Fourth in the series of Five Sundays on Tasawwuf (2009-2010) presented in Charlottesville on April 25th, both Shaykh Ahmed Abdur Rashid and Shaykh Nooruddeen Durkee focus on The Dhaahir and the Baatin.

“Everything Allah (swt) has created apparently has two aspects, the Dhahir (outer) and the Batin (inner).   But in fact, the inner and the outer are really the same, it is our perception that makes us think that they are different.  Allah (swt) is ONE, AHAD. Look at the human body, outwardly it appears one way, while inwardly there are other “worlds.”  The actions of the body are totally different than the activities going on within the body.  Within our body there are hidden systems so alien to us that we would shudder to think we are hosting them, yet without their activity, we could not live.”

“Dhaahir and Batin” talk by Shaykh Ahmed Abdur Rashid: audio file and pdf file and video file.

The transcript is below:


Allahumma salle ‘ala sayeddina Muhammed al fatih oghliq wa-al Hatim limaa-sabaq naser al haqq bil haqq wa-al haadi ila siratiqa-l-mustaqeem, wa ala alehi wa sahbehi haqq qadrihi wa miqdarihi al adheem.

O Allah shower your blessings upon our master Muhammad, The Opener of what has been closed and the seal of what has passed, the Champion of Truth by the Truth, and the Guide to Your straight path, and on his family and his companions with the equivalent to the greatness due to his exalted status.


Everything Allah (swt) has created apparently has two aspects, the Dhahir (outer) and the Batin (inner).   But in fact, the inner and the outer are really the same, it is our perception that makes us think that they are different.  Allah (swt) is ONE, ahad. Look at the human body, outwardly it appears one way, while inwardly there are other “worlds.”  The actions of the body are totally different than the activities going on within the body.  Within our body there are hidden systems so alien to us that we would shudder to think we are hosting them, yet without their activity, we could not live.

We make a distinction between the inner and the outer, a distinction made in Qur’an when it says:

Huwadh-Dhahir wal-Batin

He is the Outwardly Manifest and the Inwardly Hidden. [57:3]

But we should not forget that the dhahir and the batin are two parts of a singularity; a dynamic whole we call Allah (swt,) Unity unbounded and ever extending.

The Messenger of Allah, peace be upon him, said:

O Allah, You are adh-Dhahir and there is nothing above You, and You are al-Batin and there is nothing beneath You.”

The Messenger of Allah, peace be upon him, also said: “Allah is eternally existent and nothing else is.”

Imam al-Bayhaqiyy elucidated the meaning of this Hadith in his book ‘Al-I’tiqad’ (The Creed), saying: “This indicates that eternally nothing existed other than Allah; no water, no ‘Arsh (Throne), and no other creation; they are all classified as other than Allah.”

So, for the purpose of this dars I will refer to the Dhahir and Batin but I ask you to think of it as two elements of One.  We can see that Islam doesn’t separate the inner from the outer; it is a total integrative system. This is reflected in the Dhahir, as emphasis on the community as a whole through repetitious patterns, such as of prayer in Jama’t, to underscore the inter-connected and inter-dependent relationship between ‘believers.’  While each member of the community is significantly different in the outer, we are uniquely similar in the physical system.

The systemic harmony that is inherent in this Creation, must be sought after consciously and sincerely, if we are to Understand the nearness of Allah:

Huwa ma’akum ‘ayna ma kuntum

He is with you, wherever you are [57:4]

Shaykh Ahmed Abdur Rashid gives suhbat

Shaykh Ahmed Abdur Rashid gives suhbat

To see the systemic harmony, the nearness of Allah, is the life challenge for one who is truly a humane human being; a seeker after knowledge and truth, a developer of character; not one motivated out of greed or power or fame or name. As we look at societies today, that deep yearning to see and understand seems to have been abandoned by the vast majority of people; who see this world as the only reality and, at best, see the next (if they believe at all in the hereafter) as merely the reward for existing, with little regard to the quality or principles governing goodness and evil.

In the comings and goings of daily life we forget that we are one tiny part of the greater whole of humanity, which is itself one piece in our planet’s ecosystem.  We forget that our planet is part of an integrative system of the solar system, which is part of the galaxy, which is part of the Universe, which is one of many Universes.  It is an endlessly integrated system, if you look at the floor, the wall; all reflect the same universal Reality.  If you could look at an electron microscope you would see the same system, the same internally consistent, ever-repeating system.

So, where is the dividing line between the inner and outer?  Is it what is seen only?  Is it what is known, only? Is there really a line, or as we gain knowledge, true knowledge (marifa), as we gain the capacity of basira, does that apparent line recede? How limited is this linear view? Is it not better to at least try to conceptualize it more like concentric circles emerging from one source, like ripples of waves when a stone is cast into still water…going out and returning only when meeting a barrier…but what if there is no barrier?

We can understand that the dhahir and batin are not only two aspects of the same whole, but also two faces of each moment.  Our challenge, if we are seekers, is to seize the moment (Waqt) through remembrance of the Divine Presence. In doing that we are finding harmony (Mizan) we are present in The Presence. Insh’Allah. That process itself is endless but to be conscious, truly conscious, it demands constant vigilance, constant attentiveness, and continuous remembrance, dikr.

According to Bukhari, Abu Musa al-Ashcari related that the Prophet (s) said, “The difference between the one who makes dhikr and the one who doesn’t make dhikr is like the difference between the living and the dead.”

Through remembrance we are linked with the events of the past and it is upon remembrance we build our futures. By remembering Allah (swt) the Creator, the essential Truth, we are remembering our origin, understanding our place and creating what appears to be our future. Yet who are we in the inner. Are we to gauge our being by our age, by our physical appearance or by our state, our knowledge our character? Our bodies may tell us one thing but our mind and heart another. I am constantly surprised by the discrepancy between my inner state and mind and the limitations of this body. Is that not the narrative we see everywhere, spoken in nature and all life, the eternal internal potential against the apparent reality of the outer cycles of birth and life and death?

I was on a train recently and an older man walked past me and said; “Excuse me young man.”  I said, “thank you for the compliment.” And he said, “it’s true, we are young because we once were young and we experienced youth, so we are still young and more than that we are also aged.”

ALHamdullah. If we are the sum total of what we always were and the future is ‘more’ than that, it is truly a reflection of the sifat, the asma ul husna that is Allah (swt). But Allah (swt) is More than that, in time and before time. Allahu-Akbar.  (Allah is Greater). Whatever is, Allah is Greater than that.

Why is this important to our understanding of dhahir and batin?  As I speak today about on this subject, I ask you to keep this perspective in mind. Dhahir and Batin are part of every aspect of our creation, from our physical bodies, to our individual characters (akhlaq), but do not forget that in some ways, it is all a metaphor, a corridor (majaz), to help us move from one place in our understanding to another, and find the balance between the inner and outer.   I will return to these idea majaz, as it relates to the outer and inner, but first let me speak about how we perceive the dhahir and batin.


The things we encounter in our day-to-day life with our five senses (which correlate to the four elements: Earth Air Fire Water), and with our cognitive capability are dhahir.   The things that are hidden from the sense are the batin; that which is unseen. But the batin can be sensed with our unique cognitive and intuitive senses. We sense the batin through the organs of perception of the lataif: qalb, ruh , sirr, kafi, akhfa, nafs.  Part of the challenge of life is learning how to see and understand these two aspects that Allah has created.

As I mentioned in my introduction, to try to grasp what we call the “Unicity” of Allah, or the diversity within the Unity, we must see and interact with both the outer and the inner. We might ask, why are we ‘structured’ in such a way that we live or act in a dualistic system, when we are spiritually seeking the resolution of that apparent duality into Unity?

If we look around us, we see that the dynamics of life are reflected in this constant change or movement between the awareness of the outer and inner: it is the dynamic of life itself. We are surrounded by dualities that make up a whole: sleep and wakefulness, dreams and reality, life and death, male and female, up and down, sky and earth, day and night, positive and negative, attraction and repulsion:  these are the most basic building blocks of our universe… Allah speaks to us repeatedly about “pairs” in Qur’an:

Wa min kulli shay’in khalaqana zowjayni la’allakum takhakkarun.

And All things We have created in pairs in order that you might reflect. [51:47-49]

Guest Speaker: Mi’raj Ahmad Riccio speaks with Shaykh Ahmed Abdur Rashid

Guest Speaker: Mi’raj Ahmad Riccio speaks with Shaykh Ahmed Abdur Rashid

We have the ability taste these different aspects of Reality; to simultaneously recognize the duality and wholeness. As in the dream state we can be in the dream and yet also aware of the fact that we are dreaming.  But most people are content to stay asleep, letting the “dream” be their reality.  Some of us, though, are deeply and profoundly motivated to move through the corridor (majaz) between theses apparent realities; not automatically, as in sleep, but consciously and by choice, through meditation, dhikr, and contemplation.  This allows us greater understanding and vision, but also can heal the body, sustain the viability of the mind, and give us insight (basira) into a timeless, non-linear dimension that transcends the limitations of mere worldly assumptions and knowledge (information). The track through this majaz is tawwujoh and dhikr, attentiveness and remembrance. But each of us must adjust the lens through which we ‘see,’ by directing our attention progressively through the lenses we are provided with–  The lataif, subtle organs of perception.

The lataif are the lenses to focus our sight and understanding of the batin, they are tracks through the corridor that allow us to be here in this world and aware of the Infinite at the same time.  This conscious back and forth movement between two apparent worlds, or rather two aspects of one reality, create a rhythm in life that provides consonance and balance, which, in turn maximizes our human and our spiritual potential. Rhis rhythm is characterized in the dhahir by the 5 prayers each day.


There are certain concepts and realities that can only be seen vis a vis majāz (metaphor). A metaphor is a word or phrase that exists and changes as it travels from one linguistic, semiotic, state to another.   What is ‘seen’ in  the final  state or stage of development,   will, over time, be the basis of change that allows us to see into the unseen; facilitating changes in cultural orientation,  mentality, even our language.

There are spiritual realities or concepts that are inaccessible directly, but for the interface of majāz. Without metaphor, those spiritual realities won’t be revealed. Just like when you hear a poem, you hear words, they are images of reality, but in some way there is a non-spoken, spiritual experience that is taking place that uplifts you and deepens your knowledge. Knowledge from the batin is travelling through the metaphorical corridor, the majaz, to the dhahir.  It has been transformed. Words that independently have one meaning, in combination take on or imply a totally different meaning or concept. In the dhāhir, things are actualized.  In the bātin, things are compressed and condensed, even time.  For example, the Prophet (sal) stated that, “An hour’s contemplation is better than seventy years of worship.” And some traditions and fuqaha’ have even mentioned it as being better than a thousand years of worship.

In the dhāhir things are only nominally connected and require developing to connect the elements of events or elements in creation, while in the bātin things are obviously connected and reflective of the Unity. In the bātin, everything is One and unending…infinite.  So every little thing affirms the infinite. The dhāhir is the emergent abstraction. The bātin is the innermost concealed essence or core.

Ibn Araby said,

When the spirit descends upon the heart of the servant, through the sending down of the angel and casting of the revelation of Allah, the heart of one to whom it is sent down becomes alive.

The heart he is talking about is not just this thing that is beating in our chest.

But there is a relationship between the physical heart and the spiritual heart, or latifa “Qalb,” because analogically or metaphorically what takes place in the heart in human life is transformational and filled with many meanings and knowledge that come to us, unplanned and unprepared.  Like love or grief, loss, sorrow, fear; things that are bestowed upon us by life, just as Allah bestows upon us his tajalli, and cause changes in our spiritual heart/qalb.

The subtlety of that latifa qalb, the heart, is the most important subtlety.  Consequently, our heart is referred to as the most important centers of the spiritual body and the most important of the lataa’if.  When the eye of the heart opens, it transforms us spiritually and gives the potential, to see what is Real.  When it is operating properly and functionally, it is able to distinguish between what is real and what is an illusion; what is good and bad, right and wrong; true and false.

If it is not functioning properly, just like the physical heart, it loses its rhythm and capability.  Since the heart’s purpose is an extension, or an aggregator of the revelatory organ based on the other senses of perception or capabilities of the lataa’if, a person’s heart which is oriented toward the divine presence leads a person to this receptivity of the tajalli and knowledge.


If we understand this interconnected system of inner and outer, in which individual balance and the balance of our environment is linked, I think we will also begin to understand that destructive human forces, environmentally and socially are less a problem of resources and resource utilization than they are a result of attitude and character, and ultimately manifestations of disbelief, arrogance, and shirk. Because we are all part of the same unified system, our attitudes effect our environment, and, in turn, the destruction of natural resources, through war or economic exploitation, has profound results on human psychology, health, relationships, and well-being. Hence the need for a spiritually alive, spiritually based value system that resonates with the human soul and with the Divine Commands emerging from the Alam ul Amr…world of command.

Acting in Harmony with our Creation is acting in harmony with our Creator. Hence the necessity for responsible behavior, intellectual astuteness, humility and obedience to the Will of Allah (swt); awareness of that Divine Presence with Taqwa (pious respect). What we see can and should be ayah (signs) and reflections for us to contemplate–doorways to the Infinite.

Allah created this earth and created us in a beautiful form:


Truly we created the human being in the best form [95:4]

And He also tells us in Qur’an, “Do what is beautiful [kind], as Allah has done what is beautiful [kind] to you.” [28:77]

He has made us beautiful in form. And it is why we are so aware of the foundation (Ihsan) why we are created to give praise (tahsin)  to Allah (swt).  Because of this, we have an obligation to behave in a beautiful way; to reflect on the Divine Presence and see it’s reflection in us.  In our lives, in our relationship to the world, to the planet, to one another, and by doing this, we will be acting in accordance with the form and nature that Allah (swt) created us with.  When someone behaves in this way, there is a harmonization with what was created, our actions, and the depths of our understanding; a harmonization of the inner and the outer; the dhahir and the batin.

This harmony of the batin, the apparent outer,  is called akhlaq. Akhlaq (أخلاق) refers to the practice of virtue, morality and manners and the consequent aspect of the unseen ( aqeeda -beliefs). The essence of Akhlaq is to act from our spiritual character (or ruh, sirr, kafi, akhfa) rather than acting out of our nafs amarra and lower aspects of our human nature. The word akhlaq is the plural for the word khulq which means disposition. “Disposition” is a property of the soul that comes into existence (from the batin, it is manifest in the dhahir) through exercise and repetitive practice.

Al-Ghazali encouraged his students to reflect on the external and internal forms of beauty, saying,   “There are three kinds of beauty; the first is external physical beauty (dhahir) that he regards as the most debased form.”

In al Kimya al-Sa’adaa (The Alchemy of Happiness) he writes,  ” . . . as to [mans’] beauty, he is little more than nauseous matter covered with a fair skin. Without frequent washing he becomes utterly repulsive and disgraceful.”

