The stages of spiritual development


A study of  ‘Sulami’s darrajat as siddiqeen’ in the light of Ghazzal’s ‘minhaj al abideen’


This essay is an abridgement of “Darrajat as siddiqeen” a short monograph by Abu abdur Rahman Sulami (d;1021 see note 2) that  explains the gradual spiritual development of a sufi, a pilgrim, a sincere traveller on path to God, it succinctly tells the story of the journey of human soul from the material world to spiritual realm and from the temporal lows to the celestial heights until it arrives at the threshold of the Divine. The book focuses on the human soul’s relationship with God, the nature of this relationship, the stages of development and perfection of the soul. “ stations of the righteous” highlights the various stages the pilgrim embarks on his way to his Lord almighty, explaining the guidelines as well as the signposts success. The teachings of glorious Quran and Wisdom of the prophetic  Sunna vividly describe these stages as well as prescribing  a set of clear guidelines for achieving them. In Islam the pilgrim is not left to wonder in the wilderness, once he has grasped  the “the firmest hand-hold “ then he  is in safe hands,  here “the firmest hand-hold” refers to the blessed messenger. Islam offers a way, the means and the raison de tat for following this and couples it with powerful  motivation and above all guarantees the Divine guidance! This fits well with the overall purpose of Islamic teachings namely to help man to love his Lord dearly and to serve his fellow humans thus becoming a friend of God and his creatures. Sulami of course is clearly aware of the sufi axiom “verily there are thousand stages of darkness and light intervening between the servant and his Lord”(1). From this monograph i have been able to identify seven stations during the spiritual ascent they are as follows; 1.  renunciation of the world 2. Reliance on God 3. hope and fear 4. Acquiring knowledge of Islam  5. Sincerity in intentions and deeds 6.  Developing strong character based on Divine attributes 7. Receiving  Divine knowledge. I then compare this approach to Ghazzali’s method in ‘ minhaj al abideen’ a book that presents spiritual ascent in seven stages. We shall discuss the similarities and differences between these two sufis.

First Station; renunciation of the world

Men of God begin their journey by practicing spiritual discipline that consists of repentance, detachment from the world and constant watchfulness over their outward and innermost thoughts and secrets ( Tawba, zuhd and muraqaba). They distance themselves from all familiar things as they impose strict discipline on themselves which is displayed as service to people and respect of mankind and preferring others over themselves and patience at all times. They turn away from all other than God, the world, the people, even their own wealth and possessions, anything that hinders their progress, anything that slows them down, all to be shed, including the weighty material possessions, all to be discarded and disposed of. They are committed to their Lord as they engage in Divine remembrance, worship, night vigil, recital of glorious Quran and deep reflections and study.

(1) Statement attributed to Abubakr Al Kinani

Right ending is not possible without a right beginning, lofty buildings can only be built on solid foundations, so sulami is suggesting that the right way to start this wonderful journey is to begin by renouncing the love of the world, since it is this  wastes time and  diverts attention from spiritual exercises.

Second Station: complete reliance on Allah

The sufi’s  love of God develops deeper and deeper as he  begins to relay completely on God (tawakul), trusting God to provide daily bread at least and realising that God is the only Benefactor or Malefactor. This trust in God leads to certainty (yaqin) and assumes a strong reliance on God so much so that he entrusts all his affairs to him (Tafwid),  eventually  leading to total submission (Taslim). This is manifested as patience and confidence that results in an inward and outward contentment (Rida) with all that befalls one. From now on he will not complain about adversity nor will he gloat over his achievements, he has now aligned his will with the Divine will, he is in complete harmony with destiny.

In ghazzali’s view the sufi faces four hindrances on his spiritual ascent they are; sustenance, perils, destiny’s decree and adversity, the way to overcome them is to “cling to lifeline of God, so they take no interest in the attachment of their fellow creatures”.  Ghazzali then says “ the matter of sustenance and absolute trust , tawakkul is very important for two reasons; firstly , to be free to worship, since if you are constantly worried about sustenance your heart will keep wondering ; “why was it like that and why is it like this”. Secondly there is the real danger of incurring the Divine wrath for not trusting the Lord.

Third Station: Hope and Fear

The reliance on the Almighty and love for Him leads the aspirant to  next station of  hope and fear, the ascent from second station arises out of the fear of one’s weaknesses, ignorance and lack of sincerity; the sufi is fearful as he realises how inadequate he is before the majestic Lord. However, simultaneously he cherishes the relationship with the loving and merciful Lord  gradually this changes into hope, as  he  now accepts  God’s promises of beneficence to his servants and believes that he will be cleansed of his  weaknesses. He is now confident that the Lord will protect him.

