A Discussion on Sufism, Epistemology, and Usul

A Discussion on Sufism, Epistemology, and Usul


Dialogue

This discussion took place last year through e-mails among a number of students at McGill and Concordia Universities in Montreal, Canada. The gist of the original is presented here for the readers. (Editor)

Hassan A Mian's letter:

Assalamu 'alaykum

The Divine inspiration of the Sufis, that you have criticised in your article 'Tawhid in Sufism' (http://www.monthly-renaissance.com/jlaued97.html) in the monthly Renaissance, is a knowledge gained by experience and should not be commented on until it has been witnessed by the heart of the critic. Here is a good piece of advice: leave that which does not concern you. We have been told by the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace):

From the excellence of one's Islam is to leave that which does not concern one. (A sound (hasan) hadith, transmitted by Tirmidhi and others)

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Asif Iftikhar's response:

Assalamu 'alaykum

The question is not only about the source of the knowledge but also about the certitude that is ascribed to it. Sufis claim direct knowledge for themselves through the same Divine source that was the basis of Divine guidance given to the Messengers of God and His prophets (For example see, ShahMuhammad Isma'il,'Abaqat, 'Abaqah 11, al-Isharah al-ijmaliyyah ila maratib kamal al-nafs). In al-Munqad min al-Dalal, Ghazali explains the level of certitude that the Sufi attains (which by no means is less than the certitude in religion granted to the Prophets of God):

In the next place I recognized that certitude (al-'ilm al-yaqini) is the clear and complete knowledge of things, such knowledge as leaves no room for doubt nor possibility of error and conjecture, so that there remains no room in the mind for error to find an entrance.

In case there is any doubt about the source of such certitude, consider what he writes in the same treatise:

From the time that they set out on this path, revelations commence for them. They come to see in the waking state angels and souls of prophets; they hear their voices and wise counsels. By means of beholding heavenly forms and images they rise by degrees to heights which human language cannot reach, which one cannot even indicate without falling into great and inevitable errors. The degree of proximity to Deity that they attain is regarded by some as intermixture of being (hulul)), by others as identification (ittihad), by others as intimate union (wasl). But all these expressions are wrong, as we have explained in our work entitled, 'The Chief Aim'. Those who have reached that stage should confine themselves to repeating the verse 'What I experience I shall not try to say'; Call me happy, but ask me no more. In short, he who does not arrive at the intuition of these truths by means of ecstasy knows only the name of inspiration (haqiqat al-nabuwwah). The miracles wrought by the saints are, in fact, merely the earliest forms of prophetic manifestation (bidaya al-anbiya').

Although the Sufis believe that no further directives are given to them after the Prophet (sws) as far as the content of religion is concerned, yet the fact that they present their 'prescriptions' for the 'application' of the principles of the Qur'an and the Sunnah on the basis of their 'direct and certain knowledge' and therefore with the same degree of authority that religion itself has is a sufficient cause for concern over innovation in religion and over denial of the end of wahi with the last Prophet (sws). What then is the philosophical difference in their claims and those of Mirza Ghulam Ahmad Qadiyani except that he was 'audacious' enough to term the same idea of his 'certain knowledge' wahi? Was his cardinal sin just his error in nomenclature or was his concept too erroneous per se? If the concept itself was wrong, did it become 'hallowed' just by being christened as 'kashf' of the venerated Sufis? Isn't that argumentum ad hominem in the first case and argumentm ad vericundiam in the latter one?

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Hassan A Mian's rejoinder:

Assalamu 'alaykum

The condition for the acceptance of any spiritual inspiration or intuition is that it does not contradict the Qur'an and the Sunnah. This is agreed upon by the Sufis, who say, 'any inward that contradicts the outward is misguidance'. These spiritual inspirations and intuitions occur to all sincere Muslims.

