Kashf al-Mahjub a Window to the Mind and Doctrines of Ali b. Uthman al-Jullabi al- Ghaznawi al-Hujwiri

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.’[1]  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.

On Sainthood

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

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.


[1] 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.

3Ibid. p. 268.

4Ibid. p. 303.

5 Ibid. pp. 211-213.

6 Ibid. p. 217

7  Ibid. p. 220

8 Ibid. p. 187.

9 Ibid. p. 417.

10 Ibid. p. 419.

11 Ibid. p. 416.

12Ibid. p. 415.

13Ibid. pp. 401-402.

14Ibid. p. 201.

15 Ibid. pp. 203-205

16Ibid. p. 207.

17 Ibid. p. 246.

18Ibid. p. 251.

19 Ibid. p. 255.

20Ibid. p. 267.

21 Ibid. p. 276.

22Ibid. p. 269.

23Ibid. p. 282.

24 Ibid. pp. 311-312.

25 Ibid.pp. 315-319.

26 Ibid.p. 320.

27Ibid. p. 329.

28Ibid. p. 327.

29 Ibid.

30 Ibid. p. 2

31Ibid. p. 420.

Death of Hallaj: Murder or Suicide? Questioning the Necessity of Physical Annihilation Following a Mystical Annihilation.

Tis the flame of love that fired me,

Tis the wine of love inspired me.

Wouldst thou learn how lovers bleed,

Hearken, hearken to the Reed.

(Jalal-ud-Din Rumi)

Destroy the Ka’ba of your body that it may resuscitate, created anew

(Hallaj in Massignon, p. 172)

Abu’l-Mughith al-Husayn bin Mansur bin Mahamma al-Baydawi, better known as Mansur al-Hallaj is one of the most controversial figures in the history of Sufism and Islam.  His teachings, life, and death form an extremely important turning point in the history of tasawwuf (the Sufi way).  Here I review the events surrounding the death of Hallaj and problematize the popular assertion that Hallaj’s physical death was a necessary corollary to his mystical annihilation.  It is a common practice to view historical and literary tragedies as something inevitable, and even desirable.  The tragic end of Hallaj, like that of Socrates, is popularly understood to be something that the protagonist desired and actively planned.  I question this interpretation of the tragedy of Hallaj and suggests that perhaps there was nothing inevitable let alone desirable about Hallaj’s physical annihilation.

I start with the premise that sainthood and mystical maqam are important elements of human civilization, which have served to enrich human spiritual experience.  Sainthood and its scholarly investigation are therefore inherently important.  In the words of Louis Massignon[i]:

One can schematize the life of a social group by constructing the individual life curves of each of its distinct members according to their relations in the external environment, but it is useless to make it out to be the aggregation of these without having noted in it certain unusual individual curves, blessed with unique points corresponding to the “interior experiences” of certainties (and even of anguish) by which they have “found” some “psychic resolvent” in their adventures in this environment.  Having first become intelligible “dramatic situations” for those, they become unraveled for others afterwards.

(p. xxiii)

The mysticism of Hallaj may be a very personal experience for him, and his life, trial and execution may also be part of a personal, even heroic, project with a divine objective, but in light of the above conception of history, and significance of great lives, those personal experiences of Hallaj take on a transsocial and transhistorical significance[ii].  Saints like Hallaj symbolize in the corrupt and perishable world, the incorruptible and fearless presence of a sacred truth, and in Massignon’s formulation their sufferings serve as a symbolic substitute for the sufferings of the mass of humanity, almost like Jesus[iii].  But that begs the question; is the suffering of the saint, inevitable, necessary or even desirable?  Massignon seems to think that ‘it is only through the mortal suffering of the desired trial that he (Hallaj) can reach Union with the One’[iv]. Addressing the question on a theosophical plain is beyond my competence, but I would like to address the question by teasing out Hallaj’s own views on the matter by not just limiting myself to what he generally said, but also what he did when faced with the trial and ultimate execution.

There is little doubt that Hallaj had indeed attained the ultimate mystical maqam of fana, much before his arrest, and execution.  In fact, Hallaj stands as a towering example of a mystic who had annihilated his self in the will of the One and had therefore attained hulul (infusion) into the divine.  The most commonly attributed saying to him of ana’l-Haqq (I am the Truth=My ‘I’ is God) is the most celebrated and most vilified manifestation of his complete and utter annihilation.  Hallaj probably meant the phrase to signify his intentional complete union in love with the divine One, who then in spirit takes over his personality and will and therefore, enables him to say ‘I’, the divine ‘I’, because there is no spiritual difference between Him and I[v].  This total self renunciation was in essence the height of humility where the subject had denied his self and subsumed it within the bigger Self of God.  There was considerable denunciation of Hallaj for articulating and even advertising his fana and hulul, both on mystical and legal grounds.  Hallaj had no qualms about announcing his mystical state to the rest of the world.  Some of his public pronouncements like the following are evidence of his mystical exhibitionism.

O people! save me from God! For he has robbed me from myself, and He does not return me to myself! I cannot witness to Him the respect due to His presence, for I am afraid of His forsaking (me). He will leave me deserted, forsaken, outlawed! and woe to the one who feels deserted after the Presence and abandoned after the Union!

(p. 142)

Hallaj wept after this declaration and the crowd wept with him[vi].  On another occasion he declared[vii]:

O people! When the truth has taken hold of a heart, He empties it of all but Himself! When God attaches Himself to a man, He kills in him all else but Himself! When He loves one of His faithful, He incites the others to hate him, in order that His servant may draw near Him so as to assent to Him!

But what happens to me? I no longer feel the least breeze of His Presence, nor the last reach of His glance! Alas! And here are so many people who begin to hate me, now!

