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.



Picking up any piece of writing, engaging in any casual conversation in Pakistan, nostalgia is almost like the invisible additional presence in any conversation. Times are just not the same any more. Military people are not the same clipped (fake) goras as before. The classy bars in hotels and military messes were such hotbeds of social rest and they are not anymore. The peace and liberality that prevailed before don’t exist anymore. Women could walk unmolested in Karachi and they can’t anymore. Islamabad was a leafy village and Pindi a classy Anglo town and they are not anymore. Or in a more historical mode–how great were the Muslim empires and look where we are now. How we wish we could revert to our (fictitious) Arab = Muslim roots. The list of things that Pakistanis across the political spectrum can get nostalgic about from food, to roads, to religion or even the weather is just endless.

I feel lucky to be alive at the same time as one of the greatest Urdu satirists, Mushtaq Ahmed Yusufi. As an academic who dabbles in intellectual gymnastics such as post-structuralism and historical materialism, I am in awe of Yusufi Sahib’s sophisticated mind and his ability to proffer the most complex and serious thoughts about the most mundane topics in an exquisite comedic wrapping. With due apologies for my temerity, to all discerning Urdu readers and writers I translate below a text on nostalgia from Yusufi sahib’s Urdu book ‘Aab-e-gum’ (p. 17-18).

When a person finds the past more attractive than the present, and the future becomes altogether invisible–one can be sure that the person has gone old. It must be remembered that this enervating (youth-sapping) attack of dotage can happen at any age, especially during the prime of  youth. If opium or heroin is not available, the person can always find gratification in the last refuge of the tired and defeated–fantasies of the past. Just as some enterprising people can create their own future with their sagacity and hard work, these people can deploy their imagination to create their own past . . .

Sometime nations can impose past upon themselves as well. In fact, if one were to look closely, the real villain of the South Asian drama is the past. A nation’s level of moral, material and spiritual bankruptcy is typically in [direct geometric proportion] to its tendency to glorify and repeatedly recite its past. In every hour of difficulty and trial such a nation reverts to its past. And the past that it hearkens to is not the one that actually existed but the one that it has created and embellished as per its current biases and needs–an aspirational past! In this illusory context the peacock like dance of a bruised ego is spectacular–that the peacock does not just invent its dance but also the jungle in which it dances. And as it dances away there comes a magical moment when the entire jungle starts dancing itself and the peacock just looks on in stunned silence. Nostalgia is the tale of such a moment.

To add anything to the above would be sacrilege, beyond the one I have already committed by feigning to translate Yusufi sahib’s exquisite Urdu prose, but I will do it anyway.

Who are the purveyors of our aspirational past? Almost every non-academic Pakistani, especially of the right wing variety, echos the fantasy Islamic history by Naseem Hijazi. It is an article of faith with most Pakistanis that Muslim rule was always just, and glorious and Muslims were the receptacles of all the virtue and wisdom in the world. Muslim’s downfall came from softening of civilization and disunity, and in particular sexual indiscretions. This is generally the officially sanctioned perspective on Pakistan’s history. This perspective has on the one hand spawned almost an industry in nostalgia and on the other hand the pan-Islamic exertions of our defenders of the faith in the shape of Jihad in Afghanistan, Kashmir, Bosnia, Chechnya, Philippines and Central Asia. But the jungle we created has started dancing itself–in the shape of the Taliban, Al-Qaeda and fellow travelers. Stunned silence is in the face of this dance is not an option.

Hello world!

This is my first attempt at a blog. I hope to use this blog to talk about cultural and political issues mostly pertaining to South Asia, but also to the world. Many of the posts will be from my writings for some Pakistani newspapers such as Islamabad Dateline and Dawn. I stopped writing for those papers because Dawn started censoring me. Evidently my views conflicted with the great Pakistani drawing room wisdom!

I am a Reader in Politics and Environment at King’s College, London. So advanced apologies if some of my writings are too insufferably academic. Point those out and I will be happy to amend. Look forward to keeping touch and hearing some critical feedback on my writings.