The Path – May 1886

SUFISM: I — C. H. A. Bjerregaard

In Two Parts: Part I, Texts; Part II, Symbols.

The spirit of Sufism is best expressed in the couplet of Katebi:

"Last night a nightingale sung his song, perched on a high cypress, when the rose, on hearing his plaintive warbling, shed tears in the garden, soft as the dews of heaven."


Sufism has not yet received fair treatment in any publication that has appeared in Western literature.

The reason is that no Western writer upon the subject has endeavored to understand it, either because of an intellectual bias or from willful perversion. Most treatises are written under strong dogmatic prejudices, or by persons intellectually and morally incapable of rising to the A B C of a spiritual philosophy.

The present attempt to represent the doctrines and practices of Sufism has been made in the hope of overcoming the effect of these evils. We have studied patiently Sufism from Sufi works and claim to be in full sympathy with our subject.

That which we here present to the judgment of the candid reader is a part of a larger work we have been engaged on for many years; a work designed as a text book for students in Mysticism. This fact, the intention of making a text book for reference on all mystic questions, will account for the unusual method adopted in this series of articles.

In the first part we shall give a resume of Sufi doctrine with copious quotations from Sufi works. In the second we shall give a full exposition of Sufi practices and symbols.

The following is a partial list of works consulted and quoted without further reference:

Tholuck, Sufismus, sive theosophia persarum — Tholuck, Bluthensamm-lung der morgenl Mystik — Malcolm, Hist. of Persia — Trans. of the lit. soc. of Bombay, vol. i, art. by Capt. Graham — J. von Hammer, Geschichte der Schonen Redekunste Persiens, mit einer Bluthenlese — Garcin de Tassy, la poesie phil. et rel. chez les Persans, in Rev. cont. 1856 — Fleischer, uber die farbigen Lichterscheinungen der Sufis, in Zeitsh. f. morgl. Geselsch. vol. 16 — G. P. Brown, The Dervishes, or Oriental Spiritualism — Journal of Am. Orient. Soc., vol. 8 — The Dabistan, or school of sects — E. H. Palmer, Oriental Mysticism — Persian Poetry by S. Robinson — Th. P. Hughes, Dict. of Islam — Ousely, Biographical notices of Persian poets — Omar Khayyam, see ed. illust. by Vedder — Al Gazzali, la perle precieuse, par L Gautier — Allegories recits poetiques traduit de l'arabe, du persan &c., par Garcin de Tassy — Al Gazzali, Alchemy of Happiness tr. by H. A. Homes — Hammer-Purgstall, Literatur-Geschichte der Araber — The works of Nizami, Saadi, Attar, Jellalladin Rumi, Hafiz, Jami, Hatifi, &c., in English, French, German and Latin translations — Lane's transl. of the Quran — &c., &c.


It is generally conceded among the Sufis that one of the great founders of their system, as found in Islam, was the adopted son and son-in-law of the Prophet, Ali-ibn-Abi-Talib. But it is also admitted that their religious system has always existed in the world, prior to Mohammed. It is known that a tribe, Sufah, from whom possibly the name is derived, in "the time of ignorance" separated themselves from the world and devoted themselves to spiritual exercises like those of the present Sufis.

Sufism in its best known forms must thus be considered to be the philosophy of Mohammedanism and to represent the protest of the human soul against the formalism and barrenness of the letter of the Quran. Still there is much in favor of Schmokler's assertion (Essai sur les ecoles philos. chez les Arabes) that Sufism is neither a philosophical system nor the creed of a religious sect, but simply a way of living.

Perhaps the simplest statement is this: Sufism is Theosophy from the standpoint of Mohammedanism.

Said-Abul-Chair (about A. D. 820) is often called the author of Sufism. Abu Hashem (A. D. 767) has been called the first Sufi.

The Dabistan maintains the identity of the pure Sufis and that of Platonism and it has popularly been supposed that Sufism has borrowed very much from the Vedanta and from Plato and Aristotle; it has even been confidently asserted that the similarity is so striking to the student, that it is a most easy matter to find identical statements in either of them. We must confess that our study does not prove the assertion. The similarity is to be accounted for by the universality of truth.


The root of the word implies wisdom, the Greek Sophia, purity, spirituality, etc. Some have connected it with suf, wool, on account of the woolen garment worn by the devotees.

