What Is Sufism?

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By

A. G. NOORANI[1]

Abstract

(Debasement of public discourse has not spared Sufism, which illuminates man’s quest for the Divine within him. It is under threat from more than one source. There is the charlatan, a tradesman essentially, who professes to be a Sufi. The fundamentalist does not disguise his disdain; for, it negates his sordid designs. The businessman does not lag behind. He makes money staging dances by imported Whirling Dervishes with the qawwali remaining a constant. Disgust is the mildest reaction these characters evoke when one considers just what Sufism really is. – Author. The essence of Sufism is concern for others… the rest then follows. – Editor.)

The correct term is tasawwuf. It is under this head that the legendary Louis Massignon discusses Sufism in his essay, ‘The Encyclopedia of Islam’ (Brill, Leiden, 1984). It is firmly rooted in the Quran. The Sufi has deep reverence for the Chosen One to whom it was revealed, Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). He is enjoined to follow his teachings, to say the prayers prescribed for every Muslim, to fast and to go on the obligatory Haj. The Sufi is a Muslim to the marrow of his bones.

The Shariah is meant for all Muslims; but the tariqah, the spiritual path which the Sufi takes “is meant only for those who seek God here and now and who search after that immutable Truth which, although present here and now, is at the same time the transcendent and eternal source of all revelation. The Tariqah is thus a means whereby man can return to the origin of the Islamic revelation itself and become in a spiritual sense both a companion and successor of the Prophet and the saints.” (Seyyed Hoosein Nasr, Living Sufism, Unmin Paperbacks, 1980; p. 45).

Dr. Nasr draws not only on his deep knowledge of Sufi literature in Arabic and Persian but also on his first-hand knowledge of the Sufi tradition. The Sufi seeks nothing less than to reach Allah, the Truth, (al-haqq). One of the greatest Sufis of all time, Jalaluddin Rumi, told the story of an elephant whom people in a dark room tried to understand. Each gave a different description depending on the part of the animal he had managed to grasp. (Masnawi III. This masterpiece is rich with such meaningful stories).

So, it is with Sufism as John Baldock points out. “Over the years, the name Sufi has experienced a similar fate to that of Rumi’s elephant. It is said that it first came into usage among the Islamic people about 150 years after the Prophet. Four hundred years later the Persian Sufi, al-Hujwiri, wrote: ‘The true meaning of this name has been much discussed and many books composed on the subject’. (Kashf al-Mahjub, p. 30). The meaning of the name continues to be much discussed today, although the current explanations generally differ very little from those given by Hujwiri around 1,000 years ago in his Kashf al-Mahjub (‘The Revelation of the Veiled’), one of the earliest Persian treatise on the Sufis.

“The most common explanation given for the name Sufi is that it derives from the Arabic suf (meaning ‘wool’), after the simple woolen robe (jama’-i suf), which, according to some, was worn by the early Islamic mystics in imitation of Christian monks and hermits. These garments, made of coarse wool sometimes mixed with horse or camel hair, were worn next to the skin and were the traditional ‘hair shirt’ favoured by ascetics.” (“The Essence of Sufism”; Arcturus; London; 2006; pp. 59-60).

The great Sufi saint Ali bin Usman al-Jullahi al-Ghaznawi al-Hujwiri, whose resting place in Lahore has drawn millions to pay respects to Data Ganj Baksh, wrote a magnificent work, Kashf al-Mahjub (The Unveiling of the Veiled) which Professor Reynold A. Nicholson translated. (“The Kashf al-Mahjub: The oldest Persian Treatise on Sufism”, translated by Reynold A. Nicholson; Taj Company, Delhi; 1982). In Chapter III “On Sufism” Hujwiri writes : “The true meaning of this name has been much discussed and many books have been composed on the subject. Some assert that the Sufi is so called because he wears a woolen garment (jama-i suf); others that he is so called because he is in the first rank (saff-i awwal); others say it is because the Sufis claim to belong to the Ashab-i Suffa, with whom may God be well-pleased! Others, again, declare that the name is derived from safa (purity). These explanations of the true meaning of Sufism are far from satisfying the requirements of etymology, although each of them is supported by many subtle arguments. Sufa (purity) is universally praised, and its opposite is kadar. The Apostle – on whom be peace ! – said : “The safw (pure part, i.e. the best) of this world is gone, and only its kadar (impurity) remains.” Therefore, since the people of this persuasion have purged their morals and conduct, and have sought to free themselves from natural taints, on that account they are called Sufis; and this designation of the sect is a proper name (az asami-yi a’lam), inasmuch as the dignity of the Sufis is too great for their transaction (muamalat) to be hidden, so that their name should need a deviation.”

He concludes the Chapter with a pointed remark, which is all too true of our times. “Today Sufism is a name without a reality, but formerly it was a reality without a name, i.e. in the time of the Companions and the Ancients – may God have mercy on them! – this name did not exist, but the reality thereof was in everyone; now the name exists, but not the reality. That is to say, formerly the practice was known and the pretence unknown, but nowadays the pretence is known and the practice unknown.” (ibid., p. 44).

