Spiritual Purification in Islam: The Life and Works of al-Muhasibi

SPIRITUAL PURIFICATION IN ISLAM
  • Book Title:
 Spiritual Purification In Islam
  • Book Author:
Gavin Picken
  • Total Pages
265
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About the Book – SPIRITUAL PURIFICATION IN ISLAM

Purification of the soul is a principle that is central to understanding Islamic spirituality but despite this, relatively little has been written explicitly in the Islamic tradition regarding this discrete method of spiritual purifi cation.

This book examines the work of a scholar of this discipline, al-Hārith al-Muḥāsibī, who lived and worked during the classical Islamic period under the Abbāsids.

 Although al-Muḥāsibī was well known for his skills in many disciplines, including the Qur’ān, Prophetic narration and scholastic theology, it is his mastery in the fi eld of Islamic spirituality and moral psychology for which he is best remembered.

Assessing the extent to which the political, social and economic factors played a part in his life and work, Gavin Picken provides a comprehensive overview of his work and its great significance in the development of Islamic spirituality.

Reconstructing his life in chronological order and providing the most comprehensive appraisal of his works to date, it explores a facet of al-Muḥāsibī’s teaching which as yet has not been studied, namely his understanding, concept and methodology regarding the purification of the soul within the Islamic paradigm.

As such, it will be of great interest not only to researchers and students of Sufism but also to scholars of comparative spirituality and mysticism.

Gavin Picken is Lecturer in Islamic Studies and Arabic at the University of Edinburgh. His research focuses on the evolution of Islamic intellectual history in the formative period and he has published a number of articles in the areas of Islamic jurisprudence, theology, and Islamic spirituality and mysticism.

Introduction

The nature of the soul, being the intrinsic, essential and yet hidden human facet, has occupied the minds of humanity for millennia. More specifically, world religions have contributed greatly to this debate, furnishing a great deal of discussion from their own unique theological and philosophical perspectives. In this sense, Islam is no different and it too has a fully developed concept of the soul based on scriptural tradition.

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In addition, however, not only the idea of the soul is alluded to in Islam, but also the notion of its purifi cation through a process of spiritual development. Despite the principle of purification of the soul (tazkiyat al-nafs) being central to Islam, relatively little attention was given to it in the formative period in terms of written compilation, if compared to the vast volumes devoted to, say, Qurʾānic exegesis (al-tafsīr), Prophetic narration (al-ḥadīth) or Islamic jurisprudence (al-fi qh).

Moreover, much of what has been written has been within the general precepts of what is now termed al-taṣawwuf, or Sufi sm, and much of this work has been concerned with the post-Ghazzālī (d. 505/1111) period.

 Nevertheless, several authors devoted their time and energy to writing on this topic and, indeed, the concept of tazkiyat al-nafs had been developed prior to the advent of al-Ghazzālī. One of the most infl uential scholars in the pre-Ghazzālī period who wrote on a primordial form of Islamic spirituality was the second-/eighth-century Islamic scholar Abū ʿAbd Allāh al-Ḥārith b. Asad al-Muḥāsibī, who was born in Basra around 165/782 but later resided in Baghdad, albeit with a period of exile in Kūfa, until his death in 243/857. Al-Muḥāsibī was known for his skills in many disciplines, including the sciences associated with the Qurʾān,  Prophetic narration (ḥadīth) and scholastic theology (ʿilm al-kalām), but it is for his mastery in the fi eld of Islamic spirituality and moral psychology that he is remembered.

 Regardless of his favourable notoriety, especially in later Sufi  apologetic works, he was not without criticism, being repudiated by Imām Aḥmad b. Ḥanbal (d. 242/856) for his ‘unorthodox’ views and reviled by Aḥmad’s subsequent follow-ers Abū Zurʿa al-Rāzī (d. 264/878), Ibn al-Jawzī (d. 597/1201) and ʿAbd al-Raḥīm ʿIrāqī (d. 806/1403).

 In spite of this, he was a prolifi c writer, reportedly authoring more than 200 works, the most famous of which is perhaps Kitāb al-Riʿāya li Ḥuqūq Allāh. It was this latter, monumental work which drew the attention of the West in the form of the British scholar Margaret Smith (d. 1970), who was the fi rst European

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