The Great Age of Early Sufism
The Sufi search for closeness to God began early in Islamic history. For a long time, it was pursued by individuals who had retired from worldly life. Among several interpretations of the word Sufi, the most convincing derives it from the Arabic word for wool (suf), referring to rough clothing worn by self-denying mystics.
While all Sufis find the origins of their collective vocation in the Qur'an and hadith, the most basic Islamic religious sources, the later, organized Sufi orders, or tariqas, draw their heritages from one teacher to another until the present day in a silsila, or chain of transmission through the lives of Muslim saints. The scholar Itzchak Weismann has pointed out a detail obvious to any observer of Sufism: the silsilas of Sufi orders are invented and reinvented by latter-day teachers to conform to their own interpretations, and are idealized legacies based on admiration rather than historical or religious documentation.
The silsilas of all Sufis begin with two of the outstanding companions of the Prophet Muhammad: Abubakr and Ali Ibn Abi Talib. Both were among the four original successors to Muhammad, or caliphs, in governing the Muslim community. Abubakr is also considered the progenitor of Sunni Islam, and Ali that of the Shia tradition. The great majority of Sufis, however, claim authority from Imam Ali alone. In this way, the Sufis assert their theological legitimacy as well as their continuity in history. While Sufis may formally be either Sunni or Shia, some claim to have transcended the difference, and many Sunni Sufis honor Imam Ali, the hero of the Shias, as their prime forerunner.
The first Muslim to speak eloquently of divine love, the supreme aspect of Sufi metaphysics, was a woman, Rabiya Al-Adawiyya. Rabiya died some 170 years after the life of Muhammad, in 801. She was preceded in Arab Sufism, which was then centered in Iraq, by a series of individuals described in a biographical dictionary of Sufis, the Memorials of Saints by the twelfth-century Persian writer Farid'ud'din Attar. Attar may have been the mentor of Rumi, the best-known Sufi among Westerners today.
Before Rabiya, Hasan Al-Basri, a goldsmith from the southern Iraqi city of Basra, then a great center of Mesopotamian commerce, is said to have lived in the time of Muhammad himself and to have been taught metaphysics by Imam Ali. But it is also related that Hasan Al-Basri mentored Rabiya more than a century later, in one of many examples of Sufi inspiration and companionship said to leap across time, beyond a normal life span. Hasan Al-Basri made one of the most cogent comments on religion and metaphysics known to the Sufis: When asked, "What is Islam and who is a Muslim?" he answered, "Islam is in books and the Muslim rests in a tomb."
Once, Hasan Al-Basri was walking along a river and observed a man sitting with a woman and a bottle of wine. He thought the man was hopelessly depraved and prayed that the man follow a righteous path such as the Sufi himself had chosen. But a passing boat began to sink, and the man Hasan Al-Basri had seen and lamented about leapt into the water and saved six people from drowning. The man then looked at Hasan Al-Basri and said, "If you are above me in the sight of God, at least save the seventh. But you will still have saved only one, while I have saved six." The Sufi failed to help the seventh victim and fell to the ground, crying out to the man, "You saved six people--please rescue me from drowning in the depths of my pride and vanity." Later, Hasan Al-Basri described himself as one whose ship had broken up in the sea and who then floated, barely keeping his head above the waters.
A true Sufi would hope never to be left in the condition of Hasan Al-Basri but would strive always to assist those that others have failed to protect, without judging their presumed sins and shortcomings in the observance of religion. At the same time as Hasan Al-Basri, another early Sufi, Malik Ibn Dinar, appealed for personal humility among believers, remarking, "When I came to know the injustice of the world, I ceased to care about what people said regarding me and my deeds." A Sufi acquaintance of Hasan Al-Basri, Habib Ajmi, mispronounced a word during prayer, which caused Hasan Al-Basri to move away from him and pray separately. But in a dream that night--and all Sufis believe dreams are sources of guidance--God told Hasan Al-Basri, "Your prayer would have earned divine approval, and that single prayer would have equaled all the prayers you have said in your life, if you had remained in prayer with Habib Ajmi. You were disapproving of his pronunciation but ignored the purity of his heart. A contrite heart is more valuable than exact pronunciation." Hasan Al-Basri then asked Habib Ajmi how the latter had achieved his high spiritual rank, and Habib Ajmi replied, "Brightening the heart through prayer is better than darkening paper with writing." Such insights are essential elements of Sufi teaching.