Islam spread thanks to the Sufis. Annemarie Schimmel’s definitive work, “Mystical Dimensions of Islam” (The University of North Carolina Press 1975), is a veritable encyclopedia on the subject. She records “The (Sufi) orders were adaptable to every social level as well as to the several races represented in Islam. Orders are found in the strangely mystically oriented Indonesian archipelago and in Black Africa as a civilizing and Islamicizing force, though the mystical life manifests itself quite differently in each setting. It should not be forgotten – as Dermenghem has emphasized – that in North Africa the mystical groups formed a very important source of spiritual life for the black slaves, who saw in the Prophet’s muezzin, the Abyssinian Bilal, the black confidant of Muhammad, a prototype of their own situation. In the rituals performed in a saint’s presence, they could express their feelings in music and dance, and their contribution in these activities can be seen as comparable to the religious fervor of the former black slaves in America expressed so movingly in the spirituals.

Their adaptability made the orders ideal vehicles for the spread of Islamic teachings. It is a well-established fact that large parts of India, Indonesia, and Black Africa were Islamicized by the untiring activity of Sufi preachers who manifested in their lives the basic obligations of Islam: simple love of and trust in God, and love of the Prophet and their fellow creatures, without indulging in logical or juridical hairsplitting. These preachers also used the local languages instead of the Arabic of the learned and are, thus, largely responsible for the early development of languages like Turkish, Urdu, Sindhi, and Panjabi as literary vehicles. They taught the veneration of the Prophet, and thanks to them the founder of Islam, surrounded by a veil of mystical and mythical tales, not as a historical person but as a transhistorical power, is deeply venerated from Indonesia to East and West Africa, as innumerable folk songs prove.” (p. 240). Of India she holds “the Islamization of the country was achieved largely by the preaching of the dervishes, not by the sword” (ibid.; p. 346). For this the credit goes very largely to the founder of the Chishti order, Muinuddin Chishti, who is buried in Ajmer.

The Quran is replete with verses of profound mystic significance and Sufism draws heavily on the Holy Book. Louis Massignon noted, “It is from the Quran, constantly recited, meditated, practiced, that Islamic mysticism proceeds, in its Origin and development. Based on the frequent re-reading and recitation whole of a text considered as sacred, Islamic mysticism derived therefrom its distinctive characteristics” (quoted in Arthur J. Aberry; “An Introduction to the History of Sufism: The Sir Abdullah Subrawardy Lectures for 1942”; Orient Longman; 1999; p. 49. A thorough survey of the work of the great Islamists in the West including Ignaz Goldziher).

The Quran exhorts man to read the signs and use his reason. But it says also “It is not the eyes that are blind but the hearts” (22:46). This lies at the heart of the Sufi outlook and tradition. The great Sufi martyr Mansur al-Hallaj said in a poem “I saw my Lord with the Eye of the Heart. I said ‘Who art thou?’ He answered ‘Thou’ ”.

The Quran is read by the erudite as well as the lay person; by the mufti as well as the Sufi. A famous verse is half quoted in its latter part. It is reproduced here in full: “It was We who created man, and We know what dark suggestions his soul makes to him: for We are nearer to him than his jugular vein” (50:16). Allah not only created man but also “breathed into him of My spirit”( 15:29).

There is one verse in particular which poses a challenge to human understanding: “Allah is the Light of the heavens and the earth. The parable of His Light and within it a Lamp: The Lamp is enclosed in Glass; The glass as it were a brilliant star: Lit from a blessed Tree, an Olive, neither of the East nor of the West, where Oil is well-nigh luminous, though fire scarce torched it: light upon Light! Allah doth guide whom He will to His Light: For Allah doth set forth Parables for men: and Allah doth know all things” (24:35). Abdullah Yusuf Ali’s comment, in his English translation of the Quran, is apt: “the spiritual Truth has to be filtered through human language or human intelligence to make it intelligible to mankind”. The Lamp is “the core of the spiritual Truth”. The Glass is “the transparent medium through which the Light passes” (24:35).

The salik (wayfarer) trods the Sufi Path, tariqah, which has different stations (muqams). He seeks to acquire ma’rifah (gnosis) and feeling (hal). It is different from intellectual awareness or learning (ilm). Rumi remarked “It is reason which has destroyed the reputation of the Intellect”. Manuals of Sufism, like the Kashf al-Mahjub, enumerate the stations. The three main and most famous ones are mentioned in the Quran. They centre around the conquest of the nafs (the passions), which obscures aql (reason). The Quran refers to that nafs “and as for him who fears to stand before his Lord and restrains himself from low desires” (79:40). He has to resist the proddings of shaitan (the devil).

