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"Spirituality", more than just a word

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Imam Shafií, like all the Imams, exhorted a balance between spirituality and Shariáh.

THE other day a local cleric argued from the mimbar that the word “spirituality” did not exist in the Arabic language. That point in his talk (on which I will focus) certainly caused a measure of consternation in the community.

This surprised me because I’d heard Islamic scholars using the term “ruhaniyyah”. To make sure, I checked it in the famous Al-Mawrid English-Arabic dictionary, finding “ruhaniyyah” on page 889. There was another noun meaning “spirituality” too, “al-Kanasiyya”, which had a Christian perspective. “Kanees” is the Arabic for church.

The cleric’s perceived agenda – to prove that tasawwuf, or spirituality, does not exist in Islam by playing on words – proved baffling. This is because Islamic terms can never be pigeon-holed, let alone satisfactorily defined, by closed statements borrowed from other languages such as English.

Islam is much more sophisticated than that, and most Muslims easily recognise its internal metaphors. Islam is a Deen, a dynamic process of being Muslim. Or to borrow from American Indian philosophy: a tree can’t simply be described as a tree; it is “tree-ing”; it is a process. A tree is always growing, budding, flowering and bearing fruit.

In the same way, a Muslim is Muslim through his ongoing actions of worship, charity, pilgrimage, fasting and behaviour. Then there is the fact that Arabic nouns (based on root verbs) enjoy lexically compound meanings, often not very well – as we’ve already said – approximated in translation.

This is because the word “God-fearing”, as opposed to“spirituality”, does not even appear in the Mawrid dictionary. Yet every Muslim instinctively knows that “taqwa” embraces the idea of “God-fearing”, but encompasses a far wider textual meaning.

The denial of “spirituality” as an Islamic or Arabic word, however, cannot camouflage the fact that “spirituality” – or Sufism to coin its proper Islamic synonym – has existed as a concrete reality, and has been a central pillar of mainstream Sunni Islam for over 1,400 years.

“Spirituality” was a norm during the era of the Prophet (SAW) and his immediate generations. Sufism – or tasawwuf – was later codified as a science of the heart by scholars and spiritual adepts such as Shaikh ‘Abd ul-Qadir Jilani and Junaid al-Baghdadi.

All the great Imams – Abu Hanifah, Imam Shafi’i, Imam Malik and Imam Hanbal (ra) – professed support and admiration for those who followed the path of spirituality (or tasawwuf), but warned that there had to be a balance. Imam Malik (ra) said in a famous statement:

He who practises spiritual knowledge without gaining knowledge in Fiqh will become a heretic; he who gains knowledge in Fiqh
without practising spiritual knowledge will become corrupt; and he who gathers between the two has become complete.

However, because the word “Sufi” – or “spirituality” – was not expressly used during the time of the Prophet (SAW), people (such as our cleric here) often like to argue (or hint) that its contemporary usage is an obscene innovation. To be consistent, though, they would have to declare Imam Shafi’i (ra) an undesirable innovator too, for he developed legal terms after the Prophetic era.

Shaikh ‘Abd ul-Qadir ‘Isa, the famous Syrian scholar, writes in his book the Realities of Sufism:

No matter what the case may be, Sufism is so well-known that it needs no etymology-based definition or word analogy…the
argument that it was not used at the time of the Companions… is rejected.

As an Islamic science, like Hadith or Fiqh (the application Sacred Law), Sufism has developed its own technical language over the centuries. Its path – externally through noble conduct and internally through reflection and worship – is codified via Shari’ah, Tariqah and Haqiqah.

In other words, its bedrock is the obedience of Sacred Law (Shari’ah) followed by the actual journey (the Tariqah) and ultimately, the intimate knowledge of Allah (Haqiqah). There are no short-cuts. The one cannot function without the other.

Another definition of the spiritual path – or “spirituality” – is ‘ilm ul-yaqin (the certainty of Islamic knowledge), ‘ain ul-yaqin (the certainty of the heart) and haq ul-yaqin (the ultimate reality).

Shaikh Ahmad Zarruq, an Egyptian scholar, wrote in 1898 that Sufism has been defined in over 2,000 ways, but that it boiled down to rectifying the heart – by coming close to Allah in devotion. The 10th century saint, Junaid al-Baghdadi, said that Sufism was the observation of every lofty characteristic, and the abandonment of every lowly trait.

This was clearly shown in the famous Hadith when the Archangel Jibril, in the guise of a traveller, sat facing the Prophet (SAW) knee-to-knee and asked him three questions in front of the Companions It is from this Tradition that the concepts of Islam, Iman and Ihsan were born.

The Prophet’s (SAW) answers to the questions of what were Islam and Iman, the details of which I will not repeat here, set out the foundations of Islam. The third question of Ihsan – which loosely means “excellence” – was answered as a Muslim worshipping as if he saw Allah, and if not capable of that, worshipping as if Allah saw him.

That the five pillars of Islam re-iterated in the Hadith by the Prophet (SAW) could be the underpinning of the heart, that the understanding of Iman or faith could be the journey of the heart and that Ihsan could be the final destiny of the heart, is an obvious and self-explanatory Sufistic parallel.

Our cleric’s apparent denial of the concept of“spirituality” in Islam can perhaps best be explained away by philosophical intoxication. We have to think good of people at all times, and maybe he has only been informed by charlatans or scoundrels posing as Sufi masters.

This is because he has, after all, walked beside Sufism’s merciful ocean without hearing its mighty roar, without admiring its diverse and colourful splendour, without smelling its misty perfumes and without realising its spectacular depths of meaning.

Then there is the reality that those most opposed to ideas can often become their most adept protagonists. This happened to Sayyidina‘Umar (ra) whose original intention was to assassinate the Messenger of God. Let’s hope and pray that our cleric becomes truly suffused with the light of his knowledge


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