Improving oneself

One day, one of the disciples of Bayazid (Alaihi Rahma) asked him:

– Will you give a piece of your coat so that I can carry it with me to gain blessing?

Bayazid responded:

– O my son, if you do not improve yourself until you become a perfect person, it is not going to help you even if you cover your entire body with my skin.

The above story about Bayazid Bistami is well known for illustrating that one cannot reach high levels of spiritual attainment only by virtue of externally improving oneself.

THE SUBJECT MATTER OF SUFISM

The variety of definitions and explanations that have been provided of Sufism indicate the breadth of its subject matter. It might therefore be said that the subject matter of Sufism is as vast and deep as an ocean; for it covers everything related to the human soul and spirit. Essentially, it sees to the spiritual states passed by the wayfaring disciple during his spiritual journey, in the beings with whom he meantime gets in touch with, in the experiences he encounters and in the ways he finds, knows, and serves his Lord; though this would only be brief number of the otherwise great breadth of topics the subject matter of Sufism includes. Still, at the risk of being succinct, we may nonetheless proceed to expand on the primary subject matter of the Sufi path.

Above all, the Sufi path engages in the spiritual states and stations a disciple passes by in the process of perfecting his unripe spirit to ripeness, by means of purifying his heart and soul. In other words, Sufism deals with the exact ways of purifying the heart and soul and obtaining inner and outer enlightenment, to enable the actions of the Sufi to accord with Divine pleasure and thereby grant him eternal happiness. The gist of this consists in embodying an exceptional moral conduct and tapping in to the knowledge of spiritual realities. At its core, Sufism thus seeks to ensure one tastes the zest of ihsan, of internalizing faith, and enjoying its indescribable pleasure.

To put it in another way, the Sufi path is about the principles and ways to understand the Divine wisdoms, secrets and intentions concealed in names and attributes of Allah, glory unto Him, as well as their abounding manifestations throughout the universe. In this context, Sufism talks about notions related to the unseen, the spirit, the heart and the soul; as well as spiritual experiences like insight (kashf), inspiration (ilham), spiritual witnessing (mushahada), ecstasy (wajd), and love (‘ishq), and no less, the spiritual states attained as a result of undergoing these experiences.

In short, Sufism is concerned with imparting the spiritual ability to behold and witness of the names and attributes of the Lord and to acquire Divine knowledge (marifatullah), offering man a real insight into the uni- verse, the Quran, as well as himself, by taking him through a journey at the end of which awaits spiritual maturity.

  • Excerpt from the book, “SUFISM: A PATH TOWARDS THE INTERNALIZATION OF FAITH (IHSÂN)”

Being a Sufi

Ibrahim Effendi, the renowned Sheikh of the Sufi Lodge of Aksaray, eloquently voices the assorted definitions of the Sufi path in the following lines:

 

Being a Sufi, at the onset, is freedom from material existence, At the end, it is to rise to throne of the heart

Being a Sufi, at the onset, is to strip away the flesh, At the end, it is to enter the Lord’s palace of secrets.

Being a Sufi, is to remove the fading garment of the body, In return for a pure existence, and the light of the Lord…

Being a Sufi, is to kindle the candle of the heart with a flame Divine, And hence throwing it in the fire of love, to burn forever more…

Being a Sufi is save oneself from the grip of the ego, And hence to follow the Law and attain to true faith.

Being a Sufi is acquaintance with the ways of the Lord;
And hence to reach out a helping hand and cure to the needy.

Being a Sufi is to unlock the flesh with the key of the Lord’s Name, And to usher it in through the gates of nothingness.

Being a Sufi is to turn the Sufi words to action, Where each word uttered becomes a portion of life.

Being a Sufi is to learn to interpret the dreams and the word, To become a secret, in one’s own right, in the seat of life.

Being a Sufi is to become joyous and bewildered in Divine presence, To be in amazement before the secrets of the Divine.

