Distancing Oneself from the Worldly: Renunciation (Zuhd) According to al-Muḥāsibī and al-Sarrāj

Distancing Oneself from the Worldly: Renunciation (Zuhd) According to al-Muḥāsibī and al-Sarrāj

It is best not to draw forced comparisons between Sufism and Aristotelian virtue ethics, but renunciation does provide an instructive parallel. The greatest challenge in renunciation is that a person ought to abstain from worldly pleasures entirely out of disinterest in them, not because one is tempted by them or sees them as having great value. Rather, a true renunciant acts out of a lucid sense that value resides in God alone. This renunciant sees the worldly (al-dunyā) for what it is, as though it has no essential worth. In this there is a telling similarity between renunciation and Aristotle’s explanation of the difference between temperance and continence (enkrateia, sometimes “self-control”). According to Aristotle, one person refrains from certain bodily pleasures because he or she lacks excessive and bad appetites.1 This person’s abstention from excessive and vile pleasures is completely internalized in that it has none of the pains of compelling oneself to abstain. Such a person acts through the virtue of temperance. Another person might refrain from certain pleasures because he or she knows that “appetites are bad,” but still desires them.2 Such a person has excessive and bad appetites but, out of knowledge, simulates the virtue of temperance in avoiding such things. This person has neither temperance nor virtue because his or her motivations do not come from disposition. Rather, this person has continence, which is certainly a good thing, but not the moral goal.3 Distinguishing temperance from continence mattered to Aristotle—and to contemporary virtue ethicists—because the difference between the two displays the nature of virtue.4 Similarly, for the thinkers discussed below, one cannot progress upon the path to God without renunciation, nor can one arrive at its higher moral realizations without true renunciation.


One of the disagreements between two of Islam’s earliest schools of inner perfection concerned the question of earning one’s livelihood. The Sufis, centered in Islam’s capital of Baghdad, argued that one ought to avoid actively seeking sustenance as much as possible, for this was not only a distraction, but a slippery slope to worldliness. The Malāmatīs (meaning advocates of the “Path of Self-Blame”), centered mainly in Nishapur in northeastern Iran, argued that one must work for one’s living, remaining unattached to the worldly while still functioning as part of society. In their general approach the Malāmatīs or “Malāmatiyya” also differed strikingly from another important and popular ascetic school, one located in their region, the Karrāmiyya, whose devotions to God were public.5 Rather, in all things, the Malāmatīs emphasized concealing one’s inner successes, always seeing the human soul as suspect to self-adulation and to fondness for the affirmation of others. For that reason, their path required the wayfarer to blend in. The Malāmatīs should neither dress differently than others nor eschew the demands of toil, living among the people and, in the words of Sulamī, “never differing from them in their marketplaces and pursuits of profit.”6


Toward the end of the tenth century, Sufism became more prevalent in Nishapur. The Malāmatī school became reframed, eventually, as an expression of piety under the larger umbrella of “Sufism.” The spread of Sufism in Nishapur was tied to the spread of the Shāfiʿī legal school. As the school became more popular there, those Shāfiʿīs in Nishapur who identified with the Sufis of Baghdad made good use of the institutions of that legal school, a school that was better organized than what had existed before.7 These “Sufis” became more conspicuous than their Malāmatī counterparts, already inclined toward a lack of public visibility.8 The Malāmatī approach was brought into Sufism and in a sense eventually subsumed in it. The integration was not always smooth, and some continued to draw boundaries between the Malāmatīs and Sufism.9 Nevertheless, the Malāmatīs appeared as epitomizing an approach harmonious with Sufism, within an overarching Islamic framework of “sciences and states” as presented in Sulamī’s Treatise on the Malāmatīs (“Risālat al-Malāmatiyya”).10

Looking at these contemplations on interior conditions, we can determine that Islam’s earliest ascetics had serious disagreements about two related virtues. The first, zuhd, is disinterest in and indeed renunciation of the worldly.11 The second is trust in God, or tawakkul. These two are related in Sufi writings because renunciation should lead to one’s disassociation from worldly means, such as the pursuit of livelihood or concern with food. Unable to rely on such worldly means, one must completely trust, instead, in God.

We will first consider a discussion of the limits of renunciation by al-Ḥārith ibn Asad al-Muḥāsibī (d. 857), a teacher to the seminal Sufi master al-Junayd al-Baghdādī (d. 910) and a pioneer in Sufi moral psychology who wrote a century or so before al-Sarrāj. So early is al-Muḥāsibī in fact that he must be considered a “proto-Sufi,” because the term “Sufi” was then only beginning to gain currency and to refer to an identifiable group.12 Al-Muḥāsibī was originally from Basra in Iraq, a city associated with the earliest ascetic movement in Islam, a movement that precedes the Sufis of Baghdad and has often been associated with Ḥasan al-Baṣrī, though how much this movement owes to al-Baṣrī has come into question recently.13 Nevertheless, renunciation had become part of the spiritual climate of Basra. Conspicuous early on in Basra were the “Weepers,” that is, those who would ponder the Qurʾan or the afterlife and shed tears, or do so reflecting upon the gap between God’s perfection and their moral imperfections.14 Indeed, Basra seems to have been a source of influence for other urban centers in the matter of renunciation.15 Although al-Muḥāsibī moved from Basra to Baghdad as a child,16 it is not unlikely that al-Junayd had his master al-Muḥāsibī in mind when he described the people of Basra as having been divinely bestowed with “renunciation and contentment.”17 Embodying a virtue directly related to renunciation, scrupulousness (al-waraʿ ), which means taking great caution to observe the rights of God and others, al-Muḥāsibī was famous for refusing food that he considered doubtful. He even rejected his own inheritance on account of his father’s beliefs, beliefs that he deemed heterodox and which would then render the two of them as adherents to different religions who cannot inherit from one another.18 Al-Muḥāsibī himself was subject to the censure and shunning of others on account of his religious views, or, more specifically, his willingness to engage in theological speculation. Having been singled out as a deviant by the popular Hadith scholar and renunciant of Baghdad Aḥmad ibn Ḥanbal (d. 855), al-Muḥāsibī spent the last few years of his life concealed in his home. It is said that only four people attended al-Muḥāsibī’s funeral prayers.19


In The Book of Issues Concerning Renunciation and Other Things (Kitāb Masāʾil fī al-Zuhd [wa Ghayrihi]), al-Muḥāsibī begins by addressing a question posed by a pupil, quite possibly al-Junayd, since al-Muḥāsibī often encouraged the latter to ask him questions.20 In responding, al-Muḥāsibī considers renunciation from a perspective that includes all interested parties: the self, one’s dependents, and God. The Qurʾan’s definition of liberality, in a way similar to Aristotle’s mean, sets its boundaries as lying between prodigality and stinginess (Q 17:26–9).21 Similarly, al-Muḥāsibī’s treatment of renunciation assumes that his students will want to strike a balance. They will want to draw nearer to God while still observing the claims that other human beings might make upon them. On a larger scale, al-Muḥāsibī needs to define renunciation in a manner that is balanced as well, one that manages to be feasible for all but also rigorous for the spiritual elite. He does this by constructing his definition on a famous hadith, using the terms and reasoning of that hadith without mentioning it. In this “Hadith of the Supererogatory Deeds” (Ḥadīth al-Nawāfil), God announces that His servant draws near to Him, first, through that which He has made obligatory for the servant:

