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.