The Sufis and the Mendicants: On Ibn Taymiyyah’s Treatise: Al-Sufiyah w’l-Fuqara’

The Sufis and The Mendicants

IN OUR CURRENT series on early Islamic spirituality, we have seen some great Islamic spiritual masters and scholars of the second and third centuries, including Al-Hasan Al-Basri, Ma‘ruf Al-Karkhi, Ahmad ibn Hanbal, Al-Harith Al-Muhasibi, and others. During the third Islamic century, we begin to see a consolidation of various spiritual and intellectual movements for a variety of reasons.

One of these newcomers was Sufism, which had emerged in Baghdad, the new capital of the Abbasids, as a confluence of pietistic and scholarly currents from Damascus (the Umayyad capital), Basra (a center of worshippers and ascetics), and other influences such as increasing contact with other civilizations and religious systems. Many factors make analyzing the history of these spiritual-intellectual trends very challenging: Lack of reliable data, difficulty of the terminology used, and, most importantly, fabrication of self-serving reports and misrepresentation of authorities by some later writers.

Few people appreciate the fact that Imam Ibn Taymiyyah was not only one of the great scholars of Islam but a great historian, as well. He was gifted with a prodigious memory and learning, but also possessed an unrivalled insight into the nature of early Islam. It is only appropriate, then, that we enrich our understanding by his characteristically learned and balanced treatment of the origins of these groups. His brief treatise, Al-Sufiyyah wa’l-Fuqara’, will be translated in this blog in installments in the coming few weeks with minimal commentary.

Contrary to his current popular [and much derided and misunderstood] image, Ibn Taymiyyah (d. 728) was not against all Sufism. In fact, he appreciated and admired some Sufis, while others loved and followed him in his life-time. On the other hand, the claim of some modern scholars that he himself was a Sufi is not entirely accurate in the ordinary sense of that description. The following treatise shows that he considered Sufism to be comprised of diverse groups, some very pious and admirable, others intellectually deviated, and still others spiritually deviated charlatans.

He castigated and rejected only what he considered to be the deviations of Sufis, not all Sufis per se. The final judge in all matters, he argued again and again, was the Quran and the Sunnah. To the extent that Sufism agreed with these two, it was to be respected and valued. Having seen many historical deviations of Sufis, however, he did not accord the kind of independent superiority or immunity to Sufism that earlier scholars such as Imam Al-Ghazali (d. 505 H) had done. Al-Ghazali’s stance on Sufism can be seen as an optimistic and, in some ways, romantic one: He beheld only the good side of it, and ignored its potential and real historical problems. Ibn Taymiyyah, who lived after the crusaders and the Mongols had attacked the Muslim world and exposed its internal weakness, could not ignore the problems that had eaten away at the foundations of the Muslim Community. The difference between these two great Imams of Islam, I suggest, was more contextual than often thought. As we go further in this series, I will, insha’Allah, explain this comment through concrete examples, primary sources, and historical events. But for now, as part of that effort, let us consider this important treatise by Ibn Taymiyyah.



Shaykh Al-Islam [Ibn Taymiyyah (661-728/1262-1328)]—may God sanctify his spirit—was asked about the Sufis. There are groups of them, as there are those of the fuqara’. What are the distinguishing features, and pros and cons of each group? He answered as follows:

Praise be to God. As for the term Al-Sufiyah (Sufis), it was not well known in the [first] three centuries of Islam, its usage becoming well known only thereafter. The use of this term has been reported by more than one of the imams and shaykhs, such as Imam Ahmad ibn Hanbal (d. 241/855), Abi Sulaiman Al-Darani (d. 215/830), and others. It has been related that Sufyan Al-Thawri used it. And some have mentioned it in relation to Al-Hasan Al-Basri (d. 110/728). People have disagreed over the meaning ascribed to ‘suf,’ for it is a relational adjective (nisbah) like al-qurashi (of the Quraysh tribe), etc.

It is said to be an adjective denoting the Ahl Al-Suffah (People of the Bench [the pious poor of Madinah at the time of the Prophet who used to congregate upon a somewhat raised platform in the Prophet’s Mosque]), this opinion being a mistake. If that were so, one would say suffi [double consonant, as the adjective], not sufi. Also, it is said to be a relational adjective to Al-saff Al-muqaddam (the front row) standing before God. This too is a mistake, for if it were so, one would say saffi. It is thought also to refer to Al-safwah (the elite) of God’s creation, this being a mistake, because if it were so, one would say safawi.…

The correct opinion is that it [the term ‘sufi’] is related to woolen garments. The first place the “wearers of wool” (al-sufiyah) appeared was Basra, and the first person to build a cloister for Sufis was one of the companions of ‘Abd Al-Wahid ibn Zayd (d. 177/794), who was a companion of Al-Hasan [Al-Basri]. In Basra, there was excess in asceticism, worship, pietistic fear, and such things, which did not exist in the inhabitants of the other major cities. It has become proverbial to speak of “Kufi jurisprudence and Basri worship.”

