiritual teachings of the Sufis always existed, including and especially during Muhammad’s revelations, peace and blessings be upon him.
The way of the Sufi is the way of the Muslim (submitter) – to tear down the walls of separation, to discover one’s Self, to unveil the Secrets of the Universe, and to fuse in union with God. You cannot separate the Qur’an or the Prophet Muhammad from Sufism in the same way you cannot separate Sufism from Islam. “There are many numbers, but only One is counted” says Shabistari, a 13th century Sufi poet.The Sufis interpret the Qur’an in a unique way. For example, the Sufis would look deeper into certain verses like the following:
[15:28] Your Lord said to the angels, “I am creating a human being from aged mud, like the potter’s clay.
[15:29] “Once I perfect him, and blow into him from My spirit, you shall fall prostrate before him.”
[15:30] The angels fell prostrate; all of them.
From these verses, the Sufis would emphasize on how Allah’s spirit is within us all and that the Angels admire us because of this innate Gift. If one observes Persian paintings (which are heavily influenced by Sufism), one will see depictions of Angels always smiling and adoring human beings. It comes back to these verses. So the fact that Allah’s spirit is within us, we human beings can all make contact with this inner Divinity — not saying that we are God, but just that we are morethan flesh and bone. A lot of us have forgotten about this spirit, we live life without God-consciousness and awareness, and many times, it’s not our fault. We just get caught up in so many things in the world.
The profound works of the 13th Century Persian Muslim poet, Jalaluddin Rumi, are so beautiful and Divinely-inspired that he is often synonymous with the word, “Sufism.” However, it’s not like he started his “own religion.” The Sufis expressed themselves through poetry and they wrote about how Muslims needed to bring Islam back to its True and Spiritual roots. Here are some beautiful verses from Rumi:
The thousand spears of Pharaoh, Moses knew,
With just one rod how to split them in two;
Medical sciences once Galen taught
But next to Jesus’s breath they’re worth naught;
The finest poetry was put to shame
The day illiterate Muhammad came
This next one is especially important since it shows that Sufism is not separate from Islam:
I am the servant of the Qur’an as long as I have life.
I am the dust on the path of Muhammad, the Chosen one.
If anyone quotes anything except this from my sayings,
I am quit of him and outraged by these words.
Another interesting aspect about Sufism is that learning is not just about reading books or memorizing verses. Learning is also about experiencing — in fact, a lot of emphasis is based on one experiencing the Beauty from Allah’s Divine Love. As exemplified here in a Punjabi poem by the great 17th-18th century Sufi poet, Bulleh Shah:
paRh paRh ilm hazaar kitaabaN
qaddi apnay aap nou paRhiya naee
jaaN jaaN waRhday mandir maseedi
qaddi mann apnay wich waRhiya naee
aa-vaiN laRda aye shaitan de naal bandeaa
qaddi nafss apnay naal laRiya naee
Yes, yes, you have read thousands of books
But you have never tried to read your own self
You rush in, into your Temples,
Into your Mosques,
But you have never tried to enter your own heart
Futile are all your battles with Satan
For you have never tried to fight your own desires
~ Bulleh Shah
There is a movement art in Sufism that is quite famous: The Whirling Dervishes (as you can see depicted in the Persian painting above). Many strict Muslims misunderstand whirling meditation, and they find it to be blasphemous since there is singing and dancing involved. However, as I mentioned, the whirling meditation is a movement art, and it is in no way meant to replace prayer. It is a form of zikr(or dhikr) which, in Arabic, means “remembrance/mindfulness of God.” The Sufis emphasize heavily on being mindful of God at all times, so that one journeys through life with a clear and less-conflicted mind. No one is expected to learn how to whirl because it is not compulsory. It is something that must be acted upon, something that must be a choice, and something that a person needs to feel. In South Asia (India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, etc.), there is a popular Sufi music tradition called Qawwalis, which are best described as Love and Devotion Songs. But these Love songs are not sung in praise of romantic relationships; they are sung in praise of God, the Prophets (mainly Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him), Imams (like ‘Ali, peace be upon him), and Sufi mystics (any song about romantic relationships will always incorporate God). The songs are traditionally sung live with acoustic-only instruments (tabla, guitars, harmonium, sitars, flutes, etc.) and they are mainly driven by ecstatic and passionate wailing, which symbolizes the human longing to be reunited with the Divine. From mystical poetry and music to dancing, the Sufis find these forms of art as a way to absorb themselves in God’s Love. It is also a way to empty one’s self of longings and desires, so that one becomes free of the ego and empty. God fills the void with His Beauties.
In conclusion, it’s important to understand that Sufism is not different than Islam, but rather the inward dimension of Islam. The Qur’an, of course, is the basis for everything, but there are deeper meanings and secrets that are embedded in the Message. Since we are not Prophets, we cannot communicate directly with Allah, however we can follow the Prophetic Light. There is always going to be more to learn in Life — that is one of Life’s Hidden Joys. The most unhearing people are those who think they know everything.