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Asif Iftikhar's response:

Assalamu 'alaykum

All true 'devotees' are committed to their respective religions. But that is not a necessary criterion for the truth of what they follow (argumentum ad vericundiam). True Salafis, for example, are as committed to their understanding of Islam as the Sufis are to theirs. Moreover, the question is not what the conditions are for the acceptance of the verdicts Sufis give on the basis of their divine inspiration, but whether the basis for that inspiration itself has any justification in the Qur'an and the Sunnah. Therefore, your response, dear brother, proves something that is not the subject of discussion. To put it simply, let me ask you this question once again: is there any difference in the value of the epistemological certainty of the divine inspiration that the Sufis get and the divine inspiration in religion granted to the Prophet (sws)? If you believe that, unlike the case in the divine inspiration or wahi of the Prophet (sws), there are possibilities of error in the divine inspiration of the Sufis, then this is precisely the claim which is refuted by the assertions of all major Sufis—as is also obvious from the extracts I cited in my last e-mail. On the other hand, if you do believe, as do all major Sufis, that the certitude of the Sufis in their divine inspiration is delivered from all error, then my simple question is: what is the difference between their kashf and the wahi of the Prophet(sws)—except in name? If your response is what the Sufis generally give: 'we do not bring any new shari'ah', then my question is exactly the one I ask the Ahmadis: when absolute certainty is ascribed on the basis of divine inspiration to a 'prescription' (tariqah) for following theShari'ahmore effectively, then why wouldn't that 'prescription', being a certain command of God given directly to a Sufi/the inspired person, be God's word itself? In short, why wouldn't it be an addition to the Shari'ah—butobviously with a different name?

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Hassan A Mian's reply:

Assalamu 'alaykum

What about the word wahi being used in Surah Nahl that your God sent a wahi to the honey bee and what about Surah Maryam when God sent her (peace and blessings of God on the best woman ever born) His spirit... wasn't following him binding on her? Was she a prophetess? There is a difference of opinion about that amongst scholars!

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Asif Iftikhar'sresponse: Assalamu 'alaykum

And what would that make the bee: a Sufi perhaps?

There is no doubt about the fact that the word wahi is used in different senses in Arabic language and indeed in the Qur'an. Would you for instance disagree that linguistically the active participle of the word can also be someone other than Allah, for example a human (Qur'an, 19:11) or even Satan (Qur'an, 6:121). It's not only this word but also almost all the terms in the Qur'an which became specific terms because the Qur'an gave them a specific connotation. Outside that specific connotation, the word obviously retains its ordinary meanings and usage. Take words as Rasul or Jihad for instance. I am sure you don't need me to give you examples of their use as specific Qur'anic terms as well as words with their usual meanings in the Qur'an. My question did not pertain to different meanings of wahi but to the specific sense in which it applies to the certain religious guidance received by a Prophet from God. You are therefore, my dear brother, again proving something that is not the subject of discussion. I shall try to make my question as simple as possible this time:

In your opinion, is the value of epistemological certitude in religious knowledge gained by a Sufi through his Divine inspiration the same as the value of epistemological certitude in the Divine inspiration granted to the Prophet by God to reveal His religion to him? In other words, was the religious knowledge of Ghazali et al that they gained through Divine inspiration delivered from all possibilities of error – just as the religious knowledge of the Prophet was? This is quite simply a yes or no question. Please remember that the question is not about whether or not the knowledge of the Sufis contradicts the Shari'ah. The question is about its source and the degree of its certitude. I hope you won't have any difficulty in answering it this time.

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Asif Iftikhar further wrote:

Assalamu 'alaykum

Regarding your question about Maryam (peace and blessings of Allah be upon her), the question is not whether she was or was not a prophetess (although in my understanding she was at least not from amongst the Rusul, the word Rusul being used here as a specific Qur'anic term). The question is whether she received the glad tidings from an angel of God after the last Prophet or before him. Another important question is whether the certainty we have on the authority of the Qur'an that she received glad tidings from God through his angel is also the certainty we can have regarding the claim of a Sufi that he too has been blessed with absolute certainty in religion through Divine inspiration. In the absence of a Qur'anic nass, what would the basis for your absolute certainty be that a particular Sufi that you have chosen to believe in is, despite his apparent sincerity not lying or, even if he is absolutely sincere, having problems of mental delusion rather than Divine inspiration? Also, if certitude in religious knowledge could be had in this way, why do you suppose all the great jurists had to go to such painstaking measures to find solutions to the problems that confronted them in understanding religion? Wouldn't an easier alternative have been to resort to a Sufi, who could then have simply invoked the Theophany to resolve all thekhilafiyyat that fill our fiqh manuals? Of course the Shiites solved this problem by attributing certainty of religious knowledge and infallible piety to their imams while the Sunni jurists, after long efforts, were finally able to discover some kind of rationale for justifying the ijma' of their schools to have the same degree of certainty in the interpretation of the Qur'an and the Sunnah and in their derivations from these sources. The kind of certainty in religious knowledge that the Sufis claim to have – which I don't know if the majority of the Sahabah ever claimed for themselves at an individual or collective level – is the certainty that at least the Sunni jurists could not by any stretch of imagination hope for themselves at an individual level. It's quite a surprise really to note that in the Sunni manuals of usul, at least during the early periods, one doesn't easily find the Divine inspiration of a Sufi as the third source of certitude in religious knowledge after the Qur'an and Sunnah and definitely before the Sunni ijma'.

