On the Poor Ones and Why They Are Called Sufis

While later medieval Sufism is represented in some extremely subtle, sophisticated, and often very complex texts, produced by and for the intellectual elite, writings intended for a less rarified milieu were also very common. Indeed, many prominent Sufis wrote treatises and commentaries designed to make esoteric, philosophical tenets of mystic though and practice more accessible and more widely dissimulated. Treatises and pamphlet from less prominent and indeed unknown writers were also common, often attached to and advocating a particular Sufi ‘order’ (ṭarīqa), with its particular rites, canon, saints, and chain of authorities often stretching back to a semi-legendary eponym. The text I have excerpted and translated below is an example of this less ‘sophisticated’ and generally more accessible strain of Sufi writing, writing that was intended for, if not the masses, at least a relatively broad audience. Furthermore, as the text below especially demonstrates, we can get a better idea of the actual reception of the often difficult, even impenetrable, ideas of mystico-philosophic Sufism, and the ways in which rituals and ritualized behavior and dress (among other things) were perceived and practiced.

This text, entitled the Sirr al-Asrār—‘Secret of Secrets’ is a workable, if imperfect, English translation—is also an excellent example of another phenomenon common in the medieval world: the automatic verification of a text by attaching it to the name of a prominent, respected figure in the past. In this case, at some point in its history (either at the hands of the original author or a later redactor) the Sirr al-Asrār was attributed to none other than the great Sufi-Hanbali preacher of eleventh-century Baghdad, ‘Abd al-Qadir al-Jīlānī. This attribution continues to this day, and is almost certainly the reason an otherwise rather unremarkable introductory text can today be found in numerous printed editions and in various translations, including a couple into English (which should be considered devotional paraphrases, not translations, I might add). That it simply cannot in fact be from the Baghdadian preacher’s pen is obvious from even a cursory comparison between the established authentic writings of al-Jīlānī and this text: not only is the Arabic much choppier and less rhetorically powerful, but the ideas and practices expressed here are often derived from a quite different, and chronologically later, mystical milieu than that of al-Jīlānī. That is to say nothing of the now anonymous author’s occasional citation of Persian poetry, including Rumi, who lived long after ‘Abd al-Qadir’s death. Rather, it is likely that the text was either composed by a now anymous author, perhaps a member of the Qadiriyya order (which claimed ‘Abd al-Qadir as its eponym), and then later attributed to the famous Eponym accidentally or otherwise; or it was labeled with ‘Abd al-Qadir’s name from the beginning. The former seems more likely, as other than the initial attribution—an easy thing to modify—the text does not make any further effort to identify with ‘Abd al-Qadir.

As for the content translated and presented here, there are several interesting points. First, our author presents a simplified Sufi cosmology, which curiously emerges as a result of the question of the much debated etymological origins of the term ‘Sufi.’ After establishing a mystical cosmology, our author then continues his discussion of Sufi ‘poverty’ and how the true inner nature of Sufism is reflected in both the practices and clothing of the Sufis. As is often the case with handbooks and introductory treatises such as this, objects and rituals provide an easy locus for allegorical explication and theological teaching. Here, clothing is our author’s springboard for laying out the inner meaning of Sufism. Yet we should not imagine that such connections are incidental for our author: rather, as is indicated by the opening discussion of cosmology, and the constant reference to Qur’an and hadith (especially hadith), the world and all its parts are part of the things symbolized. Allegorical connections are not accidental, but reflective of essential properties, of an essential divine economy linking things together and providing the world with divine significance. Hence while the objects discussed might be mundane, and the language of this treatise not exactly representative of high-style, our anonymous author sought to introduce his readers to a truly rarefied, and wondrous world indeed, one in which they also could participate and partially, at least, understand.


The Twelfth Chapter, On the Poor Ones and Why They are Called Sufis

Some of them say because they used to dress in wool (al-ṣūf) or because they purified (ṣafū) their hearts from worldly worrisome affairs or because they purified their hearts from all other than God. And some say because they will stand on the Day of the Resurrection in the first row (al-ṣaff al-awwal) in the World of Proximity (‘ālam al-qurba). For the world is four:[1] the World of Kingship, the World of Sovereignty, the World of Divine Omnipotence, and the World of the Divine Essence, and it is the world of reality. And likewise the knowledges are four: the knowledge of the Shari’ah, the knowledge of the Mystical Way, the knowledge of Gnosis and [the knowledge of] Reality. And likewise the spirits are four: bodily spirit, luminescent spirit, governing spirit, and holy spirit. And likewise the divine manifestations are four: the manifestation of the subtle traces, the manifestations of the acts, the manifestation of the attributes, and the manifestation of the essence. And likewise the intellect is four: the basic intellect, the customary intellect, the spiritual intellect, and the universal intellect.[2]

And in the reception of the four aforementioned worlds, knowledges, spirits, manifestations, and intellects, some of the people are bound to the first knowledge, the first spirit, the first manifestation, the first intellect, in the first Garden, which is the Garden of refuge. And some of them are bound in the second and they are in the second Garden, the Garden of beneficence. And some of them are bound to the third, and they are in the third Garden, the Garden of paradise. And they are heedless of the reality of those things, while the people of the Truth from among the gnostic renunciants flee from all of it and are united to the reality and the proximity; they are not bound to anything other than God, exalted is He, and the follow after His word, exalted is He. So they flee to God, and as he—the most perfect of prayers and peace be upon him—said, ‘This world and the next are ḥarām for the people of God.’ And the intended meaning of ẖarām here is not that the two things are prohibited to them, but rather they have prohibited them from themselves that they would seek them and be attached to love of them. For they say: ‘Verily, we are sinners [?], while those two things are temporally originate—so how can one temporal being seek after another temporal thing? On the contrary, it is incumbent on such a one that he seek the originator.’