The three stations are: 1. Nafs al-ammarah: “Surely (man’s) self is wont to command evil, except those on whom in Rab has mercy. Surely my Rab is Forgiving, Merciful” (12:53). 2. Nafsal lawwama “the self-accusing spirit” (75:2). The conscience which urges repentance (tauba). 3. Nasfs-al-mutmainnah “Oh soul thou art at rest, return to thy Rab, well meaning, well-pleasing.” So enter among My servants, And enter My Gardens.  (89:27-30). This is the highest stage of the spiritual development of man; he enters Allah’s Grace.

The Sufi salik is enjoined sabr (patience). For “Allah is with those who show patience” (2:103). He must walk the Path with calm resolve. Seyyed Hoosein Nasr defines the beginning and proceeds to mention the muqaams (stations) in detail quoting Hujwiri “Station (maqam) denotes anyone’s “standing” in the Way of God, and his fulfillment of the obligations appertaining to that “station” and his keeping it until he comprehends its perfection so far as lies in a man’s power. It is not permissible that he should quit his “station” without fulfilling the obligations thereof. Thus, the first “station” is repentance (tawba), then comes conversion (inabat), then renunciation (zuhd), then trust in God (tawakkul) and so on: it is not permissible that anyone should pretend to conversion without repentance, or to renunciation without conversion, or to trust in God without renunciation.

It is love of the Divine and his faith in Him that sustains the Sufi. But, Allah also seeks his creature’s return to Him. “Deemed ye then that we had created you for naught, and that ye would not be returned to us?” (22:115). Rumi wrote “Not a single lover would seek union, if the beloved were not seeking it” (Masnavi, 3:4394). Hallaj put it differently “I call Thee, no; Thou callest me unto Thee”. It is best summed up in Rumi’s picturesque metaphor: “Not only the thirsty seek the water; the water as well seeks the thirsty” (Masnavi; 1, 1741).

Mahabha (love) and ma’rifa (gnosis) are intertwined. The ultimate goal is fana (annihilation) and with it baqa (remaining in the Divine). The Japanese scholar Toshihiko Izutsu, who explains fana as “the total nullification of the ego-consciousness, when there remains only the absolute Unity of Reality in its purity as an absolute awareness prior to its bifurcation into subject and object” – the state the Sufis would call jam, “unification, collectedness.” The Sufi experiences the return to the moment when God was, and there was nothing else. Fana is “certainly a human experience … but man is not the subject of this experience. The subject is rather the metaphysical Reality itself”. (quoted in Schimmel; p. 143).

When Ghazali, the great scholar who turned to Sufism, passed away, a poem he had written in his last illness was found beneath his head. It had these lines: “A bird I am : this body was my cage / But I have flown leaving it as a token” (quoted in Martin Lings; “What Is Sufism”; George Allen & Unwin 1975; p. 13. the whole poem is translated in Margaret Smith’s “Al-Ghazali the Mystic”, Luzac, 1944; pp. 36-37).

In treading this path, the Sufi does not for a moment neglect the injunctions of the Quran. As Schimmel points out “Muhammad is the first link in the spiritual chain of Sufism, and his ascension through the heavens into the divine presence, to which the first lines of sura 17 allude, became the prototype of the mystic’s spiritual ascension into the intimate presence of God. According to the tradition, esoteric wisdom was transmitted from Muhammad to his cousin and son-in-law ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib, the fourth of the righteous caliphs (d. 661). Other members of his family and his friends, according to legend, were endowed with mystical insight or pursued mystical practices. The traditions (hadith) that go back to the Prophet, or at least are attributed to him, served the Sufis when they elaborated their own definitions of the various stages and states. Every tendency within Islam, and so within Sufism, found material to support its claims from Prophetic traditions. In later times a considerable number of hadith that are not found in the official collections as they were compiled in the second half of the ninth century were used by the Sufis. In a comparatively short time, Muhammad’s personality gained great importance for the spiritual life of his community: He was the ideal leader, and the duty of every Muslim was to imitate him.”

“It is Muhammad who makes Islam a distinct religion, and it is typical that, in a time when Islam was defeated everywhere in the political field, and when the Western powers encroached practically and spiritually upon the Muslim world, those mystics who founded new orders and fraternities called them tariqa Muhammadiyya, “the Muhammadan path.” The figure of Muhammad became, for them, the center of strength, whether they struggled against the non-Muslims or British in India (like Mir Dard and Ahmad Brelwi in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century) or against the French, like the Sanusiyya in North Africa. Muhammad was their helper, and in him they trusted when they thought of the future of the Muslims. This is one of the most important contributions of Sufism to Muslim life.” (Schimmel; pp. 27 and 227).

Sufis did not neglect to say the namaz five times a day, Zikr, the remembrance of Allah, played a prominent role in their spiritual development. “Zikr has also been classified according to the traditional tripartition: ‘a recollection with the tongue, that is reckoned for ten good works, with the heart, that is reckoned for 700 good works, and a recollection the reward of which can neither be reckoned nor weighed – that is,  to be filled with His love and awe of His nearness’ .…

“The Sufis began to ponder the meaning of dhikr very early. They recognized its superior qualities as spiritual exercise and accepted it as the form of worship peculiar to those who strove to wander on the path leading toward God. They therefore tried to discover why the dhikr should yield such wonderful results in the spirits of the adepts. … What has been created disappears, and the only true subject, the everlasting God, is as He had been and will be. This is the goal of dhikr, as formulated by Junayd (T 2:32); centuries later the Naqshbandiyya would teach that the end of dhikr without words is contemplation (mushahada), in which subject and object are, eventually, indiscernible”. (ibid.; p. 172).