My servant draws closer to Me using nothing more beloved of Me than that which I have made obligatory for him. Then, he continues to draw near to Me using supererogatory deeds, until I love him. Once I love him, I am his hearing by which he listens, his vision by which he sees, his hand by which he seizes, and his foot by which he walks.22

This hadith has presented, for many, a model of praxis that situates good deeds on two levels. There is that which is obligatory and basic; and there is that which is recommended and ideal. A person first progresses through the level of that which is basic, through simple obedience. Every person deserves to participate in good action, which is obedience to God, even those whose abilities or desires lead them to the minimum. There are, however, those who pursue higher and more rigorous acts, for whom there is little end in sight for their aspirations to do good. Progressing beyond the compulsory, these servants continue “to draw near” to God, in a secondary but more elevated way, through supererogatory acts, that is, those acts that God prefers but has not made obligatory. Ultimately, this process leads not only to God’s love for the servant, but also to the pinnacle of devotional experience, in which God has revealed Himself as all of the servant’s senses and faculties. Applying this division of acts into obligatory and supererogatory, al-Muḥāsibī is able to maintain two strata of renunciation, one (the basic) for those who renounce the impermissible and another (the ideal) for those who seek God’s friendship.

Thus, al-Muḥāsibī begins by clarifying that God has “made obligatory on all His servants the renunciation of that which He has forbidden,” while also declaring as supererogatory the renunciation of permissible property in excess of one’s needs.23 One might include in the former category all impermissible things, from stolen wealth to intoxicating beverages; these demand renunciation. For the latter category, for those who want “to draw near,” a person should never simply reject entirely that which God has permitted, nor should he or she cease to desire that which God has caused humans to desire out of nature. Rather, the most perfect understanding of renunciation, according to al-Muḥāsibī, is one limited mainly to controlling one’s intake of food, as well as one’s consumption of property that is morally suspect and might evoke divine displeasure.

light-upon-lightThe true renunciant takes everything into account, from his intentions, to the needs of his family, to the source of his income.24 If the person does this successfully and is still unable to practice generosity and to give anything to others as charity, then he is “a treasurer among the treasurers of God.”25 Appearances do not, then, always reflect reality: While the actions of a person who has wealth but does not give of it might seem motivated by stinginess or greed, they can actually be motivated by a consideration of the rights of those in his care, and motivations matter. Such a person is a true renunciant, even if it appears that he has much. Conversely, one who gives much away, but is not concerned with the source of his wealth, nor with the needs of his dependents and kin, “is one who desires the worldly,” even if he has little.26 After all, only an ambition for spiritual rank, or—even worse—for social acclaim, could prompt someone to exceed the boundaries of the rights of others. Judging by the biographical accounts of al-Muḥāsibī’s ascetic contemporaries, it seems that some did indeed give away large portions of their own wealth, leaving their families—they assumed—to God’s providence.

Correct renunciation for al-Muḥāsibī lies in one’s outlook on the worldly, not in one’s shunning of material goods. More than merely an act or an attitude toward the worldly, true renunciation according to al-Muḥāsibī is a more complete understanding of one’s place in the world and as God’s servant:

There exists the sort of person who has much but is not preoccupied with accumulating more. This person does not remember his worldly goods, because the [thought of the] afterlife has conquered his ambitions. He keeps the worldly in mind like one who seeks deliverance from it, and he possesses it like one upon whom the fluctuations of inner states have no effect. His heart is occupied with remembering something other than the worldly, and he is grateful for that which God has bestowed upon him. If he is given of it, the appearance of blessings does not prevent him from being properly thankful for them. And if it is withheld, the descent of such a trial does not prevent him from looking [instead] upon the origin of the good. Thus, he is forbearing in tribulations, cognizant that the difficulty of his current condition is better for him than prosperity, and so he welcomes the trial [of poverty] with forbearance (al-ṣabr) and gratitude (al-shukr). In such a trial he knows that, if forbearance has overcome him, such that he was able to ponder the trial’s outcome and find good and blessings in it, then thanks are due [that God granted him forbearance]. He is also happy in prosperity, choosing for himself that which God has chosen for him. [Similarly,] when God sends down tribulations upon him, he will not refuse that which his Master has chosen for him, nor will he choose that which anyone other than his Master has chosen.

There also exists the sort of person who is destitute and whose renunciation shows on his body while his heart is busy with desire. He has deemed the worldly things in his possession as meager, even if they are great in quantity, while deeming great that which is in the hands of others, even if it is in reality meager. It has been narrated from one of the scholars that he once read in the wisdom [literature] of Jesus, peace be upon him, “We have seen among the destitute an intensity of love for the worldly, while seeing others who were wealthy yet lacked love for the worldly, like the select ones, Abraham, Jacob, David, and Solomon. When God wanted them to, they abandoned every last grain of sand.”27

Among early Sufi texts, the attention to detail here—in terms of both social context and the inner world of intention—is characteristic of al-Muḥāsibī. Indeed, his moniker, “al-Muḥāsibī,” refers to his meticulous “self-accounting,” his unflagging and exacting introspective analysis, which is on full display in The Book of Observing One’s Duties to God (Kitāb al-Riʿāya li-Ḥuqūq Allāh), a portion of which has been translated by Michael Sells.28 One learns from The Book of Observing One’s Duties to God that renunciation is entirely a matter of one’s intentions. It is related to that which a person desires, not to that which he or she has. This idea is echoed in al-Muḥāsibī’s Issues Concerning the Deeds of Hearts and Limbs (al-Masāʾil fī Aʿmāl al-Qulūb wa-l-Jawāriḥ). Here al-Muḥāsibī describes renunciation as one of those convictions (iʿtiqād) that God has made incumbent upon the heart, paired with a disavowal of coveting, “regardless of the deeds of one’s limbs.”29 Much as in the teachings of the Malāmatīs (the People of Self-Blame), for al-Muḥāsibī the true renunciant is indeed engaged in the world and in the worldly, because divine law has placed obligations upon him. Yet in the inner universe of the soul, this person fully realizes that everything is a transitory means to drawing nearer to an eternal divinity. That which probably made al-Muḥāsibī’s account a model for later ones, such as Abū Ḥāmid Ghazālī’s, is this graceful combination of the legal scholar’s concern for duties to others combined with the Sufi’s concern for the minutiae of intentionality.30 This concern with the soul and society, with the inner and outer dimensions of God’s commands, reflects al-Muḥāsibī’s study of jurisprudence, especially the legal teachings of Muḥammad ibn Idrīs al-Shāfiʿī (d. 820), although he was not—as is sometimes asserted—under the tutelage of al-Shāfiʿī himself.31

There is one last point here to be made about renunciation in al-Muḥāsibī’s treatise: It functions as part of a network of virtues. Renunciation should not keep one from being grateful for God’s blessings. In other words, gratitude (al-shukr), as a virtue, should not be sacrificed for renunciation. Renunciation should not cause someone to desire anything other than that which God wills for the servant, whether it be wealth or poverty. In other words, renunciation must occur in a context of complete satisfaction (al-riḍā) with God’s decree, which is another virtue. Lastly, because true renunciation requires this sense of satisfaction, the true renunciant is so disinterested in both the acquisition and deprivation of the worldly, that he or she has complete forbearance (al-ṣabr). When the worldly is given to him or her, or when it is taken away, the true renunciant remains steadfast in all the other virtues, unshaken by both prosperity and hardship.


