The Sufi Path from Fear to Love
This article is about Hasan al Basri, who lived from 642 to 728 of the common era, and Rabia Basri (about 715-801 CE), both of whom in their different ways exemplified qualities associated with the Sufi tradition of Islamic mysticism.
Their expressions and teachings were bound up with the circumstances in which Hasan al Basri and Rabia Basri lived, the tumultuous period after the death of the Prophet Muhammad.
Scholars and historians have noted how, in the eighth and ninth centuries of the common era, Islam assumed the role of government in the lands it had overtaken, and that at this time the law schools of Islam were codified.
And scholars have also found writings dating from the same period which emphasise the need to avoid becoming entirely absorbed in worldly affairs, to assiduously maintain personal purity, and to strive for the most complete and direct knowledge possible of the oneness and unity of Truth, or God. It is within this development that the first expressions are found of what has come to be known as Sufism or Islamic mysticism.
For thirty years after the death of Muhammad in 632, the new faith community was led in succession by four close companions of the Prophet, who have ever since been known as the Rashidun, the rightly guided caliphs. That honorific was not extended to the following Caliphs, the founders of the Umayyad dynasty, who made their capital in Damascus. A decisive change came when the first Umayyad Caliph broke with convention and nominated his own son as successor, thus turning the Caliphate into a dynasty. As administrators, the achievements of the early Umayyads were considerable; political unity was established and by 750 CE the conquests had extended to Spain in the West and the Indus in the East.
As noted, it is during this period that historians and scholars have found writings expressing an urgent need to remember the essential teaching of the Qu’ran and to remain faithful to the ideals exemplified by Muhammed and the first Muslims. One of the exponents of such views, whose writings have come down to us, is Hasan al Basri, (Hasan from Basra, in what is now south-east Iraq). He was highly respected as a jurist and authority on the Qur’an, but it is as an ascetic that he is most remembered.
Among the surviving writings by Hasan is a letter to the ruling Caliph of the day, which includes this passage:
Beware of this world with all wariness; for it is like a snake, smooth to the touch, but its venom is deadly. Turn away from whatsoever delights thee in it, for the little companioning thou wilt have of it; put off from thee its cares, for that thou hast seen its sudden changes, and knowest for sure that thou shalt be parted from it… And again, beware of this world, for its hopes are lies, its expectations false; its easefulness is all harshness, muddied its limpidity. And therein thou art in peril; or bliss transient, or sudden calamity, or painful affliction, or doom decisive.
As is apparent, Hasan’s outlook is coloured by a deeply negative view of the world. A compatriot recorded of him that:
I have not seen anyone with more feeling of sadness than al-Hasan. He used to say, ‘We laugh now and perhaps Allah has looked over our actions and said: I will not accept anything from you.’ Al-Hasan said: ‘The believer wakes up feeling sad and goes to sleep feeling sad as there is no room for him other than this since he is in between two constant fears: a mistake he has committed which he does not know what Allah will do with it, and the time left ahead not knowing what hardships he will face.’
He was brought a mug of water to break his fast, and when it was brought nearer to him, he began to weep. He said, ‘I remembered the wish of the people of hell-fire and what they said: “Pour upon us some water from whatever Allah has provided you” and I remembered the reply: “Indeed, Allah has forbidden them both to the disbelievers”.’
One appealing aspect of Hasan, and of many of those who followed his example, is his universalism. At one point he takes Jesus as a great example of ascetic virtue, and says of him:
You might name the Lord of the spirit and the Word—Jesus— for in his affair there is a marvel; he used to say: ‘My daily bread is hunger, my badge is fear, my raiment is wool, my mount is my foot, my lantern at night is the moon, my fire by day is the sun, and my fruit and fragrant herbs are such things as the earth brings forth for the wild beasts and cattle. All the night I have nothing, yet there is none richer than I!’
