Islamic Studies

Forbidden Forms of Dhikr

By Shaykh `Abdul Fattah Abu Ghudda | Translated by A. Haque

As for the type of dhikr performed by some people which comprises of rhythmically coordinated movements of the body, melodious hymns and songs, jumping, leaping, hopping, bending forward and then straightening up, and violent twisting and shoving, then this form of dhikr is forbidden, for a sound fitra finds it repugnant, and a heart in khushu` is far removed from the likes of such things. As the noble tabi`i Sa`id ibn al-Musayyab (may Allah be pleased with him) said, “Had the heart of this man been in khushu`, his limbs would be in khushu` as well.”

Moreover, engaging in this type of dhikr has not been transmitted from the salaf whose generations were commended for their excellence. As for the reasoning put forward for these physical movements and leaping up and down, that they prevent the mind from being distracted away from Allah the Exalted, then it is rejected due to the well-known example of the salaf. Indeed, they were the most vigilant of all people in safeguarding their minds and hearts, and making them in sync with Allah the Exalted. Yet, they never engaged in such acts. To the contrary, when these kinds of acts were brought to their attention, they strongly censured them. They were a nation whose example is meant to be studied and adhered to. What follows, then, are excerpts from their discourse regarding the aforementioned type of dhikr.

`A’isha (may Allah be pleased with her) said, “Abu Bakr entered while two slave-girls of the Ansar were with me. They were singing the rhymes of the Ansar for the Day of Bu`ath, though they were not singers …”2

Ibn Hajar explains:

“A group of Sufis used this report as evidence to support the permissibility of singing and listening to songs, whether accompanied by musical instruments or not.

It suffices as a response that `A’isha herself clarified the words of the report by saying, ‘they were not singers,’ negating what could be interpreted from the first part of her report [i.e. ‘they were singing’], because ghina’ [singing] refers to raising the voice, the melody which the Arabs call nasb, and the chanting of the caravan leader. The performer of this act is not called a mughanni [singer], which is a term that refers to those who sing by elongating and breaking the words, stimulating and provoking the listener by way of allusive and explicit descriptions of indecency.

Qurtubi3 says, ‘The statement of `A’isha – they were not singers – means that they were not of those who are experts at singing like professional singers. This is an indication by `A’isha (may Allah be pleased with her) of her wariness and reservation from the customary form of singing, which moves the motionless, and arouses what is deeply hidden. This is a type of singing whose impermissibility is agreed upon, if it consists of poetry that depicts the attractive features of women, intoxicants, and other forbidden things.’

He continues, ‘As for what the Sufis have innovated in this regard, then it is impermissible without disagreement. However, a large number of those attributed with virtue have been overcome by their appetitive souls, to the extent that many of them have displayed acts that are normally associated with children or the insane, such as dancing with organized steps and synchronized movements. Some of them even have the audacity to deem these acts as righteous deeds and a means of seeking nearness to God. They claim that these acts help to attain exalted states, while in reality they are among the indicators of zandiqa [heresy] and the statements of magicians. And Allah is the source of all help!’

In fact, the truth is the reverse of what they say: these acts help to attain the most evil of states.” 4

The poet says, censuring the statements and acts of these enamored souls:

Has Allah said, ‘Clap for me and sing,

Say words of evil, and claim that dancing is dhikr?’

Qadi Iyad said about Imam Malik on the authority of al-Tinnisi:

“We were with Malik while he was surrounded by his companions, when a man belonging to the people of Nasibin said, ‘There is a group of people among us called Sufis. They eat excessively, then they begin to sing, and then they get up and dance.’ Malik asked him, ‘Are they children?’ The man replied, ‘No.’ Malik asked, ‘Are they insane?’ The man replied, ‘No. They are a group of mashayikh [religious scholars] and other intelligent people.’ Malik replied, ‘I have never heard of anyone from the people of Islam doing such a thing.’

The man said, ‘But these people eat, and then get up and dance tirelessly, some of them striking their heads, and some striking their faces.’ Hearing this, Malik laughed, then rose and went inside his house. The companions of Malik said to the man, ‘Verily you have brought bad omen to our companion. We have been in his company for more than thirty years, and we never saw him laugh until this day.’” 5

Qurtubi, the Sufi Qur’an exegete, says commenting on the statement of Allah the Exalted, ‘Believers are those who, when Allah is mentioned, feel a tremor of fear in their hearts, and when they hear His ayaat rehearsed, find their faith strengthened, and put all their trust in their Lord’ 6 —

“Allah the Exalted describes the believers in this ayah feeling fearful when He is mentioned. This is because of the strength of their faith, and cognizance of their Lord, as if they are right before Him.

Similar to this is the ayah, ‘Give the good news to those who humble themselves – to those whose hearts, when Allah is mentioned, are filled with fear…’ 7 and Allah’s statement, ‘(Those) whose hearts find satisfaction in the remembrance of Allah…’ 8 This is due to the perfection of their ma`rifa [gnosis] and trust [in Him].

Allah brings the two meanings together when He says, ‘Allah has revealed the most beautiful message in the form of a book, consistent with itself, (yet) repeating (its teachings in various aspects): the skin of those who fear their Lord trembles thereat: then their skins and their hearts soften to the mention of Allah…’ 9 That is, their souls find rest due to their certainty in Allah, even though they fear Him.

This, then, is the state of those who know Allah. They fear His power and retribution, unlike the clamor and shouting of the ignorant among the masses and the innovators, and their making sounds that resemble the braying of a donkey. It is said to those who occupy themselves with these acts, claiming that they constitute wajd [ecstasy] and khushu` — The Messenger and his companions were superior to you in their ma`rifa, fear and reverence for Allah, yet their state while receiving admonition was that of increased comprehension and weeping out of fear from Him. This is why Allah has described the state of those who know Him upon hearing His mention and the recitation of His Book as, ‘And when they listen to the revelation received by the Messenger, you will see their eyes overflowing with tears, for they recognize the truth. They pray: “Our Lord! We believe; write us down among the witnesses (to the truth).’ 10

That is the true description of their state. Whoever does not behave like this is not upon their guidance, nor traversing their path. Whoever seeks to have a role model, let him take them as his role model. As for those who wish to occupy themselves with the states of the insane and insanity, then he is worse than the insane. Indeed, insanity comes in many forms!

