Tasawwuf and Hadith: Exploring the Meeting Grounds

What is the relation of tasawwuf with hadith? Does hadith approve what tasawwuf is about? It is always better to think for a while and try to understand both hadith and tasawwuf before saying a categoric yes or no to these questions. Historically Islam is the last of the three Ibrahaimic religions including Judaism and Christianity.  While Judaism confined righteousness in obeying the Law, Christianity overemphasized faith only. Islam, unlike both these traditions, stresses upon both letter of the Law and its spirit as well. It emphasises that not only the letter of the Law is important but to cultivate the right condition of the heart is equally important. A mere adherence to the Law is not enough for it can most of the times lead one into the oblivion of selfishness, arrogance, pomp and show and a very narrow view of righteousness. That is exactly what the hadith teaches when it says that actions depend on the intentions behind them. Thus refraining from bad actions is not enough; having bad intentions is also contrary to the spirit of true righteousness. And similarly doing good actions is not enough but doing them with good intentions is equally important. Salah (prayer), Sawm (fasting), Sadqah (charity) alone are not examples of right relationship with Allah. Hadith notion of right conduct, on the other hand, conforms to the higher moral and spiritual principles by shifting the emphasis to being a righteous person merely by the Law to the real tenor of the Law which issues in right conduct.

In Islam, theory and practice, or more appropriately ‘aqidah (doctrine) and ‘amal (method) are indissolubly connected with each other. Whereas doctrine concerns the mind and can be summarized as intellectual discrimination between the ‘real’ and the ‘unreal’, method concerns the will that can be summarized as concentration upon the dhikrullah (remembrance of God). Hence Islam always engages both mind and will. The doctrinal side of Islam manifests itself in the Shahadah, the Tawhidic perception that, “Only Absolute Reality is Absolutely Real.”

The practical side of Islam takes two forms: morality and worship. Both the forms are the main objectives of tasawwuf to realize. Morality includes doing of awamir or ma’ruf i.e. things that ought to be done or possessed like iman (faith), ikhlas (purity of intention), sidq (truthfulness), tawadu’ (humility), and not doing of nawahi or munkar i.e. the things that ought not to be done like kufr (disbelief), nifaq (hypocricy), riya (pomp) etc.

 Let’s approach this view through another angle:

 The sufi experience (spiritual method) is summarized in the concept of Ihsan, which means excellence in faith and involves, as the term itself denotes, all the virtues, of heart, mind and body. The Qur’an defines ihsan as good conduct: “Indeed, Allah commands justice, good conduct (ihsan), and giving to relatives (and He) forbids immorality, bad conduct, and oppression.” (16:19).

The Hadith defines ihsan in these terms: “Worshiping of Allah as if one sees Him, for if one does not see Him nevertheless, He sees him.”

 An inward understanding of this Hadith can be that of a Sufi who, in light of the connotations of the same hadith and the contours of tasawwuf (the inward domain of Islam) itself, should also be called a muhsin, one who has reached the stage of ihsan. 

Reflecting on the two ends explained in the hadith: the top which means that the muhsin sees Allah, and the bottom which means that Allah sees him. Thus the true worshiper remains either in mushahadah (vision), the highest stage where he perceives the truth with the eye of heart (‘ayn al-qalb), or in muraqabah (meditation), a permanent state of awareness. Or in other words, the spiritual state where the worshipper gets so engrossed in his spiritual experience that he feels as if he sees Allah is the mushahadah, and the lowest degree of it where the worshipper permanently feels himself to be in the sight of his Lord is the muraqabah.

 It is also in hadith that angels once come to the messenger while he was asleep. They remarked: “(His) eyes are sleeping but (His) heart is waking.”  Thus meditation in Sufism is a background for Dhikr, the principle means of spiritual realization the Holy Qur’an explains thus:

 “And the remembrance of God is greatest.”

 Al-Hujwiri, a great sufi, says: “When self will vanish in the world, contemplation is attained and when contemplation is firmly established, there is no difference between this world and the next.”  But in the way of muraqabah, the illusion of the ego is an obstacle. And humility and love of one’s neighbour cuts at the root of this illusion. The holy Prophet says:

 “You will not enter paradise until you love your brother.”

 Faqr in tasawwuf (spiritual poverty of a Sufi) is actually the same thing that empties the soul of the ego’s false reality.” Starting from muraqabah to mushahadah the sufi then reaches ma‘rifah i.e. the stage of recognition of the reality. That is why he (the sufi) in the highest degree is called arif bi-Allah (knower by Allah).

 It is through the ma‘rifah that the Sufi bridges the gap between the rational knowledge and the revealed knowledge. Seeing with the eye of heart (‘ayn-al-qalb) the sufis see the reality behind the manifestation. Hence they are those who really see, and none else does; they are the ulu al-absar (those who have vision); they are the ulu al-albab (those who possess the kernel).

True faith always has a taste of tasawwuf in it, for without it belief would be mere theoretical knowledge which commits one to nothing and engages one in nothing. Hence a true and faithful Muslim always has a sufi behaviour in thought and action.

People having their own problems in approving tasawwuf should realize that true tasawwuf is nothing but what the Qur’an terms as tazkiyah and the hadith terms as ihsan. Iqbal terms the same thing as faqr in his explanations on the spiritual aspect of Islam. The holy Prophet has been commissioned to teach his people tazkiyh and ihsan.

The moral and religious goal and the right conduct is laid down in the Qur’an and the Hadith. Tasawwuf provides the specific methods and the means to achieve these goals.

The term tasawwuf therefore, should not become a hurdle in accepting what is already in the spirit of the Shari‘ah.

Dr Nazir Ahmad Zargar teaches at the Department of Religious Studies, CUK.