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The Role of Sufism

in Building Good Character Today

Dr. Gibril Fouad Haddad

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The Role of Sufism in Building Good Character Today

In the Name of Allah, All-Beneficent, Most Merciful

The Role of Sufism in Building Good Character Today Dr. Gibril Fouad Haddad / Brunei Darussalam[1]

Praise be to Allah the Lord of the worlds. Blessings and peace on our master Muhammad the leader of Prophets and Messengers, the Truthful, the Trustworthy, who was sent as a mercy to the worlds, and on his pure and excellent House, all his Companions, his Wives the Mothers of the Believers, and his progeny to the Day of Judgment.

To proceed: I was asked to speak on "The Role of Sufism in Building Good Character Today." I am unqualified and the most in need of this knowledge and of applying it, so I fear it will be bad manners to speak in front of you, whom I consider my teachers, and especially in front of my Master Mawlana Shaykh Hisham, but we hear and we obey.
It has been said that obedience comes before adab, and that obedience is adab.

In a nutshell this role of sufism in building good character has two principles:

But I would like to begin by mentioning the story of the conversion to Islam of two American ladies which took place in the nineties with our Murshid and teacher Mawlana Shaykh Muhammad Nazim al-Naqshbandi al-Haqqani and his Deputy our teacher Mawlana Shaykh Muhammad Hisham al-Kabbani &#ndash; may Allah grant them long life and good health. They were walking on Fifth Avenue in New York City with a large group of disciples (Murids) all dressed in jubba, turbans, and modest, flowing robes. Of course people would stop and stare. All of a sudden two American women came up to Mawlana Shaykh and expressed their interest in meeting him and his group. One of them said: "You look like such a wonderful Shaykh, and your group is so attractive! What do you call yourselves?" Mawlana as usual treated them with respect and made them feel happy; he answered: "We are Sufis." Shaykh Hisham then said to them that Mawlana Shaykh Nazim would be travelling to California shortly and stay there for a while. Not a week passed before these two New York women flew over to California (6 hours by plane) and sat in the company of Mawlana Shaykh Nazim in Shaykh Hisham's house. They made dhikr, took shahada and became Muslim, and they wore hijab, and became excellent Muslim women. What was the secret of that instant attraction and spiritual opening for them? And what was Mawlana Shaykh Nazim's secret in attracting them to Islam with such speed?

Before trying to answer, let us first look at the expression "Good Character Today," meaning moral values for our contemporaries. We can say in all honesty that there has been no period in human history in which humankind had weaker belief than today, or less patience and aptitude to worship and and know Allah, or less understanding of the Revealed Books. Yes, the number of people professing religion may be growing but we are discussing the quality of their belief whether Muslims or non-Muslims.

The Holy Prophet Muhammad (upon him blessings and peace) warned about this state of affairs when he described the end of times as filled with strife and problems, among them the disappearance of true knowledge, the reversal of values, falsehood becomes truth and vice-versa, ignorant people are in charge of religion and trustworthy people are shunned. He said: "Hurry up and do good deeds before dissensions that will come like deep chunks of dark night, in which a person will wake up as a believer and go to bed as an unbeliever, or he will go to bed as a believer and wake up as an unbeliever. He will sell his religion for scraps of this world." (Sahih Muslim) Umm Darda' also narrated that her husband Abu al-Darda' (Allah be well-pleased with him), whenever he saw someone who died a good death &#ndash; i.e. as a pious believer &#ndash; he would say to the dead man: "I wish I were in your place!" Umm Darda' said to him: Why do you say that? He replied: Don't you know that a person wakes up a believer and goes to bed as a hypocrite? She said: How? He replied: "His belief is taken away without him realizing. To die early in the state of belief is better for me than keep praying and fasting!" (Ibn 'Asakir, Tarikh Dimashq). Meaning: out of mere tradition, without real understanding or real belief.

The Holy Prophet (upon him blessings and peace) also said: "The one who patiently holds on to his religion at that time is like someone grabbing a hot coal or sharp thorns." (Musnad and Sunan)

Allah Most High mentioned the best medicine for that situation in His Holy Book when He said { O Believers! Keep your duty to Allah and be with the truthful ones } (9:119). The Sufi Shaykhs have left no stone unturned in trying to implement that verse in order to build good character in their societies as we will show.

