by Kaleem Hussain
Originally published on: 26th May 2009
Interviewing Professor Seyyed Hossein Nasr, the eminent specialist of the Islamic spiritual tradition, means talking about the core of spirituality in Islam, the contributions of Muslim scholars and thinkers in developing an original spiritual dimension, the formation and spread of schools and currents in Muslim sufism, and the role of Islamic spirituality in today’s world. In a learned, informed and easy discussion, Professor Nasr covers the issue brilliantly and shows what meaning can Sufism and spirituality bring to our modern world, to cure some of its ailments.
Welcome to the Muslim Heritage Radio Show. This week’s topic is Islamic spirituality and the contributions of Muslim scholars and thinkers towards the spiritual dimension and heritage in Islam. The whole purpose of the show is to raise awareness amongst the listening audience of the contributions that Muslim Scholars have made towards our heritage, not only from a classical perspective but also from a contemporary perspective. We are very grateful and lucky today to have a very distinguished authority in the field of spirituality by the name of Professor Dr. Seyyed Hossein Nasr, who joins us from the George Washington University.
For the benefit of the listeners, I will give a short biographical account of Professor Seyyed Hossein Nasr. Seyyed Hossein Nasr was born in Tehran to a family of traditional scholars and physicians. After receiving his early education in Iran, he went to America where he studied physics and the history of science and philosophy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Harvard University, where he received his doctorate. Professor Seyyed Hossein Nasr was a professor at Tehran University and founder and first president of the Iranian Academy of philosophy. He is currently professor of Islamic studies at George Washington University. He is the author of numerous books, including Ideals and Realities of Islam, Science and Civilisation in Islam, Muhammad Man of Allah, Traditional Islam in the Modern World, Islamic Spirituality and its Foundations, Islamic Spirituality and its Manifestations, The Heart of Islam: Enduring Values for Humanity.
The first question I would like to ask on this theme of spirituality is that we have heard the word spirituality used in many spheres of life and in various faith traditions. What is the Islamic understanding of the term spirituality based on the Holy Quran and the prophetic teachings?
First of all, the term spirituality began to become common from the 19th century onwards in Western languages and it came into English from French in the term “spiritualité”; and this term was used by certain Catholics in the 19th century. The reason it has become so popular and everybody speaks about it is that many circles in the West have turned against the word religion. They are put off as one would say, and so many people who are trying to explain the deeper teachings of religion have used the term spirituality which seems to be more neutral and does not have all the connotations that the opponents of religion have tried to make use of since the beginning of secularism in the West from the Renaissance onwards, and especially during the last two centuries. Now, as far as Islam is concerned, of course many of us write in the English language now and we speak in English, therefore we use the word spirituality and often speak of Islamic spirituality. As you said, I produced and edited two large volumes on Islamic spirituality which unfortunately are still the only comprehensive volumes on this subject in English. But to define spirituality in Islamic terms, let us go back and ask ourselves: how we would use the term in Arabic and Persian (the two main Islamic languages from which this terminology is derived)? There are of course other Islamic languages such as Urdu, Swahili and Turkish, but Arabic and Persian remain primary. In Arabic, the word that is used is ruhaniyya or ruhiyya. Especially ruhaniya, which comes from the word ruh in Arabic, meaning the spirit, the term is to be found in the Quran, and therefore corresponds also etymologically to the word spirituality which of course started with the word spirit from Latin, the word spiritus, which corresponds exactly to the word ruh in Arabic. In Persian, another term is used in addition to that, and that is the word manaveeyyah, which also exists in Urdu and almost in all Indian languages and also in Turkish, which is derived from Persian. This word comes from the word ma’na in Arabic, ma’nu in Persian, which means the inner aspect, inwardness. The great poet Jalal al-Din Rumi (ra) always speaks of external forms (surat) and inner meaning (ma’na). So manaveeyyah covers the wide aspect of the Islamic tradition and is not a modern term. It was used before, but now when Persians or Arabs want to write about spirituality, Islamic spirituality or even non Islamic spirituality, in the context of the present world, they usually use these terms.
