THE SUFI WAY exists to know the incommensurability of the Divine. To do so the self must relinquish its position as the greatest thing in existence. Belief in the inevitability of destiny anticipates this in principle before one realizes it in the fullness of one’s path.
The context of this maxim is personal transformation from spiritual hypocrisy to spiritual sincerity. Masters of the path are unanimous that to accomplish the change the aspirant must have high ambition (himma ‘aliyya), but it must be sublimated so that it becomes second nature; practiced and not thought about; there, but never looked at or depended upon.
Our own will is one of the plainest components of consciousness, and the desire to ascend to the Divine in a moment is probably native to every heart that has ever set out for Him. But the distance of the path lies precisely in realizing the ontological relation between our own contingent being and the necessary being of Allah, and if reaching God were subject to our will, it would not be subject to His, which is the opposite of illumination. The spiritual way must purify the traveller, by its very turns and length, of the illusion of being “master of his fate and captain of his soul,” in order to allow him to directly experience the divine omnipotence. Allah says in a hadith quasi,
Man offends Me: he reviles Time, though I am Time; the command is in My hand, I turn over the nights and days.1
The celebrated mystic Abu Madyan described the hand of destiny in his first encounter with his own master by saying:
I was an orphan in Andalusia, and my brothers made me herd their flocks. When I would see someone at prayer or reciting the Qur’an, I admired him and went up to him, finding a sadness within me that I didn’t know any Qur’an or how to pray. My resolve grew to run away, so I could learn how to recite and to pray. I fled, but my brother caught up with me with a stabbing spear in his hand, and said, “By God, if you don’t come back I’ll kill you.”
So I went back and stayed a while, the decision to flee by night growing within me. I set out one night by another route, and my brother found me after daybreak. He raised his sword and said, “By God, I’m going to kill you to relieve myself of you,” and he brought it down on me, but I parried it with a stick I had in my hand, which the sword shattered against and flew into pieces. When he saw this, he said, “Brother, go wherever you will.”
I went to the sea, crossed to Tangiers, then went to Ceuta, working as a hand for some fishermen. I proceeded to Marrakesh, which I entered, and joined the Andalusian soldiery, who used to eat my rations and only give me a little. I was told, “If you want to devote time to religion, you should go to Fez.” So I set out for Fez, and stayed in its great mosque, learning ablution and the prayer, and sitting at the circles of the jurists and preachers, though without retaining anything of their words, until I sat with a sheikh whose words stayed in my heart Asking who he was, I was told he was Abul Hasan ibn Hirzihim. I told him that I could not remember anything besides what I heard from him alone, and he said to me: “Those others speak from the tips of their tongues, so their words reach no further than the ears. I intend Allah by my words, which because they come from the heart, go into hearts.”
I later heard people speak of the miracles of Abu Ya’za, so I went with a group who were going to visit him. When we reached Mount Ayrojan, we dropped in on Abu Ya’za, who received everyone cordially except me. When he served food, he stopped me from eating any, and I drew apart into a corner of the courtyard. Every time he brought food and I stood up, he would drive me away.
I remained thus for three days, exhausted by hunger and reduced to humiliation. When three days had passed, Abu Ya’za rose from his place, and I went over to it and rubbed my face in it When I lifted my head I looked, and I could see nothing at all. I had gone blind, and I wept the whole night.
When morning came, he called me saying, “Come here, O Andalusian.” So I drew near him and he wiped his hand over my eyes, and I could see, then wiped his hand over my heart and said to those present “This one shall be very great” or words to that effect.2
Tribulation is never gratuitous. Allah teaches us through things that go as we want and things that go otherwise, the latter often proving the lessons best learned; whether in patience, in relying on God, in realizing what love is, or in appreciating hard won attainments that might otherwise be taken for granted. The Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) said, “Whomever Allah wants well for, He somewhat afflicts,”5 and said, “Patience is a tremendous light”4 showing that God may well illumine the traveller by unexpected adversity, obstacles, and trouble – since for a heart directed towards Allah, pruning often means growth. Imam Ghazali touches on this when relating the problem of prayer and destiny to the more general question of the divine wisdom in human affliction:
If it be wondered what benefit there is in supplication (du’a) if destiny is inevitable, one should realize that destiny includes averting affliction by prayer, that supplication is but a means of turning aside tribulation and drawing the divine mercy, just as a shield is a means of deflecting arrows, and water a means of bringing forth herbage from the earth. As a shield turns aside arrows and they each offset the other, so too supplication and affliction each compensate the other. It is not a condition for believing in the destiny of Allah Most High that one go unarmed, for Allah has said, “Take due precaution” (Qur’an 4:71); or that one should not water land after seeding, saying, “If previously destined the crop will grow, and if not previously destined it will not.” Bather, the conjoining of causes and effects is the primordial rfesi*nj(al-qada’ al-awwal) that was accomplished “in the twinkling of an eye or even faster” (Qur’an 16:77), while the graduated and apportioned arrangement of detailed effects from detailed causes is of the divine ordainment (qadar) – He who has ordained good having ordained it through causes, and He who has ordained harm having ordained causes for its prevention. There is no contradiction in these matters for someone whose understanding is illumined.
Moreover, supplication has the benefit we have previously noted for remembrance (dhikr) of Allah in general: that it brings about presence of heart with Allah, which is the highest point of all acts of worship, for which reason the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) has said, “Supplication is the very marrow of worship,”5 and most people’s hearts do not turn to remembrance of Allah Mighty and Majestic unless a need presses or calamity impends, for man
“when evil touches him, is great in supplication” (Qur’an 41:51).
Need makes one supplicate, and supplication returns the heart to Allah Mighty and Majestic through earnest entreaty and humbleness, which brings about the remembrance of God, the noblest form of worship. This is why afflictions are given to “the prophets (upon whom be peace), then the saints (Allah be well pleased with them), then those most like them, then those next most like them,”6 for it returns the heart through neediness and petition to Allah Mighty and Majestic, and prevents forgetting Him. As for freedom from need, it usually produces hubris, for “verily man transgresses, when he sees himself beholden to none” (Qur’an 96:7)7
Bukhari relates in his Sahih that when Sa’d Ibn Abi Waqqas before a battle seemed to see for a moment the superiority of his own courage and wealth to that of others, the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) said, “Are any of you given victory or sustenance except through the weakest of you?”8 reminding us that personal talents and assets are but part of the larger tapestry of things destined. Otherwise, how often life shows us that a fool may succeed where a wise man fails, and there is no absolute correlation between ambition and success, talent and riches, intelligence and power.
To summarize, the Sufi path is something of a coincidence of opposites. The Illimitable Freedom of the One is known only through the 1UbUdIyYa or “absolute slavehood” of the self. To travel the path, one must lighten oneself of the stage properties of one’s own heroic drama, and if not for the knowledge of irrevocable destiny, the journey might only increase the self in renown and redoubtableness. The above aphorism reminds us that the spiritual way, like every other reality in existence, is not accomplished by human ambition, but by Allah alone.
MMV © N. Keller