Being a Sufi is to cleanse the heart of everything other than the Lord, To turn the heart into His Throne through faith

Being a Sufi is to reach East and West in the blink of an eye; To hence care for all people and offer them shelter.

Being a Sufi is to witness the Lord’s presence in every particle, To hence be a sun shining upon all creation.

Being a Sufi is to understand the languages of all creation; To assume to role of Solomon in the realm of intellect.

Being a Sufi is to seize the firmest handle, to burden the greatest duty; To hence reflect on the Quran and convey the news of Divine Mercy.

Being a Sufi is to treat all beings through the secret name of the Lord; The ability to absorb the commands of the Quran.

Being a Sufi is to seek the Lord in every gaze thrown,
To hence turn difficulty into ease for the fellow human being.

Being a Sufi is to turn the heart into a depository of Divine knowledge To lead a drop, the human being is, into the vast ocean.

Being a Sufi is to burn entire existence in the fire of negation; And then to revive through the light of affirmation”.

Being a Sufi is to call to the path, to say “sufficient is the Lord” (ar-Rad, 43), To nurture delight for the inevitable “return”. (al-Ghashiyah, 28)

Being a Sufi is to return to life after dying a thousand times each day, To act as a reviver for corpses from all creation.

Being a Sufi is to annihilate existence into the existence Divine,
To conceal oneself in the intimacy of being “even nearer”. (an-Najm, 9)

Being a Sufi is to surrender the soul to the beloved and become free; To remain with the beloved forever more.

Being a Sufi, Ibrahim, is to become a real servant of the Lord; To embrace and remain loyal to the Law of Muhammad (Peace and blessings be upon him).

Khalq and Khulq

Imam Ghazali (rah) explains in the following passage the spiritual impossibility of adequately overseeing our ‘self’ by oneself alone:

“The words khalq (creation) and khulq (morality) are derived from the same root. One is about the external world and the other is about the internal world.

Khalq is the form that can be known by the senses.

Khulq is hidden and cannot be known by looking at our external existence. The real identity of a person rests in his character, way of life, and his nature. Regardless of how much one hides himself in outer appearances, one day his inner identity will be disclosed.”

As we need a mirror to see our outer appearance, so too we need a mirror for our heart: the help of a friend of Allah who will diagnose and cure our inner world, our character, and our inclinations.

sufi meditation

If one wishes to know whether he is someone loved by Allah or not, he should closely evaluate his inner world: to the extent, he feels Allah in his heart and witnesses his power and kingdom with amazement he is close to Him.

For this reason, one should always be concerned with purifying his soul so that the manifestations of divine light, which will destroy the passions and the desires, can appear in the heart.

The Almighty Creator has said, “Truly, the one who purifies his soul succeeds” (Shams, 9).

Likewise, the Prophet Muhammad 􏰀(may peace and blessing be upon him) also said: “The believer is a mirror of the believer.” According to this hadith, the perfect humans serve as clear mirrors, with no stain on them, for our souls. In other words, seekers may observe the reality of their condition and their essence in the face of these individuals. This is not a material observation. The mirror of the heart goes well beyond the material dimension. In it one may explore the mysteries of the hidden inner worlds. This mirror is not a mirror of the outer world but rather a mirror of the inner world and there are no forms there save the reflections of Allah’s lights. Therefore, those who spiritually seek out and reap rewards from this mirror carry a different kind of beauty and joy in their hearts. They grow to sacrifice themselves. They wish farewell to their ego and consequently reach to the blessing of Allah aiming to become completely absorbed in Him. For this reason, it is necessary to be under the guidance of a perfect master and to internalize his morality. Yunus Emre has said:

“Shariah (religious law) and tariqah (mysticism) are paths for sincere seekers, Yet the Truth and divine knowledge are beyond them.”

One can only reach to the secret mentioned in this couplet by Yunus Emre under the guidance of a perfect master.

