Hassan Mustafa is a reportage editor for Papercuts magazine. He is pursuing master’s degree in International Political Theory from The University of Edinburgh and intends to do a PhD in Politics and International Relations from there as well. During his bachelors from Webster University, he became a fervent reader of continental philosophy – especially Wittgenstein, Derrida and Foucault – and because of this reason his early essays are mostly in philosophy and literature. Hassan has campaigned against modern forms of slavery and human trafficking, and has worked as a freelance reporter for Lahore Times as well. He has previously published poems and fiction in The Bombay Review, Outrageous Fortune and blogs at Global Ethics Network.
Friendship, Forgiveness and Love in Islamic Sufism
One day in pre-eternity a ray of your beauty
Sufism, as a mode of existence and as an intellectual movement, has played a pivotal role in Islamic history. The Sufi has always been perceived as a nomad, seeking truth through unconditional love of other living and non-living beings, and in that quest, traversing boundaries to move towards the universal. So pervasive is this image that to this day Sufi literature is widely read and cherished as a way of life well beyond Muslim cultures, to non-Muslim ones, too—a truly global phenomenon.
For all its popularity, however, it may be asked what practical relevance–if any–Sufism has in our world today. Love, it can be argued, is a priori before friendship and forgiveness can even be constructed as conceptual categories. Given this assumption, does Sufi thought actually seem to be having any impact in a world that is steadily moving toward hate mongering, division, and exclusion? Can the concept of unconditional love even play a role in contemporary society if couched in religion, and not as a secularised notion – as explored by Derrida and Homi Bhabha?
In fact, contrary to the mainstream view, there isn’t even a single, homogenous “Sufi” position on worldliness, love or any of the other ideas that have gained Sufi thought so much admiration worldwide. To what extent is the perception of the Sufi as a nomadic figure, living a life that rejects worldliness and promotes pacifism and inclusion, even historically sound?
Sufism took off as a mode of thought and way of existence very early in Islamic history. Political developments during the rise of the Umayyad Empire compelled many thinkers to conclude that Islam as a religion, and society as a manifestation of Muslim religious thought, was moving away from the practices and traditions promulgated during the time of the Prophet and the ‘rightly guided caliphs’ who succeeded him. While some avoided confrontation with the empire and expressed their desires and beliefs in the private sphere, others felt that the changes must be confronted and critiqued if the essence of Islamic society was to survive. As a political protest, many consciously abandoned their employment in state institutions, and even refused to inherit property and belongings from a state they perceived as corrupt and unjust.
Hasan al-Basri (d. 110/728) is portrayed within normative Sufi literature as the founding father of the Sufi movement, or the first Sufi master who had a large following. He was known for his fierce critique of the state and its injustices. He was also known to have promulgated the idea of ‘friendship with’ or ‘proximity to’ God. Hasan al-Basri’s character and charisma popularised him; his disciples did the rest, spreading his ideas across Kufa and Basra.
While al-Basri remained the most prominent Sufi thinker until the fall of the Umayyad Empire, a diversity of ideas and practices within Sufism had already started manifesting from his time. Rabia al-Adawiyya (d. ca. 162-76/ 788-92) interpreted al-Basri’s ideas by transforming his concept of ‘friendship with’ God into a ‘disinterested love of’ God. Others like Shaqiq al-Balkhi (d. 194/810) became holy warriors and ascetics (al-Balkhi was killed fighting the ‘pagan Turks’).
Al-Basri’s and al-Adawiyya’s teachings were a key source of insight for their successors, who laid the foundations of the Baghdadi tradition of Sufism. The diversity of interpretations and practices continued with the advent of this new epoch of Islamic philosophy. The Baghdadi tradition was broadly divided into two schools of thought: the first ‘sober’, the other ‘intoxicated’. Al-Junayd (d. 298/910) was viewed as the most prominent representative of the ‘sober’ school, while al-Hallaj (d. 309/922) represented the controversial ‘intoxicated’ one.
Al-Junayd and his disciples promoted the notion of love of God, but within the confines of orthodox religion, and often avoided any form of confrontation with authority. They also believed that knowledge of God ought to be shared judiciously; never in a group where it could be misinterpreted and cause problems. Al-Hallaj, on the other hand, was quite the opposite and expressed his views openly, coming to be viewed as a rabble-rouser who was eventually charged with heresy. His ‘voluntary martyrdom’ and acceptance of the charges leveled against him, even when they were evidently politically motivated, is unprecedented in Sufism history. He gave his life for the love of God and became an extremely important figure for later Sufis, who adopted many of his views and notions concerning love of God.
This trend continued across Islamic history. During Ottoman rule, several groups supported the rulers and promulgated conformism when it came to worldly affairs. Several leaders of Sufi orders were even appointed in official positions by Ottoman rulers, while others openly led revolts and struggled for power. In Mughal India, the Chishti order was against any form of state support and for the most part remained away from the government. Meanwhile, the Suhrawardi order cultivated friendships with the ruling elite and enjoyed positions within the Mughal court. The Shattariyya order also had friendly relations with Mughals. According to Alexander Knysh’s article titled ‘Sufism’,
Muhammad Ghawth helped Babur in his conquest of Gwalior, and he and his elder brother Shaykh Bahlul were on friendly terms with Babur’s successor, Humayun (r. 937-63/ 1530-56), whom they instructed in the intricacies of Sufi teachings. Emperors Akbar and Jahangir built imposing shrines over the tombs of some popular Shattari masters.