(p. 143)

Hallaj sounds almost intoxicated in the mystical love of the divine One and the contemplation of His glory.  The forcefulness of his speech betrays his almost compulsive drive to vocalize his experience of the Glory.  Yes there are plenty of mystical objections to him, but not so much on the content of his mysticism but on his willingness to vocalize his experience.  The Sufi objections can be summarized as follows[viii]:

  • He comprehended wahdat al-shahud i.e. that the beauty of the world testifies that God appears in everything.  Hallaj having gained this comprehension should not have declared it openly.
  • He comprehended wahdat al-wujud i.e. nothing exists but God.  He got a glimpse of this powerful concept and damned himself by declaring it before it was time.
  • He understood sirr al-muta, i.e., God delegates the setting in motion of the universe to a leader from the hierarchy of saints, and he being one of the saints, should have remained hidden.
  • He understood sirr al-rububiya i.e. the secret of supreme power.  God, is the author of each personal act in every intelligent being: and when the being divulges this secret he steals from God and therefore deserves punishment.

All of the above objections recognize the exalted mystical station of Hallaj, but take issue with his breaking the Sufi discipline of silence (spiritual elitism?), through public pronouncements of his experiences.  It was precisely this public declaration of his mystical doctrines (for lack of a better word) that also made him so politically dangerous to the corrupt Abbaside vizirs like Hamid and Ali ibn al-Furat.  The depredations of the Abbaside bureaucracy in the form of surplus accumulation (taxation) and the apparent waste of public money on the extravagant life styles of the rich and famous had deeply embittered the general public, especially in Baghdad.  The orthodox religion symbolized by the theologians, jurisconsults, ulema (religious scholars), and Qadis (religious jurist) was a subject of spiteful satire by the general public in those times (much the same as now), as is evident from some of the following popular street sayings of those times–“the Qur’an reciter is greedy, sodomite, vainglorious, and hypocritical”[ix] or “Mecca suits only the one who brings faith to it or his purse”[x].  Within this very cynical and almost rebellious social melieu Hallaj’s impassioned declarations perhaps sounded like the only sincere voice in the midst of of hypocritical crowing by the officially sanctioned ulema and Sufis.  No wonder Massignon speculates that Hallaj came to “this crafts proletarian milieu (of Baghdad), as much out of compassion for humble people as out of a desire to rally quasi Shi’ites to his own spiritual and mystical form of mahdism.”[xi]

Hallaj understood that the manasik al-Hajj in Mecca usher one into a deifying mystery of love, “because they call forth ‘the descent of divine forgiveness’ to Arafat”[xii].  He knew that the ritual was only symbolic on Arafat and could only be consummated by him in Baghdad by going into the street and compassionately provoking the people and exposing himself to death[xiii].  Hallaj stated that Satan is right in counseling human nature to destroy the Temple in order to worship the One who is all alone and all present[xiv].  The religious implications of such declarations are quite clear, but the logical inferences for society and the rotten edifice of the corrupt and hypocritical Abbaside empire of the tenth century were potentially catastrophic, and these implications were not lost upon Hamid and ibn al-Furat.

There are many instances of Hallaj’s challenging people to kill him in the suq (bazaar) of Baghdad e.g. according to Husayn ibn Hamdan he was heard saying, with a sense of foreboding[xv]

It is in the confession of the Cross that I will die;

I no longer care to go to Mecca no Medina

(p. 144)

Hamdan reports the following dialogue between himself and Hallaj when Hallaj was asked as to what he means[xvi]

He (Hallaj) said: “That someone will kill this cursed one!” and he pointed his finger at himself.  I (Hamdan) asked, “Is it permitted to incite people to kill?” He said, “No, but I incite them to be sincere in their faith, for, in my case, the putting to death of this person is their duty, and if they wish to do it to me, they will be recompensed”

(p. 144)

The above quote shows that not only was Hallaj on the one hand sharing his mystical experience with the lay public for reasons discussed above, but on the other hand, he was very deliberately challenging the dominant legal orthodoxy connected with Islam in the popular conception.  This reference to the law rings very similar to the Socratic reference to the sanctity of the laws of the city in Plato’s short dialogue Crito. Both of them also had, metaphorically speaking, similar charges against them–‘not believing the gods of the city, and corrupting the youth of the city’.  But whereas Socrates had the higher calling of Justice to violate the laws of the city, Hallaj had the higher calling of divine love to flaunt the laws of religious orthodoxy.  However as we shall see, unlike the romanticized and stoic Socrates, Hallaj often acted in a very human way through his apprehension, trial and final execution.

When the initial arrest warrants of Hallaj were put out in 298/910 AD, knowing what was afoot, Hallaj promptly made good his escape from Baghdad to Sus in Ahwaz (Modern day Iran).  He was captured three years later, almost by accident, and upon apprehension refused to acknowledge his identity–A very human act of a person who, all said, probably loved life as well as God.  He probably knew that he had powerful enemies who would extract a terrible revenge[xvii].  He endured his initial trial with fortitude and dignity, and was then thrown in prison for another nine years, before his enemies could build enough political and legal inertia to finally get rid of him. In prison he continued his preaching as before and wrote prolifically.  Like a true believer and a revolutionary his voice was not tempered down and he never compromised on any of the principles he had espoused earlier.

There were the following broader and specific charges against Hallaj in his second and final trial in 921-922.

  1. ifsha’ al-karamat, i.e. Magic and sorcery with which he supposedly fooled people.
  2. da’wat al-rububiya, i.e. pretensions to being God or God’s deputy.
  3. zandaqa i.e. the thesis of hulul, which was considered blasphemous by the Zahiri ibn Dawud.  The orthodox considered it blasphemous for him to declare that it is better to “proceed seven time round the Ka’ba of your heart[xviii][xix]” than to actually go to the physical Ka’ba in Hijaz.

