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The Persian Sufis

by Cyprian Rice, O.P.,
George Allen, London, 1964

INTRODUCTORY

The Sufi phenomenon is not easy to sum up or define. The Sufis never set out to found a new religion, a mazhab or denomination. They were content to live and work within the framework of the Moslem religion, using texts from the Quran much as Christian mystics have used to Bible to illustrate their tenets. Their aim was to purify and spiritualize Islam from within, to give it a deeper, mystical interpretation, and infuse into it a spirit of love and liberty. In the broader sense, therefore, in which the word religion is used in our time, their movement could well be called a religious one, one which did not aim at tying men down with a new set of rules but rather at setting them free from external rules and open to the movement of the spirit.

This religion was disseminated mainly by poetry, it breathed in an atmosphere of poetry and song. In it the place of great dogmatic treatises is taken by mystical romances, such as Yusuf and Zuleikha or Leila and Majnun. Its one dogma, and interpretation of the Moslem witness: 'There is no god by God', is that the human heart must turn always, unreservedly, to the one, divine Beloved.

Who was the first Sufi? Who started this astonishing flowering of spiritual love in Lyrical poetry and dedicated lives? No one knows.

Early in the history of Islam, Moslem ascetics appeared who from their habit of wearing coarse garments of wool (suf), became known as Sufis. But what we now know as Sufism dawned unheralded, mysteriously, in the ninth century of our ear and already in the tenth and eleventh had reached maturity. Among all its exponents there is no single one who could be claimed as the initiator or founder.

Sufism is like that great oak-tree, standing in the middle of the meadow: no one witnessed its planting, no one beheld its beginning, but now the flourishing tree speaks for itself, is true to origins which it has forgotten, has taken for granted.

There is a Sufi way, a Sufi doctrine, a form of spiritual knowledge known as 'irfan or ma'rifat, Arabic words which correspond to the Greek gnosis.

Sufism has its great names, its poet-preachers, its 'saints', in the broad, irenical sense in which the word can be used. Names Maulana Rumi, Ibn al 'Arabi, Jami, Mansur al Hallaj are household words in the whole Islamic world and even beyond it.

Has it a future? Perhaps we may say that if, in the past, its function was to spiritualize Islam, its purpose in the future will be rather to make possible a welding of religious thought between East and West, a vital, ecumenical commingling and understanding, which will prove ultimately to be, in the truest sense, on both sides, a return to origins, to the original unity.

When one speaks of the Sufis as 'mystics', one does not necessarily mean to approve all their teaching or all their methods, nor indeed, admit the genuineness of the mystical experiences of this or that individual. But whatever one's preconceptions or reservations, it is difficult, after a careful study of their lives and writings, not to recognize a kingship between the Sufi spirit and vocabulary and those of the Christian saints and mystics.

This book is concerned mainly with the Persian mystics. Taken all in all, what goes by the name of 'Islamic mysticism' is a Persian product. The mystical fire, as it spread rapidly over the broad world of Islam, found tinder in the harts of many who were not Persians: Egyptians like Dhu'l Nun, Andalucians like Ibn'ul Arabi, Arabs like Rabi'a al 'Adawiyya. But Persia itself is the homeland of mysticism in Islam. It is true that many Islamic mystical writers, whether Persian or not, wrote in Arabic, but this was because that language was in common use throughout the Moslem world for the exposition of religious and philosophical teaching. It could, indeed, be said that the Persians themselves took up the Arabic language and forged from it the magnificent instrument of precise philosophical and scientific expression which it became, after having been used by the Arabs themselves almost exclusively for poetry. This was Persia's revenge for the humiliating defeat she suffered at the hands of the Arabs and the consequent imposition of the Arabic language for all religious and juridical purposes. We might go on to say that Persia's revenge for the imposition of Islam and of the Arabic Qoran was her bid for the utter transformation of the religious outlook of all the Islamic peoples by the dissemination of the Sufi creed and the creation of a body of mystical poetry which is almost as widely known as the Qoran itself. The combination in Sufism of mystical love and passion with a daring challenge to all forms of rigid and hypocritical formalism has had a bewitching and breath-taking effect on successive Moslem generations in all countries, an effect repeated in all those non-Moslem milieux, European or Asiatic, where these doctrines, often interpreted by the most ravishingly beautiful poetry, have been discovered. In this way Persia has conquered a spiritual domain far more extensive than any won by the arms of Cyrus and Darius, and one which is still far form being a thing of the past. Indeed, one might say that through this mystical lore, expressed in an incomparable poetical medium, Persia found herself, discovered something like her true spiritual vocation among the peoples of the world, and that her voice has now only to make itself heard to win the delighted approval of all those seekers and connoisseurs whose souls are attune to perceive the message of the ustad i azal (the eternal master), to use Khoja Hafiz's phrase.