The second type is moral beauty (batin) that he relates to a persons character:

“The former kind of man [a man who is only acquainted with sensuous delights] will say that beauty resides in red-and-white complexions, well-proportioned limbs, and so forth, but he will be blind to moral beauty, such as men refer to when they speak of such and such a man as possessing a beautiful character. But those possessed of inner perception find it quite possible to love the departed great, such as the Caliphs Omar and Abu Bakr, on account of their noble qualities, through their bodies have long been mingled with the dust. Such love is directed not towards any outward form, but towards the inner character. Even when we wish to excite love in a child towards anyone, we do not describe their outward beauty or form, etc . . . , but their inner excellences.”

(We know from reports of the remains of some awliya that their bodies remain uncorrupted even after centuries of internment. It seems as a testimonial to true hassana, goodness of the being.)

The third type of beauty that al-Ghazali describes is the spiritual; it is the most sublime, because it is directly connected to the of the Almighty:

“The heart of man has been so constituted by the Almighty that, like a flint, it contains a hidden fire which is evoked by music and harmony, and renders man beside himself with ecstasy. These harmonies are echoes of that higher world of beauty which we call the world of spirits; they remind man of his relationship to that world, and produce in him an emotion so deep and strange that he himself is powerless to explain it.”

To be in harmony with ones environment, with others, and with ones inner and outer self facilitates the gaining of insight (basira) and brings one nearer to awareness of Divine Presence.  As Sufis, we are seeking to rend the veils that hide that third type of beauty, the beauty of balance; the dynamic movement between the apparent inner an outer.  More precisely, we are seeking clear discernment (firasa) in the moment (waqt) of our zaman and makan (time and place), out of which conscious decision, action and response will arise. We will at will have free access, through the Majaz .

As Allah says to us in Surah Ar-Rahman:

Wa-s-samaa’a rafa’aha wa wada’aa-l-mizan

alla tataghow fi-l-mizan

And He has raised up the sky and set the balance—

That you might not transgress the balance. [55:7-8]

When you look at the perfection of creation and the beauty of the Creator, and the essence of the Creator. The dhahir leads you to the batin.

Even though my initial statement was that there is truly no duality, we also know that the experience of daily life presents opposites to us and we make choices moment to moment where we turn our attention. We are constantly seeking out the balance.  Only when we arrive at the maqam (station) that we ‘see’ the outer as an expression of the inner can we truly understand.  Until we achieve that understanding we must act by choosing, balancing, turning, intending, and attending to life ‘as if’ it was dual.

The Shaykh Mohammad ibn Ali said:

“Then wrap yourself in patience and wind on the turban of self-renewal.  You need the shirt of doing-without, and you should wear yourself out in it.”

The Shaykh also tells us:

The murid desires to travel on the spiritual path from the ‘presence of creation and beings, to the presence of the Reality and direct seeing  (basira) as a compensation for his reparation, his service and longing and his love.  The end is in your Lord who is endless; union to Allah is awareness of His Presence and gnosis and only the patient achieve this station.


When we hear and think about the dhahir and batin, as I have spoken about it today, there is a tendency to segregate these two aspects, in our thinking and in our lives.  We divide our “private self” and our “public self;” our “work life” and our “spiritual life;” our “secular friends” and our “religious friends”…  But my point today is they are not separate, Allah is AHAD, so we cannot, and should not separate the two aspects of the whole in our own lives.  As Allah says in Qur’an:

Do not those who cover up the Truth see that the heavens and the earth were of one piece and We parted them? [21:30]

Shaykh Abu Madyan (ra) focusing his teaching on this point; encouraging his students to treat life as a whole; to look at relationships, ethics, and codes (akhlaq), as well as, amal, work and social action.  This outward focus was a focus of the spiritual expressions, spiritual experiences in life. Until his time, the internalization of spiritual life had always been regarded as the most essential life for the Sufi, the pious life.   He said that the inner comprised only part of the work, of the amal.  He made a distinction between the dhahir the outer, and the batin, the inner aspects of reality, to the point where he said that these two aspects were not understood to mean that the interior was more real than the exterior, but the application and the concerns that arise or the insights that arise from the interior are the criteria for meaningfulness in the outer.

In a way we could say that he focused on the Ummah ta wasita, the people of the center or the middle path.  The spiritual method has to be outer and inner, public and private, worldly and spiritual, but they have to complement each other as though they are a single reality.  The foundation has to be in the spiritual, inner practice and its application manifest in the outer.  To maintain mizan, nothing one does in the outer should be far from the reality of the inner; nothing one does in the outer should be far from your own consciousness of the inner. The best way to accomplish that, of course, is to be so cognizant of the Divine Presence; everything reminds you of Allah (swt), such that with every action we take, we are in consonance with the presence or attributes of Allah: The Hazari.

There cannot be a conflict between our outer work and our inner knowledge, or between our outer work and our inner intention. Just as people who put all their attention on the outer are unbalanced, the Sufis who put all their emphasis on only the inner and removed themselves from society and became outwardly pious did not have a balanced, spiritual experience. Spiritual growth requires balance.  Most people want to start with the outer and work toward the inner, but in fact one needs to start with the Batin and the Dhahir together. A point counterpoint.

There have always been Sufis who were very deeply, profoundly spiritual people whose life was and is focused on the inner. Their outer work is the teaching. Of course, that is a great blessing to be focused almost exclusively on the evident and clearly spiritual aspects of life, but do not think it makes it any easier.  Because when your outer work is teaching, it does not mean that you are spending enough time in the inner. And in addition, some of them also had more visibly “outer” work as well, some were shopkeepers, or farmers; some were even, at times, in the court of the king, or the emir or the Sultan.  These people, like Ibn Araby, wrote a lot, they spoke a lot, they did a lot in the outer.   Many of them were qadis, judges and advocates and teachers.  That was their outer work and their inner practices were strong.


We must work to develop our inner self and strive to be a person with an open door between the outer and inner, a person whose inner knowledge allows them to understand their outer circumstances.  That person comes to a state of mind of believing that Allah is playing a major role in their life and accepts what that role was without craving or yearning too many other things.  One of the ways, in the early days of Sufism, that people would accomplish awareness of the importance of such an attitude, was through sawm, fasting.

Shaykh Abdu Madyan would have his students fast for forty days, only on water for forty days, leaving their khilwa, only to answer the call of nature and to pray and to attend the Dhikr. They would, of course, fast at Rajab.  They would fast at Shaban.  They would do the fast three days a month, every month.  It was done at a person’s own discretion. Like the Prophet (sal) in the cave in Hira, the person who performed that salm al wasl, would repent and bathe and do two rakha and then they would do their forty days of seclusion.  What they would do during that time is repeat, “La illah ha illah la, la illah ha illah la” until they developed a strong Tawakkul, a strong reliance and trust in Allah.

Understand that the foundational principle of this type of practices is to develop awareness of the inner.   For the outer to be in consonance with the inner, one must develop tawakkul, trust, and khumul, quiescence, and suqun, acquiescence.  What did that mean?  Complete quiescence meant the cessation of the ego-motivated thoughts and desires.  This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have thoughts or desires.   It means ego-motivated thoughts or desires. Rumi said,

External enemies are nothing.  What could they be? Don’t you see how many thousands of unbelievers are prisoners of an unbeliever?  Who is their leader?  That one unbeliever is a prisoner of thought.  We realize thus, and the thoughts are to be reckoned with since by means of one feeble mean thought, so many thousands of people are held captive.

When I see distinctively that a hundred thousand forms without bound and hosts without end, multitude upon multitude are held captive by a person who is held captive in turn by a miserable thought, then all these are prisoners of one thought.  How would it be if the thoughts were great, endless, holy, sublime? We realize then, therefore, that thoughts matter. Forms are secondary, mere instruments.

How many of us are prisoners of our thoughts?  Isn’t that what has happened to us?  So the pain and the misery, the outward forms of inward anger and arrogance, misery and selfish ambition and cruelty to others. The way to overcome them is on the level of the inner, the way to overcome them is in where we direct our heart.

Abu Madyan said, “The heart has no more than one aspect at a time such that when it is occupied by a certain thing, it is veiled from another.  Take care that you are not attracted to anything but Allah lest He deprive you of the delights of intimate converse with Him.”


In conclusion, I will return to the concept of unity. As I quoted earlier: Allah says in Qur’an:

Do not those who cover up the Truth see that the heavens and the earth were of one piece and We parted them? [21:30]

We were one piece before we were born and were split into two: the physical and spiritual, dhahir and batin. The key to returning to “whole-ness” lies in the heart; the only organ that exists both in the dhahir (through the physical organ) and the batin (lataif Qalb).

The expressions of Allah are reflected, like in a mirror, in the heart of a human. The secret hidden power of the heart is called al himma (yearning). It is a secret power or energy, quwatta kaffiyeh; a force of the batin, the hidden.   Himma is a quality of the heart and an intention of the soul, so strong and powerful that it can, in and of itself, bring into existence that which is only a possibility among the possibilities of the un-manifest divine.

If you analyze the concept of himma, you see that it is a dynamic capability/creativity of the heart that we all have to project onto an external plane (the dhahir), what is conceived by the heart (the batin).  Everything exists as potential, but infinitesimally small, the heart can project the potential of the batin onto the outer. It is this ability of the heart that gives the Seeker the cability to perceive the Divine consciousness.

It is this perceptive capability of the heart that allowed for the Prophet Mohammed (sal) to experience the highest spiritual state, and say, I have seen my Lord in the most beautiful of forms.

This vision of Allah, Ya Rabb, through the power of himma is not just the power of yearning. Remember; it is this secret force, quwatta kafiyyeh.  That experience has a Dhawq/taste, just like a taste, it pervades the being. That dhawq takes you to a state so high where Allah’s divine presence is the only thing in your consciousness.  That is that union with the Divine Beloved;  that state of all- pervasiveness.

The perception becomes such that it pierces the veils, and the incredible power to penetrate the dhahir, to see behind it the secret; everything that lies past the grasp of logic, reason, and physical perception. As shaykh al Akbar says in The Wisdom of the Prophets,

Who is here and what is there?  Who is here is what is there.   He who is universal is particular, and he who is particular is universal. There is but one essence, the light of the essence also being darkness. He who heeds these words will not fall into confusion.  In truth, only he knows what we say who is possessed of al himma.”

Sufism is not just observing rules nor does it just tell you the different stages and degrees of a person’s growth, but it is living a life fulfilling the potential of the heart: personal integrity, generosity, compassion, patience…. The person, who follows the true path of Tasawwuf, is not just an ascetic who focuses only on their development, ignoring the injustices that are plaguing the world, the poverty, the illness, the wars, the starvation….  The Sufi is someone who has a full engaged life, the Sufi is the person who uses discipline and uses vigilance and uses one’s own self in the best way possible to serve one’s brother and sister and one’s neighbor.

Abu Madyan said, “The true Sufi must not be jealous, egotistical or arrogant with his knowledge, nor miserly with his money.  Rather he must act as a guide, not confused, but merciful of heart and compassionate with all of creation.  To him every person is as useful as one of his hands.  He is an ascetic, everything equal to him whether it be praise or blame, receiving or giving, acceptance or rejection, wealth or poverty.  He is neither joyful about what comes to him or sad about what has been lost.” That is the Sufi.

Let us remember, the life of the Sufi is one of Mizan, balance between life, inner and outer; constant vigilance; and detachment from the world while at the same time fully participating in it.

There is a time for inward practices, and a time for out activities.  The Sufi seeks to see beyond the outer and inner, into the whole; to see the integrated system and to integrate the outer and inner in his/her life.


From the Lecture series , “Five Sundays”, at the zawiyya of Shaykh Nooruddeen Durkee, harlottesville, Virginia,    25 April 2010

To watch the video:

The second talk in the 5 Sundays on Tasawwuf (2009-2010) addresses the historical and practical importance of a guide on the Sufic Path. This second talk, Suhbat and the Oral Tradition,  was presented Dec 6, 2009 at the Islamic Study Center in Charlottesville, VA.  For more info about this series of talks.

Suhbat and the Oral Tradition by Shaykh Ahmed Abdur Rashid           pdf

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Shaykh Rashid lectures in Charlottesville

Shaykh Rashid lectures in Charlottesville

Shaykh Nooruddeen speaks at the zawiyya

Shaykh Nooruddeen speaks at the zawiya

To watch video of Shaykh Nooruddeen’s talk on The Oral Tradition

Dr. Dramie speaks on the Oral Tradition

Dr. Dramie speaks on the Oral Tradition from African Perspective

To hear Dr. Dramie and other Guest speakers from this series.

abdul bari shahHazrat Abdul Bari Shah (r.a.) was a great saint and a truly universal being (insan-i-kamil). Over time, his importance and his contribution to Sufic thought and action is being more and more recognized throughout the world.

Hazrat Sayyid Abdul Bari Shah (r.a.) was born in 1859 A.D. in Balgadhi (a village in India in the of Bengal). His father was an expert in both theology and spiritual sciences, and was a master of alchemy, that is the ability to transform materials from one substance to another. When Sayyid Abdul Bari Shah (r.a.) was only six years old, his father passed away, and his mother had to shoulder the full responsibility of raising the child. In accordance with the will of her husband, she moved from Balgadhi to Hoogli, near Calcutta. She spun thread to earn a livelihood. Her life was a model of patience and gratitude. Sayyid Abdul Bari Shah (r.a.) was so considerate that despite his early age, he tried to contribute to the family’s income by doing minor work to help his mother. After some time, at the request of a relative, the family moved from Hoogli to Naldanga. Here Sayyid Abdul Bari Shah’s mother would stay until her last breath, and here the holy tomb of Sayyid Abdul Bari Shah (r.a.) would eventually be situated.

Once, when Sayyid Abdul Bari Shah (r.a.) was a child, some boys asked came to him and asked to accompany them in stealing coconuts. Initially he refused to go, but when they insisted, he agreed to join them. They reached the trees, and the other boys started picking coconuts. They asked Sayyid Abdul Bari Shah (r.a.) to stand watch nearby, ready to inform them if anyone approached. It happened that the coconut trees were near a graveyard. Suddenly, Sayyid Abdul Bari Shah (r.a.) saw a dead person coming towards him. This person said: ”Good boy, you were not born for this purpose.” Sayyid Abdul Bari Shah (r.a.) left his comrades there and returned home.

Sayyid Abdul Bari Shah (r.a.) received no formal education. He was admitted to a school, but he did not like this type of education, and so he left school and engaged himself in various jobs. At last he got a position with a good salary at the railway. He could now have a better life, and also be in the company of friends.

One night, Sayyid Abdul Bari Shah (r.a.) saw his father in a dream. He told him that he didn’t approve of the job at the railway because of corruption in the workplace. In his heart, Abdul Bari Shah (r.a.) had remained detached from that employment, and when he got up in the morning, he decided to resign. His Arabic teacher and some of his friends tried to prevent him from resigning, warning him that it would be very difficult to get this kind of work again. He didn’t accept their advice, and left the railway.
Shortly thereafter, he suffered from dysentery, so acute that people though he might not survive. Again he saw his father in a dream. He gave him something to eat, and he ate his fill. When he awoke, he felt better, and within a few days he was completely cured.
By now, Sayyid Abdul Bari Shah (r.a.) was quite a changed person, devoting most of his time to spiritual pursuits. He was also searching for a Shaykh who could guide him in this path.

