Our times are characterized by a lack of reverence manifested in thousands of ways from public rudeness, to road rage, shock radio, negative political ads, school violence, hate crimes, animal cruelty, environmental degradation, and abuse of prisoners. All the world religions recommend that these ego-driven behaviors be replaced by acts of courtesy and kindness. Perhaps the most intricate explanation of this comes from the code of conduct modeled by the Prophet Muhammad and distilled by Muslim mystics known as Sufis into the practice of "adab." Frederic A. Brussat of SpiritualityandPractice.com, talked with contemporary mystic Andrew Harvey, a longtime student of Sufism, about this spiritually rich and deep practice.
• Definitions of adab
• Three stories that enshrine different aspects of adab
• The Prophet Muhammad as an exemplar of adab
• Rumi: a diamond whose every facet is an illustration of adab
• The perfect teaching and way of being a teacher
• Adab practices and training
• The practice of courtesy, right conduct, and reverence in all traditions
Definitions of adab
Frederic A. Brussat: How would you define the Sufi practice of adab?
Andrew Harvey: Let me give you the three definitions from the Sufi tradition that I love deeply. The most beautiful definition is in Al-Qushayri's great book Principles of Sufism: "The inner truth of adab is that all good traits are combined. Thus the one with correct behavior is the one in whom all good traits are combined. From this comes the word 'ma'duba' 'a banquet' i.e., a gathering for food."
That is a profound definition because it shows that what is meant by adab is actually something that goes to the core of the spiritual life. Adab is the concentrated essence, the perfume of all of the virtues combined. It's their emanation in beautiful, courteous, refined conduct. And this conduct is not simply external; it is internal.
This leads to the second definition from Al-Basri: "Asserting divine unity requires faith. So one who has no faith cannot assert divine unity. Faith requires obeying the divine law. So one who does not obey the divine law has no faith, nor has he asserted the divine unity. Obeying the divine law requires correct behavior, adab. So one who does not observe adab cannot obey the divine law, have faith, nor assert divine unity."
The emphasis that Al-Basri is placing on adab shows that it is the core virtue because without it, it is impossible to obey the divine law, and without obeying the divine law you cannot have faith, and without having faith you cannot be a follower of Islam or a mystic.
The third definition from Al-Shiran takes us a little further. Adab is best defined as "profound courtesy of heart that arises from the deep relationship with the Divine and expresses itself in refined behavior of all kinds with other beings." In the Qur'an, Surah 2: Verse 195, God says to Muhammad, "Do what is beautiful. God loves those who do what is beautiful." So in the deepest sense, adab is beautiful being and beautiful feeling and beautiful thinking expressing ourselves in beautiful action.