The publication in the United States, hard on one another’s heels, of three books on Sufism is a reminder of the current resurgence of Western interest in this branch of the “Wisdom of the East,” an interest that marks the final phase of this twelve-hundred-year-old Islamic mystical teaching. Its origins and sources are indeed veiled in the mists of history. Mysticism is characteristic of most Eastern religions, perhaps—since essentially it means “direct knowledge of God”—of all religions. In this sense the Prophet Muhammad and his followers in the seventh century A.D. could be said to have been mystics; but this still fell far short of Sufism.

The mysticism of the early Muslims meant little more than an ascetic way of life, a withdrawal from or at least an avoidance of worldly and material pleasures that followed logically from the spiritual nature of the creed revealed to and taught by Muhammad. It was therefore a consequence, almost a by-product, of their religious faith, the central theme of which was the humble worship of the One, Omnipotent, Remote but All-protecting God, who communicated with man only through His Prophet. This is still a long way from the close intimate contact between man and God that the Sufis believed possible and sought to achieve.

The rapid expansion of the Arab empire during the seventh and eighth centuries A.D. brought the possibility and indeed the reality of undreamed-of wealth to the simple-minded conquerors from the desert, and it was scarcely surprising that the majority, including their rulers, should have succumbed to worldly temptation. Most characteristic of this trend were the Umayyad Caliphs, successors to the four “Orthodox Caliphs” who directly followed in time and in conduct the Prophet himself. Their regime was marked by the great cleavage between the Sunni supporters of the Umayyads, who based their power on popular, that is, tribal backing, and the Shi’a legitimists who favored the claims of the lineal descendants of Ali, son-in-law of the Prophet.

At the same time the blatant materialism of the ruling house alienated the many pious adherents of Islam who were not yet prepared to endorse the un-Arab, undemocratic theories of legitimism, and took refuge instead in the ascetic way of life. One of the most famous of these ascetics was Hasan of Basra (d. 728), and it is interesting that the first extant reference to the wearing by ascetics of wool (suf) occurs in his writings. We can scarcely doubt that this practice gave rise to the nickname Sufi first applied to these ascetics and later to the followers of the mystical way of life that derived, under various external influences, from the practice of asceticism. While one must treat with respect anything written by Professor Henry Corbin, it is a little surprising to find him arguing in his latest work (p. 30) in favor of the derivation of the word from the Greek sophos, “sage.” Greek influence on the movement was surely of a later date, and the fact that this popular etymology was favored by the Sufis of the tenth and eleventh centuries is evidence of little more than a desire to find a more dignified origin for the name.

The metamorphosis of the simple asceticism of the early Muslims into the gnostic mysticism of the medieval Sufis began during the ninth century. By this time the Islamic empire was in contact at one extreme with the Buddhists of Central Asia and India, and at the other with the Hellenistic Christians of Asia Minor and Syria. From these sources came such ideas as macrifa (gnosis, direct knowledge of God), dhikr (the discipline of repeatedly mentioning the Name of God), hal (the mystic state), wahdat al-wujud (the unity of creation, even pantheism), and so on.

Nevertheless a century was to pass before Sufism became the dominant way of thought in Islam. Islam was first to go through the era of rationalism and skepticism, the period of the great scientists—Rhazes, Avicenna, Averroës. And in reaction orthodoxy, intolerant and obscurantist, was hitting out equally at free rationalist thought and free irrationalist thought. But whereas the scientists had little choice but to retreat and submit, the mystics—less afraid of persecution and death—reacted in extremist conduct unthought of by their predecessors. Dhu’l-Nun of Egypt (d. 861) was among the first to address God in the extravagant language of the infatuated lover. The Persian Bayazid of Bistam (d. 875), exclaiming “Glory to Me! How great is My Majesty!” found God within himself, thus anticipating Mansur ibn Hallaj, whose ecstatic cry “I am the Truth!” led to his crucifixion for blasphemy in 922. Asceticism was beginning to take a secondary place; and during the tenth century there even appeared a sect, the Malamatiya or “Blameworthy Ones,” who welcomed the contempt and disgust of their fellow men as evidence of their own true devotion to God, and to earn them indulged in behavior the very opposite of ascetic.


A further contributing factor to the spread of interest in the mystical life was the political and social disorder that prevailed throughout the Islamic world at this time. Autocratic rulers, marauding armies, sudden changes of fortune, the instability of human affairs in high places and low, made the path of withdrawal from the world all the more tempting. Already there were many who voluntarily chose the wandering life of the dervish, a life all the more easy to adopt if it had the sanction of religion.

