Islam Rejects Excessive Asceticism and Monasticism
Following its genesis and growth, pseudo Sufism had many forms some of which were associated with excessive asceticism and monasticism.
There were Sufis who adopted and promoted as a solitary goal of existence excessive abstinence from worldly delights, frugality and voluntary poverty. They upheld that the source of all goodness in this world and in the Hereafter was in having little, or nothing, and in withdrawal from people, while the source of all evil in this world and in the Hereafter was in having much and in mixing with people. They, as a result, denied themselves many types of permitted food, drink, clothes and many other legitimate worldly delights, sometimes to the extent of becoming so frail that they were unable to perform basic errands. Some even went beyond mere bodily torture almost to the extreme of self-immolation. They refused to possess virtually anything, but often had to depend on other sources for their scant provisions, irrespective of whether those sources came from their family members, friends, or even government officials. In short, such people observed strict corporeal abject poverty erring not as much in aims and objectives as in means and methods. The whole operation, instead of enriching them spiritually, in the end impoverished them even further, both physically and spiritually.
There is nothing virtuous in coveted excessive asceticism, poverty and passivism, basing them on God's will and believing that nothing can and should be done about it. Those Sufis articulated several traditions of the Prophet (pbuh) to the effect that poverty was Allah's preference, and it was a source of the pride of the Prophet (pbuh) who always found much gratification in it. But those traditions are plain forgery as Islam in no way encourages deliberate excessive asceticism, poverty and passivism. Certainly, Islam sees neither affluence nor poverty as inherently either good or bad. Islam sees potential goodness as much in affluence as in poverty, just as it sees potential evil as much in affluence as in poverty. Consequently, the Prophet (pbuh) sought refuge in God from the evil of the trial of the affluence and from the evil of the trial of poverty, as well as from the evil of debt. (Sahih Muslim)
In reality, genuine asceticism (zuhd) and poverty (faqr) denote renouncing the unlawful; utter contentment (rida and qana'ah) with one's share of wealth which has been allocated to him by God, the source of all wealth; moderately enjoying the lawful property which God has granted to a person, profoundly thanking Him for it; subjecting the given wealth to worship purposes and for pursuing a higher spiritual order of things, that is to say, perceiving wealth as a means, rather than an end; keeping the spiritual ailments of greed, extravagance, showing off, haughtiness and miserliness at bay. In short, a person must be in total control of his assets, rather than being controlled by them. There is nothing wrong with legitimately possessing and using legitimate worldly goods. What is wrong is accumulating, misusing and finding irresistible the world and its lures.
Moreover, genuine asceticism and poverty signify one's destitution, impoverishment, and neediness in relation to God, as contrasted to "wealth" (ghina') which connotes "independence" and "self-sufficiency". Spiritual poverty is a true servant's enduring attribute, of which he is always proud, whereas true wealth, i.e., absolute independence and self-sufficiency, is an attribute of Allah alone. In this sense, the Qur'an declares: "O mankind! You are the poor in your relation to Allah. And Allah is the One free of all wants, worthy of all praise" (Fatir, 35:15).
The task of every true believer, therefore, is to actualize the honorable trait of "poverty", i.e., dependence on and need of God, and to never covet "wealth", in the sense of being self-reliant and independent from God and His guidance, light and compassion. A propensity to feeling genuinely rich, self-sufficient and independent while on earth is a serious spiritual deficiency and a fatal disease of the heart. Allah thus chastises those scoffers who as a result of their blasphemous designs and acts mocked the Prophet (pbuh) and his regular calls for charity and other forms of spending in the way of Allah. Given that those appeals were frequently metaphorically described as giving and loaning to Allah beautiful loans, the mockers used to say that Allah was poor and they were rich. The Qur'an says: "Verily Allah heard the taunt of those who say: "Truly, Allah is indigent and we are rich!" We shall certainly record their word and (their act) of slaying the prophets in defiance of right, and We shall say: "Taste the penalty of the scorching Fire!" (Alu 'Imran, 3:181).
Surely, it is this form of spiritual poverty that Abu al-Qasim al-Qushayri (d. 465 AH/ 1072 CE) had in mind when he said: "Poverty is the hallmark of the friends of God (awliya'), a decoration of the pure (asfiya'), and the special feature with which God distinguishes His elect ones from among the righteous and the prophets. The poor are the elect servants of God and the carriers of His secrets among His creatures. By means of them God protects His creatures and due to their blessings He bestows livelihood upon them. The poor are the patient ones, who will sit next to God Most High on the Day of Judgment, as related in a report transmitted from the Prophet (pbuh)."
Someone asked a Sufi master Yahya b. Mu'adh (d. 258 AH/ 872 CE) about poverty and he answered: 'Its true reality is that the servant of God is independent of anything except God and its mark is not being in need of any provisions."
