The word Tarīqah linguistically means “manner” or “method”. In reference to the field of Tasawwuf, it refers to a school or order, e.g. the Chishtī Tarīqah, Naqshbandī Tarīqah, Shādhilī Tarīqah etc. Tariqah in relation to Tasawwuf is analogous to the word “madhhab” in relation to the schools of Fiqh.
The science of Fiqh concerns itself with the external injunctions and regulations pertaining to things such as salāh, fasting, stealing, interest etc., and the science of Tasawwuf concerns itself with the internal injunctions and regulations pertaining to things such as praiseworthy qualities, e.g. gratefulness, patience, sincerity etc. and reprehensible qualities, e.g. pride, ostentation and greed etc.
In essence, the goal of all the Tarīqahs is one and the same, namely to cure spiritual maladies of the heart, elevate the spiritual status and ultimately gain closeness to Allah; the dissimilarities of the various Tarīqahs mainly revolve around the difference of approach towards achieving this objective. Some Tarīqahs implement one set of spiritual exercises whilst other Tarīqahs implement a different set of exercises. Some differences in spiritual exercises stem from the differences of the Madhāhib of the Shuyūkh of each Tarīqah. Considering the fact that the Shuyūkh of Tasawwuf adhere strictly to the letter of the law, each Tarīqah will differ in exercises of dhikr as well. This will be discussed later. At present, it should suffice to understand that this science pertains to the abstract metaphysical internal element of the soul, thus there exists many seemingly unusual practices and exercises prescribed by the Shuyūkh to address such matters. These exercises were implemented to kindle the burning love of Allah in the heart cleansing it from the rust caused by the passions of the ephemeral Dunya and all that towards which the lower self calls. Dhikr is the nourishment and sustenance of the soul. Just as there are various types of food with varying nutritional benefits, similarly, the various types of dhikr prescribed by the Shuyūkh affect the spirit of a person in diverse ways. The field of Tasawwuf is usually likened to the field of medicine. Throughout history, man has discovered cures to various physical maladies, so to have the Shuyūkh, the spiritual doctors, discovered cures for spiritual maladies. Some of the practices and cures are mentioned in the Qur’ān, some in the Ahadīth, and others have been discovered through the institution of tajrubah (personal experience). Generation after generation, the Shuyūkh of Tasawwuf have dedicated their lives to this field, therefore, they know the effects of various adhkār upon the heart and soul. To those unfamiliar with Tasawwuf, such exercises may seem extremely peculiar and unusual. It is understandable for people to feel uncomfortable and queasy during their first experience with such exercises. However, to repel this discomfort, one should bear in mind that the Shuyūkh don’t claim that these adhkār and spiritual exercises are new forms of worship where it would be classified as an innovation (bid‘ah) in Dīn. Only those bereft of the understanding of Fiqh and the subtleties of Dīn make such professions. These spiritual prescriptions should be seen and regarded as a form of treatment (tadāwī) for the sicknesses of the heart. Just as the physical body must be put through certain therapeutic exercises for the benefit and rejuvenation of the body, so to do the Shuyūkh put the spiritual patient under various exercises to strengthen and treat the soul.
To give you some examples of such exercises, the famous Hadīth of Rasūlullah صلى الله عليه و سلم describes the various stages of a believer, from Islam, to Imān to Ihsan.
قالَ : فأخْبِرنِي عنِ الإحْسَانِ ، قال : (( أنْ تَعبُدَ اللهَ كأنَّكَ تَراهُ ، فإنْ لَمْ تَكُنْ تَراهُ فإنَّهُ يراكَ )) .
Jibrīl (AS) asked Rasūlullah صلى الله عليه و سلم regarding Ihsān to which Rasūlullah صلى الله عليه و سلم replied, “It is that you worship Allah as if you are seeing Him and if you are unable to see Him, then (know well) that He is seeing you.”
