The Beauty of the Righteous & Ranks of the Elite
Hilyat-ul Awliya Wa Tabaqat al-Asfiya
By Imam Abu Na'im al-Asfahani (948-1038 C.E.)
Trans. by Shaykh Muhammad Al-Akili
© 1996-2016 Pearl Publishing House

II

Asceticism & Virtues

In the previous chapter, we described some of the virtues of God's deputies (awliyã) and the ranks of the elite (asfiyã). Pursuing the prophetic example, the adherents to the path of inner traditions, sometime use allegories (ishãrãt) to describe a phenomenon, though at other times they may depict the nature of sainthood, or viceregency (wilãya) as a blessing which is conferred upon one who lives by the dictates of the divine command revealed in the magnificent Quran, and who emulates the sunna traditions of God's messenger h upon whom be peace. The diversity of expressions ('ibãrãt) they used throughout the ages are clear signs to those whose hearts are awakened.

Primarily, God's deputies emphasize the virtues of the early companions of God's messenger h, their piety, ascetic detachment, devotion, sincerity, deeds, faith, certitude, and determination. The complexity of spiritual and intellectual levels of their audience sometimes influence the outcome and the depth of their speeches. Since all the creation that surround the human being are testimonies to the oneness and sovereignty of God Almighty, which creations constantly celebrate His praises and obey His commands, the most blessed companions of God's messenger h commenced by noticing such phenomena, and they pointed at such attributes. Thus, they were satisfied to draw on such parables that relate to the human nature. What is innate and common, they explored, and what is unique, they emphasized. The early companions of God's messenger h who are the beacons of purity, piety, and devotion also used such similes, as described by Sa'ad bin Abi Waqqãss, God be pleased with him, in his saying, 'Whatever we had was common to all, as when a ewe delivers a baby lamb, it becomes common to all."

A true believer is content with what he has. He is grateful for it, and he shares its blessings with others. A true believer is also protected against excess comfort or indulgence in this world. He uses a meager portion of his share in it to sustain his short journey toward his Lord, and therefore, he becomes one of the numerous pillars of trueness and guiding lights to the seekers in this world. He refrains from abominable actions and strives for deeds that bring him closer to his Lord. He dedicates every minute he spends in this life to exercising more devotion to guard himself against the unexpected, and thus, he escapes from sufferings and trials as he embarks on the straight path and takes the road to safety.

25- 'Ali bin Abi Tãlib, God bless his countenance, said: "God's messenger h once said to me, "O 'Ali, when you see people striving for the nearness of their Lord through the avenues of being true unto Him, you should strive toward His nearness through the avenues of reason ('aql). In such a way, you will rise to a higher station than the others, and you will reach closer to Him in this world as well as in the hereafter."

26- Abu Tharr al-Ghafãri said: "I once asked God's messenger h, "O Messenger of Allah, what are the records that were revealed to Abraham, upon whom be peace?" He replied: "They were mostly parables and allegories. They included sayings such as: "A servant who is not deprived of reason, and who is not overwhelmed by material concerns must balance his time. At one time, he should converse with his Lord, then he should question himself, then contemplate God's work, and furthermore, he must also nurture his body with its needs of food and water."

Hence, like the wool that covers the back of a sheep and protects it from changing weather, a true believer also has such a coat that cloaks his needs and suffices him from needing other than his Lord. He accepts no substitute for it, nor does he let go of it as long as he can.

27- On this subject, Anas bin Mãlik narrated that God's messenger h said: "When Abraham saw the fire (which Nemrod ignited to cast him in), he exclaimed, 'God is sufficient, and He is the best of guardians."

28- Abu Huraira narrated that God's messenger (uwbp) said: "When Abraham was thrown into the fire, he prayed, 'Surely thou art are the only Lord in the heavens, and I am the only one who worships Thee on earth."

29- Nawf al-Bakãli reported the above prophetic hadïth adding: "Upon hearing Abraham's prayers, God Almighty commanded three thousand angels to descend on earth, and Abraham led them in prayers uninterruptedly for three consecutive nights and days."

