The Sunni Critique of Kalam and Falsafah
The Sunni Critique of Kalam and Falsafah
Background to the Sunni Revival . Except for al-Kindi (circa 801-866) and Ibn Rushd (1126-1198), most of the important figures of the Falsafah tradition lived at least part of their lives in the fourth Islamic century, the tenth century of the Common Era. Modern historians have called it the “Shi’ite Century” because during this period Shi’ism had political dominance throughout the Islamic world. In the West, the Ismaili Shi’ite Fatimid dynasty ruled over Egypt, Syria, and much of North Africa. The Fatimids conquered Egypt in 969 and moved their court from Tunisia to their new capital of Cairo. Over the next one hundred years, Cairo thrived as the center of a wealthy mercantile empire, which diverted the Indian Ocean trade from Iraq to the Red Sea and opened the markets of western Europe to the goods of India and the Far East. In Iraq and the eastern Muslim lands, the Abbasid khilafah was an empire in name only. Significant regions, such as North Africa, Egypt, Syria, and Central Asia, had broken free of direct Abbasid control, and Abbasid khalifahs were virtual prisoners in their palaces, rendered impotent by Buyid emirs (circa 945-1055), who ruled Iraq and Iran as military dictators. The Buyids, a clan of Shi’ites from the mountains of northwestern Iran, allowed both Imami and Ismaili Shi’ism to flourish under their patronage and sponsored works of Falsafah and Mu’tazilite theology. In the second half of the tenth century, no fewer than three separate khilafahs competed for dominance in the Muslim world: the nearly powerless Abbasids in the East, the wealthy and vigorous Fatimids in the center, and the Umayyads of Muslim Spain (al-Andalus) in the West.
Sunni Challengers . The only Sunni rulers that could challenge the Fatimids militarily were the Umayyads of Spain (ruled 757-1034). But Umayyad Spain was too far from the center of the Muslim world to threaten Fatimid power in Egypt. Furthermore, the Umayyads were unlikely to support the Abbasids because in 750 the Abbasids had overthrown the Umayyad khilafah ruled from Damascus. The only other Sunni state of any consequence was that of the Samanids (ruled 874-999), who ruled over Central Asia and eastern Iran from their capital of Bukhara in Uzbekistan. The Samanids were descendants of pre-Islamic Persian notables whose power was based on the control of the well-known Silk Route, the trade network that funneled the luxury goods of India and China to the markets of the Middle East and Byzantium. Apart from Bukhara, the most important urban centers of the Samanid state were the trading emporia of Nishapur and Rayy. As merchant princes, the Samanids were more interested in profits than in religious dogma. Consequently, they presided over a principality in which members of all Islamic sects could practice their beliefs free of governmental interference. The Samanid state thus was home to a “free market of ideas,” where Sunnis, Shntes, Mu’tazilites, philosophers, and other thinkers debated each other and competed for the patronage of high officials. It is no coincidence that the regions ruled by the Samanids produced many of the most important religious thinkers of the fourth and fifth Islamic centuries, including al-Farabi, Ibn Sina, al-Ash’ari, al-Maturidi, and Qadi ‘Abd al-Jabbar. It is also significant that the twin pillars of the eventual Sunni revival, Ash’arite theology and Shafi’i jurisprudence, developed as major intellectual movements in these regions.
The “Usulization” of Intellectual Life . Although the “free market of ideas” that characterized intellectual life under the Samanids was meant to foster religious tolerance, on the local level it resulted in intense and sometimes violent competition among Islamic sects and schools of law. The Palestinian geographer al-Muqaddasi, who visited eastern Iran and Central Asia in the year 980, observed the high level of sectarian violence and remarked, “An owl cannot drink from the water of this region without becoming a fanatic!” Although the Samanid rulers themselves followed the Hanafi school of law, many of the most influential jurists belonged to the Shafi’i school and sought to put an end to the climate of sectarianism by uniting all Muslims under a single approach to religious knowledge. This approach, first proposed by Muhammad ibn Idris al-Shafi’i (767-820) in al-Risalah (The Treatise), the first systematic work on legal methodology in Islam, came to be known as the usul (sources, or roots) approach because it was based on the fundamental sources of Islamic knowledge. In the field of jurisprudence, this approach was known as usul al-fiqh (sources of jurisprudence); in theology and dogmatics, it was called usul al-din (sources of religion).
Sources of Knowledge . As outlined by Shafi’i, the usul approach relied first and foremost on the Qur’an and Sun-nah as sources of religious and legal knowledge. The truest form of knowledge was thought to come from God, either by means of revelation, as in the Qur’an, or by means of divine inspiration, as in the hadith accounts that made
up the Sunnah. Only when the answer to a legal or theological question could not be found in the Qur’an or the Sunnah was a scholar allowed to resort to his own reasoning (ijtihad). Even in this case, a scholar’s reasoning was to be limited to strict analogy (qiyas), which had to be based on a text found in the Qur’an or in approved hadith collections. To further aid his reasoning, a scholar could also turn to the traditions of the Prophet’s Companions and the two generations of Muslims who followed them. These “Righteous Ancestors” (al-Salaf al-Salih) were the main sources of hadith reports about the Prophet Muhammad and were considered more pious and trustworthy than Muslims of later times.