Unlike al-Muḥāsibī, the name of Abū Naṣr al-Sarrāj (d. 988) has endured in the history of Sufism not because of associations or edifying stories told about his saintly personality, but rather because of one book, a book that helped give shape to Sufism as an Islamic science proper and defined the boundaries of “Sufi orthodoxy.”32 The book, The Book of Flashes on Sufism (Kitāb al-Lumaʿ  al-Taṣawwuf), greatly influenced other important manuals on Sufism to follow, especially Abū Bakr al-Kalābādhī’s Acquaintanceship with the Path of the People of Sufism (al-Taʿarruf li-Madhhab Ahl al-Taṣawwuf).33 The author, al-Sarrāj, sought to consolidate various figures and approaches into a science, one harmonious within itself and with divine law, and exerted great effort in doing so. His investigation into the wisdoms of bygone spiritual masters took him far from his native homeland, in northeastern Iran, and westward, through regions of Syria, Iraq, and Egypt, where he spoke with those masters who could recollect the great ones of the past.34 The time he spent teaching in Baghdad has left us with an indication of al-Sarrāj’s piety. Having stayed there for the entire month of fasting, leading others in strenuous nightly devotions, al-Sarrāj left without consuming the loaves that were brought to his quarters each evening, presumably living on nothing at all, so detached he was from the world.35 While the Sufi poet and biographer ʿAbd al-Raḥmān Nūr al-Dīn Jāmī (d. 1492), who conveys this account, assures his readers that al-Sarrāj wrote “many compositions,” only his Book of Flashes remains.36 Yet the book became a vehicle in which many sayings and deeds of Sufi saints (called “friends of God”) made the important shift from oral tradition to the written word, a shift that had begun to occur for the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad in the two centuries prior. As Nile Green has indicated, a body of texts—especially one highlighting a named group of initial masters—facilitated the establishment of a Sufi tradition.37

Repentance and scrupulousness (waraʿ), the two first stations on the path according to al-Sarrāj, are preliminary. They prepare one for those stages that follow, because those that follow are not necessarily required by divine law, at least not in the sense discussed by al-Sarrāj. For that reason, al-Sarrāj calls renunciation (zuhd) the “first step for those resolutely endeavoring toward God.”38 In this sense, al-Sarrāj means by renunciation the disavowal of permissible wealth and pleasures, while al-Muḥāsibī focused on renunciation as a spectrum of disassociation, from the impermissible that must be renounced to the permissible that should be renounced to acquire God’s friendship. The concern for al-Sarrāj is with renunciation as the first real step for all the other stations. Because renunciation is foundational for “sainthood” (favored friendship with God), defects in one’s disinterest in the worldly spell trouble for what follows: “When one lacks firm foundations in renunciation, everything that follows is unsound, because the love of the worldly is the start of every moral error.”39 One might imagine, extending al-Sarrāj’s comparison to foundations, that a house constructed upon a faulty or tilted substructure would become more dangerous as it expanded in height. Similarly, love for the worldly will reappear later and much more devastatingly if not extinguished from the start. The definition that al-Sarrāj offers for renunciation clarifies that it goes beyond the basic requirements that exist for all Muslims: “Renunciation applies to abstaining from that which is permissible and available, since that which is forbidden or dubious must be abandoned by divine law.”40 Thus, renunciation is an abandonment of the worldly that goes beyond matters of obedience, as a means of seeking proximity with God. One is so wary of the worldly that even permissible pleasures are suspect.

As with al-Sarrāj’s other stations, renunciation has three grades: the renunciation (1) of the beginners, (2) of the elite realizers, and (3) of the most elite. In this threefold division, the first and second grades correspond to a collection of stages on a spiritual path. One progresses from station to station, from repentance to scrupulousness to renunciation to poverty to forbearance to trust and then to satisfaction. Then one progresses from novice fulfillments of these stations to more elite ones, leaving behind and hopefully not returning to those qualities that apply to beginners. This progression is very clear in al-Sarrāj’s writing, because at the conclusion of each station, he informs his reader that the station in question requires another station. “Renunciation,” for example, “necessitates embracing and willfully selecting poverty.”41 The highest grade of each station, however, corresponds to what we might call a realized “virtue,” that is, a consummate character trait—and not a transitory station. These virtues are not meant to be abandoned, so that one retains an accomplished version of repentance, renunciation, and the rest, simultaneously.

Usually the “beginner” realization of each station is done with greater effort and is less ingrained than advanced realizations of that station. As a person advances, the station becomes a part of his or her nature and requires less stringent self-regulation. The beginner practices the station in question by making some sort of change externally, either regarding his or her body or regarding his or her interaction with the outside world. This holds true for beginners in renunciation as well. For them, their “hands are devoid of property, and their hearts are devoid of that missing from their hands,” as al-Sarrāj notes, rephrasing a definition of renunciation mentioned by al-Junayd, who modifies that stated by his own teacher and maternal uncle Sarī al-Saqaṭī (d. 867).42 In other words, beginners distance themselves from material possessions, because their outer situations directly affect their inner states. At a higher (but still intermediate) level, that of the realizers (al-muḥaqqiqīn), a person renounces not only goods, but also the benefits that might occur through renunciation. One benefit to be renounced is reputation; being an ascetic elicits reverence among the people and can lead to higher status in this world. There are also rewards in the hereafter. The intermediate person renounces both.43 The degree of intentionality here is higher, because the person in question has become distant not only from pleasures, comforts, passions, and material goods, but also from the subtler desires of the soul, especially self-affirmation in the eyes of others.

Lastly, we reach the highest grade of renunciation, that belonging to the most elite. Here those elites “renounce their renunciation and repent of it.”44 They have realized that the worldly is so devoid of value, so equivalent to “nothing,” that it does not even merit their concern to reject it. Disinterest in the world has become internalized to the highest degree, so much so that the excessive fear of attachment held by beginners and intermediates seems incongruous with reality. Rather, the person in question has become sincerely indifferent to the worldly, having awoken to its true form. Quoting the words of Yaḥyā ibn Muʿādh (d. 872), al-Sarrāj tells us that “the worldly is like a bride. He who seeks it is like the bride’s hairdresser. He who renounces it puts smut all over her face, tears out her hair, and rips up her clothes. But the knower, busy with God, pays her no heed.”45 Put simply, one can fan the flames of desire for the worldly, or stamp out the fire in exertion and exasperation. The first way belongs to intemperate seekers of the worldly, and the second way belongs to simple-minded renunciants. There is a third way, however, and it belongs to those aware of God’s beauty and thus aware of the worthlessness of the worldly: It is to walk away from the fire, giving no notice to that which has no value.

