The highest pinnacle of knowledge is expressed in the fact that without it none can know God.
(al-Hujwiri p. 12)
Ali b. Uthman al-Hujwiri (d. 1072 A.D. 465 A.H.) was a venerated Sufi saint of his times, and his shrine at Lahore in Pakistan is still one of the most popular pilgrimage sites in the country. Among his followers in South Asia he is better known as Daata Ganj Baksh (the provider of forgiveness). Besides being one of the foremost saints involved in propagation of Islam in South Asia, al-Hujwiri was also a premier scholar of Sufi theosophy. His book Kashf al-Mahjub is one of the most comprehensive treatises on Sufi praxis and its relationship with Islam. The book was evidently written in Lahore, in response to certain questions addressed to him by a contemporary townsman, Abu Said al-Hujwiri. In Kashf al-Mahjub al-Hujwiri not only cites various Sheikhs’ and mystical brotherhoods’ views on Sufism, but also discusses and synthesizes what he reports on to construct a complete system of Sufi doctrines and praxis. It is the breadth of references collected in the book, and scholarly commentary and analysis of those references that to my mind make the book invaluable reading for any student of Sufism.
Although al-Hujwiri was a Sunni and ostensibly a practicing Hanafite, he still managed to reconcile his belief in the advanced Sufi doctrine of fana (annihilation) with his Hanafite theological background, while managing to avoid the label of pantheism. Most of the Muslims in general and in South Asia in particular, subscribe to the Sunni, Hanafite school of jurisprudence and Islamic practice. Through his book we get an idea of how strict theological background can be reconciled with a sober shade of Sufism. We also get an idea of how a sober shade of Sufism can be reconciled with some of the practices like sama, associated with more intoxicated brands of Sufism. The book is a remarkable study in cautious, almost diplomatic, bridge building between theology and theosophy, sobriety and intoxication. I believe herein lies al-Hujwiri’s appeal as a saint to his numerous followers–his teachings could allow Muslims a deeper mystical experience of God, that comes through Sufism, while at the same time not putting them in conflict with the dominant social theocratic discourse. The following is an analysis of this remarkable balancing act that al-Hujwiri performed in Kashf al-Mahjub. His modes of argumentation as well as his positions on various Sufi doctrines provide us valuable insights into his incisive but diplomatic mind.
Before getting into the details of al-Hujwiri’s specific views on various matters relating to Sufism and formal Islam, it would be relevant to view his basic method of argumentation. Throughout the book Hujwiri demonstrates a complete mastery of the Socratic method of deductive argumentation. In that respect I disagree with Nicholson’s description of Kashf al-Mahjub as something providing a purely “Persian flavor of philosophical speculation.’ I do not know too much about the Persian flavor of philosophical speculation, but I believe it would be unfair to not recognize the deductive logical reasoning in the Socratic tradition underlying al-Hujwiri’s philosophical speculation. An example of such reasoning is in the following quotation refuting the assertion that there can be complete annihilation of the material self within the divine being2:
I ask all who proclaim such tenets: “What difference is there between the view that the Eternal is the locus of the phenomenal and the view that the phenomenal is the locus of the Eternal, or between the assertion that the Eternal has phenomenal attributes and the assertion that phenomenal has eternal attributes?” Such doctrines involve materialism (dahr) and destroy the proof of the phenomenal, or that what is created may be commingled with what is uncreated. If, as they cannot help admitting, the creation is phenomenal, then their Creator also must be phenomenal, because the locus of a thing is like its substance; if the locus (mahall) is phenomenal, it follows that the contents of the locus (hall) are phenomenal too. In fact, when one thing is linked and united and commingled with another, both things are in principle as one.
(al-Hujwiri p. 244)
In the above quote the a prioripremise is that God is Eternal and the created universe is phenomenal and that the two are fundamentally different entities, which cannot mingle together. If the above premise is granted then there is no room for complete annihilation because humans are phenomenal and the Creator is Eternal. “Eternal cannot be the locus of the phenomenal and vice-versa. By this very simple deductive reasoning Hujwiri rejects the possibility of complete annihilation. At another place3
If reason were the cause of gnosis, it would follow that every reasonable person must know God and all who lack reason must be ignorant of Him; which is manifestly absurd.