Graham (1) maintains that "any person or a person of any religion or sect, may be a Sufi. The mystery lies in this: a total disengagement of the mind from all temporal concerns and worldly pursuits; an entire throwing off not only of every superstition, doubt, or the like, but of the practical mode of worship, ceremonies, etc., laid down in every religion, which the Mohammedans term Sheriat, being the law, or canonical law; and entertaining solely mental abstraction, and contemplation of the soul and Deity, their affinity, etc." In short, Sufism may be termed the religion of the heart, as opposed to formalism and ritualism.

"Traces of the Sufi doctrine exist in some shape or other in every region of the world. It is to be found in the most splendid theogonies of the ancient school of Greece and of the modern philosphers of Europe. It is the dream of the most ignorant and the most learned, and is seen at one time indulging in the shade of ease, at another traversing the pathless desert." (Malcolm Hist. of Persia.)

Abu-Said-Abul-Chair, the accredited founder of Sufism, when asked what Sufism was, answered: "What you have in the head, give it up; what you have in the hand, throw it away; whatever may meet you, depart not from it."

Dschuneid, a Sufi Shaikh, thus defined Sufism: "To liberate the mind from the violence of the passions, to put off nature's claims, to extirpate human nature, to repress the sensual instinct, to acquire spiritual qualities, to be elevated through an understanding of wisdom, and to practice that which is good — that is the aim of Sufism."

Abul Hussein Nuri thus expressed himself: "Sufism is neither precept nor doctrine, but something inborn. If it were a precept, it could be followed; if it were a doctrine, it could be learned; it is rather something inborn — and as the Quran says: 'Ye are created in the image of God.' Evidently no one can, either by application or by teaching, possess himself of the likeness of God."


The Deity alone is and permeates all things. All visible and invisible things are an emanation from Deity, and are not absolutely distinct from it.

One sect "the Unionists," believe that God is as one with every enlightened being. They compare the Almighty to a flame, and their souls to charcoal; and say, that in the same manner that charcoal when it meets flame, becomes flame, the immortal part, from its union with God becomes God.

According to the Dabistan, the presence of the universal Deity is fivefold. The first is the presence of "the absolute mystery." The absolute mystery is one with "the invariable prototypes" (or realities of things). The second is the presence of "the relative mystery," and this belongs to pure intellects and spirits. The third is the presence of "the mysterious relation," which is nearest to the absolute evidence: this is the world of similitude or dream. The fourth is the presence of the "absolute evidence" which reaches from the center of the earth to the middle of the ninth empyrean heaven. The fifth is "the presence of the rest," and this is the universe in an extensive, and mankind in a restricted acceptation.

Silvestre de Sacy gives the following explanation to the above from Jorjani. The five divine presences are (1) the presence of the absolute absence (or mystery); its world is the world of the fixed substances in the scientific presence. To the presence of the absolute mystery is opposed: (2) the presence of the absolute assistance; it is the world of the throne or seat of God, of the four elemental natures. (3) The presence of the relative absence; this is divided into two parts: The one nearer the presence of the absolute mystery; the world of which is that of spirits, which belong to what is called intelligences and bare souls: the other: (4) Nearer the presence of the absolute assistance: the world of which is that of models (images). (5) The presence which comprises the four preceding ones, and its world is the world of mankind, a world which reunites all the worlds, and all they contain.

good and evil: ethics

There is no absolute difference between Good and Evil; all that exists, exists in unity and God is the real author of all the acts of mankind.

The Sufi says that evil only came into the world through ignorance, and that ignorance is the cause of error and disunion among men. The following tale answers to the point: "Four travelers — a Turk, an Arab, a Persian, and a Greek, having met together, decided to take their meal in common, and as each one had but ten paras, they consulted together as to what should be purchased with the money. The first said Uzum, the second Ineb, the third decided in favor of Inghur, and the fourth insisted upon Stafilion. On this a dispute arose between them and they were about to come to blows, when a peasant passing by happened to know all four of their tongues, and brought them a basket of grapes. They now found out, greatly to their astonishment, that each one had what he desired."

They believe the emanating principle, proceeding from God, can do nothing without His will and can refrain from nothing that He wills. Some of them deny the existence of evil on the ground that nothing but good can come from God.

