by Christopher Dawson
[The following is condensed from a longer essay by British historian Christopher Dawson.]
In the West, apart from a few exceptions, mysticism and literature have followed separate paths. The man of letters often knows nothing of works which from the religious point of view are spiritual classics. In the East this is not the case. Mysticism and letters go hand in hand in all Islamic countries, particularly Persia—now Iran—but also among the Arabs and the Turks. The mystical poets of Persia belong to the literature of the world, and it’s as easy for a Westerner as for an Oriental to understand the classical perfection of Jami’s (15th century Persian poet) lines:
Beware! Say not, “He is All-Beautiful,
And we His lovers.” Thou art but the glass,
And He the Face confronting it, which casts
Its image in the mirror, He alone
Is manifest, and thou in truth art hid.
Arabic poetry, on the other hand, is alien from Western standards both in form and content, and consequently it is in their prose writings that the Arab mystics are seen to most advantage.
It is recorded of Rabi’a, a saintly freedwoman of Basra, that she would go up to the house-top and pray as follows: “O my Lord, the stars are shining and the eyes of men are closed, and the kings have shut their doors and every lover is alone with his beloved, and her am I alone with Thee.” And again, “O my Lord, whatever share of this world Thou dost bestow on me, bestow it on Thine enemies, and whatever share of the next world Thou dost give me, give it to Thy friends; Thou art enough for me.”
Even more remarkable are the prayers of al-Hallaj, the great martyr of Sufism who died at Baghdad in 922 A.D. According to his disciple when al-Hallaj saw the cross and nails with which he was to be crucified, he laughed so much that tears ran down his face. Part of his prayer ran, “These Thy servants who are gathered to slay me, in zeal for Thy religion and in desire to win Thy favour, pardon them and have mercy upon them; for truly if Thou hadst revealed to them that which Thou hast revealed to me, they would not have done what they have done; and if Thou hadst hidden from me that which Thou hast hidden from them, I should not have suffered this tribulation. Glory unto Thee in whatsoever Thou doest, and glory unto Thee in whatsoever Thou willest.”
Nothing could be more unlike the harsh legalism and militant intolerance which many Westerners are accustomed to regard as characteristic of Islam. And this brings us to the fundamental problem of Sufism. Is it a genuinely Islamic movement, or is it a foreign import which has no real roots in the religion of the Prophet? Many Western scholars have decided in favour of the latter. Renan regarded it as “the reaction of the Aryan or Persian genius against the frightful simplicity of the Semitic spirit.” Others have looked to some external source, whether Buddhist, Vedantist, Neoplatonist, or Gnostic, for the origin of the movement. Certainly it is impossible to deny the influence of some of these factors, at least in the later developments of Sufism. Nevertheless, the fact remains that Sufism originated as a historical movement not in Persia or Turkestan, but eighth-century Basra, the very centre of early Muslim orthodoxy. Hence, the tendency of those who have made the closest study of Sufi origins has been to emphasize its Islamic character, and seek its sources in the Koran and in the orthodox Islamic tradition.
Now the religion of the Koran undoubtedly provides some foundation for mysticism. Mohammed himself was a visionary with a profound sense of the reality of God, and of the transitory and dependent nature of created things. He lived in a continual meditation of the Four Last Things (viz. death, judgement, heaven and hell) and he taught his followers to do the same. Apart from this, however, his religious teaching was not mystical in character. The goal of its striving was not the vision of God, but the sensual delights of the shady gardens of Paradise. And this had a positive theological basis. Man’s reward was proportionate to his nature and God was so exalted above creation that any idea of human communion with the Divinity savoured of presumption. The emphasis, therefore, was not on the transformation of the interior life, but the establishment of the reign of God on earth through submission to the law of Islam.
