A Book Review of Sea Without Shore by Shaykh Nuh Ha Mim Keller
The depth and breadth of the Islamic tradition is beyond comprehension, with countless transformed souls having carried the torch of the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ since his passing from the physical world. Technical names for the sciences of Islam based on the Hadith of Jibril took firm grounding, with Islam, Iman, and Ihsan becoming Fiqh, ‘Aqidah, and Tasawwuf, respectively . As the growing hegemony of a do-it-yourself brand of modernist Islam cast its shade upon Western Sunni Muslims and disintegrated intellectual tolerance, much of the Muslim legacy, Islam’s tangibility as a set of engaging sciences, and appreciation for its ocean of personalities were cast aside and forgotten. Previously studied disciplines like mantiq (logic), falsafa (philosophy), kalam (discursive theology), and usul al-fiqh (principles of jurisprudence) were slapped with the label of bid’ah (reprehensible innovation) and lost from many curriculums of study. The vast majority of erudite Muslim scholars and intellectuals between the first few generations and the 18th century were labeled as deviants, with the true message of Islam having allegedly been lost to the entire Muslim population save for one or two men. Appreciation for our ancestors vanished, and arrogant declarations of “we are on the path of the righteous predecessors” blackened the hearts of both leaders and laymen. But just as the Message is inseparable from The Messenger ﷺ, the Islamic tradition is inseparable from its torchbearers and luminaries. The Muslim tradition was built and preserved upon chains of transmission consisting of pious, erudite polymaths throughout every era. Traditionalist Muslims knew the importance of preserving the legacies of great characters that mobilized knowledge from one generation to the next. It is perhaps for this reason, I believe, that Shaykh Nuh Ha Mim Keller’s tripartite organization of Sea Without Shore, his magnum opus, begins with a chapter dedicated to his teachers .
Part One: Men of the Path
The first section consists of five narratives from Shaykh Nuh Ha Mim Keller’s experiences with men that embodied the spirit of Islam. He writes in the preface, “The first [section] describes men I met and knew in the path. All were fonts of guidance whom God had blessed with his greatest gift: experiencing the incomparable Oneness of the Divine. I begin with them lest such men be thought to no longer exist, but also because they themselves had been taught by men who travelled the way before them.” Western Muslim engagement with Islam is often coupled with a self-pitying sentimentalizing of “what Islam used to be,” which effectively turns the historicity of purified, erudite polymaths into mere fables of old. Here, Shaykh Nuh Keller emphasizes the importance of internalizing the reality of the continuation of the Islamic scholarly tradition through an unbroken chain, even if the torchbearers of the tradition are largely unknown to the global Muslim population. The resulting conclusion is the realization that the moral uprightness of early generations described longingly by well-meaning celebrity preachers through the use of hadith literature and historical narratives is still very real and possible. Implementation of the Sunnah is not an ideal, rotting away in the realm of the intangible with the occasional wooing tossed in its direction and a cliché platitude invoking its purity. There exists an ever-lasting tradition of purified men and women that serve to teach us the way of obtaining the pleasure of The All-Powerful Lord.
Thus, the first reason for the presentation of this chapter before others is for the sake of establishing the fact that the Muslim legacy is alive and well. The second reason, stated as, “because they themselves had been taught by men who travelled the way before them,” is simply a beautiful attempt to affirm the claim that the idealized piety of biographical works never left this ummah (global Muslim collectivity). Rather, it has been transmitted from person to person, with a chain leading back to the Prophet ﷺ himself. With this in mind, Shaykh Nuh Keller continues to describe these men, not all of which have yet passed from the physical world. Having internalized the continuation of scholastic excellence and spiritual piety, discussion of the men of the path hits close to home. If they did it in the modern age, why can’t we?