30- Pursuing the same account, Bakr bin 'Abdullãh al-Mazïni narrated: "When Abraham was brought to be thrown into the fire of Nemrod, the entire creation in the heavens prayed solemnly and fervently to their Lord, imploring Him: 'Lord! Thy bosom friend is going to be thrown into the blazing fire. Lord, grant us permission to extinguish it." God Almighty replied, 'He is my bosom friend, and I have no other bosom friend on earth besides him today. Surely, I am his only Lord and Sustainer, and he has no other Lord or Sustainer except Me. However, if he asks for your help, then help him, otherwise, leave him alone." The angel of rain then came and asked God Almighty. He said, 'Lord! Thy bosom friend is going to be thrown into the blazing fire. O Lord, grant me permission to extinguish it." Again, God Almighty replied, 'He is my bosom friend, I have no bosom friend on earth besides him today. Surely, I am his only Lord and Sustainer, and he has no other Lord and Sustainer except Me. Yet, if asks for your help then help him, otherwise, leave him alone." As Abraham was being thrown into the fire, he called upon his Lord directly, praying, 'Sufficient is Allah, and He is the best of guardians." Immediately God Almighty commanded the fire, saying, "O fire, cool down and do not harm Abraham."

It is reported that on that day, the weather changed suddenly, and strong winds struck the entire globe from the East to the West, and had God Almighty not stressed for the fire not to cause Abraham harm, and instead He commanded it to bring about his comfort, Abraham would have frozen to death.

31- Also on this subject, Muqãtil reported: "When Abraham was brought before the fire, and as soon as the guards took off his shirt and tied him to a scaffold to throw him into it, the heavens cried out, and so did the earth, the mountain, the sun, the moon, the divine throne, the divine seat, the clouds, the winds, they all cried, and all the angels cried out: "Lord! Thy servant Abraham is going to be thrown into the blazing fire. Lord! Grant us permission to come to help him." The fire itself then cried out, saying: "My Lord! Thou created me and subjugated me to be subservient to the needs of the children of Adam, and now, Thy servant Abraham is going to be thrusted into me to be consumed by me." God Almighty then spoke to all of them by inspiration and said: "My servant worships Me, and he is being chastised by others for My sake. If he calls upon Me, I will surely answer him, and if he asks for your help, then you may help him."

"As soon as the scaffold was brought closer to the blazing fire, the archangel Gabriel descended and stood between Abraham and the fire, and he said: "Peace be upon thee O Abraham, I am Gabriel, would you need my help?" Abraham replied: "As for your help, nay, I do not need it, I only need my Lord."

When the scaffold released him to the fire, Allah then ordered the archangel Isrãfïl to envelop Abraham and to protect him from the blazes with his own cloak. God Almighty then commanded the fire: "O fire, cool down and do not harm Abraham." (Quran 21:96)

32- Al-Manhal bin Khãlid said: "I was told that Abraham remained in the fire for maybe forty or fifty days, and later on, he used to say: "My nights and days were the most blessed therein. If it were up to me, I would have preferred to remain all my life therein, (in God's nearness, blessings and guardianship.)"

The modest woolen cloak God's deputies wrap around themselves helps to make their life simple. The absence of trims also benefit their concentration upon their real goal as a shield against the material distractions and glitters of this world. Such modest cloak also brakes the arrogance of the mind and eliminates any feeling of haughtiness or of being special. It keeps the mind enthralled, feeling unimportant, and it keeps its urges under control. Moreover, simplicity drives one's carnality to contentment and satisfaction with little.

33- Imam Abu Na'ïm al-Asfahãni narrated that Imam Ja'far al-Sãdiq, God be pleased with him said: "Whosoever emulates the living sunna traditions (zãhir) of God's messenger h, upon whom be peace, is a sunni, and whosoever seeks to emulate the innermost being (bãtin) of God's messenger h, upon whom be peace, is a sufi."

What Imam Ja'far al-Sãdiq, God be pleased with him, meant by emulating the 'innermost being' (bãtin) of God's messenger h, is to strive and embrace the prophet's most exalted chaste character and love for his Lord, and to pursue his choice and preference for the company of His Lord in the hereafter, and that is the correct way of the sufis.

Thus, to prefer what God's messenger h preferred, to desire what he desired, to practice the type of devotion he practiced, and to discard what he discarded, will unfailingly cleanse and purify one's heart, and it will make him true to his Lord. Such a person will be guarded against adversities, and he will be saved from any harm others may try to inflict upon him. Otherwise, to waiver from such a path and to fail in such pursuit, to grant oneself and one's deeds high esteem, and to indulge in satiating one's desire and hunger in this world earns the human being nothing but growing torpor, ignorance, heedlessness, and they block his cognizance from realizing the dangers it faces in this world as well as in the hereafter.