Fasting came naturally to Sufis. They opted for a life of poverty any way. It helped to kill the nafs. Sleep was consciously cut short. Tawakkul (trust in Allah) was embraced till it became a spiritual attitude.

Inspired by the Prophet’s life (PBUH), Sufis sought inspiration from the miraj, his ascent to Allah and applied the ascension terminology to their own experiences in the rapture of ecstacy. “The main object of mystical meditation, however, was Muhammad’s night journey, the miraj, his ascent through the spheres – a topic only touched upon in the introductory verse of Sura 17, but lavishly elaborated upon in later legends. The connection of the miraj with daily prayer – which was experienced by Muhammad as a repetition of the joy of ascension (H 302) – made such an ascension into the divine presence possible for every sincere Muslim. The mystics applied the ascension terminology to their own experiences in the rapture of ecstacy. … According to the tradition, not even Gabriel could accompany the Prophet beyond the ultimate lotus tree, as sidrat al-muntaha. “If I would go one step further, my wings would get burned,” is the archangel’s sigh, as the poets and mystics interpreted it. …

“It was at this moment that the Prophet was left alone in the loving encounter with God that he describes with the words, “I have a time with God in which no created being has access, not even Gabriel who is pure spirit.” For Gabriel is still a veil between the lover and the beloved. …

“This emphasis on the person-to-person encounter in the mystical interpretation of the miraj seems particularly revealing. The Prophet, although created as the most perfect being, still remains a creature and is not united with God. The opening words of Sura 17 – “praised be He who traveled with His servant at night” – indicate that even in the moment of rapture the Prophet is still called ‘abduhu, “His servant.” That implies that “servant” is the highest possible name for a human being, who, however, is able to speak to God without being extinguished.”  (Schimmel; pp. 218-220).

The Sufis did not lead a life of isolation in self-abandonment. They were astonishingly organized. They had a recognized silsilah, a chain that traced a spiritual lineage to the Prophet (PBUH). In this way every Sufi order (tariqah) was descended from him. The novice initiated himself into a tariqah headed by a pir, who presided over a khanqah.

It is a glorious tradition spread over the centuries with unparalleled continuity. To trace it is a daunting task. What follows is a sketchy and inadequate survey based on many works to which the writer is deeply indebted.

Hasan of Basra (642 – 728) was the son of a freed slave who received the blessing of the second Caliph, Hazrat Umar. He is referred to as one of the Four Masters.

Rabiah Basri (717 – 801) was a towering figure. A lifelong celibate, she is one of the first Sufis to give ecstatic voice to Divine Love, through her short poems; the first of their kind in Sufi literature. (Vide John Baldock, “The Essence of Sufism”; Arcturus; 2006; pp. 91-94 for an excellent survey of her life and poems).

Dhu’l – Nun (796-861) was also acclaimed as a Sufi poet.

Junayd (d. 910) has been called “the very greatest of their number” by Martin Lings (“What Is Sufism”; p. 107). One of his sayings goes thus “Sufism is that God should make thee die away from thyself and live in Him”.

Abu Hamid Muhammady al-Ghazali (1058 – 1111) was a scholar and a great teacher who turned to Sufism in sheer despair. He was a prolific writer and his influence on Islamic thought cannot be exaggerated. The first Sufi Silsilah was that of the Suhrawardy’s. The others were Qadaria Naqshabandi, Maulawi, after Maulana Rumi and the Chishti Silsilah founded by Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti of Ajmer, Gharib Nawaz – patron of the poor.

In the galaxy of Sufi saints, his star shines bright. Gharib Nawaz passed away in 1236. Shaikh Qutbuddin Bakhtiyar Kaki, his heir, passed away in 1235 and is buried in Mehrauli on the outskirts of Delhi. Another pupil, Hamiduddin Sufi Suwali (d.1276), a vegetarian, worked in a rural area, Nagaur in Rajasthan. Baba Fariduddin Ganj-i-Shakar (d.1265) is buried in Pakpattan in Pakistan. He was greatly influenced in his youth by Shaikh Qutbuddin. Delhi can claim two more Chishti saints – Shaikh Nasiruddin, Chirag-e-Delhi (lamp of Delhi; d. 1356) and the legendary Niamuddin Auliya (d.1325). The most celebrated pupil of Chiragh-e-Delhi was Muhammad Hussain Gesu Deraz of Gulbarga. The silsila, the spiritual succession, ran thus : Moinuddin Chishti of Ajmer named Qutbuddin Bakhtiyar Kaki of Mehrauli as his successor; he, in turn, nominated Fariduddin Ganj Shakkar of Pak Pattan who appointed Nizamuddin Auliya of Delhi as his khalifa; while, he on his part, named Nasiruddin Chiragh-e Delhi as his heir.