He was first initiated by a great Chishti Shaykh, Hazrat Karim Bakhsh (r.a.), (the father of our Grand Shaykh), who happened to pass through Balgadhi. When Sayyid Abdul Bari Shah (r.a.) started observing pas-an-fas (awareness of breath) according to the instructions of his Shaykh, his heart was opened. He was very happy with the experience and began to take even more interest and to devote himself enthusiastically to this pursuit. But he was sorry that he could not see the Shaykh again.

One day when he was engaged in dhikr, the founder of the Chishti Tariqa, Hazrat Moinuddin Chishti (r.a.) appeared before him and said that although there was nothing wrong with the line of the Order, in the future, he himself would instruct Sayyid Abdul Bari Shah (r.a.). From that time onward, Hazrat Moinuddin Chishti came and gave transmission to Sayyid Abdul Bari Shah (r.a.). Sayyid Abdul Bari Shah (r.a.) said to our Grand Shaykh Hazrat Hamid Hasan Alawi, “Do not think that it was a matter of vision. He used to sit with me as you are sitting now in from of me.” Hazrat Moinuddin Chishti assisted him through the stations of the path. Hazrat Abdul Bari Shah narrated:

“ Whenever I encountered difficult barriers and I felt I lacked the strength within me to reach higher and cross the barrier, Moinuddun Chishti (r.a.) used to lift me with the help of his special being. I would ask, “Hazrat, is this the goal of the journey?” He always replied, “No. The goal is still far away.” Until finally, one day he said, “Now you have reached the destination.”

Once when the month of Ramadan coincided with the rainy season, Sayyid Abdul Bari Shah (r.a.) reached a point there he had only one penny left. With this penny he bought some grain, which enabled him and his wife to carry on for two more days. Finally, his financial position was so bad that there was not a single penny left in the house. Looking back upon this period, Hazrat Sayyid Abdul Bari Shah (r.a.) later observed, “I was not afraid of my being tested, but I was worried about my wife. I was concerned that she might no be able to bear the strain and that she might become impatient.” But in the company of great souls, other souls also show greatness. His wife used to put plain water in a pot on the fire, so that the neighbors would not suspect that they were starving.

Two days passed in this condition. They could break fast only with sips of water. At such moments, even great persons lose patience and become distracted from the Path. Hazrat Sayyid Abdul Bari Shah (r.a.) however, devoted himself fully to his practices. He thought that death might be near, and that therefore it would be best to do as much as he could in his spiritual pursuit. It was raining and the roof of his house was so old, that water ran down from all sides. Still, he didn’t keep himself from being busy in doing his dhikr. He put a pot or some utensils on his head to keep the water off. When it stopped raining, he emptied the pot and again continued his meditation.

One day, when Hazrat Sayyid Abdul Bari Shah (r.a.) was engaged in his practices in this miserable condition, Hazrat Ali (r.a.) and Hazrat Shaykh Abdul Qadir Jilani (r.a.) appeared, dressed in beautiful shining garments and holding unsheathed swords in their hands. They had visited him several times before, but today’s visit was a special one. While one caught hold of his right arm, the other caught hold of his left arm, and together they made his stand on a high platform. They said, “O Abdul Bari, you should be a wali from this day onward!” [note: wali literally means ‘friend of God’, or a saint]

After Hazrat Abdul Bari Shah (r.a.) had come out of this state, but while he was still in meditation, a man came into his room and said, “O Hazrat Sayyid, the roof of this hut has become useless. Please allow me to repair it.” Another man came and gave him two rupees and a sign of reverence. In brief, the unfavourable times ended. Hazrat Sayyid Abdul Bari Shah (r.a.) used to say that after this time, he didn’t have to face starvation again, even though he might sometimes go hungry for three or four days in a month.
When the teaching had been completed, Hazrat Moinuddin Chishti made Sayyid Abdul Bari Shah (r.a.) his khalifa (deputy) and gave him ijazat (permission) to teach others in the Chishti Order.

After some time, Sayyid Abdul Bari Shah (r.a.) happened to meet the great Mujaddedi Shaykh of that time, Hazrat Maulana Gulam Salmani (r.a.). After completing lataif-i-ashra (ten centers of consciousness) Sayyid Abdul Bari Shah (r.a.) asked Shaykh Salmani (r.a.) to make him his murid. But the Shaykh refused his request. He was terribly disappointed. When he sat in meditation, Shaykh Ahmad Faruqi Sirhindi (r.a.) appeared and asked the reason for his grief. After hearing the story, Shaykh Ahmad Faruqi )r.a.) said, “Now go to Shaykh Salmani. This time, he will accept you as a murid.” Sayyid Abdul Bari Shah (r.a.) visited the Shaykh again and described his conversation with Shaykh Ahmad Faruqi Sirhindi (r.a.). After hearing of the incident, Shaykh Salmani (r.a.) initiated Sayyid Abdul Bari Shah (r.a.) in the Mujaddidi Order.

Although outwardly, Hazrat Maulana Salmani (r.a.) was the Shaykh of Sayyid Abdul Bari Shah (r.a.), inwardly, Shaykh Ahmad Faruqi Sirhindi (r.a.) continued to give him transmission. Through the method of uwaysi, other founders of the great Orders, including Hazrat Shaykh Abdul Jilani, Shaykh Abdul Hasan Shadhili, and Hazrat Shaykh Bahauddin Naqshband, also made him their deputies and gave hem permission to teach in the Orders. In the same Uwaysi way, Hazrat Uways Qarani also gave him permission to teach according to his Order and made him his deputy.

In short, Hazrat Abdul Bari Shah (r.a.) received permission to initiate and teach students in the Chishti, Qadiri, Mujaddedi, Naqshbandi, Shadhili, and Qaraniya Orders, and in Silsila-al-dhahab (the Golden Chain). At the same time, by the grace of Allah, he achieved different spiritual ranks and received higher stations and status in the spiritual worlds.

There was an elderly woman in Calcutta, who was one of the forty Abdals. Hazrat Abdul Bari Shah (r.a.) sometimes used to meet with her. When she died, through his kashf (vision), he was asked to carry on her duties as an Abdal.

Also at that time, Shaykh Abul Hasan (r.a.) was acting as Qutub-i-Madar (Pole of the Universe), and was living in Mecca. He directed his attention towards Sayyid Abdul Bari Shah (r.a.) and established a spiritual connection with him. The Shaykh used to meet with Sayyid Abdul Bari Shah (r.a.) daily to give him transmission. Sometimes he would come to Sayyid Abdul Bari Shah (r.a.) and sometimes Sayyid Abdul Bari Shah (r.a.) would go to Mecca for their meetings. When Our Grand Shaykh Hazrat Hamid Hasan Alawi heard this, he was surprised, for there was a long distance between these two places. But Hazrat Abdul Bari Shah (r.a.) said, that in spiritual journeying, space and time so not count.

When Shaykh Abul Hasan left the body, there was a gathering in the vicinity of the Holy Ka’aba in Mecca. Many great saints presented themselves as candidates for the post of Qutub-i-Madar. He was also present, but thinking himself the lowest of all and not fit for that position, he stood in the last place. The Angel Gabriel (a.s.) stepped into the gathering with a crown of jewels and pearls in his hand, and called the name of Hazrat Abdul Bari Shah (r.a.). The latter rushed to stand before Gabriel (a.s.). Then Hazrat Gabriel (a.s.) put the crown on the head of Hazrat Sayyid Abdul Bari Shah (r.a.). Motioning towards the Holy Ka’aba, he said, “You are the caretaker of this House from this day onward.” After that, Hazrat Abdul Bari Shah (r.a.) fulfilled the duties of Qutub-i-Madar.
Hazrat Sayyid Abdul Bari Shah (r.a.) made important contribution to the Orders in which he was authorized and to Tasawwuf in general. One of his masters, Hazrat Shaykh Ahmad Faruqi Sirhindi (r.a.), had previously completed the Naqshbandi Order, using the technique of indiraj un nihayat fi al-bidayat. Hazrat Sayyid Abdul Bari Shah (r.a.) introduced the method of indiraj un nihayat fi al-bidayat to the rest of the major Orders with the consent of their founders.

Sayyid Abdul Bari Shah (r.a.) also made some changes in the system of premiership (making disciples). He was not happy with the prevalent system, which required that an individual becomes a murid or murida before starting to do the Sufic practices. He put an end to this tradition by permitting aspirants to embark on the spiritual journey without becoming murid, or murida. However, after the completion of ten lataif (centers of consciousness) it was discovered that it was difficult for students to proceed further on the path unless they become murids. Today, the most significant feature of our Order is that it is not necessary to become a murid before undertaking the practices. Only after finishing lataif-i-ashra (the ten centers of consciousness) is a student obliged to make this commitment. In other Orders, becoming a murid is the first condition for starting the practices.

Hazrat Sayyid Abdul Bari Shah (r.a.) also wielded the title of Muhafiz-i-ulum, the one whose duty is to safeguard both the Sharia and Tariqa. Therefore, we hope that all sorts of misunderstanding between Sharia and Tariqa will be removed and a better harmony will prevail in this matter.

Hazrat Sayyid Abdul Bari Shah (r.a.) was not only the Qutub-i-Madar (Pole of the Universe) of his times, but also occupied the status of Qutub-i-Irshad (pole for Spiritual Guidance). Among the earlier saints, only few select persons had the privilege to occupy both of these posts. The world never remains without a Qutub-i-Madar. When one leaves the body, another takes his place or her place immediately. But it is not necessary for Qutub-i-Irshad to be present all the time. His or her spirit may carry on the work, even after leaving the body.

As Hazrat Ali (r.a.) and other Imams (Poles) belonging to the family of the Prophet (salla’allahu ‘alaihi wa sallam) occupied the position of Qutub-i-Irshad to award the sainthood to a salik, so too, Shaykh Abdul Bari Shah (r.a.) had this privilege. From Shaykh Abdul Jilani to Sayyid Abdul Bari shah no Shaykh possessed this position. It was concerned with the spirit of Shaykh Abdul Qadir Jilani, which carried on the work even after leaving the body. Even Shaykh Ahmad Sirhindi (r.a.) regarded himself as the deputy of Shaykh Abdul Qadir Jilani (r.a.) when he fulfilled this duty. He wrote that this responsibility was concerned with the spirit of Shaykh Abdul Qadir Jilani (r.a.), and that he had been given this responsibility as his khalifa. In contrast, Sayyid Abdul Bari Shah (r.a.) had personal authority in this regard. There we see that although Sayyid Abdul Bari Shah (r.a.) passed away more that fifty years ago, his spirit still imparting spiritual guidance.

Hazrat Sayyid Abdul Bari Shah (r.a.) used to tell his students, “There is no need for you to go anywhere. Do not think that I am speaking from my ego. I am selfless, and whatever I am saying is for your betterment.” He used to compare himself with the earlier saint, Shaykh Abdul Qadir Jilani (r.a.). He would show his fingers side by side and say, “He and I are like these two fingers. Where he is present, he also asks me to join there.”

Once by chance Sayyid Abdul Bari Shah (r.a.) happened to visit a grave. He stood there for a while, apparently out of reverence for the deceased. People began to ask whether the person in the grave was a wali (saint). Sayyid Abdul Bari Shah (r.a.) said that he had not been a wali previously, but now he was.

Hazrat Abdul Bari Shah (r.a.) was frank with his students and did not like any special distinction to be accorded to him. Whenever he happened to stay at our Grand Shaykh’s house, he said that if anyone asked about him, that person should simply be told that a guest was staying there. He seldom uttered harsh words or scolded his students. If he thought is necessary to rebuke them, he would say, “You lack adab.” He was so merciful that immediately after uttering this, he would add, “I am responsible for your wrong behaviour.”

Most of his time he devoted to meditation, continuing each sitting for about three hours. He often spent the whole night in meditation, yet felt fresh and cheerful in the morning. He loved his students as his own sons and daughters. They also loved him very much, and were not tempted to pay attention to other Shaykhs, no matter how great they might be. For example, the water carrier of Hazrat Sayyid Abdul Bari Shah (r.a.) once went to the river to fetch some water. He saw a person like Khidr (peace be upon him) in the distance, calling to him. The water carrier replied, “Why should I come to you? Why shouldn’t I go to my own teacher, through whose nearness you are calling me.”

Hazrat Sayyid Abdul Bari Shah (r.a.) was not able to receive a formal education, but with the help of ‘ilm-i-ladunni (the knowledge which is not learned, but is reflected into the tranquil mind of a Sufi from another plane of being), he could answer questions, quoting books and even citing specific pages and line numbers. It seemed that the details of all kinds of knowledge and sciences remained open before him.

Hazrat Sayyid Abdul Bari Shah (r.a.) left his body and took abode in the heavens at the age of only forty. He had no children. He lived very simply in an ordinary hut.

One day Hazrat Abdul Bari Shah (r.a.) was making ablution in a corner of his house. As he did so, the thought entered his mind: “I am a poor man living in solitude, and it seems that this Order will remain limited to me alone.” This feeling saddened him, but then an indication from God made him happy. He came to know, that God would spread this Order from East to West, and from land to sea. By the grace of God, we can now apprehend the signs of the fulfillment of this promise.

© Shaykh Hazrat Azad Rasool

rr09.5During the Ramadan Retreat at the khanaqah of Shaykh Ahmed Abdu-r-Rashid, Ibrahim Hakim gives a talk on excerpts of the classical Sufi text of Ibn Ata’llah Iskandari’s (ra) “The Hikam” focused on the subject of suhbat. Shaykh Rashid gives comments following the talk.

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bookwisdom7Shaykh Ahmad Abdur Rashid was invited to speak at a recent conference of shaykhs and scholars discussing the aphorisms in “The Book of Wisdom” –  Al Hikam of Shaykh Ahmad ibn Ata Illah as-Sakandari .

To hear Shaykh Ahmed Abdur Rashid’s talk given at this conference:

The Aphorisms of Iskandari: Action Items for Today’s To-Do List

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 The full talk is availabe in downloadable pdf

THE APHORISMS OF IBN ATA’ILLAH ISKANDARI: ACTION ITEMS FOR TODAY’S TO DO LIST Lecture by Shaykh Ahmed Abdur Rashid , ADAM Center, Herdon Virginia , 21 February 2009


It is an honor and privilege to sit before you to share some thoughts and insights on one of the most relevant texts, not only for one who pursues the way of tassawwuf, but for all Muslims who seek to understand the practical and secure way to live in modern society,  among people who are both Muslim and non Muslim; especially at this  time of great strain and challenges. The knowledge of the Hikam is one thing, but understanding the process of the Hikam and the way of thinking illustrated by Shaykh ibn’ata’illah Iskandari can and will change our perspective, our intentions, and our actions. It is here, in a process of trust and submission, in the context of our deepest Islamic core, that we can find the means for meeting the challenges of modern life; as as human beings, as Muslims, insh’Allah, as mu’min.

