Posted by: Dawud Israel | December 10, 2008

Thoughts on ‘Sufi Ijtihad’ of Ibn Taymiyyah


My dear bro, nurruddinzangi posted an excellent discussion on the development of Sufism. Take a quick read through it, but I’ll post some snippets on the bits regarding Ibn Taymiyyah rahimullah because it echoes my previous discussion on tasawwuf and misconceptions of it. See here and here for those. And it proves beyond any doubt that he was a proponent of tasawwuf -in the way of the sunnah- with no less zeal and precaution to avoid mistakes as the Sufis have always been. And I think this proves, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that tasawwuf (Sufism) is an integral part of Islam- although, not for everyone but considered essential for the ulema.

This is what Ibn Taymiyyah rahimullah has to say:

One knows then, that Sufism’s place of origin was Basra, and that there were those who trod the path of worship and asceticism that they used independent reasoning (ijtihad) in it, just as there were in Kufa those who trod the path of jurisprudence and religious knowledge, using independent judgment in it.

Although the majority of believers- the pious, the friends (awliya) of God, may not have received what the Companions received with regards to the perfection of religious knowledge (ilm) and faith, they fear God as best as they can and obey Him according to their diligent effort. Thus, it is inevitable that they will err, whether in their sciences and doctrines (aqwaal), or in their actions and states, but they are rewarded for their obedience, and He pardons them for their errors.

He who considers any person who does his best in forming his own opinion on a pious deed- while being mistaken in some matters- to be blameworthy, disgraceful, and disgusting, he is mistaken, astray, and innovating.

What is (the) correct (opinion about them) is that they [the Sufis] exercise their independent judgment in obedience to God just as others who are obedient to God have also done. Among them is the foremost (al-saabiq) who draws near [to God] on the basis of this diligent effort, and among them is the moderate who belongs to the “People of the Right Hand”. Among both classes is one who may strive diligently but err, and some who sin, repent and others do not. And among those claiming affiliation with them, are those who are unjust to themselves, rebelling against their Lord.

Sects of innovators and zindiqs have claimed affiliation with them, but in the opinion of the genuine Sufis, they do not belong. [Take] Al-Hallaj, for example. Most of the shaikhs of the path refused to have anything to do with him and expelled him from the path, as did al-Junaid ibn Muhammad, the master of the group, and others as shaykh Abu Abd al-Rahman al-Sulami mentions in the Tabaqat al-Sufiyya, and al-Hafiz Abu Bakr al-Khatib in the Tareekh Baghdad.

* Taken from the translation of this treatise by Th. E. Homerin in
Arabica, T. 32, Fasc. 2 (Jul., 1985), pp. 219-244

I think what has just been said speaks for itself. Read it again.

So it’s an echo of what people have said about tasawwuf here in the West: that it is an Islamic science, just like hadith is a science and just like fiqh is a science and ijtihad is done in it. No one throws away a book of hadith because of one fabricated hadith right?

But he takes it further in pointing out that when a shaykh of tasawwuf makes a mistake in ijtihad, it’s no different than when a shaykh of fiqh does makes a mistake in his ijtihad. And then so the same provisions apply to tasawwuf. He doesn’t hesitate to warn against the grave mistakes of al-Hallaj, something that has become the trademark of Ibn Taymiyyah, but, in reality he was only following the tradition of shaykhs and Sufi shaykhs of old. One point that is important is it would be strange to think a shaykh of fiqh who is not accustomed to tasawwuf can make a fatwa on tasawwuf, it makes no sense. Just as a shaykh who specializes in hadith is the one you go to discuss issues of hadith- one must go to a shaykh who knows and understands tasawwuf and if a person sees something wrong, (such as in the example of al-Hallaj) then it is only the other shaykhs of tasawwuf that can point that out and have the responsibility of correcting them, not any one else.

I want to digress a little here and discuss what sort of ijtihad we are talking about exactly. We can understand something related to fiqh where a halaal and a haraam issue pops up- but what exactly does Sufi ijtihad mean? And what does a shaykh of tasawwuf actually do?

I’ll answer that by posing certain common questions to show how the Sunnah- living as the Prophet salallahu alayhi wasalm did- is the underlying theme of all things in tasawwuf, and how tasawwuf is implemented to answer these questions and make the Sunnah the bridge between the ordinary and the extraordinary.