The Chishti Sufi order was originally founded in Central Asia. Muinuddin was the first one to introduce the Chishtiya way of life in India, where he lived for over four decades. His disciples, Qutubuddin Bakhtiar Kaki, Baba Farid Ganj Shakr, Mubarak Hamiduddin Nagauri, Nizamuddin Awliya and Khwaja Nasiruddin Chiragh Delhi later went to different parts of the Indian subcontinent.

They were worthy successors to the masters like Subrawardy who lighted the torch in Iran, Iraq, Turkey and elsewhere. At the same time that the Suhrawardy Order was founded. M. 247a – 248.

Muhyi Din Ibn Arabi, an Andalusian, was called ash – shaykh al-Akbar. “the greatest master”. His influence on the general development of Sufism “can scarcely be overrated”, Schimmel holds (p. 263). She writes “Ibn Arabi’s entire system is generally designated by the term wahdat al-wujud, “unity of being.” The correct translation of this expression provides the key to most of his other theories. His concepts have evoked numerous discussions about the “pantheistic” or “monist” trend in later Islam. Marijan Mole has put his finger on the difficulty of translating wujud correctly: Arabic, like other Semitic languages, has no verb to express “to be.” The term wujud, which is usually translated as “being,” “existence,” means, basically, “finding,” “to be found,” and is, thus, more dynamic than mere “existence.” “At the end of the Path only God is present, is ‘found.’ Thus, wahdat al-wujud is not simply “unity of being,” but also the unity of existentialization and the perception of this act; it sometimes becomes quasi-synonymous with shuhud, “contemplation,” “witnessing,” so that the terms wahdat al-wujud and wahdat ush-shuhud, which were so intensely discussed by later mystics, especially in India, are sometimes even interchangeable. …

“In Ibn Arabi’s thought a transcendence across categories, including substance, is maintained. God is above all qualities – they are neither He nor other than He – and He manifests Himself only by means of the names, not by His essence. On the plane of essence, He is inconceivable (transcending concepts) and nonexperiential (transcending even non-rational cognition). That means that in their actual existence the creatures are not identical with God, but only reflections of His attributes.” (ibid. ; 267-270).

Born in Murcia in 1165 in Southern Spain, which had been an Arab country for 400 years, from an early age, Ibn Arabi practiced meditation and fasting and prayer. He met Ibn Rushd (Averroes) when he was nineteen. Ibn Arabi stresses that this state of unity, like other mystical states, has to be experienced to be understood. “Knowledge of mystical states can only be had by actual experience, nor can the reason of man define it, nor arrive at any cognizance of it by deduction, as is also the case with knowledge of the taste of honey, the bitterness of patience, the bliss of sexual union, love, passion or desire, all of which cannot possibly be known unless one is properly qualified or experiences them directly.”

For over a thousand years, the name of Mansur al-Hallaj has been remembered as the perfect lover of God. He was the one who went to the gallows proclaiming in ecstasy that he was Him, ‘Ana’l-Haqq’ (I am the Truth). Let alone the indignant rulers and jurists of Baghdad, even the Sufis of the time could not accept his theory that man is ‘Huwa Huwa’ (Exactly He), a personal and living witness of God. Still less could they condone his defiant proclamation, ‘Ana’l-Haqq’. After a trial of sorts for blasphemy, Mansur was executed. His body was burnt and the ashes strewn on the Tigris.

Husain Ibn Mansur al-Hallaj, to give his full name, was born in AD 858 in Bayda, in the Fars province of Iran. At the age of 16, he went to Tustar to study with a noted Sufi, Sahl. The two years he spent with Sahl left a lasting stamp of penitential asceticism on his mind. He moved on to Basra, then one of the intellectual capitals of Islam, and was initiated into Sufism by Amr Al Makki. The association came to an abrupt end when Mansur married another’s daughter. In the years to come, Abu Yaqub Aqta was to denounce his son-in-law for heresy. Mansur went to Baghdad, the capital of the Abbasid empire, to consult the master among Sufis, Junayd; but, as it turned out, he was a prudent man.

Mansur went to Mecca on Haj and spent a year there. On his return to Baghdad, he found a hostile Junyad. The story goes that when he knocked at Junayd’s door, the master asked, ‘Who is there?’ Mansur replied, ‘Ana’l Haqq.’ Annoyed, Junayd remarked, ‘What gallows will you stain with your blood?’ Mansur retorted with another prediction: ‘The day I redden the gallows with my blood, you will put on the cloak of the formalists.

Mansur took a boat to India in Ad 905. He traveled through Gujarat, Sind, Punjab, and went right up to the northern frontier of Kashmir. He returned to Baghdad but left again for Mecca for a two years’ stay. It was his third and last Haj.