What role have the Muslim scholars and sages played in developing the spiritual tradition of Islam?
When Islam was revealed to the Prophet (pbuh), starting with jabal al-nur (mountain of light) shortly until his death during 23 years, everything that was revealed in the Quran involved both the social outer personal life of human beings on the external level, and the inner life of human beings. The combat of the soul for purity, for cleansing itself, and also inner knowledge, there are certain verses of the Quran which pertain – let’s say – to the division of one’s inheritance. There are others which speak of pure spirituality in the modern sense of the term, contemporary sense of the term, and pure metaphysics. For example when the Quran states: “Wherever you turn there is a Face of God.” You and I will be turning our heads from one side to the other, why we do not see the Face of God? From the beginning of Islam, going back to the Prophet (pbuh) himself, within the soul of the Prophet (pbuh) and the instructions that he gave (which are received from God), there was an inner type of instruction which was given by the Prophet (pbuh) to only a number of his companions, which was not for everybody. It was for those who sought the inner meaning of the revelation and the truth from the very beginning. Chief among them were Ali (ra), Abu Bakr (ra), Salman al-Farsi (ra), Abu Dhar al-Ghaffari (ra) and certain other people who were very close to the Prophet (pbuh). And of course as the later history of Islam unfolds, the most important figure in transmitting this inner aspect of the Islamic tradition was Ali (ra). Most of the great Islamic scholars who expounded this truth were not shi’te, they were sunni and there should not be a mistake about this. Although Ali (ra) is the first Imam of shi‘ism, he is also central to sunni Islamic spirituality, sunni Sufism and even outside of Sufism. It is a very complicated field, but one can say that from the very beginning there appeared in Islamic history men and women who dedicated their lives to the cultivation of this spirituality and included among them are not only the names such as Ghazzali (ra), Imam Qasim al Qushairi (ra), Junayd al-Baghdadi (ra), Shibli (ra), but many later figures coming up almost to our own day. In every century, Islamic history has witnessed great sages, great saints, whose lives are based on searching for this inner meaning of religion, spirituality, for purification of the soul and have expounded often at times in beautiful poetry, sometimes in prose and most of all in direct transmission beyond any text, the reality of what we would call Islamic spirituality. However, the Islamic spirituality is not only limited to the function of these people. Their function was like lighting a lamp and the light of the lamp always spreads beyond the lamp, and therefore this spirituality spreads into many domains, including daily piety for those who tried to interiorise their piety. Many of the daily prayers read by ordinary Muslims were written by Sufis like Dala’il al-Khayrat in Arabic. There are so many of them, and at the same time it spread into Islamic art, poetry, music, and even architecture and calligraphy. Those represent also an embodiment of Islamic spirituality, not only the classical texts of Sufism or Irfan (gnosis) but also the visual and scenoral Islamic arts.
The one thing that is often used synonymously with the word of spirituality is the term tasawwuf. Is there a subsequent link with the two terms?
Definitely, although they are not identical. First of all, tasawwuf has been the main carrier of Islamic spirituality during the last fourteen centuries, and I mean by that authentic tasawwuf based on a silsila, on a chain, going back to the Prophet of Islam, because now we have a lot of pseudo tasawwuf, especially in Europe and including your country England. I am not talking about that, those are really taking bits from Sufi teachings and putting them together. Authentic tasawwuf requires the practice of the sharia fully, but interiorising the sharia and transcending all formal orders to the Divine reality which transcends all forms. Sufism has been without a doubt – and not only the sunni world but also in the shi’te world – the main conduit for the transmission of what we call Islamic spirituality. Islamic spirituality is not equivalent to tasawwuf, because there are certain aspects of Islamic spirituality, as you will find for example in certain forms of Islamic philosophy, even Islamic science, in the way in which the cosmos is described in a spiritual manner, in the arts which I just mentioned, which cannot be equated with Sufism. So the spiritualism goes beyond its own borders, and then of course you have in the shi’te world a spirituality that derives from the same sources as Sufism, that is from the inner teachings of the Prophet (pbuh) of what is called wilayat in Arabic, the power of spirituality. I do not mean wilayat in the sense of governorship but of being a friend of God, wilayat in the Sufi sense which is also existing in shi’sm, was often transmitted through the Imams, and so you have a vast world of Islamic spirituality. But the main carrier and the main conduit of the transmission of this Islamic spirituality over the centuries has been tasawwuf.
