Shaykh as-Sulami (d. 1021) followed the path of blame. His ties to the Malamatiyya were through his grandfather Ibn Nujayd and his many Malamatiyya mentors. In his Treatise of the People of Blame (Risala al-malamatiyya, which has received a complete translation into French) he places the people of blame at the top of the spiritual hierarchy:
The shaykh shows in ascending order:
• The exoterists or scholars of the Islamic law
• The Sufis or the people of deep inward knowledge
• The people of blame.
Malama (blame) has LMW as root. This root appears several times in the Qur’an and ahadith. Lawwama (an adjective of intensity) means: One who is constantly blaming others or accusing oneself. It has an active and a passive aspect as can be seen in the first teaching below of shaykh as-Sulami. The root LWM is to be found in the Qur’anic terms the blaming soul (nafs lawwama). You will know of this hierarchy in ascending order of development:
• Nafs ammara: the soul inciting to evil
• Nafs lawwama: the blaming soul
• Nafs mulhama: the inspired soul
• Nafs mutma’inna: the serene soul.
Some Sufis even add the contented soul, the pleasing soul and the perfect soul to this list. Its characteristics and the way of training these souls have been explained by shaykh Abd al-Khaliq al-Shabrawi in his The Degrees of the Soul ; London; 1997.
Shaykh as-Sulami offers several remarks concerning the path of blame and its followers. He has written the Risalat al-Malamatiyya (The Epistle about the People of Blame).
They are a people established in God, constant in their vigilance over each of their moments and watchful over their innermost selves. They thus find fault with themselves and all that they manifest of intimacy with God or acts of worship, while exposing to others their base natures and keeping hidden from them their virtues.
Others blame them for what they see of their outward appearances, while they blame themselves for what they know of their inward states.
God has shown them His generosity by unveiling secrets to them and by making apparent to them different aspects of the unseen and true inner sight, as well as in charismatic powers activated in them.
They have hidden that which is between God and them by making apparent that upon which they began their spiritual journey, self-blame and self-denial, manifesting to others that which causes aversion. They preserve (in part) their states with God in turning others from themselves. This is the path of the Malamatiyya!
The one who follows the path of blame has no interior pretention, nor exterior affectation or ostentation. His/her inner secret, between him/her and God, is not apparent to his/her own heart, so how could it be apparent to other people?
Among the teachings of the people of the path of blame is that they reproach their ego under all circumstances, whether it is amenable or retreats, shows signs of obedience or not. They show a minimum of satisfaction with it or inclination towards it.
They are a folk that outwardly have no signs that distinguish them from the people… The people of blame are those whose secrets God keeps a watch over, drawing over their innermost states the curtain of formal appearances. Outwardly they participate in all the activities performed by their fellows, keeping company with them in marketplaces and in earning a means of livelihood, while in truth… they are with God, the Most Elevated.
Among them (the friends of God who are unknown to mankind) and who may or may not be Malamatiyya) are those whom He hides from the eyes of creation… They exist among the people as one of them. They eat, drink and mingle with others. God has allowed their exterior aspect to face creation while keeping their inner state exclusively to Himself.
This is because of God’s jealousy over them, for He is too jealous to allow other than Himself the knowledge of His elect friends.
When you’d become a murid frequenting the Malamatiyya they’d guide you to what is evident of compliance and the application of the example of the Prophet at all times, and constancy in adab (correct behaviour) both inwardly and outwardly under all circumstances. They don’t allow you claims (of spirituality) and stories of signs and supernatural powers, nor dependence upon them.
Instead they stress correct behaviour towards others and constancy in discipline. You would thus learn your path and becomes used to the adab thereof.
Should the people of blame see exaltation on your part of any of your acts or states they would explain your defects and guide you to the elimination of this fault, until you cease to deem valuable any of your acts or to rely on them.
When you would claim a state or a special station for yourself, they’ll belittle it in your eyes until you attain sincerity in your aspiration and spiritual states manifest themselves to you.
They then will instruct you in their practice of keeping your states hidden, while manifesting correct behaviour in regard to the ordained and forbidden aspects (of your religion). Thus you’ll attain all the stations while you still are on the path of being a disciple. For the people of the path of blame it is through the perfection of spiritual endeavour that you achieve all the spiritual stations, except the station of deep inward knowledge.
