Notes on Sufi mysticism from Timothy Luke Johnson’s Great Courses lecture series, Mystical Tradition: Judaism, Christianity & Islam…
Sufism is the dominant form of mysticism in Islam. It is often difficult to say whether Sufism is authentically Muslim or if it just wears the garb of Islam. No one is quite sure what influenced it, either. There was a gnostic sect in Iraq known as the Mandians that may have influenced Sufism. Or it could have been influenced by Neo-Platonists. Or maybe Manichaeism which arose in Persia. Iraq was also the center of Jewish mysticism (Merkabah Mysticism) so it could have been influenced by that. Or, it could have been a reaction to the rigidity of the time.
Dr. Johnson thinks the most likely influence is the universal impulse for personal transformation that is seen in all religions. This search always takes on the symbols in which it finds itself.
According to Sufis, one must move past appearances to find what is most real (al Haqq). The empirical world is not what is most real. It is illusory. The goal of the path (which is understood internally) is unity with that which is most real. Ordinary empirical existence camouflages that which is most real. This camouflage is what is known as “The Veil”. One must move past appearances to find what is most real. This is what it means to “Pierce the Veil”.
The Sufis have a threefold path of self-transformation.
The Sufi’s progress is marked by definite stages (stations) and is described as a caravan. You cannot rise from one station to another until you have fulfilled the provisions of the first. A state is a gift from Allah over which the Sufi has no control. A state could be an ecstatic mystical experience, for instance. States are bestowed, stations are attained.
Early Sufi mysticism is similar to Jewish Merkabah mysticism – there is much referent to going into the heavenly places and receiving knowledge. Rabi ‘a al-’Adawiyya al-Qaysiyya (717-801) was an important early female Sufi and probably the most notable among all the female Sufis. There was gender equality among the Sufis, thanks in part to Rabi’a. The sayings of this woman resemble those of the Christian sayings of the Desert Fathers. They are very short sayings. Rabi’a lived a life of extreme poverty and trust in Allah. Stories of miracles began to accumulate around her.
There was a spectacular spread of Islam in its first centuries. With this spread came an explosion of intellectual energy and innovative speculation in philosophy and theology. Muslims were making major contributions in every field – math, literature, science, medicine, and this contribution was far exceeding that made by the Christians of that time. Islam’s greatest brilliance was in the 10th-12th centuries. It took a while for Europe to catch up.
But there were also tensions in Islam. Several questions caused quite a bit of division among Islamic thinkers. Could ijtihad (free inquiry) be applied as much to the doctrines of Islam as to its law? Is the Quran and Hadith internally coherent, or are they coherent with other knowledge? Was there any possibility of reconciling the rational inquiry associated especially with Greek philosophy and the highest achievement of human intelligence, but found among idolaters and the Quran, which is directly from God and therefore must bear all truth in itself? Were there limits to the Sufi experience for it to remain in Islam?
There was an early theological dispute between faith and works: How can Allah be all powerful but hold humans accountable? This is especially problematic in Islam because the omnipotence of God is so stressed. Judgment is on the basis of what humans do. So how can God be both just and powerful? Perhaps God must be weak and just?
There were three stances taken on this topic. The Mu’tazila Party took the rationalists approach. God’s justice must logically be measured by human reason and the human understanding of justice. Therefore, the Quran is not an eternal word, but only a human word. The Orthodox Party appealed to Allah as known through the Quran as an absolute measure. We know justice from what Allah does, and human reason must conform itself to what Allah actually does. The Quran is therefore eternal and not subject to eternal reason. Abu’l Hasan al Ash’ari (874-936) applied free inquiry (reason) to faith but still made faith the measure. He did this by distinguishing the physical Quran as a finite expression of the eternal word of Allah. This was a compromise position for a problem that is impossible to resolve completely.
Al Ghazzali sought to resolve many of the intellectual tensions and suffered a spiritual crisis in his obsession to do so. Deliverance from Error (1100) is akin to Augustine’s Confessions (both are spiritual autobiographies). Al Ghazzali was a student of law, theology and philosoophy. He was professor and Dean of Nizamiyah University in 1091 and would lecture to as many as 300 students at a time. He wanted to find out what constitutes certainty in knowledge which eventually led him to become a skeptic for several months in 1095. Then he became Sufi. The certitude that al-Ghazzali finally realizes – “I saw that Sufism consists in experiences rather than in definitions and that what I was lacking belonged to the domain, not of instruction, but of ecstasy and initiation.” His experience of the Sufi way brought him a kind of certitude. He discovered that it is located in the heart, not in the mind. Al Ghazzali adopts an epistemological position that resembles that of Democritus or Epicurus which is also later adopted by David Hume – all that philosophers can actually see are atoms interacting at random, not real causation. Philosophy does not give rational certainty because ultimately, it can only provide opinion. For Al Ghazzali, this means it is Allah alone that causes everything. Therefore only faith gives secure knowledge of what is real. Mysticism is the inner meaning of the system, but the Sufi must stay within the exoteric framework of the Shari’ah (law). The mystic is answerable to the Shari’ah because the patterns of law for the community can itself be a source of inquiry for mystic knowledge. The Sufi mystical way is an intensification of the Shari’ah way of life.
Ibn al’Arabi is another great Sufi master (1165-1240). He was born in Spain which was a center of Muslim culture at the time. He compared Jesus’ ability to raise people from the dead to Gabriel’s utterance of the Quran. It is Breathing. His writing is reminiscent of the Kabbalah (the one and the many) and he represents a form of gnosis.