In light of what you have just mentioned, can you briefly explain how the concept of the spiritual tariqahs have developed from these great personalities, personalities such as Shaykh Abdul Qadir al-Gilani (ra), Shaykh Ahmed Rifai (ra) and Mevlena Jalal al-Din Rumi (ra)?
The first few centuries of Islam were witness to the presence of Sufism in the form of masters who had their own circle (halaqa, in Arabic meaning circle). Disciples came to them, people like Junaid (ra), great masters like Qushairi (ra), Abu Said abu al-Khayr (ra), Dhu-Nnun al-Misri (ra). The disciples came to them and they learned and many of them in turn became masters. Like many of the disciples of Junaid (ra), who themselves became great masters. A disciple like Hallaj (ra) was one of the most famous of all Sufis, but a student of Junaid (ra). From the 6th century onwards, as the madrassas crystallized and as the schools of law became much more delineated and many other social events took place, the Sufis felt that it was necessary to give greater organisation to their circle. It is at that time that the two of the great masters of Sufism, Abdul Qadir al Gilani (ra) and Shaykh Ahmed Rifa’i (ra), developed their tariqahs. Shaykh Abdul Qadir (ra) was from Gilan, from northern Iran, and migrated to Iraq where he died. His tomb is in Baghdad. This tragic city that we often at times see the images of it from far away when they show the horrible events taking place on television. And Shaykh Ahmed Rifa’i (ra) was an Iraqi from southern Iraq. These two men began tariqahs in the sense that we have had them in the last eight centuries. They founded the first two Islamic tariqahs, the Qadiriya and the Rifa’iya, both of which are still very prevalent and spread throughout the Islamic world. The Qadiriya being the most universal of all Islamic Sufi orders and the Rifa’iya also have been very wide spread from Albania to North Africa to India and all the lands in between.
Then after that, this became actually the norm and one after the other, the great masters like Shaykh Suhrawardi (ra) established the Suhrawardi order which affected so deeply the life of India. And the Chishtia order was established and of course the Shadhilya order by Shaykh Abu al-Hasan al- Shadhili (ra), one of the most important Sufi orders and many others like the Naqshbandiya order, the Ni’matillahiya order. The question that might be asked is how is a new order established? This is kind of a mystery. It is when God gives a kind of inner command to a person who is already in a Sufi order and very advanced to start either a new branch of that order or a new order. There is no external regulation written in a book. Some great Sufi masters like Shaykh al-Darqawi (ra) founded a new branch of the Shadhiliya order which revived the whole of Sufism in North Africa. Shaykh al-Alawi (ra), another one of the very great masters of the last two centuries of Sufism, founded a new branch called the Alawiya order. Others, like Shaykh al-Darqawi, Shaykh Ahmed Tijani (ra), founded a new order called the Tijaniya, which practically transformed the life of West Africa. Now on that point, what happens is that when a new order is established or a new branch is established, and a great link comes into all the chain, there is no rhyme or reason because it is the inner workings of the Will of God as it manifests itself. Also some Sufi orders had lived for a few centuries and then died. Others have lived to this day. Some others were very widespread like the Kubrawiya order and till now are still alive, but limited in their geographical extension. So you have a great diversity as far as the Sufi orders are concerned.
What is the ultimate goal of these orders in terms of the individual who joins or affiliates him/herself with them?
