Sufism in Malay Tradition:
Muhammad ‘Uthman El-Muhammady
Seeing Islam in the Malay-Indonesian world means seeing that fiqh teaches man a life of worship, obedience to God and work within the context of the sacred law, with five ahkam, the world as place for getting rewards, avoiding sins. We can see Islamic mainstream theology teaching how life is seen as place for getting evidences about God, His Attributes and Acts, for cultivating strong faith, ending in good and virtuous deeds; then most inwardly, we can discern sufism teaching man about God, His Nature, Attributes, and how man approaches Him, getting proximity unto Him, seeing in the universe manifestation of His Names and Attributes, seeing man as it were ‘imbued with the Divine attributes’; -in fact in Sufism man understands to the fullest what it is to live a life for the cultivation of purity up to the highest level, realizing the ‘Adamic’ nature, for the blessed ones, realizing the Abrahamic prayer about ‘purifying’ the soul in life. These are among the major dimensions of Islam and their interactions in the life of people in the Malay-Indonesian World.
Sufism has given the Malay World metaphysics in the vision of understanding the Divine Presences in the cosmic order, Spiritual Psychology, together with spiritual alchemy on curing the maladies of the soul, spiritual ethics, spiritual cosmology, profound understanding of spiritual symbolism, the notion and reality of the Muhammadan Light, daily life with methodical spiritual discipline, making life ‘alive’, not just ‘dry’ with a legalistic view of things, about the permissible and the forbidden. It provides the beautiful spiritual image of the Adamic man and not man as the perfected being from evolutionary process on the horizontal material plane.It has influenced thought, spirituality, art, literature, even the ‘nashid’, and the daily life of the believer withn his litanies and prayers, from the most educated ones, to the simple man in the street.
In this short lecture it is not possible to deal with the history of Sufism, its discourse among the major scholars ranging from Nur al-Din al-Raniri, Hamzah Fansuri, ‘Abd al-Ra’uf Fansuri, ‘Abd al-Samad al-Falimbani, Arshad al-Banjari, Muhammad Nafis al-Banjari, Shaykh Yusuf of Makasar (who passed away in South Africa), Shaikh Daud al-Fatani, and the rest, the issues therein, and the impact among the people in general, as well as the influence of the various major spiritual fraternities like the Naqshabandiyyah, the Khalwatiyyah and the Ahmadiyyah. It will just provide a general view of the place of Sufism in certain traditional scholars on certain issues touched in their works.
First we can recollect the view in the Malay world with its civilizational dictum: Life is established in accordance with customs, customs are established in accordance the sacred Law, the sacred Law is established in accordance with the revealed book Book’(Hidup bersendikan adat, adat bersendikan Syara’, Syara’ bersendikan Kitabullah): therein there is a combination and integration of revelation, prophecy, human reason and experience in civilization. The notion of ‘customs’ as found in the writings of Tenas Effendy on traditional sayings on Malay Wisdom is akin to the Khaldunian notion of ‘adab’ or ‘awa’id’ which characterizes a civilized collectivity of people.
In the ‘Muqaddimah’ under ‘scientific instruction is a craft’, on the role ‘awa’id’ in civilization he says:
“Sedentary people observe (a) particular (code of) manners in everything they undertake and do or do not do, and they thus acquire certain ways of making a living, finding dwellings, building houses, and handling their religious and worldly matters, including their customary affairs, their dealings with others, and all the rest of their activities. These manners constitute a kind of limitation which may not be transgressed, and, at the same time, they are crafts that (later) generations take over from the earlier ones. No doubt, each craft that has its proper place within the arrangement of the crafts, influences the soul and causes it to acquire an additional intelligence, which prepares the soul for accepting still other crafts. The intellect is thus conditioned for a quick reception of knowledge.”
So in the total context of ‘adat’ in the most general notion in the Malay-Indonesian civilization, we can clearly discern the reality and role of Sufism until contemporary times.