The Dabistan: One sect, "the Eternals," conceive that man is taught his duty by a mysterious order of priesthood, (2) whose number and ranks are fixed, and who rise in gradation from the lowest paths to the sublimest height of divine knowledge.

Another sect, "the Enlightened," teach that men's actions should neither proceed from fear of punishment nor the hope of reward, but from innate love of virtue, and detestation of vice.

the soul, its life and conditions

The soul existed, before the body and is confined in it like in a cage. To the Sufi, death is liberation and return to the Deity.

The soul is confined in a body (metempsychosis) to be purified, to fulfill its destination, the union with Deity.

Without the grace of God (Fazlu allah) no soul can attain this union, but God's grace can be obtained by fervently asking for it.

The soul of man is of God, not from God, an exile from Him; it lives in the body as in a prison and banishment from God. Before its exile the soul saw Truth, but here it only has glimpses "to awaken the slumbering memory of the past." The object of all Sufi teaching is to lead the soul onward by degrees to reach that stage again.

"You say 'the sea and the waves,' but in that remark you do not believe that you signify distinct objects, for the sea when it heaves produces waves, and the waves when they settle down again become sea; in the same manner men are the waves of God, and after death return to His bosom. Or, you trace with ink upon paper the letters of the alphabet, a, b, c; but these letters are not distinct from the ink which enabled you to write them; in the same manner the creation is the alphabet of God, and is lost in Him."


are matters of indifference; still they serve as stepping-stones to realities. Some are more useful than others, among which is al-Islam, of which Sufism is the true philosophy.

the world, &c.

The world is life and intellect, as far as the mineral kingdom; but the manifestation of intellect in everybody is determined by the temperature of the human constitution. Sometimes beauty attains an excellence which is uttered with ecstasy, and becomes a modulation more powerful than that which strikes the ear; and this is the work of the prophet.

the tarigah or "journey of life" and its states

The main duty of this life is Meditation on the Unity of Deity (wahdaniyah), the Remembrance of God's Name (Zikr), and Progression in the Tarigah (the Path, the Journey of Life).

Human life is a journey (safar) and the seekers after God are travellers (salik). Perfect knowledge (marifah) of Deity as diffused throughout creation is the purpose of the journey. Sufism is the guide, and the end of the journey, is Union with God.

The natural state of every human being is nasut. In this slate the disciple cannot yet observe the Law (shariat). This is the lowest form of spiritual existence.

The states in the Tarigah are the following:

The first state is called Shariat — the state of law or method. The student's passions are in this degree checked by a rigid observance of ritual, &c., whereby he learns human nature and to respect order and finds out for himself the rudiments of a knowledge of God.

The second state is Tureequt or the way, or road. This state implies mental or spiritual worship, abstracted totally from the above. The student learns to see the propaedeutic nature of ceremonies and devotes himself to realities. At this stage the ascetic exercises begin and he holds communion with Melkut or the angelic world.

The third state, Huqeequt, or the state of truth is the state of inspiration or greater natural knowledge. The Sufi now lives no more in faith but in subjective truth and spiritual power; he has seen the similarity of God's nature and his own; all antinomies are destroyed, even sin disappears from his reflections.

The fourth and last state is Marifut or union of spirit and soul with God. "Union (with God) is reality, or the state, truth and perception of things, when there is neither lord nor servant." Still "the man of God is not God; but he is not separate from God." At this stage man's "corporeal veil will be removed, and his emancipated soul will mix again with the glorious essence, from which it had been separated, though not divided." (3)

Aziz Ibn Muhammad Nafasi in a book called al-Maqsadu 'l-Aqsa or the "Remotest Aim," (trans, in E. H. Palmer's Oriental Mysticism) marks out the journey a little differently from that already described.

When a man possessing the necessary requirements of fully developed reasoning powers turns to them for a resolution of his doubts and uncertainties concerning the real nature of the Godhead, he is called a talib "a searcher after God."

If he has further desire for progress he is called a "murid" or "one who inclines," and he places himself under the instruction and guidance of a teacher and becomes a "traveller."

The first stage of his journey is called "ubudiyah" or "service" and is as described above.

The second stage is ishq or "love." He loves God. The divine love filling his heart, it expels all other loves and brings him to the third stage, Zuhd or "seclusion." He occupies himself exclusively with contemplation of God and his attributes, and comes to the fourth state, Marifah or "knowledge."