The first two charges served to build the inertia of legal opinion again Hallaj.  It was the last one about the destruction of the Ka’ba that finally lead Qadi Abu Umar the presiding judge for the trial to declare shedding of his blood legal.  The earlier charges had been held in abeyance because of the Shafi’ite Ibn Surayj’s fatwa, which denied the canonists any competence in judging the matters of the heart and mysticism[xx].  However the final evidence, the letter he had written to Shakir b. Ahmed urging him to destroy the (Ka’ba of his body) to rebuild it in wisdom, was interpreted to mean that he was urging the physical destruction of Islam’s holiest shrines, and was therefore a zandaqi whose blood could be spilled with impunity.

The final outrage against justice and good sense, whereby Hallaj’s statements were taken completely out of context and misrepresented to condemn him drew a spirited response from him.  By some accounts he vehemently protested and declared[xxi]:

my back is forbidden (to your whip), my blood inviolable (haram); you are not allowed to use this interpretation to render shedding it lawful; my religion is Islam, my rule of conduct is tradition (sunna), founded on the acknowledged superiority of Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman, Ali, Talha, Zubayr, Sa’d, Sa’id, AR ibn Awf, and Abu Ubayda ibn al-Jarrah.

(Massingon p. 268)

Massignon has reason to interpret the statement as coming from a person who was, in a very human way, terror stricken in the face of his impending fate.  He had not accepted the full horror of the sacrifice for which he had yearned (perhaps rhetorically) so much[xxii].  Being a perfect Sufi and somebody who had achieved fana perhaps he should have been above these fears, but he was not, because in the end he could not turn away from his essential humanity.  God perhaps lived in his spirit, but Hallaj still had a human body.  Even if Hallaj’s obvious attempts at evading arrest and then execution can be interpreted to have some deeper spiritual meaning, that meaning can only be that in his understanding, perhaps his execution, was not a necessary corollary to his spiritual annihilation.  Also it seems somewhat strange to justify the injustice done to him by thinking of it as a logical or theosophical necessity.  Hallaj too was quite aware of the injustice being done to him[xxiii]:

I weep to You for the Souls whose witness (Hallaj) now goes–beyond the ‘where’ to meet the very Witness of Eternity.

I cry to You for the Word of God, which since it perished,–has faded into nothing in our memory;

All have crossed (the desert), leaving neither well nor trace behind;–vanished like the Adites and their lost city of Iram;

And After them the abandoned crowd is muddled on their trails,–blinder than beasts, blinder even than she-camels.

(p. 283-284)

I cannot articulate better than the above verses the sense of frustration and futility for Hallaj, who believed that so much still remained to be done to propagate the Word of God, which may be lost by his execution.  His alliteration of the passing of the witness (himself), the Word of God, and those passing through the desert and leaving nothing behind, is a very sad lament indeed, on his own impending passing away. He protests that he meant to rid people of their blindness, he meant to leave something behind, but the injustice done to him is probably going to have him leave the world with an unfinished task and no signs behind.  Hallaj was right in that he did leave an unfinished task, a victim of forces beyond his human control, but he left plenty behind.  Just compare the number of people who remember him and those who remember Hamid, al-Fustar, Abu Umar or even Muqtadir.  He was happy in a selfish way to finally get his physical being out of the way to finally meet the One, but in a characteristic of proximity to divinity, he was also consumed by compassion for humanity who he was now going to leave behind.


[i] Massignon, Louis, 1994. Hallaj: Mystic and Martyr, translated by Herbert Mason, abridged edition, Princeton University Press: Princeton, NJ, USA, p. xxiii.

[ii] Ibid. p. xxiv

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Ibid.

[v] Encyclopedia of Islam, new edition.

[vi] Massignon, 1994: p. 142.

[vii] Ibid. p. 143

[viii] Ibid. pp. 60-70.

[ix] Ibid. p. 130.

[x] Ibid. p. 132.

[xi] Ibid. p. 142.

[xii] Ibid. p. 162.

[xiii] Ibid.

[xiv] Ibid. p. 172.

[xv] Ibid. p. 144.

[xvi] Ibid

[xvii] Ibid. p. 214.

[xviii] Ibid. p. 262.

[xix] Encyclopedia of Islam, new edition.

[xx] Massignon 1994, p. 266.

[xxi] Ibid. p. 268.

[xxii] Ibid. p. 274.

[xxiii] Ibid. pp. 283-284

Dhikr (zikr) and Sama: Symbols of a Religious Institution, Expressions of Love and Annihilation (fana)

When this Earth was not there

When this heaven was not there

And the when secret of Haq was not revealed

And there was nothing here

But there was only You, and You, and You, ALLAH HOO!

(An Urdu mystical Qawwalli by Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan)

Dhikr and sama are two of the most visible symbols of the Sufi tradition.  Dhikr simply means recollection of God, and may involve repetition of divine names or religious formulas either silently or aloud, and quite often with a captivating rhythm.  Sama refers to a mystical concert or dance to achieve wajd, which literally means “finding”, but in Sufi contexts it metaphorically implies ecstasy in the realization and presence of God[i].  The following paper argues that beyond being very important symbols of institutionalized Sufism, dhikr and sama  are also very important meditative techniques that address the heart of the Sufi philosophical and mystical tradition.  In fact it is most likely that, because dhikr and sama offer possibilities for contemplation of the fundamental Sufi metaphysical concerns of love and annihilation, that they have indeed become the most visible symbols of the institution.  The paper primarily discusses two themes: first how the genres of dhikr and sama have been vehicles for contemplation of love and annihilation; and second, how dhikr and sama may have contributed to the enormous success of the Sufi Islam in the Muslim world, and its continued popularity among the overwhelming majority of the Muslims world wide.

Dhikr is the distinctive ritual and free prayer of the Sufi.  It is considered by many as the most important pillar in the path to God because one cannot reach God without constantly remembering Him[ii].  Love is the last station on the mystical path and fana is the end of that path.  The origins of Sufi preoccupation with the love of God can be traced from the prayer ascribed to the prophet, as quoted by Schimmel[iii].

O God, give me love of Thee, and love of those who love Thee, and love of what makes me approach Thy love, and Thy love dearer to me than cool water (p. 131).

