Introduction to The Noorbakhshi  Sufi/Irfani Path

When we see the history of religions, the spiritual element has always been there and has been the dominant aspect in many of the cases. Although the ultimate aims and objectives are similar in all religions and religious schools of thoughts but the ways of proceeding towards that goal are different. As the great Sufi saint Hazrat Najmuddin Kubra, the founder of Kubravia Sufi order and a Qutb of Noorbakhshi Sufi order mentions,‘the paths towards Allah are as many as the number of breathings of creatures’. Paths are many and the ways and means of the journey may differ but the destination is same, the ultimate aim is the same (to be nearer to and to seek the pleasure of the Almighty). In this respect the great Sufi poet Rumi once said, ‘there are many schools of thoughts in Islam, and in principle I agree with all of them’. Many terms have been used in different connotations and denotations with different shades of meanings to describe the ways, paths and practices. And these variations are because of the diverse states of conciousness and types of mystic experiences by different Sufi traditions, orders and Sufi masters. The Noorbakhshi Sufi order is based on such pluralist approach towards religion. Many ways and paths have been adopted to attain spiritual purification and evolution, peace of mind, get extraordinary mind powers, to get closer to God/Allah and to become a thankful worshiper of Allah. According to the Hadith that ‘the heart of the believer is the temple of Allah’, the sufis strive to build their hearts worth the Arsh of Allah through zikr, nawafil, Ietikaf and other practices. The objectives are same but the ways are different.

Introduction to the Noorbakhshi Sufi/Irfani Order
The Noorbakhshi Sufi path is the continuity of the mainstream Sufi order known as Junediyeh, Suherverdiyeh, Kubraviyeh, Hamdaniyeh, and then Noorbakhshiyeh. These divisions and branches can be seen in the Sufi Genealogy from any authentic resource. Each branch of Sufi order has its own unique compositions of practices, preferences and styles of tazkia(purification).
Reservations towards some of the practices of certain Sufi orders or the so-called sufis (without any authentic tradition) are possible but to criticize the whole Sufi tradition with some examples of the lazy, thwarted persons claiming themselves to be the so-called sufis will be unjust to the great tradition of intellectual honesty, spiritual purity, moral brilliance, and the exemplary humanistic personalities of great Sufis.
This article briefly introduces and describes the salient features of Noorbakhshi Sufi/Irfani order that can help the readers understand the Islamic Sufism as found in this great spiritual tradition. For this purpose before going to the history and the historical development of this order, the Noorbakhshi interpretation of few key Sufi/Irfani terminologies in the light of the teachings of its master Syed-ul-Aurifeen Mir Syed Muhammad Noorbakhsh Quhistani (AR), is presented so that a reader can understand the teachings (the philosophy) first, and then can proceed for further details if interested.
Just to mention in one sentence it is worth noting that all the Sufi masters of Noorbakhshiyeh order (silsala) were well learned religious scholars many of them being authors of several books and poets of great literary taste. For example Syed Ali Hamdani alone authored more than 100 books. Many of them have been recognized as the intellectuals and faqih (Jurists) of their time, all of them very faithful followers of the Shariah. Non of them was insane or in any case considering themselves beyond Shariah.
The Stages of Religious Evolution

According to the Sufi traditions unanimously four terms have been used to reflect the stages of religious practice and evolution mostly considered as domains of spiritual development. These are shariat, tariqat, haqiqat, and marifat.A common misconception is that some (so-called) Sufis consider themselves free of shariat when they claim to be in the domain of tariqat. Noorbakhsi Sufi order does not allow for any sane salik to claim or behave this way when they are in their conscious mind (in the state of sahve). Let us see how Syed Muhammad Noorbakhsh has described and explained these domains (shariat, tariqat, haqiqat, and marifat). In a letter to the scholar of Islami jurisprudence Noorbakhsh writes, “Behold that the religion of Muhammad (PBUH) is shariat and tariqat, as in a Hadith the Holy Prophet said, ‘shariat (the canon) is my words,  tariqat (the true way) is my doings and haqiqat (the reality) is my state (of mind)”. Noorbakhsh elaborates this hadith by saying that all these domains are in fact the aspects prophetic character and supplements each other. For perfect knowledge of the ultimate reality all the domains will be required. As dimensions or aspects of the Prophetic life all the three supplement each other in spiritual development. Hence considering tariqat beyond shariat would mean inconsistency in the words and actions of the Prophet which is not possible therefore any kind of violation of shariat in the name of tariqat by a sane person, is out of question in the Noorbakhshi Sufi tradition.In words of Iqbal:
Connect yourself to Msutafa (PBUH) because He is the whole religion,
If (you) do not end up with Him, everything is bu lahabi (wrong).
