The Persian Sufis
Cyprian Rice, O.P.,
George Allen, London, 1964
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.