The Path – October 1886

SUFISM: VI — 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.

Zaous Abou Add er-Rahman, of Persian origin, but born in Yemen, led the way. He had passed his early youth in the society of Zein el Abidin, the son of Hasan, and grandson of Ali, and the first of that family who in life and writing professed the mystical ideas and austere practices, which ever afterwards distinguished the race. Abou-Horeirah, the devoutest of Mohammed's own companions, and EbnAbbas were also his masters. He took up his abode at Mecca, the center of religious feeling, and soon Zaous' influence began to appear among the crowd of pilgrims from all parts of the Mohammedan empire; they began to imitate his long prayers, his fasts, and extreme poverty, and above all his open contempt for all worldly dignity and rank, and many adopted the peculiarity of his dress, the long and patched garment and the high woollen cap, both of which later became so characteristic of the Sufi.

One of his most distinguished followers was Hasan Yesar, like Zaous, of Persian origin, but born in Arabia, in Medinah. Having received his liberty (he was born after his mother had become a slave of Omm Salma, one of the numerous wives of the Prophet), he retired to Basra, on the Persian Gulf, a town known for its attachment to the family of Ali and their doctrines, and henceforth a stronghold of the ascetic sect. His life proved the truth and strength of his doctrines, and Basra was now their headquarters.

Malik Ebn Dinar, a Persian, and a slave by birth, known for his love of manual labor, poverty and humility, next appears as chief among the ascetics of his age.

Omar Abou Othman, was a disciple of Hasan Yesar and also an inhabitant of Basra. Hasan Yesar described him as one worthy of angels and prophets for preceptors and guides, one who never exhorted save to what he had first put in practice, nor deterred from anything except what he himself inviolably abstained from. He was a vigorous asserter of man's free-will.

About the same time Omar Abou Durr at Coufa and Sofein Abou Abd Allah displayed similar examples of austerity and virtue, and so did Hammad Abou Ismail, son of the celebrated Abou Hanifah, Abd Allah Merouji, and Mohammed Ebn es Semmak.

But whether at Mecca or at Basra, the various ascetics already mentioned, and the many not mentioned; whatever personal influence they exercised, and virtues they possessed, they did not form a particular and distinct association or brotherhood. No common rule united them, nor did they group themselves around any superior or chief, as yet.

But the next prominent man among them was not only a remarkable man as an ascetic, but also the father and founder of all the numerous Dervish family. His name was Fodheil Abou Ali Zalikani. He was born of Persian parents and spent his youth as a highway robber. One night he had scaled the walls of a house where the girl of whom he was enamored dwelt, and concealed on the roof, awaited the moment to descend and gratify his passion. But while thus occupied he heard a voice repeating the well-known verse of the Quran: "Is it not high time for those who believe to open their hearts to compunction?" "Lord, it is high time indeed," replied Fodheil; and leaving the house, as well as his evil design, he retired to a half-ruined caravansarai not far off, there to pass the rest of the night. Several travellers were at the moment lodged in the caravansarai, and, concealed by the darkness, he overheard their conversation: "Let us start on our journey," said one; and the others answered: "Let us wait till morning, for the robber Fodheil is out on the roads." This completed the conversion of the already repentant highwayman. He advanced towards the travellers, and, discovering himself to them, assured them that henceforth neither they nor any others should have aught to fear from him. He then stripped himself of his weapons and worldly gear, put on a patched and tattered garment, and passed the rest of his life in wandering from place to place, in the severest penitence and in extreme poverty, sometimes alone, sometimes with numerous disciples, whom he took under his direction, and formed into a strict and organized brotherhood. But with all his austerity of life, his prolonged fasts and watchings, his ragged dress and wearisome pilgrimages, he preferred the practice of interior virtue and purity of intention to all outward observances, and used often to say that "he who is modest and compliant to others, and lives in meekness and patience, gains a higher reward by so doing than if he fasted all his days, and watched in prayer all his nights." At so high a price did he place obedience to a spiritual guide, and so necessary did he deem it, that he declared: "Had I a promise of whatever I should ask in prayer, yet would I not offer that prayer save in union with a superior." But his favorite virtue was the love of God in perfect conformity to his will, above all hope and fear. Thus when his only son — whoso virtues resembled his father's — died in early age, Fodheil was seen with a countenance of unusual cheerfulness; and being asked by his intimate disciple Ragi Abou Ali, afterwards Kadhi of the town of Rei, the reason therefore, he answered: "It was God's good pleasure, and it is therefore my good pleasure also." We must notice one more of his famous sentences: "Much is he beguiled who serves God from fear or hope, for this true service is for mere love;" and, speaking of himself: "I serve God because I cannot help serving Him for very love's sake."

