The accusation was made by Ahmad Rida Khan in his al-Kawkabat al-Shihabiyya that Shah Isma’il said the thought (khayal) of the Prophet (sallallahu ‘alayhi wasallam) is worse in Salah than the thought of bulls and donkeys (quoted in Ibarat Akabir p. 87). And this is a common accusation still made by his followers. Mawlana Manzur Nu’mani (1905-1997), a student of ‘Allamah Anwar Shah Kashmiri, wrote a book in defence of Shah Isma’il called Hazrat Shah Ismail Shaheed Aur Mu‘anidin Ahle Bid’at Ke Ilzamat (Shawwal 1376 H/1957 CE) in which he addressed many of the common accusations against Shah Isma’il. The book is available here:
The first accusation he addresses (on pp. 14-39) is the charge that he said in Sirat e Mustaqim: “thinking (khayal) of the Prophet in Salah is worse than thinking of bulls and donkeys.” In his lengthy response, Nu’mani quotes the Persian passage from Sirat e Mustaqim in full and gives a summary translation. He also makes some introductory comments about the background to the book Sirat e Mustaqim to show the level of dishonesty of Ahmad Rida Khan Barelwi and his followers. I will summarise this section of his book in the following:
First, Mawlana Nu’mani writes, Sirat e Mustaqim is a collection of the utterances (malfuzat) of Sayyid Ahmad Shahid Berelwi, which were arranged by his disciples, Shah Isma’il and ‘Abd al-Hayy al-Burhanawi. Shah Isma’il arranged the first and fourth chapters, while ‘Abd al-Hayy arranged the second and third chapters. The passage in question is in the second chapter, so was not written or arranged by Shah Isma’il, hence the accusation is a lie from the very outset.
Second, the book deals with concepts of tasawwuf and uses Sufi terminologies (istilahat), in particular that of Shah Wali Allah. “Himmat” is one of those terms used in the section in question, and it means “emptying the heart of all thoughts and focusing on one object.” Mawlana Nu’mani quotes Shah Wali Allah from his Arabic al-Qawl al-Jamil: “”Himmah” is an expression about uniting the mind and strengthening resolve in the form of hope and desire, in such a way that no thought penetrates the heart besides this objective, like a thirsty person seeking water.” (al-himmatu ‘ibaratun ‘an ijtima‘ al-khatir wa ta’akkud al-‘azimati fi surat al-tamanni wa l-talab bihaythu la yakhturu fi l-qalbi khatirun siwa hadha al-murad ka talab al-‘atshan al-ma’). Shah Wali Allah in al-Qawl al-Jamil also describes another practice known as “Shughl Rabita” which is where the Himmah is focused on one’s shaykh or on Allah’s Messenger (sallallahu ‘alayhi wasallam), so all good and bad thoughts are removed from one’s heart (including the thought of Allah), and the shaykh or the Prophet (sallallahu ‘alayhi wasallam) is kept in focus in order to gain spiritual benefit from him. A final stage of Himmah is known as Sarf Himmah or Shughl Barzakh in which a picture of the shaykh is formed in the mind and focused on. Those Sufis who allow this practice do not allow it in ritual acts like Salah.
Mawlana Nu’mani explains the gist of the passage from Sirat e Mustaqim: In salah such Shughl Rabitah or Shugl Barzakh (towards one’s shaykh or the Prophet) is worse than the thought of worldly matters entering the mind and then becoming engrossed in them, because the first is done intentionally whereas the second is unintentional, and the first is seen to be praiseworthy whereas the second is considered blameworthy by everyone, and the first is entertained whereas the second is removed once one comes to his senses. In short, he explains, such a practice in Salah is against the spirit of Salah which is conversing privately with Allah, and as expressed in hadith: “that you worship Allah as though you see Him.”
Along with quoting the Persian text, Mawlana Nu’mani offers a summary translation as follows (not an exact translation):
Sirat e Mustaqim: Chapter 2, Section 4, Second Counsel on those things which cause defects in worship and their treatment. There are three benefits in this counsel:
Both the soul (nafs) and Satan cause defects in Salah. The soul causes defects by encouraging laziness and seeking rest and comfort, so the worshipper seeks to complete the Salah quickly in order to rest or engage in some other activity that is more desirable to him. And the actions of Salah are performed in a way that is not prescribed (masnun) like a paralysed man with slack limbs, and the limbs are put in a way that is most comfortable because of a lack of care and attention. Similarly the soul brings about a lack of regulation in the internal senses so bad thoughts come to mind. In this way, the soul brings about external and internal defects in the Salah.
Satan causes defects by whispering (waswasa) to the worshipper. The worst form of whispering is that the worshipper thinks Salah is not an important activity, and such whispering can take one out of the fold of Islam into disbelief, as it results in degrading Salah and denial of an obligation in the religion. The lowest form of whispering is that it takes the worshipper away from conversing with Allah to some other thought, like it takes the mind of the worshipper to counting the number of rak’at and tasbihat so that no mistake comes in them; and the hafiz keeps thinking about the parts of the Qur’an that are similar to each other (mutashabihat). However, the one who concentrates on conversing with Allah, his rak’at and tasbihat are safe and he is safe from being confused in his recitation also; but Satan turns his attention elsewhere to cause some deficiency in the prayer. In sum, Satan tries to make the person a disbeliever, and when he fails in this, he tries to cause sin, and if this fails in this, then he turns his attention to the livestock one owns and all things besides Allah.