In the writings of Hasan we also find one of the principles that has since become central to Islamic mysticism, the practice of dhikr, the remembrance of God. It is recorded that:
A man said to al-Hasan al-Basri, ‘O Abu Sa’eed, I am complaining to you of the hardness of my heart.’ He said: ‘Soften it with dhikr. The more forgetful the heart is, the harder it becomes, but if a person remembers Allah, that hardness softens, as copper melts in the fire. Nothing can soften the hardness of the heart like the remembrance of Allah, may He be glorified and exalted. Dhikr is healing and medicine for the heart. Forgetfulness is a disease, the cure for which is remembrance of Allah.’
Another feature of Hasan’s writings which characterises Sufism is the need for knowledge, that is, direct knowledge as distinct from simple faith in spiritual matters. He writes on the value of knowledge:
When a man sought knowledge, it would not be long before it could be seen in his humbleness, his sight, upon his tongue and his hands, in his prayer, in his speech and in his disinterest in worldly allurements. And a man would acquire a portion of knowledge and put it into practice, and it would be better for him than the world and all it contains—if he owned it he would give it in exchange for the hereafter.
Yet Hasan’s outlook generally is marked by an extreme aversion to the world and an overwhelming fear of punishment at the end. Elsewhere it is recorded:
Al-Hasan al-Basri also said, ‘Allah will inflict six punishments on the one who loves the Temporal and chooses it over Hereafter, three in this world and three in the next. As for the three in this world they are: delusion and hope in having a long lifetime that has no end; overpowering greed that leaves no contentment; and the taking away of the sweetness of worship. As for the three in the Hereafter they are: the harrowing ordeal of the Day of Judgement; a severe bringing to account; and an eternal regret.’
Amazing is he who laughs, even though the Fire is in front of him, and feels elation, while death is awaiting him!
For Hasan, the ultimate nature and conclusion of the spiritual life seems to be a reckoning, and the punishment or otherwise that might follow. He writes:
Allah the Exalted has ordained the acts of obedience, and helps one perform them, and has forbidden the acts of disobedience, and helps one avoid them. Work as much as you feel able to endure the blazing Fire, and know that you have no excuse if you end up in it.
We find in Hasan then the desire for knowledge and the universality characteristic of the Sufi outlook, and also recognition of the power for inner change through practical steps such as consciously remembering God. Yet there is an underlying theme of rejection and fear in his outlook on the world and the Power behind the manifest world.
It might be argued that Hasan, like the Prophet Muhammad himself, lived among people in difficult circumstances, for many of whom life was a severe challenge on all levels and who were most effectively helped and guided by unambiguous advice and graphic illustrations of the consequences of wrong action. Perhaps in such circumstances he gave such teachings, and elsewhere gave more subtle teachings in forms that have not come down to us. About such matters we cannot be certain.
What is clear is the striking contrast that has often been noted between the surviving writings of Hasan and those associated with one of of the best known and most revered of the early Islamic mystics, the poetess and devotee Rabia al-ʻAdawiyya al-Qaysiyya, or Rabia Basri, who also spent most of her life in Basra, and died, aged over 80, in 801 CE. Rabia once famously prayed:
O God, if I adore you out of fear of Hell,
Burn me in Hell.
If I adore you out of desire for Paradise,
Lock me out of Paradise.
But if I adore you for yourself alone,
Do not deny to me your eternal beauty.
Little is known with certainty about the life of Rabia, and the facts cannot be reliably distinguished from legends. A popular story is that she was born a slave but was later freed by her master after he saw a light shining around her head as she prayed. What is certain is that in the literature, fear of punishment is superseded by love of God, a selfless absorption in God, as the principal ideal and characteristic of Sufism, and that this is exemplified in accounts of Rabia’s devotion to God and her refusal to find solace or refuge in anything else.