As Muhammad, peace be upon him, once said, “He who knows himself knows his Lord.” The more we learn about ourselves, the closer we are to God. The further away we are from who we truly are, the further we are from God. This journey is not just one of learning, but of experiencing; to feel Divine Love with your mind, body, and soul — your Entire Being. It is a journey of self-discovery, and self-discovery ultimately leads to a state of Oneness, Peace, and Ever-Lasting Love. May we all acheive that with the help and guidance of our All-Loving Creator. Ameen.
Source: ~ Broken Mystic ~
Tasawwuf aims, by purifying man’s heart and employing his senses and faculties in the way of God, to live a life at the spiritual level. Tasawwuf also enables man, through constant performance of the acts of worshipping God, to deepen his consciousness of being a servant of God. It enables him to renounce the world with respect to its transient dimension and the face of it that is turned to human desires and fancies, and awakens him to the other world and to the face of this world that is turned toward the Divine Beautiful Names.
The benefit of Tasawwuf is that man develops the angelic dimension of his existence and acquires a strong, heart-felt and experienced conviction of the truths and articles of faith that at first he had accepted only superficially.
The principles of tasawwuf may be listed as follows:
* Reaching substantial, true belief in Divine Oneness and living in accordance with its demands.
* In addition to heeding the Divine Speech (the Qur’an), discerning the commands of the Divine Power and Will on the face of the universe (the laws of creation and life which are the subject matter of the sciences) and obeying them.
* Overflowing with Divine love and getting on well with all other beings in the consciousness (originating from Divine love) that the universe is a cradle of brotherhood.
* Acting with a spirit of altruism and therefore giving preference or precedence to the well- being and happiness of others.
* Acting in accordance with the demands of the Divine Will—not with the demands of our own will—and trying to lead our lives at the ‘peaks’ of self-annihilation in God and subsistence with Him.
* Being open to love, spiritual yearning, delight and ecstasy.
* Acquiring the ability to discern or unveil what is in hearts or minds through the expressions of the face and the Divine mysteries and meanings on the face of events.
* Visiting such places and seeking the company of such people as will encourage avoidance of sin and striving in the way of God.
* Being content with lawful or licit pleasures, and being determined not to take even a single step toward the sphere of the unlawful.
* Continuously struggling against worldly ambitions and the illusions that lead us to suppose this world to be eternal.
* Never forgetting that even in the way of serving religion and striving for the guidance of people to the way of the Truth, salvation is only possible through certainty or conviction (of the truth of religious principles of belief and conduct), sincerity or purity of intention and aiming only to please God.
(adapted from an article on tasawwuf )
by Nusba Parveen
Journal of the Iqbal Academy Pakistan
Volume: 40 Number: 1
Rabi‘ah BaÄriyyah has played a significant role in the development of Sufism. She was a representative of that particular style of Sufism which grew in her time. Separation from her family in her childhood made her live a life of slavery. This in turn enabled her to accomplish her goal, i.e. complete devotion and full submission in the service of Allah. Her contribution was highlighted by later Sufis without any thought of her being a woman and they considered her a prominent Sufi. Particularly her concept of selfless - love with God is noteworthy. Why was she accorded this high position? What was the essence of her experience/teaching and how did she achieve it? We would try to offer some thoughts on these issues in the following.
According to J«mâ (d. 1492 A.D. who wrote NafaÁ«t al-Uns) the term ‘Sufi’ was for the first time applied to Abë H«shim of Këfa (ob. before 800 A.D.). He founded a monastery for sufis at Ramlah in Palestine. This marked the development of a new trend in Sufism. Commenting on the distinction between earlier ascetic trend and this new sufistic trend, Nicholson says, “They were the via purgativa and the via illuminativa of Western medieval mysticism.” However. this does not mean that Sufism in Islam became devoid of that inner purification with this new trend. But it remained as it always was, as a means to attain the nearness of Allah. Louis Massignon explains the emergence of Sufism as the result of an inner rebellion of the conscience against social injustices, not only those of others but primarily and particularly against one’s own faults.” Thus early Sufism was a natural expression of a person’s contemplation regarding his self and reality.
The problem in Sufism started, as Trimingham observes, that early sufis “were concerned with experiencial than theosophical theorizing and sought to guide rather than to teach.”
Development of Ascetic Trend
Asceticism developed as a trend in reaction to the Umayyad misrule. Theoretically everything was same as before but in practice they were lacking in justice, their love for luxury was growing and their Khil«fah was becoming individualized. Thus Mu‘tazilaism emerged as bearing a moderate attitude in reaction to Kh«rijites (fanatical and rigid) and Murjites (political conformists) but it changed to extremism later. Asceticism was not a new trend developed at this time but it became popular with the passage of time. Traces of the ascetics (Zuhhad) were found in the life of the Prophet (SAW) in the companions whose sense of fear and responsibility was stronger than others. The names of Uways al-Qaranâ, Abu-¿arr al-Ghif«râ, Salman F«rsâ are worthy to be mentioned who had been praised by the Prophet himself for their piety. A companion, Tamâm al-Darâ is said to have passed the whole night repeating a single verse, (xiv, 20).