-Why can’t I make myself pray my salat on time? How can I go successfully do this?
-Why do I get bored from praying? What happens to my ikhlaas (sincerity)? Why can’t I focus on Allah?
-How am I supposed to make dua to Allah so he accepts it?
-Sometimes I see people in the masjid and they are all religious but they are so rude to people, this can’t be what Islam teaches?
-How can I become more caring and altruistic?
-How do I manage and endure times of difficulty and stress? Who can I take as a support through my troubles to strengthen my faith?
-My mother died, how can I help her in the afterlife?
-I had a dream, who can I go to interpret it?
-Why am I so arrogant compared to my friends? Why can’t I be compassionate?
-I need some sort of training to help me pray through the night, where can I get it?
-When the hadith talk about people who seclude themselves away from the world to worship Allah, who are they talking about?
-How can I guard myself from riyaa (showing-off) which is considered a minor shirk?
-How can I gain patience?
-How come I can’t cry like the Sahabas used to in salaah?
-Why can’t I overcome shaytaan and my sins?
-Isn’t there something more to Islam than what I see everyday? How can we truly emulate the Sahabas?
-Where can I drink from the words of wise?
-How come Islam doesn’t spread now as powerfully as it did before?
-Why is my heart so attached to this worldly life? How can I attach myself to Allah?
-What ever happened to manners among Muslims? Why is there such a “holier-than-thou” attitude among practicing Muslims?

And much much more…

As you can tell their is a very specific need and aspiration addressed by tasawwuf. It is all about the heart- purifying it and keeping it in that state- so that Allah’s religion takes root in one’s heart. It’s obvious that any shaykh of the Path of Tasawwuf would have to be extremely knowledgeable in all manners of Islamic sciences and be pious to the utmost degree. This is clear and crucial that the shaykh, himself, is pure and beloved to Allah to the point, one would not only see Nur (Divine Light) on his face, but feel his heart move in the mere presence of someone like this.

Not only that but he would have to be intelligent and adept to the needs of the people. He would be the preacher whose actions would be dawah in themselves. They would be like a really well-trained, PhD psychologist in their understanding of how people think and how the heart moves- so they can move them to Allah.

In Kashful Mahjub, it’s mentioned some shaykhs of tasawwuf would tell their mureeds (students or disciples) to pray 400 sujuds worth of salaah (so around 100 rakats) to get them accustomed to praying. Or that Sufyan al-Thawri rahimullah would make wudhu not once but many many times as part of his repentance. Or the encouragement of contemplating in silence to help one focus on Allah. These are examples of aids and teaching tools to coming close to Allah and fulfilling the Sunnah. And as Sh. Suhaib Webb said, anything that helps you fufill a wajib (a obligatory act) is also obligatory. And then you will see how well-grounded people become in the Sunnah; they will follow the Sunnah to the extent you didn’t even think it could be followed too!

Furthermore, when Ibn Taymiyyah rahimullah discusses the fact that these shuyookh do ijtihad they will bring forth these sorts of ideas. So for example, Imam al-Ghazali rahimullah mentioned to recite Surah al-Nas before praying to help one ward off evil thoughts. Or when these shuyookh discover through Allah’s mercy that certain verses can be used for ruqyah and healing of a very specific illness- something which others didn’t know. Or compose a certain dua or a wird, composed of Quranic ayat, duas from the Sunnah and personal prayers of the shaykh, they are performing that same ijtihad. Or if they instruct a student to do the 40 days to one year period of private worship (called a khalwa)- they are giving a prescription for a specific individual (their student) much like a Mufti can give a very specific fatwa. These tasks aren’t easy so that is one of the wisdoms behind the shaykhs taking a pledge from their students to do their best to follow them. And these spiritual exercises will vary depending on the shaykh, what tariqah they follow and even what branch of that tariqah they are in. Some times they will err, and some Sufis would make the point that certain tariqahs have erred (I won’t mention any here), but that is for the shaykhs of tasawwuf to address.

All this is a surface discussion to show that the goal is to bring piety to Muslims. When a person advances on tasawwuf that is when Allah brings them to be one of His awliya, His close friends, and no one knows who these people are- not even the awliya. Even if they perform miracles, they are humble to the point they do not recognize themselves. And when we are discussing these sorts of individuals, there is no shortage of scrupulousness, every Sunnah is observed, from the simplest to the most difficult. This is why there is so much talk about how awesome Sufis are, because they embody all we imagine the righteous to be. But among true Sufis, there is no trace of pride, conceit, fame or materialism- which is quite different from the personality cults we see sometimes in the West, surrounding both among Sufi shaykhs and non-Sufi shaykhs- but I guess it’s understandable since Muslims in the West have such a different situation. So with that I would close and say to find a true shaykh is rare and as someone once said, the shaykhs of this Ummah are like the Prophets of Bani Israel (alayhim salam).

