Tasawwuf al-Basri

Shaykh Gibril Fouad Haddad

ON TASAWWUF: al-Hasan al-Basri (d. 110)

One of the early formal Sufis in both the general and the literal sense, as he wore all his life a cloak of wool (suf). The son of a freedwoman of Umm Salama’s (the Prophet’s wife) and a freedman of Zayd ibn Thabit’s (the Prophet’s stepson), this great Imam of Basra, the leader of saints and scholars in his day, was known for his strict and encompassing embodiment of the Sunna of the Prophet. He was also famous for his immense knowledge, his austerity and asceticism, his fearless remonstrances of the authorities, and his power of attraction both in discourse and appearance.

Ibn al-Jawzi wrote a 100-page book on his life and manners entitled Adab al-Shaykh al-Hasan ibn Abi al-Hasan al-Basri. In his chapter on al-Hasan in Sifat al-safwa, he mentions a report that al-Hasan left behind a white cloak (jubba) made of wool which he had worn exclusively of any other for the past twenty years, winter and summer, and that when he died it was in a state of immaculate beauty, cleanness, and quality.(1)

In the book he devoted to the sayings and the deeds of Sufis, Rawdat al-muhibbin wa nuzhat al-mushtaqin (The garden of the lovers and the excursion of the longing ones), Ibn Qayyim relates:

A group of women went out on the day of `Eid and went about looking at people. They were asked: “Who is the most handsome person you have seen today?” They replied: “It is a shaykh wearing a black turban.” They meant Hasan al-Basri.(2)

The hadith master Abu Nu`aym al-Isfanahi (d. 430) mentions in his biographies of Sufis entitled Hilyat al-awliya’ (The adornment of the saints) that it is al-Hasan’s student `Abd al-Wahid ibn Zayd (d. 177) who was the first person to build a Sufi khaniqa or guest-house and school at Abadan on the present-day border of Iran with Iraq.(3)

It was on the basis of Hasan al-Basri and his students’ fame as Sufis that Ibn Taymiyya stated: “Tasawwuf’s place of origin is Basra” in his essay al-Sufiyya wa al-fuqara.(4) This is a misleading assertion tantamount to accusing al-Hasan of having invented tasawwuf. Rather, Basra is chief among the places of renown for the formal development of the schools of purification which became known as tasawwuf, but whose principles are none other than the Qur’an and the Sunna as we have already demonstrated at length.

Ghazali relates al-Hasan’s words on Jihad al-nafs in the section of his Ihya’ entitled Kitab riyadat al-nafs wa tahdhib al- akhlaq wa mu`alajat amrad al-qalb (Book of the training of the ego and the disciplining of manners and the healing of the heart’s diseases) that Hasan al-Basri said:

Two thoughts roam over the soul, one from Allah, one from the enemy. Allah shows mercy on a servant who settles at the thought that comes from Him. He embraces the thought that comes from Allah, while he fights against the one from his enemy. To illustrate the heart’s mutual attraction betwen these two powers the Prophet said: “The heart of a believer lies between two fingers of the Merciful”(5)… The fingers stand for upheaval and hesitation in the heart… If man follows the dictates of anger and appetite, the dominion of shaytan appears in him through idle passions [hawa] and his heart becomes the nesting-place and container of shaytan, who feeds on hawa. If he does battle with his passions and does not let them dominate his nafs, imitating in this the character of the angels, at that time his heart becomes the resting-place of angels and they alight upon it.

A measure of the extent of Hasan al-Basri’s extreme godwariness and scrupulosity (wara`) is given by his following statement, also quoted by Ghazali:

Forgetfulness and hope are two mighty blessings upon the progeny of Adam; but for them the Muslims would not walk in the streets.(6)

Notes: (1) Ibn al-Jawzi, Sifat al-safwa 2(4):10 (#570). (2) Ibn al-Qayyim, Rawdat al-muhibbin p. 225. (3) Abu Nu`aym, Hilyat al-awliya’ 6:155. (4) Ibn Taymiyya, al-Tasawwuf in Majmu`a al-fatawa al-kubra 11:16. (5) Narrated by Muslim, Ahmad, Tirmidhi, and Ibn Majah. (6) In Ghazali, trans. T.J. Winter, The remembrance of death p. 18.

Blessings and Peace on the Prophet, his Family, and his Companions

[Reproduced with permission from Shaykh M. Hisham Kabbani’s The Repudiation of “Salafi” Innovations (ASFA, 1996) p. 274-276.]