[By Abu Bakr al-Kalabadhi]
HOW THE SUFIS ACCOUNT FOR THEIR BEING CALLED SUFIS
Some say, “The Sufis were named Sufis because of the purity (safa’) of their hearts and the cleanliness of their acts (athar).”
Bishr bin al-Harith said, “The Sufi is he whose heart is sincere (safa’) towards God.”
Another said, “The Sufi is he whose conduct towards God is sincere, and towards whom God’s blessings is sincere.”
Certain of them have said: “They were only called Sufis because they are in the first rank (saff’) before God, the turning of their hearts unto Him, and the staying of their secrets parts before Him.”
Others have said: “They were only called Sufis because their qualities resembled those of the people of the Bench (suffah), who lived in the time of God’s Prophet.”
Others have said: “They were only named Sufis because of their habit of wearing wool (suff).”
Those who relate them to the Bench and to wearing wool express the outward aspect of their conditions: for they were people who had left this world, departed from this homes, fled from their companions. They wandered about the land, mortifying the carnal desires, and making naked the body: they took of this world’s goods only so much as is indispensible for covering the nakedness and allaying hunger. For departing from their homes they were called “strangers”; for their many joirneyings they were called “travellers”; for their travelling in deserts, and taking refuge in caves at times of necessity, certain people of the country (diyar) called them “shikaftis”, for the word “shikaft” in their language means “cavern” or “cave” (in Persian).
The Syrians called them “starvers”, because they only took as much food as would keep up their strength in time of necessity. So the Prophet ﷺ said: “Sufficient for the son of Adam are such morsels as will keep up his strength.”
Sari al-Saqati described them thus: “Their food is the food of the sick, their sleep is the sleep of the drowned, their speech is the speech of the fools.”
Because they were devoid of possessions they were called “Paupers”.
One of them was asked: “Who is a Sufi?” He replied: “He who neither possess nor is possessed.” By this he meant that he is not the slave of desire.
Another said: “(The Sufi is) he who possess nothing, or, if he possess anything, spends it.”
Because of their clothes and manner of dressing they were called Sufis: for they did not put on raiment soft to touch or beautiful to behold, to give delight to the soul; they only clothed themselves in order to hide their nakedness, contenting themselves with rough haircloth and coarse wool.
Now these were in fact the conditions under which the people of the Bench lived, in the time of the Prophet ﷺ: for they were strangers, poor, exiles, having been driven out of their abodes and possessions. Abu Hurayrah and Fudalah Ibn ‘Ubayd described them as follows: “They faint of hunger, so that the Bedouins suppose them to be mad.” Their clothing was of wool, so that when any one of them sweated, they gave off an odour like that of a sheep caught in the rain. This, indeed, is how they are described by some.
‘Uyaynah Ibn Hisn (radhiyallahu anhu) said to the Prophet ﷺ: “The smell of these men distresses me. Does it not distress thee?”
Wool is also a dress of the Prophets and the garb of the saints. Abu Musa Al-Ash’ari (radhiyallahu anhu) related the following of the Prophet: “There passed by the rock at Rawha seventy Prophets bare of foot, clad in the ‘aba (A woollen garment) repairing to the Ancient House (the Ka’bah).”
Al-Hasan al-Basri (rahimahullah) says: ‘Eesa (alayhissalaam) used to wear haircloth, eat the fruit of the trees, and spend the night wherever he happened to find himself.”
Abu Musa al-Ash’ari (radhiyallahu anhu): “The Prophet ﷺ used to wear wool, ride asses and accept the invitation of the insignificant (to eat with them).”
Al-Hasan al-Basri (rahimahullah) said: “I have known of seventy of those who fought at Badr, whose clothes were only of wool.”
Now as this group had the same qualities as the people of the Bench, as we have described, being clothed and apparelled like them, they were called suffiyah.