(al-Hujwiri p. 268)
Here if one were to grant the premise that gnosis follows from reason, then all those who possess reason must have gnosis. Since all who have reason do not have gnosis then the statement must be rejected. Throughout the book, al-Hujwiri takes certain a prioripremises and applies them to objective statements, and if the statements do not fulfill the logical requirements of the premise then he rejects them. On another occasion he uses similar deductive logic to demonstrate the independent essential importance of prayer4 :
I Ali b. Uthman al-Jullabi assert that prayer is a divine command and is not a means of obtaining either ‘presence’ or ‘absence’, because a Divine command is not a means to anything. The cause of ‘presence’ is ‘presence’ itself, and the cause or means of ‘absence’ is ‘absence’ itself. If prayer were the cause of or means of ‘presence’, it could be performed only by one who was ‘present’, and if it were the cause of ‘absence’, one who was ‘absent’ would necessarily become ‘present’ by neglecting to perform it. But inasmuch as it must be performed by all, whether they be ‘present’ or ‘absent’ prayer is sovereign in its essence and independent.
(al-Hujwiri p. 301)
The above may sound like a play on words, as most deductive reasoning does, it seems clear however that al-Hujwiri is writing in the tradition of some of the other philosophical masters, who always found deduction to be the choice mode of argumentation when establishing the primacy of say justice in case of Socrates or prayer in case of Hujwiri.
al-Hujwiri’s Perspective on Major Sufi Doctrines
The treatise Kashf al-Mahjub can be broadly divided into two parts–the first part is on major Sufi doctrines and praxis, and the second part is concerned with demonstrating the role of Sufism in relation to basic Islamic practices. This section specifically addresses the first of the two parts. al-Hujwiri goes at length to discuss some of the prevailing doctrines of Sufi tariqahs and then offers insightful commentary on some of their basic tenets. He identifies eleven schools of Sufis–he agrees with the doctrines of ten of them and rejects one of them–Hululis–as a renegade school holding erroneous and blasphemous beliefs. Following is the list of some of the major doctrines discussed by him. The list is not comprehensive by any means but it comprises some concepts and doctrines that I consider to be important in understanding Sufism.
The discourse on sainthood (wilayat) takes place under the description of the school of Sufis called Hakimis, the followers of Abu Abdullah Muhammad b. Ali al-Hakim alTrimidhi. al-Hujwiri takes the school’s emphasis on sainthood as his take off point for a deeper discussion of the concept. He declares the concept of sainthood to be the universally accepted foundation of Sufism and knowledge of God. Sainthood, in his opinion, is integral to the theory of Sufism, and therefore must be understood to understand Sufism. A saint or wali is a friend of God, he is free of sin and his whole life and being is dedicated to doing the One’s bidding5
.. . . God has saints (awliya) whom He has specially distinguished by His friendship and whom He has chosen to be the governors of His kingdom and has marked out to manifest His actions and has peculiarly favored with diverse kinds of miracles (karamat) and has purged of natural corruptions and has delivered from subjection to their lower soul and passion, so that all their thoughts are of Him and their intimacy is with Him alone.
(al-Hujwiri pp. 2 12-213)
al-Hujwiri gives a rebuttal to the Mutazilite claim that all humans are equal and ordinary in the eye of God, by saying that if the saints are not especially privileged then prophets too, who are human may not be especially privileged. Since prophets clearly are privileged, then the principle of equality is violated, and if it is violated in case of prophets it cannot hold in case of the saints either. Saints are sent to this world to preserve and manifest the prophetic evidence through gnosis and and good works. Saints are aware of their sainthood and their special place with God, and since they are divinely protected they are not susceptible to human sins like vanity and apathy. A saint desires God for His own sake to the exclusion of everything else6 :
Do not covet anything in this world or the next, and devote thyself entirely to God and turn to God with all thy heart. To covet this world is to turn away form God for the sake of that which is transitory, and to covet the next world is to turn away from God for the sake of that which is everlasting
(al-Hujwiri p. 217)
A saint becomes indifferent to all states of the lower soul (nafs) e.g. fear, hope, security and grief and his vision becomes steadfast in the vision of the Author of the states. It is then that sainthood is revealed to the person. Saints also have certain miracles associated with them. Although al-Hujwiri goes into a long discussion of the miracles and their significance, suffice it to say for our purposes that they are only a confirmation of the miracles bestowed upon the prophets7. Also, prophethood starts where sainthood ends; all prophets are saints but not all saints are prophets. Saints are generally bound to perform religious duties like everybody else except under rare fleeting states (hal), when they are also beyond human condition and therefore not answerable for their deeds as humans. What is a temporary hal of a saint is a permanent state (maqam) of the prophet. Also, saints and prophets are superior to the angels because they have to fight their human failings to do God’s bidding whereas angels—naturally–have no such problems.