The first of the mentioned, spiritually realized men was none other than the unmatched dignitary of his time, Shaykh Nuh Keller’s own murshid (spiritual guide), Shaykh Abd al-Rahman al-Shaghouri (Allah have mercy upon him). A murshid, literally meaning “one who establishes uprightness,” is a term that refers to an authorized authority on spiritual and behavioral discipline. The murshid is authorized by a previously authorized murshid, who was authorized by a previously authorized murshid, with a chain of spiritual training leading back to the Prophet ﷺ. Shaykh Nuh Keller sets the stage of the chapter as he recalls the moment he stood in the mosque immediately following Shaykh Abd al-Rahman’s funeral, grappling with his feelings of loss, sorrow, awe, and felicity. His spiritual guide was gone from this earth–a man that, through him, Allah had transformed the souls of so many. Shaykh Nuh Keller continues to recall his experiences with Shaykh Abd al-Rahman, and his own personal journey as a disciple. With exceptional literary ability, Shaykh Nuh Keller paints a holistic picture of Shaykh Abd al-Rahman’s personality, effectively humanizing him. While establishing Shaykh Abd al-Rahman’s perpetual state of worship, he mentions humorous moments including a time when Shaykh Abd al-Rahman, in his youth, dismissed another shaykh on account of his apparently flamboyant French socks. After hearing the shaykh espouse a sublime commentary on an aphorism, Shaykh Abd al-Rahman smiled to himself and said, “This shaykh can wear any kind of socks he likes.” Readers will not help but feel a personal connection to these men, once ordinary laypeople toiling in the city to make a living, completely unaware of the spiritual cosmos within which they would soon find themselves engulfed. Each of the five men in the first section provides a different demeanor, some often indulging in light-hearted humor, others private and serious. In reality, the chapter says just as much about the five men of the path as it does about the author himself, as readers vividly experience Shaykh Nuh Keller’s own journey in Syria and Jordan as a fresh graduate from the University of Chicago, starting out with a developing aptitude in the Islamic sciences and broken Arabic, and becoming a formidable Shafi’i jurist, Ash’ari theologian, and spiritual guide. Encapsulating the spirit of the preservation of chains of transmission and dissemination of tabaqat (biographies), Sea Without Shore connects with readers on a personal level, and provides the aspirant with tangible examples of contemporary spiritual ascent from the ordinary to the ‘awliyaa’ (Elect of Allah). In this sense, Sea Without Shore fills a gaping hole in English-speaking Muslim circles. Prior to its publication, Muslims were hard-pressed to find accessible literature describing realized Islamic figures from a paradigm free of orientalist undertones or secular skepticism, let alone one based upon personal accounts. This first section, “Men of the Path,” does not part ways with the reader save it demands tears, joy, amusement, and introspection. With spiritual transformation in the way of Allah being the author’s only concern, such a luminous text of luminaries is not complete without illuminating the path towards the destinations realized by the men of the path.
“I am the mirror of my Beloved
In His love, O my spirit, grow well
From other than Him, O self, be absent
And cast aside all things vile.”
–Shaykh Abd al-Rahman al-Shaghouri
Part Two: The Way
The second section embodies the core intent of this book, which is to serve as a manual for those who wish to embark upon a spiritual path. The spiritual paths are several, just as the jurisprudential schools are four (Shafi’i, Hanafi, Maliki, and Hanbali), and the theological schools are two (Ash’ari and Maturidi). Much like the jurisprudential and theological schools are named after their founders (e.g. Imam al-Shafi’i and Imam al-Ash’ari), the spiritual paths are also named after their founders. The Naqshbandi path is named after Imam Baha’uddin al-Naqshbandi, the Shadhili path after Imam Abul Hassan al-Shadhili, and so on. Authorized as a murshid in the Shadhili tariqa (path) by Shaykh Abd al-Rahman al-Shaghouri, Shaykh Nuh Keller’s primary function is to show his disciples the path to complete surrender to Allah and spiritual sincerity through a tradition developed in a chain of transmission leading up to the Noble Prophet Muhammad ﷺ. As mentioned in Sea Without Shore, Shaykh Muhammad al-Hashimi wrote in his al-Hall al-Sadid that the purpose of taking a spiritual path is “so that the sheikh may put him through the stages of the journey until he can say to him, “Here you are, and here is your Lord.”” This section is particularly useful for the spiritual aspirant, as it discloses Shaykh Nuh Keller’s profound insights on the topics of faith, worship, work, money, entertainment, family, and many other realities of modern life. Ending with the general litany of the Shadhili path, the reader finds it increasingly evident that Sea Without Shore is not a one-time read, but a manual with deep insights to be read, re-read, and realized as one struggles to implement the Sunnah of the Noble Prophet Muhammad ﷺ on the path to Allah.
This section can best be described as the adab (mannerisms) of life. Shaykh Nuh Keller transitions from discussions of worship to discussions of life, work, and wealth. He emphasizes that to have a good job “is not a hindrance to the spiritual path, but may rather be a help, as long as it leaves time and focus for Allah.” He gives the example of the Ottoman Sultan ‘Abd al-Hamid II, who, despite being the Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, found time to traverse the path at the hands of a Shadhili murshid. After giving valuable advice on how to choose a career, Shaykh Nuh Keller speaks about spending, and how to establish a balance between unnecessary scrupulousness and excessive extravagance. Pastimes are then discussed, giving the spiritual aspirant an overview of how best to use time wisely, even in the realm of entertainment. Marriage and family are then discussed, with particularly useful sections explaining the most important aspects of choosing a good spouse, and how to be a good spouse. Shaykh Nuh Keller masterfully ends this section by laying out the 48 principles of the Shadhili path. The first is to praise Allah for everything, as the Shadhili path is often described as one of gratitude. The second is ‘ubudiyya, or utter slavehood, which Shaykh Nuh Keller describes as “to worship [Allah] because He is the Lord, for nothing besides. This is best described as a non-transactional relationship with Allah, wherein the slave comes to Allah in complete submission, with no demands of his own. This is the epitome of sincerity, which is ultimately the vehicle that carries one through the path.
