1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Ṣūfīism

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ṢŪFĪISM (taṣaẉwuf), a term used by Moslems to denote any variety of mysticism, is formed from the Arabic word Ṣūfī, which was applied, in the 2nd century of Islam, to men or women who adopted an ascetic or quietistic way of life. There can be no doubt that Ṣūfī is derived from, ṣūf (wool) in reference to the woollen garments often, though not invariably, worn by such persons: the phrase labisa's-ṣūf (“he clad himself in wool”) is commonly used in this sense, and the Persian word pashmīnapūsh, which means literally “clothed in a woollen garment,” is synonymous with Ṣūfī. Other etymologies, such as Ṣafā (purity)—a derivation widely accepted in the East—and σοφός, are open to objection on linguistic grounds.

In order to trace the origin and history of mysticism in Islam we must go back to Mahomet. On one side of his nature the Prophet was an ascetic and in some degree a mystic. Notwithstanding his condemnation of Christian monkery (rahbānīya), i.e. of celibacy and the solitary life, the example of the Ḥanīfs, with some of whom he was acquainted, and the Christian hermits made a deep impression on his mind and led him to preach the efficacy of ascetic exercises, such as prayer, vigils and fasting. Again, while Allah is described in the Koran as the One God working his arbitrary will in unapproachable supremacy, other passages lay stress on his all-pervading presence and intimate relation to his creatures, e.g. “Wherever ye turn, there is the face of Allah” (ii. 109), “We (God) are nearer to him (Man) than his neck-vein” (l. 15). The germs of mysticism latent in Islam from the first were rapidly developed by the political, social and intellectual conditions which prevailed in the two centuries following the Prophet's death. Devastating civil wars, a ruthless military despotism caring only for the things of this world, Messianic hopes and presages, the luxury of the upper classes, the hard mechanical piety of the orthodox creed, the spread of rationalism and free thought, all this induced a revolt towards asceticism, quietism, spiritual feeling and emotional faith. Thousands, wearied and disgusted with worldly vanities, devoted themselves to God. The terrors of hell, so vividly depicted in the Koran, awakened in them an intense consciousness of sin, which drove them to seek salvation in ascetic practices. Ṣūfīism was originally a practical religion, not a speculative system; it arose, as Junayd of Bagdad says, “from hunger and taking leave of the world and breaking familiar ties and renouncing what men deem good, not from disputation.” The early Ṣūfīs were closely attached to the Mahommedan church. It is said that Abū Hāshim of Kūfa (d. before A.D. 800) founded a monastery for Ṣūfīs at Ramleh in Palestine, but such fraternities seem to have been exceptional. Many ascetics of this period used to wander from place to place, either alone or in small parties, sometimes living by alms and sometimes by their own labour. They took up and emphasized certain Koranic terms. Thus dhikr (praise of God) consisting of recitation of the Koran, repetition of the Divine names, &c., was regarded as superior to the five canonical prayers incumbent on every Moslem, and tawakkul (trust in God) was defined as renunciation of all personal initiative and volition, leaving one's self entirely in God's hands, so that some fanatics deemed it a breach of “trust” to seek any means of livelihood, engage in trade, or even take medicine. Quietism soon passed into mysticism. The attainment of salvation ceased to be the first object, and every aspiration was centred in the inward life of dying to self and living in God. “O God!” said Ibrāhīm ibn Adham, “Thou knowest that the eight Paradises are little beside the honour which Thou hast done unto me, and beside Thy love, and Thy giving me intimacy with the praise of Thy name, and beside the peace of mind which Thou hast given me when I meditate on Thy majesty.” Towards the end of the 2nd century we find the doctrine of mystical love set forth in the sayings of a female ascetic, Rābi‘a of Basra, the first of a long line of saintly women who have played an important rôle in the history of Ṣūfīism. Henceforward the use of symbolical expressions, borrowed from the vocabulary of love and wine, becomes increasingly frequent as a means of indicating holy mysteries which must not be divulged. This was not an unnecessary precaution, for in the course of the 3rd century, Ṣūfīism assumed a new character. Side by side with the quietistic and devotional mysticism of the early period there now sprang up a speculative and pantheistic movement which was essentially anti-Islamic and rapidly came into conflict with the orthodox ulemā. It is significant that the oldest representative of this tendency—Ma‘rūf of Bagdad—was the son of Christian parents and a Persian by race. He defined Ṣūfīism as a theosophy; his aim was “to apprehend the Divine realities.” A little later Abū Sulaimān al-Dārānī in Syria and Dhu’l-Nūn in Egypt developed the doctrine of gnosis (ma‘rifat) through illumination and ecstasy. The step to pantheism was first decisively taken by the great Persian Ṣūfī, Abū Yazīd (Bāyezīd) of Bisṭām (d. A.D. 874), who introduced the doctrine of annihilation (fanā), i.e. the passing away of individual consciousness in the will of God.