During the colonial period, Sufism went into a gradual decline. Several Sufi orders were carefully studied by the British and French colonial rulers and were categorised either as friendly or as a threat. Sufi orders like the one led by Abd al-Qadir in Algiers morphed into anti-colonial movements (1835-47), effectively abandoning most Sufi teachings as they relied on the notion of jihad to gather troops to their calling. They even attacked Muslim Sufi orders like the Tijaniyya, whom they saw as traitors who had betrayed the cause and were colluding with the French, while the Tijaniyya held that they were merely avoiding any political strife to focus on their yearning for God.
To sum up, it can be argued that the figure of the Sufi as a nomad who has abandoned worldly affairs for the love of God since Hasan al-Basri hasn’t been homogenous. Several individuals and groups over the course of history have adopted views and have practised Sufism in a manner that can’t be categorised as passive and pacifist.
However, the dominant mode of Sufi thought did promulgate a lifestyle and actions that could be seen as metaphorically nomadic, in the sense that the Sufi was fundamentally always journeying towards something that was not to be found in the material world. Even someone as controversial as al-Hallaj can be viewed as somebody who was yearning for the universal—a space where only love would prevail.
The notion of love is the defining feature of Islamic Sufism. Love’s trajectory or evolution as a concept moves broadly in three stages, often simultaneously and not in a hierarchical manner. Hasan al-Basri can been viewed as the first most popular proponent of a certain notion of love. Love in al-Basri’s opinion was the pre-eternal covenant between man and God. It was based on a Quranic verse and several Hadiths, which bore the idea that God showered His blessings on His lovers. His lovers were those who abided by His will. His will, according to al-Basri, was the fulfillment of duties and obligations laid out in the Sharia.
Rabia al-Adawiyya acknowledged al-Basri’s notion of love, but differentiated between a selfish love and a selfless love. She proposed that if an individual was fulfilling his/her duties laid out in Sharia out of a desire for paradise, then that was selfish love. Love, she said, should be unconditional, or selfless. Her conception of love inspired several Sufis of her time, including Bayazid Bistami (d. 261/875) and the sixth Shi’ite Imam Abu Jafar al-Sadiq (d. 145/765). They placed love in the highest order of their schema. Hence, all suffering and setbacks in the yearning for God were to be understood from the prism of unconditional love. Hafiz captures this sentiment remarkably when he states:
The waiting station of pleasure and delight
With the rise of the Baghdad school, several thinkers added other spiritual stations within this schema, but love remained the highest priority. In the works of Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (d. 505/1111), love is categorised as an illusion, as each type of love whether it is self-love or love of nature is essentially a form of love for God. He gives central importance to gnosis and believes it is crucial for our understanding of how love operates. In the works of al-Hallaj and Ibn Arabi (d. 638/1248), however, the focus shifted from the relationship between God and man to the essence of this interaction. Al-Hallaj promulgated the idea that there was an essential union between lover and beloved at the height of love. This belief is expressed in his famous phrase that became one of the reasons for his trial and eventual execution. He proclaimed, “I am the one I love, and the one I love is I.” While, Ibn Arabi, in a more radical move, elucidated the notion that the best way for man to contemplate God would be in the form of a woman. In ‘Bezels of Wisdom’, he proposes the notion that, “The perfect contemplation of Reality is present in them [women]”.
Ibn Arabi’s romantic intoxication and al-Hallaj’s annihilation paved the way for one of the most fruitful periods in Sufi thought, when the pre-eternal covenant was transformed to unconditional love of The Other in Rumi’s and Hafiz’s poetry. This is the period that is strongly associated with our modern concept of the Sufi as a nomad, in which love went beyond the sphere of religion and the love of God meant love of humanity and nature. In the words of Maulana Rumi (d. 672/1273),
Know it for certain that the lover’s not a Muslim
The unconditional love in Rumi’s poetry is tied to his notion of friendship and forgiveness, the essence of which was inspired by his famous friendship with another Sufi, Shams Tabrizi. The “breath of love and the breath of forgiveness” are companions on the path to yearning for a vision of–or union with–God. Thus friendship as a conceptual category is also connected to love, and Rumi refers to Sufis as friends of God.
In this respect, Hafiz’s notion of unconditional love is like Rumi’s. He expresses it in a notable verse, where he states:
Whether we are drunk or sober, each of us is making
It can be argued that one can’t become a lover of God, if he/she hasn’t tasted the bitterness of seeking forgiveness and hasn’t endured the hardship of friendship. Friendship and forgiveness are eventually something that lead someone towards love; or desire for love of God requires that one goes through these stations. To precis, in the words of Hafiz–
Both human beings and spirits take their sustenance
Become a lover; if you don’t, one day the affairs of the world
It was proposed earlier that the ideas promulgated in Sufi literature, especially the notion of unconditional love, can be of importance in contemporary times. However, the transformation that Sufi thought has gone through in the age of globalisation, and the increasing role secular thought plays in daily life, is compelling enough to argue that the concept of unconditional love has to be secularised, and its detachment from a categorical conception of God if not transcendent is necessary.