The same is the view of Noorbakhsh that for religious culmination the words, the actions and the intention (state of mind) of the Holy Prophet all are equally important. Any kind of doubt or negation of any of the words, the actions or the intentions (reasons of any behaviour) of the Holy Prophet will be taken as defect in religion.
Philosophically speaking the words of Prophet answers the question of ‘what the prophet asked the umma to do and/or not to do?’ This explicit commandment becomes religious obligation for the whole ummah. Hence the whole ummah is obliged and accountable for shariat i.e. what the Holy Prophet performed himself and asked to do. On the other hand tariqat comprises all the actions (the way the Holy Prophet lived life) but not necessarily asked His ummah to behave in the same way as it may not be practical for the common masses in real life. As a matter of fact the Muslims consider the way of life of the Holy Prophet as the best way. Hence this way of life becomes the ideal for every Muslim, and every Muslim should ideally strive for that ideal life not as ‘must’ but as ‘highly desirable to’ follow.
In fact according to Noorbakhsh this way of following the life of the Prophet as an ideal is tariqat whether the practice (the way) has been commanded or not as religious obligation (fraiz, wajibat, masnunat. Fraiz, wajibat and masnunat are the three levels/degrees of religious obligation in hierarchy of importance.  According to Noorbakhshi teachings tariqah answers the question of ‘how did the Holy prophet do things or lived life?’ As no Muslim can say, imagine or claim that the way of life of the Holy Prophet were not in accordance with his words, hence Tariqat is not in absentia of Shariat. In fact religiously speaking, there is no possibility of disconformities of the words and actions of the Holy Prophet. Similarly there is no gap, mismatching or disconformities between shariat and tariqat.
Tariqat is the more advanced version of religious life showing closer resemblance to the life of the Holy Prophet. There is another dimension of the tariqat regarding the ‘how’ aspect of religious practices. In fact the notions of khuzu, khushu (degree of involvement, dedication, devotions) truly reflect this aspect. This emotional aspect is considered the essence of spirituality.
Haqiqat is in fact the objective, the purpose and the intention of any practice, behavior or attitude. According to a famous Hidith ‘the worth of actions depend upon the intention’. The same moral principle has been forwarded by several modern philosophers of ethics. In this sense haqiqat is the integration point of kinds and verities of religious practices aiming to attain the same goal. The whole journey proceeds towards singularity of purpose. If the very purpose or destination is not correct all sorts of good means of the journey may never lead to the real destination. Therefore setting the true goal having the right intention becomes the prime to the arrangements of the means and paths of journey. Setting a clear goal, having the right intention will also help making the whole journey goal-directed and effective attainment of objectives.
As Rumi agrees with all the paths, ways (sects, orders, schools of thoughts) as far as they strive for the same goal. Universally speaking, almost all religions strive to please the Almighty and attain the ultimate reality through different means.
Marifat is the fourth and the ultimate stage of religious domain. This is also the top stage of spiritual evolution where an aurif knows and gets acquaintance of the Allah. As an understandable interpretation, the aurif realizes the attributes of Allah. The meanings and characteristics of the holy names and attributes of Allah Almighty are being experienced with different degrees and intensities. As described in the Hadith Qudsi, ‘when one seeks me, I am found, that who finds me knows me, that who knows me loves me, the one who loves me fell in intense love (ishq), the one who loves me at such a degree (ishq) love, I love that person too…’ then the person becomes beloved of Almighty. If someone becomes beloved of Almighty, such a person may realize and even be gifted with some of the attributes of Almighty. In this way the realization of ultimate realty transforms the whole life and the world view of the aurif. The aurif hence may not remain a common person. S/he may live in people but survive in heavens, look around but sees the realities behind the scenes. The Holy prophet once said, at times “I have time with Allah when neither a nearest angle nor a nabi-mursal (senior) Prophet can intervene”.
