Tassawuf as explained by ml abulhassen ali nadwi rahimahullaah


He writes, “There are two very difficult unavoidable stages encountered in all doctrines, be they ethics, education and training, reformation or the sciences. The one stage where the means become the object, and the other where technical terms obscure realities. Both the means and the technical terms are imperative and absolutely inborn and natural, without which the propagation and expansion, teaching and explanation of these high objects is practically impossible. However, be they the means or technical terms, for the purpose of achieving the aims and realities, their function is that of attendants and assistants. They are adopted temporarily for the completion of a necessity.

At times they are over emphasized and deemed to be the objects and realities themselves. When an expert in any skill deems it necessary, he gives instruction to do without, or completely drop both the means and technical terms. Here the expert governs the means and technical terms instead of being controlled by them. He simultaneously considers that it does not exceed the limits and so becomes detrimental instead of beneficial, and instead of conveying him to his goal, it becomes an obstacle.

A historical fact which has to be acknowledged is that time and again this misfortune befalls lofty ideals; where means become the object and technical terms obscure realities with a thick veil. Not only were they obscured but moreover the bitter experiments and grave errors of the flag bearers of these technical terms gave rise to such grievous misunderstandings that a great number of true and upright people have learnt to dread and dislike these aims and realities. It has now become a very difficult task to make them recognize and value these realities and make an effort to attain these goals.

If a discourse to denote the importance of acquiring these aims is delivered, or an effort to satisfy them is made, then they are confronted with the enormous mountain of ‘means’, about which the immature and unauthorized reformers exaggerated and also unnecessarily compelled them to do. These reformers themselves became so confused that the actual aim was totally forgotten and disregarded.

Similarly, when the call for these self evident and undisputed realities was made it was obscured by technical terms. These technical words could also be interpreted differently. Generally, because of the span of time, technical terms had to be formed to explain such realities and to draw people towards understanding them. This was done for particular reasons, because of the demand of the social structure and special situations that prevailed.

The forerunners of these realities, whose lives were a true reflection of these facts, were unacquainted with these technical terms.

They used different words, expressions and ways to explain these realities. If a study is made of the history of any science from etymology, syntax, rules, dialect, rhetorics (Balaaghat) to realities, recognition, spiritual reformation, it will be found when a comparison is made that the earlier ones were in full control of the means, whereas the latter ones were, in contrast, controlled by the means.

The authorized experts were propagators and inviters while the novices were captives of their mentors and technical terms. This became an agonising factor in the path of the exalted aims of religion, ethics, skills and sciences. Students throughout the ages were always confronted by this difficult test.

The matter of tasawwuf is very similar. As far as the aims and objects are concerned they are self evident and unanimously accepted. Tasawwuf has been adversely affected by the following two factors. The means were exaggerated and the technical terms were over emphasized and insisted on.

If a person is questioned, “Are loyalty and ethics important or not ?”. “Is it necessary to develop a firm belief or not ?”. “Is it commendable to be adorned with virtues and be free from vice, such as jealousy, kib’r ( to degrade another arrogantly ), to show off, bear malice and hatred, love for wealth and honour or not ?”. “Is it desirable to liberate the low nafs from these evil tendencies ?”. “Humility and humbleness in salaat, the state of modesty and entreatment whilst weeping in duaa, the habit of taking stock of ones soul, above all the love for Allah and His Rasul S.A.W., achievment of a feeling of satisfaction and sweetness or at least to be eager and punctual to attain it, clean dealings, truth and trust, having regard for the rights of humanity, control over ones self, especially in times of anger, are all these desirable or not ?”. Then every sane person, especially the Muslim who is not blindfolded by prejudice, will definately give this answer: “That these are not only virtuous but also necessary according to the shariat, and these are the exhortations of the entire Qur’aan and volumes of hadith.

If it is said, “The method of acquiring these qualities is what the latter generations named tasawwuf”. They react with a frown because they dread this term. Others would disapprove because of their bitter experiences with the forerunners and false claimants. They would recall unpleasant incidents and observations that they encountered with them.

This is not the case with tasawwuf only. It is the problem with all other skills and reformations, where there will be found amongst their propagators, administrators, missionaries and claimants those who are genuine and the false, the authorized and unauthorized, the mature and immature, and even the faithful and the faithless. Inspite of both these opposing types any just person will not deny the necessity of the profession nor object to it.

In worldly professions too, whether it is bussiness, agriculture, industry or craftmanship, both types are present, the expert and the novice, the guide and the deceiver. Yet, the affairs of the world and religion go on as such. One must attend to ones own affairs and neither deprive himself of this treasure because of inexperienced claimants, nor cast aside the actual reality because of disagreement with any technical term. A poet has appropriately said,

“Wisemen do not get involved with words,
Is the divers interest in the shells
or the pearls ?”.

There are two groups who are opposed to tasawwuf. The one comprises those who accept its constituents separately, but deny it if it is referred to as a whole. The majority of the people applaud the aforementioned aim and qualities separately, but if it be said to them that, “Some people have for some reasons given all these qualities a common name then their colours change instantly and they say, ‘We don’t believe in tasawwuf, it has caused great harm’.”

