Historical Reprints Religion Mystics of Islam

Mystics of Islam

Mystics of Islam
Catalog # SKU1590
Publisher TGS Publishing
Weight 1.00 lbs
Author Name Reynold A. Nicholson


Mystics of Islam

Reynold A. Nicholson

It may be said, truly enough, that all mystical experiences ultimately meet in a single point; but that point assumes widely different aspects according to the mystic's temperament, while the converging lines of approach admit of almost infinite variety.

Though all the great types of mysticism have something in common, each is marked by peculiar characteristics resulting from the circumstances in which it arose and flourished. Just as the Christian type cannot be understood without reference to Christianity, so the Mohammedan type must be viewed in connection with the outward and inward development of Islam.

The word 'mystic', which has passed from Greek religion into European literature, is represented in Arabic, Persian, and Turkish, the three languages of Islam, by 'Sufi'. The terms, however, are not precisely synonymous, for 'Sufi' has a specific religious connotation, and is restricted by usage to those mystics who profess the Mohammedan faith. And the Arabic word, although in course of time it appropriated the high significance of the Greek - lips sealed by holy mysteries, eyes closed in visionary rapture - bore a humbler meaning when it first gained currency (about 800 CE). Until recently its derivation was in dispute.

Most Sufis, flying in the face of etymology, have derived it from an Arabic root which conveys the notion of 'purity'; this would make Sufi mean 'one who is pure in heart' or 'one of the elect'. Some European writers identified it with a Greek work conveying the sense of 'theosophist'. But Nöldeke, in an article written twenty years ago, showed conclusively that the name was derived from suf (wool), and was originally applied to those Moslem ascetics who, in imitation of Christian hermits, clad themselves in coarse woollen garb as a sign of penitence and renunciation of worldly vanities.

Early Development

The earliest Sufis were, in fact, ascetics and quietists rather than mystics. An overwhelming consciousness of sin, combined with a dread - which it is hard for us to realise - of Judgment Day and the torments of Hell-fire, so vividly painted in the Koran, drove them to seek salvation in flight from the world. On the other hand, the Koran warned them that salvation depended entirely on the inscrutable will of Allah, who guides aright the good and leads astray the wicked.

Their fate was inscribed on the eternal table of His providence, nothing could alter it. Only this was sure, that if they were destined to be saved by fasting and praying and pious works - then they would be saved. Such a belief ends naturally in quietism, complete and unquestioning submission to the divine will, an attitude characteristic of Sufism in its oldest form. The mainspring of Moslem religious life during the eighth century was fear - fear of God, fear of Hell, fear of sin - but the opposite motive had already begun to make its influence felt, and produced in the saintly woman Rabia at least one conspicuous example of truly mystical self-abandonment.

So far, there was no great difference between the Sufi and the orthodox Mohammedan zealot, except that the Sufis attached extraordinary importance to certain Koranic doctrines and developed them at the expense of others which many Moslems might consider equally essential. It must be allowed that the ascetic movement was inspired by Christian ideals, and contrasted sharply with the active and pleasure-loving spirit of Islam. In a famous sentence the Prophet denounced monkish austerities and bade his people devote themselves to the holy war against unbelievers; and he gave, as is well known, the most convincing testimony in favour of marriage. Although his condemnation of celibacy did not remain without effect, the conquest of Persia, Syria, and Egypt by his successors brought the Moslems into contact with ideas which profoundly modified their outlook on life and religion. European readers of the Koran cannot fail to be struck by its author's vacillation and inconsistency in dealing with the greatest problems. He himself was not aware of these contradictions, nor were they a stumbling-block to his devout followers, whose simple faith accepted the Koran as the Word of God. But the rift was there, and soon produced far-reaching results.

Hence rose the Murjites, who set faith above works and emphasised the divine love and goodness; the Qadarites who affirmed, and the Jabarites who denied, that men are responsible for their actions; the Mu'tazilites, who built a theology on the basis of reason, rejecting the qualities of Allah as incompatible with His unity and predestinarianism as contrary to His justice; and finally the Ash'arites, the scholastic theologians of Islam, who formulated the rigid metaphysical creed of orthodox Mohammedans at the present time.

All these speculations, influenced as they were by Greek theology and philosophy, reacted powerfully upon Sufism. Early in the third century of the Hegira - the ninth after Christ - we find manifest signs of the new leaven stirring within it. Not that Sufis ceased to mortify the flesh and take pride in their poverty, but they now began to regard asceticism as only the first stage of a long journey, the preliminary training for a larger spiritual life than the mere ascetic is able to conceive. The nature of the change may be illustrated by quoting a few sentences which have come down to us from the mystics of this period.

" Love is not to be learned from men: it is one of God's gifts and comes of His grace.

" None refrains from the lusts of this world save him in whose heart there is a light that keeps him always busied with the next world.

" When the gnostic's spiritual eye is opened, his bodily eye is shut: he sees nothing but God.

" If gnosis were to take visible shape all who looked thereon would die at the sight of its beauty and loveliness and goodness and grace, and every brightness would become dark beside the splendour thereof.

" Gnosis is nearer to silence than to speech.

" When the heart weeps because it has lost, the spirit laughs because it has found. " Nothing sees God and dies, even as nothing sees God and lives, because His life is everlasting: whoever sees it is thereby made everlasting.

" O God, I never listen to the cry of animals or to the quivering of trees or to the murmuring of water or to the warbling of birds or to the rustling wind or to the crashing thunder without feeling them to be evidence of Thy unity and a proof that there is nothing like unto Thee.

" O my God, I invoke Thee in public as lords are invoked, but in private as loved ones are invoked. Publicly I say, 'O my God!' but privately I say, 'O my Beloved!'

Softcover, 8.25h" x 5.25w", 130+ pages