Just to recollect on the position of Sufism in mainstream discourse as summarized by ‘Abd al-Qahir al-Baghdadi, the theologian of Baghdad in his ‘al-Farq bain al-Firaq’ , we can find him saying:
‘The sixth group of those Muslims are ‘the ascetic amongt the Sufis those possessing sharp spiritual vision, those who control themselves, those who who test themselves in spiritual life, then they get spiritual lessons and the reality, they were pleased and resigned with the Divine governance, contented with little, …and their words were couched in two ways: those with evident expressions and those with spiritual allusions in the way of the traditionists…”
and so on mentioning the spiritual virtues of the elite. (al-Farq baiun al-Firaq, pp 242-243) (Dar al-Kutub Lubnan, n.d).
Ibn Khaldun in chapter 6 of the Muqaddimah, under the subject of ‘tasawwuf’ has given an accurate view of the position of this sacred science in Islam, he states:
This science belongs to the sciences of the religious law that originated in Islam. Sufism is based on (the assumption) that the method of those people (who later on came to be called Sufis) had always been considered by the important early Muslims, the men around Muhammad and the men of the second generation, as well as those who came after them, as the path of truth and right guidance. The (Sufi) approach is based upon constant application to divine worship, complete devotion to God, aversion to the false splendor of the world, abstinence from the pleasure, property, and position to which the great mass aspires, and retirement from the world into solitude for divine worship. These things were general among the men around Muhammad and the early Muslims.
(The Muqaddimah, tr.F.Rosenthal, vol.3, p.76)
The position of Sufism in Islam and its history is summarized by al-Hafiz al-Sayyid Muhammad Siddiq al-Ghumari when asked about Sufism replied:
Concerning the one who initiated the foundation of the spiritual path , then know that
The foundation of the spiritual path (or way) is grounded in the celestial revelation being in the sum-total of the religion brought by Prophet Muhammad , since there is no doubt that the station of the supreme spiritual excellence is one of the three of the pillars of the faith, after elucidating one by one of them in his statement: This is Gibril on him be peace coming to teach you your religion.(tradition in Muslim, narrated by ‘Umar bin al-Khattab rd).
Shaykh Daud al-Fatani (d.1847) with Minhaj al-‘Abidin and other works (always combining the three sacred sciences together in his various works: usul al-din, fiqh and Sufism) always presents Sufism as an integral part of Islamic sacred sciences beginning from the small work ‘Kifayah al-Mubtadi’ to that large work ‘Hidayatul Muta’allim’.
In the ‘Minhaj al-‘Abidin’ –being his translation of Ghazali’s work of the same title- he speaks of the seven stages to be passed by the spiritual traveler with discipline of the self, called the steep spiritual paths (‘aqabat): that of knowledge, repentance, steep path of the factors of prevention, the steep path of hindrance, then the path of the factors of motivation, the steep path of spiritual wounding (‘qawadih’) of acts , and finally that steep path of praise and gratitude. All these have to be passed before one can be a real believer and a person of virtuous deeds. (edition of Mustafa al-Babi al-Halabi, Cairo, 1343). This text is very well-known in the Malay world and usually studied before ‘Hikam’ of ibn ‘Ata’illah is studied under the teacher.
In the ‘Kanz al-Minan Sharah Hikam Abu Madyan’ (Matba’ah al-Miriyyah, Makkah, 1328) on the real sterling spiritual merits of people, he says: ‘When you see a person emanating from whom extraordinary happenings against the ordinary customary ways of life, you should not incline yourself unto him, rather you should observe him how is he in relation to carrying out the (Divine) command and prohibitions’.(p. 96). In commenting on the attitude of the common man usually being attracted to extraordinary happenings in an individual, then relying on that person, he comments that ‘…this is fatal poison; a person of gnosis and knowledge does not depend on extraordinary happenings and events which go against the customary ways of nature, truly they rely on the quality [of anyone] following the way of the Prophet –peace and blessings be upon him- in his sayings and acts, in accordance with (Divine) commands and prohibitions…’ (p.96). Yet we can find that this is taking place even in contemporary times in which people are usually attracted to individuals by reason of some extraordinary events happening in relation to them.
