Islamic Heritage of South Asia

Tasawwuf – Basic Terminology

Basic Terminology of Tasawwuf (اصتلاحات)

Dr. Nazeer Ahmed

Islamic history is not complete without a journey through the gardens of bliss nourished by tasawwuf. . From Timbuktu and Casablanca to Istanbul, Cairo, Baghdad, Samarqand, Multan, Lahore, Delhi, Sylhet, Kuala Lumpur and Aceh, no part of the world has been left untouched by the baraka (grace) of the Awliyah. Indeed, tasawwuf was the conduit for the introduction of Islam into Indonesia, Malaysia, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nigeria, East Africa, Central Asia and Europe. Tasawwuf had a deep impact on the historical development of Christian, Jewish, Hindu and Sikh spirituality and it continues as a beacon of light in the modern world.

We are introducing our distinguished readers to the treasures of spirituality bequeathed to us by the great spiritual masters from the past. This is a deep ocean. One dives into it and discovers treasures of love, contentment, perseverance, generosity, forgiveness, and selfless service in accordance with his/her spiritual station. But as Mevlana Rumi said: “You are not a drop in the ocean; you are the ocean in a drop”. Let us dive into this ocean and partake of the jewels that our hearts can find.

Love is the central theme of tasawwuf. In a world rent asunder by conflict, tasawwuf is a bridge that offers an existential possibility to bring together people of different faiths, nationalities, colors, creeds and origin.

This first article offers a definition of some of the terminology of tasawwuf. We caution that some of the terms may appear too esoteric to the uninitiated. Nonetheless, we offer them here so that the reader may better understand the historical contributions of the great Sufi Shaikhs. We intend to expand and elaborate this terminology as we add more articles in this category.  

Some Introductory Definitions

‘Ilm: Knowledge, especially the inner knowledge of things

A’bd: A servant of Allah; a worshipper; one who adores Allah

A’lim: A person of knowledge; a shaikh; a scientist; an a’rif

A’mal: Action; it is what you do

A’ql: Reason; intellect

Arif: A scholar who has attained Mu’arifah (inner knowledge)

Akhira: The hereafter

Anayah: The ego; the “I” or “Me” in conversation

Awrad: Repetitive remembrance of the Names of Allah (also called Wazifah)

Ayah (Ayat): A Sign; A Sign in nature; A Sign within the Self; A passage of the Qur’an

Baraka: Grace; The Grace of God; the grace from the presence of the Prophet; the grace from a good deed; the grace from the presence of a Shaikh or a pious, loving elderly person;

Dhikr: Remembrance of the Most Beautiful Names of Allah. Dhikr can be silent or vocal in slow rhythmic, melodious tones

Duniya: the world; the ephemeral, enticing, deceiving world

Ehsan: Beauty, excellence, goodness; an attribute of Allah

Faqr: Poverty (as in Fakir); utter want before the presence of All

Fikr: Reflection; contemplation; consideration

Ghafr: Forgiveness; Allah is al Ghafoor (the most forgiving)

Hadara: To be present; to present one’s purified heart before the majesty of Allah

Haqeeqat: Reality; the Essence of things

Hijab: Screen or curtain; the screening of Allah’s essence by His own attributes

Jannah: heaven; to be in the presence of Allah

Jihad (j-h-d): to strive; to struggle; in tasawwuf it is often used to describe the unceasing struggle of the soul to ascend to divine presence

Jism (plural ajsam): The body; the senses

Kamal: Perfection (of the soul)

Kasab: What you earn through your actions

Kashaf: the lifting of a screen or curtain so that the Self receives a higher illumination from divine presence

Khilwah: Withdrawal; disengagement from attachment to the mundane world

Khushu’: Awe and wonder before Allah

Mohsin: A person who has inculcated Ehsan; a person who excels in doing good

Momin: One who has certainty of faith

Mu’arifah (Mu’arifat): Inner knowledge; knowledge of the essence of things

Muhibbah: Love.

Mureed: a student; one who seeks knowledge

Nafs: The soul; the Self; the Person; a comprehensive term that includes the senses, the mind and the heart

Nur: Light; the Light from Allah; knowledge

Nur e Muhammadi: The Light of Muhammad; the pristine light of creation; the first emanation from Allah’s Grace

Qalb: The heart; the seat of love; the container of Divine Names; that which turns either towards Allah or towards the world

Qawl: Word; the Word of Allah

Qawwal: One who recites the Word in a melodious voice

Qawwali: An ecstatic, highly developed musical form in Pakistan, India and Bangladesh dedicated to the praise of God and the Prophet (peace be upon him). Certain forms of Qawwali also exist in Iran, Turkey, Central Asia, Egypt and West Africa

Rab: The Creator, Sustainer and Cherisher; Allah

Rububiyet: the muqam (station) and attributes of the Rab

Ruh: The spirit given to us by God Almighty; the moving force of life

Sakina: Tranquility of the heart that comes from the presence of Allah

Salam: Peace that accompanies the presence of Allah; a Name of Allah

Saleem: Sound and wholesome; a sound heart that is presented before Allah

Salik: the student; the seeker; one who is on the path of suluk

Satr: covering; that which is covered up; to cover up (one’s defects)

Shaikh: a teacher who molds and nurtures the nafs and the qalb of a student

Shariah: The Law of Allah which governs Allah’s creation. There is Shariah as applied to human societies as there is Shariah which governs nature (the heavens and the earth)

Shukr: Thankfulness; gratitude

Sohbet: Companionship (of the pious)

Suluk: the path of tasawwuf; the method of tasawwuf

Tajalli: Manifestation of God’s Light; Epiphany

Tanzil (plural Tanzilat): The descent of divine Grace

Tareeeqa: A method and a process to get close to divine presence; a group dedicated to acquiring inner knowledge under the tutelage of a genuine Shaikh. The tareeqas that are most widely followed include: Qadariya, Chishtiya, Nakhshbandiya, Mevlaviya, Suhrwardiya, Tajaniya, Jazuliya. It is said that there are 40 tareeqas in the world. Tareeqas are not mutually exclusive; they are inclusive. They recognize the validity and sanctity of each approach. A person may belong to several tareeqas at once.

Tauba: Turning away from what is not good towards what is good; repentance

Tazkiya: Purification; purification of the heart. The purpose of tasawwuf is Tazkiya

Tazkiyatunnafs: Purification of the Self from blameworthy attributes

U’ruj: The ascent of the soul to divine presence

Ubudiyet: Servanthood; the state and condition of the human

Wadud: The loving; an attribute of Allah; al Wadud is a Name of Allah

Wa Allahu A’lam wa astaghfirullahu Rabbi