Book Review: The Way of Sufi Chivalry

The Way of Sufi Chivalry

Title: The Way of Sufi Chivalry: When the light of the heart is reflected in the beauty of the face, that beauty is futuwwah.
Author: Ibn al-Husayn al-Sulami
Translator: Tosun Bayrak al-Jerrahi
Publisher: Inner Traditions International (1991)

Ibn al-Husayn al-Sulami was a highly respected sufi saint and scholar of the 10th century C.E. In the Islamic calendar he was born in 325AH and passed away in 412AH, both in the city of Nishapur, making him from amongst the early generations. The purpose of this book is summarized on the back cover:

Ibn al-Husayn al-Sulami compiled this book as a guide to enlightened behavior for the spiritual aspirant. In its pages, he records the teachings of renowned spiritual masters, as well as tales and quotations from the Koran and Hadith. The teachings reveal the true meaning of compassion, love, friendship, generosity, and hospitality, as well as the right actions associated with these virtues. According to the Sufis, Futuwwah is a code of honorable behavior that follows the example of the Prophets, saints and sages.

This book is about the concept of futuwwah. To understand the meaning of futuwwah, the following excerpt from page 20 begins to shed light on this term and its meanings:

The word futuwwah is not found in the Arabic language at the beginning of Islam. However, it is derived from a very ancient word, fata, whose basic meaning is ‘young man’ (shabb): one who, thought having reached adulthood, has not yet arrived at maturity (traditionally achieved at the age of forty), which is the time of plenitude, but also the beginning of decline. This meaning of fata includes a heroic connotation that has become inseparable from the term futuwwah.

Throughout the book, spiritual masters are asked what is futuwwah, and each has a slightly different response, however the book states on page 16:

Yet despite the multiplicity of viewpoints expressed in their words and deeds, all focus on one central notion, that of ‘heroic generosity’.

The book goes on to discuss the word ‘fata’ in the context of a Quranic reality, on page 21:

The term fata appears often in the Koran. The meditation of the people of futuwwah (ahl al-futuwwah) has always been most particularly centered on the occurrence of this word in verse 60 of chapter 21 (Surah al-Anbiya, The Prophets), where it is applied to Abraham, who has just destroyed the idols worshipped by his people and so is about to be cast into the furnace by the nonbelievers. In a chapter devoted to futuwwah in his celebrated Risala, Qushayri, a direct disciple of Sulami’s, reports a definition of fata inspired by that Koranic episode: ‘The fata is he who breaks the idol’ Qushayri immediately adds a pithy commentary that leads us to the threshold of the mystery of Futuwwaah: ‘and the idol of each man is his ego’

The word fata, also refers to Prophet Yusuf (peace be upon him) in Surah Yusuf (12) in verse 30. It is also used to refer to the pious youth in the cave, in Surah Kahf (18) in verses 10 and 13. In Surah Kahf (18) it is also used to refer to Prophet Musa’s (Peace be upon him) servant in verses 60 and 62. As you can see from these examples, the word fata, on which the concept of futuwwah is based, refers to those young people whom Allah had blessed with piety, excellence in religion and upright character, and in some instances, Prophethood.

The following excerpts present some of the passages Ibn al-Husayn al-Sulami brings forward in order for the reader to realize how to behave in a way that brings the concept of futuwwah to life:

Page 41:

Be satisfied with little for yourself, and wish much for others. Through Abu Bakr al-Diwanji we hear that the Prophet (peace be upon him) said, ‘The best of my people will enter paradise not because of their achievements, but because of the Mercy of Allah and their quality of being satisfied with little for themselves and their extreme generosity toward others’.

Page 42:

Understand that what you really own is not what you keep of your property, but that which you spend for your brethren. It is reported […] that Aishah recounted that someone presented a lamb as a gift to the Messenger of Allah (peace be upon him). He distributed the meat. Aishah said, ‘Only the neck is left for us’. The Prophet (peace be upon him) said, ‘No, all of it is left for us except the neck’.

Page 44:

You must also repent for the sins of your friends and not blame them for their faults. Abul-Faraj al-Sa’igh reports that the father of Imran ibn Musa al-Dabili recounted that Yusuf ibn al-Husayn came to Abu Yazid al-Bistami and asked him, ‘With whom should I associate?’ Abu Yazid said, ‘Associate with a person who will come to visit you when you are ill and who will pray that you are forgiven when you do wrong’, and he recited a couplet:

We come and ask about your health when you are sick.
We pray for your repentance when you sin.

Page 77:

Hide your states. Sahl ibn Abdullah said, ‘Five things express the beauty of a being: when the poor appear rich; when the hungry appear satisfied; when those with heavy hearts appear joyful; when love is shown to an enemy; when feebleness does not appear despite fasting the whole day and praying the whole night.’

Page 81:

Among brethren, all should do good deeds for each other without being asked. Sa’id ibn al-As said, ‘ To really help is to help without being asked’.

Page 84:

Abul-Hasan ibn Sam’un said that Futuwwah is not doing in secret that which would shame you if done openly. Abul-Husayn al-Maliki said, ‘Futuwwah is superior character and behavior, and inner purity.’

Page 96:

You should not wait for a need to be expressed before you try to satisfy it, but from circumstances and signs you should discover needs among your brothers and help before being asked.

This book is a wonderful read, filled with stories of individuals full of Prophetic character completing acts of immense generosity, excelling in their obedience to Allah, following the steps of the Beloved Prophet (peace be upon him) and uniting the hearts of those around them. This book leads the reader to reevaluate their own state with regards how ones mannerisms are to those around them, encouraging the reader to follow in awe, the pious giants who went before us, and upholding the concept of futuwwah within our tradition.

May Allah increase and preserve our teachers, parents, scholars and all those who have maintained the great tradition of excellent mannerisms and etiquette within our path. May Allah bless the readers, and all those who seek out to implement a semblance of futuwwah in their lives. Ameen.

Seekers Guidance has a page dedicated to futuwwah, which can be accessed here:

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