As marifat is the specialized field of mystic experience therefore Noorbakhsh has devoted separate books for discussion about marifat. For general discussion of religious practices the first three stages/domains have been mentioned. It is to be noted that some degrees of marifat is always present at all the stages in all domains.
Tazkia Purification

Tazkia is one of the key terms extensively used in Sufi literature. The whole spiritual pursuit of Sufism is termed as tazkia-nafs. Tazkia-nafs means purification of spirit (soul). The Arabic word nafs does not exactly match with the meaning of soul, it can be termed as the spirit. In fact nafs stands for psyche, the bio-psychological aspects of life. According to the Holy Quran, tazkia is the second function of prophethood. “He Who sent among illiterates a Prophet from them who recites the verses upon them, purify (yuzakkihim) them, and educate them about the book and the wisdom” (Al-Quran). There could be several interpretations of this verse. In sura-aala, Allah Almighty says, “The one who purifies, surely attains salvation”.
The word tazkia (purification) implies that human spirit (the bio-psychological aspect of self) comes with its instinctual animal desires or temptations and one has to purify or regulate it for social life. Secondly it becomes polluted with worldly impurities, and hence one has to purify it in order to attain the real goals of human soul. This is a sort of sublimation process of human self in the path of spiritual evolution. The whole spiritual journey towards Allah is known as siyar-o-suluk  ?The wayfarer of this journey is known as salik . There are many ways and means of tazkia. ?Zikr, fikr, muraqiba, Ietikaf are common practices. These practices help the salik (the wayfarer) or sufi to rise-up.
Rising-up and bringing greater purity in one’s self (mind, spirit, soul) is just the prerequisites of further spiritual journey towards yet higher and infinite stages. Only those can qualify to rise-up who leave sins, dissociate self from the love of worldly material things and sincerely follow the Shariat (the Islamic code of morality).
According to the Noorbakshshi Sufi order, without following the basic tenets of Shariat, all claims of spiritualism and spiritual evolution are baseless. It is possible that through certain practices one can gain certain kinds of extraordinary powers or master certain skills seemed to be supernatural but in religious terms, such show-off has no value. It is believed that the more a sufi gets purified, the more s/he becomes humble and humane and try their best to keep certain blessings undisclosed.
Another term more or less synonymously used for tazkia is tasfia normally tasfia qalb or tasfia batin inner purification or esoteric sublimation.  The word tasfia stands for cleaning, washing out and in spiritual terms it stands for the process of cleansing all sinful behaviors, actions, desires, temptations and intentions.   For a Sufi the purity and modesty of inner thoughts and intentions are more important than the overt behavior. In fact, functionally tazkia and tasfia means purity and sanctity of thoughts and intentions that directs one’s behaviors and actions. In other words for a salik or Sufi, the real personality of a person is reflected in the deep rooted intentions behind any action. The immediate actions may elude people but the real virtue depends upon ‘the will’ behind the action. This Sufi approach is supported by and is rooted in the Holy Hadis “surely (virtue of) all actions depend upon the intentions”. In words of Iqbal:
Even if you narrate La ilaha illa Allah, what will be the outcome?
If thy heart and sight are not Muslim, nothing is so.
The Mulim-ness of heart and sight, for Iqbal is the intention, the will behind any action, the level of sincerity and the degree of devotion which he terms as zoq-o-shoq, soz-o-gudaz, jazb-o-masti etc. It is not the mere actions devoid of devotions. Even in western philosophy the ethical principle of Immanuel Kant that ‘goodness of an action is determined by its intention not by the consequences of it’, fully supports this tenet of Sufism. Intentions or motivations are the real indicators of the worth of any action.