“Do those who work evil think that we shall make them even as those who believe and do good so that their life or death shall be equal?”
Abu Darda used to say: “if you knew what you shall see after death you would not eat food nor drink water from appetite.” A prophetic tradition goes like this: “If you knew what I know you would laugh little and weep more”.
The disgust with the tyrannical and impious rulers strengthened these thoughts and a sense of grave responsibility and fear for what was going on overtook them. Àasan al-BaÄrâ was the first representative of this trend and his fear of God was so strong that Sha‘r«nâ says, “It seemed as though Hell-fire had been created for him alone.”
‘Umar II, the Umayyad ruler was regarded like Àasan in this matter. So the purpose of early Muslim sufis according to Massignon only if they retired or isolated themselves was in order to be better able to meditate on the Qur’«n (taqarraba is the old synonym of tasawwaffa) by seeking to draw near to God in prayer. Fazlur RaÁm«n does not differentiate these ascetics from ‘Ulama as “they were identically the same persons with varying degrees of emphasis on personal piety and abstinence. Thus he says that this trend was purely ethical with a deepening of inwardness of the ethical motivation”.
Development of Rabi‘ah’s Ascetic Ideas
Sibt Ibn al-Jawzâ (d. 1257) relates a story which shows Rabi‘ah’s feeling towards other Muslims at that time. Once when she went out on a feast day and she was asked about her impression of it, she said, “I saw how you went out (nominally) to make the Sunnah a living force and to put a stop to heresy, but you displayed a love of luxury and soft living and thereby you brought humiliation upon the Muslims”.
This does not at all suggest that these Muslims were extremely corrupt, but their lifestyle were changing towards the world compared to the time of the Prophet and the rightly guided caliphs. In another story quoted by ‘AÇÇ«r, Rabi‘ah asked a man to buy her a blanket and gave him four silver dirhams. The man left and came back to ask her what colour he should buy. “How did colour come into the business? Rabi‘ah answered and demanded her money back and threw it into Tigris. It implies that the fear of too much indulgenoe in the world had stopped her to do what was even necessary.
Another story is quoted by ‘AÇÇ«r, which he claims was her first experience in asceticism and she gave up all her worldly desires after that.
Once for seven days and seven nights she had been fasting and had eaten nothing and during the night she had not slept at all, but had spent every night in prayer. When she was in extremity from hunger someone came into the house and brought her a cup of food. Rabi‘ah took it and went to fetch a lamp. When she returned, a cat had upset the cup. She said, “I will go and fetch a jug and break by fast.” When she brought the jug the lamp had gone out. She intended to drink the water in darkness, but the jug fell from her hands and was smashed to pieces. Rabi‘ah broke into lamentations and heaved such a sigh that it almost seemed as if the house would catch fire. She then prayed to God that why are you doing it to me? And she heard a voice that if you desire these pleasures I will confer it on you, but I shall take concern for me out of your heart. Since then she says she separated her heart from worldly things.
Details of Rabi‘ah’s life have reached us through many different sources, and above all from her biographer Farâd al-Dân ‘AÇÇ«r (ob. A. D. 1230). He wrote Tazkirat al-Awliyah in which he mentions Rabi‘ah in detail. Rabi‘ah was born about (95 or 99 A.H/717 A.D) in BaÄra in a poor but religious and noble family. She was from al-Atik, a tribe of Qays b. ‘Adâ, therefore called Qaysiyyah or ‘Adawiyyah. She was the fourth daughter thus called Rabi‘ah and some miraculous events occurred after she was born. It is said that there was no oil for lamp and cloth to wrap her. Her mother asked her father to go and get some oil from the neighbour. Her father had vowed that he wouldn’t ask any human being for help, so he went out but came back and while sitting in that agony he slept. He dreamt Prophet Muhammad (SAW) who said words of comfort and relief and asked him to write a letter to Isa Zadan, Amir of Basra reminding him that he prays one hundred prayers every night and four hundred on Friday night, but this Friday night he has neglected, and as a penance, he must give you four hundred dinars, lawfuly required. (related by ‘AÇÇ«r).
Rabi‘ah’s father did as he was asked and the Amir himself came to see this noble man with penance money, while also giving two thousands dinars as thanks giving to poor. But after some time her parents passed away and she became an orphan. Then the sisters were also scattered after a famine in Basra. One day while walking Rabi‘ah was seized by an evil minded man who sold her for six dirhams and was forced to do hard labour by her master. Again she was attacked by a wicked person on the street and in the struggle to run she broke her hand. Then she broke into tears and said,
“Lord God, I am a stranger, orphaned of mother and father, a helpless prisoner fallen into captivity, my hand broken. Yet for all this I do not grieve, all I need is thy good pleasure, to know whether you are well pleased or no.” She heard a voice saying, “Tomorrow a station (rank) shall be thine such that those who are nearest to God in Heaven shall envy thee”.