Anas b. Malik (may Allah be pleased with him) said, ‘One day, people kept posing questions to the Prophet (peace be upon him) regarding an issue, until the number of questions became superfluous. So the Prophet (peace be upon him) climbed the pulpit and proclaimed, ‘Ask me! I will answer every question that you ask me as long as I remain at this spot.’ When the people heard this from him, they became silent. They were terrified that something horrible might happen soon. I began to turn right and left, and I saw everyone covering his face with his robe, weeping.’ 11

`Irbad b. Sariya said, ‘The Messenger of Allah (peace be upon him) delivered a powerful speech one day, causing tears to flow, and hearts to tremble with fear.’ 12

He didn’t say that the listeners screamed, or danced, or struck their feet against the ground as the dancers do, or stood up!” 13

The eminent scholar and Hanafi jurist Shaykh Ahmad al-Tahtawi writes the following:

“As for the acts that are committed by those who claim to be Sufis – such as dancing, clapping, clamoring, or playing musical instruments such as cymbals and trumpets – then all of these acts are impermissible by consensus, because they are from the characteristics and acts of disbelievers.” 14

Those who indulge in the aforementioned form of dhikr insist that these coordinated movements do not go beyond the bounds of permissibility. If they will not submit to the statements of the scholars that prohibit these physical movements, then at least let their statements of prohibition cast doubt in the permissibility of these acts, and let this be reason enough to leave off these practices, by way of distancing away from that which the scholars have deemed forbidden. For the Sufi is defined as he who protects himself from all doubtful matters, and leaves off even some of what is permissible out of fear that he may fall into the offensive, much less the impermissible!

Allah alone is the Guide for those who seek Guidance from Him. O Allah! Guide us to that which You love, and leads to Your Contentment.

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  • “Movement during Dhikr (remembrance) is a good thing because it brings energy to the body for that act of worship. It is permissible in Sacred Law, as proven by the narration of Ahmad in his Musnad, and al-Maqdisī with sound narrators from the Hadīth of Anas radīallahu `anhu that said: “Once, the Abyssinians were dancing in front of the Messenger of Allāh sallallāhu `alahi wa-sallam , saying in their language: ‘Muhammad is a righteous servant.’ He sallallāhu `alahi wa-sallam said: “What are they saying?” It was said: “[They are saying] Muhammad is a righteous servant.” When he saw them in that state, he did not censure them. Rather, he approved of their act. It is known the that rulings in Sacred Law are taken from his sallallāhu `alayhi wa-sallam statements, actions, and tacit approvals. Since he approved of their action and did not censure them, it is clear that it is permissible.”

    From this excerpt found on:

    Can this Hadith be used to justify movement in Dhikr? And dont we sing along (and some move) to anasheed about the prophet. But when it comes to Allah, or dhikr (as a form of worship?) would movement (dancing, jumping, erratic motions) be allowed?

    • Imam Nawawi says:

      Dancing is not unlawful, unless it is languid, like the movements of the effeminate. And it is permissible to speak and to sing poetry, unless it satirizes someone, is obscene, or alludes to a particular woman” (Minhaj al-talibin wa ‘umdat al-muttaqin. Cairo 1338/1920. Reprint. Cairo: Mustafa al-Babi al-Halabi, n.d., 152).

      This is a legal text for the permissibility of both dancing and singing poetry from the Minhaj al-talibin, the central legal work of the entire late Shafi‘i school. Islamic scholars point out that if something which is permissible, such as singing poetry or dancing, is conjoined with something that is recommended, such as dhikr or gatherings to make dhikr, the result of this conjoining will not be offensive (makruh) or unlawful (haram). Imam Jalal al-Din Suyuti was asked for a fatwa or formal legal opinion concerning “a group of Sufis who had gathered for a session of dhikr,” and he replied:

      How can one condemn making dhikr while standing, or standing while making dhikr, when Allah Most High says, “. . . those who invoke Allah standing, sitting, and upon their sides” (Koran 3:191). And ‘A’isha (Allah be well pleased with her) said, “The Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) used to invoke Allah at all of his times” [Sahih Muslim, 1.282: 373]. And if dancing is added to this standing, it may not be condemned, as it is of the joy of spiritual vision and ecstasy, and the hadith exists [in many sources, such as Musnad al-Imam Ahmad, 1.108, with a sound (hasan) chain of transmission] that Ja‘far ibn Abi Talib danced in front of the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) when the Prophet told him, “You resemble me in looks and in character,” dancing from the happiness he felt from being thus addressed, and the Prophet did not condemn him for doing so, this being a basis for the legal acceptability of the Sufis dancing from the joys of the ecstasies they experience (al-Hawi li al-fatawi. 2 vols. Cairo 1352/1933–34. Reprint. Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyya, 1403/1983, 2.234).

  • brother is this regards to the hadrah that is done by the sufi’s in syria because the the meaning of hadrah in arabic is remembrence.
    this is done by standing it is part of the shadili taruq.
    or hav i got this wrong you may be talking of some other type of zikr.


  • Asalamu alaykum,

    Br. Umar

    According to Amir al-Mu’min fi al-hadith, Ibn Hajar al-Asqalani [may Allah preserve him] this hadith was used by, “Some of the people of tasawwuf” to justify this form of dhikr. However, he explicitly states that such a contention was, “Attacked my the majority of the Fuqaha” because such an interpretation fails to agree with the underlying goals of the hadith itself (see fath al-Bari). I ask Sh. S’aid Jawaish, one of the top scholars of hadith in al-Azhar about this hadith. He said, “This cannot be used as a proof for dancing and making dhikr!? The goal of dhikr is a tranquil heart and this cannot be attained by dancing.” It is important to note that Ibn Hajar says, “The majority of the fuqaha (scholars of law)” attacked this position. Thus, it is safer to follow the opinion of the majority of those well grounded in the interpretation and understanding of the law.