34- Suwayd bin Ghafla reported that Abu Bakr al-Siddïq once asked God's messenger h: "O Messenger of Allah, what were you sent with?" He replied: "I was sent with 'Reason' ('aql)." Abu Bakr further asked: "How can we receive that?" God's messenger h replied: "There is no way to fully encompass Reason ('aql), although if one adheres to what Allah made lawful and abstains from what He qualified as unlawful, such a person will be called intelligent and sagacious ('ãqil). Should he strive further, he will be called a true worshipper ('ãbid), and should he strive further yet, he will be called generous and cognizant of his Lord (muhsin). On the other hand, if one simply strives to merely comply with what God Almighty has ordained, though incorrectly and without the needed luck, or without having true reason to guide him to do what is good, and to dissuade him from pursuing what God Almighty has forbidden, he becomes one of those ?Whose efforts have been wasted in this life, and yet, they hold their deeds to be valuable."(Quran 18:104)

35- Abu Sa'ïd al-Khidri reported that God's messenger h saying: "Allah has divided reason ('aql) into three parts. Whosoever has them, his judgment is mature and perfect, and whosoever does not have them, he has no brains. They comprise: 1) having true cognizance of one's Lord; 2) offering true obedience to His commands; and, 3) exercising true patience toward what Almighty Allah has ordained."

Thus, how can one be called a true ascetic if when he is challenged about his true cognizance of his Lord, he grows ambivalent and confused, and sometimes he even becomes choleric, and when he is asked to subscribe to God's commands, he falters and becomes confounded, and moreover, when he is tried with a passing challenge requiring him to exercise patience, he fails and becomes angry.

The learned shaikhs spoke frequently about the inner spiritual realms, and they expounded upon their meanings, boundaries, characteristics, and foundations. Furthermore, the attained shaikhs have described true asceticism to have ten meanings: 1) To restrain one's partaking from his share in this world rather than unleashing his desire for it; 2) to train one's heart to depend solely on God Almighty and to grow from quietude to absolute acceptance; 3) to desire submission, adding willingness in volunteering one's servitude; 4) to exercise patience toward the loss of comfort in this world, and to refrain from asking or complaining about it; 5) to be selective when nursing one's needs if the object is adequately available; 6) to occupy oneself exclusively in God Almighty; 7) to constantly celebrate His praises more inwardly than outwardly; 8) to develop true sincerity that is free from suspicion; 9) to have certainty when doubt emerges; and finally, 10) to resort to absolute peace in God Almighty by dispelling and controlling any disturbance or bewilderment. Whosoever has such qualities is a true ascetic, a sufi, otherwise he is a fraud and a hypocrite.

If one asks: "What is asceticism (Arb. zuhd)?" The answer is: Asceticism is a raiment which God Almighty confers upon the elite among His devout creation. If they are inspired to be grateful for it, then it will be well deserved, otherwise, they become subject to His reprimand and they will engulf themselves in ongoing trials and tribulations. In fact, to dispel evil conduct and to harbor every exalted quality is the nature of a true ascetic. When he speaks, he unfailingly expresses the truth, and when he is silent, he asserts his ascetic detachment. The truth is that asceticism is an attribute, the meaning of which is hidden to the majority of people aside from the unique achievers, and they are most rare.

Ascetic detachment means to cleanse and purify one's heart and to keep it exclusively for the Lord of the unseen, hence, an ascetic is a true Gnostic. On the other hand, the bosom of a true gnostic ('ãrif) is exposed, his heart is wounded, and his body is waning. A true gnostic is one who truly knows God Almighty, who has understood God's purpose, who acts upon what God commands, abstains from what He forbids, and who calls God's creation to answer the call of their Lord and Creator. A true gnostic is one whose heart is pure and who follows the path of God's chosen Messenger h and the seal of His prophets. He casts away the world behind him, and feeds his passion the taste of desolation and bitterness. He truly knows God's glory and recognizes His compassion toward His creation. If there is a preferable expression, a true gnostic is then one who is free from despondency and confusion. He is abounding with contemplation and purpose, and in his eyes gold and dirt are equal.

To pursue such life, one has to imbibe good character, and such good character will bring one to meet with good people. To do so, one must sacrifice his carnality, expose his own wantonness and put it to shame, upset his adversary, and lend people good advice. He must be concerned at all times. He must teach by example, and hold the reins of his own expectations. He must not pretend to notice others' pitfalls. He should first acknowledge his own faults, be ready to correct his own defects to begin with, and easily and willingly apologize for them. Such a servant of God Almighty must embrace sorrow as his trade, and he must make contentment the foundation of his life.

A gnostic truly knows his Lord, he remains continuously at His doorsteps, and he forsakes any supplemental company. His trueness raises him in station, his kindness is the tree that nurtures him, and he faithfully guards his covenant like a shepherd guards his sheep.

