Hasan al-Basri, radiallahu anhu, said that Sufism was a reality without a name and that in his time it had become a name without a reality.
This sahabi was the first of our shaykhs who took from Sayyiduna ‘Ali, radiallahu anhu, a man that had sat on the knee of the Rasul, sallallahu alayhi wa sallim. In saying this he was indicating a change that had happened in a very short space of time, but what I find significant is that he talks of a reality that existed among the sahaba, a quality of existence and knowledge that did not have a form or language of its own; it was not codified; it was the very substance of everyday life. So these people were not Sufis; they were Muslims; Muhajireen, Ansar, Bani this and Bani that, Arabi, Ajami’. The description of the ahlus-Suffa’ was that of men who did not work but stayed next to the Prophet’s house in order to learn from him and in that you see them as part of society, only functioning in a unique way, but not outside of it. The reality of Ihsan, that shaykh Hasan al-Basri was talking about cannot, of course, disappear or re-appear but its manifestation in doctrine and practice indicates a more general change in society.
We know from the Rasulullah, sallallahu alayhi wa sallim, that Muslim society progresses and changes, in fact he describes it as a regression, where it degenerates, each generation being worse than the one before it until the end of time, which is the nature of all organic matter that moves from wholesomeness to molecular breakdown ending in total decomposition. So, early on there is a distinction between the riwayaat of the sharic sciences and those of the knowledges of Ihsan, whereas before there had been no such separation and among the Followers of the Followers we have the famous dictum of Imam Malik, radiallahu anhu, in which he reminds us that we cannot have one without the other.
The people of Madinah from one point of view are just people like any others in the same way that the Rasul, sallallahu alayhi wa sallim, was a man among men, and this is essential. It is critical that he was not Jibril or a fantastic creature of some kind but a man among men. He ate, slept, loved his wives, fought his enemies, buried his children, cared for the guest and worshipped his Lord. In this age we cannot be satisfied with the goal of being Sufi or Alim, or wait for the arrival of a saviour, but we must raise our eyes and hearts in aspiration to Madinah, the place where the Deen was complete and must struggle to bring that social reality back into being, whether we fall short or not. If we do not aspire to Madinah we will not reach it and if we are struggling for it we know by dint of our niyyah that its accomplishment is not in our power, but in Allah’s will. Think of all those along with sayyidina Ayyub al-Ansari, who died fighting to conquer Constantinople over the centuries, because of the Rasulullah’s words about it; are they not united with Sultan Mehmet in victory? Everyone of us will only be asked about what we did in our time and in our place, so is it not necessary to know the nature of our world now and what is needed now in relation to what Allah has said in His Book and what the Rasulullah established? As everything is held in place by the inexorable force of gravity according to its nature; the mountains high and the rivers low, so will we be, according to our natures, whether Muslim or Kafir, Companions of the Right or the Sabiqun, True or False, Sincere or Base. The necessity of light among humankind has never altered; the good cannot disappear, but Allah may change the preponderance of one or the other, so that darkness may seem to overwhelm light, but equally He, subhanahu wa ta’ala, can change that at any time and by His own Sunnah it will be by changing the hearts of men from neglect, ghaflah, to remembrance, dhikr, in its Madinan sense, that is that we act on a daily basis according to the full social reality of Madinah al-Munawwarah.
Remember, in spiritual terms, the Rasulullah was given everything at the beginning of his affair during his Mi’raj, so there was nothing more to achieve in terms of proximity to Allah. The rest of his life was spent in service to the Muslims, while constantly close to his Lord. The Sufis would describe it as ‘fana’ and ‘baqa’; that is annihilation to everything and separation from all that is other than Allah, followed by going on in Allah, giving everything its due without being veiled from the Oneness of Reality. By saying it in those terms you are already creating something special; something apart; something out of the norm. The People even talk about the common, the elite and the elite of the elite. Of course, the Rasul and sayyidina Jibril also do this in the famous ‘Umm al-Ahadith’, where the Deen is clearly described as having the three elements of Islam, Iman and Ihsan. Clearly the Deen is not any one of these but a combination of them. It is not outward observance without inner conviction or vice versa. Islam and Ihsan both relate to action but Iman is the realm of niyyah, intention based upon conviction of the realities of the Unseen.
The Rasulullah, sallallahu alayhi wa sallim, said that he had only been sent on account of the miskeen. The masakeen are those who do not know where their food for the day is coming from. This can be looked at quite literally as well as those who do not plan their lives from day to day trusting in Allah. Of course, it must include both and in that statement is knowledge for us and we could even say a secret. Does it mean that most people are then excluded from the Rasul’s concern; of course not! So what then does it mean?
Let us look at the tip of the iceberg and try and deal with what is apparent. It describes indigent people, who have no power or means to help themselves in the basic necessities of survival. This may be a permanent state of affairs for some or a change in fortunes for others and many of us may well have experienced it temporarily, but what is its significance that the Rasul speaks of these people in this way? Most people will have a way of dealing with their existence and its requirement of continuation; some will work, others steal, beg or borrow but what do you do when all those possibilities are taken away; what happens to you? Fear, despair, panic, resignation? The point is that something does emerge and you do continue; it may come from around you; it may come from within you and its nature is that it would not have emerged without the condition of destitution. Destitute you are alone with no one to help, but of necessity that is not true, because wherever you are there is the Face of Allah; He is closer to you than your jugular vein.
To understand this from another point of view is the condition of the very rich, who the Rasulullah tells us are the worst of people unless they continuously give in every direction. This state of wealth leads man to feel independent of Allah and His help; he feels he has the capacity to do what he wishes, which is false and compounded if he thinks his good fortune is by his own hand. Indeed, Allah tells us that when He wishes to destroy a city he begins with these people by making them deviate from the truth. In worldly terms all of us are somewhere in between these two groups and Allah in His wisdom and mercy brings these two groups together in the sharic obligation of Zakat, enabling us to understand how we may continue in this world. Who is in greater need? The one who does not have anything for the day or the one with abundance. Zakat says they need each other. The greatest of the sahaba, sayyidina Abu Bakr, radiallahu anhu, went from one to the other in a single moment -and we might say that his greatness came from this event, if the Rasul had not told us that it was not anything that he did, but by something that Allah had put into his heart- when he gave everything to the Muslims for jihad leaving only Allah and His Rasul for his family. This story terrifies the modern Muslim in his fear for his livelihood and conviction that you have to work to survive.
The believing miskeen are a means for their Muslim brothers; they are a door to the Mercy of Allah, subhanahu wa ta’ala, because they only have Allah and His Rasul; those who have nothing and say, ‘al-hamdulillah,’ are standing with the Rasulullah. When you give to them you are ‘Siddiq’, and Allah’s Mercy will descend, because this is all a matter of proximity to, and knowledge of, Allah. Allah created Madinah to surround and permeate its inhabitants with His presence, subhanahu wa ta’ala.