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  • Writer's pictureAhmad Ubaidillah Mohd Khair

Contextualising Tasawuf: Unpacking The Ideas of Sheikh Hamzah Fansuri

Updated: Jun 13, 2023

The Ideas of Sheikh Hamzah Fansuri

Sufism. Tasawuf. Islamic Spirituality. This area of knowledge has many names that have been used interchangeably by scholars. Regardless of which term we personally use, it is clear that the essence of this science has long been deemed important in Islam and subsequently an integral part of our Islamic tradition.

The importance of Tasawuf has always been evident in our Malay culture too, as we can see from the written works in the past until the present that this area of knowledge has been given much attention. From scholars such as Nuruddin Ar-Raniri to Hamka, the area of Tasawuf has been of much contemplation. In our context today, if one looks at the Islamic books section in our libraries, we can see the prominent role that Tasawwuf has in our society. While in our social context, our religious institutions such as madrasahs, mosques and learning centres frequently hold classes on it as well. However, just like the religion itself, the implementation of this knowledge has to be contextualised for it to remain relevant to the values and norms of society today. Without such efforts, the knowledge of Tasawwuf might be deemed irrelevant and even archaic.

First, it is important to define the meaning of Tasawuf in this writing, from which we can then understand the importance and relevance of it in our lives. Hamka defined Tasawuf as, “To cleanse the soul, to teach and refine the emotions, to revive the heart in worshipping Allah, to elevate the character, to suppress all indulgence and greed, to combat lust that exceeds our need for comfort’” ((Hamka, Tasawuf Moden, p 8)) As we can see from this definition, it is an area of knowledge that possesses many benefits to those who study and also apply it in their lives. Tasawuf is essentially a form of Ihsan, as scholars have also used the meaning of Ihsan given by the Prophet, peace be upon him, to define Tasawuf.((Syed Hossein Nasr, Ideals and Realities of Islam, p 129))

In a hadith, our beloved Prophet Muhammad s.a.w, said,

Ihsan is to adore Allah as though you see him, and if you do not see him, he nonetheless sees you.”

(Sahih Bukhari)

As our religion is one that gives equal focus on both spirituality and materiality, the development of this area into a specialised science is one that is aligned with the principles of our religion as it signifies the harmony of our spiritual and intellectual elements. ‘To learn Tasawuf is the same as giving importance to the intellect and soul working together in goodness to safeguard the humanity of people from a lasting degradation.’((Haji Zainal Ariffin Abbas, Ilmu Tasawuf, p 69)) ‘Sufism is an active participation in the spiritual path and is intellectual in the real meaning of this word. Contemplation in Sufism is the highest form of activity and in fact Sufism has always integrated the active and contemplative lives. That is why many Sufis have been teachers scholars, artists and scientists, and even statesmen and soldiers.’ (Syed Hossein Nasr, Ideals and Realities of Islam, p 127))

the meaning of Tasawwuf

But just like any other source of knowledge in society, no matter how beneficial its essence can be, it is a tool whose impact depends on the user’s understanding and usage. Unfortunately, if we reflect upon Islamic history, we can see examples of how this science has been misunderstood and misused, which led to certain misunderstandings and misguided practices, to the point that it equated to irrationality, fatalism, excessive asceticism. (Khairudin Aljunied, Hamka; Cosmopolitan Reform, pp 97-99) It is for this reason, and also with the understanding that Tasawuf cannot and should not be separated by the manifestation of Islam in society, that modern Islamic scholars have strived to reform the understanding and practice of Tasawuf by imbuing in it a rationalistic and intellectualistic philosophy, as we can see from the writings of Buya Hamka, Fazlur Rahman, Syed Hossein Nasr and Syed Naquib Al-Attas.

However, it is surprising to realise that the effort of such an endeavour had taken place in our Nusantara region centuries ago by a scholar called Hamzah Fansuri. His endeavours are coloured by both critical and creative principles that manifest clearly in literary form. The poems and prose he wrote written to consist of many religious lessons that revolve around Tasawuf, while also reflecting a religious response towards the social and political context of his time. As the study of history has shown to consist of many benefits, I believe that by reflecting upon the legacy of Hamzah Fansuri, we can derive some benefits that would be relevant to our context today, especially in understanding the role of Tasawuf in our lives and the importance of its contextualisation, so that it may continue playing an integral role in our society.