Side by side with this extremism we find another increasingly important strand of thought. As rationalism and free thought became increasingly frowned on by authority, their practitioners turned their analytical minds toward the solution of unworldly matters. Sufism, in danger of being discredited as an immoral way of life and stamped out as a heresy and a threat to authority, was ready to be rescued and rehabilitated. A series of theoretical writers, mostly trained in the theological and juridical sciences, culminated in the great theologian and philosopher al-Ghazali (d. 1111). Ghazali began life as an orthodox theologian, but at the age of forty experienced a spiritual crisis and became converted to the Sufi way of life. Thereafter he conceived it as his task to complete the reconciliation of Sufism with orthodox Islamic theology, a task carried out in a series of works still widely read to the present day.

With the return of the prodigal to the ancestral home, some of the excitement went out of the Sufi movement. Inevitably orthodoxy brought with it systematization and institutionalization. So far as its theoretical structure is concerned, Sufism did not advance much after Ghazali. The stages of the Sufi Way were plotted for all to see, and subsequent writers only added points of detail. The aspirant was told that he must first pass through the seven maqamat or Stages, beginning with repentance or conversion and passing through asceticism and poverty to patience and trust in God. These stages must be reached by his own efforts; once he has purified himself in this way, he is ready to receive as the gifts of God the ten mystical States (halat)—self-observation, realization of the Nearness of God, love, fear, hope, yearning, familiarity with God, serene dependence on Him, contemplation of the Vision of the Almighty, and finally the certainty of Union with Him.

This somewhat lengthy introduction leads us to the consideration of one of the greatest of all Sufis, Ibn cArabi (1165-1240), the subject of Professor Corbin’s book. Hitherto Ibn cArabi has been felt to be one of the least comprehensible of the mystical writers. The late Professor A. J. Arberry wrote of his “extraordinary complexity, not to say confusion, of mental outlook, which renders his writings so very baffling to the student, and so intractable to the translator.” Yet he agreed with Professor Corbin’s view that Ibn cArabi made a vital and unique contribution to the development of Sufism and Shi’ism in the East and in Iran especially. It would be too much to say—and more than he himself would claim—that Professor Corbin has fully illuminated what was once obscure. As he himself writes (p. 4): “The time for an over-all interpretation is far off…. [O]ur design is limited to meditating in depth…on certain themes which run through the work as a whole….”

Professor Corbin’s book, as one would expect from a man who is both a profound scholar and a committed Sufi adept, is not easy reading, and the novice’s approach to it is not helped by a somewhat slavishly literal translation from the French—though in extenuation it must be said that to achieve a more interpretative rendering would be a formidable task not to be lightly undertaken. The meat of the book is contained in two long essays that were originally given as lectures at the Eranos conference at Ascona in Switzerland in 1955 and 1956. These bear the titles “Sympathy and Theopathy” and “Creative Imagination and Creative Prayer,” and consist of an analysis of Ibn cArabi’s thought as contained in his writings, particularly in his two most important prose works, the Fusus al-Hikam (“The Gems of Wisdom”) and the monumental Kitab al-Futuhat al-Makkiya (“Book of the Spiritual Conquests of Mecca”). To these essays is prefixed an extremely interesting introductory section summing up the state of mystical knowledge and teaching at the time of Ibn cArabi’s entry upon the scene.

It would be an impertinence to attempt to summarize Professor Corbin’s book, but perhaps it may be of interest to pick out one or two of his salient points. He starts from the moment of Ibn cArabi’s departure for the East at the age of thirty-five from his home city of Córdoba, a move which Professor Corbin sees as symbolizing the breach between the teaching of Aristotle as interpreted by Averroës, which found favor in the western Islamic world and in Europe and led to the separation and conflict between theology and philosophy, and the neo-Platonic Avicennan school of thought, with its idea of the batin (hidden reality) underlying the zahir (external symbols of the material world). Though Ibn cArabi never reached Iran in his travels, he encountered the westward flow of Iranian thought moving under pressure from the Mongol invasions, particularly in the teachings of his contemporary Suhrawardi, a much neglected figure in the story of Islamic Sufism whose Hikmat al-Ishraq (Theosophy of Light) was a development of Avicennism blended with Zoroastrian doctrines.


The concept of the hidden reality beneath the surface led naturally to the idea of an intermediate world between God and man, the world of the Holy Spirit, of the Active Intelligence or Creative Imagination. The Spiritual Man who, by following the path of the Sufi, attains to knowledge of this ‘alam-i mithal (the world of real and subsistent images), sees God, not directly (for that is impossible) but through the Holy Spirit—symbolized for some by the mysterious figure of Khidr. Such a man becomes a nabi (prophet) able to practice ta’wil (the interpretation of the symbols of the material world). Here we come to the link with Iranian Shi’ism, with its doctrine of the Hidden Imam and of ijtihad (interpretation of the Law), and to the Sufi hierarchy of saints and spiritual guides.

