Ashmolean Museum, University of Oxford/HIP/Alamy

‘The Hanging of al-Hallaj in 922’; attributed to Iran, late nineteenth century

Simon Ockley was the first writer in English to compose a history based on Arabic sources. The Conquest of Syria, Persia, and Ægypt, by the Saracens (1708), which recounts the Arab conquests following the death of Muhammad, deeply influenced Edward Gibbon and, in the words of a recent scholar, “revolutionized the treatment of Islamic civilization throughout Europe.” Ockley, a professor at Cambridge University, also translated a twelfth-century Arabic parable, The Improvement of Human Reason, Exhibited in the Life of Hai Ebn Yokdhan (1708), the story of a boy raised by a gazelle on a remote island who teaches himself the practical sciences and eventually the truths of religion. This short tale, which may have given Daniel Defoe the premise of Robinson Crusoe, points to the superiority of intuition over instruction. Ockley linked this lesson to the mystical practices of the Sufis, about whom he warned his readers:

The Suphians are an Enthusiastick Sect amongst the Mahometans, something like Quietists and Quakers; these set up a stricter sort of Discipline, and pretended to great abstinence and Contempt of the World, and also to a greater Familiarity and stricter Union with God than other Sects; they used a great many strange and extravagant actions and utter Blasphemous Expressions.

The history of European efforts to understand Sufism is a history of imperfect analogies. Ockley compared Sufis to Protestants because Quakers valued the individual’s experience of Christ over the teachings of scripture; others compared Sufis to Catholics, because of what they perceived as the Muslims’ monkish behavior and devotion to “saints.” Europeans were trying to grasp the unfamiliar by translating it into familiar terms. Even the word “Sufi” was often traced back to the Greek sophos, since Sufis were thought to be like Platonic philosophers in teaching the renunciation of worldly things. (Modern scholars generally agree that the word is derived from the Arabic suf, or “wool”: Sufis characteristically wore woollen cloaks as a sign of poverty and penance.)

We now tend to look askance at such analogies, which impose Western categories on non-Western people and modes of life. Edward Said argued that the practice is typical of Orientalist scholarship. “Something patently foreign and distant acquires, for one reason or another, a status more rather than less familiar,” he writes in Orientalism. But this “is not so much a way of receiving new information as it is a method of controlling what seems to be a threat to some established view of things.” The most pernicious example of such thinking turned Muhammad into an imitation of Jesus—in other words, an impostor.

Can one do otherwise than translate the unknown into the known, and is this always a bad thing? Even if such comparisons are imperfect, even if they are made to control a perceived threat, might they not also offer Western readers a new perspective on their own culture? Analogies work in both directions, after all. If Sufis are philosophers too, then the West has no monopoly on wisdom. When Ockley called al-Tabari, a historian of the ninth and tenth centuries, “the Livy of the Arabians,” the analogy wasn’t only meant to reassure English readers that they had nothing to fear by reading him. It also meant that great historical works had been written by nonclassical, non-European authors.

Ockley’s comparison of Sufis to Quakers is nevertheless misleading in important ways. It suggests that Sufis aren’t exactly Muslims, but instead a heretical sect of Islam. This became a commonplace of European writing about Sufis, even among thinkers more kindly disposed to them than Ockley. Goethe recognized a spiritual “twin” in the Persian Sufi poet Hafez, a fellow antinomian and bon vivant. But this tells us more about Goethe’s Enlightenment sensibility than it does about Hafez or the Sufis, who rarely thought of themselves as anything but exemplary Muslims. If these European interpretations of Sufism weren’t quite correct, and in some cases may have done more harm than good, how did Sufis view themselves—and who were they really?

The earliest Sufis did not, in contemporary parlance, self-identify as Sufis. It was in the ninth century that Arab writers began referring to themselves as Sufis and traced the movement’s origins to a group of ascetic and pious-minded individuals who lived a hundred years earlier, in what is now Syria and Iraq. The most revered of these proto-Sufis was al-Hasan al-Basri, a preacher who urged his followers to live in certainty of the Last Judgment as a spur to good conduct and self-restraint. Al-Basri lived during the early years of the Umayyad Caliphate, when Arab armies conquered territory from present-day Spain to Pakistan, and the court in Damascus became a byword for luxury and indulgence. Like many later Sufis, al-Basri warned against the temptations of worldly power. “Make this world a bridge,” he is reported to have said, “a thing to cross over and not to build upon.”