On Intoxication and Sobriety
The discourse on intoxication and sobriety arises out of the description of the intoxicated followers of Abu Yazid Tayfu b. Isa b. Surushan al-Bistami, also known as the Tayfuris. Here al-Hujwiri expresses his preference for sobriety by calling it the perfection of intoxication8
Intoxication then, is to fancy one’s self annihilated while the attributes really subsist; and this is a veil. Sobriety, on the other hand, is the vision of subsistence while the attributes are annihilate; and this is actual revelation.
(al-Hujwiri p. 187)
However, having placed himself squarely within the sober camp of Sufis, in his last chapter al-Hujwiri proceeds to approve of and even encourage some very non-sober Sufi practices like sama(audition). His rules for sama seem to encourage extreme intoxication as is evident from some of the following quotations:
Although the rending of garments (during sama) has no foundation in Sufism and certainly ought not to be practiced in audition by anyone whose senses are perfectly controlled–for in that case, it is mere extravagance–nevertheless, if the auditor is so overpowered that his sense of discrimination is lost and he becomes unconscious, then he may be excused (from tearing his garments to pieces); and it is allowable that all the persons present should rend their garments in sympathy with him9 .
(al-Hujwiri p. 417)
You must not exceed the proper bounds until audition manifests its power, and when it has become powerful you must not repel it, but must follow it as it requires: if it agitates, you must be agitated, and if it calms, you must be calm; and you must be able to distinguish a strong natural impulse from the ardor of ecstasy (wajd)10
(al-Hujwiri p. 419)
Although the above statements seem contradictory (and this is not the only contradictory position he takes) with his earlier position in favor of sobriety, in a classic al-Hujwiri fashion he declares that this dancing is not dancing at all but in fact a dissolution of the soul after reaching a state, which cannot be explained in words11. He even seems to encourage feigning wajd (tawajud),the apparent rationale being that once one gets used to the outward routine of wajdone will be able to cultivate the habit of getting into wajd12. The only way to reconcile the two opposing positions is by understanding the basic tenet of his writings on Sufism–that men of religion invariably seek benefit from their every action, if samaproduces spiritual elevation then it is lawful, if it arouses base desires then it is unlawful, and the men of religion would only do it to gain spiritual advantage13.
On the Lower Soul (nafs)
al-Hujwiri makes it clear at the very outset that self-mortification (tazkiyah-e-nafs)to control the lower soul is eminently desirable since the lower soul and obedience to it is the cause of all evil. The controversy however, arises over whether self-mortification is a means and direct cause of union with God, or can union only be attained through divine will? Self-mortification being a human act can only accomplish the human end of gaining control over the lower soul, which is a worthy goal in any event14 according to al Hujwiri. He considers the controversy a purely semantic one. In his view self-mortification is ordained by God through His apostle and His book. It is an essential act of obedience, which is a first step towards seeking union with God. A human’s actions cannot have value until God wills them to have value, therefore if the objective is union with God, then if there is God’s will and there is sincerity on part of the human, there can be union. Self-mortification of those that God loves is not their own human actions, but rather God’s actions through them, and in that case self-mortification can be a cause of union with God. Self-mortification in and of itself cannot cause union with God though it can be a means to it 15. “The purpose of mortifying the lower soul is to destroy its attributes, not to annihilate its reality16.” This position is consistent with al-Hujwiri’s classic position that there is no absolute free will and there is no absolute determinism. Human’s are free to do as they please as long as there is God’s will involved. The exact nuances of this position are admittedly beyond my understanding at the moment and mercifully also beyond the scope of this paper.