    The Malikis:

    It is well known; as articulated by Sh. Bin Bayyah who said about gatherings of dhikr that they are acceptable, “As long as nothing forbidden takes place therein such as mixing between the sexes, clapping and dancing,” that the Maliki’s were against such forms of dhikr. Sidi Zaruq, although a sufi, refused to engage in the Hadarah. Ibn Abi Jamrah, in Bahju al-Nufus, was hard upon those who raise their voices and gather to make dhikr. Thus, it is safer to stick to the way of the salaf, the majority of fuqaha and avoid such matters as the Prophet (sa) said, “Avoid which makes you doubt for what doesn’t make you doubt.”

  • Good job for posting this article, iam with you on this one. The din should be practice the way our prophet and his righteous companions did. Anything that contradicts Quran and sunna, we do not accept. Even if its famous scholar; so and so said this No!!. The people dived into three categories in terms of scholar treatment, so you make the choice.
    1) Some diss the scholars, bad mouthing
    2) Some follow them in everything
    3) and some they take the good and leave the things that contradicts the law.

  • I love this part

    As the noble tabi`i Sa`id ibn al-Musayyab (may Allah be pleased with him) said, “Had the heart of this man been in khushu`, his limbs would be in khushu` as well.”

  • Sheikh al-Buti’s footnote to this discussion is equally important:
    Some of my readers may be surprised by the fact that I agree with the Wahhabite view on this particular matter, even though I have taken them to task for a number of other positions which they hold. Such surprise, where it exists, is no doubt due to a mistake conception of how a Muslim ought to think and conduct himself.

    It is not Islamic in any way for an academic search dictated by the mind to be transformed into a bigoted prejudice that has taken over one’s soul. Nor is it consistent with the spirit or teachings of Islam for one to advocate a particular opinion or school of Islamic law on the pretext that in so doing, he is championing Islam itself, especially when such a person knows in his heart of hearts that he is simply defending the point of view because it has come to form a part of his personality and his standing among others.

    When engaging in academic research, the Muslim must have in view nothing but the Book of God and the Prophetic Sunnah, and he must not allow any other power or authority to influence his emotions or thoughts. Moreover, if such a Muslim is committed to the truth, he must conduct himself in such a way that no other Muslim is caused distress by his words or angered by his judgements.

    If, in my discussion of issues raised in this book, I disagree in my conclusions with other people, this is not – and God is my witness – out of desire to differ with others, but rather, simply out of a desire to be faithful to the Qur’an and the Sunnah. Hence, I may err in my judgements and conclusions, but even if I do, my aim remains the same.

    Similarly, if in my discussion of the question at hand I have reached a conclusion that agrees with some Muslims and differs with that of many others, including the Sufis among them, this is not because of any wish on my part to differ from them or because I take enjoyment in criticizing them; rather, it is simply because I sincerely desire not to stay from the book of God or the Sunnah of His Messenger (pbuh). At the same time, I wish to affirm my appreciation for many of these esteemed individuals and my certainty for their integrity and the purity of their intentions, my excuse for differing from them being that this appreciation and esteem do not justify being unfaithful to the texts before me or interpreting them metaphorically such that their original intent is distorted.

    If the Muslims sought out the truth they are meant to follow based on this same criterion, we would not find the various Islamic sects and their groups treating each other with harshness or even enmity even if their views and interpretations happened to differ. However, prejudice and extremism have led the Muslims to the state in which they now find themselves.

    The Sufis call their opponents to account for what they see as fanaticism and excess, yet they do not call themselves to account for similar attitudes, and for those practices which have no basis in Islam! Is this, then, the truth which we should be living? Excess on one side only breeds excess on the other; hence, whoever wishes to come to the defense of God’s religion and the guidance brought by His Messenger (pbuh) must put an end to all extremism, harmful innovation, and heresy. This is the best possible remedy for the counter-extremism which one is likely to meet with among others.

  • What about when students reading the Quran rock back and forth? Why does that happen almost automatically? How does that relate to this? The same rocking back and forth is also what Jews do when they read the Torah, so I am wondering if there is an explanation on that and perhaps its relation to hadra.

    I think this is only a fragment of the discussion since there must be more than this in the ijtihad of Sufi shuyukh.

  • Sorry, the original comment with the actual argument made by Sheikh al-Buti went missing in the comment moderation process. Here it is again. Sheikh al-Buti says (in the translation by Nancy Roberts):

    As we have seen based on the hadith about Abu Bakr related by Abu Dawud and al-Tirmidhi, Abu Bakr brought all of his wealth to the Prophet (pbuh). Then, when the Prophet (pbuh) asked him, “What have you kept for your family?” he replied, “I have kept God and His Apostle.”
    However, an addition to this hadith has been fabricated according to which the Prophet (pbuh) then said to Abu Bakr, “O Abu Bakr, God is pleased with you. Are you pleased with Him?” In response, Abu Bakr was so filled with rapture, he got up and danced before the Messenger of God, saying, “How could I not be pleased with God?!”

    Having concocted this addition, its originators then turned it into evidence in support of the legitimacy of dancing and whirling in the “dhikr” ceremonies for which the Mevlevis and other Sufi sects are known.

    As I have mentioned, the evidence upon which this practice is based is a fabrication. There is no hadith, be it sound or weak, which mentions that Abu Bakr got up and danced before the Messenger of God (pbuh). Rather, all we have by way of texts on this subject is the hadith related by al-Tirmidhi, al-Hakim and Abu Dawud which, as I noted in my earlier discussion of it, contains possible weaknesses. [The author is referring to the above hadith without the clearly fabricated addition.]

    As for the conclusion which some Sufis draw based on this fabrication, it must be said that not only is there no support for it, but there is positive evidence against it.

    Specifically, it is held by the majority of Muslim jurisprudents that when dancing involves bending and swaying back and forth, it is prohibited, and that when it does not involve such movements, it is still undesirable. Hence, to introduce dance – of whatever sort it happens to be – into ceremonies devoted to the remembrance of God is to interpolate into Muslim worship a practice which is, if not utterly banned, then at the very least undesirable.