Rabi‘ah then came back to her master’s house and continually fasted in the daytime and carried out her appointed tasks and worshipped all night till the day began.
This throws some light on the condition of that time, which left women insecure, and they held fast their relationship with Allah. There were some other women also who were known for their asceticism at that time. One of them, Rabi‘ah binti Ismail of Syria was given a high position by sufis. Sometimes she has been confused with Rabi‘ah BaÄrâ but the fact that she was married has cleared the confusion. Another woman of this time was Muadha al-Adawiyya, who was known for her humility. She was an associate of Rabi‘ah BaÄrâ and was married. Sha‘wana was another sufi whose assembly was attended by men and women sufis. She used to cry a lot for God and followed the way of love like Rabi‘ah. Nafisa was great granddaughter of HaÄan (son of Ali), born at Mecca in 145 A.H. She was so well versed in the Qur’an and religious knowledge that Imam Sh«fi’â used to come and listened to her discourse. (Ibn Khallik«n) etc. etc.
Now, one night while Rabi‘ah was praying, her master woke up and saw her worshipping, she was shying, “O my Lord, you know that the desire of my heart is to obey you, and that the light of my eye is in the service of your court. If the master rested with me, I should not cease for one hour from your service, but you have made me subject to a creature”.
This reflects the inner state of Rabi‘ah which was not taught to her but was developing due to her sincere devotion to God. Her master saw a light on Rabi‘ah’s head which illumined the whole house. He called her when the day was dawned and set her free. She journeyed into desert first then obtained a cell in which she was engaged in devotional worship. Afterwards she left for pilgrimage which tells a story how her ass died and she was left-alone rejecting offer of men to carry her luggage. She then prayed to God, “O my God, do kings deal thus with a woman, a stranger and weak? Thou art calling me to thine own house (the Ka‘ba) but in the midst of the way thou hast suffered mine ass to die and thou hast left me alone in the desert”. Her ass stirred and got up before she had finished her prayer and she proceeded.
‘Attar quotes another story that once in the desert alone, how she desired to see God, “show thyself in this very place”. Then she prayed until God spoke in her heart directly without any medium. Saying, “O Rabi‘ah … When Moses desired to see my face I casted a few particles of my glory upon the mountain (Sinai) and it was rent into forty pieces. Be content here with my name’.
This was the beginning of Rabi‘ah’s asceticism which developed in her due to strong faith and trust in God.
One aspect of her life which needs to be commented is her choice of celibacy. Margaret Smith quotes the following passage from Tazkira al-Awliyah, (p. 66) which was Rabi‘ah’s answer to Hasan Bari’s proposal, she said, “The contract of marriage is for those who have a phenomenal existence (i.e. who are concerned with the affairs of this material world). Here (i.e. in my case) existence has ceased, since I have ceased to exist and have passed out of self. My resistance is in Him, and I am altogether His. I am in the shadow of His command the marriage contract must be asked for from Him, not from me”.
Commenting on the passage Smith says;
So, like her Christian sisters in the life of sanctity, Rabi‘ah espoused a heavenly Bridegroom and turned her back on earthly marriage even with one of her own intimates and companions on the way.
But Rabi‘ah’s case cannot be compared to Christian sisters as in Rabi‘ah’s case it was only her choice not teaching. She did not deny marriage but she was (just) too occupied with her worship and prayers that it had not left any sensual desires in her heart. On another occasion, al-Hurayfish (al-Rawad al-fariq; p. 214) writes that when she was asked to choose any man for her, “She said, yes willingly. Who’s the most learned of you, that I may marry him? They said Hasan of Basra so she said to him, “If you can give me the answer to four questions I will be your wife”. He said, “Ask if God permit, I will answer you”.
She then asked (i). “What will be the judge of the world when I die? (means Muslim or Kafir?). And (ii) When I am put in the grave and Munkar and Nakir question me shall I be able to answer them or not? (iii) In the Resurrection, shall I be given my (book) in my right hand or in my left’? (iv) In which two groups (paradise or hell) shall I be on the day of judgement?
Àasan BaÄrâ’s answer to all four questions was that it is hidden and only Allah has the knowledge of it. She then concluded that if this is not known and I have to concern myself with these four questions, how should I need a husband with whom to occupy.
Rabi‘ah lived a long life alone and died in 185 A.H. (801 A.D.) and was buried at Basra.
It is interesting to note, that there is no evidence that Rabi‘ah learnt or studied from any teacher. As for her anecdotes related to Hasan Basri and other leading sufis of the time, it implies that they had high regard about Rabi‘ah as their teacher. They use to come to her for her advice and counselling. But there is only one story quoted by Abu al-Qasim al-Nishaburi (in Uqala al-Maj«nân p. 128) which tells that she attended Hayyuna’s company, who practised the greatest austerity and used to pray, “O God I would that the day were night that I might enjoy thy proximity”. In the middle of the night sleep overcame Rabi‘ah and Hayyuna came to Rabi‘ah, kicking her with his foot he said, “Rise up, the Bridegroom of the truly guided ones has come. The adornments of the brides of night are revealed by the light of the night prayers”.