Fodheil died in the year 187 of the Hegira. His disciple was Ibrahim Ebn Adhem, son of noble parents and also a Persian by birth, and he is an example upon the forbearance under injury and reluctance to have their right manifested, so prominent amongst the disciples of Fodheil.

After the death of Fodheil the supreme direction of the brotherhood was vested in Bishar el Hafi, a native of Meron and inhabitant of Bagdad. When young he had, like Fodheil, led a reckless life, till one day walking in the streets he saw written on a piece of paper, torn and trampled on by the feet of the passers-by, the name of God. He picked it up and, having cleaned it to the best of his ability, took it home and placed it out of the reach of further profanation. The same night he heard a voice saying to him; "Bishar, thou has honored my name. I will accordingly render thy name honorable in this world and in that to come." He awoke from sleep a changed man, and began a new life of penance and virtue. The name Hafi signifies barefoot. He walked barefooted. His greatest trial was from the veneration of man: "O God," he used to say, "save me from this honor, the requital of which may perchance be confusion in another life."

Our space forbids us to dwell upon the Egyptian ascetics who helped to lay the foundation for the future Sufism. We pass by them and dwell mainly with the Persian representatives.

About this time — the beginning of the fourth century — two events occurred of greatest importance in the history we are narrating. The Samanide princes had gained ascendency in the empire over the Abbaside Caliphs. All the princes of the Samanide race were remarkable for their piety and patronage of learning. Nasser Ebn Ahmed, signalized himself by his love of retirement and religious meditation. He founded an oratory at Bokhara which soon became the resort of the now numerous ascetics, and soon other similar institutions arose throughout the country and the dervishes of the East now look on them their permanent name and manner of life.

The other event which characterized this era was the outbreak of open heterodoxy among the ascetics. Hitherto they had concealed their tenets and practices, opposed as they were to the prevailing system, much after the fashion of Ali Zein el Abidin, grandson of the famous Ali, grand-master of the secret order:

"Above all things I conceal the precious jewel of my knowledge,
Lest the uninitiated should behold it, and be bewildered;
Ah, how many a rare jewel of this kind, should I openly display it,
Men would say to me: 'Thou art one of the worshippers of idols;
And Zealous Muslims would set my blood at price,
Deeming the worst of crimes an acceptable and virtuous action."

After these ascetics had learned their strength from their union they began to take part in politics and worked zealously with that party that wished to overthrow the family and religion of Mohammed and place Ali and mysticism in their stead. They accordingly soon had martyrs in their ranks. Thus died at Bagdad the famous Hosain Abou Meghith el Halladj. To his school belonged the three giants of learning and piety: Abd-el-Kadir el Ghilani, Mohi ed Din Ebn-Aarabi el Moghrebi, and Omar Ebn el Faridh. We pen a few of his words:

"I am He whom I love, and He whom I love is I;
We are two spirits, inhabiting one outward frame:
And when you behold me, you behold Him,
And when you behold Him, you behold us twain."

He taught the freedom of the human will and wrote the following satire on the predestinarian system of Islam:

What can man do, if the decrees of predestination surround him,
Binding him in his every state? answer me, O learned professor.
He (i.e., as if He, that is God) cast him into the ocean, bound hand and foot, and then said to him,
Woe to you, woe to you, should you get wet with the water."

He it is who thus in his verse addresses God:

"I love Thee with a twofold love, the love of friendship,
And the love grounded on this alone, that Thou art worthy of it.
Cut as to that my love which is the love of friendship,
It is a love which leaves me no thought for any save Thee;
And as to the love of Thee according to Thy worthiness,
O raise from betwixt us the vail, that I may behold Thee.
Nor is any praise due to me either for this or for that (love),
But to Thee alone the praise both for this and that."

Halladj's three famous disciples gave their names to the three principal brotherhoods among the Mohammedans, and their work remains to this day.

