The Organs of God: Hadith al-Nawafil in Classical Islamic Mysticism.

Author:Ebstein, Michael

The following divine saying (hadith qudsi), commonly referred to in Islamic sources as hadith al-nawafil ("the tradition concerning supererogatory works," henceforth, the nawafil tradition), is one of the most quoted traditions in Islamic mystical literature:

Allah has said: Whoever treats a friend (wali) of mine with enmity, I declare war on him. There is nothing by which my servant draws close to me that is dearer to me than that which I have imposed (iftaradtu) upon him; and my servant does not cease to draw close to me by supererogatory works (nawafil) until I love him, and when I love him, I become his hearing (sam') by which he hears, his sight (basar) by which he sees, his hand by which he forcibly seizes, and his leg by which he walks. If he asks me, I give him, and if he seeks my refuge, I grant it to him. There is no action of mine in which I waver more than [taking] the soul of a believer: he hates dying, and I hate doing him wrong. (1) As reflected in this nawafil tradition, central to Islamic mystical thought are (1) the pivotal role of obligatory (fara'id) and supererogatory religious actions in the advancement toward God, and (2) the notion that at the climactic end of this advancement God assumes control of the will and faculties of His beloved servant. In what follows I will discuss the significance of the nawafil tradition in various mystical writings composed in the formative and classical periods of Islamic mysticism, i.e., from the third/ninth to the seventh/thirteenth centuries. A substantial part of my discussion will be dedicated to the celebrated mystic Muhyi l-Din Ibn al-'Arabi (d. 638/1240), who quotes or refers to the nawafil tradition throughout his writings and whose influence on subsequent generations of mystics was such that he was known as al-shaykh al-akbar. I will also allude in passing to certain Shii conceptions that I believe are relevant to the understanding of the nawafil tradition and its interpretations in Sunni mysticism, thereby emphasizing once again the important role that the Shia played in the development of Islamic esotericism and mysticism. (2)


    The hadith version quoted above from al-Bukhari (d. 256/870) comprises four parts: (1) the war that God wages on the enemies of His friends (awliYa', sg. wali); (2) the importance of supererogatory works in achieving divine love, as a result of which God becomes the very organs of His servant; (3) the theurgical power of the servant, who is able to invoke God and have his prayers answered (ijabat al-da'wa); and (4) the "wavering" of God in taking the life of the believer.

    In terms of their content, these four parts are not necessarily correlated, and it seems that they originally formed four disparate traditions. (3) Thus, in one early source the second and third parts stand alone as one tradition, albeit in a somewhat different version and with a divergent chain of transmission (isnad). (4) In other sources, the first and fourth components appear--again, with different wording and isnad--as separate or added to other traditions; (5) and in certain versions, the order of the four parts diverges and additional elements are added. (6) It should be noted that it is mainly the second part (often accompanied by the third) that one encounters in mystical literature.

    The notion that the organs of God's intimate servant become divine is quite radical from the viewpoint of Islamic orthodoxy. (7) In fact, in certain versions of the nawafil tradition, the human organs and their divinization are omitted altogether. (8) On the other hand, in the early Shii milieu, particularly among disciples of the Imams Muhammad al-Baqir (d. ca. 114/732) and Ja'far al-Sadiq (d. 148/765), anthropomorphic perceptions of God were not uncommon. (9) Moreover, in traditions going back to these early circles, the Imams, descendants of 'Ali b. Abi Talib, are mythically perceived as God's organs on earth:

    I ['Ali] am the eye of Allah, I am the hand of Allah, I am the flank (janb) of Allah [see Q 39:56] [. . .] I am the heart of Allah, which comprehends, the tongue of Allah, which speaks, and the eye of Allah, which looks; I am the flank of Allah and the hand of Allah. [. . .] We [Imams] are the tongue of Allah, the face of Allah, the eye of Allah among His created beings. [. . .] We are His ear, which hears, His eye, which looks, His tongue, which speaks with His permission. (10) The Imams are the divine face (wajh Allah) that never perishes (Q 28:88) and that grants access to God Himself, and they are the very attributes of God that enable created beings to gain knowledge of their creator. (11)

