At their peak philosophy and religion meet in the sense and contemplation of universal unity. The soul untouched by logic, too weak of wing for the metaphysical flight from the many to the one, from incident to law, might reach that vision through a mystic absorption of the separate self in the soul of the world. And where science and philosophy failed, where the brief finite reason of man faltered and turned blind in the presence of infinity, faith might mount to the feet of God by ascetic discipline, unselfish devotion, the unconditional surrender of the part to the whole.
Moslem mysticism had many roots: the asceticism of the Hindu fakirs, the Gnosticism of Egypt and Syria, the Neoplatonist speculations of the later Greeks, and the omnipresent example of ascetic Christian monks. As in Christendom, so in Islam a pious minority protested against any accommodation of religion to the interests and practices of the economic world; they denounced the luxury of caliphs, viziers, and merchants, and proposed to return to the simplicity of Abu Bekr and Omar I. They resented any intermediary between themselves and the deity; even the rigid ritual of the mosque seemed to them an obstacle to that mystic state in which the soul, purified of all earthly concerns, rose not only to the Beatific Vision but to unity with God. The movement flourished most in Persia, perhaps through proximity to India, through Christian influence at Jund-i-Shapur, and through Neoplatonist traditions established by the Greek philosophers who fled from Athens to Persia in 529. Most Moslem mystics called themselves Sufis, from the simple robe of wool (suf) that they wore; but within that term were embraced sincere enthusiasts, exalted poets, pantheists, ascetics, charlatans, and men with many wives. Their doctrine varied from time to time, and from street to street. The Sufis, said Averroës, “maintain that the knowledge of God is found in our own hearts, after our detachment from all physical desires, and the concentration of the mind upon the desired object.”78 But many Sufis tried to reach God through external objects too; whatever we see of perfection or loveliness in the world is due to the presence or operation of divinity in them. “O God,” said one mystic, “I never listen to the cry of animals, or the quivering of trees, or the murmur of water, or the song of birds, or the rustling wind, or the crashing thunder, without feeling them to be an evidence of Thy unity, and a proof that there is nothing like unto Thee.”79 In reality, the mystic held, these individual things exist only by the divine power in them; their sole reality is this underlying divinity. Therefore God is all; not only is there no god but Allah, there is no being but God.80 Consequently each soul is God; and the full-blooded mystic shamelessly avers that “God and I are one.” “Verily I am God,” said Abu Yezid (c. 900); “there is no god but me; worship me.”81 “I am He Whom I love,” said Husein al-Hallaj; “and He Whom I love is I. … I am He Who drowned the people of Noah…. I am the Truth.”82 Hallaj was arrested for exaggeration, scourged with a thousand stripes, and burned to death (922). His followers claimed to have seen and talked with him after this interruption, and many Sufis made him their favorite saint.
The Sufi, like the Hindu, believed in a course of discipline as necessary to the mystic revelation of God: purifying exercises of devotion, meditation, and prayer; the full obedience of the novice to a Sufi master or teacher; and the complete abandonment of any personal desire, even the desire for salvation or the mystical union. The perfect Sufi loves God for His own sake, not for any reward; “the Giver,” said Abu’l-Qasim, “is better for you than the gift.”83 Usually, however, the Sufi valued his discipline as a means of reaching a true knowledge of things, sometimes as a curriculum leading to a degree of miraculous power over nature, but almost always as a road to union with God. He who had completely forgotten his individual self in such union was called al-insanu-l-Kamil—the Perfect Man.84 Such a man, the Sufis believed, was above all laws, even above the obligation to pilgrimage. Said a Sufi verse: “All eyes toward the Kaaba turn, but ours to the Beloved’s face.”85
Until the middle of the eleventh century the Sufis continued to live in the world, sometimes with their families and their children; even the Sufis attached small moral worth to celibacy. “The true saint,” said Abu Said, “goes in and out amongst the people, eats and sleeps with them, buys and sells in the market, marries and takes part in social intercourse, and never forgets God for a single moment.”86 Such Sufis were distinguished only by their simplicity of life, their piety and quietism, very much like the early Quakers; and occasionally they gathered around some holy teacher or exemplar, or met in groups for prayer and mutual stimulation to devotion; already in the tenth century those strange dervish dances were taking form which were to play so prominent a part in later Sufism. A few became recluses and tormented themselves, but asceticism was in this period discountenanced and rare. Saints, unknown to early Islam, became numerous in Sufism. One of the earliest was a woman, Rabia al-Adawiyya of Basra (717–801). Sold as a slave in youth, she was freed because her master saw a radiance above her head while she prayed. Refusing marriage, she lived a life of self-denial and charity. Asked if she hated Satan, she answered, “My love for God leaves me no room for hating Satan.” Tradition ascribes to her a famous Sufi saying: “O God! Give to Thine enemies whatever Thou hast assigned to me of this world’s goods, and to Thy friends whatever Thou hast assigned to me in the life to come; for Thou Thyself art sufficient for me.”87
