Interview of Osman Nuri Topbaş on Tasawwuf

Altinoluk: In your book “From Faith (Īmān) to Internalization of Faith (Ihsān),” you state that the Sufi path is very important in the life of a Muslim. What are the benefits of the Sufi path in the propagation of Islam, as well as in perfecting and guiding the human soul to the truth? What are the secrets of its success?

Tasawwuf has a particular method of training people in their practice of Islam. The external aspect of Islam, sharī‘ah, employs the concepts of reward and punishment in order to lead a human being to a virtuous life. In other words, Paradise and hell are the basic concepts within the sharī‘ah in shaping the life of a Muslim. On the other hand, tasawwuf, which is the internal aspect of Islam, employs love and mercy as its primary methods in addition to the rewards of Paradise and the punishment of hell. Today people are suffering from their sins and straying outside the protective shield of religion. This is a result of their enslavement to their nafs (the lower self). Salvation can be offered to sinners through mercy and love. Hence, the methods of tasawwuf have gained extra significance since sinners need the soft hand of the Sufi way. It has been observed not only in our country but also in the western world that the Sufi methods have turned many people to Islam. They offer Islam as a life‑giving breath to those who have been drowning in the grip of their nafs and theories based on logic alone. We should approach sinners not with hatred and revenge, but with hope through mercy and compassion. The sinner is like someone who is drowning in the sea, and it is our duty to extend our hands to that person. Cursing them and scolding them is a deficient method for saving them from their terrible situation.

Human beings, even if they wander far from their real purpose in life, possess great value and honor due to their innate value as human beings. The similarity of a sinner [as mentioned above] is like the sacred Black Stone if it fell to the dust. No Muslim can be indifferent to the sad situation of this precious stone. They would rush to clean it and place it in its proper place, as it came from Paradise and has great value in their eyes. Similarly, when we see a human being we cannot be indifferent to him or her. We should rush to help, whether in material or spiritual terms.

Allah the Almighty informs us that He instilled a spirit from His own presence into human beings when He created them. Therefore each human being possesses divine secrets. No matter how many sins he or she commits, he or she has an innate value that cannot be destroyed by anything.

As Rūmī states, man is similar to pure, clean water through which one can see clearly. However, if this clean water is muddied and mixed with dirt, it does not let us see through it. Similarly, in order to see the divine light one needs to purify this water from the dirt. Tasawwuf is a way of purifying a person’s soul from the desires of the flesh. Sufis do not exclude anyone from this process of purification, even if that person is immersed in sin. Sufis always offer a chance to anyone who is ready to accept it. There are many examples in the life of the Prophet (upon him blessings and peace) with regard to his mercy for all sorts of sinners.

As an example, the Prophet (upon him blessings and peace) did not exclude Wahshī from his mercy even though he had killed the most beloved uncle of the Prophet, Hamzah (may Allah be pleased with him). The Prophet felt very sad when his uncle was killed by Wahshī at the battle of Uhud. The prophet (upon him blessings and peace) sent him a messenger to accept Islam and to gain eternal salvation. Wahshī in return sent the following message: “O Muhammad! How can you offer me salvation when Allah states in the Qur’an: ‘Those who invoke not, with Allah, any other god, nor slay such life as Allah has made sacred, except for just cause, nor commit fornication; and any that does this (not only) meets punishment (but) the penalty on the Day of Judgement will be doubled to him, and he will dwell therein in ignominy.’ (Furqān, 25:68-69). I have committed all the sins mentioned in this verse, is there any possibility for my salvation?”

To address the misgivings of repentent sinners, Allah Almighty revealed the verse: “Say: ‘O My servants who have transgressed against their souls! Despair not of the mercy of Allah: for Allah forgives all sins: for He is oft-forgiving, most merciful.” (Zumar, 39:53) When Wahshī heard this verse he became very happy and said, “O my Lord! How great is your mercy!” He repented for all his sins with the purpose of never repeating them again, and he accepted Islam along with his friends.

Tasawwuf received its light from such examples from the life of the Prophet (upon him blessings and peace), the recipient of the perfect manifestation of the divine attributes and the one who was favored as the receiver of the divine revelation. According to the Sufis, man possesses a high position on the scale of creation, since he has been created with the potential of becoming the viceregent of Allah on earth. He is like the pupil of the eye in contrast with the rest of the creation. No sin can eradicate this innate value. Tasawwuf views this in a very balanced way. The sinner is tolerated, but this tolerance never extends to the sin itself. We should hate the sin but show mercy to the sinner in order to save him or her from the pit into which he or she has fallen. In so doing, tasawwuf provides humanity with the most fruitful method of inviting man to Islam. It is in the nature of man to always yearn for those who extend their arms to them with love and mercy, people such as ‘Abd al‑Qādir Jīlānī, Yūnus Emre, Bahā’ al-Dīn Naqshband, Jalāl al-Dīn Rūmī and other friends of Allah.

