Al-Wāsiṭī’s life journey ended on the late afternoon of Saturday 16 Rabīʿ al-Ākhir 711/1 September 1311. At the age of fifty-four he passed away in the small hospital (al-māristān al-ṣaghīr) of Damascus, located next to the Umayyad Mosque, where his funeral prayer was performed the next day.936 While his circle of companions and disciples surely paid their last respects, one can imagine he would have felt the absence of his murshid, Ibn Taymiyya. The Ḥanbalī shaykh al-Islām had by then been in Egypt for some six years, and would return to Damascus about a year later.937 Perhaps our Iraqi Sufi would have found peace in the knowledge that he was buried on the slopes of Mount Qāsyūn of the Ṣāliḥiyya quarter, in the company of many renowned and pious traditionalist masters who preceded him, overlooking the city where he had reached the zenith of both his physical and his spiritual journey.938
Having followed him on these two journeys, it is now time for us to reflect how the present book contributes to the three topics we have outlined in the introduction, namely, (1) the trends of Sufism al-Wāsiṭī encountered during his lifetime, (2) the trend of Sufism that was accepted and practiced among the Ḥanbalīs/traditionalists of early Mamluk Damascus, and (3) more specifically within the circle of Ibn Taymiyya. Let us follow the chronology of this book and begin with the stages of al-Wāsiṭī’s physical journey. Through our study of his autobiographical account in part 1 we have, on several occasions, been able to draw attention to the relationship that may have existed between the trends of Sufism he encountered and the normative religiosity of the context wherein these existed.
First, we found that there appears to have been a link between the trend of Sufism practiced by the Rifāʿī Sufis and the local religiosity of early Ilkhanid Wāsiṭ and its surroundings. In spite of their portrayal as extravagant and sometimes even antinomian Sufis in both medieval Muslim chronicles and academic studies, a study of al-Wāsiṭī’s autobiography in combination with several other primary sources has led us to conclude that they appear to have dominated this geographical area. On that basis, we hypothesized that their doctrine and practices probably represented a form of Sufism that was particular to this context and was, therefore, generally regarded as normative there. This included their practice of samāʿ and miracle-working, the role of the shaykh as the absolute spiritual authority for the Sufi novice, and their high regard for the family-line of the Prophet.
Then we turned to the Shādhiliyya of Alexandria, whose Sufi doctrine was taught to al-Wāsiṭī by Najm al-Dīn al-Iṣbahānī, a direct disciple of the order’s second shaykh, al-Mursī. Our study of the early network of Shādhilī affiliates as well as the earliest recorded teachings attributed to them led us to conclude that this was already a distinct ṭāʾifa by the time our Iraqi Sufi settled among them. It was then argued that there may have been a link between the success of the Shādhiliyya and the local religiosity of seventh-/thirteenth-century Alexandria. The combination of the sober, scholastic approach to Sufism of the Shādhilī shaykhs and their claim to the western Maghribī/Andalusi Sufi tradition was in all likelihood appealing to a great variety of people in this context. In that respect we made special note of the Shādhilīs’ adherence to Ashʿarism, the dominant local trend of theology, which may have been an important factor in shaping their image as a Sufi order grounded in what most Alexandrians of this epoch would have regarded as normative Sunni Islam.
Then we reflected on what al-Wāsiṭī described as a distinct presence of Akbarian Sufis in the so-called “state-sponsored” convents of seventh-/thirteenth-century Cairo. Because we found that the Akbarian trend of Sufism appears to have been more easily accepted as normative in the Persian than in the Arab cultural context, we concluded that this may be linked to the considerable number of Sufis with a Persian background who took up residence in these convents. However, as has also been noted, this possibility needs to be studied in more detail.
Al-Wāsiṭī’s disappointment with all the above groups of Sufis finally pushed him to move to Damascus, where he converted to the Ḥanbalī school and joined Ibn Taymiyya’s jamāʿa. If we presume that his autobiography faithfully conveys to us his sentiments as a wandering Sufi, then it was only among his Taymiyyan companions that he found the kind of scriptural puritanism he had been looking for during his journey. However, we must bear in mind that the way he describes his pathway to spiritual maturation may have been greatly influenced by the literary conventions of his traditionalist conversion narrative. Interestingly, we were able to discern a shift within this very narrative, which must have occurred in between the composition of two treatises. Where his autobiography still envisioned a synthesis between traditionalist theology and Shādhilī Sufism as its conclusion, his later work, Qāʿida fī aṣnāf al-taʾalluh, displays an attitude of complete rejection of his former Sufi shaykhs in favor of absolute scripturalist traditionalism. That this was not a rejection of Sufism as such, and nor even of all the teachings of his former Sufi shaykhs, is, above all, clear from chapters 4 and 5, where his own Sufi doctrine was closely examined.
These chapters have shown that while it has since long remained unclear in how far Sufism was included in the religiosity of the Ḥanbalīs of early Mamluk Damascus – a religiosity that did in fact include a particular form of traditionalist zuhd-piety – al-Wāsiṭī himself certainly aimed to make sure that this was the case. Through his own activity as a Sufi teacher he provided the traditionalists/Ḥanbalīs of this context with a kind of traditionalist taṣawwuf that was adapted to their notions of normativity. To put it in the words of Fritz Meier, he had put Sufism on a Ḥanbalī basis – or more accurately, I would say, on a traditionalist basis.939 By prioritizing the principle of knowing God as He describes Himself, especially through the affirmation of God’s aboveness, sitting on the Throne, and all attributes whose literal meanings are analogous to the attributes of creatures, al-Wāsiṭī’s Sufism effectively laid claim to maʿrifa of God as something strictly reserved for adherents of traditionalist theology. So the way he defined what Sufism is – i.e. his ‘selfing’ – was very much a matter of anchoring it in the theological framework of traditionalism as he understood it.
On that basis he simultaneously defined what Sufism is not – i.e. his ‘othering’ – by identifying the kinds of Sufis who, in his view, deviate from the true method of the early generations of Sufi masters, whom he claimed had been proponents of the creed of the Ahl al-Ḥadīth. We noted that he thereby very consciously excluded as the ‘Other’ all the Sufi groups he had accompanied prior to his settlement in Damascus: those who practiced samāʿ (the Rifāʿīs, the Baghdadi Sufis, and the Akbarians), those who adopted philosophy and/or kalām theology (the Shādhiliyya), and those who preached some form of monism (the Akbarians). Relying on a typical traditionalist line of reasoning, he argued that all these groups have in common that they deviate from Islam by going beyond what the holy texts of revelation (both Qur’an and Sunna) explicitly say.
This same combination of traditionalism with a critical attitude towards the Sufis of his age resulted in another significant aspect of his doctrine, namely, the ṭarīqa Muḥammadiyya. In his autobiography we found that he had developed a strong aversion to the central role allotted to the shaykh in the lives of Sufi aspirants among both the Rifāʿiyya and the Shādhiliyya. In his view, their focus on attachment to the shaykh diverted attention away from the level of attachment to the Prophet required for spiritual perfection. In order to return focus to where he felt it belonged, he proposed a method of attachment to the incorporeal presence of the Prophet through maʿrifa, or intimate knowledge, of his life and times – especially by studying the Prophetic biography (sīra), a genre towards which Ibn Taymiyya had previously directed him. He claimed that such a study could open the vision of one’s heart to the Prophet’s existence in the unseen and thus enter his guidance and companionship (ṣuḥba). What this companionship entails in his vision is never explicitly stated, however. In order to reach this Prophetic connection, our Iraqi Sufi taught that one needed the guidance of a shaykh who had already accomplished this. Here we found clear indications that he seems to have envisioned the practice of Sufism in a group structure under the supervision of a complete spiritual master, which may indicate that this was the role he himself fulfilled for his disciples.