    Add to this the fact that the state into which these “worshippers” enter into leads them to utter sounds which have nothing to do with the words employed in the remembrance of God. Rather, they are nothing but inarticulate utterances by means of which they produce a steady drone that harmonizes with the rhythms of those chanting and singing and increases the mood of ecstatic exhilaration.

    How can this be the type of remembrance which God has commanded us to engage in, and which was practiced by the Apostle (pbuh) and his companions?! How can an activity such as this be worship, when worship – as you are well aware – is what God has legislated for us in the Qur’an and the Prophetic Sunnah, neither of which is to be added or detracted from?

    Rest assured that what we are saying is in accordance with the view which has been held by scholars of Islamic law across the ages, with none disagreeing except a small minority of dissenters who have established practices for which God has not granted permission. As for the latter, countless are the forbidden acts which they have deemed lawful and the mortal sins which they have committed, at times in the name of ecstatic transport inspired by the love of God, and at other times in the name of liberation from the “noose” of religious obligations.
    The following is a quotation on this subject from al-‘Izz ibn ‘Abd al-Salam, one of the most highly esteemed Muslim leaders and teachers, known and respected for his uprightness, knowledge, piety and Sufi way of life. He states:

    “As for dancing and applause, these are acts of thoughtlessness and frivolity the likes of which one generally sees only in women [sic]. No one but the lightheaded or charlatan would engage in such practices. Why, then, do we see dancing to the rhythm of song by those whose hearts and minds have grown heedless and fickle, even though he (pbuh) has said, “The most virtuous of all generations is my own, followed by those who succeed us, followed by those who succeed them ,” and even though not a single member of the righteous generations which we are to emulate engaged in such things?” (Qawa’id al-Ahkam fi Masalih al-Anam, 2/187)

    The same thoughts are expressed by Ibn Hajar in his book, Kaff al-Ra’a’ ‘an Muharramat al-Lahu wa-al-Sama’ (“Preventing the Masses from Engaging in Forbidden Acts of Frivolity and Listening”), and by Ibn ‘Abidin in his well-known, widely recognized commentary, where he distinguishes between a genuine, overwhelming experience of ecstatic transport, and a bogus show of the same.

    As for Imam al-Qurtubi, he goes into even greater detail in warning against this dangerous innovation and the reasons for the prohibition against it; those who wish to read what he says on this matter may refer to his Qur’anic commentary on the following verses: “…and who remember God when they stand and when they sit, and when they lie down to sleep…” (Aal ‘Imran 3:191) and, “And do not walk upon earth exultantly. Indeed, you will never tear the earth (apart) and you will never reach the mountains in height” (Al-Israa’ 17:37).

    Were it not for the fact that it would mean being long winded on a topic that requires brevity, I would set forth the views expressed on this matter by many other Imams as well. Be that as it may, the position I have expounded is virtually uncontested by the vast majority of Muslim scholars, both ancient and modern-day.

    It is clear, of course, that the prohibition of dancing being discussed here could not be applied to someone who, while engaged in the remembrance of God, entered a spiritual state in which he was no longer in control of all his feelings or actions. For when a person is in a state such as this, binding judgements such as the one under discussion have no applicability. This fact must be borne in mind when considering statements to the effect that al-‘Izz ibn ‘Abd al-Salam himself once went into a frenzy and got up and began jumping about. After all, given that he held the view that we quoted above, how could he have engaged in such behavior of his own volition?

    • Letter to Dr. Abdullah
      Monday 5 October 1998

      Dr. Ahmad

      Florida, U.S.A.

      Dear Dr. Ahmad,

      Besa told me that after I spoke with you the other day, you called back and while mentioning your discussion with ‘Abd al-Latif about the hadra, said “Some people have taqwa in a lot of things, but when it comes to Sufism, it all seems to collapse.” We were later talking, and she said, “Dr. Ahmad seems to have taken it as a rule that when two scholars disagree about a ruling, the one who says it shouldn’t be done always takes precedence.” She thought for a moment and added, “What it means is that there are no more schools of thought, only the one that says no.”

      May Allah reward Sheikh ‘Abd al-Latif for speaking with you; it seems however that the discussion was not long enough to permit raising a couple issues about ijtihad or “expert juridical reasoning” that I feel all of us could benefit from keeping in mind, particularly as they deal not only with practicing Islam, in its historical embodiment of the shari‘a, but also with practicing Ihsan, in its historical embodiment of the tariqa, issues which, as part of the din, concern all those morally responsible.

      THE RULING for the hadra in the Sacred Law is the subject of ijtihad. I enclose an article on it (with an addendum) I wrote in response to Waseef Asghar’s question “Do the practices of the whirling dervishes fall within orthodox Islam?” that details a number of considerations material to our discussion, among them the fatwa or formal legal pronouncement of Imam Jalal al-Din al-Suyuti, who was asked about “a group of Sufis who had gathered for a session of dhikr,” and wrote:

      How can one condemn making dhikr while standing, or standing while making dhikr, when Allah Most High says, “. . . those who invoke Allah standing, sitting, and upon their sides” (Koran 3:191). And ‘A’isha (Allah be well pleased with her) said, “The Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) used to invoke Allah at all times” [Sahih Muslim, 1.282: 373]. And if dancing is added to this standing, it may not be condemned, as it is of the joy of spiritual vision and ecstasy, and the hadith exists [in many sources, such as Musnad al-Imam Ahmad, 1.108, with a sound (hasan) chain of transmission] that Ja‘far ibn Abi Talib danced in front of the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) when the Prophet told him, “You resemble me in looks and in character,” dancing from the happiness he felt from being thus addressed, and the Prophet did not condemn him for doing so, this being a basis for the legal acceptability of the Sufis dancing from the joys of the ecstasies they experience (al-Hawi li al-fatawi, 2.234).

