The Mystical Aspect of Islamic Teaching
By: Ayatullah Fadhil Milani
Most Muslim scholars concentrate on the manifest aspects of Shariah - i.e. the Jurisprudential or Islamic Law rulings that relate to an individual's relationship with the Almighty and other human beings.
However, there are Muslim thinkers who focus their attention on the spiritual significance of Islamic teaching. To them, Shariah is but the outer shell of its spiritual 'kernel'. The matter that concerns them is the elemental characteristic of Islamic teaching - that this temporary life is but a pathway to humankind's final destination, the hereafter. Neglect of the natural needs of the body and emphasis on the purification of the soul became the hallmark by which they became recognized.
Sufis claim that all acts of worship, rules regarding business and trade, personal law and all other Shariah rulings are only concerned with the superficial exterior. The 'way' - tariqah - concerns itself with the most precious pearls in the depths of Islam's 'mercy oceans'.They teach that to act upon Shariah and walk the path of tariqah leads to the achievement of complete truth - traiqah.
Kulayni relates in Al-Kafi that after offering the Dawn Prayer one morning a young man - Harithah ibn Malik ibn Nu’man al-Ansari - caught the Prophet's eye. Lean, pale and sunken-eyed, he appeared unable to maintain his balance and seemed unaware of his own condition. When the Prophet (S) asked him how he felt, he responded by saying that he had attained certainty. When asked what had led him to that conclusion he said that certainty had immersed him in grief, had kept him fasting all day and at worship all night.
This had separated him from the world and its affairs so completely that he felt he could see all humankind raised from the dead, and the Divine Throne on Judgement Day, from which all people's accounts were settled. At that very moment he could see the people of paradise enjoying their bounty, the people of hell suffering their torments, and hear the roar of the flames.
The Holy Prophet told his companions that Allah had illumined his heart with the light of faith and told the young man to preserve his condition and not to let it be taken from him.
The young man asked the Prophet to pray for Allah to grant him martyrdom and his wish was shortly after realized on the battlefield.
Many ayat of the Qur’an emphasize that purification - tazkyah - is the main purpose of this life and the reason why Allah sent 'Messengers and Warners' to teach humanity how to attain the prosperity that tazkyah brings: By the soul and the power that perfects and inspires it with the ability to distinguish between good and evil, truly it is those who purify [their souls] who realize success. (Qur’an 91:7-9)
Despite their earlier manifest errors, Allah conferred his favors upon believers by sending them - from amongst themselves - His Messenger [Muhammad (S)],in order to familiarize them with His signs, to purify them, to teach them the book [(Qur’an] and wisdom. (Qur’an 3:164)
Indeed, it is only those who purify themselves who achieve success. (Qur’an 87:14)
Just as bodily infections have to be overwhelmed by medicines for health to be regained; spiritual infections need to be overwhelmed for the soul to regain health. While bacteria and viruses impact upon the body, sins and negative thoughts impact upon the soul. Regrettably, the majority of people stay oblivious to such infection. While the merest intimation of water being polluted is sufficient to drive the public to stockpile bottled water, attention drawn to sources of spiritual pollution is met by indifference.
Most people attend to the cleanliness and attractiveness of the human form, spending billions each year on cosmetics and other aspects of external 'beauty'. However, few give consideration to inner beauty. Imam Ali (a.s.) compared these two aspects of beauty when he said, Inner adornment is of greater beauty than external adornments.4
In supplication number 20 of Al-Sahifah al-Kamilah al-Sajjadiyyah, Imam Ali ibn al-Husayn (a.s.) refers to 'Adornment of the Righteous' and 'Ornament of the God-fearing' as practical steps by which to attain purification of the soul.
According to Abu Nasr al-Sarraj (d.378 AH/988 CE) there are ten positions (ahwal) and seven stations (maqamat) within Sufism.
The positions are:
6. Spiritual Yearning
And the stations are:
6. Trust in Allah
Sufi practice is adopted by Shiah and Sunni Muslims alike. However, when the Divine love of Allah settles in His servants' hearts it leads to wilayah - traceable to the error-free Imams of the progeny of the Holy Prophet. It is unsurprising that the 'Chain of Mastership' - silsilah - of many Sufi orders include the name Maruf al-Karkhi, a servant of Imam Ar-Ridha’ (a.s.), the eighth Imam of the progeny of Muhammad (S).
1. Distinguished guests invited by a prominent socialite included luminaries such as the Minister of Health, prominent physicians and one Sufi Shaykh renowned for his healing prowess. When the daughter of the house suddenly became pale and faint and had to retire, the host asked the Shaykh to pray for her.
While he did so at some length, the health minister was heard to remark that superstitions no longer had any place in today's society, 'With our efficient health service, specialist medical practitioners and array of scientifically approved medicines to cure all manner of ailments, such old-fashioned nonsense can only stand in the way of effective treatment.'
Then, turning to the Minister, the Shaykh responded by saying that until then, he had been unaware that the government had elevated a donkey to the status of Minister! How could such a foolish and ignorant person be a doctor, much less so a Minister of State?
The Minister's face flushed and he became so utterly apoplectic that he was unable to utter a word. The Shaykh then offered, in a gentle and kindly voice, his profuse apology. He said he had only uttered such insulting words to make a point. If a short secular speech could instantly trigger dramatic physical changes, flood the body with adrenaline, set the heart racing and dilate the blood vessels so as to suffuse the face with color, was it not possible that a few holy words from Allah's Revelation could help bring about physical healing?
2. While a Shaykh, who had been asked about the subject of 'patience', spoke eloquently and at length about it, his foot dislodged a scorpion that repeatedly stung him. Despite being in acute pain he continued his address and did not falter. When someone noticed what was happening and asked why he did not feel it, he replied that before Allah, it was not possible to teach others about patience without displaying any oneself.
It goes without saying that until a person has purified her/his own soul and complied with everything required of a true 'wayfarer', she/he is not in a position to guide others. This is why we so appreciate the error-free Imams whose guidance we follow Sufis are renowned for their focus on spiritual enhancement and disregard of natural urge. However, Islam neither promotes asceticism nor counsels people to abstain from the pleasures of this world. Notwithstanding this, it is evident that those whose sole focus is self-gratification, social standing and the things of this world will not taste the sweetness of closeness to Allah, nor enjoy the light He bestows upon His worthy servants.
To balance the spiritual with the temporal, Imam Ali (a.s.) said, By Allah, if you cry like a she camel that has lost its calf; coo like a dove; chant like a devoted recluse; or leave your wealth and children to secure nearness and status in His eyes; or forgiveness for the sins recorded by His angels - your effort will be as nothing compared to His reward that I anticipate for you, or His retribution that I fear for you. Nahjul Balaghahh, Sermon 52.