What I want to talk about is the relevance of our attachment to Rasulullah (s.a.w.) in the context of our minority existence in the Modern West.
In Muslim countries, with only a very small, insignificant, regrettable handful of exceptions, the Milad is a public holiday. The daily newspapers, as we all know, are filled with beautiful devotional poems which celebrate the birth of Sayyidina Muhammad (s.a.w.). There are popular festivities within and outside the mosques, in the streets, which articulate a mass devotion towards the founder of our religion, and hence to a public commitment to the Muslim values of the majority. In many Muslim cultures, it seems sometimes that the milad is a more committed, colourful affair than the two Eids and the traditions which have grown up around it, which aim to deepen love of the Messenger in the hearts of ordinary believers are often very spectacular, very rich and very beautiful.
Now what happens when Islam is imported into the traditionally Judeo-Christian societies of the West? Well, frequently, this aspect of our beautiful heritage is frequently one of the first things to be neglected. A lot of mosques are adapting a kind of return-to-the-sources type of Islam, which believes that celebrations such as the milad are unnecessary or even, in some cases, religiously unacceptable. I don’t wish to enter here the very well-rehearsed argument over the Shari’a status of the milad celebration. My own experience of study and travel in the Muslim world suggests that the complicated arguments can, in fact, very easily be bypassed by the observation that scholars and communities which cultivate a spiritual profundity are also those that recognise the legitimacy of milad commemorations. Individuals and communities which reject milad tend to live a fairly dry, uninteresting, superficial kind of Islam which can never be more than second-rate. To those seeking not merely rigorous authentication from the revelation, but also a genuine devotional life, that Islam with its obsessive preoccupation with form and the neglect or even the denial of what lies beyond the form – the content – is simply not terribly appealing. While there are entirely legitimate shari’a reasons for the celebration of milad upheld by the large majority tradition within each of the four Sunni madhabs, we can therefore, I think, go on to propose a further kind of argument.
Ask your heart, says a hadith, even if they give you fatwa after fatwa.
Hence, when we look at the often very bewildering range of Islamic opinions clamouring for our attention today, we can apply a very simple principle. If a significant number of Sunni ulema are supporting a style of Islam, then its validity for us will depend on one thing, namely, its effects on our hearts. To suppose that there is only one valid form of Islamic practice, only one way to pray, only one way to dress, only one way to do business, only one way to calculate one’s zakat, and so on, is simply to deny Allah’s Mercy on this ummah. As the khalifa Umar bin Abdul Aziz said, “The difference of opinion within the ulema of this community is a source of Rahmah, of Divine Mercy.” All too often, it seems that nowadays we simply reject His Rahmah in favour of our personal preference for a religion that is, as it were, totalitarian, that brooks no dissent, that regards diversity as a source of weakness rather than of strength.
So the ummah is diverse and rightly so. And in the absence of a Christian-style hierarchy of priests to define, and if necessary impose, a single view on each opinion, this diversity is something inevitable, it’s going to happen anyway. And it’s a natural feature of Islam and of traditional Muslim communities. And given this diversity, we should not attempt to find our own niche by a detailed study of dalils, which, since most of us including myself are not all ulemas and mujtahids, we’re unlikely to master adequately. But instead, we should use a quite different criterion, the criterion of the heart, al-Qalb. Given that there are so many groups and orientations within the wide, generous, broad circle of Islam, we should try and seek out those Muslims who consciously cultivate a life of the heart. That should be what we look for. And we can recognize them quite simply by their generosity, their serenity, by the nur, the light in their faces. We can also recognize them, very often, by their tolerance of diversity. A rich inward life immediately reveals itself as the only priority and objective of religion. And once it’s established in a Muslim heart, it shows the outward differences between believers in a more objective light. Compared to the true purpose of Islam, which is spiritual upliftment, arguments over the small details of fiqh are of comparatively lesser importance. And this is a vitally important fact, and it’s a fact that large sections of the ummah, particularly in our minority experience here in the West, have a tendency to lose sight of.