Abu Al-Shaykh Al-Asfahani has related from Muhammad ibn Sirin (d. 110/728) that a group of people favored garments of wool, to which he [Ibn Sirin] said something to this effect: A group of people prefers [wearing] wool, saying that they are imitating the Messiah, son of Mary, and [claiming] that ‘the way of our Prophet is dearer to us.’ However, the Prophet used to wear cotton and other cloths.

Most of what is recounted of pietistic excess relates to the worshippers among the people of Basra, such as the stories of those who died or swooned upon hearing the Quran, like that of Zurara ibn ‘Auf, the Qadi of Basra, who dropped dead when he recited, in the Fajr Salah, Allah’s saying: “And when the trumpet is sounded (on the Judgment Day)” [Surat Al-Muddaththir, 74:8-9]. And like the story of Abu Jahir Al-A‘ma (the blind), who died when Salih Al-Murri recited [the Quran] to him. Likewise, there are others who are said to have died from listening to its recitation. Moreover, there were groups of them [the people of Basra] who would lose consciousness upon hearing the Quran.

But there was no one among the Companions [of the Prophet] who had this condition. Thus, when [this excess] appeared, a group of the Companions and followers disapproved—including Asma’ bint Abi Bakr (d. 73/693), ‘Abdullah ibn Al-Zubair (d. 73/692), Muhammad ibn Sirin, among others. Those who disapproved [of such ecstatic reactions] have two positions. Some dismissed this [state of excess] as affectation and feigning. It is mentioned of Muhammad ibn Sirin that he said,

The difference between us and those who lose consciousness upon hearing the Quran is only this: If it is recited to one of them while he is sitting on a wall and he falls off, then he is [considered] sincere.

Others denounced it—as has been related with regard to Asma’ and her son ‘Abdullah—because they saw it as a heretical innovation that contradicts what was known of the way of the Companions.

The majority of the ‘ulema’, however, are of the opinion that one who is “ecstatic” and is overcome [in a swoon of piety] is not to be reproved, although the state of stability (halun thabit) is more perfect. For this reason, when Imam Ahmad [ibn Hanbal] was asked about this he said: “The Quran was recited to Yahya ibn Sa‘id Al-Qattan, and he swooned, and yet if anyone would have been able to keep himself from this, then Yahya ibn Sa‘id would have done so, for I have not seen anyone more intelligent than him,” and so forth. It has been related about Al-Shafi‘i that this [state] befell him. And the case of Ali, the son of Al-Fudail ibn ‘Iyad, is famous. (This Ali was known for his fear of the Day of Judgment and Hellfire.)

Overall, such reports are frequent among those whose truthfulness is not doubted. But the states (ahwal) which the Companions possessed are mentioned in the Quran as follows: The fear of hearts, the tears of the eye, and the trembling of the skins. For He who is Most High has said:

The believers are only those who, when God is mentioned, their hearts fear, and when His signs are recited to them, they increase in faith, and those who trust in their Lord. [Surat Al-Anfal, 8:2]

And He, Most High, has said:

God has sent down the best statement, a uniform book, paired [that makes] the skins of those who fear their Lord tremble, then their skins and hearts yield to the remembrance of God. [Surat Al-Zumar, 39:23].

God, Most High, has said:

And when the signs of the Merciful are recited to them, they fall down prostrating, crying. [Surat Maryam, 19:58]

And He has said:

And, when they hear what has been sent down to the Messenger, you will see their eyes overflow with tears due to what they recognize of the truth. [Surat Al-Ma’idah, 5:83].

He has said:

And they fall down on their faces, crying, increasing in humility. [Surat Al-Isra’,17:109]

At times, this [state of great, incapacitating fear] is criticized by those people whose hearts are themselves hard and rusted and whose faith is crude. On the other hand, there are among them [that is, those who experience such ecstatic states] those who suppose that this state of theirs is the most perfect of all [experiences of piety]. Both extremes in this matter are reprehensible.

To be continued

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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1 Comment

  • Jazakallah khair for the effort, cant wait for the next part.

    Ya sheikh if you dont mind may I suggest Allah is translated as Allah and not God when translating an ayah of the quran.

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