And He says in the sacred hadith[3]: ‘My love is the love of the poor ones.’ And he said, peace and prayer be upon him, ‘Poverty is my pride, and I take pride in it.’ The intended meaning of poverty here is not the common meaning of poverty, rather, the meaning of poverty here is dependence upon God, mighty and glorious is He, and abandoning what is other than Him, from the benefits of this world and the next. The [ultimate] meaning from it is is annihilation (al-fanā’) in God, such that nothing remains in the self for the self, and nothing is encompassed within the heart other than God, as God, exalted is He said: ‘Neither My earth nor My heavens encompass me, but the heart of My believing servant encompasses Me.’ The intended meaning of ‘believing’ is he who has purified his heart from human attributes and has emptied [it] of alterities, so the Truth encompasses his heart in reflection. Abū Yazīd al-Bisṭāmī,[4] God be merciful to him, said:’If the Throne and what is around it were cast in a corner among the corners of the heart of the gnostic, he would not sense it.’ So He who loves those beloved ones, He is with them in the Other World. The sign of their love is their companionship and yearning for God, exalted is He, and encountering Him, as He said in the sacred hadith: ‘The desire of the pious stretches out towards encountering Me, and I strengthen desire toward [sic.] them.’

As for their clothing:[5] it is in three types, as we mentioned in chapter three. As for their works: the work of the novice is variegated with the praise-worthy and the blame-worthy. The work of the intermediate is variegated with praiseworthy colours like the light of the Shari’ah, the Mystical Path, and gnosis. Their clothing is variegated likewise, like white, blue, and green. The work of the realized one is emptied of colours entirely like the light of the sun—its light does not receive colours; likewise, his clothing does not receive colours, just as black does not receive colours. It is the sign of annihilation (al-fanā’), and it is the veil of the light of their gnosis, as the night is the veil of the light of the sun. And God, exalted is He, has said: ‘We made the night a garment, and we made the day as livelihood.’ Therein is a subtle indication for one who possesses the inner kernel of the intellect and of knowledge.

And also: the people of proximity are in this world in prison, homesickness, sorrow, distress, trial, testing, and oppression, as he—the best of prayer and the noblest of peace be upon him—said: ‘This world is the prison of the believer.’ So darkness [of clothing] is befitting. The saying of the Prophet, peace and prayer be upon him, has been shown to be true in this regard: ‘Tribulation is entrusted to the prophets and the saints, then those most like [them], then those most like [them].’ And the wearing of black clothes and the putting on of a black turban—this clothing is the clothing of tribulation and of those mourning the affliction of the escape of the reception [of divine things], such as unveiling, witnessing, and realization. And [it is for] the death of the life of eternity, and the like—of desire, tasting, passionate love, the holy spirit, and the degrees of closeness and union. Those [so afflicted] are among the greatest of the afflicted. Without doubt, whoever wears the clothing of mourning for the length of his life, it is because benefit of the Other World escapes him. It is like a woman who, when he husband dies, God commands her to wear the clothing of mourning for four months and ten days due the escape of benefit of this world below. As for the temporal extent of the mourning of the Other World, it is without limits, as he said, peace be upon him: ‘The sincerely purehearted are in possession of a matter of truly grave seriousness.’

So all of this is from the attribute of poverty and annihilation. And in the report (al-khabr), ‘Poverty is black of face in the two Houses,’ meaning, it does not receive colours save the light of the face of God. The descent of blackness totally makes empty the face and increases in it beauty and grace. And if the people of proximity look to the beauty of God, their eyes do not receive afterwards anything other than God, and they do not look with desirious love towards anything else. Rather, their object of love and their object of seeking is God, in the two Houses, not intending anything other than God, because God, exalted and blessed is He, created the human person for true knowledge of Him and union with Him. So it is incumbent upon the person that he seek what he was created for in the two Houses together, lest he waste his life with what will not aid him, and lest he forever rue after his death the wasting of his life.

Pseudo-‘Abd al-Qadir al-Jīlānī, Sirr al-Asrār, Chapter 12.

[1] The four-fold world scheme was, by the time this text was written, a pretty-well established trope in mystical cosmology. Like so many things, it was enumerated in the greatest depth and sophistication by ibn ‘Arabī, but the various ‘spheres’ or ‘levels’ of existence have a much older and broader pedigree. In some ways they can be traced back to Neoplatonic thought, and perhaps elsewhere. Their exact meanings and connotations vary, and anyway are not the issue here: here they simply appear as rather mysterious, esoteric signifiers.

[2] Lists of things, especially corresponding things, are of course a popular pedagogical device, and not just in the Middle Ages. Numerical symmetry is also a rather enduring trope.

[3] Sacred hadith: ḥadith qudsī, a saying attributed directly to God. While never a huge portion of canonical hadith collections, and often seen as dubious in nature, several such hadith attained prominence in formative Sufism. For instance, ‘I was a treasure and longed to be known…’ appears continuously in Sufi writings; it would become a particularly important text for ibn ‘Arabi and his followers.

[4] An important early Sufi, often described as belong to the ‘intoxicated’ ‘school’ of Sufism along with al-Ḥallāj—a description that while obscuring of much, does indicate the often ecstatic and somewhat radical nature of many of Bisṭāmī’s sayings.

[5] Our anonymous author here rather abruptly shifts gears, entering into a discussion of the mystical significance of the garb of particular Sufi orders and ranks: yet another indication that the author is writing during a period of proliferating Sufi orders, not during the period of ‘Abd al-Qadir al-Jīlānī.