It’s not difficult to understand why this should have happened. The outward form, the shell, the husk of religion is easier to transplant into a new diaspora, into new minorities in the West, than is the inward reality. The outward form, the fiqh, the formal belief system, the book Islam, the aqeedah, all of this can be studied from texts we can pack with us in suitcases. All of these things, that the book Islam can be packed very easily into the suitcase of the job-seeker. But the spiritual life is infinitely more subtle. Often, that’s what we leave behind us. The spiritual life is tied by, as it were, a thousand, almost invisible filaments to the particularities, to the cultural life of historically-rooted Muslim communities. It’s linked to our traditional landscape of mosques, of tombs, of family ceremonials and customs, and those are the things that, when we come to the West, we are usually torn away from. Hence the Muslim, if he or she arrives at a British or American or Australian airport, contemplating a new life on very unfamiliar, alien ground, can sometimes be, as it were, thrown off balance, religiously, by the very fact of having madehijrah, of having moved. Some newcomers can have an inexorable tendency, and we’ve all seen them, towards the outward aspects of religion, and often find it hard to locate a context and a language for the reconnection of the spirit. So importing the form of religion is easy when you travel, but importing the content and the spirit of religion tends to be much more difficult. And that’s why so many Muslim organisations in the West tend to be a ltitle bit dry, exoteric, harsh, intolerant.
The milad is a very important case in point. The arguments for the milad, while they have well-known and defensible shari’a foundations, are ultimately intuitive. They’re arguments of the heart, not of the mind. Every traditional Muslim harbours in his or her heart a love, mahabbah, for Rasulullah (s.a.w.), which, given the fitrah of human beings, naturally seeks to express itself in poetry, in song, in the narration of the seerah, and generally, in an event which, every year, expresses the principle that it’s an obligation to celebrate blessings. And there is no blessing conferred upon humanity since Adam greater than the coming into the world of the Seal of the Prophets, Sayyidina Muhammad (s.a.w.).
So in our modern, dislocated context, as we grope for a way of being Muslim in a new, unfamiliar world, where issues settled by happy tradition, like themadhabs, like the milad, like the so many other parts of Muslim heritage, are now being opened up, once again, for scrutiny, for argument, and controversy. The despiritualising of life, which often seems to come with the process of moving from a traditional Muslim culture to a minority experience in the West, has skewed the whole debate and the whole nature of Muslim expression in the West, in an outward, dry, exoteric dimension. Arguments amongst Muslim organisations in the West, for the most part, tend to be on the level of form of religion, a level of Islam with a small “i”, as it were. Sometimes of iman, almost never does one hear serious discussions of ihsan. So the religion is imbalanced in favour of the divisive possibilities of its outward forms, because the heart unifies and the law creates, not disunity, diversity. There are thousands upon thousands upon thousands of fiqh dalils, each of which can be variously interpreted and provide scope for disagreement. But there is only one heart, and its argument, its dalil, is only ever one – it’s the argument that clamours for serenity, for dhikr, for remembrance of Allah (s.w.t.). That’s the only dalil that the heart has in religion.
So once the spiritual life is cultivated, the relative nature of the lesser distinctions and arguments of fiqh become very clear. The way has opened for a tolerance of diversity and unity around the only possible source of unity, namely, the life of the heart. And the Sufis have always been aware of this, in the unity of possibilities of the Sufi way. So the famous Spanish Sufi, Ibn Banna Saraqusti says,
The way we express things is very varied, but your beauty is One, and we are all pointing towards that same beauty.
That’s the nature of Sufism, because it is pointing towards the One, it is the unity of force within Islam.
Now once we’ve recovered this perspective and got it clear in our minds, it immediately becomes plain what’s wrong with many of our Muslim communities here in the West. We’ve often imported the husk and we’ve left the kernel behind. And this is why it is the Sufis who are the natural bearers to the West of the message of Rasulullah (s.a.w.) and particularly those Sufi tariqas such as the Naqshbandiyya, who have such a distinguished and blessed record throughout history of bringing Islam to communities which previously sat in darkness. And it’s the Sufi responsibility precisely because, as Sufis, we have got our priorities right.
The hadith of Jibril that we all know, one of the most fundamental hadiths of Islam, establishes not just a division between the three categories of Islam, imanand ihsan, but it also insists that one stands above the other. One progresses from Islam, the outward form, to iman, to ihsan. From Form to mental ascent, and then to spiritual realisation and experience. And it is in the reverse order of these dimensions that we need to present the message of our faith to outsiders and also to the very many doubtful Muslims and to our children.
