The mysticism of Islam is known as Sufism, a name said to be derived from the Arabic word suf which means wool, referring to the woolen mantles worn by the Sufis. With Muslim mysticism we see the climax of the development of religious life and teaching in Islam. Neither the philosophers nor the theologians nor the canon lawyers have contributed so much as the mystics toward deepening the meaning of their religion and enriching its teachings. It is due to them that Islam, in the way they understand it, can be compared with other great religions of the world, for mysticism is the only ground on which the great religions meet.
Muslim mysticism has, from the time of its inception, been a spiritual revolution against a variety of forms and systems, both social and religious. After a long period of hard struggle, Sufism established itself in two quite different ways: as a religious philosophy and as the popular religion of Islam. During some of its flourishing periods, the Sufis were counted by the millions all over the Muslim Empire and in some countries their influence was so great that the heads of their orders were the practical rulers, with supreme authority in every major problem concerning the religious or secular institutions. Such influence can be found even now in some Muslim communities.
As an ideal mode of spiritual life, Sufism has passed through various stages. At some times it was thoroughly orthodox, at others so far removed from orthodoxy as to become a mere system of religious philosophy. It has also undergone some periods of stagnation and corruption during which its followers completely lost sight of the noble and lofty ideals of the original founders, preserving an outward appearance of ritual with nothing to correspond to it in the heart. But these remarks belong more to the history of Sufism. Our immediate object here is to try to set forth the mystical attitude toward Islam so far as it can be gleaned from the lives and teachings of the great Sufi masters, leaving everything else out of our account.
The special attitude of the Muslim mystics toward Islam was quite clear from the time their movement started. Until the end of the second century (eighth century AD.) religious laws were based on the literal texts of the Qur’an and Prophetic Traditions, and scrupulously carried out. They were thoroughly studied and strictly adhered to in practice. Knowledge of the canon law, jurisprudence, was the most venerated of all knowledge, and adherence to its rules was the ultimate aim as well as the true mark of every pious Muslim. When the Sufis appeared on the scene, they came with another religious ideal. To them the examination of the esoteric meaning of the law was a more worthy objective than the study of the law in its esoteric sense. Hence arose the distinction between the outward expression of the law and its inward significance, and with it the distinction between the study of jurisprudence on the one hand and Sufism on the other. The jurists became known as the externalists and the Sufis as the internalists. Gradually the opposition between the two camps grew more and more intense as they realized that they stood for two different conceptions of Islam and its teachings.
The differences between the legalists and the Sufis were apparent in their interpretations of the meaning of religious law and the ways in which it should be derived and justified. They differed as to the nature of worship and the way it should be performed. They did not agree as to which actions are lawful or unlawful or what parts of the law are basic to Islam. Nor did they agree as to the object and value of obligatory and supererogatory religious devotions. Is God the object of formal worship or of love? They differed on many points of Islamic dogma, especially concerning the conception of God in His relation to man, and the meaning of the unity of God.
It is obvious that such disputes touch the very core of Islam, and it is no wonder that the Muslim theologians and jurists became the bitterest enemies of the Sufis and fought them on all fronts for centuries. The first opposition to their movement came from the traditionalist Ahmad Ibn Hanbal (died 241; AD. 855). He could not conceal his admiration for a Sufi like al-Harith al-Muhasibi (died 243; AD. 857), but admitted that al-Muhasibi spoke in his sermons a language unknown to him, the language of the Sufis. He did not doubt his sincerity but was full of suspicion and apprehension. Relentless persecution of the Sufis was carried on by Ibn Hanbal’s party and other theological sects in order to put an end to their growing influence.