Sainthood, Revelation, and Epistemology

(The following post is a conclusion to a series of translations and accompanying short essays on ‘Abd al-Qādir al-Jīlānī’s writings and historical afterlife; it is meant to be read in succession to those, which you may find here, here, and here.)

The following excerpt from the third discourse in ‘Abd al-Qādir al-Jīlānī’s Futḥ al-Rabāniya is an extended treatment of ‘sainthood,’ on the one hand, and the nature of revelation and perception of the divine on the other. The passage is a little denser and at time difficult than the others translated here; as such, my translation of this text is therefore more tentative and, I think you will find, rougher, than usual. However, the basic gist is clear enough: the ‘friend of God’ occupies a special, indeed unique and exalted place, among God’s creatures. Such status has its benefits, which ‘Abd al-Qādir describes; crucially, it is generated by and sustained through the saint’s singular devotion to God. More important than any temporal powers or benefits, however, is the activation of one’s ‘inner eye,’ and even beyond that, the unmediated vision of God.

This is decidedly ‘Sufic’ material, I think, both in vocabulary and overall meaning and implied praxis (though see below for its particularly Ḥanbalī ‘spin’). It is also interesting to note the ways in which ‘Abd al-Qādir refers to himself, particularly in light of the later hagiographical traditions that built up around him. He definitely makes claims for himself: namely, claims for his own proximity to God and the realization of divine knowledge, perhaps even ‘sainthood,’ in himself. Rhetorically, however, these claims are made in order to bolster his preaching: as I have tasted the divine truth, so you can and ought to taste it, is the gist of ‘Abd al-Qādir’s claims for himself. Making such claims or proclamations also helps to resolve a central problem in ‘Abd al-Qādir’s preaching: the disconnection between the true ‘friends of God’ and the rest of creation. If one is to be ‘cut off’ from everything that is not God, how is one to ‘return’ to the world, and why? The saint, or ‘friend of God,’ is able to do so because he has realigned himself, away from ‘this world’ towards God alone. He can ‘report’ on the state of the friend of God and summon others to that state, without slipping back into ‘the world.’ As for any further ‘powers’ the saint might claim—miracles and the like, the stuff of later hagiography—while ‘Abd al-Qādir is not here concerned with such things, and makes no such claims overtly for himself, they do not seem to be ruled a priori.

That said, this discourse is firmly rooted in ‘Abd al-Qādir’s own historical exigencies and concerns as a good Ḥanbalī preacher. In discussing revelation, he first demarcates the distinction between prophet and friend/saint: prophets receive ‘the word’ (which we might well capitalize: the Word), while saints receive ‘report’—ḥadīth. That is, while the word and the report are both important and authoritative, the word is prior and possesses a greater definitiveness than report. As for the word/Word, ‘Abd al-Qādir takes up an issue that had caused all manner of controversy a few centuries before: the createdness of the Qur’an, an issue which served as a flashpoint for controversy over the place of kalām, revelation, reason, and governmental authority in religion, among other things. Here our homilist is concerned with defending the doctrine of the uncreated Qur’an by disavowing the legitimacy of arguing about it. While he includes a little defense of ibn Ḥanbal and his confrontation with the caliph, ‘Abd al-Qādir’s primary concern is to redirect potential energy spent in theological arguments towards what truly ‘benefits’ one: the singular pursuit of God and devotion to Him. Implictly argued as well, I think, is the idea that rational theological investigation is supplanted by the ascetic striving for the presence of God, which will lead to the full vision of God, a vision (implicitly here possible in this life) possible only for the ‘lovers’ of God, those who behold with ‘hearts unveiled.’

3rd Session [Excerpts]

The saints/friends of God (awlīya’ Allah) in their connection to people are deaf and blind to you, in that when their hearts are close to God they do not hear other than Him, and do not see other than Him. He bestows closeness upon them, and covers them in reverence, and benefits them with love as reward for their love. They are between the majesty and the beauty (al-jalāl wa al-jamāl); they do not incline to the left or the right; theirs is ‘facing’ without a ‘behind.’ Human, jinn, and angel serve them, and all sorts of creatures serve them in wisdom and knowledge. Grace nourishes them, and intimacy quenches their thirst. From the food of His grace they eat, and from the draught of His intimacy they drink. They are distracted from listening to the talk of people; they are worlds apart. They command the people what God commands and forbid the people what God forbids. According the Prophet, peace and prayer be upon him, they are the true heirs. Their occupation is the turning of people back to the door of God; they convey His definitive proof to them. They carry out things in their proper place and time, they give everyone his proper due, not violating anyone’s rights, not sating their own selves or natures. They love in God, and they hate in God. All of them are His; they have no participation in other than He. Whoever has this perfected for him, has friendship perfected for him, and there is realized for him salvation and felicity, and humans, jinn, angels, earth, and heaven love him.

O hypocrite! O servant of the creation, of the means, forgetful of God! Desire that this fall into your hands for your good, not for honor and might for yourself. First, surrender, then repent, then know, do, be purified—and if not, you are not rightly guided. Listen! There is no enmity between me and you other than that I speak the truth, but your love is not for the religion of God. I have been brought up in the difficult way of life of the teaching of the shaykhs, of exile and of poverty—if there is manifest from me to you a word, take it as from God, for it is He who makes me to speak it. If you come over to me, come over stripped of yourself, of your lower self, of your passions. If you have sight, then behold me also stripped [of these things]—but your illness is your emaciated understanding, O seeker of my friendship and benefit from me. My state has nothing to do with people, this world of the next. So however turns to me, accompanies me, thinks well of me, and does what I say, God willing, he will be thus.