The murid, when disciplined by others than the Malamatiyya, is permitted spiritual claims while still being a murid. He takes the states of the founders of the path as a veil for himself and claims them as his own. The passage of days increases them only in retreat and distance from reality and the path of God.
For this reason the mentor of the Malamatiyya way, Abu Hafs of Nishapur – may God sanctify his innermost secret – says [chain of transmission omitted]: “The murids of the people of the path of blame lead a noble life. There is no danger for their egos, nor is there any means for the faults which might appear from them to intrude upon their stations, because their outward is for all to see, while their true states are veiled. The murids of the Sufis however, exhibit rash claims and supernatural powers, which make anyone who has reached realization laugh, for their claims are many while the realities of their states are few”.
Shaykh Yahya ibn Mu’adh has said: “When you are sincere with God, you don’t want to be seen nor have your words narrated”.
Malamatiyya teaching stresses the avoiding of outward display of acts of piety. Jesus is said to have put fat in his beard in order to hide that he kept an extra fast. The people of the path of blame try to actualize sincerity in practice and to behold the heart-truth. Shaykh Mahmud Shabistari has written some verses dealing with the path of blame in his Golshan-e-Raz:
Bot o zonnaar o tarsaa’i o naaqus
Eshaarat shod hama baa tark naamus
Idols and belts and Christianity and church bells
Are all subtle allusions for the renouncing of name and fame.
Shaykh Lahiji has commented on these subtle allusions thus:
Those perfect masters who discourse on idols, the putting on of the belt (not worn by Muslims), the practice of Christianity and the ringing of the church bells, symbolically allude by the use of these images to the abandonment of personal name and honour.
According to them all decadence and error in religious belief stem from the wish to preserve one’s personal ‘good name’, ‘honour’ and ‘reputation’. The thickest veil, which beclouds people of high social position and status is their honour and reputation. For such people it is easier to abandon the world, than to lose their reputation.
Sincerity is very important on the path of blame. Shaykh Mahmud Shabistari continues thus:
Agar khaahi ke gardi banda’-e-khaas
Mohaiyaa shaw baraaye sedq o ekhlaas
If you would like to become one of the special servants,
Prepare yourself in the field of sincerity and purity.
Shaykh Lahiji has given this commentary:
Sincerity (sedq) is to show yourself to be whatever you really are and purity (ekhlaas) is to free yourself of a relationship with everything, except with God, the Reality. Sincerity – with God and society in both your private and public life and in your heart and with your tongue – is to be truly honest and upright.
Purity (ekhlas) is to keep God constantly before the face of your heart with every act you perform, with every word you say, while never reckoning the good and ill opinion of people to be of any account or importance.
Shaykh Mahmud Shabistari deals with the depth of commitment to the path of blame in this couplet:
Riyaa o sam’a o naamus be-gozaar
Bi-feqan kherqa o bar band zonnaar
Renounce hypocrisy and notoriety and reputation.
Throw away the dervish mantle and bind on Christian belt.
Shaykh Lahiji has given this commentary:
You should renounce hypocrisy (riyaa), which can be defined as acting with an eye to gain the esteem of the people (instead of the favour of God). Renouncing the pursuit of notoriety (sam’a) implies that you renounce fame and public praise. Reputation (naamus) is a desire that by means of bootlicking towards the people you’ll receive honour and attain to a high rank.
Instead, you should pursue purity (ekhlaas), seek obscurity from the public eye and be without status, by casting of the dervish mantle (kherqa), which is a cause of self-display and status, from your shoulders and bind on the belt (zonnaar) of service to humanity, lest people become convinced of the truth of your show of holiness and piety. Thus you’ll remain untainted by reprehensible qualities and vices, such as hypocrisy, pride, conceited self-importance and a deluded belief in your own virtue and reputation.
Shaykh as-Sulami tells in his Epistle about the People of Blame :
For the Malamatiyya the perfect man in his acts is the one whose external attitude, which is visible for murids, demonstrates the discipline belonging to a servant of God, so that they take him as a model to follow. At the same time to those who have the same goal as he, the secret of his being and his inward state are a model. The secret of his being and his inward state are conform the order that directs spiritual states and that which is appropriate to contemplation, i.e. conditions according to which the secret of his being can contemplate the Divine Truth at each moment. […]
The most intimate part of his being is thus a model for the spiritual realization of the gnostics and at the same time his exterior comportment is a disciplining model for murids. This is the case with the spiritual guides who are sincere.
