Steps of the Seekers (Madarij Al-Salikin): Imam Ibn Al-Qayyim’s Introduction

Steps of the Seekers

IN THE NAME of Allah, All-Merciful, the Mercy-Giving. No power nor might is there, except in Allah, the High, the Great.

Praised be Allah, the Lord of all worlds. The end is for none but the pious. No hostility is there against any save the oppressors.

I bear witness that there is no god but Allah.[1] Alone is He, with no partner, no equal, Lord of the Messengers, Creator of Heavens and Earth. I bear witness that Muhammad is His servant and His Messenger, sent with a Lucid Book, which separates error from guidance, deception from righteousness, and conjecture from certitude.

The Virtue of the Quran

He has revealed the Book for us [His servants]—to read and to ponder it, to reflect on it with attention and vigilance, to enrich our souls through its remembrance, to construe it in the best of manners, to affirm it, to strive to establish its commands and prohibitions, and to reap the fruit of its precious sciences that connect us to God, the Exalted, and to inhale the wisdom of its meadows and flowers.

For this is His Book, which guides to Him whomsoever seeks His inner knowledge. It is the sure way that leads the seeker to Him. It is His brilliant light that illuminates all darkness, His compassionate guidance, the boon of all creation.

It is His rope that connects His servants to Him when all else fails, His greatest door to Him that remains open when all else is closed. It is the Straight Path. Opinions of men do not taint it. Nor do base desires stain its wisdom. Nor are sages ever sated with its generous feast.

Its wonders never end. Its clouds never dry. Its signs never exhaust. Its meanings never contradict. The more a soul plumbs its depths, the more it attains discernment and guidance. No sooner are its wells uncovered than burst forth all wellsprings of wisdom.

For it is the light of the eyes against blindness, the cure for all humankind against the myriad ailments of the heart. It is life itself of the heart, the rapture of the soul. Here is the shepherd that herds the soul toward the cities of bliss; here the harbinger that calls out, night and day: “O seekers of righteousness, make haste!” It is the proclaimer of faith at the head of the Straight Path: O our people! Answer God’s Proclaimer, and believe in Him. He will forgive your sins and save you from a painful chastisement (Sûrat Al-A^qâf, 46:31).

By Allah! It shall surely pierce, if only it chances upon ears that are open. It will illuminate, if only it chances upon hearts cleansed of corruption.

The Failing of Man

But alas! Low desires have put out the lamps of the hearts. The opinions of mortal men have shut the doors of divine guidance and lost the keys.

Hearts are encrusted with the rust of their deeds and shut out of the realities of the Quran. The ailment of ignorance has so overcome them that even righteous deeds are of no avail.

How odd, indeed! They choose to feast upon the vain opinions of mortals that neither replenish nor quell hunger, and to reject nourishment from the Words of the Lord of all the worlds, and the words of His Messenger œ. How shall they find their way in the darkness of men’s opinions and separate right from wrong when they fail to do this by the radiant light of the Sunnah and the Book?[2]

How odd, indeed! They have managed to conflate the right teachings with the wrong, the accepted with the rejected, the favored with the untenable. They have thus found a way to render themselves incapable of receiving guidance and knowledge from the discourse of the One whose speech is immune to falsehood from before and behind, and who guarantees to elucidate the truth with utmost clarity;[3] and so too the discourse of the one who was given the most comprehensive of words and whose speech was clear in the utmost?[4]

Nay, by God! It is but a trial that has veiled hearts from the sources of righteousness and thus bedeviled intellects, making them stray from their goal—a trial so endemic that the young are brought up into it and the old grow senile in it. Those blind as bats imagine these deceptions to be the ultimate accomplishment to which they race and the end to which they rush in hordes.

Revelation and Estimation

How far!

How far is a faint distant star from the brilliant midday sun!

How far the dark underworld from the brilliant stars of Gemini!

How far the discourse whose author has no guarantee of inerrancy or any established proof from the truthful transmission on the authority of an infallible one!

How far are opinions whose highest honor may be “acceptance” to be followed from the clear Texts that every Muslim must, by definition, put above all else and submit and turn to for judgment in all questions of disagreement!

How far the opinions whose author has prohibited and warned against blindly following from the Texts that it is incumbent on every servant of God to follow and contemplate!

How far the schools [of thought] counted among the bygones, their need passing away from Scriptures that shall not pass, even to the end of the heavens and the earth! Exalted be God! How deprived are those who turn away from the [two] Texts of Revelation, from seeking knowledge from this niche of light, from that treasure trove!

What life of heart and radiance of sight they have lost who have contented themselves with opinions dug up with conjecture’s spades, who have divided up their matter of religion into groups, rousing each other with ornate words in conceit, for whose sake they take the Quran as little more than a thing shunned!

