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Zarruq The Critic

From The Book: Zarruq The Sufi1

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First is restoring the faith in a way leading to the observance of the Lawbringer's (the Prophet's ﷺ) respect in anything he ordered or forbade, by being perspicacious in religious issues. Ahmad Zarruq

1. Who Was Ahmad Zarruq?

Shihab al-Din Abu al-'Abbas Ahmad b. Ahmad b. Muhammad b. 'Isa al-Barnusi al-Fasi, better known as Zarruq, was born on the 22nd of Muharram, 846 H., (7th of June, 1441 A.D.) in Morocco.

Ahmad Zarruq, also known as Imam az-Zarruq, was a Muslim scholar and Sufi sheikh from Fes, Morocco. He is considered one of the most prominent and accomplished legal, theoretical, and spiritual scholars in Islamic history, and is thought by some to have been the renewer of his time (mujaddid ).2

He was also the first to be given the honorific title "Regulator of the Scholars and Saints" (muhtasib al-‘ulama’ wa al-awliya’).2

2. His Early Childhood Upbringing

[Zarruq’s father had died early and had - in his words - entrusted the boy to God.]
As child Zarruq was brought up by his maternal grandmother 'Umm al-Banin who was a learned and pious old lady. The family was poor and he never profited even from the small sum which his father left to him.

Women of Fez, in that age, had the opportunity to learn and participate in the intellectual activities of the country. Some of them reached a very high degree of education such that they were of a status equal to famous Shaikhs.

Umm al-Banin was one of these women as were Umm Hani al-‘Abdusilyyah and her sister Fatimah whom Zarruq was acquainted with. She was a wise and patient woman and eager to bring up her grandson as best as she could. Talking about his grandmother Zarruq says: "She instructed me how to pray, and ordered me to do so, since I was five years old.

At the same age she sent me to the kuttab (Qur'anic school) and started teaching me about unity, trust, faith and religion by a very curious method. One day she prepared food for me. When I came back from the kuttab to lunch she said: 'I have got nothing for you. But provision is in the Almighty's treasury. Sit down and let us ask Him.' Both of us stretched our hands towards the sky and began praying. Then she said: 'Go and look, maybe God has put something in the corners of the house.' We began to search and how glad I was when I found the food! She said: 'Come and let us thank God before we eat, so that our Lord may give us more from His grace.' We thanked God and praised Him for an hour then we commenced eating. She used to do so many times till I grew up."

Umm al-Banin's influence on her grandson was so great that he never failed to recall and record it in his autobiography. Let us quote some of what he wrote:

"She told me that one night, when i was two years old, I looked at a star and asked her who put it in the sky. She explained to me the duty of belief in that matter. She used to tell me anecdotes about the righteous and the reliant ones. When she told me stories she never told me anything except about the Prophet's miracles and the wonderful miracles of the devout. She also used to order me to pray even without performing the ablution. When my maternal aunt once blamed her for this, she said: 'Let him do so until he prays performing it.”'

"Encouraging me to pray, she used to put a dirham on my pillow so that I might see it when I opened my eyes in the morning. She used to say : 'Perform the morning-prayer and then take it.' Her idea was that that dirham would help me to pray and keep me away from corruption and prevent me from looking at what is in other people's hands when I desire to buy something.

She used to leave me without cutting my hair or washing my clothes for a long time and say: 'If the young one becomes clean the eyes will follow him.'

"After I had learnt some chapters of the Qur'an by heart she began to teach me how to write and read, warning me not to read poetry, saying: 'He who neglects science and deals with poetry is like he who exchanges wheat for barley!“

At home the boy was treated in a strict, but not cruel, way. He was looked after not only by his grandmother but also by other members of the family who were very careful to show him good behaviour and conduct according to the standards of their society.

Once he sat listening to the story-teller in the market when his grand- mother's uncle came to him and said: "Nobody sits here except the idle." He never did that again in the whole of his life.

Umm al-Banin used to say to har grandson: ’Surely, you must learn the Quran for your religion and learn a profession for your livelihood.’3

3. His Critique of Aberrations of So-Called Sufi Activities

There is no end to the issues in which Zarruq was a bitter critic. In every page of his 'Uddat al-murīd al-sādiq, and in his other works mentioned above, he expresses his anger towards the Jurists of his days and the pseudo-Sufis alike.

In his rejection of the occult sciences which penetrated into Sufism through Gnosticism, in his attempt to heal the misunderstanding between the Sufis and the Jurists, in his earnest desire to introduce the Way pure and in conformity with the Law, the Shaikh mainly blames the Folk for the mischievous conclusions drawn by the learned out of their belief and action.

