Islam and the Quran

The Question of Authentication in Tasawwuf

As a teaching, religion provides two normative approaches related to personal and social life. One is the practical aspect that contains the rituals. The other is the epistemological foundation upon which the practical aspect is based. From an Islamic point of view, the basis of religious practice and knowledge is ‘nass’ (incontrovertible proof); the data with the highest epistemological degree of truthfulness for the believer. In other words, knowledge is the basis of belief. Although the knowledge is open to interpretation, a system of belief should be congruous and the validity of the interpretation concerning knowledge could only be assessed in the context of this congruity.

Why is the authentication of the knowledge important? Because a congruous system of belief should be based upon a congruous system of knowledge. Unless all the elements of a religion are defined and limited through correct knowledge, the belief is transformed into nonsense, into an hallucination and into an incongruity. As a source of knowledge, Qu’ran bases its correctness on ‘it being a congruous book’ as a sign of it having been revealed by Allah, as opposed to it being written by somebody. It requires the knowledge, especially the knowledge about Allah, to be of ‘yakin’ (absolute certainty) level and criticises this knowledge to be based on ‘surmise (zan)’.

However incomplete is the debate concerning the roots of tasawwuf –which may never ever be completed – tasawwuf has been part of the Islamic thought as a sub-discipline. Emergence of tasawwuf as a separate system can be traced to the 2nd and the 3rd centuries after hegira. In fact, this so-called Era of Codification, was an era of dissociation, and also the time when other Islamic disciplines and madhabs (schools of thought) excelled.

The initial emergence of tasawwuf appeared as an ascetic movement; however, this movement separated itself from Islam by establishing its own knowledge system – or by importing it from an ancient tradition–.

A person doing readings in tasawwuf would soon realise that none of the other Islamic sciences would find it as difficult to establish its foundations in the Sunni Islam as tasawwuf. On the other hand, if we exclude those like Ghazali, who is prominent in the process of legitimization of tasawwuf, it is common knowledge that  a mutasawwuf would see himself so disdainful and so high so as not to condescend to argue with a jurisprudent or theologian (kelamcı). For, a sufi has a fortress of a ‘knowledge of tasawwuf’ which could not be tarnished by the strongest reasoning and the most authentic nass and which generally does not even need to be verified. Therefore, authentication of knowledge of tasawwuf should not be treated as an internal question but must be examined in the general framework of Islam.

Fundamental Knowledge of tasawwuf bases its authentication of knowledge upon a thesis of Allah’s communication with the people in addition to the common tenet of the major religions of communication through ‘revelation to a messenger through angels’. This has created an unbelievably wide space for movement and thought for a sufi, providing every opportunity that will facilitate the development of tasawwuf  as a system.

Called ‘keşif’ (=divination or revelation of mysteries to a saint)), this kind of knowledge is transmitted to the heart of the sufi directly by Allah through inspiration or by “flinging”. A sufi could be subjected to this kind of knowledge transmission in ecstacy or all of a sudden or in his sleep at the most unexpected time of the day. However much sufıs claim this type of knowledge to be of secondary to ‘Qur’an and Sunnah’ and to be of an exceptional nature carrying signs for themselves, the gargantuan tasawwuf works show how serious this divination  has been treated to generate a huge mystic thought system.

Well; is this type of knowledge so innocent or without risks?  After all, if religion must be based on a sound knowledge base, should not divinational knowledge subject itself to test according to the criteria of Islam? Isn’t the subject of belief definitive enough not to forbear frivilousness?

This should at least be so if we are opining about Allah and what is extremely grave is that although the basic subject of tasawwuf is Allah, the sufi theses concerning Allah also form the basis of knowledge of  divination.

However much one may try hard, it is difficult to base sufi knowledge on the Qur’an in the context of valid Arabic gramer and meaning. I am not going to claim that sufis intend to twist the phenomenal religious teachings, especially the Qur’an and the Hadith, in a shrewd manner and for their self interest.

However much a sufi may seem to have freed him/herself  away from chains, s/he has an innate  desire to abide by the sharia which s/he cannot resist. Using Qur’an to authenticate the divinational knowledge is a result of the belief of the sufi in the existence of a separation of zahir (outer) and batın (inner) meanings of the Qur’an. It is beyond the scope of this text to go into its historic roots and to analyse Hellenistic, Hermesian, Ismaili or Shia influences.

Therefore it would be a fairer approach to see things not to have a sinister motive but to see sufi to make him/herself believe in what s/he would like to believe as in the case of Ibn-i Arabi when he interpreted an ayat describing non-believers as describing sagacious persons (arifun) or in the case of Hallac when he assumed a divine love in the refusal of the Satan to prostrate.