Alongside their practices of austerity and self-mortification, the early Sufis were intensely devoted to studying the Koran and the life of the Prophet. This is also true of early scholars of Islamic law, the ulama, who established legal norms based on the same sources (and were likewise wary of Umayyad rulers). But Sufi methods of interpreting the Koran gradually diverged from those of the ulama scholars. The ulama typically based their reading on the historical and philological background of the scriptures. Sufi scholars, perhaps drawing inspiration from the Neoplatonic tradition (translated into Arabic from Greek sources beginning in the ninth century), developed an allegorical approach, which discovered hidden meanings beneath the surface of the text—meanings that often served as guides to truly pious behavior.

For example, when God in the Koran enjoins the faithful to “purify My House [i.e., the Kaaba] for those who circumambulate and those who stand and pray,” an early Sufi interpreter read this as a call for Muslims to rid the soul of ungodly elements and to seek the company of spiritual guides (“those who stand and pray”). For Sufis, these allegorical readings were the fruit of long study and severe discipline; for the Sufis’ rivals, they were irresponsible and even dangerous, more like free associations than sober interpretations of God’s word. The Sufis’ taste for esoteric readings contributed to the group’s sense of itself as a spiritual elite, whose access to the divine was more direct and authoritative than that of the hair-splitting legalists.

The Sufis’ bold approach to scripture suggests their attitude toward the texts and traditions of their faith more broadly. Consider the great body of Sufi or Sufi-inspired poetry, much of it written in Persian, from Farid al-Din Attar to Hafez and Rumi.1 Although read in this country largely as a literature of self-help, Sufi poetry is a playful and intellectually virtuosic tradition. It delights in paradox, making the sensible world a metaphor of the spiritual realm, and vice versa: the figure of the beloved is an object of at once carnal desire and mystical longing; the wine is a token of both worldly pleasure and otherworldly purity. “Our spirits are a wine and our bodies a vine,” as the poet Ibn al-Farid writes in his famous khamriyya, or wine ode.

Another attraction of Sufi poetry is its easy and explicit ecumenicalism. If the heart of religion is the believer’s experience of the divine, then the ritual and institutional trappings of faith become less important. Even secular pursuits may serve one’s spiritual needs. As Hafez writes in one of his ghazals:

In love, the Sufi meeting house
  And wine-shop are one place;
As are all places where we find
  The loved one’s radiant face;

And what the Sufis make a show of
  Can be found equally
Among the monks, before their cross,
  Within a monastery.

The Sufis’ fusion of worldly and divine objects of desire gives their love poems a formality and intimacy that recalls the courtliness of troubadour lyrics. They blend the sensual with the sacred and convey the transformative experience of love through extravagant metaphors. Here’s Hafez again:

And like a hawk I’ve sealed my eyes to all
The world, to glimpse the face that I adore.

Whoever strays within your street, it is
Your eyebrow’s curve that he will pray before;

O friends, to know the fire that is in Hafez’ heart
Ask candles what they’re burning, melting, for.

The Andalusian philosopher Ibn al-Arabi, who died in 1240, represents a grand synthesis of Sufi thought. Ignorance of his works in the West is one of the great scandals of intellectual history. The historian Marshall Hodgson writes in his magisterial The Venture of Islam (1974), “Thomas Aquinas was read from Spain to Hungary and from Sicily to Norway. Ibn al-‘Arabi was read from Spain to Sumatra and from the Swahili Coast to Kazan on the Volga.” Ibn al-Arabi’s commentaries on the Koran, some in verse, are among the most audacious ever written. In his version of the story of the golden calf, Moses is wrong to admonish Aaron. Since God is present in each of his creations, all things, even objects made by humans, are worthy of worship; it is the idolaters and not Moses who are spiritually in the right. For Ibn al-Arabi, as for many Sufis, the only truly existing entity is God. The spiritual life is therefore a journey of self-recognition: the ecstatic discovery of the divine in the human.

