The doctrine of Sufism
From the point of view of ideas, Sufism is an esoteric and initiatory current, which professes a doctrine affirming that all reality has an apparent external aspect (exoteric) and a hidden internal aspect (esoteric). It is characterized by the search for a spiritual state that allows access to this hidden knowledge. This importance given to secrets has even led to the invention of artificial languages by the brotherhoods. [i]
The God that Sufis discover is a God of love and one reaches Him through Love: “Whoever knows God, loves Him; whoever knows the world, renounces it” and “If you want to be free, be a captive of Love“.
These are accents that the Christian mystics would not disavow. It is curious to note in this respect the convergences of Sufism with other philosophical or religious currents: at its origin, Sufism was influenced by Pythagorean thought and by the Zoroastrian religion of Persia. Sufi initiation, which allows for spiritual rebirth, is reminiscent of Christian baptism, and one could even find some Buddhist reminiscences in the Sufi formula “man is non-existent before God“.
On the definition of Sufism, Mubaraz Ahmed writes: [ii]
‘’Sufism may be best described as Islamic mysticism or asceticism, which through belief and practice helps Muslims attain nearness to Allah by way of direct personal experience of God. While there are other suggested origins of the term Sufi, the word is largely believed to stem from the Arabic word suf, which refers to the wool that was traditionally worn by mystics and ascetics.
Belief in pursuing a path that leads to closeness with God, ultimately through encountering the divine in the hereafter, is a fundamental component of Islamic belief. However, in Sufi thought this proximity can be realised in this life.
Far from being a minority articulation, Sufi orders and Sufi-inspired organisations can be found throughout the Muslim world and beyond, from Marrakech to Manila, London to Lagos, and everywhere in-between.’’
The same diversity and the same imagination in the spiritual techniques of Sufism: the search for God through symbolism passes, for some Sufis, through music or dance which, they say, transcends thought; this is what Jalâl ad-Dîn ar-Rûmî (1207-1273), known as Mevlana, the founder of the Whirling Dervishes, [iii] practiced. Among other Sufis, symbolism is an intellectual exercise in which one speculates, as do the Jews of the Kabbalah, on the numerical value of letters; sometimes, too, it is through the indefinite repetition of the invocation of the names of God that the Sufi seeks his union with Him.
Sufism thus brings to Islam a poetic and mystical dimension that one would look for in vain among the meticulous exegetes of the Qur’ânic text. This is why the Sufis are so keen on their practices, tracing them back to the Prophet himself. The Prophet Muhammad is said to have received, at the same time as the Qur’ân, esoteric revelations which he communicated only to some of his companions. Thus the Sufi masters all link their teaching to a long chain of predecessors that authenticates them. [iv]
This legitimacy through reference to the Prophet does not, however, lead to the standardization of the Sufi movement: schools abound and each has its own style and practices. These brotherhoods have become, not an institution, but at least a way of living Islam so generally accepted that all sorts of movements, mystical or not, use the title of brotherhood to carry out their activities. One should not be surprised, therefore, to find sometimes brotherhoods that are not very mystical, with a rudimentary spirituality, far removed from the high speculations that have made Sufism one of the major components of universal spirituality.
Sufism, mysticism and esotericism
Sufism (Arabic: ٱلتَّصَوُّف, at-taṣawwuf) refers to the esoteric and mystical practices of Islam aiming at the “purification of the soul” with a view to “getting closer” to God. It is a way of spiritual elevation, an initiatory path of inner transformation. In opposition to the formalism of the fundamentalists, and other supporters of a rigorist Islam. It wants to be the “heart” of Islam. [v]
It is generally practiced through an initiation within a tarîqa, a term which designates, by extension, a brotherhood gathering the faithful around a spiritual master.
Sufism finds its foundations in the Qur’ânic revelation and in the example of the Prophet Muhammad. It can therefore be said that it has been present, since the origins of the prophetic revelation of Islam, in both the Sunni and Shiite branches, although it has taken different forms in both cases.
Sufism refers to the worship of God as if one were seeing him. That is to say, Sufism’s ultimate goal is to open the initiate’s “heart” to the beatific vision, to the supra-rational and unitive knowledge of the divine Principle. This differentiates it from the profane sciences, which are based on efforts of thought. The realized being obtains his science directly through unveiling and vision. [vi]
From time immemorial, some ulema and scholars have spoken out against what they have called the “drifts” of Sufism. They criticized both the doctrine of certain brotherhoods and their practices. Nowadays, Salafism and Wahhabism are totally opposed to Sufi practices.
Sufism covers very different realities in Islam. Mysticism in the literal sense consists in living as closely as possible to God. The mystical life is open to all: it is about letting God, out of love, live in us. Mysticism is not the disappearance of the person who keeps his character, his history, his very genius, and everything that makes him unique and allows him to be loved.
