Repentance and the Return to God in Early Sufism (Written by Atif Khalil)

Despite the central place of tawba in Islamic faith and practice, the concept has to date been the subject of very little serious academic research. The purpose of this study is to fill something of this scholarly lacuna by examining early Sufi approaches to tawba with a particular focus on the period that spans the 8thto the 10thcenturies of the common era. The work is divided into two parts. It begins with an elaborate semantic analysis of tawba through a survey of the most important classical lexicons of Arabic, the aim of which is to problematize our common understanding of tawba as “repentance.” It then proceeds to examine tawba in the Qur’ān through an internal semantic analysis of the text by employing a methodology utilized by T. Izutsu in his own key studies of the Qur’ān. The purpose of this is to retrace the scriptural origins of many early Sufi notions of tawba and demonstrate L. Massignon’s observation that the Sufis made a concerted attempt “to interiorize the Qur’ānic vocabulary and to integrate it into ritual practice.”* 

The second part of the work begins by examining some of the early tawba narratives in the Sufi hagiographical literature, where it is shown that tawba is presented in the Sufi tradition as a life-altering process of “interior conversion,” and not merely a simple act of turning away from a particular sin or vice. A taxonomy of this kind of interior conversion is also proposed to account for the differing means through which conversion might be sparked. The study then moves to examine the place of tawba within the ascending Sufi hierarchy of “states (ahwāl)” and “stations (maqāms)” in the thought a number of early, pivotal Sufi figures, where it is demonstrated through a close textual analysis of early works of the mystical tradition that the most overarching concern in regards to the question of tawba in the early period was not with theoretical or metaphysical issues, but with the Sufi science of praxis or the ‘ulūm al-mu‘āmalāt.


*Louis Massignon,Essay on the Origins of the Technical Language of Islamic Mysticism, trans. Benjamin Clark (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 1997), 8.


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