There are numerous ayat (verses or signs) of the Holy Quran that indicate the importance of spiritual purification. God talks of the nafs (self) and says: “Whoever purifies it has succeeded; and failure is the lot of whoever corrupts it,” (Qur’an 91:9-10). Furthermore, Prophet Ibrahim (peace be upon him) is quoted in the Qur’an: “The Day [of Judgement] whereon neither wealth nor sons will avail, except him who comes to Allah with a sound heart,” (bi-qalbin salim) (Qur’an 26:88-9). Moreover, God mentions the role of the Messenger Muhammad ﷺ (peace be upon him): “A similar (favour have you already received) in that We have sent among you a Messenger of your own, rehearsing to you Our signs, and purifying you, and instructing you in the Book and the Wisdom (al-hikma), and in new knowledge that beforehand you did not know,” (Qur’an 2:151). The following hadith (record) in Sahih Muslim is also of critical importance in this regard: “Allah shall not look at your bodies or your faces, but rather looks into your hearts.”
Defining Islamic Spirituality
When turning to Islamic spirituality, we can use two Arabic words that denote the focus of the activity: firstly, al-qalb, or the heart; and, secondly, al-nafs or the self or ego. ‘Abdal-Qadir ‘Isa says in Haqa’iq ‘an al-tasawwuf: “Purification of the heart (tanqiya al-qalb) and rectification of the self (tahdhib al-nafs) are from the most important of personally obligatory acts and of the imperative Divine commands, as proven by the Book, the Sunna (tradition), and statements of the scholars.” Suyuti says in al-Ashbah wa’l-naza’ir: “As for learning the science of the heart (‘ilm al-qalb) and its diseases, such as envy (hasad), conceitedness (‘ujb), ostentation (riya’) and the like, Ghazzali said its learning is personally obligatory (fard ‘ayn).”
A popular term for describing the science of Islamic spirituality is tasawwuf, whose accepted English translation is Sufism. Sufism, as even acknowledged by certain Sufis, has had its own historical battles against heterodox and outright deviant attempts to subvert it from Islamic orthodoxy. In this respect, ‘Abdal-Qadir ‘Isa notes that Sufism is no different to the sciences of hadith, Qur’anic exegesis (tafsir) and history, which all had “severe opponents and fierce enemies who attempted to demolish” Islam “by defacing its signposts and interpolating falsehoods and superstitions into its sciences.” Thus, in order to dispel any misconception, ‘Abdal-Qadir ‘Isa makes reference to “Islamic Sufism” (al-tasawwuf al-islami).
Furthermore, ‘Abdal-Fattah Abu Ghudda, in his notes to Muhasibi’s Risala al-mustarshidin, after quoting a lengthy passage from Shatibi defending the Sufis in general, distinguishes and endorses “true Sufism” (al-tasawwuf al-haqq) and “true Sufis” (al-Sufiyya al-haqiqiyyin”); hence the mistake, in his opinion, of those who disparage tasawwuf or Sufis “without restriction” (bi’l-itlaq).Yet, after Hasanayn Makhluf praises a host of famous Sufis in his panegyric (taqriz) of ‘Abdal-Fattah Abu Ghudda’s commentary of Risala al-mustarshidin, Abu Ghudda adds a note of caution: that these major, pious figures were not infalliable (ahl al-isma), therefore any of their errors will be pointed out as such, with all due respect (bi-adab), like any other non-Prophet, “and without tearing them up” (wa la tahdimuhum).
Yet many others have simply referred to tasawwuf as the discipline of Islamic spirituality without qualification, on the obvious proviso that the term is meant in the most orthodox terms, in the same way that one encourages one to study theology (‘aqidah), Sacred Law (fiqh) or the other sacred sciences (‘ulum al-din) without adding any qualifying adjective, because one understands the encouragement as calling towards orthodoxy in each instance without having to say so. Conversely, some people only use the term Sufism in a derogatory fashion, as can be seen in the usage of Rabi’ al-Madkhali in his booklet entitled The Reality of Sufism, or even Jamaal al-Din Zarabozo’s use of the term in his Purification of the Soul: Concept, Process and Means. In the latter work, Zarabozo admits that “not all Sufis are the same”, but “by definition and their own admission there must be something in Sufism that is distinct and separate from what all other scholars recognise to be the clear and manifest teachings of the Quran and Sunnah.”
