The Book of the Basic Principles of Tasawwuf and that which Guides to Realization.
My notes on the lecture series on The Book of the Basic Principles of Tasawwuf and that which Guides to Realization, the final section of the poem al-Murshid al-Mu’in – The Helping Guide.
About the Author:
- Imam Abdul Wahid ibn Ashir, born in Fez, Morocco and died in the year 1040AH.
- One of the great scholars of Islam, studied the main sciences one would usually study – Qur’an, Hadith, theology, juristic methodology, grammar, rhetoric, logic and so on.
About the text:
- A 314 line didactic poem written for children (as it is very brief) comprises the fard al-ayn – the individual obligations in Islam.
- Fard al-ayn is an important concept – the obligations upon which all other knowledge is built.
- You can find many scholars and children who have completely memorised this text in the Muslim world, particularly in West Africa.
- Part of a category of texts called the mutun(sing: matn). A matn literally is a text, but also is used for “back”. This gives the idea that a matn is inherently like a support that given a skeleton a basic meaning through which various meanings can be extrapolated.
- One of the great properties of the Islamic tradition that various texts and the philosophy behind them and their analysis(a vast study) continues right up to this day even though they were written hundreds of years ago (~400 in this case)
- One of the blessings of the Islamic tradition is that we are primarily text-based. We have seminal texts that are keys that open up doors on knowledge for us as Muslims.
Islamic knowledge, if studied properly, touches the heart. It is coded with light, and when you expose yourself to it and study it, your heart changes, it becomes softer, and it purifies you. It was this knowledge that Imam al-Ghazali (rh) said, even though he initially went to study in the madrassa, his local school, because he had nowhere else to go, that: “I sought knowledge for other than Allah. But knowledge refused to be sought except for the sake of Allah.” This type of knowledge, knowledge that is sought for the sake of Allah, is the truly beneficial knowledge.
The full text is comprised of 3 parts – Belief – the basics of belief and theology. Law – the basics of personal jurisprudence (such as prayer, zakat, ritual purification) and finally the science of Ihsan (spiritual excellence) and purification of the heart.
Ihsan was described in the Hadith of Jibril: “Ihsan is to worship Allah as if you see Him, and although you do not see Him, know that He sees you.”
Part of the text the notes are on is the 3rd part on Tasawwuf.
- Technical term used by scholars to define the science of Ihsan, purification of the heart and spiritual excellence. How to rid your heart of destructive qualities and adorn it with praiseworthy qualities.
- Summed up in the phrase “Sidq at-tawajju” – sincerely directing your heart to your Lord and attaining sincerity in worship.
On to the text itself, Imam Abdul Wahid ibn Ashir begins by saying:Begins with Tawba – repentance.
Tawba should have a deep meaning in our hearts – it is an important word in our religious vocabulary.
Arabic: Taaba, yutubu, literally means to turn around.
- Given the metaphor of the “siratul mustaqim” (“The Straight Path”), which is also a reality, the concept of the straight path is that to the extent that one diverges, one will move further and further away from the goal that one wishes to reach. A tiny degree of diversion, will, if persistent, will move further and further off course.
- Tawba is the act of turning around and moving back to the sirat al-mustaqim. This is the beginning of the Spiritual Path.
- Meaning of “spiritual” is that it pertains to the aspect that makes us uniquely human, whether called the spirit, soul, heart or intellect.
Tawba is the beginning of the path, the only other thing that can come before it is a ba’ith – a powerful urge cast into the heart. What necessarily follows from a ba’ith is tawba.
- The urge, this ba’ith, can make a person feel uncomfortable, they begin soul searching, questioning the nature of the world and what is important. In some ways a person can overcome this ba’ith and come to terms with it.
- The ba’ith is from the junood al-batinah, the hidden (or internal) armies of Allah.
- We can expose ourselves to it.
At-Ta’arrud – Exposing ourselves.
- An oft-repeated hadith that Shaykh Yahya Rhodus learnt at the place where he studied was:
“Indeed your Lord had, in the days of your time, sweet breezes of mercy, so expose yourself to them.”
- The essence of our deen is to expose ourselves to these sweet breezes of mercy.
- Various ways of exposing ourselves – fasting in Ramadan, praying Tarawih, waking up for Tahajjud (night prayer), by doing good for people and so on are all ways of exposing ourselves to these sweet breezes of mercy.
This is a form of internal relief – cooling, a deep sense of repose.
- There are a number of ways we can do this, such as listening to the Book of Allah. By listening to the Qur’an, even without understanding, there is something about the Qur’an that it speaks to you and transforms you even without understanding the details and subtleties of the Qur’anic discourse.
