The Origin of Tasawwuf
As the history of Islamic religious sciences tells us, the religious commandments were not recorded in the earliest times of Islam. The practice and oral circulation of the commandments pertaining to belief, worship, and daily life enabled people to memorize them. This is why it was not difficult to compile them in books. What had been memorized and practiced was recorded and arranged on paper. In addition, since the religious commandments mentioned above comprise the vital issues in a Muslim’s individual and collective life, scholars gave priority to them and compiled books on them. Jurisprudents collected and codified in the form of books the Islamic Law and its rules and principles pertaining to all fields of life. Traditionists established the Prophetic Traditions and way of life and preserved them in books; theologians dealt with the issues concerning Muslim belief, and the interpreters of the Qur’an dedicated themselves to studying the meaning of the Qur’an, including the issues which would later be called the Qur’anic sciences such as Naskh (Abrogation of a law), Inzal (God’s sending down the whole of the Qur’an at one time), Tanzil (God’s sending down the Qur’an in parts on different occasions), Qiraat (recitation of the Qur’an), and Ta’wil (Exegesis), etc. Thanks to these universally appreciated efforts, the truths of Islam and all its principles were established in a way not to leave any doubt concerning their authenticity.
While all this work was being done in the fields of religious sciences, essentially based on jurisprudence, Tradition (Hadith), theology and Qur’anic interpretation, the Sufi masters who concentrated mostly on the pure spiritual dimension of the Muhammadan Truth tried to draw attention to the essence of man’s being, the real nature of existence and the inner dynamics of man and the cosmos, directing attention to the reality of things lying beneath and beyond their outer dimension. Adding to the commentaries on the Qur’an, the narrations of the Traditionists and the deductions of the jurisprudents, their asceticism, spirituality and self-purification, in short, their practice and experience of religion, the Sufi masters developed their ways. Thus, the Islamic spiritual life based on the actions of the spirit such as asceticism, regular worship, abstention from all major and minor sins, sincerity and purity of intention, love and yearning and man’s admission of his essential impotence and destitution, became the subject-matter of a new science called tasawwuf having its own method, principles, rules and terms. Even if there emerged over time some differences among the orders that were later established, it can be said that the basic subject-matter of this science has always been the essence of the Muhammadan Truth.
Unfortunately, it has sometimes occurred that, although they are the two aspects of the same truth, the commandments of Shari‘a and tasawwuf — which is in reality the spirit of Shari‘a, comprising austerity, self-control and criticism and continuous struggle to resist the temptations of satan and the carnal, evil-commanding self, and fulfill religious obligations, and so on — have been presented as contradictory to each other. While adherence to the former has been regarded as exotericism (self-restriction to the outward dimension of religion), following the latter has been seen as pure esotericism. Although this discrimination partly arises from the assertions that the commandments of Shari‘a are represented by jurisprudents or muftis, and the other by the sufis, it should be viewed as (the result of) a natural, human tendency, which is that everyone gives priority to the way more compatible with his temperament and for which he has aptitude.
As jurisprudents, Traditionists and interpreters of the Qur’an produced significant books based on the Qur’an and the Sunna and following the methods dating back to the time of the Prophet and the Companions, so also the sufis compiled books on austerity, spiritual struggle against carnal desires and temptations, states of the spirit and stations depending also on the same sources, with the addition of their own spiritual experiences, love, ardor and rapture. By doing so, they tried to attract the attention of those whom they regarded as restricted to practicing the outward dimension of religion and reflecting only on it, to their way and the spiritual aspect of religious life.
Both the sufis and the scholars, criticized for being restricted to the outward aspect of religion, aimed to reach God by observing the Divine obligations and prohibitions. Nevertheless, some extremist attitudes occasionally observed on both sides caused some disagreements between them. Actually, there was no substantial disagreement, nor should it have been viewed as a disagreement, that the different aspects and elements of religion were dealt with and presented under different titles. It is by no means a disagreement that while jurisprudence concerns itself with the rules of worship and daily life, with how to regulate and discipline man’s individual and social life, tasawwuf aims to enable man to live his life at a high level of spirituality through self-purification and spiritual training. In fact, tasawwuf and jurisprudence are like the two schools of a university which has undertaken to teach man the two faces or dimensions of Shari‘a and educate him to be able to practice it in his life. These two schools cannot be one without the other. One teaches how to perform the prescribed prayers, how to realize the canonical purity required for worship, how to fast, how to give the obligatory alms, and how to regulate his daily life from shopping to marriage, etc. The other concentrates on the meaning of these and other acts of, how to make worshipping an inseparable dimension of man’s existence and how to elevate man to the rank of a universal, perfect being, which is the true humanity. That is why neither of these disciplines can be neglected.