Rejection of Innovation . Only rarely could a matter of law or religious doctrine depart from these sources of tradition. Although the Hanafi school of law recognized the concept of “positive innovation” (bid’ah hasanati), the other legal schools regarded all overt innovation as an abandonment of the path laid out by the Prophet and the Righteous Ancestors. Consequently, schools of thought, such as Fal-safah, that depended heavily on pre-Islamic sources of knowledge were branded as heresies by the practitioners of usul , as were schools of more purely Islamic theology, such as the Mu’tazila, which depended on human reason more than on tradition. Approved schools of theology, such as that of al-Ash’ari, did not entirely abandon their reliance on logic and human reasoning but were careful not to overstep the bounds of tradition and made sure that the scope of divine power did not appear to be limited in any way.
Orthodoxy and Education . By the late eleventh century, the growing popularity of Shafri jurisprudence and the usul approach to knowledge led to the “usulization” of intellectual life in the eastern Islamic lands. Because the usul approach was based on a legal model, training in the “roots of jurisprudence” became fundamental to all forms of higher education. Under the Saljuks, a tribe of Turks who during the eleventh century came to power in Central Asia, Iran, and Iraq as defenders of Sunni Islam, religious schools known as madrasahs were established. These schools featured legal training as part of the core curriculum. Whether the graduates of these schools became jurists, theologians, Sufis, government officials, historians, scientists, or mathematicians, all shared the same usul- based education. In many cases, they even studied the same books. The process of “usulization” was designed to combat the intellectual effects of “heresies” such as Falsafah and Shi’ism and to promote a new sense of Sunni orthodoxy. Nizam al-Mulk (circa 1019-1092), the Saljuk wazir who founded the Nizamiyyah madrasahs of Nishapur and Baghdad, defined the goal of this endeavor as the promotion of “correct belief” (Persian: niku i’tiqad). Within a century after the death of Nizam al-Mulk, the “usulization” of intellectual life had become so widespread in the Muslim world that even an Aristotelian philosopher such as Ibn Rushd had to be trained in the usul method.
The Sunni Critique of Falsafah . The “usulization” of Islamic knowledge left little room for competing traditions such as Falsafah. Students of the usul method were taught that the only valid sources of knowledge about God and other metaphysical subjects were the Qur’an, the Sunnah, and the traditions of the Righteous Ancestors, so they believed that the pre-Islamic metaphysics of “the divine Plato” and “The Greatest Sage” Aristotle had to be refuted. The person who took on this task, with devastating consequences for Falsafah, was Abu Hamid al-Ghazali. Tahafut al-Falasifah (The Incoherence of the Philosophers), al-Ghazali’s critique of Falsafah, is widely regarded as one of the best examples of polemical writing in Islam. A masterpiece of faith-based theology, its effectiveness in refuting the main points of the Falsafah worldview earned its author the honorific Hujjat al-Islam (The Proof of Islam). Although some modern scholars have characterized Tahafut al-Falasifah as an antirationalistic work, this view is not correct. Rather, the book seeks to demonstrate in a systematic manner that the claims of the philosophers are either logically unsupportable or are themselves based on a blind faith in reason that is no more valid than the “simple” faith of those who believe in the miraculous origin of revealed religion.
Al-Ghazali’s “Higher Theology.” Al-Ghazali’s thought is a difficult subject to summarize because he resists categorization. Although he was an Ash’arite theologian, his “higher theology” differed from traditional Ash’arism in several respects. For example, there is ample evidence that he rejected the atomism and occasionalism of classical Ash’arite theology in favor of a determinism in which God chooses to govern the world through the law of cause and effect. This view of causality had much in common with the philosophical teachings of Aristotle and Ibn Rushd, though al-Ghazali gave more room than the philosophers for miracles and other occasions where God “rends the fabric of custom.” However, al-Ghazali does not openly espouse this “higher theology” in the majority of his works. Instead, he poses as a traditional Ash’arite scholar in works that are designed for public consumption and conceals his actual doctrines in disparate threads of argumentation that appear in other, more mystical or intellectual writings. These doctrinal contradictions did not go unnoticed by al-Ghazali’s critics. The Spanish mystic and philosopher Ibn Sab’in of Ricote (1217-1270) characterized al-Ghazali’s writings as “a language without expression, a voice without speech, a mixture that combines opposites, and a perplexity that tears the heart. At one time he is a Sufi, at another a philosopher. A third time he is an Ash’arite, a fourth a jurist, and a fifth merely confused.”
Polemical Strategy . Most modern scholars have been more forgiving than Ibn Sab’in and attribute al-Ghazali’s contradictions to political cautiousness. In 1091 the Saljuk wazir Nizam al-Mulk appointed the thirty-three-year-old al-Ghazali to the chair of Shafi’i law at the Nizamiyyah madrasah of Baghdad. It would not have been wise for an officially sponsored scholar of such renown to advocate doctrines openly that disagreed with the views he was supposed to uphold. Rather than attempt to teach his higher theology at that time, he found it both wiser and safer to confine his activities to the refutation of the philosophers, a project that all Ash’arite theologians would approve. Consequently, during his tenure at the Nizamiyyah madrasah al-Ghazali wrote his two-part refutation of the Falsafah tradition. First, he set up the philosophers for his attack by detailing the “essence” of their tradition in Maqasid al-Falasifah (The Goals of the Philosophers). Then, he demolished the doctrines of the philosophers by detailing their “incoherencies” in Tahafut al-Falasifah.