When settled he is come to the fifth stage, wajd or "ecstasy" he now receives revelations and soon reaches the sixth stage, that of hagigah or "truth" and proceeds to the final state, that of "wasl," or "union with God."

He has now finished the journey and remains in the state he has come to, still going on, however, progressing in depth of understanding. Finally he comes to "the total absorption into Deity."

The Zikr, or ecstastic exercises belonging to the training on this journey, will be explained in our second part: Symbols.

the seven way-stations of pilgrimage are these: (4)

The first degree consists of penitence, obedience, and meditation, and in this degree the light is, as it were, green.

The second degree is the purity of the Spirit from satanic qualities, violence, and brutality, because as long as the spirit is the slave of satanic qualities, it is subject to concupiscence, and this is the quality of fire. In this state Iblis evinces his strength, and when the spirit is liberated from this, it is distressed with the quality of fierceness, which may be said to be flashing and this is conformable to the property of wind. Then it becomes insatiable (lit. eager after anything to excess), and this is similar to water. After this it obtains quietness, and this quality resembles earth (i.e., apathy or cessation from all action). In the degree of repose, the light is as it were, blue, and the utmost reach of one's progress is the earthly dominion.

The third degree is the manifestation of the heart, by laudable qualities, which is similar to red light, and the utmost reach of its progress is the middle of the upper dominion; and in this station the heart praises God, and sees the light of worship and spiritual qualities.

The fourth degree is the applying of the constitution to nothing else but to God and this is similar to yellow light, and the utmost reach of its progress is the midst of the heavenly Malkat "dominion."

The fifth degree of the soul is that which resembles white light, and the utmost aim of its progress is the extreme heavenly dominion.

The sixth degree is the hidden, which is like a black light, and the utmost reach of its progress is "the world of power."

The seventh degree is "the evanescence of evanescence," which is annihilation " and ''eternal life,'' and is colorless. It is absorption in God, non-existence and effacement of the imaginary in the true being, like the loss of a drop of water in the ocean. It is eternal life as the union of the drop with the sea. "Annihilation" is not to be taken in the common acceptation, but in a higher sense, "annihilation in God."

sufi symbolical language

The Sufis inculcate the doctrine, "Adore the Deity in his creatures." It is said in a verse of the Quran — "It is not given to man that the Deity should speak to him; if it does so it is by inspirations, or through a veil." Thus all the efforts of man should tend to raise the veil of divine love and to the annihilation of the individuality which separates him from the Divine essence; and this expression "raise up the veil" has remained in the language of the East as expressive of great intimacy.

One of the most violent and able of the enemies of the Sufis, says that they deem everything in the world a type of the beauty and power of the Deity and adds that it appears from both their actions and writings, that it is in the red cheeks of beautiful damsels that they contemplate its beauty; and in the "impious" daring of Nimrod and of Pharaoh, that they see and admire the omnipotence of its power. (5)

The Persian commentator Suruni says in regard to sexual love: "the beauty of the wife is a ray from God and not from the beloved herself. The Mystic recognizes the fact of the divine beauty everywhere in creation, and loves because he in beauty sees a revelation of the blessings of the divine name. It is therefore the prophet says he prefers these three things to all others: women, incense, and enjoyments."

Jellaladdin Rumi said: "They (the Sufis) profess eager desire, but with no carnal affection, and circulate the cup, but no material goblet: since all things are spiritual, all is mystery within mystery."

Jami exclaims, addressing the Deity:

Sometimes the wine, sometimes the cup we call Thee!
Sometimes the lure, sometimes the net we call Thee!
Except Thy name, there is not a letter on the tablet of the universe:
Say, by what name shall we call Thee?

Nizami explains himself:

Think not that when I praise wine I mean the juice of the grape;
I mean that wine which raiseth me above self,
"My cup-bearer" is to perform my vow to God:
"My morning draught from the tavern" is the wine of self oblivion.
My heaven so long as I have enjoyed existence.
Never hath the tip of my lip been stained with wine!