In a sense, this bold transformation of Islam from within by the mystical mind of Persia began already in the Prophet's life-time with the part played in the elaboration and interpretation of Mahomet's message by the strange but historic figure of Salman Farsi- Salman the Persian - to whom M. Massignon devoted an indispensable monograph. But a similar influence revealed itself in the rapid spiritualization of the person of 'Ali and the parallel evolution of the mystical significance of Mahomet, around the notion of the nur muhammadi - the 'Mahomet-light', which seems to amount to the introduction of a Logos doctrine into the heart of Islam, viewed as an esoteric system. The influences, as they worked themselves out, led, on the other hand, tot he formation of the Shi'a, involving the spiritual-mystical significance accorded to the Imam. At the same time, the teaching and outlook of Mahomet himself was progressively brought into conformity with the Sufi model by the accumulation of a large body of ahadith (traditional sayings) fathered onto the Prophet by successive generations.

The vigour of the Persian spiritual genius, however, is not a phenomenon which came suddenly to light at the outset of Islam. It was there all the time, and there are Persians whom I have known who claim that the stream of pure Persian mysticism has pursued its course, now open, now hidden, right down the ages. This is a claim which springs, maybe, maybe, more from the Persians' own intuition than form any positive documentation, but the assumption comes out clearly in the writings of Suhravardi and the Ishraqi school. In any case, one cannot but be struck by the attraction exerted and the penetration achieved by Persian religious, such as Mithraism and Manichaeism, as far afield as the farthest frontiers of the Roman Empire, as well as in farthest Asia and who know where else. The Christian Church of Persia itself, which, as Mgr Duchesne has pointed out, rivalled even the Church of Rome in the number of its martyrs, sent its missionaries far and wide throughout Asia, into India, China and Japan. As to the exploits of Christian missionaries from Persia in Japan, facts are only now coming to light through the investigations of Prof. Sakae Ikeda. Japanese writers have also traced deep influences of Persian Christianity in the emergence of the Mahayana type of Buddhism in China.

If these facts are recorded here, it si merely in order to make it clear that the universal radiation of the Persian spirit was not confined to the Islamic world.

Words like ma'rifat or irfan used to designate Sufi teaching might lead one to conclude that theirs was essentially a speculative movement. But one must always bear in mind that it is fundamentally a practical science, the teaching of a way of life. This aspect of it was most clearly marked, no doubt, in its earlier period but it has remained as a permanent feature of the Sufi system and all its professors are agreed that those who enter on the search for perfection must needs undergo a rigorous course of training under a wise spiritual father (Pir u Murshid). In a great mystical write like Jalal-edDin Rumi, for instance, the most sublime mystical descriptions are never entirely divorced from moral exhortations. It is true that for Rumi the moral virtues are never ends in themselves. They are seen as ways and means, creating the necessary conditions for the attainment of closer union with the divine Beloved. But that does but make his exhortations more pressing.

Some readers may question the use of the term 'mystical' in this field, or may ask for it to be defined. In brief the rely shall be that the term is used here to signify doctrines concerning the way to God or to perfection derived from inner experiences and inspiration rather than from deductive reasoning or positive tradition. Something of what is meant can be found in Sheikh Attar's words, in his introduction to the Memoirs of the Saints. He recommends the study of the sayings of the great mystcis because, as he says, 'their utterances are the result of spiritual enterprise and experience, not of mechanical learning and repetition of what others have said. They spring from direct insight and not from discursive reasoning, from supernatural sources of knowledge, not from laborious personal acquisition. They gush forth as from the source and are not painfully conveyed over man-made aqueducts. They come from the sphere of "My Lord has educated me" and not from the sphere of "my father told me".'