So utterly erased are the signposts of the Quran from their hearts that they are alert to none of them; its covenants so dimmed that they abide by none of them; its standards and banners so fallen from their hands that they raise none of them; its brilliant stars so darkened on the horizons of their souls that they have no love for them; its sun to them so eclipsed behind the shadows of their opinions that they see nothing of it.

They have dethroned Revelation from the realm of reality, deposed it from the province of certitude, and assailed it with false interpretations. Ambush after ambush, their attacks have yet to cease.

[Revelation] has come to them like a guest to a sordid, miserly host who fails to show him fitting honor or gracious munificence, but rather receives him at arm’s length, with hesitation and ineptitude, saying to him: “We have no passage for you here. Yet if you must pass, then pass quickly.”

They have reduced Scripture to the status of the caliph in our times: His is the mint, and ritual mention in the sermons, but no authority or actual say in ruling.[5] One who adheres to the Book and the Sunnah is to them a “literalist,” lacking in intelligence, while the follower of the mutually contradicting and incoherent opinions of men is accomplished and learned.

The possessors of the Book and the Sunnah, who rank Revealed Texts above all else, are, in their view, ignorant and deficient: When it is said to them, Believe as the people believe, they say, Shall we believe, as fools believe? Truly, they are the foolish ones, but they do not know (Sûrat Al-Baqarah, 2:13).

They are deprived by God of attainment to God, for they have diverted from the path of Revelation, lost its foundations, and cleaved instead to rootless trunks. The opinions of men have robbed them of what they most long for; they have cut them off from the ropes they most need—until the time shall come when all that lays in the graves is scattered about, and all that was in the breasts of men is collected, and every group’s attainment has become distinct and clear, and the reality is uncovered as to what [folly] they took as beliefs and preferred over all else: And there has appeared to them the evil of what they have earned (Sûrat Al-Zumar, 39:48) as they stand aghast at the sight of the harvest that they have sown.

O how devastating the loser’s lament as he stands beholding all his effort and toil turned to scattered dust! What utter calamity when his wishful hopes prove barren as lightning without a downpour, nothing more than falsehood and conceit.

What do they think, those whose intentions harbor heretical innovations, vain desire, and prejudice for the opinions of mortals over divine Revelation? What do they think that their Lord will do on the Day when the secrets are tried?

What excuse shall there be for those who throw the two Scriptures (the Quran and the Sunnah) behind their backs on a Day when their excuses will be of no avail to the wrongdoers? Do such men deem they can save themselves from their Lord by dint of the opinions of mortals; by the abundance of their discourse and disputation; by their analogies and suppositions; by their allusions, ecstatic outbursts, or fanciful imaginations?

How far from truth, by God!

Such a one entertains the falsest of hopes and most unlikely of fancies. For salvation is assured only for the one who takes God’s guidance to be the ultimate judge above all else, who stores up piety for his journey, who follows the true guide and walks the Straight Path, who holds on to the Revelation with a firm tie that cannot be undone.

Allah is All-Hearing and All-Knowing.

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[1] Henceforth, translated as God.

[2] The contrast here and in the subsequent paragraphs is drawn between the source-texts of Islam, the Qur’an and Prophetic teachings, on the one hand and the classical tradition of derived religious sciences, on the other.

[3] The reference is to Qur’anic verses such as: Q 41:42, 41:3, 41:44, 11:1, and the like.

[4] The reference is to a tradition: “I have been sent with the most comprehensive of words, and I was made victorious with awe, and while I was sleeping, the keys of the treasures of the earth were brought to me and placed in my hand.” al-Bukhari (bk. “Interpretation of Dreams”).

[5] The Abbasid caliph had been killed at the hands of the invading Mongols in 656/1258 and with that the institution that gave connected to Sunni Muslims to each other and temporally to the Prophet had been interrupted. Already, for about three centuries, the Abbasid caliphs had reigned but rarely ruled; still, the prestige and sanctity of the Abbasid caliph in the Early Middle Period had been a symbolic force to be reckoned with, and no Sultans could enjoy legitimacy without its approval. But after the Mongol destruction of the traditional seat of caliphate in Baghdad, even that symbolic fore greatly suffered, and even though a symbolic caliph was reinstalled in Cairo by the Mamluk Sultans, his prestige was a shadow of its past. Our author lived in this period.

Written By

Uwaymir Anjum is the Imam Khattab Chair of Islamic Studies at the Department of Philosophy, University of Toledo. He is also professor of Islamic Intellectual History at Qatar University. He studies the connections between theology, ethics, politics, and law in classical and medieval Islam, with a subfocus on its comparisons with western thought. Related fields of study include Islamic philosophy and Sufism. His dissertation, published in 2012 by Cambridge University Press, is entitled Politics, Law, and Community in Islamic Thought: The Taymiyyan Moment. His translation of Ibn al-Qayyim’s Madârij Al-Sâlikîn is forthcoming.

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