Shaykh Sa`id Ramadan al-Bouti is a well-respected modern-day scholar and author who is most popularly known for his esteemed work Fiqh us-Seerah.
In my time in Damascus, I saw hundreds of people from every walk of life – mothers and shopkeepers, students and cab drivers, young and old – flock to his weekly classes at different masajid in the city to benefit from his knowledge. Known for his eloquence and deftness in language, one would often see foreign students sitting in his classes with dictionaries in hand, understanding only parts of his talks but fully absorbing how Arabic is spoken by someone with true mastery of it. Shaykh Bouti is also known for his sharp intellect and – at times – acerbic critique and comments. During one of his Friday sermons, when he noticed an attendee taking a picture of him on his cell phone, he interrupted his line of thought to rebuke him by saying, “O you who is worshipping your device! How is it that you use this time for other than remembering Allah?” A full biography of Shaykh Bouti is quoted below.
I wanted to share with you this short clip from a television interview with Shaykh Bouti for a few reasons. In the remarks he makes regarding modern-day tariqas (often translated as Sufi orders), we come to realize that people do not always easily fit into one designated ‘camp’ or another – pro-Sufi or anti-Sufi, Salafi or anti-Salafi, etc – and that we should not be quick to put people in such pre-constructed labels or boxes. We also learn that taking a critical stance on an issue does not necessarily mean that one finds it devoid of benefit. Most significantly, we see from this clip the intense importance of sincerity and being honest with ourselves in our relationship with Allah, especially for those who teach and call others to Islam.
May Allah bless our teachers and grant us the beautiful quality of sincerity in our efforts.
(Click on the “CC” button at the bottom right of the screen for the English captions.)
Biography of Shaykh Bouti1
Muhammad Sa`id ibn al-Mulla Muhammad Ramadan al-Bouti, born of Kurdish descent in 1350/1931 in Damascus. The son of one of the foremost Shafi’i scholars of his time, Mulla Ramadan, he studied Arabic grammar, logic, and philosophy with his father, as well as Shafi’i jurisprudence and fundamentals of Islamic law and faith, and after graduating from the al-Tawjih al-Islami Institute of Damascus, traveled to Cairo and took a degree from al-Azhar before returning to Syria, when he taught first in Homs and then in Damascus at the College of Sacred Law. He took a doctorate in principles of Islamic legal methodology from the University of Damascus in A.H. 1385, and was appointed as a professor there in the Faculty of Sacred Law and Arts. He has written many works, among them Fiqh al-sira [Sacred law inferred from the prophetic biography], and al-Lamadhhhabiyya akhtar bid’ah tuhaddidu al-shari’a al-Islamiyya [Not following a school of jurisprudence is the most dangerous innovation threatening Islamic Sacred law], while his most recent work, al-Salafiyya marhala zamaniyya mubaraka la madhhab Islami [The ‘way of the early Muslims’ was a blessed historical epoch, not an Islamic school of thought], has gained wide readership. He lives in Damascus, where he writes, teaches at the university, and gives well-attended public lectures at several mosques.
Edited Transcript of Interview
Interviewer: …Are they an accurate, pure, and untainted representation of Sufis and tassawuf?
Shaykh Bouti: As far as previous generations are concerned, it’s not possible for me to pass judgment on them because I did not live in those times. However, I have read biographies of people such as Shaykh Abdul Qadir al-Jilani, Shaykh Raslan al-Dimashqi, and Shaykh Ahmad al-Rifa`i. I swear by Allah, these people embodied prophethood, except that they did not receive divine revelation.
Interviewer: They embodied prophethood?
Sh. Bouti: Prophethood, minus divine revelation. In other words, if they had revelation, they would have been prophets. What I mean by that is that they represented, in their character, in their self-discipline, in their inner development, the life of God’s Messenger (peace be upon him). However, since divine revelation was not present in their case, [obviously] they were not prophets or messengers.
And for such people – the foundation of their journey to Allah was the two wings of the Divine Book and the Sunnah [Prophetic tradition], and nothing more. Abdul Qadir al-Jilani – may Allah sanctify his soul – when death drew close to him, his son, whose name was also Musa like your name, was sitting next to him. He gave him his parting advice. Among what he said to him was, “My son, fly to the Truth with the two wings of the Book and the Sunnah.” And he warned him from bid`ah [innovation].
