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Beyond Nomenclature: Distinguishing Terms from Content in the Field of Spirituality

By Shaykh Abu ‘l-Hasan ‘Ali al-Nadwi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

If a person is questioned: “Are loyalty and ethics important or not?” “Is it necessary to develop firm belief or not?” “Is it commendable to be adorned with virtues and be free from vice, such as jealousy, kibr (to degrade another arrogantly), to show off, bear malice and hatred, have love for wealth and honor or not?” “Is it desirable to liberate the low nafs from these evil tendencies?” “Humility and humbleness in salat, the state of modesty and entreatment whilst weeping in du‘a, the habit of taking stock of one’s soul, and above all, the love for Allah and His Messenger (may Allah bless him and grant him peace), achievement of a feeling of satisfaction and sweetness or at least to be eager and punctual to attain it, clean dealings, truth and trust, having regard for the rights of humanity, control over one’s self, especially in times of anger, are all these desirable or not?” Every sane person, especially the Muslim who is not blindfolded by prejudice, will definitely answer that these are not only virtuous but also necessary according to the shari‘ah, and these are the exhortations of the entire Qur’an and volumes of Hadith literature.

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

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

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

A poet has appropriately said,

Wise men do not get involved in words,
Is the diver’s interest in shells or pearls ?

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

The other group consists of those to whom it is acceptable if it is proposed under a different name. For example if it is said, “The Noble Qur’an has termed it tazkiyah. The Hadith names it ihsan. The latter jurists termed it fiqh al-batin (spiritual jurisprudence)”, they would then reply that there is no contradiction and that all of these are declarations of Allah and His Messenger (may Allah bless him and grant him peace).

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

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

There is no such period in the history of Islam in which the experts, tutors and propagators of this subject did not differentiate between its body and soul, reality and form, aims and customs. All of them, from the leader of all spiritual guides, Shaykh ‘Abd al-Qadir al-Jilani and Shaykh Shihab ad-Deen as-Suharwardi to Mujaddid al-Alf ath-Thani, Hadrat Shah Wali-Allah ad-Dihlawi, Hadrat Sayyid Ahmad ash-Shaheed, Hadrat Mawlana Rashid Ahmad al-Gangohi, and Hakim al-Ummah Hadrat Mawlana Ashraf ‘Ali at-Thanawi, all have emphatically made a clear distinction between the kernel and shell, the correct object and incorrect interpretation. They have vehemently rejected all those customs and ways which were introduced into and regarded as part of tasawwuf and tariqah by association with non-Muslims and immature sufis who were unaware.

Such discussions are found in many places in the following books: the Futuh al-Ghayb and Ghunyat at-Talibin of Hadrat Shaykh Abd al-Qadir al-Jilani (may Allah have mercy on him), the ‘Awarif al-Ma‘arif of Hadrat Shaykh Shihab ad-Deen as-Suharwardi (may Allah have mercy on him), the Maktubat Imam Rabbani of Hadrat Mujaddid al-Alf ath-Thani (may Allah have mercy on him), the works of Hadrat Shah Wali-Allah (may Allah have mercy on him), the Sirat Mustaqim of Hadrat Sayyid Ahmad al-Shahid (may Allah have mercy on him), the letters written by Hadrat al-Gangohi (may Allah have mercy on him), and the Tarbiyat al-Salik and Qasd al-Sabil of Hadrat Mawlana Thanwi (may Allah have mercy on him). They have separated the true from the false while showing absolute impartiality.

Hadrat Shah Wali-Allah (may Allah have mercy on him) has written thus:

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

We have been blessed to be able to stay in the company of the saints of our times. Upon seeing them alone were we convinced of tasawwuf. We not only found tasawwuf and tariqah in these personalities but also the essence of the religion and the shari‘ah. Their characters were a reflection of the character of the Messenger of Allah (may Allah bless him and grant him peace). Their lives, actions and dealings were weighed and molded according to the shari’ah. We noticed that they always separated the aims from the means and laid stress on realities by staying away from and disregarding technical terms.

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

Treatment and advice were dispensed to suit each one’s individual nature. In the remedy and diet, full consideration was given to conditions, occupations, and temperaments. Their status in this field is similar to that of a discoverer of medicine or an inventor of a skill. They were masters and not slaves of their profession.

Their actual concern was the health and benefit of the (spiritually) sick and not to tread the beaten track (i.e. to be a slave of old customs and rites). Their concept of the actual purpose of tasawwuf is the sincerity of desiring Allah’s pleasure, be it reformation of character, honest dealings, development of a moderate nature, self control, giving preference to others, submission, recitations, strivings, staying in the company of a Shaykh, and even bay‘ah. If these are not achieved then all this effort is synonymous to a person who works all day long trying to move a mountain with a piece of straw.


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

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