The Significance of Manners in Tasawwuf

One of the Companions of the Prophet, Abū Dardā’, was appointed as a judge in Damascus. Because of his post, he had come across many criminals. One day he pronounced his judgment concerning a criminal and the case was concluded. However, he heard those who were present cursing the guilty man. Upon hearing this Abū Dardā’ asked those who were cursing:

“What would you do if you saw a man who fell into a deep well?”

They answered, “We would send down a rope to save him.”

“In that case why don’t you strive to save this man who fell into a pit of sin?”

They were surprised by this statement and asked, “Don’t you hate this sinner?”

Abū Dardā’ gave this wise response, “I am not the enemy of his personality but of his sin.”

Abū Dardā’ wanted to provide a lesson for the believers. Abū Dardā’s wisdom is a reflection of the Prophet’s (upon him blessings and peace) morals, and these reflections are the most perfect principles gathered together in the essence of tasawwuf. This wisdom does not let the sinner drown in his sins. Rather, it gives the sinner a chance to repent and to be purified in the sea of mercy, love and forgiveness. The Prophet (upon him blessings and peace) behaved in this way even with Abū Jahl, who was among the idol-worshippers who were harshest in their enmity. Instead of punishing him by exposing his sins, he always invited him with kindness to salvation and purification in the divine sea of mercy.

Allah the Almighty shows His deep love and mercy to those who repent. If a sinner repents, Allah forgives all his or her sins and cleanses his or her past. Allah even turns those sins into good deeds, depending on the sincerity of the person. Allah the Almighty says concerning those who repent: “Unless he repents, believes, and works righteous deeds, for Allah will change the evil of such persons into good, and Allah is oft‑forgiving, most merciful.” (Furqān, 25:70)

Those who have not taken their share of divine love and mercy are the enemies of both themselves and humanity. These people have blocked their path toward spiritual nourishment. In stark contrast are the great friends of Allah who have attained the spring of mercy, people such as Jalāl al-Dīn Rūmī and Yūnus Emre. They are the roses of Paradise who are loved by all righteous people. Even in the worst conditions they give hope and cure the wounds of society. As already mentioned, this is an important characteristic which all Muslims should have. Abdullah Rūmī Eşrefoğlu explains the Sufi path thus: “For the friend’s sake, one should be able to swallow poison like sugar.”

Mahmud Sami (May Allah have mercy upon him) also gave us a good example of mercy and love towards sinful Muslims. One day one of his students, due to depression, came to his house and knocked on his door. He was completely drunk and in no condition to come to the door of a sheikh. The one who opened the door was angry at this attitude and frowned at him. He asked, “What are you doing? Aren’t you aware of whom you are visiting?” The poor man answered, “Is there any other place, which will welcome me like this house will?” The Master Mahmud Sami overheard this conversation and came to the door. He let the student inside the spiritual palace, consoled him, and helped him solve his problems. He cured his wounded heart with mercy and love. This kind treatment helped the man to overcome his difficulties and he repented from his sins. He later became a spiritual and pious man.

The Sufi approach to human beings is positive and friendly. Rather than peering into their sins and highlighting their negative characteristics, Sufis examine the good essence of the person, and strive to develop these innate aspects. However, this approach should not mislead us; it does not mean that Sufis are permissive of people being sinful. Sufis do not tolerate the existence of sin. But they approach sinners with mercy and love, and in that way they strive to win over their hearts in order to help them. For Sufis, a sinner is a person like a bird with a broken wing; such a person attracts their mercy and compassion. Their aim is to help the sinner and to console his or her wounded soul. They do this purely for the sake of Allah, and it should be remembered that showing love and care for the sake of Allah is one of the most effective ways of attaining spiritual perfection. The following is narrated by ‘Umar b. al-Khattāb (may Allah be pleased with him):

During the lifetime of the Prophet (upon him blessings and peace) there was a man named ‘Abd Allāh whose nickname was Himār (Donkey), and he used to make the Prophet laugh. However, on several occasions the Prophet had him lashed for drinking alcohol. One day he was brought to the Prophet (upon him blessings and peace) on this charge and was lashed. At that, one man among the people exclaimed, “O Allah, curse him! How frequently has he been brought [to the Prophet] on such a charge!” The Prophet (upon him blessings and peace) said, “Do not curse him, for by Allah, I know that he loves Allah and His Apostle.” (Bukhārī)

Human beings have a high position in all creation just because they are human. Bad actions and characteristics do not change this exclusive position, because every man and woman carries the divine nafkha (breath, essence) from Allah. The divine essence always stays with man although most sinners are not aware of their value and their place within the divine order. To give an example, it would be as though the Black Stone fell into the mud. There is not a single Muslim who would not lament such a situation and run to restore the Black Stone to its sacred place. They would clean it with their tears and polish it with their beards. Muslims show due respect and love even if the black stone is covered in dust and dirt. They remember its origin and high value since it came from Paradise. It is also the same for human beings. They came out of paradise (i.e. our father Adam) and whatever sin they commit, this divine essence never departs.