Altınoluk: You have shown us how tasawwuf leads a human being to perfection and cleanses him or her from impurities. In this respect, what place should tasawwuf occupy in the life of a Muslim? Is it possible to lead a pious life without tasawwuf?

You have asked a very important question. I would like to answer this question by narrating the following story which was told to me by my father Musa Efendi:

We had a neighbor who had converted to Islam (from Christianity). One day I asked him the reason for his acceptance of Islam. He replied:

‘I have become Muslim due to the good morality of my neighbor Rabī Molla, who showed good conduct in his trade. He had cows and would earn his livelihood by selling milk. One day he came to our house and gave me a large pot of milk saying, ‘This is your milk.’ ‘You did not owe us any milk,’ I answered, thinking that he had made a mistake in delivering the milk to me.

This kind and noble person explained why he had brought the milk saying, ‘Unfortunately I have seen my cows grazing in your garden when I was unaware. Therefore this milk is yours and I will keep bringing milk to you until the grass is cleaned from its stomach.’

I told him, ‘Do not mention it. The grass the cows ate in my garden is nothing valuable and I do not ask anything in return.’ He insisted that the milk was my share. He kept bringing milk to my house until the grass was cleaned from the rumen of the cow.

The noble behavior of Rabī Molla moved me very deeply and the veil of heedlessness (ghafla) was removed from my eyes. The light of guidance shone in my heart, and I accepted Islam saying to myself: ‘The religion of such an upright person is definitely the straight path. No one can doubt the truth of a religion which is professed by such kind, just, and perfect adherents like him.’ Hence I pronounced the words of the shahādah (the profession of faith).

As this incident and many other countless examples prove, Sufis and their method of perfecting the morality of a believer are important reasons for the spread of Islam. Tasawwuf works in both ways: firstly perfecting the morality of the believers, and secondly spreading Islam through the exemplary conduct of Sufis. It shows the merciful face of Islam to the non-Muslims and helps in representing the correct form of Islam.

Islam is law and God-consciousness, fatwā and taqwā: the legal aspects of Islam, fatwā, are the pillars of its edifice, while the Sufi character, taqwā, is the complementary part of the building that beautifies and strengthens the main frame. Tasawwuf helps Muslims to unite these two aspects of Islam in addition to perfecting their morality. Tasawwuf also enables mankind to understand the Qur’an and the universe, helping him to know his place and responsibilities in the universe. Tasawwuf, with its principles of love for Allah and knowledge of Allah, is like a vista on Mi’rāj – ascension to Allah. In short, the Sufi way is a necessity in training the heart and the soul. Every Muslim needs it.

The question “Can we do without tasawwuf?” is like asking if we can we do without hadith, theology, Islamic law, Qur’anic commentary, and the other Islamic sciences. Regarding tasawwuf as an unnecessary part of Islam is like regarding such attributes as sincerity, knowledge of Allah, purification of the heart, and the realization of service to Allah as unnecessary! Tasawwuf is a term which refers to attaining all these good characteristics. Even those who practice these principles without mentioning the general term that covers them, or who reject the nomenclature of tasawwuf, can also be considered to be practicing tasawwuf. The name is not important, as long as its principles are put into effect. We can refer to tasawwuf as “asceticism” (zuhd), “consciousness of Allah” (taqwā), or “realization of religion” (ihsān), as they all indicate the same reality and serve the same purpose. All these terms denote the practice of the most perfect master and teacher of humanity, the Prophet Muhammad (upon him blessings and peace) and the companions whom he himself trained.

The heart also needs training in order to attain peace and tranquility. Even the Prophet (upon him blessings and peace) who was blessed with reception of the divine revelation, had special training before he attained prophethood. He used to go to the cave of Hīra and spend his time in worship and contemplation. This special dedication of time to worship is called in Arabic i’tikāf. The Prophet (upon him blessings and peace) continued this practice after he became a Prophet, and spent the last ten days of the month of Ramadan in the mosque dedicating all his time to worship. Similarly, the Prophet Moses spent forty days in worship and mortification of the flesh before he was blessed with being able to speak with Allah on the mountain of Sinai. The Prophet Joseph spent twelve years in prison before he became the ruler of Egypt. He went trough all sorts of difficulties and perfected his personality as through the worship of Allah. In this way, his heart was cleansed from trust in transient beings and was eventually dedicated to Allah alone.

Before the Mi’rāj (ascension), the Prophet Muhammad (upon him blessings and peace) grasped the meaning of the chapter of inshirāh (expanding). His spiritual heart was opened and cleansed. Allah the Almighty filled his heart with knowledge and divine light. In this way he was prepared to see the extraordinary things his voyage to Allah showed him. He was cleansed from the material world and was prepared for the spiritual world.

