(Bursevi, Ruh-ul Beyan, 9/806.)
“No father can give his child anything better than good manners.”
nor will your hearts be made right until your tongues are made right;
nor will your tongues be made right until your actions are made right.”
The level of one’s intellect is reflected in one’s deeds.
One of the best definitions of Sufi courtesy has been provided by the famous Sufi Ibn al-Arabi:
(Here, based on Adab: The Courtesy of the Path.)
The general meanings of adab are: politeness, courtesy, good manners, refined manners, good breeding, respect, reverence, correct behavior, proper conduct, modest behavior, being courteous; discipline, correction, chastisement; the science of polite learning, culture of mind. According to Abu Al Najib Al Suhrawardi: “Nobody can properly enter the Way of the Sufis until knowing its fundamental beliefs, its rules of conduct (âdâb) and its technical terms.”
presents: Mind, Faith, Courtesy. He said, ‘Whichever one he chooses,
bring back the other two.’
Adam thought. He has no mind, no ideas, he’s a mudcake. Again this
isn’t Adam’s work, it’s God’s. There’s a Giver. He said, ‘I’ll take Mind.’
Gabriel said, ‘You chose the best.’ He said to Faith and Courtesy:
‘Come on, let’s go.’ Faith said: ‘Without me, Mind can’t manage.’ He
turned to Courtesy, ‘Let’s go.’ Courtesy said, ‘I’m the garment of these
two. Without me, neither of them can manage by themselves. I stay,
too.’ So they all remained with Adam.
Gabriel conferred with God. ‘What shall I do?’ God said,
‘Everything’s found its proper place, if he can use them. The trust has
found its place. Come back.’
Here are some features of courtesy:
- To recognize our own faults, rather than finding faults with others.
- To recognize our own ego and struggle against its manifestation by remembering that our greatest ally is Love.
- To limit our preoccupation, worry, vanity and ambition over the world and the worldly.
- To seek to heal any wrong we may have caused to another, and to correct any misunderstanding as soon as possible.
- To remember that no good will come out of the expression of anger or excessive hilarity.
- To be patient with difficulties.
- To recognize and remember that we all are members of the same [human] family.
- To avoid gossip and bad-mouthing.
- To be indifferent to favor or benefit for oneself, for “receiving one’s due.”
- To be free of [jealousy] and ambition, including the desires to lead or instruct others.
- To do what one does as service to the Tradition – not for the desire for reward or the fear of punishment.
- To accept with gratitude suggestions and criticism from one’s Teacher.
In matters of courtesy as in other things, the role model for Sufis is the Prophet. He had a very refined sensibility and was always careful never to shame people.
Sometimes, the sublimity of a response is in direct proportion to the grossness of the act that elicits it.
speak ill of them because they drink.’ He regarded the drunkard with
There was a bedouin Arab tribe chieftain. That tribe had faith, they
had recited the Word of Witnessing. He said, ‘Let me go and see the
Messenger of God.’
He came, he asked, they said, ‘He’s in the Mosque.’ He went over
and introduced himself: ‘I’m from such-and-such a tribe. I’ve come to
see you.’ He said, ‘Sit down.’
There are lots of townspeople and strangers in the Mosque, he’s
listening to their troubles, he’s making inquiries. The man began to
fidget, he had to obey the call of nature. He said ‘Excuse me,’ the
Prophet said ‘Okay,’ but he didn’t say what his problem was. He went
to a corner of the room and relieved himself. They’re tribespeople,
they don’t know any better.
The Companions are upset, the Prophet of God looks, the smell
spreads all over the place, he signals them: ‘Don’t say a word,’ he says.
That man comes and takes his earlier place.
The Prophet cuts it short, ‘Come on,’ he says, ‘let’s talk outside.’
Without giving that man the slightest hint.
They get up, they step outside, he says: ‘Give me a dustpan, a broom
and some water.’ ‘Messenger of God, let’s …’ ‘This is my guest. He
came for me.’ They insist, he says ‘No. You go out, too.’
He takes the excrement, throws it outside, digs the ground, covers it,
smooths it over, then comes over to them. The Companions are again
They talk outside, he sees him off, gives him some money, ‘Goodbye.’
Three years later he comes again. The same man. They were sitting
in the Mosque again, he greets them. He sits down in propriety and
courtesy. Religion, good manners have spread everywhere.
