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Riyada (Austerity)

by Fethullah Gülen on . Posted in Key Concepts in the Practice of Sufism-2

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Riyada (austerity), which we can describe as disciplining life, appetite and thirst, and sleeping and waking only in order to develop the feelings of praise for and thankfulness to God and balancing these by keeping them within the limits of needs, has been used in the terminology of Sufis to mean the training of the carnal self and the acquiring of good, praiseworthy qualities. It has been accepted as a means of restraining the carnal desires, which include appetite, thirst and sleep, by resisting them.

From another perspective, austerity is described as holding back from carnal pleasures in order to acquire piety, righteous-ness, and nearness to God, and to discover the hidden realities of existence and the Divine truths. It combines the following of God's way without any deviation, making use of will power and conscience in the best way by taking refuge in the atmosphere of spiritual life against the pressures and excessive desires of the carnal self.

"State" and "station," regarded as crystal-like indicators of a person's spiritual life, are certain "pools" of indescribable spiritual pleasures mixed with the breezes from the worlds beyond that one can experience through austerity on the way to God. These are based on love of God and the attainment of His approval. Reaching these "pools" and feeling and living in the spacious world of the spirit within the love of God and His good pleasure is possible through austerity and through training the carnal self, and can be achieved by enhancing the spirit with virtues.

A person capable of sustaining an austere life is a person of tested faith or loyalty in relationships with the Creator, the Truth, and also in relationships with the created. This is the natural state for austerity -the ambition to become a person of truth by liberating oneself from worldly ambitions and carnal inclinations and becoming devoted to the Almighty Truth. Austerity is training the carnal self to realize true humanity and to make the love of God the source of human feelings, thoughts and behavior. In other words, the purpose of an austere life is to think for the sake of God, to speak for the sake of God, to love for the sake of God, and to remain in the sphere of doing or not doing something only for the sake of God, to obtain His approval and good pleasure -purely because God wants us to do it or not to do it- and to always be with God.

Some see austerity as humiliating the carnal self, which we can interpret as the annihilation of the evil-commanding self which always pursues evils, or as being freed from selfishness and self-conceit or overcoming bodily desires in accordance with the maxim, "Die before you die!" From this perspective, austerity can be regarded as plowing the carnal self, as one plows a field, in order to sow the seeds of goodness and virtue, and bringing them into flower by giving them the necessary water and heat in favorable weather.

The couplet,

Be soil, such fertile soil, that roses can grow in you;
For nothing other than soil can have the honor of growing roses.

describes this state of self which has acquired perfection, humility, and self-annihilation.

Sufi scholars and thinkers have also taken another approach to austerity. They distinguish two types of austerity. The first is "austerity in manners," which means being freed from weaknesses and vices in order to acquire a second nature, while the other is "austerity in goals," which means having the best goal and pursuing it in this world. This approach can also be summed up as disciplining the carnal self and acquiring good, laudable virtues. The statement found in the Lujja, "The wisdom in hurting the body is training the reason and the soul" confirms this approach.

Some who have acquired austerity in the most approved manner have made another classification of austerity, as follows:

  • The austerity followed by those who are at the beginning of the Sufi way to God consists of combining and adorning good morals or good nature with knowledge, and the practice of religion with sincerity and purity of intention, and to observe both the rights of the Creator and the rights of the created.
  • The austerity followed by those who have advanced on the Sufi way to God is to become free of all considerations with respect to anything other than God and, by paying heed to the voice of the inner sense of reliance on God and of seeking help[1]-something that everyone feels in their conscience- to remain true to the direction to which their conscience points. Furthermore, this degree of austerity also demands being oblivious of even the way one is following, because of absorption in seeking God's good pleasure.
  • The austerity followed by those who have reached the end of the way enables them to experience the Divine manifestations free from all differences and polarities. That is, it enables them to feel in the depths of their heart the unity and harmony of apparently opposed Divine Names and Attributes., with all their manifestations. It is, therefore, a way to see and experience God without seeing any difference between His being the All-Favoring and the All-Requiting or the All-Expanding and the All-Straitening or the All-Granting and the All-Preventing.

[1] Everyone has two important innate senses: Bediuzzaman Said Nursi, a famous Turkish scholar (d., 1960), describes them as the sense of reliance and the sense of seeking help. They can be viewed equally as two of humanity's essential needs. These verses urge or even compel one to find a point of reliance and a source of help, and therefore guide to God as the Infinite and All-Powerful One to rely upon, and as the All-Merciful and All-Helping to seek help from. (Trans.)