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Hassan's friend's response [a scholar]:

Someone who follows their mere whims in interpreting the primary texts is not an upright Muslim, for they are far from the command of Allah, which enjoins us to, 'Ask the people of understanding when you know not' (Qur'an, 16:43). Ibn Abbas (Allah be pleased with him) related that the Messenger of Allah (Allah bless him and give him peace) said: 'whoever interprets the Qur'an based on mere opinion let them prepare their seat in Hell'. [Tirmadhi and Ahmad, in a sound hadith]. The commentators on Sunnan al-Tirmadhi explain that mere opinion here means without having the interpretative knowledge to be able to do so, based on the established principles of Qur'anic interpretation (which requires deep knowledge of classical Arabic, the primary texts, and Shari'ah sciences). What your friend has fallen into illustrates why Imam Muhammad Zahid al-Kawthari, one of the foremost Sunni scholars of the 20th Century, wrote a short treatise entitled, Non-Madhhabism is the bridge to non-religion. When one veers away from the well-trodden path of Sunni scholarship, as embodied in the scholarly output of the inheritors of the Prophet (peace and blessings be upon him) from the four schools of fiqh, one goes from one absurdity to the next. One falls far from the Command of Allah, and on a direct route to loss of religion, faith, and, ultimately, to Hell.

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Asif Iftikhar's response:

My very dear brother

Assalamu 'alaykum

May Allah guide us both to his ways and save us from His wrath.

I have been waiting for your answer to my question for some time now. I confess I was a bit disappointed (though by no means surprised) to find out that your response again completely avoids answering my question. The core question, as you will recall, was:

In your opinion, is the value of epistemological certitude in religious knowledge gained by a Sufi through his Divine inspiration the same as the value of epistemological certitude in the Divine inspiration granted to the Prophet by God to reveal His religion to him? In other words, was the religious knowledge of Ghazzali et al that they gained through Divine inspiration delivered from all possibilities of error – just as the religious knowledge of the Prophet was? This is quite simply a yes or no question. (Please remember that the question is not about whether or not the knowledge of the Sufis contradicts the Shari'ah. The question is about its source and the degree of its certitude).

Essentially this is the question I have been asking right from the beginning of our discussion. I have tried to point out earlier as well that in none of your responses you attempted to answer this question on the basis of either your own knowledge or that of your scholars. Whether or not the assertions made by your friend in this latest response are correct is a separate question to which I intend to respond soon. But even if I don't accept the idea that his cliques are the ultimate 'know all', how is it a heresy on my part to ask them for their opinion? Why don't they answer my question for you if you can't or are reluctant to? I hope the Sunnis too don't have a policy of hiding their religion.

With respect, love, and lots of prayers

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Asif Iftikhar wrote there to Hassan:

Dear Hassan

Here is the first part of my answers – as promised:

Your friend says: Someone who follows their mere whims in interpreting theprimary texts is not an upright Muslim, for they are far from the command of Allah, which enjoins us to, Ask the people of understanding when you know not (Qur'an, 16:43). My questions are:

1. What meaning is Ibn Abbas reported to have ascribed to the words ahl al-dhikr in the verse 16:43? (For example see Tafsir Ibn Kathir). 2. What is Ibn Kathir's objection to 'Abd al-Rahman's view on al-dhikr in the Qur'an? 3. According to your own methodology, what is the occasion of revelation of this verse? If the word originally meant: 'The People of the Book' on the occasion of its revelation, what, according to your one methodology, prevents the meaning from not continuing? 4. Also what is the denotation of the wordal-dhikr? According to your own methodology, what qarinah (contextual factor) changes the denotation to the specific connotation that has been given to it by your clique? 5. A translation of the verse reads (from the Majestic Qur'an– Nawwawi and Ibn Khuldun Foundations): 'The messengers We sent before you (O Muhammad) were only men to whom we gave the revelation. Ask the People of the Reminder if you do not know.' Is this translation wrong? 6. The footnote to this translation gives the active participle of the verb 'ask' as the pagan Arabs and the explanation of 'The People of the Reminder' as the Jews (that is The People of the Book). What objections do you have against this explanation? 7. If I were to say that the verse is telling the pagan Arabs that if they think it strange that the Prophet of Allah is a human, then they should ask The People of the Book (the Jews) whether the messengers before the Prophet were men or not – would my assertion be incorrect? 8. Even if your juristic interpretation is taken correct, the verse says: 'ask …. if you do not know'. What if you do know? Also, in relation to the given context of the verse, if you know and fully believe that Muhammad (sws) was the Prophet despite being a human, do you still need to ask? Why? Hasn't the condition of the verse been fulfilled? Why not? 9. When you say: 'when somebody follows his whims', in relation to the given context of the verse, you seem to imply that the person follows his desire rather than conscience and therefore deliberately avoids the truth. God could obviously imply this about the pagan Arabs mentioned in the verse on the basis of His Divine knowledge. On what basis do you make such implications about any person today? More questions will follow soon, insha Allah.

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Hassan A Mian'sreply:

Assalamu 'alaykum

People in our tradition have not been idiots. Insha Allah they are in Paradise. They are the scholars of Sunni Islam who have all concurred that for a person like me and you, we need to follow a Madhab and not use our 'Aql to interpret the texts (and not to use the sayings of companions without knowing theirs Isnad through traditional scholars as proofs to justify our own whims).

See for example the fatwa of one of the biggest scholars alive in the world i.e. Sheikh Murabat al-Hajj attached to this email. May Allah give you and your friends the tawfiq to understand the gravity of what you are doing in order to harm Islam and Muslims, by sowing seeds of doubt (the work of Shaytan) in Muslims thereby depriving them of their I%man. May He guide you or if He does not wish to guide you, may He liberate us of your Sharr. (and it would only be time that would prove who is correct and who is wrong as Allah has promised to preserve this Din). What you have created is a clique of orientalists in the garb of Islam. I am sorry if it hurts and if it defies your man made logic (defined by people who according to your own testimony are not upright Muslims), but what I am saying comes from the heart and it is enough for me as a proof. As for the answers to your questions, I am not a scholar and consider it bad adab to give my opinion when I am not entitled to. I will insha' Allah search people of Light to answer your questions. If you are sincere you yourself should be asking these questions to the scholars that Allah has used to guide masses to his Oneness because of their sincerity and sound knowledge: you know who they are and where to find them.

I don't want you to reply to this e-mail as I am not a scholar of Islam and do not answer questions on Islam. Rather I follow qualified scholarship.

(The fatwa has not been included here as it is on Following One of the Four Accepted Madhahib rather than to Sufi epistemology. The fatwa is by Shaykh Murabat al-Hajj and has been translated by Hamza Yusuf Hanson. It can be seen on various related websites).

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Asif Iftikhar's response:

My Dear Brother

Assalamu 'alaykum

Thank you for being candid with me. The anger with which you speak convinces me that deep down you are sincerely committed to what you believe in as the truth, and, therefore, contrary to the favour you have so eloquently and easily bestowed upon me, I do not assume that your intention is to harm Islam. I am however sorry that I cannot accept your request of not responding to your message as this discussion started as a public debate and must end as such for I do not think it is ethical on either your part or mine to unceremoniously walk out of the discussion for personal reasons. I am therefore forwarding this e-mail to all those who were willingly or unwillingly part of this discussion right from the beginning. However, should you choose not to respond further or to take your time in responding, I shall understand.