Early Sufi groups were small and characterized by casual but close relations between students and teachers. Students often studied with more than one shaykh, and would often visit their teachers at home for instruction. Beginning in the twelfth century, a new form of communal life arose to cope with the increasing complexity of Sufi doctrine, as well as the growing number of adherents. The various Sufi turuq, or orders—the usual English translation is based on an analogy with Christian monasticism—built a network of lodges and seminaries, each with its own rules of ritual practice and everyday conduct, but with a common commitment to accessing the divine through the cultivation of piety. As the Arab empire lost its center in Baghdad and began its slow fragmentation, this Sufi infrastructure served as a powerful glue among the many successor states. Sufism and its teachings became an Islamic lingua franca across an enormously varied human and geographical terrain. To cite Hodgson once more, between 1300 and 1800, Sufi texts and traditions came to “dominate the whole inner life of Islam.”


Metropolitan Museum of Art

A Dervish; north India, late sixteenth–early seventeenth century

In time, however, Sufism became a victim of its own success. In the late eighteenth century, reformist Muslims, some coming from within the mystical orders, began to question the legitimacy of Sufi practices. An extreme example of this reformist tendency is Ibn Abd al-Wahhab, the revivalist preacher now viewed as the founder of Saudi Wahhabism, who attacked the practice of “visiting the tombs”—the popular custom of gathering at the grave sites of Sufi shaykhs, reputed to have powers of intercession—as a form of idolatry. In the nineteenth century European powers in Algeria, Libya, the Sudan, and Chechnya waged violent wars against Sufi orders; in other places, recognizing the Sufis’ social and political power, Europeans coopted them into the colonial apparatus. By the turn of the twentieth century, Sufism was caught in a pincer movement: local intellectuals associated mystical practices with superstition and the failure of their societies to resist imperial advances; meanwhile, colonial regimes continued to suppress and debilitate the Sufi orders.

In our own day, a historically narrow form of Islamic legalism is triumphant. Muslim orthodoxy is often conceived, by Muslims and non-Muslims alike, as a matter of interpreting and following the sharia. In this light, Sufism appears marginal to the life of Muslim societies. Two years ago, a long article on Sufism in The New York Times informed readers that Sufism “has been cloaked in secrecy for most of its existence, having been forced underground by Ottoman rulers in the 13th century.” The Sufi-friendly, Muslim-American activist Daisy Khan is quoted as saying, “Sufism has never been embraced by mainstream Islam.” This is the opposite of the truth. It isn’t stern legalism that’s the norm of Islamic history—even though it’s widespread today—but Sufi pietism and poetry.

Alexander Knysh is the author of a primer on Sufism as well as a specialized study of Ibn al-Arabi. The title of his new book, Sufism: A New History of Islamic Mysticism, is a misnomer: it isn’t a history of Sufism but a study of the relation between what he calls “insider” and “outsider” accounts of Sufism—that is, between the way Sufis and other Muslims have described what they were doing, and the ways they’ve been described by (mostly Christian) Europeans. Knysh acknowledges his debt to the literary critic Hayden White, who famously argued that all history writing is bound by narrative conventions—distinct ways of arranging or “emplotting” the facts—and Sufism is best read as a series of methodological reflections rather than a work of history. It isn’t for beginners. Names, movements, and entire periods fly by without explanation. But its arguments are ingenious and their implications wide ranging.2

Though Knysh is not a polemical writer, the main argument of his book is aimed at certain fellow scholars of Sufism. One of these is Carl Ernst, an expert on Muslim mystics and ascetics in the subcontinent, who regards as a European invention the idea of “Sufism” as a separate strand of Islam. Some Orientalists, like Simon Ockley, claimed that Sufism was a heretical sect of Islam; others, more sympathetic to the mystics, traced Sufism’s origins beyond Islam to yogic practices in the East. Whatever their motivations, European scholars made a clear distinction between Sufism and Islam that would never have occurred to Sufis themselves (although the same distinction was indeed made by those Muslim reformers like the Wahhabis who, for reasons of their own, wanted to keep their version of Islam separate from what they viewed as a form of heterodoxy). It’s a distinction that Ernst views as both invidious and inaccurate.

Knysh is more sanguine about such Orientalist misunderstandings. He writes:

The repackaging of Muslim discourses into one or the other European cultural idiom was, in our view, largely a natural process by which European intellectuals sought to comprehend and convey to others a complex, multifaceted foreign culture and religion.