Munawi (d. 1622) places Rabi‘ah in the second, of the two classes of individuals “one is the class of those who seek a master in the way that leads to the majesty of God, who may act as an intermediary between them and God… (prophet)…. the second class are those who, when they seek to follow the right path, do not see before them the footprint of any of God’s creature, for they have removed all thought from their hearts and concern themselves solely with God. And he says, “This state is the state of Abd al-Qadir and Abu Said Shibli and Rabi‘ah al-”Adawiyya”
Rabi‘ah has not written any book but her sayings have been quoted by almost all (great) sufi writers, Rabi‘ah was regarded a guide and teacher both in her time, and the following generation of sufis on that path were highly indebted to her teachings. To give an example, of what was her view of teaching we quote this story from ‘AÇÇ«r:
“Once ‘Rabi‘ah sent Hasan three things - a piece of wax, a needle and a hair.
“Be like wax”, she said “Illumine the world, and yourself burn. Be like a needle always be working naked. When you have done these two things, a thousand years will be for you as a hair”. It can be understood from this that to her, the existence should be to enlighten the world on a higher level. On a lower level we can say to help and benefit others. By naked she probably meant not to be outwardly but in necessary natural condition and the thinness or fineness of hair imply the feeling shortness of the time which is troublesome on this path.
But it is also very important to clarify that she was not aware of the problem, on her path. Sibt Ibn al-Jawzi (d. 1257, wrote Mir’at al-zam«n p. 257a) mentions this conversation of Rabi‘ah with Zulfa bint Abd. al-Wahid who says,
“I said to Rabi‘ah, O my aunt, why do you not allow people to visit you?’” Rabi‘ah replied, “I fear lest when I am dead, people will relate of me what I did not say or do, what if I had seen, I should have feared or mistrusted. I am told that they say that I find money under my place of prayer, and that I cook (food) in the pot without a fire”. I said to her, “They relate of you that you find food and drink in your house”, and she said, O daughter of my brother, if I had found such things in my house I would not have touched them, or laid hands upon them, but I tell you that I buy my things and am blessed in them”
We can derive the following points from this story.
i. Rabi‘ah’s teaching was limited to only those who were able to understand it. Those who did not stand on the same level of understanding in this path were immune to be misled. It suggest that sufism which is the attainment of higher knowledge that’s known as Ma‘rifa cannot be taught to everyone. It is the knowledge which is given by God to those servants who come nearer to him through their self worship and struggle.
ii. It also suggests that it cannot be taught to common men except in the language that they understand. This means that certain things are not apprehended by everyone. For example, miracles are done by the command of Allah for those whom He wills. They should be the means to strengthen the faith for both, who see and for whom it is done. But they tend to mislead instead and become a source of deviation.
iii. People should not deny the miracles considering the command of Allah, nor should they consider them within the power of sufis.
iv. That Rabi‘ah’s miracles associated with food and drink were nothing but her trust in Allah, which Allah promises to everyone and provides through strange means.
The aim of the Sufis like Rabi‘ah was not to show miracles and teach their practices but as Abë ñ«lib Makkâ (d. 996) writes in Qët al-Qulëb, “Thou shalt worship God as if thou sawest Him”. This attainment of Ihsan was one of the initial goals of the sufis and they experience it through by worship. First, as to be seen by Him. For He sees us if we cannot see Him. This brought them closer to Allah and finally they arrived at the stage where they were able to see, hear and speak by Him. The Holy tradition speaks of it like this.
“My servant ceases not to draw nigh unto me by supererogatory worship until I love him; and when I love him, I am his ear, so that he hears by me, and his tongue, so that he speaks by me, and his hand, so that he takes by me”.
The sufis aimed at achieving this position and there were some like Said Abil Khair as Nicholson points out who stopped their practices, which were the means to that goal. But the sufis like Rabi‘ah continued their practices until their very end. Thus to quote Prof. ‘Attas, “tasawwuf is an integral part of Islam; just as all reality and truth has an outer and inner aspect to it so is tasawwuf the inner dimension of Islam; it sincere and correct practice is none other than the intensification of the shari‘ah upon one’s self; it is the expression of ihsan in the ‘abd.
Different Aspects of Her Teachings
Sufis have given great importance to Tawba which was derived from various Qur’anic verses Al-Hujwiri says, “There is no right service without repentance. Repentance is the first of the stations in this path” and it includes 3 things (i) remorse for disobedience (ii) determination not to sin again (iii) immediate abandonment of sin. Al-Ghaz«lâ said that Tawba is the conviction of sin which leads to amend it. Rabi‘ah’s sense of Tawba was very grave which caused her to grieve and weep. ‘AÇÇ«r says, it is related that Rabi‘ah was always weeping and when it was said to her, ‘Why do you weep like this? She said, ‘I fear that I may be cut off from Him to whom I accustomed and that at the hour of death a voice may say that, I am not worthy. When she was asked that, Will God accept the Tawba of a person who has committed sin? She answered, How can anyone repent unless his Lord gives him repentance and accepts him”. So the sense of seeking Tawba itself was a gift from God, to Rabi‘ah. But her concept of Tawba was full of shame which implied to ask for forgiveness for something shameful.