The other starting point could be the following Hadith Qudsi, again as quoted by Schimmel[iv].

My servant ceases not to draw nigh unto Me by works of devotion, until I love him, and when I love him I am the eye by which he sees and the ear by which he hears.  And when he approaches a span, I approach a cubit, and when he comes walking I come running (p. 133).

In light of the above, the Sufis consider an all encompassing and all consuming love of the One as a necessary prerequisite for a mystical experience.  Dhikr and sama play a very important role in instilling this love of God in the mystics.  One cannot really love somebody and not remember him or her constantly.  Love, expression of love, and remembrance of the beloved cannot be limited to the ritualistic five prayer times or any other prescribed occasions, they have to be constant, intense and all consuming.  Dhikr leads to complete spiritualization, for God has promised in the Hadith Qudsi, as quoted by Schimmel, ‘I am the companion of him who recollects Me[v].’  Dhikr is generally divided into two branches—vocal recollection (dhikr alaniya, jali, lisani) and the recollection in the heart (dhikr khafi, qalbi).  The later is recognized as superior to the former, as Schimmel quotes Kharraz[vi]:

A recollection with the tongue not felt by the heart—that is the usual recollection; a recollection with the tongue in which the heart is present—that is a recollection seeking reward, and a recollection when the heart is wandering in recollection and lets the tongue be silent, and the worth of such recollection is known only to God (p. 171).

Dhikr was later theoretically formalized, e.g., Schimmel describes Sha’rani’s seven fold formulation: dhikr al-lisan—with the tongue; dhikr an-nafs—which is not audible but consists of inner movements and feelings; dhikr al-qalb—when one contemplates God’s glory in its inner recesses; dhikr al-ruh—when mediation leads to perception of the lights of the attributes; dhikr as-sirr—in the innermost heart, when divine mysteries are revealed; dhikr al-khafiy—the vision of the light of the beauty of essential unity; and finally, the dhikr al khafi–the most secret, which is the vision of the Reality of the Absolute Truth (haqq al-yaqin)[vii].  There have also been more formal and elaborate formulations of dhikr among the various silsilas (Sufi orders).  The recitation of the various names of God and the meditation on those names has been a particularly popular mode of dhikr with most Sufi silsilas, again with the intention of expressing one’s intense love fo rthe One and in a constant quest for His companionship.  It also may not be out of place to mention here that some of the most beautiful poetry in the Islamic world, e.g., that of Maulana Rumi, Shah Abdul Latif and Sultan Bahu in South Asia, has been a mode of dhikr.  In fact, some of the most captivating musical genres in the Islamic world, including my personal favorite—qawwalli—are basically just modes of dhikr.

The ultimate objective of a Sufi is to attain fana (annihilation), and dhikr is also useful to that end.  As mentioned in one of my earlier papers on Sufism, in the philosophical and legalistically disposed schools of Islam, humans and God are two separate entities and their relationship is like that between a slave and a master, or a lover yearning for the beloved.  According to these legalistic orthodox schools of Islamic thought, humans can only meet God upon death, while in the Sufi conception of things, one can encounter God, while still living and breathing in this world.  Humans and God are not necessarily separate entities, and the object of Sufi contemplation is to try to regain union with the One infinite God.  The mystical life for the Sufi, as described by Schimmel, is a permanent striving to[viii]:

return to one’ origin, that origin that was in God and from which everything proceeds, so that eventually the mystic should reach the state, “in which he was before he was.”  That is the state of the primordial covenant (sura 7:171), when God was alone and what was created in time was not yet existent.  Only then can man perfect tawhid; only then can one witness the God is one from eternity to eternity (p. 58).

Dhikr is also an important way of getting to the primordial covenant as Schimmel again describes, that in response to God’s query alastu birabbikum ‘Am I not your Lord?’ the man answers[ix]

 with words of glorification, until in permanent recollection he may reach the stage in which the subject is lost in the object, in which recollection, recollecting subject, and the recollected object become again one, as they were before the Day of Alast.  What has been created disappears, and the only tru subject, the everlasting God, is as He had been and will be (p. 172).

Sama is particularly pertinent in this respect of the attainment of fana.  The quest to gain freedom from oneself by attaining wajd or ecstasy of finding the One through, singing, dancing and even narcotics, formed the practice of sama or mystical dance and music.  It was a very controversial mode of meditation especially with the sober legalists who frowned upon music anyway.  Some of the more sober orders like the Naqshbandiyya followed the example of the theologians and the legalists in banning the use of dance as a form of religious worship, but other, e.g., the Chishti orders in South Asia encouraged it and the Mevlevi order of the whirling dervishes went so far as to institutionalize it[x]Sama is understood by the Sufis to be an expression of their ecstatic love for God and a metaphoric action of breaking the fetters of the body as a step towards unfettering the soul, which wants to fly off and reach the communion with the beloved.  Rumi the most famous advocate of sama describes the dance as ‘movement induced by the vision of the beloved, who himself may dance on the screen of the lover’s heart in the hour of ecstasy’[xi].  Abu Hafs Suhrawardi has described the significance of sama as follows[xii]:

 Music does not give rise, in the heart, to anything which is not already there; so he whose inner self is attached to anything else than God is stirred by music to sensual desire, but the one who is inwardly attached to the love of God is moved, by hearing music, to do his will . . . [to the spiritually perfect] through music, reveals Himself unveiled (p. 182).

With the crystallization and formalization of sufi brotherhoods or Tariqahs starting in the tenth and eleventh century, Sufis also got their own places of worship and meditation known as khanqahs or zawiyahs.  These places were often called samakhanas, where Sufis could listen to music and dance.  Often the place for these khanqahs or zawiyahs was the tomb of the founder of the Sufi order or other important personalities in the order.  It was partially this spatial concentration of the Sufi activities that was to later prove instrumental in the acceptance of the Sufi Islam by the masses.  It is to the discussion of the role of dhikr and sama in the resounding success of the Sufi Islam in the general populace that we now turn.