Anyway, he claims that Sufis have distorted their own history just as badly as the Orientalists have. He is more interested in cases where outsider and insider accounts have overlapped or even seemed to mirror one another. The more provocative though undeveloped argument of Knysh’s book is that Orientalist conceptions of Sufism weren’t really misinterpretations at all. Instead, European scholars were generally faithful translators of their Muslim sources. As proof, Knysh points toward the mass of stories about Sufism’s decline, a narrative put forward by both Muslim and non-Muslim historians.

Many of the best twentieth-century scholars of Sufism have seen Sufi history as a story of early efflorescence followed by centuries-long stagnation. For Fritz Meier, a German Orientalist, the transition from the intimate instruction of early Sufi masters to the relatively impersonal kind offered by later teachers is a story of progressive formalization and the triumph of rote learning. Knysh speculates that Meier’s way of telling this story (echoed in the work of many other modern Orientalists) is indebted to Max Weber’s theories of “routinization,” which explain how the charismatic authority of individual leaders—religious prophets or mystical guides—evolves into rigid, rule-bound, and efficient bureaucracies.

But Knysh goes on to note that Muslim historians had their own version of the decline narrative. Ibn Khaldun, for example, a preeminent Arab historian of the medieval period, who died in 1406, argued that while early Sufis were a virtuous elite, their successors were obscurantists and demagogues. This story reflected a longstanding convention among Muslim chroniclers, whereby human history is essentially a tale of the Muslim community’s gradual falling away from the pious standards of al-salaf al-salih, the righteous ancestors of the Prophet’s generation. In this sense, Knysh argues, Western scholars’ narrative of Sufi’s decline was simply the translation—in their own, Weberian idiom—of Muslim sources. “Looked at dispassionately and objectively,” Knysh writes, “conceptualizations of Sufism by both insiders and outsiders seem to have been congruent.” While they used different terms and concepts, early Muslim scholars of religion and European Orientalists “often arrived at essentially the same conclusions.”

Knysh is right to remind readers how much European scholars relied on and even revered their sources, whose styles of thinking they often reproduced: critics of Orientalist scholarship too often write as if Arab and Muslim authors are only ever the objects rather than the agents of history (and history writing). But Knysh generalizes his argument too quickly, and even in the specific case he examines it isn’t evident that a Weberian story of routinization is “essentially” the same as Ibn Khaldun’s story of decline. Although they share a narrative shape, there are surely important differences between a secular history of rationalization—in which progress and decline are tragically intertwined—and a religious narrative of flagging standards of piety. Nor is it clear how Knysh’s argument answers the central complaints of Ernst and other critics of Orientalism. Were European scholars who made distinctions between Sufism and Islam also transmitting native, “insider” sources—and if so, which ones? It seems unlikely that the Orientalists were reading the Wahhabis.

If Knysh is right that, at least in some cases, insider and outsider accounts of Sufism were “congruent,” it may blunt the censure of anti-Orientalist critics. But are these congruent histories true? Knysh often invokes the ideal of dispassionate objectivity, yet this seems like a rhetorical sleight-of-hand, since all his historians, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, are caught up in the webs of narrative conventions. What if decline is simply beside the point? The real story of Sufism between 1300 and 1800 may not be one of stagnation, but rather of extraordinary—albeit undramatic—expansion and stability.

The most flamboyant case of a European scholar who translated Sufi history into explicitly Christian terms is that of French Orientalist Louis Massignon, in his writings on the ninth-century mystic Husayn ibn Mansur al-Hallaj. Al-Hallaj, an ascetic who lived and preached in what is now Iraq, was famous among contemporaries for his ecstatic sayings, or shatahat. The best known of these utterances is his claim, “Ana-l-haqq,” meaning “I am the Truth” or “I am God.” For al-Hallaj’s followers, these were the words of a shattered self, through which spoke the voice of the divine. For his detractors, they were heresy. Al-Hallaj was publicly executed in Baghdad in 922, after a long trial in which he often spoke of his desire to be martyred. In some accounts, al-Hallaj was crucified, his body dismembered and burned, and his ashes thrown into the Tigris.