Someone also asked al-Junayd al-Baghdadi (d. 297 AH/ 910 CE): "Which state is better: being in need of God or being satisfied with God? Al-Junayd responded: "When one's need in God is sound, then one's complete satisfaction with God is sound too. Therefore, you should not ask which of them is better, for one cannot be perfected without the other."
Thus, a Sufi master Sumnun b. Hamzah (d. 290 AH/ 903 CE), when asked about the meaning of Sufism, replied: "Sufism means that you own nothing and nothing owns you."
Along those lines, some differences between the sincere and false Sufis have been marked out by a Sufi Abu Hamzah al-Baghdadi (d. 269 AH/ 883 CE), as narrated by Abu al-Qasim al-Qushayri: "One sign of the sincere Sufi is that he is poor after having been wealthy, that he shows humility after having been glorified, and that he seeks anonymity after having experienced fame. As for the sign of the false Sufi, he enriches himself with (the things of) this world after having been poor, aspires to glory after having been humiliated, and seeks fame after anonymity."
Closely related to excessive asceticism and poverty was monasticism. While there were many Sufis who demonstrated an inner-worldly, community-centered religious attitude, recognizing their obligations towards their families and the society around them, there were other Sufis, on the other hand, who adhered to an extreme, exclusivist type of piety which promulgated seclusion, self-sufficiency, and the renouncing of worldly pursuits so that one can fully devote one's self to spiritual work.
One of the reasons often cited in support of complete physical and mental seclusion and withdrawal from the world, was many people's deterioration in faith, loss of moral principles, and the increasing corruption of the Muslim political leadership firstly under the Umayyad and then under the Abbasid government. Such developments were viewed as tribulations or afflictions (fitnah pl. fitan) about which the Prophet (pbuh) spoke much and warned against, and during which fleeing in order that religion be safeguarded, is even recommended. The Prophet (pbuh) said: "A time will come that the best property of a Muslim will be sheep which he will take on the top of mountains and the places of rainfall (valleys) so as to flee with his religion from afflictions." (Sahih al-Bukhari)
Also: "There will be afflictions (and at the time) the sitting person will be better than the standing one, and the standing one will be better than the walking, and the walking will be better than the running. And whoever will look towards those afflictions, they will overtake him, and whoever will find a refuge or a shelter, should take refuge in it." (Sahih al-Bukhari)
Even during the Prophet's time, some people were primed to sow the seeds of excessive asceticism along with monasticism, but were decisively stopped. They were asked rather to follow the Prophet's most righteous tradition in religion, and not to deviate therefrom. What they were up to was an out-and-out violation of this Islamic spirit. Thus, it has been narrated that a group of three men came to the houses of the wives of the Prophet (pbuh) asking how the Prophet (pbuh) worshipped (Allah), and when they were informed about that, they considered their worship insufficient and said: "Where are we from the Prophet as his past and future sins have been forgiven." Then one of them said: "I will offer the prayer throughout the night forever." The other said: "I will fast throughout the year and will not break my fast." The third said: "I will keep away from the women and will not marry forever." Allah's Messenger (pbuh) came to them and said: "Are you the same people who said so-and-so? By Allah, I am more submissive to Allah and more afraid of Him than you; yet I fast and break my fast, I do sleep and I also marry women. So he who does not follow my tradition in religion, is not from me (not one of my followers)." (Sahih al-Bukhari)
In the same vein, Allah censures the People of the Book for committing various excesses in religion which led many of them to blasphemy: "O People of the Book! Commit no excesses in your religion; nor say of Allah aught but the truth" (al-Nisa', 4:171).
Allah also charges the Christians with inventing monasticism which was not prescribed for them, even though they might have done so with some good and sound intentions: "Then, in their wake, We followed them up with (others of) Our messengers: We sent after them Jesus the son of Mary, and bestowed on him the Gospel; and We ordained in the hearts of those who followed him compassion and mercy. But the monasticism which they invented for themselves, We did not prescribe for them: (We commanded) only the seeking for the good pleasure of Allah; but that they did not foster as they should have done. Yet We bestowed, on those among them who believed, their (due) reward, but many of them are rebellious transgressors" (al-Hadid, 57:27).
This verse criticizes the Christians in two ways: first, they invented things in their religion, things which Allah did not legislate for them. The second is that they did not fulfill the requirements of what they themselves invented and which they claimed was a means of drawing near to Allah.