In chapter 4 it has also been pointed out that the origins of the Muḥammadan way has been a topic of discussion among scholars of Sufism, as some have deemed it a typically modern phenomenon related to what is called ‘neo-Sufism.’ While it was already observed by Vincent J. Cornell that the term ṭarīqa Muḥammadiyya can be traced back to the tenth-/sixteenth-century Sufi ʿAbd Allāh al-Ghazwānī, and thus predates its coinage by the so-called neo-Sufi groups from the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century, we found a yet earlier source for the term in al-Wāsiṭī. In fact, I have argued that it was possibly al-Wāsiṭī himself who first coined the term for his doctrine of attachment to the Prophet’s incorporeal presence. Interestingly, his doctrine actually appears to be quite close to that of the neo-Sufis, for whom the term signified the method of connecting to the Prophet’s reality (al-ḥaqīqa al-Muḥammadiyya). Needless to say, the intellectual genealogy of al-Wāsiṭī’s ṭarīqa Muḥammadiyya certainly needs to be evaluated more thoroughly in order to find out whether he was indeed its true originator, what prior developments in Sufi history may have contributed to its conception, and how it was subsequently transmitted and possibly reached al-Ghazwānī or found its way into the teachings of modern Sufis.
Let us now return briefly to our reflection on the traditionalist character of al-Wāsiṭī’s Sufism and specifically focus on how it may have drawn from the teachings of his shaykhs. In chapter 4 we found clear indications that he appears to have worked from the same traditionalist framework as Ibn Taymiyya, especially in his teachings on ithbāt, the affirmation of the apparent meanings of the divine names and attributes. It was argued, however, that this does not necessarily mean that al-Wāsiṭī simply duplicated his master’s opinions. It was, above all, in chapter 5 where we found that he seems to have relied on the shaykh al-Islām’s doctrine for the distinction between ilāhiyya and rubūbiyya, and possibly also on his interpretation of the verse on ‘the most exalted similitude’ (al-mathal al-aʿlā) – although it was pointed out that al-Wāsiṭī appears to have elaborated upon the latter issue in much greater detail than his shaykh, and very distinctly from the perspective of Sufism. Another issue where we recognized a possible affinity with Ibn Taymiyya’s teachings is the central role allotted to love for God, which for al-Wāsiṭī was the core ingredient in his description of the final stage on the Sufi path – the stage wherein the spiritual seeker attains friendship with God and becomes His beloved.
In the same chapter we also found that there were three notable instances where al-Wāsiṭī appears to have appropriated teachings of Shādhilī Sufism: He clearly relied on the Shādhilī method of ‘sitting on the carpet of truthfulness,’ which requires the Sufi to reflect on his own names and attributes and how they relate to those of God; his emphasis on the rejection of choice and self-direction echoed the teachings of his own Shādhilī shaykh, Najm al-Dīn al-Iṣbahānī; and both his differentiation between sulūk and jadhb and his Junaydian understanding of fanāʾ and baqāʾ on the final stage of the Sufi path may also have been inspired by Shādhilī doctrine. In regard to the latter terms we’re also able to observe that, while Ibn Taymiyya knew them and even constructed his very own interpretation of fanāʾ and baqāʾ, al-Wāsiṭī’s understanding of them was evidently much closer to that of the early Shādhiliyya than to that of his Ḥanbalī shaykh.