To elucidate what role unconditional love can play in contemporary society, let us reflect on Kierkegaard’s understanding of the story about Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac. According to Kierkegaard, this story reflects a tension between ethics and religious beliefs. Abraham’s actions can only be justified from the point of view of faith. It can be argued that this is what unconditional love for God entails: it entails a leap of faith. However, as Derrida has argued, it also entails the very nature of ethical responsibility, if we replace God with The Other. We, as beings with ethical consciousness, are often responsible for several things in life—taking care of parents, children, siblings, neighbours and relatives, assisting friends and co-workers. In every scenario, we have a responsibility, and it’s the love of The Other that functions when we perform those duties with patience and kindness. Moreover, in accepting certain responsibilities, one has to let go of several others. One can’t go on a march for climate change across the city and care for an ailing mother at the same time, nor can any moral theory or philosophy guide us on how to choose or prioritise either. Sartre was on to something when he proclaimed in Existentialism is a Humanism that one must choose and simultaneously carry the existential burden of the choice not taken.
The notion of unconditional love that transcends that of community, and which can be viewed from the prism of responsibility, can perform a crucial function in a contemporary society that seems bent on destroying itself. One might not be able to go on a march for climate change across the city or country because one has to care for an ailing parent, but the notion of unconditional love can surely increase our social responsibility to the extent that one must care about the people who are severely affected by climate change and make changes in one’s life in terms of consumption and consumerism. Also, the increasingly communitarian politics around the world and parochial identity construction can be tackled–or at least critiqued–with this notion as well.
This reasoning can also play a central role in our understanding of and response to other crises. Take, for example, the refugee crisis–one of the major challenges facing the world today. Love is crucial to our understanding of how hospitality functions and what friendship and compassion rely upon. Derrida has remarked that the very condition of engagement is undermined when we put conditions on someone before even an initial exchange. The same dilemma faces us in the case of refugees, where entry in a host country is mired in stringent conditions and demands, often leading to the conclusion that it’s refugee’s fault – especially in the popular press. Love cannot survive if it is continually viewed from the prism of conditions. Hence, our love and compassion towards The Other (in this case, the refugees) must not rest on conditions but on the openness that Rumi and Hafiz refer to. It must rest on the unconditional.
Additionally, Homi Bhabha’s notion of ‘vernacular cosmopolitanism’ comes to mind when considering the dilemma of the refugee problem. Homi Bhabha, in Location of Culture, proposed that vernacular cosmopolitanism rests on the idea of “right to difference in equality”. This difference does not signify a return to the primordial or ‘restoration of the original’ but construction of new identities and ‘new modes of agency and new forms of representation and recognition strategies’. In the language of unconditional love, this means going beyond the communitarian commitment to forge new relations, new forms of solidarity, and constructing reality that extends responsibility for The Other.
Overall, the ideas proposed by Rumi and Hafiz might be too abstract when it comes to praxis, but they can play a fruitful role in a world where misogynists can joke about rape and murder, a mere message on WhatsApp can lead to the killing of innocent people by a furious mob, and the intentional starvation of civilians as a weapon in war is increasingly becoming a norm. The notion of unconditional love and extension of responsibility for The Other might be too overwhelming–like any other moral and ethical dilemma–and as Sartre proclaimed, we must choose between responsibilities. We might even propose conditions, but it is that first step that one has to take to go beyond communitarian politics—that leap of faith which Kierkegaard proclaimed is crucial if one desires a more just world.
World leaders in several major democracies have proven time and again that resorting to hate-mongering and propagating fear in the masses is acceptable as a political strategy, whether it’s against the refugees fleeing war, hunger, mass murder and rape in their home countries, or against these democratic countries’ own populations. Fear is a potent weapon that can be utilised to win elections and create divisions that often last a lifetime.
A modern nomad in such a world, I believe, must be a ‘vernacular cosmopolitan’: a lover who believes in an unconditional love; the sort of love that Rumi and Hafiz proposed in their poetry. A nomad does not have to abandon the worldly lifestyle, but must be conscious of his/her carbon footprint and the effect of his/her consumption on others. A nomad might not be able to travel across the world due to visa and travel restrictions, but he/she can forge new solidarities by never abandoning his/her commitment to justice that solidly rests on the notion of love. A nomad might not go beyond certain physical boundaries and borders, but his intellectual yearning will lead him/her everywhere, from ancient Greek philosophy to the writings of Manto.
The nomad today will have to take that Kierkegaardian leap of faith and open his/her mind, body, and soul toward the responsibility of the other.
 Alexander Knysh, ‘Sufism’, in The New Cambridge History of Islam, ed. R. Irwin (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2010) p. 70.