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'Ibada, 'Ubudiya, and 'Ubuda (Worship, Servanthood, and Deep Devotion)
Sep 1, 2009
‘Ibada, ‘Ubudiya, and ‘Ubuda (Worship, Servanthood, and Deep Devotion)

Although some view worship, servanthood, and devotion as synonymous, most Sufi scholars and masters say that these words have different meanings and connotations. ‘Ibada (worship) means fulfilling God’s commands in one’s daily life and fulfilling the obligations of being His servant, while ‘ubuda (servanthood) is interpreted as living in the consciousness of being a servant. Thus, one who observes his or her religious duties is called ‘abid (worshipper), while one who lives in consciousness of being a servant of God is usually called ‘abd (servant).

There is another, more subtle difference between worship and servanthood. Acts of worship consist of all financial and physical duties: those requiring sufficient financial resources and physical ability, and that are accomplished with difficulty, in fear and hope, and with the intention of pleasing God (e.g., the five daily prayers, fasting, alms-giving, pilgrimage to Mecca, offering a sacrifice, and mentioning or reciting God’s Names). A servant of God, however, understands these responsibilities or acts of worship in a different manner: each fulfillment of such a duty has a deeper (inner) dimension that requires a certain degree of consciousness and awareness on the part of the servant.

The deepest dimension of religious duties and demands is devotion, which requires total care and awareness. Ibn al-Farid states: “The acts of worship and duties of servanthood required by every station or rank that I have reached during my spiritual journey have been fulfilled by my devotion.”

Some Sufis have defined worship as the servanthood of ordinary people, servanthood as the duty required by being a servant of God and carried out by individuals possessing insight and awareness, and devotion as the responsibility of those distinguished by their nearness to God. The first group contains those striving to advance on the path of God; the second group contains those whose mental and spiritual attitudes allow them to overcome all seemingly insurmountable obstacles and difficulties they encounter; the third group contains those whose mental and spiritual states cause them to turn to God wholeheartedly and with a profound feeling of being in His company.

Other Sufis have summed up the above explanations in two terms: worship of the Absolute Divine Essence, and worship of the Restricted Divine Attributes. The first term means always being conscious of the relationship between the Creator and created, the Worshipped One and the worshipper, the Overseeing and the overseen, the Sustaining and the sustained, and thinking, feeling, and acting in the most profound awareness of these relationships. The second term means fulfilling one’s daily duties as required by this awareness, which causes one’s awareness to increase. Those performing these duties can be categorized by their intention, resolution, determination, and sincerity as follows: those who desire to enter Paradise, those who hope to be rescued from Hellfire, those who love and stand in awe of God, and those who feel that they must do so as a requirement of the relationship between God as the Creator (Who alone deserves worship) and human beings (created beings who must worship their Creator).

Each group has another name: merchants, slaves, lovers, and the devoted or faithful. These words of Rabi‘a al-‘Adawiya, a female Muslim saint who lived during the second century of Islam, are quite appropriate:

O Lord. I swear by the beauty of nearness to You that I have not worshipped You either for fear of Hell or out of the desire for Paradise. I have worshipped You because of You.

Servanthood is a source of honor and dignity for men and women. Nothing is more esteemed or valuable than being honored with servanthood and devotion to God. Although other, more valuable ranks may be conferred for a limited time, servanthood is constant and continuous, and therefore the most valuable rank. This is why God Almighty described the best of creation, upon him be peace and blessings, as His servant in the most beautiful words: There is no deity but God, and Muhammad is His servant and Messenger, and He crowned his servanthood and these blessed words with his Messengership.

Also, when inviting the Prophet, the glory of humanity and the peerless, unique one of time and creation, to honor the heavens by the Ascension, He began His invitation with the complimentary phrase: He carried His servant by night (17:1), thereby referring to the matchless greatness of his servanthood. This is even more meaningful, as on this occasion when space and time were almost transcended and the all-pervasive light of Divine Grace and Beauty welcomed him, God Almighty again stressed his servanthood and declared: He revealed to His servant what He revealed (53:10).

Rumi does not present himself as a saint or an individual of profound spiritual depth, but as a servant:

I have become a servant, become a servant, become a servant;

I have bowed and doubled myself up with serving You.

Servants or slaves rejoice when they are emancipated;

Whereas I rejoice when I become Your servant.

According to some, the following should also be considered when discussing worship and servanthood. A servant should:

• Be aware of his or her faults and worry about them even if he or she thinks that the acts of worship have been per-formed perfectly.

• Endeavor to worship perfectly, and then attribute to God whatever is achieved in the name of servanthood. Each moment of life should be spent in the awareness of his or her being a servant to the eternal Lordship of God.

• Regard all facets of existence as shadows of the Light of His existence, and never attribute to oneself the existence of anything or any accomplishment. There should be no self-pride concerning the blessings conferred, or despair concerning the withholding of all spiritual gifts and radiances.

• Be aware of the honor and dignity of being attached to Him, and never imagine being honored with other kinds of ranks.

No other rank or honor is as great as or greater than servanthood. If any rank or honor may be considered as such, it may be freedom, but only in the meaning of not setting one’s heart on anything other than God and renouncing whatever is other than Him. Those who have not made great progress on the path to God can only feel freedom, while those who have reached the destination experience it fully. I think that the true freedom to which one must aspire, one that will be appropriate for his or her grade and dignity, is this one. A friend of God draws attention to this fact:

O son! Unchain yourself and become free!

How much longer will you remain a slave of silver and gold?

Junayd al-Baghdadi warns that unless one is freed from slavery to others, one cannot attain true servanthood to God. Another friend of God expresses the meaning of servanthood and freedom by advising that a servant of God should never consider any other than God in all of his or her thoughts, imaginings, feelings, and manners:

If you would like to beat the drum of honor, go beyond the wheel of stars;

As this circle filled with rings is a drum of humiliation.

O God! Enable us to attain to what is loved by and pleasing to You.


1. The Ascension (mi‘raj) was a miraculous event during

which the Prophet journeyed throughout the realms of existence

to God.

2. Al-Qushayri, Al-Risala, 201.