In relation to the effectiveness of remembrance in the spiritual transformation of the sincere spiritual traveler-apart from the obligatory prayers and other obligations- he says, quoting Abu Madyan: ’Whenever Allah wants goodness to be in a servant, then He makes him intimate with His remembrance and guides him to be in the state of gratitude unto Him’. He says commenting on this ‘When Allah wants goodness to be in a servant He will make him intimate with His remembrance dan make him grateful unto Him; this is so because when a person performs remembrance of Allah, with real remembrance, realizing its reality, then in that process he will forget all other things , and Allah will preserve him [from being astray] by all other things, and he becomes most loyal unto Allah, away from other things.The messenger of Allah says, in the sacred tradition, that ‘Whoever is busy with remembrance of Me so that he is prevented from making requests unto Me, I will grant unto him that which is better than the one which I give to the one who asks it of Me’.So when God has made a servant intimate with Him with His remembrance, that will be made easy for him while he is alone or with people. And man is granted the sweetness of His paradise ; and where else is there such goodness, and where else [apart from remembrance] can there be sweetness other than this, and where else is the bounty greater than this, especially if this is coupled and enhanced with the virtue of gratitude, making all the organs of the person carry out the commands and avoiding the prohibitions’. This is the pinnacle of happiness which is not granted except as a boon from Him…”(p.95).
Concerning the performance of the obligatory prayer and its impact on the spiritual alchemy of a person and his spiritual transmutation, he says while quoting Shaykh Abu Madyan al-Maghribi(p.94):”…In the [Prophet’s ] saying :make us be in restfulness with it O Bilal’ said the one on whom ‘absence’ from Him is most burdensome; the Prophet saw said make us be in restfulness with it O Bilal, that is the one on whom ‘absence [from remembrance] is most burdensome; [know that] the reality of prayer is that you turn away from all [other than He], and you only concentrate your [spiritual focus] on the Lord, that is the reality of ‘There is no godf but Allah ‘; so the person who prays turns himself away from all the creation (akwan) and he is established in the station of supreme spiritual excellence (ihsan), experiencing annihilation in the Overpowering Majesty of the Lord the Owner of Supreme Majesty and Honour, in his bowing-down, and more enhanced in his experience of annihilation, gaining utmost proximity in his prostration, until he is lost, just like what is in the prayer, and the servant is granted higher form of ‘presence’ with his Lord, with heart filled with joy and happiness, and all the burdensome elements going together with of ‘absence’ are all gone by reason of this ‘presence’. That is [the Prophet] asked [Bilal] to get ready for being in restfulness…’(p.94).
While speaking of the fundamental link between the body, the spirit and the ego or soul from the point of spiritual development of man, quoting Shaykh Abu Madyan, Shaikh Daud says:
‘The Shaykh said ‘bodies are like pens, spirits are like tablet [for writing on], souls [or the human ego] are like goblets’.
Then he comments: “[your] body is your pen, your spirit is your tablet, your soul (or ego) is your goblet for your drink. That is your bodies are as pens because they are like pens standing and walking in obedience towards the Owner of the Worlds Most Knowing, and evident therein the marks like prayer, fasting, [and so on] just like those evident on paper of the impact of letters consisting of the aspirations, and spirits are as tablets, because it is the locus where the Divine Effusion comes, locus of the writings of the secrets from the Divine; so whoever makes good his pen, he writes well on the tablet, so whoever makes his body good [in its works], in obedience , then God grants him large degree of Divine Gifts, and he becomes the locus of secrets for the spirit, and the soul or the ego becomes the goblet for keeping the drink for those who are good in their relations with God, so whoever does not drink with it will not arrive at the station of the people of spiritual striving (ahl al-mujahadat), because the one who does not stand in this way he does not sit therein” (p.92). And so on.
There is a work of translation of the poems of ibn Bint al-Mailaq by Syeikh Ismail al-Khalidi of Minangkabau, together with very clear commentary on the verses.
In the work ‘Mawahib Rabbil-Falaq’ being commentary on the Qasidah of ibn Bint al-Mailaq’ (see al-A’lam of al-Zirikili, vol.6, 188 –through al-mausu’ah al-shamilah) Shaikh Isma’il bin ‘Abdullah al-Naqshabandi al-Khalidi (Matba’ah Islamiah, 1348) gives very illuminating explanations on the spiritual qasidahs of the writer. He gives straight away the commentary of the beginning lines ‘Whoever tastes the drink of the people [of Sufism] will know it; whoever knows it [in the real sense, with ‘spiritual tasting] will purchase it with his soul.’ (Some informations in Malay on this Shaykh and his books, including some data about the commentary of the qasidah by Shaykh Ismail are mentioned in the site http://al-fanshuri.blogspot.com/2010/04/kitab-mawahib-rabbi-al-falaq-syarah.html.)
