While reading through Ṣadrā’s commentary on Uṣūl al-Kāfī, I came across this beautiful explanation of the methods different groups use to attain spiritual realisation. The extract is inspired by al-Ghazālī’s Iḥyāʾ and while Ṣadrā doesn’t recommend the path of the Ṣūfīs be followed exclusively, there are many points of the process that needs to be traversed alongside the pursuit of knowledge. Below is a translation of that explanation:
“Know that the Ṣūfīs have a preference for inspired knowledge rather than proofs or learning and so they are not particular about studying or attaining what has been authored, because they stipulate that the way to advance is through striving [in worship]. Like He the Most High has said:
Holy Quran 29:69
وَالَّذِينَ جَاهَدُوا فِينَا لَنَهْدِيَنَّهُمْ سُبُلَنَا ۚ
And those who strive for Us – We will surely guide them to Our ways.
That is by removing impediments, ridding blameworthy attributes, cutting all relations and fully concentrating all effort on Allah the Most High.
When that is attained, Allah is the Guardian of the heart of His servant and takes responsibility to enlighten it with the light of knowledge. When Allah takes over the affair of the heart, mercy flows and light shine in the heart. The chest is expanded and the secret[s] of the metaphysical (malakūt) are unveiled. The realities of divine affairs shine within it. So there is nothing upon the seeker except to be prepared through complete purity, the presence of ambition with truthful will, complete longing, observing and availing [themselves] to the fragrances [nafaḥāt] of God and to wait for what Allah, the Most High, will open in terms of Mercy.
As the affairs were unveiled for the prophets and similarly the friends of God. Light flowed upon their chests, not from learning and studying books, but by asceticism in the world, exoneration from its attachments and focusing on Allah with the depths of ambition. Whoever is for Allah, Allah is for them. They [the Ṣūfīs] claim that the path to that is to first sever all ties, from family, wealth, homeland, knowledge, guardianship and position, so that the heart is empty of them completely.
Then they should not seclude themselves in their corner while only performing the obligatory and regular [actions] and sit concentrating solely on them. [Nor should they] occupy their mind with reading Qurʾān and studying it, or contemplating over its exegesis. Or with the books of traditions and memorising them, rather, they should struggle for nothing to cross their mind except the remembrance of Allah, saying: Allah, Allah, Allah continually with the presence of the heart until a state is reached where the moving of the tongue is left and they see that the word is flowing on their tongue. Then the effect on the tongue is effaced and the heart is in continual remembrance. Then they persevere until the form of the word and its letters are effaced from the heart and the world remains flowing and abstract in their heart, present in it, like it is always with it and never leaves it. They can choose to stop here or choose to continue in this state but getting rid of satanic whisperings (waswās). They cannot draw the mercy of Allah [to themselves]. Rather, because of what they have done they have availed themselves to the fragrances of Mercy, so there is nothing left except to wait for what Allah will open for them in terms of Mercy which He opened for His friends and His prophets, may peace be upon them.
When that occurs their desire is fulfilled, their natural disposition is made cleaver and their perseverance is strengthened. Their base desires do not pull them and they shine with the splendours of the Truth in their hearts. Its beginning is like a flash of lightning that does not establish then passes and may not return for a while.
If it returns and establishes it can be caught and if it remains then perhaps it will remain for a while, or perhaps not for long and the like of it could manifest sequentially or it could remain continually. The stages of the friends of Allah, the Most High, concerning this are too many to enumerate. This is dependant on the path to complete purification from the servant, purity and clarity [of the heart] as well as preparation and solely waiting.
As for the observers and those who take lesson, they do not deny the existence of this path, its possibility and its flowing to the goal in rare cases, as it is the path of most of the prophets and friends of God, may peace be upon them. But they found it rough, considered its fruits slow, found its conditions unlikely to be met and claimed that destroying all relations to that extent are something unfeasible, even if they are possible in a certain state, remaining in such a way leads to satanic whisperings and thoughts which confuse the heart. He (saw) [is reported to have] said: “The heart of a believer is between two fingers of the fingers of the All Merciful.”
During this struggle the constitution may be negatively affected, the intellect mixed up and the body can become sick and if before purifying and training the soul the realities of the sciences [have not been attained], incorrect imaginations may establish in the heart and settle in there for a long time until a lifetime passes without finding a way out of them. How may Ṣūfīs have remained in a single imagination for 30 years or around that time? Whereas if they had mastered knowledge beforehand they would not have been confused even for the shortest time.
So busying oneself with the path of learning is more stable and closer to [achieving] the goal. That is why they have said: “Attaining what the scholars have attained (may Allah have mercy on them) and understanding what they have said is necessary. Then to wait for that which is not unveiled for them, so perhaps through struggling after that.
This is what Shaykh al-Ghazālī has mentioned in the book al-Iḥyāʾ with some slight summarisation and change [by Ṣadrā]. [But] what is better is for the wayfarer to Allah to mix the two paths, such that their purification is not empty of thought, nor their thought empty of purification, rather his path is a isthmus which is inclusive of both paths like the method of the Illuminationist philosophers as there is no contradiction between them.”
May Allah open our ways to spiritual realisation
Shaykh Zoheir Ali Esmail has a Bsc in Accounting and Finance from the LSE in London, and an MA in Islamic Studies from Middlesex University. He studied Arabic at Damascus University and holds a PhD from the University of Exeter in the philosophical and mystical readings of Mulla Sadra in the context of the schools of Tehran and Qum.