chapter
13 Pages

Introduction

The nature of the soul, being the intrinsic, essential and yet hidden human facet, has occupied the minds of humanity for millennia. More specifi cally, 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. 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 purifi cation 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 followers 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

researcher to address the life and works of this great exponent of tazkiya in depth. This is not to say that al-Muḥāsibī has been exhausted as an area of research, however, as many of his works have been preserved and, indeed, have been published, edited and annotated since the pioneering work of Smith. Thus, in an attempt to shed further light on this under-discussed facet of the Islamic tradition, this book comprises an examination of the linguistic and terminological usage of the terms tazkiya and al-nafs to determine an accurate understanding of these concepts. In addition, it provides an extensive survey of the available biographical and historical sources to produce an accurate and comprehensive account of this unique and extraordinary scholar’s life, including a study of the historical period in which al-Muḥāsibī lived, to assess the extent to which the political, social and economic factors played a part in his life and work. Moreover, due to the large number of works produced by this prolifi c author and their importance, the latter part of this book will be concerned with an assessment of al-Muḥāsibī’s works to determine the writer’s understanding and methodology regarding the spiritual process of development termed tazkiyat al-nafs. Before we start, however, it is deemed useful to provide the reader with an outline of the research previously carried out in this fi eld,1 so as to acquaint them with the depth of scholarship regarding al-Muḥāsibī, as well as to defi ne the scope of the present work.