A further aspect of this is that Muslim communities in the West need to cultivate even more respect of indigenous flowerings of Islam. Very often, we see people from the traditional Muslim world regarding themselves somehow as superior to, or even in charge of, the African-American Muslims, who are such an important and rapidly growing feature on the Muslim landscape here. However, precisely because those Muslims have not experienced the despiritualisation that can sometimes accompany the migration process, we may expect them often to be spiritually, and hence intrinsically, more whole than the people who are dealing with problems of an acculturation. We need, I think, to be very frank about that. Sometimes we marginalise them and they deserve much more than that.
So once we’ve established in our minds, as the traditional ulema always affirmed, the primacy of ihsan over the other registers of the deen, and we’ve acknowledged the experience of being plunged into the deep end of modernity here in a place like America – it’s very corrosive of the spiritual life, more corrosive of the spiritual life than it is of the mental life or of the moral life – we can begin to ask ourselves the question, precisely what it means in a modern, minority context, as Muslims fumbling for an identity in the modern, industrial society in whose creation we had no hand, to be attached to the way of Sayyidina Muhammad (s.a.w.). In what sense do the sunnah and the seerah and love for the Prophet (s.a.w.) function for us as norms and the simple patterns which give meaning and shape to our lives.
Again, remaining attached to the outward form, the zahir, of the Sunnah, is comparatively easy, at least for the first generation of newcomers or new Muslims. Remaining fully in a state of iman is a bit more difficult. And by iman, I don’t mean primarily a formal assent to a set of doctrines that belong to the first pillar of Islam, and hence the first dimension of the faith, as expressed in the hadith of Jibril. By iman, I mean what the Arabic term actually implies, which is not “belief”, but a living, secure awareness of the existence and guiding presence of Allah. Adherence to ihsan is rarer still and this is the heart of our problem here.
Worship Allah as if you saw Him, and even though you do not see Him, He sees you.
That’s what the hadith says and it’s a very exalted station. But, no matter how exalted it may be, it’s actually indispensable. Because we’re no longer surrounded here by social values which back home sustained our Islam and iman in an untroubled way. In fact, it now seems that wherever we look, and whatever we listen to, everything in our new environment – in college, at work, the media – seems calculated to challenge, to question and to erode our iman. Hence here, in the West, in America, ihsan, which in traditional Islam is a synonym for tasawwuf, is more obligatory, more indispensable, for every Muslim than it is in the Islamic world. Society no longer supports our faith. The support has to come entirely from within, from a dynamic, luminous life of the spirit that immunises us from the spiritual, and the moral, and the intellectual diseases of the air that we breathe.
So far, I’ve tried to make two basic points: firstly, that while the fiqh is, by its very nature, multiple, spirituality offers a point of unity for Muslim communities. Secondly, the spiritual life is not an option, but is absolutely necessary for us here. Without it, we’re likely to run out of fuel. And this happens all too often, in my experience, to new Muslims, who are carried along for a few months or a few years by the energy generated by their conversion, but who gradually flag and eventually drop out of sight. The world around them, and the established mosques and organisations can’t refuel them. And the mosques can provide arguments about fiqh, about the sighting about the moon, about formal doctrine, but frequently, they’re not very good at providing spiritual nourishment, and hence, at last, these people die of starvation, not just converts but also second and third generation born Muslims. We’re all aware of this problem. Because thezahir, the outward form of religion, is not rich enough to keep us going, and to keep us going is not ultimately its function. And those people who are sustained by thezahir, and who have made the outer shell of the religion the core of it, are often amongst the most disagreeable, the least impressive people with a clear deficit in their own spiritual faculties and an ignorance of their own real needs. Sometimes I call this neo-Islam of many of the official established Muslim organisations of the West, “decaffeinated Islam”. It looks and smells like Islam, it’s made, to the uninitiated, to even taste like Islam, but the essential stimulant is missing.
How then, can we acquire this stimulant, which will sustain our devotional life and place us in a hopeful position when we die? The answer, of course, lies in the science of tasawwuf, in Sufism itself. Sufism is part of the Sunnah, it’s the inward sunnah. To claim that emulation of Rasulullah (s.a.w.) is complete when we follow only the outward forms of how the Prophet (s.a.w.) was, is to misunderstand Islam. It’s to reduce Islam. It’s a kind of dry, parasayic formalism. The Sunnah demands to be followed on all of its levels – the sunnah of practice, of iman and of spirituality. Obviously, as we can never aspire to perfect emulation of the Prophet (s.a.w.) in his outward form, so too, his spiritual uniqueness lies forever above and beyond us and his specific prophet function and glory, again, is his alone.
