The Mystics Of Islam


SHAFAQNA – Sufism, the religious philosophy of Islam, is described in the oldest extant definition as ‘the apprehension of divine realities,’ and Mohammedan mystics are fond of calling themselves Ahl al-Haqq, ‘the followers of the Real.’ {Al-Haqq is the term generally used by Sufis when they refer to God.} In attempting to set forth their central doctrines from this point of view, I shall draw to some extent on materials which I have collected during the last twenty years for a general history of Islamic mysticism–a subject so vast and many-sided that several large volumes would be required to do it anything like justice. Here I can only sketch in broad outline certain principles, methods, and characteristic features of the inner life as it has been lived by Muslims of every class and condition from the eighth century of our era to the present day. Difficult are the paths which they threaded, dark and bewildering the pathless heights beyond; but even if we may not hope to accompany the travelers to their journey’s end, any information that we have gathered concerning their religious environment and spiritual history will help us to understand the strange experiences of which they write.

In the first place, therefore, I propose to offer a few remarks on the origin and historical development of Sufism, its relation to Islam, and its general character. Not only are these matters interesting to the student of comparative religion; some knowledge of them is indispensable to any serious student of Sufism itself. It may be said, truly enough, that all mystical experiences ultimately meet in a single point; but that point assumes widely different aspects according to the mystic’s religion, race, and temperament, while the converging lines of approach admit of almost infinite variety. Though all the great types of mysticism have something in common, each is marked by peculiar characteristics resulting from the circumstances in which it arose and flourished. Just as the Christian type cannot be understood without reference to Christianity, so the Mohammedan type must be viewed in connection with the outward and inward development of Islam.

The word ‘mystic,’ which has passed from Greek religion into European literature, is represented in Arabic, Persian, and Turkish, the three chief languages of Islam, by ‘Sufi.’ The terms, however, are not precisely synonymous, for ‘Sufi’ has a specific religious connotation, and is restricted by usage to those mystics who profess the Mohammedan faith. And the Arabic word, although in course of time it appropriated the high significance of the Greek–lips sealed by holy mysteries, eyes closed in visionary rapture–bore a humbler meaning when it first gained currency (about 800 A.D.). Until recently its derivation was in dispute. Most Sufis, flying in the face of etymology, have derived it from an Arabic root which conveys the notion of ‘purity’; this would make ‘Sufi’ mean ‘one who is pure in heart’ or ‘one of the elect.’ Some European scholars identified it with«sophós» in the sense of ‘theosophist.’ But Nöldeke, in an article written twenty years ago, showed conclusively that the name was derived from suf (wool), and was originally applied to those Muslims ascetics who, in imitation of Christian hermits, clad themselves in coarse woolen garb as a sign of penitence and renunciation of worldly vanities.

The earliest Sufis were, in fact, ascetics and quietists rather than mystics. An overwhelming consciousness of sin, combined with a dread–which it is hard for us to realize–of Judgment Day and the torments of Hell-fire, so vividly painted in the Koran, drove them to seek salvation in flight from the world. On the other hand, the Koran warned them that salvation depended entirely on the inscrutable will of Allah, who guides aright the good and leads astray the wicked. Their fate was inscribed on the eternal tables of His providence, nothing could alter it. Only this was sure, that if they were destined to be saved by fasting and praying and pious works–then they would be saved. Such a belief ends naturally in quietism, complete and unquestioning submission to the divine will, an attitude characteristic of Sufism in its oldest form. The mainspring of Muslim religious life during the eighth century was fear–fear of God, fear of Hell, fear of death, fear of sin–but the opposite motive had already begun to make its influence felt, and produced in the saintly woman Rabi‘a at least one conspicuous example of truly mystical self-abandonment.

So far, there was no great difference between the Sufi and the orthodox Mohammedan zealot, except that the Sufis attached extraordinary importance to certain Koranic doctrines, and developed them at the expense of others which many Muslims might consider equally essential. It must also be allowed that the ascetic movement was inspired by Christian ideals, and contrasted sharply with the active and pleasure-loving spirit of Islam. In a famous sentence the Prophet denounced monkish austerities and bade his people devote themselves to the holy war against unbelievers; and he gave, as is well known, the most convincing testimony in favor of marriage. Although his condemnation of celibacy did not remain without effect, the conquest of Persia, Syria, and Egypt by his successors brought the Muslims into contact with ideas which profoundly modified their outlook on life and religion. European readers of the Koran cannot fail to be struck by its author’s vacillation and inconsistency in dealing with the greatest problems. He himself was not aware of these contradictions, nor were they a stumbling-block to his devout followers, whose simple faith accepted the Koran as the Word of God. But the rift was there, and soon produced far-reaching results.