Noteworthy is al-Sarrāj’s ability to weave together dissimilar statements about renunciation, which seem to be at variance with one another, into a progression.46 In the model that al-Sarrāj creates from these statements, qualities that apply to beginners necessarily vary from qualities that apply to the most advanced. While he might seem to be engaging in an apologetics of synthesis, there are sometimes real connections between those he quotes. In other words, al-Sarrāj’s model is a product of over a century of communication and debate about the spiritual path.47

Interestingly, while al-Muḥāsibī seems to assume that his audience will have an income and dependents in need of it, al-Sarrāj’s network of virtues seems to suit those who have chosen poverty. And poverty is here not meant in the metaphorical sense of meekness or a recognition of one’s ultimate neediness. Rather, the most basic stage of poverty for al-Sarrāj means that a person “does not own a thing, and does not seek—whether in terms of action or inner desire—anything from anyone, nor does he expect anything from anyone; if he is given something, he does not take it.”48 After this, in the intermediate stage, the person endowed with poverty will accept help, if offered, because his humility keeps him from disagreeing with others. Finally, in the highest stage, the person will in fact ask for help, because to do so brings joy to others.49 There is much evidence that some of those ascetics who wore woolen garments and thus self-identified as “Sufi” (which can mean “wool-wearer”) in the eighth and ninth centuries did indeed eschew labor and the acquisition of property, subsisting instead on the charity of others, a practice that aroused criticism.50


Christopher Melchert has argued that a shift occurred, especially in Iraq, as asceticism premised on observant fear of God took on traits of mysticism premised on an encounter with God. This paradigm draws from the writings of Max Weber (d. 1920), who was interested in the history of Western Christianity, especially the appearance of Protestantism and (argued Weber) the consequent rise of capitalism. As rationalism began to overtake Christian thought, beginning with changes in the monastic orders, Europeans and their American counterparts redirected their asceticism toward worldly ends.51 Martin Luther’s idea of a vocational calling had given “every-day worldly activity a religious significance,” such that later, among the Puritans, asceticism would become almost completely transformed into an avoidance of leisure and an encouragement of regular and constant occupation.52 This process allowed for the world-centered purposefulness that would become the modern “spirit of capitalism.” As Christopher Adair-Toteff indicates, Weber saw the ascetic impulse in opposition to the mystical impulse. The ascetic focused on the world outside of the self, and on being an active vehicle of God’s influence. The mystic, to the contrary, focused on the world within, and on being a passive receptacle for God’s influence as opposed to the influences of the outer world.53 The spirit of capitalism that arose from Protestantism lacked mystical properties. It progressively took an interest in external affairs, that is, becoming in Weber’s words more “rational.”54

According to Melchert, after the middle of the ninth century, Muslim figures began to appear more frequently who advocated God’s immanence and communion with Him.55 In other words, public piety, formerly dominated by ascetics, now included prominent mystics. Those aligned with the older ascetic model showed resistance to the newer mystics, who seemed dismissive of obedience to God. Perhaps most famous was Ghulām Khalīl (d. 888), who opposed the excessively anthropomorphic love language that had arisen in Iraq.56 Khalīl would spearhead a campaign to try these Sufis for heresy, such that seventy to seventy-five of them, including some of the heroes of Sufism mentioned by al-Sarrāj, were summoned before the highest judge of Baghdad.57 The disdain for the emerging mystical trend was echoed loudly among the ascetic followers of Aḥmad ibn Ḥanbal.58 The Sufi figure al-Junayd was important here. He was able to render asceticism as part of a model in which both asceticism and mysticism appeared, though he considered the course of love in Sufism to be more exalted than mere asceticism when it came to knowledge and conduct.59 He also presented a mystical tradition that allowed for the sober study of Hadith, as well as a grounded, nonitinerant family life.60 Extreme renunciation (zuhd) was equated with trust in God (tawakkul).61

There are objections one could make to this account, especially because one does see “ascetic” and “mystical” trends in both of these groups even before al-Junayd. For instance, the early female saint Rābiʿa al-ʿAdawiyya (d. ca. 801) exemplified both the ascetic and mystical traditions, even though she lived well before these disputes in Baghdad and Basra. While Rābiʿa went so far as to declare the study of Hadith a worldly activity, she has been also associated with the all-encompassing love of God, on account of statements quite likely made by her.62 Yet Melchert’s hypothesis does provide an explanation for a theme that surfaces in books on Sufi ethics: the portrayal of Sufis as true heirs to the Prophet Muhammad’s asceticism. As Sufis went on the defensive against more sober ascetics, they emphasized their status as the renunciants par excellence who embody Muhammad’s normative piety. For this reason, writers such as al-Sarrāj and Sulamī would include a non-Sufi renunciant such as Bishr al-Ḥafī (d. ca. 842) in the ranks of Sufis.63 Perhaps an indication of the success of al-Sarrāj and others in claiming renunciation for Sufism, the terms “Sufi” and “renunciant” (al-zāhid) might have been interchangeable as titles in certain contexts.64 In stressing Sufism’s claim on renunciation, writers such as al-Sarrāj often celebrated saints who avoided work or marriage.

Critics of Sufis in both modern and premodern times, however, might cite avoidance of work and of worldly pursuits (especially marriage) as evidence that those Sufis who claim to be the Prophet’s spiritual heirs in fact reject acts that were part of his way of life.65 After all, the Prophet Muhammad is known to have engaged in work, first as a shepherd and later as a merchant, and he was also married. Ahmet Karamustafa reminds us that in reality early Sufis walked a fine line in that regard, assuming a more middling position. They held an avoidance of marriage and work as preferable, without ever denouncing either of these two practices that were indeed part of the Prophet’s biographical legacy.66 Some early Sufis worked and were married, while others did not, but Sufis did mostly avoid more extreme acts of renunciation current in their day, such as a collective withdrawal from society or constant travel and begging.67

Such tensions in interpreting engagement with the world have lingered throughout the history of Sufism. This appears later, for example, with one of the most distinctive of Sufi ascetic practices, “retreat” (khalwa), which often involves forty-day isolation in a cell, avoiding stimuli and social contact, and engaging in practices prescribed by one’s shaykh. Such retreat has been a periodic practice among a number of orders, including the Kubrawiyya, the Shādhiliyya, the Qādiriyya, and—an order whose eponym was thought to be especially fond of seclusion—the Khalwatiyya.68 Those remembered as the founding figures of the Naqshbandiyya order, however, saw this practice as dangerously close to seeking public acclaim for ascetic feats and dangerously far from the Sunna of Muhammad.69 While some Sufis withdrew from society for forty-day-period after forty-day-period, Khwāja Bahāʾ al-Dīn Naqshband (d. 1389) interpreted the Qurʾan’s praise for “men undistracted from God’s remembrance by trade or barter” to be an injunction not for withdrawal, but for God-conscious societal engagement.70 Thus the Naqshbandī elders adopted a Malāmatī approach to the practice of retreat, and—according to Fakhr al-Dīn al-Ṣafī ʿAlī Kāshifī (d. 1532–3)—retained the forty-day retreat as a one-time initiatic practice. They advocated instead “retreat in society” (khalwat dar anjuman, or al-khalwa fī al-jalwa) as a more enduring practice, after the aspirant has made use of the initial forty-day retreat to overcome the five senses and the lower soul.71 “Retreat in society” means that the aspirant lives among others, engaging with them, while internally maintaining a sense of isolation and concentration on God. One might here use the popular expression often attributed to St. Paul, “in the world but not of the world.”