Although some impertinent ones among those claiming to be sufis have gone so far as to label religious scholars as ‘scholars of ceremonies’ and ‘exoterists’, the real, perfected sufis have always depended on the basic principles of Shari’a and based their thoughts on the Book—Qur’an—and the Sunna, deriving their methods from these basic sources of Islam. The Wasaya (‘Advices’) and Ri’aya (‘Observation of Rules’) by al- Muhasibi, al-Ta’arruf li-Madhhabi Ahl al-Tasawwuf (‘A Description of the Way of the People of Tasawwuf’) by Kalabazi, al-Luma‘ (‘The Gleams’) by al-Tusi, Qut al-Qulub (‘The Food of Hearts’) by Abu Talib al-Makki and al-Risala (‘The Treatise’) by al-Qushayri are among the precious sources where tasawwuf is dealt with according to the Book and Sunna. Among these sources some concentrate on self-control, the purification of the self, while others elaborate various topics concerned with tasawwuf.
After these great compilers mentioned came Hujjat al-Islam Imam al-Ghazali , the author of Ihya’ al-Ulum al-Din (‘Reviving the Religious Sciences’), his most celebrated work. He reviewed all the terms, principles and rules of the way of tasawwuf and, establishing those agreed on by all the Sufi masters and criticizing others, united once more these two disciplines, namely the outer and inner dimensions of Islam or jurisprudence and tasawwuf. The Sufi masters coming after him presented tasawwuf as one of the religious sciences or a dimension thereof, promoting the unity or agreement between themselves and those once called the scholars of ceremonies. In addition, they were able to make some subjects of sufism like the states of the spirit, certainty or conviction, sincerity and morality, which are dealt with by tasawwuf more profoundly, a part of the curriculum of madrasas—the institutions where religious sciences are taught.
Although tasawwuf mostly concentrates on the inner world of man and deals with the religious commandments with respect to their meaning and effects on man’s spirit and heart and is therefore abstract, it is not contradictory with any of the Islamic ways based on the Book and the Sunna. Far from being contradictory, it has its source, just like other religious sciences, in the Book and the Sunna and the conclusions the purified scholars of the early period of Islam drew from the Qur’an and the Sunna—ijtihad. It dwells on knowledge, knowledge of God, certainty, sincerity, perfect goodness and other similar, fundamental virtues.
Defining tasawwuf with different titles such as the science of esoteric truths or of mysteries or the science of man’s spiritual states and stations or the science of initiation does not mean that it is completely different from other religious sciences. Such definitions are the results of experiencing Shari‘a throughout centuries by men of different temperaments and dispositions. It is a distortion to present the viewpoints of the sufis and the thoughts and conclusions of the scholars of Shari‘a as essentially different from each other. Although it is an undeniable fact that there have been some sufis fanatically adherent to their own ways, as well as some religious scholars—jurisprudents, Traditionists, and interpreters of the Qur’an—restricted to the outward dimension of religion, those who follow and represent the middle, straight path have always formed the majority. Therefore, starting from some unbecoming thoughts cherished and words uttered by some jurisprudents and sufis against each other, it is wrong to conclude that there is a serious disagreement between them. As compared with those always on the side of tolerance and consensus, the numbers of the others who have started or participated in conflict have been very few. This is what is natural, for like the jurisprudents who have depended on the Book and the Sunna in their ways, the sufis have also depended on these two main sources of Islam.
In addition, the priorities of tasawwuf have never been different from those of jurisprudence. Both of these ways or disciplines have stressed the importance of belief, doing good deeds and good conduct. The only difference is that, more than the jurisprudents, the sufis have also focused on purification of the self, deepening in the meaning of good deeds and multiplying them, and attainment of higher standards of good morals, by which man’s conscience awakens to knowledge of God and man can enter a way leading to the required sincerity in practising the religion and obtaining God’s good pleasure. Since man can, by means of these virtues, acquire another nature—another heart—spiritual intellect—within the heart, a deeper knowledge of God, and another ‘tongue’ to mention God—he can perform all the commandments of Shari‘a in a deeper consciousness of, and with a disposition for, servanthood to God, and in greater exhilaration.
It is by means of tasawwuf that man deepens in spirituality. Through the struggle with the selfhood, through solitude or retreat, invocation, self-control and self-criticism, the veils over the inner dimension of existence are torn apart and, as a result, man gains a strong conviction of the truth of all the major and minor principles of faith.