First of all, by virtue of entering a Sufi tariqah, a person receives an initiation going back to Bayt al-Ridhwan of the Prophet (pbuh) through which a kind of spiritual power is transmitted to the disciple to be able to fight against a dragon within us and to carry out jihad al-akbar (greatest jihad) within us, to purify the soul and to ascend to the higher levels of reality or the more interior levels of reality which are within us. Secondly, the tariqah provides the discipline and a kind of community within which the adept is able to perfect himself and is also a protective cover you might say for the practise of Sufism. Tariqah is also a way to guarantee the correct transmission of the teachings of Sufism so that it will not become deviated. Of course the guarantee is not 100 percent, because we have seen in Islamic history certain people have deviated whilst even being member of a tariqah. As the Sufi will say, “the devil is not sitting idly by.” The thing that the devil hates most is for a person to undertake the spiritual journey to God, because he thinks he has all of us on the palm of his hand already and so anyone who escapes, there are all kinds of demonic ways of trying to change one’s direction, trying to deviate a person from the path. Despite this guarantee, there have been those who have either left, rebelled or deviated. But the remarkable thing is the continuity which Sufism has provided for its spiritual teaching at this level which one does not find in many religions. Look what happened to mysticism in Christianity after the Renaissance.
What role have women played in developing the spiritual tradition and heritage in Islam?
This is on two levels. First of all on the issue of practice, all the Sufi orders are open to men and women alike. And in every authentic Sufi order there are also many women disciples as there are men disciples, and in the same way as according to the sharia, men and women stand equal before God in the same way for Sufism, the door is open to both men and women. As for the expression of Sufism, obviously because of the conditions in Islamic civilisation before modern times, we simply have had more male philosophers and male scientists than women, and in fact also for the West. You are sitting in England, how many female philosophers can you name in England? Probably one or two at best if you are a philosopher, but you can name tens and tens of males like John Locke, Russel and Whitehead, etc.
In the same way, in the Islamic world of course most of those who have written about Sufism were male but not all. First of all, we have the supreme example with the first great women Sufi saint Rabi’a al-Adawiya (rah), who was a student of Hassan al- Basri (ra), the great pole of both hadith and Sufism in Basra and a student Ali (ra). He was a very important figure in early Islamic history in sunni hadith, in law and also everything else. He was a very great spiritual master, and Rabi’a was his student. We are not sure whether she actually met him or not, but when we say student we mean following his line because scholars have not decided whether she was able to meet him or not and physically study with him or not. But anyway, Rabi’a composed the first great Sufi love poetry of the Arabic language. She is one of the greatest poets and her poetry is still very famous to this day. You have another Rabi’a, Rabi’a Binteqa and Sayyida Nafisa (rah), who is buried in Cairo. A number of women were famous as not only spiritually elevated people but people who were scholars, poets or people who write about Sufism too. So this has existed throughout the centuries, but in the field of expression of Sufism of course men have been more instrumental than women. But in the field of realisation of the truth of Sufism, only God knows that there are many women saints perhaps as many men saints, we do not know.
One of the Sufi Scholars that comes to mind is Shaykh Abdul-Karim al-Jili (ra) who mentioned the term “Al Insan al-Kamil” (The perfect man). Can you briefly elaborate on this term and what it is pertaining to as such?
