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In the Name of Allah, Most Gracious and Merciful
19 March 1996
To whom it may concern,
As-salamu alaykum wa rahmatullahi wa barakatuh
Recently, an article put onto the internet by Akram Safadi criticizing Sheikh `Abd al-Ghani al-Nabulsi was brought to my attention. My husband, Nuh Keller, and I know Akram as a sincere and honest Muslim and although we share differences with him regarding our understanding of Islam, these have not been an obstacle preventing us from co-operating together to further the cause of the Din. One of the principle causes for our disagreement with Akram is our differing understanding as to how the Islamic sciences should be attained. Akram belongs to a modern generation of educated Arabs who are religious and believe that equipped with the Arabic language and an average intellect, one can explore the books of the Islamic sciences independently of specialized scholars in that field. Nuh and I, on the other hand, take a more traditional stand, believing that any Islamic science should first be read with a specialist in that field in order to correctly understand the terminology and issues related to that subject, and that without this process one is likely to make mistakes in ones understanding.
Sufism is one of the easiest areas to make mistakes in since it is principally concerned with spiritual experience and the means to attaining to it. Since this goal of Sufism is not confined to the realm of our day to day lives, defining this experience in words is hardly understandable except with training in this science and is the reason that many great scholars like Sheikh `Abd al-Ghani have sometimes been misunderstood in the history of Islam by a sector of scholars who have not associated with the Sufis or learnt from them.
I hope here
to reply to Akram's article point by point, and in doing so I hope it
will become apparent that Sheikh `Abd al-Ghani al-Nabulsi was not a man
of "Satanic heresies," as Akram suggests, but rather one of the great
figures in the history of our religion. I also hope to illustrate that
simply knowing Arabic is not a sufficient qualification to discuss and
criticize the Islamic sciences in the same way that knowing English is
not enough to contribute to understanding the disciplines of medicine,
physics and engineering, and in fact taking such an attitude does more
harm than good. And our success is only through Allah, we turn to Him
for help and ask Him for an increase in guidance and knowledge.
In order to understand this concept we will first have to look at how existence is defined by the Imams of tenets of faith (`aqida). In the Ahl al-Sunna schools of `aqida existence or being is divided into three categories. The first is necessarily existent (wajib al-wujud), which defines the existence of Allah Most High. Allah Most High exists independently through Himself and His existence is necessary for the existence of all other things. None of His creation share in His existence. It is to this category of being that the Sufis are referring when they say "oneness of being (wahdat al-wujud)". The second category is contingent existence (al-wujud al-mumkin). This defines the existence of created things that may or may not exist. Created things have no independent being and their existence is not necessary. Allah Most High brought them into being through His will, power and knowledge and if He willed they would have no existence. Creation only exists through Him giving it being, so in this sense it exists through Him, but doesn't share in His independent, necessary being. The third category is impossible being (mustahil al-wujud), which includes the existence of a co-sharer in Allah's entity, attributes or actions, which is impossible both according to revelation and the intellect.
If the difference between necessary existence (wajib al-wujud) and contingent existence (mumkin al-wujud) is clearly understood, then a lot of difficulty in Sufi literature is explained. When the Sufis such as `Abd al-Ghani refer to "oneness of being", they are referring to the existence of Allah Most High. Creation is not what is intended. Created things have no being in themselves in the sense that the movement of a puppet points to the presence of the puppeteer, or a shadow that something is making the shadow. If the puppeteer stopped pulling the strings the puppets being would come to an end. Is the puppet the same as the puppeteer and share in his existence? No. Could the puppet exist without the existence of the puppeteer? No. Does the puppet have a true existence that is in any way parallel to or comparable to the existence of the puppeteer? No. If not that Allah created us and sustains every moment of our life, we would have no life. Does this mean that we are Allah? Certainly not. Is our existence independent of Allah? No. Does our appearance of being in any way resemble the independent being of Allah Most High? No.
That what Sheikh `Abd al-Ghani meant when referring to "oneness of being" was the necessary existence of Allah and not creation is verified in the following poems also taken from the Diwan al-Haqa'iq. On page 44:
The Oneness of Being that we maintain is none other thanAlso, in vol.1, Page 22:
Truly, Being is unseen by eyes,It should be obvious that Sheikh `Abd al-Ghani was not a pantheist and I think that if Akram had not been hasty, but rather made an objective investigation, he would have reached the same conclusion and absolved himself the responsibility of accusing a Muslim of a doctrine that has no resemblance to that Muslim's belief.
`Abd al-Ghani al-Nabulsi's CredentialsThe next issue I would like to discuss is the credentials of `Abd al-Ghani as a scholar. Akram writes, "Can this `Abd al-Ghani al-Nabulsi even be trusted as a scholar of the shari`a, let alone considered as an authority in 'Aqida, Hadith and Fiqh, and be called `Imam'?!".
`Abd al-Ghani al-Nabulsi was born in Damascus in 1641 into a family of Islamic scholarship. His father, Isma`il `Abd al-Ghani, was a jurist in the Hanafi school of fiqh and contributor to Arabic literature. `Abd al-Ghani showed diligence in the pursuit of Islamic knowledge and before the age of twenty he was both teaching and giving formal legal opinions (fatwa). He taught in the Umawi Mosque in Damascus and the Salihiyya Madrasa, his fame as an accomplished Islamic scholar spreading to all neighboring Islamic cities. He died in 1731 at ninety years of age, having left behind hundreds of written works in virtually all the Islamic sciences.
His status as a scholar and wali (friend of Allah) is also unstintingly acknowledged by Islamic scholars who came after him. As a prolific contributor to Hanafi fiqh, there is hardly a work in the school that appeared after him that does not depend on or discusses his legal opinions. In the well known and most depended upon work in Hanafi fiqh, Radd al-Muhtar, commonly known as The Hashiya of Ibn `Abidin, the author and Imam of the school in his time, Muhammad Amin ibn `Abidin (d.1836), frequently quotes the legal opinions of Sheikh `Abd al-Ghani, referring to him with a reverence and respect that is not apparent in the mention of other scholars quoted in his work. Ahmad ibn Muhammad al-Tahtawi (d.1816), the al-Azhari Sheikh of the Hanafi Jurists, in his well known Hashiya of Maraqi al-Falah, when discussing a legal opinion of Sheikh `Abd al-Ghani refers to him as "The knower of Allah, my master `Abd al-Ghani (al-arif billah Sayyidi `Abd al-Ghani)". It is unthinkable that such eminent scholars should lend such respect to and depend on the scholarship of an individual who might remotely be accused of heresy. Nor is it thinkable that the numerable godfearing scholars who came after them and use and quote their works would find that acceptable (Ibn `Abidin's work in particular has been used since it was authored by Islamic rulers implementing the shari`a in government, by judges, muftis, jurists and students of Islamic Law). This is particularly true in view of his book Wujud al-Haqq (On True Being), which details his Sufi ontology and which he taught in public seminars to hundreds of contemporary scholars in his own lifetime.
I believe that a valid point can be made here; namely, that in the time of such scholars as Ibn `Abidin and al-Tahtawi Islamic culture was a great deal more integrated and balanced than it is today, such that Sufism was understood by shari`a specialists and even considered necessary for a complete understanding and practice of the Din. In the time in which we live Muslims have been engulfed by a civilization that is completely materialistic in its outlook. I believe that this saturation of the worldly has had the adverse effect on the Muslims of making it difficult for them to comprehend anything beyond the physical, which is why the words and experience of the Sufis seem alien to them. This over emphasis on the material also seems to be the reason that modern day reform minded Muslims have found the concept of an anthropomorphic god acceptable as well as the focus of religion being limited primarily to the outward manifestations of the shari`a only, such as salat and hijab for example, without there being any emphasis on internal development. It is not uncommon to find that such an attitude leads to a spiritual crisis of stagnation and meaninglessness, when after several years of practice the initial sense of euphoria of faith fades and one no longer feels the forward motion of increasing in closeness to Allah Most High.
the scholarship of Sheikh `Abd al-Ghani, one need only read his works
to understand how truly brilliant this man was. In whatever subject he
addressed, he wrote as an authority, whether Hanafi fiqh, hadith,
Islamic ontology and metaphysics, Arabic literature, Quranic readings
or other. Some of his works have been published, while the majority are
still in manuscript form. Any skeptic could avail himself his works and
make an honest investigation.
