Book of Wisdoms – Shaykh Nuh HM Keller

Shaykh Gibril Fouad Haddad

Book of Wisdoms al-Hikam al-‘Ata’iyyaby Nuh Ha Mim Keller

Infinitude is the native land from whence Allah has created the soul, then summoned it again upon the tongue of His messengers (Allah bless them and give them peace) from its exile. This is the first of a series of articles the interpreter has been asked to write on “traditional Islamic spirituality,” a science that deals with answering this summons, lifting the heart from the narrowness of the self to the limitlessness of the knowledge and love of the Divine.

People have spoken and written much about Sufism, as the discipline is known, but these articles shall endeavor to understand it in its own context by translating, Allah willing, Ibn ‘Ata’ Illah’s famous Book of Wisdoms (al-Hikam al-‘Ata’iyya), a classical manual of spiritual development, together with some commentary on it. One either has a tariqa and a sheikh or one does not, and Ibn ‘Ata’ Illah is writing without apology for those who do, although the insights he raises may interest many others.

The interpreter conveys this knowledge by the authorization of Sheikh ‘Abd al-Rahman al-Shaghouri, from Muhammad Sa‘id al-Kurdi, from Muhammad al-Hashimi, from Ahmad al-‘Alawi, from Muhammad al-Buzidi, from Muhammad Qaddur al-Wakili, from Abu Ya‘za al-Mahaji and Muhammad ibn ‘Abd al-Qadir, from al-Arabi al-Darqawi, from ‘Ali al-Jamal, from al-‘Arabi ibn ‘Abdullah, from Ahmad ibn ‘Abdullah, from Qasim al-Khassasi, from Muhammad ibn ‘Abdullah, from ‘Abd al-Rahman al-Fasi, from Yusuf al-Fasi, from ‘Abd al-Rahman al-Majdhub, from ‘Ali al-Sanhaji al-Dawwar, from Ibrahim al-Fahham, from Ahmad Zarruq, from Ahmad al-Hadrami, from Yahya al-Qadiri, from ‘Ali ibn Wafa, from Muhammad Wafa Bahr al-Safa, from Dawud al-Bakhili, from Ibn ‘Ata’ Illah al-Iskandari the author of the work (Allah be well pleased with them all of them), who says:

1. One of the signs of relying on deeds is loss of hope when a misstep occurs.

The sheikh begins his book with this key aphorism because it is of the adab or “proper way” of travelling the spiritual path to focus upon tawhid or the “Divine Oneness,” in this context meaning to rely upon Allah, not on works, since

“Allah created you and that which you do” (Qur’an 37:96).

The method of the spiritual ascent is threefold, consisting of knowledge (‘ilm), practice (‘amal), and the resultant state (hal) bestowed by Allah. Knowledge here means everything conveyed to us by the Holy Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace), which is the content of the Sacred Law or shari‘a. The practice of this knowledge, inwardly and outwardly, with heart and limbs, is the spiritual path or tariqa. The resultant state, Allah’s drawing near to the heart that thus draws near to Him, is the dawning of the Divine Presence upon the soul, termed by Sufis “ultimate reality” or haqiqa.

Ibn ‘Ata’ Illah, as a spiritual guide, is concerned in this work with the second moment of this ascent, that of way and works, so begins his book by letting the traveller know that the matter of his spiritual progress is in Allah’s hands alone. Discouragement at the inevitable mistakes one makes in the path is a sign of relying on one’s deeds rather than on Allah.

Works, whether prayer, or the dhikr or “remembrance” of Allah, or fasting, or jihad, do not cause one to reach the end of the path, but are merely proper manners before the majesty of the Divine while on it. Just as putting one’s net in the sea does not produce fish, though one must keep it there so that if Allah sends fish they can be caught—so too works are a net, and their spiritual outcomes are from Allah. Abu Hurayra (Allah be well pleased with him) heard the Holy Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) say:

“None of you shall be saved by his works.” A man said, “Not even you yourself, O Messenger of Allah?” He said, “Not even me myself, unless Allah envelopes me in mercy from Him. But aim to do right” (Muslim, 4.2169: 2816).