The author then explains that this is a cyclical or periodic process, i.e. as soon as one reaches the end he has to return to the beginning; start again with repentance followed by reliance and then fear and hope. A Sufi said “i travelled the stations three times, whenever I reached the end it was said “return him to the beginning so he does not remain ignorant”. This is like a spiral education curriculum; at each key stage of their learning students will revisit the subject, but every year at a slightly higher level than the previous. This spiritual development is accompanied by heightened self-awareness as manifested in the ability to discern the right from the  wrong. such fortunate soul is able to distinguish between intuition and temptation, self-deception and certainty. This ability to perform self-assessment (self-criticism) is described by imam Junaid Baghdadi as follows; “the servant keeps on progressing from one stage to another still higher; sometimes it so happens that the vestiges of the past stage still linger with him which he removes and corrects himself as he can easily see it from his current position which is loftier”. As one ascends the ladder  higher and higher he is in a better position to see his shortcomings.

These spiritual devotions, efforts and consistent struggles create a state of stability istiqamat—“living in God’s presence” characterised by stability in soul, will power, instincts, thoughts and reflections. The following verse points to this “so keep the right course as you have been commanded, together with those who have turned to God with you” (hud;112).

Imam Ghazzali regards fear and hope as to important ‘incentives’ that make the path easy to travel in his scheme of spiritual development this is the fifth stage.. He believes that fear is necessary for two reasons; it’s a powerful deterrent against sins and disobedience and stops one from being proud of one’s devotions. Similarly, he teaches that hope is essential for two reasons; it motivates one to worship the Lord as one becomes conscious of mercy of God and intense longings for His blessings, secondly hope makes it easier to bear the hardships.

Fourth station of knowledge of Islam:

By this stage the aspirant, the traveller on Divine path has become purified, free from the temptations of Satan and greed of the world. He is now a true Sufi, the one who has been purified of all weaknesses and evil so that his soul is now purified and therefore capable of moving in the realm of the unseen. He is blessed by the Divine light and intuition with which he can understand and see the reality. This is what the prophet hinted to when he said “Be aware of the intuitive glance of the believer for he sees by the light of God”. The true knowledge is knowledge of the Almighty all else is false and unreal. He says “it is through the denial of all other than Him that the servant will only know the Lord. Once all others have disappeared and only the knowledge of Him remains. This station is described by the saying “He who knows himself, knows his Lord”. I.e. one cannot know God without first knowing oneself. It also implies that one needs to know the Divine decrees, commands and prohibitions. This is well expressed in the saying, “the life of the heart is in the knowledge of God alone.”

Imam Ghazzali regards knowledge as the first stage of spiritual development. He says “all success depends on this”. There are two reasons why seeking knowledge is so important; it is through knowledge that one can have correct beliefs and then perform his duties. Secondly, knowledge instils the fear of God that acts as motivator.

Fifth station of sincerity in intentions and deeds

These people of true knowledge have now acquired Divine proximity and a high station with their Lord. This is due to sincerity and genuineness in their lives, so they are classified the righteous (siddiqeen). The Messenger praised these righteous people when he said “among the servants of Allah are people who will be envied by Prophets and Martyrs.” He can be described as “one who has arrived at the truth” (wasil bil haq) through his separation from the rest.

Imam Ghazzali  poignantly reminds us  that hypocritical ostentation is a real danger for the Sufi, it constantly threatens all his endeavours and the only way to overcome it is through sincerity. He said “you must wake up from your slumber o man! This is the toughest hurdle that has confronted you so far “. He gives details of vain conceit and ostentation and other subtleties his advice is “ if you pay attention , you will see the value of obedience to God, you will see the inadequacy of creatures, their weaknesses and their ignorance, so you must not attach importance to them with your heart. You must be indifferent to their praise, their commendation and their high esteem, in which there is no benefit”.

Sixth station; building strong character based on divine attributes

w ho ever  embarks on understanding the 99 Divine attributes and to live them in his life will be graced  and  impacted by each name in every aspect of his life…Once he has bathed himself in the light and luminosity of these beautiful names. He is now near to God, he Lives in his presence, breaths in his presence. This is the state described in the famous hadith Qudsi where Allah said “ I become his tongue with which he speaks, his eyes with he sees, ears with which he hears and hands with which he grasps… if he asks for anything it will be granted to him and if he seeks protection he will be given protection.”He lives each Divine name, practices it , colours himself in it, the grace of each blessed name shines in his character… here he reaches the outer most limits as he subsists with God, having neither station, location, name, form, pretence, quality, desire, vision nor a goal. ”the servant is as he had never been, and God is as He never ceased to be”. This man embodies the virtues of forgiveness, kindness, humility, modesty, patience, justice, courage, generosity and gentleness and thereby resembles the blessed messenger “you indeed have strong character”.