The lesser lights among Sufi poets have only too often repeated the images and allegories used by their greater predecessors, making of them mere clichés, hackneyed and hollow. Indeed, the bane of Persian mystical poetry is the incalculable number of its mediocre practitioners.

Leaving them aside, we do well to concentrate on the great masters, such as, among poets, Jala-edDin Rum, Farid edDin 'Attar, Maghribi, Jami, Hafiz, and among prose-writers, Hujviri, al-Sarraj, Najm-edDin Razi, and, once again, 'Attar, with his indispensable Memoirs of the Saints. Nor should one exclude from any enumeration of Persian mystics the name of Mansur al-Hallaj, a native of Fars, in the heart of old Iran, even though he wrote in Arabic (and with what clarity, simplicity and fore!). Without attempting to complete enumeration, one cannot refrain from mentioning names like Hakim Sanai, Shabistari, author of the Gulshan i Raz, and Abu Said of Mihneh.

For may centuries this abundant store of mystical wisdom book for the West. The medieval schoolmen came to know Persian philosophers such as Avicenna (Ibn Sina) and el Gazel (Ghazali) through Hebrew and Latin translations but there is no trace of their having suspected the existence of Persian mystical writings. It is possible, however, that an indirect influence was exercised by Moslem mystical poems on the Troubadours.

In this country, it was not until 1774 that Sir William Jones' Latin Commentaries on Asiatic Poetry opened the way to knowledge of the Persian writers but the work, inevitably perhaps, created little stir and bore scarcely any fruit.

It was in Germany, in the Romantic period, that the great éblouissement came. Goethe's West-östlicher Diwan was the first consequence of it. Rucker, Herder and others set themselves with great zeal and application to study Persian mystical verse and to make it the leaven of the new poetical and philosophical movement in their country.

During present century German interest in Persian mysticism was revived by Kazimzadeh Iranshahr, a Persian who settled in Berlin and published a number of religious booklets based upon Sufi teachings.

Meanwhile, in England the study of Persian literature was immensely forwarded by the masterly and abundant work of Professor E. G. Browne of Cambridge. Browne, moreover, had the good fortune to find in R. A. Nicholson, later to be his successor in the Chair of Arabic at Cambridge, a scholar in whom the study of Persian poetry kindled and fed an inborn affinity with mystical learning. The result was his annotated edition of a selection of mystical odes from the Divan of Shams of Tabriz, by Jalal'ddin Rumi, in 1898.

Later on, Nicholson contributed to the Gibb Series his edition of Hujviri's Kashful Mahjub and then Sarraj's Kitabul Luma', both of which are key works for the study of Sufi doctrine.

Then came his magnum opus, the great new edition of the text of Rumi's Mathnaviyi Ma'navi, the 'bible of the Sufis', followed, within the next fifteen years, by a translation of the whole work and finally by a full commentary, in which Professor Nicholson revealed the full extent of his mastery of the subject.

He had moreover, in 1905, laid students still further under an obligation to him his critical edition, in two volumes, of Sheikh 'Attar's invaluable Tazkirat ul Awliya, a collection of biographies of a number of well-known and less-known Sufis and saints of the Moslem world.

For the general public, Professor Nicholson wrote a valuable little book in the 'Quest' series, called The Mystics of Islam, as well as Studies in Islamic Mysticism and The Idea of Personality in Sufism-in addition to numerous articles in encyclopaedias and journals, the ransom of his unique reputation: for there is no doubt that, as The Times wrote in the obituary notice published after his death, on August 27, 1945, 'Nicholson was the greatest authority on Islamic mysticism this country has produced, and in his own considerable field the supreme authority in the world'.

In any final assessment, however, it would be difficult to give the late Professor Louis Massignon, chiefly noted for his exposition of the mystic teaching of al-Hallaj, any lower place. Both of them were so deeply penetrated by the Sufi spirit that they would have shrunk with horror from any such competition.