The defiant mystic could not long be ignored. There began a search for legal sanctions against him. The Sufis abandoned him. Eventually, a fatwa was obtained from a jurist, Ibn Daud: it ‘was lawful to put him [Mansur] to death’.

Mansur danced in his fetters as he was led to the execution. He noticed his friend Shibli in the crowd that had gathered, and asked him if he had his prayer rug with him. Shibli spread out the rug. Among the Quranic verses he recited in the namaaz were these: ‘Give good tidings to the patient, who, when they are struck with a misfortune, say: we belong to God and to Him we shall return. It is upon them that blessings and mercy from their Lord descend and those – they are Rightly Guided’ (2: 155-57).

‘What is Sufism?’ Shibli asked  his friend at this hour. ‘It’s the lowest degree you are witnessing now’, Mansur replied. “And its highest degree?’ That you cannot reach; however, tomorrow you will see what will happen. For, I witness it in divine mystery where it exists and where it remains hidden to you.”

As the spectators began to throw stones at Mansur, Shibli threw a rose. Mansur uttered a sigh. ‘You did not sigh when struck by all these stones. Why did you sigh because of a rose?’ Mansur replied, “Because they do not know what they are doing. It comes hard to me from one who knows.” Though a rose; it was nonetheless a gesture of association with the mob.

The next day, on 26 March 922, he was beheaded. The trunk was soaked in oil and burnt. The ashes were thrown into the Tigris.

Mansur’s martyrdom has been celebrated at the expense of his intellectual contribution. Mansur was, a devotee of the Prophet (PBUH). His Kitab at-Tawasin contains hymns in honour of the Prophet (PBUH). Ascetic life and scholastic training blended in the mystic yearning for union with the Beloved. Only, he was not content to tread the beaten track. He found a path for himself, as much by his intellect as by mystic insight, and he was impatient to reach the goal.

‘I call thee, no. Thou callest me unto Thee’, Mansur Hallaj cried. As Mansur recited the Quran, it was ‘an exchange between the toungue and the heart of the mystic in which sometimes it is God who bears witness with his tongue: the agreement remaining perfect and constant between the two, “me and you”. The union is reached through a rigorous life of ascetic denial. Even in translation, Mansur’s aphorisms are arrestingly beautiful: “Renouncing this world is the asceticism of the sense; renouncing of the next life is the asceticism of the heart; renouncing oneself is the asceticism of the Spirit.”

On the gallows, he uttered a prayer which ranks among the Mansur Hallajan classics: ‘O our God, it is You Who radiate on every side without being located on any side: through the right of Your attestation that affirms me; through the right of my attestation that affirms You. And my attestation that affirms You is subordinate to Your attestation that affirms me, for mine comes from nasut (human nature) and Yours comes from Lahut (divine nature); and yet, this is what I have of nasut, which is lost in Your part of Lahut without mingling with it, and what Your Lahut has possessed of my nasut without having touched it – through the right of Your Eternity ruling over my temporality: through the right of my temporality: clothed in the disguise of Your Eternity. …

“And he recited his famous couplet: Kill me, o my faithful friends, for to kill me is to make me live; My life is in my death, and my death is in my life. The very last words he uttered were a recitation of this Quranic verse: ‘Those who do not believe in the [final] Hour seek to hasten it: but those who believe in it await it with a reverential fear, for they know that it is the Truth’ (42: 18).”

Mansur devoted a substantial part of his book, “Kitab at-Tawasin”, to discuss the significance of Satan. When God invited the angels to bow before Adam, all obeyed. Satan alone refused to adore ‘another than God’ and declared, ‘I am worth more than Adam.’ He fell and was banished. The Pharaoh claimed divinity and was drowned in the Red sea. Mansur was conscious of the irony and discussed his predicament with remarkable lucidity. Satan’s pride preferred separation to prostration at the behest of God. Pharaoh saw only himself and lost God.

Annemarie Schimel, recalls how the distinction was perceived by one mystic after another. Muhammad Saeed Sarmad shocked people with this couplet: “Go, learn the ways of devotion from Satan: Choose one Kaaba and do not prostrate yourself before anything else.”

Like Mansur, Sarmad was also beheaded, in 1661, near the Jama Masjid in Delhi, and buried there. His grave to the north-east of the Masjid is a standing testimony to Aurangzeb’s intolerance. Sarmad went about naked, to the disgust of Bernier and Manucci, and recited only the negative part of Kalima – ‘La ilaha’ (There is no God). Scholarship has yet to do this Hallajian full justice. His rubais alone proclaim his genius.

Mansur’s explanation of the mystery of life defies improvement: “Before the creation, God loved Himself in absolute unity and through love revealed Himself to Himself alone. Then, desire to behold that love-in-aloneness, that love without otherness and duality, as an external object. He brought forth from non-existence in an image of Himself, endowed with all His attributes and names.”

Annemarie Shimmel makes the perfect comment on his fate. Mansur’s name became, in the course of time, a symbol not only for suffering love and unitive experience, “but also for a lover’s greatest sin: to divulge the secret of his love”.