As requested by you, I shall not trouble you for now with requests for answers to more of my questions on religion, but now that you have told me that you do not wish to answer any of my questions, I do intend to make a few clarifications in relation to some of the accusations that you made against me. Before I do that, however, I would like to state that I never said you couldn't go and ask your scholars for answers to my questions. I find it strange that scholars you think I should go to and assume that I know are scholars you couldn't approach for a yes or no answer to a simple question.1

Is answering a simple question like that one also one of the secrets of the Sufi Divine revelation which the Sufis, unlike the Prophet (sws) in relation to his Divine revelation (Qur'an, 5:67), are not supposed to disseminate? If that is the case, then at least I can see one difference in the Sufi Divine revelation and that of the Prophet (sws), though I still can't understand that if something is the truth why 'exposing it,' in Ghazzali's words becomes an act 'that amounts to infidelity'[Ihya 'Ulumi'l-Din]. Why do we then blame the Shiite imams for kitman?Nevertheless, I still await the answer to my question, which is just one of the thousand others that I still have. I have never stopped your scholars from answering them for you. And now I shall try to give my response to the charges you have levied against me.

Can you show me any place where I have said that the scholars in our tradition were idiots? Please don't put words into my mouth that I have not used. I never said they were idiots. I don't believe they were idiots. I have stated this earlier, and, I state it now: I believe they were great scholars and very pious people. My own father died with a firm faith in Sufism and the Hanafite tradition. I have never assumed that he will be denied Paradise for that. In fact, I pray every day that he be in Paradise. Similarly, I also believe, as you do, that insha Allah, the scholars of Muslim tradition will be in Paradise. What I don't believe however is that they were prophets or infallible or delivered from all possibilities of error in their judgment. Also, I agree that, in religious matters, an ordinary person should follow the verdicts of competent scholars he can trust – unless it is absolutely clear to him that the opinion of a scholar is incorrect in a certain matter. Therefore, if the same faculty which enabled him to trust the scholar in the first place now entails that he look for some other scholar he can trust in that particular opinion, then he has the right, indeed he has the duty, to do that. If he doesn't find any other scholar, then obviously he has no choice but to exert his own effort to make his decision. What I don't believe however is that scholarship in the Muslim world has ended with or is confined just to the four Sunni schools. Therefore, if your heart feels that you have to trust a modern scholar belonging to one of these four schools, and that feeling of your heart is a sufficient proof for you, a similar feeling in my heart should give me an equal justification to choose another scholar who does not necessarily belong to these schools. Also, I do not mean to say that the wisdom of the past scholars is worthless or should be ignored for trivial reasons. However, they should not be made into another Deity or a prophet with the belief that they can never, ever be wrong. Furthermore, the following are also my assertions:

1. I give a lot of importance to any consensus of opinion on a matter of interpretation or on an ijtihad in religion in the four schools. But I do not believe that there is any concurrent textual evidence from the original sources of Islam (the Qur'an and the Sunnah) to suggest that such consensus is delivered from all possibilities of error and cannot be differed from by a present scholar.2

2. I believe that the only two sources which have the level of concurrence (tawatur) that takes them to the point of absolute certitude are the Qur'an and the Sunnah. These two sources, established by tawatur and ijma' of the Prophet's companions, go back to the Prophet (sws) himself and contain the 'content' of religion, which content then has been interpreted by various Muslims throughout our history. Since these 'interpretations' and instances of ijtihad on their basis do not have the tawatur that goes back to the Prophet (sws) himself, we cannot say that there is no possibility of error in them.

3. I believe that all isolated reports (akhbar ahad) are zanni (probable) with varying degrees of probability, but it is legitimate for a competent scholar to draw legal opinions on the basis of such a report if it is sound in transmission, and the basis for that legal opinion already exists in the Qur'an or the Sunnah or the universal principles of reason, and it does not contradict any of these bases.

4. I believe that there is only one God and that there is no one or nothing like Him. Therefore, I reject and denounce – with all my heart, and all my soul, and all my mind – all assertions on part of any human, howsoever pious he may seem to you, that suggest ideas as: '…in reality the Creator is but Creation and Creation is but the Creator. All these are from one reality' (Ibn 'Arabi in Fusus al-Hikm) or 'ana al- Haqq'. (Hallaj).

