The Path – September 1886

SUFISM: V — C. H. A. Bjerregaard


In Two Parts: Part I texts; Part II Symbols


The practical expounders and preachers of Sufism are the Dervishes, the monks of Islam.

It must have become clear to our readers, that the sweet and peaceful sentiments of the couplet of Katebi, placed as motto over our first part, are the expressions of at least one side of the inner life of Sufism. But, if we listen more closely, we shall hear the plaintive note of the nightingale more distinct and perceive more readily the gloom of the cypress; both of them, like the soul of man, bewail in melancholy our disunion from Deity. That, too, is another side of Sufism, which now has been illustrated, and we have given enough quotations to show, that the highest aim of the Sufi is to attain self-annihilation by losing his humanity in Deity.

So far the direct teachings as they lie on the surface of our quotations. The grand undercurrents are the relations of The Universal Self and The Individual Self. The expression "Self" has not been used, but "God" and "Soul" because of the peculiarity of the exoteric forms of current Mohammedan Theology, which the Sufi-Doctors find themselves bound to observe.

We have yet to quote the Sufi poets Hafiz, Jami, Nizami, Attar and others, but as their teachings are veiled under symbols, they naturally find their place in this our second part, and shall be treated fully toward the end. We will begin with the more ecstatic features of practical Sufism, with the Dervishes, the Moslem saints, and thus develop the subjective forms of Sufism. We shall come to appreciate the use of a ritualistic service and ascetic practices, when we see these framed in close harmony with the laws of Nature and conductive to Union with Self.

Where we use the phrase The Personal, our readers will understand it as the subjective equivalent for the objective "Self." —

An historic study of the rise of Sufism out of original asceticism, will afford us an excellent view of the evolution of Sufism itself as well as of all other forms of Mysticism. Hence we must devote some space to it.

It must undoubtedly be maintained that asceticism and monastic life are entirely inconsistent with Mohammedanism, and in fact Mohammed himself was far from anything like it, and constantly preached against it, advocating an active life and an aggressive religion.

But neither Mohammed nor his followers could stem the tide of ascetic influences from the East, from Buddhism: nor from the West, from Christianity. These two religious systems had existed for centuries and were both characterized by monastic institutions, and missionary spirit. But, much deeper than these individual influences lies the power of a new historic cycle beginning about a century after Mohammed, just at the time we find the greatest number of Islam saints, with a distinctive monastic cast. The era is characterized by a new civilization in the West, and a consolidation of the Eastern conquests. The Mohammedan power encircles Christendom and threatens to destroy both Church and Christianity. In the East itself a terror of existence befell the minds of men and has left the strongest impressions in the writings of such men as Ata Salami and Hasan, &c.

Even in Mohammed's lifetime an attempt was made to engraft the elements of the contemplative life upon his doctrine. The facts are well known. One evening, after some more vigorous declamations than usual on the prophet's part — he had taken for his theme the flames and tortures of hell — several of his most zealous companions, among whom the names of Omar, Ali, Abou-Dharr, and Abou-Horeirah are conspicuous, retired to pass the night together in a neighbouring dwelling. Here they fell into deep discourses on the terrors of divine justice, and the means to appease or prevent its course. The conclusion they came to was nowise unnatural. They agreed that to this end the surest way was to abandon their wives, to pass their lives in continued fast and abstinence, to wear hair-cloth, and practice other similar austerities: in a word, they laid down for themselves a line of conduct truly ascetic, and leading to whatever can follow in such a course. But they desired first to secure the approbation of Mohammed. Accordingly, at break of day, they presented themselves before him, to acquaint him with the resolution of the night, as well as its motives and purport; but they had reckoned without their host. The prophet rejected their proposition with a sharp rebuke, and declared marriage and war to be far more agreeable to the Divinity than any austereness of life or mortification of the senses whatever, and the well known passage of the Quran: "O true believers, do not abstain from the good things of the earth which God permits you to enjoy," revealed on this very occasion, remains a lasting monument of Mohammed's disgust at this premature outbreak of ascetic feeling. This lesson and many others of a similar character, for the time being, checked any and all appearance of declared forms of asceticism, but could not prevent the ultimate triumph of the truer and better parts of human nature. "Fate" would have it, that within his own family, lie hidden the germs, destined in after ages, down to the present day, and probably as long as Islam shall exist, to exert the mightiest influence in the Mohammedan world.

Ali, Mohammed's cousin, and Ali's son Hasan, his grandson Zein el Abidin, and after them Djaufar es Sadik, Mousa el Kadhim, Ali er Ridha, and others of their race, were members of a family which became the very backbone of asceticism. They were successively looked up to by individual ascetics as the guides and instructors in word and deed of self-denial and abnegation.