Domes over the Grave of the Awilya and Knowledge from the Preserved TabletThe next issues brought up by Akram against Sheikh `Abd al-Ghani that I would like to discuss are mentioned by Akram in the following:
I remember that so many years ago I read one of his books, I think it was al-Fath al-Rabbani wa al-Maddad al-Rahmani, in which he claimed that he was taking his information from the Preserved Tablet of Allah! Also, I read a work of his arguing that it is mustahabb (praiseworthy) to build domes over the graves of the awliya, which goes directly against the Sunna.Beginning with building domes over the graves of the awliya, I found this fatwa by Sheikh `Abd al-Ghani in Taqrirat al-Rafi'i by `Abd al-Qadir al-Rafi'i. Al-Rafi'i (1832-1905), was a Hanafi jurist from al-Azhar. His fame for his knowledge of Hanafi fiqh was such that he was given the epithet "Abu Hanifa Junior". In his work al-Taqrirat, al-Rafi'i gives recensions for juristic issues discussed by Ibn `Abidin in Radd al-Muhtar (the most depended upon fatwa resource in the Hanafi school as already mentioned) in which no definite conclusion is reached. I would like to record here the details of this discussion and its context as it throws light on the position of Sheikh `Abd al-Ghani as a jurist contributing to the Hanafi school.
In the Hanafi school the sunna of graves is that the grave be mounded to the height of a handspan and no more earth should be used than what was dug up out of the grave. This is also the opinion of the majority of scholars. A detailed discussion of the hadith evidences for the mounding of graves to the height of a handspan is presented by Kamal ibn al-Humam in Fath al-Qadir (2:140-141). The position of Imam al-Shafi`i, as mentioned by Imam al-Nawawi in Sharh Sahih Muslim (7:36), is that the sunna of a grave is that it also be a handspan above the ground , but flattened on the top in a rectangular shape rather than mounded.
In the Hanafi as well as Shafi`i schools it is disliked (makruh) to build over a grave. This because of the hadith related by Muslim (2:667, no. 970) from Jabir ibn `Abdullah that the Prophet (Allah bless him and five him peace) forbade that graves be plastered with gypsum, sat on and built over. In Radd al-Muhtar (1:601), after mentioning the sunna of mounding graves, Ibn `Abidin discusses building over graves, commenting that if it is for decoration, then it is haram, while if the objective is to strengthen the grave (from collapse for example) after the burial, then it is makruh. It is at this point that Ibn `Abidin quotes a weaker position from another work in Hanafi fiqh that if the dead person was a sheikh, a scholar or from the family of the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace), then it is not disliked to build over his grave. Ibn `Abidin makes no rescension as to whether this position is acceptable, only commenting that to do so in a cemetery that is an endowment (waqf) is not permissible (as it is an infringement upon the rights of others to the shared facilities). Al-Rafi`i quotes this position that Ibn `Abidin didn't make rescension on in al-Taqrirat (1:123) and adds the following:
In Ruh al-Bayan (a commentary of the Quran), in Sura al-Towba at the word of Allah Most High, "The mosques of Allah may only be built and maintainted by those who believe in Allah and the Day of Judgement, perform the prayers and give zakat, and are afraid of none other than Allah and they are those who are guided", the author comments, "Sheikh `Abd al-Ghani al-Nabulsi says in Kashf al-Nur`an Ashab al-Qubur (The Unveiling of Light from the Occupants of the Graves) the sum of which is that a good innovation that agrees with the objectives of the Sacred Law is called a sunna. Thus, building domes over the graves of scholars, friends of Allah (awliya) and the righteous and placing covers, turbans and cloth over them is permissable if the objective there-in is to create reverence in the eyes of ordinary people so they won't disdain the occupant of that grave".The point of all of this is not to prove that building domes over the graves of the awliya is permissible, but rather to show the opinion of Sheikh `Abd al-Ghani in the context of a fiqhi discussion. There is no doubt in my mind that Sheikh `Abd al-Ghani wasn't going "directly against the sunna", or that he was ignorant of hadith. Rather the numerous works he authored in hadith illustrate the depth of his knowledge in this field. The content of his fatwa has been a subject of discussion between Islamic scholars both before and after `Abd al-Ghani. For example, on the side of the defenders, the late hadith specialist `Abdullah al-Ghimari authored a work on the recommendation of building over the graves of the awliya. I would think Ibn `Abidin didn't consider his reasoning valid as he was familiar with his works and although he quotes him frequently throughout Radd al-Muhtar, he didn't mention this fatwa on building over graves when discussing the issue. It is not fitting for Akram to simply say that Sheikh `Abd al-Ghani is going directly against the sunna as the implication of these words is that such a person has no care or consideration for the sunna, which is a very grave accusation to make against any Muslim. Rather, Akram should have quoted Sheikh `Abd al-Ghani's fatwa in full in its proper context and if he is convinced that it is unsubstantiated, he could have argued against it in a scholarly manner.