Though Islam was, and remains, a militant puritanism, both of the warrior and the unworldly ascetic who spends his time in prayer, fasting and almsgiving, there has from the first existed a tradition of interior religion, an “Islam of the heart.” By slow degrees a simple and unworldly piety developed into a movement with a genuinely mystical character. One of the early pietists to react against the growing worldliness of Islam was Abu Sa’id Hasan (643-728) who lived at Basra and has always been regarded as the real founder of Sufism.
Hasan, however, was an ascetic rather than a mystic. His teaching was primarily concerned with penance and moral amendment, and is marked by an intense preoccupation with the thought of death and the wrath to come. But he also emphasized the importance of prayer and detachment, and it was among his disciples during the two following generations that the first true mystics of Islam appear.
One of the greatest and most attractive of these early Sufis was the woman saint Rabi’a. In one anecdote she is seen running with a torch and a pitcher of water and, when asked what she was doing, replied: “I am going to set fire to Paradise and to extinguish the fire of Hell, so that both Veils may disappear from the Pilgrims, and their intention may be pure, and the servants of God may seek him without any object of hope or motive of fear.” The anecdote is probably legendary, but it harmonizes well with her authentic utterances and is so unlike orthodox Islam that it is unsurprising that she met with criticism from the traditionalists and the legalists. In fact, the legalists looked askance at the whole ascetic movement and even Hasan did not escape their criticism.
The wearing of the woollen robe (the suf from which Sufism derives), the practice of penances such as wearing a chain, above all the doctrine of reciprocal friendship between God and His creatures, were all looked upon as a departure from true Islamic principles and an approximation to Christian ideas. This point of view had some justification. Syrian Christianity had already begun to affect Arabia in the sixth century, and its influence is perceptible in the rise of Islam itself. The conquest of Mesopotamia and Syria had brought the Arabs into still closer contact with a Christian population as well as various Gnostic and Manichean sects. We see the influence of the latter on the development of the Shi’ah and other heretical movements in Islam. But, above all, it was the life and ideals of the Christian desert monks that attracted the interest of spiritually minded Muslims, and primitive Sufism attempted to introduce the institution of monasticism into the bosom of Islam. It is true that there was no attempt to tamper with dogma, and men like Hasan were thoroughly loyal to the religious law and traditions of Islam. But there was, in the movement, an implicit revolt against the whole legal and traditionalist concept of Islam.
Islam had neither a sacramental system nor the belief in a personal mediator between God and man. The tendency was to emphasise the transcendence and power of God and the utter dependence and creatureliness of man. However, from the ninth century and earlier some sought a way to bridge the unfathomable gulf between the Creator and the creature.
The Sufis achieved this goal with their doctrine of sainthood. The saint (or wali) bridges the chasm which the Koran and scholasticism had set between man and an absolutely transcendent God. He or she brings relief to the distressed, health to the sick, children to the childless, food to the hungry and guidance to those who entrust their souls to his care. These spiritual supermen have little in common with the prophets and warriors who were the saints of early Islam. Mohammed himself is no more than a man subject to human weaknesses who receives at intervals the divine revelation; and not from God, but from an angel. He has never seen God, does not share God’s secrets, can work no miracles. He is only the servant and messenger of Allah.
The wali, on the other hand, is a kind of divine man who has realized unity with God in his own person. Through him the divinity is manifested to men. In defiance of history and the evidence of the Koran Sufism eventually succeeded in reconciling these ideas with Muslim orthodoxy by converting Mohammed from a simple messenger of Allah into the Spiritual Pole of the whole lower creation. There remained, however, a conflict between the Religion of the Saint and the Religion of the Prophet; and it came to a head with al-Hallaj, whose life and death mark the turning-point of the whole Sufi movement.
To al-Hallaj mystical union is a personal adhesion of the will to the divine will which causes it to participate in the life of God. It was this new conception of the mystical vocation which led him to break away from traditional Sufism and embark on an apostolate which extended from Mecca to India and the frontiers of China. The martyrdom of al-Hallaj was the culmination of the Christian tendencies which were latent in the early Sufi movement. Though many different causes contributed to bring about his death, behind them all there lay a conviction of the incompatibility of his doctrine with Islamic orthodoxy.
