Article Printer Friendly Printer Friendly 

Counsels of a Sufi Master


Ralph (R.W.J.) Austin

Source: Studies in Comparative Religion, Vol. 5, No. 4 (Autumn, 1971). © World Wisdom, Inc.

DURING its long history the Shādhilī Order has produced many masters of great stature, many of whom have left to us precious records of their spiritual guidance and teaching. Eminent among these masters was the author of the sayings translated below, Ibn ‘Atā’ Allāh al-Iskandarī, disciple of Abū al-‘Abbās al-Mursī whose own master had been the founder of the Order, Abū al-Hasan al-Shādhilī. His sayings or Hikam must rank among the finest works of spiritual counsel, not only in Islam, but in the world.

Not very much is known concerning the details of his life. He was born in Alexandria during the 13th century, but later moved to Cairo where he spent most of his life. He died there in 1309 A.D.

Of his twenty compositions only six have been printed, and of these three deserve special mention.

In his Latā'if al-minan[1] Ibn ‘Atā’ Allāh wrote an account of his own master Abū al-‘Abbās al-Mursī and also Abū al-Hasan al-Shādhilī, thus providing us with valuable information on two of the most eminent masters of the Order. Partly in answer to Ibn Taymiyya's attack on the practice of dhikr or the invocation of the divine Name, he wrote a work entitled Al-Qasd al-mujarrad ma`rifat al-ism al-mufrad[2] in which he supports the practice and discusses its great benefits.

The greatest of all his works and that for which he is best known is his Hikam,[3] a collection of over two hundred sayings intended as spiritual guidance for his disciples. The last part of the work consists of a long prayer which is a synthesis of all the sayings which precede it. It is one of the finest pieces of devotional writing in Islamic literature. Some sixty-four sayings have been selected and translated below.

Some indication of the importance of this work in Sufi literature is the number of commentaries which have been written on it. Nine commentaries are mentioned by Brockellman in his Geschichte des Arabischen Literatur.[4] The two most famous commentaries are Ghawth al-mawāhib by Ibn ‘Abbād al-Rundī,[5] and Tanbīh dhawī al-himam by another great master of the Order, Ahmad Zarrūq.[6] The former commentary is particularly valuable in that al-Rundī provides a wealth of quotations both from Sufi and Hadith literature to illustrate his commentary. It is hoped at some future date to prepare another selection from the Hikam, perhaps on some particular topic, incorporating these quotations.

The central theme of the Hikam is undoubtedly the continuous and all-pervading contemplation or consciousness of God (shuhūd). Implicit in and deriving from this central concept are the two subsidiary themes of the work, that of complete honesty (sidq) in realizing (tahaqquq) one's status as servant, and that of fulfilling all that is due to His Lordship.

The intention of the Hikam is clearly, not only to encourage and enlighten the aspirant on the Sufi Way, but above all to leave him no room at all for egoistic maneuver, self-justification or self-deception. The Hikam drives the reader relentlessly to the point where he must face unflinchingly the stark reality of his own utter helplessness and nothingness (fāqah). The author penetrates inexorably into even the deepest strongholds of egoistic illusion. However we will let the Hikam speak for itself.


1    Your wishing to be isolated (from the world) when God has placed you in its midst betrays selfish desire; to wish for the world when God has isolated you from it is evidence of a decline in your aspiration.

2     Bury your existence in the soil of obscurity; for that which is not buried, though it may sprout, will never bear fruit.

3     All relative being is a darkness illumined only by God's Self-manifestation within it. Whoever looks upon created beings without perceiving Him in them, around them, before them and after them is devoid of all spiritual lights and is veiled by the clouds of ephemera from the suns of gnosis.

4     How could one imagine that anything veils Him, when it is He Who manifests everything?

How could one imagine that anything veils Him, when He is manifest through everything?

How could one imagine that anything veils Him, when He is manifest in everything?

How could one imagine that anything veils Him, when He is manifest to everything?

How could one imagine that anything veils Him, when He was manifested before anything was?

How could one imagine that anything veils Him, when He is more manifest than anything else?

How could one imagine that anything veils Him, when He is the Incomparable?

How could one imagine that anything veils Him, when He is closer to you than anything else?

How could one imagine that anything veils Him, since, were it not for Him, nothing would exist?

5     He who wishes for something at a time other than that in which God has ordained its manifestation has lost nothing of his ignorance.

6     Your seeking from Him only shows your lack of faith in Him.

Your seeking after Him only shows that you have absented yourself from His Presence.

Your seeking after other than Him only betrays your shamelessness before Him.

Your seeking from other than Him only shows your distance from Him.

7     Do not be surprised at the tribulations of this world; the world only produces what is consistent with its ephemeral nature.