Subhana kallahumma wa bihamdika ash-haduana la illaha illa ant astaghfiruka wa atubu ilayk, Ameen.


  1. AA- Dawud,

    A nicely summarized article. Very well said bro.

  2. Assalamu alaikum,

    Masha’Allah this is an excellent post Brother! Insha’Allah many people will read it and benefit from it.


  3. salaam alikum,

    great article. enlightening!

  4. […] Sufi Ijtihad of Ibn Taymiyyah […]

  5. SALAM!
    This is an educative as well as enlighting, especially for SHEIKHS and their MUREEDS like me.

  6. Assalamu aleikum

    I have learnt about ijtihad before, but never as sufi ijtihad.So is it necessary to link it to sufism? Is there any thing like just ijtihad or sunni ijtihad?

  7. Sufism is a science of Islam and ijtihad is a type of religious reasoning used in the sciences of Islam. “We do such-and-such because of this-and-this being applied to this-and-this”

  8. Salam Akhi,

    This is a good outlook on the issue. However, being a salafi, I wish Ibn Taymiyyah’s more books would be available and translated into English to get a better picture of what he stood for.

    Reading from the small excerpt of Ibn Taymiyyah, it seems to me he’s talking about the early form of Sufism (from what I know of his work he distinguishes between the early sufis and and the later ones) and sufis of that school and not the later ones. Especially since he starts the discussion with the origin of sufisim and talks about the “genuine sufis” which I assume he is referring to what he considered the correct form of sufism (i.e. what was practised by the earlier scholars). Further, he talks about ijtihad in a “pious deed” and from what I know of his works, he did not consider later sufi deeds to be pious (see his book “The Criterion b/w the Awliya of Rahman and Awliya of Shaitan”).

    That is what I understand from his works. I’d love to read the whole piece in Arabic from it’s origin. Also most of the questions you have mentioned are already covered in Tazkiyya-tun-Nufs courses. I am still not seeing why it would be useful to stick to a tariqa to get tazkiyya b/c most of it can be attained by just pondering over the verses of Allah and reading ahadith on softening the hearts (Bukhari has a whole section on it in his sahih) and reading the stories of the scholars of Islam especially the early ones.

    Allah Knows Best!

    • Wa aleikum salaam wa rahmatullahi wa barakatuhu,

      Most bonafide Sufis today would echo the concerns of Imam Ibn Taymiyyah about charlatans and fakes. Even in his day, there were Sufis that maintained the rigor of the early Sufis, as there are today. Truth is- if you really want to find Awliya, then you got to search HARD! As time went by, life changed and certain aspects of the deen took more precedence, based on the passage of time and what remedies in the Sunnah were most suitable to those particular challenges. This is something only the Sufi shuyukh would understand and make it easy for the Muslims to stay on the Straight path- this is where Sufism became more developed. This is why Sufism developed as a science- it has its nuances and special understanding is needed because not all human beings are the same, nor do they all have the same challenges and weaknesses. Its the same as to say, “Why do we need hadith explanations, when the hadith is there for all to see? There’s no need for those ulema,” when in reality most Muslims will be clueless to deciphering the language of hadith. And tazkiya takes a lifetime to achieve, one course could help give direction, but often people take from as many teachers as they can. And why not? Doesn’t it make sense to exhaust all your means if you want closeness to the Lord of the Worlds? If there is an Islamic science on how you can gain closeness to the Originator of all creation, wouldn’t you rush to it?

      There are other areas in which Ibn Taymiyyah discusses tasawwuf. Most people I have come across consider Ibn Taymiyyah to be a great Sufi, especially when you look at his students and what they said about his miracles and scrupulousness. An example of his ijtihad in Sufism: he would alternate his post-Fajr dhikr with al-Fatiha because he considered Quran the best dhikr. There’s much more written on that area- for example, how he is buried in a Sufi cemetery, alongside his family, and other mentions of his love of Shaykh Abdul Qadir al-Jilani (rahimullah), Shaykhul Islam Abdullah Ansari of Herat and some of the Sufis of his day. It really becomes difficult to be honest with oneself about Imam Ibn Taymiyyah without really looking at the many Sufi influences.

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