Similarly the Holy Prophet (upon him blessings and peace) emphasized for us to show mercy to human beings. He said: "Show mercy to those on earth, the one in heaven will show mercy to you." (Abu Dawud and Tirmidhi &#ndash; hasan sahih). He also said: "Give glad tidings and do not make people run away! Make things easy and not difficult!" (Bukhari and Muslim). They also narrated it in the wording: "Make things easy and not difficult! SPREAD TRANQUILITY and do not make people run away!" Meaning: Tell people what they love to hear, do not make run away by mentioning fearful things or threats of punishment, don't say to them: Allah will burn you and you parents and punish you all! So although the Prophet is both "Bashir and Nadhir," i.e. giver of good news and warner, he did not command us to warn others, he only commanded us to give them glad tidings!

Of all the different groups in Islam it is probably the Sufis who have done the most efforts to obey the above orders and implement them to the utmost. They said: Be strict with yourselves but be easy on everyone else. Be lenient with people and let them take the easiest choice so that they will have energy for good deeds. Spread tranquility among them (sakkinu), peace, serenity, as opposed to spreading agitation. Make people to be among those who believe and their hearts are at peace with the remembrance of Allah.

{ الَّذِينَ آمَنُوا وَتَطْمَئِنُّ قُلُوبُهُم بِذِكْرِ اللّٰهِ أَلَا بِذِكْرِ اللّٰهِ تَطْمَئِنُّ الْقُلُوبُ }

{ Behold! Truly with the remembrance of Allah hearts are at peace! } (13:28). So teach them dhikrullah, instead of dividing them into parties and movements and making them run after dunya with anger in their hearts.

So sufism has a very important and unique role in implementing these two teachings for building excellent human beings in our time: One, keep good company in this world; Two, facilitating what is beneficial for people in their hereafter. In this way sufism teaches people to obey Allah and His Prophet and to give people their rights in full. These two teachings are the secret of the Divine support for Sufis and Sufi paths in sha Allah today as it was yesterday. Because IN A NUTSHELL SUFISM IS SUHBA AND RAHMA, COMPANIONSHIP AND MERCY. In other words: improving our characters by keeping the company of the righteous servants of Allah generation after generation, from the earliest Muslims to our time, and helping one another in acquiring an excellent character, and attracting society to it; but this objective can be reached only through mercy, gentleness, kindness, and compassion towards all people on earth so that the One in heaven grants us mercy. In reality these two teachings reap success only through the Divine generosity and miraculous support, by which Allah guides whomever He likes through whomever He likes, as in the case of Mawlana Shaykh Nazim and the two ladies. Allah Most High said in His Book, { Say: If you love Allah, follow me; Allah will love you and forgive you your sins. Allah is ever forgiving, merciful }(3: 26). He also said in the Divine Hadith narrated in Sahih al-Bukhari: "When I love My servant, I become his hearing with which he hears, etc." It is also narrated that Allah said to His Prophet Musa (upon him peace): "O Musa, make Me beloved to My servants by reminding them of My bounties."

There is no doubt that love is the strongest motivation to follow and be attracted to the Prophet Muhammad (upon him blessings and peace) and from him to Allah Most High, as proved by the Companions' recognition that, first, they were attracted to the Prophet because they considered him truthful and they loved him. Only after that, he taught them belief and religious rulings. This is a manifestation of the power of with in the verse { be with the truthful ones } (9:119), and the Prophet (upon him blessings and peace) explicitly said that "a human being is with the one he loves," as in the authentic hadith narrated from several Companions in Bukhari and Muslim and elsewhere. This means he is with him in his different states, in his thoughts and beliefs, in his aspirations and dislikes, even if the lover is not able to conform to the beloved outwardly or inwardly; nevertheless he would love to conform. One might even acquire even the smallest aspect of the personality of the one he loves, for example Anas said that after he saw that the Prophet (upon him blessings and peace) loved to eat pumpkin (dubba') he also started to love pumpkin.