 The 93rd Aphorism

As we dive deep into the Hikam of Ibn Atala Iskandari, we find an incredible treasure of knowledge.  In some cases, we find it stated exactly in the opposite form that  we thought we would find (it stated) . It is important in the world we are living in, that we allow for the possibility of new perspectives,: a world in which we must change our perspective from one of probabilities, to one of possibilities; from distraction to attraction; from close mindedness to open inquiry, from distrust to trust and from submission to people to submission to Allah swt.  This kind of thinking is especially important if we are to realize that ‘seeking knowledge from the cradle to the grave’ (as the Prophet Mohammad (sal) enjoined) is a faith based inquiry that requires the courage to utilize critical thinking and critical inquiry skills. To ask hard questions of ourselves and our assumptions and seek fulfilling answers from the core of our hearts and the foundations of our belief.  Only if we do this will we truly be able to rectify the many misunderstandings and misinterpretations of Islam and Sufism, and reframe our deen to the original template of personal revelation and Allah’s dynamic Reality/Creation. Not only that, but we will be also able to fulfill our obligation and trust; to serve Allah (swt) by serving Allah’s Creation and Creatures.  To fulfill our role as Khalifa on this earth, as Allah reminds us in Sura al-Ahzab:

“Truly we offered the Trust to the heavens and the earth and the mountains, but they declined to bear it and feared it, and the human being [undertook it].  But he has been the oppressor [of himself and others] and ignorant.” (33:72)

Only when we do that can we be able to listen with ears that hear and see with eyes that can see, a teaching, a path, a Truth that is near to us, around us and within us. Allah (swt).

The proof of a lasting teaching lies in its applicability in every age and the means it unlocks in the hearts and minds of the seekers of Truth.  My dear friends, this Islam is certainly that Everlasting teaching that constructs from the most basic elements a humble, yet courageous; peaceful, yet personally demanding; articulate, yet faithful Being. A practical, practicable teaching assiduously undertaken with sincerity can be a major factor in bringing relative Peace and Harmony to this world; and it can be a means of addressing the critical issues we face today.  But that is secondary, more importantly, it gives us a clear and straight means to be aware of our purpose and to be consciously in the presence of the Divine Truth, Compassion and Mercy…Allah swt. By intentionally  applying the teachings of Allah (swt), as articulated in the Quran;  opening the door to reaching higher and higher maqamt; making obvious the link between the Dhahir and the Batin  we fulfill our ultimate destiny and covenant with our Creator.   Today I will talk about several aphorisms that can help us understand how to deepen our perceptions, and live our Islam more free of assumptions and bias , more humbly and insh’Allah more fully. Of course I ask Allah’s forgiveness for my own errors and limitations and hope that we can continue on this process of mining the wealth of this great Shaykh’s insights.

In the 93rd aphorism, Ibn Atala Iskandari, says:

When he gives, he shows you his kindness (bir).  And when he deprives, he shows you his power (qahar).  And in all that, he is making himself known to you and coming to you with his gentleness.

For most of us, it is very difficult to see the mercy and kindness of Allah (swt) when we are denied what we think we need, deserve, or expect.  When we find our basic wants out of reach, we feel threatened; whether it be in the day to day material wants and needs, in the realm of our health and well being, or in the form of power and recognition. But in this aphorism, he is directing us to understand that the denial of Allah is an affirmation, an ayat, of the power of Allah (swt).  He is reminding us that we don’t have the final control ; that every action is under the control of Al Qaharu  The Subduer. Yet he also points out  that Allah (swt) is kind and protecting  Al Wali and  is showing us the attribute of kindness when we are apparently deprived.  So, in both the kindness (bir) and power (qahar) Allah is affirming that Allah is actively present, righteous and the bestower of piety.

How is it that these two seemingly opposite manifestations have the same result?  It is because we are in a dynamic process, part of a dynamic Reality that can compose power and kindness in the form of denial.  That by subduing what emerges is righteousness. This may be contrary to the way we normally think, but it is representative of the unity that is Allah and it testifies to the fact that apparent opposites affirm the totality. Where there is an ‘up’ defined there must be a down’ or where there is ‘hardship’ there must also be ‘ease.’ Not only is Allah (swt) making us aware of the Divine Presence and the reality of our place in the ocean of that Presence, but we are being shown the means to perceive the reality of our state, within Tawhid, within the unity that alone is Allah.

While we don’t think about being denied something, as gentleness or kindness, the overriding power of Allah (swt), is telling us, “what you thought is reality, is not necessarily reality what you thought was truth, or justice is not necessarily truth or justice.  What your expectation is, is not necessarily what is going to transpire.”   Only when you relinquish your attachment to your own perspective, or at least accept that it is flawed, will you be able to see The Real. So abandon your expectations.  (This of course reflects back other teachings of Iskandari on tadbir and the abandoning of self-direction.)  This was the instruction of the Prophet (sal), as reported by Umar ibn Al-Khattab, who said:

“If only you relied on Allah a true reliance, He would provide sustenance for you just as He does the birds: They fly out in the morning empty and return in the afternoon with full stomachs.”

The full talk is availabe in downloadable pdf

The Interior Life in Islam 

by Seyyed Hossein Nasr Vol. III, Nos. 2 & 3 

 “O thou soul which are at peace, return unto thy Lord, with gladness that is thine in Him and His in thee. Enter thou among My slaves. Enter thou My Paradise.” (Quran – LXXXIX; 27-30 (trans. by M. Lings.) 

The function of religion is to bestow order upon human life and to establish an “outward” harmony upon whose basis man can return inwardly to his Origin by means of the journey toward the “interior” direction. This universal function is especially true of Islam, this last religion of humanity, which is at once a Divine injunction to establish order in human society and within the human soul and at the same time to make possible the interior life, to prepare the soul to return unto its Lord and enter the Paradise which is none other than the Divine Beatitude. God is at once the First (al-awwal) and the Last (al-akhir), the Outward (al-zahir) and the Inward (al-batin). [1] By function of His outwardness He creates a world of separation and otherness and through His inwardness He brings men back to their Origin. Religion is the means whereby this journey is made possible, and it recapitulates in its structure the creation itself which issues from God and returns unto Him. Religion consists of a dimension which is outward and another which, upon the basis of this outwardness, leads to the inward. These dimensions of the islamic revelation are called the Shariah (the Sacred Law), the Tariqah (the Path) and the Haqiqah (the Truth), [2] or from another point of view they correspond to islam, iman, and ihsan, or “surrender”, “faith” and “virtue”.[3] 

Although the whole of the Quranic revelation is called “islam“, from the perspective in question here it can be said that not all those who follow the tradition on the level of islam are mu’mins, namely those who possess iman, nor do all those who are mu’mins possess ihsan, which is at once virtue and beauty and by function of which man is able to penetrate into the inner meaning of religion. The Islamic revelation is meant for all human beings destined to follow this tradition. But not all men are meant to follow the interior path. It is enough for a man to have lived according to the Shariah and in surrender (islam) to the Divine Will to die in grace and to enter into Paradise. But there are those who yearn for the Divine here and now and whose love for God and propensity for the contemplation of the Divine Realities (al-haqaiq) compel them to seek the path of inwardness. The revelation also provides a path for such men, for men who through their iman and ihsan “return unto their Lord with gladness” while still walking upon the earth. 

While the concrete embodiment of the Divine Will, which is the Shariah, is called the exoteric dimension in the sense of governing all of man’s outward life as well as his body and psyche, the spiritual path, which leads beyond the usual understanding of the “soul” as a separated and forgetful substance in the state which Christians call the “fallen state”, is called the esoteric dimension. In Sunni Islam, this dimension is almost completely identified with Sufism (tasawwuf) while in Shi’ism, in addition to Sufism, the esoteric and the exoteric are intermingled within the general structure of the religious doctrines and practices themselves.[4] And even within Sunnism, there is an intermediate region between the exoteric and the esoteric, a world of religious practice and doctrines which while not strictly speaking esoteric are like the reflection of the inner teachings of Sufism within the whole community and a foretaste of its riches. In fact, many of the prayer manuals which occupy such a position in the Sunni world, such as the Dalail al- khayrat, were written by Sufi masters, while in the Shi’ite world, the prayers almost all of which, such as the al-Sahifah al-sajjadiyyah of the fourth Imam Zayn al- Abidin, were written by esoteric authors, partake of both an esoteric and an exoteric character.[5] Occasionally, there has even been the penetration of one domain upon another, such as the sayings of many of the Imams which have appeared in Sufi writings and even of some Sufi writings which have penetrated into certain Shi’ite prayers identified with some of the Imams.[6] 

Prayers such as those of Khwajah ‘Abdallah Ansari, the great saint of Herat contained in his Supplications (Munajat) are at once the deepest yearning of the heart for the Ineffable and the Infinite and common devotional prayers chanted by many of the devout in the community and thus belonging to the intermediate level alluded to above: 

I live only to do Thy will,

My lips move only in praise of Thee

O Lord, whoever becometh aware of Thee

Casteth out all else other than Thee.

O Lord, give me a heart

That I may pour it out in Thanksgiving

Give me life

That I may spend it

In working for the salvation of the world.

O Lord, give me understanding

That I stray not from the path

Give me light

To avoid pitfalls.

O Lord, give me eyes

Which see nothing but Thy glory.

Give me a mind

That finds delight in Thy service.

Give me a soul

Drunk in the wine of Thy wisdom.[7] 

In the same way that the dimension of inwardness is inward in relation to the outward and the outward is necessary as the basis and point of departure for the journey toward the inward, so is the experience of the Divinity as imminent dependent upon the awareness of the Divinity as transcendent. No man has the right to approach the Imminent without surrendering himself to the Transcendent, and it is only in possessing faith in the Transcendent that man is able to experience the Imminent. Or from another point of view, it is only in accepting the Shari’ah that man is able to travel upon the Path (tariqah) and finally to reach the Truth (haqiqah) which lies at the heart of all things and yet is beyond all determination and limitation. 

To interiorize life itself and to become aware of the inward dimension, man must have recourse to rites whose very nature it is to cast a sacred form upon the waves of the ocean of multiplicity in order to save man and bring him back to the shores of Unity. The major rites or pillars (arkan) of Islam, namely the daily prayers (salat), fasting (sawm), the pilgrimage (hajj), the religious tax (zakat) and holy war (jihad), are all means of sanctifying man’s terrestrial life and enabling him to live and to die as a central being destined for beatitude. But these rites themselves are not limited to their outer forms. Rather they possess inward dimensions and levels of meaning which man can reach in function of the degree of his faith (iman) and the intensity and quality of his virtue or inner beauty (ihsan). 

The daily prayers (salat in Arabic, namaz in Persian, Turkish and Urdu) are the most fundamental rites of Islam, preceded by the ablutions and the call to prayers (adhan), both of which contain the profoundest symbolic significance. The form of these prayers is derived directly from the sunnah of the Holy Prophet and the daily prayers are considered as the most important of religious deeds for as the Prophet has said, “The first of his deeds for which a man will be taken into account on the day of resurrection will be his prayer. If it is sound he will be saved and successful, but if it is unsound he will be unfortunate and miserable. If any deficiency is found in his obligatory prayer the Lord who is blessed and exalted will issue instructions to consider whether His servant has said any voluntary prayers so that what is lacking in the obligatory prayer may be made up by it. Then the rest of his actions will be treated in the same fashion.” [8] The salat punctuates man’s daily existence, determines its rhythm, provides a refuge in the storm of life and protects man from sin. Its performance is obligatory and its imprint upon Islamic society and the soul of the individual Muslim fundamental beyond description. 

Yet, the meaning of the prayers are not to be understood solely through the study of their external form or their impact upon Islamic society, as fundamental as those may be. By virtue of the degree of man’s ihsan, and also by virtue of the grace (barakah) contained within the sacred forms of the prayers, man is able to attain inwardness through the very external forms of the prayers. He is able to return, thanks to the words and movements which are themselves the echoes of the inner states of the Holy Prophet, back to the state of perfect servitude (ubudiyyah) and nearness to the Divine (qurb) which characterize the inner journey of the Holy Prophet as the Universal Man (al-insan al-kamil) to the Divine Presence on that nocturnal ascent (al-miraj), which is at once the inner reality of the prayers and the prototype[9] of spiritual realization in Islam.[10] 

Not only do the canonical prayers possess an interior dimension, but they also serve as the basis for other forms of prayer which become ever more inward as man progresses upon the spiritual path leading finally to the “prayer of the heart”, the invocation (dhikr) in which the invoker, invocation and the invoked become united, and through which man returns to the Center, to the Origin which is pure Inwardness.[11] The interior life of Islam is based most of all upon the power of prayer and the grace issuing from the sacred language of Arabic in which various prayers are performed. Prayer itself is the holy barque which leads man from the world of outwardness and separation to that of union and interiority, becoming ultimately unified with the center of the heart and the rhythm which determines human life itself. 

The same process of interiorization takes place as far as the other central rites or pillars of Islam are concerned. Fasting is incumbent upon all Muslims who are capable of it during the holy month of Ramadan, a month full of blessings when according to the well-known hadith “the gates of heaven are opened”.[12] But the outward observation of its rules, while necessary, is one thing and the full realization of its meaning is another. Fasting means not only abstention from eating, drinking and passions during daylight but above all the realization of the ultimate independence of man’s being from the external world and his dependence upon the spiritual reality which resides within him. Fasting is, therefore, at once a means of purification and interiorization complementing the prayers. In fact, it is itself a form of prayer. 

The same truth holds true of the other rites. The pilgrimage or hajj is outwardly the journey towards the house of God in Mecca and inwardly circumambulation around the Ka’bah of the heart which is also the house of God. Moreover, the outward hajj is the means and support for that inner journey to the Center which is at once nowhere and everywhere and which is the goal of every wayfaring and journeying. The zakat or religious tax is likewise not only the “purifying” of one’s wealth through the act of charity which helps the poor, but also the giving of oneself and the realization of the truth that by virtue of the Divine origin of all things, and not because of some form of sentimental humanitarianism,[13] the other or the neighbour is myself. Zakat, therefore, is, in addition to a means of preserving social equilibrium, a way of self-purification and interiorization, of creating awareness of one’s inner nature shown from artificial attachment to all that externalizes and dissipates. 

Finally, the holy war or jihad is not simply the defense or extension of the Islamic borders which has taken place only during certain episodes of Islamic history, but the constant inner war against all that veils man from the Truth and destroys his inner equilibrium. The greater holy war (al-jihad al-akbar) as this inner battle has been called, by the Holy Prophet, is, like the “unseen warfare” of Orthodox spirituality, the very means of opening the royal path to the center of the heart. It is the battle which must of necessity be carried out to open the door to the way of inwardness. Without this greater jihad man’s externalizing and centrifugal tendencies cannot be reversed and the precious jewels contained in the treasury of the heart cannot be attained. The jihad, like the prayers, fasting, pilgrimage and religious tax, while a pillar of Islam and a foundation of Islamic society, is also a means toward the attainment of the inner chamber and an indispensable means for the pursuit of the inner life in its Islamic form. 

