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Sultan of the Path- Imām al-Junayd

By Mohamed Ghilan

When I received the invitation to write in the Luminaries Series, I was surprised that I thought of Imām al-Junayd first before someone like Imām al-Ghazālī. Imām al-Ghazālī is well known and widely quoted. His books serve as immense sources of wisdom and prescriptions for how one can purify their heart and elevate their station with their Lord. After the words of God and the words of the Beloved (endless peace and blessings be upon him), we often hear the words of Imām al-Ghazālī when it comes to setting on the path of purifying our hearts. But now as I think of it, in our times we desperately need to get to know Imām al-Junayd.

You know you are dealing with a special person when much of his personal biography is lost, and no major text of his was left behind, yet scholars from all streams within the Islamic Tradition quote his counsels throughout their various works. Across the intellectual divides within the Muslim Ummah, one can find the influence of Imām al-Junayd scattered throughout. In fact, for one to gather a collection of the counsels of Imām al-Junayd, they have to pick up the works of scholars like Imām al-Ghazālī, as well as the works of scholars like Imām Ibn Taymiyyah and step outside their familiar comfort zone of only reading for one type of scholar. It is a true testament to the sincerity of a scholar that more than a millennium after his passing, and no available books attributed to him; he still manages to bring divided Muslims together on a common ground.

Abū al-Qāsim al-Junayd ibn Muḥammad al-Zajjaj was born in 220 A.H./830 C.E. in Baghdad, Iraq and was raised there. His family was originally from Nahavand, the capital of Nahavand County in the Ḥamdān Province in Iran. His father used to sell glass bottles, which is where the family name “al-Zajjaj” comes from.

An incident at the age of seven marked the path Imām al-Junayd would eventually be named the “Sulṭān” of. As he was playing in the presence of a gathering of scholars, his maternal uncle, al-Sarī al-Saqaṭī, asked him, “Young man, what is thankfulness?” The young al-Junayd replied, “That you do not disobey God with His blessings.” al-Sarī remarked, “I fear that your only share from God would be your tongue.” The weight of this remark was so great that Imām al-Junayd said later in his life, “I have continued to cry over the remark that al-Sarī directed at me.”

As this story implies, Imām al-Junayd began his studies at a very young age. His intelligence and insight qualified him to achieve the status of muftī by the time he was merely 20 years old. One contemporary scholar said about Imām al-Junayd, “I saw a scholar among you in Baghdad called ‘al-Junayd’ who my eye has never seen anyone like him. The linguists would attend his gathering for his rhetoric, the philosophers for his precision, the poets for his eloquence, and the theologians for his meanings.” Another scholar remarked, “We did not see among our scholars one who combined between much knowledge and spiritual presence other than Abū al-Qāsim. Most of them have either a lot of knowledge but little spiritual presence, or some have much spiritual presence but very little knowledge. Al-Junayd had a dangerously immense spiritual presence and copious amounts of knowledge, such that if you experienced his spiritual presence you would assume it outweighed his knowledge, and if you saw his knowledge you would assume it outweighed his spirituality.”

Imām al-Junayd is unique in this way among the luminaries in his combination of knowledge and spirituality. If there is such a thing as “Sufi’izing Salafism and Salafizing Sufism,” it is embodied in the person of Imām al-Junayd. He was one to act upon authentic evidence from the Qurʾān and Ḥadīth, while at the same time preserve the spirit of the text in a way that many of us seek to accomplish today. One important counsel of Imām al-Junayd states, “Whoever does not memorize the Qurʾān, does not write the Ḥadīth, and does not gain an understanding of both is not to be followed, because our path is restricted by the Book and the Sunnah.” To fulfill this counsel the Imām offered another one to set the seeker on the right path, “The beginning of knowledge is from scholars, the middle of it is action, and the end of it is from the Exalted.”

Imām al-Junayd was highly concerned with translating knowledge into action. As he said in one of his counsels, “We did not take Sufism from hearsay. Rather, we took it from hunger, abandonment of dunya, and severing familiar luxuries. Because Ṣūfīsm is the purity of relationship with God.” This statement of Imām al-Junayd should not be confused with not enjoying the pleasures of life. It is known that he was a successful merchant in Baghdad and earned his own provisions. However, he did not allow the luxuries of this life to take over his heart, which he preserved for God in keeping with the statement in the Qurʾān, “The day on which neither wealth nor property will avail, except him who comes to God with a sound heart” [26:88-89].

One of the most important issues Imām al-Junayd dealt with were the rampant claims of love of and nearness to God that many were making during his time. To the Imām, claims negate sincerity and lead to arrogance. Moreover, claims of elevated stations and nearness to God are not permitted as the Qurʾān states that only “God knows who is purified” [53:32]. For these reasons we read another counsel of Imām al-Junayd reminding us that, “Whoever sticks to the path with sincerity, God will suffice them from making empty claims.”

The extent to which Imām al-Junayd went with regards to claims was to remind Muslims not to be overtaken by miraculous demonstrations known as karāmat. The true measure of anyone in Islam is not based in fantastic events that occur to them. Rather, we measure on the scale of righteousness, which is defined by how one upholds the injunctions and abstains from the limitations that God has set.

It is not that Imām al-Junayd rejected miracles of saints. He rejected having miracles as a measure of anything relevant to our estimation of whether someone is righteous or not. Here we realize the importance of having knowledge in Islam. Imām al-Junayd warned us in one of his most famous counsels, “If you see a man sitting cross-legged suspended in the air, do not follow him until you see his actions with regards to commands and prohibitions. If you see that he upholds all the commandments, and avoids all the prohibitions, then believe in him and follow him. But if you see him not upholding the commandments, and not avoiding the prohibitions, then avoid him.”

One can spend a great deal of time commenting on the scattered pearls of wisdom we have from Imām al-Junayd. But even he would not approve of us spending our time in this way. As one of his companions relates a dream he had of the Imām after he passed away in 297 A.H./ 910 C.E., in which he asked him, “What did God do with you?” The Imām replied, “Those indications have fallen, the counsels have become hidden, the knowledge has disappeared, the appearances have been withered, and nothing has benefitted us except for a few cycles of prayer we used to perform before the break of dawn.”

15-Episode series on some of the counsels of Imām al-Junayd by Mohamed Ghilan can be found here

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