The other group are those to whom it is acceptable if it is proposed under a different name. For example if it is said, “The Qur’aan Majecd has termed it ‘tazkiyah’ (purger). The hadith names it ‘ihsaan’. The latter jurists termed it ‘fiqh-ebaatin’ (spiritual jurisprudence)”. They would then reply that there is no reason for contradiction and all these are declarations of Allah and His Rasul S.A.W.

Verily, neither can alterations be made to all the books written, nor can the tongues of men be withheld. Otherwise, if we were given the option, we should have referred to it by the words ‘tazkiyah’ and ‘ihsaan’ and not use the word ‘tasawwuf’. Now this is the popular name. This designation is not exclusive to this science only.

The history of the arts and sciences is full of such common technical terms. Authorities on sciences have all along laid stress on the aims and kept the means within their limits. With great courage and strong wills have they not only refuted that which was foreign to its soul, essence and real goal but they have also refuted that which proved harmful and unrelevent.

There is no such period in the history of Islam in which the experts, tutors and propagators of this subject did not differentiate between its body and soul, reality and form, aims and customs. All of them, from the peer of all peers, Shaikh Abdul Qaadir Jilaani R.A. and Shaikh Shahaabuddin Suharwardi R.A. upto Mujaddid Alfe Thaani R.A., Hadhrat Shah Waliullah Dehlawi R.A., Hadhrat Sayyid Ahmad Shaheed R.A., Hadhrat Maulana Rashid Ahmad Gangohi R.A. and Hakimul Ummat Hadhrat Maulana Ashraf Ali Thanvi R.A., all have emphatically made a clear distinction between the kernel and shell, the correct object and incorrect interpretation. They have vehemently rejected all those customs and ways which were introduced into and regarded as part of tasawwuf and tariqat by association with non-Muslims and immature sufis who were unaware.

This subject is found in many places in the following kitaabs, ‘Futuhul Ghaib’ and ‘Ghuniyatut Taalibeen’ by Hadhrat Shaikh Abdul Qaadir Jilaani R.A., ‘Awaariful Ma’aarif’ by Hadhrat Shaikh Shahaabuddin Suharwardi R.A., ‘Maktoobaate Imaame Rabbaani’ by Hadhrat Mujaddid Saheb R.A., the works of Hadhrat Shah Waliullah Saheb R.A., ‘Siraate Mustaqeem’ by Hadhrat Sayyid Ahmad Shaheed R.A., the letter written by Hadhrat Gangohi R.A., ‘Tarbiyatus Saalik’ and ‘Qasdus Sabeel’ by Hadhrat Maulana Thanvi R.A. They have separated the true from the false showing absolute impartiality.

Hadhrat Shah Waliullah Saheb R.A. has written thus far, “The spiritual connection of the sufis is a great blessing and an alchemy, but their customs (those for which there is no proof in the shariat) are worthless. Likewise all these men, without exception, have earnestly stressed on the importance of proper ethics, transactions and civil rights and stipulated this as a condition of reformation and approach (to Allah). Their writings elaborate extensively on this topic and their congregations always consisted of advice and propagation in this respect.

We were blessed to stay in the company of the saints of our times. Just on seeing them were we convinced, and believed in tasawwuf. We did not only find ‘tasawwuf’ and ‘tariqat’ in them, but also the essence of ‘deen’ and ‘shariat’. Their characters were a reflection of the character of Rasulullah S.A.W. Their lives, actions and dealings were weighed and moulded according to the shariat. We noticed that they always separated the aims from the means, laid stress on realities by staying away from and disregarding technical terms.

They did not attach any importance to customs and were staunch opposers and denouncers of innovations. Their obedience to the sunnat was not only confined to devotions but it also enveloped their habits and dealings as well. They were not followers of this science, but were in fact true reformers. With their divine insight and lengthy experience they accomplished their task, sometimes with brevity and selection and at other times with omissions and amendments.

Treatment and advice were dispensed to suit each ones individual nature. In the remedy and diet full consideration was given to conditions, occupations and temperaments.

Their status in this field is similar to that of a discoverer of medicine or an inventor of a skill. They were masters and not slaves of their profession. Their actual concern was the health and benefit of the (spiritually) sick and not to tread the beaten track (i.e. to be a slave of old customs and rites).

Their concept of the actual purpose of tasawwuf is the sincerity of desiring Allah’s pleasure, be it reformation of character, honest dealings, development of a moderate nature, self control, giving preference to others, submission, recitations, strivings, staying in the company of a shaikh and even bai’at. If these are not achieved then all this effort is synonymous to a person who works all day long trying to move a mountain with a piece of straw.


Khawaja Saheb thinks he has attained spiritual heights,
This conclusion of Khawaja is mere wishful thinking.

Whatever Ali mia (i.e. Maulana Abul Hassen Ali Nadwi) has written about ‘tasawwuf’ is absolutely correct. Many eminent men have written the same. The dispute is only in the name and not in the facts.