Debates about renunciation and work affected our two writers as well. Misinterpretations of renunciation in the ninth century perturbed al-Muḥāsibī. He repudiates such severe measures in a discussion of “promptings” (khaṭra/khaṭarāt) in his Book of Observing One’s Duties to God. “Promptings” are sudden inspirations of the heart that come from elsewhere—here from Satan.72 Injudicious hearts, al-Muḥāsibī remarks, take such promptings from Satan as invitations to practice innovations in God’s religion (bidʿa) as opposed to normative customs (sunna).73 They abandon work.74 The enemy of humans, Satan, seeks to invite such people to innovations in their renunciation, satisfaction, and trust in God, in a manner that opposes the renunciation and trust of the pious forbears who should serve as models (al-aʾimma al-mutaqaddimīn). Thus a “certain group” believes that renunciation means neglecting one’s family; failing to perform the filial duty of sustaining one’s parents in their old age; trusting in God while abandoning the act of providing for one’s wife and children; setting out for travel without taking provisions; satisfaction and even delight when tribulations befall Muslims; and forbidding medicine for cures and prayers for God’s help.75 One can see the pattern that worries al-Muḥāsibī. These twin virtues of renunciation (zuhd) and trust in God (tawakkul) invite certain practitioners, who are starting in his time to become a cohesive and identifiable group, to take extreme measures never put into practice by the Prophet, his companions, and the earliest saints. In their eagerness to prove their trust in God alone, they renounce worldly means of success, pleasure, and even survival. Their excess in doing so has caused them to lose course and err from God’s religion.76 God’s religion, for al-Muḥāsibī, must correspond to the more measured and socially responsible practices of Islam’s earliest period.

To forge a very different model of renunciation, one that supports abandoning work, al-Sarrāj also refers to Islam’s earliest period. The Prophet, after all, approved of a group of his select companions known as the “People of the Bench” (Ahl al-Ṣuffa), who did not engage in farming or trade, who virtually lived in the city’s central mosque, whose sustenance was only dates and water, and who wore tattered rags that barely covered them in prayer.77 Contrary to what critics of Sufis do, the Prophet did not enjoin them to work, but rather encouraged their conduct, even reciting the Qurʾan for them.78 The problem for al-Sarrāj is that whenever one is engaged in earning, one becomes embroiled in a battle between the worldly demands of work and the spiritual demands of trust. In fact, al-Sarrāj remembers witnessing a man complain to Aḥmad ibn Sālim (d. 967), a Sufi master in Basra who had been encouraging his audience to earn a living. “O shaykh!” the man called out. “We are either subjugated by earning or by trust!”79 Ibn Sālim responds that “trust is God’s messenger’s [Muhammad’s] inner state (ḥāl), while earning is his normative custom (sunna).”80 While this might seem to favor earning, the opposite is meant here. The “inner state” is the objective or aim of the Prophet’s normative customs. In this case, the Prophet has set an example of earning for his followers because “he knew they were weak” and would rather have his followers “come up short in terms of trust” than perish because they came up short in terms of seeking livelihood.81 The People of the Bench are proof that it is indeed possible to live an exemplary life without earning a living, even if that model is not for everyone.

Those worldly souls who blame the pious for this lifestyle have failed to understand them. This can be seen, al-Sarrāj tells us, when Ibrāhīm al-Khawwāṣṣ (d. 904) was taken to task for his companions: “Your companions say, ‘We take from God when we take.’ But we only see them taking from the people.” To this al-Khawwāṣṣ replied, “Who is the One who rouses the people’s hearts so that they give without [my companions’] seeking anything from them or even asking them?”82 His companions have renounced the worldly to such a degree that they firmly believe everything to belong to God alone, so that God inspires people to give charity to them. Such charity is an instance of divine persuasion, attesting to the poor Sufis’ conviction that everything is indeed His. As can be seen from this example, renunciation’s end is trust in God. Indeed, such austere renunciation reveals a group chasing an ideal of trust in God that can only be caught through extreme measures. It is because trust is so elusive that al-Sarrāj uses the words of his predecessor Sahl al-Tustarī to describe trust in God as “all face” with “no back-of-the-head,” a virtue that “belongs only to the people of the tombs.”83 Like a person at a distance toward whom you run but who becomes more distant with each step you take, trust cannot be fully achieved.84 As a virtue, trust eludes humans because they are naturally predisposed to trust in or rely on worldly means to live. While trust is the higher virtue sought through renunciation, it only belongs to “the people of the tombs,” because once one dies then the soul has no choice but to abandon its hopes in the means of survival and wellbeing. Those in graves now have renounced the world completely, even if by force, and hence they trust solely in God. For al-Sarrāj, trust is the penultimate station, second only to satisfaction (riḍā).

In defining the boundaries of renunciation, al-Sarrāj’s tone is not that of an original authority, like al-Muḥāsibī. While al-Muḥāsibī was surrounded by a proto-tradition, a tradition in formation that would have to deal with renunciation, al-Sarrāj is clearly interested in defending the integrity of a tradition that has already formed. Therefore, al-Sarrāj seeks to convey his predecessors’ extreme acts of world-denying asceticism, which he categorizes under “renunciation.” His descriptions of the practices of the masters of the past differ strikingly from al-Muḥāsibī’s more moderate presentation. Yet, when it comes to those living during his own time, al-Sarrāj shares al-Muḥāsibī’s concerns about excessive renunciation. Some renunciants, he tells us, go days and nights without food, and yet have not been trained in the proper observances of the path by a master.85 Instead of seeking advice, they imitate Sufis—their dress, their dance, and their woolen, ragged clothes—imagining that outer resemblance will make them among the “truthful” (al-ṣādiqīn, that is, those whose claims match their inner states).86

The issue for al-Sarrāj is that renunciation without a master is not true renunciation. Tutelage under a Sufi master would teach such unwise souls that they ought first to cut off their attachments to the worldly, before renouncing it, and that excessive hunger to the point of starvation might even bring one to neglect obligatory actions or become a burden onto others, when one faints or becomes sick.87 The “reality of trust” in God does not come so easily.88 Indeed excessive and constant renunciation of food and other basic needs, devoid of the Sufi master and trainer, will cause spiritual sicknesses that cannot be remedied later. This is because such imitators have taken a mere tool of spiritual perfection (beginner-level renunciation) to be a permanent state, despite the fact that

the evil of the lower soul cannot be made harmless, nor does that upon which the soul was constructed—namely, commanding evil—ever leave it completely. Thus, one who supposes that evil or the cankers of the lower soul’s human nature have disappeared from the lower soul—and that the possessor of that lower soul is thus safe—has indeed erred. The lower soul has been broken only temporarily through the hunger of seldom sitting for food.89

Every single heart is “stained with the love of the worldly,” and every lower soul “is habituated for vanity and heedlessness.”90 It is not immoderate acts of renunciation that guarantee the soul’s felicity, but prescribed acts of renunciation. Therefore, al-Sarrāj’s eulogistic descriptions of immoderate acts of renunciation must be seen in this context: They are praiseworthy only when prescribed by one’s master and thus properly suited to that individual.