Tahafut al-Falasifah . The crux of al-Ghazali’s argument in Tahafut al-Falasifah is that the Islamic philosophers are guilty of the same blind traditionalism for which they blame less sophisticated Muslims. Believing themselves intellectually superior, they are deceived by the exaggerated claims made by the followers of Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle. They assert that
the ancient masters possessed extraordinary intellectual powers; that the principles they have discovered are unquestionable; that the mathematical, logical, physical, and metaphysical sciences developed by them are the most profound; that their profound intelligence justifies their bold attempts to discover the unseen by demonstrative methods; and that with all the subtlety of their intelligence and the originality of their accomplishments they repudiated the authority of the religious laws, denied the validity of the revealed religions, and believed that such things were only sanctimonious lies and trivialities.
The primary targets of al-Ghazali’s attack were the Islamic philosophers al-Farabi and Ibn Sina, whose views on the superiority of philosophy over religion were well known. Al-Farabi and Ibn Sina, said al-Ghazali,
failed to see that a change from one kind of intellectual bondage to another is only a self-deception, a stupidity. What position in God’s world is baser than that of one who thinks that it is honorable to renounce a truth that is accepted on authority, and then relapses into an acceptance of falsehood, which is still a matter of blind faith, unaided by independent inquiry? Such a scandalous attitude is never taken by the unsophisticated masses of men. For they have an instinctive aversion to following the example of misguided genius. Surely, their “simplicity” is nearer to salvation than sterile genius can ever be!
The Value of the Ancients . Despite the strength of his criticism, al-Ghazali had no intention of abandoning the
legacy of Plato and Aristotle entirely. There are things in which the ancient philosophers believed that do not come into conflict with revealed religion. Such is the case with the conclusions they drew from empirical science. Al-Ghazali cites the example of a lunar eclipse. When the ancient philosophers maintained that a lunar eclipse occurs because the earth comes between the moon and the sun, this view is correct because it is based on what today would be called the “scientific method.” Other problems arose because of the mistranslation of Greek philosophical terms into Arabic. Often, these terms were as much in dispute as the ideas of the philosophers themselves. Apparent contradictions such as these, said al-Ghazali, may be resolved by showing how the terms used by the Greek philosophers actually correspond to the terms used by Muslim theologians. As an example of such a false disagreement, al-Ghazali cited the concepts of logic and dialectic. Although the Islamic philosophers regarded the “logical” method of Falsafah as superior to the “dialectical” method of Kalam, al-Ghazali demonstrated that the two methods are in fact equivalent.
Theology and the Ancients . For al-Ghazali, the real problem of the Greek philosophers and their Muslim followers lay in their espousal of beliefs that directly contradicted the teachings of the Qur’an, the Sunnah, or Sunni Kalam. Al-Ghazali cited twenty such disagreements, which can be reduced to five essential theological issues: (1) the philosophers’ belief in the eternity of the world; (2) the philosophers’ inability to demonstrate that God is a true Creator; (3) the denial of the divine attributes; (4) the denial of God’s power to know the particulars of His creation and to determine the destinies of created things; and (5) the denial of bodily resurrection. It is important to keep in mind that in Tahafut al-Falasifah al-Ghazali challenged Falsafah from the standpoint of classical Ash’arite theology and not from the standpoint of his own “higher theology.” This approach is sufficient to refute certain of the philosophers’ arguments but not to refute others. For example, in his attempt to argue against the “atheism” of philosophers who claimed that the world is governed by the laws of cause and effect, Al-Ghazali defended the occasionalistic worldview of classical Ash’arism, which sees God as both the ultimate and the immediate cause of every occurrence. In some of his later works, al-Ghazali abandoned this extreme doctrine of occasionalism as unsupportable. Two generations after al-Ghazali’s death, the Spanish philosopher Ibn Rushd seized on this same point to condemn Ash’arism as illogical. This argument appears in Ibn Rushd’s refutation of Tahafut , which he titled Tahafut al-Tahafut (The Incoherence of The Incoherence).
Ibn Khaldun’s Critique of Kalam and Falsafah . ’Abd al-Rahman ibn Khaldun (1332-1406), statesman, jurist, historian, and Sunni rationalist, was born in the North African city of Tunis. The first truly modern thinker in Islam, he traveled in the course of his career to all of the capitals of the Muslim West, as well as to Damascus and Cairo. His career, like that of Ibn Sina, was characterized by reversals of fortune. At various times he was an adviser to princes, a political prisoner, an exile among Bedouins, and a Maliki judge. In 1384 he lost his entire family when the ship that was carrying them from Tunis to Egypt sank just outside the harbor of Alexandria. He wrote his best-known work, his Muqaddimah (Introduction) to his history of the world, in 1377, “with words and ideas pouring into my head like cream into a churn.” On his death in Egypt, he was buried in the Sufi cemetery of Cairo.
Ibn Khaldun’s Rationalism . It is ironic that Ibn Khaldun was buried among the Sufis because his rationalism prevented him from accepting the more mystical aspects of Sufi doctrine. As a late medieval Sunni thinker, he stood some where between al-Ghazali and Ibn Rushd. Like al-Ghazali, Ibn Khaldun accepted and promoted the worldview of Sunni Islam, including a modified form of occasionalistic theology that had more in common with al-Maturidi than with al-Ash’ari. But like Ibn Rushd, Ibn Khaldun respected much of the Greek philosophical tradition and was a clear supporter of Aristotle’s opinions concerning cause and effect. More empirical and less tied to a specific theological doctrine than al-Ghazali, he was better able to offer a balanced critique of Falsafah, which rejected its shortcomings while retaining the positive influences of the Greek philosophical tradition in the fields of science and logic.
