Introduction Part 2: Sulūk as Sufism

In: The Journeys of a Taymiyyan Sufi
Arjan Post
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He who traveled during the darkness of night,
The stars he observed, his lamp he ignited
Until when guided by the moon’s light,
He looked for the morning and left the stars behind
Until when the darkness completely expired
He saw from the horizon: morning’s come in sight
So lamps, stars, and moon, all he left behind
While he waited for the radiance to shine
Poem on sulūk, ʿImād al-Dīn Aḥmad al-Wāsiṭī613

The second half of the present book, consisting of chapters 4 and 5, aims to provide a comprehensive overview of al-Wāsiṭī’s interpretation of Sufism. For this endeavor I have studied all his writings that have been available to me.614 It must be mentioned that, while the vast majority of these deal with taṣawwuf, there are a few titles that are concerned with either traditionalist theology or the Prophethood of Muḥammad. Nonetheless, as will become apparent in chapter 4, even these two topics have a direct relationship to his vision of Sufism and have therefore been of relevance to the following study. So, if the previous chapter has not yet convincingly shown that al-Wāsiṭī’s main role in the Taymiyyan circle was that of a Sufi guide on the spiritual way, then his corpus clearly attests to that fact. Before we proceed to investigate what it is that he taught his disciples, there remain a few clarifying remarks that ought to be made concerning some of the particularities of the style he maintains throughout his writings.

Here we must address briefly how he conceptualizes Sufism. For besides the fact that he only rarely uses the terms ‘taṣawwuf’ or ‘ṣūfī,’ he occasionally expresses severe criticism towards Sufis, even seemingly disassociating himself from them altogether on some occasions. Most often he names the discipline he is concerned with ‘al-sulūk,’ which may be rendered as the spiritual way, or path towards God, treaded by the sālik, the spiritual traveler. Sometimes he uses sayr as a synonym of sulūk, and sāʾir as a synonym of sālik. He understands sulūk as the effort to progress on the spiritual way by applying the method of the Prophetic way, with the goal to arrive unto God spiritually. When we look at what several medieval Muslim biographers say with respect to al-Wāsiṭī’s writings, we find that al-Dhahabī, Ibn Rajab, and Ibn Ḥajar al-ʿAsqalānī all state that they fall under the category of al-sulūk.615 Ibn Rajab even specifically categorizes them under the topic “al-sulūk al-atharī,” the traditionalist spiritual way, clearly to emphasize that al-Wāsiṭī’s method of spirituality was anchored in the school of the Ahl al-Ḥadīth.616 On that basis, it may be tempting to think that our Iraqi Sufi sought to distance himself from Sufism with the term sulūk. However, his Mīzān al-shuyūkh undisputedly proves that this was not the case, as he states therein that “the master of sulūk is the Sufi” (wa-shaykh sulūk huwa al-ṣūfī).617 He evidently viewed the sālik and the Sufi as one and the same. Why, we may then ask, does his work frequently display a degree of caution in presenting himself as a Sufi, and the discipline he teaches as Sufism?

To answer this question, we must take into account the traditionalist community in which he operated. In the section on the Damascene Ḥanbalīs from the previous chapter we have already observed that it is difficult to pinpoint the exact relationship they had with Sufism. As mentioned, the sources of the era under consideration more often speak of Ḥanbalī zuhhād than of Ḥanbalī Sufis, perhaps because the Ḥanbalīs were wary of an epithet that was surely not always without controversy. This may in part have been motivated by their strict rejection of innovation (bidʿa), an attitude that is also reflected in al-Wāsiṭī’s style of writing. In the final section of the next chapter, for example, we will find that he evidently tried to live up to the Ḥanbalī stereotype, attacking innovations he found prevalent among certain contemporary Sufi groups – though never to censure Sufism in itself, but to purify it of what he believed were perversions of the true Prophetic spiritual way. His preference for the term sulūk may thus in part be understood against the background of the Ḥanbalī/traditionalist community he was preaching Sufism to.

It must be noted that the connotation of sulūk as the discipline of striving on the spiritual way towards God was not exclusive to traditionalist circles. We may recall from chapter 2, for instance, that it was also used as such by the Shādhiliyya. It is possible that the traditionalists’ inclination towards the term had to do with the fact that its verbal form occurs several times in the Qur’an.618 However, I have not been able to verify this in any of the sources I consulted.

Apart from al-Wāsiṭī’s preference for the term sulūk, it is, above all, clear from his writing style that he was in the first place addressing a traditionalist audience. By that I am not only referring to the often-recurring discussions on and allusions to traditionalist theology, a topic that is very neatly intertwined with his formulation of Sufism as the next chapter will reveal. His traditionalist style is also very much visible in the source material he relies on.