Let us take, as an example of many Sufis, the saint and poet Abu Said ibn Abi’l-Khayr (967–1049). Born in Mayhana in Khurasan, he knew Avicenna; story has it that he said of the philosopher, “What I see he knows,” and that the philosopher said of him, “What I know he sees.”88 In his youth he was fond of profane literature, and claims to have memorized 30,000 verses of pre-Islamic poetry. One day, in his twenty-sixth year, he heard a lecture by Abu Ali, who took as text the ninth verse of the sixth sura of the Koran: “Say Allah! then leave them to amuse themselves in their vain discourse.” “At the moment of hearing this word,” Abu Said relates, “a door in my breast was opened, and I was rapt from myself.” He collected all his books and burned them. “The first step in Sufism,” he would say, “is the breaking of inkpots, the tearing up of books, the forgetting of all kinds of knowledge.” He retired to a niche in a chapel of his home; “there I sat for seven years, saying continually, ‘Allah! Allah! Allah!’”; such repetition of the Holy Name was, with Moslem mystics, a favorite means of realizing fana—“passing away from self.” He practiced several forms of asceticism: wore the same shirt always, spoke only in dire need, ate nothing till sunset, and then only a piece of bread; never lay down to sleep; made an excavation in the wall of his niche or cell, just high and broad enough to stand in, often closed himself within it, and stuffed his ears to hear no sound. Sometimes at night he would lower himself by a rope into a well, head downward, and recite the entire Koran before emerging—if we were to believe the testimony of his father. He made himself a servant to other Sufis, begged for them, cleaned their cells and privies. “Once, whilst I was seated in the mosque, a woman went up on the roof and bespattered me with filth; and still I heard a voice saying, ‘Is not thy Lord enough for thee?’” At forty he “attained to perfect illumination,” began to preach, and attracted devoted audiences; some of his hearers, he assures us, smeared their faces with his ass’s dung “to gain a blessing.”89 He left his mark on Sufism by founding a monastery of dervishes, and formulating for it a set of rules that became a model for similar institutions in later centuries.
Like Augustine, Abu Said taught that only God’s grace, not man’s good works, would bring salvation; but he thought of salvation in terms of a spiritual emancipation independent of any heaven. God opens to man one gate after another. First the gate of repentance, then
the gate of certainty, so that he accepts contumely and endures abasement, and knows for certain by Whom it is brought to pass…. Then God opens to him the gate of love; but still he thinks, “I love.” … Then God opens to him the gate of unity … thereupon he perceives that all is He, all is by Him … he recognizes that he has not the right to say, “I” or “mine” … desires fall away from him, and he becomes free and calm…. Thou wilt never escape from thy self until thou slay it. Thy self, which is keeping thee far from God, and saying “So-and-so has treated me ill… such a one has done well by me”—all this is polytheism; nothing depends upon the creatures, all upon the Creator. This must thou know; and having said it, thou must stand firm…. To stand firm means that when thou hast said “One,” thou must never again say “Two.” …Say “Allah!” and stand firm there.90
The same Hindu-Emersonian doctrine appears in one of the many quatrains dubiously ascribed to Abu Said:
Said I, “To whom belongs Thy beauty?” He
Replied, “Since I alone exist, to Me;
Lover, Beloved, and Love am I in one;
Beauty, and Mirror, and the eyes that see.”91
There being no church to canonize such heroes of ecstasy, they received the informal canonization of popular acclaim; and by the twelfth century the Koranic discouragement of the worship of saints as a form of idolatry had been overwhelmed by the natural sentiments of the people. An early saint was Ibrahim ibn Adham (eighth century?), the Abou ben Adhem of Leigh Hunt. Popular imagination attributed miraculous powers to such saints: they knew the secrets of clairvoyance, thought reading, and telepathy; they could swallow fire or glass unhurt, pass through fire unburnt, walk upon water, fly through the air, and transport themselves over great distances in a moment’s time. Abu Said reports feats of mind reading as startling as any in current mythography.92 Day by day the religion that some philosophers supposed to be the product of priests is formed and re-formed by the needs, sentiment, and imagination of the people; and the monotheism of the prophets becomes the polytheism of the populace.