Critique of Falsafah . Ibn Khaldun’s critique of Falsafah appears in the last section of the Muqaddimah which is devoted to an enumeration of the sciences and modes of instruction. He began the chapter with a theory of perception that divides the human mind into three types of intellect: the discerning intellect helps the human being make sense of the natural world; the experimental intellect helps the person function in society through experiences with other people; and the speculative intellect allows the person to deal with hypothetical knowledge, which goes beyond the knowledge derived from the senses. These three types of intellect allow the human being to perceive three worlds of consciousness: the sensual world, the intellectual world, and the spiritual-angelic world. The spiritual-angelic world is the domain of the prophets, who have the ability to transform their human natures into angelic natures. Returning to their human natures, the prophets communicate news of the spiritual-angelic world to humanity via revelation and divine inspiration. The knowledge possessed by the prophets is derived from direct observation and spiritual vision. Because the veil of the supernatural has been removed, this knowledge is never subject to error or mistaken assumptions. Although Ibn Khaldun did not cite him as a source, this model of the spiritual-angelic world and the nature of prophecy owes much to Ibn Sina’s “Oriental Wisdom.”
Social Science . The social scientific side of Ibn Khaldun becomes apparent in his characterization of scientific instruction, including philosophy, as a craft that is produced by urban civilization. Like a modern sociologist, he thought that science is a product of the division of labor in sedentary society and comes about through the leisure time that is made possible by economic surpluses. Science was particularly well developed in Egypt, he claimed, because Egypt had been a settled farming culture for thousands of years. According to Ibn Khaldun, two kinds of science exist in urban civilization: natural science, which includes philosophy and depends on the natural workings of human reason, and traditional science, which depends on the authority of the religious law. There is no place for intellect in traditional science, except in relating problems of detail to basic principles. The most important traditional science is that of the Shari’ah, which includes the disciplines of usul al-fiqh and usul al-din. Another traditional science is Sufism, which, in its most positive form, seeks to provide the believer with a momentary experience of the spiritual-angelic realm.
The Search for Causes . Kalam and Falsafah belong to the speculative side of natural science. The problem with the speculative sciences is that those who seek all answers through logic will ultimately be frustrated because the chain of cause and effect must ultimately lead to a Causer of Causes that is beyond the realm of the human intellect. Causes of human actions multiply vertically and horizontally. They include intention and volition, as well as the “accidents” that determine the course of future events. The causes of perception are other perceptions, and “the cause of all the perceptions taking place in the soul is unknown, since no one is able to know the beginnings or order of matters pertaining to the soul.” Therefore, wrote Ibn Khaldun:
a person who stops at the search for causes is bound to be frustrated. He is rightly said to be an unbeliever. If he ventures to swim in the ocean of speculation and research, seeking each one of the causes that cause them and the influence they exercise, I can guarantee that he will return unsuccessful. This is why the Prophet Muhammad forbade us to study causes. We were only commanded to recognize the absolute oneness of God.
However, this statement does not mean that all intellectual speculation is forbidden. The intellect can indeed serve as a correct measure of things, but it should not be used to weigh such matters as the oneness of God, the spiritual-angelic world, the truth of prophecy, the real character of the divine attributes, or anything else that lies beyond its own level. This attempt would amount to desiring the impossible. According to Ibn Khaldun, using the intellect to understand such matters is like trying to weigh a mountain on a scale that is made for weighing gold.
The Superiority of Kalam . Although they share the defect of putting too much faith in reason, according to Ibn Khaldun, Kalam is superior to Falsafah because it starts with the articles of faith revealed by God to the Prophet Muhammad. Thus, despite its excessive rationalism, it maintains a foothold in the spiritual-angelic world. It starts from divinely revealed principles and works downward. Falsafah, however, starts from the physical world and tries to work upward. It seeks to prove the existence of God and the validity of the Shari’ah by resorting to logic and rational demonstration alone. According to the philosophers, even if no religious law had been revealed, humans would have learned to distinguish between vice and virtue by means of the intellect. In the same way, the intellect would have led them to a complete understanding of God and First Principles. Not only does this view contradict the teachings of Islam, it also contradicts the teachings of Plato. According to Ibn Khaldun, Plato said, “No certainty can be achieved with regard to the divine, and one can state about the divine only what is suitable and proper—that is, conjectures.” He came to this conclusion because the immaterial world cannot be proved by demonstrative arguments. It is a condition of demonstrative arguments that their premises be essential, but essential premises founded on the experience of the material world cannot prove the existence of immaterial entities.
The Sufi Alternative . The doctrinal origins of Sufism (tasawwuf) are as obscure as the origins of its name. As early as the tenth century a noted Sufi remarked: “Sufism was once a reality without a name. Now it is a name without a reality.” Often, Sufism is defined as “Islamic mysticism.” But the concept of mysticism is problematical because it refers to individual, inward experiences of spirituality that vary from person to person. For this reason, many scholars assume that mysticism is ineffable: that is, it cannot be
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described or analyzed in any meaningful sense. Yet, if personal experiences were truly incommunicable to others, human beings would have no language, no literature, and no art. The fact that not everyone can understand a painting by the abstract expressionist Vassily Kandinsky does not mean that Kandinsky was a bad artist or that people cannot study his technique after his death. The same is true for Sufism. Despite the fact that a major part of Sufi practice is based on inward experiences, Sufis have written detailed and systematic works on Sufi doctrine. Many of these works rival the finest treatises of Kalam and Falsafah in their contribution to Islamic thought. In addition, many Sufis such as the Persian master Jalal al-Din Rumi (1207-1273) produced poetic works of great beauty that are still revered today.
