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Ashraf ‘Ali Thānawi’s Conception of Islamic Mysticism[i]
By Ali Altaf Mian

The Friend is your refuge and support on the Way.
If you look, you’ll see the Friend is the Way.
  –Mawlana Jalāl al-Dīn Rūmi [Mathnawi VI, 1592]

The Reality of Tasawwuf (Islamic Spirituality/Mysticism)
A master of Islamic spirituality, Mawlana Ashraf ‘Ali Thānawi (1863-1943) was “widely considered the preeminent Sufi of modern India.”[ii] He strove for a tasawwuf that would be in complete harmony with the Qur’ān and hadīth. His remarkable contribution in this field, as Marcia K. Hermansen has pointed out, is his “attempt to rework Sufism into a more acceptable expression consistent with Islamic legalism.”[iii] This summary of his tasawwuf is evident throughout his works. For example, his biographer, ‘Azīz al-Hasan Ghawrī, quotes him as saying, “I do not know how to pose myself as a ritualistic pir. I am nothing but a religious student; so inquire from me only matters pertaining to the Qur’ān and hadīth. Straightforwardly, I know only the Qur’ān and hadīth, and this is real tasawwuf.”[iv] Thanawi explains the true meaning of esoteric reformation or Sufism in the introduction of Haqīqat al-tarīqa min sunnat al-anīqa:

After rectification of beliefs and external acts, it is compulsory (fard) upon every Muslim to rectify his esoteric acts. Numerous Qur’ānic verses and an untold number of hadīths explicitly indicate the obligation (fardiyya) of this. However, most people of superficial understanding are heedless of it because of their subservience to base desires. Who is not aware that the Qur’ān and hadīths are explicit regarding the significance of abstinence (zuhd), contentment (qana‘a), modesty (tawadu‘), sincerity (ikhlas), patience (sabr), gratitude (shukr), love of Allah (hubb al-Ilah), contentment with the Decree (rida bi’l-qada’), trust (tawakkul), submission (taslīm), and so on, while they emphasize the attainment of these noble attributes? And who is not aware that the Qur’ān and hadīths condemn the opposite of these noble qualities: love for the world (hubb al-dunya), covetousness (hirs), arrogance (takabbur), ostentation (riya’), lust (shahwa), anger (ghadab), envy (hasad), and so on, and warn against them? Is there any doubt that the noble qualities have been commanded, and the base traits forbidden? This is the actual meaning of reforming the esoteric acts, and the primary purpose of the spiritual path. That it is obligatory (fard) is without doubt an established fact. Along with this, experience tells us that reformation is contingent upon the companionship, service, and following of those who have already reformed themselves.[v]

Further expounding how tasawwuf of the Qur’ān and hadīth is an essential part of Islam, Thānawi says in his famous lecture Tarīq al-Qalandar:

All the authentic principles of tasawwuf are found in the Qur’ān and hadīths. The notion that tasawwuf is not in the Qur’ān is erroneous; wayward Sufis as well as superficial scholars entertain this notion. Both groups have misunderstood the Qur’ān and hadiths. The superficial scholars claim that tasawwuf is baseless since they believe that the Qur’ān and hadīths are devoid of it, while the errant and extreme (ghali) Sufis assert that the Qur’ān and hadīths contain but exoteric (zahiri) laws. Tasawwuf, they say, is the knowledge of esoteric (batin) and there is no need for the Qur’ān or hadīths (we seek refuge in Allah). In short, both groups consider the Qur’ān and hadīths to be devoid of tasawwuf. Thus one group has shunned tasawwuf and the other group has shunned the Qur’ān and hadīths altogether.[vi]

The philosopher-mystic‘Abd al-Bāri Nadwi, a spiritual successor (khalifa) of Thānawi, points out that tasawwuf has been perceived in two ways throughout Islamic history. First, there is the tasawwuf of the Qur’ān and hadīth, which was practiced by the pious predecessors of Islam and their true followers. Then, there is the pseudo-tasawwuf, an imprudent syncretism of Islam and other religious and spiritual systems of the world. ‘Abd al-Bāri Nadwi explains that the reason why genuine tasawwuf is prone to misrepresentation is because the “degree of misguidance and mistakes caused by a subject are proportionate to the degree of depth, subtlety, and intricacy found in that subject.”[vii] Tasawwuf is the most subtle and intricate, and in many ways enigmatic, of the Islamic sciences, because it not only reforms the exoteric self, but it lays greater stress on purifying the esoteric self, which encompasses spiritual dimensions unseen by the physical eye.