More importantly, the Holy Prophet (upon him blesings and peace) made this attraction and love an avenue of salvation in the hereafter, as is clear from the context of the above hadith in Bukhari and Muslim, in which a desert bedouin asked the Prophet: "Messenger of Allah, when is the Day of Resurrection?" He replied: "What have you prepared for it?" He said: "Nothing, except that I love Allah and His Prophet." The Prophet said: "You are with those you love." Meaning: not only in this life but also in the next life. It means that your love for Allah's sake has made you reach the company of the one you love. So even if "the precondition of company is conformity" (shart al-murafaqa al-muwafaqa) and we certainly fail to conform, nevertheless, as Imam al-Junayd said: "When love is truthful, etiquette is no longer enforced." (Risala Qushayriyya)

So it is clear that LOVE, ATTRACTION, COMPANIONSHIP, AND TOGETHERNESS WITH RIGHTEOUS PEOPLE all form A LAWFUL RELIGIOUS METHOD FOR BUILDING GOOD CHARACTER AND LIVING RIGHTEOUS LIVES. It is as if Allah and the Prophet are saying to us: O Believers, be conscious of Allah and stay with those whom you love among the saints, you will be safe here and hereafter! All of the Companions bore witness to this interpretation as revealed by the Companion Anas b. Malik who said, after narrating the hadith that "You are with the one you love": "I never saw the Companions happier about anything they ever heard before than when they heard that hadith! Therefore I myself love Allah and His Prophet, and I love Abu Bakr and 'Umar, and I hope to end up with them even if I did not do their good deeds." Similarly we also say that we love Allah and His Prophet, and we love the four Rightly-guided Caliphs and all of the Companions and excellent Successors, and all the Friends of Allah, especially our beloved teachers, and we hope to be with them here and hereafter even if we did not do anything like their good deeds.

The scholar al-Munawi said of the above hadith: "It emphasizes loving special people in the hope of joining with them in Paradise, safe from hellfire, and be near Allah. It emphasizes love for the sake of Allah and staying away from hatred among Muslims, because the latter automatically means you will be deprived of that excellent company."

So the Companions of the Holy Prophet (upon him blessings and peace) were immensely happy to hear that love will carry the one who loves to the presence of the beloved and make one share his company, his states and his stations here and hereafter. But we are much more deserving of that happiness, because we are much farther away from the Prophet than they were, and we are much more in need of him, and of protection and salvation in the hereafter than they are! Note here the role of silsila, the connecting chain between us to the Messenger of Allah (upon him blessings and peace): that chain is what the person taking initiation from his master holds on to as his means when he or she says: "I accept you as my teacher and guide (murshid) just as you pledged to your shaykh, who pledged to his shaykh… to the end of the chain that reaches to the Beloved of the Prophet (upon him blessings and peace), our Master Abu Bakr al-Siddiq (Allah be well-pleased with him) or to the Door of the City of Knowledge, our Master 'Ali al-Murtada (Allah ennoble his face), and from them to the Prophet.

The equivalent of the above connecting chain in the hadith is the isnad or transmission chain. The Prophet (upon him blessings and peace) himself recommended for us to seek his blessings through that transmission chain as narrated by Abu Hurayra and Abu Sa'id al-Khudri (Allah be well-pleased with them) in Sahih al-Bukhari and Sahih Muslim:

"A time will come when people will be sent on an expedition and they will say to one another: 'See if there is anyone among you who is a Companion of the Prophet (upon him blessings and peace).' One man will be found, and they will be granted victory through him. Then another expedition will be sent and they will say: 'See if there is anyone among you who saw the Companions of the Prophet (upon him blessings and peace).' They will find one man and will be granted victory through him. Then another expedition will be sent and they will say: 'See if there is anyone among you who saw those who saw the Companions of the Prophet (upon him blessings and peace).' They will find one man and will be granted victory through him. Then another expedition will be sent and they will say: 'See if there is anyone among you who saw those who saw those who saw the Companions of the Prophet (upon him blessings and peace).' They will find one man and will be granted victory through him."

This renewed miracle and spiritual opening is the secret of which the Prophet (upon him blessings and peace) gave the glad tidings in other hadiths, such as his saying as narrated by Wathila (Allah be well-pleased with him):

"You will always be in a good state as long as there are among you those that saw me and kept company with me. By Allah! You will always be in a good state as long as there are among you those that saw those that saw me and ket company with me. By Allah! You will always be in a good state as long as there are among you those that saw those that saw those that saw me and kept company with me.
(Al-Tabarani in al-Mu'jam al-Kabir, Ibn Abi Shayba in al-Musannaf, Abu Nu'aym in Ma'rifat al-Sahaba, and others.) And from Abu Sa'id al-Khudri in Musnad Ahmad: "A man said: 'Messenger of Allah, blessings to whoever saw you and believed in you!' He replied: 'Blessings to whoever saw me and believed in me, then blessings, blessings, and blessings to whoever believed in me without seeing me!'" In another narration from Abu Umama al-Bahili in the same book:
"Blessings to whoever saw me and believed in me, and blessings to whoever believed in me and did not see me, sevenfold!"

