Posted by: Dawud Israel | March 23, 2009

How Sufism came from the Sahabas

Bismillah, alhamdulillah wa salat wa salam ala rasulullah

People sometimes ask about the connection of tasawwuf to the early days of Islam. Well, I mentioned before some ahadith that dealt with Sufism but if I have learned one thing about Sufism, it’s about experience and it has to be something transmitted from person to person- not from book to reader.

I found this lengthy passage I found in Abu Talib al-Makki’s “Qutb al-Qulub”. This book is full of many Hadith, so I know the author understood the relevance and importance of Hadith in Islam. It’s a description of Hasan al-Basri that illustrates how the wisdom of Sufism comes from the Sahabas.

Hasan is our Imam in his knowledge of which we are speaking. We pursue his footsteps, follow his path, and seek illumination from his niche. It is by God’s leave that we have traced this teaching from imam to imam all the way back to Hasa. He was among the best of the Followers (Tabieen? or Taba Tabieen?) in spirituality, so that people said, “He kept the wisdom within for a full 40 years before he ever spoke about it.” He had met 70 companions from the Battle of Badr and had seen 300 Companions. He was born 2 years before the end of the caliphate of Umar ibn al-Khattab, in the year 20/642. He was born in Medina, and his mother was a handmaid to Umm Salama (Hind bint Abi Umayya, d.c. 61/681), a wife of the Prophet (salallahu alayhi wasalam). It is said that she gave him her breast to divert him when he cried, and her breast flowed abundantly for him. His word was like the word of God’s Messenger (salallahu alayhi wasalam). He saw Uthman ibn Affan and Ali ibn Abi Talib, and whichever of the Ten (Companions who were promised Jannah) survived to his day. In other words, he saw Companions of the Messenger of God (salallahu alayhi wasalam) from the period of Uthman and from abouu the year 20 to about the year 90 AH.

The last to die among the Companions of God’s Messenger (salallahu alayhi wasalam) were Anas ibn Malik in Basra; Sahl ibn Sa’d as-Sa’adi (d.88/706) in Medina; Abu t’Tufayl in Mecca; Abyad ibn Hammal al-Ma’ribi in Yemen; Abd Allah ibn Abi Awfa (d.c. 86/705) in Kufa; Abu Qirsafa in Syria; and Burayda al-Aslami (d. 63/682) in Khurasan. At the turn of the first Islamic century there remained on the face of the Earth, in any region of the earth, not one who had actually seen God’s Messenger (salallahu alayhi wasalam). Then Hasan al-Basri died in the year 110/728. Abu Qatada al-Adawi used to say, “Attach yourself to this shaykh, for by God, none of the Companions of God’s Messenger (salallahu alayhi wasalam) I have seen is more like the Companion of God’s Messenger (salallahu alayhi wasalam) than he.” They used to say, ” We likened him to the Prophet Abraham, the Intimate Friend of God for his gentleness, his humility, his dignified bearing, and his tranquility, such were Hasan’s fine qualities.” A woman of Basra made a vow, that if God did thus and so with her, she would weave a garment of her own yarn, and she described it, and would clothe with it to the finest person in Basra. So when her vow-request was fulfilled, and she had completed what she had promised, she inquired as to who was the finest person of Basra. People said, “Hasan.”

Hasan al-Basri was the first of those who set out on this path of knowledge. He clarified the discourse about it and spoke about its spiritual significance; he made its lights manifest and pulled back its veil. He expounded on it in words none of them had ever heard from any of his brothers, so someone asked him, “Abu Sa’id (i.e. Hasan), you discourse on this knowledge with words we have never heard from anyone but you. From whom did you get this?” He replied, “From Hudhayfa ibn al-Yaman.” It is said: “People said to Hudhayfa ibn al-Yaman, ‘We see you discoursing on this knowledge with words we never heard from any of the Companions of God’s Messenger (salallahu alayhi wasalam). So where did you get that?’ He said, ‘God’s Messenger (salallahu alayhi wasalam) has made it my specialty. People used to ask him about the good, but I would ask him about evil out of fear that I might fall into it, and I knew that the good would not outdistance me (that good would always be waiting to be done).'” Once he said, “I knew that one who has no experiential knowledge of evil has none of good either.” And in another version, “People used to say, ‘Messenger of God (salallahu alayhi wasalam), what will be the fate of one who does thus and so?’ They would ask him about morally positive deeds, while I would ask, ‘Messenger of  God (salallahu alayhi wasalam), what does this or that action corrupt?’ And when he saw that I asked about actions that resulted in calamity, he made this knowledge my specialty.”