On Annihilation (fana)
The discourse on annihilation has its beginnings in the description of the Kharrazis, and it continues in one form or another through the description of the Khafifis, Sayyaris and Hululis, into the chapters on the unveiling of the Gnosis of God and tawhid. The citation given above with regard to the phenomenal and eternal nature of humans and God, to demonstrate the deductive logical thinking of al-Hujwiri should also be instructive on his position on the issue of annihilation and subsistence. He dismisses the concept of annihilation as physical annihilation of a human into God, as pure heresy and blasphemy. Annihilation in his view is the annihilation of the egotistical self when confronted with the spiritual vision of God’s glory, and consequent complete humility. It means indifference to passion and reason and apathy to any desires. A Sufi who has achieved annihilation, in Hujwiri’s conception sounds like a robot who has no self will but only what his master decrees17 .
when anyone acknowledges the unity of God he feels himself overpowered by the omnipotence of God, and one who is overpowered (maghlub) is annihilated in the might of his vanquisher; and when his annihilation is rightly fulfilled on him, he confesses his weakness and sees no recourse except to serve God, and tries to gain His satisfaction (rida). And whoever explains these terms otherwise, i.e., annihilation as meaning “annihilation of substance” and subsistence as meaning ‘subsistence of God (in Man),’ is a heretic and a Christian, as has been stated above.
(al-Hujwiri p. 246)
There are two related concepts of absence (ghaybat) and presence (hudur) that al-Hujwiri introduces in his discussion of the Khafifis. ‘Absence’ involves the sorrow of being veiled from the beloved One, while ‘presence’ involves the joy and ecstasy of revelation. The following anecdote attributed to Junayd as quoted by al-Hujwiri conveys the difference between the two terms very well18.
It is related that Junayd said: “For a time I was such that the inhabitants of heaven and earth wept over my bewilderment (hayrat); then, again, I became such that I wept over their absence (ghaybat); and now my state is such that I have no knowledge either of them or of myself.” This is an excellent indication of presence.
(al-Hujwiri p. 25 1)
Two more relevant but subtle concepts are those of ‘union’ (jam) and ‘separation’ (tafriqa). Simply stated whatever is the result of self-mortification is ‘separation’ and whatever is a result of divine grace is ‘union’, basic notion being that one is united with God at a deeper internal level but one is separated from God because one still has to perform the religious duties essential for all, thereby implying a separation19 .
His saints are united by their inward feelings and separated by their outward behavior, so that their love of God is strengthened by the internal union, and the right fulfillment of their duty as servants of God is assured by their external separation.
(al-Hujwiri p. 255)
al-Hujwiri vigorously denounces the Hululis for their inability to grasp the subtleties of annihilation discussed above. The Hululis’ position that annihilation is tantamount to incarnation, commixture or transmigration is considered repugnant to the spirit and the letter of the religion of Islam. Annihilation is a very subtle concept involving numerous very fine distinctions, as discussed above. To make it out to be something that may serve as a license to be anything less than an obedient Muslim, according to al-Hujwiri, is pure heresy.
There is a familiar middle ground that al-Hujwiri takes on the issue of annihilation, assiduously avoiding any appearance of impropriety, and explaining away any inconsistencies with very subtle logical arguments. Although, he appears to be contradictory at times in his actual prescriptions for action and understanding, but he is never contradictory in his basic premises about the eternal nature of God, the phenomenal nature of the universe and the impossibility of the two ever coming together. He is careful never to equate one with the other. The entire section on Sufi doctrines also demonstrates his preoccupation with inner attitudes and relative lack of concern for outward forms and specific actions. He builds a very fine logical system of Sufi doctrines, and then turns to the next challenge of integrating that system into the broader rubric of Islamic praxis.
Al-Hujwiri on Islamic Religious Duties
With respect to Islamic religious duties, al-Hujwiri carries over his paramount concern for inner attitudes, as a precondition for consummation of any religious duty. Gnosis of God (ma ‘rifat Allah) is the basis for all religious knowledge for the ‘worth of everyone is in proportion to gnosis, and he who is without gnosis is worth nothing20.’ All the religious duties laid upon humans are most respectable when they are conducted through the passive state of gnosis for through gnosis one knows that all human actions are really metaphorical and God is the real agent21.