The rejection of al-Hallaj forced Sufism towards intellectualism and monism. By far the most important representative of this stage of Sufism is Ibnu’l ‘Arabi, a great Spanish mystic. He was the first to organize it in a system of speculative thought dominated by a monism as absolute as that of the Vedanta. Being is one, both pure being (God) and contingent being (creation). Pure being is not God, since it cannot be known. Nor is contingent being God since it is derivative. The contradiction between the two forms of Being is resolved and transcended in man—not rational man but spiritual man, who is a Sufi saint or better yet, Mohammed, the archetype of the saints. When man contemplates God, he contemplates himself, and God contemplates Himself when He contemplates man.
The whole system resembles a Gnostic or Neoplatonic version of Christianity rather than an orthodox interpretation of Islam, and it’s remarkable that it was tolerated in orthodox circles. Nevertheless, from the thirteenth century on Ibn’l ‘Arabi has been regarded as the great mystical doctor of Islam. And the acceptance of his doctrine marks a change in the character of Muslim mysticism, namely, the triumph of an intellectualized theosophy over the experimental mysticism which earlier Sufis had drawn from their prayer life. It substituted an intellectual perception of God for the transforming union of the will, thereby dispensing with the moral discipline and renunciation which had been the foundation of the original movement.
As early as the ninth century we see the emergence of the pantheistic strain which ultimately came to predominate. Here are some examples from Bayazid of Bistam: “Allah is great, and I am greater still.” “Praise be to Me, Praise be to Me, how great is My Glory!” To one of his disciples: “It is better for you to see me once than to see God a thousand times.” The intervention of the great Muslim theologian al-Ghazali and others did much to stem this pantheistic current and to establish a middle way between these extravagances and the traditionalism of the canonists. But this compromise wasn’t permanently acceptable to either party, and it was the theosophical monism of Ibnu’l ‘Arabi which was ultimately victorious.
The fact is that when once the possibility is excluded of a living communion of the human soul with God and its progressive transformation by divine grace according to the teaching of the martyr al-Hallaj, the solutions of the extremists became the only logical ones. The transcendence and omnipotence of Allah, carried to their logical extremes, leads to denying any ultimate reality to created being and human experience. God was the Real, all else was vanity and nothingness. Even the apparent activity of man as a free moral agent is but an illusion which veiled the operation of the one real agent—the Will of God. The natural outcome of this kind of thinking in the religious life is a blind fatalism which adheres to the strict fulfilment of the religious law and forbears to scrutinize the divine purpose. The theologian Al-Ghazali writes:
He whom Allah wills to guide, he opens his breast to Islam; and he whom he wills to lead astray, he narrows his breast...He does what he wills, and decides what he wishes; there is no opposer of his decision and no repeller of his decree. He created the Garden (of Paradise) and created for it a people, then used them in obedience; and He created the Fire (of Hell) and created for it a people, then used them in rebellion...So is Allah Most High, the King, the Reality.
But the mystic cannot rest content with this external fatalism. Stripping the phenomenal world of all value only serves to throw him back upon God, the One Reality. If God alone is, then everything is God, and the transitory nature of phenomena is only a veil thrown over the one true substance. Thus the Muslim theologian’s insistence on the divine transcendence and unity culminates in a monism as complete as that of the neoplatonist. In the words of Baba Kuhi, an eleventh century mystic:
Neither soul nor body, accident nor substance,
Qualities nor causes—only God I saw.
Like a candle I was melting in His fire
Amidst the flames outflashing—only God I saw
Myself with mine own eyes I saw most clearly,
But when I looked with God’s eyes—only God I saw.
I passed away into nothingness, I vanished,
And lo, I was the All-Living—only God I saw.