Those who relate them to the Bench and the First Rank indicate their secret hearts and inward parts: for when a man abandons this world, and is abstentious therein, and turns aside therefrom, God purifies (saffa) his conscience (sirr) and illuminates his heart. The Prophet ﷺ has said: “When light enters into the heart it is expanded and dilated.” They said, “And what is the sign of that, O Messenger of God?” He replied, “Shunning the abode of deceit, turning to the abode of eternity, and making ready for death before death descends.”
So the Prophet ﷺ stated that, if a man shuns this world, God will illuminate his heart.
The Prophet ﷺ asked Harithah (radhiyallahu anhu), “What is the reality of thy faith?” He answered: “I have inclined my soul away from this world, I have fasted by day, and kept vigil by night: and it is as though I behold the Throne of my Lord coming forth, and as if I behold the people of Paradise visiting one another, and the people of Hell at enemity with one another.”
Thus, he informs us that, when he inclined away from this world, God illuminated his heart, so that what was (normally) unseen to him assumed a place in his vision.
The Prophet ﷺ also said, “If any man wishes to behold a servant whose heart God has illuminated, let him look upon Harithah.”
Because of these qualities, these group has also been called “illuminated” (nuriyah). This description also befits the people of the Bench; God Most High says: “Therein are men who love to be clean.” [Qur’an xi:109]
This means, the outward parts are clean of defilments, and the inward parts of wicked thoughts.
God Most High also says: “Men whom neither merchandise nor selling divert from the rememberance of God.” [S. XXiV: 37]
Moreover, because of the purity of their consciences, their intuition (firasah) is true.
Abu Umamah (radhiyallahu anhu) relates that the Prophet ﷺ said: “Fear the intuition of the believer, for he beholds with the light of God.”
Abu Bakr al-Siddiq (radhiyallahu anhu) said: “It was put into my heart that I will have my off spring from Kharijah’s daughter.” and it was so. (Abu Bakr married the daughter of Kharijah), with whom he was joined in brotherhood.”
The Prophet ﷺ said, “Truth speaks on the tongue of ‘Umar.”
Uways al-Qarni (rahimahullah) to Hareem Ibn Hayyan, when the latter greeted him, “And on thee be peace, O Harim son of Hayyan!” – and yet he had never seen him before that moment. Then he added: “My spirit recognized thy spirit.”
Abu Abdullah al-Antaki said: “When ye associate with the people of sincerity, associate with them in sincerity: for they are the spies of the hearts, entering into your consciences, and emerging from your inward desires.”
Now, if a man is of this description, if his conscience is pure, his heart is clean, his breast illuminated, then certainly he is in the first rank: for these are the qualities of the leaders (Sabiq, the term here used, refers to the earliest converts to Islam).
The Prophet ﷺ said: “There will enter Paradise of my community seventy thousand without reckoning.” Then he went on and described them: “Men who neither practise magic nor seek to be charmed, who neither brand nor are branded, but put their trust in their Lord.”
Further, because of the purity of their consciences, and the dilation of their breasts, and the brightness of their hearts, they had a perfect gnosis of God, and they did not have recourse to secondary causes (asbab): they put their faith in God Most High, and trusted Him, being satisfied with His decree. All these qualities, and all the meanings contained in these terms, are united in the names and nicknames given to this people: these expressions are exact, and these deriviations come near to the truth. Even though these words vary in outward appearance, yet the meanings behind them are identical. If the term (sufi) was derived from safa (purity) or safwah (choice), the correct form would be safawiyah; while if it were referred to Saff (rank) or suffah (bench), it would be saffiyah or suffiyah. It is, of course, possible (in the former case) that the waw has been transferred to come before the fa, so giving suffiyah; or (if the latter deriviation be accepted), that it is simply redundant, being inserted into the word through common practice (lit. from being passed from tongue to tongue). If, however, the deriviation from suf (wool) be accepted, the word is correct and the expression sound from the grammatical point of view, while at the same time it has all the (necessary) meanings, such as withdrawal from the world, inclining the soul away from it, leaving all settled abodes, keeping constantly to travel, denying the carnal soul its pleasures, purifying the conduct, cleansing the conscience, dilation of the breast, and the quality of leadership.