He kneels, after inquiring how he is: ‘Messenger of God, with your
permission I’d like to kiss your hand.’ ‘Why, what for?’ ‘I came to you
once, and did such an unseemly act. Please forgive my error.’ ‘No, no,
no. Good for you, good for you.’
Making Courtesy a Part of Your Life
Courtesy is manifested to the highest degree in the prophets and their successors, the saints (though not every Book extant today recognizes this). Prophets and saints are human beings, but spiritually they’re giants.
The Sufi concept of courtesy offers a refinement not easily available anywhere else. Note that in Arabic, khulq (plural akhlaq) means both character trait(s) and moral conduct. Thus, these terms can be used interchangeably. This means that traits such as kindness to all creatures, respect, compassion, avoiding gossip, and lovingkindness, need to be internalized until they become part of one’s innate character, one’s equipment. Otherwise, they will remain unassimilated and will be lost in the face of the first adversity.
This is the really hard part. Anyone can play-act or pretend. But can you do it when you’re choking? That’s the real test!
As the Prophet remarked, “The most perfect believer is the one with the best manners. And the best among you are those who are best to their wives.” (Tirmidhi 628; Riyad as-Salihin, 1.278.) He also said: “Nothing weighs more on the scales on Judgment Day than sublime conduct.” “Thanks to his noble character, a believer will attain the degree of one who Prays during the night and fasts during the day.” (Tirmidhi 2002 – Abu Dawood 2233.)
This last is very important. The Prophet is saying that beautiful behavior—that is, moral conduct that inspires admiration in others—is as important as worship, and will even substitute for it.
Abdullah thought for a while. “In the end,” he said, “the best thing
about Islam is that it gives you access to God. Perhaps other religions do too,
but Islam does it better than any other I know. That’s the point of all these
rules—if you follow them, you can go places you couldn’t otherwise go. Ac-
cess to God is something that’s hard for many people to understand. Per-
haps you’ve felt something like it sometimes, perhaps while contemplating
nature. It’s a feeling that Freud called “the oceanic,” though he understood
it rather differently. [Psychologist Abraham Maslow’s “peak experiences” and “self-actualization.”] Before I became Muslim, I once felt it sitting by the
edge of a lake during a beautiful sunset. Anyhow, that’s the point about Is-
lam: instead of happening by chance once or twice in a lifetime, that can
happen all the time.”
One can see something of this access to God—or to the oceanic—in
the faces of many Muslims in the Muslim world—in what the British poet
Kathleen Raine called “faces of radiant beauty and the joy of life.” In cities
like Cairo, despite the poverty and the disorder, it is sometimes possible
to glimpse something magically beautiful. The tawdry and ugly and com-
monplace is transformed into the special, the glowing. That, in the end,
may be the real point about Islam.
—Mark Sedgwick, Islam & Muslims (2006), p. 228.
A woman came to the sage Hatim one day to ask him a question. At that moment she broke wind, she wasn’t able to help it. Her face changed color.
Hatim said to her, “Speak louder. I’m hard of hearing.”
This he said in order that the woman would not be put to shame. She raised her voice, and he answered her problem.
As long as that woman was alive, for almost fifteen years, Hatim pretended he was deaf, so that no one would tell the woman that he was not. After her death he gave his answers readily. Until then, he would say to everyone who spoke to him, “Speak louder.” That was why he was called al-Asamm (“the Deaf”). His secret was outed one day when it became clear that he was able to hear the buzz of a mosquito that no one else could. His hearing was better than anyone else’s!
The story is told of a group of men who decided to test whether a certain person was a saint or not. Accordingly, they engaged a prostitute and a debaucher for their plan. The man, going his way, beheld the couple committing lewd acts in the middle of the street.
He immediately found a large straw mat from close by and, without saying anything, covered them with it. This was in accordance with the principles: “Cover what you see, don’t tell what you haven’t seen,” and “In hiding the shames of others, be like the night.” For the same reason, it has been said: “The hearts of sages are the graves of secrets.” These in turn are based on the Tradition: “Whoever alleviates the need of a needy person, God will alleviate his needs in this world and the Hereafter. Whoever conceals the faults of a servant (of God), God will conceal his faults in this world and the Hereafter. God helps those who help their brethren, as long as they help them.” (Muslim (4/2074) No. 2699, etc.)