Do all religions offer a mystique? Obviously, only those that have encountered God as a person and as the giver of life. In this sense, it is not impossible for Muslims to live mysticism, whether they are Sufis or not. It is certain that Sufism emphasizes this union with God. But is it always in conditions worthy of God and man? It is here that it is necessary to see the radical distinction between “mysticism” and “esotericism”. For esotericism really turns its back on mysticism.
The illusion of “knowing” prevents one from hearing God who reveals himself by speaking to those who are humble enough to desire to know him as he says himself. Thus, some people lock themselves up in a numerological theory, others in the different drawers of a deterministic characterology, some in horoscope headings, and others in meditation techniques.
While mysticism is the reception of God, of his revelation, and of his love, esotericism claims to give the power to acquire God, or even to become God by crossing, through one’s own efforts, degrees of “knowledge” reserved for “initiates” who reserve these powers for themselves.
It is probably not difficult to understand that if God really exists, he is even more of a “person” than Man. He therefore also has freedom. And if he is free to give himself, how could one get hold of him through “knowledge” and “initiations”? God can only be reached if he gives himself and if he is accepted.
Kabbalah is also a book, the famous Zohar [vii] (which means enlightenment), or Book of Splendor. It is a mystical manual of the 13th century, attributed to the master Simeon bar Yo’haï שמעון בן יוחאי (71-161), a rabbi from Palestine who lived in the 2nd century of our era, but more probably written by the Spanish mystic Moses Ben Schemtob de Léon (1250-1305), better known under the name of Moses de Léon, a Spanish Jew from Granada who put the book into circulation.
Written in Aramaic, the language of Jesus, the book comprises 2400 dense pages and summarizes all known Kabbalistic traditions. It deals in particular with the hierarchy of evil, the so-called unclean spirits of the seven palaces of the devil. They are the opposite polarity to the ten divine “Sephiroth”, called “emanations” of God, which come from the unchanging divine unity and bring happiness and blessing to man. It is these ten degrees that the Kabbalah is primarily interested in.
The Zohar could therefore have been composed in Spain, at the end of the 13th century. But whatever the case, the work remains the most important of all Kabbalistic literature.
If one thinks it strange that an apocryphal book could have imposed itself on so many learned theologians, both of the Synagogue and of the Church, one must remember that for centuries there circulated a mass of more or less heretical texts in which the strict monotheism of the Hebrews was interpreted in the light of notions borrowed from the neo-Platonists and the neo-Pythagoreans. Some of these books go back to rather remote antiquity, and the Kabbalah, in spite of its relatively late systematization, is the heir of a whole Jewish gnosticism [viii] of which the Essenes were already penetrated. [ix]
Kabbalistic doctrine embraces the nature of the Divinity, the divine emanations or Sephiroth, the creation of angels and man, their future destiny, and the real character of the revealed Law. The theology is pantheistic: all things emanate from the unfathomable Divinity, the En Soph; all that we are, all that we see results from a grandiose process of expression of the Divinity by itself.
The Divinity has 10 attributes, the Sephiroth: Crown, Wisdom, and Intelligence form the first triad; Love, Justice, and Beauty the second; the third triad includes Firmness, Splendor, and Foundation. The Kingdom surrounds the other nine, for it is the Che’hina or divine halo. [x]
The Sephiroth together form a strict Unity. They are the Divinity in manifestation. They are some masculine, others feminine: their union generated the universe. The universe is made up of four different worlds, in descending order of spirituality: the world of Action or Matter is the lowest; the highest in the world of Emanation which proceeded from the En Soph, and which is the celestial world or Archetype, the meeting of the ten Sephiroth forming the primordial Man.
Diagrams of a crowned naked man, with the 10 Sephiroth associated with the various parts of the body, played a role in the mystical, magical, and speculative studies of the Kabbalists. All the souls that are to be incarnated here on earth pre-exist in the world of the Emanations: each soul has ten “potentialities” grouped into triads, each of these souls, before entering this world, is formed of a masculine and a feminine part, united into one being. This is represented by several occult symbols such as the Yin and Yang or the hexagram: one triangle represents the male part and the other the female part.
Separated on earth, the two halves seek to discover each other in order to be able to reunite again: this is what happens in authentic marriage, but only if the soul is pure and if its conduct is pleasing to God: otherwise, it must return to incarnate here on earth in a human body, for one or two existences. If its body is still polluted by sin, another soul is sent to unite with it, in the hope that their combined effort will produce a pure and unblemished body. When all the waiting souls have completed their earthly pilgrimage and have inhabited human bodies, passed their test, and returned to the infinite bosom of God from whence they came, the “Day of Jubilee” will begin: the Messiah will descend from the World of Souls to usher in an era of perfect happiness, free from sin and pain, a Sabbath that shall have no end.