Indeed, renunciation, as with all other “virtues,” is applicable to each of us differently. The ideal does not apply to all. That which does apply to all is a general principle of renunciation: Renunciation redirects one’s attention from the passions of the self either to obedience or to contemplation of God, or to both obedience and contemplation. Scripture and tradition, from a certain perspective, both seem to justify the idea of a wide gamut of renunciation that can include everyone, from basic to very rigorous.91


From the perspective of virtue ethics, the unattainability of trust and renunciation that al-Sarrāj describes puts them in a strange category. While both trust and renunciation can be put into practice, they cannot be fully realized. (As you might recall, for example, al-Sarrāj describes trust in God as “no back-of-the-head” and only truly applicable to “the people of the tombs.” And he describes every heart as “stained with love for the worldly,” which makes absolute renunciation impossible.) Trust and renunciation do not represent achievable qualities; they represent unachievable standards that result in virtuous qualities. There almost seems to be in this some resemblance to what Mark Alfano has called “factitious virtue.” As a critic of virtue ethics, Alfano presents his version of the situationist challenge, namely that people are too influenced by nonmoral factors (such as moods or even the weather) when they act virtuously (or viciously) for virtuous traits to have real grounds as causative factors of upright conduct.92 Using evidence from social and psychological experiments, Alfano rejects the idea that virtuous and vicious action can be attributed consistently to character traits, since more often people have proven themselves influenced by accidental factors. Rather, Alfano offers, people can act morally because of conceptions of virtue, artificially constructed by the expectations and affirmations of others, as well as a degree of self-perception. It is not that most “honest” people find their motivation in an inherent trait called “honesty.” Instead, having learned of social expectations that one live up to a concept of honesty, many try to do so under particular circumstances.93 In this case, al-Sarrāj and his predecessors seem to be saying that there are certain expectations of the human soul that are too high to be achieved but that can effect virtuous propensities within the soul nonetheless. Like much of Sufi ethics, renunciation and trust do not fall neatly into that which we now call “virtue ethics.”

Unlike Alfano, however, our authors show little concern with having an elitist ethics.94 Not everyone is meant for the higher reaches of renunciation or trust in God, as al-Sarrāj recognizes. The drive to undertake such seriousness in renunciation requires a certain aptitude as well as the grace of God. Even the great renunciant and ethical instructor Ibrāhīm al-Khawwāṣṣ, mentioned above, would have his pupils return to trade and the market after three days, if they began to resort to worldly means once their period of serious renunciation had started.95 Much of al-Sarrāj’s audience seems to be made up of merchants and craftsmen, judging by his many references to “trade” and the “market.” For this reason, and because most will not utterly abandon earning a living, al-Sarrāj includes advice for those who work. They must observe their prayers on time, conduct themselves with fairness, and take care of the affairs of other Muslims, especially the poor, all the while never allowing them to imagine that their “sustenance actually comes from” the work they do. Rather, God is—as trust dictates—the only true source of sustenance.96 Those who marry or have children should not impose their own austere renunciation on their families, providing for them, “unless their inner state is like his,” that is, unless they too have renounced the world.97 Admittedly, there is some room here for abuse. One might easily pressure one’s family to share one’s commitment to renunciation. The concern for al-Sarrāj, however, seems to be a different sort of abuse, namely a Sufi’s trying to circumvent a life of poverty through marriage. Al-Sarrāj warns his readers against marrying a rich woman and benefiting from her wealth. Instead, one should marry a woman who is destitute, so that one can provide for her in a way that conforms both to her standard of living and to one’s ascetic commitments.98


I have chosen al-Muḥāsibī and al-Sarrāj, because they represent two different reactions to renunciation, reflective of their differences in chronology and outlook. While al-Muḥāsibī forges a path, al-Sarrāj consolidates and advocates an established tradition or even a science. While al-Muḥāsibī presents renunciation in careful and systematic detail, al-Sarrāj aims to present a variety of teachings as a cohesive approach to life superior to other approaches.99 In his presentation of Sufis of the past, al-Sarrāj includes al-Muḥāsibī and his insights. For that reason, I conclude by relaying a short account of al-Muḥāsibī’s lived renunciation in al-Sarrāj’s manual on Sufism.

Most of the hagiographical narratives in al-Sarrāj’s book are brief, because his aim is to collect a compendium of such narratives and sayings as centered on key themes, not to provide an analysis of any one story. Despite their brevity, these hagiographical accounts comprise the most important variety of virtue-based storytelling in early Sufism and are indicative of a trend, apparent even outside of Sufi circles, to find models of virtue in the lives of previous generations. As Jawid Mojaddedi has shown, Sufi hagiographical collections reimagine the past to reinforce matters of doctrine and praxis that affect the audience of the author’s own time.100 In addition to exemplifying renunciation, this particular narrative indicates a standard of reverence between masters and pupils, as well as the politeness that must be maintained even when pursuing an exacting regime of renunciation:

Jaʿfar al-Khuldī [d. 959], may God’s mercy be upon him, said, “I heard Junayd, may God’s mercy be upon him, say, ‘Ḥārith al-Muḥāsibī, may God’s mercy be upon him, entered my home. I did not, however, have any good food to give him.’

“[Junayd] continued: ‘So I left and went to my paternal uncle’s house. I brought some food from there, carrying a morsel in my hand. He [al-Muḥāsibī] opened his mouth, and I placed some in his mouth. He was turning the morsel over, from one side of his mouth to the other, but he wasn’t swallowing it. Then he got up, left the room, and spat it out in the courtyard at the entry of the house.

“‘So I went after him, and I said, “Dearest uncle! I saw that you didn’t swallow and then got up to spit it out in the courtyard.”

“‘He replied, “Yes, my dear son. That is because there is an agreement between me and God the Exalted that whenever something turns up in an underhanded way, then swallowing it is not suitable for me. I was opening my mouth to make you happy, but it was not suitable for me to swallow, so I got up and spat it out in the courtyard.”’”101

The problem in this scenario is that al-Junayd went to his paternal uncle’s home with an ulterior motive. His visit was for the benefit of his guest at his own home and not purely for the benefit of his uncle. The intention behind the food that al-Junayd brought was hence impure, and intentionality permeates everything for al-Muḥāsibī. Everything, each morsel of food, is situated in a network of moral relations. Renunciation, then, becomes more than merely an inward-directed means to self-perfection. Rather, it becomes an orientation toward the good that involves a complementary orientation away from anything that hints of imperfection, from worldly attachments to products of impure intention. This means that renunciation involves scrupulous attention to detail (waraʿ). One must be vigilant about the minutiae of God’s expectations. Renunciation also involves trust; rejecting the food given to you requires a lack of anxiety about having nothing to eat.