Anyone familiar with the writings of classical traditionalist scholars will have observed that they give precedence to two sources: the Qur’an and the Sunna (mostly in the form of ḥadīth). Although they certainly valued the opinions and sayings of renowned scholars and pious individuals, it weighed ­heavier for them to make an argument on the basis of the nuṣūṣ – the holy texts – than on the basis of “qāla fulān” – “so-and-so said.” Of course, generally, most Sufis would also claim that their spiritual teachings are purely based on the texts of revelation; but reading Ibn Taymiyya’s al-Tuḥfa al-ʿIrāqiyya, a work of considerable length on the spiritual states of the heart, one cannot help but notice his heavy reliance on citations from the Qur’an and ḥadīth, while only rarely referring to the sayings of scholars. In contrast, one would find most Sufi books of a similar length from around the same period filled with the sayings of pious figures and Sufi authorities.

When we look at al-Wāsiṭī’s writings, one quickly notices that, like his Ḥanbalī shaykh, he mostly relies on the Qur’an and the ḥadīth, and only sporadically refers to Sufi authorities, or any scholarly authority for that matter.619 The few examples of quotes from Sufis I have come across are once from Sahl al-Tustarī (d. 283/896), once from Abū Yazīd al-Basṭāmī (d. 234/848 or 261/875),620 and several times from al-Junayd (d. 289/910), thought mostly anonymously.621 In fact, the majority of the few citations from Sufi shaykhs in his work are made uncredited.622 We must bear in mind that part 1 of our study has shown that al-Wāsiṭī was, of course, intimately familiar with the teachings of a wide variety of Sufi scholars. I would therefore argue that the fact that his own writings contain so few references is not because he did not rely in any way on the teachings of other Sufis and scholars, but rather because he wrote in the style of his traditionalist teachers.

To return to our initial point, we can safely say that al-Wāsiṭī never explicitly breaks with Sufism, but rather operates carefully within the lines of traditionalism to define how it should be given form. Indeed, the foremost concern in his writings is this spiritual dimension of religion that he most certainly regarded as ‘the science of taṣawwuf,’ precisely because he acknowledged the dire need to have an inward experience complementing one’s outward acts. At one point he even explicitly argues that, without seeking the spiritual realities (ḥaqāʾiq) of faith from the Prophet’s Sunna, people will remain veiled from intimate, spiritual knowledge of God (maʿrifa) and the taste of His love (maḥabba); and that without witnessing God (shuhūd) during such acts as the ritual prayer (ṣalāt), the remembrance of Him (dhikr), Qur’anic recitation (tilāwa), or any other form of worship, people will inevitably be overcome by boredom and laxity.623 For al-Wāsiṭī, it is Sufism in its pure, legitimate form that facilitates this spiritual dimension, with the ultimate goal to reach perfection in one’s religion.624 That is why, on rare occasions, he does not shy away from extolling the Sufis as the folk of God (ahl Allāh) who obtain His friendship, intimacy, and nearness.625 In one treatise on the exalted status of the Sufis, he describes them as those who

love friendship with the Real in the unseen realm (al-ghayb), and force themselves to uphold whatever is possible for them of what is due to this Friend from their breaths, hearts, and spirits, through works of love and reverence and preferring Him over everything else … They do not act with Him in the manner of the absentminded, but rather as one who is present [with Him] and witnesses [Him] – for although He is absent from their eyesight, He is never absent from their inner vision (baṣāʾir)!626

Such is the outcome of true Sufism, which in the eyes of our Iraqi Sufi may be reached by traversing all the steps of sulūk as set out it in his writings. What these steps entail we will explore in the following two chapters. The first of these is concerned with the foundations of his teachings, the second with the stages of witnessing God’s attributes that are meant to lead to the utmost degree of friendship with Him.


Al-Wāsiṭī, al-Sirr al-maṣūn, p. 67; And also in: ʿUmdat al-ṭullāb, p. 213, where he states that these verses are on the beginnings and the endings of sulūk and he provides a commentary on each line. Although he does not state that he wrote these verses himself, we know this to be the case thanks to Shams al-Dīn Muḥammad al-Qaysī Ibn Nāṣir al-Dīn, Tawḍīḥ al-mushtabah fī ḍabṭ asmāʾ al-ruwāt wa-ansābihim wa-alqābihim wa-kunāhum, ed. Muḥammad Naʿīm al-ʿIrqsūsī (Beirut: Muʾssasat al-risāla, 1993), vol. 3, pp. 166–167.


Besides all of al-Wāsiṭī’s writings that have been published, I have had access to three unpublished manuscripts from his oeuvre. For a list of the titles I have consulted, see the bibliography, pp. 284–287.


Al-Dhahabī, Dhayl, p. 126; al-ʿAsqalānī, al-Durar al-kāmina, vol. 1, p. 103; Ibn Rajab, Dhayl, vol. 4, p. 383.