If even the prophets of Allah underwent spiritual training and purification of the heart, how can ordinary people like ourselves do without this process? Even a hair that remains polluted with worldly concerns cannot approach the divine light of the spiritual world. A nose blocked with dirt cannot smell the aroma of flowers and roses. When the window is steamed up we cannot see through it clearly. A small clod of dirt can pollute a whole pot of pure water; similarly, spiritual dirt blocks the heart from the reception of divine illumination and spiritual blessing.

In order to emphasise the significance of a purified heart from all sorts of worldly diseases, Allah the Almighty states in the Qur’an: “The day whereon neither wealth nor sons will avail, but only he (will prosper) that brings to Allah a sound heart!” (Shu‘arā’, 26:88-89)

One can attain a heart which is sound and free from all sorts of evil thoughts only through spiritual training. Before such training, the heart is like a piece of raw iron. First it should be heated with fire and cleansed of all dirt. Then it should be hammered and molded into the shape intended. Once the heart is perfected through spiritual training, it can see and understand what the physical eyes cannot see and the mind cannot understand. [As mentioned before,] Rūmī describes his own state before spiritual wayfaring as being unripe, even though he occupied a high post in a Seljuk madrasa. However, when the secrets of the book of the universe were opened to him through spiritual training, he described his new state saying, “I was cooked.”

The companions of the Prophet (upon him blessings and peace) constitute the highest examples of this spiritual perfection. Before Islam came, some of them had such cold hearts that they used to bury their daughters alive. However, after accepting Islam they became monuments of mercy and soft-heartedness.

In short, we could practice Islam without tasawwuf, but then we would never reach our perfection. When Sufi methods are excluded from the practice of Islam, none can reach the level of Islamic practice known as ihsān (i.e. to practice Islam as if seeing Allah).

Altınoluk: What else would you advise the readers of Altinoluk? Who are your spiritual friends on the Sufi path? We are sure that they will be awaiting the English version of your book “From Faith (Īmān) to Internalisation of Faith (Ihsān),” in which you have given a detailed explanation of tasawwuf.

In addition to what I have said so far, let me add some advice which the Sufi sheikhs have emphasised. Tasawwuf is the method of moral training taken from the life and teaching of the Messenger of Allah (upon him blessings and peace). It consists of turning one’s face with love and respect towards Allah and His Messenger. Those friends of Allah who have placed Allah and His Messenger at the center of their hearts as the sole objects of love, have become the friends of all humanity. To keep friendship with the pious Muslims and take part in their suhbahs purifies one’s morality from evil. Those who have a high level of spiritual energy spread their energy to others. Since they have purified their own souls from the vices of the nafs, they can inculcate the same state of spiritual purity to those around them. Being around such people makes one beneficial to the community in all aspects of life.

Through love, tasawwuf establishes spiritual bonds between the desciple (murīd) and his master (shaykh). Once the murīd loves and respects the shaykh, the actions of the shaykh are imitated from all perspectives, and the morality of the murīd is perfected. Therefore, as Muslims we should use the method of love more often than other methods. The basis of Islamic morality is to worship Allah with sincerity and love. The proof of love and sincerity is to serve Allah and His creation. Through love, difficult jobs are fulfilled with ease and contentment. The greatness of service is judged by the sacrifice taken in its fulfillment. Sincere service is the indication of one’s spiritual perfection. The hearts of such people are the loci of the manifestations (tajalliyāt) of Allah.

The closer one gets to Allah, the more his or her heart becomes receptive to spiritual realities. On the other hand, the more one is engulfed in his or her nafs (lower self), the more he or she loses his or her humanity.

Allah has the names Jamīl (the Beautiful) and Jalīl (the Majestic). However, his names Rahmān (the Compassionate) and Rahīm (the Merciful) are mentioned in the Qur’an more than any other of His names. Therefore, in the imitation of his or her Lord, a Muslim should make mercy and compassion his or her second nature. The causes of injustice in the world are the result of a lack of mercy and love. Those who cannot love can easily become despots and tyrants. They use fear and hate in order to control others, remaining heedless of the fact that there is no heart that cannot be captured by love. For the sun to refuse to give light and heat is impossible; similarly, it is impossible for righteous souls not to love and show mercy to other creatures.

Hallāj who has an exclusive place in the hearts of the divine lovers prayed for those who had stoned him to death saying, “O my Lord please forgive those who have stoned me to death before You forgive me!”

If we would like to know our spiritual state, we should continuously analyze our actions and feelings. In particular, the baseless claims of our nafs should be kept under control. Otherwise we could fall into the state of Iblīs, who lost divine favor due to his haughtiness and vanity. He was the teacher of the angels in Paradise, but he could not control his emotions and desires. He felt superior to human beings and was cursed due to his pride.

Rūmī compares the vices of human nature to thorns on a rose bush. He advises us to make our nature like that of the sweet rose, not that of thorns. In the garden of the world the thorns harm us, but we should not let our soul become like them. Rather, we should strive to convert the wild soil into a rose garden.