Gradually the new mysticism of Sufism, or rather, the new religious spirit, gained ground. It was realized that Islam as understood by the jurists was ultimately reduced to formal ritual which consisted in the performance of certain bodily movements. Prayer, fasting, and pilgrimage were well-defined and measured physical movements, almost void of genuine feeling. Such an attitude toward Islam was sure to satisfy the externalists whose main concern was to give precise definitions to religious terms, lay down general laws, and see that they were strictly observed. It did not satisfy the religious sentiment of the Sufis, who looked for a deeper meaning behind the outward forms. Qushayri tells us that Ruwaym of Baghdad (died 303; AD. 915) said, “All people hold fast to external appearances [of religion], but this community [the Sufis] holds fast to realities. All people consider it their duty to observe the external aspect of the religious law; the Sufis consider it their duty to strive after piety and unremitting sincerity.” In these few words Ruwaym sums up the whole situation by pointing out the real difference between the Sufis and the rest of the Muslims in their respective attitudes toward Islam. For the Sufis, Islam is haqiqa, a reality hidden behind words and forms, while for the rest of the Muslims it is principally words and forms.
Such a distinction was practically unknown to the early Muslims. The idea started with the Shia who taught that the Qur’an, like everything else, had two aspects, one external and the other internal. The latter is what the Sufis call the esoteric meaning of the Qur’an, which is only revealed to the chosen people of God. They extended the idea to everything in Islam. A real contrast was made between the sharia (religious law) aspect of a religious principle or usage and its haqiqa aspect, that is, between the religious law as such and its real meaning.
It is true that the great teachers of Sufism agree that sharia should be strictly observed, and that the abandonment of sharia on the pretext that haqiqa, the reality or spirit of the law, has been obtained is not only impiety but infidelity. Haqiqa without sharia, they say, is baseless, and sharia without haqiqa is meaningless. A reasonable balance between the two is essential for a truly religious life. Such a balance is described by Ghazali in these words,
He who says that haqiqa is contrary to sharia, and the internal [side of religion] is contrary to the external is nearer to infidelity. Every haqiqa that has no root in sharia should be rejected. Shari a is the law enjoined upon people; haqiqa is seeing the work of Divine Providence. Shari a is worship of God; haqiqa is to behold him. Shari a is to obey the Divine Command; haqiqa is to know by mystic vision what God has predestined, what He has revealed and what He has concealed.
So, according to Ghazali, haqiqa is the spiritual justification and proof of religion. The true meaning of religious teachings is seen by the mystic in his heart. Its real nature is revealed to him. When, for instance, the mystic is called upon to worship God, the meaning of the Godhead and of worship is freshly perceived by the inner light. This is the general attitude adopted by the majority of orthodox Sufis and ardently defended by such men as Tustari (died 273; AD. 886), Kharraz (died 277; AD. 890), Junayd (died 297; AD. 909), and Ghazali (died 505; AD. 1111). But some Sufis went too far in emphasizing haqiqa and minimizing the importance of sharia and were eventually led into various degrees of the erroneous belief that the awareness of inner reality frees one from the moral obligations of the law. They represent the other extreme of Sufism which is condemned by the genuinely pious Muslims. Others among the Sufis held fast to sharia, but understood it in ways which were much wider and more liberal than the interpretation of the orthodox, looking upon the law as either a system of self-discipline or as a set of symbols representing hidden religious meanings.
Those Sufis who regarded the law as essentially a system of self-discipline rejected the claim that the sharia is a collection of norms and codes divided and subdivided into more norms and codes. For them it must not be understood within the narrow limits and strict definitions of the lawyers and theologians. The value of any religious work should not be judged on the basis of its compliance with the law; its value should be determined by the degree to which it fulfills the ideal of the lawgiver. Voluntary acts of devotion are considered superior to obligatory acts because they fulfill a higher ideal, the love of God, while obligatory acts of devotion only show submissive obedience to God’s commands. The Sufis quote the following Tradition in which God says, “In no way does My servant so draw nigh unto Me as when he performs those duties which I have imposed on him; and My servant continues to draw near to Me through works of supererogation, until I love him. And when I love him, I am his eye, so that he sees by Me, and his ear, so that he hears by Me, and his tongue, so that he speaks by Me, and his hand, so that he takes by Me.”
This means that in the act of devotion he becomes completely absorbed in God and loses every vestige of his individual being and feels himself to be one with his Beloved. Such a state is not attained by the ordinary performance of religious duties. The Sufi seeks the attainment of the spiritual benefits which he gains through his acts of devotion, not the mere performance of outward acts as such. Thus the real essence of religion is that which resides in the heart, not that which is performed by the body. The religious command should be addressed to the heart, not to the bodily organs.