He it is that imposes the obligation of piety, which is essentially gnosis; and those on whom that obligation is laid, so long as they are in the state of obligation, neither bring it upon themselves nor put it away from themselves by their own choice: therefore Man’s share in gnosis, unless God make him know, is mere helplessness22 .
(al-Hujwiri p. 269)
The following discourses on Islamic tenets must be viewed in the above context.
On Unification (Tawhid)
According to al-Hujwiri real unification consists of asserting the unity or singularity of God and then having perfect knowledge and cognition of His unity. To know and assert unification one would have to: assert and know that God is eternal; know that there cannot be any mingling or connection between His created phenomenal world and Himself; give up any worldly stations or pleasures of the lower soul; and turn one’s whole attention towards God, for to concern oneself with anything worldly would only serve as a veil23. To put it simply it seems that affirmation of unification (tawhid) is an inevitable road to gnosis. Unification in al-Hujwiri’s conception cannot be consummated without a spiritual, gnostic contemplation of God and his mysteries.
On prayers al-Hujwiri has a very simple point of view; God commands us to do it and we, his humble servants, have no choice but to do it. He however vigorously takes issue with the popular conception that prayers can be a means to finding God. He ascribes this conception to the novices, or the fool’s multitude, which takes on outward trappings e.g. ritual purification in place of inner repentance and prayer in place of self-mortification, as a means to attaining God. He has stated throughout the book that gnosis and associated inner spiritual disciplines and exercises are the only way to approach God. Ritual prayers, like many other divine commands are not a means to anything, as is indicated in the above-cited quote about prayer. It is an outward discipline, which must be done by all, but is more preferable when one, who is annihilated through the love of the One, takes immense pleasure in doing. He ties in his discourse on ritual prayer to a discourse on love (mahabbat).He maintains that when one loves God, one’s attributes are annihilated and the essence of the Beloved is established. This inevitably leads to the lover’s unquestionable obedience to the commands of the Beloved24. The commands of the Beloved, like prayer, become the pleasure of the lover, and to suggest that one is exempt from God’s commands at any stage of love is pure heresy.
On Alms (Zakat) and Fasting
With regard to Alms al-Hujwiri’s position is again very simple and straight-forward, it is God’s command and we must fulfill that command. He does however emphasize that one must have knowledge of why one should give or receive alms, because as in all preceding matters, one has an obligation to gain knowledge of the theory of giving alms. In his view even taking alms is as good as receiving alms, as long as it is done with the view of relieving a brother Muslim of his essential responsibility of giving them. In any case one with the knowledge of God is not going to be attached to worldly goods. Therefore giving and receiving of alms would not mean anything to the person in terms of parting with or gaining any worldly goods, it would only be useful insofar as it is done with the view of doing what God commands us to do25.
Fasting also falls within the same category as prayer and alms. Here al-Hujwiri declares that a gnostic is in a perpetual state of fasting, because he has turned away from all worldly goods including nourishment. Fasting may be done during the month of ramadan to gain recompense from God for something, because He has declared ramadan and fasting in that month as His, and for which He will give recompense26. However a preferable mode of fasting is when it is done without an eye towards recompense and is a manifestation of renouncing self-will and ostentation. Some of the Sufi saints in fact, only ate when food was put in front of them, otherwise they were so occupied with God that the thought of food did not enter their minds for days on end. According to al-Hujwiri, food must be withheld from the lower soul to make it grow weak and to subdue it. One must however still eat periodically to keep soul and body together. Prolonged fasts are a miracle, which is specifically given to chosen people including the apostle and selected saints. Others along the path can only exercise a certain discipline in eating and nourishment, so as to train the body to reach higher levels of privation and therefore spiritual cleanliness.
On Pilgrimage (Hajj)
About the pilgrimage al-Hujwiri maintains that it is a duty towards God but it is useless if it is just a physical act without any contemplation of God27 .
Anyone who is absent from God at Mecca is in the same position as if he were absent from God in his own house, and anyone who is present with God in his own house is in the same position as if he were present with God in Mecca. Pilgrimage is an act of mortification (mujahadat) for the sake of obtaining contemplation (mushahadat), and mortification does not become the direct cause of contemplation, but is only a means to it. Therefore, inasmuch as a means has no further effect on the reality of things, the true object of pilgrimage is not to visit the Kaba, but to obtain contemplation of God.
