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Towards a methodology *
David P. Brewster

Sufism continues to be one of the areas of Islamic Studies

which attracts present research and interest . In itself,
this is part of the more general interest in Mysticism as
a whole, but it is also true to say that Sufism, together
with Islamic Art and Architecture, represents one of the
more 'immediate' and accessible aspects of Islam for the
Western student . There are, however, a number of problems
of methodology in approaching Sufism which this paper seeks
to clarify . The first section will therefore summarise
four approaches to the study of Sufism, and will aim at
showing what presuppositions characterise these approaches .
The second section will be devoted to a discussion of the
development of Sufism, in the hope that this will assist
in understanding this complex phenomenon .
A useful point of departure is an article written
some years ago by Robert Caspar . (1) Caspar suggests four
lines of approach in contemporary scholarship, with appro-
priate descriptions . The first approach is typified by
Corbin, whose scholarly achievements include a number of
magisteri a l works on the mystics Ibn Sina, Ibn 'Arabi,
Suhrawardi, and extensive work on the Zoroastrian tradition .
Caspar states :
Corbin is fascinated by homologous structures, by
the recurrence of similar themes in a number of
religions or thought systems as different as Zoro-
astrianism, eastern Hellenistic philosophy, Shi'i
Islam, and the Sunnis Suhrawardi and Ibn 'Arabi . (2)
One finds a succession of themes which concern him, such as
the world of light, theophanies and angels, a
world to which access is given by means of eso-
teric knowledge, the exegesis (ta'wi1) of symbols,
and the creative imagination . (3)


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This world is beyond the world of the senses and the literal
meaning of the revealed text . It is a world hidden to those
who are not initiates .
Only the imagination, the knowledge of the heart,
is able to transmute the sensible into the symbol
and to reveal the inner dimension (batin) of
things ; in a word, only the imagination is able
to penetrate the world of archetypal images
('a1am a1-mithal) . (4)
Corbin presents a study of each of the mystics with whom he
is concerned, drawing out these themes with profound
sensitivity .
As Caspar notes, Corbin is particularly interested in
the world of Shi'i mysticism which is far too little known in
the West . For this reason his work is important as it helps
us to become familiar with a tradition which is still living .
But by the same token it is also a world which is not rep-
resentative of Islam as a whole and the present-day student
of Sufism needs to be aware of this . If there are lessons
to be learned from Corbin in his application of the phenomeno-
logical method they may be summed up as follows :
One sometimes has the impression that the thought
and preoccupations of Corbin interfere with those
of the authors whom he presents to us . (5) •
Corbin states that he involves himself in his chosen subject
and that he feels affinity for his author .
But 'sympathy', says Caspar, goes too far when
one has to ask oneself whether it is the philo-
sopher and historian of ideas or the initiate
into esoteric knowledge who is writing . (6)
Equally, the student of Sufism would want to seek a fuller
justification for valuing the interior illumination of the
mystic more highly than the exterior framework of the dog-
matic tradition in which this is cast . But any considera-
tion of Corbin's work must end by paying tribute to his
immense erudition and to the debt that his readers owe him .
The second approach which Caspar selects is that
typified by Titus Burckhardt, which is concerned with main-
taining a 'Tradition of Syncretic Monism' . Caspar notes
that both Corbin and Burckhardt are attracted by the figure
of Ibn 'Arabi but for different reasons . Burckhardt
emphasises the line of tradition in the mysticism that he
explores, in contrast to the present-day world of material-
ism . In this approach he has the company of such dis-
tinguished scholars as Seyyed Hossein Nasr and Frithjof
Schuon . Ibn 'Arabi possesses a two-fold advantage :
His influence dominates all Sufism that follows
him, and his teaching corresponds closely to the
maxims of this way of tradition, (that is to say)

