The face was red with flushing blood as he tried to stop
his breath for as long as he could. The eyes bulged out, though staring at
nothing. Small rivulets of perspiration shone on the forehead, and the voice
coming through the foaming mouth was barely audible. He could scarcely speak
when he tried to complete his sentence, and then did that through his gestures,
nodding with satisfaction as if the message had been transmitted by some
The man, a neighbour of mine, was not faking it out. He
was a highly educated professional and belonged to a very respectable family. He
truly believed in what he was trying to say. Somehow -- perhaps because of my
appearance -- he had a misconception that I belonged to his ‘clan’. So he took
very little time to begin sharing his ideas with me: ‘The fragrance of flowers,
the song of birds, the air, everything... but then, you know it. Yes, yes, you
know it. I am Allah, you are Allah, everything is Allah....’
I realised afterwards that in a very crude manner, the man
was expressing (though technically incorrectly) ideas he had gathered from some
The Qur’ānic concept of Tawhīd (monotheism) is that there
is only one God -- Allah. All those characteristics which can only be associated
with God must not be attributed to anyone else.
The Qur’ān says:
Declare [O Prophet] that God is One! He is the rock. He
is neither anyone’s father nor anyone’s son. And none is equal to Him.[112:1-3]
Therefore, the whole world is His creation: He is above
all, and there is nothing like Him.
It is the correct belief in God which enlightens the heart
and solves the riddle this universe is. Every creation points out to the fact
that there must be a Creator and therefore reflects God:
Allah is the Light of the heavens and the earth. [24:35]
In Sufism, however, Tawhīd, is expressed as ‘only Absolute
Reality is absolutely real’. To the Sufi, this concept of Tawhīd is different
from pantheism (regarded un-Islamic by almost all the Muslim scholars), for the
Sufistic Tawhīd is not ‘everything is God’: it is ‘God is everything’, or, more
ostensibly, ‘there is nothing except God’. The result is that in Sufism, Tawhīd
expressed as lā ilāha illallāh (there is no God but Allah) is the Tawhīd of the
ordinary, whereas the Tawhīd of the elect is lā mawjūda illallāh (there is
nothing but Allah). This means that whatever we see does not have any
significance, for it does not exist in reality. It is only relatively real. What
does exist in reality is God. Ibn ‘Arabī writes in his book Fasūsu’l-Hikam:
Although, apparently Creation is distinct from the
Creator, in reality the Creator is but Creation and Creation is but the Creator.
All these are from one reality. Nay, it is but He who is the Only Reality, and
it is He Who manifests Himself in all these realities.
This concept is called Wahdatu’l-Wajūd (Unity of Being):
the idea is that a knife and a sword, for example, are called by their
respective names and are treated as distinct and separate items. But when their
‘essence’ steel moves warā u’l-warā (‘beyond the beyond’, that is beyond all
forms and shapes), it is called steel. Similarly, God is considered as the
Ultimate Reality, which is transcendent (beyond shape and form) but in essence
immanent in Creation. In the words of Shā Muhammad Ismā‘īl (‘Abaqāt, ‘abaqah 20,
For all Creation, Ma bihitta ‘yun is only one Definite
Another version of this concept is Wahdatu’l-Shahūd (Unity
of Appearance), according to which, God is the only Reality, and everything else
is illusion. This version is again the same concept expressed in a different
way. According to Shā Muhammad Ismā‘īl (‘Abaqāt, ‘abaqah 20, al-ishārahu’l-awwal):
...deep analysis will show that there is no difference
except that owing to the difference in their stages and in their ways of
reaching Lāhūt, they [the proponents of the two versions] have adopted varying
styles to express their opinions.
Such beliefs often result in a strong tendency to regard a
man’s physical self as a ‘form’ and to consider this form as an obstruction in
his going warāu’l-warā (beyond the beyond) and in reaching the Ultimate Reality.
Theosophical (to be more precise, existential) realisation of this Reality
through self-denial and self-control becomes the ultimate goal of life, whereas
according to the Qur’ān, the purpose of man's life is worship and servitude to
God (51-56) and the purpose of religion is the purification of his soul to
enable him to do just that (62:2). In Sufism, therefore, purification of the
soul becomes the ultimate target of the Sufi’s life rather than becoming the
outcome of following the dictates of Islam. For this purification, rituals and
methods other than those recommended or demanded by Islam are often prescribed
with such authority and adhered to with such pertinacity that they virtually
amount to innovation in religion. That which is a means to an end becomes the
end in itself: man's humility, which in Islam leads to servitude, becomes a
source of his pride in Sufism; servitude, which makes him a humble servant of
his Master, makes him the Master.
According to Sufism, perfect awareness of the Absolute
Reality results in the Sufi's being absolutely unaware of Creation and of his
own self; to be more precise, it results in his being aware of the fact that in
reality there is no existence of Creation and even of his own self. This concept
often leads to great imbalance; in negating his ego, the Sufi ends up
worshipping it; in negating Creation, he negates life itself.
Absolute negation of the self is impracticable, absolute
negation of Creation impractical.
