TRANSLATION and COMMENTARY - Nuh Ha Mim Keller
Infinitude is the native land from whence Allah has brought the soul, then summoned it again upon the tongue of His messengers (Allah bless them and give them peace) from its exile. Traditional Islamic spirituality deals with answering this summons, lifting the heart from the narrowness of the self to the limitlessness of the knowledge and the love of the Divine.
People have spoken and written much about Sufism, as the discipline is known, but it is perhaps easiest understood in context, so I have thought to begin translating the aphorisms of the Egyptian Master Ibn ʿAta' Illah's classic manual of spiritual development al-Hikam al ʿAta'iyya or "Book of Wisdom" together with some commentary. He is writing Allah may be well pleased with him) for those who have a tariqa or actual path or sheikh, yet his words may interest others. He says:
1. One of the signs of relying on deeds is loss of hope when there are missteps.
The book begins with this key aphorism because it is of the adab or "proper way" of travelling the spiritual path path to focus upon tawhid of the "Divine Oneness," which in this context meaning to rely upon Allah, not on works, since
The method of spiritual path ascent is threefold, consisting of knowledge (ʿilm), practice (ʿamal), and the resultant state (hal) bestowed by Allah.
Knowledge here means everything conveyed to us by the Prophet ﷺ Allah bless him and give him peace), which is the content of the Sacred Law or shariʿa. The practice of this knowledge, inwardly and outwardy, with heart and limbs, is the spiritual path path or tariqa. The resultant state, Allah's drawing near to the heart that thus draws near to Him, is the dawning of the Divine Presence upon the soul, termed by Sufis "ultimate reality" or haqiqa.
Ibn ʿAta' Illah, as a spiritual path guide, is concerned in this works with the second moment of this ascent, that of way and works, so he begins his book by letting the traveller know that the matter of one's spiritual path progress is in Allah's hands alone. Discouragement at the inevitable mistakes one makes in the path is a sign of relying on one's deeds rather than on Allah.
Works, whether prayer, or dhikr or "remembrance" of Allah, or jihad, or fasting do not bring one the desired end of the path, but are merely proper manners before the majesty of the Divine while on the path. Just as putting one's net in the sea does not produce fish, though one must keep it there so that if Allah sends fish they can be caught, so too, works are a net, and their spiritual path recompense is from Allah. Abu Hurayra Allah may be well pleased with him) heard the Holy Prophet ﷺ Allah bless him and give him peace) say:
"None of you shall be saved by his works." A man said, "Not even yourself, O Messenger of Allah?" He said, "Not even myself, unless Allah covers me with a mercy from Him. But strive to be right." 1
Imam Nawawi comments:
The outward purport of these hadith [n: Muslim relates several] bears out the position of Islamic orthodoxy that no one deserves recompense or paradise for his acts of obedience. As for the words of Allah Most High "Enter paradise for that which you have done" (Q 16:32), and "That is paradise, which you have been bestowed for what you did before" (Q 7:43), and similar verses that indicate that paradise is entered by virtue of works, they do not contradict these hadiths. Rather the meaning of the verses is that entering of paradise is because of works, although divinely given success (tawfiq) to do the works, and seing guided to have sincerity in them, and their acceptability are the mercy of Allah Most High and His favour. 2
The true spiritual path path is one of gratitude. Abu Sulayman al-Darani used to say, "How can a sane man be proud of his works, when his works are but a gift from Allah and a blessing from Him that he must thank Him for." 3 and Abu Madyan says, "The crestfallenness of the sinner is better than the exulting of the obedient." 4
Ibn ʿAta' Illah in this aphorism is apprising the traveller not to be veiled from the true path by his own high resolve. While irada or "will" is presupposed by the way, indeed the word murid or "disciple" is derived from it, the path sublimates it into its opppsite through tawhid , disclosing it to a mere cause, conjoined with the soul's ascent not out of logical necessity but out of Allah's pure largesse. For this reason some sheikhs term a traveller of the former spiritual vantage a murid or "desirer," and one of the latter a faqir or "needy." The prophet Moses (upon whom be blessings and peace) said when he reached the land of Midian,
This humble sincerity of slavehood, or we could say realism, enables the genuine spiritual traveller to benefit from both his good and his evil. He benefits from his good by not seeing it as from himself, for as Abu Bakr al-Wasiti says, "The closest of all things to Allah's loathing is beholding the self and its actions,"5 that is, because it contradicts tawhid for Allah says:
and he benefits from his evil by his faith (iman) that it is evil, which is itself an act of obedience; and by repenting from it, which rejoices Allah Most High. Anas ibn Malik Allah may be well pleased with him) relates from the Holy Prophet ﷺ Allah bless him and give him peace) that he said:
The secret of true repentance ( tawba ) in the spiritual path is this divine rejoicing it is met with from Allah Most High. Abul Hasan al-Shadhili, the sheikh of Ibn 'Ata' Illah's own sheikh, used to daily pray to Allah: "and when we disobey You, show us even greater mercy than You do when we obey You" (Invocations, 27).
Ibn 'Ata' Illah made this the first aphorism of his Book of Wisdoms to apprise the traveller that when failings happen, there is also work to be done: to repent to Allah, to realize that Allah is generous, and to hope for the best from the spiritual path. The mark of relying on Allah is that one's hope is undiminished. The mark of relying on one's self is that it soars until there is a misstep, when it plummets along with its injured pride. Discouragement in the path is an incomprehension of the Divine Omnipotence, while certitude in the path and in one's Lord is of the adab of those who know Allah.