The Life of Hamzah Fansuri

Hamzah Fansuri is widely regarded as the first known poet of the Malay world, though we will see that his legacy encompasses more than poetry. He lived during the 16th and 17th century during the reign of Sultan Alaiddin Riayat Shah (1589-1604) and until the beginning of Sultan Iskandar Muda’s (1607-1636) reign. (Syed Naquib Al-Attas, The Mysticism of Hamzah Fansuri, p. 27)

From his writings, scholars have derived that he was born in a town called Shahr Nawi, which some believe to be Ayuthaya in Siam, before returning to Panchur (Barus), possibly after the death of his parents. At the time, this area was renowned to be the centre of Islamic education in Aceh, and was therefore thriving and bustling with trade. He was also believed to have been orphaned at a young age, and was therefore forced to lead the life of a wandering trader, which could have been the reason for him being acquainted with the teachings of Sufism.

The Life of Hamzah Fansuri

The reason his works should be read and studied by those of religious advocates, although one may disagree with his spiritual philosophy, is due to his pioneering incorporation of spiritual themes and linguistic styles in Malay literature. In other words, he was the first religious advocate (Da’i) in the Malay world whose advocation (Da’wah) using literature was recorded. An example would be how he advocated for the reform of understanding and implementing spirituality in his society while using a Persian literature style in his works known as takhallus, which means to free oneself. In this context, it means that the poets are responsible to convey their spiritual experiences to others, and in doing so, they are freeing their hearts from this responsibility as they have shared their ilham. (Abdul Hadi W.M., Tasawuf Yang Tertindas, p 139). However, he was no mere poet or writer, but also a scholar who was evidently well-versed in Islamic traditions and possessed a mastery over the Arabic and Persian languages. Due to his stature as a scholar, he had a number of followers and students, and one of them was the renowned Syamsuddin As-Sumatrani, who wrote a commentary on his teacher’s writing — Syarah Ruba’i Hamzah Fansuri.

However, regarding Hamzah Fansuri is a question that generates much controversy and curiosity — despite his pioneering acts in Malay literature, there is no mention of his name in any historical texts of the Malay world, especially the Hikayat Aceh. And to know this reason is to understand an important aspect of Hamzah’s legacy — he was a spiritual reformer that antagonised the three main groups of people during his time in his efforts to implement change in his society;

important aspect of Hamzah Fansuri’s legacy

  1. The first would be those who performed spiritual practices blindly during his time which he deemed as needless as they included certain Indian influences. (Ibid, p. 39) In his opinion, true spirituality can be achieved with deep reflection of ourselves and nature, and also mujahadah, which means to carry out our obligations with full understanding of its purpose and connection with Allah s.w.t, and this could take place anywhere at anytime, without waiting for the coming of the full moon.((Ibid, p. 127)).

In Tasawuf Yang Tertindas (Abdul Hadi W.M., Tasawuf Yang Tertindas, p. 41):

Every young and well-bred,

Every old and white-haired,

Go forth for months in seclusion

Searching for God in the wilderness!

Everyone becomes a “Sufi”

Everyone becomes a "Passionate Lover"

Everyone becomes a "Spirit"

Going about wrathful and sour-faced!

2) The second would be those of orthodox authority who, in the face of the array of deviant spiritual practices, misunderstood, condemned and generalised all those who practised true spirituality.((Ibid, p. 43)) This included the Judge (Qadi) of his time, who we could see took a literal meaning of the certain teachings he advocated.

Strip your bodies ‘naked’ - if you want to find out (the meaning),

Don’t understand it as the nakedness condemned by the Judge (Qadi).

Tell this to our master the Judge:

The colour of this pure drink is clear;

Whosoever drinks it is intoxicated and annihilated

And he wins the Beloved Who is called the Enduring One

‘Glory be to me!’ - it is such a wonder,

He is nearer than the jugular veins

How amazing that the Judge and the Preacher (of sermons)

Should be so close - and yet so luckless!

3) The rich and the powerful that subjugated the poor and the weak in society. ((Ibid, p. 47)). We could see how the Tasawuf of Hamzah Fansuri was no harbour that he took refuge in and be isolated from the matters of the world. But rather, the Tasawuf that he equipped himself with enabled him to see the inequality in his society, as well as the dangers that it would bring.

If you make companions of the rich

In the end you will be destroyed (Ibid, p.48)

Their verbal profession of faith is not accompanied by belief,

Because they do so not with a pure intention (Ibid, p.48)

O you all who have become poor!