- Likewise with the ahadith, the words of the Prophet, sall Allahu alayhi wa salam.
- It also comes from a deep state of longing or fear that overcomes someone; this could be from an event in their life that blesses them with a ba’ith – the powerful urge
- Another great way to attain this coolness, these sweet breezes of mercy, is to be around righteous people, which is a means for our heart to become motivated.
- An important aspect of our time is to be around people who can inspire and uplift us. A means of moving out of a state of being weighed down by the dross of the dunya and the lower soul which wants to prevent us from being uplifted
It all begins with the powerful urge, the ba’ith, and leads to someone making tawba – turning around and taking life seriously. We have been created for a purpose, as the Qur’an states:
“Did you think that We had created you in play (without any purpose), and that you would not be brought back to Us?”[23:115]
There is nothing that Allah has created that does not have a purpose, from the most macro of macro things to the most micro of micro thing. Everything in existence has a purpose, and then are we to think that we, as human beings, do not? Allah did not create us “abath”, He created us for a purpose. This is one of the meanings you can get from understanding the realities of prophecy.
A modern scholar said that if you want to have a rational discussion with someone, and they can’t at least admit the rational possibility of prophecy, don’t even have a conversation with them because such a person is a fool, totally illogical. Never mind whether they believe in prophecy or not, which is a different topic, but for them not to admit the rational possibility of prophecy is the essence of being illogical.
As Muslims, it is a haqiqa – a reality – but this is on an intellectual plane for people who don’t even believe.
There is a reality to the Prophetic teachings, and the meaning of this is that by being around righteous people, is that it motivates you.
One scholar said:
“Travel to Allah paralysed and with broken bones. And don’t wait until a state where everything is fine, because waiting to be in this state is idleness.”
- People do this all the time – “I’m going to make Hajj in two years”. Windows of opportunity open and people pass by them thinking they will open again, but they never do, or if they do, they open to a lesser capacity or one more difficult to go through.
Imam Abdul Wahid ibn Ashir is telling us the essence of returning to Allah, with the various names of Allah regarding forgiveness – al-Ghaffar, al-Ghufur, al-Ghafir, at-Tawwab – some of the beautiful, merciful names of our Lord. “The Ever Relenting,” “The One that Forgives” and so on, and the way we understand these multiple names of Allah is that there are ways of transgression and degrees of forgiveness that relate to them.
- When you understand that Allah is at-Tawwab – the One that Forgives, the One that is Ever Forgiving.
- Allah says in the Qur’an: “Indeed Allah loves those that repent constantly (tawwabeen)”. Allah did not say Ma’sumeen (Divinely protected from sin), even though he does love those people, but that he loves those that repent constantly, meaning that one has to sin constantly to repent constantly.(Not an excuse to continue sinning, sincere tawbah is to refuse to persist in the sin).
- From the act of repenting, there is a process of purification and exposing yourself to attain the Divine Love.
Tawbah, act of repentance, is a positive thing and sometimes if things are explained incorrectly, one might think they have a negative connotation. An example of this can be seen in the Fall of Adam (alayhis salam), from one aspect it can seem negative because he made a slip (zalla) in eating from the Tree, but this allowed him to feel the purification of repenting from the slip. The plan of Allah to make Adam, and the children of Adam, live in the world gives them the ability to experience the beautiful manifestations of Allah’s names attributes, but also the majestic and rigorous manifestations of Allah’s names and attributes.
Shaykh Abdal Hakim Murad has a lecture series called The Essence of Islamic Education where he talks about the Three Falls, and each on has a positive meaning, although they seem negative outwardly. The Fall of Adam, the Banishment of Hajar (Hager) and Sayyiduna Isma’il to the “Valley where nothing grew”, the valley of Bakkah (Makkah). It seems like a negative thing but this was where the Zam Zam Well was found, and the city of Makkah founded, Sayyiduna Muhammad born and Islam grew. The third Fall, of which the conclusion has yet to be resolved, is modernity. This philosophical mess that people have got themselves in appears as if there is not much hope. However, potentially, there could be a positive outcome.
Thus people need to remain positive and optimistic – “Travel to Allah paralysed and with broken bones” – despite your state, it never too late to return to Allah, no matter what you have done.
If Allah has placed you in a particular place, stay where you are, unless it is outright haram(forbidden). Have adab (courtesy) with your Lord and know that you don’t need to go anywhere to attain righteousness. If you are in business, stay in business, but modify your intentions and actions.
- People think that you need to go and live in the desert or jungle to be righteous, this is not the case, and there is no monasticism within Islam.
