What is Tasawwuf?
"Verily, he who has purified the heart is successful and he who has despoiled it
A lot of people have misunderstandings about tasawwuf. Many think that it is
something beyond Qur'an and Sunnah. Errant Sufis as well as the superficial ulema,
although on the opposite ends of the spectrum, are together in holding this mistaken
notion. Consequently the first group has shunned the Qur'an and Hadith while the second
group has shunned tasawwuf. Actually, although the term tasawwuf, like many
other religious terms in use today, evolved later, the discipline is very much part of the
Shariah. The department of the Shariah relating to external deeds like salat and zakat
is called fiqh while the one dealing with the internal feelings and states of the heart is
called tasawwuf. Both are commanded in the Qur'an. Thus while commanding Salat
and Zakat, the Qur'an also commands gratefulness and love of Allah and condemns the
evil of pride and vanity. Similarly, in the books of hadith, along with the chapters on Ibadat,
trade and commerce, marriage and divorce, are to be found the chapters on riya
(showoff) takabbur, akhlaq, etc. These commands are as much a mandatory
requirement as the ones dealing with external deeds.
On reflection it will be realized that all the external deeds are designed for the
reformation of the heart. That is the basis of success in the hereafter while its
despoiling is the cause of total destruction. This is precisely what is known technically
as tasawwuf. Its focus is tahzeebe akhlaq or the adornment of character; its
motive is the attainment of Divine pleasure; its method is total obedience to the commands
of the Shariah.
Tasawwuf is the soul of Islam. Its function is to purity the heart from the
lowly bestial attributes of lust, calamities of the tongue, anger, malice, jealousy, love
of the world, love of fame, niggardliness, greed, ostentation, vanity, deception, etc. At
the same time it aims at the adornment of the heart with the lofty attributes of
repentance, perseverance, gratefulness, fear of Allah, hope, abstention, tauheed,
trust, love, sincerity, truth, contemplation, etc.
To diagnose and treat the diseases of the heart normally requires the help of an expert
mentor or Shaikh. Here are the qualities of a good Shaikh.
1. He possesses necessary religious knowledge.
2. His beliefs, habits, and practices are in accordance with the Shariah.
3. He does not harbor greed for the worldly wealth.
4. He has himself spent time learning from a good Shaikh.
5. The scholars and good mashaikh of his time hold good opinion about
6. His admirers are mostly from among the people who have good understanding of
7. Most of his followers follow the Shariah and are not the seekers after this world.
8. He sincerely tries to educate and morally train his followers. If he sees anything
wrong in them, he corrects it.
9. In his company one can feel a decrease in the love of this world and an increase in
the love for Allah.
10. He himself regularly performs dhikr and shughal (spiritual exercises).
In searching for a Shaikh, do not look for his ability to perform karamat
(miracles) or to foretell the future. A very good Shaikh may not be able to show
any karamat. On the other hand, a person showing karamat does not have to be
a pious person --- or even a Muslim. Prominent Sufi Bayazid Bistami says: "Do not be
deceived if you see a performer of supernatural feats flying in the air. Measure him on
the standard of the Shariah."
When you find the right Shaikh, and you are satisfied with his ability to
provide spiritual guidance, you perform baya or pledge. This is a two-way
commitment; the Shaikh pledges to guide you in light of Shariah and you pledge to
follow him. Then the Shaikh will give his mureed (disciple) initial
instructions. They include the following:
1. Perform repentance for all the past sins and take steps to make amends, e.g. if any salat
has been missed so far in the life, you start making up for it.
2. If you have any unmet financial obligations toward another person make plans to
3. Guard your eyes, ears, and tongue.
4. Perform dhikr regularly.
5. Start a daily session of self-accounting before going to bed. Review all the good
and bad deeds performed during the day. Repent for the bad ones and thank Allah for the
6. Perform muraqaba-maut (meditation over death) every night before going to
bed. Just visualize that you have died. Reflect upon the pangs of death, the questioning
in the grave, the plain of Resurrection, the Reckoning , the presence in the Court of
Allah, etc This helps bring softness to the heart and break the tendency to commit sins.
7. Develop humility. Even if you observe another individual committing the worst of
vices you should not despise him/her, nor should you consider yourself nobler. It is very
much possible that the perpetrator of the vice may resort to sincere repentance while the
one who despised the sinner become ensnared in the traps of nafs and Shaitan.
One has no certainty regarding one's end. One, therefore has no basis for regarding
another with contempt.
The essential idea of tahzeebe akhlaq is to bring our natural faculties in a
state of balance. The three basic faculties are anger, desires, and intelligence.
When in equilibrium it results in valor, forbearance, steadfastness, the ability to
restrain anger, and dignity. Excess will result in rashness, boastfulness, pride,
inability to restrain anger, and vanity. A deficiency will result in cowardice, disgrace,
and feeling of inferiority.
Equilibrium here results in chastity, generosity, haya (decency), patience, and
contentment. Its excess leads to greed and lust. The other extreme results in
narrow-mindedness, and impotence, etc.
Equilibrium here makes man wise, sharp-witted and one with great insights. Excess here
makes one deceptive, fraudulent and imposture. Its lack results in ignorance and stupidity
with the consequence that such a person is quickly misled.
A person will be considered as having a beautiful seerah (character) only when
these faculties are in the state of balance and equilibrium. Internal beauty varies with
people just as external beauty does. The possessor of the most beautiful seerah was
Prophet Muhammad, Sall-Allahu alayhi wa sallam. The beauty of our seerah is based
on its closeness to his seerah.
[Condensed from writings of Maulana Ashraf Ali Thanvi]
1) Fiqh aur Tassuwuf aik
2) The Kashf Al-Mahjub