-An excerpt from the book, “From the mirror of the heart”

The Sufi way personifies exemplary character traits (akhlaq) and propriety (adab).

Saving a believer from blind imitation (taqlid) in matters of faith, exemplary character traits give birth to the consciousness of ihsan, which itself imparts uprightness and integrity to the thoughts and acts of human beings. Ihsan is to permanently implant a mindset in the heart of a believer, crystallized by a constant awareness of the Lord, as if the believer sees Him. Gradually, ihsan becomes an essential and governing force behind all the actions and behavior of a believer throughout his life. Abu’l-Husayn an-Nuri explains Sufism accordingly when he says, “Sufism consists not of forms and sciences but of good moral qualities (akhlaq). If it were about forms, one would have taken it by means of personal striving; if it were about sciences, one would have learned it by means of conventional education. For this reason, neither can forms nor science merely make one reach the purpose. Sufism is to succeed in embodying the qualities of the Lord.” The special emphasis an-Nuri places on his definition is thus the strong connection between the Sufi way and the embodiment of exemplary character traits it leads to.

Even though one might not find the term tasawwuf mentioned during the lifetime of the Blessed Prophet -upon him blessings and peace-, its essence and reality nonetheless did exist. What we mean by the expression “exemplary moral qualities” is none other than the moral qualities of the Noble Messenger -upon him blessings and peace-; qualities which the believer is expected to embody at the expense of his deficient traits. The integrity of the Blessed Prophet’s -upon him blessings and peace- morality is confirmed by the Quran:

“And indeed, you are of a great moral character.” (al-Qalam, 4)

Similarly, when inquired about the morals of the Blessed Prophet -upon him blessings and peace-, Aisha –Allah be well-pleased with her- replied said, “His morals were that of the Quran.” (Muslim, Musafirin, 139) When a servant embodies the exemplary moral traits laid down by in the Quran and abides by the Quranic principles, he virtually becomes the Quran come-to-life. Contemplating on the meaning of the Quran, reciting it in reverence, and practicing its instructions represent the apex of good morality.

The Blessed Prophet -upon him blessings and peace- was sent by the Almighty with the mission of enlightening the universe entire, the whole spatio-temporal scope, from the very onset his prophethood until the Final Hour. Thanks to reliable historical and scholarly records, we are gifted today with a strenuously detailed account of the Prophet’s -upon him blessings and peace- life and times. Upon glancing at these records, one is unmistakably struck by many an extraordinary aspect of his life; fitting, as he represents the quintessential perfection of humankind and morality. The Blessed Prophet -upon him blessings and peace- himself highlights his universal mission when he states, “I have been sent for nothing but to perfect good morals.” (Imam Malik, Muwatta, Husnu’l-Khulq 8). Confirming this is the verse of the Holy Quran, which refers to the Blessed Prophet -upon him blessings and peace- as “the quintessential example” (uswah hasa- nah): “You have a quintessential example in The Almighty’s Messenger for whosoever hopes for The Almighty and the Last Day, and remembers The Almighty often.” (al-Ahzab, 21)

Even after the physical departure of the Blessed Prophet -upon him blessings and peace-, the Lord will always hail saintly scholars from among people, as a gift to humankind and more importantly, to perpetuate the practice of good morals. These scholars are described in a hadith as “the heirs of prophets” (warathatu’l-anbiya)*. The Blessed Prophet -upon him blessings and peace- offers a further description of such scholars, saying, “The most perfect believer with respect to faith is he who exudes the best moral traits.” (Ahmad ibn Hanbal, Musnad, II, 250) These words allude to the fact that good morals are the fruits of faith and the signs of its perfection. Consequently, saints are spiritual guides who have been privileged with the good fortune of having personified the moral qualities of the Blessed Prophet -upon him blessings and peace-. Correlated is the definition of the Sufi way offered by Abu Muhammad al-Jariri, according to which it is “… to embody good morals and to refrain from the immoral.”

