|A Closer Look at Sufism|
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The Origin of Sufism
As for the origin of the term Tasawwuf or Sufism, like many other Islamic disciplines, its name was not known to the first generation of Muslims. The historian Ibn Khaldun notes in his Muqaddima:
It basically consists of dedication to worship, total dedication to Allah Most High, disregard for the finery and ornament of the world, abstinence from the pleasure, wealth, and prestige sought by most men, and retiring from others to worship alone. This was the general rule among the Companions of the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) and the early Muslims, but when involvement in this-worldly things became widespread from the second Islamic century onwards and people became absorbed in worldliness, those devoted to worship came to be called Sufiyya or “People of Tasawwuf” (al-Muqaddima, 467).
In Ibn Khaldun’s words, the content of Sufism, “total dedication to Allah Most High,” was, “the general rule among the Companions of the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) and the early Muslims.” So if the word did not exist in earliest times, we should not forget that this is also the case with many other Islamic disciplines, such as tafsir or “Qur’anic exegesis,” ‘ilm al-jarh wa ta‘dil or “the science of the positive and negative factors that affect hadith-narrators acceptability,” ‘ilm al-hadith or “the science of the prophetic traditions,” or even Islamic tenets of faith, the name for which, ‘aqida, is not mentioned even once in the entire corpus of the Qur’an or hadith. All of these sciences proved to be of the utmost importance to the correct preservation and transmission of the religion, yet none were known by name in earliest Islam, well illustrating why traditional scholars have said, La qadh fi al-istilah, or “There is no objection to terminology.”
As for the origin of the word Tasawwuf, it may well be from Sufi, the person who does Tasawwuf, which seems to be etymologically prior to it, for the earliest mention of either term was by Hasan al-Basri, who died 110 years after the Hijra, personally knew many of the Companions of the Messenger of Allah (Allah bless him and give him peace), and who said, “I saw a Sufi circumambulating the Kaaba, and offered him something, but he would not take it, saying, ‘I have four daniqs; what I have suffices me’” (al-Tusi: al-Luma‘, 42). It therefore seems better to understand Tasawwuf by first asking what a Sufi is; and perhaps the best definition of both the Sufi and his way, certainly one of the most frequently quoted by masters of the discipline, is from the sunna of the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) who said:
This hadith was related by Imam Bukhari, Ahmad ibn Hanbal, al-Bayhaqi, and others with multiple contiguous chains of transmission, and is sahih. It discloses the central reality of Tasawwuf, which is precisely change, while describing the path to this change, in conformity with a traditional definition used by masters in the Middle East, who define a Sufi as Faqihun ‘amila bi ‘ilmihi fa awrathahu Llahu ‘ilma ma lam ya‘lam, “A man of religious learning who applied what he knew, so Allah bequeathed him knowledge of what he did not know.”
To clarify, a Sufi is a man of religious learning, because the hadith says, “My slave approaches Me with nothing more beloved to Me than what I have made obligatory upon him,” and only through learning can the Sufi know the command of Allah, or what has been made obligatory for him. He has applied what he knew, because the hadith says he not only approaches Allah with the obligatory, but “keeps drawing nearer to Me with voluntary works until I love him.” And in turn, Allah bequeathed him knowledge of what he did not know, because the hadith says, “And when I love him, I am his hearing with which he hears, his sight with which he sees, his hand with which he seizes, and his foot with which he walks,” which is a metaphor for the consummate awareness of tawhid, or the “unity of Allah,” which in the context of human actions such as hearing, sight, seizing, and walking, consists of realizing the words of the Qur’an about Allah that
The origin of the way of the Sufi thus lies in the prophetic sunna. The sincerity to Allah that it entails was the rule among the earliest Muslims, to whom this was simply a state of being without a name, while it only became a distinct discipline when the majority of the Community had drifted away and changed from this state. Muslims of subsequent generations required systematic effort to attain it, and it was because of the change in the Islamic environment after the earliest generations, that a discipline by the name of Tasawwuf came to exist.