In the Menaqibu 1 Arafin (the Acts of the Adepts) it is related that the Prophet one day recited to Ali in private the secrets and mysteries of the "Brethren of Sincerity" enjoining him not to divulge them to any of the uninitiated, so that they should not be betrayed; also, to yield obedience to the rule of implicit submission. For forty days, Ali kept the secret in his own sole breast, and bore therewith until he was sick at heart. As his burden oppressed him and he could no more breathe freely, he fled to the open wilderness, and there chanced upon a well. He stooped, reached his head as far down into the well as he was able; and then, one by one, he confided those mysteries to the bowels of the earth. From the excess of his excitement, his mouth filled with froth and foam. There he spat out into the water of the well, until he had freed himself of the whole, and he felt relieved. After a certain number of days, a single seed was observed to be growing in that well. It waxed and shut up, until at length a youth, whose heart was miraculously enlightened on the point, became aware of this growing plant, cut it down, drilled holes in it, and began to play upon it airs, similar to those now performed by the dervish lovers of God, as he pastured his sheep in the neighbourhood. By degrees, the various tribes of Arabs of the desert heard of this flute-playing of the shepherd, and its fame spread abroad. The camels and the sheep of the whole region would gather around him as he piped, ceasing to pasture that they might listen. From all directions, the nomads flocked to hear his strains, going into ecstasies with delight, weeping for joy and pleasure, breaking forth in transports of gratification. The rumor at length reached the ears of the Prophet, who gave orders for the piper to be brought before him. When he began to play in the sacred presence, all the holy disciples of God's messenger were moved to tears and transports, bursting forth with shouts and exclamations of pure bliss, and losing all consciousness. The Prophet declared that the notes of the shepherd's flute were the inspiration of the holy mysteries he had confided in private to Ali's charge.

Thus it is that, until a man acquires the sincere devotion of the linnet-voiced flute-reed, he cannot hear the mysteries of "The Brethren of Sincerity" in its dulcet notes, or realize the delights thereof; for "faith is altogether a yearning of the heart, and a gratification of the spiritual sense."

In regard to "The Brethren of Sincerity" mentioned above it can be said that the Mohammedans in the East know perfectly well that there exists on earth, among the initiated a secret hierarchy which governs the whole human race, infidels as well as believers, but that their power is often exercised in such a manner that the subjects influenced by it know not from what person or persons its effects proceed.

In this hierarchy the supreme dignity is vested in the Khidr. This is a man indeed, but one far elevated above ordinary human nature by his transcendent privileges. Admitted to the Divine Vision, and possessed in consequence of a relative omnipotence and omniscience on earth; visible and invisible at pleasure; freed from the bonds of space and time; by his ubiquitous and immortal powers appearing in various forms on earth to uphold the cause of truth; then concealed awhile from men; known in various ages as Seth, as Enoch, as Elias, and yet to come at the end of time as the Mahdi; this wonderful being is the centre, the prop, the ruler, the mediator of men of ascetic habits and retirement, and as such he is honoured with the name of Kothb, or axis, as being the spiritual pole round which and on which all move or are upheld. Under him are the Aulia, or intimate friends of God, seventy-two in number (some say twenty-four), holy men living on earth, who are admitted by the Kothb to his intimate familiarity, and who are to the rest the sources of all doctrine, authority, and sanctity. Among these again one, pre-eminent above the rest, is qualified by the vicarious title of Kothb-ez-zaman, or axis of his age, and is regarded as the visible depositary of the knowledge and power of the supreme Kothb — who is often named, for distinction's sake, Kothb el-Aktkab, or axis of the axes — and his constant representative amongst men. But as this important election and consequent delegation of power is invisible and hidden from the greater number even of the devotees themselves, and neither the Kothb-ez-zaman nor the Aulia carry any outward or distinctive sign of dignity and authority, it can only be manifested by its effects, and thus known by degrees to the outer world, and even then rather as a conjecture than as a positive certainty.

On the authority of the famous saint of Bagdad, Aboo-Bekr el Kettanee, E. W. Lane (1) states that the orders under the rule of this chief are called Omud (or Owtad), Akhyar, Abdal, Nujaba, and Nukaba, naming them according to their precedence, and remarks that perhaps to these should be added an inferior order called Ashab ed-Darak, that is "Watchmen" or "Overseers." The Nukaba are three hundred and reside in El-Gharb (Northern Africa to the West of Egypt): the Nujaba are seventy and reside in Egypt; the Abdal are forty and are found in Syria; the Akhyar are seven and travel about the earth; the Omud are four and stand in the corners of the earth. The members are not known as such to their inferior unenlightened fellow-creatures, and are often invisible to them. This is most frequently the case with the Kothb, who, though generally stationed at Mekka, on the roof of the Kaaba, is never visible there, nor at any of his other favorite stations, yet his voice is often heard at these places.

Let us add that their great power is supposed to be obtained by self-denial, implicit reliance upon God, from good genii and by the knowledge and utterance of "the most great name."

Eflaki, the historian, has given us the links of a spiritual series, through whom the mysteries of the dervish doctrines were handed down to and in the line of Jelaludin er Rumi.

Ali communicated the mysteries to the Imam Hasan of Bara, who died A.D. 728. Hasan taught them to Habib, the Persian† A.D. 724) who confided them to Dawud of the tribe Tayyi † A.D. 781) who transmitted them to Maruf of Kerkh † A.D. 818); he to Sirri († A.D. 867) and he to the great Juneyd († A.D. 909). Juneyd's spiritual pupil Shibli († A.D. 945) taught Abu-Amr Muhammed, son of Ilahim Zajjaj († A.D. 959) and his pupil was Abu-Bekr, son of Abdu-llah of Tus, who taught Abu-Ahmed Muhammed, son of Muhammed Al-Gazzali († A.D. mi), and he committed those mysteries to Ahmed el-Khatibi, Jelal's great-grandfather, who consigned them to the Imam Sarakhsi († A.D. 1175). Sarakhsi was the spiritual teacher of Jelal's father Baha Veled, who taught the Sayyid Burhanu-d-Diu Termizi, the instructor of Jelal. — -We shall now proceed with the history.

(To be continued.)

Please note the following correction of previous article: Footnote, page 143, August No. of the PATH should read "Free translation by J. Freeman Clarke."


1. Arabian Soc. in the Middle Ages. — D'Ohsson describing the Turkish Dervishes gives another account. (return to text)

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