Imam Nawawi comments:

The outward purport of these hadiths [n: of which Muslim relates several] bears out the position of those who are in the right, that no one deserves reward and paradise for his acts of obedience. As for the words of Allah Most High

“Enter paradise for that which you have done” (Qur’an 16:32),


“That is paradise, which you have been bequeathed for what you used to do” (Qur’an 7:43),

and similar verses that indicate that paradise is entered by virtue of works, they do not contradict these hadiths. Rather, the meaning of the verses is that entering paradise is because of works, although divinely given success (tawfiq) to do the works, and being guided to have sincerity in them, and their acceptability are the mercy of Allah Most High and His favor (Sharh Sahih Muslim, 17.160–61).

The true spiritual path is one of gratitude. Abu Sulayman al-Darani used to say, “How can a sane man be conceited about his spiritual works, when his works are but a gift from Allah and a blessing from Him that he should thank Him for” (Nata’ij al-afkar, 1.114). And Abu Madyan has said, “The heartbrokenness of the sinner is better than the forcefulness of the obedient” (Diwan, 50).

Ibn ‘Ata’ Illah in this aphorism is apprising the traveller not to be veiled from the true path by his own high resolve. While irada or “will” is presupposed by the way, indeed the word murid or “disciple” is derived from it, the path ultimately sublimates it into its opposite through tawhid, disclosing it to be a mere cause, conjoined with the soul’s ascent not out of logical necessity but out of Allah’s pure largesse. For this reason some sheikhs term a traveller of the former spiritual vantage a murid or “desirer,” and one of the latter a faqir or “needy.” The prophet Moses (upon whom be blessings and peace) said when he reached the land of Midian,

“My Lord, I am truly in need of what good You have sent down to me” (Qur’an 28:24).

This humble sincerity of slavehood, or we could say realism, enables the genuine spiritual traveller to benefit in the path from both his good and his evil.

He benefits from his good by not seeing it as from himself, for as Abu Bakr al-Wasiti says, “The closest of all things to Allah’s loathing is beholding the self and its actions” (‘Uyub al-nafs, 39), that is, because it contradicts tawhid, for Allah says,

“Whatever blessing you have, it is from Allah” (Qur’an 16:53).

And he benefits from his evil by his faith (iman) that it is evil, which is itself an act of obedience; and by repenting from it, which rejoices Allah Most High. Anas ibn Malik (Allah be well pleased with him) relates from the Holy Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace) that he said:

Truly, Allah rejoices more at the atonement of His servant when he repents to Him than one of you would if he were on his riding camel in an empty tract of desert, and it got away from him with all his food and water on it, and he gave up all hope of finding it, so he came to a tree and laid down in its shade, having despaired of ever seeing it again. While lying there, he suddenly finds it standing beside him, and he seizes its halter, and overjoyed, cries, “O Allah, You are my slave, and I am your lord,” making a mistake out of sheer joy” (Muslim, 4.2104: 2747).

The secret of true repentance (tawba) in the spiritual path is this divine rejoicing it is met with from Allah Most High. Abul Hasan al-Shadhili, the sheikh of Ibn ‘Ata’ Illah’s own sheikh, used to daily pray to Allah: “And when we disobey You, show us even greater mercy than You do when we obey You” (Invocations, 27).

Ibn ‘Ata’ Illah made this the first aphorism of his Book of Wisdoms to apprise the traveller that when failings happen, there is also work to be done: to repent to Allah, to realize that Allah is generous, and to hope for the best from the spiritual path. The mark of relying on Allah is that one’s hope is undiminished. The mark of relying on one’s self is that it soars until there is a misstep, when it plummets along with its injured pride. Discouragement in the path is an incomprehension of the Divine Omnipotence, while certitude in the path and in one’s Lord is of the adab of those who know Allah.


© Nuh Ha Mim Keller 2000

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