The Sufis


The Sufis 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 Sufism 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 Sufism 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 Sufis 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 Sufism 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 Sufis, 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 Sufi 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.” Sufi 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.

The Sufis, by Idries Shah. Quinta da Regaleira, inverted tower of initiation.
Quinta da Regaleira, inverted tower of initiation.


Complete audiobook of The Sufis by Idries Shah, read by David Ault:

This expanded teaching includes the Dervishes: