Literature About Sufism

The best book on Sufi metaphysics is the Koran, for as mentioned above, it is, in its own words, a “detailing of everything” (Koran 12:111) meaning not physical details that human beings can find out for themselves, but rather those things that no one can know, except by being in­formed of them by the Divine, matters that are precisely meta– or ‘beyond’ the physical. The Koran is higher reality itself, a single atom of which is worth a cosmos of human literature. The books of the Sufis but point up the proper manners of the spiritual traveller vis-à-vis this reality.

Books in English About the Path

The true literature of the tariqa has been discussed above on page 3, and what follows consists less of Sufi texts than maps of Sufi texts, though maps too have their worth. The following English titles can be listed before some conclud­ing words on the place of books in general in the spiritual path.

A.J. Arberry. The Koran Interpreted. New York: Macmil­lan Publishing Company, 1986.

(The Koran defies any attempt at imitation or translation; if the fallen giants of those who have tried are many, Arberry with his Koran Interpreted must number among the mightiest of the fallen.)

Mawlay al-‘Arabi al-Darqawi. The Darqawi Way. Tr. ‘A'isha ‘Abd al-Rahman al-Tarjumana. Norwich: Diwan Press, 1979.

(Letters to disciples by the great Moroccan sheikh whose name our tariqa bears. The translation conveys much of the hal or ‘spiritual state’ of the author. The present writer is expositing the Arabic original in a taped series of lessons in Amman called the “Darqawi Letters Interpreted,” to which this translation is a useful adjunct.)

Shahidullah Faridi. Inner Aspects of Faith. Karachi: Mah­fil-e Zawqia, 1406/1986.

(An English convert to Islam, the author when forty years old was authorized as a murshid by his own sheikh in the Chishti tariqa in Karachi, where he taught until the end of his life at sixty-three years of age in 1978. Though some points of practice and theory differ from the Shadhili path, there are many insightful passages, particularly on the general aspects of Sufism and its relation to Islam.)

Nuh Ha Mim Keller. Interpreter’s Log. Amman: 1992–.

(An unpublished manuscript of conversations with sheikhs and dervishes of the Shadhili tariqa in Syria and Jordan.)

———. Invocations of the Shadhili Order. Amman: Author, 1418/1998.

(An English translation with Arabic text of the author’s Awrad al-tariqa al-Shadhiliyya, (1417/1997) containing the main wirds of the tariqa.)

———. The Hadra. Amman: Author, 1420/1999.

(A treatise on the hadra or ‘public dhikr’ of the Shadhilis and other Qadiri orders in light of Islamic law and the spiritual path.)

Ibn ‘Ata' Illah al-Iskandari. Wisdoms of Ibn ‘Ata' Illah. Tr. Nuh Ha Mim Keller. Amman: Translator, 1999/1420.

(An English translation with Arabic text of al-Hikam al-‘Ata'iyya, the principal book of suluk or ‘spiritual travel’ in the Shadhili path.)

Ahmad ibn Naqib al-Misri. Reliance of the Traveller. Tr. Nuh Ha Mim Keller. Abu Dhabi, 1991. Revised Edition. Beltsville, Maryland: Amana Publications, 1999.

(The first half is an English translation of a classic Shafi‘i fiqh manual, while the second contains appendices (especially p, q, r, and s) needed by every traveller.)

‘Abd al-Karim al-Qushayri. Principles of Sufism. Tr. B.R. Von Schlegell. Berkeley: Mizan Press, 1990.

(A translation of important parts of a great book of the path.)

Jalal al-Din al-Rumi. The Mathnawi of Jalal al-Din al-Rumi. Tr. R.A. Nicholson. 3 vols. London 1926. Reprint. London: Luzac and Company, 1977.

(Of tariqas whose books have been successfully translated into English, Rumi’s is perhaps closest to the path of Abul Hasan al-Shadhili. His symbolic poetry is replete with lessons in the inward manners (adab) of the tariqa. Although the translation is sometimes tediously thorough, Sidi Muhammad ‘Isa Waley, who has translated poems from the same genre and language, says it is prefer­able to the contemporary popular translations which take liberties with accuracy in order to “New Age” the material.)

———. Discourses of Rumi. Tr. A.J. Arberry. London: John Murray, 1961.

(A good translation of an excellent collection of Sufi mudhakara or ‘teaching sessions.’ In some ways, more accessible than the Mathnawi because it is more explana­tive. As in other works above, the translator is sometimes forced to bluff when he cannot penetrate the author’s intent, resulting in English that merely mystifies.)

William C. Chittick. The Sufi Path of Love: The Spiritual Teachings of Rumi. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1983.)

(A workmanlike exposition of the metaphysics of Rumi’s spiritual path, it touches on points of the ontology of “experiential Sufism” for those who stand in front of that door, as explained in the following section “The Books of the Path.”)

‘Abd al-Khaliq al-Shabrawi. The Degrees of the Soul. Tr. Mostafa al-Badawi. London: Quilliam Press, 1997/1417.

(Many insights into the nature and growth of the ruh are inferable from the stages of the Khalwati way taught by the author. Sheikh al-Hashimi mentions in a teaching poem the same seven stages, although the means for progressing differ in the Shadhili tariqa, and the dhikrs the author has mentioned are not taken from books, but only from living teachers.)

Hasan Lutfi Shushud. Masters of Wisdom of Central Asia. Tr. Muhtar Holland. Moorcote (Yorkshire): Coombe Springs Press, 1983.

(A powerful English rendering of a hagiography of early Naqshbandi masters that contains much Sufism and useful lessons in both the form of the path and its content, its manners (adab) and experience (dhawq).)

Ibn al-Husayn al-Sulami. The Way of Sufi Chivalry. Tr. Tosun Bayrak al-Jerrahi. 1983. Reprint. Rochester ( Ver­mont): Inner Traditions International, 1991.

(An accurate translation of a valuable treatise on the altruism of the spiritual traveller.)

The Books of the Path

Among books by sheikhs of the path there are two complementary types, which interpenetrate and overlap, corresponding to two complementary endeavors in Sufism, the journey to Allah, and the journey in Allah.

(1) The first endeavor is the sphere of Tasawwuf ‘amali or ‘practical Sufism,’ which consists in perfecting the expres­sion of one’s love for the Divine by freeing oneself from blameworthy traits and acquiring praiseworthy ones. Its literary counterpart is found in many manuals of Sufism such as Imam Ghazali’s Ihya’ ‘ulum al-din [Reviving of the religion’s sciences], al-Suhrawardi’s ‘Awarif al-ma‘arif [Knowledges of the illuminates], the books of ‘Abd al-Qadr al-Jaylani, those of Imam al-Haddad, and so on. Their keynote is not literature, but rather tahqiq or ‘realization,’ meaning to persist in successive approximations of the hal or ‘noble quality as transient experience,’ until one be­comes characterized (muttasif) by it as maqam or ‘perma­nent attribute.’

Such books are translatable into English, and the book list above mainly confines itself to them, as practical Sufism is the basis for all the rest of the path. The benefits of reading them include learning one’s din, breaking bad habits, renewing one’s striving, and absorbing something of the spiritual ambition of those before us by reading about their works. Other than fiqh, however, one should not take daily wirds or other works from books, but rather from one’s sheikh. So although the list of books above is not exhaustive or even extensive, it provides more than enough reading, for most of us already know what we have to do.

(2) The second endeavor, the “journey in Allah,” is the sphere of Tasawwuf dhawqi or ‘experiential Sufism,’ the knowledge of which is its practice. Among the first prin­ciples of its literature is that authors confine themselves to what they have personally experienced. The real benefit from such books, aside from mere targhib or ‘encourage­ment’ to do what the authors have done, presupposes that the reader has experienced something of what is being described. This in turn is the fruit of practical Sufism; of leaving the wrong, of annihilations from the self at the hands of a murshid, of folding up the physical and spiritual worlds to know at first hand what is beyond them. In other words, books of experiential Sufism are only valuable after one’s heart has been opened.

But if this experience is a precondition for benefiting from such books, it in turn presupposes ‘ilm or ‘sacred learning,’ since students can only take what their sheikh has, and only if his kashf or ‘illuminatory perception’ corresponds to the traditional ontology (‘ilm al-tawhid) of the tenets of faith of orthodox Sunni Islam can he be depended upon to safely guide students to the Absolute. The path of true Sufism is extremely high, and the drop on either side is horrendous, stretching as it does into infinity, for which reason many sheikhs confine themselves to practical Sufism, and with every right, for they are respon­sible to Allah for the people who follow them. Our sheikh emphasizes that the ‘ilm al-tawhid of traditional Ash‘ari works of tenets of faith, with its knowledge of what is possible, necessary, and impossible of Allah Most High, is the metaphysics presupposed by high Sufism.

Little of the literature of experiential Sufism has been mentioned above except passages in works of practical Sufism, for the very good reason that there are few reasonable translations. Such works probably cannot be translated with complete fidelity without an ijaza or ‘formal authorization’ to speak in this discipline, for speak an interpreter must. But even given good translations, one cannot become Ibn al-‘Arabi by reading Ibn al-‘Arabi. The fewness of such books in English has led the present writer to produce tapes to serve in their stead until disciples’ strength in Arabic enables them to read the original.

Orientalist Studies of Sufism

Works on Sufism by Orientalists can be recommended against without apology or reservation, for any analysis that subtracts the reality of God from the spiritual phenomena it seeks to explain will be little better than its premises; meaning absolutely worthless. Their Creator describes them as “deaf, dumb, and blind, so they comprehend not” (Koran 2:171). Now, a sane person finding a group of deaf, dumb, blind, and uncomprehending people on his doorstep would not let them in to shampoo his rugs, let alone teach him his din. So how should someone with a spiritual path?

The distortional factors in Orientalists’ work range from basic incomprehension of the Divine, to ignorance of matters of fact, to unadmixed contempt for Allah and those He loves. For example, the verses by ‘Abd al-Rahman al-Majdhub (a sheikh of our initiatic chain) about avoiding the dangers of ostentation in the path: “Bury your secret in the earth, seventy fathoms down, / And leave all men in doubt [about you] until Resurrection Day” (Ibn ‘Ajiba: al-Futuhat al-Ilahiyya, 46), move French authority on Sufism Louis Massignon to say, “The enduring power of Islamic mysticism is not in the haughty, morose isolation in which Majdhub proclaims: “Bury your secret in the earth, seventy cubits down, / And let all creatures moan until the Last Judgement” (Essay on the Origins of the Technical Lan­guage of Islamic Mysticism, 11), reading yashku (complain, as of illness [“moan”]) for yashukku (doubt)—which joins between blindness to the whole point of the verses, deafness to their meter, and incomprehension of the eternal consequences of ghiba or ‘slander’ against one of the awliya' or ‘friends of Allah.’ Fill the mind with this, and one will have to spend a long time shoveling it out, while others will have already arrived.

MCMXCIX © N. Keller

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