Although tasawwuf entails a complex system of thought, however, a great reformer embraces people of all backgrounds and simplifies even the most complex religious and spiritual themes for them, so that the greatest number of people may benefit. The Messenger of Allah says, “Give glad tidings [to the people] and do not frighten them away, and create ease and do not create difficulty.”[viii] A salient feature of Thānawi’s approach to tasawwuf was this simplification, ease, and flexibility. According to Thānawi, the summary of Islamic mysticism is that “actions are of two types: voluntary (ikhtiyari) and involuntary (ghayr ikhtiyari). Adhere to the voluntary [good] actions and do not concern yourselves with the involuntary.”[ix] Thanawi provides rescuing consolation and comfort for the “sick-souls” of our time. His simplification of tasawwuf allowed for a more effective approach, which dispelled the notion of an arduous tasawwuf. The following words of Jalāl al-Dīn Rūmi summarize this important part of Sufi methodology:

A disciple is like a new moon,
In reality no different than the full moon:
Its apparent imperfection is a sign of grateful increase.
Night by night the newmoon gives a lesson in gradualness:
With deliberation it says, “O hasty one,
Only step by step can one ascend to the roof.”
A skillful cook lets the pot boil slowly;
The stew boiled in a mad hurry is of no use.
[Mathnawi VI, 1208-1212]

Thanawi, highlighting a key principle of tasawwuf, says, “The potential of this path and the aims of tasawwuf are found in every Muslim, because the essence of tasawwuf is to voluntarily perform Islamic injunctions, and everyone is able to perform these voluntary actions.”[x] He teaches that Sufism was not a new system, but that “tasawwuf is the same prayer (salāh) and fasting (sawm), which are the desired injunctions of shari‘a. Struggle [in tasawwuf] is needed to complete our incomplete prayers and fasting. The summary of tasawwuf is knowledge followed by action.”[xi]

According to Thanawi, “Unveilings (kashf) and miracles (karamāt) are not necessary in this path.”[xii] Tasawwuf, as he understood it, is not an avenue to display exquisite and supernatural experiences. The objective is not to gain fame by displaying supernatural incidents, but to please Allah by following the path of His Messenger. By taking the pledge (bay‘a) from a shaykh, seekers should not think that Paradise is granted to them. Thānawi stresses that this Path proves its usefulness to those treading upon it without any exterior motives. He teaches that people taking pledge from a shaykh in order to win a dispute, to ward off a disease, to seek blessings in one’s business, etc., as was the case of some during his times, are all wrong motives. Pleasure of Allah through inculcating traits that the Almighty desires and eliminating traits despicable in His sight should be the only motive for the seeker. Hakīm al-Umma also taught his disciples not to expect instant reformation, and that their reformation is contingent upon their exertion and struggle. Some people thought that after they visited the Khānqāh-e Imdādiyya and saw Thanawi, the thought of sin would disappear forever. He discouraged such thinking and proved it to be baseless. The shaykh is not there to make his disciples angels, but rather a mirror through which his disciples can take account of their unbiased reflection. Mirrors reveal physical appearance, while the shaykh’s mirror exposes internal conditions.

Shedding light on the purpose of participating in spiritual activities, Thānawi says, “The only purpose of tasawwuf is Allah’s pleasure, which is acquired from the complete obedience to the injunctions of the shari‘a. Some of these injunctions pertain to the exoteric self, such as prayer (salah), fasting (sawm), pilgrimage (hajj), and alms (zakah).”[xiii] Injunctions pertaining to one’s transactions (such as loans), relations (such as marriage), and rights (such as the rights of the wife) constitute the exoteric part of Islamic law. All of this is the “science of jurisprudence” (‘ilm al-fiqh). Thanawi further says:

And some injunctions pertain to the esoteric self, such as the love and fear of Allah, His remembrance, reducing the love of the world, contentment with divine actions and decisions, generosity, attentiveness of the heart during worship, performing the acts of religion with sincerity, not considering anyone inferior to yourself, not being boastful about your self, and controlling anger. Adhering to these injunctions constitutes the path (al-sulūk). They are obligatory like the injunctions pertaining to the exoteric self.[xiv]

“Science of tasawwuf” (‘ilm al-tasawwuf) treats the esoteric nature of religion. Thus, Islam is a composite of these two sciences: ‘ilm al-fiqh and ‘ilm al-tasawwuf.