An example can be given by means of these words of the Prophet (see the collection of ahadith of as-Soyuti, i.e. al-Jami as-Saghir ): “My eyes are sleeping, but my heart is not sleeping”. He has given us a sign that the exterior part of a human being sleeps and is in a spiritual sleeping state, but that his most secret part has the power to remain constantly awake, to contemplate and to be in the nearness of God.
Shaykh Ebn al-‘Arabi teaches: “The people of the path of blame are ‘true men’ (ar-rejaal) who have assumed the highest level of walaya (being a friend of God). There is nothing higher than them, except the station of prophecy. Their station is the one referred to as the station of nearness”.
Shaykh Ebn al-‘Arabi informs us that he attained to this station while he was travelling in Morocco . When he entered this station he did not know its name, but he saw no one in it apart from himself and this solitude frightened him. Somewhat later someone embraced him. It was no one else but shaykh as-Sulami whose spirit had assumed corporeal form for his sake. God had sent him out of compassion for him. Shaykh as-Sulami explained to him that the station was the station of nearness and that he was in it while being overtaken by death. He tells to shaykh Ebn al-‘Arabi: “Realize it in its fullness!”
Shaykh as-Sulami like a true malami never presents his teachings of the people of blame in the first person. He knows how to avoid that by quoting others. This is an example taken from his Epistle :
Abu Yazid was asked when a spiritual person reached the level of one of the ‘true men’ (ar-rejaal). He answered: “This is the case when he knows the faults of his ego and that he is suspicious of his ego without any weakness (in this suspicion)”.
By manifesting all the divine names without a trace of Lordship and thereby displaying perfect servanthood, perfect man becomes, one might say, totally ordinary. In him, nothing stands out, since he flows with all created things in perfect harmony and equilibrium. He is like a tree or a bird in his ordinariness, following the divine will wherever it takes him, with no friction, no protest, complete serenity, no waves. He is so much at ease with the continual flux of secondary causes that he remains unnoticed by his contemporaries. There may be outstanding spiritual masters who attract disciples through their teachings and miraculous gifts, but the most perfect of the masters are never noticed except by those whom God chooses and guides. In respect of this characteristic, shaykh Ebn al-‘Arabi calls the most perfect of the gnostics the ‘people of blame’ (malamiyya).
The lover on the Sufi path may experience something of the path of blame malaama wa izhaar-e sokr wa haira or the courting of blame in a state of intoxication and bewilderment. At this level the lover is intoxicated and loses the consciousness of his/her own self by drinking deep of the cup of love. The lover is neither afraid of disgrace nor does he fear ignominy; distraught he charges forth and like one drunk finds the way to the kharaabaat or ‘tavern’:
‘Eshq-e to maraa kharaabaati kard
Var na man bichaareh ba-saamaan budam
Your love turned me into a haunter of taverns,
Else I would have been tranquil in mind.
Many stories are known about shaykh Hasan of Basra – a Sufi who has been mentioned in the beginning of the Cheshtiyya line of succession – and in most of them someone else comes out as ‘better’ than him, while Hasan Basri’s ‘faults’ clearly have been depicted. It is, however, important to know that these reports often come from a single source: Hasan Basri himself!
Two women, i.e. Mary and A’esha, represent people belonging to the highest level of the Malamatiyya. Both have experienced the severest kind of blame, which dealt with their chastity and their honour.
Mary was expecting a child and people were ready to blame her (Qur’an 19:27): O Mary, you surely have committed a strange thing .
Mary’s elevated spiritual station is that of absolute servanthood (‘obuda). God has asked her in Qur’an 3:43 to obey, to prostrate herself and to bow down with those who bow down.
A’esha has been accused of being unfaithful to her husband, the Messenger of God. God has made it clear in the Light sura that she was innocent. A’esha has reported very many ahadith, because of her being so close to the Prophet.
Shaykh Ebn al-‘Arabi has made a subtle allusion in regard to the station of nearness (see teaching 11), the station of the Malamatiyya, which is in between prophecy and the station of sincerity (seddiqiyya). The shaykh has said that there has been no man between the Prophet and Abu Bakr. No man , so would it be possible that he is pointing to a woman: A’esha?
