Sufism and the Way of Blame


 

The following is excerpted from Sufism and the Way of Blame: The Hidden Sources of a Sacred Psychology, available from Quest Books.


J. G. Bennett was convinced that Gurdjieff's greatest influence came from a group of proto-Naqshbandis in Central Asia, a brotherhood later verified by Hasan?u?ud as the Khwajagan, or Masters. Idries Shah implied that his own perspective was influenced by the Khwajagan-Naqshbandiyya. Moreover, the father of Idries, Sirdar Ikbal Ali Shah, was also known to have contacts among Afghan Sufis, some of whom (according to Robert Darr) were still active members of the Khwajagan.

Hasan?u?ud, a rather enigmatic Sufi in Istanbul, had disguised his former affiliation with the Naqshbandiyya and with another group that referred to itself as the Nuriyya-Malamatiyya (in Turkish, Nuriyye-Melamiyye). He had revealed that he had a rather low opinion of Gurdjieff as a "thief of the tradition." It is hard to tell which tradition ?u?ud was referring to, although he probably meant the Khwajagan or the malamatiyya, or both of them comingled together.

A common element that tied together Gurdjieff, the Shah family, Bennett, and ?u?ud was that all of them referred to the Masters of Central Asia. All of them also posited that the Khwajagan had functioned as a rather elite group within greater Sufism; yet all of them, with the exception of ?u?ud, seem to have deviated from the central teachings of Sufism, which emphasized the nothingness of human beings next to God. Instead, the followers of Gurdjieff, Bennett, and Idries Shah would all continue to promote a form of occult elitism that emphasized a hidden hierarchy in Sufism composed of superhumans who operated beyond, behind, or outside of normative Sufism and Islam. And this idea was inimical to the original teachings of the Khwajagan.

Ibn al-Arabi had also referred to a hierarchy among saints, at the pinnacle of which were the blameworthy (malamiyya, or malamatis). But rather than promoting a form of elitism, he and other classical Sufis claimed that malamatis hid themselves among the common people. A question that remains is whether or not the Khwajagan and the people of blame were somehow associated with each other, and if so whether or not they shared common characteristics. To attempt to answer this question requires a less fantastical examination of the early malamatis and the Khwajagan, who appear to be separate. So, to begin with, what was the original "path of blame"?

From recent research, it seems that Islamic mysticism originally included two distinct lines of spiritual development: one centered in Mesopotamia, principally in Baghdad, and the other in Khurasan, a province that once included northeastern Iran, Afghanistan, and parts of Central Asia. These two trends have been referred to as the Mesopotamian and the Khurasanian: the malamati and Sufi schools respectively. Hasan ?u?ud called these two approaches the Northern and Southern branches of Islamic mysticism, but these descriptors are a bit too vague to be useful. We shall now attempt to distinguish between Sufism and malamatism while acknowledging how they became intermingled over time.

The first reference to the way of blame can be found in the Qur'an, which refers to those who "struggle in God's path, fearing not the blame of any blamer" (5:54). In one tradition, the Prophet Muhammad (sa) is reported as saying, "Poverty is my pride," to which he added (in another tradition), "Poverty is to be disgraced in this world and the next." Turning to a current encyclopedia of Islam, we find that the malamatiyya (way of blame) is described as "the designation of a tendency, or of a psychological category, of people who attract blame to themselves despite their being innocent."

But why were the malamatis reproached and by whom; moreover, how were they held to be innocent? From the example of the Prophet Muhammad, we can deduce that the malamatis were held to be innocent by God and not by human beings. As we know, Muhammad was initially reproached for being a false prophet, as well as a social deviant who provoked his Meccan kinsman by opposing their well-established social conventions.

Of course, the Arabic word malamati was never directly attributed to Muhammad by pious Muslims. By the second century of Islam (ninth century ce), however, this term was applied to Abu Yazid al-Bistami (804-74), who broke with convention by speaking openly about the state of "essential union (ayn al-jam). By doing so, Bistami expressed an aspect of unitarian (wujudi) belief that some Muslims found acceptable and others would not. At the same time, Bistami acted in ways that challenged parochial understandings of the Shari'a quite openly.

In one example, it is said that Bistami one day was entering a city when its people, who had heard of his renown, ran out to meet him. He noticed that their ministrations were distracting him from his thoughts of God. Arriving at a bazaar, Bistami took out a loaf of bread and began to eat. All of these people fled, for it was the month of Ramadan. Bistami turned to a disciple traveling with him and said, "You see! As soon as I enact a single article of the law they all reject me!"

Bistami's point was that it is incumbent upon Muslims to fast during Ramadan, but one of the exceptions is when one is traveling; thus, Bayazid (as he was also known) was actually following the Shari'a, and the people surrounding him were both ignorant of sacred law and more concerned about following their own conventions. Bayazid knew the finer points of the law, but his adherence to the internal meaning of the Shari'a marked him as a malamati.