This leads us to conclude that the way al-Wāsiṭī formulated his own Sufism was in several crucial instances connected to experiences from his physical journey, both positive and negative. This resulted in a highly original and sophisticated Sufi doctrine in that it was constructed around an unprecedented synthesis of ideas and concepts from very different traditions. In formulating this doctrine, al-Wāsiṭī did not necessarily restrict his creative thought by the boundaries set by Ibn Taymiyya’s teachings, as he clearly followed his own judgment in choosing what ought to be incorporated into it. A similar observation has previously been made in regard to another member of the Taymiyyan jamāʿa, al-Dhahabī, who strongly disagreed with Ibn Taymiyya when it came to the role of reason in theology.940 Such space for independent thinking is in line with the hypothesis from chapter 3 that the bond between Ibn Taymiyya and his (elite) companions was probably closer to the relationship between peers and kindred spirits than a pure master–disciple relationship.
With this observation in mind one may question whether it is still useful to call al-Wāsiṭī a ‘Taymiyyan Sufi,’ as this may be taken to imply that he purely based himself on Ibn Taymiyya for his Sufism, thus disregarding the originality of his doctrine we have discerned in this study. I would argue that ‘Taymiyyan’ remains a useful label here not for the sake of connecting al-Wāsiṭī to his shaykh’s teachings per se, but rather to highlight that he was the Sufi master – or ‘shaykh al-sulūk’ – in the Taymiyyan jamāʿa. Our study of the relevant primary sources has shown that at least eleven of Ibn Taymiyya’s disciples were connected to al-Wāsiṭī and that we can be certain that at least five of these will have sat in his classes on Sufism. It seems very likely that his life as a Sufi master was to a large degree specifically connected to the circle of individuals who had organized themselves around the person of Ibn Taymiyya.
This role, which al-Wāsiṭī fulfilled, shows that Sufism was not only actively taught and practiced among them, but that its form was determined not only, nor primarily, by their appointed leader, Ibn Taymiyya. In that regard it is telling that the doctrine al-Wāsiṭī had developed and the Sufi terminology he used to give expression to it was apparently regarded as normative by them. We may see this as an indication that the language of the Sufis had already become an integral part of Sunni religiosity in early Mamluk Damascus. Finally, al-Wāsiṭī’s Sufi doctrine has also given us a taste of the complexity of the religious thought that was present in Ibn Taymiyya’s circle – a complexity that clearly was not solely rooted in the theological ingenuity of the Ḥanbalī shaykh al-Islām himself.
So how do we continue from here? For future research it will first be useful to question to what degree al-Wāsiṭī’s Sufi teachings influenced the thought of those members of the Taymiyyan circle who took him as their shaykh. There are, for instance, some seemingly Wāsiṭiyyan influences in the Risālat al-sulūk, the sole known Sufi tract by al-Wāsiṭī’s disciple al-Baʿlabakkī.941 Unfortunately, because this treatise is relatively short, it does not provide enough insight into al-Baʿlabakkī’s understanding of Sufism to make any large claims in that regard. When it comes to Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyya on the other hand, we do have enough source material to allow for an effective comparative study. Such an endeavor would enable us to see where al-Wāsiṭī possibly influenced Ibn al-Qayyim’s ideas on Sufism.
Another useful step for further research would be to examine how and where al-Wāsiṭī’s Sufi doctrine may have survived beyond the circle of Ibn Taymiyya. We know, for instance, that his writings were copied among Damascene traditionalists, although it is difficult to determine how long this continued and how far his impact reached.942 Ibn Rajab makes mention of his many writings in the field of Sufism and comments that “a group of the Sufis from the Ahl al-Ḥadīth have derived benefit from them.”943 We know that his work was copied by Nāṣir al-Dīn Muḥammad b. Ṭūlūbghā (d. 749/1348), a ḥadīth-scholar who was a student of al-Dhahabī.944 A century later, Shams al-Dīn Muḥammad Ibn Nāṣir al-Dīn (d. 842/1438), a Shāfiʿ traditionalist and defender of Ibn Taymiyya, likewise had our Iraqi Sufi’s writings at his disposal, which he considered “astonishing” (ʿajīb).945 Such examples show that al-Wāsiṭī was still read among traditionalists after his passing and proves that there is merit in further studying the manuscripts of his works and their transmission, which would undoubtedly provide much more crucial information in that regard. It will be a lot more difficult, though certainly not less relevant, to determine how his influence may have eventually reached Sufis of other localities and denominations.