    It is highly unlikely that the second part of the nawafil tradition originated among Shii circles--it does not occupy a central place in Shii compilations and it is not interpreted therein as referring to the Imams. (12) It is more conceivable that it emerged among pious Sunni groups in the mid-second/eighth century. (13) Still, both the nawafil tradition and the aforementioned Shii sayings reflect similar speculations on God and the organs of His chosen ones. (14) However, whereas according to the Shia the awliYa' (= the Imams) are God's organs, in the nawafil tradition God is the organs of the awliYa'. Put differently, the Shiis claim that the Imams are the instrument by which God manages creation; they are therefore essential for the implementation of the divine plan and manifestation of God's will. Conversely, the hadith presents God, who assumes control of His servant's organs, as the instrument by which the wali operates; the wali is in need of God, not vice versa. The difference between these two approaches can also be defined in terms of an individual versus a collective perspective: while the nawafil tradition focuses on the individual and her private relationship with God, the Shii perspective stresses the social, political, and even cosmic-universal implications of the relationship between God and His chosen ones, the mediators between the creator and the created. I shall return to this in the conclusion of this article.

    Finally, it is plausible that the first part, "whoever treats a friend of mine with enmity, I declare war on him," originated within the early Shii milieu, or at least was interpreted therein as referring to the Imams and to their supporters who suffered persecution during Umayyad times. (15)


    By the first half of the third/ninth century, the nawafil tradition was already circulating among Sunni mystics. Al-Harith al-Muhasibi (d. 243/857), the renowned mystic-theologian, quotes it as proof of the importance of both obligatory and supererogatory works for purifying the inner realm of man and for establishing mutual love between him and God. (16) At the same time, al-Muhasibi is careful to emphasize that the hadith does not imply that Allah "dwells" (yaskunu) in the organs of His servant, rather He assists the servant in obeying Him (ta'A). (17) This conservative interpretation, which aims at mitigating the anthropomorphic and mythic elements inherent in the nawafil tradition, is in line with al-Muhasibi's theological approach and ethico-psychological teachings. These teachings, which were to form the doctrinal basis for classical Sufi thought, focus on the religious duties imposed on man's heart (qalb), in addition to those incumbent upon his bodily organs (jawarih). (18) The nawafil tradition is also mentioned or referred to in the teachings attributed to Dhu l-Nun al-Misri (d. ca. 245/859f.) and Sahl al-Tustari, who were likewise among those who laid the foundations of classical Sufism. In one saying attributed to Dhu 1-Nun, the nawafil tradition serves to illustrate the pinnacle of the mystical path, when an individual, relinquishing her own will and resigning herself to the will of her Lord, begins to perceive, speak, and act by means of God; her perception, words, and actions are thus divine. (19) As we shall see, this would become a leitmotif in Sufi references to the nawafil tradition.

    A more radical interpretation of the nawafil idea--albeit without an explicit reference to the hadith itself--is found in the sayings ascribed to Abu Yazid Tayfur b. 'Isa 1-Bistami (d. 261/874f., or perhaps earlier, 234/848f.). (20) In one, al-Bistaml states that when the believer

    wills (fa-sha'A) by the will (bi-mashi'At) of Allah and looks in agreement with Allah; (21) and his heart is raised high by the high rank of Allah and his soul is set in motion by the power (qudra) of Allah; and this servant is present wherever he wills by the will of Allah, may He be exalted, and alights in every place, wherever Allah wills, with his/His knowledge and power--then this servant is with Him in every place and no place is devoid of him. (22) The mystic, whose will and actions have become divine, is granted superhuman powers. Like God Who is present everywhere, the mystic is able to travel with his mental-spiritual energy wherever he desires: "everything comes to him effortlessly while he remains still; the entire East and West come to him." (23) In an even more radical passage, al-Bistami is said to have gone through a mystical experience in which God

    transformed me from my own individuality into His being; (24) by His being He removed me from my own being and showed me His being as One; and I looked at Him by His being. And when I looked at the Truth (haqq) by the Truth I saw the Truth by the Truth. I remained for a time in the Truth by the Truth, with neither a breath [or, soul, nafas/nafs] nor a tongue nor an ear nor knowledge. Then Allah created for me knowledge from His knowledge, a tongue from His speech, (25) and an eye from His light. I looked at Him by His light and received knowledge from His knowledge and secretly conversed with Him (najaytuhu) by the tongue of His speech. (26) Having had his organs transformed into divine luminous ones, al-Bistami obtained divine knowledge, came to...

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