Do not take kings and princes as companions;

For the Messenger of God who brings glad tidings

and (preaches) equality

Has forbidden us divisions into small (low) and

big (high) ((Ibid, p.49))

Thus, from these writings, we can see that Hamzah was an adherent to the true philosophy of Sufism — he utilised the teachings in a way that it would be apt to call him a ‘spiritual reformer’ who ‘exhorts his fellows not to believe merely in the letter, but to have knowledge and understanding also of the spirit; to love God truly; to abandon superstition and to establish reason. His constant appeal is to the use of the intellect, for man is a noble creature and must first know himself in order to know his Creator and his lofty origin, and thence to true faith culminating in Divine love.’ ((Ibid, p.49). From this, we can understand how Tasawuf could be utilised in advocating for progress in our society today.

Tasawwuf could be utilised in advocating for progress in our society today

When writing about Hamzah Fansuri, it would be incomplete to not mention about his spiritual orientation, which was also another reason for his erasure in history books. He held onto the understanding of Wahdatul Wujud (Unity of Being) which resulted in the censure of his name and works — an effort spearheaded by the scholar, Nuruddin Ar-Raniri, who interpreted his teachings as heretical and misleading to society. (Abdul Hadi W.M., Tasawuf Yang Tertindas, p 117). This orientation is a topic of controversy in the Islamic tradition until today and it is not my intention to attempt elaborating on this complex philosophy. To know more about this concept, we would have to familiarise ourselves with the writings of Ibn Arabi, Jami’, Rumi, Al-Hallaj, Al-Baghdadi, Al-Ghazali, and so on. However, as he subscribed to the philosophy of Wahdatul Wujud, these aforementioned individuals bore heavy influence on Hamzah, which is clear in his writings. He included translated passages of the sayings of these scholars in his writings, with certain modifications to suit his audience in the Malay world. It is reasonable to assume that this was the first time such a transfer of knowledge in the medium of the Malay Language was carried out.

Just as how these scholars such as Ibn Arabi, Al-Hallaj and Siti Jenar, were regarded in their lifetimes, Hamzah was also seen as a bearer of heretic teachings. It was even written by Hamka that he was killed because of this. (Hamka, Sejarah Umat Islam, p. 914).

It was for this reason that he was rejected by Nuruddin Ar-Raniri, who wrote treatises rejecting the writings of Hamzah. As a scholar of the royal courts, his rejection of the teachings of Hamzah and condemnation of his so-called followers and disciples — who corrupted his teachings as they “made use of Hamzah’s fame and learning by quoting him and pretending to comment upon his ideas and teachings” (Syed Naquib Al-Attas, The Mysticism of Hamzah Fansuri, p. 50) — influenced the public opinion on Hamzah, which led to the exclusion of his legacy in historical books. However, it is important to take note of what Syed Naquib Al-Attas wrote regarding this issue, in which he clarified that the teachings of Hamzah Fansuri are not heretical, while also rebutting the accusations that Nuruddin Ar-Raniri made. (Read Chapter 2 of SN Al-Attas’ Mysticism of Hamzah Fansuri — Hamzah Contested by Nuruddin Ar-Raniri, p. 59)

SN Al-Attas’ Mysticism of Hamzah Fansuri

The Need for Contextualisation of Spirituality

The legacy of Hamzah Fansuri leaves much for us to ponder upon, especially for religious advocates. The importance of Tasawuf in the practice of Islam today is one that needs to be emphasised. Here, the saying of Imam Malik has much relevance, ‘Whoever practices Fiqh without Tasawuf, is a Fasiq (sinner). And whoever practices Tasawuf without Fiqh, is a Zindiq (deviant). And whoever combines both, they have found the truth. (Shamsul Mohd Nor, Menyelami Samudera Tasawuf, p. 8). However, although there is universal relevance in the essence of Tasawuf that transcends period and place, its understanding and practice need to be contextualised if it is to remain relevant in our context today. Although the ailments of the soul may be the same in essence, their causes, effects and manifestations differ according to context. The same can be said for Tasawuf — although its essence should remain the same as how scholars of the past have decided based upon the Quran and Sunnah, the manifestation of this knowledge can be through different and new mediums, such as arts, literature and theatre. It is for this reason that religious advocates should seek ways to ensure that society understands the importance of Tasawuf.