Kabbalists claimed that they found all these doctrines in the Hebrew Scriptures, and soon Christian theologians argued that the Kabbalah would provide proof of the divinity of Christ and other essential Christian doctrines; there were even a respectable number of Jews who embraced Christianity during the Renaissance as a result of these attempts at Christian esotericism.
Kabbalistic ideas remained until the 16th century, and the interest in these theosophical speculations has never disappeared completely if not in Judaism itself (where only Hassidists are still partisan), at least in the various occultist movements, especially those of “Christian” inspiration. [xi] Then the kabbalah fell into discredit in Judaism, as the magic element tended to drive out real philosophy.
Kabbalah is the mysticism and the Gnosticism of the Jews, in which one finds:
- A mystical theology the bottom of which was the dogma of the divine emanation and an allegorical explanation of the Scriptures; and
- A theurgy [xii] by which one claimed to subject the supernatural powers to human will by pronouncing certain words, and operating with their help all kinds of miracles.
Kabbalah, which means tradition or reception and designates the mystical doctrines of Judaism based on the symbolic exegesis of the Bible, is in a way the antithesis of rationalist philosophy: as much as it tends to reduce the part of the supernatural, as much one tends to exaggerate it, to scrutinize the depths and to introduce it everywhere, even in daily practice.
Kabbalah followers and popular superstition have made this science, more or less mysterious and secret, a divine, wonderful science, by which miracles are made, and which one brings up, by the known artifices of pseudepigraphy, [xiii] in Abraham, in Moses, and to the most famous doctors of Talmud (1st and 2nd centuries of the Christian era).
The esoteric teachings of Jewish Kabbalists in 13th-century Spain, at the time of rabbi Abraham Abulafia, show great similarities with the rituals of Muslim mystics. They include, for example, complex songs, breath control techniques, and head movements – all practices that did not exist in the Kabbalah before the Middle Ages. Abulafia introduced the ecstatic forms of the Sufi rituals of dhikr into Judaism, in which the name of God is tirelessly repeated until reaching a state of trance.
The famous Kabbalists of the Safed school, in Galileo, also seem to have been influenced by Sufism. In the 16th century, while Isaac Luria (1534-1572) – considered the father of modern Kabbalah – was active. Safed was also a flourishing center of Muslim mysticism. The city boasted of hosting a Sufi center that the Turkish traveler Evliya Chelebi (1611-1682) mentions in his stories.
The parallels are striking: the Kabbalists organized spiritual concerts during which they sang mystical verses, like the dervishes. Spiritual congregations were also established around a saint, and there, too, was practiced solitary meditation and the repetition of the name of God.
The Brill Dictionary of Religion defines Sufism in the following terms: [xiv]
‘’Sufism and ‘Mysticism’ In traditional scholarship as well as in conventional usage, Sufism is commonly referred to as the ‘mystical tradition of Islam’ (→ Mysticism). This ascription is problematic for three reasons. First, it divides → Islam artificially into two traditions presumably separable from each other; secondly, not all manifestations of Sufism are ‘mystical’;1 and thirdly, the idea of a universally valid category of Mysticism manifesting itself in particular interpretations of different ‘world religions’ is itself increasingly disputed.’’
A majority of scholars believe that the word تصوف “tasawwuf” comes from the word صوف “suf“, which means wool. This assumption is based on a story told about why pious people in the first century of Islam wore woolen clothes in emulation of the Prophet Muhammad and his sahâba (companions) who wore woolen clothes to indicate their detachment from the world and their simplicity of life.
A century after the emergence of Islam, the Arabs, mainly desert peoples, conquered great empires such as Persia and Egypt. These conquering Arabs surrounded themselves with luxuries previously unknown to them in their Spartan desert life. The most pious individuals in the Muslim community feared that the message of Islam would be completely lost because of the decadent example of these Arab conquerors who professed to spread the words of the Prophet and the universal message of the Qur’ân.
Remembering the great simplicity of early Islam and recalling the pious Muslims of Medina, the believers decided to dress in rough wool as a protest against the extreme profligacy of their rulers. Protecting themselves from the temptations of luxury, they distinguished themselves from the lower material life. They practiced fasting, and mortification and deprived themselves as much as possible of the pleasures of material life. The wearing of wool was thus part of the discipline of Sufism. But even if the Sufis wore Sûf, wool, from the beginning of Islam, the word “Sufism”, according to Arabic grammar, is not a derivative of the word Sûf, and whoever wears it is not a Sufi.
