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November 2005
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Spirituality

Tasawwuf in Traditional Islam-Part 6
By Nuh Ha Mim Keller


The moral responsibility in this life is not only concerned with outward actions, but with what we believe, our ‘Aqida.


So far we have spoken about Tasawwuf in respect to Islam, as a Shariah science necessary to fully realise the Sacred Law in one’s life, to attain the states of the heart demanded by the Quran and Hadith. This close connection between Shariah and Tasawwuf is expressed by the statement of Imam Malik, founder of the Maliki school, that “he who practices Tasawwuf without learning the Sacred Law corrupts his faith, while he who learns Sacred Law without practising Tasawwuf corrupts himself. Only he who combines the two proves true.” This is why Tasawwuf was taught as part of the traditional curriculum in madrasas across the Muslim world from Malaysia to Morocco and also why many of the greatest Shariah scholars of this Ummah have been Sufis, and why until the end of the Islamic caliphate at the beginning of this century and the subsequent Western control and cultural dominance of Muslim lands, there were teachers of Tasawwuf in Islamic institutions of higher learning from Lucknow to Istanbul to Cairo. 


But there is a second aspect of Tasawwuf that we have not yet talked about; namely, its relation to Iman or ‘True Faith,’ the second pillar of the Islamic religion, which in the context of the Islamic sciences consists of ‘Aqida or ‘orthodox belief.’


All Muslims believe in Allah, and that He is transcendently beyond anything conceivable to the minds of men, for the human intellect is imprisoned within its own sense impressions and the categories of thought derived from them, such as number, directionality, spatial extension, place, time, and so forth. Allah is beyond all of that; in His own words,  “There is nothing whatsover like unto Him” (Qur’an 42:11).


If we reflect for a moment on this verse, in the light of the Hadith about Ihsan that “it is to worship Allah as though you see Him,” we realise that the means of seeing here is not the eye, which can only behold physical things like itself; nor the mind, which cannot transcend its own impressions to reach the Divine, but rather certitude, the light of Iman, whose locus is not the eye or the brain, but rather the ruh, a subtle faculty Allah has created within each of us called the soul, whose knowledge is unobstructed by the bounds of the created universe. Allah Most High says, by way of exalting the nature of this faculty by leaving it a mystery,


“Say: ‘The Spirit is of the command of my Lord of knowledge, it is only a little that is communicated to you, O men,” (Qur’an 17:85).


The food of this ruh is dhikr or the ‘remembrance of Allah.’ Why? Because acts of obedience increase the light of certainty and Iman in the soul, and dhikr is among the greatest of them. Increasing the strength of Iman through good actions, and particularly through the medium of dhikr has tremendous implications for the Islamic religion and traditional spirituality. A non-Muslim once asked me, “If God exists, then why all this beating around the bush? Why doesn’t He just come out and say so?” 


The answer is that taklif or ‘moral responsibility’ in this life is not only concerned with outward actions, but with what we believe, our ‘Aqida—and the strength with which we believe it. If belief in God and other eternal truths were effortless in this world, there would be no point in Allah making us responsible for it, it would be automatic. But the responsibility Allah has placed upon us is belief in the Unseen, as a test for us in this world to choose between kufr and Iman, to distinguish believer from unbeliever, and some believers above others.


(To be continued)