An understanding of the interior life in Islam would be incomplete without reference to the imprint of the Divine Beauty upon both art and nature. Islamic art, although dealing with world of forms, is, like all genuine sacred art, a gate towards the inner life. Islam is based primarily on intelligence and considers beauty as the necessary complement of any authentic manifestation of the Truth. In fact beauty is the inward dimension of goodness and leads to that Reality which is the origin of both beauty and goodness. It is not accidental that in Arabic moral goodness or virtue and beauty are both called husn. Islamic art, far from being an accidental aspect of Islam and its spiritual life, is essential to all authentic expressions of Islamic spirituality and the gate towards the inner world. From the chanting of the Holy Quran, which is the most central expression of the Islamic revelation and sacred art par excellence, to calligraphy and architecture which are the “embodiments” in the worlds of form and space of the Divine Word, the sacred art of Islam has always played and continues to play a fundamental role in the interiorization of man’s life.[14] The same could of course be said of traditional music (sama’) and poetry which have issued from Sufism and which are like nets cast into the world of multiplicity to bring men back to the inner courtyard of the Beloved. [15] 

Likewise, nature and its grand phenomena such as the shining of the Sun and the Moon, the seasonal cycles, the mountains and the streams, are, in the Islamic perspective, means for the contemplation of the spiritual realities. They are signs (ayat) of God and although themselves forms in the external world, mirrors of a reality which is at once inward and transcendent. Nature is not separated from grace but is a participant in the Quranic revelation. In fact in Islamic sources, it is called the “macrocosmic revelation”. Virgin nature is the testament of God and gives the lie to all forms of pretentious naturalism, rationalism, skepticism and agnosticism, these maladies from which the modern world suffers so grievously. It is only in the artificial ugliness of the modern urban setting, created by modern man to forget God, that such ailments of the mind and the soul appear as real and the Divine Truth as unreal. Modern skeptical philosophies are the products of those living in urban centers and not of men who have been born and who have lived in the bosom of nature and in awareness of His macrocosmic revelation.[16] In Islamic spirituality, nature acts as an important and in some cases indispensable means for recollection and as an aid towards the attainment of inwardness. Many Muslim saints have echoed over the ages the words of the Egyptian Sufi Dhu’l-nun who said: 

“O God, I never hearken to the voices of the beasts or the rustle of the trees, the splashing of waters or the song of birds, the whistling of the wind or the rumble of thunder, but I sense in them a testimony to Thy Unity and a proof of Thy Incomparableness that Thou art the All-prevailing, the All-knowing, the All-wise, the All-just, the All-true, and that in Thee is neither overthrow nor ignorance nor folly nor injustice nor lying. O God, I acknowledge Thee in the proof of Thy handiwork and the evidence of Thy acts: grant me, O God, to seek Thy Satisfaction with my satisfaction and the Delight of a Father in His child, remembering Thee in my love for Thee, with serene tranquility and firm resolve.” [17] 

St. Francis of Assisi would surely have joined this chorus in the praise of the Lord through the reflection of His Beauty and Wisdom in His Creation. 

 The goal of the inward life in Islam is to reach the Divine as both the Transcendent and the Imminent. It is to gain a vision of God as the Reality beyond all determination and at the same time of the world as “plunged in God”. It is to see God everywhere.[18] The inward dimension is the key for the understanding of metaphysics and traditional cosmology as well as for the penetration into the essential meaning of religion and of all religions, for at the heart of every authentic religion lies the one Truth which resides also at the heart of all things and most of all of man. There are of course differences of perspective and of form. In Christianity, it is the person of Christ who saves and who washes away the dross of separation and externalization. In Islam, such a function is performed by the supreme expression of the Truth Itself, by the Shahadah, La ilaha ill’llah. To take refuge in it is to be saved from the debilitating effect of externalization and “objectivization” and to be brought back to the Center, through the inward dimension. [19] 

It is not for all men to follow the interior life. As already mentioned, it is sufficient for a Muslim to live according to the Shari’ah to enter paradise after death and to follow the interior path after the end of his terrestrial journey. But for those who seek the Divine Center while still walking on earth and who have already died and become resurrected; in this life the interior path opens before them at a point which is here and a time which is now. 

 “It is related that one night Shaykh Bayazid went outside the city and found everything wrapped in deep silence, free from the clamour of men. The moon was shedding her radiance upon the world and by her light made night as brilliant as the day. Stars innumerable shone like jewels in the heavens above, each pursuing its appointed task. For a long time the Shaykh made his way across the open country and found no movement therein, nor saw a single soul. Deeply moved by this he cried: “O Lord, my heart is stirred within me by this Thy Court displayed in all its splendour and sublimity, yet none are found here to give Thee the adoring worship which is thy due. Why should this be, O Lord? Then the hidden voice of God spoke to him: “O thou who art bewildered in the Way, know that the King does not grant admission to every passer-by. So exalted is the Majesty of His Court that not every beggar can be admitted thereto. When the Splendour of My Glory sheds abroad its radiance from this My sanctuary, the heedless and those who are wrapped in the sleep of indolence are repelled thereby. Those who are worthy of admittance to this Court wait for long years, until one in a thousand of them wins entrance thereto.” [20] 

No religion would be complete without providing the path for the “one in a thousand”. Islam as an integral tradition and the last plenary message of Heaven to the present humanity has preserved to this day the possibility of following the interior life, a life which, although actualized fully only by the few, has cast its light and spread its perfume over all authentic manifestations of the Islamic tradition. 


  1. See F. Schuon, Dimensions of Islam, trans. P. Townsend, London, 1969, chapter 2. 
  2. See S. H. Nasr, Ideals and Realities of Islam, London, 1966, chapter 1, 3 and 4 (trans. into Italian by D. Venturi as Ideali e realita dell’ Islam, Milan, 1974. 
  3. See F. Schuon, “Iman, Islam, Insan”, in his L’Oeil du coeur, Paris, 1974, pp. 91-94, where the relation of this division to the tripartite division of the Islamic tradition into Shari’ah, Tariqah and Haqiqah is also explained. 
  4. Concerning Shi’ism see Allamah Tabataba’i, Shi’ite Islam, trans. by S. H. Nasr, New York and London, 1975. 
  5. On Muslim prayers from both Sunni and Shi’ite sources and dealing mostly with this “intermediate” domain of religious life, between external religious acts and the “prayer of the heart”, see C. E. Padwick, Muslim Devotions, A Study of Prayer-Manuals in Common Use, London, 1961. 
  6. For a rather remarkable instance of this second category dealing with a Prayer written by Ibn ‘Ata’allah al-Iskandari in a famous Shi’ite prayer attributed to Imam Husayn the third Shi’ite Imam, see W. Chittick, “A Shadhili Presence in Shi’ite Islam?”, Sophia Perennis (Journal of the Imperial Iranian Academy of Philosophy), vol. 1, no. 1, Spring 1975, pp. 97-100. 
  7. Quoted in M. Smith, The Sufi Path of Love, An Anthology of Sufism, London, 1954, p. 82. 
  8. Mishkat al-masabih, trans. with explanatory notes by J. Robson, Lahore, 1972, p.278. 
  9. The external movements of the prayers are said, by traditional Islamic authorities to be reflections in the world of form, movement, time and space of the states experienced by the Holy Prophet during his nocturnal ascension. 
  10. Concerning the symbolism and inner meaning of the details of the movements actions and words of the prayers as reflecting in the teachings of one of the greatest of the Sufi masters of the recent period see M Lings, A Sufi Saint of the Twentieth Century, London, 1971, pp.176 ff. As for the inner meaning of the prayers as seen by a Shi’ite theosopher and saint see Hajji Mulla Hadi Sabziwari, Asrar al-hikam, Tehran, 1380, pp. 456 ff. 
  11. Jami has said, “Oh, happy man whose heart has been illuminated by invocation in the shade of which the carnal soul has been vanquished, the thought of multiplicity chased away, the invoker transmuted into invocation and the invocation transmuted into the Invoked.” Quoted in F. Schuon, Understanding Islam, trans D. M. Matheson, London, 1976, p. 123. 
  12. Mishkat al-masabih, vol. II, p. 417, where many hadiths of this kind are accounted. 
  13. In modern times, few virtues have been as externalized, depleted of their spiritual significance and even made into a channel for demonic rather than celestial forces as charity whose modern, secularized understanding in the West is the direct caricature and parody of the authentic Christian conception of this cardinal virtue. See F. Schuon, Spiritual Perspectives and Human Facts, trans. D. M. Matheson, London 1953, pp. 171 ff. 
  14. Considering the spiritual principles of Islamic art see T. Burckhardt, The Art of Islam, trans. P. Hobson, London, 1976; and his Sacred Art, East and West, trans Lord Northbourne, London, 1967, chapter IV, also S. H. Nasr, Sacred Art in Persian Culture, London, 1976. 
  15. Concerning the spiritual and interiorizing effect of music in Sufism see J. Nourbakhsh “Sama’“, Sophia Perennis, vol. III no. 1, Spring 1977, S. H Nasr “Islam and Music”, Studies in Comparative Religion, Winter, 1976, pp. 37-45. (italian trans. as “L’Islam e la musica secondo Ruzbahan Bagli, Santo Patrono di Sciraz,” Conoscenza Religiosa, vol. 4, 1976, pp. 373 ff. 
  16. Concerning the Islamic and traditional view of nature and its contrast with the modern view see S. H. Nasr, Science and Civilization in Islam, New York, 1970 (Italian trans. as Scienzia e civilta nel’ Islam, trans. L. Sosio, Milan, 1977), Nasr, Man and Nature, London, 1976 (Italian translation as L’uomo e la natura, trans. G. Spina, Milan, 1977); Nasr, An Introduction to Islamic Cosmological Doctrines, London, 1977, Nasr, Islamic Science – An Illustrated Study, London, 1976, also Th. Roszak, Where the Wasteland Ends, New York 1973 and Roszak, Unfinished Animal, New York, 1975. “Les vertus qui par leu; natupe meme temoignent de la Verite, possedent elles aussi une qualite interiorisante dans la mesure ou elles sont fondamentales, il en va de mem des etres et des choses qui transmettent des messages de lteternelle Beaute; d’ou la puissance d’interiorisation propre a la nature vierge, a l’harmonie des creatures, a l’art sacre, a la musique. La sensation esthetique-nous l’avons fait remarquer bien des fois-possede en soi une qualite ascendante- elle provoque dans l’ame contemplative directement ou indirectement, un ressouvenir des divines essences.” F. Schuon ‘La religion du coeur”, Sophia Perennis, vol. III, no. 1, Spring, 1977. 
  17. A. J. Arbery, Sufism, London, 1950, p. 52-53. 
  18. See F. Schuon, “Seeing God Everywhere”, in his Gnosis, Divine Wisdom, trans. G. E. H. Palmer, London, 1959, pp. 106 ff. 
  19. See S. H. Nasr, “Contemporary Western Man, between the rim and the axis” in his Islam and the Plight of Modern Man, London, 1976, pp. 3 ff. 
  20. From ‘Attar quoted in M. Smith, Readings from the Mystics of Islam, London, 1950, pp. 26-27. 

Shaykh Ahmed Abdur Rashid

The Boulevard of Shari’ah and the Lane of Tasawwuf: One Reality

Alhamdulillâh, Allâhumma salli wa sallim alâ sayyidinâ Muhammadin, wa alâ âlihi wa sahbih

The status of Tasawwuf in Islam is clear. Sufism is Islam; and at the core of Islam, one finds Sufism.

One need not be an Arabic scholar to detect clues to this interrelationship in the roots of the words Shari’ah and Tariqah. Shar’ means a wide boulevard. In European terms, we might visualize it as a lovely thoroughfare, spacious and lined with trees. In American terms, we might think of it as a superhighway, with vehicles traveling in different lanes at different speeds. The word Tariq means a way or method, road or path. Tariqah is like a high occupancy vehicle (HOV) lane on the superhighway of Shari’ah. It comes from the same place and goes to the same place as Shari’ah. It is open to anyone who qualifies, just as the HOV lane is open to anyone with at least two passengers.

The outer law (Shari’ah) and the inner way (Tariqah), the orthodox Muslim and the ecstatic lover of God, are one. This is far more than a congruence of definitions. It reflects the essential construct of the human being. Allah (Subhaanahu wa ta’alaa) instills in each human soul a memory of having once been united with the Creator, and a desire to reunite.

This yearning is accompanied by the recognition of the need for outer structures and standards: that is, for Shari’ah. Shah Waliyullah, the eighteenth century Muslim scholar, observed:

    Shari’ah is…the result of the requirement of the [human] species itself. It has not been thrust upon [human beings] against their will but has been given to them at their request (Jalbani 120).

Shari’ah provides the framework whereby a working relationship can be established between humankind and the Divine Reality.

Observance of Shari’ah is uplifting and meaningful. For many Muslims, it is sufficient. Others are more acutely aware of their separation from the Source, and long to hasten their approach to the Divine. Tasawwuf addresses their need.

Tasawwuf has been described as “the internalization and intensification of Islam.” This intensification is not incumbent upon believers, but rather an opportunity available to those who pursue it. Even at the time of the Prophet Muhammad (salla-llaahu ‘alayhi wa sallam), only a select few among the Muslims inclined towards the more intensive, superogatory practices (Lings 211). The Qur’an states:

    Verily thy Lord knowest that thou [Muhammad] keep vigil well nigh two thirds of the night, and sometimes half of it or a third of it, thou and a group of those that are with thee… (73:20).

In all times and places, there have been individuals whose deep yearning (himma) and inner restlessness have led them to the Path of Tasawwuf.

Islam reveals that Sufism is not something outside of itself, but something contained within itself. When sincere spiritual yearning and practice are combined, the depth and breadth of Islam are revealed. Inner restlessness becomes profound fulfillment.

Recognition of the Inseparability of Shariah and Tariqah

Both the founders of the Sufic Orders and the founders of the Islamic madhabs (schools) recognized the value of Tasawwuf to gain ever fuller understanding of Islam, its inner and outer dimensions, and its relevancy to personal development and social order.

Shah Naqshband (radi Allaahu ‘anhu) said, “The correct way to the Path is to follow the Prophet (salla-llaahu ‘alayhi wa sallam).” According to Shaykh Ahmed al Rifai (radi Allaahu ‘anhu), “The Tariqah is the same as the Shariah; and the Shariah is the same as the Tariqah.” Abul Hasan as Shadili (radi Allaahu ‘anhu) cautioned students: “If extraordinary matters happen with you that contradict the laws of religion, the Book of Allah (Subhaanahu wa ta’alaa), or the Sunnah of the Messenger (salla-llaahu ‘alayhi wa sallam), then definitely leave them out and follow the rules of religion.” Imam Malik (radi Allaahu ‘anhu), to whom the Maliki madhab owes its origins, wrote: “[One] who practices Tasawwuf without learning Sacred Law corrupts his faith, while one who learns Sacred Law without practicing Tasawwuf corrupts himself. Only [the person] who combines the two proves true.” All of these individuals investigated and acknowledged the transformative effect of pursuing the Path of Tariqah on the broad boulevard of Shari’ah (Kabbani).