Yes, Al Insan al-Kamil is the name of a treatise written by Abdul Karim al-Jili (ra) who was originally Persian but lived in Yemen. The treatise was written in Arabic and it was written in the 14th Christian century, 8th Islamic century. It is really a summary of the teachings of the Sufi Ibn ‘Arabi (ra) on this issue. Actually, Ibn ‘Arabi’s teachings are themselves a kind of crystallisation and formalisation of the teachings which go back to the Quran. The heart of the idea of the “Insan al-Kamil” (meaning the perfect man which is often translated as the universal man) is that when God created Adam, he created within his being what Sufis call mirrors to reflect all the Divine qualities and attributes and only man (by man of course I mean insane, which means male and female), only the human being is potentially not actually capable of possessing all the levels of reality within himself or herself. Now “Al-Insan al-Kamil” is the person who has actualised all his realities. He or she is the perfect mirror in which God can contemplate all of His qualities and all of His attributes. Now only the great prophets and the greatest of saints have attained the level of “Al-Insan al-Kamil”, but that is the ideal we are all potentially “Al Insan al-Kamil.” The importance of the text of Abdul Karim al- Jili (ra) is to show what we are in reality when God created us and how we have fallen from that. The “ahsani taqwim,” from which we have fallen to “thumma radadna asfallahu safilin.” The ahsane taqwim, the most perfect of norms, that is so deep within us and to advance it spiritually is to actualise those potentialities within us with God’s help and the help of revelation of the Prophet (pbuh) of the Quran, of the saints, of the Shaykhs and to become “Al Insan al-Kamil.” That is the ideal that Sufism sets before us. It means acquiring our virtues; it means to have our roots in God and not the world. It means to be humble and not proud, to be charitable and to open oneself, noble towards others, to seek the truth, to be satisfied with what God has given us, to have complete reliance upon God and on the highest level, it means to realise our own nothingness before God which is called fana’ in Sufism. The “Insan al-Kamil” has the quality of fana’. The Sufis say that the only worthy thing that man has which can be offered to God is nothingness, is being a mirror. Everything else God has. What can be offered to God? Our wealth? God does not need our wealth. He wants us to help others of his creatures. But what can be offered to God himself is our being, and what he wants from us is the realisation that we are nothing and he is everything, that we are a mirror. On the highest level “Al Insan al-Kamil” is the perfect mirror before God but at the same time, he or she contains all of the virtues, all of the perfections which we should strive for in this life. This doctrine is therefore very important and central to Islamic anthropology in the deepest sense, and especially Sufi anthropology.
On this topic you mentioned the Sufi scholar Muhyi al-Din Ibn’ Arabi (ra). Here is a scholar who developed a lot of interaction with other faith traditions at the time, especially in Andalusia in Spain. Can you briefly mention what approach did the scholars of a spiritual inclination or tradition have in developing relations with other faiths?
Let me go back to the Quran. Of all the sacred scriptures of the world, the Quran is the most universal, in the sense that first of all it always speaks of religion in the singular but when it says “verily the only religion with God is Islam”, which many Muslims then interpret to mean that only Islam is the historical religion that is true, then we read oh my God Abraham was also Muslim and Christ was Muslim, so obviously Islam does’nt mean something that began in the 7th century CE, but perfect submission to God, and the Quran is very explicit that God had sent messengers to every people (“wa-le-qulli ummatin rasulan”). I love this verse in the Quran which is so clear and shows that God has sent messengers to every people. Surely God will not send a message of falsehood to every people. When you are a Messenger of God, you must of course conform to the truth and therefore from the very beginning there was this aspect of universality in the Quran. The Prophet allowed Christians to even perform their rites in the Medina mosque, something many people have forgotten and he was very kind to the Jews who did not rebel against him. The question of Banu Quraiza has to do with the political issue, and in early Islamic history there were remarkable openings towards the Ahlu-‘l-kitab [people of the book] and towards other people and Ahlu-‘l-kitab gradually came to embrace Zorastrians when Islam spread to Persia, to Iran, and Hinduism when they went to India.
The same Abdul Karim al-Jili (ra), about whom you speak, says that there is a secret doctrine of unity among the Hindus which goes back to the primordial religion which God revealed, and that the word Brahmin comes from the word Abraham, the father of monotheism. Of course, it does’nt come from it, but it’s very interesting that this assertion is made. Now this principle was not used by all the Sufis but many of them did not need to use it. But occasionally, when Islam encountered other religions in a direct manner, certain Sufi masters found it their duty to apply these Quranic principles in a more concrete way to the situation in which they found themselves.