People are dissuaded by the name of ‘tasawwuf’. Some on account of ignorance and others because of certain impediments which are a cause of misunderstandings they carry in their minds.

Shaikhul Islam ibn Taymiyya R.A. writes in the eleventh volume of his ‘Fatawa’, which consists of topics on ‘tasawwuf’ only, “That the word sufiya was not known in the third century (of Islam). It was only afterwards that it became known. This word was used by many Shuyookh (plural of shaikh) and A’immah (plural of imaam) such as Imaam Ahmad ibn Hambal R.A., Abu Sulaymaan Daaraani R.A., Sufyaan Thauri R.A., and Hasan Basri R.A. The ulama hold different opinions regarding the root of this word. After quoting various opinions he says, “It is derived from wearing ‘soof’ (i.e. woollen garmelits)”.

The first sufi jama’at arose in Basra, and the founders of the first khanqah (sufi seminary) were the mureeds of Abdul Waahid bin Zayd R.A. who was a disciple of Hasan Basri R.A. Piety, devotion and the fear of Allah exelled in Basra during that period and was given priority. Therefore this saying became popular, “Juriprudence was that of Kufah and devotions that of Basra”.

Thereafter he has related many incidents about the devotions in Basra and how the pious would fall unconscious and even die just by reciting the Qur’aan, etc. A few elders have disallowed this on the basis that it was pretentiousness and others have said that it was not practiced by the Sahaabah R.A. The majority of the ulama are of the opinion that there is no objection if this happened while in an overpowered state (of ecstacy), yet, there is much more virtue in remaining normal at all times.

Hadhrat Imaam Ahmad R.A. was once questioned about fainting and going into spiritual raptures. He replied, “Yahya bin Sa’eed Qattani R.A. once fainted while reading the Qur’aan. If there was anybody who could ward off this attack then it was only Yahya bin Sa’eed R.A. himself, because I have not seen anyone more intelligent than him”. It is narrated about Imaam Shafi’ee R.A. that these states prevailed over him too. The story of Ali bin Fudhail bin Ayaadh R.A. is well known. Consequently, stories of this nature are related by many such men whose integrity cannot be disputed.

The condition of the Sahaabah R.A. mentioned in the Qur’aan, such as the washing of the heart and flowing of tears etc., is far more superior.

It is only those who have strayed far off the religion, and who have hard and rusted hearts who deny these states and conditions. This class of person is very defective. Converse to these are the persons who feel that these conditions are the most perfect and supreme. Both these classes have been overcome by extremes. In fact there are three catagories.

The first (lowest) state is that of a self oppressor who has a hard heart which is not softened by listening to the Qur’aan nor by remembering Allah Ta’aala. They are like the Jews, about whom Allah has said: THUMMA QASAT QULUBUKUM to end of aayat. (Translation: Then your hearts were hardened after all this, as stones or even harder. Surah 144).

The second state is that of pious believers who cannot endure inspirations because of a weakness in their hearts. They either faint or die, and this is caused by the impact of inspiration and a weak heart. This happens in worldly matters too. Some people become insane or even die by excessive happiness or uncontrolled grief. If this stage befalls anyone, then without trangression on his part, he neither is sinful nor suspect. Similarly, if one listens to the Qur’aan without transgressing any law and an inspiration enters his heart by which he becomes unconscious. This is known as ‘fana’ and ‘suk’r’ then it is not to be despised but excused.

The deciding factor of these states is that if the causes are lawful and the beholder truthful and unable to control his own state (of esctacy or inspiration), then this condition is praiseworthy. He is excused from whatever happens to him unwillingly, such as fainting etc. These people are much better than those who cannot reach this rank because of weak faith, hard hearts etc.

The third state refers to those who do not lose their consciousness inspite of achieving the same degree of faith and are superior and more exalted than those of the second stage. This was the state of the Sahaabah R.A. and Rasulullah S.A.W. Rasulullah S.A.W. went for mi’raaj and very many things were shown to him and yet his condition was unchanged the next morning. This state of Rasulullah S.A.W. was more superior than that of Moosa A.S. who fainted on observing divine manifestation at Mount Toor. Certainly Moosa’s A.S. condition was very high and glorious but Rasulullah S.A.W. was even higher and more sublime.

Nevertheless, the increase of these conditions of fear etc. initially appeared in Basra. These people generally wore woollen clothes (soof) hence they were called sufis. Neither are their ways influenced by wearing soof nor do they regard it as compulsory. It was because of their appearance that this name was attributed to them.

Further, their concept is that there are realities and well known conditions pertaining to ‘tasawwuf’. They have written in detail on the definition and history of the sufi. For example, some have mentioned that a sufi is one who is cleansed of impurities, absorbed in the thoughts of Allah, and to whom gold and stone have become equal (i.e. he is not tempted by wealth).

Some say that ‘tasawwuf’ is to hide the true meaning and to shun carnal desires. Like these, there are many other views. These men are raised from a sufi to the rank of a siddiq (truthful). Verily, after the ambiyaa the best of creation are the siddiqeen (plural of siddiq).

This is the origin of tasawwuf. Thereafter, people changed and formed three ranks


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