Derivations of Terms . What is called “Sufism” in English comprises three terms in Arabic: sufi, tasawwuf, and al-sufiyyah. A Sufi is a practitioner of Sufism, tasawwuf The only Arabic word directly related to these terms is suf (wool). Literally, therefore, a sufi is a “wooly” person, and tasawwuf means to practice “wooliness.” These definitions do not make any sense. It has long been assumed that the term sufi, which was first used in the eighth century, denoted world-denying Islamic spiritualists who wore woolen garments. But wool was not particularly cheap in premodern times. It would often have been more cost-effective to wear clothing made of other materials, such as linen or cotton. So the origins of the term sufi remain a matter of conjecture, as they have been for more than 1,200 years. The Arabic term al-sufiyyah denotes the formal body of doctrines and practices that speakers of English call “Sufism.” No Arabic root exactly corresponds to this term. The closest equivalent is the Greek word sophia, which means “wisdom.” Sufism has long included an esoteric wisdom tradition, much like the hikmah tradition of the philosophers. Also, the closest counterparts to the Sufis in pre-Islamic times were itinerant Cynic and Neoplatonic philosophers, who renounced the world, practiced spiritual exercises, performed miracles, and wore white linen garments like those in which some Sufis dressed. But Sufis have been careful to stress the purely Islamic origins of their doctrines and practices, which they trace to the Righteous Ancestors who followed the Prophet Muhammad. Thus, the modern scholar of Sufism is left in a quandary: either one accepts the Sufi version of their origins and admits that Sufism is “a reality without a name,” or one accepts the Greek etymology of the term al-sufiyyah and assumes that the Sufis hid the true origins of their beliefs and practices for centuries. Neither alternative is satisfactory.
The Ascetic Tradition . According to Sufi manuals and biographical works, the earliest Sufis were ascetics, people who denied worldly luxuries and practiced rigorous austerities such as fasting and solitude. Asceticism was common in the first and second centuries of Islam. Several of the Companions of the Prophet Muhammad were noted ascetics. The ascetic movement of the following century included not only early Sufis but also Kharijites, Murji-ites, and even some Shi’ites. There is little doubt that the ascetic movement in Islam was influenced by Christian asceticism. Syria and Egypt, two of the first lands conquered for Islam, were noted centers of Christian asceticism, where “desert fathers” and other holy people were well known for their austerities. Sufi biographical works include accounts of Muslim ascetics “comparing notes” with their Christian counterparts, and some early Sufis were called “monks” (ruhbari). Muhammad ibn Wasi’ (died 738), a student of Hasan al-Basri, was one of these people. As an ascetic, he practiced self-mortification and wore rough wool and chains on his body when he prayed. He was also a noted hadith transmitter and reciter of the Qur’an, and he died as a holy warrior in Central Asia. He is said to have remarked: “I have never looked at anything without seeing God therein.”
Women Sufis . Many of the early Sufi ascetics were women. Abu ‘Abd al-Rahman al-Sulami (died 1021), a biographer and systematizer of Sufi doctrines who was one of the scholars most responsible for the “usulization” of Islamic mysticism, wrote the earliest book devoted to women’s spirituality in Islam. He mentioned eighty Sufi women who lived between the eighth and tenth centuries and who spanned the Muslim world from Egypt to Iran. In his short spiritual portraits of these women, al-Sulami demonstrated that there was a thriving tradition of women’s spirituality in early Islam, which included local “schools” of women’s asceticism. One of the earliest of these schools existed for more than a century in the Iraqi city of Basrah, and included the great woman saint Rabi’ah al-’Adawiyyah (circa 714-801). The practices of this school included the complete reliance on God for worldly support, weeping for the sins of the world, and war a’, a form of negative piety that included the denial of anything that might be physically or morally impure. Mu’adhah al-’Adawiyyah (died circa 702-719), the apparent founder of this school of women’s asceticism, believed that her body was a temple that could be polluted and made unfit for worship if she ignored her prayers or ate anything that came from an unlawful source. Umm al-Aswad, a student of Mu’adhah who nursed at her breast as a child, remembered her teacher saying “I would not eat anything suspicious lest it cause me to neglect either an obligatory prayer or an additional invocation.” Mu’adhah also said to Umm al-Aswad: “Do not spoil the breast-feeding I have given you by eating forbidden food, for when I was nursing you I made every effort to eat only what was lawful. So make every effort after this to eat only what is lawful. Perhaps you will succeed in your service to your Lord and in your acceptance of His will.”
Seeking a Middle Way . By the ninth century, Sufis began to understand that “heroic virtues” such as asceticism and wara’were not for everybody. In the worst cases, such practices might lead to religious extremism because they went against the Islamic rule to seek the “middle way” in all activities. They could also be harmful to the spiritual life because a Sufi ascetic, believing himself purer and more pious than other Muslims, might develop an egoistic form of self-admiration that could actually lead him away from God. Sufis soon understood that their separation from the rest of Muslim society could lead to an elitism that caused them to deviate from the goals of the spiritual path. For this reason, they began to stress the practices of muhasabah and muraqabah, the sustained, critical examination of their actions, motives, and spiritual states. This interest in critical self-examination led to the development of the first theories of psychology in Islam.
