The Origins of Sufism

rumiThere is disagreement among religious scholars and Sufis themselves about the origins of Sufism. The traditional view is that Sufism is the mystical school of Islam and had its beginnings in the first centuries following the life of the Prophet Mohammad. Indeed, most Sufis in the world today are Muslim and many of them would consider a non-Islamic Sufism impossible.

There is another view, however, that traces the pre-Islamic roots of Sufism back through the early Christian mystics of Syria and Egypt, to the Essenes, the ancient Pythagorean orders, and the mystery schools of the Egyptians and Zoroastrians, among others. It is these roots that gathered into the trunk known as Islamic Sufism.

Sufi Inayat Khan recognized the multi-religious roots of Sufism as well as its contemporary relevance for people of all faiths. When he was instructed by his teacher in 1907 to bring Sufism to the West, he articulated a "message of spiritual liberty" which reflects the universal, inclusive nature of Sufism. As he noted:

"Every age of the world has seen awakened souls, and as it is impossible to limit wisdom to any one period or place, so it is impossible to date the origin of Sufism."

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Texts on the Universality of Sufism

The Origin of Sufism - Sufi Inayat Khan

The germ of Sufism is said to have existed from the beginning of the human creation, for wisdom is the heritage of all; therefore no one person can be said to be its propounder. It has been revealed more clearly and spread more widely from time to time as the world has evolved.

Sufism as a brother/sisterhood may be traced back as far as the period of Daniel. We find among the Zoroastrians, Hatim, the best known Sufi of his time. The chosen ones of God, the salt of the earth, who responded without hesitation to the call of Abraham, Moses, Jesus and Mohammed, were Sufis, and were not only simple followers of a religion but had insight into divine knowledge. They recognized God's every messenger and united with them all. Before the time of Mohammed they were called Ekuanul Safa, Brothers of Purity, but after his coming they were named by him Sahabi Safa, Knights of Purity. The world has called them Zoroastrian, Christian, Jewish, or Islamic mystics, and the followers of each religion have claimed them as their own. For instance, a Christian would claim that Saint Paul was a Christian and a Muslim that Shams Tabriz was a Muslim. In reality Christ was not a Christian nor was Mohammed a Muslim, they were Sufis.

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Sufism: Wisdom Of All Faiths - Sufi Inayat Khan

The word Sufi comes from a Persian word meaning wisdom. From the original root many derivations can be traced; among them the Greek word Sophia is one of the most interesting.

Wisdom is the ultimate power. In wisdom is rooted religion, which connotes law and inspiration. But the point of view of the wise differs from that of the simple followers of a religion. The wise, whatever their faith, have always been able to meet each other beyond those boundaries of external forms and conventions, which are natural and necessary to human life, but which none the less separate humanity.

People of the same thought and point of view are drawn to each other with a tendency to form an exclusive circle. A minority is apt to fence itself off from the crowd. So it has been with the mystics. Mystical ideas are unintelligible to the generality of people. The mystics have, therefore, usually imparted their ideas to a chosen few only, to those whom they could trust, who were ready for initiation and discipleship. Thus great Sufis have appeared at different times and have founded schools of thought. Their expression of wisdom has differed to suit their environments, but their understanding of life has been one and the same. The same herb planted in various atmospheric conditions will vary in form accordingly, but will retain its characteristics.

The European historian sometimes traces the history of Sufism by noticing the actual occurrence of this word and by referring only to those schools which have definitely wished to be known by this name. Some European scholars find the origin of this philosophy in the teaching Of Islam, others connect it with Buddhism. Others do not reject as incredible the Semitic tradition that Sufism's foundation is to be attributed to the teachings of Abraham. But the greater number consider that it arose contemporary to the teaching of Zoroaster. Every age of the world has seen awakened souls, and as it is impossible to limit wisdom to any one period or place, so it is impossible to date the origin of Sufism.

Not only have there been illuminated souls at all times, but there have been times when a wave of illumination has passed over humanity as a whole. We believe that such a period is at hand. The calamity through which the world has lately passed, and the problems of the present difficult situations are due to the existence of boundaries; this fact is already clear to many. Sufism takes away the boundaries which divide different faiths by bringing into full light the underlying wisdom in which they are all united.