So I don’t want to speak about such people [who came before us]. If I want to look for strict adherence to the proper methodology, it is in their lives that I will find such an adherence. If I want to look for opposition to bid`ah, it is in their lives that I will find opposition to bid’ah.
However, if you’re asking me about the tariqas of this age, I request that you show me a single tariqa from among them whose murshid [spiritual leader and advisor] possesses knowledge of Islamic law that is proficient and sufficient, who is aloof from this world and everything that it contains and is attached to it, and who possesses uprightness in his character. [If such a person were found] I will go tomorrow to become his murid [student]. But I have looked everywhere, and have not found such a murshid.
Interviewer: What is the reason for this, respected shaykh?
Sh. Bouti: Well, I don’t know. The nafs [lower self] is as it always has been – and I don’t absolve my own nafs from this – “Verily the nafs is ever commanding of evil.” The whole business of being a murshid is a dangerous business. It’s a slippery road. The murshid, when he tastes the pleasure of leading others, the pleasure of having a following… it’s something that is almost intoxicating. When he sees people kissing his hand day and night, and some almost willing to kiss his knees and his feet [out of awe and respect]…. when he sees things like this, he begins to believe and imagine that he has become someone great. And the nafs is a constant presence. If such a person has not spent long periods of time in self-reproach, reminding himself that he is nothing, and that he has done so many bad deeds etc, he will not be able to withstand these pressures.
Furthermore, when [this murshid] finds his murids bringing gifts for him, giving him money… Even if I didn’t have an appetite for wealth when it was first given to me, I begin to develop one. I begin to desire wealth. I begin to desire position. I begin to desire humility and deference from people because I am such an important and great human being. All of this is fitnah [trial and tribulation] for me… a fitnah… a fitnah.
And the person who does not fulfill the essential requirements for being a murshid, yet somehow becomes a murshid – this responsibility is dangerous for him, and dangerous for his murids.
Just to make what I’m saying clearer for you, my brother, let me present to you the opposite picture. Let us turn to the age of Shaykh Ahmad al-Rifa`i, may Allah sanctify his soul. Now that is an amazing man. He always used to say in his gatherings, in front of his murids, something that he would repeat again and again – that he was not a shaykh, and not a murshid, and warned against people looking at him in that light. He said in one of his gatherings – and this can be found in his book al-Burhan al-Muayyid – “May I be resurrected with Fir’aun and Hamman if I consider myself better than any one from among you.”
“I am not a shaykh. I am not a shaykh. My name is Little Ahmad, The Nothing. Or better yet, Nothing, The Nothing [a play on his name which literally means ‘the praised one, the high’]” – this is what (Sh. Ahmad ar-Rifa’i) used to say.
And he used to say, “The murshids whom Allah favors with karamaat [special abilities or occurrences] conceal them, just as a woman [naturally] conceals her menstruation from others.”
Compare between this and what we see from murshids of our times. Some of them extend their hands for people to kiss, to teach them [the practice of] kissing hands, and if one of them doesn’t kiss their hands they consider him negligent in his duties.
Interviewer: But is there something wrong with kissing the hand out of respect? There are many people who would even wish to kiss your hand, but you absolutely refuse?
Sh. Bouti: Yes… yes. Why do I refuse my dear brother?
Sh. Bouti [close to tears]: I swear by Allah, the One besides whom there is no other god, I feel embarrassed before Allah when someone from among the people kisses my hand. Because I know myself, and my Lord is One who conceals and veils the mistakes of His servants. He conceals so much… He conceals. I know my shortcomings. I know how much I’ve fallen short in my relationship with my Lord. Yet, He makes it so that the people only see the positive side of me, and He hides the rest from the eyes of people and keeps it something hidden between us.
So if some innocent person comes to me, who only sees my outer state and doesn’t know my inner state… it’s true that he doesn’t know, but doesn’t Allah know? How can I say to him, “Go ahead, kiss my hand, it’s ok, so that you may learn proper etiquette,” while Allah azza wajal [Mighty and Majestic] is watching me and saying, ‘Haven’t you done this? Haven’t you done that? Aren’t you the one who sees such and such [bad qualities] in your self?” This is what prevents me from allowing people to kiss my hand.
- Keller, Nuh Ha Mim. Reliance of the Traveler, (Beltsville, MD: Amana Publications, 1991), p.1079 ↩