Then he goes on with it using the commentary of ibn ‘Allan, the famous commentator of the qasidah, ‘whoever possess the qualities of the sufi people, by following their spiritual path, along with the science of the external order and the science of the inner order , meaning that their outward life being conducted in accordance with the sacred Law, and their inward life following the spiritual path, then lights of spiritual realities (nur haqiqat) will illuminate him, then the stations of the people of Sufism and their states will be like food for him” and he will be cured of various spiritual maladies (p.2).
The on the lines ‘And a drop of it is sufficient for the whole creation if they taste it; they will swoon in front of the creation in wonderment’ Quoting Shaykh Ahmad bin ‘Allan in his commentary he says ‘A drop of the drink of the people of Sufism called the drink of reality (minuman haqiqah), even if taken by all creation, that will be sufficient for them all, making them drunk, making them go out from their imaginary existence (wujud wahmi) into real existence (wujud haqiqi); their faces and hearts will be illuminated by lights from the Divine, and the darkness of bodily existence will be eliminated; they will be in a swoon in relation to this world in puzzlement, immersed therein in the ocean of supreme spiritual excellence, with Divine gifts, from the Lord Most High and Most Great.” (p.4).
He says further that this level of spiritual experience is called ‘the station of being together’ (maqam al-jam’), and ‘a person of this station will not see except only the Reality of God Most High, and he is annihilated in relation to all creation, even he is not aware of himself; and the more perfect station is that he returns to the station of separation (farq) after reaching the station of ‘being together’ (jam’), and that is called the station of abiding (maqam al-baqa), the station of the people of firmness (maqam al-tamkin), the station of those who give guidance (maqam al-irshad) and this is the station of the prophets on whom be blessings and peace’.(pp.4-5).
Then he goes to the lines ‘And those who posses the great yearning, even though they are given to drink according to the number, of all breaths [of creation] and all this in one goblet, will not satisfy them’. He says , quoting ibn ‘Allan ‘those who possess such great yearning are drowned in the ocean of this yearning, and if they are given drink in accordance with the number of breaths and the whole world as it were were one goblet, they will not be satisfied’. (p.5). This is a figurative expression to mean that this experience is unending; the expressions of the people of Sufism are given to show the idea of the reality of the drink for the understanding of people, and this drink is not tasted except by those who have been granted the privilege by God by virtue of their following of the discipline and coming to the station of the supreme spiritual excellence . (pp.6-7).
It is interesting that on page 7 of the work there is allusion to the spiritual personality of ‘Ainul-Qudah al-Hamadani.The story is mentioned thus :” ’Ainul-Qudah al-Hamadhani has learned the rational and the traditional sacred sciences, while he was eighteen years old, then he said that he looked at himself, after having studied such branches of knowledge: then I find that I have not found in my heart except the feeling of being scattered; I studied all the books of Imam Ghazali for forty years, until I noted down the explanations and meanings of all the difficult points, and I understood them, thinking that I have achieved the objective. Suddenly there comes Imam Ahmad al-Ghazali [the younger brother of al-Ghazali] and I kept myself in his company for twenty days, then he illuminated for me all states, and so the matter became clear to me that even if I were to seek for them with difficulties for a thousand years I would not have achieved the objective, and all the more so when I am not like such a person; what is being sought by the people of Sufism is Allah Himself, the Truth the Most High, and they were not seeking for name, and description…” (p.7-8).
Concerning the lines ‘To him the manifest word becomes the word of the invisible, and the world of the invisible becomes unto him the world of the manifest’, he gives the commentary, quoting from the explanations of ibn ‘Allan. He says: “The man in spiritual travel who has taken the drink of the people of Sufism , drink so clear, and drowned is he in the sea of love towards his Lord, the manifest world …becomes the world invisible, and the invisible becomes unto him …the world of the manifest.” (p.25). He explains that ‘the one who travels spiritually turns away from that which is other than God, and he focuses the attention of his heart towards Allah the Most High, by cutting himself away from those which turns him away –whether those which are clear and manifest and those which belong to the inward, focusing himself on the remembrance of Allah, which has been taught by his teacher, who is made by him as the ‘rabitah’ –link- while keeping all the spiritual propriety in the remembrance’.(p.25)
“So the person is annihilated in relation to world of the manifest, the ‘alam al-mulk’, or ‘alam al-khalq’, …and this manifest world is invisible unto him, and he enters the realm of the invisible, and the world of the spiritual kingdom (al-malakut), ‘alam al-amr’ (the world of command), …[the world of the realm of ] the spirits, angels, the jinn, and others, seeing this realm invisible with the eye of the heart (mata hati), the vision being clearer than the one seen with the physical eyes. This is termed as the first annihilation (‘fana’), while the spiritual traveler practices his remembrance, and litanies, without stop, day and night, in his travel, experiencing his elevation, without stopping in the realm of the invisible” (pp 25-26).