Shaykh ‘Isma’il Haqqi has commented upon the unjust blame and accusations directed towards A’esha in this way:
It has been a grace of Allah intended for her to make her leave the prison of existence and that is the proof of her being a wali (friend of God). When Allah takes charge (yatawalla) of someone, He makes that person leave the darkness of one’s created existence and go in the direction of the eternal light”. According to shaykh Ebn al-‘Arabi such people see all acts as coming from God and as good acts. The unjust blame becomes a private affair between the people of the path of blame and their Beloved.
It is possible to say that the people of blame are the very archetype of the feminine awliya (friends of God) in Islam, i.e. they are both veiled (hidden) and apparent.
One of the people of blame was asked to describe the characteristics of a person with chivalrous virtues. He gave the answer that such a person is someone with:
• The repentance of Adam
• The integrity of the piety of Noah
• The fidelity regarding a given word of Abraham
• The sincerity of Ismael
• The total purity of the intention of Moses
• The patience of Job
• The lamentations of David
• The generosity of Muhammad
• The goodness of Abu Bakr
• The enthusiasm of ‘Omar
• The modesty of ‘Othman
• The knowledge of ‘Ali.
[There is more on top of that, implying to be modest regarding one’s own qualities and seeing those of others as superior].
The Sufis can be compared with Moses, whose face you could not directly look at, after God had spoken to him, while the Malamatiyya can be compared to Muhammad (s.a.w.), whose outward appearance did not show anything special after his heavenly journey to the divine presence.
Shaykh ‘Omar as-Sohrawardi gives the Sufis however a higher spiritual rank than the people of blame, because the Sufis have realized the Malamatiyya virtue of sincerity in such a high measure that they are no longer conscious thereof to possess this virtue.
A shaykh from Mashad in Iran has said: “We have a different opinion compared to the Malamatiyya regarding the acceptance by God. The people of the path of blame believe that you will only be accepted by God, when the people refuse you. We however believe that you will be accepted by God in case the people accept you”.
The Malamatiyya state that:
• the zikr of the spirit gets tainted, when the innermost consciousness perceives it.
• the zikr of the spirit gets tainted, when the heart perceives it.
• the zikr of the heart gets tainted, when the soul perceives it.
• The zikr of the soul gets tainted when you see it and think high of it and seek a reward for it and think that you have realized something very virtuous.
According to the Malamatiyya only that person is a faqir (one of the spiritually poor) who does not let anyone notice this poverty. Poverty is a secret between God and you. In case this God-given poverty gets visible to others, then you are no longer trusted by God. When someone else notices your poverty, you are no longer poor, but only needy. There are many needy persons, but very few poor ones.
This is what Khwaja Hafez Shirazi says:
Chu be-shenaw sokhan-e-aahl-e-del magu ke khataast
Sokhan shenaas na’i delbaraa sokhan injaast
When you hear the speech of the people of the heart,
Don’t say they are wrong.
You are not an expert in speech, my dear!
This is where your error is.
It is said that Emir Sikkini walked into a blazing fire and came out having lost only his dervish robe and dervish hat. This anecdote makes clear that the people of the path of blame wear normal clothes and cannot be identified as spiritual persons by means of their outward appearance.
A certain man made his living in Bursa by baking a kind of bread. He sold this bread to the workers who built the great mosque in Bursa. On the occasion of the first prayer in this new mosque the sultan ordered a highly influential shaykh to lead this prayer. This shaykh however announced to the waiting congregation that it would be inappropriate for him to lead the prayer and to deliver the sermon while the Great Succour (Ghawth al-azam) was in their midst. He indicated the baker of bread as the one who should lead the prayer and deliver the sermon.
The baker stepped in front of all and led the prayer and gave a legendary sermon, which contained a seven-fold commentary on the Fatiha, the first chapter of the Qur’an.
Everyone in the congregation understood the first commentary on the Fateha. As for the second some were able to unravel and penetrate its meaning. Those who understood the third were very few, and the fourth and subsequent commentaries were beyond comprehension. Only the baker was able to understand these levels. The baker left Bursa after the incident in the great mosque of Bursa , which drew more attention to him than he preferred.
