The Way of Poverty (al-Tariqah)

The way that traverses the infinite distance separating man from God is called the tarīqah, a term that means two things. On the one hand, it means the mystical journey in general--that is to say, the sum of the teachings and the practical rules that have been drawn from the Quran, the prophetic Sunnah, and the experience of spiritual masters. On the other hand, in a more limited sense, the word tarīqah (pl. turuq) signifies a brotherhood or a particular order of Sufis and usually bears a name derived from that of the founder of this order: for example, tarīqah Qādiriyyah, founded by `Abd al-Qādir al-Jīlānī; tarīqah Mawlawiyyah, founded by Mawlānā ("our master") Jalāl al-Dīn Rūmī; or tarīqah Shādhiliyyah, founded by Imam Abu'l-Hasan al-Shādhilī (may Allah be pleased with thm). In a certain sense, these turuq can be compared with what in Christianity are called the "third orders," those that do not require vows of celibacy or conventional reclusion but aim at an ideal that is akin to that of the monastic orders.

 Initiation  The Spiritual Master Good Company
 Spiritual Meetings  Invocation The Wird
The Hymns Sacred Dance Spiritual Progress
Know Thyself Invoke Often Epilogue

The chief purpose of Sufi practices is the restoration of wholeness in people. The Sufi masters, therefore, prescribe different medicine to their followers in the form of different kinds of practices with different intensities according to the type of illness which is being treated. We find that every Sufi Order has its own particular invocation, its own chanting and recitation, and its own ceremonies and methods of sitting or standing. As well as the practices which are done collectively, the Sufi teacher often prescribes specific remedies for particular individuals, for example, if one of his close followers is ill or needs specific treatment, such as intense periods of night vigils or watchfulness. Whatever their apparent differences, one element which we find in common in all of the Sufi Orders is a deep relationship between the spiritual master (Pir-i-Murshid) and the close follower (Murid). The relationship is based on trust, love and obedience to the master. It is said that the best follower for a master is like a rag in the hands of a washerman. It is through such submissiveness and obedience that the meaning of the teaching of the spiritual master is quickly absorbed.

The Muslim mystic, the sufi, does not passively wait for grace to come to illumine him, even if the coming of this light is always regarded as a spontaneous gift from God. Among the innumerable definitions that have been given to Sufism (al-tasawwuf), many put in perspective its operative aspects-the fact that it is a path requiring a strong adhesion of the intelligence and a strong exertion of the will. 4 Thus, Maruf al-Karkhi (d. 200/ 813), who was probably the first to define Sufism, said, "Sufism means seizing realities and renouncing that which is between the hands of the created beings." 5 It is an opening, therefore, of the spirit and the heart which leads to gnosis and makes man "one who knows through God" (al-`arif bi' Llaah) and is a purification of the soul which renders it free for the manifestation of its Lord by emptying it of futile preoccupations, worldly passions, and selfish desires. Often, the order of the terms is inverted, and one speaks of first emptying the human "recipient" (al-aniyyah), the individual "mold" (al-qalib), so that the Divine Presence--the elixir of life, the wine of knowledge-can penetrate within.

It is also in this way that the celebrated theosopher and sufi, Abu Hamid al-Ghazzalī (Algazel, d. 505/ 1111) described the journey of the Sufis:

They begin by combating their unworthy qualities, cutting their ties to the world, directing all of their thoughts towards God; this is the good method. If someone succeeds at it, Divine Mercy is shed on him, the mystery of the Divine Kingdom is revealed and Reality is shown to him. The only effort on the part of the mystic consists in preparing himself by purification and concentration, while maintaining a sincere will, from absorbing desire and then awaiting the hoped-for mercy on the part of God.... "Whoever belongs to God, God belongs to him." 6

This last formula, in its conciseness, reaffirms the whole doctrine of ittihād, the union between the creature and the Creator, which is, for the Sufi, a concrete possibility, because he knows that nothing, in reality, is separate from God and exists outside of Him. In addition, it sums up the two complementary and inseparable fundamental aspects of the journey of the mystic: (1) to realize that he belongs to God, that he is completely dependent in relation to Him, the Powerful, who subsists in Himself; and (2) to welcome in his purified substratum the theophanies of the Names and Attributes of the Divinity, the ineffable Presence of the Generous, the Dispenser of every grace (al-Karīm, al-Wahhāb). The first action includes a voluntary element, the gift of self, the battle of the believer for God's cause "with his possessions and his soul," according to an oft-repeated Quranic injunction (IV, 94; IX 21, 42, 82; XXI, 11, etc.). As for the second move that of God giving Himself to man--it can only be the result of a supernatural blessing, a spontaneous unveiling, illuminating the innermost heart with a light which is not of this world and in which man recognizes his true nature.

The desire to achieve the state of ideal poverty and inner detachment, which is the prelude to union with God and its necessary condition, is not for everyone. More often such an aspiration is manifested after years of assiduous practice of religion in its ordinary sense; but it can also occur as a sudden and irresistible event. That is why, if the religious Law, the Shari`ah, is obligatory for all people without exception--or at least for all the members of the Islamic community--the spiritual path, the tariqah, does not make the same claim. That is to say, it is only for those who are predisposed and called to set out on the great adventure which is the quest for the Divine.

By Jean-louis Michon
Book Title: Islamic Spirituality: Manifestations. Contributors: Seyyed Hossein Nasr - editor. Publisher: Crossroad. Place of Publication: New York. Publication Year: 1991.