God instructs the prophets in His word (bi-kalāmihu), while He instructs the saints with His report (bi-ḥadīthihu), and the report is inspiration (al-ilhām) in their hearts, for they [the saints] are the trustees of the prophets, their successors, their servants. God spoke: He spoke to Moses, the speech uncreated, speech of the indication of the unseen, speech by speaking he understood, reaching his intellect without intermediating means. And He spoke to our prophet Muḥammad, peace and prayer of God be upon him, this Qur’an, the firm rope of God, which is between you and between your Lord. He sent it down through Gabriel, upon whom be peace, from the presence of God through the heavens, sending it down to His Prophet, peace and prayer of God be upon him, as was said and reported. It is not permitted to deny that and argue about it. O God! Guide all, turn all [to You], and have mercy on all.

It is related about the Commander of the Faithful, al-Mu’taṣim bi-Allah,[1] God be merciful to him, that he said at the time of his death: ‘O God! I repent of what I did against Aḥmad ibn Ḥanbal. With my whole being, I did not take up anything of his affair—it was other than me that took that up.’

O poor one! Leave off speaking about what does not benefit you, abandon fanaticism for madhhab,[2] and busy yourself with what benefits you in this world and the next! You will behold through the proximity of your experience—remember my word, you will behold at the transfixion, with no helmet upon your head, which thing completely wounds it [?]. Empty your heart of the cares of this world, as you are captivated by it through proximity—do not seek the good of this life in it, in what falls into your hand. As the Prophet, peace and prayer of God be upon him, said: ‘[True] life is the life of the next world.’

Diminish your expectation, and there will have come to you renunciation (al-zuhd) in this world, because renunciation, all of it, is the diminishment of expectation. Part company with the companions of evil, and cut off friendship between yourself and them, rather, persist in friendship between yourself and the righteous. Part company with proximity on your part if they are the companions of evil. If they are the companions of good, still maintain distance. For everyone whom you love in friendship, there arises a relationship between you and him—so keep a watch on who you love in friendship.

O servant! Seek guidance through the workmanship of God, meditate upon Him through His workmanship, and you will be united to the Craftsman. The knowing, possessed of certainty believer has exterior eyes and interior eyes. He sees with his exterior eyes what God has created on earth, and he sees with his interior eyes what God created in the heavens. Then the veil is lifted from his heart so that he sees Him without likeness or conditioning, so that he becomes close, loving [towards God]—and nothing is kept from the lovers, in that the veil is lifted from the heart stripped of the creation, the lower self, one’s nature, the passions, and Satan. [God] sets forth the keys of the treasuries of the earth out of His hand; in His presence stone and mud are equalized. Be comprehending and meditative in regards to what I say, and understand: I speak with the inner heart of the word, with its essence, with its interior, the sincerity of its [inner] meaning.

[1] Reigned 833–842; succeeded his brother al-Mā’mūn, who had initiated the so-called Mihna, actions intended to consolidate an official ‘orthodoxy’ in theology, more or less along Mu’tazila lines. The issue of the createdness of the Qur’an was one of the central points of dispute in the course of the Mihna. After initially continuing al-Māmūn’s policies, al-Mu’taṣim changed course, as indicated in this short report.

[2] Madhhab here could mean either legal ‘school,’ or, perhaps more likely, theological ‘school,’ given ‘Abd al-Qādir’s targeting of ‘deviant’ theological opinions.

Strip Off the Clothing of This World and Don That of the Next

The following is a brief sermon by ‘Abd al-Qādir al-Jīlānī, delivered, according to the opening line, in his madrasa in Baghdad; it is taken from a collection titled Futḥ al-Rabāniya. Sermons seem to have been the form of discourse he was best known for. This one is a good example of some of ‘Abd al-Qādir’s defining themes, as well as an example of his method of sermonizing. As with preachers in many periods and milieus, ‘Abd al-Qādir employs vivid imagery, parallelism, repetition, and personal address; he is also relatively brief and straightforward, at least in this sermon (which, after all, was for a weekday evening). Who might have made up his audience? Practitioners of Sufism, at least in part: ‘Abd al-Qādir targets with condemnation a certain sort of Sufi in the opening lines; in addition to ‘Sufic’ resonances throughout the rest of the sermon, there is a further section towards the end in which he seems to be addressing the practice of prayerful seclusion (khalwa) and the way one makes oneself suitable for the practice.

As for the remainder of the sermon, the material would be applicable to anyone, whether practicing Sufism or not (and one should keep in mind that during this period the ‘institutional’ Sufism of the so-called orders was not really existent, at least not in the form it would take in the coming centuries). As has been evident in the other texts translated here, ‘Abd al-Qādir maintains a constant focus on the duality between interior and exterior and the necessity of uniting the two through the rectification of one’s interior state. Directly related to the making right of one’s interior state is the necessity of coming to a right relation with God. This right relationship, for our author, means a stripping away of everything that is ‘other than God.’ This stripping away is primarily on what we might call the emotional or volitional level: the true believer should rely only on God, should devote herself only to God. While good deeds and the keeping of the shari’a is certainly key for ‘Abd al-Qādir, even more important is making sure one’s inner state, one’s conceptions, volition, and sight are aligned with God, and not with anything else. Only when one has achieved this state of inner-outer congruence should one try to lead other people to God- another common theme for ‘Abd al-Qādir. Significantly for his later reputation, he does claim having achieved such a state, at least implicitly (else he would not be preaching).

In coming days I will conclude my mini-series, as it has developed, on ‘Abd al-Qādir with a few more translations from Futḥ al-Rabāniya and some concluding thoughts on the Hanbali Sufi’s development into a ‘saint of saints’ with global appeal, up to the present day.