Thanawi’s Methodology
According to Mawlana Muhammad Īsa of Allahabad, Thanawi did not pay any attention to dreams; he disliked the display of [spiritual] powers (tasarruf), and did not anticipate special conditions, such as ecstatic rapture, absorption, etc., but always focused on performing the exoteric and esoteric injunctions of Islam. His unique taste in tasawwuf allowed his teachings to serve as a bridge between fiqh and tasawwuf. He disliked formalities, preferred seriousness, encouraged the discontinuation of rituals, and never concerned himself with the impertinent. He deemed that true struggle entails not leaving the permissible but abandonment of sin and lessening of the permissible. He could not tolerate anything that pressured the heart more than necessary. He preferred solitude to social interaction; however, he maintained social activity so that people could benefit from him. He was meticulous in time management. He disliked visiting the rich and government officials. These traits describe some aspects of his unique predilection.[xv]  Thanawi teaches tasawwuf in a pragmatic, yet profound way, so it is easy for the layman to practice, yet deep enough for the seeker to quench his thirst. Tasawwuf is a practical methodology of reform that is associated with understanding the present human condition and then curing blameworthy character traits with divine guidance and prophetic advices, and augmenting praiseworthy character traits by establishing consistency and sincerity.

The Role of a Shaykh
Explaining how divine guidance reaches humans, Ibn ‘Arabī (1165-1240) states, “God, the Ultimate Truth, guides us to Truth and shows us the Truth through the wisdom bestowed upon us by the ones who trod this path before us and who have entered this realm and understood what they saw.”[xvi] The shaykh will guide the disciple to inculcate virtues and overcome vices. Thanawi taught his followers to concern themselves with the attainment of virtues and not to overexert themselves in the eradication of vices. Moreover, they should not become discouraged because of their blameworthy traits. Once they solely focus on the good, the evil will vanish due to being deprived of their attention. He offered his disciples rational and pragmatic solutions, provided them with clear instructions, and prayed for them at every step of the Way. He nurtured their souls with wisdom and light, encouraging them to polish their spirits. Warning them from the treachery of the nafs, Thanawi says, “The nafs is a subtle entity. It is an inviter to evil (da‘i ila al-shar) and remains in the state of contentment (mutma’ina) for only a temporary time. It continues to remain suppressed due to one’s exertion and struggle (in the performance of good deeds).”[xvii] Thānawi explains that some seekers are discouraged after observing their vices while suppressing their nafs. Consequently, they end up in despair, and this hopelessness deteriorates their spiritual progress. To ward off the desolation of his disciples, he shared with them a secret of the human condition: people attain a state of contentment only for some time, which is proportionate to their exertion and effort, but after this, the nafs returns to its nature. He relieved his disciples by showing them that the reappearance of the nafs was a natural phenomenon, and if this was not the case, then they could no longer maintain a continuous struggle. Without continuous struggle, they could not attain higher states of spirituality, since these are contingent upon continuous struggle. In this way, he consoled his disciples and turned their despair into optimism. Allah Most Exalted says, “As for those who strive hard for Us (Our Cause), We will surely guide them to Our Paths. And verily, Allah is with the muhsinun (those who excel)” (Qur’ān 29:69).

Thanawi believed that unnecessary remorse and guilt does no good in the spiritual path. Tasawwuf is only arduous for those lacking its proper understanding. Thānawi and William James would both agree on the following point stated by the latter in The Varieties of Religious Experience, “Evil is a disease; and worry over disease is itself an additional form of disease, which only adds to the original complaint.”[xviii] We usually think that worrying about our evils is necessary in tasawwuf, in order to create the urge to reform our selves. However, the subtle noteworthy point here is that this worry should not become a discouraging factor leading to despair. Thanawi and William James are basically stating that instead of focusing one’s attention on the evil within, one should keep busy in good works and in developing virtues, which will eventually replace the vices.

Thānawi’s cautious method of reformation not only diagnosed his disciples’ vices, but also replaced them with virtues. He did not specifically make efforts to search for the spiritual diseases of his disciples, but if by chance he observed some vices, then he would bring these negative points to their attention. He says, “[A shaykh] should not try to find out the shortcomings of the disciple. However, if he observes them, then he should inform the disciple.”[xix] Company of a pious shaykh is instrumental in the process of spiritual purification and personal reformation. As stated earlier, this process involves not only eliminating vices but also replacing them with virtues. David L. Watson and Roland G. Tharp assert a key psychological principle: “Simply eliminating some undesired habit has been likened to creating a behavioral ‘vacuum.’ If something is not inserted in its place, the old behavior will quickly rush back in to fill the void.”[xx] Hence, eliminating evils is not sufficient, but virtues have to replace evils. This process can easily be carried out in the company of a pious shaykh, who not only diagnoses the spiritual diseases of the heart, but also replaces them with virtues appropriate to the seeker.

Take the example of courage and mercy. Thānawi says, “A courageous person is also a merciful person, whereas a coward is also hardhearted.”[xxi] He also said, “No task is arduous with courage, which comes through the company of a pious shaykh.”[xxii] Cardinal virtues are interrelated and the inculcation of one gives rise to another. Here Hakīm al-Umma points to the co-existing relationship between courage and mercy. Courage is not being audacious and foolhardy in all that one desires, but refers to a praiseworthy trait in warding off the blameworthy character traits and replacing them with the praiseworthy character traits. Courage is the ability to stand for the truth, and unconditionally comply with the edicts of the shari‘a. Such courage is attained through the company of a pious shaykh, for humans affect each other in unique ways.