The learned shaikhs have expounded on a variety of complex questions concerning asceticism, and they used distinct expressions. Each one of their answers reflects the spiritual state of the speaker, as well as the prevailing level of perception and understanding of his audience. Altogether, the explanations of the learned shaikhs consist of three categories: 1) first and foremost, they speak of God's Oneness; 2) they speak of the goal of the seeker and the different stations of his attainment; 3) and thirdly, they speak of the seeker himself and his plight. Each one of these three categories involves numerous issues and branches. The first is cognition ('irfãn), which knowledge must be followed by one's adherence to the code of service and ardor.

36- On this subject, Ibn 'Abbãs, God be pleased with him, narrated that when God's messenger h sent Mu'ãth to teach in Yemen, he said to him: "You will be going to live among some of the people of the book. Call them first to worship Allah alone, and to associate no one with Him. If they acknowledge, then inform them that Allah has enjoined upon them five times prayers for each day and night. If they comply, then apprise them that Allah has decreed a tithe that will be exacted from their rich and turned over to their poor."

37- 'Abdullãh bin al-Musawwar narrated that a man once came to God's messenger h and asked: "O messenger of Allah, teach me about the mystical knowledge." God's messenger h replied: "What have you done with the elementary knowledge to prepare yourself to inquire about the extraordinary knowledge?" The man asked: "What is the elementary knowledge?" God's messenger h replied: "Do you know God?" The man replied: "Yes, I do." God's messenger h then asked: "What have you done with His rights upon you?" The man replied: "Whatever God willed." God's messenger h asked: "Do you recognize death?" The man replied: "Yes, I do." God's messenger h then asked: "What have you prepared for it?" The man replied: "Whatever God willed." God's messenger h then said: "Go and perfect that section in your life, and then come back to me so I may teach you about the mystical knowledge."

Thus, true gnosis is to attain a perfect state which is based on knowing God Almighty, His holy Names, eternal Attributes, and divine Actions. A seeker on this path also must understand the characteristics of the carnal self (nafs), its evil and stimulants. He also must know the nature of such an avowed enemy, its entrapments and deceptions. He also must understand the nature of the world, its arrogance, allurements, and colors; how to guard oneself from its dangers and hazards, and how to control it and then renounce it. Once he recognizes that all of these elements belong to one category, he will carry a struggle of endurance by waging a rigorous battle against it while observing the mandated prayers, marshaling supererogatory devotion, disregarding personal comfort, and savoring the cultivated delights which will be unveiled gradually and exclusively before such true servants, and then, he must labors to guard such divine gifts and blessings as long as Allah wills. During the process of such elevation, a true dependant and servant of Allah does not refrain from serving his community and abiding by the law, nor is he ever satisfied with conjecture or speculation. What he seeks is true and binding, and what he disallows are obstructions that can prevent his progress. All his concerns are one. He emulates the exalted traditions of the blessed companions from among the Meccan émigrés (muhãjireen) as well as the Medinite partisans (ansãr). He discards wealth and renounces fame, and instead, he favors striving and giving preference to the needs of others. He escapes with his body to the farthest points in the mountains and wilderness, and he raises it healthy and safe from the disdains of the jealous eyes. At the beginning, he safeguards himself from peoples' meddling with his name, in fear that they may hamper his progress or envy his inner peace and joy, then once his reserved station is conferred upon him by God Almighty, and once it is attained, only then that he will rest in its bliss and effulgent light, and later on, God willing, he may return to serve peoples' needs.

Such are the pious ones, the unknown, the strangers, the travellers, and the true ones. When their faith become true, their innermost being becomes clear and pure.

38- On this subject, Sa'ad bin Abi Waqqãss narrated that God's messenger (uwbp) said: "Allah loves a servant who is pious, content, and unknown."

39- In another prophetic saying reported by 'Abdullãh bin 'Amr, God's messenger (uwbp) said: "Allah loves the strangers most." Someone asked: "Who are the strangers?" He replied: "Those who escape with their faith to protect it. On the Day of Judgment, God Almighty will resurrect them in the company of Jesus, the son of Mary, upon both of whom be peace."

40- Ibn Mas'oud reported that God's messenger (uwbp) said: "There will come a day when everyone's religion will be in danger, except for someone who escapes with his faith from village to village, from mountain to mountain, and who hides inside an abandoned den after another."

41- Abi Imãma reported that God's messenger (uwbp) said: "Among my followers, I love most a believer who controls his emotions, who gives prayers and fasting a good share in his life, who is known to worship his Lord, and who obeys Him in secret. No one recognizes him, and he arouses no curiosities. He subsists on meager sustenance, and exercises patience. His Lord awaits to bring him to stand before Him, few will know of his death, and fewer are his heirs."

Inwardly, such blessed servants enjoy illustrious ranks, and outwardly, they exhibit a noble character and magnanimity, along with a gentle disposition, and hence, their ranks are sublime, and their humor is most touching.

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