Monday, October 31, 2005


While studying spiritually luminous individuals of the past can be an important source of guidance, inspiration, encouragement, strength, support, and ‘food’ for reflection, such exploration will never show how "exemplary Muslims achieved the goal of life." This is so for a number of reasons.

In ibn al-Husayn al-Sulami’s Book of Futuwwah one finds the following puzzle. "What meeting takes place but is never observed, and what departure is observed but never takes place?" The answer which emerges, shortly thereafter, revolves around the ‘meeting and departure of those who are spiritually in love’.

To look only at outward behavior or only at acts which can be observed as the cause or explanation for how one achieves ‘the goal of human life’, is like assuming the tip of an iceberg is the whole story and that the surface of things is more substantial than that which remains concealed. We cannot see the intentionality, sincerity, love, longing, taqwa, certainty, kashf (unveiling), or states and stations, of another human being, and, yet, within these realms is where the purpose of life is actually pursued, and, if God wishes, realized.

To be sure, some of the spiritual intensity, depth, richness, subtlety, breadth, and luminosity of these inner realms do, often, but not always, manifest themselves in the behavior and actions of a friend of God. However, these behaviors or actions are the result of, rather than the cause of, having achieved the purpose of life.

Hazrat Junayd (may Allah be pleased with him), who is one of the great lights of the Sufi Path, once said that ‘The enlightened individual is one who refuses to place trust in three things: (a) knowledge; (b) action; and (c) seclusion.’ As long as one places one’s trust in such things, then, the individual’s understanding of the true Source of realization is defective.

The foregoing does not mean one should not seek spiritual knowledge, or that one should not seek to perform good deeds, or that one should not undertake whatever Sufi practices one may be given by the shaykh. What it means is that those who place their trust in other than Divinity are sowing the seeds of shirk (polytheism) and kufr (unbelief).

Knowledge, per se, will not spiritually transform us, nor will action, in and of itself, spiritually transform us, nor will Sufi practices, such as going into seclusion, necessarily transform us in any spiritually essential way. The key to the beginnings of spiritual transformation is the love which arises through the nisbath or inner relationship which links the ‘Seeker’ with the ‘Sought’.

The Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) is reported to have said: "True faith is realized when I and Allah become dearest to you." On another occasion, the Prophet is reported to have said: "None of you can have perfect faith till I become dearer to you than your father, children, and all humankind."

The road to faith travels through the domain of love. In fact, contrary to the claimd by some authors which indicate that Sufis study the lives of the saints in order to see how the purpose of life is achieved through "extraordinary human qualities", if one approaches the hagiographies of the friends of God in an appropriate manner, one does not so much see how the purpose of life is achieved, as much as the individual is introduced to one of the most fundamental venues of spiritual transformation on the Sufi Path - namely, one begins to fall in love with the lovers of God, and if this seedling of love is nurtured through the presence of nisbath with an authentic shaykh, then, the seeker begins, God willing, to make progress toward realizing the purpose of life.

Hagiography, which focuses on the lives of saints, is not necessarily preoccupied with describing the extraordinary human qualities of those who achieve nearness to God. For instance, there have been many who achieve nearness to God whose lives are known to few and about whom nothing has been written.

The Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) is reported to have said: ‘God loves best those servants who are pious and hidden. When they are away no one misses them, and when they are present, they are ignored. These are the imams of good guidance and the torches of Knowledge.’

In another Hadith, the Prophet is reported to have said:‘There are those, with unkempt hair, whose possessions amount to no more than a couple of dates, whom no one wants to look at, but whom may, if such individuals appeal, in supplication, to God, have their prayers answered.’

Finally, God, through several Hadith Qudsi, is reported to have said, via the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him): (1) "The most enviable of My awliya close to Me is a believer whose possessions are few, whose joy is prayer, who accomplishes the service of one’s Lord to perfection and obeys God in secret. This person is obscure among human beings, and no one points to this person." (2) My saints are beneath My canopies. None knows them but Me."

Consequently, hagiography actually only deals with a very limited sample drawn from a much larger population of saints. In fact, as the foregoing Hadiths indicate, the people who become known may even be of a lesser spiritual stature than those with respect to which no hagiographies were ever written.

Furthermore, hagiographies do not just consist of a litany of "extraordinary human qualities". Such works are biographies whose special focus happens to be upon saints of one sort or another.

A hagiography often involves material about parents and their spiritual qualities, as well as the nature and character of the early years of a given saint, along with information about education, formative events, cultural milieu, important teachers, travels, and so on. In addition, a hagiography often includes material on, and excerpts from, various facets of the individual’‘s writings, teachings, sayings, aphorisms, poetry, and whatever else seems of value or importance in relation to the life being explored.

In short, hagiography tends to revolve about much more than just describing the extraordinary human qualities of those who achieve nearness to God. If a hagiography were just about ‘extraordinary human qualities’, if it were just an account of a remarkable woman or man, then, other than our being amazed with the fact that people of such spiritual caliber have existed at some point in the past - recent or distant - the lives of the saints would have little relevance to us as individuals.

Hagiography explores human potential. It discusses the problems, difficulties, questions, struggles, issues, opportunities, setbacks, and possibilities of life which resonate with many of those who read these books.

Hagiography informs, instructs, inspires, cautions, entertains, and invites with respect to the realm of spirituality. Hagiography induces a reader to reflect upon his or her own life and helps incline one to want to be a better person.

However, most of all, hagiography is a love story. It is a story about an individual’s love for truth, as well as for those who are purveyors and distributors of that truth.

It is a story about the individual’s love for his or her shaykh(s), and the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), and Allah, and for the spiritual potential which God has placed in the individual. It is a story about the individual’s love for learning about, and realizing, the purpose of Creation.

The extraordinary thing is that the subjects of many, if not most, hagiographies do not consider themselves to be extraordinary in any way, or to possess extraordinary human qualities. They would credit Divinity for all the extraordinary aspects of their lives, or they would give credit for the loving, compassionate, generous, kind guidance, encouragement, and support of their own teachers and spiritual guides.

They tend to look at themselves as ordinary human beings for whom, by the Grace of God, extraordinary things have happened. And, the underlying message is that what has happened in relation to them can, in ways which are unique to each individual, happen to any one of us ... if we are willing to open ourselves up to the extraordinary dimensions of Being which both surround us, and are within us.

Finally, although some authors contend that hagiography was the typical genre of the Sufis, what this claim is based upon is not only unstated but well may be untrue. Al-Hujwiri’s Kashf Al-Mahjub, or al-Ghazali’s Ihya ‘Ulum al-Din, or Farid ud-din Attar’s Parliament of the Birds, or Shaykh MuhyidDeen Abdul-Qadir Jilani’s Al-Fathu Rabbani, or Rumi’s Mathnawi and Discourses, or ibn al-‘Arabi’s Bezels of Wisdom and Meccan Openings, or Abu Bakr al-Kalabahdi’s The Doctrine of the Sufis, or ibn al-Husayn al-Sulami’s Futuwwah, or Hazrat Maneri’s Hundred Letters, or Matin Lings’s Sufi Saint of the Twentieth Century, along with hundreds, if not thousands, of other Sufi works are not primarily hagiographies, although they all may contain material on the extraordinary qualities of this or that Sufi saint.

Instead, these works are books of instructions concerning the nature, purpose, methods, adab, states, stations, origins, and problems of the Sufi Path. Extracts from the lives of various saints may have been used for illustrative purposes, and as instructional reminders, during the elaboration upon this or that point/principle/issue, but so were Quranic commentaries, Hadiths, poetry, stories, discourse, history, and personal experience used for these same ends.

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