Thus the mystical experience is not, as al-Hallaj and the Christian mystics taught, a real transformation or assimilation of the human soul to God. The Sufis themselves describe their doctrine as a Unitarian Gnosis, and it is impossible to define it more perfectly. It is simply the affirmation of a unity which has always been, and which will always be, a naked identity of pure being with itself. It leads not to the transfiguration of the soul, but to its disintegration and annihilation.
Christian mysticism seeks God through the sacramental system which is simply the material side of religion. Man’s soul may belong to eternity but he lives his life in the phenomenal world of matter and time. The Incarnation, God made Man, is both the supreme doctrine of Christianity and the supreme example of the part man is to play in the divine plan, namely to be the means by which the world of matter is not only to be reconciled with the reality of spirit, but ultimately spiritualized. The orthodox Muslim, however, who is bound to reject the whole concept of the Incarnation, has for a discipline of salvation only the strict traditional observance of the religious law. The Sufi, in transcending this external discipline, must therefore build his own bridge between the world of sense and the world of spirit. Consequently, he is driven to create a pan-sacramentalism, in which every created form may serve as a means of access to God, since, as Shabistrari says, “Beneath the veil of each atom is hidden the soul-ravishing beauty of the face of the Beloved.”
It is above all, in sexual love that the Sufi finds a symbol and a sacrament of worship. The erotic symbolism, together with that of wine and intoxication, that runs through Sufi literature has done much to discredit it in Western eyes. In many cases the use of such imagery is as free from sensuality as it is in Christian mysticism. But in the hands of the great 14th century Sufi poet Haifiz, for instance, mystical interpretation is a double-edged sword which is used to exalt earthly passion rather than symbolize spiritual experience. For Hafiz it is only in sexual love that the transcendent can be realized: ‘Heart and soul are fixed upon the desire of the Beloved; this at least is, for, if not, heart and soul are nothing.’
The pantheistic attitude was not limited to matters of conduct, but was applied to religious belief as well. In The Bezels of Divine Wisdom Ibnu’l A’rabi writes,
Do not attach yourselves to any particular creed exclusively so that you disbelieve in all the rest; otherwise, you will lose much good, nay, you will fail to recognize the full truth of the matter. God, the omnipresent and omnipotent, is not limited by any one creed, for he says (in the Koran), “Wheresoever ye turn, there is the face of Allah.”
Here Sufism has reached its ultimate conclusion. The movement which began as an extreme form of orthodox Islamic pietism ended in a pantheistic universalism which transcended alike religious dogma and moral law. Startling as it sounds, Sufism in this extreme development may be regarded as the most perfect and consistent type of a universalist or non-denominational religion which has ever existed. Not surprisingly there has been a widespread reaction against the Sufis in modern Islam—a reaction represented both by the extreme Puritanism of the Saudis and the ultra-secularism of the Turks. The death of the last successor of the founder of the order of the whirling dervishes, who ended his own life after the dissolution of his order, is a tragic symbol of the failure of Sufism to adjust to modern conditions.
Yet the mystical tradition has entered so deeply into the mind of Islam that its disappearance would leave the religious life of the Muslim world disastrously impoverished. For with all its faults and weaknesses, the Sufi movement remains one of the great witnesses to the religious need of humanity. In spite of his theoretical monism and hedonistic pantheism the Sufi preserved a genuinely religious attitude, unlike his Western counterpart the secular humanist. The Sufi may reason like a pantheist, but when he prays it is with the humility and adoration of a creature in the presence of his Creator. Here is the prayer with which Jami concludes the preface to his treatise on Sufism:
My God! Save us from preoccupation with trifles and show us the realities of things as they are...Display not to us Not-Being in the guise of Being, and place not a veil of Not-Being over the beauty of Being. Make these phenomenal forms a mirror of the effulgence of Thy Beauty...All our deprivation and banishment is from ourselves; leave us not with ourselves, but grant us deliverance from ourselves, and vouchsafe us knowledge of Thyself.
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