Further he states that ‘When the spiritual traveler passes by the realm of the invisible with his constant adherence in following the Shari’ah, he will be brought into the realm of the Divine Dominion (‘alam jabarut), being the realm of spirits, and that is also the realm of the invisible, in relation to the realm of the malakut, so the ‘alam al-malakut becomes the realm invisible to it, and the realm of the jabarut becomes the realm of the manifest for it, just like before; this is the beginning of the second annihilation, and the spiritual traveler should focus on the Lord until he is brought to the realm of the Lahut, being the realm of the secret. This is the completion of the second annihilation, being called the annihilation of the annihilation. He is annihilated in relation to creation and in relation to his annihilation. This is the last stage of travel of the traveler. That is pure annihilation.” (pp.26-27). From here the traveler would go the realm of abiding or perpetuity (‘alam al-baqa’) and the station of separation and at this stage he is spiritually fit to be the spiritual guide or murshid.”(p.27).
He also gives the commentary of the lines ‘And you take away your two sandles in the manner of the one realizing the truth; void is he from desiring [the glory of] the world and the afterworld in his quest.’ (p.26). Sandles stand for the world and the hereafter.
Concerning the often misunderstood dictum the Shaykh gives his clear explanations. The dictum is : The Gnostics reach the station in which the various obligations are dropped from them.(p.78). He explains this in the following way: ”’The meaning of this dictum is not as understood by the antinomians and the heretics (ahl al-ibahiyyah wa al-zandaqah) –God forbid-the real meaning is that they do not feel burdened or face difficulty and pain in carrying out big responsibilities in the devotions because such matters have become customary for them, in fact more than customary but have become matters which are so desired by passion if understood in relation to others [others do things because of passion, for them it is as if they perform the devotions because of passion], just like the remembrance of God for the inmates of paradise, being like breathing for them, and thus is the case for the gnostics with other spiritual devotions-may Allah sanctify their secrets. That is the reason why the chief of the Messengers and the Prophets does not abandon spiritual devotions [with his most lofty spiritual station]-peace and blessings of God be upon him, he keeps doing the night prayers, until his feet were swollen;’ and when he was asked why does he do that [to such an extent], whereas his past and coming sins are already forgiven , he replied : Should not I be a grateful servant [of Allah]?…(pp 78).
And he goes on to mention the case of the saint Junaid al-Baghdadi the leader of the people of Sufism –may God sanctify his secret- ‘who did not abandon his spiritual litanies even while he was almost going to give up his life while saying that this is the moment in which I am most in need for reciting my litanies because all the record of my acts has been folded up, and so he did not stop from his spiritual excercises even while he was dying.’(p.79).
He mentions the case then on other occasions people asked the saint for his view about the claim of someone that he has reached a lofty station of gnosis so much so that he he in a position in which the obligations of the sacred Law are no more binding; to which Junaid replied, yes, [he is] in hell. Further he adds that whoever says that the obligatory duties are no more binding on the person and he believes that as article of faith, then he is out of the pale of the faith just as strands of hair is out of the flour.And he warns believers not to be deluded with sayings of people that they have arrived at the supreme spiritual realities in their knowledge (ilmu haqa’iq) from books, such words are words of heresy and antinomianism and unbelief (berkata-kata ia dengan zandaqah dan ilhad)(p.79).