8     What a difference there is between the one who infers the existence of created things from His existence and the one who infers His Reality from the existence of created beings! The former knows God through Himself, inferring the existence of created things from the existence of their Origin. The latter, because he has not yet attained to Him, infers the existence of God (from relative existence). When is He ever absent that His existence should need to be inferred? When is He ever distant that He should be attained through relative being?

9     It is far better for you to look into your hidden defects than that you should strive to understand mysteries which are hidden from you.

10    It is not God Who is hidden, but you who are unaware of His Presence; if anything veiled Him, it would conceal Him which would imply a restriction upon Him. Now every restriction suggests mastery over the thing restricted. However, "He it is Who overwhelms His servants".[7]

11    The root of all sin, heedlessness and lust is self-satisfaction, while the root of all obedience, awareness and self-restraint is dissatisfaction with oneself. It is far better that you should associate with an ignorant man who is not self-satisfied than that you should seek the company of some self-satisfied savant; for what does the learning of the latter really amount to, or what ignorance can truly be attributed of the former?

12    Do not wander endlessly from one created thing to another, like the donkey on the mill-wheel who sets out from the very place to which he is traveling; rather journey from what is created towards Him Who creates, for "To thy Lord does all come in the end".[8]

13    No act springing from the heart of one who has abandoned the world can be of small account, just as no act deriving from the heart of a covetous man can be of any real consequence.

14    Never abandon your Invocation merely because you do not feel in it your presence with God, since your lack of attention to the Invocation itself would be far more serious than your state of in-attention in it. (Be patient) perhaps He will uplift you from an inattentive Invocation to one that is full of awareness, from that to one that is full of the Presence of God and from that to one in which you are oblivious to all but the One Whom you invoke. Such a thing would not be difficult for God.

15    That you should not feel remorse for the missed opportunities of conforming to His will and that you should cease to regret the lapses you have permitted yourself are signs that the heart is dead.

16    Nothing drives you more relentlessly (away from God) than the evil imagination (wahm) [9]

17    When you find that you persist in behaving badly towards Him, despite His continuing goodness towards you, fear greatly, lest that be the cause of your slipping little by little (into damnation); He says, "We cause them to slip gradually in ways they know not".[10]

18    When you encounter someone who offers answers to every question, expounds on everything he has experienced and reveals all he knows, you may reasonably conclude that he is ignorant.

19    If you would know the destiny He has ordained for you, reflect on that to which He has appointed you.

20    To be always grieving for one's failure to obey without practicing obedience is a sign of self-delusion.

21    True hope always goes hand in hand with right action, otherwise it is only wishful thinking.

22    What the gnostics seek of God is that He should make them completely true to their state of servanthood and enable them perfectly to fulfill what is due to His Supreme Lordship.

23    Often in giving you something He is (in reality) denying you (something), just as He may, in denying you something, be really bestowing a gift upon you.

24    Outwardly, created being is beguiling and deluding, while inwardly it is a clue to understanding; the soul sees only its deceptive luster, but the heart may perceive its inner teaching.

25    Let it suffice as reward, when you have obeyed Him, that He considers you worthy to do so.

26    By His giving He makes you a witness of His bounty and by His withholding He makes you a witness of His constraining power; in both cases He reveals to you something of Himself and thus favors you with His grace.

27    A sin which leaves behind it a sense of humility and helplessness is better than an act of obedience which leads to self-importance and pride.

28    Helplessness is inherent in your nature and the tribulations you suffer serve to remind you of that helplessness which you are prone to forget. Such helplessness cannot be relieved by what is ephemeral.

29    One receives His aid in accordance with one's aptitude to receive it and one is illumined by His lights according as one's inmost heart is pure.

30    On waking from sleep the heedless man considers what he will do during the day; the intelligent man considers rather what God will do with him.

31    Seeing that He denies you the right to claim for yourself what belongs to others of His creatures, is He likely to let you arrogate to yourself any of His qualities, Who is Lord of the worlds?

32    How can you imagine that the habitual course of things will be interrupted for you, when you have broken none of your soul's habits? [11]

33    You have no better advocate with Him than your helplessness, and there is no surer access to His gifts than your humility and poverty.

34    If the eradication of all your faults and the renunciation of all your claims were the only means of attaining to Him, you would never succeed. When He wishes to draw you to Himself He conceals your quality in His and your attribute in His, thus drawing you to Himself by what He does for you, not by what you do for Him.

35    Were it not for His forbearing concealment (of your nothingness and His Absolute Reality), no (self-attributed) act would be worthy of His acceptance.

36    It is not the coexistence of created being with Him which veils God from your sight, but only your delusion in imagining such co-existence.

37    Because He is the Hidden, He makes all things manifest.

Because He is the Apparent, He annihilates all things'.[12]

38    When a believer is praised he is ashamed before God in that he has had attributed to him a quality he cannot discern in himself.