Dhikr and sama provided an outlet for the religious emotions of the pious, a need which was not necessarily fulfilled by ritual prayer.  It was this informal and more passionate aspect of the Sufi fraternities that attracted the masses[xiii].  The paradox that the subjective, ineffable, and deeply personal experiences of Sufism could become a basis for social life and become historically decisive, and the fact that the most personal and esoteric form of piety should become most popular, can be partially explained by the prevalence of dhikr and sama among the Sufi fraternities[xiv].  In many of the pre-Islamic religions of the present lands of Islam, unstructured worship, meditative techniques, music and dance were integral part of religious and spiritual life[xv]Dhikr and sama provided an outward sense of continuity to the ordinary people of these areas with their religio-cultural traditions and acted as a bridge between the old and the new.  The obvious Sufi piety, the institutional strength of Sufism in the form of fraternities, and the hierarchical structures of the fraternities in the form of the pir (master) and murid (disciple) institution made the whole enterprise very attractive to the general public.

Dhikr and sama were also the main means by which, the Sufis were able to combine their spiritual elitism with a social populism.  Dhikr and sama sessions of the Sufi fraternities were not just limited to the active disciples, they were open to the ordinary people, at time of all religious persuasions, who attended for the sake of pious edification or a sheer blessing[xvi].  This was also coupled with a remarkable tolerance of the Sufi masters towards other religions and the ability to see something good in all of them, e.g., Khawaja Nizamuddin Auliya in Delhi whose pious humanistic teachings had a very wide appeal among both Hindus and Muslims.  Each of the Sufi fraternities cultivated their own peculiar brand and mode of dhikr and sama, and that served the purpose of distinguishing each of the brotherhoods, as well as an attractive outward symbol of their collective spirituality to the lay public.  Perhaps it was precisely because of the Sufis’ universalistic Islamic messages eased the transition of the new converts from one religion to Islam that they were so successful in gaining converts.  It is often said, for example, that metaphorically speaking all Indonesians are mystics.  If that held true in pre-Islamic days then it is hardly surprising that it was the Sufis who were the main channel for the propagation of Islam in South East Asia.

It takes more than just a logical argument or two, or strict rationality and reason to get people to abandon their religion and cosmology developed over thousands of years, in favor of a relatively upstart religion like Islam.  Sufis by bridging the gap between the old and the new through their transcendental spirituality did an enormous service to Islam.  I am constantly struck in my study of Sufism by the similarities between its spirituality and the spiritual underpinnings of other great religions like Christianity, Hinduism, Buddhism and others.  Dhikr and sama have been the most potent instruments in the hands of Sufis for both a deeper and emotional understanding of their own spirituality, as well as for communicating it to the lay public.  Love and fana underlie the Sufi spirituality and also define it.  To draw a somewhat crass analogy for lack of a better one, just as scientists seek truth about the nature of things through the scientific positivist method the Sufi spirituals express their love and seek fana through the techniques of dhikr and sama.  It can be a subject of debate as to how much the true Sufi message pervaded the batin (hidden) life of the ordinary people who profess to be followers of various orders, but there can be no doubt that dhikr and sama are the two of the most obvious ways in which the people’s lives and their cultures have been enriched.   Dhikr and sama by their communal nature, and consistency with preexisting cultural traditions in many societies, are the most obvious ways for people to have something of a spiritual experience.


[i] Schimmel, Annemarie, 1975. Mystical dimensions of Islam, University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, NC, USA.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Ibid. p. 131.

[iv] Ibid. p. 133.

[v] Ibid. p. 168.

[vi] Ibid. p. 171.

[vii] Ibid. p. 174.

[viii] Ibid. p. 58.

[ix] Ibid. p. 172.

[x] Ibid.

[xi] Ibid. p. 185.

[xii] Ibid. p. 182.

[xiii] Ibid.

[xiv] Hodgson, Marshall G. S., 1974. The Venture of Islam: Conscience and History in a World Civilization. Vol. 2, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL, USA.

[xv] Schimmel 1975.

[xvi] Hodgson 1974.

Nasir al-Din Qunawi and Objectives of Sufi Thought

I was a Hidden Treasure and I loved to be known, so I created the creatures that I might be known. (Chittick, p. 60)

To start it would be useful to review the statement by Abu ‘l Hasan Fushanja as quoted by al-Hujwiri: “Today Sufism is a name without a reality, but formerly it was a reality without a name . . .[i] ”  The statement begs the obvious questions as to, what is Sufism? and what constitutes its reality?  A number of scholars have tried to address the question but among the original texts very few come close to the pertinence, clarity and conciseness of the three treatises of Nasir al-Din Qunawi, as translated by William C. Chittick.  Instead of going into deep philosophical proofs and heavy weight theosophy and theology, Qunawi in a very pleasant and light manner relates his understanding of the goals and praxis of Sufism, with extensive use of poetry and references from other Sufi thinkers.  In his three treatises he uses the word Sufi only once, partially owing to the stigma attached to the name, as is evident from the above quote from Fushanja.  He instead refers to Sufis as the people who use gnosis and revelation to gain a deeper understanding of God.  With this indirect reference, Qunawi then proceeds to address the questions of what is Sufism? and what is its relationship to Islam?  The answers he gives, and Chittick further elaborates, are no different from the answers that other Sufi masters e.g. al-Hallaj, Rumi or Ibn al-Arabi would have given.  The other masters however would have never felt the need to address the question because they could not distinguish between Sufism and Islam, Islam was Sufism and vice-versa.  As we shall see Qunawi comes to essentially the same conclusion.