Then we can recollect the very detailed Sufism of the ‘mu’amalah’ aspect of the eighteenth century learned divine of Sumatra, Shaykh ‘Abd al-Samad al-Falimbani in his magisterial ‘Sayr al-Salikin’ or ‘Siyar al-Salikin’ dealing with this sacred science in the manner that was done in the Ihya’ six centuries before him by al-Ghazali covering the aspects of devotions, customary life usages, the spiritual vices, and finally the virtues; in fact he has translated substantial portions of the Ihya’ in his voluminous four volume work, with much additional materials of his own. What is of significant interest here is that he has seen Sufism into the three levels, the mubtadi, the beginning, the intermediate, mutawassit, and the peak, muntahi. For the various stages there are texts suitable to be studied for guidance and actual practice as well as aids in spiritual realization. This work represents the Ghazalian presence in the Malay-Indonesian World.
Apart from that, in a random manner we can refresh our memory with the classical case of the position of Siti Jenar among the ‘Nine Saints of Java’ on the question of gnosis, spiritual realization, and adherence to the Syariah as sacred law of the Community, which reminds us of the case of al-Hallaj in Baghdad centuries before.
There is the case of the conflict of Hamzah al-Fansuri with other scholars who was accused of holding wrongful notion of the wihdatul-wujud, later explained by Syeikh ‘Abd al-Rauf al-Fansuri .
There is the classisification of the correct theological position given by Arshad al-Banjari in Tuhfah al-Raghibin, while giving some useful informations about the various deviant groups and their unorthodox views.There is in this work the notion of the two categories of the Wujudiyyah in the Malay tradition the wujududiyyah of the mulhidin, the heretics, and the correct wujudiyyah of the muwahhid.
Then there are still a number of issues to be addressed effectively: the misunderstanding about Sufism in whole epistemology of Islam, because of certain intellectual tendencies in the so-called modern movements and their off-shoots in Muslim societies. The issue of some making Sufism as independent entity free from the structure of Islam as a living sacred Tradition, thereby mutilating it, making it unable to provide adequate guidance for man lost in the present anti-spiritual cultural environment.There is the issue of seeing Sufism as unnecessary for the modern man busy with modern development and consumerist culture; the issue of the positive role which Sufism has to play in preserving the spiritual identity and meaning of the Adamic human being in relation to his spiritual blessedness and being; the issue of understanding the contemplative and spiritual intelligence developed in Sufism with the rational and analytical intelligence of science and the philosophical path and method and how the two can be integrated so that once again the human intelligence can regain its wholeness and legitimacy in the Islamic spiritual context.
There are also other issues which are to be addressed concerning the role and function of Sufism in the development of the human holistic capital, so that this spiritual tradition is benefited in a positive way; then there is the necessity of the psychologist to ‘know’ Sufism just as there is also, in a secondary way, there is the necessity for the man of Sufism to ‘know’ psychology; then there is still the wrongful notion of the identification of wahdatul wujud with philosophical speculation called pantheism while definitely it is not accurately so; and of course there is still the confusion between what constitutes spiritual witnessing of the gnostic (mushahadah) with the theological position of the theologian, leading to charges of heresy, with the attending consequences against the portrayal of the gnostic’s authentic experience. Also there is the spiritual and intellectual necessity to see the legitimacy of the religion of the prophets as they are in their forms and substance, compared to the position of ‘perennialism’.
Finally there is the present writer’s humble view, for truth and intellectual stability and homogeneity, of the necessity of maintaining and enhancing the four intellectual and spiritual poles of Islam: the teological (Ash’ari-Maturidi discourse, with the necessary additions), the legal discourse of the mujtahids and (in the Malay World the Shafi’ite) with the necessary additions for contemporary times, the spiritual, ethical and philosophical discourse like that of the school of al-Ghazali and his like, with the necessary additional relevant discourse, and the cultural and civilizational discourse like ibn Khaldun and others of the same relevance. Sufism has already operated within this total context of such Islamic discourse. We further hope that within this intellectual, epistemological and spiritual context we can see once again successful flowering of Sufism with its guidance and Divine grace operating successfully among believers and mankind in contemporary times and the future. Wallahu a’lam.
 Presented as key-note address in the International Conference in Mystical Elements in Islamic Art and Literature, ISTAC, IIUM, 21 Julay 2010, at the ISTAC Conference Hall.
 Very Distinguished Academic Fellow , ISTAC, IIUM, Adjunct Professor at Petronas University, Tronoh, Perak, and member of the board of directors, IIM.