Regarding this, we can derive valuable lessons from Hamzah Fansuri, as his legacy has undoubtedly made a strong impact on the Malay society until today. There are two parts of his legacy that I would like to highlight as I believe they bear much relevance with our context.

My first point would be Hamzah’s contextualisation of Tasawuf through creative and critical usage of language, which would also be relevant in our plural society today. Regarding this, we should first understand that Hamzah was a scholar who sought to benefit his community by reforming their understanding of spirituality, and he did so by utilising poetry and literature so as to contextualise the knowledge he possessed. Again, the medium of literature should not be underestimated and under-utilised by religious advocates. His usage of these mediums was of both criticality and creativity, while also employing imageries of the Nusantara environment which resonated with his society.

An example is his usage of the term ‘Anak Dagang’ in his poems. The literal meaning of this term means “someone who does trading in foreign lands and therefore is a stranger for that period of time.” (Abdul Hadi W.M., Tasawuf Yang Tertindas, p. 224). The term is a creative translation by Hamzah from the term ‘Ghareeb’ in Arabic, which means outsider or stranger, a term derived from a Hadith of our Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, ‘Be in this world as if you were a stranger or a traveler.’ The term is subsequently used in Sufi writings with the meaning of ‘one who is an outsider in this world, who is an ahl-suluk (one who practices Tasawwuf) or a person whose true belonging is not in this world. (Abdul Hadi W.M., Tasawuf Yang Tertindas, p. 243)

The Need for Contextualisation of Spirituality

Hamzah also used the term ‘Anak Jamu’ that conventionally denotes a person who visits and therefore is a guest. In his usage, it was used to signify the nature of mankind in this temporary abode. As Al-Ghazali wrote, this world is like a table meant for guests. It is covered with cutleries of gold and silver, sumptuous food and precious perfumes. A wise guest would eat only what is needed, appreciate the scents, thank the host and leave. But a foolish guest would attempt to steal the cutleries, only for it be taken away, leaving him in a shameful state. (Abdul Hadi W.M., Tasawuf Yang Tertindas, p. 244)

With this kind of creative terms that he used, it is no wonder that his teachings managed to take hold in his society at the time.

Therefore, a point that could be learnt from his legacy is to strive in finding a way to employ mediums that would resonate and be understood better with our modern society today. If we look upon our past local scholars in Singapore, they carried out their responsibility by writing, translating and reformatting spiritual works. Syed Ahmad Semait, for example, contextualised the spiritual writings of scholars such as Imam Al-Haddad, Imam Al-Ghazali and Imam An-Nawawi through translating their works for the community. In doing so, he utilised a medium of language that was suitable to the context of his community, and therefore refining the impact of such works. Though their works are usually read and used by those of religious orientation, without a critical and creative interaction with the texts, we would not see similar and newer works as such in our local context.

Syed Ahmad Semait

This spirit of contextualising Tasawuf is also exemplified by a renowned spiritual reformer in our Nusantara, Hamka. His influential book, Tasawuf Moden, is a good example of contextualising spirituality as it blends the usage of modern prose while building upon the works of past scholars that belonged to different backgrounds, such as Plato. It is through this book that we can see the understanding of Hamka regarding Tasawuf in the context of his time. Regarding his attempt of reinterpreting Tasawuf in book, he said, “The content of Tasawwuf Modern is not a product of our intelligence, nor is it from our philosophy that is still underdeveloped with a lot to learn. This writing is just a product from the books written by philosophers and Islamic Tasawuf that are based on the Quran and Prophetic Tradition, and also writings of Western philosophy that have been translated into Arabic. We take a bit from here and there, and then develop it with our thinking, experiences and pain.” (Hamka, Tasawuf Moden, p. viii)

It would also be beneficial for us to also learn from the thoughts of Hamka about Sufism and Tasawwuf. For example, he said, “Indeed, true Sufism does not enjoin the feeling of man from the realities of life. True Sufism serves as a guide for one to confront the challenges of life. True Sufism does not encourage the flight to forests other than to immerse in the heart of society. Because the society needs spiritual guidance.’” (Hamka, Pandangan Hidup Muslim, p. 56)