It is, no doubt, conceivable that the evolution of Ṣūfīism up to this point might not have been very different even although it had remained wholly unaffected by influences outside of Islam. But, as a matter of fact, such influences made themselves powerfully felt. Of these, Christianity, Buddhism and Neoplatonism are the chief. Christian influence had its source, not in the Church, but in the hermits and unorthodox sects, especially perhaps in the Syrian Euchites, who magnified the duty of constant prayer, abandoned their all and wandered as poor brethren. Ṣūfīism owed much to the ideal of unworldliness which they presented. Conversations between Moslem devotees and Christian ascetics are often related in the ancient Ṣūfī biographies, and many Biblical texts appear in the form of sayings attributed to eminent Ṣūfīs of early times, while sayings ascribed to Jesus as well as Christian and Jewish legends occur in abundance. More than one Ṣūfī doctrine—that of tawakkul may be mentioned in particular—show traces of Christian teaching. The monastic strain which insinuated itself into Ṣūfīism in spite of Mahomet's prohibition was derived, partially at any rate, from Christianity. Here, however, Buddhistic influence may also have been at work. Buddhism flourished in Balkh, Transoxiana and Turkestan before the Mahommedan conquest, and in later times Buddhist monks carried their religious practices and philosophy among the Moslems who had settled in these countries. It looks as though the legend of Ibrāhīm ibn Adham, a prince of Balkh who one day suddenly cast off his royal robes and becamea wandering Ṣūfī, were based on the story of Buddha. The use of rosaries, the doctrine of fanā, which is probably a form of Nirvana, and the system of “stations” (maqāmāt) on the road thereto, would seem to be Buddhistic in their origin. The third great foreign influence on Ṣūfīism is the Neoplatonic philosophy. Between A.D. 800 and 860 the tide of Greek learning, then at its height, streamed into Islam from the Christian monasteries of Syria, from the Persian Academy of Jundēshāpūr in Khūzistan, and from the Ṣābians of Ḥarrān in Mesopotamia. The so-called “Theology of Aristotle,” which was translated into Arabic about A.D. 840, is full of Neoplatonic theories, and the mystical writings of the pseudo-Dionysius were widely known throughout western Asia. It is not mere coincidence that the doctrine of Gnosis was first worked out in detail by the Egyptian Ṣūfī, Dhu ’l-Nūn (d. A.D. 859), who is described as an alchemist and theurgist. Ṣūfīiism on its theosophical side was largely a product of Alexandrian speculation.