Jalal ad-Din Rumi (1207-1273) is probably the best known of all Sufi masters. He said that Allah is the God of all, both good and evil, and it all goes toward creating a masterpiece, a beautiful tapestry. Rumi’s religion is one of love. He founded the Mawlawi Sufiorder that spread throughout Turkey and played a very large role in Turkey’s culture and history. The order is known for its singing, dancing, and Whirling Dervishes and has always been led by a descendant of its founder.
Europe launched 2 Crusades against Islam in the 13th century, but by this time they had been in Europe for a very long period of time, a time period equivalent to the American Revolutionary War to Ronald Reagan. It was during this time period that Muslims started making their way into North Africa. And they remained influential in North Africa for centuries (think Julian of Norwich to Thomas Merton). It’s an ancient civilization by the time of later Sufi mystics. The Islamic way of life is deeply entrenched in North Africa.
Among the Sufis that greatly influenced this Islamic way of life is Umar ibn al-Farid (1181-1253). He was a member of the Shafi’i school which emphasized ijtihad – free & critical inquiry. He was a remarkable poet who lived as a Hermit. Ibn al-Hasan (1997-1258) founded the Shadhiliyyah Order which resembled a Third Order (lay people) in Christianity. The Emphasis was on right thinking and right practice and it was a merging of Islam and Sufism.
Ibn Ala’illah (1250-1309) wrote The Book of Wisdom. He said that the way of the Sufi is not one of instant gratification. One must move through stages or stations to receive more mystical states. One should not be longing for special psychological experiences if the fundamental groundwork has not been laid. “The Real is not veiled from you. Rather, it is you who are veiled from seeing It; for were anything to veil It, then that which veils it would cover It. But if there were a covering to It, then that would be a limitation to Its Being; Every limitation to anything has power over it. And He is the omnipotent, above his servants…. The devotees and the ascetics are alienated from everything only because of their absence from God in everything. Had they contemplated Him in everything, they would not have been alienated from anything.” For Ala’illah the ascetic is someone who starts off being hard on himself and ends up being hard on everyone else. The ultimate point of musticism is to be able to have compassion and understanding of all that is. One is not simply looking at Realy. One is looking at Reality with Allah’s eyes.
The last North African Sufi Master mentioned by Dr. Johnson is Ibn ‘abbad of Ronda (1332-1390). He said that the knowledge that comes from the mystic way is diametrically opposed to the Law in the Shari’ah. Therefore, those who get caught up in the specifics of the Shari’ah are missing the point of the Shari’ah which is the mystic way – the internal transformation of the person.
Then there are the Sufi Saints of Persia and India…
Islam was in Persia from the start. Khwaja Abdullah Ansari (1006-1089) was extremely conservative intellectually and spiritually. He was a member of Hanbali, a 9th century conservative legal school that only recognized the Quran and Hadith. He wrote against the use of ijtihad and was actually imprisoned for a time because he was such a hyper-literalist. “If the teacher says Allah has a hand, then Allah has a hand.” He wasn’t capable of great poetry, but there is no mistaking his poetry for the longing of God. He provides a mystical counter example to Sufism.
At another extreme is Fakhruddin Iraqi (1213-1289) who was a child prodigy that traveled widely. He actually met Rumi and several other famous Sufis. His primary interest was esoteric gnosis. He wrote remarkably gorgeous poetry. As with Teresa of Avila claiming to be a speck of foam in a vast ocean, Iraqi used the ocean to denote unity with God for waters merge and become One.
Nizam ad-Din Awliya (1242-1325) grew up in intense poverty and down-played the miraculous in favor of humanitarianism. There is a repeated emphasis in his teaching on directed service and sharing of material possessions amongst people. There is also a strong emphasis on hospitality and paying attention to manners.
Sharafuddin Ahmad ibn Yahya Maniri (1263-1381) was known as the Spiritual Teacher of the Realm. He left his wife and children to pursue a life of celibacy. He found a teacher and escaped into the woods. After many years, he was persuaded to be a teacher. He built a center where he taught until his death. The Sufi movement had an internal progression. It was said to start with Adam and all the prophets were Sufis who wore the cloak that had been bestowed upon them by their predecessors. Moses and Jesus were in this sense Sufis.
Sufism in the 20th century has been directly affected by modernity, just as Jewish and Christian mysticism. Sufism, to rationalists, represented everything backwards about Islam. It appeared way too otherworldly and out of touch with the modern world. At the same time, it was very threatening to conservative Muslims because Sufism advocated a conversation between Islam and philosophy and science.
Conservative Muslims attack what they consider to be the pantheism of Sufism. Islamic reform has been constantly moving toward the Exoteric and away from the personal transformation advocated by the Sufis which has made it very difficult for Sufism to find a place within Islam since modern times. It has become quite popular among non Islamic western spiritualists, however.
Fatimah al-Yashrutiyya (1891-1978) was born when her father, the Shaykh Ali Nur al-Din Yashruti was 100 years old. She was orphaned at the age of 8 but her father had encouraged her and many other girls to follow the way of Sufis and she dedicated herself to the Sufi path. She was invited to submit a paper on Sufism at a conference in Houston, which she did. It was subsequently published and provides an example of how Sufism has made it’s way into the wider world.
Idries Shah (1924-1996) was born in India and has traveled world wide as a Sufi Master. He presents Sufism as a cognitive mastery that predates and transcends Islam. In a sense, he de-Islamicized Sufism. Inayat Khan (1882-1927) was also born in India and claimed Sufism transcended all religion. He is the Founder of Universal Sufism and the Sufi Order International.
Thomas Merton had read Alawi and was deeply fascinated. Huston Smith saw Sufism as the key to a philosophia perennis which priveleges spirituality over religion. The idea is that religious convictions divide people but spirituality unites them and Sufism offers an appropriate candidate for a world embracing spirituality.