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The Unity of Knowledge - Idries Shah

The connection between the ancient practical philosophies and the present ones is seen to have been based upon the higher-level unity of knowledge, not upon appearances. This explains why the Muslim Rumi has Christian, Zoroastrian and other disciples; why the great Sufi 'invisible teacher' Khidr is said to be a Jew; why the Mogul Prince Dara Shikoh identified Sufi teachings in the Hindu Vedas, yet himself remained a member of the Qadiri Order; how Pythagoras and Solomon can be said to be Sufi teachers. It also explains why Sufis will accept some alchemists to have been Sufis, as well as understanding the underlying developmental factors in Rumi's evolutionary philosophy, or Hallaj's 'Christianity'; why, indeed, Jesus is said to stand, in a sense, at the head of the Sufis.

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Origins and Nature of the Sufis - Robert Graves

(from his introduction to Idries Shah's "The Sufis")

The Sufis are an ancient spiritual freemasonry whose origins have never been traced or dated; nor do they themselves take much interest in such researches, being content to point out the occurrence of their own way of thought in different regions and periods. Though commonly mistaken for a Moslem sect, the Sufis are at home in all religions: just as the "Free and Accepted Masons" lay before them in their Lodge whatever sacred book—whether Bible, Koran, or Torah—is accepted by the temporal State. If they call Islam the "shell" of Sufism, this is because they believe Sufism to be the secret teaching within all religions. Yet according to Ali el-Hujwiri, an early authoritative Sufi writer, the Prophet Mohammed himself said: "He who hears the voice of the Sufi people and does not say aamin [Amen] is recorded in God's presence as one of the heedless." Numerous other traditions link him with the Sufis, and it was in Sufi style that he ordered his followers to respect all People of the Book, meaning those who respected their own sacred scriptures—a term later taken to include Zoroastrians.

Nor are the Sufis a sect, being bound by no religious dogma however tenuous and using no regular place of worship. They have no sacred city, no monastic organization, no religious instruments. They even dislike being given any inclusive name which might force them into doctrinal conformity. "Sufi" is no more than a nickname, like "Quaker," which they accept good-humoredly. "We friends" or "people like us" is how they refer to themselves, and they recognize one another by certain natural gifts, habits, qualities of thought. Sufi schools have indeed gathered around particular teachers, but there is no graduation and they exist only for the convenience of those who work to perfect their studies by close association with fellow Sufis. The characteristic Sufi signature is found in widely dispersed literature from at least the second millennium B.C., and although their most obvious impact on civilization was made between the eighth and eighteenth centuries A.D., Sufis are still active as ever. They number some fifty million. What makes them so difficult to discuss is that their mutual recognition cannot be explained in ordinary moral or psychological terms—whoever understands it is himself a Sufi. Though awareness of this secret quality or instinct can be sharpened by close contact with Sufis of experience, there are no hierarchical degrees among them, only a general undisputed recognition of greater or lesser capacity.

Sufism has gained an Oriental flavor from having been so long protected by Islam, but the natural Sufi may be as common in the West as in the East, and may come dressed as a general, a peasant, a merchant, a lawyer, a schoolmaster, a housewife, anything. To be "in the world, but not of it," free from ambition, greed, intellectual pride, blind obedience to custom, or awe of persons higher in rank—that is the Sufi's ideal.

Sufis respect the rituals of religion insofar as these further social harmony, but broaden religion's doctrinal basis wherever possible and define its myths in a higher sense—for instance, explaining angels as representations of man's higher faculties. The individual is offered a "secret garden" for the growth of his understanding, but never required to become a monk, nun or hermit, like the more conventional mystics; and he thereafter claims to be enlightened by actual experience—"he who tastes, knows"—not by philosophic argument. The earliest known theory of conscious evolution is of Sufi origin...

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Only Breath - Jelaluddin Rumi

(translated by Coleman Barks)

Not Christian or Jew or Muslim, not Hindu
Buddhist, Sufi, or Zen. Not any religion
or cultural system. I am not from the East
or the West, not out of the ocean or up
from the ground, not natural or ethereal, not
composed of elements at all. I do not exist,
am not an entity in this world or the next,
did not descend from Adam and Eve or any
origin story. My place is placeless, a trace
of the traceless. Neither body or soul.
I belong to the beloved, have seen the two
worlds as one and that one call to and know,
first, last, outer, inner, only that
breath breathing human being.

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Garden Among the Flames - Ibn 'Arabi

(translated by Michael Sells)

Wonder,
A garden among the flames!
My heart can take on
Any form:
A meadow for gazelles,
A cloister for monks,
For the idols, sacred ground,
Ka'ba for the circling pilgrim,
the tables for the Torah,
the scrolls of the Qur'an.
My creed is love;
Wherever its caravan turns along the way,
That is my belief,
My faith.