The Prophet (pbuh) said that there is no monasticism in Islam. Islam's monasticism is jihad (struggle) in the cause of Allah, in both the private and public domains, and with one's both inner and outer enemies. (Tafsir Ibn Kathir) It was because of this underlining character of Islam, surely, that after Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) had received in the cave of Hira his first revelation, and with it his appointment as a messenger of Allah to people, where heretofore he used to spend long periods contemplating and reflecting on the spiritual depression and failure of the world around him, he subsequently never returned to the cave. He did not return because Islam is not a religion of isolation and seclusion to be practiced away from the masses and the pressing realities of life. The Prophet (pbuh) thus proclaimed that a Muslim, who mixes with people and puts up with their provocations and disturbances, is better than a Muslim who does not mix with people and does not put up with their harrowing actions. (Sunan al-Tirmidhi)
Islam rejects monasticism because - as Abdullah Yusuf Ali emphasized -- "Allah's Kingdom requires also courage, resistance to evil, the firmness, law, and discipline which will enforce justice among men. It requires men to mingle with men, so that they can uphold the standard of Truth, against odds if necessary. These were lost sight of in monasticism, which was not prescribed by Allah...Allah certainly requires that men should renounce the idle pleasures of this world, and turn to the path which leads to Allah's good pleasure. But that does not mean gloomy lives, nor perpetual and formal prayers in isolation. Allah's service is done through pure lives in the turmoil of this world. This spirit was lost, or at least not fostered by monastic institutions. On the contrary a great part of the struggle and striving for noble lives was suppressed."
Thus, in authentic Sufism, retreat and seclusion (khalwah and 'uzlah) -- as explained by such Sufi masters as al-Junayd al-Baghdadi, Abu al-Qasim al-Qushayri and Abu Nasr al-Siraj al-Tusi (d. 378 AH/ 988 CE), to name but a few - do not mean going away from inhabited places. On no account are the said concepts tantamount to monasticism. The essence of retreat and seclusion is to isolate blameworthy traits in order to substitute the divine names for them. Once when a question was posed as to who the gnostic ('arif) is, the answered was that he is a "creature distinguished", that is, someone who appears to be together with people, but is inwardly separated, or withdrawn, from them. Abu Yazid al-Bistami (d. 261 AH/ 875 CE) said that in a dream he asked God how he can find Him, and he was counseled: "Leave yourself and come." Also, a man asked Dhu al-Nun al-Misri (d. 243 AH/ 857 CE): "When will withdrawing from the world be the right course for me?" He answered: "When you are capable of withdrawing from yourself."
It follows that no more than partial and temporary physical withdrawal from the world and its legitimate delights, albeit only as an educational and training phase towards attaining perfect retreat and seclusion (khalwah and 'uzlah) whereby a person confirms himself in intimacy with God alone, is acceptable. In this case, one's withdrawal from people means separation from them so that they will be safe from one's evil, which indicates one's thinking little of one's ego. A person must not be too obsessed with protecting himself from people's evil, which, on the other hand, could indicate one's thinking that he is better than other people. A monastic man is reported to have said that he withdrew himself from people because he thought that his ego was like a dog that injured them, so he took it out from among them so that they may be safe from it. Accordingly, "one of the rules of withdrawal is that whoever goes into seclusion must acquire the knowledge that makes his commitment to unity (tawhid) firm, so that Satan cannot seduce him through the imagination. Then he should acquire enough knowledge of the divine law (Shari'ah) that he is able to fulfill his religious duties so that his undertaking may be built of definite and sure foundations."
It would be a mistake to think that the wickedness of human nature can be eradicated by means of hunger and other forms of bodily torture. Some people retire from the world and dwell in caves, fancying that solitude will deliver them from their passions and cause them to share in the mystical experiences of the saints, but the fact is that hunger and solitude, if self-imposed and not the result of an overpowering spiritual influence, are positively harmful. Abu Nasr al-Siraj al-Tusi said that he knew instances of young men who reduced themselves to such a state of weakness that they had to be nursed for several days before they could perform the obligatory prayers. Others castrated themselves in the hope of escaping from the lust of the flesh. This is useless and even injurious, inasmuch as lust arises from within and is incurable by any external remedy. Others imagined that they show sincere trust in God (tawakkul) when they roam through deserts and wildernesses without provision for the journey, but real tawakkul demands previous self-discipline and mortification.
Finally, when Abdul Qadir al-Jilani discoursed about withdrawal from the world into seclusion, he, much like other Sufi masters, stressed that there are two states of seclusion: the exterior and interior state. About the former, he said that it means a condition where a man decides to withdraw himself from the world, imprisoning himself in a space away from other people, so that people in the world are saved from his undesirable character and existence. And about the interior seclusion, or the inner meaning of the concept, Abdul Qadir al-Jilani said that it is the exclusion from the heart of even the thought of anything that belongs in the realm of the worldly, of evil and of the ego.
Dr. Spahic Omer, a Bosnian currently residing in Malaysia, is an Associate Professor at the Kulliyyah of Architecture and Environmental Design, International Islamic University Malaysia. He studied in Bosnia, Egypt and Malaysia. His research interests cover Islamic history, culture and civilization, as well as the history and philosophy of the Islamic built environment. He can be reached at spahico yahoo.com; his blog is at www.medinanet.org.
Topics: Islam, Monasticism