Taqi al-Dân Hisnâ (ob. A.D. 1426 wrote Siyar al-Salihat) relates that Ibn ManÄër came to Rabi‘ah who was praying and saw her place of worship like a marsh from her tears. And she asked him the reason for coming, he replied, to greet you. She then rose up for Âal«t and said “I ask forgiveness of God for my lack of sincerity when ‘I say (those words) I ask forgiveness of God”.
Tawba free from sincerity may arise the sense of pride in a person and thus may not be effective. J«mâ (d. 1492 A.D. wrote Nafhat al-Uns) relates that Sufy«n al-Thawrâ exclaimed in Rabi‘ah’s presence, “Alas! for my sorrow”. Rabi‘ah said to him, “Do not lie, if you were really sorrowful, life would not be so pleasant to you”. She used to say, “my sorrow is not for the things which make me grieve, but my sorrow is for the things for which I do not grieve”.. This is very important because Tawba is a positive aspect for wrong actions. But if the sense of awareness of the sin is not there, the person keeps doing it unconsciously. The concept of sin to Rabi‘ah was not sorrowful because of the punishment in hereafter but because it separates the sinner from God. Hurayfish (d. 1398 A.D wrote Al-Rawdal-Faiq) says that she used to refer to God as the “One who can cleanse her from her sin”.
Rabi‘ah’s teaching of Sabr was a complete example of her practices. She demonstrated the highest stages of Sabr during her early life, when she suffered from all sorts of injuries. Later on her stories related to her sicknesses or her domestic needs all show that her main concern was to seek the pleasure of God and she justified everything as His will. ‘AÇÇ«r refers to her secret of Sabr in her coversation with Sufyan. Sufyan tempted her to seek what she desired from God, and she answered, “If I will a thing, and my Lord does not will it, I shall be guilty of unbelief”. This is important as not surrendering to the will of Allah makes a person react and say Këfr. Therefore to accept everything from Allah makes man submit and patient. Al-Ghazali and al-Qushayri considered patience as an essential part of faith.
Rabi‘ah’s sense of gratitude was not only for the gifts but rather for the Giver. ‘AÇÇ«r quotes this story that her maid servant asked her to come out to behold the works of God. She replied, “Come you inside that you may behold their Maker. Contemplation of the maker has turned me aside from contemplating what he has made. Smith says that here “Rabi‘ah’s attitude was different from pantheistic sufis who felt that God was seen (and could be worshipped) in all His creation”.
Al-Qushayrâ (Ris«lah, p. 106) regarded gratitude as an important quality on the mystic way. He mentions three elements leading to Shukr, faith, feeling and action. Faith must accept the fact that all benefits come from God. This faith must produce the feeling of joy and the humility before the Giver. And consequence of these two leads to action and make an individual grateful, praising and thanking the Giver and avoid its opposite.
‘ttar relates this story on her teaching of Shukr. “It is related that one time she saw someone who had a bandage bound about his head. She said, “Why is this bandage bound (round your head)? He said, “My head is paining me”. Rabi‘ah asked him, “how old he was”? “Thirty years old he replied. She asked him “Were you in pain and trouble for the greater part of your life”? ‘No’ he answered. Then she said, “for thirty years (God) has kept your body fit and you have never bound upon it the bandage of gratitude, but for one night of pain in your head you bind it with the bandage of complaint”.
Raja’ and Khauf (Hope and Fear)
Hope and fear were regarded as the two main pillars of faith by sufis. Al-Sarraj (al-luma; p. 66) says, “Those who fear, serve God through dread of separation from Him, and those who hope, serve in the expectation of union with Him. Al-Sarr«j refers to three kinds of fear, the commonest being fear of punishment. Others fear being cut off from God, or anything that might hinder attainment of gnosis. But there is a higher type of fear even than this, and the holy fear of elect is the fear of God alone.
Al-Qushayrâ says that the terror of the common sort (rahba) makes a man run away, but holy dread (Khashya) brings him near to God. And so he compares it with the lamp, which makes heart see what is good and what is evil. “He who truly fears a thing flees from it, but he who truly fears God, flees unto Him.”
The Sufi doctrine of fear and hope is summarized by al-Sarraj as follows:
“The fear is like a state of darkness, in which the soul wanders, bewildered, seeking always to escape from it, and when hope comes to lighten it, the soul goes out to place of refreshment and grace prevails.