Rabia is given a place of honour by Farid ud-Din Attar, who is best known as the author of the classic Sufi text, The Conference of the Birds, but also wrote a book about notable Sufis who had preceded him. Written about four centuries after Rabia, his collection is one of the main sources of anecdotes about her, and Attar includes some in which Rabia and Hasan are associated, with Rabia cast in the role of mature devotee and teacher. One such is this:
Once Rabia sent Hasan three things, a piece of wax, a needle, and a hair. ‘Be like wax,’ she said. ‘Illumine the world, and yourself burn. Be like a needle, always be working naked. When you have done these two things, a thousand years will be for you as a hair.’
Considering the probable dates of their respective births and deaths, the association of Rabia and Hasan must have been adopted as a teaching device, without historical foundation. The esteem in which Rabia had come to be held is illustrated by this anecdote preserved by Attar:
‘Do you desire for us to get married?’ Hasan asked Rabia. ‘The tie of marriage applies to those who have being,’ Rabia replied. ‘Here being has disappeared, for I have become naughted to self and exist only through Him. I belong wholly to Him. I live in the shadow of His control. You must ask my hand of Him, not of me.’
In a further exchange between Rabia and Hasan recounted by Attar comes an expression highly characteristic of Sufi teaching.
‘How did you find this secret, Rabia?’ Hasan asked.
Rabia answered, ‘I lost all “found” things in Him.’
‘How do you know Him?’ Hasan enquired.
‘You know the “how”; I know the “howless”,’ Rabia said.
To lose one’s individuality and limited selfhood in the infinity of Truth, is a way of describing the goal that has since been adopted by many Islamic mystics, and it is a point where Sufi teaching closely resembles that of Adhyatma Yoga.
In both paths also is a recognition of the need for ethical action, as a step towards freedom from the bonds of cause and effect in the phenomenal world. The ideal in both schools is a way of acting where it is not our individual wills and interests that determine the action, but a feeling of at-one-ment with the whole and dedication of the outcome of our actions to the wellbeing of all. In Yoga this is sometimes called ‘actionless action’, that is, action that does not bind us by cause and effect. Here Rabia calls this the ‘how’ that is ‘how-less’. The contrast between a deeply rational scholar who knows ‘how’, and the supra-rational devotee who knows the ‘how-less’, is an example of how the Sufis have tried to express their more subtle teachings.
In another anecdote related by Attar, three respected men including Hasan went to visit Rabia one day when she was sick and confined to bed. While there, Hasan said something to the effect that, ‘He is not faithful who does not bear with fortitude the hardships that come to him from God.’ Rabia responded: ‘These words are tainted by egoism.’ Another of the men said, ‘He is not faithful who is not grateful for the hardships that come to him.’ Rabia replied, ‘Something better than that is needed.’ The third man said, ‘He is not faithful who does not take delight in the hardships God sends him.’ Again Rabia replied, ‘We need something better than that.’ Then the three of them asked what she would say. She replied ‘He is not faithful who does not forget his hardship in contemplation of the Lord.’
Rabia also displays the shrewdness and alertness to subtle hypocrisy which has become a hallmark of Sufi teachings and literature. Attar records that one day:
A leading scholar of Basra visited Rabia on her sickbed. Sitting beside her pillow, he reviled the world. ‘You love the world very dearly,’ Rabia commented. ‘If you did not love the world, you would not make mention of it so much. It is always the purchaser who disparages the wares. If you were done with the world, you would not mention it either for good or evil. As it is, you keep mentioning it because, as the proverb says, whoever loves a thing mentions it frequently.’
This makes clear that Rabia was in no way gullible or naive. Still, it is the completeness of her devotion to God for which she is most remembered.
As noted, it is impossible to distinguish legend from facts about Rabia’s life, or which sayings and writings are really hers and which have been attributed since. But for our purposes it is not necessary to do so. What is significant is that it is these teachings which have come to be held up as the ideal examples. Gone is the overriding fear of punishment, replaced by extreme devotion to God for the sake of God alone.