Ibn Rajab, Dhayl, vol. 4, p. 382.


Al-Wāsiṭī, Mīzān al-shuyūkh, pp. 234.


Most fittingly in verse 69 of Sūrat al-Naḥl, where God enjoins the bees to “… travel the paths of your Lord” (fa-ʾslukī subula rabbiki). We must note that all other uses of the verb “salaka” in the Qur’an do not appear to fit the concept of traveling towards God.


This characteristic element of his writing style was also noted by Geoffroy, “Le traité de soufisme,” p. 87.


For al-Tustarī, see: al-Wāsiṭī, Madkhal ahl al-fiqh, p. 84; for al-Basṭāmī, see: al-Wāsiṭī, al-Sirr al-maṣūn, p. 67.


al-Wāsiṭī cites an anonymous Sufi saying in Qāʿida fī sharḥ ḥāl al-ʿubbād, p. 88, which is attributed to al-Junayd by Ibn Taymiyya, MF, vol. 7, p. 186. There is a poem by Junayd cited anonymously in Qawāʿid al-nubuwwāt, p. 300, cf. Abū Ṭālib Muḥammad b. ʿAlī al-Makkī, Qūt al-Qulūb fī muʿāmalat al-Maḥbūb wa-waṣf al-ṭarīq al-murīd ilā maqām al-tawḥīd, ed. ʿAṣim Ibrāhīm al-Kayyālī (Beirut: Dār al-kutub al-ʿilmiyya, 2009), vol. 2, p. 97. There is also poem related by Junayd from a female slave, quoted anonymously in al-Wāsiṭī’s Miftāḥ al-maʿrifa wa-al-ʿibāda, p. 268 and likewise ʿUmdat al-ṭullāb, p. 212, cf. Ibn al-ʿImād, Shadharāt al-dhahab, vol. 3, p. 418.


In the previous chapter I have made note of two nameless citations of Ibn al-Fāriḍ. Al-Wāsiṭī cites two poems by Dhū al-Nūn al-Miṣrī in Miftāḥ al-maʿrifa wa-al-ʿibāda, p. 251. One is found in Abū Nuʿaym Aḥmad b. ʿAbd Allāh al-Iṣbahānī, Ḥilyat al-awliyāʾ wa-ṭabaqāt al-aṣfiyāʾ (Cairo: al-Saʿāda, 1974), vol. 9, p. 368, the other in: Abū Bakr Muḥammad al-Kalābādhī, Al-Taʿarruf li-madhhab ahl al-taṣawwuf (Beirut: Dār al-kutub al-ʿilmiyya, 1993), p. 26. Al-Wāsiṭī cites al-Ḥallāj in Qāʿida fī bayān al-ṭarīq ilā Allāh taʿāla min al-bidāya ilā al-nihāya, p. 182; Qāʿida fī al-wiṣāl, p. 269; Qawāʿid al-nubuwwāt, p. 300. Al-Wāsiṭī cites al-Shādhilī in Miftāḥ al-maʿrifa wa-al-ʿibāda, p. 270 (cf. Ibn al-Ṣabbāq, Durrat al-asrār, p. 137), and again in his Qāʿida fī ḥabs al-nafs wa-al-ʿukūf ʿalā al-hamm, p. 90 (cf. al-Iskandarī, Laṭāʾif, p. 38).


Al-Wāsiṭī, Qāʿida fī al-farq bayna al-ʿābid wa-al-mushāhid, p. 258; Madkhal ahl al-fiqh, p. 50.


For al-Wāsiṭī it is through Sufism that one may become an ‘insān kāmil,’ or perfect human being; see for instance: Qāʿida fī ḥabs al-nafs wa-al-ʿukūf ʿalā al-hamm, pp. 83 & 90.


Al-Wāsiṭī, Qāʿida fī sharḥ ḥāl al-ʿubbād wa-al-ṣūfiyya al-afrād, pp. 78–82; Qāʿida fī khuṣūṣ ṭāʾifat al-ṣūfiyya, pp. 129–130. Note that, sometimes, al-Wāsiṭī speaks of the Sufis by refer­ring to them as “the folk” (al-qawm), cf. Qāʿida fī al-mustaʿidd li-al-taṣawwuf, p. 125; al-Sirr al-maṣūn, p. 59; Madkhal ahl al-fiqh, p. 64; Mukhtaṣar sīrat rasūl Allāh, f.2b; Qāʿida yaʿrifu al-ʿabd fīhā naṣībahu min rabbihi wa-buʿdahu min ḥuẓūẓ nafsihi, p. 212; he calls the Sufis ‘qawm al-sulūk,’ in: Qāʿida fī al-jidd wa-al-ijtihād, p. 251.


Al-Wāsiṭī, Qāʿida fī khuṣūṣ ṭāʾifat al-ṣūfiyya, p. 129.

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