The Book of Wisdom

PEOPLE have spoken and written much about Sufism, as the discipline is known, but it is perhaps easiest understood in conlext. The article below is the second in a series written for Islamica that seeks to directly explore the Sufi way by translating the aphorisms of the Egyptian master Ibn ‘Ata’ Illah’s classic manual of spiritual development alHikam al-‘Ata’iyya [The aphorisms of ‘Ata’], together with some commentary. He is writing (Allah be well pleased with him) for those who have a tariqa or actual path and a sheikh, yet his words may prove of interest to others. He says:

Your wish to be apart from the world when Allah keeps you in it is but from hidden desire, while your wish to be in it when Allah keeps you apart from it is a fall from high purpose.

When one sets out on a journey, it is natural to look for the shortest way, and this aphorism warns the mystic traveller from taking a wrong turn, as many disciples do, by wishful thinking. The Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) once said, “[Saying] ‘if only’ opens the Devil’s work,”1 and longing for new and different circumstances, unless the present ones are clearly morally reprehensible, can be a veil from knowing Allah in whatever state He has placed one. Because Allah knows our interests better than we do and is keener for them than we are, masters tend to let disciples change their situation in life only when Allah unmistakably creates an alternative that is superior or plainly unavoidable. Ibn ‘Ata’ Illah had such an experience with his own sheikh, Abul ‘Abbas alMursi, which he described in the words

I used to hear students say, “Whoever keeps the company of sheikhs never attains much in the outward sciences,” and it weighed upon me not to be able to attain Sacred Learning, and weighed upon me not to be able to keep the company of the sheikh (Allah be well pleased with him).

So 1 went to the sheikh, and found him eating meat with vinegar, and I said Io myself, “If only the sheikh would give me a bite with his own hand.” I had barely finished the thought when he put the morsel he had in his hand into my mouth, and then said: “When we keep the company of a merchant, we don’t tell him, ‘Leave your business and come,’ or tell an artisan, ‘Leave your craft and come,’ or tell a student, ‘Leave your studies and come.’ Rather, we confirm each wherever Allah has put him, and whatever is meant by Allah Io reach them at our hands will reach them. The Companions were with the Messenger of Allah (Allah bless him and give him peace) and he never said to a merchant, ‘Leave your business,’ or to an artisan, ‘Leave your work,’ but rather, he had them remain at their livelihoods, and commanded them to have godfearingness in them.” Lala’if al-minan, 125).

The distance of the Sufi path is a return to its own beginning: to the basic practice of living in this world according to the Qur’an and wont of the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace), lhough with a unitive breadth of vision unknown before travelling the path. The Sufi sees the ultimate implications of what for others are but ordinary things, seeing everything as existing through Allah; in thai specific sense, “seeing Him in everything.”

This is not as unlikely as it may appear, for Allah is the Creator of everything, and since deeds reveal rather than conceal their doer, it is impossible in the eyes of the Sufis that creation, as the act of Allah, should conceal Him. Rather, it manifests Him, as Allah Himself says,

“He is the First and the Last, the Manifest and the Hidden” (Qur’an 57:3).

Allah Most High is one, without any associate in His entity, His attributes, His rulings, or His actions. His purpose in creating the worlds is as a sign (ayah) to manifest His absolute Oneness to those who can see it

“We shall show them Our signs, in the horizons and in themselves, until it is plain to lhem that it is the Truth” (Qur’an 41:53).

What veils man from God, for the Sufis, is the attachment of the ego to its desires, together with its instrumental relations for fulfilling them and the cognitive categories with which it sifts and strains the great sea of being to allow these relations to arise as phenomena. The veil between oneself and Allah is thus not created things, but the ego itself, whose plainest attribute is the will, the familiar “I want this, I want that,” of one’s own heroic narrative. The stages of the journey to Allah are not marked by road signs, but by changes in the traveller himself, and the tendency to externalize these, particularly with wishful thinking about oneself and one’s journey, can be part of the veil.