False Divisions Between Tasawwuf and Islam

The fact that any human being can experience the synthesis of outer and inner — and that this experience has been verified by personal testimonies throughout the millennia — should ensure recognition of the status of Tasawwuf in Islam. Unfortunately, it has not. Instead, we find so-called Sufis who disassociate themselves from Islam, and we find Muslims who have no understanding of Sufism and who, in their ignorance, judge it to be antithetical to Islam.

From this perspective, the status of Tasawwuf in Islam is shaky: not because of any genuine schism between the two, but because of widespread illusions of barriers between them. (Indeed, the very phrase “Tasawwuf in Islam” implies distinction where none exists.)

Our Responsibility to Re-Link the Chain

False barriers between Islam and Tasawwuf reflect the overall fragmentation of Westernized society. By the design of Allah (Subhaanahu wa ta’alaa), our himma (yearning), ikhtiram (sacredness and respect), ihsan, and innate predisposition towards discipline, values, and ethics are all linked to one another in the core of our being. As societies have become fragmented, these links have been broken. We have started to compartmentalize our lives. We distinguish between individual and community; we imagine conflicts between our spiritual, physical, emotional, and intellectual natures; we break knowledge into narrow disciplines; we disconnect our minds from our hearts.

When a chain is intact, lifting any one link lifts the whole chain. Once a chain is broken, it becomes possible to pick up a single link.

Individuals have been able to pick up fragments of Shari’ah and Tariqah because the chain is broken. It is up to us to repair it. People’s ears, eyes, and minds need to be re-attached to their hearts, their sense of sacredness, and their jethba (attraction) to the Divine.

The place to begin is by re-asserting the unity of our ummah (community) and the breadth and depth of Shariah and Sunnah.

Diversity within Unity

Allah (Subhaanahu wa ta’alaa) says in the Holy Qur’an:

    Verily, this ummah of yours is a single ummah, and I am your Lord and Cherisher: therefore, serve Me [and no other] (21:92).

We are a single ummah encompassing tremendous diversity. In recent decades, scientists have made discoveries that point to unity within diversity. In the case of the ummah, it is more accurate to speak of diversity within unity.

Human beings naturally seek to gather around shared beliefs. Ironically, this urge to come to unity — to form communities — becomes a source of division when carried to an extreme. Unity becomes confused with uniformity, and uniformity entails removing all that is “different.”

The Qur’an tells us:

    There is no compelling in religion… (2:256).

There is no compelling in religion, but there are those who seek to compel. Compelling takes many forms. It is not just insisting that a person recite the shahadah (profession of faith). Compelling also takes the form of distrust; of making takfir (accusing other Muslims of disbelief); of asserting one’s own school of thought to the exclusion of any other. All such forms of compelling impose narrow and restrictive definitions of Shari’ah and Sunnah.

From Reality to Name

While some confuse unity with uniformity, others mistakenly assert that unity means that anything is acceptable in the realm of spirituality.

The great Sufi master al-Hujwiri (radi Allaahu ‘anhu) quoted Abu’l Hasan Fushanja (radi Allaahu ‘anhu) as saying, “Today, Tasawwuf is a name without a reality, but formerly, it was a reality without a name” (al Hujwiri 44). What does it mean for Tasawwuf to be “a name without a reality”? As a consistent spiritual experience emerges into a name, people tend to use its name to embrace other forms that appeal to their nafs-i-amarra (desire nature).

So it is that we find the name “Sufism” associated with attitudes that would astonish the founders of the Tariqahs. Individuals take it upon themselves to twist the Shariah, the Sunnah, and the accepted practices to suit their desires, so that they themselves will not have to change. They have little or no apprehension in doing so, because they have little or no sense of wrong. Rather, their modifications are justified in the name of “modernizing” Islam and Tasawwuf.

Consequently, our ummah — once the leader in knowledge and thought — has deteriorated to the point that its essence lies scattered across the desert of the world. The result is either passivity or aggression, expressed in aberrated forms of Islam and degraded forms of Tasawwuf.

In the Holy Qur’an, Allah (Subhaanahu wa ta’alaa) speaks of those who

    …follow nothing but mere conjecture and the whims which their souls incline to, although the guidance has come to them! (53:23)

In an age when whims and conjecture predominate, is it any wonder that the intra-relationship of Tasawwuf and Islam should be largely misunderstood?

Understanding the Nature and Benefits of Our Diversity

Between the extremes of false orthodoxy and self-indulgent secularism lies a middle way. This is the way of appreciating and making the most of the diversity within our unity. According to a Hadith (of which the isnad is da’if, but the Hadith itself is sahih), the Prophet (salla-llaahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) said,

    The differences among my ummah are a mercy.

We need diversity in order to come to unity. Diversity sets a developmental process in motion. It stimulates purification, at-taskiyya. An analogy can be made to zakat. Zakat is much more than a way of helping those in need. It is a way of purifying the community. A pond of still water becomes stagnant; a running stream remains pure. Zakat keeps resources flowing within the community.

Similarly, diversity within the ummah enables us to develop true compassion, forgiveness, patience, and affection. It enables us to make the best possible use of our resources and our knowledge for the benefit of the world we inhabit. Only such wise use of the bounties of Allah (Subhaanahu wa ta’alaa) will guarantee our spiritual survival.

In addition, diversity challenges culturally-based interpretations and prompts us to return to the universal truths of Islam.

According to the Holy Qur’an:

    …Henceforth the Truth stands out clear from error. And he who rejecteth false deities and believeth in Allah hath grasped a firm handhold which will never break… (2:256).

If we trust that Truth stands out clearly from error, then it follows that the best way to help individuals evolve an understanding of Truth is to let them hear and weigh different views. Diversity cannot obscure Al Haqq. Rather, it makes the Truth all the more evident.

Allah (Subhaanahu wa ta’alaa) has created us as a diverse community inspired by the highest common denominators: shared faith, shared practice, and shared responsibility with one purpose.

    Thus We made you a community of the center (ummate wusate) that you might be a witness to the people, and the Messenger, a witness to you (Qur?an 2:143).

As Muslims, we all believe in Allah (Subhaanahu wa ta’alaa); we all affirm that Muhammad (salla-llaahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) is Allah’s (Subhaanahu wa ta’alaa) Messenger; we all pray; we all do wudu; we all believe in all the prophets — whether we are Shi’a, Salafia, Sufi, or any other label (Durkee). Based on the strength of these common bonds, we can address even the most difficult questions. We can share differing viewpoints with openness and tolerance, rather than fearfully defending our views and attacking others’.

A Call to Action

Everyone who calls himself or herself a Sufi or Muslim needs to speak as a representative of the ummate wusate: the community of the center. We need to work together to recapture Islam and Tasawwuf from extremist thinking. We need to redirect our focus to the core responsibilities that we are enjoined to fulfill: to feed the poor, house the homeless, educate the ignorant, and assist others in the attainment of al hayyat-e-tayyibah (the good life). Real unity begins when we place ourselves second.

We must be the models of the high status of Tasawwuf in Islam. This entails examining our own state. Allah tells us in the Holy Qur’an:

    None is there in the heavens and the earth that does not come to the All Merciful as a servant (abd) (19:93).

Let us consciously embrace our roles as ‘abd’Allah, as people of ibaada (worship). Let us be “in the world and not of the world,” gaining skills and fulfilling our duties in a balanced and appropriate manner, and preparing the generations after us to take responsibility. Let us purposefully re-make our shahadah and re-affirm our Islam.


In sum, the status of Sufism in Islam is central and unquestionable. However, consciously or unconsciously, individuals have erected false divisions between Shari’ah and Tariqah, between the broad boulevard and the special lane. These divisions are symptomatic of the overall fragmentation of our ummah, a fragmentation that has its roots in the failure to appreciate the benefits of our diversity.

I come from the Mujaddadiyya Order — the line of the mujaddids, the revivers. Each person present here today has a responsibility to be a reviver: to restore vitality to Islam where deterioration has set in. The status of Tasawwuf in Islam will be made clear as each of us becomes a model of ‘ibaada.

‘Ibaada is a love of Allah and of all His creatures. It leaves no room for exclusivity, rejectionism, or condemnation of others. It allows only compassion, hope, effort, truth, and prayer — prayer even for those who are lost, blind, and deaf to the Divine admonitions of Allah (Subhaanahu wa ta’alaa). These are our tools for repairing the chain. Our task is to apply them. The rest is up to Allah (Subhaanahu wa ta’alaa).
Jazak Allaah khair. Thank you very much.

Wa Llahu lahu ul-haqqi wa huwa yahdis-sabil.
Hasbuna Llahu wahdahu wa ni?mal-wakil.
Wa salli ?ala sayyidina Muhammadin
wa alihi wa sahbihi ajma?in
wal-hamdu li-Llahi rabb il-?alamin.

Truth belongs to Allah; it is He who shows the way.
Allah, alone, suffices us, and what a fine guardian is He!
Blessings upon our Master Muhammad
and his family and Companions altogether
and praise is due to Allah, Lord of the Worlds.


Durkee, Shakyh Noorudeen. Lecture delivered in Columbia, South Carolina, 18 July 1998.

al Hujwiri, Ali b. Uthman al Jullabi. The Kashf al-Mahjub. Translated and edited by Reynold A. Nicholson. London: Luzac and Company, 1976.

Jalbani, G.N. Teachings of Shah Waliyullah of Delhi. Third edition. Lahore: Sh. Muhammad Ashraf, 1979.

Kabbani, Muhammad Hisham. What the Scholars Say about Tasawwuf. The Muslim Magazine. April 1998: 50-51.

Lings, Martin. Muhammad: His Life Based on the Earliest Sources. Kuala Lumpur: A.S. Noordeen, 1983


By Shaykh Ahmed Abdur Rashid

Bismillâh, Alhamdulillâh Allâhumma salli wa sallim alâ sayyidinâ Muhammadin, wa alâ âlihi wa sahbih

Introduction: Sufic Islam’s Potential to Heal Cultural/Ethnic Conflicts

Fourteen hundred and twenty years ago (by the Islamic calendar), two tribes of Arabia were locked in civil war.  Centuries of living side by side had failed to integrate their blood-lines; on the contrary, feuds had multiplied.  Then, remarkably, they heard about a man who taught a new way of thinking: a man who had erased the lines between clan and clan, slave and master, black and white, rich and poor, calling all to equality in the name of one God.  A small group of visionary men and women of both clans approached this man to see if he would consider emigrating to their area to bring peace to their warring peoples.  He agreed.

With that emigration, the city now known as “Medina” emerged from the ashes of age-old violence-and Islam, under attack from tribal factions in its place of origin, finally came into its own as a way of life that transcends all differences of ethnicity.

Fourteen centuries later, where do we stand?  What are we to make of the ethnic violence among Hutus and Tutsis?  West Bank Palestinians and Israeli settlers?  Northern Irish Catholics and Protestants?  Serbians and Kosovars? 
The theme of this symposium is self-discovery.  Clearly, “self” can be understood in different ways.  From the time of the Prophet Muhammad (s.alla-llaahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) until today, some people have held images of self that engender fragmentation, self-centeredness, ethnocentricity, and conflict.  Others-including the Prophet (s.alla-llaahu alayhi wa sallam)-have understood the self in ways that transcend cultural limitations.  This is the understanding of self that reconciled the clans of Medina.  This is the understanding of self that can heal the conflicts in our world today.  This is the understanding of self that comes through the path of Sufic Islam.

Peace, equity, co-existence, tolerance, forgiveness, and partnership are fundamental principles of Islam.  Allah Subh.aanahu wa t’a alaa tells us in the Holy Qur’an:

Yaa ayyuha-l-ladhiina aamanuu laa ta’kuluu amwaalakum bainakum bil baat.ili illaa antakuuna tijaaratan can minkum, wa laa taqtuluu anfusakum, innallaaha kaana bikum rah.imaa

O ye who believe!  Do not eat up your property among yourselves in vanities: but let there be amongst you traffic and trade by mutual good-will: nor kill [or destroy] yourselves, for verily God hath been to you Most Merciful (4:29).

Innama-s-sabiilu alalladhiina yad.hlimuuna-n-naasa wa yabghuuna fil-ard.i bighairi-l-haq: ulaa’ika lahum adhaabun aliim.  Wa laman s.abara wa ghafara inna dhaalika lamin azmil umuur

The blame is only against those who oppress people with wrong doing and insolently transgress beyond bounds through[out] the land, defying right and justice: for such there will be a grievous penalty.  But indeed if any show patience and forgive, that would truly be an exercise of courageous will and resolution in the conduct of affairs (42:42-3).

Wa in janah.uu li-s-salmi fajnah. lahaa wa tawakkal  ‘ala-llaah.

And if [your enemies] incline to peace, incline thou also to it, and trust in Allah… (8:61).

The Sufis have refined the means of attaining to and sustaining these principles in our lives here and hereafter.  If more people were practicing Islam and Sufism, the world would not be in the miserable state it is in today. 

Redefining Terms / Redefining Our Lives

There is no lack of people who call themselves “Muslim” and “Sufi.”  But identifying oneself as “Muslim” or “Sufi” does not guarantee that one is understanding, let alone practicing, Tasawwuf and Islam.  One may equally well be trying to make Tasawwuf and Islam fit one’s own definitions, or “pouring the ocean into a cup.”  Perhaps a cup of ocean is better than no ocean at all, but just think how much more is gained by experiencing the real thing!

Newcomers to Sufic Islam in the West often assume that they can understand Tasawwuf in intellectual or psychological terms. Moreover, like most novices eagerly venturing into unknown territory, they may be too quick to assume that they already have the tools needed for the journey.

For  example, every English speaking adult can define the terms “trust,” “faith,” “belief,” “submission,” “duty,” and “responsibility.”  Yet, all these terms change their meanings as we pursue knowledge.  To plumb the realms of self-discovery, the seeker has to embrace this process of change.

The terms “Tasawwuf ” and “Islam” are among the first that need to be re-defined in many seekers’ vocabularies.  Basic misunderstandings of both terms have led some people to think that they can define them independently.  In fact, there is no Tasawwuf without Islam.  What is Islam?  In Arabic, the word means “to affirm peace, safety, and security; to be unimpaired, faultless, certain, and established; to submit and hand oneself over to a higher power.”  What is Tasawwuf?  It is the process of developing and refining the character of an individual for the sole purpose of perfecting the worship, service, and trust of Allah (swt) and, as a result, creating a more balanced and harmonious world for today and future generations, as well as creating our place and role in the hereafter. Once one grasps these definitions of the terms, one clearly recognizes that Islam and Tasawwuf are inseparable.

