Creative Imagination in the Sufism of Ibn cArabi
The Way of the Sufi
Tales of the Dervishes
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 is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.