By appearing not to excel in the formal obligations of Islam, malamatis like Bistami would incur the criticism of those who judged them strictly from outward appearances. In addition, those who practiced this way were especially critical of their own egoism and pietism, finding that the existence of these traits, in themselves, were blameworthy.

By extension, malamatis avoided all forms of religious ostentation and displays of self-righteousness, but, conversely, they never engaged in rebellion as a merely egocentric form of assertion. If they appeared to be acting in unethical ways, it was in order to instruct others in the deeper meaning of the Shari'a and its essential ethics.

Those who most perfectly incurred blame were those who relinquished outward appearances and focused instead on a path of relentless self-inquiry (muhasibi). As noted by Hamid Algar (one of the foremost authorities on the history of the Naqshbandiyya), these attributes would also become associated with the Khwajagan, who became identified as such by the twelfth century. This was long after the death of the ninth-century Bistami, who was listed as one of their most illustrious forbearers.

Trimingham summarizes: "The true malamati conceal[ed] his progress in the spiritual life . . . [and he aspired] to free himself from the world and its passions whilst living in the world." While the malamatis were inwardly driven to eradicate all traces of self-conceit they were compelled, above all, to eliminate the hypocrisy inherent in having a separate sense of selfhood. Both Schimmel and Trimingham claim that the malamatis stressed the ideal of ikhlas, "perfect sincerity," as well as "the nothingness of men before God." According to Hamid Algar, almost all of these traits could also be attributed to the Khwajagan.

Central to Qur'anic teaching was the notion that Allah would forgive all but two sins: that of associating any partners with himself (shirk) and that of hypocrisy (nifaq). The malamati focused on eliminating the latter, especially when it was disguised as false piety. This diminishment of shirk, self-idolatry, would then lead to a greater proximity to God that, at times, would approach, but not reach, complete unification.

Such states of unification, however, were not to be expressed outwardly as endowing the mystic with a special form of charisma. Abu ‘Abd al-Rahman Sulami (d. 1021) wrote that the malamatiyya "consider it idolatrous to make a display of their acts of devotion; to parade ecstasy is apostasy. . . . They believe that signs and wonders should not be divulged; [instead] they are to be looked upon as possible traps."

A precedent was found in the Prophet Muhammad, who indicated that the most pernicious form of idolatry was the worship of one's self. Sufis of all forms were concerned with the eradication of self-conceit, but the malamatiyya, in particular, became renowned for accenting the efficacy of "blame," or relentless self-inquiry, in eradicating all vestiges of egoism. Such inquiry often exposed the subtler form of narcissism that attached itself to formalistic religious observances, including those of the Sufis.

It is important to note that while the way of blame was generally understood to be a form of spiritual disposition or temperament (mashrab), it also became known as an organized school of mystics. In Nishapur, the capital of Khurasan, a particular group beginning with Hamdun al-Qassar (d. 883/4) began to define its salient characteristics. "Hamdun al-Qassar was once asked 'What is the Path of Blame?' 'It is to abandon in every situation the desire to smarten up in front of people,' he said, 'to renounce in all one's states and actions the need to please people, and to be at all times beyond blame in fulfilling one's duties to God.'" Here, we find one of the basics of the malamati way: to be continuously mindful of God while forgoing one's attachment to praise or blame. But there are other equally important aspects.

Abu Uthman al-Hiri, another renowned Khurasanian malamati stressed, "No action or state can become perfect unless God brings it about without any wish on the doer's part and without any awareness of the doing of the action, and without awareness of another's awareness of the doing of the action." Herein, Abu Uthman emphasized the importance of self-abandonment in a single-minded devotion that leads to a closer proximity to God.

Above all, according to Schimmel, the original malamatis sought to overcome all vestiges of self-division or hypocrisy through an applied psychology which could be termed a "science of the self" (al-ilm bi'l-nafs). This spiritual approach, as we shall see, would later lead to a more thoroughgoing psychology of states (ahwal) and stations (maqamat).

Trimingham notes that members of the school of Nishapur exhibited the following characteristics: they rejected all outward show of ritual piety; they worked for their living instead of accepting alms; they wore no distinctive robes that would set them apart from others; they did not submit entirely to spiritual masters, although they did seek guidance; they also did not profess speculative theories of mysticism, but strived, instead, to eradicate all aspects of limiting self-consciousness; and, finally, they sought to live in the world while pursuing the mystical path with the least degree of notability.

As part of their practice, and in order to disguise their interior pursuits, most malamatis -- as well as the later Khwajagan -- belonged to guilds (akhiyya). Sviri notes that "many of the malamati teachers and disciples bore epithets indicating crafts and professions." Thus, rather than secreting themselves away in retreat, the malamatis were usually to be found among the artisans of the bazaar. Along with pursuing normal work, malamatis also espoused a tradition of generosity to strangers, or "spiritual chivalry," called futuwwa and a chivalrous form of adab (etiquette), best described by Sulami. This mode of behavior was wedded to daily life, whose conduct was considered by the malamatiyya to be the proving ground of spiritual realization.