One day ‘Abdullah was taken by his spiritual guide to a certain area in Istanbul. There twelve men gazed into his heart and ‘Abdullah fell into a swoon. When he revived, he found a light shining in his heart. Noticing that he tried to cover the light with his robe, it was said to him with a smile: “There is no need to conceal it. Not everyone can see that light. Do your best to preserve it”.
Later on ‘Abdullah committed a very serious offence and suffered a spiritual contraction because of it. ‘Abdullah was tried in the presence of people belonging to the path of blame. By submitting himself to trial he regained his former purity of heart, but he was never again able to witness the light in his heart.
Shaykh Mustafa defined the Malamatiyya as ‘those who receive blame, because they do what is ordered by God’. One day it so happened that shaykh Mustafa was sitting alone with one of his murids. The shaykh then severely criticized himself. It was no criticism dealing with details, no it had a direct connection with his function and the way he had defended his own shaykh and his work.
What a dilemma for the disciple who was present! What could he say? Should he respond by saying: “Yes, my shaykh! I agree with you. You have acted wrongly!” Or should he say: “I don’t believe a single word regarding what you’ve just now told to me and I am sure you’ve acted in the best possible way!”
Shaykh Abu Hafs, who was a blacksmith in ordinary life, noticed that one of his disciples was active in criticizing both the present life as well as other people. He told him: “You are bringing certain things to the open, while it would be proper for you to keep them hidden. Because of this you can no longer participate in our meetings and you are dismissed as a disciple”.
Shaykh Abu Zakariyya as-Sinji said: “Spiritual states are trusts which are confided to those who experience them. In case people speak about these experiences, they pass the boundaries related to trustees”.
‘Abdallah al-Hajjam, who was a barber, asked this question to shaykh Hamdun al-Qassar: “Should I renounce my working life?” The shaykh answered: “Continue with your job! I prefer it that people call you ‘Abdallah ‘the barber’, instead of ‘the gnostic’ or the ascetic’.”
Shaykh ‘Abdallah ebn Manazel (he was a malamati murid of shaykh Hamdun al-Qassar) said: The person who hears a word of wisdom and does not agree with it is punishable and in case (s)he does not put it into practice (s)he is hypocrite.
Shaykh Shah al-Kermani (he was one of the masters of the path of chivalry) said: Accomplish the acts of obedience in the most pure way possible, but regard them afterwards as if they are the most impure.
Shaykh Isma’il ebn Nujayd (he was the grandfather of shaykh as-Sulami and one of his principal informants about the malamatiyya) said: No one can in the least influence the condition of the servant when his works look in his eyes as being hypocritical and when all of his spiritual experiences look like nothing but pretentious illusions.
Shaykh Hamdun al-Qassar (the founder of the path of blame) said: The beauty of the poor person is in his humility, but in case he gets proud because of it, then his pride is more excessive than the pride of a rich person.
Shaykh Abu Yazid Bastami (who can be seen as a forerunner of the people of the path of blame) said: In case you see someone who has been given the possibility to manifest supernatural powers, like taking up a seat high in the air, then do not be mistaken. Get to know how he behaves himself in regard to the religious obligations and interdictions, how he stays within the limits regarding things allowed and forbidden and how he accomplishes the revealed law.
Question and answer
Yannis Toussulis has written Sufism and the Way of Blame – Hidden Sources of a Sacred Psychology. A question has been asked to a modern representative of the path of blame, Mehmet Selim Bey, and his answer will be shown immediately thereafter.
Q.: You have often critiqued authoritarian approaches to spiritual teaching and decried the tendency of certain Sufis to replace the worship of God with a “worship of shaykhs”. The great fourteenth century murshid Bahauddin Naqshband was known to have said: “Today the day to shaykh-hood is closed and the door to spiritual friendship has opened”. How do you envision spiritual friendship in the malamati path today?
A.: I would put my own signature to this saying of Bahauddin Naqshband, and I would also add: “The door to shaykh-hood has always been closed, and the door to spiritual friendship has always been open”.
The Qur’an asserts that neither prophets nor angels can stand between a person and God, and if not them , then what other entity can make such a claim? I know of certain groups, whose teachers encourage them to worship them as semi-divine. When this happens – as when spirituality becomes thoroughly institutionalized – “awakening” loses its essence or spirit and becomes a cultic form.