Seventh station receiving of divine knowledge

Now the Sufi has a sight and vision that enables him to see the hidden realities of life. This is   mystic knowledge, the knowledge of hidden things and secrets of Divine reality. This is al-ilm al ladunni, knowledge from God as mentioned in the verse “then they found one of our servants to whom we had shown our mercy and had taught him knowledge from our presence “(18.66). This kind of knowledge is powerful and has an impact on the listener like Khidr explaining the mysteries of his weird acts to Moses, Moses did not challenge him, despite being a legislator, a man of law he conceded to these mystic realities. This special knowledge from the Lord is a gift, a reward, a light that now leads the sufi.

This leads to a state of witnessing of God’s glory when “All else appears deprecated in his eyes and through his perception of the defective nature of all appearances… this is amongst the stations of illustrious and the masters.” This is exemplified in the saying of Abdullah ibn Abbas “God bless Omar!  it is as though he views destiny through a thin veil.” Al- Sulami then elaborates the characteristics of this state: “When God has brought  his servant  to the station of realised through truthful knowledge he is free of fear…Now the Lord  may reveal him to people as a model and refuge to which aspirants may turn in their quest for him. The servant witnesses God’s glory, omnipotence and munificence. This is the moment when  permission is granted to hear the Divine discourse and to have its meanings unveiled to him. He is honoured by the understanding of what he hears by being addressed, and by witnessing the inner meaning hearing and cognition thereof, increasing his proximity and intimacy. God said, “Lo! Therein is verily a reminder for him who has a heart, whoever listens attentively.” (50; 37).

Imam Ghazzali  although does not have an equivalent stage as sulami’s ‘ bestowing of divine knowledge’ however there is a corresponding seventh stage of gratitude, this is how he explains it, “your duty … after surmounting these hurdles and achieving the goal of this worshipful service safe from disasters is to give praise and thanks to God for this enormous blessing and generous favour. That is incumbent upon you for two simple reasons; to ensure that the blessings will last and in order to obtain more.” There is a similarity in the two approaches as Ghazzali points out, “ the gist of the matter is this; you have found the treasures of knowledge and perceptive understanding and been cleansed of sins and serious offences.”


The acquisition of these seven stages according to Sulami is is rewarded by refuge (amn) a state of calmness and solace this is granted to them through intuition, dreams or witnessing the unseen: God said “verily the friends of Allah   neither fear nor do they grieve” (10:63). This is exemplified in the Messenger giving the ten disciples good news of paradise, or saying to Bilal “i heard your footsteps in paradise” or foretelling the sanctity of Owais al  Qarani.  Sometimes, God may reveal these wonderful men as role models to the community,  they  act as guides  and Masters  and are standard bearers for humanity for the rest. In concluding Sulami says “There can be no successful completion of the journey through the spiritual stations without a sound beginning. He who has not founded his journey upon the Quran and the practice of the prophet will in the end attain nothing of intimate knowledge of God. The only way to attain Divine proximity (Qurb) is through the teachings of Quran and Sunnah!


(1)     Brief introduction to Sheikh Abu Adel-Rehman Sulami (d: 1021)

Abu Abdal Rahman al- Sulami was born in 937 in Nishapur a city in north eastern Iran. He is regarded as an important early writer on matters of Sufism particularly at its formative period. He was shafi scholar who had mastery over many fields of Islamic learning. One reason for his substantial influence is that he had many outstanding students and disciples like Abu Qasim Qusharyi, Abu Nuaym al Isbhani and Bayhaqi. He was particularly interested in Tasawaff and his greatest legacy is his writing’s like the “stations of righteous” and “the stumbling of those aspiring”. Both books give us an access to the spiritual teachings and the methods of Sufi teachers as well as giving us insights into the principles, attitudes and practices of Sufi’s at the time of Al- Sulami.His contemporaries praised Sulami for his integrity. Here is a quote about him “he is one of those we have encountered who have devoted themselves completely to the precepts and disciplines of Sufism in accordance with that upon which the founders based their path, rightly guided by their examples, steadfast on their path, following in their footsteps; dissociating himself from all the deranged and confused among the ignorant of these factions; totally disclaiming them.”

Sulami’s student, al-Khashshab (d.456/1063), praising Sulami’s ability to harmonize with all of those around him, said “He was well considered by the elect and the masses, with those in accord (with his views), and with those against, with the sultan and with the subjects, in his own country, and in all the Islamic countries; and thus he passed from this world onto God.”