8th Session

He said, may God be pleased with him, on Monday evening in the madrasa, on the nineteenth of Shawwāl, in the year 545 [February 8th, 1151 AD]:

The man whose clothes are clean but his heart is dirty, he is absentious in permitted things, lazy in lawful earning, and lives off of his religion[1] and never hesitates—he eats that which is clearly forbidden. His affair is hidden from the common people, but it is not hidden from the spiritual elite: all of his abstentions and obediences are done exteriorly. His exterior is built-up while his interior is in ruins. Listen! Obedience towards God is through the heart, not outward conformity! All of these things adhere to hearts, to secrets, to [inner] meaning. Strip yourself from what you are in so that God bestow upon you in exchange apparel which does not wear out. Strip, so that He may clothe you! Strip off the clothing of your laziness in [fulfilling] the rights of God (ḥuqūq Allah); strip off the clothing of your conformity with people and your associating of them [with God]. Strip off the clothing of the passions, of thoughtlessness, of vanity, of hypocrisy, of your love of acceptance by people and of their taking interest in you, and their giving to you. Strip off the clothing of this world and don that of the next world; let your strength, your power, your own good be rent asunder, and cast yourself between the hands of God, without power, without strength, without dependence on a means, without associating anything of creation [with God].

And if you do this, you will see His kindnesses come to you, strengthen you, His mercy knit you together, His munificence and grace clothe you and draw you into them. Flee to Him; be cut off [from other things] towards Him, naked, without ‘you’ and without other than you. Confine in Him, cut off and separated from other than Him, confide in Him, scattered and cast about until He unites you and confers upon you potencies within and without; until, if things are closed to you and you bear all manner of troubles, that [sort of thing] will not harm you, rather, He will preserve you through it. He who causes [al-ḥāq? perhaps read al-khalq?] to pass away by means of his confession of divine oneness; he who causes this world to pass away by means of his renunciation; he who causes other than his Lord to pass away by means of desire [for God]: he has perfected the good, the beneficial. And so acquire good of this world and the next by the death of your lower selves, your passions, and your demons before you die [physically]; particular death is incumbent upon you before general death.[2]

O people! Answer! Verily, I am God’s summoner—I summon you to His gate, to obedience to Him; I do not summon you to myself. The hypocrite does not summon people to God, rather, he summons them to himself; he seeks worldly affairs and approval, seeking this world. O ignorant one! Leave off listening to this discourse and sitting in your solitary cell with your self and your passion: you need, first of all, the companionship of shaykhs, the killing of the lower self and nature and what is other than the Master. Adhere to the door of their houses, I mean, of the shaykhs. Then, after that, withdraw from them and sit in your cell, alone with God. Then, if this is perfected in you, you will become medicine for the people, a rightly-guided guide by God’s permission.

[But for now] you, your tongue is pious, but your heart dissolute: your tongue praises God while your heart opposes Him; your exterior is Muslim while your interior is an infidel; your exterior is a monotheist while your interior is an associator. Your religion and your asceticism are exterior, while your interior is in ruins, like whitewash on an outhouse, or a lock on a refuse-bin.[3] When you are so, Satan encamps in your heart, and makes it his dwelling place. The believer should begin with the building of his interior, then with the building of his exterior, just as one who works on a house spends a great deal on its interior while its doorway is dilapidated. Then, when he finishes the interior fabrication, after that he works on the door. Likewise, the beginning [of the spiritual life] is in God and His good pleasure, then the turning to other people by His permission; the beginning is through the attainment of the other world—then we receive the portions of this world.

[1] ‘Abd al-Qādir is targeting here someone who rejects work and instead begs— living off of one’s religion. He probably has in mind ascetics and Sufis who took tawakkul—total reliance on God—very literally, rejecting any attempt at lawful earning in favor of waiting on God to send along livelihood either through gifts or through miraculous means. ‘Abd al-Qādir, like the writers of many early Sufi texts, rejects this interpretation of tawakkul.

[2] A paraphrase might make this line a little clearer: the particular death of dying to one’s self, passions, and the devil—a death that not everyone undergoes—before the common death, the death that all undergo—this particular death is incumbent upon you.

[3] I’m not quite sure how to translate this line so as to be in keeping with eleventh/early twelfth century conventions of waste disposal; the Arabic is qufl ‘alā mazbala. Mazbala can also mean dungheap; perhaps what is meant is a lock on an enclosure around a dungheap? The sense at least is clear:  keeping on a lock on a dungheap or pile of trash is absurd.

On Trials, Tawakkul, and Subduing the Self

As promised in my last post, below are some excerpts from one of the two extant collections of ‘Abd al-Qādir’s sermons and discourses, the Futūḥ al-Ghayb, a text which gained a selective commentary by none other than ibn Taymiyya (who, it should be remembered, was not entirely anti-Sufi but in fact favored and participated in certain aspects of Sufism). The excerpts I have translated below deal, in general, with the pious believer’s relation to God vis-a-vis the external world. The basic dilemma for ‘Abd al-Qādir is the question of how one can live what would appear to be a rather conventional, active life in the world, while relying entirely upon God and refusing to notionally associate anyone or anything else with God. The goal for ‘Abd al-Qādir, as with many other Sufis and other medieval Muslim ascetics and pious practitioners, is to enter a state in which all attachments, emotional and physical dependencies, and notional conceptions are stripped away from the created world and realigned with God.

How congruent is the world-view expressed in these writings with the image of the powerful Sufi saint, as seen in later hagiography? I will leave the reader to contemplate that question for now; I will take it up in more detail in a future post of excerpts from ‘Abd al-Qādir’s other sermon and discourse collection, al-Fatḥ al-Rabbānī.