Tasauf Moden

An important point here by Hamka is the importance of spiritual guidance for society. Therefore, another reason as to why contextualisation of Islamic spirituality is needed is because of our plural context. In lieu of Islam’s principle, Rahmatan Lil-Alamin, which means ‘to be of mercy towards the world’, the essence of Tasawuf is one that may benefit those that are in need of spiritual and mental assistance. I am of the opinion that out of our Islamic sciences, the one that would be most relevant and relatable to those not of our religion would be Tasawuf as it employs a language that would be able to resonate deeper with the innate nature of a person, regardless of their faith. ((See Natasha Ryan, Tauhid and Tasawwuf: Indonesian Sufism in Search of Unity theses_hons/579)) If one learns of our religion through the lens of Tasawuf, surely they would be able to see the beauty of our faith that brings much peace, strength and a balanced approach to spirituality. I should clarify here that what I mean by ‘language’ is not the literal meaning of languages, such as Arabic or Malay or English, but rather a form and tone of discourse that encompasses the universal values of our religion such as mercy, compassion, equality and so on. It is a discourse that consists of Islamic values and lessons while utilising a medium that appeals to the wider society.

Building upon Hamka’s understanding of Tasawuf, which is to form the foundation of strength in a Muslim’s efforts to be of benefit to others, this brings me to my second point of Hamzah’s legacy, which is how he utilised Tasawuf as the bedrock of his advocation for reform and social justice. In the example of Hamzah, as aforementioned, he wrote against social inequality, and also the cruelty and hedonistic lifestyle of the rich and powerful of his time, including the ruler himself, which during the period when Malay Feudalism was thriving, was an act of strong conscience and courage. This would mean that Tasawuf for him was not seen as mere ascetic experiences that would isolate him from his society, but it acted as a catalyst for his efforts to reform and benefit others as seen by the number and content of his writings.

It would be apt for us to reflect upon what Fazlur Rahman wrote in reference to the spiritual experiences of the Prophet, peace be upon him, that mainly occurred during the Meccan period,

This is in consonance with the orientation of the Prophetic consciousness for which the spiritual experiences is not to be dwelt on and enjoyed for its own sake but is primarily meaningful for action in history.””Nor did the majority of the Companions ask many questions about the nature of these spiritual experiences. For one thing, they were being trained for a moral purpose on a religious basis and their activism probably made them disciplined towards an inquiry into the metaphysical secrets of spiritualism.” (Fazlur Rahman, Islam, pp. 154-155)

Therefore, in accordance with our Islamic tradition, we should strive to find the spiritual way that resonates within the modern context of our lives. And this means to understand that the main role of spirituality is not to occupy ourselves with metaphysical matters, but as our Prophet, peace be upon him, exemplified, it is to be the foundation of inner-strength that would allow us to face the challenges of reality and instil positive change in our society. As Fazlur Rahman wrote, we should also follow the example of the Companions in how they interacted with the spiritual experiences of the Prophet, peace be upon him. It was telling that they did not dwell on such experiences though the Prophet, peace be upon him, was in their presence, for they knew that this wasn’t the purpose.

spiritual way that resonates within the modern context of our lives.

As of currently, consciousness about spirituality among those of religious orientation is prevalent in society as we see numerous classes on classical books of Tasawuf. However, the relation between Islamic spirituality as a bedrock to strive for what may be deemed as worldly affairs is one that needs to be strengthened and clarified. In our context today where advocation of justice is gaining prominence, it is important for it to be paired with the knowledge of Tasawuf espoused by scholars of the past.

One needs to only look towards the manifestation of Tasawuf by the Prophet, peace be upon him, and his companions who achieved so much. The betterment of our community and society should always be at the frontier of our consciousness, for that is what Islam advocates and exemplified by our Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him. Here, we can learn from the legacy of Hamzah Fansuri, who, although benefited much from the writings of older masters, still saw the need to write for the context of his society. He did not choose to be practice Tasawuf on his own, but sought to benefit others with his knowledge. This can only be achieved if one undergoes a critical interaction with the knowledge he acquires through text, which would lead to a creative reproduction of the branch of knowledge. Thus, those who are well-versed in the field of Tasawuf should strive to produce works that are more compatible and relatable with our modern context.

Tasauf in our modern context

We can see from the legacy of Hamzah Fansuri as well as others who advocated the importance and practice of Tasawuf through creative and critical means, that this advocation is an integral part of our Islamic tradition. But as with certain traditions, if they are to remain relevant and act as a catalyst for goodness for the practitioners, they should be imbued with elements of contextualisation so that it would not remain stagnant and static. In Tasawuf is the potential to utilise a branch of knowledge for the purpose of bringing benefits for society in several aspects such as spiritually, mentally and even materially.

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