Sunday, 20 February 2011

Purifying the Soul

[Translated and annotated with the assistance of Al-Hajj Abu Ja’far Al-Hanbali]

Question: Could you please give me a concise article about the phases of purifying the soul as well as the states and stations [maqāmāt] that someone who wants to purify their soul passes through according to the way [ṭarīqa] of the early generations?

Answer: [Sheikh Muḥammad Saʿīd Ramaḍān Al-Būṭī:]

In the Name of Allah, The All Merciful, The Most Merciful

To you, I praise Allah, besides Whom there is no other god, and I send prayers and peace upon His Messenger Muḥammad and his family and Companions.

To proceed, for indeed tazkiyyah [purification] is a Qurʾānic word, which means to strive in order to cleanse the soul of the blemishes that are rarely separated from it, and which, if they remain attached to the soul, will lead the person to destruction and turn his faith in Allah into an outward semblance that has no reality and no benefit for him. The most dangerous of these blemishes is arrogance, followed by self-amazement, hatred, and love of the world and its trappings, such as wealth, fame, leadership and so forth.
The path of purification can be summarised as tawḥīd overpowering the intellect with certainty and becoming firmly established therein, i.e. tawḥīd is transformed from the statement la ilaha illa Allah, repeated on the tongue, to firm, intellectual certainty that Allah is One in His Essence, His Attributes, and His Actions. No one shares with Him in any of this and He alone is The One in charge of the entire universe. Thus, He is The One Who brings everything into existence and takes everything out of existence, He is The Inflictor of Harm and the Bestower of Benefit, He is The Giver and The Withholder.

However, tawḥīd doesn’t change from a slogan on the tongue to firmly established certainty in the intellect, and then influence one’s emotional life, except by increasing one’s observance of Allah. This can’t be done except by increasing one’s remembrance [dhikr] of Him, i.e. to remember Him, and the tongue is nothing but a tool for this remembering. The best way for this remembrance and remembering is for the person to attach himself constantly to the blessings that The Bestower of Blessings has bestowed upon him. Whenever a blessing comes to him he remembers The Bestower of Blessings and he is certain that it came to him from Him, and it is known that Allah’s blessings are so many that they cannot be counted. This was indeed the ṭarīqa of our master, The Messenger of Allah, in remembering Allah, Mighty and Majestic.

If the slave continues with this treatment of remembrance and remembering, the creed of tawḥīd becomes firmly established in his intellect and the pseudo-effectiveness of changing circumstances disappears from his intellect and his thinking. Then this theological certainty is reflected in his heart in the form of love, awe and fear. When the intellect knows it and the heart feels it; that the only Benefactor in the universe is Allah, and The One Who does what He wants with the slaves and with created beings is Allah. Thus, in the blaze of these controlling feelings, these blemishes that were attached to the soul melt away.

Thus, one doesn’t see oneself as having any intrinsic value, such that one becomes arrogant, and one sees the entire world with all its notions and all it contains as nothing but soldiers in the Hand of Allah, Mighty and Majestic.

As for the states embodied therein that you are asking me about, including what is called al-fanāʾ and al-baqāʾ and other states, the latter-day students of Sufism [mutaṣawwifa] and those of their ilk in this age, in consideration of these states, have devoted themselves to stages along the path, and the traveller [sālik] must concentrate on attaining each one of them, and then he can move on to the next one.[1]

However, this idea, along with the travelling [sulūk[2]] that is its foundation, goes against what the Salaf as-Sāliḥ[3] were upon. Indeed, it goes against what the Imams of the travellers on this path were upon, and this includes those mentioned in Ar-Risālah Al-Qushayriyyah.

Indeed, what is required of the traveller is to strive with the means that I have mentioned towards being completely dyed in the reality of tawḥīd. The sole objective that should be at the forefront of his mind is to ascend to a state in which he deals with the means of the universe while looking at the Creator of those means, and Him alone. With this objective the traveller is dyed in the reality of slavehood to Allah, Mighty and Majestic, and this is the utmost that the Salaf as-Ṣāliḥ aspired to.

Along the path towards this objective some travellers suffer from what is called al-fanāʾ, which means that the individual forgets and withdraws from created beings in favour of the Creator, and thus he sees them as not having any existence. In this state he might articulate that which expresses these feelings of his, and therefore contradict reality and the Revealed Law.[4]

Thus, we should know that this is a state that happens incidentally. The traveller shouldn’t consider it a stage that he has to pass through or stop at. Rather, he must strive with his utmost effort to avoid it. If his affair is overwhelmed then he should know that he is weak and that he is being tested with it, whereas the Companions of Allah’s Messenger and those who travelled along their way from the Followers and the best of the Salaf As-Ṣāliḥ had nothing to do with it. Therefore, he should do whatever he can to get past this state and arrive at what is called al-baqāʾ, and this is the position in which he sees the means and deals with them according to the scales of the Revealed Law but he doesn’t see them as having any intrinsic effect or influence.