Hospitality is one of the hallmarks of courtesy. A man came to the Prophet one day and said: “I’m starving.” The Prophet told those in his company: “Whoever hosts this man tonight, God will have mercy on him.” One Companion (Abu Talha) accepted. But when he went home, his wife told him they didn’t have anything to eat, there was only enough supper to feed the children.
He said to her: “Put the children to bed early. When our guest begins to eat, reach out as if to adjust the lamp, but put it out instead.” She did as she was told. In the semi-darkness, the husband and wife pretended to be eating, going through the motions, but they let their guest eat whatever food there was. They themselves went to bed hungry.
When they visited the Prophet the next day, he smiled and said: “God marveled at your conduct toward your guest last night.” A Koranic verse was revealed in their honor: “they prefer others above themselves, even though they themselves are in need. Those who overcome their stinginess—they are the successful ones” (59:9). (Bukhari 5.58.142.) (Note: Many Traditions suffer from bad translation into English, to the extent that their actual meaning is obscured.)
Compassion, too, is a part of courtesy. There is a Tradition to the effect: “God does not show compassion to those who do not show compassion.” The opposite of this is also true.
Driving through a storm one night, a man saw a kitten drenched to the bone by the roadside. After driving a bit further, he turned the car around over the objections of his wife and rescued the kitten from its plight.
That night he had a dream: he saw the Prophet of God, who patted him on the cheek affectionately. And shortly afterwards, he was graced with a visit to Master Ahmet Kayhan, becoming one of his students.
Don’t Break a Heart
In this respect, it has been said: “Break a Heart, you demolish the Kaaba. Mend a Heart, you build up the Kaaba.”
You’ll burn up [God’s] Highest Heaven.
Neither hurt/offend anyone, nor be hurt/offended by them.
Courtesy Toward the Enemy
Once the battle is over, a wounded enemy soldier is no longer the enemy, but a human being in need. Master Kayhan again:
Walking down an alley one day, Jesus and his disciples came across the rotting corpse of a dead dog. The stench was so terrible that it left the disciples retching and gagging.
Jesus, however, knelt down and gazed at the dog for a long moment. Then he said: “Praise be to God, what beautiful teeth it has!” (Attar, Musibatnâma; Nizami, Khamsa.) (The same story is also told of the Prophet Mohammed. The important thing is the message, which is the deed itself.)
Don’t Get Embroiled in Arguments
An argument is a clash of egos, a battle between (Base) selves. Therefore, it is better to shun disputes altogether.
Once, while the Prophet was sitting with his Companions, someone used insulting words against Abu Bakr, causing him pain. But Abu Bakr remained silent. The person again defamed Abu Bakr, but Abu Bakr still did not respond. When this ignorant person offended Abu Bakr a third time, Abu Bakr gave him the reply he deserved.
At this point, however, the Prophet stood up to leave.
Abu Bakr asked anxiously, “Are you displeased with me, Prophet of God?”
The Prophet replied, “No, but as long as you remained silent, an angel had come down from heaven and was negating the man’s claims. The moment you started answering him, that angel departed and was replaced by a devil. And I can’t remain where the devil is present.” (Abu Dawood 041 4878.)
This is also why the Prophet said: “Whoever leaves an argument when s/he is in the wrong, a residence is built for them on the outskirts of Paradise. Whoever gives up an argument despite being right, a residence is built for them at the center of Paradise. Whoever beautifies his moral conduct, a residence is built for them on the highest reaches of Paradise.” (Ibn Majah 1.51.)
Luqman was a saint and a doctor who lived sometime between Jesus and Mohammed. He is famous for his saying: “I learned courtesy from the discourteous. I did the opposite of what I saw them do.”
That reminds me of Luqman. His teacher loved Luqman very much.
He came first among a hundred and fifty, two hundred students. He
admired his morality, his courtesy, his work.