Nonetheless, emulation of Rasulullah (s.a.w.) in an inner, spiritual sense has been the serious undertaking of the auliyah of this deen since its inception. In fact, that’s true by definition, that’s what a wali is. The auliyah – well, obviously they can’t be prophets – are his heirs, are his inheritors. The hadith tells us that theulema are the inheritors of the Prophet. They aren’t Prophets, but the emulate them and inherit many of their functions. Hence, for instance, an obvious case, thewali, the perfect saint, friend of Allah, can work miracles. Not muajizat, because those are the preserve of the Prophets but karamat. The auliyah tend to conceal theirkaramat. The Prophets, the Anbiya, are obliged to make their mua’jizat public. So that’s a difference. The auliyah can also interceded at the Judgement, another way in which they are the heirs of the Prophet. So the famous hadith related by Imam Tirmidhi tells us,
A man shall be told “Arise, so-and-so, and intercede”, and shall get up and exercise intercession, shafa’a, for his group, his family, or for one person or two, all in proportion to his works.
Of course, the greatest intercession, Ashafa’atul Kubra, is the privilege of only Sayyidina Muhammad (s.a.w.), but the wali can inherit the Nabi in that he can exercise a lesser intercession. And the wali is also an heir to the Prophet in his or, quite often her, duties of guidance. Allah says:
Those who pledge their allegiance to you by making bay’ah are only making bay’ah of Allah.
A very remarkable expression. Obedience to a sheikh is therefore part of the Sunnah. Being a sheikh and accepting the onerous burden of carrying the problems and the direction of others is also part of the emulation of Rasulullah (s.a.w.). For the Prophet (s.a.w.) is described in The Qur’an as a mudhakkir, a reminder, an inculcator of dhikra, of remembrance, and that is also the function of the perfected wali who is called upon to guide others.
One of the great Sufi poets of Islam, Maulana Jalaluddin Rumi says:
When you place your hand in the hand of the sheikh,
The old man of wisdom who is knowing and venerable,
Who is heir to the Prophets, in his own time a disciple
So that within him, the light of the Prophet shines,
Then you are present at Hudaybiyyah, and you are followers of those
Companions of the Prophet
Who swore their oath.
Now, the wali experiences states, maqamat, which to us ordinary people are unimaginable, and certainly hard to express in words. The salat is the mi’raj of the mu’min, a hadith tells us. Notice here he says “mu’min”, not just “Muslim”. And the ascent of the wali to the proximity of his Lord is regularly compared in our literature to the mi’raj of Rasulullah (s.a.w), although clearly, it’s inferior and it’s derivative. And just as Sayyidina Rasulullah (s.a.w.) descends again to guide creation – and this is part of his greatness – so also, the wali passes beyond the state of ultimate annihilation before the Divine Presence and enters the state the Sufis know asbaqa, subsistence to going on. So perfect sainthood in the Islamic model entails returning to creation, anuzul ila al-haq, guiding others, another way in which tasawwufis the perfection of the Sunnah of Rasulullah (s.a.w.).
All this reminds us that once we’ve grasped the fundamental fact that there in an inward, as well as an outward, Sunnah to be followed, we realise the need for a guide. To have a Sheikh is to follow the Sunnah because it is to put oneself in the obedient rank of the Sahaba, the Companions. And that relationship confers exactly the kind of protection from spiritual corrosion that we need here in the West. Again, according to Rumi:
The Prophet said I am like a ship in the storm of time.
I and my Companions are like the Ark of Nuh
Whoever holds fast will come to the dawn.
When you are with a sheikh, you are far from ugliness,
Travelling night and day in a ship
Protected by the spirit of a spirit enlivener
You move forward in the ship even when you sleep.
Do not break with the Prophet of your time,
Do not rely on your own skills and footsteps.