As for Sheikh `Abd al-Ghani "taking his information from the Preserved Tablet of Allah", what could he have meant by this? I honestly don't know, but it does provide the opportunity to bring up some relevant issues. An important point for all persons who love Sufism and the awliya to acknowledge is that the awliya, unlike the prophets (may Allah Most High bless them all), are not divinely protected from error. Their actions and words are at all times subject to the shari`a and the tenets of faith of Ahl al-Sunna. A wali does not produce new rulings for the religion, is not exempt from any shari`a injunctions and doesn't receive any special inspiration that abrogates or adds to the tenets of faith that have come in the Quran and sunna and which scholars have concurred on the understanding of.
In Jordan and Syria, two of the great Sufi sheikhs of this century whom we have had the opportunity to meet the students of, were Muhammad al-Hashimi, who was originally from Algeria and settled and taught in Damascus and Muhammad Sa`id al-Kurdi, who was a student of Muhammad al-Hashimi and was sent by him to teach the spiritual way to the people of Jordan. It was related to us that some forty years ago, during a lesson given by Sheikh al-Hashimi (which was probably in `aqida, as he taught this subject for long years as well as Sufism), he made a statement concerning an `aqida question that was corrected by his then young student, Sheikh `Abd al-Wakil al-Durubi (who was the mentor of Nuh in Shafi`i fiqh). Sheikh al-Hashimi, in that lesson or the following one, acknowledged to his students that Sheikh `Abd al-Wakil was right and he was wrong. Likewise, Sheikh al-Kurdi made a statement that was corrected by a local Jordanian scholar. Sheikh al-Kurdi acknowledged that he had made a mistake and corrected his position. He was also quoted as saying to his students, "If you see me going out of the masjid with my right foot first, then cease following me". These great men, who were acknowledged by everyone who knew them to be awliya, were humble enough to admit they had made a mistake and lived always in the confines of the shari`a and Ahl al-Sunna `aqida. And this is true Sufism.
`Abd al-Ghani have made a mistake? It is possible, because he is not a
prophet. Because of my love and respect for him as a great Muslim scholar
and Sufi, my own inclination is to believe that considering his knowledge
of the shari`a and the depth and dimension of his spiritual state, his
statement is most likely valid, but not comprehensible or easily explainable
except to someone like himself. In this manner we can have a good opinion
(husn al-zann) of Sheikh `Abd al-Ghani, at the same time acknowledging
that our religion consists of what has come in the Quran and sunna and
the statements of the awliya do not constitute proofs beyond that.
It may well happen that a well-meaning Muslim inclined to Sufism will
interpret a statement made by one of the great Sufis in a manner completely
unintended by him and thus come up with ideas alien to Islam. The lesson
to be learnt: if you happen to read something by a great Sufi who was
known by his contemporaries to be a man of knowledge and taqwa
that seems in any way to conflict with the shari`a and you can't
find someone with training in Sufism and its literature to explain it
to you, then don't concern yourself with it, consider that he meant something
that is not apparent to you, and stay within the confines of Islam.