With all that clarification, the following summations of what is Sufism are of great assistance. Ahmad Zarruq, in Qawa’id al-tasawwuf, mentions that tasawwuf has received two thousand definitions; but his thirteenth principle in the work summarises the science as “a knowledge seeking the betterment of the hearts (islah al-qulub) and turning them solely to Allah Most High and nothing else.” Ibn Khaldun, in al-Muqaddimah, placed tasawwuf amongst the “Sacred sciences” (al-‘ulum al-shar’iyya), and was considered “truth” (al-haqq) and “guidance” (al-hidaya) from the earliest times of the Community. Zafar ‘Uthmani, in I’la al-Sunan, stated that tasawwuf is “drawing nearer to Allah through knowledge and action”; hence it “gives life to both the outward and inward”: the “outward” is adorned by “good deeds” that are visible; and the “inner” is adorned “through the remembrance of Allah, leaving reliance on other than Him, adorning oneself with praiseworthy traits (akhlaq), and purifying oneself of the taint of base traits” (trans. F Rabbani).
Perhaps there is some merit in making a distinction between tasawwuf and general tazkiya (purification), because there is a distinctive Sufi method of thinking and training that is reflected in the development of the Sufi Orders (turuq, sing. tariqa) in later Islamic history, which contrasts with the sort of general tazkiya that retains a strict scriptural basis without any submission to the Shaykhs of the Sufi Orders. Alternatively, we can contrast tariqa-based tasawwuf and non-tariqa tasawwuf which is perhaps best given another name like tazkiya al-nafs. There is great overlap between the latter two, which is why it is understandable that non-tariqa scholars would speak of their own tasawwuf, because they have given the science such a general meaning when they are really just talking about the general spirituality of tazkiya (such as Abu Ghudda). Moreover, as one sees above in the very general definitions of Sufism offered by tariqa-Sufis like Zarruq and ‘Uthmani, one can understand why certain scholars still considered themselves Sufis despite not being part of an Order or delving into mysticism.
A reason for dividing general tasawwuf from tariqa-tasawwuf can be seen by simply studying a well-known Sufi manual like the Risala of Qushayri. While Qushayri uses both the Qur’an and hadith as a basis for his chapter headings on spiritual topics, the chapters contain highly mystical theories of late Sufism, such as fana’ (annihiliation), baqa’ (subsistence) and jam’ (union), etc. These theories are taken up as central points by late Sufis of the Orders, although a Sufi like Ahmad Sirhindi, despite endorsing the path that traverses such states, said that the Companions of the Prophet (may Allah bless him and give him peace) did not experience such states. Yet these mystical features are not a feature of general Sufi or tazkiya works like Muhasibi’s Risala and Abu Ghudda’s commentary; indeed, Abu Ghudda praises Muhasibi’s works for eschewing “philosophical Sufism” (al-tasawwuf al-falsafi) and merely being the “call to rectification of knowledge and action, vigilant observance of Allah Most High, purification of the soul from filth, and making it advance to the pleasure of Allah (praised and exalted be He).”
In practical terms, we can therefore distinguish between “Sufis” who speak in the language and the method of the Orders, and “Sufis” who advance a non-tariqa method of spiritual advancement (such as the early Sufis and then most prominently scholars like Nawawi, Ibn Taymiyya and Ibn Qayyim, and latterly Abdal-Fattah Abu Ghudda and Yusuf Qaradawi). Perhaps the latter group are best spoken of as non-Sufis, but it doesn’t really matter, as long as one understands the difference in methodology, even if the title remains the same or differs.
In terms of the various titles for Islamic spirituality – which is Islamic in so much as it always strives to remain true to the Scripture – in addition to what we have previously stated, Taqi ‘Uthmani adds tariqa (the path), suluk (travel) and ihsan (excellence) in his Spiritual Discourses.
In conclusion, one takes any practitioner of Islamic spirituality, regardless of the title that they use, and judges them wholly by the Scripture, and the good is taken, whilst the objectionable is discarded; and perfection is only the case of the Prophets (may the peace and blessings of God be upon them, and may He make us of the purified in this world and the next).