Do the Sufis Know What Is Hidden?

Sawt Al-Umma, Issue No. 103
18th November 2002

The sufi perhaps is more sensitive to and has a stronger belief in this despite the mistaken, widespread, prevalent and inaccurate ideas people have about sufis such as the ‘lifting of obligations’, ‘the people of the step’ (Ar: ahl al-khatwa), ‘the power to heal’, ‘returning missing people to their families’, ‘performing miracles’ and so on. While expressions such as these are true, the problems lie, as usual, in a proper understanding of their meaning.

So too, we should begin with a proper understanding of the Arabic word al-ghayb which may be translated as ‘the unseen’ or ‘what is hidden’. A proper understanding of al-ghayb is a wide gate. While it is true only Allah knows what is hidden it is also true that if Allah wishes to reveal what is hidden to someone, then there are no constraints on Allah’s grace and favor. Allah says: ‘He knows what is hidden and no-one comes to know what He hides except one of His chosen messengers and then He makes guardian (angels) to pass before and behind him’ (Al-Jin: 26, 27)

There are different kinds of al-ghayb. The first and most simple is ghayb ash-shahada which might be loosely translated as ‘what is both hidden and manifest’ You know how much money you have in your pocket but the person standing next to you doesn’t. Only you know what you are thinking. Nobody else does. What is known to you but not to others in your case is manifest (Ar: shahada). What can be seen behind you by others is in your case hidden (Ar: ghayb) If you’re driving your car what is in front of you is manifest. What is behind you is hidden which only becomes manifest if you look into your rear-view mirror to see what is behind you. All this has nothing to do with faith or disbelief. It is on a very normal level of coming to know what is hidden. There are kinds of ghayb ash-shahada that were not known to us at one time but with the progress of science have come to be known. We did not know what the mother carried in her womb – a boy or a girl – because we could not see it with the naked eye. Sonograms now enable us to do just that. X-rays now enable us to see inside the human body what was previously hidden from us so that we can identify diseases and bone fractures. The invention of radar has allowed us to determine the position of planes and boats at a distance far beyond the scope of the naked eye. If Allah has allowed his servants to see what was at a certain level of ghayb previously hidden from them using these kinds of machines and equipment, He certainly also has the power to make some of his servants into transparent devices in and of themselves to uncover by His Power what He wishes to reveal to them what is hidden from others

Abi Saeed Al Khudary (r.a.a.) narrated that Allah’s Messenger (s.a.a.w.s) said: ‘Respect the believer’s powers of perception (Ar: farasah) because he sees with Allah’s light’ and then recited (the verse from the Quran) ‘In that there are signs for those of superior understanding’ (Sunnan Al-Thirmizy, Part 5, pp 278, No 3127). Who enabled Sayedena Omar Ben Al-Khattab (r.a.a.) as he was delivering a sermon from a pulpit in Medina, to see Sariya and his army surrounded on a battlefield in far-off Syria? How did Omar know the only hope of victory for the muslim army was to retreat to a mountain?  The answer is that the entire field of battle was revealed to him. In the middle of the sermon he cried out ‘Sariya….the mountain!’ and in the midst of the sound and fury of battle and the clashing of swords Sariya was able to hear Omar and recognize his voice. When Sariya returned to Medina from the battle, Sayedena Omar, asked about what happened, said ‘It was Allah who rolled the words off my tongue’ (Virtues of the Companions, Part 1, pp 269, No 355). And so it certainly was. Allah revealed to Omar what was hidden. His cry was spontaneous and Sariya heard it. It is the believer’s power of perception that can sometimes uncover with Allah’s permission what is hidden

As ordinary human beings there are certain things we can know. The electricity company knows how much electricity we consume. The telecommunications company knows how many calls we make on our cellphone. Although this is all done with computers it cannot be said the computers know what is hidden. They are programmed to carry out specific functions – to uncover certain things within certain well-defined limits. The prophet (s.a.a.w.s.) on the other hand told his followers they would enter and take control of Egypt. This was to happen years later. No-one knows what will happen in the future (which is one kind of al-ghayb) through his own powers. Such powers are given to them. Allah gives them to whoever He chooses. No-one, including the prophet himself (s.a.a.w.s) has any power in and of himself. Allah gives police tracker dogs powers of detection that are not given to the most high ranking police officers. He gives ordinary dogs powers to predict earthquakes which are not given to geologists and scientists. Just as nobody knows anything unless Allah gives them that knowledge, so too there are no limits to the knowledge that Allah may give.