Thanawi taught that “true respect (adab) consists of providing peace and comfort to others. Activities causing trouble to others do not constitute respect.”[xxiii] His approach arranged for the greatest amount of peace and inner comfort for the disciple and the shaykh. Once a disciple from Rangoon wrote to him that he wished to bring some gifts for him, and required his permission before purchasing them. Thānawi replied, “How much do you want to spend on these gifts and what things are available there? After knowing this, I can decide.” Pointing to the wisdom in this answer, Thanawi said, “This way, the task of choosing certain gifts remains with him, while I will only be choosing from what he selects. The second reason [for this reply] is that I did not know what he would bring and whether it would be of any use to me or not. The reason I asked about his budget is that I will only choose the appropriate things. In short, this method assures the comfort of both.”[xxiv] Thus, the reformatory efforts of the shaykh facilitate peace and comfort for all parties involved. What we have discussed so far only touches the surface of his teachings, a detailed study of Thanawi’s aphorisms (malfuzāt) and lectures (khutbāt) would surely provide a greater understanding of his methodology in tasawwuf. Such a study will also reveal that he develops an entire program or system of self-reformation, introducing many progressive steps and assigning these new alternatives his own, new and unique, Sufi terminology.


[i] This article summarizes a chapter from a forthcoming English biography of Hakim al-Umma Mawlana Ashraf ‘Ali Thanawi by the author. Readers are encouraged to make dua. May Allah Most Exalted give me the stamina to complete this noble project. Amīn.

[ii] Barbara Daly Metcalf, Islamic Revival in British India: Deoband, 1860-1900 (Princeton: Princeton University, 1982), 157.

[iii] Marcia K. Hermansen, “Rewriting Sufi Identity in the Twentieth Century: The Biographical Approaches of Maulana Ashraf ‘Ali Thanawi (d. 1943) and Khwaja Hasan Nizami (d. 1955).” Unpublished paper presented at the International Conference on Asian and North African Studies, Budapest, July 1997. The author expresses his gratitude to Professor Hermansen for this paper.

[iv] ‘Azīz al-Hasan Ghawrī, Ashraf al-sawānih (Multan: Idara T‘alifāt-i Ashrafiya, n.d.), 1: 52.

[v] Mawlana Ashraf ‘Ali Thānawi. Haqiqat al-tariqa min sunnat al-aniqa in Al-Takashuf min muhimat al-tasawwuf. 256-257. English translation taken form The Path to Perfection (Santa Barbara: White Thread Press, 2005), 18.

[vi] Mawlana Ashraf ‘Ali Thānawi, “Tarīq al-Qalandar”Khutbāt-e Hakīm al-Ummat, 11: 256-257. English translation from The Path to Perfection, 18.

[vii] Mawlana ‘Abd al-Bāri Nadwi, Tajdid-e suluk-o tasawwuf (Lucknow: Bari Publications, 1993), 4.

[viii] Sahīh al-Bukhāri and Sahīh Muslim. Explaining this hadith, Shaykh Abdur-Rahman Ibn Yusuf writes, “This hadith should not be misconstrued as sanctioning the abandonment of religious obligation just for the sake of ease” (Provisions for the Seeker, 74).

[ix] Malfuzāt (Multan: Idara-i T‘alifāt-i Ashrafiya, n.d.), 1: 68.

[x] Malfuzāt, 21: 281.

[xi] Malfuzāt, 21: 21.

[xii] Mawlana Ashraf ‘Ali Thanawi, Tarbiyat al-Sālik (Karachi: Darul Ishat, n.d.), 1: 6.

[xiii] Tarbiyat al-Sālik, 1: 7.

[xiv] Tarbiyat al-Sālik, 1: 7.

[xv] Summarized from Malfuzāt, 21: 23.

[xvi] Ibn ‘Arabi, Divine Governance of the Human Kingdom (Louisville: Fons Vitae, 1997), 23.

[xvii] Malfuzāt, 1: 65.

[xviii] William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience (New York: Barnes and Noble, 2004), 119.

[xix] Malfuzāt, 21: 24. 

[xx] David L. Watson and Roland G. Tharp, Self-Directed Behavior (Belmont: Wadsworth/Thomson Learning, 2002), 160.

[xxi] Malfuzāt, 1: 57.                                                                

[xxii] Malfuzāt, 1: 64.

[xxiii] Malfuzāt, 1: 44.

[xxiv] Malfuzāt, 1: 42.