      Now, Suyuti was a mujtahid Imam, and a hafiz of hadith (over 100,000 hadiths by memory), meaning that one would have to get up very early in the morning to find anything of the sunna that he did not know. But his fatwa does not merely imply that the hadra is permissible. It implies that it is an act of worship, which is what I too maintain, on the basis of evidence, and that those who say it is impermissible are mistaken.

      What are the consequences of such a disagreement in Allah’s sight?

      There are two scholarly positions about it, noting in advance that the discussion concerns only derived rulings of the Sacred Law (furu‘), not fundamentals of Islamic belief (usul).

      The first position, held by a minority of authorities, is that both sides of an ijtihad disagreement are considered correct by Allah. This is the opinion of two major Imams of tenets of faith (‘aqida), Abul Hasan al-Ash‘ari and Abu Bakr al-Baqillani, as well as the two foremost Imams of the Hanafi school after Abu Hanifa, Abu Yusuf and Muhammad ibn al-Hasan al-Shaybani. Imam Ghazali also alludes to this position (Reliance of the Traveller, 1007) in the context of the disagreement between ‘Ali and Mu‘awiya resulting from their respective ijtihads.

      Scholars who hold this view adduce such evidence for it as the word of Allah Most High in surat al-Anfal “Were it not for a prescribing from Allah from before [regarding spoils of war and ransom for prisoners], a terrible punishment would have been visited upon you for what you have taken” (Koran 8:68)—which the Muslims only took because of their ijtihad that it was permissible, after which He says, “So eat of what you have taken of spoils, lawful and goodly . . .” (8:69), the evidence in which is that Allah declared the ransom of captives “lawful and goodly” after having upbraided them in the strongest terms for it. Had their initial ijtihad been “wrong,” the proponents of this view say, Allah would not have declared it “lawful and goodly.”

      The second position, that of the scholarly majority, is that the mujtahid or “scholar qualified to issue expert legal opinion” whose decision is correct on an issue (as I hold Suyuti to be above) has two rewards from Allah, one for his effort in ijtihad and another for actually being right, while the mujtahid who is mistaken has the reward for his effort in ijtihad and is excused for his mistake, though those who follow him therein are doing something that is valid, rather than invalid, because they have obeyed Allah’s command “Ask those who know if you know not” (Koran 16:43). Imam Shafi‘i once said: “My own position is correct, but could possibly be a mistake. My opponent’s is a mistake, but could possibly be correct.” According to this view, both sides (of a genuine ijtihad) are rewarded by Allah, but only one is considered correct by Allah.

      Whether the former position or the latter is correct, it is not hard to understand why it is impermissible to condemn other Muslims for questions involving differences among schools of jurisprudence, however disconcerting this may be to parochial moral sentiment. But secondly, it is not a universal rule in the Sacred Law that whenever there are two sides to a question, “taqwa” consists in leaving the action. Rather there are some kinds of questions in which this is considered more precautionary in religion (ahwat fi al-din), and others in which it is not.

      Sidi ‘Abd al-Latif, for example, and the Maliki scholars he follows believe it to be offensive (makruh) to begin the Fatiha of the obligatory prayer with the Basmala, whether aloud or to oneself. As I follow a different Imam on the question—whose reasoning is detailed in pages 9–12 of the enclosed “Why Muslims Follow Madhhabs”—I believe that Malikis are simply mistaken. It is a mistake, to be sure, that is permissible for them (or rather rewarded by Allah, who in His wisdom has made the evidence probabilistic and admitting of ijtihad), but a mistake, in my view, nonetheless.

      Does the existence of the Maliki position mean that “taqwa” consists of dropping the Basmala from my prayer? Or that “Some people (Shafi‘is) have taqwa in a lot of things, but when it comes to the Basmala, it all seems to collapse”?—Not at all. Allah has not obliged us to leave what we hold to be an act of worship for an ijtihad we believe to be a mistake.

      He has only obliged us to take our knowledge from those who are qualified to give a juridical opinion, when we are not. This means that the criterion for the acceptability of an act of worship (with its prerequisites) is that it be acceptable to the ahl al-dhikr or “those who know” mentioned in the Koranic verse; namely the mujtahids with a comprehensive grasp of all the relevant evidence and the methodological principles needed to join between it. For this reason, talfiq or a pastiche of views combined from various mujtahids in a single act of worship that not one of them would accept is impermissible. This is familiar to you from the discussion on pages 38–40 of the Reliance of the Traveller.

      The “way of greater precaution in religion” (al-ahwat fi al-din) mentioned in that section relates to making one’s worship as correct as possible, for which reason I have in the past urged you to make ablution (wudu) before prayer after touching your wife. It also enters into the sphere of the permissible, such as scholarly differences about foods like the rennet from unslaughtered cows or sheep that is used to harden cheese, which is permissible to eat for Hanafis, but not permissible for Shafi‘is unless it is from a slaughtered animal. Here, the “way of greater precaution,” in Sha‘rani’s view, entails following the stricter school. But to follow another school by eating cheese made with rennet from an unslaughtered cow or sheep remains valid and permissible, even for a Shafi‘i, as it doesn’t enter into any other act of worship.

      The “way of greater precaution” thus first concerns maximizing the probable validity of one’s acts of worship, and secondly avoiding possible “gray areas” in what one takes to be permissible. But I don’t know of any Islamic scholar who says it means leaving what one’s Imam holds to be an act of worship merely because another mujtahid disagrees, let alone when convinced one’s Imam is right.

      To return to our question about the hadra, none of the authoritative books of the Shafi‘i school consider it blameworthy, and some scholars, like Imams Suyuti and al-Bulqini, hold it is praiseworthy. There are principle scholars from other schools who concur with them. The Hanafi Imam Khayr al-Din al-Ramli wrote an extensive fatwa in support of it in his al-Fatawa al-Khayriyya, a work often cited in Ibn ‘Abidin’s Radd al-muhtar, considered by many the foremost fiqh resource in the Hanafi school. And Imam Ibn ‘Abidin himself inclines toward it, quoting a qasida (poetic ode) celebrating it (Radd al-muhtar, 3.308). Sheikh ‘Abd al-Ghani al-Nabulusi, a Hanafi scholar who is always cited in Ibn ‘Abidin’s work with the honorarium Sayyidi (my master) before his name, wrote a book in favor of the hadra, as did the Moroccan Maliki scholar Muhammad ‘Abd al-Kabir al-Kattani. I believe that one will oftener find the difference of opinion among Malikis mentioned to you by ‘Abd al-Latif not under the rubric of the hadra as such, but rather of sama‘, literally, “audition,” that is, listening to poetry being sung or Koran recited in a beautiful voice.