One might ask if this is entirely justified by the teachings of the Qur’an. It is the case that the Qur’an contains many stern warnings of the awful consequences of wrong doing. But it is to be remembered that these warnings were addressed to a people steeped in polytheistic beliefs and a tribal system in which those without family or friends lacked any protection. Ever since, historians have marvelled at the rapidity with which the teachings of Muhammed turned the Arabians into ardent monotheists, and established a rule of law that protected even widows and orphans. The force of the Qur’an’s expression was no doubt central to this effect. Yet the Qur’an also teaches that our true motives are always known completely to God:
We created man. We know the promptings of his soul, and are closer to him than his jugular vein. [Qur’an 50, 16]
From the non-dual perspective, we understand this teaching to mean that it is our true motives that determine the quality and thus the outcome of our actions and offerings. The implication is that Truth is indeed to be loved for its own sake, rather than out of hope for rewards in a future garden of paradise, or anything else in the world of limitations.
Another poem attributed to Rabia is this:
I have loved Thee with two loves—
A selfish love and a love that is worthy of Thee.
As for the love which is selfish,
Therein I occupy myself with Thee,
to the exclusion of all others.
But in the love which is worthy of Thee,
Thou dost raise the veil that I may see Thee.
Yet is the praise not mine in this or that,
But the praise is to Thee in both that and this.
Here then Rabia speaks of a love in which she occupies herself with the Lord to the exclusion of all others. We can understand that this does not mean that she cuts herself off from the world because as we have seen she interacts with others effectively. The implication then is that at all times, whatever she did, she perceived the deeper Reality underlying the surface of all phenomena, and made this her main interest and support.
This was the mature form of devotion she practised. And yet, she acknowledges that even this was not entirely free of selfishness. Compared to this was the other love where the beloved ‘dost raise the veil that I may see Thee’. At this point, it is implied that the individual will is no longer involved at all, and the nature of reality itself is manifest. Rabia concludes that in both cases, all praise is due not to herself, but to her beloved.
Here is one more poem attributed to Rabia:
In love, nothing exists between heart and heart.
Speech is born out of longing,
True description from the real taste.
The one who tastes, knows;
the one who explains, lies.
How can you describe the true form of something
In whose presence you are blotted out
And in whose being you still exist?
Here Rabia expresses the understanding shared with non-duality and all the higher wisdom schools, that ultimately the truth is inexpressible. The teachings can guide us, and we must follow their guidance rather than our own impulses in order to make progress, but ultimately truth has to be realized in direct experience.
Finally, in summary, what can we learn from al-Hasan and Rabia? Both exemplify the importance of putting the teachings into practice. A central practice is to remember God or Truth, that is, to live consciously. On this foundation we can learn to do our actions in the presence of the Supreme, and our hearts are infused with a light and warmth that is not dependent on any external object.
In the early stages of the path when there is much within us that needs reforming, and in difficult situations, it is well for us to remember that wrong action has painful and inescapable consequences. When we are well established on the path of inner enquiry, and when circumstances allow us to focus on that, Rabia in particular points the way towards deeper communion and understanding.
Let us consider once more for a moment the positive part of the prayer and sentiment for which she is most celebrated:
If I adore you for yourself alone,
Do not deny to me your eternal beauty.
At first sight this may appear like an almost impossible ideal of selfless devotion. In fact, it is based on a clear-sighted understanding and there is much in it we can put into practice.
We may often find ourselves asking what we can do next and where we can turn for help on the path. We may feel as if we need help from outside and not know how to get it. The key is that the Supreme Being which we may conceive of as distinct from ourselves —and it is distinct from our minds—is also to be understood and realized as the substance of our own being, our own Self.
Then, to adore the Self, for the Self alone, is a step we can take each moment, by affirming the truth of our own deeper nature, rather than affirming that we are cut off from it and in need of help. We notice that Rabia ends with an appeal, almost an imperative, that might seem out of place for a devotee, were it addressed to any but her own her Self. This we can learn from her example: deal with practical needs as they arise, and then affirm that the Supreme Being is beyond all needs and imperfections, and that we are ultimately drops in that Ocean.