What I have said about the states is also said about what is called the stations, such as the station of patience (as-ṣabr), then gratitude (ash-shukr), then pleasure (ar-ridāʾ) and then certainty (al-yaqīn). Indeed it is a mistake for the traveller to focus on moving through these stations in order to finally arrive at the station of certainty. Rather, from the very beginning of his travelling he must exert his utmost effort towards arriving at the highest degrees of certainty. Thus, patience is not detached from certainty and pleasure should not be detached from patience. Rather, based on what has been established, he is required to struggle against his soul that commands to evil and at the same time focus on being adorned with patience, pleasure, gratitude, reliance (at-tawakkul) and certainty. The path for this is to increase in the remembrance of Allah, which doesn’t mean the clicking of the subḥa in one’s hand but rather, to put it briefly, the remembrance of The Creator whenever the creation is seen and remembrance of The Bestower of Blessings whenever blessings are seen.

Indeed, some travellers have regulated this travelling and put the stations into a certain sequence, but these were states that were forced upon these people. They are not an instructional method for the general traveller.
Then you should know, my brother, that that which you are asking me about, whatever its name may be, is a perceptivity [dhawq] or rather feelings and behaviour that are controlled by the system of the Revealed Law. It is not a science that is related or an art that is represented or a profession from which one makes a living or through which a rank amongst people is obtained!

One of the Masters and Leaders in the Revealed Law [rabbāniyūn] from the Salaf As-Ṣāliḥ said: ‘In the beginning of Islam, taṣawwuf was a reality without a name, and then, today, it has become a name without a reality.’

[Translated from Ma’a An-Nās: Mashūrāt wa Fatāwa by Sheikh Muḥammad Saʿīd Ramaḍān Al-Būṭī, v. 2, p.204-208, (Damascus: Dar Al-Fikr, 2003)]

Update: This fatwa is now available from the English version of

[1] Thus one will find students of these so-called shaykhs – who by the way are not scholars of the Revealed Law – eagerly running to their shaykh as murīds, ingratiating themselves and looking to check a set of boxes on an invisible list of attributes to become a “reputable Sufi.”

Once these prerequisites are realised, they are now realised and safe and those others who have not or are not pliant to the message are poor souls who really don’t understand Islam. Perhaps the most marked thing about these murīds is how poor their manners are and how shallow and skin deep their knowledge of Islam is in reality.

Students of taṣawwuf, once they have found “it”, don’t have to worry about manners and the transformed life. Often new believers to the faith, once ushered into a ṭarīqa, with regard to their faith, manners and worship usually take a marked nosedive and display almost Masonic attitudes toward the uninitiated.

[2] This is defined by Sheikh ul-Islam Abu Ismāʿīl al-Ansari, the great Afghani Ḥanbalī (d. 394 AH), who described it as, “The states and actions that the heart undertakes while one is worshipping Allah as if one sees Him.” Tabaqāt us-Sūfīyyah, pp. 1-6, interlinear Arabic/Persian 1379 edition, Kabul); it is also quoted verbatim from him by history’s most controversial Qādiri, Taqī ud-Din Ibn Taymiyyah (d. 728 AH) in Majmuʿa Fatāwa, vol.10, pp. 5-7, in which this and volume 11 (entitled the Book of Tasawwuf) deal with this and other topics

[3] When Orthodox scholars use this term they mean the first three generations of Islam. This is based on the hadith, narrated by Imams Al-Bukhārī and Muslim, in which the Messenger of Allah, may Allah’s prayers and peace be upon him, said: ‘The best generation is my generation, then those who come next, then those who come next.’

[4] Sheikh Muḥammad Saʾīd Ramadan al-Būtī is referring here to the false attribute of fanāʾ that exists today. His objection to this foolishness is valid indeed.

For the one who wants to know the proper definition, let him look at the words of Sheikh ʿAbdul Qādir al-Jilānī, may Allah be pleased with him, who said,

“As for the letter fāʾ, it stands for fanāʾ in Allah. When someone annihilates the attributes of humanity, he perpetuates the attributes of singularity. Allah is never annihilated and never disappears, so the fleeing servant survives forever with the Everlasting Lord and His Pleasure and the fleeting heart survives forever with the Everlasting Secret that has been imparted. Allah has said: “Everything will perish but His Countenance” [Sūrat ul-Qaṣaṣ 28:88].

Through His Pleasure, the servant may return to the righteous deeds after annihilation, the deeds which he was devoted to for the sake of His Face and His Pleasure, so the One who is Pleased with him will remain with the one that has pleased Him. The result of righteous work is life for the reality of the human being, who is called the child of inner meanings.” Kitāb Sirr il-Asrār, pp. 42-44.

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