      In this connection, is interesting to see what one finds on sama‘ or “audition” in al-Sharh al-saghir, a book cited to me at the Islamic Research Academy at al-Azhar in Cairo as the top reference for fatwa in the Maliki school. The basic text is by Imam Ahmad al-Dardir, while the commentary printed under it is by Sheikh Ahmad al-Sawi, who, when expositing al-Dardir’s text on the prohibition of musical instruments, touches on some related issues with the words:

      Al-Suhrawardi says, “Whoever condemns sama‘ (audition) is either ignorant of sunnas [n: i.e. hadiths such as the one in which the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) himself sang as he helped dig the trench with his Companions before the Battle of the Confederates (Bukhari, 5.137: 4099. Sahih)] and accounts of the Companions [n: such as the one in which ‘Umar ibn al-Khattab heard and approved of Hassan ibn Thabit singing his poetry in the mosque in Medina, and asked Abu Hurayra (Allah be well pleased with all of them) if he remembered the time the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) had told Hassan: “Reply [to foes in poetry] in defense of me”; and Abu Hurayra said, “O Allah; Yes.” (Muslim, 4.1932: 2485. Sahih)]; or else deluded by what he himself is debarred from, of the states of the righteous; or else so dry of heart and devoid of spiritual taste that he persists in condemnation . . .”

      [A paragraph on musical instruments follows, omitted here for brevity, after which al-Sawi continues:]

      As for dancing, scholars differ about it, some adopting the view that it is offensive (makruh), others holding that it is permissible, while others hold there is a distinction between those of spiritual states and others, being permissible to those of spiritual states but offensive for anyone else. And this is the most acceptable position, and held by the majority of scholars who rule for the permissibility of listening to singing, and is the position of Sufi masters (al-Sharh al-saghir, 2.503).

      The “most acceptable position,” mentioned in this Maliki work, that it is “permissible to those of spiritual states but offensive for anyone else,” is similar to a restriction cited by Ibn ‘Abidin after the qasida mentioned above, saying that “the dispensation in such cases of dhikr and sama‘ is for the knowers of Allah, who devote their times to the best of spiritual works, who are travelling the mystic path, in firm command of themselves to refrain from low states, and who do not listen in audition except to the Divine, or long for any besides Him [a lengthy list of spiritual states follows] . . ” (Radd al-muhtar, 3.308).

      I MENTION the foregoing not only to alert ourselves of the danger in the shari‘a of condemning something without knowledge, but also to reflect upon the “spiritual states” that enter into the above legal rulings, and understand their connection to the hadra, and hence to the larger sphere of Ihsan, in its historical embodiment of tariqa.

      One may wonder what role the hadra plays in the tarbiya or “spiritual training” of Sufism. Lexically, tarbiya means bringing something by gradual turns to its full perfection, and in this connection, one may note that Sufism is not a collection of facts, but rather acquiring states of the heart, such as serenity in the dhikr of Allah, love of Him, nonattachment to anything besides, acceptance of destiny, love of His messenger (Allah bless him and give him peace), and other states that the Islamic revelation has indicated are perfections.

      Now, a Sufi’s knowledge of whether something is lawful or unlawful returns to the faqih or scholar of jurisprudence. But it is equally true that a faqih’s knowledge of the spiritual path returns to a sheikh of Sufism. As the Maliki jurisprudent and Sufi Ahmad Zarruq says in his Rules of Sufism:

      Rule 61: The knowledge of anything may only be taken from those who possess it.

      So a Sufi is not to be relied upon in jurisprudence unless his mastery of it is known. Nor a scholar of jurisprudence to be relied upon in Sufism unless his realization of it is known. Nor a hadith scholar to be relied upon in either unless he is competent in them. Thus the seeker in the path of Sufism must take knowledge of Sacred Law from scholars of jurisprudence; he but returns to those realized in tariqa in what concerns bettering his inner self regarding it [jurisprudence] and other than it [hadith] (Qawa‘id al-Tasawwuf, 36).

      In other words, there are different specializations within the sciences of Islam, and those who have not mastered them are not authorities on them. In the case of tariqa, which spiritual medicines should be used returns to the sheikh who is giving the tarbiya to bring the state of the disciple to its desired completion. These medicines may include anything that is permissible or recommended, after being sure to do the obligatory and avoid the unlawful.

      If something is differed about among jurists, then if it is not considered praiseworthy in one’s own school of jurisprudence (as the mubah or “merely permissible” is not, for example), it is normally left aside; unless, as I mentioned to you in our phone conversation, the sheikh considers it to enter directly into a disciple’s spiritual regimen. We have seen above the reasons why doing something differed upon by scholars is not necessarily blameworthy: first, because those who hold it is praiseworthy may be right, especially when their evidence is stronger; secondly, according to the scholarly majority, the mujtahid in error also has a reward from Allah, as do those who follow him; and thirdly, according to a minority (though of first-rank scholars), all sides of a scholarly difference are correct in Allah’s sight.

      There is a fourth reason I have not yet mentioned because it is connected with Sufism rather than jurisprudence, namely, that a disciple only takes a sheikh because he believes that by following him he will gain more than he has now. To tread the path of Sufism is to follow the guidance of a sheikh. To be sure, it is a voluntary association which one can walk away from at any time. And it does not mean obedience in matters that are unequivocally unlawful or offensive. But in matters of the path, one must listen to one’s sheikh. A patient who can cure himself has no need of a doctor.