This story also hearkens back to al-Muḥāsibī’s interpretation of renunciation as having a two-tiered quality, one tier for all Muslims, who must renounce the forbidden, and a second, higher tier for those who renounce the divinely disliked, the doubtful, and the distracting. There is a private agreement between al-Muḥāsibī and God. That private agreement is not divine law, which is between God and the entire human (or at least Muslim) community, but an individualized path. Al-Muḥāsibī’s saintly ability, moreover, allows him to know when something essentially permissible for others is actually not permitted for him. Nevertheless, he still maintains a sense of decorum and polite conduct (adab), pretending to eat for his doting student. Of course, since he is discovered in the end, one might say that his approach is flawed. Nevertheless, it is important that he at least attempts to be a sensitive friend (though I am inclined to agree that al-Muḥāsibī and his ilk seem to have made “poor dinner guests”).102

The narrative also tells us about al-Sarrāj’s presentation of saintly renunciation. For al-Sarrāj extraordinary achievements such as surviving for months without food, feats called karāmāt (“saint-miracles”) are noteworthy. Even so, the inner states achieved by the great ones through their quotidian efforts are even more miraculous and astounding. He says as much in the title of the chapter in question: “A chapter on mentioning the select ones, their states, which are not reckoned as saint-miracles but are indeed, in their significance, more complete and subtle than saint-miracles.”103 While his narratives include accounts of saints avoiding food for forty or even seventy days, al-Sarrāj wants to relay the marvels of t

of the inner soul of the saint. In this case, al-Sarrāj highlights al-Muḥāsibī’s heightened intuitive ability to discern the intentions behind food, which reveals the perfection behind al-Muḥāsibī’s states and actions. The renunciation of the student, al-Junayd, means that he is too poor to have food worthy of a guest. Al-Junayd is certainly being virtuous, attempting to serve his guest and master properly despite his poverty. Yet the renunciation of the master, al-Muḥāsibī, involves a perspective above and beyond such virtue. The master’s renunciation has moved from being an act that involves effort to being a state supported by divine grace. God has given the master the ability to know and thus renounce sustenance that is even slightly or secretly imperfect.


NE 7.2, 1146a, p. 121.

NE 7.1, 1145b, p. 120.

3 Conversely, a person who lacks continence is not like the intemperate person. The intemperate person rejects temperance and embraces excessive or bad pleasures knowingly, as a rational choice. The incontinent person can be described as impetuous or weak; he or she knows better, but fails when faced with pleasures and often regrets that choice. See NE 7.7–7.8, 1150b, p. 132; NE 7.9, 1152a, p. 135.

4 Thus, for example, Aristotle’s distinction between temperance and continence has been expanded upon in contemporary virtue ethics to form the view that virtue should be free from internal discord and aversion. Karen Stohr has called it the “harmony thesis.” Stohr brings this thesis into question and proposes instead a correspondence between one’s feelings and one’s correct value judgments. See Stohr, “Moral Cacophony.”

5 Chabbi, “Remarques sur le développement historique des mouvements ascétiques et mystiques au Khurasan,” pp. 51–2; Algar, “Malāmatiyya, 2.”

6 Al-Sulamī, “Risālat al-Malāmatiyya,” pp. 2:407, 2:429.

7 Melchert, “Sufis and Competing Movements in Nishapur,” p. 243.

8 Karamustafa, Sufism, pp. 61–2; Green, Sufism, p. 50.

9 Karamustafa, Sufism, pp. 65–6.

10 Al-Sulamī, “Risālat al-Malāmatiyya,” pp. 2:403–4.

11 Leah Kinberg outlines some of the difficulties in translating zuhd, which is an indifference to the worldly that is not necessarily asceticism; see “What is Meant by Zuhd,” pp. 36, 40. She also discusses the relationship between zuhd and tawakkul; see ibid., pp. 33–4.

12 Melchert, “The Ḥanābila and the Early Sufis,” pp. 354–5, 357. See also Green, Sufism, p. 29.

13 Suleiman Ali Mourad demonstrates that Ḥasan’s name was attached to certain sayings, for reasons ranging from admiration, to mistaken identity, to sheer forgery (Mourad, Early Islam between Myth and History, pp. 63–94).

14 Meier, “Bakkāʾ.”

15 Melchert, “Baṣran Origins of Classical Sufism,” pp. 222–3.

16 Picken, Spiritual Purification in Islam, p. 59.

17 al-Mazīdī, al-Imām al-Junayd, p. 237.

18 Picken, Spiritual Purification in Islam, p. 49.

19 Ibid., p. 58.

20 Picken, Spiritual Purification in Islam, p. 55.

21 Thus M. Ashraf Adeel sees virtue ethics in the Qurʾan’s emphasis on moderation. See Adeel, “Moderation in Greek and Islamic Traditions and a Virtue Ethics of the Quran.”

22 The full text of the hadith has been abridged. See al-Bukhārī, Ṣaḥīḥ, no. 6502, p. 1617.

23 Al-Muḥāsibī, al-Masāʾil, p. 9.

24 Here al-Muḥāsibī makes clear that he has men in mind, so the masculine pronoun has been used.

25 Al-Muḥāsibī, al-Masāʾil, p. 9.

26 Ibid., p. 10.

27 Ibid., p. 10.

28 Sells, Early Islamic Mysticism, pp. 171–95.

29 Al-Muḥāsibī, al-Masāʾil, p. 79.

30 The influence of al-Muḥāsibī on Ghazālī is discussed in Smith, An Early Mystic of Baghdad, pp. 269–80.

31 Picken, Spiritual Purification in Islam, p. 51.

32 Knysh, Islamic Mysticism, p. 120; see also Ernst, Words of Ecstasy in Sufism, pp. 11–13.

33 Portions of al-Sarrāj’s text have been translated by Michael Sells in his anthology, Early Islamic Mysticism (pp. 196–211), as well as by John Renard in a separate anthology, Knowledge of God in Classical Sufism (pp. 65–99). The entire text has been translated into German by Richard Gramlich (Schlaglichter über das Sufitum), which includes a very useful index to the text. For historical context about the relationship between these two texts, see Karamustafa, Sufism, p. 69.

34 Karamustafa, Sufism, p. 67.

35 Al-Sarrāj, Kitāb al-Lumaʿ, p. iv (Nicholson’s introduction); Jāmī, Nafaḥāt, p. 289.

36 Jāmī, Nafaḥāt, p. 289.

37 Green, Sufism, p. 43.

38 Al-Sarrāj, Kitāb al-Lumaʿ, p. 46.

39 Ibid., p. 46. The words in italics refer to a hadith of the Prophet Muhammad. This has been narrated by Jaʿfar al-Ṣādiq (Miṣbāḥ al-Sharīʿa, p. 138), as well as by Ḥasan al-Baṣrī; for the latter, see Ismāʿīl ibn Muḥammad al-ʿAjlūnī, Kashf al-Khafāʾ, no. 1099, pp. 1:344–5.

40 Al-Sarrāj, Kitāb al-Lumaʿ, p. 46.

41 Ibid., p. 47.

42 Ibid., p. 46.

43 Ibid., p. 47.

44 Ibid., p. 47.

45 Ibid., p. 47.

46 Sells, Early Islamic Mysticism, p. 197.

47 Thus, for example, there was great geographical distance between Yaḥyā ibn Muʿādh (of Rayy, near modern Tehran, then Balkh and Nishapur) and al-Junayd (of Baghdad). See Jāmī, Nafaḥāt, p. 54. Yet, judging by a letter from al-Junayd to Yaḥyā, the two corresponded about the mysteries of witnessing the divine. Moreover, Yaḥyā clearly describes a scenario in which a “knower” (ʿārif) has progressed beyond the station of the ascetic or renunciant (zāhid). In other words, Yaḥyā’s metaphor of the bride quoted above does indeed aim to describe a stage of renunciation beyond renunciation. See al-Junayd al-Baghdādī, Rasāʾil al-Junayd, p. 195.