Fariduddin Attar was born in Nishapur in North-east Iran and died in 1220. His work in prose and poetry continues to inspire; especially his epic poem, “The Conference of the Birds” (Berkely, 1971).

It is not easy to write of Maulana Jalaluddin Rumi (1207-1273) the greatest mystical poet of Islam. He had a spiritual affinity with Attar and was influenced by Mansur. Literature on him fills shelves in libraries inspiring works of high scholarship. To R. A. Nicholson and his pupil A. J. Arberry we owe the English translation of his works Nicholson translated the Masnavi, the six-volume miscellany of the mystical life. His friend and pupil discovered the “Discourses” and translated them. (“Discourses of Rumi”; A. J. Arberry;  Samuel Weiser, New York, 1961). It is based on the eminent Persian scholar Professor Badi al-Zamain Furuzanfur’s edition published in 1952.

Arberry writes “The Masnavi, which contains many passages of poetry of the highest order of excellence, is a notoriously difficult work to read and understand; not only, or even not so much on account of the intricacy and unfamiliarity of the doctrines therein enunciated, but still more because of the casual looseness, not to say anarchy, of its construction. Anecdotes of prophets and saints and legends of all sorts and conditions of men and women are well-nigh inextricably intertwined with long didactic passages abounding in learned and otherwise obscure allusion. The ‘Discourses’ are now seen to be composed, if that is the right term, in very similar fashion and to be in no small measure the raw materials out of which the great poem was fashioned; and it has become abundantly evident that they, like the Masnavi, represent the impromptu outpourings of a mind overwhelmed in mystical thought, the multifarious and often arrestingly original and beautiful images welling up unceasingly out of the poet’s overflowing unconscious. The title by which the discourses are traditionally known, Fihi ma fihi (‘In it what is in it’), a quotation from a poem of the mystic Ibn ‘Arabi, has been explained by some as meaning, ‘There is to be found in this book what is contained in that book,’ that is, the Masnavi. (p.8).

Born in Balkh in Khorasan, Rumi spent his life in turbulent times. “In 1244 a wandering dervish, known to posterity by the name of Shamsu’l-Din of Tabriz, arrived at Konia. Jalalu’l-Din found in the stranger that perfect image of the Divine Beloved which he had long been seeking. He took him away to his house, and for a year or two they remained inseparable. Sultan Walad likens his father’s all-absorbing communion with this “hidden saint” to the celebrated journey of Moses in company with Khadir (Koran, xviii, 64-80), the Sage whom Sufis regard as the supreme hierophant and guide of travelers on the Way to God. Meanwhile the Maulawi (Mevlevi) disciples of Rumi, entirely cut off from their Master’s teaching and conversation and bitterly resenting his continued devotion to Shamsu’l-Din alone, assailed the intruder with abuse and threats of violence. At last Shamsu’l-Din fled to Damascus, but was brought back in triumph by Sultan Walad, whom Jalalu’l-Din, deeply agitated by the loss of his bosom friend, had sent in search of him. Thereupon the disciples “repented” and were forgiven. Soon, however, a renewed outburst of jealousy on their part caused Shamsu’l-Din to take refuge in Damascus for the second time, and again Sultan Walad was called upon to restore the situation. Finally, perhaps in 1247, the man of mystery vanished without leaving a race behind.

“Sultan Walad vividly describes the passionate and uncontrollable emotion which overwhelmed his father at this time. “Never for a moment did he cease from listening to music (sama), and dancing; Never did he rest by day or night. He had been a mufti: he became a poet; He had been an ascetic; he became intoxicated by Love. It was not the wine of the grape: the illumined soul drinks only the wine of Light.”

“Here Sultan Walad alludes to the “Diwan- Shams-I Tabriz” (“Lyrics of Shams of Tabriz”), an immense collection of mystical odes composed by Jalalu’I-Din in the name of Shamsu’l-Din and dedicated to the memory of his alter ego. The first verse does not confirm, but may have suggested, the statement of some authorities that grief for the loss of Shams-I Tabriz caused Jalalu’l-Din to institute the characteristic Mevlevi religious dance with its plaintive reed-flute accompaniment.” (R. A. Nicholson; Rumi: Poet and Mystic, Unwin Paperbacks; 1978; pp. 19-20). This religious dance is now performed by imported professionals for a fee for traders of Sufism.