In the metaphysical journey of Rabiya Al-Adawiyya, Hasan Al-Basri was said to be grateful to Rabiya for the blessing that she had conferred on him by seeking his guidance, which led him to mystical ecstasy. Rabiya was born and studied religion in Basra, in one of the finest Islamic schools of the period. The Indian Muslim author and father of the idea of the nation of Pakistan, Muhammad Iqbal, referred to Basra in that era as "the play-ground of various forces--Greek philosophy, skepticism, Christianity, Buddhist ideas, Manichaeism."
The course of study in Basra at the time of Rabiya encompassed the Arabic language, literary style, and "theological rational grammar." The Qur'an was taught in Basra by recitation aloud. Rabiya committed herself to spiritual devotion, declaring that we are compelled to love God as the Creator. The passion of Rabiya for God was profound and fecund. She produced poetry in which she celebrated her love for the Lord of the Universe as well as her gratitude to God for permitting her love to exist.
Rabiya wrote, "I have never worshipped God so that I would be rewarded; nor have I prayed to be saved. If I did I should be an ordinary servant. I pray only because I love God with all my soul. To weep and cry out for God's mercy would be for nothing; for all I want is to approach God and dissolve my inner self in Him." These lines could stand as a summary of all tasawwuf, or Islamic spiritual purification, as well as of the main themes in Jewish and Christian mysticism. The writings of Rabiya and many who came after her resemble parts of the Song of Songs ascribed to Solomon and beloved by the traditional Jewish Kabbalists.
As a female Muslim saint, Rabiya is a challenging figure, for Westerners as well as for Islamic fundamentalists. Although Westerners presume that Islam completely suppresses women, Rabiya inaugurated a great Islamic tradition. Yet a modern publisher of Farid'ud'din Attar's work, Bankey Behari, has commented that in the decades before her, "Arabian and Persian women saints especially . . . shed tears of blood in pangs of separation [from] the Lord and kept night-long vigils" in prayer and meditation. In addition, Westerners believe prayer and fear of God are the exclusive bases of Islam. But Rabiya introduced passion into the Islamic idiom. She was said to have walked through the streets of Basra with a torch and pail of water, declaring that her love for God would burn down heaven and drown hellfire.
The simplicity of Rumi has made him popular with Western readers. The verses of Rabiya similarly have a directness that can attract contemporary seekers of Judeo-Christian no less than Islamic metaphysics. Charles Upton is an American author whose literary career began with the help of the beat poet Lew Welch, who in turn was a friend and companion of the Zen Buddhist poets Gary Snyder and Philip Whalen, as well as of Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg. Upton has published sensitive versions of Rabiya, such as the following:
The source of my grief and loneliness is deep in my breast.
This is a disease no doctor can cure.
Only Union with the Friend [God] can cure it.
I was not born to the Grief of God--
I only grieve to be like those
Who are pierced with the love of God--
I would be ashamed for my love
To appear less than the grief of others:
Therefore I grieve.
Many miracles are ascribed to Rabiya. A Muslim pilgrim, Ibrahim Adham, made the hajj pilgrimage to Mecca with such dedication to faith that he completed the basic Islamic prayer at each step. His trip to the holy city took fourteen years, but when he arrived he found that the Ka'bah, the temple of One God to which all Muslims turn in prayer, had vanished. Then a voice told him, "The Ka'bah has gone to meet Rabiya." The Ka'bah returned to Mecca and Rabiya was seen approaching the town, slowed down by age. Ibrahim Adham reproached her for "strange behavior that provokes outcry everywhere." She replied, "I do no such thing, while you spent fourteen years traveling to Mecca, for the sake of renown. Your path was covered by prayer, but mine was followed in the way of subordination and humility."
In the age of Rabiya, Islamic metaphysics sank deep roots among ordinary believers. The Islamic author Khalid Duran equated the rise of Sufism with protests against the corruptions of wealth, but also argued that a fracture runs through Islamic history between the "legalists," who are hunters of heresy and haters, and the mystics, who are pluralists and lovers.