Professor A. J. Arberry, Nicholson's successor in the Chair of Arabic at Cambridge, has also rendered valuable services to the study of Islamic mysticism by his edition of Kalabadhi's treatise on Sufism, as well as by other books intended to make Persian mystics known to a wide public. In 1950 he contributed to the series of 'Ethical and Religious Classics of East and West' an account of the mystics of Islam, called Sufism. It can be recommended as a clear, orderly and sympathetic account of the subject which aims at leaving out none of the facts, writings and personalities that count in a serious study of Islamic mysticism.

Thus helped and stimulated, we have now to take up the legacy bequeathed to us and ensure that these works shall be pored over as studiously as they deserve, their lessons learnt and their indications followed up. A legacy of this kind is, at the same time, a challenge, above all to those whose task or vocation it is the bring about a reconciliation of East and West, or to prepare the ground for religious agreement on a place which transcends the bare statement of controversial issues, led rather by the spirit of Juan de Segovia, whose motto was Per viam pacis et doctrinae.

Perhaps, too, the study of these mystics, who had to find their way through pathless deserts without the sure guidance of an unerring authority, and who, nevertheless, reached in the main a surprisingly convincing statement of mystical truth, may have the further advantage of giving us pause and of inspiring us with humility, when we realize what mystical treasures we ourselves may have let slip through carelessness or dissipation.

If, in this study, I have, in the main, used the language of Christian mysticism this is partly because it has now become the custom of Western writers - not least among whom we must count Don Miguel Asin Palacios - to do so. Then I consider this custom justified by reason of the similar workings of God with souls in every climate and the similar response human souls make to Him whatever be their form of speech.

At the same time, needless to say, I would not wish it to be thought that I am therefore claiming that Billuart or Bossuet necessarily attached the same meaning tot he terms here used as would Rumi or Bistami. It is just a matter of human interpretation, aiming at broad parallels rather than at precise identification. Don Palacios has spoken of certain Sufi teachings as un Islam cristianizado. By doing so he clearly shows that, in his opinion, the similarities just referred to go deeper than forms of language as such. Of Ibn Abbad of Ronda Don Palacios says that here is a 'a hispano Moslem precursor of St John of the Cross'. He finds in him 'a profoundly Christian attitude of abandonment to the charismatic gifts (karimat)'.

Perhaps I may be allowed to add that in taking this line with the Sufi mystics I conform to the wish expressed so ardently by the late Pope John XXIII, in an address to a general meeting of Benedictine Abbots in Rome. Setting before them the ideal of the union of souls, he exhorted them to consider, 'not so much what divided minds and what brings them together'.

As this modest volume is to appear at the time of an Oecumenical Council in which relations between Church of East and West are expected to form one of the dominant themes, the writer ventures to express the hope that a study of some of the aspects of Islamic mysticism may contribute to a better understanding of the inner life of the vast Mahometan populations of Asia and Africa. Under the ample umbrella of Islam, with its one compendious dogma La ilaha illa 'llah - 'The is no god by God' - a vast assortment of religious doctrines and devotional practices shelter. Much of this originated in regions of westerns Asia where Christianity had reached a notable expansion and where Christian monasticism made a strong appeal to the religious sentiments of the various people who, sooner or later, yielded to political or military pressure and ranged themselves, willingly or unwillingly under the banner of Mahomet. The mystical teachings of the early centuries were diffused throughout western Asia, not least in Syria and Persia. There can be little doubt that much of that teaching was passed on the subsequent generations after the Moslem conquest. The devout, in their insatiable hunger for religious truth and experience, not only took up the mystical teachings they found but in many ways made it their own, re-thought it and developed it in original ways.

In the Divine Comedy (Inferno, Canto 28) Dante pictures Mahomet and 'Ali among the authors of schism, alongside a varied band of Italians. Such a view of the role of Mahomed has its bearing on our theme. In any effort to bring about an understanding between East and West, ti would be unrealistic, to say the least, to leave out of account the numerous Mahometan populations among whom Eastern Christians live and move.

In all fairness, too, one must add that Mahomet's dream was not to foster, but rather to heal the schism between minds, as he looked out upon the dispute of the numerous Christian sects and rites on Arabian and near-Arabian soil. It would seem that he dreamt of reconciling all by proposing adhesion to a single dogma which all could agree; 'There is no god but God'. It was of this proclamation or 'gospel' that he was the Prophet.

 



 
Last updated: May 9, 2004
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