As demanding an undertaking it is to beautify heart with good morals and cleanse it from the immoral, it is nevertheless essential in order to attain to eternal happiness and salvation. In highlighting the grueling nature of this awaiting task, Abu Hashim as-Sufi says, “Eradicating an existing conceit from the heart is more difficult than digging a mountain with a needle.” Similar are the words of Abu Bakr al-Kattani: “Sufism is about morality. A person morally better than you is at the same time a person spiritually purer than you.”

The history of mankind is replete with the manifestations of the exemplary conducts of prophets. Prophet Yusuf -upon him peace-, for instance, exemplifies one of the most remarkable instances of moral excel- lence in history. As reported by the Quran, Yusuf –upon him peace- not only did not retaliate against his brothers who had, years ago, committed the terrible crime of throwing him into a well in the middle of nowhere, he displayed an unrivalled show of mercy and forgiveness when meeting them years down the track, assuring them that “No blame will there be upon you today. The Almighty will forgive you; and He is the most merci- ful of the merciful.” (Yusuf, 92)

The ultimate goal a Sufi strives for is to emulate Ibrahim -upon him blessings and peace- in purging his heart of everything worldly and filling it with obedience to Divine commands; Ismail -upon him peace- in unconditional submission to the Almighty and contentedness with Divine fate; and Ayyub -upon him peace- in enshrouding the heart in unyielding patience. Spiritually, it is to personify the sorrow of Dawud -upon him peace- and the abstinence of Isa -upon him peace-.

A Sufi’s heart ought to imitate the heart of Musa –upon him peace-, in being immersed in spiritual joy and yearning for the Lord in His remem- brance, and above all, the heart of the Blessed Prophet -upon him blessings and peace- in sincerity, love and devotion for Allah, glory unto Him. Abu Hafs al-Haddad gives an inclusive summary of all these descriptions when he says, “Sufism is about good propriety (adab).” In explanation of adab, Rumi says,

O gentleman! Beware that adab is the soul in your body;

Adab is the eye of the Men of the Lord and the light of their hearts.

If you want to crush Satan’s head, open your eyes and see;

It is adab that depresses Satan.

If you cannot find adab in a man, he is not in fact a human being.

It is adab that separates mankind from animals.

In the same context Rumi also says,

My reason asked my heart, “What is faith (iman)?”

My heart whispered into the ear of my reason, “Faith is all about pro- priety (adab).”

Another poet versifies,

Adab is a crown sent down from the Lord’s light; Place it on your head and be spared from all plights.

For a long time, therefore, it has been customary to have a cautionary signboard at Sufi lodges that read, “Adab Ya-Hu!”; a motto with a multidi- mensional meaning. While it reminds the reader how essential it is to live a life of propriety, from another vantage, it is at the same time a plea, in the sense of “O Lord, give us adab!


(*) The term “warathatu’l-anbiya’” denotes the real scholars who, both inwardly and out- wardly, personify prophetic conduct and above all, the morals of the Blessed Prophet -upon him blessings and peace-, and exhibit an exemplary way of life in all respects, in both theory and practice; as the hadith in question reads, “…real scholars are heirs to prophets.” Abu Dawud, Ilm, 1.


True Education: A Heart that is not hurt and that does not hurt…

The great Sami Effendi had just completed his bachelor’s degree at the Faculty of Law, at the Daru’l-Funun University in Istanbul. Noticing his upright conduct and wonderful demeanor, a righteous man said to him:

“This education is fine, too, but you really should look to complete the real education, son. Let’s enroll you in the school of wisdom, where you can receive training in the sciences of the heart and the secrets of the Hereafter”, after which he added:

“I really do not know how they train one in that school and what they teach. But if there is one thing I know, it is that the first lesson of this education is to not hurt, and the last lesson not to be hurt.