By the end of the 3rd century the main lines of the Ṣūfī mysticism were already fixed. It was now fast becoming an organized system, a school for saints, with rules of discipline and devotion which the novice was bound to learn from his spiritual director, to whose guidance he submitted himself absolutely. These directors regarded themselves as being in the most intimate communion with God, who bestowed on them miraculous gifts (karāmāt). At their head stood a mysterious personage called the Quṭb (Axis): on the hierarchy of saints over which he presided the whole order of the universe was believed to depend. During the next two hundred years (A.D. 900–1100), various manuals of theory and practice were compiled: the Kitāb al Lumaʽ by Abū Naṣr al-Sarrāj, the Qūt al-Qulūb by Abū Ṭālib al-Makkī, the Risāla of Qushairī, the Persian Kashf al-Maḥjūb by ʽAlī ibn ‘Uthmān al-Hujwīrī, and the famous Iḥyā by Ghazālī. Inasmuch as all these works are founded on the same materials, viz., the Koran, the Traditions of the Prophet and the sayings of well-known Ṣūfī teachers, they necessarily have much in common, although the subject is treated by each writer from his own standpoint. They all expatiate on the discipline of the soul and describe the process of purgation which it must undergo before entering on the contemplative life. The traveller journeying towards God passes through a series of ascending “stations” (maqāmāt); in the oldest extant treatise these are (1) repentance, (2) abstinence, (3) renunciation, (4) poverty, (5) patience, (6) trust in God, (7) acquiescence in the will of God. After the “stations” comes a parallel scale of “states” of spiritual feeling (aḥwāl), such as fear, hope, love, &c., leading up to contemplation (mushāhadat) and intuition (yaqīn). It only remained to provide Ṣūfīism with a metaphysical basis, and to reconcile it with orthodox Islam. The double task was finally accomplished by Ghazālī (q.v.). He made Islamic theology mystical, and since his time the revelation (kashf) of the mystic has taken its place beside tradition (naql) and reason (ʽaql) as a source and fundamental principle of the faith. Protests have been and are still raised by theologians, but Moslem sentiment will usually tolerate whatever is written in sufficiently abstruse philosophical language or spoken in manifest ecstasy.

The Ṣūfīs do not form a sect with definite dogmas. Like the monastic orders of Christendom, they comprise many shades of opinion, many schools of thought, many divergent tendencies—from asceticism and quietism to the wildest extravagances of pantheism. European students of Ṣūfīism are apt to identify it with the pantheistic type which prevails in Persia. This, although more interesting and attractive than any other, throws the transcendental and visionary aspects of Ṣūfīism into undue relief. Nevertheless some account must be given here of the Persian theosophy which has fascinated the noblest minds of that subtle race and has inspired the most beautiful religious poetry in the World. Some of its characteristic features occur in the sayings attributed to Bāyezīd (d. A.D. 874), whom Buddhistic ideas unquestionably influenced. He said, for example, “I am the wine drinker and the wine and the cup-bearer,” and again, “I went from God to God, until the cried from me in me, ‘O Thou I.’ ” The peculiar imagery which distinguishes the poetry of the Persian Ṣūfīs was more fully developed by a native of Khorasan, Abū Sa‘īd ibn Abi’l-Khair (d. A.D. 1049) in his mystical quatrains which express the relation between God and the soul by glowing and fantastic allegories of earthly love, beauty and intoxication. Henceforward, the great poets of Persia, with few exceptions, adopt this symbolic language either seriously or as a convenient mask. The majority are Ṣūfīs by profession or conviction. “The real basis of their poetry,” says A. von Kremer, “is a loftily inculcated ethical system, which recognizes in purity of heart, charity, self-renunciation and bridling of the passions the necessary conditions of eternal happiness. Attached to this we find a pantheistic theory of the emanation of all things from God and their ultimate reunion with him. Although on the surface Islam is not directly assailed, it sustains many indirect attacks, and frequently the thought flashes out, that all religions and revelations are only the rays of a single eternal sun; that all prophets have only delivered and proclaimed in different tongues the same principles of eternal goodness and eternal truth which flow from the divine soul of the world.” The whole doctrine of Persian Ṣūfīism is expounded in the celebrated Mathnawī of Jalāluddīn Rūmī (q.v.), but in such a discursive and unscientific manner that its leading principles are not easily grasped. They may be stated briefly as follows:—