3rd Discourse: On Trials

He said, may God be pleased with him and He please him: When the servant is tried with a trial, he first undertakes independent measures of himself, and if he is not delivered from [the trial], he seeks the aid of [other] people, such as holders of power, high dignitaries, lords of this world, spiritually powerful people, and doctors for illness and pains. And if he does not find deliverance in those measures, he turns to his Lord with supplication, humility, and praise. So long as he finds help in himself, he does not turn to [other] people, and so long as he finds help in other people he does not turn to his Lord. Then, when he does not find help in the Creator, he flings himself before Him asking and supplicating, with humility and praise, and neediness with fear and hope. Then God incapacitates his supplication and does not answer him until he is cut off from all means (al-asbāb). Now His power is operative in him, and His action acts in him, and the servant is annihilated from all means and motions, so that he is only spiritually remaining (fa-yabqā rūḥan faqaṭ), and he sees nothing save the action of God (f’il al-Ḥaqq). So he becomes of necessity certain of [divine] oneness, being made profoundly aware that in truth there is no Doer save God, no bringer-into-motion or bringer-to-rest save God, and that there is no good or bad, harm or benefit, giving or withholding, opening or closing, death or life, might or abasement, save by the hand of God.

And he becomes in the divine power (al-qadar) like the suckling child in the hands of the wet-nurse, like the dead body being washed in the hand of the washer, like the ball in the polo-stick of the horseman, turned and changed and modified. He simply is, and there is no motion in himself nor in anyone else, and he is hidden from himself in the action of his Master, seeing no one else other than his Master and His action. He neither hears nor comprehends any other. If he perceives or hears, it is His word that he hears, and His knowledge that he knows, by His blessing he is blessed, with His closeness he is glad. By His proximity is his adornment and exaltation, and by His promise health and peace; by Him is tranquility of soul; by His speech is amicability, from those apart from Him he feels fear and desolation. He takes refuge in and depends upon remembrance of Him, and he puts his confidence in Him and trusts in Him. He is guided, clothed, and attired in the light of knowledge of Him. He becomes aware of the wonders of His knowledge, and he comes close to the secrets of His power. And through Him he hears and takes heed, then upon that he gives praise, glory, thanksgiving, and supplication.

16th Discourse: On Tawakkul and Its Stations

Nothing veils you from the grace of God and commencement in His benefits save your reliance upon people, the means, craft and trade, and acquisition. People are your veil from livelihood (lit., eating) in accordance with the sunna, that is, [lawful] earning (al-kasb).[1] So do not persist in being dependent on people, hoping for their gifts and favor, asking of them, always going to their doors—you thereby associate God with His creation![2] So He punishes you by your being deprived of livelihood in accordance with the sunna, that is, earning of the allowed things of this world. Then, if you repent of dependence on people and your associating of them with your Lord, and turn to lawful earning and live by it, but you trust in [your] lawful earning, are tranquil in it, and forget the favor of your Lord—then you are an associator also. It is a hidden associationism (shirk khafī) more hidden than the first, so God will punish you, and veil you from His favor and commencement in it. And if you repent and cease, from the heart, from associationism, no longer trusting in earning, strength, or power, and look only to God—He is the Provider, He is the Causer, the One Who gives ease, the One powerful over earning, the Source of every good. Provision (rizq) is by His hand.[3] Sometimes He continues you in it [provision] by way of people, either through asking them for something in time or trial or testing, or through your asking Him. Other times, it is by way of lawful earning as recompense. Other times it is from His favor commencing without your seeing the means or cause.

So return to Him, and cast yourself between His hands. And so the veil between you and Him will be lifted, and your beginning and your future are by His favor, so that every need is met in accordance with your state, just as the kind, compassionate, loving doctor does for the sick person, so is protection from Him. Yours is purification from leaning towards other than Him; He pleases you with His favor. So when your heart is cut off from every intention, passion, pleasure, seeking, and loving, then there remains in your heart nothing other than His intention. If He wants the conveying of your portion which you will necessarily receive—it is provision for no one else in the creation other than you—there will be found in you desire for that portion and its conveyance to you. And He will continue you in at time of need, then He will give you success and make you to know that is from Him, He is the conveyer of it to you and the Provider of it to you. So now you will thank Him and know and understand. And He will increase departure from [dependence on] the creation in you, and distance from the people, and the interior [person] will be emptied of other than Him . Then, when your knowledge and your certainty are strengthened, your inner senses clarified, your heart enlightened, your proximity to your Master increased, and your place is in His presence, and you become fit for the preservation of the secrets—you will know when your portion comes to you, grace for you and glorification for your honour—favor from Him, gift and guidance.

God says: And we made among them leaders who rightly guided by Our command when they became patient and firmly believed in Our signs (Q. 32.24). And He says: And those who strive in Us, We guide them in Our path (Q. 29.69). And He says: Fear God; God knows you (Q. 2.282). Then He returns upon you the original formation [?]—so be in accordance with the clear warrant in which there is no difficulty of understanding, and with the prescriptive indications are like the illumining sun, and with His pleasing Word—which is more pleasing than every other pleasure; and true inspiration which is without dissimulation, clarified from the notions of the self and the whisperings of accursed Satan.

God says in one of His books [sic.]: O son of Adam, I am God, there is no god save Me—I say to a thing, Be, and it is. Obey Me, and I will make you to be able to say to a thing, Be, and it will be. And He has done that for many of the prophets, saints, and spiritual elite among the sons of Adam.[4]

46th Discourse: On the Death Without Life in It, and the Life Without Death in It

One day a matter caused me anguish, goading the self (al-nafs), so that it was said to me: What do you want? I replied: I want a death without life in it, and life without death in it. So it was said to me: what is the death without life in it, and what is the life without death in it?