Orthodox Islam accepted Sufism within the Moslem fold, and gave it considerable latitude of expression and belief. But this shrewd policy was refused to heresies that concealed revolutionary politics, or preached an anarchism of morality and law. Of many half-religious half-political revolts the most effective was that of the “Ismaila.” In Shia doctrine, it will be recalled, each generation of Ali’s descendants, to the twelfth, was headed by a divine incarnation or Imam, and each Imam named his successor. The sixth, Jafar al-Sadiq, appointed his eldest son Ismail to succeed him; Ismail, it is alleged, indulged in wine; Jafar rescinded his nomination, and chose another son, Musa, as seventh Imam (c. 760). Some Shi’ites held the appointment of Ismail to be irrevocable, and honored him or his son Muhammad as seventh and last Imam. For a century these “Ismailites” remained a negligible sect; then Abdallah ibn Qaddah made himself their leader, and sent missionaries to preach the doctrine of the “Seveners” throughout Islam. Before initiation into the sect the convert took an oath of secrecy, and pledged absolute obedience to the Dai-d-Duat, or Grand Master of the order. The teaching was divided into exoteric and esoteric: the convert was told that after passing through nine stages of initiation all veils would be removed, the Talim or Secret Doctrine (that God is All) would be revealed to him, and he would then be above every creed and every law. In the eighth degree of initiation the convert was taught that nothing can be known of the Supreme Being, and no worship can be rendered Him.93 Many survivors of old communistic movements were drawn to the Ismaila by the expectation that a Mahdi or Redeemer would come, who would establish a regime of equality, justice, and brotherly love on the earth. This remarkable confraternity became in time a power in Islam. It won North Africa and Egypt, and founded the Fatimid dynasty; and late in the ninth century it gave birth to a movement that almost brought an end to the Abbasid caliphate.
When Abdallah ibn Qaddah died in 874, an Iraqi peasant named Hamdan ibn al-Ashrath, popularly known as Qarmat, became the leader of the Ismaili sect, and gave it such energy that for a time in Asia it was called, after him, Qaramita, the Carmathians. Planning to overthrow the Arabs and restore the Persian Empire, he secretly enlisted thousands of supporters, and persuaded them to contribute a fifth of their property and income to a common treasury. Again an element of social revolution entered into what was ostensibly a form of mystical religion: the Carmathians advocated a communism of both property and women,94 organized workmen into guilds, preached universal equality, and adopted an allegorical freethinking interpretation of the Koran. They disregarded the rituals and fasts prescribed by orthodoxy, and laughed at the “asses” who offered worship to shrines and stones.95 In 899 they established an independent state on the west shore of the Persian Gulf; in 900 they defeated the caliph’s army, leaving hardly a man of it alive; in 902 they ravaged Syria to the gates of Damascus; in 924 they sacked Basra, then Kufa; in 930 they plundered Mecca, slew 30,000 Moslems, and carried off rich booty, including the veil of the Kaaba and the Black Stone itself.* The movement exhausted itself in its successes and excesses; citizens united against its threat to property and order; but its doctrines and violent ways were passed on in the next century to the Ismaili of Alamut—the hashish-inspired Assassins.