Ibn cArabi also lays much stress on the doctrine of opposites. As light can only be known in contrast to darkness, so good can only be known in relation to evil. The form under which the Spiritual knows God is also the form under which God knows the man, under which God makes Himself known to Himself in that man. This is the explanation of the saying attributed to God: “I was a hidden treasure, and I desired to be known; therefore I created the creation in order that I might be known.” From this one comes naturally to the concept of Divine Love, the love of the Creator for the created and of the created for the Creator, which is indeed the love of the Creator for Himself, since man is the earthly manifestation of God and is therefore always seeking to return to Him. The Spiritual Man who passes through all the stages of this heavenward path becomes the Perfect Man (Insan-i Kamil).

Enough has been said to show the importance of love in this framework of thought. Professor Corbin draws a parallel between the Lovers of Sufi teaching and the fedeli d’amore of Dante’s Divina Commedia. Whether there is a historical connection between them, or whether they are talking independently about the same phenomenon, is an open question, and one that it is hardly necessary to answer. What is important is that the main features that distinguished the later Sufis from their ascetic predecessors of the ninth and tenth centuries were the emotion of love and the adoration of beauty. The ascetics, having never experienced human love, could not experience divine love. It fell to the poet to discover this way, and it is not surprising that Iranian Sufism inspired some of the greatest love poetry that has ever been written.

Even before Ibn cArabi’s time there had been great Sufi poets in Iran: Abu Sa’id (d. 1049), Abdallah Ansari (d. 1088), Sana’i (d. 1130), Faridoddin Attar (d. 1220). Later came the great geniuses of Persian mystical poetry—Rumi, Iraqi, Hafiz, Jami. The expression of Sufi ideas through the language of love and wine reached its zenith with these masters, whose poetry has power to move one on whatever plane, earthly, courtly, or mystical, one chooses to read it. This was the first, perhaps the most precious, strand in the subsequent development of Sufism. Yet it added nothing to the theoretical side. Parallel with it, and often closely intertwined, grew up the institutionalization of the movement, a strand that begins to stand out during the late twelfth and thirteenth centuries.

Sufism as a way of life was, as we have seen, no new development; the wandering dervish appeared as early as the eighth century, and there may possibly have been Sufi communities and “monasteries” not long after. But the first great Sufi tariqa or Order, the Qadiri, was founded by Abd al-Qadir Jilani (1078-1166), and thereafter other orders followed in quick succession and bewildering profusion, spreading their influence throughout the Islamic world and particularly in India, Central Asia, and North Africa. These orders and communities were characterized and distinguished from one another by a great variety of observances and beliefs. The hierarchical aspect developed, with each order proclaiming its own “Pole” or Spiritual Leader, together with a substructure of lesser figures. In time this led to a form of saint-worship; Sufi “guides” were credited with magical powers, and the tombs of former Sufi leaders became objects of reverence and places of pilgrimage, until even the smallest village possessed its emamzade or shrine.

Within the Sufi “monasteries,” where the more committed sought a life of seclusion, ritual developed, and great importance came to be attached to the inducement of trancelike states through the mechanical repetition of words and phrases, the audition of vocal and instrumental music, and the performance of stylized dances. In extreme cases such observances were said (at least by their enemies, both Sufi and non-Sufi) to lead to sexual and particularly homosexual malpractices. What is certainly true is that the increased interest in technique was matched by a declining enthusiasm for knowledge of the more traditional kind, and by what amounted to a conscious cult of ignorance.

These features became still more noticeable as Sufism began to decline after the fifteenth century. Several factors contributed to this. Poetic inspiration lost its impetus, developing into a shallow imitation of the language and forms of the masters. The Sufi orders became weighed down by their own practices and observances, and fell into the hands of lesser men lacking the spiritual inspiration of their founders. Mysticism turned more and more into a popular cult, enshrining within itself popular beliefs and superstitions. Its most visible practitioners, the dervishes, wandered (as they still wander) from town to town and village to village as purveyors of popular entertainment, chanting religious and mystical verses in places of public resort, telling fortunes, performing magical wonders, practicing primitive medicine. Wrestlers and gymnasts adopted Sufi phraseology as part of their ritual, and even suits of armor and weapons were frequently inscribed with Sufi catch-phrases.

Finally the triumph of Shi’ism in Iran under the Safavid rulers took with it many of the mystical and esoteric ideas of Sufism, leaving behind only the hollow shell. Sufis were persecuted and suppressed under the early Safavids, and though their successors have survived to the present day, they carry little weight. The twentieth-century drive toward modernization in all the Islamic countries, and particularly in Iran and Turkey, was a further blow. Sufism was not only officially suppressed by Reza Shah and Ataturk, but also came under fire from the intellectuals, who saw its otherworldly teachings as an encouragement to apathy and lethargy and an obstacle to material progress.