In February or March, a student brought his teacher a melon, hard
to find in that season. But the melon had been punctured, and when a
melon is punctured, it becomes bitter like poison. The second day, the
teacher says to his servant, ‘Go and call Luqman.’ He wants him to eat
the melon because of his love for him. Luqman comes, kisses his hand,
The teacher says, ‘Wash that melon and bring it over.’ They wash
and bring it to him, he gives it to Luqman with his own hands. Luqman
takes a bite, his mouth is filled with poison, but without the slightest
sign of discomfiture on his face, he eats it all. Finally, only one slice is
His teacher says, ‘You ate with great zest. It’s stimulated my appetite.
Let me eat this slice.’ ‘Of course,’ he says, ‘eat it.’ He puts it in his
mouth, bites and … throws up. Because he’s old, he passes out. Luqman
brings a towel right away, he wipes his mouth and chest. He brings
water, does a few things and revives him.
The teacher sits up, tears come from his eyes. ‘Why, I was killing
you because I loved you. How on earth did you eat that?’ Yes! ‘How
did you eat it with smiling face and such appetite?’
He again kisses his hand, ‘Teacher,’ he says, ‘I would give this life for
you. This is coming from your hand,’ he says, ‘no matter what it might
‘I almost killed you with my own hand. Do you want something,
something sweet?’ ‘No,’ he says, ‘I’m fine, I’m young, don’t worry.’
The next day, at school, the teacher fills out Luqman’s diploma.
‘Two lions can’t remain in one place,’ he says, ‘your studies with me are
concluded. Farewell.’ And he becomes Luqman.
These are very difficult. Very difficult to believe. To do the bitter
part. The other side is light, but to make honey out of bitterness. To be
human, to become Luqman.
Civility reaches its summit in courtesy or sublime conduct (adab). Humility, harmony, and altruism are all aspects of courtesy, as exemplified in the following story.
“Your highness,” said the vizier, “this is best explained by watching the respective groups in action.” So they first went to a symposium of scholars and scientists—dressed up incognito, of course. They stationed themselves at the entrance. “Observe, your highness,” said the vizier.
As the worthies, each an intellectual giant in his own right, began to come in, the vizier asked the first one: “Who is the greatest among you?” “I am, of course,” came the reply. “Me, naturally,” said the second. The same question was asked, and the same reply received, from all participants in the symposium.
“Now, your highness,” said the vizier, “let us go to a Sufi convention.” Similar scene, different people, and the vizier addressed the same question to the first entrant.
“Behind me,” he answered, and hurried in. The second sage gave the same reply. So did the third, and the fourth . . . until the last one, who said, “They all went in before me.”
“Let us come back in the evening, when they’re all about to disperse,” said the vizier. Now both the symposium and the convention were occurring in buildings close to each other, and there was a river flowing in front of both—a shallow river with stones in it.The vizier gave instructions so that other roads would be blocked, and both the scientists and the sages would be forced to cross the river.
“Watch,” he told the sultan.
The men of knowledge were the first to leave. Seeing that there was nowhere else to go, they all tackled the river, each in his own haphazard way. They shouldered each other, there was rough play, pandemonium reigned. Shouts were heard, some stumbled and wet their garments, while others even fell into the river.
The vizier smiled. “Let’s hurry over to the convention,” he said to the sultan.
They arrived just in time to see the first sage emerge. Immediately taking in the situation, he said to the fellow behind him: “Follow in my exact footsteps,” and proceeded across the river, using the rocks as stepping stones. And so did all the rest, carefully using only the stones stepped on by their predecessor. They were across the river in no time; not even their shoes were wet.
“For our encore, your majesty,” said the vizier, “we shall have to make special arrangements. And we shall have to invite your subjects to dinner.” He gave orders for special spoons to be made.
A few days later, both groups received invitations from the palace to have supper. It was arranged so that one group would arrive earlier the same evening, the other later.
The scientists arrived first and were ushered into the dining room.
What they saw was this: a round table, in the center a pot of soup, and spoons set up around the table—spoons with a handle at least a yard long.
Doubtful as to how to proceed, they took their seats around the table. But when they tried to eat, they found it to be impossible. The spoons were too long to be held conveniently, and if they tried to hold one at a shorter length, its tip would intrude into the eye of a neighbor. There was a great commotion as the soup was spilled all over the table, to the accompaniment of shouts: “Watch out!” “Ouch!” and “I’ll show you!” Finally they went away, hungry, malcontent, and grumbling at each other.