This attitude, noble as it is, seems to have paved the way to antinomianism in some Sufi circles. Religious duties, they argued, are a means to an end, and if the end is reached we can very well dispense with the means. Haqiqa, religious truth, is for them the end and sharia, religious law, is the means. That there were such men even in the golden age of Sufism who allowed themselves all sorts of license and indulgences under the pretext that they had reached their goal is evident from the scathing remarks which we read in the opening chapters of the treatise on Sufism by Qushayri (died 465; AD. 1072). He attacks most mercilessly the men of his time who believed that haqiqa frees one from the moral obligations of the law, and appeals for a revision of Sufism in the light of the teachings of the old masters, calling upon the Sufis to lead a true religious life in accordance with the Qur’an and the example of the founders of the Sufi path.
Qushayri’s warning was not in vain, for fifty years later it found a remarkable response in the writings of Ghazali who took upon himself the task of reconciling Sufism with Islam. He interpreted the principles of Sufism in the light of Islam and showed their interdependence. It is true that Ghazali was primarily concerned with the solution of his own spiritual problem when he was in search of the truth, but in solving his own problem he solved the problem for thousands of others who were and still are searching for the same truth. This truth he found in the Sufi way of life lived according to strict Muslim law. Religious truth is the inner meaning of the law revealed in the heart of the Sufi by the Divine Light.
In addition to the Sufis who looked upon the law as a means of self-discipline there were those who looked upon the sharia as a set of symbols standing for hidden religious meanings. Those symbols are of value only as a reminder or an occasion in which the hidden meanings are realized. The pious Muslim should perform the acts of worship prescribed by the sharia with his heart set on their spiritual meanings, otherwise his worship is merely an empty mechanical action.
This attitude takes into account the external, physical acts of worship as well as the internal acts of the heart. The danger is that it might lead to discarding the external acts altogether on the ground that they are superfluous. The Sufis who insisted on the observation of both the external and internal acts of worship read into the external teachings of Islam meanings undreamed of by canon lawyers. Prayer, for instance, is not regarded as a set of words to be uttered and movements to be performed but is looked upon as essentially a spiritual discourse between man and his Creator. All movements and words are symbols whose meanings form a part of that inner discourse. Similarly, pilgrimage is not a mere trip to the Holy Shrine of Mecca; it is the spiritual journey of the human soul to God. Each step of the journey, each of the rites of the pilgrimage, such as circumambulation of the Kaba, the kissing of the Black Stone, the standing on Mount Arafat, is a symbol of great spiritual significance. Each bodily movement of the pilgrimage has a corresponding movement of the heart.
The mention of God, known as dhikr, is another example of the symbolic interpretation of Islamic worship. It is not a mere repetition of the name Allah, but is the silent recollection and contemplation of God, done in such a way that the heart of the contemplator becomes occupied with nothing but Him and the lover becomes completely absorbed in his Beloved.
The Sufis go through the rest of the forms of worship in the same way. The man who performs religious rites without observing their hidden meanings is, according to them, like a child who reads the words of a book without understanding them. His religious life is void because his heart is void. In the case of prayer and dhikr, such a man’s heart is occupied merely with the name of God, not with God Himself.
THE SUFI CONCEPTION OF GOD. Just as the attitude of the Sufis toward the religious teachings of Islam was a revolt against the jurists who stifled the true spirit of religion in order to preserve its form, their attitude toward God was also a revolt directed against the theologians and the philosophers. The barren speculations of the Muslim rationalists deprived the Godhead of its positive content, and God was reduced to a logical abstraction. The orthodox theologians made of Him a despot whose absolute power could do everything, even the impossible and the irrational. The philosophers, in their attempt to reconcile Islamic dogmas with Greek philosophy, were obliged to abandon many of the theological attributes of God, or explain them away, and put an active or final cause in place of a creator of the world. To the majority of the Sufis, God is essentially a personal being endowed with attributes which determine His relations with the world in general and man in particular. The outline of their picture of God is taken from the Qur’an, but the details which bring out the main features of the pictures are supplied by them, each in his own way.