Hence arose the Murjites, who set faith above works and emphasized the divine love and goodness; the Qadarites who affirmed, and the Jabarites who denied, that men are responsible for their actions; the Mu‘tazilites, who built a theology on the basis of reason, rejecting the qualities of Allah as incompatible with His unity, and pre-destinarianism as contrary to His justice; and finally the Ash‘arites, the scholastic theologians of Islam, who formulated the rigid metaphysical and doctrinal system that underlies the creed of orthodox Mohammedans at the present time. All these speculations, influenced as they were by Greek theology and philosophy, reacted powerfully upon Sufism. Early in the third century of the Hegira–the ninth after Christ–we find manifest signs of the new leaven stirring within it. Not that Sufis ceased to mortify the flesh and take pride in their poverty, but they now began to regard asceticism as only the first stage of a long journey, the preliminary training for a larger spiritual life than the mere ascetic is able to conceive. The nature of the change may be illustrated by quoting a few sentences which have come down to us from the mystics of this period.

“Love is not to be learned from men: it is one of God’s gifts and comes of His grace.”

“None refrains from the lusts of this world save him in whose heart there is a light that keeps him always busied with the next world.”

“When the gnostic’s spiritual eye is opened, his bodily eye is shut: he sees nothing but God.”

“If gnosis were to take visible shape all who looked thereon would die at the sight of its beauty and loveliness and goodness and grace, and every brightness would become dark beside the splendor thereof.”{Compare Plato, Phædrus (Jowett’s translation): “For sight is the keenest of our bodily senses; though not by that is wisdom seen; her loveliness would have been transporting if there had been a visible image of her.”}

“Gnosis is nearer to silence than to speech.”

“When the heart weeps because it has lost, the spirit laughs because it has found.”

“Nothing sees God and dies, even as nothing sees God and lives, because His life is everlasting: whoever sees it is thereby made everlasting.”

“O God, I never listen to the cry of animals or to the quivering of trees or to the murmuring of water or to the warbling of birds or to the rustling wind or to the crashing thunder without feeling them to be an evidence of Thy unity and a proof that there is nothing like unto Thee.”

“O my God, I invoke Thee in public as lords are invoked, but in private as loved ones are invoked. Publicly I say, ‘O my God!’ but privately I say, ‘O my Beloved!'”

These ideas–Light, Knowledge, and Love–form, as it were, the keynotes of the new Sufism, and in the following chapters I shall endeavor to show how they were developed. Ultimately they rest upon a pantheistic faith which deposed the One transcendent God of Islam and worshiped in His stead One Real Being who dwells and works everywhere, and whose throne is not less, but more, in the human heart than in the heaven of heavens. Before going further, it will be convenient to answer a question which the reader may have asked himself–Whence did the Muslims of the ninth century derive this doctrine?

Modern research has proved that the origin of Sufism cannot be traced back to a single definite cause, and has thereby discredited the sweeping generalizations which represent it, for instance, as a reaction of the Aryan mind against a conquering Semitic religion, and as the product, essentially, of Indian or Persian thought. Statements of this kind, even when they are partially true, ignore the principle that in order to establish an historical connection between A and B, it is not enough to bring forward evidence of their likeness to one another, without showing at the same time (1) that the actual relation of B to A was such as to render the assumed affiliation possible, and (2) that the possible hypothesis fits in with all the ascertained and relevant facts. Now, the theories which I have mentioned do not satisfy these conditions. If Sufism was nothing but a revolt of the Aryan spirit, how are we to explain the undoubted fact that some of the leading pioneers of Mohammedan mysticism were natives of Syria and Egypt, and Arabs by race? Similarly, the advocates of a Buddhist or Vedantic origin forget that the main current of Indian influence upon Islamic civilization belongs to a later epoch, whereas Muslim theology, philosophy, and science put forth their first luxuriant shoots on a soil that was saturated with Hellenistic culture. The truth is that Sufism is a complex thing, and therefore no simple answer can be given to the question how it originated.



Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here