Al-Muhasibi and Sufi Psychology . The father of Sufi psychology was a native of Baghdad named Harith al-Muhasibi (died 857). His deep understanding of human nature and his theory of the soul gave his writings an importance to Sufism that can be compared only with that of Sigmund Freud in the field of modern psychology. Al-Muhasibi’s father was a Muslim heretic who may have held Manichaean or Zoroastrian beliefs. Al-Muhasibi refused to take the large inheritance his father left him because he believed that the money was tainted by his father’s unbelief. In Arabic, muhasibi means “practitioner of muhasabah”’ rigorous self-examination. Al-Muhasibi earned this name by acting as an exemplar for other Sufis in moral conduct and in his refusal to allow any kind of self-deception, no matter how insignificant. His motto was “Be God’s or be nothing.” He taught his disciples to follow the dictates of reason and common sense in all matters. He never accepted gifts without providing some service in return. He was contemplative by nature and tried to remain detached from human affairs. He also disliked emotionalism. When one of his disciples cried out after hearing a bird sing during a session of invocation, he remarked: “If a senseless bird sings capriciously, out of its own habit, why should we act as if it were the voice of God?” Al-Muhasibi was a contemporary of Ahmad ibn Hanbal, namesake of the Hanbali school of Islamic law. But rather than approving of Muhasibi for his scrupulous adherence to Islam, Ibn Hanbal condemned him for his rationalism and his use of dialectical reasoning. According to Sufi accounts, Ibn Hanbal incited the lower classes of Baghdad to intimidate al-Muhasibi and prevent people from attending his lessons. Consequently, in the last years of his life, al-Muhasibi was barely able to venture outside of his house. When he died, only a few people attended his funeral because his disciples were afraid that Ibn Hanbal’s followers would attack them.
Al-Muhasibi’s Theories . Al-Muhasibi’s psychological theories are found in al-Riayah li-huquq Allah wa al-qiyam blha (How to Observe and Abide by the Rights of God). After al-Muhasibi’s death, this book became one of the most important works of the orthodox-mystical tradition in Islam. Al-Ghazali cited it as influential in his conversion from Kalam to Sufism. In al-Riayah, al-Muhasibi outlined what he called the “science of hearts.” The “heart” is al-Muhasibi’s metaphor for the human soul. According to his psychological theory, the soul has two parts: the conscience (sirr), which is the spiritual center, and the nafs, which can be translated as “psyche,” “self,” or “ego.” The nafs is the realm of the “enemy,” al-Muhasibi’s term for Satan. It is the seat of the appetites, desires, and lust, and it strives against the higher nature of the human being. The “enemy” is also a metaphor for the instincts of the ego. Satan only incites people to do evil; people choose to do evil themselves by following the lust and passions of the nafs. Unlike earlier Christian ascetics, al-Muhasibi did not advocate “killing” the ego through self-denial and physical austerities. He understood that the ego is necessary for human existence. It provides the “spirit” and ability to think that allow people to survive in the world and attain the necessities of life. Rather than killing the nafs, one must tame it, just as one might tame a wild horse. The instrument that God provides human beings for taming the nafs is reason (’aql).
Taming the Nafs . The process of taming the nafs is in three stages. The first is that of the “commanding nafs’ (al-nafs al-ammarati). In this stage the rebellious self commands the person to commit sins. In the vocabulary of modern psychoanalysis, this stage corresponds to the concepts that Freud termed the “id” and the “ego.” According to al-Muhasibi, the key to taming the “commanding nafs” is self-examination (muhasabati). When a person is fully aware of the consequences of his or her actions, he or she is in a position to exercise self-control and turn negative qualities into virtues. This process corresponds to what a modern psychiatrist would call “analysis.” Al-Muhasibi’s view of psychotherapy shared the Freudian emphasis on sessions of counseling and self-examination. But because it was religious, al-Muhasibi’s method also made use of the tools of fear and hope. Fear and hope were his way of ensuring that the process of muhasabah did not go on forever. To help inform people of the consequences of their actions in this life and the hereafter, he produced short pamphlets that illustrated in graphic detail the horrors of hell and the delights of heaven. This “carrot and stick” approach was designed to frighten people away from doing evil and to entice them to practice goodness in their daily lives.
The “Self-Blaming” Nafs . The second stage of taming the soul is the stage of the “self-blaming nafs” (al-nafs al-lawwamati). This stage corresponds to the Freudian concept of the “superego.” Through the application of self-examination and the stimuli of fear and hope, a person becomes aware of the damage he or she has done to himself or herself and others by allowing the nafs to control his or her life without restraint. This person turns inward and engages in a more intense form of self-examination, desirous of rooting out the last vestiges of the “enemy” in the soul. This process corresponds to the various types of “depth-analysis” used in modern psychology. For al-Muhasibi, the main techniques of dealing with the “self-blaming nafs” were guided forms of religious meditation and self-examination. Although the stage of the “self-blaming nafs” constitutes a certain amount of progress in the development of self-awareness, the process is by no means complete. The nafs has gone only from the stage of proclaiming “I am the greatest!” to the stage of proclaiming “I am worthless.” The person who occupies this stage is still obsessed with self. He or she may be less of a danger to others but is still in danger of committing inward sins, such as self-hatred and suicide.