Two of these figures are among the towering figures of Islamic civilization: Ibn ‘Arabi (ra) and Jalaluddin Rumi (ra). There is more written on them today in the English language than any other Islamic figures, including Ibn Taymiyya and people of a similar inclination. You know how much interest there is in both of them, the most well sorted poets in America in the English language, even though the translations are not perfect but nevertheless convey something of their message. We have the Ibn’ Arabi Society, The Journal of the Ibn Arabi Society, books appearing about him all the time. Now these two figures in two different places, in two different peninsulas, the Iberian peninsula and Asia minor or Anatolia, found themselves in a situation in which that direct contact with a large number of Christians and Jews, and so these two men more than other Sufis or well known Sufis developed this idea of the universality of revelation and seeing in the inner meaning of other religions and not the outer form. A unity which transcends the external forms. Rumi is very clear where, in a certain poem, he says that the difference between creatures of God comes from the name, that means external form, but when you go to the meaning there is inner peace. Now these two men developed very extensively, one through poetry, one through his discussion of logos and its manifestation, the Fusus al-hikam and other places, they developed a remarkable doctrine of religious universalism at the same time clinging to one’s own religion. There is I think no message more important for the contemporary world than this; nothing is more important, and that’s why many people are seeking out the teachings of these two men. But these were not the only two people. We have in India a number of very important Sufi figures who confronted Hinduism directly, who realized that these Hindus are very pious, that they loved God (other than statues), but inwardly they were people of great piety, and so discourse took place between many Sufi saints and many Hindus, sages and Brahmins and so forth. This was a world in itself from which was born not only Sikhism, which is a kind of comingling of Sufism and the Bhapti movement in India, but also many traces of translations of classical Sanskrit texts into Persian, which was then the Islamic language of India and vice versa, the translation of many Sufi works from Persian, not only into local Indian languages but Gujarati and Bengali, that was obvious but also even into Sanskrit, the sacred language of Hinduism. So I do not want to limit this to Ibn ‘Arabi (ra) by any means. Whenever Islam needed such a thing, the Sufis provided the application of those Quranic principles to the particular situation.
One last thing which nobody thinks about these days, is how Muslims fared in China. Islam has been in China since the 7th century. Especially in the 17th century onwards, Muslims in China began to write in Chinese rather than Persian and Arabic and then translated a number of classical texts, all of which are Sufi texts of Nasafi, Jami, Razi, people like that into Chinese, the classical Chinese language of new Confucianism, and they developed the doctrine that Confucius was a prophet. Why not? And that the Analects of Confucius are a revealed text, and of course that Dawudi Ching, the great classic of Taoism, and so they created in their own language a kind of language of accord with the world in which they were living. It is only now that this world is becoming revealed to us. We know much more about the case of India or Spain that you mentioned or Anatolia, but now the case of China is also becoming known and there is one more example of this principle which I mentioned for you. There is a role of Sufism throughout history to elucidate the inner unity of various voices of God, various times when God says I. Even in the modern world, in the West, the famous book of Frithjof Schuon The Transcendent Unity of Religions is in a sense the crystallization of the same truth in contemporary language.
Based on your excellent book “A Young Muslim’s Guide to the Modern World,” what message can we take from the teachings of these great spiritual luminaries and addressing the challenges posed by the systems of modernity and also the challenges imposed by the West at large? The things that come to mind are the materialistic society, sometimes the spiritual voids that people have in their lives. What does this tradition provide for these people in the contemporary world?
This is a very important issue. The modern world of course poses many challenges to us as well as to other known Western people. Its most important challenge is the kind of anthropocentric world view which man has placed at the center of things rather than God, and the secularization of thought and life and art. A young Muslim living in England -I would say-, even if he has faith in God, sees a society in which the thesis of God seems to be irrelevant. People around him, their philosophy, arts, sciences, technology, everything that surrounds the young man, do not speak of transcendence. It seems that the Hand of God has been removed from them. Now that makes life very difficult, and what we need for young Muslims (that’s what I tried to do in this book) is not only to provide them manuals on how to say their prayers -that’s extremely important and central to remaining a Muslim but others have done it; we need to do something more difficult, and that is first of all to prevent the young Muslims’ mind from becoming secularized by divorcing ourselves from our 14th century long intellectual traditions which was also over spiritual, ‘aqalaniyat wa-ruhaniyat; that is intellectuality in its high sense and spirituality are inseparable in the Islamic tradition. By putting that aside, you have created a vacuum in which we think “we will go back to the Quran and sunnah and then the rest of our mind will be filled up by Western things and still remain a very good Muslim”. This is anathema to the integrity of Islam and of tawhid.
