Shaykh Uthmaan Dan Fodio’s Position on Tasawwuf – From the book ‘ The African Caliphate’ by Ibrahim Sulaiman

Tasawwuf 1

Shaykh Uthmaan Dan Fodio’s Position on Tasawwuf

From the book ‘ The African Caliphate’ by Ibrahim Sulaiman

In addition to the general education that the Shehu imparted to his students and companions, there was also a more intensive and systematized spiritual training in taṣawwuf. The Shehu had a group of people – men and women – whom he brought up in the ways of sufism. His main aim, no doubt, was to create a core of saints whose inward temperament was harmonized with their outward disposition in such a way that their utterances, behavior and characteristics mirrored their inner beings. This nucleus of people eventually formed the inner core of the Jama‘a. It was to them that mightier affairs were entrusted.

If the Shehu were asked if taṣawwuf was necessary, he would reply in the affirmative. In his Uṣūl al-Wilāyah he said that in the early days of Islam there was no need for taṣawwuf as such, because the Companions of the Prophet had among them those from whom the rest could draw inspiration and who could serve as models for them. The proper Islamic attitudes to life were preserved and transferred from one generation to another until the time came when the moral tone of society changed and people sank into moral decadence. Then a systematized form of spiritual training (tarbiyah) was needed, to give individuals guidance toward intellectual and moral elevation in order to overcome the diseases of the soul that prevented spiritual development.

This kind of concentrated spiritual cultivation of individuals, the Shehu maintained, is traceable to the Prophet himself صلّى اللّه عَلَيْهِ وسلّم, who trained his Companions  in accordance with the disposition of each. He would say to one, “Avoid anger,” and to another, “Let not your tongue ever rest from mentioning Allah’s names.”

The Shehu elaborated that taṣawwuf entails securing from people a pledge, which has to be continually reaffirmed, that they devote themselves to moral rectitude and the search for knowledge following the example of the Prophet صلّى اللّه عَلَيْهِ وسلّم. In this desire to inculcate in people knowledge (‘ilm) and spiritual experience (ḥaqīqah), the ṣufis have added nothing to the general practice of Islam. They simply reinforce its demand for the performance of obligatory duties and avoidance of prohibited things.

The essence of taṣawwuf, as expounded in Uṣūl al-Wilāyah, is five-fold. It is to seek to attain that superior moral consciousness (taqwā) as a result of which a person behaves as if he is in the presence of Allah, so that, whether alone or with others, obligatory duties are always upheld and forbidden things avoided. The Sunnah should be followed in all its ramifications, manifested by good character and being a source of happiness and comfort to others.

You should not harm people or cause them unnecessary discomfort, while at the same time exercising patience and trust in Allah if they cause you harm. You should cheerfully accept Allah’s overriding will in all matters concerning your life, whether that entails prosperity or poverty. You should perfect the attitude of submission whereby, even in the most trying circumstances, you offer thanks to Allah, appreciate the perfect nature of His will and, in the hope of His mercy and succor, flee from the imperfect state of this world to seek refuge in Him.

Those goals are to be reached by taking the following steps: exercising zeal in seeking the highest of aims of worship; revering the sanctity of Allah by following His injunctions and avoiding His prohibitions; striving to perform your professional work correctly and skillfully in accordance with the Sunnah; carrying out your resolution about religion regardless of opposition; and finally acknowledging Allah’s favors by being thankful to Him so as to be graced with an increase in such favors.

Shehu listed, in this order, number of ultimate qualities that should be inculcated: basic knowledge in the fundamentals of religion, jurisprudence and taṣawwuf; repentance (tawbah) from all sins, both spiritual and social; keeping aloof from people except for spiritual, educational or other positive purposes; waging war against Shaytān; striving against lower desires and restraining the self through taqwā; reliance on Allah in matters of provision and livelihood, that is, self-reliance; committing affairs in their entirety to Allah; cheerful acceptance of Allah’s judgment; patience (ṣabr), especially in times of trial; fear of Allah’s retribution at all times; love of Allah in all conditions and at all times; avoidance of eye contact at work; avoidance of conceit by calling to mind Allah’s unbounded favors; and constant praise and thanks to Allah.

Shehu described the nature of the training as the gradual cultivation of a person’s character through a systematic process supervised by a Shaykh until the whole being is positively changed by the good qualities being totally inculcated into the personality. This process is called riyāḍah. Shehu offered an insight into this method by saying, for instance, that if the student (murīd) were ignorant of the Sharī‘ah, the starting point in his training would in that case be his instruction in law and jurisprudence; if he were preoccupied with unlawful enrichment or was in a sinful political or social position, he should first be made to rectify that situation; even if he were sound in outward appearance, the diseases of the inward would have to be cured; if he were obsessed with personal appearance, he should be assigned such lowly chores as cooking until that obsession had been removed; if he were obsessed with food, he should be introduced to constant fasting until that obsession had been overcome; if he were in a hurry for marriage, in spite of being unable to  shoulder its responsibilities, that desire should be curbed with fasting and other exercises. Thus, the training would be in accordance with the intellectual and moral level of the individual concerned.

What differentiates this system of training from informal, personal education is that it is under the guidance of a realised shaykh. This raises the fundamental question of how one can distinguish a true shaykh from a false one. The Shehu offered the following guidelines in identifying a fraud: if he engages under any pretext in disobedience to Allah; if he is hypocritical and pretentious in exhibiting obedience to Allah; if he is greedy for wealth and worldly status and cultivates rich people; if he sows discord among Muslims and is disrespectful to Muslims in general. All these are signs that he is not genuine. A true shaykh is known by the soundness of his knowledge derived fundamentally from the Qur’an and Sunnah, by the nobility of his character, by his spiritual soundness, by a pleasing and easy disposition, and finally by his display of pure insight through interpreting the issues confronting him clearly.

Finally, there is the question of whether a shaykh is essential for the attainment of spiritual wellbeing. Not necessarily, the Shehu stated in Uṣūl al-Wilāyah. The collective spirit of an Islamic group – Ikhwān, as he called them – could take the place of a shaykh and, in any case, the ultimate purpose of taṣawwuf is that an individual should reach a stage in his “direct experience” of Allah in which he dispenses with the guidance of anyone else. Taṣawwuf is the process of training by which an individual is brought to spiritual maturity and then freed to seek his way to his Lord.

For Shehu Usman, taṣawwuf, as an integral part of Islam, is derived from two verses of the Qur’an: “But as for him who feared the Station of his Lord and forbade the lower self its appetites, the Garden will be his refuge.” (79:39-40)

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  1. Thanks for your contributions


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