      HAVING had a sheikh has helped Besa and me understand some of the reasons why our masters have prescribed the hadra for the tarbiya or “spiritual training” of the path. To mention a few, in no particular order:

      1. As shown by the rigorously authenticated hadiths mentioned in Sahih al-Bukhari and elsewhere about the spiritual merit of gatherings of dhikr, the hadra is an act of worship.

      How many a time in the 1980s I would wonder whether to go downtown on Saturday nights to the hadra, in view of trying to finish the Reliance as soon as possible. I once asked our sheikh in Damascus, “Don’t you think that working on knowledge at home might be better than going down to the hadra?” After all, I reasoned, working on the book might fulfill a communal obligation (fard kifaya), and what was the hadra to compare with that? He said: “No Sidi. You should stand with the Sufis when they stand.”

      So off I would go, remembering the hadith qudsi related by Bukhari in which Allah says of those at a gathering of dhikr:

      “I charge all of you to bear witness that I forgive them.” Then one of the angels says, “So-and-so is among them although he is not one of them but only came for something he needed.” And Allah says, “They are companions through whom no one who keeps their company shall meet perdition’” (Bukhari, 8.107–8: 6408. Sahih).

      Each week I would think of Allah’s saying “I charge all of you to bear witness that I forgive them,” and reflect that the Reliance of the Traveller might not be completely sincere of intention; while in the dhikr, even with insincerity, one could hope that all one’s sins would be forgiven.

      The validity of my conviction about the hadra was borne out to me by the spiritual state of my fiqh sheikh, ‘Abd al-Wakil al-Durubi of Damascus, who regularly attended it for decades. I haven’t written much about him since his death (Allah have mercy on him), but perhaps a story about him would shed some light on the kind of states we are discussing.

      Sitting with him in his little office and bookshop off the courtyard of the mosque where he was imam, I once asked, “How can you take a wage from this government?”—meaning with its illicit taxes, plunderings of the people and their money, and so on.

      He said, “It is permissible in the Shafi‘i school to have financial dealings with someone whose income is admixed between the lawful and unlawful. One may presume that the part one is taking is from the lawful portion of their income.”

      “What portion of their income is lawful?” I wondered.

      “Don’t they provide a service,” he asked, “by selling people stamps at the post office?”

      It was not till after his death that I found out from his close friend Sheikh ‘Abd al-Rahman (who learned of it from others) that Sheikh ‘Abd al-Wakil never spent any of the money he got from the government in his capacity as imam of the mosque, but gave it all away in charity each month and lived instead from sales of books. His state was such that he preferred not to mention this to me when answering my question. He didn’t mind people seeing the worst of his works, and disliked their seeing the best of them, because Allah’s knowledge of his state was sufficient for him. Ostentation was a danger, and he was afraid of it. Tears would come to his eyes when we read something that reminded him of his shortcomings.

      I have never seen a faqih better than him, or more learned in Sacred Law. Never did I ask him a fiqh question except that he would reply immediately, and never did I ask him for a written source for it, except that he would pull down one of his books in the Shafi‘i school and show me what he had said. He was a Shafi‘i, convinced of the school’s superiority in matters of evidence, and that it was obligatory for the non-mujtahid to follow a school. It was the law of his life, his connection with the Divine, and since it contained nothing against the hadra, but rather praised it as dhikr, he never missed it after the Friday prayer if he could help it. In a word, I regarded him as a higher man, and he regarded the spiritual path as the way to become one.

      Despite my feelings toward him, I think his example is not that rare. Many have perfected themselves as he did. The hadra has taken place at Nur al-Din al-Shahid mosque every Friday for more than seventy years, and there are people who have been going for twenty, thirty, sixty years. People whose “religious phase” did not stop at youth, or middle age, but increased with every year and is still increasing. I look at the production.

      2. The mystical poetry sung in the hadra is of extraordinary power and beauty, moving hearers from remembrance of Allah to gratitude, from gratitude to love, and from love to raptness in the Divine Presence. These too are among the spiritual states alluded to above by Suyuti, al-Sawi and Ibn ‘Abidin in their discussions of sama‘. Even for those still learning Arabic who do not understand the poetry, the rhythm of everyone invoking together as one person lifts the heart above its preoccupations with having a car to fix, groceries to buy, a garage to clean, a boss to deal with, and the many other veils that bind our souls to the earth when we try to make dhikr.

      For the past few weeks here at the house, we have been having the hadra after sunset prayer (maghrib), then going to nightfall (‘isha), then coming back to the house for the lesson. There is no one with a heart in his breast who could be oblivious to the difference between the two prayers. Maghrib is maghrib; ‘isha is a religious experience.

      3. Another benefit, not experienced by everyone though undeniable, is that in many places the awliya’ or friends of Allah attend the hadra, outwardly indistinguishable from ordinary people. A single look, or a prayer from such a person can alter one’s whole life, and one is never the same again.

      4. The end of the path to Allah is knowledge (ma‘rifa) of Him, though as He is, not as we are. Now, He is eternal, while we are in time, His Eternity not a mere succession of moments, but a transcendence of time, in which all moments are present at a single “given.” His beginninglessness is in this sense identical with His endlessness.

      Allah says in surat Fussilat, “We will show them Our signs in the horizons and in themselves, until it is plain to them that it is the Truth” (Koran 41:53). The cadence of breathing and dhikr in unison by those in the hadra, in its timeless synchrony, is a sign pointing the human soul beyond linear time to Eternity, a vast sea of infinity. As it is the nature of the infinite to disclose the paltriness of the limitary, it is a powerful stimulus to leave the ignoble and trivial of one’s own character and actions, and to ascend.

      But also, the subjective state that results from the dhikr makes it easy for hearts to absorb the admonitions and indications of the masters, not only in the readings from their works that follow the hadra, but in the qasidas or mystical odes that accompany it. The latter often represent years of spiritual effort crystallized into a matter of lines, an experiential legacy that enriches the hearts of the inheritors with the capacity for it.

      THESE then are a few of the reasons why our sheikhs prescribe the hadra. Those who go to it over the years and decades experience them, and the effect vouches for the correctness of the prescription in the contemporary world.