Integrating new or broader meanings (such as those I have just given) equips the seeker to comprehend greater subtleties of self-discovery.  Two stages are involved, requiring different levels of development and spiritual commitment.  First, we understand new definitions conceptually; next comes the more challenging task of accepting them. 

In the Holy Qur’an, Allah (Subh.aanahu wa t’a ‘alaa) comments on those people who,

Wa la’in sa’altahum man khalaqa-s-samaawaati wa-l-ard.a wa sakh-khara-sh-shamsa wa-l-qamara layaquulunnal-laahu fa’annaa yu’fakuun.  Wa la’in sa’altahum man nazzala mina-s-samaa’i maa’an fa’ah.yaa bihi-l-ard.a min b’ di mautihaa la-yaquulunnallaah. Quli-l-h.amdu lillaah.  Bal aktharuhum laa y’qiluun.  Wa maa haadhiihil hayaatu-d-dunyaa illaa lahwunw wa l’ib wa innad.  Daara-l-aakhirata lahiyal h.ayawaan lau kaanuu y’lamuun

…if you were to ask them, “Who created the heavens and the earth, and constrained the sun and the moon [to their appointed work]?” they would say, “God.”  How, then, are they turned away?…And thus it is: if you ask them, “Who is it that sends down water from the skies, giving life thereby to the earth after it had been lifeless?”-they will surely answer, “God.”  Say: “[Since this is so,] all praise is due to God [alone]!”  But most of them will not use their reason: for, [if they did, they would know that] the life of this world is nothing but a passing delight and a play-whereas, behold, the life in the hereafter is indeed the only [true] life: if they but knew this!  (29:61, 63-64)

To change our definitions means changing not only the way we speak and interpret others’ speech, but the way we think.  Ultimately, it means redefining the context in which we live our lives.  It means redefining the very terms of our existence.  This takes contentment, confidence, and courage.  The Prophet Musa prayed,

Rabbi-shrah. li s.adri.  Wa yassir li amri.  Wah.lul ‘qdatam mil lisaani.  Yafqahuu qauli.

O my Lord, open for me my chest [grant me self confidence, contentment, and boldness], and ease my task for me, and loose the knot [defect] from my tongue, …that they may understand my speech…(Qur’an 20:25 28).

Those who are drawn to the spiritual path feel inwardly compelled toward a deeper understanding of self, and thus of Allah’s creation and purpose for us.  The Prophet Muhammad (s.alla-llaahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) stated:

Man ‘rafa nafsahu, faqad ‘rafa rabbahu

Know yourself and you will know your Lord.

In coming to know ourselves, our selves are transformed.   At a certain point in the journey, each of us must accept that our choice to travel the path of Tasawwuf is life changing.  This choice eventually alters every aspect of our thinking, feeling, sensing, reasoning, and planning.  It changes each of us so drastically that sooner or later, we find ourselves reflecting back on who we used to be, and hardly recognizing that person.

Some seekers find the prospect of major life changes threatening.  They postpone them for as long as possible.  They may go through the external changes, but put off the internal ones.  Or, they are receptive to internal changes, but deny the need to make external ones.  Most often, they reluctantly accept the necessity of guidance, but resist the multiple levels of trust required to understand the comprehensiveness of Islam.

At the opposite end of the spectrum are those who desire life-changing experiences too much.  They declare anything that is spiritually-charged to be “life-changing,” and go out collecting such experiences, as long as those experiences support their self-image and provide ample emotional and ego stimulation.

Self-discovery requires overcoming both fearful and over-eager reactions to life-altering experiences.  Resisting change out of fear, or chasing change because it feels good, keeps one in the mode of “I want, I need, I can, I can’t.”  To make progress, one must relate to “I” in a different way.  One must start to seriously consider the questions, “Who am I?  What am I?  Where am I?  And why am I?”-and to align one’s answers with the choice to pursue this Path.

In the Qur’an Allah (Subh.aanahu wa t’alaa)  contrasts two types of people:

Wa mina-n-naasi many-y’jibuka qauluhuu fil h.ayaati-d-dunyaa wa yush-hidu-l-laaha ‘laa maa fi qalbihi, wa huwa aladdul khis.aam.  Wa idhaa tawallaa s’aa fi-l-ard.i li-yufsida fihaa wa yuhlikal h.artha wan nasla, wa-l-laahu laa yuh.ibbu-l-fasaad.  Wa mina-n-naasi many yashri nafsa-hub-tigaa’a mard.aatillaahi, wallaahu ra’uufum bil-‘baad.

Now there is a kind of person whose views on the life of this world may please thee greatly, and [the more so as] he cites God as witness to what is in his heart and is, moreover, exceedingly skillful in argument.  But whenever he prevails, he goes about the earth spreading corruption and destroying [humanity’s] tilth and progeny: and God does not love corruption….But there is [also] a kind of person who would willingly sell his own self in order to please God: and God is most compassionate towards His servants (2:204, 206).

Ask, “Who am I?”  “I am a Muslim and an aspiring Sufi.”  No; dive deeper.  “Who am I, as an aspiring Sufi and as one who identifies himself or herself as a Muslim?  Where am I in this process?  What are the implications and responsibilities of this identity?” 
Ask yourself, “Where am I?”  The answer is not just, “At the Sufism Symposium.”  Nor is the answer simply, “I am on the path of Sufism” or “I am a Muslim.”  If that is the extent of your response, you are avoiding the active aspect of your life journey and avoiding many inner and outer commitments that are necessary for real progress. 

It is not enough to ask, “What am I?”  “I am a teacher…a therapist…a parent…a doctor….”  Go further:  “What kind of a teacher?  What kind of a parent?”  Are you one who exemplifies a clear and specific value system, beyond self-interest?  Are you a sincere and humble seeker of Truth, wherever it may take you inside and outside your “self”?  Are you willing to own that identity, and not just your image of it?  Are you ready to understand and accept unequivocally what it gives to you and demands of you, as a partisan of Allah (Subh.aanahu wa t’alaa)

The questions do not stop here.  As we meet, people elsewhere in the world are fleeing “ethnic cleansing,” starving, wandering homeless.  Each of us must ask, “What part of history am I in?  Where am I standing in the universe as a Muslim in the truest sense of the word?”  Then, turning our attention back to this Symposium and to all our other day-to-day circumstances, we must reflect, “Who am I in this specific situation, and what is my relationship to others of like name and identity, as well as to the rest of humanity who are my fellow beings, created and sustained by Allah (Subh.aanahu wa ta’alaa)?”

Self-Referencing or Allah-Referencing?

Although these questions sound psychologically-based, for the sufi aspirant, they come from a spiritual yearning and paradigm.  Therefore, the answers lead to different kinds of realizations and transformations.  (Please note that I use the word “psychological” in its most common sense (referring to the secular science of mental processes, behaviors, and emotions), rather than in its philosophical sense.)

There is little possibility that a psychological approach to self-discovery will yield deep spiritual awareness, although spiritual understanding does result in deep personal awareness of one’s psychological nature.  The person of spiritual insight sees no need to reconcile spirituality with secularism, or a self-centered paradigm with a paradigm which is centered on Allah and our responsibility to Allah (Subh.aanahu wa t’ alaa) and the purpose of His creation.  For Allah (Subh.aanahu wa t’ alaa) guides us in the Holy Qur’an:

Wa maa khalaqtu-l-jinna wal insa illaa lily’buduun.

And I have not created the jinn and human beings to any end other than that they may [know and] worship Me (51:56).

To increase the seeker’s attunement to this Divine purpose, the Shaykh guides him or her to refine subtle centers of perception (which we call the latayf and which have many dimensions to them, too complicated to explore in this talk1 ).  The awakening of the latayf makes possible degrees of self-discovery that are inaccessible by any other means.

People seek out psychological counseling in hopes of becoming more self-aware, improving their relationships, understanding the circumstances of life, learning to feel good about themselves.  From the point of view of the Sufi, these goals are secondary to the purpose of human life.  Indeed, their fulfillment is a natural consequence of sincere effort and faith.  But they are not meant to be the focus of the spiritual journey. 

The real spiritual journey is designed to catapult us out of incessant self-referencing.  It is to free us from self-absorption so that we might praise and serve Allah (Subh.aanahu wa t’ alaa) and create a better environment for future generations to do the same.  Allah’s (Subh.aanahu wa t’ alaa) favorite name is ‘bd Allah,” meaning “servant of Allah.”  Through Tasawwuf, every one of us may transform our self into a’bd Allah. 

The Dynamic Nature of  Nafs

What is this self that we are seeking to transform?

Nafs  the Arabic word for “self,” connotes “soul, psyche, or spirit.”  It is also defined as “a living creature, a human being”; as “the essence or nature”; as “inclination or desire.”  Nafs  is derived from the same root as nafusa, meaning “to be valuable, precious.”  Related verbs mean “to compete or strive” and “to breathe.”  Nifas means “childbirth.”  Nafas means “freedom or liberty.”  

So, then, we can say that Nafs is the dynamic force which is breathed into the physical body at childbirth.  It is the precious essence that differentiates the living from the dead.  It is deeply connected to a sense of liberty and freedom.

As you listen to me and others speaking at the Symposium, you might find it interesting to plug in different meanings of Nafs.  When I talk about personal identity, for example, you could substitute the word “essence.”  As people refer to “essence,” you could put in the word “self.”  If I mention what the self is inclined toward, you might recall that “inclination” is a definition of self. 

Striving, competing, breathing, giving birth: clearly, the self that we are trying to discover not only exists, but is active.  It is moving, evolving.  It has traveled from ghaib (the unseen) to dunya (the material world), and it will return again to ghaib.   In the course of its journey, it rarely stays still for long.

Do you aspire to be a better person?  Are there aspects of your character that you would like to improve?  Do you long for greater clarity?

Why would we have these feelings, unless our Nafs inclines towards and has the ability to change?  Our selves can be changed.  In fact, they are changing right now, right before our very eyes.

What are we changing into?  What should we be changing into?  The answer is A’bd Allah.

From Nafs to A’bd:  Fulfilling the Human Design to Serve and Worship

A’bd is commonly defined as “servant” or “slave,” most frequently in the context of serving Allah.  But it also may mean “human being.”  By definition, human beings are servants and slaves of the Divine.

The verbs based on the root letters of A’bd indicate the type of servants we are to be.  A’bada means “to worship, to venerate, to adore.”  Human beings are constructed not just to serve, but to be servants who worship, venerate, and adore.

Where are we to worship, serve, and venerate?  In the ma’bad: the “place of worship or house of God.”  Remember, ma’bad comes from the same root as a’bd (human being).  Allah (Subh.aanahu wa ta’ alaa)  says in the Qur’an, aqrabu ilaihi min h.ablil wariid.

I am as near to you as your jugular vein. (50:16)

Where is this house of God?  Here, in us, in human beings.  It is not where we pray.  It is where we pray: in ourselves.  For this reason, Muslims may pray anywhere-in a house, under a tree, in a car, in an airplane-because we carry our house of worship with us.

However, if one’s house is filled with ego and self-importance, then no matter where one is, one has no space to serve the Divine.  A portion of the Qur’anic verse that Muslims most frequently repeat in prayer states,

Iyyaaka na’budu wa iyyaaka nasta’iin…

You alone we worship; You alone we ask for help (1:5).

How often, when we pray, do our thoughts remain concentrated on our own selves?  What happens when we turn our full attention towards the Truth, and really live “You alone we worship”?

We begin to fulfill that which Allah (Subh.aanahu wa t’alaa) has designed us to do.  We are transformed from physically-oriented beings to limitless seekers of our origins.

Until that time, we struggle with the self in every situation, instead of being ourselves:  humane beings, seekers, and Muslims in the true meaning of the term.  When we can be ourselves  in every situation, we will no longer struggle with ourselves. 

This is the life-altering change that results from accepting the choice to pursue the Path of Tasawwuf.  This is a deeper meaning of “submission” in Islam: to perfect our humanness as servants, worshipers, and lovers of Allah (Subh.aanahu wa t’ alaa); to become who we can be. 

Afaman sharah.a-l-laahu s.adrahuu lil islaami fahuwa a’laa nuurim-mir-rabbih?

Could, then, one whose bosom God has opened wide with willingness towards self-surrender unto Him, so that he is illumined by a light [that flows] from his Sustainer, [be likened to the blind and deaf of heart]?  (39:22)

This illumination through the surrendering of one’s self is the reciprocal of the creative intention of Allah (Subh.aanahu wa t’alaa) that gave us life-kun fayakun (“be and it became”).

The Organism of Humanity

Kun fayakun is the link that binds all human beings, beyond differences of culture and ethnicity. Just as one egg, when fertilized, grows into a single organism, so too Allah’s (Subh.aanahu wa t’alaa)  intention created a unified organism.  This organism is humanity.  We are all cells of the same body.

On an individual level, if one part of your body gets wounded or infected, your whole body responds.  You respond emotionally; you call a doctor; you try this or that medicine.  You respond physiologically: your immune system sends corpuscles to fight infection and promote healing.

Our natural state is to resist disease and destructive forces.  Our immune system is the physical analog to our latayf:  that is, it is the recipient on the physical level of the transmissions of the intent (niyyah) of our Creator so that our body can and will serve well our spiritual purpose.   But we must make choices to bring harmony between our inner self and our outer circumstances; to create a developed, balanced, harmonious life and spiritual center for the worship (a’baada), praise (hamd), and glorification (subhaana) of Allah (Subh.aanahu wa t’alaa)- in a sustainable and harmonious way.

On a global level, the average person neither perceives nor responds to humanity as an organism.  He or she regards himself or herself as a separate entity, connected only loosely (if at all) to “those other people over there.”  Humanity’s immune system has been suppressed for so long that when one part of the body is engulfed in crisis, the other parts either fail to notice or are too paralyzed to respond.  The blood vessels are clogged; the synapses are not striking. 

Re-activating our Capacity to Respond

Mevlana Jalaludin Rumi wrote, “It is through necessity that the means of perception are developed.  Therefore, O man, increase your necessity.”

Necessity has a way of increasing itself if we do not take the initiative.  We are all too familiar with the pattern:  human rights violations occur in one part of the world.  The rest of the world turns a blind eye.  The violations escalate.  Other nations still fail to respond.  Finally, the violations reach such proportions that other societies are compelled to respond, if only for self-interest or protection.  Necessity has refined humanity’s organs of perception: the world wakes up and takes action.  But by now, the genocide, war, or devastation has spread like an untreated infection.  Far stronger measures are needed to stop it than might have been required at an earlier stage.

How can we increase our necessity sooner?  How can we wake up before nightmares of human bloodshed jolt us to consciousness?  We have to see the necessity of “those other people” to be our necessity.  We have to not block our innate sense of interconnectedness.  Look at the refugees streaming across our television screens, the children starving in Iraq, the victims of riots in Indonesia.  Look at the faces of the people-look at their eyes-and get upset.  That may be one of the last tools we have before we stop caring altogether.