5. I also believe that the Prophet (sws) was the last Rasul and Nabi and no one, howsoever pious he may seem to you, has any credibility in his claim that even after the Prophet (sws), he receives Divine inspiration from the same sources as did the Prophet (sws) and which gives him the same certitude of religious knowledge as was given to the Prophet (sws). Therefore, any tashrih(explanation of Shari'ah) or Tariqah (prescription of a way to follow the Shari'ah) on the basis of such a claim amounts to an intentional or unintentional addition to the Shari'ah.

As far as most matters of fiqh (understanding of the Shari'ahas it is contained in the Qur'an and the Sunnah) are concerned, I too base my decisions on the opinions of scholars I have found to be trustworthy in accordance with the methodology I have spelled out above. But, unlike you, I do not have your personal certitude or the Kashf of any Sufi Master to claim with the typical Sufi calm and that another person who professes to be a Muslim has intentions to harm Islam and the Muslims and that he intends to do the work of Satan. I seek refuge of Allah from finding out that on the Day of Judgment a Muslim has the right to hold me by the throat because I was wrong about him in similar claims of mine against him. Nor do I have the certainty to know who – whether that person be a Muslim or a Christian or a Jew or someone else – is denying the truth of God's message after it has become evident to him, and, therefore, my scholars and I, unlike you and your scholars, do not make judgments of Takfir (in the sense of declaring a person guilty of wilful and deliberate denial of the true faith) – a judgment we believe is the sole right of God Almighty Himself. I do hope you and your scholars realize the gravity of what you do when you declare such a person Kafir as professes faith in the unity of God and the finality of Muhammad's prophethood (sws) and in the unaltered authenticity of the Qur'an and the concurrent Sunnah and accepts the pillars of Islam. Tell me if I'm wrong that some – if not all – of the scholars that you trust in also believe that kafirs like me – of whom the attached verdict of the acclaimed 'best scholar of Islam alive' would surely have informed you – ought to be killed if they do not accept your version of Islam – namely belief in the consensus in interpretation of the four schools. My brother, don't think that people like Uthamah Ibn Laden don't have their scholars to rely on – or that they are not sincerely committed to what they believe in or that there are no chances that God will reward them for their sincerity. But that still doesn't necessarily make them right. This is what I have learnt from my scholars, whom you say are not upright Muslims according to my testimony – a testimony I never gave. My testimony is that they are good Muslims but have their failings and weaknesses, and that they are not the paragons of perfection that are delivered from all possibilities of error, and I reserve the right to disagree with them and follow the verdict of some other scholar in an opinion that doesn't convince me. As for your charge that I am an Orientalist in the garb of Islam, I will say this: I don't believe that everything the Orientalists have said is necessarily wrong. However, unlike scholars as Patricia Crone et al, I believe in the truth of Islam as I have explained it in the points enumerated above. I love God and the Prophet (sws) and glorify their names and believe in the Qur'an and the Sunnah as unaltered, authentic and final Divine guidance. And I respect and honour all the companions of the Prophet (sws) who were true to him (as Abu Bakr, 'Umar, Uthman, 'Ali, Mu'awiyyah et al radi Allah 'anhum). Despite these beliefs of mine, if you still want to call me an Orientalist, that's your choice. Or you could use some other invective that you like, but don't insinuate wrongly that I disparage scholars as Abu Hanifah or Malik or Shafi'i or Ibn Hanbal (may God reward them for their efforts) – who never proclaimed infallibility for themselves despite their immense stature and competence, for, to my mind, they were great scholars and great Muslims – but they were also humans, who could make mistakes and falter. As I love you still as a brother-in-faith whose tears would be my tears and whose laughter would be my laughter, whose dreams would be my dreams and whose prayer would be my prayer, I can only pray: May Allah reward you with a good reward for following your heart even in your hate for me, and that may He also give you the sagacity to love Him with a mind that continues to seek the truth in the spirit that Imam Shafi'i's words epitomize:

I am convinced of the veracity of my opinions, but I do consider it possible that they may turn out to be incorrect. Likewise, I am convinced that the views different from mine are incorrect, but I do concede the possibility that they may turn out to be right.




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