Moral of the Story:

Not hurting is relatively easy. But not being hurt is seldom in one’s control; for it is a matter of heart. Avoiding being hurt and heartbroken, therefore, is possible only by becoming immune the poisonous, heart-piercing arrows shot by mortals. The strength of this immunity depends on the level acquired in cleansing the soul and purifying the heart. On being stoned and insulted in Taif, the Blessed Prophet –upon him blessings and peace- was met with an angel, who assured him that he could, with a word, “…strike the two mountains, surrounding Taif together, and destroy the locals”.

But being the mercy to the worlds he was, the Honorable Prophet –upon him blessings and peace- not only declined that offer, he moreover turned towards Taif and compassionately pleaded for the eventual guidance of her locals.[*]

Similarly, as he was being stoned to death, Hallaj, a devoted lover of the Prophetﷺ, was heard pleading, “My Lord…They know not; so forgive them even before You forgive me!”

This is a mindset acquired only through education in its truest form; a mindset belonging to a heart purified through spiritual training.

On being asked about the traits of a purified heart (qalb-i salim), Abu’l-Qasim al-Hakim replied:

“A purified heart has three traits: It is a heart that does not hurt, a heart that is not hurt and a heart that does goodness only for the sake of Allah without accepting anything in return. For a believer reaches the presence of his Lord with dignity (wara), if he has not hurt anyone; with loyalty, if he has directed his heart solely to his Lord and protected it from being hurt by anyone; and sincerity, if he has not ascribed any mortal as partner to his righteous deeds.”

The poet says it beautifully:

The purpose of man and jinn on the garden of earth
Is to not hurt, devotee, and not be hurt!

(*) See, Bukhari, Badu’l-Khalq, 7; Muslim, Jihad, 111.

-An Excerpt from “Sufi Narratives and Lessons”

MURAQABA

Muraqaba (Arabic: مراقبة) is the Sufi word for meditation.

When the lips are closed, then the heart begins to speak; when the heart is silent,
then the soul blazes up, bursting into flame, and this illuminates the whole of life.

Muraqaba is the Sufi word for meditation. Literally it means “to watch over”, “to take care of”, or “to keep an eye”. Metaphorically, it implies that with meditation, a person watches over or takes care of his spiritual heart (or soul), and acquires knowledge about it, its surroundings, and its creator.

 

Stages of Muraqaba

Following are the maqamat (stages) in which sufis have broadly categorized their journey of ascension. This categorization is an arbitrary one, and each level is generally further divided into several sub-levels. During the process of enlightenment, some stages can merge or overlap each other.

 GNOSIS OF SELF

Ghanood (Somnolence)

This is the starting level of meditation. When a person starts meditation, he enters into a somnolent or sleep state often. With the passage of time, the person goes into a state betweensleep and wakefulness. So the person can remember that he saw something, but not specifically what it is.

Adraak (experience)

With continuous practice of meditation, the sleepiness from meditation decreases. When the conscious mind is not suppressed by sleep and is able to focus, the person can receive the spiritual knowledge from his subconscious mind. At this stage, the person is unable to see or hear anything, but he is able to experience or perceive it.

Warood (coming, beginning)

When adraak (experience) becomes deep, it is exhibited as sight. The stage of warood starts when mental concentration is sustained and somnolence is at its minimum. As soon as the mind is focused, the spiritual eye is activated. The conscious mind is not used to see through the spiritual eye, so concentration comes and goes. Gradually, the mind gets used to this kind of visions and the mental focus is sustained. With practice, the visions/experience becomes so deep that the person starts considering himself a part of the experience rather than considering himself an observer.

 GNOSIS OF THE UNIVERSE

Kashaf/Ilhaam (unveiling of arcane knowledge)

Kashaf, or Ilhaam is the stage where man starts getting information that most people are unable to observe. In the beginning, this condition occurs suddenly without personal control. With practice, the mind gets so energized that it can get this knowledge by will.