Now just as the Sahabah (radiallahanhum) knew that part of their glory and success came from the protection by the du’a, by the prayers of Sayyidina Muhammad (s.a.w.) so that they were detached from the world even in its midst, because of his prayers for them, so also, the spiritual child of a saint, even in our generation, walks through that chaos and temptations of the modern world as though in a kind of bubble, seeing but not absorbing. And this is related to the Sufi degree of tajrid (isolation). It’s not that the Sahaba were unaware of the world, it’s just that they transformed it. It didn’t transform them. And this indispensable following of the Sunnah, which is attachment to a Sheikh, brings about a similar gift. If we wish to be transformed by Allah rather than the world, then the Sunnah ofiradah, of accepting guidance of one who is heir to the Prophet, is indispensable. We cannot survive here without it.
It seems to be that throughout the history of Islam, this has been the secret of the ummah’s success, but particularly the ummah’s success in reaching out, in expanding to possess and inspire new souls. The Sahaba, although originally not the bearers of high civilisation – they were simple desert dwellers – converted the advanced people of Byzantium and Persia. This is one of the great mysteries of history, as to how they could have done that. In fact, it’s the only case in history of a nomadic people converting a settled population. The barbarian invaders of the Late Roman Empire eventually converted to Christianity, which was the religion of the conquered. The Mongols didn’t convert the Muslim world to their religion, they converted to Islam instead. But the Sahaba (radiallah taala anhum) broke this usual historical and cultural law. Everywhere they went, seemingly by miracle, they sowed the seeds for Islam, seeds which still flower today, 1400 years on.
Later in the ummah’s history, the mass of Muslims lost that initial relationship with a guide. It’s true, under the Khulafat Rashidun, they were supported in theghaib by the Caliph’s, or the Khalifa’s, prayers and spiritual assistance. Their victories were, in fact, karamat. But as the Prophetic word came true and worldly kingship replaced the guidance of a Nabi or a wali, the spread of Islam started to slow, the torches carried, however, by the Sufis. The ummah as a whole was increasingly poorly led and hence, no longer functioned as a tariqah. We could say early Islam functioned as a tariqah. But within the ummah there arose a host of, as it were, sub-ummahs, of little ummahs, each illuminated by a guide whose authority and spiritual powers inherited directly from the Prophet (s.a.w.) through a legitimated and attested silsilah. And it is Allah’s will that those sub-ummahs, those latter-day recreations of the original Muslim community should carry on the Prophetic task of bringing Islam to the ends of the earth. It was not adherence of the outward form of Islam alone who did this, but only those given the privilege of the full emulation of the Sunnah, which can only be achieved in the context of a tariqah. To live and worship as a full Muslim, that is, as an aspirant on the path oftasawwuf, is to receive a protection from is to receive a protection from Shaytan. The dhikr, which is the constant state of the murid, which purifies his inward just aswudhu purifies his outward, is a suit of armour. But it’s also a sword. At the end of the great hadith an-Nawafil – again one of the great hadiths of Islam which have endlessly inspired the Sadatul Sufiyya – we find that part of the definition of a wali is not only that “If he seeks My protection, I shall protect him” but also “If he seeks victory from Me, I shall grant him victory”. In other words, the wali is given, as it were, offensive, as well as defensive powers. He or she is protected from forgetfulness and sin, and is also given the ability to reach out and achieve victory over others, whether it be in war, or in argument, or in da’wah.
Now, all that I’ve been saying leads to one quite straightforward conclusion. Allah (s.w.t.) will only grant the honour of spreading His Word to those who follow the Sunnah completely, and those are the people of dhikr.
Remember Me, and I will remember you.
Rarely do we find that people come to Islam in the West, or that young people are held by Islam, by dry, empty speeches and verbiages that contain no true and sincere, open-hearted dhikr to Allah. Those who call only to themselves or to their own organisations or to their lifeless egos end up calling nobody at all.
Now Islam is a universal religion. In fact, it is the only legitimate universal religion. Sayyidina Rasulullah (s.a.w.) has proclaimed that “whereas early prophets were sent only to their own peoples, I am sent to all mankind”. This is one of his khasa’is, his unique properties. And one of his khasa’is also, is “The whole earth has been made a place of prostration for me”, something that was not given to any previous prophet.