Perhaps some of us feel that our burdens are so great we cannot possibly take on another’s weight.  But just think: if our bodies operated that way, we would all have died from the first infection we ever got!

Levels of Response, from Long-Distance to Right at Home

According to a Hadith:

Allah will ask on the Day of Awakening, “O child of Adam, I fell ill and you did not visit Me.”  He will reply, “O my Lord!  How could I have visited Thee when Thou are the Lord of all the worlds?”  Allah will say, “Did you not know that so and so among My servants was sick, but you did not visit him?  And did you not know that if you had visited him, you would surely have found Me with him?”

Again, Allah will say, “O child of Adam, I asked for food from you, but you did not give Me food.”  He will reply, “O my Lord!  How could I have fed Thee, when Thou are the Lord of all the worlds?”  Allah will say, “Did you not know that so and so of My servants asked you for food, but you did not feed him?  Did you not know, that if you had fed him, you would surely have found Me with him?” …(Karim 274-275).

As we come to recognize the inextricable bonds between our individual selves, our fellow human beings, and the Divine, we cannot not respond.  The question then becomes, how?  On a personal level, the options seem to fall into two categories.  We can offer long-distance support, sending money or other items to organizations who are directly assisting those in need.  Or, we can offer hands-on aid, volunteering our skills and energies in places like Macedonia, Kosovo, Bosnia, and Rwanda.

Both venues are essential.  Both express and reinforce our understanding that all human beings are cells of the same organism.  Both reflect the guidance of the Qur’an and the Sunnah of Nebi Muhammad (s.alla-llaahu ‘alayhi wa sallam).  Obviously, giving hands-on aid requires a greater investment of ourselves.  Writing a check is not the same as handing out bags of rice, carrying water, hauling beds to makeshift infirmaries, working for days without sleep. 

But an even greater investment of self is necessary if one wants to end the kinds of tragic situations that the world suffers from today. To bring lasting resolution and healing, one has to do all that-and more.  One has to engage in tarbiyya: spiritual education and the gaining of knowledge.

The processes of Tasawwuf-that is, the processes whereby the Shaykh guides the seeker to become an A’bd Allah-send transmissions to the global society.  If we give the time and make the effort; if we are sincere about our prayers, meditation, and our love for humanity; if we are self-sacrificing without any caveats or back-pocket excuses, we can develop potential within us that can transform ourselves and our communities, and thereby become a powerful spiritual magnetic force that sends out a vibration to humanity.  People who are in tune with it will resonate with it, like a male moth who, as soon as he detects one pheremone of scent from a female moth ten miles away, turns around and immediately flies towards her.  If we can become one-pointed enough to overcome the destructive tendency to be eclectic and never satisfied, if we can accept what our role and duty is, we will pick up the scent (dhawq) the inclination, the responsiveness, and head towards the source.  If enough people do that, it can send out a transmission that will change the direction of humanity.

We have no trouble recognizing the negative effects of products that are corrupting, destructive, and disunifying: the mass market toys, video games, television shows, and so on.  Nor do we doubt the power of the intentions of manufacturers and media moguls, who sell people what they want to buy, while simultaneously shaping their preferences through the products and images being sold to them.  If we so readily acknowledge the power of greed, how can we doubt that efforts based on compassion, mercy, forgiveness, tolerance, patience, understanding, and service to one’s brothers and sisters (whether or not they are our friends or allies) can shift the paradigms of the world?

Our prayers and intentions do make a difference.  Even more importantly, our thoughts and actions make a difference.  If you say a kind word to someone here, then a border guard says a kind word to someone passing through the border, or refrains from shooting someone. 

Realizing that “My Way of Being has Global Impacts”

You can believe this because you think spiritual people are supposed to believe such things, or you can believe it based on experience.  I recommend the latter. 

Islam evokes from us the experience and the active responsibilities that are necessary for the transformation of self and society.  One experiences the non-local effects of one’s prayers, actions, and intentions through meditation.3   Our Shuyukh speak of the necessity of “adding spirituality to your Islam.”  By this they refer to the absolute necessity of adding muraqabah (meditation, contemplation) and dhikr (remembrance) to the standard Islamic practices of Qur’an reading and daily prayers.  The Prophet himself (s.alla-llaahu ‘alayhi wa sallam) set the example for these voluntary expressions of love for the Divine, doing prolonged prayers and other forms of meditation that are extensions of the prescribed practices of Islam.

When one sits in meditation and does dhikr for long periods of time with all sincerity, one comes to perceive reality in a different way, a way that is more accurate, more spiritual, and more in tune with recent developments in science.  Scientists have found evidence of non-local experiences.  But most of us were trained in the old paradigm of linear and reductionist science.  This has a profound effect on how we think about social and spiritual issues.  If we had been taught from childhood that our thoughts and actions have profound effects outside our small circle of friends and family, we would act and think in different ways today.

One cannot redo one’s childhood education.  But, through proven methods, one can change one’s mindset now.  Meditation and contemplation bring to consciousness one’s cellular intuition of the interconnectedness of humanity.  It enables one to experience the reality that everything one does, everything one thinks, and everything one says has far-reaching effects. 

If the terms of one’s life have not changed before one reaches this stage in meditation, they definitely change afterwards.  One realizes that the choice to commit to a spiritual path entails refining the self until one’s deeds, thoughts, and words have only constructive effects.

Life Changing Experiences that can Change the World -(i.e., Suggestions/Methods for Refinement)

In the last few minutes of my talk, let me offer some brief suggestions for how to refine the self.  My first suggestion pertains to love.

Suggestion/Method #1: Cultivate Love for the Divine

The inborn instinct of the human being is to love the Supreme, the Absolute, the beauty and perfection of Allah.  Unfortunately, love of the material world blocks this inherent attraction.  Meditation alone rends the veil between dunya and ghaib, between the physical world and the non-physical reality.  The deeper and longer one meditates, the closer one comes to perfect consciousness of the presence of the Divine. 

The Shuyukh say, “Humans fall in love, and in spirituality, we rise in love.”  In the rapture of spiritual love, we realize that Allah (Subh.aanahu wa t’alaa) alone is the Doer, the Owner, the One Who Controls.  What, then, is our relationship with Allah’s (Subh.aanahu wa t’alaa) creation?  It must be one of loving it.  What else is there?  If I do not own it or control it, and I am enthusiastically working for the One who does, the only relationship I could possibly have is love.

Such love liberates our minds and hearts from the illusion of self-importance.  It moves us from the complacency born of our prosperity, safety, and security to activism based on the responsibility that comes with prosperity, safety, and security.

The flame of love for Allah (Subh.aanahu wa t’alaa)  is kindled through meditation, remembrance, and the reading of Qur’an.  Once lit, it must continue to be stoked by these same practices.  This brings me to my second suggestion.

Suggestion/Method #2:Commitment Moment to Moment 

Allah (Subh.aanahu wa t’alaa) tells us in the Holy Qur’an:
Ah.asiba-n-naasu any-yutrakuu any-yaquuluu aamannaa wa hum laa yuftanuun?

Do people imagine that they will be left [at ease] because they say, “We believe,” and will not be tested with affliction?  (29:2)

Wa mina-n-naasi man-y-ya’budu-l-laaha a’laa h.arf fa’in as.aabahuu’anna bih wa’in as.aabat-hu fitnatu-ninqalaba a’laa wajhih khasira-d-dunyaa wal aakhirah dhaalika huwal khusraanu-l-mubiin.

And there is, too, among people many a one who worships God on the border-line [of faith]: thus, if good befalls him, he is satisfied with Allah; but if a trial assails him, he turns away utterly, losing [thereby both] this world and the life to come…(22:11).

You do not just love God once and then you are a Sufi.  You do not just believe once and from that time on, you are a believer.  You believe, and then the test and trial comes, and still you believe.  Then the test and trial comes again, and you believe. 
How do you not run out of belief?  By maintaining your muraqabaha, dhikr, and study of Qur’an.  These are the doorways to la haula wala quwatta illaa billaahi-l-‘Aliyyu-l-‘Azim (“there is no strength nor power but in Allah, the Most Powerful, the Almighty”).  Through these means, one gains patience and steadfastness (sabr), and one’s tests and trials become merely the polishing of the heart.

Suggestion/Method #3:  Dive into the Creative Possibilities of Islam, Within the Parameters of Shariah

I realize that “the creative possibilities of Islam” may strike some people as a contradiction in terms, and that mention of “the parameters of Shariah” may evoke fears of the kind of stultifying dogma that many have turned to Sufism to escape.
But Islam is not meant to be upheld by narrow-minded authorities, not does it restrict creativity, access to information, or dialogue.  Allah (Subh.aanahu wa t’alaa)   instructs us in the Holy Qur’an:

Fabash-shir a’baad.  Alladhiina yastamia’una-l-qaula fayattabia’una ah.sanah ulaa’ikal-ladhiina hadaahumu-l-laahu wa ulaa ika hum ululalbaab.

Give, then, this glad tiding to [those of] My servants who listen [closely] to all that is said, and follow the best of it: [for] it is they whom God has graced with His guidance, and it is they who are [truly] endowed with insight!  (39:17-18)

Maa ja’ala ‘alaykum fi-d-diini min h.araj.

…[Allah] has laid no hardship on you in [anything that pertains to] religion…(22:78).

Therefore, one need not fear, reject, or try to universalize Islam, or attempt to de-Islamicize Sufism.

Historically, authoritarian structures and restrictions have been imposed in the name of Islam on certain people and societies, creating negative impressions of Islam among Muslims and non-Muslims alike.  But why should educated individuals remain passive victims of these stereotypes, and why should they be rejectionist?  Those who fail to see Islam as a dynamic and organic process are not doing the things that will illuminate their Islam.  They are not studying Qur’an and Hadith, they are not meditating, they are not making dhikr, and they are not placing others before themselves. 

Studying and absorbing a set of values-based guidelines frees us from habituated patterns and expands our tools for self-discovery.  Indeed, by experiencing Islam in its essence, we can generate new energy, new outlooks, new ideas, new institutions and discoveries that can and will revitalize our global civilization.  Those who are drawn towards Sufism but reject the prayer, zakat (charity), fasting, or pilgrimage will never know this potential.  Those who accept Shariah will progressively discover its meaning and benefit from its transforming power.

This brings me to my fourth and final suggestion.
Suggestion/Method #4: Humble Oneself Through Supplication

Let me share with you an excerpt from a prayer known as Du’a Kumayl.

O Allah, my Master, many a fault You have overlooked.  Many a hardship You have mitigated.  Many an error You have prevented.  Many an ordeal You have averted, and my beautiful praise, [which] I did not deserve, you have made known.   O Allah, worst is my distress;  intense is my discomfort; few are my virtues; chains pull me down.  My far-fetched desires keep me from my gains. I have been deceived by the wily world and by my dishonest, unwary self. …O my God, guilty of acts of omission and commission against my own self, I have come to You, and I stand before You, apologetic, repentant, humble and debased, asking mercy, confessing my sins, confiding in You, disclosing my faults.

We live in a world where that type of prayer is considered unacceptable, because it seems to be self-deprecating.  As people have turned away from religion and toward a populist/modernist, self-referencing, self-aggrandizing, and psychologically-oriented lifestyle, they have lost understanding of the positivity of acknowledging one’s sins and imploring forgiveness.  Even the terms “sin” and “imploring” are dismissed as mindless litany.  How does one get beyond one’s reactions, and, in so doing, allow oneself to experience the beneficence and generosity of the Creator, the Compassionate, the Merciful-Allah (Subh.aanahu wa t’alaa) ?  One must recognize the pollutants of the world around us; acknowledge one’s conditioning, past, limited definitions, prejudices, and developmental handicaps; and see the need to constantly cleanse ourselves.  Dependence on Allah (Subh.aanahu wa t’alaa)  is not demeaning, but clarifying and purifying. 

The du’a continues:

If you put me away with Your enemies, join me with the condemned and separate me from Your adorers and friends, then suppose, O my God, my Chief, my Master, my Lord, that I may patiently bear with Your punishment.  But how will I put up with Your separation?  I may hold on patiently to the burning heat of the fire, but how will I endure the painful deprivation of not beholding Your clemency?

Many of us  have been conditioned to recoil from and reject those images.  But how can we not see the simplicity and sweetness, the purity and faith in such a supplication?

Contemplate the power of repentance as embodied in this  du’a.  The repentance expressed here is more than saying “I’m sorry” because one is expected to say it, or “I’m sorry” because one has a momentary bout of remorse.  It is a heartfelt evaluation of self (muhasabatu-n-nafs) based on faith and submission.  Such repentance brings one to a level of honesty that guarantees protection and security. 


When Islam is understood, lived, presented, and experienced as the safe, secure, tolerant, and forgiving Truth that it is, progress towards breaking the cycle of revenge around the globe-as well as towards overcoming one’s own selfishness or self-deprecation-is guaranteed.  Think of the doorways that can be opened to forgiveness and patience, towards setting aside the egotism of seeing oneself as authorized by Allah (Subh.aanahu wa t’alaa)   to punish others in the name of Truth.  Think of what it would mean if even a small number of those involved in the crises raging today could come to see themselves as nothing more than  A’bd Allah, servants of Allah (Subh.aanahu wa t’alaa)   no better than anyone else.  Think of how many lives could be saved if, instead of judging, condemning, resenting, and attacking, some tiny proportion of the world’s people could learn to look one another in the eyes and say, “I am of the same origin as you; our duties and our responsibilities are the same; so, too, are our hopes.”

This was the healing brought 1420 years ago to the warring tribes of Medina by the Prophet Muhammad (s.alla-llaahu a’alayhi wa sallam).  This is the healing available today, when we accept the life-changing experience of Sufic Islam and embark upon the real discovering of the self and its purpose. It is a discovery to be found by those who would strive in the way of Allah, the way of Truth and Compassion: by those who would commit themselves (and their selves) to service, praise, and worship of the One who alone is worthy of worship.
Jazaka-llaah khair

Wa Llahu lahu ul-haqqi wa huwa yahdis-sabil.
Hasbuna Llahu wahdahu wa ni’mal-wakil.
Wa salli ‘ala sayyidina Muhammadin wa alihi wa sahbihi ajma’in
wal-hamdu li-Llahi rabb il-‘alamin.

Truth belongs to Allah; it is He who shows the way.
Allah, alone, suffices us, and what a fine guardian is He!
Blessings upon our Master Muhammad
and his family and Companions altogether
and praise is due to Allah, Lord of the Worlds.


Book which contains du’a Kumayl translation

Gallagher, Winifred.  New Breed of Spiritual Seekers: Looking for God Beyond the Borders of Organized Faith.  Special to MSNBC.  April 1, 1999.

Karim, Fazlul.  Al Hadis: An English Translation and Commentary of Mishkat-ul-Masabih. Book I.  Lahore: The Book House, undated.

Weiss, Rick.  Sixth Sense: What Your Immune System Knows.   Washington Post, April 19, 1999:A3.