God, they say, is the Creator of the world, the Maintainer, the sole Doer of everything, the Light of heaven and earth, the Merciful, the Compassionate, but above all He is the God who abides in the hearts of men. “Neither My heaven nor My earth contains Me,” He says in a Tradition often quoted by the Sufis, “but I am contained in the heart of My servant who is a believer.” So the Sufi does not look afar for his God, for the kingdom of God is in his heart if he can only see it.
The ultimate goal of the Muslim mystics is to bring this state into full realization, to feel the presence of God in the heart in such a way that nothing else is allowed to occupy it. Their aim is the complete absorption of the individual self in the contemplation of God.
If we pass in review over the long and complicated history of Sufism, we find that three different conceptions of God, ethical, aesthetic, and pantheistic, appear in successive stages of its development. They all had their roots directly or indirectly in the Qur’an and Prophetic Traditions, or were brought into relation with such texts by means of interpretation.
The ethical conception of God was predominant in the earliest period of Muslim asceticism. The essence of God was regarded as absolute power and will. God was the supreme author of all things, including men’s actions. The present life was essentially evil and therefore should be abandoned if the everlasting happiness of the Future World was to be attained. The early Sufis had an exaggerated sense of guilt and of the terrible torments that awaited the sinners in Hell. Consequently an overwhelming fear of God and His wrath seized their hearts, and their pious devotions were regarded as a means of escape from the judgment to come. They had almost forgotten the words of God in which He says, “My mercy embraces all things,” and, “God pardons everything except associating other gods with Him.” This fear colored the moral and religious life of the early ascetics, and determined their attitude toward God, the world, and their fellowmen.
The aesthetic conception of God in Sufi metaphysics was based on the idea of reciprocal love between God and man. The root of this doctrine is to be found in the Qur’an, but further elaborations of it were due to foreign influences coming from Manichaeanism and Neoplatonism. The first note in this direction was struck by the woman saint of Basra, Rabia (died 185; AD. 801). From the third century onward, the doctrine of divine love became the dominant feature of Sufism. God was the Beloved of the Sufis, and loving Him for His own sake was the end of all their endeavor. It was no longer the fear of Hell or the hope of Paradise, but the hope of obtaining a glimpse of the everlasting beauty of God which motivated the Sufis. Rabi’a says in one of her prayers, “0 God! if I worship Thee in fear of Hell, burn me in Hell, and if I worship Thee in hope of Paradise, exclude me from Paradise . But if I worship Thee for Thine own sake, withhold not Thine everlasting beauty.” Also attributed to her is the following verse:
Two ways I love Thee: selfishly,
And next, as worthy is of Thee.
Tis selfish love that I do naught
Save think on Thee with every thought.
Tis purest love when Thou dost raise
The veil to my adoring gaze.
Not mine the praise in that or this
Thine is the praise in both I wis .
(Translated by R. A. Nicholson in Legacy of Islam, pp. 213-14)
As time went on, the idea of divine love went deeper and deeper into the life and thought of the Muslim mystics. On the practical side it became the sole motive of their actions. Moral ideas centered around it, just as they centered around the fear of God in the earlier period. Altruism or selflessness became the highest virtue. This meant the abandonment of worldly pleasures and the absolute denial of selfishness for the sake of God. “The essence of love is self-denial,” says Ghazali. “It is the ultimate end of all mystic stations. Every state that comes after it is a fruit thereof; and every station that precedes it is a step toward it.” Jalal al-Din Rumi, the great Sufi mystic, says, “Love is the remedy of our pride and self-conceit, the physician of all our infirmities.”
The Sufis devoted their lives to the worship of God because they loved Him and were anxious to win His love. On the theoretical side, divine love was regarded as the sole reason for the creation of the world. Creation is an expression of God’s love, it is His eternal Beauty reflected in an external form. The Sufis quote the following Tradition in which God says, “I was a hidden treasure and I loved to be known, so I created the creation that they might know Me.” Moreover they maintain that love is the key to all Heavenly mysteries, and the essence of all true religion. It brings with it, not reasoned convictions, but convictions based on the infallible proof of immediate intuition. It is the celestial light that guides the traveler on his way to God.