Rabi‘ah’s fear was caused from the effect of hell fire and it used to express in her weeping (as we have already seen). Her biographer Munawi says that she remained for forty years without raising her head to heaven, out of her reverence towards God. And she used to say, whenever I have heard the call to prayer, I have remembered the trumpet call of the Day of Resurrection, and whenever I have seen the snow I have seen also the pages of the records fluttering. Commenting on Rabi‘ah’s teaching on hope and fear, Smith says, “Seen in an eschatological setting, it is closely linked with her teaching on the doctrine of disinterested love to God, and since she appears to have been among the first to bring this doctrine into prominence among the sufis and to lay particular stress upon it as the essential element in the saint’s relation to God. It is possible that she was also one of the first to teach this exalted ideal of hope and fear and to conceive of paradise as a spiritual state”. Al-Ghaz«lâ also regarded Rabi‘ah responsible for this important development in Sufi doctrine.
Al-Munawi relates that Rabi‘ah heard a reader reading that “the inhabitants of paradise are occupied in enjoying themselves,” and she said, “the inhabitants of paradise are unfortunate in their occupation and their companions”. But Rabi‘ah was blamed for making this statement by Ibn ‘Arabâ, who said that it was she who was unfortunate and that they were occupied only with God and this was His will for them. Smith elaborates Rabi‘ah’s point by saying, “She probably wished to make it clear that in her view paradise was not a place for sensual delights but rather a state of contemplation of the face of God”. There are several occasions when Rabi‘ah was asked to say something about paradise, she said, “first the neighbour, then the house”. Al-Ghaz«lâ’s opinion on this statement was that, “in her heart was no leaning towards paradise, but to the Lord of paradise.
Tawakkul (dependence), Zuhd and Poverty
Tawakkul is related to poverty, and asceticism. Rabi‘ah’s life was a perfect example of abandoning everything for the sake of God and relying in Him. “AÇÇ«r relates one story of Rabi‘ah when she reached ‘Araf«t while making pilgrimage. She heard the voice of God saying, “O you who invoke me, what request have you to make of me? If it is myself that you desire, then I will show you one flash of My Glory (but in that) you will be absorbed and melt away.” She then said, O Lord of Glory, Rabi‘ah has no means of attaining to that degree, but I desire one particle of (spiritual) poverty.
And then the voice explained poverty, that it is as a wrath in the way of men.
Smith says that poverty, here” signifies the state of complete self-loss, exceedingly hard to attain and not leading to union unless it is perfect and even then the mystic may, in the good pleasure of God, be subject to a dark night of the soul before attaining to union. Such a poverty could be attained only by the adept, divested of every attribute of “self”. ‘Zuhd’ (asceticism) she says is considered side by side with poverty. And the first state of ‘Zuhd’ is initiatory and represents the purgative life, through which the Nafs, the carnal soul must be purified from its sins which come from the desires of self.
Abë ñ«alib Makkâ (pp. 248, 250) says, that piety in the servants leads on to ‘zuhd’ and ‘zuhd’ to love of God, and these two states are the aim of those who seek to love God and to be intimate with Him and he is not truly a Zahid who does not attain to the station of love or the mystic state of intimacy (Uns)’.
Al-Hujwiri refers to three kinds of ‘zuhd’ by Ahmad b. Àanbal. One, the renunciation of what is unlawful, which is common enough. The renunciation of what is lawful, which is a more special type, and finally, the renunciation of all, whatever it may be, that distracts the servant from God most High and this is the zuhd of gnostic.
Rabi‘ah’s teachings have played a major role in the development of this early school of Zuhd. ‘Attar says that when she was asked “whence have you come?” She said, from that world” they asked her, “Whithers are you going? She replied, “To that world? and she was asked, “what are you doing in this world”? and she answered, “I am sorrowing”. “In what way”, they asked and she said, “I am eating the bread of this world and doing the work of that world.” Then someone said, “One so persuasive in speech is worthy to keep a rest-house and she responded, “I myself am keeping a rest house, whatever is within, I do not allow to go out and whatever is not does out come in. If anyone comes in or goes out, he does not concern me, for I am contemplating my own heart, not mere clay”.
On Love and Union
Rabi‘ah’s teaching on love can be summarized as follows: First, she says this love of the servant to his Lord must shut out all others than the beloved. One must raise above the claims of the sense and allow neither pleasure nor pain to disturb his contemplation of the divine. To her God seemed to be a jealous God, who will suffer none to share with Him that love which is due to Him alone. Secondly, she teaches that this love, which directed to God to the exclusion of all else, must be disinterested, that it must look neither to hope of reward nor to relief from punishment but seek only to the will of God and to accomplish that which is pleasing to Him, that He may be glorified”. Schimmel says, “Rabi‘ah’s love of God was absolute”. She was the pioneer of disinterested love and love of jealous God. Smith says that though she was not the first to seek God through love, she was the first to lay stress upon the doctrine and to combine with it the doctrine of Kashf, the unveiling at the end of the way, of the Beloved to His lovers.”