“The best of spiritual works are four things after doing four other things: love of Allah, being pleased with what Allah has destined, unattachment to this world, and trust in Allah; [after] doing what Allah has made obligatory, avoiding what Allah has forbidden, the patience to mind one’s own business, and the scrupulousness not to indulge in empty amusement.”
–Moulay Abd al-Salam Ibn Mashish
Part Three: Bearings
The third and final section of Sea Without Shore, titled “Bearings,” consists of a series of essays written by Shaykh Nuh Ha Mim Keller on topics that tend to cause the most controversy amongst western Muslims. There are five subjects discussed: Faiths and Mysticism, Universalism, People of the Book, Evolution, and Suffering. As a paragon of authentic Islamic scholarship coupled with his significant training in philosophy at both the University of Chicago and UCLA, Shaykh Nuh Keller tackles theological questions with clarity and elegance, leaving little to be desired. This final section serves as a seal in the tripartite concoction that is Sea Without Shore, with the first section establishing a deeply personal, emotional, and spiritual connection with Islam, the second a practical approach, and the third an intellectual fervor. The chosen topics attest to the shaykh’s primary concern being the spiritual development of the masses, as some of the most common paths to atheism include questions about suffering and confusion regarding human evolution. Although the human mind tends to generate more questions than can be answered, the level of skill with which the taboos are engaged leaves readers with a fortified conviction in Islam in the midst of the intellectually hostile environment of the West.
As is the natural tendency of human beings to create binaries, conceptions of Islam amongst the laypeople are often dichotomized, with individuals reducing the tradition to one of two extremes. The first extreme is the reduction of Islam to those personalities that we attach to the tradition due to their roles in communities, or even something as shallow as their appearance. This is common amongst the ‘ex-Muslim’ global community, wherein many amongst their camp often cite traumatic experiences at the hands of charlatans hiding behind a veil of religiosity in their mosques. The remedy to this notion is the internalization that human beings are meant to be imperfect, and that evaluating a tradition by its alleged adherents is fallacious. This is because evaluation of individuals only tells us about those individuals, or perhaps about a societal ill that happens to manifest itself amongst the group in question as well. The second extreme is the reduction of the Islamic tradition solely to words on a paper. This is common amongst Muslims of a more modern literalist tradition. It manifests in the dismissal of the importance of studying with teachers to connect with a chain back to the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ, which results in the production of heterodox autodidacts who find no issue with dismissing thousands of years of scholarship. Our antidote to this mode of thinking is in the realization that the most important text in all of history, the Qur’an, is inseparable from its messenger: the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ. For this reason, it is imperative that anyone who wishes to engage with the Islamic tradition at an informed level receives information from someone connected to the same structure by which the Qur’an itself was preserved: a sanad (chain of transmission). While it is true that we do not define our tradition by a single individual other than the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ, the millions of great men and women produced under the tutelage of the Muslim way of life speaks to its magnificence.
Muslims taking upon themselves the journey that is Sea Without Shore will likely find that their conception of the Islamic tradition as well as their respect for its depth has deepened beyond what they could have imagined. Their pride in the human beings that the religion of Allah produces may propel them to a more serious level of engagement with their tradition. Disciple or not, Sea Without Shore provides an exemplary model for a return to the path of Allah and an ocean of insights into what Islam looks like when incorporated into the turbulence of contemporary life. Most importantly, the structure of the text demands a reshaping of one’s conception of Islam to a model that appreciates Islam at its manifestation in the human level as well as its erudite tradition. As Shaykh Nuh Ha Mim Keller continues to spend every breath of his life struggling to teach his students through his readings of Riyadh ul-Saliheen, Sahih Muslim, and other sacred texts while composing and translating works for the benefit of the Ummah, I ask you to keep him, his teachers, his students, the men and women of the path, and those who will come after our earthly matches extinguish to carry on the ever-flickering flame of Islam in your invaluable prayers.
“So this, I may hope, will be the reuniting in love together of our physical frames, hearts, and souls: in the supreme good-pleasure of God, “and the close of their prayer is ever ‘All praise be to Allah, Lord of All Worlds of Beings’” (Koran 10:10).”
–Shaykh Nuh Ha Mim Keller
About the author: Wassim Hassan is a graduate in Biology and Chemistry, with additional interests in political philosophy, philosophy of religion, and the Islamic sacred sciences. He is currently studying traditional Islamic sciences. He is the Executive Director at Traversing Tradition. You can follow him on Twitter here.