No Man born of a woman can conceive nothingness for
himself, unless he is deranged enough not to perceive anything at all. Life is
not insignificant. Nor is consciousness. And every one of us knows this. Life
still brings laughter, death still summons tears. Intellect is still honoured,
lack of consciousness is still regarded as insanity. A man thinks and therefore
is. When he thinks, he knows -- consciously or otherwise -- that it is `he' who
is thinking. Therefore, if he thinks or believes that he does not exist -- that
only God exists --, then he will usually end up thinking or believing that it is
‘he’ who is actually God. But God he cannot be. For the best of men -- the
messengers of God --, even in their greatness, always remained in want of their
Lord's mercy for the most minor of their needs:
Allāhumma innī lima anzalta ilayya min khayrin faqīr
Lord! verily I am needy for anything you may bestow upon
me out of good. [A prayer of Moses (sws); see the Qur’ān 28:24]
Allāhumma innī ‘abduka, ibn ‘bdika, ibn amatika, nasiyatī
Lord! verily I am your slave, the son of your bondman, the
son of your bondwoman, my forelock is in your hands. [that is I am completely in
[A bedtime prayer of the Prophet (sws)].
Even a messenger of God is a servant of his Master. To him
God is the Master whom he loves with all his heart and all his mind and all his
soul. To the Sufi, however, God is the beloved whose love leads him to realise
the Ultimate Reality -- and thus makes him the Master (though the Sufi will
sometimes deny this. However, as long as ‘he’ believes -- consciously or
otherwise -- that nothing expect God exists, he will usually be thinking of
himself as the Deity).
The usual result of this shift in the object is that in
addition to the spiritual exercises and rituals recommended or prescribed by
Islam to enable man to worship and serve God, the Sufi virtually makes many
other exercises and rituals obligatory, which often leave him with very little
energy and motivation to do God's bidding where it is actually required. And
since the Sufi has a philosophical foundation for this shift from the balance
required by Islam, he usually ends up being a slave of his own desires.
Vis-a-vis the society as a whole, the object of an
individual’s life as envisaged by Sufism is impractical ad absurdum, as
realisation of the object by all would mean negation of Creation by all and
therefore negation of society, whereas realisation of the object of a man’s life
as envisaged by Islam would result in the creation of a truly harmonious
society. Worshipping and serving God entail responsibility towards society.
One’s affiliation with society is not negated as such in Islam as a goal for
achieving self-purification, just as none of the blessings of God is negated for
this purpose, howsoever trivial it may appear to be.
Only when such negation becomes necessary for preventing a
greater injustice to the society or to one's own self does Islam allow -- and in
some cases demand -- that an individual deny the privileges he has and negate
his affiliation with his society.
In Sufism, however, there seems to be a strong tendency to
regard asceticism as highly desirable per se. If nothing else, there is at least
an abnormal emphasis on the negation of worldly life:
Ibn ‘Atā Allāh writes:
The source of every disobedience, indifference, and
passion is self-satisfaction. The source of every obedience, vigilance, and
virtue is dissatisfaction with one’s self. (Tr. Cryil Glasse, The Concise
Encyclopaedia of Islam, second edition, London: Stacey International, 1991, p.
Al Ghāzāli says in a al-Munqidh mina‘l-Dalāl:
Then I turned my attention to the Way of the Sufis. I knew
that it could not be traversed to the end without both doctrine and practice,
and that the gist of the doctrine lies in overcoming the appetites of the flesh
and getting rid of its evil dispositions and vile qualities, so that the heart
may be cleared of all but God....
When I considered the intention of my teaching, I
perceived that instead of doing it for God's sake alone I had no motive but the
desire for glory and reputation. I realised that I stood on the edge of a
precipice and would fall into Hellfire unless I set about to mend my ways...
Conscious of my helplessness and having surrendered my will entirely, I took
refuge with God as a man in sore trouble who has no resource left. God answered
my prayer and made it easy for me to turn my back on reputation and wealth and
wife and children and friends. (Tr. Cyril Glasse, The Concise Encyclopaedia of
Islam, second edition, London: Stacey International, 1991. p. 379)
Is this abnormal inclination towards asceticism
deliberate? Is it obligatory or merely desirable? -- these questions may be
debatable. However, one thing is certain. As far as the concept of perfect
awareness of the Absolute Reality is concerned, it inevitably leads to the
conceptual negation of Creation and therefore of society.
Perhaps because of the impracticability and impracticality
of their ideas, the Sufis have usually regarded it desirable per se not to
reveal their inner thoughts about Tawhīd (and when they do reveal them, the
style they use makes their language unintelligible to most people), whereas the
Prophet (sws) was told to communicate his message clearly as part of his mission
(the Qur’ān 5:67):
Know therefore that the ultimate of all disciples of
Mystic intuition is this Tawhīd, and the secrets of this discipline and cannot
be written in any book because, according to a saying of ‘Ārifīn [those who have
achieved awareness], exposing the secrets of Divinity amounts to infidelity.
[al-Ghāzāli, Ihyā ‘Ulūmi’l-Dīn, Vol. 4. p. 641]