The way that is a way of reality and not of mere talk is the way of iman or “faith” and taqwaor “godfearingness,” and all mystical stations and states are but part of the ascending continuum of these two qualities, by which Allah has defined wilaya or “sanctity” in the Qur’an by saying:

“Verily the friends (aw I i va’) of Allah, no fear shall be upon them, nor shall they grieve; those who have true faith and godfearingness. Great good tidings arc theirs in this life and the life to come. There is no changing the words of Allah: that is the supreme triumph” (Qur’an 10:62-64).

One takes a path and a sheikh in order to ensure that these happen. In turn, though sheikhs typically use three practices to bring about change in disciples – namely dhikr, the “invocation of Allah,” mudhakara, the “spiritual teaching,” and Jihad al-nafs, or “striving against the ego” – it is the rough and tumble of life, the amount of light that remains in the heart when events befall that darken others, that discloses and consolidates one’s attainment in the Sufi path.

Your wish to be apart from the world when Allah keeps you in it is but from hidden desire, because one’s spiritual provender can only come from Allah, and upon His terms, and it is He who is keeping one in the world, and He knows best what one needs to reach Him. And your wish to be in it when Allah keeps you apart from it is a fall from high purpose, because when He keeps one apart from the world, one has more control over one’s moments and hours and days, and Allah has given them to one as a test of one’s high purpose in drawing nearer to Him, not chasing what He has caused to leave one.

The two parts of the aphorism also distinguish for the traveller between shahwa khqfiyya or “hidden desire,” a lust for gratification and results; and between himma ‘aliyya or “high purpose,” meaning spiritual resolve or aspiration. Shahwa finds frustration or disappointment when thwarted because it is directed to created things; himma does not know frustration or despair because it is directed to Allah, who is omnipotent and all-generous, even if His intimate and subtle knowledge of us entails that He gives when it is best, not when merely when we wish. Shahwa or “desire” is an ingrate, whether satisfied or unsatisfied ; while himma is gratini de itself.

To benefit from changes in life, spiritual travellers must be with Allah, not their own story line. When a young woman marries, for example, she suddenly finds herself not only with another ego in the house to live with, but within a short space, that the comparative ease and calm of her younger days have been swept away by the sheer work needed to keep up and think of everything in a real home. When she has her first baby, she must manage for another life even more dependent on her personal sacrifices. By the second, third, or fourth child, her days and nights belong almost entirely to others. Whether she has a spiritual path or not, such a mother can seldom resist a glance at the past, when there were more prayers, more meanings, more spiritual company, and more serenity. When Allah opens her understanding, she will see that she is engaged in one of the highest forms of worship, that of producing new believers who love and worship Allah. She is effectively worshipping Allah for as many lifetimes she has children, for the reward of every spiritual work her children do will be hers, without this diminishing anything of their own rewards: every ablution, every prayer, every Bamadan, every hajj, and even the works her children will in turn pass on to their offspring, and, so on till the end of time. Even if her children do not turn out as she wishes, she shall be requited in paradise forever according to her intention in raising them, which was that they should be godly.

Aside from the tremendous reward, within the path itself it is noticeable that many of those who benefit most from the khalwa or “solitary retreat of dhikr” are women who have raised children. With only a little daily dhikr and worship over the years, but much toil and sacrifice for others, they surpass many a younger person who has had more free time, effort, and “spiritual works.” What they find is greater because their state with Allah is greater; namely, the awe, hope, and love of the Divine they have realized by years of sincerity to Him.

To summarize, the traveller who is grateful to Allah for everything cannot be veiled from Allah by anything, whether living in the world or doing without it, and it is such a person who most benefits from the spiritual path. Abu Yazid al-Bustami was once asked, “Can the servant reach Him in a single moment?” and he replied, “He can, though he is returned with profit and benefit in the measure of his journey.”

MMIV © N. Keller

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    A piece previously published in the print issue of Islamica Magazine between 2003-2009. The following has been an effort to digitize and archive as a free service. Author citations can be found at as we continue to work on improving the digital archives here.

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