The Nurbakhshsi Sufi Cosmology

The Nurbakhshsi Sufi path presents a whole spiritual world view with both the theoretical and practical aspects of Sufim/Irfaniyat. It explains the physical and metaphysical or spiritual worlds, the visible, the invisible, and the invisible-visible. The Sufi cosmology of Noorbakhsh is almost along the same lines as that of Ibn-ul-Arabi, Rumi, Jurjani and Allaoddula Semnani, however new interpretations and different dimensions are added with a view of haqqul-yaqeen (certainty level of knowledge as experienced realities) state of knowledge. In his cosmology Noorbakhsh (AR) repeatedly refers to the states of mind/heart (atware sbie qalbia), the different energies and lights that enable the visibility of the invisibles, and the hierarchy of cosmoses namely nasut, malkut, lahut, jabrut.
When a salik passes through different stages and states of spiritual journey, s/he acquires new lights tajalliat/anwar. These lights help the salik flying (gliding) through and approaching to newer horizons and cosmoses with yet different colors and lights. The degree (color) and intensity of light (more appropriately the degree of enlightenment) helps the salik to observe, feel and experience the sacred secret of divine blessings and signs. Every moment there is a newer world of wonders:
Every moment there is new tur (mount cina) and new flash of light
May Allah, never have an end to (these sights) series of motivation.
The theoretical dimension of Sufism/Irfaniat is discussed mostly in terms of the levels of knowledge or certainty (yaqeen) and the possible manifestations, visions, experiences, observations, conditions and motivations for flying or observing in the realms of higher cosmoses and horizons. The link between the worldly life practices with that of worlds beyond our sights and the worlds hereafter are explained in Sufi literature.
The Practical aspect of Sufism

In practical life the Noorbakhshi school of thought lays prime emphasis on following the Shariat not merely in ritualistic way but in its spiritualistic spirit, as the Sufi path believes in the esoteric or batni   dimensions of religious practices and norms. The emphasis is laid on the inner or core part of the practices which in fact are the real aims of certain rituals. Consequently this kind of priority (to inner or core objective) leads the followers to see and seek the advanced ways of spiritual evolution with more sublimated modes of practices and riazat. Different kinds of civic services and services to needy human beings in social life at a level of higher sincerity without any interest of personal returns is considered to be the ultimate aim of some religious practices such as zakat, kheraat, khidmate khalq. Similarly in worshiping the Lord different types of riazaat such, zikr, muraqiba, ietikaf, nawafil, serve spiritual purification from different kinds of sinful spiritual diseases. In Nurbakhshi Sufi tradition, jihad-e-akbar or the greater jihad is the continued struggle with one’s selfish ego or nafs-e-ammara which is the instinctual animal behavior. By controlling and regulating this nafs one can rise well above the instinctual animal level.  The regulated obedient nafs can then ultimately reach the highest stage of the satisfied nafs.
Noorbakhshi School of Thought

People who may be less aware of the roots of the Noorbakhshi school of thought, may term it as an Islamic  sect in between the Sunni and Shiite sects because of its emphasis on commonalities between the two and having its own relatively moderate fiqh (jurisprudence). It is true that the Noorbakhshi fiqh allows many practices of both the Shiite and Sunni sects as equally acceptable modes of practices. In religious doctrines also it can be placed in-between the orthodox Sunni and Shiite extreme thoughts. However neither Syed Muhammad Noorbakhsh (AR) himself nor any intellectual scholar of today terms this school of thought as a sect. We use words such as maslak with roots of suluk, rawish the way, maktabe fikr the school of thought (as a philosophical and esoteric or Gnostic tradition) when we distinguish ourselves from others with the suffix of Noorbakhshiyeh. Otherwise the word Mazhab-e-Sufia is used for its religious identification.
The basic reason of not preferring to use the term firqa or ‘sect’ is that in fact, Noorbakhshiyeh is a movement against sectarianism and extremism. In history when the Mongols attacked and ruined Baghdad the then centre of Muslim caliphate, the Muslims had already severely fallen in extremes of sectarianism. That is why impartial historians even claim that the fall of Baghdad (as a symbol of fall of Islamic governments) was more because of internal extreme-sectarian differences than the power of uncivilized Mongols.