(al-Hujwiri p. 329)
On surface al-Hujwiri seems to take a very liberal and contextual view of this duty towards God. But on closer scrutiny this is also consistent with his position on other matters, i.e., an action is meaningless without the inner purpose of gaining knowledge of God, which to his mind is the only relevant knowledge. The object of the exercise in this context is contemplation of God, the Ka’aba and the associated rituals, as well as the effort of getting there are only metaphorical symbols for the real purpose of getting the believers to (1) renounce attachment to worldly goods, (2) contemplate God to the exclusion of everything else, and (3) to mortify themselves to gain control over the lower soul28.
If they are bound to visit a stone, which is looked at only once a year, surely they are more bound to visit the temple of the heart, where He may be seen three hundred and sixty times in a day and night.
(al-Hujwiri p. 327)
Or as Abu Yzid as quoted by al-Hujwiri said29
On my first pilgrimage I saw only the temple; the second time I saw both the temple and the Lord of the temple; and the third time I saw the Lord alone.
(al-Hujwiri p. 327)
Adding anything to the above feels superficial and unnecessary to me.
To conclude, like other Sufi masters al-Hujwiri is at a loss to make a distinction between Islam and Sufism because in his conception Sufism is so integral to the religion that any distinction is inconceivable to him. On a first reading his positions on all the issues seem a remarkable exercise in balancing the rigid dictates of the orthodoxy with the deeper and outwardly more flexible teachings of the Sufi way. The union with God is possible, but there are these caveats one needs to be aware of; one can reach union with God through self-mortification but that is not sufficient in and of itself; one should be sober but certain intoxicated actions undertaken with sober objectives are quite desirable; saints, like prophets, are God’s representatives on earth, but not quite like the prophets. These are in summary the expositions of al-Hujwiri on some aspects of Sufi thought. Similarly in case of the tenets of Islam: tawhid is essential to profess but one must also be knowledgeable of it and use it as a means of gaining union with God; prayer is essential but they are an expression of obedience and not a means to anything; zakat and fasting are essential but more importantly are just manifestations of indifference to worldly desire and obedience to God, and above all Hajj is important only if one uses it to contemplate God. But when one views all of the above positions in their entirety and within the context of the logical and theosophical structure that he builds they seem entirely consistent. In his theosophical structure knowledge is the precondition for knowing God. By knowledge he means knowledge of God through revelation and not the knowledge gained through reason. Gnosis is the paramount attribute of a true Sufi who is also the most exalted Muslim. So if the objective is perfection of faith then works, sincerity and knowledge of the underlying gnostic basis of the faith are absolutely imperative.
A gnostic (wali Allah) is ultimately aiming to achieve a level where, he no longer has free will, and the will of God becomes his will. This is the objective that, according to al-Hujwiri, all Sufis should aspire towards–while being aware of the technical misconceptions that may detract them from the true path. The book seems to be addressed primarily to the students of Sufism and not to the general public. It is difficult to conceive how he would have expected the lay public of his time (or even today) to appreciate the subtleties of his logic, and sophistication of his thought. The introduction and conclusion to the book are however, a little inconsistent with the rest of his message. In his introduction he declares that he is indifferent to worldly honors, but then he complains bitterly about somebody else claiming credit for his writings, thereby denying him the prospect of keeping his name alive through those works. This contradiction undermines his authority when he asks others to reject worldly stations30. Secondly in the conclusion to his book he asks all to pray for him to have a vision of God in paradise31. This again undermines his authority when he urges others to seek God for His own sake without any regard for a worldly or an eternal reward. I am somewhat at a loss to explain inconsistencies like these, except perhaps that in the translation the spirit of what he meant has been lost. Despite these problems, Kashf al-Mahjub is a fine piece of scholarship, not only on account of its value as a chronicle of Sufi thought but also for its logical and philosophical robustness.
 Nicholson, Reynold A. transl. of al-Hujwiri, Ali b. Uthman al-Jullabi, 1967: The Kashf al-Mahjub: The
Oldest Persian Treatise on Sufism, for E.J.W. Gibb Memorial by Luzac and Company ltd.
London, UK, p. xii.
2 al-Hujwiri, p. 244.