Finally, it would be valuable to investigate his influence in modern times in order to see, for instance, whether the relatively recent availability of his printed writings has affected the debates among Salafis concerning the status of Sufism.946 So evidently, while our study of al-Wāsiṭī has been a journey in its own right, much more ground remains to be covered before we can unveil the impact of this still little-known Taymiyyan Sufi.
On the location of the hospital, see: Aḥmad ʿĪsā, Tārīkh al-Bīmāristānāt fī al-islām (Beirut: Dār al-raʾid al-ʿarabī, 1981), pp. 205–206.
Ibn ʿAbd al-Hādī relates that several companions of Ibn Taymiyya’s inner circle had stayed behind in Damascus when he went to Egypt, cf. al-ʿUqūd al-durriyya, p. 306.
Ibn Rajab, Dhayl, vol. 4, p. 384; al-Dhahabī, al-Dhayl, p. 126; al-Yāfiʿī, Mirʾāt, vol. 4, p .188; Abū Muḥammad al-Qāsim al- Birzālī, al-Wafayāt, ed. Abū Yaḥyā ʿAbd Allāh al-Kundarī (Kuwait: Gharrās li-al-nashr wa-al-tawzīʿ wa-al-Diʿāya wa-al-iʿlān, 2005), p. 137, who relates that al-Wāsiṭī was buried in front of the zāwiya of one al-Suyūfī; the funeral prayer over him was led by two imams: the Mālikī scholar Muḥammad Abū al-Walīd b. al-Ḥājj al-Ishbīlī (d. 718/1318), on whom see: Ibn Kathīr, al-Bidāya, vol. 14, p. 104; and the Shāfiʿī scholar Ibn Qawwām Abū Bakr b. Muḥammad (d. 746/1345), on whom see: Ibn al-ʿImād, Shadharāt, vol. 8, pp. 255–256.
Because, as we have seen, historically not all Ḥanbalīs adhered to traditionalist theology, while not all those who adhered to traditionalist theology were Ḥanbalīs.
I have already made note of this in the introduction to this book, for which I referred to Bori, “al-Dhahabī,” in EI3, 2016, p. 75. I also referred to this when I mentioned the increasing fragmentation of the jamāʿa in chapter 3.
For al-Baʿlabakkī’s epistle, see: Post, “A Glimpse of Sufism,” pp. 173–178 for the Arabic, and pp. 179–187 for the translation. The distinction it makes between taqwā and zuhd as the two pillars of sulūk are very similar to al-Wāsiṭī, Mīzān al-shuyūkh, pp. 239–240, and: Madkhal ahl al-fiqh, p. 73. And like al-Wāsiṭī, al-Baʿlabakkī emphasizes the importance of knowing God as He describes Himself, and likewise regards the abdāl as the highest degree of believers.
Al-Birzālī, al-Wafayāt, p. 138.
Post, “A Glimpse of Sufism,” pp. 162–163, quoted from Ibn Rajab, Dhayl, vol. 4, p. 382.
On Ibn Ṭūblūghā, see: Ibn Nāṣir al-Dīn, al-Radd al-wāfir, p. 47; al-Sakhāwī, al-Ḍawʾ al-lāmiʿ, vol. 4, p. 132. On his copying from al-Wāsiṭī’s own works, see: Ibn Nāṣir al-Dīn, Tawḍīḥ al-mushtabah, vol. 3, p. 166.
Ibn Nāṣir al-Dīn, Tawḍīḥ al-mushtabah, vol. 3, p. 166.
In that regard it is relevant to note that the editors of al-Wāsiṭī’s work, Muḥammad Abū al-Faḍl al-Qūnawī and the late Walīd b. Muḥammad al-ʿAlī, both appear to have a Salafi background.