The students of knowledge should be warned not to think about grammatical (nahwi) rules related to what they recite, and this is worse than thought of livestock [as when the thought one is in Salah returns to one’s mind, he does not entertain anymore the latter thought, but he may the former]. If fuqaha were to extract rules in Salah, this would not cause perfection in it but deficiency. The people of kashf (i.e. Sufis) should not think that by performing Shughl Barzakh and thinking of meeting the angels and righteous that they reach the stage of “the believer’s ascension” (mi’raj al-mu’in) in Salah, rather this is one of the branches of shirk, though from the hidden (khafi) type or or more hidden (akhfa) type [of shirk].
[Mawlana Nu’mani notes here: This ruling is the same as what the scholars of tasawwuf said. Shaykh ‘Abd al-Qadir al-Jilani said: “Shirk is not worship of idols alone. Rather it is also you following your passions, and that you prefer over your Lord something besides Him of the world and the otherworld and whatever is in them; for whatever is besides Him is other than Him; so whenever you incline towards other than Him you have associated another with Him.” (laysa al-shirku ‘ibadat al-asnam fahasab’ bal huwa mutaba‘atu al-hawa, wa an takhtara ‘ala rabbika shay’an siwah min al-dunya wa al-akhirati wa ma fihima; fa ma siwahu ghayruhu; fa idha rakanta ila ghayrihi ashrakta bihi ghayrahu) (Futuh al-Ghayb). It is in this respect, Sirat e Mustaqim calls Shughl Barzakh and thinking of meeting angels and the righteous in Salah, “shirk khafi.” Mawlana Nu’mani summarises the above discussion to say that it mentions five scenarios of whisperings that come in Salah:
1. Something that unintentionally comes to the mind that has no relation to the Salah itself.
2. Thinking of the number of rak’at, tasbihat and mutashabihat
3. Student of nahw thinking of nahw/sarf
4. Student of fiqh deriving rulings of Salah
5. Sufis doing shughl barzakh and thinking of meeting angels/righteous. Sirat e Mustaqim continues to say:]
It should be noted that this discussion is not about the scenario where upon concentrating fully on conversing with Allah in Salah, knowledge is uncontrollably and unintentionally unveiled in the heart and angels, the righteous and the saints, and prophets are seen, as this causes no defect in Salah, rather it is from the favours of Allah. Rather the discussion is about intentionally doing Shughl Barzakh – focusing on the shaykh – or thinking of meeting the angels and the righteous.
Asking about needs in Salah does not infringe on Salah, rather is also from its perfections. Yes, intentionally thinking about worldly needs is from the reprehensible whispers of Satan and is a deficiency in Salah. That which was narrated from ‘Umar that he would think about the army in Salah, this should not deceive you, because you cannot draw an analogy between yourself and the elite. Khidr killing an innocent child was a great act of reward, whereas anybody else doing this act is from the highest level of sin. ‘Umar reached such a rank that thinking about his army caused no defect in his Salah, because this thought would come in conversation with Allah when inspiration (ilhamat) from Allah would descend into his heart. Whereas the one who thinks about any religious or worldly things purposefully in Salah, this is completely in opposition to the spirit of Salah.
[Mawlana Nu’mani here gives the example of Zakariyya (peace be upon him) who in Salah spoke to an Angel giving him news of his son (Qur’an 3:39); and as this was unintentional and from the blessings of Allah, this caused no defect in it]
Based on the requirement of the verse “darknesses, one above another,” (24:40) we can discuss which whispers are worse than others. Whispers in Salah about intimate relations with one’s wife is better than whispers about adultery [as the first is a permissible activity and the second impermissible]; and to put Himma (focus) on one’s shaykh or any righteous people or the Messenger (sallallahu ‘alayhi wasallam) is worse than become engrossed (mustaghriq) in the thought of livestock (lit. bulls and donkeys); because in this there is veneration of the shaykh and the righteous and an attachment to them, whereas with bulls and donkeys there is no veneration and no attachment, rather the mind finds it offensive that they came into it. Such veneration will lead towards [hidden] shirk. The purpose of this discussion was to describe the levels of Satan’s whispering. People should not put in place of the presence of Allah [i.e. in Salah] anything besides Him.
The highlighted part shows that this passage from Sirat e Mustaqim does not absolutely consider mere “thought” about the prophets a deficiency in Salah, rather when in the correct form, it is from the blessings and perfections of Salah. The section in question from the last paragraph is targeted at the people of tasawwuf who may think performing the particular Sufi practices in Salah is a good thing, but it warns that it is in fact worse than thinking of worldly matters, as it leads to a form of veneration that is hidden shirk (this is also clear from the third paragraph above ). In context, therefore, the passage from Sirat Mustaqim is perfectly understandable, and far from disparaging the Prophet (sallallahu ‘alayhi wasallam). Anyhow, the passage was not even written by Shah Isma’il, so the followers of Ahmad Rida Khan should no longer level this charge at him.