God is the sole reality (al-Ḥaqq) and is above all names and definitions. He is not only absolute Being, but also absolute Good, and therefore absolute Beauty. It is the nature of beauty to desire manifestation; the phenomenal universe is the result of this desire, according to the famous Tradition in which God says, “I was a hidden treasure, and I desired to be known, so I created the creatures in order that I might be known.” Hence the Ṣūfīs, influenced by Neoplatonic theories of emanation, postulate a number of intermediate worlds or descending planes of existence, from the primal Intelligence and the primal Soul, through which “the Truth” (al-Ḥaqq) diffuses itself. As things can be known only through their opposites, Being can only be known through Not-being, wherein as in a mirror Being is reflected; and this reflection is the phenomenal universe, which accordingly has no more reality than a shadow cast by the sun. Its central point is Man, the microcosm, who reflects in himself all the Divine attributes. Blackened on one side with the darkness of Not-being, he bears within him a spark of pure Being. The human soul belongs to the spiritual World and is ever seeking to be re-united to its source. Such union is hindered by the bodily senses, but though not permanently attainable until death, it can be enjoyed at times in the state called ecstasy (ḥāl), when the veil of sensual perception is rent asunder and the soul is merged in God. This cannot be achieved without destroying the illusion of self, and self-annihilation is wrought by means of that divine love, to which human love is merely a stepping-stone. The true lover feels himself one with God, the only real being and agent in the universe; he is above all law, since whatever he does proceeds directly from God, just as a flute produces harmonies or discords at the will of the musician; he is indifferent to outward forms and rites, preferring a sincere idolater to an orthodox hypocrite and deeming the ways to God as many in number as the souls of men. Such in outline is the Ṣūfī theosophy as it appears in Persian and Turkish poetry. Its perilous consequences are plain. It tends to abolish the distinction between good and evil—the latter is nothing but an aspect of Not-being and has no real existence—and it leads to the deification of the hierophant who can say, like Ḥuṣain b. Manṣur al-Ḥallāj, “I am the Truth.” Ṣūfī fraternities, living in a convent under the direction of a sheikh, became widely spread before A.D. 1100 and gave rise to Dervish orders, most of which indulge in the practice of exciting ecstasy by music, dancing, drugs and various kinds of hypnotic suggestion (see Dervish).

Bibliography.—Tholuck, Sufismus sive theosophia Persarum pantheistica (Berlin, 1821); Blüthensammlung aus der morgenländischen Mystik (Berlin, 1825); E. H. Palmer, Oriental Mysticism (Cambridge, 1867); Von Kremer, Geschichte der herrschenden Ideen des Islams (Leipzig, 1868); Goldziher, “Materialien zur Entwickelungsgeschichte des Sufismus” in W.Z.K.M. xiii. 35 sqq. “Die Heiligenverehrung im Islam” in Muhammedanische Studien, ii. 277 sqq. (Halle, 1890) “The Influence of Buddhism on Islam” in J.R.A.S. (1904), 125 sqq.; and Vorlesungen über den Islam, 139 sqq. (Heidelberg, 1910); E. H. Whinfield, the Gulshan-i-Rāz of Maḥmūd Shabistari, edited with translation and notes (London, 1880), and Abridged translation of the Masnavi (London, 1898); E. G. Browne, A Year amongst the Persians (London, 1893); Merx, Ideen und Grundlinien einer allgemeinen Geschichte der Mystik (Heidelberg, 1893); H. Ethé, “Die mystische und didaktische Poesie” in Geiger and Kuhn's Grundriss der iranischen Philologie, ii. 271 sqq. (Strassburg, 1896–1904); Gibb, History of Ottoman Poetry, especially i. 33 sqq. (London, 1900–1907); D. B. Macdonald, “Emotional religion in Islam,” in J.R.A.S. (1901–1902); Development of Muslim theology (New York, 1903) and The religious attitude and life in Islam (Chicago, 1909); R. A. Nicholson, Selected poems from the Dīvāni Shamsi Tabrīz (Cambridge, 1898). “Enquiry concerning the origin and development of Sūfīism ” in J.R.A.S (1906), 303 sqq., and Translation of the Kashfal-Maḥjūb (London, 1910); Sheikh Muhammad Iqbal, The Development of Metaphysics in Persia (London, 1908).  (R.A.N.)