In regard to Hafis it is maintained that by wine he invariably means devotion; and his admirers have gone so far as to compose a dictionary of words of the language, as they call it, of the Sufis. In that vocabulary sleep is explained by meditation on the divine perfections, and perfume by hope of divine favor; gales (i.e. Zephyrs) are illapses of grace; kisses and embraces, the raptures of piety; idolators, infidels, and libertines are men of the purest religion, and their idol is the creator himself: the tavern is the cell where the searcher after truth becomes intoxicated with the wine of divine love. Read with this key to the esoteric meaning, Mr. Clouston says, the gazelles of Hafis are no longer anacreontic and bacchanalian effusions, but ecstatic lucubrations on the love of man to his creator. The keeper, or wine seller, the spiritual instructor: beauty denotes the perfection of the supreme being; tresses and curls are the expansion and infiniteness of his glory; lips, the hidden and inscrutable mysteries of his essence; down on the cheek, the world of spirits, who encircle the creator's throne; and a black mole is the point of indivisible unity; lastly, wantonness, mirth and ebriety, mean religious ardor, ecstasy and abstraction from all terrestrial thoughts and contempt for all worldly things.

Mohemmed Missiree: On the Tesavuf, or spiritual life of the Sufis. Translated from the Turkish by John P. Brown, Esq., of the American embassy at Constantinople. (In Journ. of Am. Orient. Soc. vol. viii.):

What is the beginning of at-Tesavuf? Faith, which has six pillars, namely: (1) Belief in God, (2) in His Angels, (3) in His Books, (4) in His Prophets, (5) and in the Last Day, and (6) in His decree of Good and Evil. What is the result of the Tesavuf? It is not only the reciting with the tongue of these pillars of faith but also establishing them in the heart. What is the distinction between a Sufi and an ordinary person? The knowledge of an ordinary person is a "counterfeit faith" whereas that of the Sufi is "true faith" What do you mean by "counterfeit faith?" It is that which an ordinary person has derived from his forefathers, or from the teachers and preachers of his own day, without knowing why it is essential that a man should believe in these six articles for his soul's salvation. What is the proof of faith? The proof of faith consists in a search being made for the true origin of each of these six pillars of faith, until the enquirer arrives at "the Truth." The Sufis regard certain things as lawful which are forbidden. For instance, they enjoin the use of wine, wine-shops, the wine-cup, sweethearts; they speak of the curls of their mistresses, and the moles on their faces, cheeks, &c. and compare the furrows on their brows to verses of the Quran. What does this mean? The Sufis often exchange the external features of all things for the internal, the corporeal for the spiritual, and thus give an imaginary signification to outward forms. They behold objects of a precious nature in their natural character and for this reason the greater part of their words have a spiritual and figurative meaning. For instance, when, like Hafis, they mention wine, they mean a knowledge of God, which, figuratively considered, is the love of God. Wine, viewed figuratively, is also love; love and affection are here the same thing. The wine-shop, with them, means "spiritual director," for his heart is said to be the depository of the love of God. The sweetheart means the excellent preceptor, because, when anyone sees his beloved, he admires her perfect proportions, with a heart full of love. As the lover delights in the presence of his sweetheart, so the Salik rejoices in the company of his beloved preceptor. The sweetheart is the object of a worldly affection, but the preceptor of a spiritual attachment. The curls or ringlets of the beloved are the grateful praises of the preceptor, tending to bind the affections of the disciple; the moles on her face signify that when the pupil, at times, beholds the total absence of all worldly wants on the part of the preceptor, he also abandons all the desires of both worlds — he perhaps even goes so far as to desire nothing else in life than his preceptor; the furrows on the brow of the beloved one, which they compare to verses of the Quran, mean the light of the heart of the preceptor; they are compared to verses of the Quran, because the attributes of God, in accordance with the injunction of the Prophet, "Be ye endued with divine qualities," are possessed by the preceptor.

(To be continued.)


1. Trans. Bomb. lit. Soc. Comp. the Dabistan. (return to text)

2. The Dabistan: The prophet is a person who is sent to the people as their guidege to the perfection which is fixed for them in the presence of God, according to the exigency of the dispositions determined by the fixed substances, whether it be the perfection of faith, or another. (return to text)

3. It is to this state the Sufis refer Mohammed's words: "I have moments when neither prophet nor angel can comprehend me." (return to text)

4. From the Dabistan. Comp. Zeitschrift d. morgl. Gesellsch,16 art. by Fleischer Ueber die farbigen lichterscheinungen der Sufis. (return to text)

5. J. P. Brown, Dervishes pp. 333. (return to text)

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