You don’t need to be a sufi to walk on water

Sawt Al-Umma, Issue No. 104
25th November 2002

Some people mistakenly imagine sufis are exempt from obligations. It’s a common misperception, a result of a superficial and hasty interpretation of texts or sometimes even an intentional animosity toward sufism. In fact, as is so often the case, the opposite is true. Sufism actually involves an increase of obligations.

An increase in knowledge or station involves an increase of obligations just as the responsibilities of a police officer increase, not decrease, when he receives a promotion or those of a minister when he’s appointed prime minister. An increase of obligations means an increase in the level of responsibility. So too in religion. If a believer stops committing major sins and promiscuity he should then try to avoid seemingly less important things that are also not permitted. If he carries out the obligatory forms of worship, then he should try to carry out the additional superogatory acts of worship. There is an enormous difference between a person being exempted from obligations and one whose obligations and responsibilities are increased.

Sufis are often called ahl al-khatwa which may be translated as the ‘people of the step’. Some people believe that is because sufis are said to be able to appear in different places at the same time. Sufis respond that even if this were true, we should not dwell on it. They say ahl al-khatwa are those who easily discover the meaning of things. If a channel of water is two meters wide an ordinary person whose step is only one meter long cannot cross it in one step. To reach the other side such a person becomes so involved in the actual process of crossing he loses track of reality or his goal. If his step is two meters long it is easy for him to cross the channel or to arrive at what he wants in one step. We can perhaps also describe ahl al-khatwa as ahl al-ubur or the ‘people of the crossing’ or the ‘people of interpretation’ in so far as they easily cross from the symbol to the meaning’

Allah (s.w.t.) says in the Quran “…if it be that you can interpret visions.” (Yusuf: 43). This alludes to Sayedena Yusuf (a.s.). The Quran tells us a king had a dream of seven lean cows devouring seven fattened ones and of seven green ears of corn and seven dry ones. The ignorant among the people said the dream was confused and meaningless. How could it have any bearing on reality? How could the symbolism in the dream serve anything tangible? They did not have the power to interpret symbols or to relate them to reality. They said “They are just confused dreams and we do not know how to interpret dreams’ (Yusuf: 44) Sayedena Yusuf (a.s.) did. The Quran says: ‘He said: you shall sow continuously for seven years and then leave what you reap in its ears except a little of which you eat. Then there shall come after that seven years of hardship which shall eat away all that you have put in storage except a little you put aside.” (Yusuf: 47-48). Yusuf expounded and explained to them that the meaning of the dream was seven years of abundance followed by seven years of drought

Sufis are ahl al-khatwa and ahl al-ta’bir which may be translated as ‘the people expression’. They can understand and interpret the symbolism to be found in the Quran and in the teaching and example of the prophet (s.a.a.w.s.). Symbolism in religion is no different than symbolism in any other branch of knowledge. Engineering has its symbolism. So too do chemistry and medicine. Only those who are specialized in them are able to understand and interpret the symbols. A person who is able to unlock the symbolism of any branch of knowledge in which he specializes is able to easily arrive at the meaning of something. He may be said to belong to ahl al-khatwa. The origin of the word khatwa may be hazwa where the dot has moved from the second Arabic letter (z) of hazwa to the first letter (h) to create the new word khatwa  replacing the original word with hazwa which means ‘grace’ ‘favor’ or ‘in good standing’. Ahl al-hazwa are therefore ‘the favored people’ of whom the Quran says: “… and none is made to receive it but one who possesses great fortune.” (Fussilat: 35)

We should reflect on words carefully before offering a speedy interpretation and we should understand the terminology before rushing to propose a meaning. It is said ‘the people concur’, in other words there is no longer any disagreement. And it said,’ they concurred in a matter’, in other words, they came together in agreement on a certain matter. Concurrence in knowledge means the agreement of a certain group of people about a particular matter. Their agreement is to give something its name

We should not rush to interpret things. Proper understanding of words or phrases is required before we can determine their meaning. One such example is the Arabic words mu’jiza and karama which are both translated into English as ‘miracle’. So what is the difference between them? The ‘age of miracles’ did not end with the prophet (s.a.a.w.s). It continued and still does with the prophet’s successors (awliya). The miracles of prophets and messengers are called mu’jizat while those of awliya are called karamat. The definition of both is ‘a change to Allah’s natural law by Allah’s power using the instrument Allah chooses.’ If the instrument Allah chooses is a prophet then the change to Allah’s natural law is called mu’jiza. If the instrument Allah chooses is a wali then the change in Allah’s natural law is called karama.

But what is the meaning of ‘a change to Allah’s natural law’? If we consider for example the difference between diving under water and walking on water, the difference has to do with density. Allah created water with a specific density which prevents us from walking on water but allows us to float on the surface or dive below it. This is Allah’s ‘natural law’. At the same time Allah has the power to change the density of water by freezing it so it becomes ice. When that happens, we can ‘walk on water’. This is a change to Allah’s natural law which says ‘we can’t walk on water’. But Allah also has the power to enable someone to walk on water not by changing the water to ice but by changing the person himself.

Allah acts by Himself or through others. The Quran says: ‘He said: Strike the sea with your staff. And so it divided and every channel was like a great towering mountain’ (Al Shu’raa: 63). Mountains are made of rock not water. Allah divided the sea using Musa’s staff and even though this was done by Allah’s power, He attributed the miracle to Sayedena Musa (a.s.). The definition of a miracle whether it be mu’jiza or karama should therefore be expanded to mean ‘a change to Allah’s natural law by Allah’s power using an instrument Allah chooses and to which instrument Allah attributes it’. And so we can say, for example, ‘Allah divided the sea using Musa’ or ‘Allah brought the dead to life using Issa’. While miracles may be needed by a prophet or wali to support his mission, Allah has no such need. He does not need to establish or confirm his divinity. Allah’s divinity is established and confirmed and cannot be changed by those who deny it.

Allah’s natural law can only be changed by Allah’s power. He gives permission to whom he chooses to be instrumental in what He does and whoever is chosen as an instrument acts only within the limits of the permission given to him. At the same time, there are no limits on the permission Allah may give. Moreover, it is not a condition that permission be given to a sufi or wali. Allah gives permission to doctors, among them non-believers, to heal the sick. He gives permission to pilots, no matter how religious they may or may not be, to resist the pull of the earth’s gravity. All these are the release of Allah’s powers given to those whom Allah chooses.