Pantheism did not appear in Muslim mysticism, or at least not in a systematic form, before Muhy al-Din Ibn Arabi (died 638; AD. 1240), the greatest of all Arabic-speaking mystics of Islam. Pantheistic tendencies were seen as early as the third century, for instance in some of the utterances of Bayazid of Bistam (died 261; AD. 875), but they were not worked out into a consistent pantheistic doctrine. Ibn Arabi, on the other hand, was the first to produce a full-fledged pantheistic philosophy which left its indelible marks on the whole of Sufism ever since his time. The fundamental principle of this philosophy is the principle of the unity of all Being. His understanding of this principle is best summed up in his own words: “Glory to God who created all things, being Himself their very essence.” In his Fusus he says,
O Thou who created all things in Thyself,
Thou unitest that which Thou createst.
Thou createst what existeth infinitely
In Thee, for Thou art the narrow and the All-embracing.
In Islamic pantheism the phenomenal world is reduced to a mere shadow of reality, and God is regarded as the only real Being who is the ultimate ground of all that was, is, and will be. There is no actual duality of God and the phenomenal world, but there is an apparent duality asserted by the unaided intellect, which is incapable of comprehending the essential unity of the whole. It is at most a duality of aspects of One Being, not of two independent beings. Looking at the two aspects within one whole, reality is both God and the universe, the One and the many, the transcendent and the immanent, the internal and the external. If we think, as we usually do, in terms of duality, we predicate of Reality all pairs of opposite attributes. But mystic intuition asserts that God is the only Real Being who is above all description and qualifying attributes, and the world is a mere illusion.
There is therefore a definite place for God in this philosophy, although in some respects He is far removed from the God of Islam. Ibn Arabi makes a distinction which is the dividing line between his metaphysical theory and his theology; it is a distinction between God as the unknowable and incommunicable Reality, and God as the object of belief, worship, and love. His conception of God as the object of belief comes very close to that of the ordinary monotheist, but the gap between pantheism and strict Muslim monotheism was too great for him to bridge. God is the object of worship not in the sense that He is exclusively the God of the Muslims, the Christians, or the adherents of any other religion, but in the sense that He is the Essence of everything that is worshiped. He is not to be confined to any particular form of belief or creed. Everything that is worshiped is one of the infinite number of forms in which He reveals Himself. To confine Him to one particular form to the exclusion of all other forms is infidelity, and to acknowledge Him in all forms of worship is the true spirit of religion.
This is the universal religion which the pantheistic Ibn Arabi preaches, a religion which comprises all religions and unites all beliefs. In his Tarjumanu al-Ashwaq he expresses this conviction,
My heart has become a receptacle of every form;
It is a pasture for gazelles and a convent for Christian monks,
And a temple for idols, and pilgrims’ Ka’ba,
And the Tablets of the Torah and the Book of the Qur’an.
I follow the religion of love whichever way its camels take;
For this is my religion and my faith.
The religion of love, according to Ibn Arabi, is religion in its widest and most universal sense. All worshipers do in fact worship God, although they appear to worship their particular gods. And since love is the essence of worship, for to worship is to love to the extreme, and since the objects of worship are nothing but the external manifestations of God, it follows that God is both the supremely beloved and the supremely worshiped One.
This brief discussion shows some of the ways in which the interpretations of Muslim theologians, philosophers, and mystics have contributed to the vitality of Islam throughout its long history, making their varied contributions to the development of Muslim thought and influencing Islamic practices. Although they have often been considered as unorthodox by the leaders of Islam, their attempts to provide a rational basis for Islamic beliefs and a mystical basis for Islamic worship have for centuries enriched and stimulated the Muslim community
A.E.Affifi , in K.W. Morgan, ed.,
Islam: the Straight Path,
New York, Ronald Press, 1958