It is also on the record that at times the clergy of one sect invited the enemy to attack the centres of it opponent (another Islamic) sect. And when the attackers accepted such invitations, they bulldozed both of them. As a result of the continued attacks of Mongols and Crusades on Muslim world during the 12th and 13th centuries, all the learning centres were dismantled, millions of books were burnt. According to Dr Barq around three crore (30 million) books were set on fire or thrown in rivers.  After such a devastating historical collapse and fall-out, when the depressed Muslims were looking for a ray of hope that can cure their multiple ailments, Syed Muhammad Noorbakhsh (AR) rises-up with his spiritual movement as a panacea of the whole wound.
Noorbakhsh (AR) (the giver of light) with his enlightened name given by his Murshid (after a spiritual signal), started his revival movement in such a historical backdrop. This was basically an anti-sectarian, pluralist, reformist, moderate, spiritual and irfani (Gnostic) movement to lit a light of hope, harmony and unity among the Ummah.
The historical consequences of severe sectarianism were deeply felt by this sensitive Sufi saint and reformer. When he started his movement, the first claim was to reduce the differences among the Ummah primarily in foundations/principles and secondly in doctrines of branches.
The success of such an ambitious movement can be imagined in such a time when the immediate descendents of Mongols/Tatars were there ruling the land. On the one hand this reformist movement was indigestible to the orthodox sectarian clergy, and on the other hand the rulers felt threatened by the rising influences of the charismatic personality of Noorbakhsh (AR), hence oppositions from multiple sides were evident. Consequently Noorbakhsh (RA) had to survive in prisons, exile and limited freedom for about a period of twenty years. However even with such obstacles, the movement was spread in different parts of the world. Following the path of his spiritual ancestor Mir Syed Ali Hamdani (AR), Noorbakhsh (AR) managed to spread his teachings through his disciples to Iran, Iraq, Mavara-un-nahr, Central Asia, India and Kashmir. The movement was better rooted in areas where there were lesser resistance of extremist clergies (mullas) and rulers. The teachings of Noorbakhsh (AR) could flourish and sustain mostly in peripheries where it better echoed in the peaceful environments away from extremists and attackers who saw it as a threat to their legitimacy and authority in the central cities.
The two well known books of Noorbakhsh (AR) in principal Islamic tenets and Jurisprudence are the usool aqayid and al-fiqtul ahwat both available on the website of Noorbakhsia Youth Federation . The book of religious practices known as dawat-e-Sufia is also available on the same website.
Today the biggest population of Noorakhshis live in Pakistan, India, Iran, in some parts of central Asian countries. In Pakistan the Noorbakshshi population and centres (Mosques/ Khanqahs) are in all major cities (provincial capitals) with major population in the Gangchhe and Skardu districts of Gilgit-Baltistan. Baltistan has the huge historical heritage of Khanqahs, centuries old handwritten manuscripts of Noorbakhsh (AR). Both the brothers of Shiite and Sunni consider them as their own branches but recognize them in their own identity. This is because of the moderate and lenient teachings of Noorbakhsh (AR) which is strength as well as a limitation. This is strength in the sense that because of this moderation philosophy Noorbakhshis are considered as friends by all religious parties (sects); and limitation in the sense that at times other sects make attempts to convert them into their own faiths. 
Noorbakhshis have due respect and reverence to all the progeny (ahl-albait) of the Holy prophet, the twelve imams, and the companions (sahaba) of the Holy Prophet.
According to the Noorbakhshi teachings Hazrat Ali (AS) is the aadamul-aolia, the first wali and the origin of the Noorbakhshi Sufi order, the first Imam and the deputy (wasi) of the Holy Prophet who resumed the office of the guided caliphate as the fourth caliph as well.  In routine religious practices after performing the obligatory and regular prayers and fasting aorad/taqeebat, nawafil, zikr and ietikaf are still the salient features of Noorbakhshi practitioners. 
Written By: Zakir Hussain Zakir
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