Now those who are in tariqa know this very well. There are going to be no new ummahs. This is the last bus home. In a hadith narrated by Bukhari on the authority of Jabir ibn Mut’aim, Rasulullah (s.a.w.), speaking frankly, unveils something of his own eschatological glory with the words, “I have names. I am Muhammad. I am Ahmad. I am the Obliterator (Al-Mahi) by whom God obliterates unbelief. I am Al-Hashir, the Gatherer, who will gather Mankind at my feet. I am Al-Aqid, the Last, after whom there shall be no other Prophet.”
Here in the West, we find the people around us traditionally subject to a memory, albeit dim and no doubt deformed and inaccurate, of the way of Sayyina ‘Isa (a.s.) and ‘Isa’s role is not the final one. As Massih, he seals the whole Jewish story that began with Musa (a.s.). He was sent only to the lost tribes of the Children of Israel. But our Prophet Muhammad (s.a.w.) is universal. He is the Prophet for an age which is universalising, in which everything is coming together, being made uniform, being made the same. In fact, he was sent precisely at the beginning of the stages and the processes of history which have led to our present universalising, globalising civilisation.
Al-Bukhari and Muslim both relate on the authority of Abu Huraira that Rasulullah (s.a.w.) said,
“My likeness in respect of the other prophets is that of a mansion which was beautifully constructed but in which the place of one brick was left incomplete. Spectators went around and around admiring the beauty of its construction, with the exception of the space left for that brick. Now I have filled up that space. In me the building in completed, and in me, the Messengers are complete.”
Now this hadith proclaims the glorious finality of Islam. It proclaims the supersession of Islam of everything that went before. Its voiding of everything that still exists, all the memories of the earlier ummahs. It tells us, moreover, of a supersession that perfects something that was already beautiful. The faith as exampled by the Messenger (s.a.w.) is beautiful. The Sunnah is beautiful. And Sayyidina Rasulullah (s.a.w.) is also beautiful.
Bukhari also informs us, on the authority of Al-Bara’ ibn Aazib that Rasulullah (s.a.w.) was – and this is one of his beautiful descriptions – “of medium height, broad shouldered, with his hair reaching to the lobes of his ears. He had seen him wearing a red robe and had never seen any sight more beautiful than he.” This is one hadith out of a whole host of descriptions of Rasulullah (s.a.w.) which emphasizes beauty as part of his culminating role in prophetic history. He is the final perfecting addition to the mansion of the Prophets and as such, he is perfection of human beauty, which is itself the supreme manifestation of beauty in the cosmos. It’s recorded of him, as it’s recorded of the great auliyah, that those around him would never tire of looking at his face. I should close now.
I hope that I’ve at least managed to convey something of what I believe to be the essential ingredient in any strategy of Muslim survival and growth and flourishing in the West. We have to recognise that the outward forms alone, the zahir, the dry bones of religion, will not be strong enough to support our spiritual survival. They will not appeal for long the converts, they will not sustain for long our second and third generations. We have to clothe those bones with the garment of taqwa, of true consciousness, of dhikr of our Maker, our Sustainer. And we have to step inside the barriers of protection afforded by those who would take them, by the auliyah and by the tariqas, with their endless prayers and the imdad which come from them and from their predecessors in the way, and from Rasulullah (s.a.w.) whose prayers and madad for the people of tariqa is endless and unimaginable, because these things will reinforce and give life to our own in themselves inadequate and feeble spiritual efforts.
Imam al-Haddad, about the Sadatul Auliyyin of South Yemen wrote in one of his poems:
O Lord! Give us the benefit of their barakah
And guide us to what is best through their sanctity
And cause us to die in their way, in their tariqa
And safe, and well-kept from all fitan
And all of this flows from emulating the inward and outward greatness of Sayyidina Rasulullah (s.a.w.) because he is the Prophet for this time. Early religions have been superseded. Only though his immeasurable greatness in the ghaib and through attachment to his representatives can we hope to be preserved from the confusions of this dark age and know peace and salvation.
And we ask Allah (s.w.t.) to make us those who follow the Sunnah not just outwardly but inwardly as well so that we may, insha’allah, be granted the blessing of beholding the prophetic beauty in visions, in our dreams, and at the Judgment and that we may receive the privilege of his generous intercession on the Yawm Ul-Qiyama. Amin ya rabbil al’amin. Wasalamualaikum warahmatullahi wabarakatu.