And secondly, we need a kind of inner support, the spiritual life within, and in both of these contexts the Sufi tradition and other traditions of Islamic spirituality can play a very central role. And then, the more external challenges which modernism poses, for example the destruction of the environment, the wars between various peoples, various ethnic groups, in England unfortunately also religious contentions between the majority and the Muslim minority, all kinds of things that are going on like this which have led to a very severe and sometimes violent reactions on behalf of people who call themselves Muslims but who perform violent acts, which in fact are against the very texts of the Quran, but they do it because they believe they are trying to preserve their own world view somehow. They are misguided but there it is. For a young person, not to fall into that trap, that is not to be able to be a very devout Muslim without trying to bring down the very world in which he lives which you will not be able to do except to unfortunately blemish the name of Islam. The spiritual tradition can help a great deal so that the anchor of the soul will be within it rather than just externally, in a kind of external action which if it does not work out, then it leads to more violent external action, and if that does not work out leads to extreme external action which unfortunately we see in many places.
Is this the idea of being in a state of equilibrium and having a balanced constitution?
Absolutely. It’s about creating a balance between the inward and the outward. Islam starts with the inner jihad -as the Prophet (pbuh) said- and the greater jihad, al-jihad al-akbar, and any other jihad is jihad al-asghar which is a lesser jihad in comparisons with the inner jihad. If you forget that, you will forget in fact the balance upon which Islam is based.
Another theme which correlates with the spiritual tradition is the idea of the human health and welfare. Today in the modern West, we have a lot of research and reports saying people are depressed and suffering from psychological problems, etc. Is there any kind of remedies or shifa (healing) that we can have and can gain from the spiritual tradition of Islam?
Absolutely. First of all, in the Islamic civilization, we have the tib al nabawi (the prophetic medicine) which was derived from the sayings of the Prophet (pbuh) concerning health and especially living a lifestyle -you might say, which is the word that is used today- to prevent oneself from becoming ill. It was a kind preventive medicine. And then we had the great tradition of Ibn Sina and Razi, the mainstream medical tradition which is one of the medical traditions of the world to be compared to acupuncture or other systems of non-Western medicine that are now taking hold in the West. We Muslims should be ashamed of ourselves that our great medical tradition does not have followers in the West, whereas of the other two great oriental civilizations, Hinduism and China, do. What is the matter with us? Because our medical tradition is closer to the West, in fact it made possible the rise of the medieval Western medicine. Ibn Sina was taught in Montpelier until about the 18-19th centuries. The treatise of Razi about smallpox and measles I think it was translated into English and distributed in 1827 when there was an epidemic in London. Despite all of these things, if you are living in London and if you want to go to acupunctures that is easy. If you want to go to a practitioner of what is called tibb al-unani in the Indian subcontinent, where alone has this tradition been preserved to this day, it’s very difficult. You have to write to Karachi or to Delhi, to Hamdard Institute, to get some medicine.
Now, both of those traditions were imbued with a very strong spiritual character about the treatment of the soul as well as the body. Ibn Sina has written many things on that and these traditions themselves, although they are not Sufi traditions, were also combined with Sufi teaching about the cure of the soul. There are many works of Sufism on this issue. In fact from the operative point of view, Sufism is actually a cure for the ailments of the soul. It is a psychotherapy, if you do not secularize this term. That is a therapy for the psyche which means the nafs. Therefore throughout the centuries, not only had there been treatises but there had been a lot of oral practice by people who are authoritative in this, by shaykhs and masters, to overcome those very difficulties that today so many people face, for example depression. That is one of the major illnesses in the West today. It results to a large extent from the meaninglessness of life, in not having a home in the universe, you might say, and Sufism teaches its principles and practice in such a way that a person who follows this will never become depressed.