So I said: The death without life in it is my death in relation to my manner of being among people, so that I do not perceive them in relation to harm and benefit, and my death from my self (nafsī, the ‘lower self’), my passions, my will, and my desires in this world and the next, so that I neither experience or am found in any of those.

As for the life without death in it: it is my life in the action of my Lord, without my own existence in it, and the death in that is my existence with Him. And this intention is the most precious intention I have desired since I came of understanding.

[1] Kasb, in Islamic jurisprudential understanding, is profit accrued in accordance with the shari’a. See Cahen, ” Kasb,” in Encyclopaedia of Islam, Second Edition. Brill Online , 2012.

[2] To ‘associate’ is to practice polytheism, effectively; in this case, ‘Abd al-Qādir is arguing, dependence upon creatures—people—is to put them in the place of God, as other gods alongside Him.

[3] Rizq is another deeply multivalenced word, in Sufi discourse and in wider forms of Islamic discourse. I have translated it ‘provision,’ but it could also be translated ‘sustenance,’ ‘livelihood,’ ‘daily bread,’ and so on. The essential idea here is that rizq is something provided by God; in much Islamic thought, rizq, like one’s time of death, is a determined thing (even the Mu’tazila, for instance, tended to accept the determined nature of rizq, for instance).

[4] This final paragraph is, needless to say, curious, and does not immediately seem to go along with the rest of the discourse—it is perhaps an interpolation by later redactors of the text. The lines cited seem to be a ḥadīth qudsī, of unknown provence to me.

Sufi Sainthood and Bodily Control

The stories translated below are taken from a 14th century hagiographic compilation by Abd Allāh ibn Asʻad al-Yāfiʻī (1298-1367), a Sufi ascetic and scholar originally from Yemen.[1] The compilation concerns ‘Abd al-Qādir al-Jīlānī (1077-1166), the patron and eponym of the Sufi ‘order,’ the Qadiriyya, to which al-Yāfiʻī belonged. ‘Abd al-Qādir was, so far as can be made out, a Hanbalī preacher, jurist, and ascetic Sufi, although it is very unlikely he had any role in the founding of the Sufi ṭariqa that took his name.[2] The handful of extant writings that are definitely his consist of an adab-book of proper religious practice, with some Sufi-tinged material, and two collections of sermons and discourses, many of which have a Sufic character reminiscent of, say, Abū Ṭalib al-Makkī’s Qūt al-Qulūb. As I plan on translating and posting some excerpts from these sermons and discourses, I will make no further comments here. Suffice to say, while his authentic writings have definite Sufic concerns and (some) technical vocabulary, they do not immediately stand out as exceptionally ‘mystical’ or even exclusively Sufi; many of the sermons could have been delivered by any pious, ascetically-inclined Hanbali preacher.[3] There is little immediately apparent in these extant writings or in the earliest biographical notices of ‘Abd al-Qādir to prefigure the later—by a hundred years or so after his death—exaltation of the ascetic preacher to the heights of Sufi sainthood, as evidenced in the excerpts below.

The writings of al-Yāfi’ī and others—he is drawing upon previous writers, such as al-Shattanufī (d. 1314)—then present, not so much the life and milieu of ‘Abd al-Qādir himself, as ideas and conceptions of sainthood relevant in the 13th and 14th centuries among the Qadiriyya and other Sufi ‘orders.’ Besides presenting the ṭariqa’s eponym as a saint of saints and hence worthy of emulation, veneration, and supplication, these sorts of accounts answer many potential questions about the nature of sainthood. What is a saint, or what ought a saint to be? How does the body of the saint ‘operate,’ and how does it differ from others? How does a saint manifest his internal, ‘mystical’ state of being-with-God into the outside, external world of bodies and society? Hagiographical works such as this one work to answer these sorts of questions; whatever the historical validity or historical ‘germ’ that may or may not lie behind such accounts, they relate the ways in which their writers, relators, and readers perceived the spiritual and physical worlds.[4]

A couple of things stand out in the stories I have selected here. Linking all of them together is the theme of the interaction of the spiritual state with the physical body. Sometimes this interaction can be ecstatic and even uncontrollable, as in the story of ‘Abd al-Qādir’s involuntary apparating, as it were. But more prominent in these selections is the theme of bodily integrity and autonomy on the part of the saint. Such a concern explains the rather curious juxtaposition of control of bodily functions and the rejection of bodily obeisance towards holders of temporal power. In both cases, the saint is in charge of his bodily autonomy; he regulates it as he wills, being subject to neither internal forces of nature, nor external forces of temporal power. Nor, as we see in the slightly unnerving story of the shape-shifting jinn, can uncanny forces disturb the saint’s body, or his interior, spiritual state (which, as we see throughout, is intimately linked to his exterior person). Saintliness means, in the world of these accounts, a remarkable degree of personal control and indeed autonomy on the part of the saint, translated into the outer world through his body and his control of it and the space it inhabits (including the bodies and even thoughts of others in the saint’s vicinity). Even terrifying viper-jinn cannot violate the physico-spiritual stability and control of the saint.