The tomb of Rabiya is located near the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem and was often visited by non-Muslims as well as Muslims. The outstanding Muslim thinker Abu Hamid Al-Ghazali (1058-1111), traditionally considered the most important theologian of the religion after Muhammad, described Rabiya's vision by writing of two loves, "first to thank God for his attention shown to her; and [second] her attraction [to] his sight and divinity. The latter is the more attractive and advanced kind of love, because such love was attested by the Prophet, who said in a hadith, 'I have prepared for my servants eyes and ears which no others possess. They would take pleasure in things that others cannot.' "
The most important Arab Sufi after the Basra school is known as Dhu'l-Nun (died ca. 859). He was the founder of Muslim mysticism in Egypt, and his tomb is a prominent monument near Cairo. Attar described him as "a spiritual king" but reported that the Egyptians accused him of heresy and harassed him throughout his life. He was denounced to the caliph in Baghdad but released when the ruler observed his piety; he was also imprisoned, then freed, in Mecca. He welcomed his sufferings as God's gift, which produced mystical ecstasy in him. Miracles and lessons associated with him are reminiscent of the Christian practice of mortification of the flesh, or self-inflicted pain, which had considerable influence in Islamized Egypt.
Attar wrote that Dhu'l-Nun came into metaphysical study after hearing of a saint who suspended himself upside down from a tree; the hanged man spoke to himself, saying, "My body, if you will not obey the commands of my spirit, I will task you unto death." When Dhu'l-Nun asked why the saint denied himself, the latter replied, "My body fails to remain alert and permanently in worship of God, and so I punish it." Dhu'l-Nun remarked, "I thought you had been sentenced for murder or some other major crime." The hanged man responded, "There is no greater crime than dependence upon this world, and all that is evil comes from such dependence."
Dhu'l-Nun remarked on the saintly nature of the hanged man, who pointed out another living on a nearby hill. The second had severed his own foot to prevent himself from lustful wandering. That ascetic told Dhu'l-Nun of another, further on, who lived only on honey because he would not beg food from another human being; and yet the bees had followed God's command to feed the saint. As he was returning to his home, Dhu'l-Nun saw a blind bird in a tree and wondered how it fed. He watched as the bird pierced the ground with its beak and found a golden bowl of water and a pile of corn. Dhu'l-Nun was then convinced that all who trusted first in God and were dedicated to metaphysical devotion and meditation would be sustained. He left the affairs of the world behind him and committed himself to repetition of God's names.
The life of Dhu'l-Nun also includes mysterious parables, such as that of the grand palace on the bank of a canal, with a balcony on which a beautiful woman sat. As he approached the structure, he washed himself in the water of the canal for prayer. The woman said to him, "You are neither mad, nor learned in religion, nor enlightened, for a madman would not clean himself for religious observance, a scholar of faith would not have looked upon me, and a mystic would think only of God." The palace and the woman disappeared, and Dhu'l-Nun took this as a divine message to him. Dhu'l-Nun taught that metaphysical Muslims could never think of money and must attach themselves to poverty and solitude. He further described spiritual music, or sama', as a "cure for all desires." He insisted, "Those who claim to have seen God do not know the Creator; those who see God remain silent." He defined remembrance of God (dhikrullah), the foundation of Sufism, as "making the most of the present moment."
At his death, Dhu'l-Nun pronounced these words:
Fear of God made me fall ill;
Yearning for God consumed me;
Love has brought me to death;
But my life belongs to God.
It is said the funeral of Dhu'l-Nun was protected by birds that massed in the sky and covered the procession with outspread wings. Attar commented, "After he died those who called him a heretic recognized him as a great saint." Dhu'l-Nun was described as a "brilliant" preacher by the great twentieth-century Sufi teacher Baba Rexheb Beqiri1 (1901-1995), a leader of the Bektashi order, who introduced authentic Sufism in America. Baba Rexheb notes that Dhu'l-Nun distinguished between the forgiveness granted to ordinary folk and that bestowed upon the powerful; the latter are "dazed" by the experience. Dhu'l-Nun further established a hierarchy of knowledge that would be supported throughout the history of Sufism: at the lowest level, the knowledge of normal people; then, the understanding of religious scholars and philosophers, based on study; and in the highest place, direct understanding of the divine, which may be attained only through inspiration. Dhu'l-Nun affirmed, "I have known my God with the help of God within me. If God were not within me, I would never have known God, ever."