The final phase in this sad story of decay has been the attempt to import the faded remnants of Sufi teaching into the West. Rejected in the East, and becoming aware of the mental and spiritual ferment in the West, with its uncritical search for some new teaching no matter where it is to be found, certain self-styled Sufis have tried to emulate the fleeting success of the Yogis and the Zen Buddhists by setting up propaganda centers in Europe and America. That such missionary activity is alien to the whole spirit of Sufism does not seem to matter.

Typical are the writings of Idries Shah, two of whose books fall to be reviewed in this article. Idries Shah’s father, the late Iqbal Ali Shah, was an Indian Muslim of Afghan origin who married a Scotswoman and settled down in Britain, devoting himself to the writing of popular monographs on the various Asian countries that he visited during a busy life. Both his sons had a British education, and it is puzzling that they should now be claiming a privileged position in the Sufi world. Idries Shah is even described by his publisher as “currently at the head of the Sufi tradition”! Elsewhere however it is stated that he is “Director of Studies” at the “Institute for Cultural Research,” a “Sufi” setup in London’s Soho district, where the teachings of Gurdjieff, Ouspensky, and other fanciers of Oriental lore are dispensed. He is certainly the brother of Omar Ali Shah, who once persuaded the poet Robert Graves, two respectable publishers, and a number of other literary figures that he had access to an ancient and authentic manuscript of the Quatrains of Omar Khayyam, when in fact no such manuscript existed, even as a forgery.

Idries is more cautious; his books (and there are many of them) are merely trivial. The two under consideration are a fair sample. The first, The Way of the Sufi, opens with a schoolboy essay on the study of Sufism in the West, liberally spattered with the gleanings of its author’s sessions in the public libraries. This essay is apparently based on a contribution made by Idries Shah to a seminar held at the University of Sussex in 1966—an episode comically inflated by the publisher’s blurb into a comparison with the lectures at the University of Oxford of the thirteenth-century philosopher Roger Bacon. For Idries Shah certainly has a remarkable opinion of his own importance. At one point he assures us that “there is a conscious, efficient and deliberate source of legitimate Sufic teaching actually in operation in the West,” and he leaves us in no doubt that he is referring to himself.

He constantly emphasizes the impossibility of attaining true knowledge solely through reading and study, a proposition one might be inclined to accept did it not lead him to the outright rejection of scholarly learning and method. The results are evident in his work—the constant errors of fact, the slovenly and inaccurate translations, even the misspelling of Oriental names and words. In place of scholarship we are asked to accept a muddle of platitudes, irrelevancies, and plain mumbo-jumbo (“The Sufis are, therefore, ‘the people of SSSUUUFFF’ “). It is a relief to turn back from this stuff to the profundities of Professor Corbin.

Apart from this essay, the two books constitute a rag-bag of tales, proverbs, and sayings culled from literary and oral sources. Some are Sufi in content, others lend themselves to a Sufi interpretation or can be used to point a Sufi moral. In fact they offer little more than the conventional wisdom that is characteristic of most popular literature. The translation lacks the earthy directness of the originals, and Idries Shah’s inept footnotes add nothing to the text. The tragedy is that, because they are light and easy to skim through, Idries Shah’s trivialities will be read, while Henry Corbin’s formidable and intimidating writing may be set aside. Yet the serious inquirer will find more enlightenment in one page of Corbin’s book than in all the scribblings of Idries Shah put together.

One is still left with the question: has Sufism any value for the world today? Professor Corbin in several places refers to the possibility of a dialogue between Sufism and mystical Christianity with the aim of discovering common ground between East and West. But this seems to overlook what is actually happening—that while the West is looking to the East for help in the solution of its problems, the East is moving westward with the same object. The peoples of the West, having failed so far to solve the personal and social problems that technical and material progress have brought with them, are overreacting against materialism at the very moment when the East is abandoning as inadequate its quietism and passivity and seeking to emulate and even surpass the West in material advancement.

How can Sufism intervene in this situation? The Sufis do well to point out that many problems of psychology and human behavior were understood by Sufi teachers long before they were “re-discovered” by today’s scientists. But does this mean much more than that the world has now caught up with Sufism? And if the Sufis have known the truth for so long, how is it that they have failed to make any impact on the world? Perhaps after all the moderns in the East are right when they complain that Sufism, with its insistence on the suspension of the critical faculties, leads too readily to fatalism and acceptance of authority good or bad. To say this is not to reject true Sufism, but to show how easily it may become corrupted in an uncertain and bewildered world.

This Issue

July 2, 1970