48 Al-Sarrāj, Kitāb al-Lumaʿ, p. 48.

49 Ibid., p. 49.

50 Sviri, “Sufism,” p. 26; for the relationship between “wool” and Sufi origins see Melchert, “Baṣran Origins of Classical Sufism,” pp. 223–5, 229.

51 Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, pp. 122–3.

52 Ibid., pp. 40.

53 Adair-Toteff, “Max Weber’s Notion of Asceticism,” pp. 109–10; for a consideration of this dichotomy in the context discussed here, see Cooperson, “Ibn Ḥanbal and Bishr al-Ḥāfī,” p. 91.

54 Adair-Toteff, “Max Weber’s Notion of Asceticism,” pp. 113–14.

55 Melchert, “The Transition from Asceticism to Mysticism at the Middle of the Ninth Century C.E.,” p. 60.

56 Ibid., p. 65.

57 Jarrar, “Ghulām Khalīl.”

58 Melchert, “The Ḥanābila and the Early Sufis,” p. 367; on Ibn Ḥanbal’s definition of zuhd see Kinberg, “What is Meant by Zuhd,” p. 42.

59 Melchert, “The Transition from Asceticism to Mysticism at the Middle of the Ninth Century C.E.,” p. 70.

60 Melchert, “The Ḥanābila and the Early Sufis,” p. 361.

61 Melchert, “The Transition from Asceticism to Mysticism at the Middle of the Ninth Century C.E.,” p. 62.

62 Ritter, The Ocean of the Soul, p. 104; Melchert, “The Transition from Asceticism to Mysticism at the Middle of the Ninth Century C.E.,” p. 61.

63 Cooperson, Classical Arabic Biography, pp. 162–4.

64 Makdisi, “The Hanbali School and Sufism,” p. 117.

65 Reinert, Die Lehre vom tawakkul in der klassischen Sufik, pp. 240–52.

66 Karamustafa, Sufism, p. 23. See also Bashir, “Islamic Tradition and Celibacy,” pp. 136–41.

67 Karamustafa, Sufism, p. 24.

68 Landolt, “Khalwa.”

69 Kāshifī, Rashaḥāt ʿAyn al-Ḥayāt, pp. 59–60.

70 Q 24:37. See Kāshifī, Rashaḥāt ʿAyn al-Ḥayāt, p. 59.

71 Kāshifī, Rashaḥāt ʿAyn al-Ḥayāt, p. 547. See also Trimingham, The Sufi Orders in Islam, pp. 202–3.

72 These “promptings” in al-Muḥāsibī’s psychology are decidedly negative—initiated by Satan—and necessitate rejection. In al-Junayd’s sayings, the term is less negative; the promptings come from the purer part of the heart (al-sirr), but—as a distraction from purely passive contemplation—they still serve as a possible obstacle for the mystic (al-Junayd, Rasāʾil al-Junayd, p. 91). Later in Sufi texts this term (or the term khāṭir/khawāṭir) comes to have more positive connotative possibilities. ʿAbd al-Razzāq al-Kāshānī defines the khaṭra as that which “calls the servant to his Lord in a way that he has no power to resist” (al-Kāshānī, Iṣṭilāḥāt al-Ṣūfiyya, p. 26; see also al-Junayd, Rasāʾil al-Junayd, p. 141). According to Muʾayyad al-Dīn Jandī (d. ca. 1300), such bestirrings can come from any of four directions; they can be divine (ilāhī), angelic (malakī), from the lower soul (nafsānī), or Satanic (shayṭānī). See Jandī, Nafḥat al-Rūḥ, p. 105.

73 Al-Muḥāsibī, al-Riʿāya li-Ḥuqūq Allāh, p. 131.

74 Ibid., p. 130.

75 Ibid., p. 131.

76 While al-Sarrāj also deals with extremes and “those who err in the abandonment of food, in seclusion, in isolation, and other things,” his standard is clearly different from al-Muḥāsibī’s (al-Sarrāj, Kitāb al-Lumaʿ, pp. 417–20). While al-Muḥāsibī warns against extreme renunciation, al-Sarrāj wants extreme renunciation to be done correctly.

77 Al-Sarrāj, Kitāb al-Lumaʿ, pp. 132–3.

78 Ibid., p. 134.

79 Ibid., p. 195.

80 Ibid., p. 195. This statement might be better understood in light of a similar one by Sahl al-Tustarī, as quoted by Abū Saʿd ʿAbd al-Malik ibn Muḥammad Khargūshī (d. ca. 1016): “Whoever discredits earning has discredited the normative custom of the Prophet (al-sunna), and whoever discredits trust has discredited belief (al-īmān).” See Khargūshī, Tahdhīb al-Asrār  Uṣūl al-Taṣawwuf, p. 112.

81 Al-Sarrāj, Kitāb al-Lumaʿ, p. 195.

82 Ibid., pp. 367–8.

83 I have here used Michael Sells’s translation. See Sells, Early Islamic Mysticism, p. 208; al-Sarrāj, Kitāb al-Lumaʿ, p. 52.

84 Al-Sarrāj quotes an unnamed source as having a similar understanding of trust: “Whosoever desires to give trust its due, let him dig a grave and bury himself in it, forgetting the worldly and its people, because none from among the [living] creatures can achieve the reality of trust in its completion” (Kitāb al-Lumaʿ, p. 53).

85 Al-Sarrāj, Kitāb al-Lumaʿ, p. 417.

86 Ibid., p. 419.

87 Ibid., p. 418.

88 Ibid., p. 418.

89 Ibid., p. 417.

90 Ibid., p. 419.

91 The Qurʾan posits a range of ascetic demands, and posits as well that the most demanding (that which applied to Muhammad himself) is quite rigorous. The Prophet Muhammad is commanded to stand in prayer for half the night, more or less (Q 73:2–4). The verses that follow, however, acknowledge that those who stand with Muhammad, trying to imitate his worship, might not be able to pray for such a length of time. The Prophet is commanded—for that reason—to recite that which is “easy” (Q 73:20). See also Q 4:28 and, in terms of fasting, Q 2:184–5.

92 Alfano, Character as Moral Fiction, p. 37.

93 Ibid., pp. 104–5.

94 Alfano takes issue with claims that virtue ethics is egalitarian, in part by pointing out elitist-minded defenses of virtue ethics when faced with the situationist challenge. See ibid., p. 63.

95 Al-Sarrāj, Kitāb al-Lumaʿ, p. 196.

96 Ibid., p. 196.

97 Ibid., p. 200.

98 Ibid., p. 200.

99 While some have seen al-Sarrāj’s approach as defensive or apologetic, there are clear indications in his book that Sufism had become—by the time he was writing—a truly “Islamic” and one might even say “Sunni” movement. See Karamustafa, Sufism, p. 68.

100 See Mojaddedi, The Biographical Tradition in Sufism, pp. 178–181.

101 Al-Sarrāj, Kitāb al-Lumaʿ, pp. 331–2.

102 Michael Sells quotes an unnamed commentator, in response to the fact that the hands of al-Muḥāsibī and Bishr al-Ḥāfī (d. ca. 841) would be diverted from impure or doubtful foods; see Early Islamic Mysticism, p. 198.

103 Al-Sarrāj, Kitāb al-Lumaʿ, p. 330.

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