Book: The Path to Perfection (An edited anthology of the spiritual teachings of Mawlana Ashraf Ali Thānawi)
Author: Shaykh Masīhullah Khan Sherwāni Jalālabādi
Editor: Mufti Abdur Rahman Ibn Yusuf
Publisher: White Thread Press
Release Date: June 2005
In spite of its intrinsic attachment to Islam, Sufism – otherwise known as tasawwuf or tazkiya – remains one of the most misunderstood aspects of the din. It is a sad reality that in this day and age there are two extremes – to some, the Sufis are a heretical sect while to others they are individuals above Shariah law.
However, orthodox Sufism sits in the middle of this paradigm and is totally in tune with the requirements of the Shariah. It is this Sufism, which is the subject matter of “The Path to Perfection”.
“The Path to Perfection” was initially translated from Urdu in the early 1980s in South Africa under a different title, “Shariah and Tariqah”. White Thread Press has re-edited the original translation and beautifully published it giving it a new name and also included a biography of Hakim al-Umma Mawlana Ashraf Ali Thanawi (1863-1943) – the Sufi mentor of the author, Shaykh Masihullah Khan of Jalalabad, India (1911-1992).
In a clear, coherent and easy to understand language the book brings together some of the more profound and important Sufi teachings all of which, incidentally, have a strong grounding in the Qur’an and Hadith. It was in the mid-90s that I first came across the original translation, which was immensely popular among English-speaking Muslims connected to the Chishti-Sabri-Imdadi tariqah of the Indian sub-continent. It should, however, be noted that the book contains insightful discourse relevant to all who are treading or are wishing to tread the path of Islamic spirituality regardless of which tariqah.
Like many contemporary Deobandi scholars, Khan and his mentor were scions of the Chishti tariqah, which is common among Muslims of the sub-continent and subsequently among the worldwide Indo-Pak diaspora. In fact it would be correct to say the Deobandis combine the Chishti, Naqashbandi, Qadri and Suharwardi tariqahs. The first Chishti Shaykh to arrive in India was Khawaja Muinuddin Chishti (1141-1236), who is regarded to have set the foundation of Chishti Sufism in India – a tradition that continues till this day. Born in Chisht (east of Herat in Afghanistan) he lies buried in Ajmer, Rajasthan, India.
Like other tariqahs, the Chishtis have a spiritual lineage going back from one shaykh to another until the Prophet (peace and blessings upon him). Among illustrious and prominent dervishes whose name appear in the Chishti tariqah are individuals such as Hasan Basri, Abdul Wahid bin Zaid, Ibrahim bin Adham, Fudhail bin Ayadh, Fariduddeen Shakar Ganj, Khawaja Alauddeen Ali Ahmed Saabir Kalyari and Haji Imdadullah Muhajir Makki (the latter two are those after whom the sub-branches Sabri and Imdadi are named).
Dervishes of the Chishti Sabri Imdadi order are renowned for their strict adherence to the Shariah and Sunnah. But what is probably most iconic is their method of zikr, particular the barah-tasbih, which consists of the chanting of a certain wird in loud voices in synchrony with a particular set of head motions.
So, it does come as a surprise when contemporary writers assume that the Deobandis have some sort of anathema towards orthodox Sufism. In an article published in the UK-based Prospect Magazine in 2005, Ehsan Masood ironically described the Deobandi Sufis as an “Indian anti-Sufi movement”, likewise the respected British historian and travel-writer William Dalrymple has penned similar views in several of his articles and books.
Although “The Path to Perfection” has not been written for the purpose of dispelling such outlandish claims, nevertheless its contents do fulfil such a role. As Ali Altaf Mian mentions in his biography of Mawlana Thanawi (located towards the end of the book), the Deobandis “practiced a tasawwuf that earlier Muslims, such as Hasan al-Basri, Junayd al-Baghdadi, and Abd al-Qadir al-Jilani would advocate if they were living in the twentieth century”.
Mian continues that the Deoband seminary not only trained individuals to become “rational scholars” but also “sound practitioners of tasawwuf”. Reflecting on the interconnection of tasawwuf and Shariah, Mian adds, “Through the Deoband movement, Islamic history once more witnessed the combination of the jurist and the mystic into a well rounded Islamic scholar.” It is this very understanding of the Deobandi scholars/Sufis that Barbara Metcalf mentions in her treatise “Islamic Revival in British India: Deoband, 1860-1900”.
“The Path to Perfection” follows a logical and coherent fashion and has been written in a way that is appealing to both the ulema and lay-people. Some of the classic books on Sufism have a tendency of dealing with complex issues in a sophisticated way. The author, however, endeavours to simplify these issues ensuring readers are able to fully understand the subject matter.
With the author being a contemporary Sufi it is interesting that a lot of the discourse is given a modern-day edge making it relevant to people of today. Writing about the four fundamentals of spiritual struggle, Shaykh Masihullah mentions how the saalik should eat and sleep less and then advises that a sense of moderation should be adopted when doing so, since “experience shows that nowadays health, in most cases, suffers as a result of reduction in food” etc. This epitomizes the moderate Sufism practised by Khan and the people of his tariqah.
This book is a delight to read and is a spiritual manual in the true essence, one that creates a sense of warmth in the reader’s heart and thus developing in one an urgent desire to seek rectification and spiritual uplifting.