Abd-el-Kadir el Ghilani was a Persian by birth and resided at Bagdad. Nobody doubted that he was the Kothb of his time, and as such he announced himself in his ecstatic state, though ordinarily he strove to conceal himself under the veil of a mean and despicable appearance. He founded the order of the Qadiriyah which association counted in its ranks some of the greatest names among Eastern mystics and poets. The doctrine of the order was that of Hosein el Halladj, whom he taught the order to look upon as their master, though their doctrine was commonly veiled under a seemingly orthodox terminology. They subsist to this day and are counted among the most prominent.

M. D'hosson in his celebrated work on the Ottoman empire traces the origin of the Faquirs to the time of Mohammed in the following manner: In the first year of the Hegira, forty-five citizens of Mecca joined themselves to many others from Medina. They took an oath of fidelity to the doctrines of their Prophet, and formed a sect or fraternity, the object of which was to establish among themselves a community of property, and to perform every day certain religious practices in a spirit of penitence and mortification. To distinguish themselves from other Mohammedans, they took the name of Sufis. This name, which later was attributed to the most zealous partisans of Islam, is the same still in use to indicate any Muselman who retires from the world to study, to lead a life of pious contemplation, and to follow the most painful exercises of an exaggerated devotion. To the name of Sufi they added also that of Faquir, because their maxim was to renounce the goods of the earth, and to live in an entire abnegation of all worldly enjoyments, following thereby the words of the Prophet: "Poverty is my pride." Following their example, Abu Bakr and Ali established, even during the lifetime of the Prophet and under his own eyes, religious orders, over which each presided, with Zikrs or peculiar religious exercises, established by them separately, and a vow taken by each of the voluntary disciples forming them. On his decease, Abu Bakr made over his office of president to one Salmann l-Farisi, and Ali to al-Hasann l-Basri, and each of these charges were consecrated under the title of Khalifah, or successor. The two first successors followed the example of the Khalifahs of Islam, and transmitted it to their successors, and these in turn to others, the most aged and venerable of their fraternity. Some among them, led by the delirium of the imagination, wandered away from the primitive rules of their society, and converted, from time to time, these fraternities into a multitude of religious orders. * * * It was about A. H. 49 (A. D. 766) that the Shaikh Ahvan, a mystic renowned for his religious fervor, founded the first regular order of the Faquirs, now known as the Alwaniyah.

The Bastamiyah, the Nagshbandiyah, and the Bakhtashiyah descend from the original order established by Abu Bakr. All the others come from Ali.


The Arabic word Faqir signifies poor, poor in the sense of being in need of mercy, poor in the sight of God. The Persian equivalent Darvish is derived from dar "a door" — those who "beg from door to door."

The dervishes are, as stated before, the practical expounders of Mohammedanism. They are divided into two great classes, the be Shara (with the law), or those who govern their conduct according to the principles of Islam: and the be Shara (without the law), or those who do not rule their lives according to the formal principles of any religious creed, although they call themselves Muslims. To the latter, the Sufis principally belong. These Faquirs are called either Azad, the free, or Majnub the absorbed. The former shave their beards, whiskers, eyebrows, etc., and live a life of celibacy.

Every school and every brotherhood has its own distinctive teachings and technicalities, and its peculiar practices and observances, its saints and doctors, great men and founders.

A student will also readily discover a different character in Arabic and Persian Sufism. The Arabic being nearer to Christianity takes up much from it, but moulds it in its peculiar way; the Persian being nearer the traditions of Zoroaster and in immediate contact with Manechaism, naturally borrows from thence. Thus the "pantheistic" tendencies, such as Divine absorption, universal manifestation of the Deity under the seeming appearances of limited forms, the final return of all things to the unity of God, a tendency to regard matter as evil, the reprobation of marriage, etc. — these were ideas that rose from Persian soil, while the ideas of a radiant Divinity mediating between the supreme fountain-head of Being and the created world: of an all-prevading Spirit of love; of detachment from the world: of poverty, humility, etc., were more akin to Christian belief.

Still Saadis' description applies to all: "The outward tokens of a dervish are a patched garment and a shaven head; and the inward signs, those of being alive in the spirit, and dead in the flesh: — 'not he who will sit apart from his fellow-creatures at the door of supplication with God: and, if he shall reject his prayer, will stand up in disobedience; or if a mill-stone come rolling down a mountain, he is not intelligent in the ways of providence, that would rise to avoid it.'"