Bundar ibn al-Husayn said: “The Sufi is the man whom God has chosen for Himself, rendering him a sincere affection (safa’), and setting him free from his carnal soul, and not allowing him any more to labour to undue fatigue under any pretext (in affairs not concerned with the Path of God). So he is befriended (sufi) as parallels one may cite ‘ufi ( he is preserved), that is, God has preserved him and therefore he is preserved, kufi (he is recompensed), that is, God has recompensed him so therefore he is recompensed; and juzi (he is rewarded), that is, God has rewarded him (and therefore he is rewarded) (A laboured attempt to construe the term sufi as a passive of the verb safa). What God has done to him is manifest in his name, although God is entirely independent of him.
Abu Ali al-Rudhabari, being asked what a Sufi is, replied: “One who wears wool over (his) purity, gives his lust the taste of tyranny, and, having overthrown the world, journeys in the pathway of the Chosen One.”
Sahl ibn ‘Abdullah al-Tustari gave the following answer to the same question: “One who is clean of impurity, and full of meditation; who is cut off from humanity for God’s sake, and in whose eyes Gold and Mud are equal.”
Abu’l-Husayn al-Nuri, being asked what sufism is, replied: “Abandoning all the portion of the carnal soul.”
Al-Junayd (rahimahullah) was asked the same question, and said: “It is the purification of the heart from associating with created beings, separation from natural characteristics, suppression of human qualities, avoiding the temptations of the carnal souls, taking up the qualities of the spirit, attachment to the sciences of reality, using what is more proper to the eternal, counselling all the community, being truly faithful to God, and following the Prophet according to the Law.”
Yusuf ibn al-Husayn said: “There is in every community achosen band, and they are the agents of God, concealed by Him from His creation: of there be any such in this community, they are the Sufis.”
A certain man said to Sahl ibn ‘Abdullah al-Tustari: “With whom shall I associate of the various sects of mankind?” He replied: “Occupy thyself with the Sufis, for they find nothing objectionable, but provide a spiritual interpretation (ta’wil) for every act, and will make excuses for thee whatever thy state (haal) may be (This borders on the excesses of the extremists, which the enemies of sufism were not slow to fasten upon)”.
Yusuf ibn al-Husayn tells us that he asked Dhu’l-Nun: “With whom shall I associate?” He answered: “With him who possesses nothing, and does not disapprove of any state you happen to be in; who does not change when you change, even though that change be great: for the more violently thou change, the greater is thy need for him.”
The neophyte needs the guidance of a spiritual director to help him through the troublesome difficulties of the first part of his journey: having travelled that way myself, he is well aware of the pitfalls and dangers.
Dhu’l-Nun (rahimahullah) also said, “I saw a woman in one of the coasts of Syria, and said to her, “Whence comest thou?” She replied, “From people whose flanks shrink from bed.” I said: “And Wither intendest thou?” She answered, “Unto men whom neither merchandise, nor selling diverts from the remembrance of God.” I said, “Describe them.” Then she began to recite:
“There every purpose is with God united,
Their high ambitions mount to Him alone:
Their troth is to the Lord and Master plighted-
O noble quest for the Eternal One!
They do not quarrel over this World’s pleasure-
Honours, and children, rich and costly gowns,
All greed and appetite! They do not treasure
The life of ease and joy that dwells in towns.
Facing the far and faint horizon yonder
They seek the infinite, with purpose strong:
They ever thread where desert runnels wander,
And high on towering mountain-tops they throng!”
(Adopted from the Book: Kitab al-Ta’aruf li-Madh-hab Ahl-al-Tasawwuf)