The Nafs at Peace . For al-Muhasibi, the key to spiritual health was to “get out of one’s self entirely. Only by transcending the ego is it possible to attain the third and final stage of self-awareness, the “nafs at peace” (al-nafs al-mutmainnati). Although, as a Muslim, al-Muhasibi did not believe in the concept of original sin, he did believe in an original human weakness: the problem of the “almighty I”—the egoism, selfishness, and self-absorption of the human being on which the literatures of all religions remark. According to al-Muhasibi, the ego exists in human beings from birth. It first manifests itself when a baby learns to differentiate its body from that of its mother, and it continues to develop into the “commanding nafs” unless it is checked through self-examination and the application of “the science of hearts.” The Spanish Sufi Abu Madyan (circa 1116-1198), who followed al-Muhasibi’s teachings closely, stated in one of his poems: “I seek the forgiveness of God for saying T and With me,’ for saying ‘belonging to me’ and ‘mine,’ and for my suspicions and my limited understanding.” This intense concern with inner sincerity and the blandishments of the ego should not be dismissed as mere Sufi perfectionism. A multitude of human sins can be traced in one way or another to al-Muhasibi’s “commanding nafs” or “self-blaming nafs” Such sins range from corruption, murder, fraud, and unsavory business practices to suicide, drug addiction, and terrorism.
Al-Junayd and Sufi Theology . The first great theologian of Sufism was a Baghdad native named Abu al-Qasim al-Junayd (died 910). Known as the “Peacock of the Scholars,” he came from a merchant background, like most of the members of the religious elites of premodern Islam. As an early follower of the Shafi’i school of law and a practitioner of the usul method, he was critical of Kalam scholars for wasting their time in arguments over trivialities. Along with his teacher and uncle Sari al-Saqati (died 867), al-Junayd is considered the founder of the “Baghdad school” of Sufism, which set the standard for “Sunni” or “orthodox” Sufism. Although the Sufis of the “Baghdad school” were Sunni Muslims, they included the Shnte Imams among the Righteous Ancestors. Ma’ruf al-Karkhi (died 816), the teacher of al-Junayd’s teacher, was a close associate of ‘Ali al-Rida, the eighth Shi’ite Imam. Because of pressure from the followers of Ibn Hanbal, al-Junayd restricted his study circle to no more than twenty people. He and his followers were accused of being atheists, infidels, and believers in reincarnation. Every one of his associates and disciples was formally accused of infidelity at least once. These charges could not be made to stick, however, because al-Junayd’s extensive legal training allowed him to defend the orthodoxy of his opinions successfully. Today he is regarded as the touchstone for all forms of legitimate Sufi doctrine.
Al-Junayd’s Letters . Al-Junayd’s doctrinal writings consist of letters that have been copied and passed down among Sufis from generation to generation. Although many subjects are discussed in these letters, the most important is al-Junayd’s definition of tawhid, the Islamic doctrine of the oneness of God. For most Muslims, tawhid simply means that God is one, and not many. Al-Junayd, however, has a deeper and more meaningful definition in mind: ”Tawhid means distinguishing the Eternal from that which is created in time.” ‘Ali al-Hujwiri (died after 1072), a Sufi from Afghanistan who wrote the first Persian-language treatise on Sufism, said of al-Junayd’s definition: “You must
not regard the Eternal as a place of phenomena, or phenomena as a place of the Eternal. You must know that God alone is Eternal and that you are phenomena, that nothing of your species is connected with Him, that none of His attributes are commingled with yours, and that there is no homogeneity between the Eternal and the phenomenal.”
Levels of Taiuhid . According to Junayd, there are four levels of tawhid. For the majority of believers, t awhid is the intellectual assertion that God is one and that God has no companions, opposites, equals, or likenesses. However, despite the fact that the believer acknowledges the oneness of God in his mind, in his worldly hopes and aspirations he still relies on people and external powers other than God. The taivhid of the religious scholars, which al-Junayd terms the “Way of Reason and Virtue,” builds on the tawhid of the ordinary believer and adds the avoidance of all that is forbidden by the Shari’ah. Such a person hopes that by purifying his external actions, God will allay his fears and help him realize his hopes and desires in the world. The first level of tawhid for the Sufis builds on the tawhid of the religious scholars, but the Sufis exceed the scholars in their understanding because they have ceased to place their hopes, fears, and aspirations in anything other than God. The Sufis know through self-awareness that God is always present with them and that when God calls to one’s heart, the heart always responds. The supreme tawhid of the Sufi is characterized by the complete effacement or obliteration of the human self in the divine. It is “existence without individuality before God, with no intermediary or third party in between.” The knower of God (’arif) “is drowned in the flooding seas of God’s oneness, completely obliterated both from himself and from God’s call to him, as well as from his answer to God. It is a state where the devotee has achieved the true realization of the oneness of God in true proximity to Him. He is lost to all sense and action because God has fulfilled in him what He has willed.”
