What is Tasawwuf? "Verily, he who has purified the heart is successful and he who has despoiled it has lost." Many people have misunderstandings about tasawwuf. Many think that it is something beyond the Qur'an and Sunnah. Errant Sufis as well as the superficial ulema, although on the opposite ends of the spectrum, are together in holding this mistaken notion. Consequently the first group has shunned the Qur'an and Hadith while the second group has shunned tasawwuf.
Actually, although the term tasawwuf, like many other religious terms in use today, evolved later, the discipline is very much part of the Shariah. The department of the Shariah relating to external deeds like salat and zakat is called fiqh while the one dealing with the internal feelings and states of the heart is called tasawwuf. Both are commanded in the Qur'an. Thus while commanding Salat and Zakat, the Qur'an also commands gratefulness and love of Allah and condemns the evil of pride and vanity. Similarly, in the books of hadith, along with the chapters on Ibadat, trade and commerce, marriage and divorce, are to be found the chapters on riya' (show off) takabbur, akhlaq, etc. These commands are as much a mandatory requirement as the ones dealing with external deeds.
On reflection it will be realized that all the external deeds are designed for the reformation of the heart. That is the basis of success in the hereafter while its despoiling is the cause of total destruction. This is precisely what is known technically as tasawwuf. Its focus is tahzeebe akhlaq or the adornment of character; its motive is the attainment of Divine pleasure; its method is total obedience to the commands of the Shariah.
Tasawwuf is the soul of Islam. Its function is to purify the heart from the lowly bestial attributes of lust, calamities of the tongue, anger, malice, jealousy, love of the world, love of fame, niggardliness, greed, ostentation, vanity, deception, etc. At the same time it aims at the adornment of the heart with the lofty attributes of repentance, perseverance, gratefulness, fear of Allah , hope, abstention, tauheed, trust, love, sincerity, truth, contemplation, etc.
To diagnose and treat the diseases of the heart normally requires the help of an expert teacher or Shaykh. Here are the qualities of a proper Shaykh.
1. He possesses necessary religious knowledge.
2. His beliefs, habits, and practices are in accordance with the Shariah.
3. He does not harbor greed for the worldly wealth.
4. He has himself spent time learning from a proper Shaykh.
5. The scholars and good mashaikh of his time hold good opinion about him.
6. His admirers are mostly from among the people who have good understanding of religion.
7. Most of his followers follow the Shariah and are not the seekers after this world.
8. He sincerely tries to educate and morally train his followers. If he sees anything wrong in them, he corrects it.
9. In his company one can feel a decrease in the love of this world and an increase in the love for Allah (subhanahu wa ta ala).
10. He himself regularly performs dhikr and spiritual exercises.
In searching for a Shaykh, do not look for his ability to perform karamat (miracles) or to foretell the future. A very good Shaykh may not be able to perform any karamat. On the other hand, a person showing karamat does not have to be a pious person --- or even a Muslim.
Prominent Sufi Bayazid Bistami says: "Do not be deceived if you see a performer of supernatural feats flying in the air. Measure him on the standard of the Shariah."
When you find the right Shaykh and you are satisfied with his ability to provide spiritual guidance, you perform baya or pledge. This is a two-way commitment; the Shaykh pledges to guide you in light of Shariah and you pledge to follow him. Then the Shaykh will give his murid (student) initial instructions. They include the following:
1. Perform repentance for all the past sins and take steps to make amends, e.g. if any salat has been missed so far in the life, you start making up for it.
2. If you have any unmet financial obligations toward another person make plans to discharge them.
3. Guard your eyes, ears and tongue.
4. Perform dhikr regularly.
5. Start a daily session of self-accounting before going to bed. Review all the good and bad deeds performed during the day. Repent for the bad ones and thank Allah (subhanahu wa ta ala for the good ones.
6. Perform muraqaba-maut (meditation over death) every night before going to bed. Just visualize that you have died. Reflect upon the pangs of death, the questioning in the grave, the plain of Resurrection, the Reckoning , the presence in the Court of Allah, subhanahu wa ta ala, etc. This helps bring softness to the heart and break the tendency to commit sins.
7. Develop humility. Even if you observe another individual committing the worst of vices you should not despise him/her, nor should you consider yourself nobler. It is very much possible that the perpetrator of the vice may resort to sincere repentance while the one who despised the sinner become ensnared in the traps of nafs and Shaytan. One has no certainty regarding one's end. One, therefore has no basis for regarding another with contempt.
The essential idea of tahzeebe akhlaq is to bring our natural faculties in a state of balance. The three basic faculties are anger, desires, and intelligence.
Anger: When in equilibrium it results in valor, forbearance, steadfastness, the ability to restrain anger, and dignity. Excess will result in rashness, boastfulness, pride, inability to restrain anger, and vanity. A deficiency will result in cowardice, disgrace and feelings of inferiority.
Desires: Equilibrium here results in chastity, generosity, haya (decency), patience and contentment. Its excess leads to greed and lust. The other extreme results in narrow-mindedness, impotence, etc.
Intelligence: Equilibrium here makes man wise, sharp-witted and one with great insights. Excess here makes one deceptive, fraudulent and an impostor. Its lack results in ignorance and stupidity with the consequence that such a person is quickly misled.
A person will be considered as having a beautiful character only when these faculties are in the state of balance and equilibrium. Internal beauty varies with people just as external beauty does. The possessor of the most beautiful seerah was Prophet Muhammad, Sallallahu alaihi wa sallam. The beauty of our seerah is based on its closeness to his seerah.