Similarly, a good doctor never gets angry at the flaws of his patient. The diseases occur due to a person’s ignorance, laziness, and other shortcomings. However, a good doctor looks at the pain and suffering of their patient and does not look at their shortcomings. The doctor immediately runs for the patient’s treatment and does not waste time getting angry with the patient. In the same way, the Sufi is like a spiritual doctor and, when the Sufi sees a spiritual disease among the members of society, they hurry to cure it rather than complain. The Sufi is like a life‑jacket in a spiritual storm. It is a duty and causes happiness to give a drowning man a life-jacket even if that man actually fell into his predicament through his own fault. The Prophet (upon him blessings and peace) said after the battle of Khaybar: “O ‘Alī! It is better for you [as far as the divine recompense is concerned] to guide one man to Islam than to have everything over which the sun rises and sets.”

Allah the Almighty showed the significance of saving one person from destruction in the verse we already mentioned above: “And if any one saved a life. It would be as if he saved the life of all people.” (Mā’idah, 5:32)

The worst sin a person can commit is to associate partners with Allah and the rejection of Allah’s existence. The cure for this grave sin lies in a soft and tolerant approach. When Allah the Almighty sent Moses (upon him blessings and peace) to Pharaoh, He commanded him to speak softly and kindly (qawl layyin) with Pharaoh. Guiding someone to Islam successfully is the greatest achievement for a believer and a bridge to their salvation. Allah the Almighty was not unaware of the level of infidelity of Pharoah when He commanded Moses to deal with him softly. Why? Because Allah wanted to teach us the manner in which we should preach Islam.

We must always be kind and gentle when we tell others of Islam, even if our opponent is like Pharaoh in his enmity towards Islam. We should not be ruled by our emotions or be rough with the non-Muslims. Threatening, cursing, and other such kinds of behavior are not the Islamic way of preaching Islam. Highlighting this reality, Rūmī says in his Mathnawī: “Understand well the words of Allah to Moses: ‘Speak nicely to Pharaoh and treat him in a friendly manner!’ Because, if you add water to boiling oil you only increase the fire, and destroy both the pan and the oil.”

The following verse of the Qur’an addresses us, the Ummah (community of Muslims), with regard to the personality of the Prophet, upon him blessings and peace:

It is part of the mercy of Allah that you dealt gently with them. If you were severe or harsh-hearted, they would have broken away from about you: so pass over (their faults), and ask for (Allah’s) forgivenesss for them; and consult them in affairs (of moment). Then, when you have taken a decision, put your trust in Allah. For Allah loves those who put their trust (in Him). (Āl ‘Imrān, 3:159)

Among many other verses which teach us the way of telling others about Islam and calling to it (da‘wa), the following verse occupies an important place: “Invite (all) to the way of your Lord with wisdom and beautiful preaching; and argue with them in ways that are best and most gracious: for your Lord knows best who has strayed from His path and who receives guidance.” (Nahl, 16:125)

This tolerance and gentleness should be shown not only to the sinners, the rejecters of the faith, but also to the good believers. We are all human beings, and even those who practice Islam in the best possible way sometimes make mistakes. If we use a harsh method when we correct someone else’s mistakes, this can even be counter-productive. Instead of curing the other person, we could cause him or her to be even worse due to our impolite and coarse treatment. Human nature detests rude treatment. Even sons and daughters do not accept their parents’ rough treatment, and a very useful piece of advice loses its value if it is given in a disrespectful way.

We should not forget the fragile psychology of the human being, and never treat a sinner rudely – regardless of the number of sins they have committed. Our treatment should remind them of the self-value they possess, and help them to recouperate their divinely‑given spiritual powers. The Prophet (upon him blessings and peace) strongly warns us that being disrespectful towards a believer is a sin, and we should never disrespect someone due to his or her bad state. He said: “It is a grave sin for a believer to disrespect his Muslim brother.” (Abu Dawud, Musnad Ahmad)

Bezmiālem, an Ottoman noblewoman, in order to protect the personality and integrity of servants, established a foundation in Damascus to compensate them for any damage they might have caused in their work places. By doing so, the servants and working people would not feel very bad when they broke something.

In preaching Islam, we must always show gentleness and mercy towards others and redirect criticism and responsibility to ourselves. Allah the Almighty says: “And enough is He to be acquainted with the faults of His servants.” (Furqān, 25:58) In another verse Allah says:

O you who believe! Avoid suspicion as much (as possible): for suspicion in some cases is a sin. And spy not on each other, nor speak ill of each other behind their backs. Would any of you like to eat the flesh of his dead brother? Nay, you would abhor it… But fear Allah: For Allah is oft‑returning, most merciful. (Hujurāt, 49:12)

Those who bring into practice these verses are the epitomy of morality and virtue. Such people have well understood that this world is not separate from the other, since we all travel from here to there. Osman Gazi – the founder of the Ottoman state – was one of those who lived in conformity with these verses. His master Sheikh Edebali one day gave him the following advice:

O my son! You are a king now. From now on getting angry with you is our share and your part is to be tolerant. When we are cross with you, it is your duty to gain our hearts back; when we blame you, it is your part that you must be patient. When we are wrong and weak, it is your part to be helpful and tolerant of our mistakes. When we are in trouble and in disagreement with each other, it is your duty to be just with us. When we talk unjustly and criticise you, it is your duty to forgive us… O my son! From now on when we fall into disunity, it is your duty to unite us. If we become lazy, it is your duty to work and urge us to work hard.