One can, also, trace the origins of tasawwûf to the heart of Islam at the time of the Prophet, whose teachings attracted a group of scholars who came to be called Ahl al-ssufa (أَهلُ الصُّفَّةِ [ahl aṣ-ṣuffa]), “the people of the bench.” They had taken to sitting at the entrance of the Prophet’s mosque in Yathrib, Medina. There, they would engage in discussions about the reality of being, about finding the inner path, in addition to devoting themselves to spiritual purification and meditation.
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[i] Fenton, Paul B. « Les judéo-soufis de Lausanne. Un point de rencontre dans la mouvance guénonienne », Pierre Gisel éd., Réceptions de la cabale. Paris : Éditions de l’Éclat, 2007, pp. 283-313.
[iii] MacDonald, D.B. “Darwish (Darwesh).” Encyclopedia of Islam, Second Edition. Edited by: P.B. Bearman, Th. Bianquis, C.E. Bosworth, E. van Donzel & W.P. Heinrichs. Leiden: Brill, 2009.
[iv] Palmer, Edward H. Oriental Mysticism: A Treatise on Sufistic and Unitarian Theosophy of the Persians. London: Frank Cass, 1969.
[v] Guenon, René. Aperçus sur l’ésotérisme islamique et le taoïsme. Paris : Gallimard, coll. « Les essais », vol. 182, 1973, p. 18.
[vi] Bonaud, Christian. Le Soufisme : al-tasawwuf et la spiritualité islamique. Paris : Maisonneuve & Larose, 2002.
[vii] Scholem, Gershom. Le Zohar, Le Livre de la Splendeur. Paris: Editions du Seuil, 1980.
Synopsis: The Zohar, or Book of Splendor, is a classic of Jewish mysticism, and the most accomplished book of the Kabbalah. From this commentary on the Law (which follows the outline of the first five books of the Bible), our volume presents excerpts chosen for their colorful liveliness in the description of the spiritual life, for their acuity in the exegesis of Scripture, for the multiple characters of the thought on the soul, the life of faith, human love and divine love, suffering and death, exile and redemption…Gershom Scholem, whose competence in Jewish mysticism remains internationally recognized, takes stock in the introduction of what is known today about this major work and its author.
[viii]The doctrines of various religious sects flourishing especially in the 2nd and 3rd centuries ad in the Near East, teaching that the material world is the imperfect creation of a subordinate power or powers rather than of the perfect and unknowable Divine Being and that the soul can transcend material existence by means of esoteric knowledge. The Mandaean religion preserves one system of Gnostic belief.
[ix] Zafrani, Haïm. Kabbale, vie mystique et magie : judaïsme d’Occident musulman. Paris : Maisonneuve et Larose, 1996.
This study addresses the place of Jewish mysticism in the traditional texts of Judaism (Zohar), as well as in the various aspects of life in Jewish communities (Kabbalah and legal thought, Kabbalah and liturgy, Kabbalah and music).
[x] The Tree of the Sephiroth may be considered an invaluable compendium of the secret philosophy which originally was the spirit and soul of Chasidism. The Qabbalah is the priceless heritage of Israel, but each year those who comprehend its true principles become fewer in number. The Jew of today, if he lacks a realization of the profundity of his people’s doctrines, is usually permeated with that most dangerous form of ignorance, modernism, and is prone to regard the Qabbalah either as an evil to be shunned like the plague or as a ridiculous superstition which has survived the black magic of the Dark Ages. Yet without the key that the Qabbalah supplies, the spiritual mysteries of both the Old and the New Testament must remain unsolved by Jews and Gentiles alike. The Sephirothic Tree consists of ten globes of luminous splendor arranged in three vertical columns and connected by 22 channels or paths. The ten globes are called the Sephiroth and to them are assigned the numbers 1 to 10. The three columns are called Mercy (on the right), Severity (on the left), and, between them, Mildness, as the reconciling power. The columns may also be said to represent Wisdom, Strength, and Beauty, which form the triune support of the universe, for it is written that the foundation of all things is the Three. The 22 channels are the letters of the Hebrew alphabet and to them are assigned the major trumps of the Tarot deck of symbolic cards.
[xi] François, Secret. Les Kabbalistes chrétiens de la Renaissance. Paris: Dunod, 1964.
[xii] Theurgy, is a form of magic, which would allow man to communicate with the “good spirits” and to invoke supernatural powers for the praiseworthy purpose of reaching God.
[xiii] Pseudepigrapha refers to a work whose author’s name or title has been falsely attributed. Pseudepigrapha is the name given to biblical books that bear false titles, and false names.
[xiv] The Brill Dictionary of Religion. https://referenceworks.brillonline.com/search?s.f.s2_parent=s.f.book.brill-dictionary-of-religion&search-go=&s.q=Sufism