In 1908, at the age of twenty-four, Louis Massignon was on an archeological mission in Iraq when he suffered a spiritual and mental breakdown. By his own account, he was visited by a supernatural “Stranger,” “who took me as I was, on the day of His wrath, inert in His hand like the gecko of the sands.” While convalescing, Massignon heard the doves outside his window crying haqq, haqq, reminding him of the legend of al-Hallaj, whom Massignon henceforth associated with his own deliverance and fervent embrace of Catholicism. As a professor at the Collège de France for some forty years, Massignon elaborated a view of human history as a vast spiritual drama, in which a chain of mystical martyrs or spiritual “substitutes” atoned for the sins of humanity. His was an ecumenical vision, featuring Muslim as well as Christian intercessors. In offering himself upon the scaffolds of Baghdad, al-Hallaj was repeating the redemptive sacrifice of Jesus. In Massignon’s own words, the Muslim mystic was a “Quranic Christ.”

Massignon’s two-volume study, La Passion d’al-Hosayn-ibn-Mansour al-Hallaj (1922), is a meticulous reconstruction of al-Hallaj’s life, milieu, and posthumous reception, written with the zeal of a spiritual confession. Edward Said, who criticized Massignon for attempting to “regularize [the Orient] in Western terms,” acknowledged that he possessed “one of the great French styles of the century.” (Robert Irwin, less trenchantly, called La Passion “a weird book by a weird man about another weird man.”)

In 1931 Massignon published a collection of al-Hallaj’s poems, edited and translated by him into French prose. It seems likely that Massignon’s decision to publish these texts—none of them longer than twenty lines, most of them much shorter—was dictated less by their aesthetic value than by his devotion to their author. For Massignon, everything the martyr wrote or said had testimonial value. In the millennium between al-Hallaj’s execution and Massignon’s edition, no one else had thought to collect these poems, scattered in the many prose narratives that sprang up around al-Hallaj after his death.

Carl Ernst’s English translation of al-Hallaj’s verse, based on Massignon’s edition but expanded by subsequent finds, includes an incisive introduction about al-Hallaj’s life and legend, the role of poetry in Arabic Sufism (much less pronounced than in the Persian tradition), and the legacy of Massignon. A generous appendix includes translations of the medieval prose texts in which al-Hallaj’s poetry was originally embedded and transmitted. Ernst’s scholarly notes are judicious, and his translation, which aims to be “a clear and lucid expression in contemporary idiomatic English,” is careful and informed. Anyone interested in al-Hallaj or Sufism will want this book, but the poems are a disappointment.

Many of al-Hallaj’s verses read like attempts to take apart the Arabic language from within. He deconstructs its pronouns and prepositions in an effort to estrange his hearers from their familiar ways of thinking. Other poems depend on letter symbolism or mimic the structure of logical proofs: “I am the one that I desire, the one I desire is I;/we are two spirits dwelling in a single body./So when you have seen me, you have seen him,/and when you have seen him, you have seen us.” These intricacies are difficult to bring off elegantly in English, but even the more expansive, less puzzle-like poems often run into the sands:

My glance gestured with the eye of knowledge
   toward a pure essence, with my hidden thought.
And a light flashed in my awareness, subtler
   than the understanding of my fanciful ambition.
So I dove into the wave of my thought’s ocean,
   passing through it just like an arrow.
And my heart flew with a feathered longing
   mounted on the wings of my intention.

This doesn’t sound like contemporary English and it isn’t exactly lucid. How does “with my hidden thought” fit into the rest of that line? How are we to imagine “a feathered longing” that is “mounted” on wings? The diction is Latinate, the syntax tangled, and there are too many constructions of the “x of y” variety (one in each line). This is very far from ecstatic speech. The real problem isn’t one of mistranslation, however. Ernst’s versions might be improved, but it isn’t evident that the originals were good poems in the first place. Native critics certainly didn’t think so. There is no evidence that al-Hallaj’s many Sufi disciples and admirers believed that he was a significant poet. The martyr’s legend, as it has come down to us in Arabic, Persian, Turkish, and Urdu sources, is a story of self-mortifying love and an extraordinarily cruel death. Poetry plays a decidedly minor part. In this instance at least, the insiders seem to have gotten it right.