The Sufi’s mysticism was rooted in learning. They were men of letters. Some like al-Ibn Arabi Ghazali were erudite scholars. Al-Ghazali’s works are well known and have been translated by scholars like Margaret Smith. Ibn al-Arabi’s “Fusus al-Likam” (The Bezels of Wisdom) was translated into English by R. W.J. Austin. (Ibn Al-Arabi; Paulist Press; New York; 1980; Vide also William C. Chittick; “The Sufi Path of Knowledge: Ibn al-Arabi’s Meta physics of Imagination”; State University Press of New York Press; 1989). Khaliq Ahmad Nizamis’ erudite work portrays “The Life and Times of Shaikh Farid-ud-Din Ganji-i-Shakar” (Idarah-i-Adabiyat-i-Delli; 2009 Qasimjah Street, Delhi 1955). A word about this Idarah which even scholars like Wilfred Cantwell Smith patronized. Its proprietor and founder Muhammad Ahmad was a lover of learning and sold his books almost for a Song. He also published in 1983 “Sayyid Mohammad Al Husayn Gesudarazi: On Sufism” by Syed Shah Khusro Hussaini of the Institute of Islamic Studies at McGill University. This work has 62 pages containing the teachings of the mystic, on audition of music (sama); both in its exoteric aspect, for the lay, and its esoteric aspect, for the Sufi. “The Life and Teachings of Khwaja Moin Uddin Hassan Chishti” by Hazrat Dr. Zahmul Hasan Sharik Gudir Shah Baba (984; Asma Publication; Sharik House, Jhabra, Ajmer). Muneera Haeri’s work, “The Chishtis: A Living Light;” (Oxford University Press, Karachi, 2000) reflects her devotion as well as her scholarship. Unfortunately little is known of a great master’s work. It is Futah Al-Ghaib (Revelations of the Unseen) by Hazrat Shaikh Muhyuddin Abdul Qadir Gilani. It was translated into English by Maulvi Aftab-ud-Din Ahmad (Kitab Bhavan; 1214, Kalan Mahal, Daryaganj, New Delhi 110 002). It comprises of a Life Sketch and 80 Discourses by Ghausal-Azam. Nor must one overlook “The Mystical and Visionary Treatises of Shihabuddin Yahya Suhrawardy” (translated by W. M. Thackstow; Jr.; The Octagon Press, London 1982).

To read works on Sufism is to realize how fatuous, even dishonest, are the musical performances offered in the name of Sufism. To Regula Burckhardt Qureshi goes great credit for writing her definitive work “Sufi Music of India and Pakistan: Sound, Context and meaning in Qawwali” (Oxford University Press, Karachi; 2006). Music is only a medium for transmitting the Message.

Has Sufism a future in today’s materialistic world, torn apart by bigotry, violence, greed and craze for self and power? Arberry’s poignant and carefully nuanced remarks should prod serious reflection. “The wheel now appears to have turned full circle. Sufism has run its course; and in the progress of human thought it is illusory to imagine that there can ever be a return to the point of departure. A new journey lies ahead for humanity to travel. Some men at all events will be seeking to walk along that road in the company of God. Some Muslims will desire to recapture in their own hearts the ecstatic joy experienced by those Sufis of old, to comfort and confirm them:

Within an age become exceeding strange,

Cruel, and terrible, wherein we need

Most urgently a statement of our faith

And intellectual arguments thereto.

“If the ‘intellectual arguments’ must of necessity be of a different order from those which satisfied al-Junaid, al-Ghazali, Ibn ‘Arabi, Jalal al-Din Rumi, it by no means follows that the discipline of body and spirit invented by the Sufi masters will prove inadequate to meet the requirements of the modern and future man.

“It is far from useless to look back into the pages of the distant past. Whether we are Muslims or not, we are all surely children of One Father; and it is therefore no impertinence, no irrelevancy for the Christian scholar to aim at rediscovering those vital truths which made the Sufi movement so powerful an influence for good. If he may have the co-operation of his Muslim colleagues in this research – and signs are not wanting that he will – together they may hope to unfold a truly remarkable and inspiring history of high human endeavour; together they may succeed in retracing a pattern of thought and behaviour which will supply the needs of many seeking the re-establishment of moral and spiritual values in these dark and threatening times.” Arberry wrote thus in his essay, (“Sufism: An Account of the Mystics of Islam”; Unwin Paperbacks). It was first published in 1950. In 1961, “A Sufi Saint of the Twentieth Century: Shaikh Ahmad Al-Awi His Spiritual Heritage and Legacy” (George Allen & Unwin) was published. Between 1910 and 1930 the Shaikh published more than ten works. He lived in Mostaganem in Algeria and travelled extensively.

Is it ignorance or indifference which accounts for the present state of learning in and practice of Sufism? No one can tell. But Sufism will live so long as Man seeks the Divine within him. This, he assuredly will till the end of time. Because the urge resides within him. None summed up that urge better than Junayd: “Sufism is that Allah makes thee die to thyself and become resurrected in Him”. (Farid-al-Din Attar; Tazkirat al-awliya; ed. By R.A. Nicholson; Leiden, 1322; Part II; p. 35-36).

This theme is not unknown to us South Asians. One of our greatest poets, Ghalib expressed it in a couplet which attracts little attention these days: Na tha kuch to Khuda tha; kuch na hota to Khuda hota/Duboya mujhko hone ney, na hota mein to kya hota? (God there was when there was nothing: If thee was naught, He would still have been/My existence has drowned me in disgrace. If I did not exist what would I have been?). That is a question every mortal must answer for himself. Few, if any, dare to ask it; still less answer it boldly.


[1] The author is an eminent Indian scholar, legal expert and columnist.