The Khwajagan, who also arose in Khurasan, exhibited the same characteristics, although their way spread more extensively throughout Transoxiana in Turkic Central Asia. They became identifiable Sufis while absorbing most of the traits of the Nishapuri malamatis.

Sviri notes that only after the second half of the tenth century did the term Sufi come to be used as a comprehensive term identifying all Islamic mystics. Before that, according to Sviri, the term was applied only to mystics schooled in the Baghdadian approach attributed to Junayd al-Baghdadi (830-910). Since the Khwajagan were known as Central Asians who took after the Persian malamatis, how did they come to be known as Sufis?

Although Junayd's teacher, Sari as-Saqati, is attributed with establishing the school of Baghdad, it was Junayd who became renowned as its greatest expositor. The members of this school, known as Masters of Unification, were most concerned with the inculcation of sobriety (sahw). Much like the Nishapuri malamatiyya, with whom they had contact, the Baghdadian Sufis saw sobriety as a necessary balance to mystical "intoxication" (sukr) -- and also as a way of balancing a mystical gnosis (ma'rifa) with strict observance of the Shari'a, the ethical norms of Islam.

Junayd's emphasis on sobriety came from his distaste of Khurasanian mystics such as Bayazid Bistami who openly expressed divine intoxication. A story about the mystic Shibli illustrates Junayd's attitude: Overpowered by ecstasy, Shibli began to preach out loud the "secret." Junayd, as an exponent of lawful restraint, reproached him. "We whisper these words in backrooms," he said. "Now you come out and declare them in public." Shibli replied, "Only I am speaking and only I am listening -- in both worlds who exists but I? These words only proceed from God to God. Shibli doesn't exist at all." Upon hearing this answer Junayd relented: "If that is the case, you have my dispensation."

From this story we might deduce the following: the unification of self and God (ittihad) in Sufism is considered to be a secret; in official Islam such a position might be considered heretical; the utterance of ecstatic utterances (shathiyat) in public might be considered unlawful; only the absence of oneself in speaking such words would insure one's innocence through the evident absence of egoistic drives.

Shathiyat were most often expressed in states of divine intoxication. Perhaps the most famous of these is that of Bayazid, himself: "He took me up and set me before Him. He said, 'Bayazid! My creatures desire to see You.' I said, 'Array me in Your oneness and clothe me with Your selfhood, and bring me to Your unity, so that when Your creatures see me, they will see You. There will be You, and I will not be there.' . . . I shed my self as a snake sheds its skin, then I looked at myself, and behold! I was He."

The radical submergence of individual identity in Allah and the outpouring of shathiyat was not only a Khurasanian phenomenon but also occurred among Baghdadian Sufis such as Shibli (d. 846) and Nuri (executed in 907). These outpourings caused the ulama to become extremely suspicious of Sufis, a vexing issue for Junayd, who warned that momentary states of divine intoxication must be followed by sobriety. Only in this condition, according to Junayd, could a Sufi return to the worshipful (and lawful) position of a servant of Allah. Here, again, the Baghdadian Sufis mirrored the attitudes of the Nishapuri malamatis, although Junayd also acted out of a sense of political expediency.

As opposed to the Baghdadian orders of Sufism, which were centered closest to the caliphate, Khurasanian Sufis could afford to yield to shathiyat without operating under the immediate threat of official censure by the legalists (fuqaha).

Terry Graham notes, "Socio-politically, Baghdad represented a continuation of the authoritarian character [of the earlier Persian Shahs] with an etiquette based on courtly behavior, hierarchy, command and obedience, whereas Khurasan was a region which had constituted the marches of the [Persian] empire." After Muslim conquest, continues Graham, Khurasan "had served as the seedbed for revolt against both Arabic influence and [Persian-style] despotism, that is, whatever was imposed from the capital in distant Mesopotamia."

Apart from political expediency, both the Nishapuri malamatis and Sufis agreed that only in the stage of sobriety could a mystic become a full adept, mentally balanced, and therefore capable of providing a good example to others. It should not be thought, however, that Bistami failed to arrive at the state of sobriety or that Junayd bypassed the experience of intoxication. Instead, Junayd insisted:

 

I have realized that which is within me

And my tongue has conversed with Thee in secret

And we are united in one respect,

But we are separate in another.

 

The message of psychological stability and societal adjustment, best elaborated by Junayd, informed all of the orthodox Sufi orders thereafter, and while ecstatic utterances were normally tolerated within the inner confines of Sufism these expressions were generally discouraged outside such circles. This was not necessarily the case in Khurasan.

 

Teaser image by smayda, courtesy of Creative Commons license.