The Poem from Diwan al-Haqa'iqNow we come to the central feature of Akram's article, which is the transliteration and translation of sections of a poem from Sheikh `Abd al-Ghani's collection of poetry entitled Diwan al-Haqa'iq (Collected Poems of Higher Spiritual Realities). Akram selected one of the more difficult poems in the collection and we found that we were unable to explain it all, so we saught the help of one of the members of our tariqah who is well acquainted with the works and terminology of Sheikh `Abd al-Ghani, Dr. Mahmoud al-Husseini of Aleppo. The following explanation and commentary of the poem is summarized from an article that he wrote on the matter at our request. May Allah Most High reward him for his efforts.
The key to deciphering this poem is found in the works of Sheikh `Abd al-Ghani discussing existence. In his Kitab al-Wujud (The Book of Being), he presents the concept that being or existence is a term that can only be applied to Allah Most High and is not shared at all with His creation. On page 5 of Kitab al-Wujud he states,
Taking this as our criteria in understanding the poem, Allah willing, we will be able to see it in a light acceptable to the shari`a. Akram began his translation from the eighth verse, but in doing so he took the poem out of context. We will need to return to the first couple of verses to introduce what Sheikh `Abd al-Ghani is aiming at, after which explaining the rest of the verses will make more sense, inshallah.
1.Wujudi jalla `an jismi
The Being through which all things exist, the Living (al-Hayy), the Self Subsistent through which all things subsist (al-Qayyum), is transcendent above the body or spirit, and is not comprehended by the intellect, whose limit of operation is in the created world. Nor is it subject to the shari`a or moral responsibility (taklif), as this takes place with corporal human beings, not with the Eternal Self Subsistent (al-Qayyum):
2. Wa `an shar`i wa taklifi
So, when Sheikh `Abd al-Ghani says, "My Being (wujudi)", he means precisely "the Being through which I exist", as his understanding is that the term being (wujud) can only be applied to Allah, whereas we are creation and our origin is nothingness. Because, in the terminology of Sheikh `Abd al-Ghani, being is a unique attribute of Allah, when he says "my Being" it is synonymous with saying "my Lord" or "my Creator", as these are attributes applicable to Allah alone. We will look at another passage from Kitab al-Wujud to verify this. On page 16 he says:
This perspective is repeated in other parts of the poem, e.g:
17. Wa inni lastu makhluqan
Meaning, the Being through which Sheikh `Abd al-Ghani and his food and drink exist is not created. Returning to the focus of his created, contingent being he then says:
18. Wa la ana al-khallaqu
Going through the rest of the poem in this light, I have selected some of the more easier verses to understand hoping that this will be sufficient to explain the general content without having to tackle the more difficult passages.
23. Ana al-akwanu bi qamat
That he is referring to the Being of Allah Most High and not to himself is indicated after these verses with the following verse:
35. Wa ma `Abd al-Ghani ismi
Here, again, we return to the position of Sheikh `Abd al-Ghani that existence is an attribute of Allah alone and that creation has no true being.
In the last section of his poem, Sheikh `Abd al Ghani makes allusion to the Divine Presence which is the presence of the Being he has been referring to up to this point. This also provides us with an opportunity to look at some more terms that have been used in Sufi literature throughout Islamic history. The Divine Presence is expressed in the Quran by such verses as:
Say, He is Allah, the One.
In the sunna this presence is indicated by the hadith in Bukhari (4.129:3191), "Allah was and there was nothing besides Him". The experience of this presence is through what in Sufi terminology is called fana, often translated as "annihilation", in which the majesty of Allah Most High dawns on the heart of the servant and he becomes oblivious to all the created world including himself. It is to this experience that Sheikh `Abd al-Ghani refers in the following verses:
38. Tajarrid wanza` `an al-athwabi wa al-na`li
Clothing is the term used to denote contingent being and sandals this world and the next. This is how the Quranic verse has been elucidated in Sufi interpretation of the Quran (tafsir ishari) in which Allah Most High addresses Musa (upon whom be peace), "And take off your two sandals, for you are in the sacred valley of Tuwa". So, the meaning indicated by Sheikh `Abd al-Ghani is to see beyond the created world to the One who created and sustains it and to leave one's desire for this world and the next. Rather, to fill one's heart with the desire and love for Allah alone. If we were to take these words literally, in the manner in which Akram has approached this poem, we would have to add onto the list of Sheikh `Abd al-Ghani's crimes that he advocates nudism.