Likewise we say to our contemporary: Blessings to you if you have met in your community one of the scholars of spiritual certainty ('ulama' al-yaqin)! Stay with him. Blessings to you if you have in your life a trustworthy and dependable guide! Blessings to you if you know a complete human being (insan kamil) at whose hand you have experienced that your belief has grown stronger, and in whose gathering you study the science of excellence and perfection ('ilm al-ihsan)! If you have not found him then look for him; and if you have found him then hold on to him for dear life. So even if we are not Companions or Successors but came much later, still we have met and connected with those who met and connected with them through their silsila and isnad; and we have connected ourselves through the most authentic and the highest chain on the face of the earth today in sha Allah, because it it is from one of the close circle of the Prophet (upon him blessings and peace) in our time. And that is because THE PROPHET TODAY IS AS ACCESSIBLE, SUCCORING, GENEROUS, COMPASSIONATE, AND MERCIFUL TODAY AS HE WAS WITH HIS ACTUAL COMPANIONS. When he realized this al-Busiri wrote:

Glad tidings to us Muslims! Truly we have an indestructible pillar of help! and he said: Since I devoted my thoughts to his praise, I found him the best refuge for my deliverance!

With suhba one has the most essential pillar of sufism needed for building good character with Allah's help. Without that pillar there will be no results. This is why the great Sufi scholar of hadith Imam al-Sulami &#ndash; the teacher of Imam al-Bayhaqi &#ndash; said in his book al-Futuwwa which was translated and is available in Bahasa: "A requirement of spiritual chivalry (futuwwa) is to keep company with Allah (al-suhbatu ma'a Allah), or with His Prophet, of with His Friends (awliyā). Whoever keeps true company with Allah, always reads the Qur'an with deep reflection and prefers the word of Allah to anyone else's words, he follows the etiquette of His Book and His commands, and listens to the Divine address. Whoever keeps true company with the Messenger of Allah (upon him blessings and peace) imitates his high character (akhlāq), his ways (sunan), his etiquette (adāb), and his attributes (shamā'il). He keeps his ways in front of his eyes in everything he takes or leaves. And whoever keeps true company with the Friends of Allah imitates their lives and their paths, adopts their etiquette, and conforms to their ways in everything. Whoever falls short of that is heading for destruction."

On a side note, Imam al-Sulami is probably the foremost of the early scholars of the Salaf who wrote extensively about tasawwuf, so we recommend to Ahl al-Sunna wal-Jama'a in Indonesia and Southeast Asia to revive his heritage and publish his books in the Malay language for the benefit of the Community and everyone at large.

So then, just achieving good company in one's life is a great mark of success for those who are asking to obtain the character of the friends of Allah. Such good company is the foundation of the teaching and implementation of all the Divine commands and prohibitions and it works through acts before speech. The way that it works so effectively is because with-ness becomes likeness, and "whoever resembles a people, he is one of them" (Abu Dawud) as the hadith states. At that time, as another hadith states, "a person will follow the religion of his friend" (Abu Dawud, al-Tirmidhi) in the best possible sense.

In this respect Indonesia has achieved a great deal of success &#ndash; for which we would like to congratulate her &#ndash; especially Java, because of the frequency of gatherings of praise and blessings on the Prophet (upon him blessings and peace) in the company of the Haba'ib his descendants. These activities reap great rewards and are among the most necessary of good deeds commanded by Allah Most High who said: { Truly Allah and His angels bless the Prophet! O Believers, bless him and salute him with an utmost greeting! } (33:56).