"The ritual of the Dervishes is gratitude and praise, worship and obedience, contentment and charity, and a belief in the unity and providence of God, having a reliance on and being resigned to his will, confident of his favour, and forbearant of all: whosoever is endowed with these qualifications is in truth a dervish, notwithstanding he be arrayed in gorgeous apparel: whereas, the irreligious and hypocritical vainboaster, sensualist, and whore monger, who turn days into nights in his slavish indulgences, and converts nights into days in his dreams of forgetfulness; who eats whatever falls in his way, and speaks whatever comes uppermost, is a profligate, though clothed in the sackcloth of a saint. ——"

The dervishes differ, says A. Vambery, (1) from each other only by the manner in which they demonstrate their enthusiasm; still the more we penetrate towards the East, the greater is the purity with which they have been preserved. In Persia the dervishes play a much more important part than in Turkey, and in Central Asia, isolated as it has been from the rest of the world for centuries, this fraternity is still in full vigor, and exercises a great influence upon society.

According to A. Vambery, the Bektashi, Mevlevi, and Rufai orders are principally found in Turkey; the Kadrie and Djelali in Arabia; the Oveisi and the Nurbakhchi Nimetullahi in Persia: the Khilali and Zahibi in India, and the Nakishbendi and Sofi (a recent order) in Central Asia.

According to Th. P. Hughes (2) the following are the chief orders of Faqirs met with in North India: (1) The Naqshbandia, the followers of Khwajah Pir Mohammed Naqshband, and are a very numerous sect; they usually perform the Zikr-i-Khafi (3) or the silent devotion. (2) The Qadiria sprung from the celebrated Sayyid Abdul Qadir, surnamed Pir Dustagir, whose shrine is at Bagdad. They practice both forms of the Zikr. Most of the Sunni Moulavis of the north-west frontier of India are members of this order. In Egypt it is most popular among the fisherman. (3) The Chishtia are followers of Banda Nawaz, whose shrine is at Calburgah; they are partial to vocal music, for the founder of the order remarked, that singing was the food and support of the soul. They perform the Zikr-i-Jali. (4) The Jalalia founded by Sayyid Jalal-ud-din of Bokhara; they are met with in Central Asia. Religious mendicants are often of this order. (5) The Sarwardia are popular in Alganistan and comprise many learned men. They are the followers of Hasan Bisri of Basra, near Bagdad. These five are all ba-Shara Faqirs.

The be-Shara Faqirs are very numerous. The most popular order is that of the Mudaria, founded by Zinda Shah Murdar of Syria, whose shrine is at Mukanpur, in Oudh. From these have sprung the Malang Faqirs who crowd the bazaars of India. They wear their hair matted or tied in a knot. The Rafia order is also a numerous one in some parts of India. They practice the most severe discipline and mortify themselves by scourging.

The secrets of the dervish orders cannot be learned. An initiation is described in Lane's Society is the Middle Ages and the following is another.

The following is the account of the admission of Tewekkul Beg into the order of the Qadiriyahfaqirs, one of the four most prominent ones, by Moolla Shah, a Saint and poet of some celebrity, who died in the year of the Hegira 1072 (1661-62 of our era), at Lahore, where his shrine was reared by the Princess Fatima, daughter of Shah-Jihan. Tewekkul is himself the narrator:

"Having been introduced, by means of Akhond Molla Mohammed Say'd into the intimate circle of Molla Shah, my heart through frequent intercourse with the Sheikh was filled with a burning desire of reaching the sublime goal [of the mystical science], and I no longer found sleep by night nor rest by day * * I passed the whole of that night without being able to shut my eyes, and betook myself to reciting a hundred thousand times the one hundred and twelfth chapter of the Qoran. I accomplished this in several days. It is well known that in this chapter of the Qoran the great Name of God is contained, and that through the power of that Name, whoever recites it a hundred thousand times may obtain all that he desires. I conceived then the wish that the Master should bestow his affection upon me. And, in fact, I convinced myself of the efficacy of this means, for hardly had I finished the hundred thousandth recitation of this chapter of the book of God, when the heart of the Master was filled with sympathy for me, and he gave order to Senghin Mohammed, his vicar, to conduct me on the following night to his presence. During that whole night he concentrated his mind upon me, while I directed my meditation upon my own heart; but the knot of my heart was not unloosed. So passed three nights, during which he made me the object of his spiritual attention, without any result being manifested. On the fourth night Molla Shah said, 'This night Molla Senghin and Salih Beg, who are both very susceptible to ecstatic emotions, will direct their whole mind upon the neophyte.' They obeyed this order, while I remained seated the whole night, my face turned towards Mecca, at the same time concentrating all my mental faculties upon my own heart. Towards daybreak, a little light and brightness came into my heart, but I could distinguish neither form nor color. After morning prayer I presented myself, and the two persons I have just mentioned, before the Master who saluted me and asked them what they had done to me. They replied: 'Ask him, himself.' Then, addressing me, he told me to relate to him my impressions. I said that I had seen a brightness in my heart; whereupon the Sheikh became animated, and said to me: 'Thy heart contains an infinity of colors, but it is become so dark that the looks of these two crocodiles of the infinite ocean [the mystic science] have not availed to bestow upon it either brightness or clearness; the moment is come when I myself will show thee how it is enlightened.' With these words he made me sit in front of him, while my senses were, so to speak, inebriated, and ordered me to reproduce within me his appearance. Then, having blindfolded me, he bade me concentrate all my mental faculties upon my heart. I obeyed, and in an instant, by the divine favor and the spiritual assistance of the Sheikh, my heart was opened. I saw then within me something like a cup, turned upside down: and this object having been turned up again, a feeling of illimitable happiness filled my whole being. I said to the Master, 'This cell, where I am sitting before you — I see a faithful reproduction of it within me, and it seems as if another Tewekkul Beg were seated before another Molla Shah.' He answered, 'It is well; the first vision which presents itself to thy view is the figure of the Master.'* * * He next bade me uncover my eves, which I did, and I then saw him, by the material organ of vision, seated in front of me. Again he made me bandage them, and I perceived him by my spiritual vision, seated in front of me just the same. Full of wonder I cried out, O my Master, whether I look with my bodily eyes or my spiritual vision, it is always you that I see. Meanwhile I saw advance towards me a dazzling figure, and upon my telling the Master of it, he bade me ask the apparition its name. In my spirit I put to it that question, and the figure answered me by the voice of the heart, 'My name is Abd Alkadir Glilany.' I heard this answer by my spiritual ear. The Master then advised me to pray the Saint to give me his spiritual help and succor. I made this petition; and the apparition said to me, 'I had already granted to thee my spiritual assistance; hence it is that the knots of thy heart have been loosed.' Full of deep gratitude, I imposed on myself the obligation of reciting every Friday night the whole Qoran in honor of this great Saint, and for two whole years I never neglected this practice. Molla Shah then said, 'The spiritual world has been shown to thee in all its beauty: remain there seated, effacing thyself completely in the marvels of this unknown world.'

"I obeyed strictly the directions of my Master, and, day by day, the spiritual world became more and more unveiled before me. The next day I saw the figures of the Prophet and his chief Companions, and legions of Saints and Angels passed before my inner vision. Three months passed in this manner, after which the sphere where all color is effaced opened before me, and then all the figures disappeared. During all this time the Master ceased not to explain to me the doctrine of the union with God and of mystical intuition. But, nevertheless, the Absolute Reality would not show itself to me. It was not until after a year that the knowledge of the Absolute Reality, in its relation with the conception of my own existence came to me. The following verses revealed themselves at that moment to my heart, whence they passed unbidden to my lips: —

'That this corruptible frame was other than water and dust
I knew not: the powers of the heart and the soul and the body I knew not,
Woe is me! that so much of my life without Thee has for ever fled from me.
Thou wert I; but dark was my heart: I knew not the secret transcendent.'

"I submitted to Molla Shah this poetical inspiration, and he rejoiced that the idea of the union with God was at last manifested to my heart: and addressing his disciples, he said: 'Tewekkul Beg has heard from my mouth the words of the doctrine of the union with God, and he will never betray the mystery. His inner eye is opened; the sphere of color and images is shown to him, and at last the sphere where all color is effaced has been revealed to him. Whoever after having passed through these phases of the union with God, has obtained the Absolute Reality, shall no more be led astray, whether by his own doubts or by those which sceptics may suggest to him."

(To be continued)


1. Intell. Obs. Vol. 7. (return to text)

2. Notes on Mohammedanism. (return to text)

3. The Zikrs will be described in next number of The Path. (return to text)

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