"The claimers in this way are numerous", he says, "because of its strangeness (gharabah ). The minds cannot grasp it because of its subtlety. Its people are often rejected because of its delicateness. Good advisors have warned against travelling in it because of the many pitfalls in it, and the leaders of religion have written against its people because of what perverse men have invented in it."4

3. Shaykh Ahmed Zarruq As a Constructive Critic

The second point is that our Shaikh was a constructive critic. His stinging expressions and harsh words were motivated by his vigilant concern for Sufis and for Sufism. When we read Talbi Iblis of Ibn al-Jawzi, or one of Ibn Taimiyah's pamphlets against the Sufis, for instance, we find that they attack ruthlessly for the sake of attack. [Editor’s emphasis.]

Zarruq's criticism was, on the other hand, full of sympathy and solicitude. In his works he was as much a guide to the right Way as he was a critic of the wrong one. He does not deplore, reject and neglect those deviators. Instead, he offers them the means of ridding themselves of their defects.

Here are his suggestions concerning “the means by which innovations will be eliminated”, as he says, “and by which its adherents will go back in the right direction." He summarises them under three headings:

4. The Means by Which Innovations Will Be Eliminated

The first is restoring the faith in a way leading to the observance of the Lawbringer's (the Prophet's ﷺ) respect in anything he ordered or forbade, by being perspicacious in religious issues.

God has said:

{ وَمَا آتَاكُمُ الرَّسُولُ فَخُذُوهُ وَمَا نَهَاكُمْ عَنْهُ فَانتَهُوا }

{And whatever the Messenger gives you, take it. And whatsoever he forbids, abstain therefrom.} Sura 59-7

and He said:

{ فَلْيَحْذَرِ الَّذِينَ يُخَالِفُونَ عَنْ أَمْرِهِ أَن تُصِيبَهُمْ فِتْنَةٌ أَوْ يُصِيبَهُمْ عَذَابٌ أَلِيمٌ }

{ And let those who conspire to evade His orders beware lest grief (fitna) or painful punishment befall them. } Sura 24-63

and He said:

{ قُلْ هٰذِهِ سَبِيلِي أَدْعُو إِلَى اللّٰهِ عَلَىٰ بَصِيرَةٍ أَنَا وَمَنِ اتَّبَعَنِي }

{ Say: This is my way. I call on God with sure knowledge, I and whosoever follows me. } Sura 12- 108

The second is the following of God's commandments in everything the traveller encounters in the Way. This cannot be done except by watching his movements in order that he may do nothing without knowledge or the emulation of him who is worthy to be emulated, such as a pious learned man or a preeminent faqih.

The third is knowing the principles of the way which he follows or intends to travel. They have been prevented from attainment because they have lost the principles. The principles of the Folk are based on the Book and the Sunnah. This is the rule of the Way, its principle and the authority accepted by them all.

Abu al-Qasim al-Junaid says: 'This our science is founded on the Book and the Sunnah. He who does nor listen to the hadith and sit with the fuqaha, and receive his instruction from the learned, will harm whoever follows him, and following him is unlawful.'

Al-Shibli was asked once about Sufism. He answered : 'It is to emulate the Messenger of God (peace and blessing be upon him).' May God lead us all aright!'

To sum up, it is evident that Zarruq regards Sufism as a personal way, confined mostly to the élite, not a common idea and practice to be held by anyone.5 There must be the proper aptitude and the necessary receptivity in order to travel on this Way.

5. What Is Indispensable for Any Traveller on the Way

Besides this aptitude there are two important things which are indispensable for any traveller and his success in passing through it depends on them.6

Firstly there is the sincere orientation (sidq al- tawajjuh), or intention, which controls his inward being and guides him always, from his first step. Without this sincerity nothing can be achieved, and he will be a mere imitator without reality in his belief in the Way and its requirements.

Secondly, the traveller has to be fully equipped, or at least acquainted, with correct knowledge of the religious rules which govern his outward being. Being ignorant in religious affairs leads to many mistakes and mischievous results.



Related texts
link-in Sufism - Tasawwuf

  1. Title: Zarruq The Sufi
    A Guide in the Way and A Leader to the Truth
    A biographical and critical study of a mystic from North Africa

    by Dr. Ali Fahmi Khushaim, M.A. PH.D
    Professor of Islamic Philosophy at the Faculty of Education,

    University of Tripoli, Libya

    published by the General Company for Publication,
    Tripoli, Libyan Arab Republic, 1976.

  2. wikipedia

  3. pp.10, 11, 12

  4. pp. 208/209

  5. Cf. Abu Hamid al Ghazali, al-Madnun bihi ’ala ghairi ahlihi. Zarruq naturally does not mean to keep the teachings of Sufism secret within a closed circle. He means to preserve the value of these teachings - particularly those delicate and subtle ones - by barring them from laymen who have not the capability to understand their hidden meanings, and who are the cause of much misunderstanding of Sufism…
    As the Prophet ﷺ said: ’Do not give wisdom (hikmah) to the unworthy, lest you be unfair to it; neither veil it from those who are worthy, lest you do them wrong.’ (`Uddat al-murid, p.88)

  6. p. 211


* Living Islam – Islamic Tradition *