As we heard our teachers Mawlana Shaykh Nazim and Mawlana Shaykh Hisham tell us, magnifying the Holy Prophet (upon him blessings and peace) is the foundation of all Religion for us, because it makes it incumbent for people to follow him. So these gatherings are like intensive courses teaching good character and also spiritual and doctrinal benefits. They teach those who attend them the way to every benefit in this world and the hereafter. They are exactly what we mean when we speak of the importance of keeping good company &#ndash; especially the Family of the Prophet (upon him and them blessings and peace) &#ndash; and the importance of renewing ties (silat al-rahm), educating boys and girls, getting to know one another, and showing mercy to people. This way we stay away from false philosophies and the fitna of radicalism that has infected certain segments of our society. We ask Allah for protection! And we ask him to multiply those gatherings and continue to make them places where blessings descend from heaven on this country, places of solidarity between scholars and generations for the sake of love of the Prophet and his family, upon him and them blessings and peace. This is the School (madhhab) of the whole Umma! As Shaykh Muhyi al-Din Ibn 'Arabi said (with Sayyid Hamid al-'Attar adding the fifth line for each quatrain):

If you like honor and merit, serve Ta Ha in his family and people! Muhyi al-Din said: My belief is that it is an obligation to love the Prophet's family. Despite immoral critics, it will bring me near!

So keep close to their sanctuary and use their means for they will be the leaders on the Day of Resurrection. Do not pay any attention to lowlife naysayers! The one who was sent never asked pay for guiding us Except love for his noble family.

Abu al-Layth al-Samarqandi said: I heard my father narrate: It happened that while Sufyan al-Thawri was circumambulating the Kaaba, he saw a man who did not raise a foot nor lower a foot except that he made salat for the Prophet, sallallahu 'alayhi wa sallam. Sufyan said: I told him: "You have left saying subhan Allah and la ilaha illallah and have proceeded with the salat on the Prophet! Do you have any explanation regarding this?" He said: "I will tell you the reason. I went out with my father on pilgrimage to the Holy House of Allah, until I reached one of the resting stations. My father became sick and I began to care for him. Then one night when I was at his bedside, he died and his face turned dark. So I said, 'We belong to Allah and to Him we are returning!' Then I pulled the covers over his face, after which sleep overcame me and I slept. I saw a man next to me with a face such as I had never seen a more handsome one, nor clothes cleaner than his, nor a scent finer than his; he was raising one foot and lowering the other until he came close to my father and removed the covers from his face, whereupon the face turned light. Then he started to go back, so I held onto his clothes and said: 'O servant of Allah, who are you, with whom Allah has graced us in this foreign land?' He said: 'Don't you know me? I am Muhammad ibn 'Abd Allah, the one who brought the Qur'an! Your father transgressed against himself, but he used to invoke salat on me frequently, and when he was affected with what affected him he called on me for help (isthaghatha bi), and I am a prompt helper of one who makes salat on me frequently (wa ana ghayyathun liman akthara al-salata 'alayy).' He said 'Then I woke up, and I saw that the face of my father was bright.'"

We conclude by returning to ease and leniency: "MAKE THINGS EASY, GIVE GLAD TIDINGS, AND SPREAD TRANQUILITY!" Contemporaries, as we said, do not respond well to commands and prohibitions; but they respond to leniency, kindness, and attraction. What to say when it is the Prophet himself (upon him blessings and peace) who commands us to be gentle and not make things difficult, and he said verbatim that "Extremists will perish!" (halaka al-mutanattiʿūn) (Sahih Muslim). This is crystal-clear and needs no further explanation and we ask Allah for protection.
Allah said: "Make Me beloved to My servants," He never said: "Threaten them and terrify them!" So the reality of "Commanding Good and Prohibiting Evil" today is leniency and ease, mutual forgiveness and tolerance, mutual understanding, compromise and yielding, agreement on common ground, integration, softness, focusing on positive themes, and prioritizing the religious teachings that are most needed and most beneficial. This holds true not just for Indonesia but for the entire world.

That, in our humble view, is the role of sufism in building good character today and that has been its preferred method as well.
And Allah knows best.
We ask Him to help us do a good deed that He loves and accepts and that His Prophet loves and accepts.
Thank you for your patience and forgiveness.
Was-Salamu 'alaykum wa rahmatullah wa barakatuh.

صلّى الله على سيّدنا محمّد و على آله و صحبه و سلّم

The blessings and peace of Allah on the Prophet, his Family, and his Companions, ( sallAllahu `aleihi wa sallam ) .



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  1. This is the English translation of the speech in Arabic at the Jakarta World Sufi Conference 16 July 2011


* Living Islam – Islamic Tradition *