From this Hadīth we come to know that there is an extremely high spiritual position known as Ihsān. The question that arises is that how does a person reach such a status. The next question that arises is to whom should one go in order to learn how to attain it. If a person goes to a Muhaddith, his field and preoccupation is to merely to tell the questioner whether the Hadīth is Sahīh, Hasan, Dha‘īf, how many chains of narration exist for the Hadīth, and which narrators transmitted the Hadīth etc. In regards to the meaning of the Hadīth, at best, they could offer only a literal translation. If a person goes to a Faqīh, he would only explain the various rulings that could be extracted from the Hadīth as it pertains to the external injunctions of the Sharī‘ah. The Faqīh too could not advise the questioner how to attain such a status nor the reality of such a position because such a question does not pertain to his field of expertise. If a person wants to learn the reality of this spiritual position and experience it, he will have to go to a person who has himself reached it. He will have to go to such a person who has dedicated his life in perfecting his internal attributes and character. Only that person who has already reached the destination can direct the lost seeker to it. To acquire this state, some of the Shuyūkh advise the Murīd to sit in solitude and absolute silence with full concentration and in a state of wudhū, whilst closing his eyes, constantly repeating and deeply pondering over the verse,
] أَلَمْ يَعْلَمْ بِأَنَّ اللَّهَ يَرَى [
“Does he not know that Allah is watching”
After continual practice, the Mūrīd will ultimately establish the understanding and perception that Allah is watching him at all times, whether he is walking, talking, eating, praying etc. Only after exercising great patience and perseverance in acting upon the prescription of his Shaykh and continuously informing the Shaykh of his conditions and states will he understand and experience the quality of Ihsān.
Other peculiar forms of spiritual exercises include making loud dhikr with bodily motion whether standing, as in the case of hadrah as performed by the Shadhilīs, or sitting, as performed by the Chishtīs. Other exercises include certain breathing exercises like pās anfās as performed by the Chishtīs and various forms of murāqabah (meditation) as done by the Naqshbandīs etc.
The inherent permissibility or impermissibility of some of these exercises will rest upon the differences of the various Madhāhib since some of these practices cross the boundary of a mere internal metaphysical sphere to the externally physical; thus, falling under the jurisdiction of the Fuqahā’. To present a brief example, the practice of hadrah, a type of spiritual bodily movement similar to swaying that some refer to dancing coupled with loud dhikr, is permissible for the followers of the Shāfi‘ī Madhhab since according to their ‘Ulamā and Madhhab dancing is permissible with certain conditions.
والرقص بلا تكسر مباح لخبر الصحيحين إنه صلى الله عليه وسلم وقف لعائشة يسترها حتى تنظر إلى الحبشة وهم يلعبون ويزفنون والزفن الرقص لأنه مجرد حركات على استقامة أو اعوجاج وعلى الإباحة التي صرح بها المصنف الفوراني والغزالي في وسيطه وهي مقتضى كلام غيرهما وقال القفال بالكراهة وعبارة الأصل محتملة لها حيث قال و الرَّقْصُ ليس بِحَرَامٍ وَبِالتَّكَسُّرِ حَرَامٌ وَلَوْ من النِّسَاءِ لِأَنَّهُ يُشْبِهُ أَفْعَالَ الْمُخَنَّثِينَ (أسنى المطالب في شرح روض الطالب ج 4 ص 346 العلمية)
Consequently, it will be permissible for the Shuyūkh and Mūrīds who follow the Shāfi‘ī Madhhab to participate in the hadrah. On the contrary, it will not be permissible for the Shuyūkh and Murīds of the Hanafī Madhhab to participate in the dancing or swaying of the hadrah since no form of dancing is permitted in the Madhhab unless one is overtaken by an uncontrollable state of ecstasy. It is for this reason that the majority of Shuyūkh of the Ahnāf prescribe a different form of dhikr that produces the same result and effect as produced by the hadra. In the Chishti Tarīqah, the Shuyūkh prescribe loud dhikr of the Kalīmah, La Ilāha illa Allah where the Murīd sits and focuses his concentration on his heart with his head turned towards the direction of his heart. Then, with full devotion, absorption and zeal he recites La ilaaha (there is no deity) while moving his head towards the back and left intending thereby the negation and purging of everything other than Allah from the heart. Thereafter, with full vigor and force, he recites illa Allah (except Allah) while meditating that the love of Allah is flooding his heart. The similar effect of the hadra, namely, that of purification of the heart and spiritual vigor is thus produced which are some of the main ingredients for reviving the diseased heart.