39. Wa kun sarfan bi la mazjin
All of these verses refer to the servant seeing himself as nothing in either the state of fana (annihilation) in which he is drowned in the Divine Majesty of "Allah was and there was nothing besides Him", or in the state of baqa' (subsistence) in which he sees all things existing through Him alone and that they have no true independent being. For example, pureness - the Divine Presence; without mixture - contingent being; wine - there is no god but Allah; without a glass - creation; the sun - lose yourself in his True Being; without shade - your contingent form and so on.
A great more
detail could be gone into that would explain the science of Sufism, the
place of technical terms used in this discipline by all learned contributors
to its literature, and exactly how it corresponds to the orthodox tenets
of faith of Islam. However, this is a breif sketch for the internet to
provide some insight and not meant to be a full exposition on Sufism.
As mentioned at the beginning of this article, trying to exposit the works of the Sufis without having a background in their terminology and experience leads to an inevitable misunderstanding of what they said. I hope that this has, to some extent, become clear. Akram hasn't had training in this discipline and so taking everything literally, his conclusion is that `Abd al-Ghani thinks that he and all of creation is Allah. May Allah Most High protect us from such a heresy. This conclusion would classify Sheikh `Abd al-Ghani under the category of unbelievers who will be punished in Hell eternally.
Akram likes to discuss issues in a scholarly manner and for this reason he takes pains to present dates and publication data accurately. However, one cannot help noticing that a minimal effort given to research would have acquainted him with something of the meaning of Sheikh `Abd al-Ghani's work (e.g. reading Kitab al-Wujud, which details what he means by "being") and absolved him of the responsibility of accusing a Muslim known and revered for his knowledge and piety of being an unbeliever. Now, since Akram is a conscientious Muslim who fears Allah and knows that he will answer for all of his actions on the Day of Judgement, then why this heedless haste to destroy the reputation of a Muslim and why such a malicious tone? The answer to this, I believe, is that the debate between him and Fouad Haddad, which may have initially been constructive, is now primarily motivated by the want to destroy one's enemy. The proof that they are being motivated by a strong impulse of the self (hawa al-nafs) and not acting for Allah is that the consequences of their actions in the next world have become overshadowed in their minds by the desire "to get even". And isn't this what our life in this world is all about - whether or not we will let the reins of our self motivations go and thus transgress the bounds of the shari`a, or be careful instead to keep them under control and within the limits established by the revelation? Working from the basis of "the friend of my enemy is my enemy", the names of great Muslims of the past are being dragged in the mud. This will not go unrecorded by the angels.
I would like to offer some advice to all the brothers, on both sides, involved in this debate. First, as Muslims, we should not forget the purpose of our existence, which is to acknowledge the oneness of Allah Most High and to worship Him according to the instruction of the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) in sincerity. We should always look to our hearts to ensure that our actions are motivated by sincerity (ikhlas) and god-fearingness (taqwa) and if not, then realize that our acts will be counted against us on the Day of Judgement.
Second, discussion is healthy, but should be based on knowledge. If half of the time spent on internet debates was spent on learning and research, what was actually written might be of substance and benefit to the Muslims, rather than misleading. At the religious level, I wonder how often its most zealous contributors find the time to get up in the last third of the night and soften their hearts with prayer and earnest supplication (or perhaps their hearts have been hardened with too much arguing)?
Lastly, we should remember the example of our beloved Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) and seek to apply what we can of his perfect character in our own lives. In a hadith related by Muslim (4.1706:2165), the Jews of Medina when greeting the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace), dropped one of the letters of the words so instead of saying "al-Salamu alaykum" they said "al-Samu alaykum", which changed the meaning of "Peace be upon you" to "Death be upon you". `A'isha replied, "May death be upon you and curses". The Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) disapproved of `A'isha's reply and said, "Verily, Allah loves kindness in everything (inna Allah yuhibu al-rifqa fi al-amri kulihi)".
And our success is only from Allah Most High, we turn to Him for guidance, forgiveness and an increase in knowledge.