This is priceless advice for rulers – when they are treated badly they must forgive others for the sake of Allah. They must always show mercy and love towards their subjects under all circumstances.

When the Prophet (upon him blessings and peace) wanted to point out a certain mistake that a person had committed, he would talk about the mistake, but would not reveal identity of the person who had committed it. While he would teach the community about the mistake, he would not offend anybody in doing so. He would ask: “What is happening to me that I see you committing this or that [mistake]?”, as if he had attributed to himself the fault of seeing things wrongly.

This is a common practice among Sufis, so as not to offend the person who had committed the sin. This is because the path of Allah is a path to win hearts and build them up, not break them. The famous Sufi poet Yūnus Emre states this fact in the following verses:

The heart is Allah’s throne:

Allah looks into the heart.

The unfortunate of the two worlds

Is the one who broke a heart!

Forgiving guilty Muslims and responding with kindness to those who harm and offend are the most important characteristics of a good believer. A good believer even prays for the well‑being of believers who are criminals, praying for their souls in both this world and the hereafter through repentance. The Prophet (upon him blessings and peace) showed the greatest example of this mercy and compassion. When the people of Tā’if stoned him, instead of asking their punishment, he asked for their forgiveness. He never prayed to Allah for the destruction of the people who had harmed him. He also prayed for the forgiveness of the people of Makkah, who had showed him the greatest enmity to the Prophet (upon him blessings and peace). Through his prayers, many tyrants became good Muslims. The Qur’an informs us: “Nor can goodness and evil be alike. Repel (evil) with what is best, when lo! he between whom and you was enmity would be as if he were a warm friend!” (Fussilat, 41:34)

The Prophet (upon him blessings and peace) also explains that it is not a good thing to do good only in return for good, or to do evil in return for evil, but rather when you do goodness in return for a wicked act committed against you. (Tirmidhī)

When we behave as described in the hadith, our enemy becomes our friend. If the person is our friend, his or her friendship increases and he or she comes even closer. Today in the western world people are turning to mystical movements in order to escape from the merciless attacks of materialist philosophies, because the materialist lifestyle is destroying the humanity of mankind. It is therefore beneficial and more merciful to employ the principles of tasawwuf when inviting western people to Islam. Many western people who have become Muslims have read the works of Rūmī and Ibn ‘Arabī to satisfy their spiritual needs. It is also a fact that in the western world today among the most popular books are those which deal with tasawwuf. Hence we should heed the call of Rūmī: “Come! Come! Whoever you are come, even if you are a non-believer, a fire worshipper, a pagan! Our lodge is not the house of hopelessness, come even if you have broken your repentance a hundred times.”

We need the all-embracing mercy and love spelled out by Rūmī. His call to tolerance aims at introducing human beings to their divine nature and bringing them to Islam through the mercy and compassion of Allah. Rūmī does not mean by these words to accept all the kinds of mistakes people make and let them stay in the same state without any correction. His aim is to cure the people’s spiritual world. The hearts of the great Sufis are like repair shops where broken hearts are repaired. Thus, his call is directed not towards perfect Muslims but to the errant and heedless ones. Especially in times when the religious life is weak and people are ignorant, we need the great Sufis’ approach in our invitation to Islam – selfless love, mercy and tolerance. This is the only viable way of saving those who are surrounded by all kinds of spiritual afflictions, and have drowned in the sea of disobedience to Allah.

On the other hand, it must be strongly pointed out that tolerance of sinful people can be applied in personal encounters. Sinners cannot be tolerated if their sins are harmful to society and destroy its order. Those who commit tyranny and destroy the fabric of society for their own personal interests do not deserve our love and tolerance. It is also not a bad thing that ordinary people detest sin and the sinners. They want to escape from sin wrought through this kind of extreme behavior, and this is necessary for them in order to refrain from sin. For heedless people, sin is like siren music which lures and makes it very easy to commit. Hence, to regard sin lightly has two harmful effects. The first is that one can easily fall into sin, and the second is that belittling the sin causes Allah’s wrath. In other words, we must tolerate the sinner, not the sin itself. The following hadith narrated by Anas b. Mālik explains this: The Prophet said, “Facilitate things for people [concerning religious matters], do not make it hard for them, and give them good tidings and do not cause them to run away [from Islam].” (Bukhārī) Of course this should be done without harming the essence of the religion and without straying from the straight path.

O our Lord! Please place us among those who have attained wisdom and divine love. Make our hearts a source of love and mercy towards the creation of Allah for the sake of Allah. Replace our sins and ugliness with beauty and divine reward. Make our people live in peace and mutual love and protect us from all sorts of calamities and disbelief.