Nasir al-Din Qunawi was the step son of the great Sufi master Ibn al-Arabi and a close friend of the foremost Sufi poet Jalal al-Din Rumi.  Although it is not entirely clear if Qunawi was indeed the author of the three texts: Rising Places of Faith, Clarification for Beginners and Reminders for Advanced, and The Easy Roads of Sayf al-Din, the texts are still valuable because they provide a perspective on Islam that treats Sufi thought as integral and even central, to the broader Islamic religion[ii]2.  Qunawi uses many references to texts by other Sufi masters as well as to various hadith qudsi, but unlike a muhaddith (an authority in the science of hadith) he is careless about the authenticity of the hadith.  His approach like most Sufis is that of a muhaqqiq (verifier) and an arif (Gnostic)–he establishes the truth of the sayings through unveiling and direct experience.  In other words he has been there himself and has tasted the truth, and he does not care much about proving anything to himself or to anybody else[iii].

Qunawi starts by distinguishing people into two categories: the people of the creed, i.e., the ones who follow the prophets and their shariahs; and the people of the companions of the schools, who rely solely on rational mental faculties to understand the nature of things.  The companions of the schools have logical proofs and reasoning that conflict in the extreme and consequently make them subject to heresy[iv].

Let your natural reason go

before your soul assumes

the form of every heretic’s imaginings

through logical proof.

(Qunawi in Chittick p. 36)

The people of the creed on the other hand are subdivided into three groups[v]:

  1. the people of faith in the unseen, who accept the revealed word by the prophet and the Quran unquestioningly.
  2. the ulema and people of heedfulness and consideration, who concern themselves with the details of the Shariah and try to lead a righteous life in the light of the Quran and the sunnah.
  3. and the friends of God and possessors of the unveiling (or simply Sufis), who are intoxicated in his love and contemplation of the alast, the primordial covenant[vi].

Qunawi perceives the faith in God, as symbolized by the statement[vii] “There is no power and no strength but in God” as the first rising place of faith.  The first rising place has three stars: the knowledge of the essence, true knowledge of the attributes, and true knowledge of the acts.  The second rising place, or tier of faith, is the faith in prophesy, which has its own three tiered sub-structure.  And the last tier of faith is the faith in the day of judgment, again with its own two tiered sub-structure.  He squarely places himself within the third group of the people of the creed and identifies four authorities for them: the Book of God, the sunnah of the Messenger, the consensus of the Community, and the heart.  By the heart he means the heart described by a hadith qudsi, “My heaven embraces Me not, nor My earth, but the heart of My faithful, gentle, and meek servant does embrace Me.”[viii]  It is this fourth authority of the heart that distinguishes Sufis from ordinary Muslims and as he goes on to discuss in his second treatise, he cannot imagine a full understanding of Islam without this authority.

The Sufi thought is directed towards:[ix]

  • true knowledge of the creator, His essence, attributes and acts;
  • understanding the reality and properties of the stages of friendship with the creator and the stages of prophecy;
  • and true knowledge of this world and the next world.

In the first instance of gaining knowledge of the creator the Sufi is seeking to spiritually, even existentially, experiencing God.  The Sufis take the above quoted hadith qudsi about God being a hidden treasure, quite literally.  The object of the exercise is to remove the veils that hide this hidden treasure and to witness oneself the glory, the true tawhid, only to discover that there is no tawhid to be expressed[x]

None recognizes God but God.  None says God but God.  He who supposes that he has expressed tawhid has associated others with God.

(Qunawi in Chittick p. 70)

This brings us to the level of friendship with God.  The ultimate goal of all Sufi thought is to attain annihilation in Him, which is Unity and not admixture.  “The Gnostic recognizes the infinite Essence of the Real in Its attribute of being the Eternal Refuge, and comes to know the realities and mysteries of majesty and generous giving.”[xi]  The Sufi seeks to attain this annihilation by occupying himself/herself exclusively with God, to the exclusion of everything else,

When people occupy themselves with Me, I send to them what I created for them.  But when they occupy themselves with what I created for them, I veil them from Myself.

(Qunawi in Chittick p. 77)

The annihilation as a goal is the end of the road on the path of friendship with God.  It is manifested by a realization of the wahdat al-shahud and wahdat al-wujud[xii]

When the majesty of this nearness casts its shadow upon the Gnostic, he sees that Mustafa, Gabriel, the Lote Tree, the person of faith, the truth concealer, an ant, and a gnat are all equally near to the Self-subsistent Being.  This is the meaning of You see no disparity in the creation of the Merciful (67:3). To God belong the East and the West–whithersoever you turn, there is the Face of God.  God is All-embracing, All-knowing (2:115).

(Qunawi in Chittick p. 83)

The friendship is not equal to the station of prophecy because prophets once having witnessed and being annihilated, turn around to call people to God, Sufis on the other hand are more self-indulgent:[xiii]

O desire

of the desirous,

take me from myself

to Thyself!

Love for Thee took away

my we-ness and I-ness–

Thy love leaves

no choice but selflessness.

This group has no share in the tastings of prophecy, and they are not made to busy themselves with calling people to God.

(Qunawi in Chittick p. 91)

One of the most important methods for attaining this goal of annihilation is content dhikr (zikr in urdu) of the God’s beautiful names and contemplation of the essences of those names, for the names are “all meanings, standpoints, relationships and attributions.  They are identical with the essence inasmuch as no existent thing can be found there other than the essence.”[xiv]  As for other specific methods and practices, Qunawi seems to stress certain practices and attitudes of mind on the path to annihilation.  Qunawi does go into an extensive description of the practices required of a Muslim, but for a Gnostic on a path to annihilation his prescription is fairly simple

God looks not at your forms or your works, but He looks at your hearts

In the heart

keep no more than one.

In the house

let there be a thousand.

(Qunawi in Chittick p. 96)

The ultimate goal of annihilation seems universal for all Sufis, the method may differ in outward form, but at the deeper spiritual and psychological level there can be little difference.  Of course Qunawi considers the dictates of the Shariah very important and almost indispensable in the path, but he also adds the dimension of the tariqah, which of course could vary in outward form, but not in fundamentals.  Without love of God and all encompassing preoccupation with him, it seems difficult to imagine how any Sufi could approach the goal.