There are lots of problems in the Islamic world, like misery and things like that, but you do not see many depressed people amongst the nomads that still survive in southern Algeria or in the villages of Pakistan. Of course, there are a very few people who are demented or crazy, that exist in every civilization and Islam has always spoken about that, but this unbelievable rise of these kinds of illnesses are due in fact to a vacuum that many people feel to the loss of spirituality, to the loss of meaning in life. Man cannot live without meaning any more than he can live without air. We do not pay attention to that and so our spiritual tradition has a tremendous amount of teaching about this. I am glad to say that there are a few places around the Islamic world including Pakistan going back to generations ago when Dr. Muhammad Ajmal began his movement of the attempt to try to revive what you might call Sufi psychology and Sufi psychotherapy, and I hope that God Willing that this will increase.
Related to this theme, I traveled to Turkey quite recently and visited the Tekke (Sufi lodge) of Seyyed Nuredeen Jerrahi (ra) where they were using the flute reed, and the person at the lodge who was using this instrument mentioned to me that they use the reed as a kind of medicinal therapy for people who have psychological problems. Can you just briefly mention the role of music in the Islamic spiritual tradition in trying to alleviate some of these problems?
In contrast to what people think, that Islam banned music, Islam did not ban music. Islam banned lascivious music, music that simply incites the passion. But by doing that, it also interiorized music. All the great classical traditions of music in the Islamic world, the Eastern Arabic, Western Arabic, Persian, Turkish, Indian, these are the main schools, also Sundanese music in Java and Chinese music of the Muslims, to the smallest schools of music of black Africa, were all influenced by Sufism. You cannot listen to Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan without thinking of God, even if you are thinking of some young girl in Lahore. You cannot listen to the Classical music that is broadcasted over Turkish radio, which is almost all from the Mevleviye order. That is a thing of the spiritual world. Classical Persian music, even for those who do not practice religion at all, always reminds us of something spiritual, and so on. Music of the Islamic people is a very great heritage that contains a language which is not so disputed today.
The deepest meanings of Islam and Islamic spirituality are interesting. For example, in France where there is so much so called Islamophobia and hatred against Muslims in many circles, every time a concert of classical Arabic and Persian music is given in Paris, every single ticket is sold out. You cannot get a ticket and there is a tremendous amount of interest. So this is a kind of theology without words -you might say- and spirituality without words. I don’t say this because I am a great lover of music, but because I have studied this subject for a very long time and I think that it is one of our greatest treasures that we have to preserve it first of all, preventing it from becoming distorted, diffused and degraded as it is becoming in certain circles today, and preserve it’s purity; and secondly to try to make use of it for ourselves and also to try and present it to others as a kind of spiritual gift, which makes possible a certain therapy. Musical therapy existed in all traditional civilizations including Hinduism, in Tibet, and so forth, and these have been brought to the West and also have existed amongst us. Al-Farabi, the great philosopher and musician, wrote about it over a thousand years ago. It is important to preserve and bring to the modern and contemporary world this very important tradition.
Do you have any final words which you would like to mention on the theme of Muslim Heritage?
Yes. I would like to say just a few words. Firstly, I gave the Cadbury lectures at Birmingham in 1996, I know the city and I wish to pay my respect and salaams to the people of Birmingham who might be listening to this program. And also to say that Islam was sent by God first of all to guide us towards Him and to do that, to set our minds and our actions straight. Human beings are beings who act, walk, speak, think and Islam being the din of tawhid [religion of monotheism] has tried to integrate all of those different elements into that center where God resides. As a result, we have a very long remarkable intellectual tradition in philosophy, in the sciences and theology, etc. We have a remarkable spiritual tradition preserved in Sufism and elsewhere. We have remarkable artistic traditions going from calligraphy miniatures to some of the most remarkable architectural edifices in the world, from the Alhambra to the Taj-Mahal and everything in between, and it is for us not to have a sense of inferiority complex because we did not follow the West in the 16th century or as if modernism now is a dead end; but to present our past in a way that is alive and therefore not only the past to live according to it and then to try to face the challenges which the world today presents to us, whether one is living in Birmingham, Tehran or Kuala Lumpur; to face these challenges on the basis of this great intellectual spiritual tradition to which we belong. Without that, we will be like an empty drum making a lot of noise but with nothing inside, and that is not why God brought Islam into the world.
Courtesy: Muslim Heritage