Annihilation . This third level of tawhid is the state that the Sufis, following al-Junayd, call “annihilation” or “obliteration” (fana’}. The most complete form of this mystical annihilation leads to a spiritual vision or manifestation of the divine and the erasure of all sense of individual identity. For mystically minded philosophers such as Ibn Sina, the Sufi concept of annihilation corresponds to what they would call “conjunction” (ittisal) with the Active Intellect. Ibn Khaldun would have called this state the vision of the “spiritual-angelic realm.” Yet, annihilation in the divine presence is only a temporary state. It is like a state of drunkenness in which a person has lost his wits and no longer has a grasp of “objective” reality. Sometimes Sufis become lost in this state. They wander in town and countryside like holy fools, shocking more-sober believers with their unkempt appearance, cryptic sayings, and sometimes-outrageous behavior. In Sufi parlance, these holy fools are “attracted” (majdhub) to God like iron to a magnet or like a moth to a flame. A permanent state of such drunkenness is a sign of ultimate failure on the way. The true master of the ‘ tawhid of the elect” is the Sufi who has come back to his senses in a state of spiritual sobriety, whose experience of annihilation has transformed his heart so that the divine presence abides within him (baqa) like an inner light. Whereas a holy fool fails to realize that the qualities of God are not God, the master of the divine presence knows that annihilation does not mean the passing away of man’s being in God’s being. Rather, it means the passing away of man’s will in God’s will. Only such a person is able to maintain himself continuously under God’s guidance.
Institutional Sufism . The two centuries following the death of al-Junayd were a period of intense activity in Sufi circles. As with Sunni Islam in general, this period was characterized by the adoption of the usul approach to knowledge and a move toward orthopraxy, standardizing and systematizing the Sufi way on the basis of universally accepted principles. For Sufism, as for the rest of Sunni Islam, eastern Iran and Central Asia were the major centers of this activity. In the lands under Samanid control, Sufism became so popular that it amounted to another madhhab, or “school” of Islamic practice. The earliest Sufi manuals, which were all written in this region, tend to speak of Sufism as a separate and distinct intellectual discipline, much like Kalam or Falsafah. Al-Ghazali took this approach in his spiritual autobiography, al-Munqidh mm al-Dalal (The Deliverer from Error). In this work, al-Ghazali contrasts Sufism with Kalam, Falsafah, and the doctrines of the Ismailis, portraying Sufism as a distinct school of thought that seeks to transcend the limitations of rationalism by combining formal study with guided spiritual disciplines and the “taste” of personal spiritual experiences. In his depiction of Sufism, al-Ghazali was strongly influenced by the doctrines of al-Muhasibi and al-Junayd. His previous reputation as a defender of Sunni Islam against the “heresies” of Falsafah and Shnsm gave his opinions an aura of credibility that other Sufi writers were unable to match. Although his views on Sufi doctrine were not particularly profound when compared with those of his better-known Sufi predecessors, Al-Ghazali has justifiably earned credit for securing a place for Sufism among the formal disciplines of Sunni Islam. Largely because of the influence of al-Munqidh and al-Ghazali’s multivolume masterwork, Ihya’lulum al-din (The Revival of the Religious Sciences), Sufism enjoyed a wide measure of acceptance among Sunni scholars until modern times.
Systematization of Doctrine . Al-Ghazali’s generation was the last in which individual masters taught Sufism on a personal basis to small groups of disciples. Starting in the late tenth century, systematizers of Sufi doctrine, such as al-Sulami and his student Abu al-Qasim al-Qushayri (died 1074), began to produce a variety of written works for general Sufi audiences, including Sufi manuals, individual treatises on aspects of Sufi practice, and biographical accounts of famous Sufis. These works were designed to promote a commonality of doctrine and practice by differentiating “proper” Sufism from the more “heretical” varieties of mysticism. One of the most important of these works by al-Sulami dealt with the practice of futuwwah. The Arabic term futuwwah (young manliness) referred to organized groups of young men, headed by an older teacher known as a shaykh (old man, or elder), who met together on a regular basis to engage in spiritual exercises and develop a sense of mutual brotherhood. Sometimes, futuwwah groups lived together and wore distinctive clothing. As voluntary associations, they ran the gamut from Muslim street gangs to disciplined groups of Sufi adepts. Al-Sulami’s Kitab al-Futuwwah (Book of Futuwwah) showed how the organizational aspects of futuwwah might be incorporated into Sufism.
Institutionalization . Coincident with the occupation of Baghdad by the Saljuk Turks in the mid eleventh century, the futuwwah phenomenon spread from eastern Iran and Central Asia to Iraq. There the combination of futuwwah organizational principles and Sufi doctrine led to the creation of a new institutionalized form of Sufism. Formerly known as a taifah (faction) but now more often called a tariqah (way), this new institution comprised a corporately self-defined group of Sufis that adhered, more or less exclusively and over several generations, to the transmitted doctrines of an individual Sufi teacher and his appointed successors. Because an individual Sufi teacher could appoint several successors to disseminate his doctrines in different regions, the new phenomenon of” tariqah Sufism” led to the first international Sufi orders. Named after their founding teachers, these orders sometimes had a life span of centuries, and in many cases they spread throughout all regions of the Muslim world. The first international Sufi order to develop was the Qadiriyyah tariqah, named after ‘Abd al-Qadir al-Jilani (died 1166), a Hanbali preacher and Sufi from Baghdad. Within two generations after his death, ‘Abd al-Qadir’s successors had founded branches of the Qadiriyyah in Arabia, Yemen, Syria, and Egypt. The Qadiriyyah is still the most widespread Sufi order in the world, with affiliated groups in nearly every Muslim country from Morocco to Malaysia. Other major international Sufi orders include the Rifa’iyyah, named after the Iraqi Sufi Ahmad al-Rifa’i (died 1183) and the Shadhiliyyah, named after the North African Sufi Abu al-Hasan al-Shadhili (died 1258).
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