An investigation of the place of Sufism on the map of Islamic thought takes us back to the three levels of Islam, islam, iman and ihsan.  As discussed in my first paper, all of these categories build upon each other, and the one who has ihsan necessarily has achieved islam and iman.  The Sufi is concerned with the attainment of ihsan, the highest level of perfection, and has therefore necessarily achieved the iman  and islam.  Within ihsan there are the additional dimensions of ikhlas and taqwa and if one were to ask which perspective in Islamic thought allows one to have a general overview of all three, ihsan, ikhlas and taqwa, the answer would inevitably have to be Sufism.[xv]  The goal and methods of Sufism have no comparison with the orthoprax Islam of the Shariah because it is concerned with the higher dimension of Islamic religiosity and would therefore necessarily incorporate them.

It is a misconception that Sufism is an esoteric and peripheral appendage to the ‘real’ Islam of the experts in jurisprudence and theology.  It is also a misconception that Sufis in their quest for union with God can ignore the revealed will of God through Shariah:[xvi]

I want union with Him

but He wants separation from me–

I abandon what I want

for what He wants.

How does one know what God wants if one does not have ‘direct and intimate knowledge of God?’  Muslims reply that the Shariah tells you what God wants.  Sufi Muslim add that God also wants people to follow the tariqah, but in His mercy, He does not place a burden on them that they cannot bear.  God charges a soul only to its capacity (2:286).

(Chittick p. 172)

The tariqha demands the most serious commitment and the highest level of dedication, beyond what can be expected of the general multitude.  Since its objective is perfection—ihsan–it is obviously much more rigorous, but much more desirable as well.  Therefore people seeking the path of perfection may be few in numbers, but to marginalize them based on their numbers, and difficulty of their path, is inconsistent with Islamic teachings.  The entire religion of Islam is geared towards improvement of humanity, submission to God, and those who seek to take that mission to its logical conclusion cannot be anything but central to it.  To conclude, Chittick (1992: p. 178) articulated the place of Sufism better than I ever could:

In other words, their (Sufis) concerns are directed toward full submission (islam) to God on the three levels of works, faith, and perfection.  They try to make all their acts, all their ideas and concepts, and all their psychic and spiritual states conform to the Real.  Tawhid, taken to its fullest expression, means that nothing in the human being stands outside a relationship with God.  The Sufi is the person who is fully aware of this and draws every necessary conclusion.  The verifier is the person who lives this as his or her own personal and objective reality.

Sufism from this point of view, is simply full and complete actualization of the faith and practice of Islam.  The verified Sufi is the perfect Muslim.  To become a Sufi in the true sense is to become a muwahhid, one who establishes tawhid or asserts the unity of God, not simply with the tongue (which is the domain of works), but also with the understanding (faith) and the whole being (perfection).  By this definition, Islam without Sufism is an aberration from the Koranic norm.


[i] al-Hujwiri, Ali b. Uthman al-Jullabi, 1967: Kashf al-Mahjub, The Oldest Persian Treatise on Sufiism, New Edition, by Reynold A. Nicholson, London, UK, p. 44.

[ii] Chittick, William C, 1992: Faith and Practice of Islam: Three Thirteenth Century Sufi Texts, State University of New York Press, Albany, NY, USA, p. xi.

[iii] Ibid. p. 26.

[iv] Ibid. p. 36.

[v] Ibid. p. 37.

[vi] Schimmel, Annemarie, 1975: Mystical Dimension of Islam, University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, NC, USA, p. 24.

[vii] Chittick, p. 38.

[viii] Ibid. p. 54.

[ix] Ibid. pp. 63-97.

[x] Ibid. p. 70.

[xi] Ibid. p. 68.

[xii] Ibid. p. 83.

[xiii] Ibid. p. 91.

[xiv] Ibid. p. 72.

[xv] Ibid. p. 165.

[xvi] Ibid. p. 172.

Sufism and its Place in Islam

“Well, everything I know, he sees[i]

The above quote by Avicenna, an eleventh century philosopher and a scientist, after a long conversation with a Sufi Shaykh Abu Sa’id Abi’l-Khayr is a good beginning point to explore the inter linkages of Sufism with Islam, and the place of the Sufi tradition within the broader Islamic thought.  The deceptively simple quote can be contextualized within the three dimensional structure of the religion Islam as described by the Prophet Muhammad: Islam (submission), Iman (faith) and Ihsan (virtue)[ii].  One enters the religion of Islam by Islam, i.e., verbally proclaiming to submit to God’s will and following His message as revealed to Prophet Muhammad.  Entering Islam at the very least involves practicing the five pillars–bearing Shahadah (bearing witness) and saying the kalima there is no god but God and Muhammad is the messenger of God, offering prayers five times a day, fasting during the month of Ramadan, paying Zakat (alms-tax), and performing Hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca) if one has the means to do so.  Once having entered the circle of Islam one has to establish iman (faith) in tawhid (the assertion of God’s unity), nabuwwa Prophet hood of Muhammad, and ma’ad (the Return to God).  And the third dimension of Islam is ihsan which can be literally translated to mean beautiful and good but is meant to signify perfection of virtue[iii].

Image

The above diagram represents my understanding of the tripartite structure of Islam as described by the Prophet.  The first dimension of submission has traditionally been the domain of Islamic jurisprudence.  The jurists are those ulema who are experts in the five pillars and other activities prescribed by the Shariah (literally the way, but practically jurisprudence, as interpreted by the four main schools of Islamic jurisprudence).  This level also forms the basis of Islam.  One can have islam without the iman but one cannot have iman without islam.  One can also attain iman without attaining ihsan, but one cannot attain ihsan without attaining both islam and iman.  So the three dimensions of the religion can be thought of as a three tiered pyramid.  Sufism has traditionally been associated with the contemplation of iman and ihsan.  Of course locating the object of Sufi contemplation within Islamic thought begs the follow-up question, what is Sufism? and who is a Sufi?