Shahood (evidence)

When a person can get any information about any event/person with his will, this condition is called Shahood. This stage is broadly categorized according to activation of the senses:

The person can see things anywhere in the universe

The person can hear things anywhere in the universe

The person can smell things anywhere in the universe

The person can touch things anywhere in the universe (hadith)

Fatah (opening, victory)

The peak of Shahood is called Fatah. At this stage, the person doesn’t need to close his eyes for meditation. Here the person is freed from both space and time. He can see/hear/taste/touch anything that are present anywhere in time and space.

 GNOSIS OF THE CREATOR

Fanaa (extinction, annihilation)

Through a series of stages (maqamat) and subjective experiences (ahwal), this process of absorption develops until complete annihilation of the self (fana) takes place and the person becomes al-insanul-kamil, the “perfect man”. It is the disintegration of a person’s narrow self-concept, social self- and limited intellect (feeling like a drop of water aware of being part of the ocean). The stage is also called Fana fit tawheed (“extinction with the unity”), and Fana fil Haq (Extinction in the reality).

Sair illallah (journey towards the God)

Here the person starts his spiritual journey towards the ultimate reality of the universe, i.e. God. Also called Safr-e-Urooji

Fana fillah (Extinction of the self in God)

One of the important phases of mystical experience which is attained by the grace of God by a traveller on the mystical path is the state of fana fi Allah, “extinction of the self in God”. This is the state where the person becomes extinct in the will of God. It is important to mention that this is not incarnation or union. Most Sufis, while passing through this experience, have preferred to live in the greatest depth of silence which transcends all forms and sounds, and enjoy their union with the beloved.

  • The highest stage of fana is reached when even the consciousness of having attained fana disappears. This is what the Sufis call “the passing-away of passing-away” (fana al-fana). The mystic is now wrapped in contemplation of the divine essence. (Nicholson, The Mystics of Islam, p.60).
  • Since it is a state of complete annihilation of carnal self, absorbation or intoxication in God, the pilgrim is unable to participate in worldly affairs, he is made to pass into another state known as Fana-al-Fana (forgetfulness of annihilation). It is a sort of oblivion of unconsciousness. Since two negatives make one positive, the pilgrim at this stage regains his individuality as he was when he started the journey. The only difference is that in the beginning he was self-conscious, but after having reposed in the Divine Being, he regains that sort of individuality which is God-consciousness or absorbation in God. This state is known as Baqa-bi-Allah — living or subsisting with God. (Alhaj W.B.S. Rabbani, Gems of Sufi Gnosticism).

Sair min allah (journey from the God)

Here the person comes back to his existence. Also called Safr-e-Nuzooli.

Baqaa billah (eternal life in union with God)

This is the state where man comes back to his existence and God appoints him to guide the humans. This is a state in which the individual is part of the world, but unconcerned about his or her rewards or position in it. This doctrine is further explained in an authentic tradition of the prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) which states that God said:

And the most beloved things with which My slave comes nearer to Me, is what I have enjoined upon him; and My slave keeps on coming closer to Me through performing Nawafil (praying or doing extra deeds besides what is obligatory) till I love him, so I become his sense of hearing with which he hears, and his sense of sight with which he sees, and his hand with which he grips, and his leg with which he walks. [Sahih Bukhari: Volume 8, Book 76, Number 509]

There is another verse from Qur’an , that is used to explain this concept.

We (Allah) are nearer to him (man) than his jugular vein (50:6)

When Sufis have come out of the Fana fillah state and enter Baqa billah, many of them have produced works of unsurpassed glory, especially in the fields of philosophy, literature, and music. These works have crowned the culture of the entire Islamic world and inspired Sufis and non-Sufis for generations. As the great Persian Sufi poet, Hafiz of Shiraz (Alaihi Rehma), who is fondly remembered as the “tongue of the unseen”, said centuries ago: “He whose heart is alive with love, never dies.”. Allah says about these people in the Qur’an:

“Lo, indeed, the friends of God have no fear, nor are they grieved.”