The religion of Muhammad (sal Allahu alayhi wa salam) synthesizes perspective of dunya as well as the akhirah. It synthesizes inward as well as the outward. It synthesizes our relationship with Allah and our relationship with society. We (as Muslims) are the ultimate synthesizers of everything.
So Imam ibn Ashir is saying:
“Repentance from every sin committed is necessary [upon realizing the wrong]”
If someone does something from the (relatively small) category of what is wrong, they have to repent from it.
- Important Point – Everything in the Shari’a, the Sacred Law, is ultimately for our own benefit. The 5 main maqasid (aims/goals) of the Shari’a, the first being the protection of Religion (four others being Life, Lineage, Intellect and Property), leads one to understand that the entirety of the Sacred Law is about benefit. Regardless of whether it’s being implemented by a state or government, it is still efficacious. If you remain within the limits of the Sacred Law, even if it’s not being enforced, it will produce light in your heart and realign your with your Lord, bringing blessing. This is a different approach from the demonization of the Shari’a and also the way that some modern (or liberal) Muslims look at the Shari’a that it inhibits. Rather, it protects. If it inhibits anything, it inhibits misguidance and the desires of your lower soul that will lead you astray.
Differentiation between feelings of guilt and shame while they cause depression, repentance gives one the energy to move forward.
As Imam Abdul Wahid then states:
“It is [in effect] a sense of remorse.”
- A hadith of the Prophet(sall Allahu alayhi wa salam): “Repentance is remorse”
- Remorse is a powerful reality that is manifested in a human being. Imam al-Ghazali gives a powerful example: Humans are stained with sin(although no original sin). They have two choices:
- Burn out by the fire of remorse
- Burn out from the fire of Hell.
It may be a sombre topic, but it needs to be discussed. It is a reality, and as Muslims we need to come to terms with this reality. Although it can be difficult to come to terms with our shortcomings and the reality that we have wronged other people or ourselves, when we seek forgiveness and try to better ourselves, that is one of the most positive feeling we can have.
These are the steps of repentance:
- Abandoning the Sin, refusing to persist in it.
- Intend to never do it again.
- If the sin was committed that affected another person, amends have to be made:
- Return stolen property
- Right a wrong
- Pay back debts
This even extends to animals. You cannot even kill an insect if it doesn’t harm or pose a threat to you. If you do harm it, try to find that particular animal to make amends. If you cannot, then you should do something for that species.
On the topic, there is much to learn from animals and insects. One can learn a lot from ants. One of the Awliya learned an important lesson from them. He read a book seven times but could not understand it. He was once sat and noticed an ant crawling to get to a morsel of food. Before it could, it kept falling. After seven failed attempts, it tried an eighth time to get the morsel of food and finally got it. Seeing this, he thought if an ant can keep trying, why couldn’t he? He read the book an eighth time and understood.
Another scholar received understanding from the imprint of a rope on a stone well – consistency caused the rope to affect the stone.
Going back to animals, there is the possibility that animals may take retribution upon us on the Day of Judgement, the Day of Retribution when all of creation is given justice for the wrongs that have been committed to them, even for animals among themselves. If this is the case for animals, then this would surely be the case with people.
One of the things people are most sensitive to are feelings of others.
- Abdullah ibn Umar, one who was known to be firm in religion and an ardent follower of the sunnah once looked at the Ka’bah and said:
“You have an immense sanctity but by Allah, the sanctity of the believer is far greater than you.”
- The Prophet (sall Allahu alayhi wa salam) stated that making hurting the feelings of another believer is greater than tearing the Ka’bah rock by rock! If people saw another tear down the Ka’bah, they would kill them!
- The issue of hurting the feelings of others also extends to some of our great scholars. For example, Imam an-Nawawi, one of the greatest hadith scholars was alienated when he was young and other kids didn’t play with him. Not there not hardly a household in the Muslim world that does not contain his books.
If you fulfil the conditions of repentance, Allah will forgive you, and even if you commit the sin multiple times in the same day but go through the same steps, you are not considered a perpetual sinner. One should be remorseful, commit to not acting upon the sin again and to stop doing it, and Allah will forgive you for it, so long as you keep asking.
The act of repentance also works in erasing the sin from our psychological profile. The black spot on our heart will be slowly erased until, as we continue down the path, our heart becomes purified. Al-Affuw, The Effacer of Sins, Allah, will, if your repentance is accepted, will remove it from your scrolls on the Day of Judgement. One of the tricks of Shaytan is that he will try and make you think about it and yearn to go back to it, but if you focus on bettering yourself and the blessings of Allah, you can overcome this.