      Otherwise, why do we keep hearing stories about Westerners who become Muslims and then leave the religion because all they understand from this century’s Reform Islam (née Wahhabism) is a dry formalism of outward rulings from the Koran and hadith? I give any convert a few years of seeing how dry their heart can become from a steady diet of this, before they feel the weight of the evidence upon their understanding.

      It is true that we don’t need anything besides the Koran and sunna, yet trivially true, because everyone knows this and nobody denies it. The point is that the era of the first Muslims was a foundational stage, establishing the broad outlines of the Sacred Law to set the criteria for what was to be accepted and what was to be rejected of new matters until the end of time.

      The Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) himself said, “Whoever Allah wishes well, He gives knowledge of religion: I am but an apportioner, and it is Allah who gives. This Community will remain steadfast upon the command of Allah, unharmed by any who oppose it, until Allah brings His [final] command” (Bukhari, 1.27–28: 71. Sahih).

      Now, the Prophet’s saying (Allah bless him and give him peace), “I am but an apportioner, and it is Allah who gives” in the context of “knowledge of religion” shows that Allah may well give a particular scholar understanding or knowledge that, while conforming to the broad outlines of the prophetic apportionment, no other scholar has ever been previously given. Examples are innumerable, and familiar to anyone who has read hadith commentaries, Koranic exegeses, works of jurisprudence, mystical treatises, and the other works that make up the scholarly heritage of Islam, with the result—attested to by fourteen centuries of history confirming the prophetic words—that “this Community will remain steadfast upon the command of Allah, unharmed by any who oppose it, until Allah brings His [final] command.”

      My point is that there must also be ijtihad on the part of scholars of the heart when, like their counterparts in the outward sciences, they find circumstances that did not exist in the time of the early Muslims which require Islamic solutions. Ihsan is about states of the heart, and ours are not like theirs.

      How much junk mail did the early Muslims have to wade through each day? How many distressing news bites of no conceivable benefit thrust upon their consciousness, how many meals interrupted by the telephone, how many hours spent staring at a cathode-ray tube, how many billboards posing personal questions, how much tedious paperwork, how many “flies of the marketplace” competing for their money, how many crises not even understandable to people living a hundred years ago, how many conversations with uncovered women at work? The list could go on. When a sheikh looks at how to produce hearts that are attached to Allah, he must see what they are like in the first place. The failure of the neo-Wahhabi, Reform Islam at this level is because of its blindness to the spiritual states of people who need the prophetic medicines.

      But aren’t the Koran and sunna better? The superiority of the Koran and sunna is not what is at stake here. Rather, the point of all substantive prescriptions of the Koran and sunna lies in human attitudes toward the Divine, without which they be but empty forms. There is no question, for example, that the best of speech is the Word of Allah, the Holy Koran. But if a non-Muslim, for example, were to recite the Koran from beginning to end, would it be as beneficial to him as reciting the Shahada but once, with conviction? Not at all; because what he has is kufr, or unbelief. He is standing in front of a particular door, to which he needs the key of iman or faith in Allah and His messenger (Allah bless him and give him peace). Nothing else will do, no matter how superior in itself. Similarly, reciting the Koran is unquestionably better than supplications from hadith, yet when circumambulating the Kaaba, the latter are better, because one is before a particular door. There is no doubt that the supplications from sunna are nobler than any we can come up with, yet how many a plea for forgiveness in our own heartfelt words has brought us closer to Allah than intoning volumes of hadith? For that matter, dhikr is better than honking one’s horn, but the latter is religiously superior when needed to save the life of an unwary pedestrian. What is the best medicine in the pharmacy? It depends on what one has.

      On the religious plane we have been discussing, what would one expect if one went to a doctor and asked him without further qualification for the “best thing” he had? Just about what you find in Saudi Arabia if you go and take a look: a minimalist Reform Islam of going to prayer at the mosque, other agreed-upon obligatory acts, and nothing more. In the face of a very real Western cultural onslaught, it is not working, and has produced a generation of kids (of all ages) who wear headcloths and speak Arabic, but dream of nothing besides what comes out of the Western television and internet they use to fill the spiritual gulf in their lives. Their society is increasingly sick at heart with vice, depravity, drug addiction, and other symptoms of inward diseases that should have been attenuated by the medicines of the ulama of the heart who are officially banned there.

      Please forgive the length of this letter, but I felt the considerations raised in your phone calls needed to be addressed in some detail. There is a final point that probably merits treatment in view of your questions; namely, the words of Allah in surat al-Hujurat “O you who believe, shun much of surmise: verily some surmise is sin” (Koran 49:12), the key term of which, surmise (dhann) is explained by Imam Suyuti in his Koranic exegesis as “meaning that by which one commits a sin, as is common, such as by not giving the benefit of the doubt to good people of the believers, who are many—as opposed to not giving it to the corrupt of them, in which case there is no sin, when confined to the like of what is openly manifest from them” (Tafsir al-Jalalayn, 687). May Allah bestow on all of us to give each other the benefit of the doubt and live in obedience to Him and end our lives well.

      With your permission, I am sending a copy of this letter to Sidi ‘Abd al-Latif. And praise be to Allah, Lord of the worlds.

      I remain at your service,


  • Salaam Muhammad, that’s a useful piece of writing, but it would have been better for you to clarify at the beginning that it is by Sh. Nuh Keller and you merely pasted it (unless you are in fact he!).

    I think there is a distinction sometimes not made, which may be appropriate here. I have described this as “distinguishing between causes and justifications”. In this context, that means being clear on the question: “WHY engage in these actions as part of hadrah?”

    Analogies being drawn from certain reports in order to show that it is a matter of ijtihad and not to be condemned are all very well (as after-the-fact *justification*), but it seems the source of these actions is much more to do with the tariqah traditions, as Sh. Nuh explains above (the *cause*). So the discussion here could either be a purely juristic one, or of another nature. But I would worry if it were demanded from the jurists that they must be “in the club” in order to analyse a matter of fiqh.

    Finally, the imperative to be tolerant in matters of ijtihad does not entail scholars holding back from stating that something is forbidden if that is what their research leads them to.

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