39    Do not despair of your Lord's favor when you fall into sin; it might be the last sin you are destined to commit.

40    If you would be full of hope, you need only reflect upon what He has bestowed upon you; if you would know what fear is, you have only to consider what He has encountered on your part.

41    Often, during the night of spiritual anguish, He grants benefits which you could never have gained in the shining day of gladness. "You do not know which of them is of more benefit to you".[13]

42    When you desire that men should know of your special calling, you betray a lack of sincerity in your servanthood.

43    His concern with you has nothing whatsoever to do with anything on your part. Where were you when He directed His concern upon you and took you under His care? In His pre-eternity there are neither selfless deeds nor spiritual states, but only His overflowing grace and sublime favor.

44    Realize (in yourself) your qualities (of servitude) and He will endow you with His qualities.

Realize your lowliness and He will impart to you of His glory.

Realize your powerlessness and He will lend you of His power.

Realize your weakness and He will gird you with His might.[14]

45    He who expounds to men on the basis of his own virtue is soon reduced to silence by his wrong doing; he who does so on the basis of God's goodness to him is not silenced by the wrong he may commit.

46    Spiritual exposition is food for the hungry in spirit, and you may have of it only as much as you are able to absorb.

47    One who is traveling the Way ought not to talk about his experiences, lest he reduce their effectiveness in the heart and hinder a sincere relationship with his Lord.

48    To be eager in performing superrogatory acts and yet reluctant to fulfill what is obligatory shows that one is still at the mercy of egoistic caprice.

49    Whoever doubts that God will deliver him from his lust or free him from his heedlessness calls into question the omnipotence of God, "Who is capable of all things".[15]

50    The domination of the heart by the sweet pleasure of caprice is indeed a chronic disease.

51    The opportunities you have missed of serving Him are irretrievable and those you still have are priceless.

52    Your conformity to His will does not benefit Him, nor does your disobedience harm Him in the least. He commands this or forbids that only for what it will bring you.

53    You are near to Him only when you are aware of His proximity to you; otherwise, what are you that He should draw near to you? [16]

54    Do not rejoice over some spiritual experience until you see what it brings. Clouds are desired for the fruit they help to nurture, not merely for their rain.

55    True felicity, whatever the variety of its manifestations, can only be real in contemplation of and proximity to Him, just as suffering, whatever forms it may take, is not real unless you be veiled from Him. The true cause of suffering is His concealment, while to behold His face is perfect felicity.

56    All the cares and griefs of men's hearts stem from that which obscures their awareness of Him.

57    Whoever is sure of his own humility is, in truth, a proud man, since consciousness of one's own humility derives only from self-esteem. When therefore you become convinced that you are humble, know that you are, in reality, proud.

58    Whoever considers himself worthy of more than he has, is not humble; the humble man sees himself as unworthy even of what is accorded to him.

59    But for the illusory pursuits of the soul, there would be no Way for the aspirant to travel; for there is, in truth, no distance between you and Him for you to traverse, nor is there any real separation between you and Him to abolish.

60    While you have no consciousness of the Creator you are merely part of creation, but if you have, creation is part of you.

61    How may you seek recompense for an act which He has bestowed upon you, or how may you seek reward for the sincerity which He has conferred upon you?

62    There is no Invocation without contemplation and meditation.

63    He has granted you three miracles. Firstly, He has caused you to invoke Him, and but for His grace you had not been worthy to receive the favor of His remembrance. Secondly, He has caused you to be mentioned in association with Him (servant of God), thus confirming your connection with Him. Thirdly, He has Himself remembered you and has thus completed His favor upon you.

64    What a terrible setback it is when, having finished your work, you do not turn towards Him, and that, even when obstacles are few, you do not the more eagerly pursue your journey towards Him!


[1] Cairo 1322/1904, on the margin of Sha’rānī's Latā'if al-Minan.

[2] Cairo, 1930.

[3]  Cairo, 1970.

[4] II 143 sq; Suppl. II 145 sqq.

[5] Cairo, 1970.

[6] Cairo, 1969.

[7] Qur'an VI, 18.

[8] Qur'an LM, 42.

[9] al-Wahm is that fundamental illusion of separative formal identity which obscures all awareness of true Reality.

[10] Qur'an VII, 182.

[11] This is addressed to those who seek to receive or perform miracles and wonders. Sufi masters have usually warned against seeking or using such powers.

[12] The world of created things is real only to the extent that we are unaware of His Reality. When we are aware of Him all things are annihilated in that awareness.

[13] Qur'an IV, 11.

[14] Realization here does not mean merely intellectual recognition, but rather the "making real" in one's outer and inner life.

[15] Qur'an II, 19.

[16] Abū Hamid al-Ghazālī said, "Everything has two faces, a face of its own and a face of its Lord; in respect of its own face it has no reality and in respect of its Lord's face it is real".