‘AÇÇ«r speaks of her as “that woman on fire with love and ardent desire… consumed with her passion”. Abë ñ«lib refers to Rabi‘ah’s comment on Sufy«n at-Thawrâ, when he said, “O God mayst thou be satisfied with Him”. And Sufyan said, I ask forgiveness of God”. Ja‘far then said, to her, when is the servant satisfied with God most high”? and she said, when his pleasure in misfortune is equal to his pleasure in prosperity”. Al-Ghaz«lâ says that sincere love causes you to obey and “everyone who obeys seeks intimacy”, and he refers to following verses recited by her.
“I have made thee the companion of my heart, But my body is available for those who desire its company,
And my body is friendly towards its guest, But the beloved of my heart is the guest of my soul”.
There is a famous story attributed by Afl«kâ to Rabi‘ah, where her disinterested love for God is demonstrated.
One day a number of saints saw that Rabi‘ah had taken fire in one hand and water in the other and was running with speed. They said to her, “O lady of the next world, where are you going and wheat is the meaning of this”? She said:
“I am going to light fire in paradise and to pour water on to hell so that both veils (i.e. hindrances to the true vision of God) may completely disappear from the pilgrims … and the servants of God may see Him without any object of hope or motive of fear”.
‘Attar mentions one story that Rabi‘ah was asked, “Do you love the Lord of glory”? She said, `I do”. Then he asked “do you hold Satan as an enemy”. She said, “no”. And when astonishingly asked, ‘why is that”? She said “my love for God leaves no room for hating Satan”. She further said, “I saw the Prophet in a dream” and he asked ‘O Rabi‘ah, do you love me”? I said, “O Prophet of God! who is there who does not love you, but my love of God has so possessed me that no place remains for loving and hating save Him.” Rabi‘ah has been blamed to have heresy in her teaching for this saying. But it is clear that she had a completely different picture of God and was indifferent to any other love.
Someone asked her, “what is love”? She replied, “love has come from eternity and passes to eternity and none has been found in seventy thousand worlds who drinks one drop of it until at last he is absorbed in God, and from that comes the saying “He loves them (saints) and they love Him”. (al-Qur’«n 5:59).
There have been some confusion about the famous verses on love attributed to Rabi‘ah and according to Smith, Abu Talib who is attributed to them, have himself referred them to Rabi‘ah’s own. (They are reported by all her biographers, except ‘AÇÇ«r):
“I have love you with two loves, a selfish love and a love that is worthy (of you),
As for the love which is selfish, I occupy myself therein with remembrance of you to the exclusion of all others. And for that which is worthy of you, therein you raise the veil that I may see you.
Yet is there no praise to me in this or that, but the praise is to you, whether in that or this”.
After elaborating these verses, Abë ñ«lib commented that she had reached the highest truth in regard to love. Al-Ghazali said, “she meant by the selfish love, the love of God for His favour and grace bestowed and for temporary happiness. And by the love worthy of Him. The love of His beauty which was revealed to her and this is the higher of the two loves and finer of them” He further says that she wanted to achieve the union with God and His Beatific vision.
Mun«jat or Prayers
Rabi‘ah’s prayers were an important part of her daily practice and an insight into her feelings. Introducing her prayers to God, Schimmel says, “The nightly prayers, one of the early pivots of early ascetic life, become, with her, a sweat and loving conversation between lover and beloved; as she says in one of the prayers;
“O God, the night has passed and the day has dawned. How I long to know if you have accepted my prayers or if you have rejected them …..”
Rabi‘ah was one of those few figures in Islamic history, like al-Ghaz«lâ who have been highly respected by all Muslims. And this is a fact to which Smith points out that any pious woman in Muslim society is given the nickname of Rabi‘ah. She has influenced a great deal on general Muslim women but with regard to sufism, her teachings were highly appreciated by all great sufi writers like Abë ñ«lib Makkâi, al-Qushayrâ, al-Ghaz«lâ and Sohrawardâ. They all consider her teachings an integral part of sufism. Her main biographer ‘AÇÇ«r calls her “the second spotless Mary,” who was chosen over all the women of the worlds (al-Qur’«n). And it is possible that Rabi‘ah was inspired by Maryam’s personality. The Qur’an mentions Maryam as the most purified and devout figure. Allah mentions her name with praise, for devoting her life for the service of Allah. This justifies the isolation of sufis like Rabi‘ah for which they have been generally criticized.
While commenting on the personality of Rabi‘ah Schimmel holds the view that “the attitude of sufism towards fair sex was ambivalent, and it can be said that sufism was more favourable to the development of feminine activities than were other branches of Islam”. This is very interesting to note that we certainly do not find any prominent female figure in other disciplines in Islam. And the only reason as the scholars point out could be the technical difficulties faced by women in contributing their intellectual qualities.
Rabi‘ah’s life was a good mixture of Qur’anic teachings. She demonstrated both hope and fear in her actions an ideal for true belief. This in turn developed to the extent that she desired to see God and this typical love for God found its way for her.
Posted : May 22 2008