If we take tasawwuf as an extention of an ancient tradition penetrating (or having been intentionally penetrated) into Islam, we can understand how easy it is for a sufi to find authentication to what s/he calls ‘divination’ in his universe. An inherited mythology, a myth, stories related to earlier mystics, a few words uttered during ecstasy; all of these are elements of directing a person in continuous search of truth.

A person under the influence of a state s/he calls mystic and in search for a name, an answer or a solution to his/her mental state, tries to find references from those persons who claimed to have experienced an exactly the same or a similar mental state. This could even be an historic or literature based search. What s/he searches for are a few reference words: “union of the spirit with God, return of the spirit to its source, abandonment of reason and enjoyment of mystic pleasures, divine love, divine unity etc.”.

When a sufi or a potential to-be sufi comes accross to any of these by coincidence, tries to establish a “relationship” between the mental state s/he is in and the references. This is a totally mental relationship and as long as the same mental state persists, this relationship becomes stronger and transformes into what the person imagines to be the “knowledge”.

This relationship in time, transforms into an unbreakable association chain between the mental state being experienced and the inherited reference source.  Qualifying the experience as “secret emanating from tasawwuf” and exempting it from any external objective criticism, causes sufi’s experience to evolve into irrefutability.

The expression of the same relationships by other persons strenghthens this relationship. Eventually, the relationship and association disappears and the experience of the sufi transforms into knowledge: this has now become the highest form of knowledge which is reflected in the statement of the Bayezid in his expression that “you take your knowledge from the dead in a dead format whereas we take it from Allah who is eternally alive and everlasting” when he cynically criticised the jurists.

The question of self authentication of tasawwuf starts at this very point. For a believer who considers Qur’an as the most righteous source of knowledge, knowledge is always a risk bound element. The risk is related to it being “righteous” however minute it may be and its mandate to bring man to “yakin” (sure and certain knowledge). Therefore the believer must internalize a knowledge that he can be accountable for, because man will be accounted for his belief and practice and the belief is directly related to knowledge.

If the sufi cannot provide a consistent authentication for the knowledge s/he claims to have been flung to him/her and this cannot free his/her data base which s/he imagines to be knowledge from the scope of “surmise”as clearly subjected to Qur’anic criticism, s/ he is bound to carry the responsibility of talking about Allah on”surmise”or  “in ignorance”. This is not a simple detail that can be considered as a defect arising out of  a state of spiritual or physical drunkenness but an epistomologic behaviour that is related to the roots of ubudiyet (devotion) –rububiyet (God’s ordinance for change and renewal).

So what faculties does a sufi use to obtain knowledge or to know Allah? Is the reason, continuously criticised by the sufis, being totally ignored in the process of obtaining knowledge? Frankly, acting in fairness, a sufi should confess his/her impotency in defining the tool of gathering knowledge.

Examined in the context of Qur’anic terminology, we realize that no serious differentiation is made between the reason and the heart as a tool of gathering knowledge and find that the heart is considered a faculty to find and grasp the truth. In fact, etymologically the two words are so intermingled as not to be differentiated from one another. The root of the knowledge sufi alleges to have come to the heart are sentimental quiverings that s/he experiences as a result of mental associations, and psychological tidal waves  with blurred targets that are comprised of meanings that sufi parts to them. If such activities generate data which is unacceptable in the meaning pattern of the Qur’an, how can it be claimed to have originated from “the heart” which is a tool of “identifying and grasping the truth”?

Therefore, the question is a chain reaction. A sufi develops a thesis at a time frame in distant past. This can be any concept which cannot find a place in the apparent Islam like pantheism, hakikat-i Muhammediye, fena (annihilation in God) and the like. This thesis is taken a priori knowledge by the sufi in the next generation without any questioning. This continues in a chain and a cumulative and eclectic system develops. For instance no one questions the authentication of the basic ’assumption’, when a huge philosophy of “hierarchy of beings”, “philosophy of emanation” are developed based on pantheism. In fact, the mystic pleasures that sufi enjoys preventss all the encouragements in this direction. Sufi is pleased with his/her present state and would not want it to be changed. The utterance of the same words by famous personalities in the past or in his/her present system constitute an “urvetul vuska” (the most trustworthy hand-hold, that will never break; Q 2:256) for him/her.

Today tendencies towards a return to the origin have gained momentum in the Islamic world. A return to the Qur’an can be observed in every sphere. Tasawwuf should not see itself free from these developments and should approach to its system of knowledge with a critical mind as well as the history that has evolved this system and confront with itself. No one should fear to face with the reality for it is certain that s/he is bound to face the reality in the hereafter; “on the day when hidden things shall be made manifest, Q, Tariq 86/9”


Ahmet Tunç Demirtaş

Ankara University, PhD Candidate

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