( وأما تحريك الرأس فقط يمنة ويسرة تحقيقا لمعنى النفي والإثبات في لا إله إلا الله فالظن الغالب جوازه بل استحبابه إذا كان مع النية الخالصة الصالحة فيخرج عن حد العبث واللعب ) ؛ لأن العبث ما لا فائدة فيه والتحقيق المذكور من أعظم الفوائد ( فيكون ) ذلك التحريك ( فعلا دالا ) دلالة عقلية ( على التوحيد مقارنا للقول ) وهو قول لا إله إلا الله ( الدال عليه ) دلالة وضعية فيجمع بين التوحيد الفعلي والقولي ( فتكون ) الكلمة الطيبة ( كلمة ككلمتين ) فالقول بلا حركة مرتين كالقول بالحركة مرة واحدة ( وأصله ) المقيس عليه ( رفع المسبحة في التشهد في الصلاة عند أشهد أن لا إله إلا الله ، وقد روي عن النبي صلى الله تعالى عليه وسلم في ) الأحاديث ( الصحاح مع أن الصلاة موضع سكون ووقار حتى كره فيها الالتفات ) يمنة ويسرة . (بريقة محمودية في شرح طريقة محمدية وشريعة نبوية ج 4 ص 139 مصطفى البابي الحلبي)
It is important to bear in mind that unfortunately, there has always existed groups of self-centered, worldly motivated pseudo-Sufis who misrepresented Tasawwuf and used some of the practices of the Sufis, not to mention concocted some of their own, to suit their nafsānī (selfish) desires. Some of them feign being Sufis in order to gain fame and popularity, others to engage in singing and dancing and others to earn money etc. It is from such people that deviances began to crop up in this pristine and praiseworthy science. Examples of their innovations include the Qawāli where singing and music are rampant under the guise of Dhikr, grave-worship where people commit shirk by prostrating to the inmates of the grave, Salāmī where people stand up to offer salutations upon Rasūlullah صلى الله عليه و سلم with the belief that Rasūlullah صلى الله عليه و سلم visits the gathering and other similar practices that have no real connection with Tasawwuf. Because of the existence of such perfidious people and their impermissible practices, it has become a daunting task for sincere people such as you to find a true Shaykh and Tarīqah. Every Tarīqah has these imposters in their midst preying upon the ignorant masses; therefore, one must be cautious as to who one takes as a Murshid (guide). You should ensure that before taking formal bay‘ah to any Shaykh or entering into any Tarīqah, that the Shaykh is a complete adherent of the Sharī‘ah and upholds its dictates. Anyone who intentionally and openly breaks a single commandment of the Sharī‘ah is not worthy to be a Shaykh. A qualified Shaykh is he whose outward and inward appearance and actions conform to the Sunnah of Rasūlullah صلى الله عليه و سلم. A pious and righteous Shaykh is he in whose company a person feels the urge to act upon the dictates of the Sharī‘ah not disregard them. We advise you to continuously make du‘ā to Allah Ta‘ālā to guide you to a pious and upright Shaykh who will guide you in the field of Tasawwuf. You should make Mashwarah with pious local ‘Ulamā if any for their views on finding a genuine Shaykh. It is also important to understand that aside from the Shaykh being firm upon the Sharī‘ah, it is imperative that one have some congeniality with the Shaykh so that one can gain spiritual benefit from him. Without the existence of this congeniality and amiability, it will be difficult to consult with one’s Shaykh and follow his advices. Once you have found such a Shaykh who is strict in adherence to the Sharī‘ah and the Sunnah and you have an amicable relationship with him, you should place all your trust in him and follow all of his instructions without any doubt. Inshallah, in this manner you will ascend the stages of Tasawwuf with relative ease and obtain your objective.
And Allah knows best
Checked and approved by Mufti Ebrahim Desai (Darul Iftaa, Madrassah In’aamiyyah)