There is another kind of ghayb called ghayb al-irada which may be loosely translated as ‘what is hidden with respect to His Will’ This is what was in effect when Allah told His angels He would make a successor (Ar: khalifa) on earth to which they responded: ‘Will you make someone (in it) who will corrupt it (the earth) and shed blood?’ (Al-Baqara 30) In other words, the angels knew al-ghayb. They knew, before the creation of Adam and his descendants and before any of this happened that human beings would corrupt the earth and shed blood.

Another kind of ghayb is called ghayb al-iman which may be translated as ‘what is hidden with respect to belief’ This is a higher level of al-ghayb and knowledge of it is given to a higher level of His creation. Evidence of it is found in the story of Sayedena Musa (a.s.) and Sayedena Al-Khidr (r.a.a.) The passengers in the boat (which Al Khidr punctured) saw what no-one else saw, namely, that the boat had been punctured. Their knowledge was ghayb ash-shahada. Musa saw Al-Khidr puncture the boat. This is a higher level of al-ghayb. Musa knew who actually punctured the boat. However, the third and highest level of al-ghayb was known only to Al-Khidr himself who knew that the reason or the wisdom behind his action which was to save the boat and those in it from being pursued by a king who was sequestering seaworthy boats for his own use. The same can be said of the killing of the innocent boy and the rebuilding of the wall as has been explained in a previous article (see ‘To every Sheikh a Tariqa’).

There is a fourth kind of ghayb called al-ghayb al-Mohammedi which is concerned exclusively with the rank and station of Allah’s Messenger (s.a.a.w.s) with respect to the rest of creation. The prophet himself (s.a.a.w.s) is referred to as al-ghayb in the Quran where Allah says: ‘He does not withhold (anything) from al-ghayb (At-Takwir 24). The meaning of this is that Allah does not withhold anything from His prophet (s.a.a.w.s) that is permissible (or beneficial) for the rest of His creation. This kind of ghayb (i.e. knowledge of the station of His Messenger) is granted by way of exception only to those messengers with whom He is pleased

There is another kind of al-ghayb which is not known to anyone including the prophet himself (s.a.a.w.s) which is called al-ghayb al-mutlaq or ‘that which is absolutely hidden’. This is alluded to in the Quran where Allah says: ‘Say: None in the skies or earth know al-ghayb except Allah’ (Al-Niml 65) This alludes to knowledge about Allah ‘Himself’ by which is meant His Essential Attributes in so far as those who claim to have such knowledge are among those who draw likenesses, the image-makers in the fire of hell. The Quran warns against this in the verse: ‘Allah warns you about Himself’ wherein there is also mercy ‘and Allah is kind to (by) His servants’ (Al-Imran 30). The only thing that is accomplished by the futility of thinking about this kind of ghayb is disobedience and a denial of Allah’s absolute transcendence The Quran says: ‘Allah does not mislead a people once He has guided them and made clear to them what they have been taught.’ (At-Tawba 115) What has been ‘made clear’ here is what is permissible and what is not with Allah’s power and permission.

The different kinds of ghayb are not only different in kind but also in terms of what is allowed to be known and what is not. In summary, while only Allah knows all kinds of al-ghayb, there are some kinds of al-ghayb Allah allows some of His creation to know. These are ghayb ash- ash-shada, ghayb al-irada, ghayb al-iman and al-ghayb al-Mohammedi. There is another – ghayb al-mutlaq – which He does not reveal.

Only Allah preserves from error and gives strength to do right.