Then Imam Abdul Wahid ibn Ashir goes on to discuss Taqwa:
“The essence of piety is to avoid [Diving displeasure] and obey [the Divine Will], both inwardly and outwardly. In this manner, it is obtained.”
Taqwa – piety, God-consciousness. From the root word “wa-qa-ya” – Protecting oneself. It is essentially about protecting oneself from anything that can harm one in the next world.
Taqwa should be at the forefront of one’s mind, Imam al-Haddad wrote a book on all the benefits of Taqwa, and in Mauritania, or West Africa in general, upon departure, the scholars there would say to each other ‘Itaqillah’ – have Taqwa of Allah, and quote verses of the Qur’an that relate to Taqwa in the particular incident.
Although some people think of Taqwa only in terms of fear, the three motivating factors for Taqwa are:
- Love – the strongest motivating factor, and that separating from Allah is the greatest punishment in the hellfire.
With regard to degrees of Taqwa, some mention 3 and others mention 5.
For those that mention 3:
- Taqwa with regards to avoiding anything that would result in disbelief (kufr). Taken from Qur’an 48:26:
“When those who disbelieve had set up in their hearts zealotry, the zealotry of the Age of Ignorance, then Allah sent down His peace of reassurance upon His messenger and upon the believers and imposed on them the word of self-restraint, for they were worthy of it and meet for it. And Allah is Aware of all things.”
- Taqwa with regards to avoiding the various acts of disobedience. Taken from Qur’an 7:96:
“And if only the people of the cities had believed and had Taqwa of Allah , We would have opened upon them blessings from the heaven and the earth; but they denied [the messengers], so We seized them for what they were earning.”
- Taqwa with regards to avoiding anything that will distance one from Allah, i.e. the maqaam of ihsaan. Taken from Qur’an 3:102:
“O ye who believe! Have Taqwa of Allah as He deserves to have Taqwa for, and die not except in a state of Islam.”
Surah 7:96 also proves that Muslims do not have a worldview of limited resources, by having Taqwa, using things in moderation, with fairness and justice, Allah will provide for them.
As for those who say the degrees of Taqwa are five, Ibn Juzayy al-Kalbi said they are:
- Taqwa al-Kufr – Avoiding anything that leaves to disbelief/apostasy.
- Taqwa al-Muharramaat – Avoiding all the various types of sin (haraam).
- Imam al-Ghazali’s example of indulging in haram is like that of someone placing their hand in fire, and burning themselves. This mental image can be used to prevent one from committing haram actions.
- Another example of Imam al-Ghazali’s is that indulging in the dunya too much is like eating and enjoying a cake that someone had baked with their own spit. The one who knows what is in it, would not enjoy it in that nature, but the ignorant one is one who enjoys it.
- Taqwa as-Shubuhaat – Avoiding doubtful manners.
- Taqwa al-Mubahaat – Cutting back on the various things that are lawful/permissible.
- Someone can cut down on that which is permissible, due to the fear of falling into something that might be doubtful or haram.
- The Sahabah used to say that they would leave 9/10 of the permissible – this is too difficult for us to do now, but is beneficial for us to know. The Sahabah were so great because They followed the greatest sunnah of the Prophet (sal Allahu alayhi wa salam.) which was preferring akhirah over dunya.
- Taqwa al-khatir ma siwa Allah ‘ala al-qalb – Striving to not have a thought other than that of Allah come to one’s heart. Being constantly in the presence of Allah. There are people like this in our time, such as Shaykh Muhammad al-Yaqoubi and his father, Habib Ali Jifri and others, some of the Awliya of our time. It’s not just a theory.
One good book people can get their hands on is Reliance of the Traveller by Shaykh Nuh Keller, it is a book that is a sufficient guide for the average Muslim if that was the only book other than the Qur’an they had, for them to return to Allah in a good state.
There will always be people in the highest ranks of Taqwa until the Day of Judgement, and the deen will never become deficient until Allah takes the souls of the believers, and then there will be no more deen anyway. All of this is attainable for those who are sincere. For one to believe that these states are not attainable for themselves, they are among those who have a bad opinion of their Lord. Everyone, including non-Muslims, have an incredible capacity waiting to be unleashed. All you have to do is take the first step. You have to intend, or at least intend to intend, and doors will be opened to you.
Imam Abdul Wahid ibn Ashir ends this introduction to Taqwa by saying:
“Thus, its categories are indeed four in number: [inward and outward, fulfilling and avoiding]; and these, for the wayfarer are the pathways of benefit.”
This is what will benefit, and what we need to think about it what will benefit us in this world and the next, and expose ourselves to it.