Next it was the sages’ turn. They arrived, sat themselves around the table, took up the spoons—and began to feed each other, each person dipping a spoon into the soup and then offering it to the person directly across the table. The spoons, it turned out, were made exactly the right length for just this approach. They all supped in quiet merriment, thanked the sultan and the vizier, and departed in decorum.
“That,” observed the vizier to the sultan, “is the difference between a man of mere knowledge and a man who is truly wise, the difference between a scholar and a sage.”
“Courtesy is to act in accordance with the Prophet’s Way.”
“Courtesy is to train the self as necessary and to decorate it with beautiful morals.”
“Courtesy is to possess the knowledge and principles that protect one from all error.”
“True courtesy is to renounce the lower (Base) self.”
“The beginning of all courtesy is to speak little.”
“The least of the rules of courtesy is for one to stop when one senses one’s ignorance and to remedy it.”
“Courtesy is: not to overvalue one’s superiors, and not to belittle one’s inferiors.”
“Courtesy is to be in control of one’s hand, one’s tongue, and one’s loins [sexuality].”
Facts and statements related to courtesy:
“The difference that sets humans apart from the animals is courtesy.”
“A mind unadorned with courtesy is a hero without a weapon.”
“Without courtesy, nobility is naught.”
“Courtesy is a weapon that kills the devil.”
“Courtesy is the beginning of everything. The whole of Sufism is courtesy.”
“Courtesy is the first requirement of perfection.”
“One who abandons courtesy is not wise.”
“Fortify courtesy, renounce all else.”
“Who lacks courtesy has no trustworthy knowledge.”
“Truth is nothing but courtesy.”
“Cloak your shame with courtesy.”
“True beauty is beauty of knowledge, and courtesy.”
“The adornment of a human being is that person’s courtesy in its entirety.”
“An orphan is not one whose parents have died, but one who lacks knowledge and courtesy.”
“Those who fail to teach courtesy to their children will please their enemies.”
“The intelligent person learns courtesy from the discourteous.”
“With the honor of knowledge and courtesy, Adam was raised above the angels.”
“Satan was banished from God’s presence because he abandoned courtesy.”
“The discussion [of sages] is a body. The spirit of that body is courtesy.”
“In order to attain Truth, one needs Knowledge of Certainty; for Knowledge of Certainty, one needs sincere deeds; for sincere deeds, one needs to perform the Obligations of God; for this, one needs to follow the Way of the Prophet; and in order to do that, one needs to observe courtesy.”
“One who has not been trained by the Sufis cannot understand the truth of courtesy.”
“Everything loses value as it increases. But when courtesy increases, it becomes more valuable.”
“One who does not adopt the courtesy of one’s Master cannot adopt the courtesy of the Prophet’s Way and Traditions. And one who does not adopt these cannot adopt the courtesy of the Koran and its sacred verses.”
“There is no honor higher than courtesy.”
“One who would learn wisdom should act courteously.”
“One who seeks to possess good deeds should seek to learn knowledge courteously.”
“As long as the People of Love possess goodwill in the matter of love, their courtesy will increase.”
“Courtesy is the absolute source of virtue for a human being.”
“The friends of courtesy are: Modesty, Sincerity, Submission, Love, Intention, Obedience, Striving, Discussion, and Service.”
What is earned by courtesy?
“Courtesy is the power that protects a person from shameful things.”
“Discourteous acts interrupt enlightenment, and drive their owner from the heart of the King.”
“Those who serve their Master courteously earn stations as high as the Throne.”
“Those who enter their Master’s presence with courtesy will earn boundless enlightenment.”
“Spiritual elevation is only possible with courtesy.”
“The stations of Paradise are earned by good works and courtesy.”
“Those who lack courtesy are driven from God’s doorstep.”
“Courtesy is the greatest art. It is food for the road that leads to God.”
“Courtesy is the guide and sign of the Friends of God. It is the cause of communion with God.”
I sought admission to the Assembly of Knowledge;
Knowledge was left behind—courtesy, just courtesy.
It covers the shames of humanity;
What beautiful clothing is the garment of courtesy.
I sought admission to the People of the Heart;
Every aptitude has value, but first place goes to courtesy.
Courtesy is a crown made of the light of God;
Wear that crown, and be safe from all calamity.
(Based on H. Bayman, The Secret Of Islam (2003), Appendix A, pp. 309-12.)