Hudhayfa was a specialist in knowledge of hypocrites, unique among the Companions in the intimate understanding of matters of hypocrisy as well as in other aspects of knowledge and the subtleties of profound comprehension and the arcane aspects of faith. Umar and Uthman and the most prominent Companions of God’s Messenger (salallahu alayhi wasalam) used to ask him concerning the knowledge that was his specialty. They would ask him about whether there still remained any hypocrites among them whom God had mentioned (in the Quran) and thereby provided information about them. Then he would inform them about their numbers, but never mentioned their names. But Umar asked for a disclosure about himself, as to whether Hudhayfa was aware of any tinge of hypocrisy in him, and Hudhayfa cleared him of any doubt. Umar asked him about the hallmarks of hypocrisy and the scriptural verses dealing with the hypocrite, so Hudhayfa informed him about that to the extent that it was appropriate and permissible for him, begging off when it came to matters on which he was not allowed to impart information and excusing himself for that. When Umar was called to attend a funeral to perform the ritual prayer for it, he looked around, and if Hudhayfa was in attendance, he would perform the ritual prayer; but if he did not see Hudhayfa, he did not perform the ritual prayer for the funeral. Hudhayfa was known as the Master of the Secret, and when one of the Companions of God’s Messenger (salallahu alayhi wasalam) asked about knowledge, he would say, ” You are asking me about this while the Master of the Secret is among you?” –refering to Hudhayfa.

—Taken from “Knowledge of God in Classical Sufism” section excerpt of Abu Talib al-Makki’s Qutb al-Qulub Part 30 . pg. 175-177


This answers a number of questions people have as to how Sufism came directly from the Sahabas and how the Sahabas accorded different respect to certain types of knowledge that some of them possessed.

-The existence of hypocrites (munafiqeen) at the time of the Rasulullah (salallahu alayhi wasalam) served a special purpose, in that it informed Hudhayfa (radiallahu anhu) about how to keep the soul pure, which was passed onto Hasan al-Basri all the way down to today’s Sufi Tariqahs (at least I hope its the same!). It is important to take note that Hudhayfa never mentioned the names of the hypocrites so as to keep away difficulties and tribulation and so this knowledge remained secret, but lead to an even greater goal– that of  purifying the soul.

-This echoes with some of the Hadith about the knowledge of the hypocrites.  In The Book of Knowledge (Vol 1, Book 3, Hadith 120) of Sahih al-Bukhari (paraphrased) ‘Abu Hurayrah says he learnt two types of knowledge from Rasulullah salallahu alayhi wasalam, one which he delivered and the other which if he told people he would have his pharynges cut off (I believe this means beheaded) and be killed.’ And some Sufis, who have speculated that this meant some sort of hidden knowledge were refuted by Hadith specialists who said that it referred to the knowledge of the hypocrites. But with this description of Hudhayfa (radiallahu anhu) it becomes understood that this knowledge of the hypocrites (which Abu Hurayra was also privy too) gave him the capability to extract certain wisdoms and understandings in regards to how one can avoid hypocrisy and remain safe from the diseases of the heart (similar to to Hudhayfa (radiallahu anhum))–a knowledge that wasn’t available to everyone.

-I know that Umar (radiallahu anhu) said those things about the “secret” (sirr) because this word is also echoed in a dua in a Hadith from Sunan at-Tirmidhi where Umar radiallahu anhu is making dua asking Allah to make his “secret” (sirr) better than his outward righteousness.

-This also means that special attention should be given to the Hadith that mentioned Hudhayfa (radiallahu anhu) in the  sanad (chain of narraters) since they contain some key knowledge about tazkiya. I may in the future mention some specific Hadiths that mention him (radiallahu anhu) in their sanad (chain of narraters).

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


  1. asallamu alykum,
    ya akhi these narrartions do not entail that the sufisim in the form it is in today came from the sahabah. The characteristics you note are the characteristics of the salaf that every muslim is instructed to follow. They are not a specified tareeqah of any individual, barrakallah feek. The moral of the what I read here is act upon what you learn, actions are the fruits of ilim. So to be able to attain what the salaf attained and be as they were we need to follow their path by learning the ilim they passed down to us.
    I would also add to follow the salaf (the Messenger peace be upon him, the sahabah, tabeen, tab al tabeen) all together and not just one single one of them. Or otherwise who after the Messenger peace be upon him has more right than Abu Bakir yet we did not see any of the sahaba become Abu Bakiris. Oh Allah assist us in learning and acting.
    Your brother

  2. Wa aleikum salam,

    It is well-known that Sufism today is not like the Sufism of the Sahabas. Kashful Mahjub, one of the oldest books on Sufism, makes this clear. It probably will never be the same, at least until Imam Mahdi arrives or Eesa alayhi salam returns. I anticipate that will bring forth an even more pure spiritual tradition, especially considering Eesa alayhi salam’s asceticism.

    This post is just to highlight an understanding of the Deen from the perspective of the Sahabas and the Salaf, themselves. The other, more subtle point, I am trying to convey focuses on how we need to study our faults and weaknesses, rather than thinking we are always correct.

    How much did they benefit from their shortcomings and how little do we!

  3. Isn’t the Hadith of Jibreel enough of evidence? “That you worship Allah as if you see him and that if you don’t, know that he sees you.”
    Wouldn’t you want to change the title how the Foundations of Sufism are directly from the Book and Sunna?
    Allahumma ja’alna min al muhsineen.

  4. Not all tasawwuf is from the Quran and Sunnah- its too broad to be limited that way, unfortunately. I am simply trying to re-acquaint people with the kernels of tasawwuf that come from the Quran and Sunnah.

    There will be another post on Sufism in the Hadith, since I have found more hadith and also another one Sufism in the Quran, which is much more clear and profound…somehow the awe has been removed from the Book of Allah and I want to do damage to that problem in sha Allah.

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