123rd Account: According to the Sharīf Abū ‘Abdallah Muḥammad ibn al-Khiḍr ibn ‘Abdallah al-Ḥusanī al-Mawṣilī: My father related to me: he said: I accompanied our master Shaykh Muḥya al-Dīn ‘Abd al-Qādir for thirteen years, and I never saw him during that time wipe his nose nor spit, nor did a fly ever alight on him. And he never stood up for important people, nor for any one possessing goods or temporal power, nor did he sit upon the rugs of kings. And whenever the caliph, or vizier, or any other respectable person came to him, if he was sitting, then he would rise and enter into his house, lest he stand up for them. But when he left his house, they stood up for him, and he spoke good words with them, and he went to great lengths in exhorting them, and they accepted it, forming a circle before him humbly and meekly.

And if the caliph wrote a letter to him, he [‘Abd al-Qādir] would write back: ‘’Abd al-Qādir commands you with such and such, and his command is legally valid towards you, and obeying him is incumbent upon you, and he is a model for you, and an argument against you.’ And when [the caliph] came to the end of his letter, he would kiss it and say: ‘The shaykh, God be pleased with him, spoke truthfully!’

And ‘Abd al-Qādir used to say: The states (al-aḥwāl) used to, in my beginning, overcome me, conveying me. So I resisted them and mastered them, so that I vanish from them and from my essence (wujūdī), and I cross over bounds and become unaware. And when that passes from me, I find myself in a place far distant from where I was. One time the state (al-ḥāl) overcame me in the streets of Baghdad, and an hour went by and I was unaware—then it passed from me and I was in Shushtar, and between it and Baghdad is a twelve-day journey. I remained meditating on my affair.[5]

126th Account: According to Shaykh Abū Bakr ‘Abd al-Rizāq, who said: I heard my father, Muḥya al-Dīn ‘Abd al-Qādir, say: One night I was in the mosque of al-Mansur Usli, and heard the sound of something moving along the floor—then there came an enormous viper, and it opened its mouth in the place of my prostration [i.e. in the place the head touches the ground] and when I desired to make a prostration I repelled it with my hand and completed my prostration. When I sat down for the shahada, it crawled over my thigh, rose to my neck, and coiled itself around it. Upon concluding my prayers, I no longer saw it. The next day, when I entered the street facing the mosque, I saw a person whose eyes were cloven longways, and I knew that he was my jinn. Then he said to me: ‘I am the viper you saw yesterday. I have tried many of the saints in the same way I tried you, and none of them stayed firm the way you stayed firm. There were among them those who were disturbed exteriorly and interiorly [that is, physically and spiritually], and those who were disturbed interiorly while they remained firm exteriorly—but I perceived that you were not disturbed exteriorly or interiorly!’ Then he asked that he might be induced to repent by my hand, so I induced him to repent.

132nd Account: According to Shaykh Abū Ḥafṣ ‘Umar ibn Ḥassan ibn Khalīl al-Ṭaybī, who said: I was present at the session (majlis) of ‘Abd al-Qādir, God be pleased with him, and I was sitting alongside him, when I saw something in the form of a crystal lamp descending from heaven so that it drew close to the mouth of the shaykh, then it went back, ascending rapidly. This happened three times. I couldn’t restrain myself from rising to tell others do the excess of my wonder, but he cried out to me: ‘Sit down! These sessions are held in trust.’ So I sat and did not talk about it until after his death.

And according to Yaḥya ibn al-Ḥājj al-Adīb, who said: I said to myself, I want to count how many times the shaykh Muḥya al-Dīn ‘Abd al-Qādir relates poetry in the session of his preaching. So I attended a session and had with me a string, and whenever he related poetry I tied a knot in the string, concealed under my clothing, and I was at the back of the crowd. So he said [perceiving it], ‘I loosen and you tie!’

ʻAbd Allāh ibn Asʻad al-Yāfiʻī, Khalāsa al-Mafākhir Fī Manāqib al-Shaykh ʻAbd al-Qādir, ed. by Aḥmad Farīd al-Mazīdī (Sirīlānkā: Dār al-Āthār al-Islāmīyah lil-Ṭibāʻah wa-al-Nashr, 2006), 199, 201, 205.

[1] On Yāfiʻī  see: Geoffroy, E.. ” al-Yāfiʿī.” Encyclopaedia of Islam, Second Edition. Brill Online , 2012.

[2] On ‘Abd al-Qādir, see, besides his EI2 article and the article on the Qadiriyya, Bruce Lawrence’s article for the Encyclopedia Iranica, available here: http://www.iranicaonline.org/articles/abd-al-qader-jilani; and Jacqueline Chabbi, ‘‘Abd al-Kadir al-Djilani personage historique: Quelques Elements de Biographie’, in Studia Islamica, No. 38 (1973). There are multiple works dealing with the various permutations of the Qadiriyya; among resources available on-line, see Martin van Bruinessen, “Shaykh `Abd al-Qadir al-Jilani and the Qadiriyya in Indonesia”, Journal of the History of Sufism, vol. 1-2 (2000), 361-395, available here: http://www.hum.uu.nl/medewerkers/m.vanbruinessen/publications/Qadiriyya_Indonesia.htm. His article includes a discussion of, among other things, Indonesian comic books depicting stories of ‘Abd al-Qādir.

[3] There are a number of works attributed to ‘Abd al-Qādir that are most certainly not his, including an interesting, but clearly much later, treatise called Sirr al-Asrar, that would seem to date from the 13th or 14th century; the peoms and litanies attributed to him are also probably considerably later in origin.

[4] For a recent treatment of the uses of Sufi hagiography, and concepts and uses of the body, in the context of late medieval Persianate Sufism, see Shazad Bashir, Sufi Bodies: Religion and Society in Medieval Islam (New York: Columbia University Press, 2011).

[5] My translation of this passage is rather tentative. To be honest, I am not entirely sure what to make of parts of it—it does seem clear, however, that there is something about the saint’s mystical ‘states’ that cause extranormal bodily experiences.