The word Sufi is derived from the root suf, which means a woolen cloth.  In popular conception Sufis are mystics who are careless about worldly trappings and lead a simple life, symbolized by the woolen cloth that mystics wear, and which is their only property.  Moving on from why Sufis are called Sufis, which was a function of their life style in popular conception, one wonders what is so different about their contemplation of the religious matters, and what distinguishes them from philosophers and theologians?  Sufi ontology and epistemology both distinguish them from the better known schools of religious philosophy and theology.  Annemarie Schimmel’s quotation of a famous story by Rumi is instructive to understand the Sufi ontology[iv].

. . . the blind men . . . when they were made to touch an elephant, each described it according to the part of the body his hands had touched: to one elephant appeared like the throne, to another, like a fan, or like a water pipe, or like a pillar.  But none was able to imagine what the whole animal looked like. (p: 3)

Speaking in terms of the above metaphor, Sufis want to be rid of the blindness afflicting the general multitude and like the philosophers, want to understand the real nature of the proverbial elephant–Islam–in its entirety.  However the mystical Sufi conception goes even beyond the physical existence of the elephant–Islam– and actually seeks to understand the essence behind its physical or intellectually comprehensible form.  This is what Annemarie calls the ‘mysticism of infinity’, where the world is considered to possess only finite reality–wujud –which is conditionally derived from the necessary reality of the infinite divine being–wajib al-wujud.

Whereas the philosophical and theosophical epistemologies employ reason and some mysticism in limited doses, Sufi epistemologies rely heavily on revelation or direct knowledge given by God, which is called by names like Kashf  (unveiling), dhawq (tasting, Urdu zhawq), shuhud (witnessing), and basira (insight)[v].  Sana’i contrasted the Sufi with the Kufi, the learned lawyer Abu Hanifa from Kufa.  Whereas one relies on books and intellectual arguments and reasoning to understand the nature of things and of Islam, Sufi relies on contemplation and gnosis and often throws away the books once having reached the goal.

The ontological and epistemological differences between philosophical and theosophical schools and the Sufis imply radically different conceptions of human interaction with God.  In the philosophical and theosophical schools, humans and God are two separate entities and their relationship is like that between a slave and a master, or a lover yearning for the beloved.  In the philosophical school humans can only meet God upon death while in the Sufi conception of things one can encounter God while already in this world.  Humans and God are not necessarily separate entities, and the object of Sufi contemplation is to try to regain union with the One infinite God.  A common theme in Sufi thought is rejection of heaven or hell, dismissing them as incidental to the real purpose of mystical striving, which is to seek that communion with God and God alone.  The mystical life for the Sufis, as described by Schimmel, is a permanent striving to[vi]:

return to one’s origin, that origin that was in God and from which everything proceeds, so that eventually the mystic should reach the state “in which he was before he was.”  That is the state of the primordial covenant (Sura 7:171), when God was alone and what is created in time was not yet existent.  Only then can man perfect tawhid; only then can one witness that God is one from eternity to eternity (p. 58).

Hallaj the great Sufi martyr phrased the same project in the words that “it is enough for the lover that he should make the One single”–i.e. the lover’s existence is an impediment to that final union and therefore must be removed from the way to consummate the love.

Over time Sufism developed from austere asceticism of the early year into a mystical creed of selfless love of the One with a theory of intuitive knowledge of God ma’rifa, or gnosis, as opposed to ilm (discursive learning and knowledge).  Arif, people who have attained ma’rifa according to Dhu’n-Nun are defined in following words[vii],

They are not themselves, but in so far as they exist at all they exist in God.  Their movements are caused by God, and their words are the words of God which are uttered by their tongues, and their sight is the sight of God, which has entered into their eyes.  So God Most High has said: “When I love a servant, I, the Lord, am his ear so that he hears by Me, I am his eye, so that he sees by Me, and I am his tongue so that he speaks by Me, and I am his hand, so that he takes by Me.”

The above emphasis on the possibility of a living human to have the mystical experience suggests that the codified, and latter ossified Islamic law and societal norms did not always bind the practitioners of the Sufi way.  Whereas on the one hand this provided wonderful opportunity for individuals to strive for their own communion with God it also opened the door for people who had pretensions to being mystics but had no substance to their claims.  The earlier reverence that the general public had developed for the wisdom and piety of the Sufis was cashed upon subsequently by many a deranged and at times even sane people pretending to be deranged, whose apparent lack of regard for social norms was considered to be a sign of their mystical credentials.  So prevalent did this practice become from tenth century onwards that even genuinely pious people at times winced at being called a Sufi, lest they should be identified with the fakes.  Unkempt appearance and incoherent talk were mistaken as signs of mystical powers, and many a street fools were raised to the pedestal of Sufis by the general public.

As with the quote at the beginning of the paper, Sufism is an alternative system of inquiry into the subtleties of spiritual Islamic life, with different ontologies and epistemologies from the dominant and better known philosophical modes of inquiry.  Being able to internalize a certain concept to the extent of proverbially seeing it, as opposed to just knowing it, may involve a higher level of consciousness and proximity to the truth but one cannot falsify what another sees.  And therein lies the major pitfall of Sufism.  It may offer a universe of spiritual possibilities, but it is so personal, and shall we say so mystical, that nobody can really tell the true mysticism from pretense.  So it is hardly surprising that for every true Sufi over time, we observe scores of pretenders.


[i] Avicenna, as quoted by Chittick, William C. 1992: Faith and Practice of Islam: Three Thirteenth Century Sufi Texts, State University of New York Press, Albany, NY, USA, p. 18.

[ii] Chittick (1992: 2).

[iii] Chittick (1992).

[iv] Schimmel, Annemarie 1975: Mystical Dimension of Islam, The University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, NC, USA.

[v] Chittick (1992).

[vi] Schimmel (1975).

[vii] Schimmel (1975: 69).