David P . Brewster 33

esoteric knowledge which is reserved for the

initiate, the primacy of symbol and image, (and)
a universalism which is syncretic, transcending
dogmas, (7)
The main themes therefore which concern this group of writers
are those of the correlation between microcosm and macrocosm,
the universal man (a l -insan al-kamil), mystical knowledge and
interpretation (ta'wi1), the rites of religion, and the invo-
cation of the divine name Cdhikr) . In the realm of meta-
physics the dominant theme is that of the emanation which
irradiates this world below, in contrast to the more tradi-
tional approach in theology to the concept of divine creation .
Now many of these themes are also taken up by Corbin,
but in Burckhardt one aspect is clear, that of the monism
which he sees as the true emphasis of Ibn 'Arabi's teaching :
Burckhardt openly declares his profession of
monism, conceived as the essential unity of all
creatures, and the unreality of all that appears
distinct from God . This monism is the final
outcome, logically speaking, of the essential
doctrine of Islam : the confession of the Unity
(tawhid) of God . (8)
This monism leads Burckhardt and the other members of this
school to speak in such phrases as The Transcendent Unity of
All Religions . (9) Such a transcending unity, however, is
a perspective which is only attained through attachment to
one tradition of interpretation, the monism of Ibn 'Arab!, in
one culture, esoteric Islam, so that it leads to an affirma-
tion of a 'correct' view of all religions . Such a trans-
cendent unity might be understood in two ways . Either this
claim could be taken to mean that all religions ultimately
point to the same referent, God, or the Ultimate . An elo-
quent statement of this 'cardinal truth' is given by Nasr :
Revelation is limited in its outer form ; it is
outwardly finite and so appears to men in its
rites, doctrines and symbols as one more set of
finite forms along with others that surround him
in this world . But unlike other forms, the
religious and revealed forms open inwardly
toward the Infinite, because it is from the
supra-formal Centre that they originate, the
Centre which contains all these forms and is yet
above them . (10)
If this is what the term means, as applied to all religions
by this school, then we must take leave to differ from this
approach, for such a unity of religions cannot be more than
superficial . On the other hand, this claim could be taken
to mean that there is a common methodology in all religions,
that is, that all religions are based on some form of

David P . Brewster 34

revealed text, and that alongside this text (or texts) there
exists a system of esoteric interpretation . If this claim
is taken in the second sense, nothing more than a superficial
truth is being stated, a truth which concerns methodology of
interpretation and nothing more, for the ultimate referent
in each religion is prima facie very different .
Such a criticism of the school of Burckhardt must
immediately be tempered by an acknowledgment of the eloquence
and persuasive quality of the writing which its exponents
exhibit . In a number of works, particularly in The Sense of
Unity : The Sufi Tradition in Persian Architecture, (11) the
vibrant qualities of their beliefs are shown and the student
of Sufism is enabled to share their world-view . in passing,
brief mention must be made of a fringe group of a decidedly
more syncretic nature, that of the followers of Idries Shah .
In his works, The Sufis and The Way of the Sufi,(12) Shah has
made statements such as these :
Sufism is believed by its followers to be the
inner, 'secret' teaching that is concealed within
every religion ; and because its bases are in
every human mind already, Sufic development must
inevitably find its expression everywhere . (13)
The Sufis say, 'This is not a religion ; it is
religion' ; and 'Sufism is the essence of all
religions' . (14)
Many of his other more popular works make the same point in
other ways . The most penetrating critique of Shah has been
given by Seyyed Hossein Nasr . (15) Nasr writes of the
dangers of creating one more 'pseudo-spiritualism' to add to
the 'already over-supplied market in the West .' As a
result, he continues, 'a pseudo-Sufism could be created in
the West as there is already a pseudo-Vedantism and pseudo-
Zen .' (16) For Shah seeks to divorce Sufism completely from
its exoteric base of Islam :
One is faced with an exposition of Sufism from
which Islam seems to have been subtly eliminated
and Sufism presented as an occultism and an eso-
tericism 'floating in the air' . (17)
Nasr's estimate of this position could hardly be improved on,
and reflects the authentic voice of Islam from within .
Needless to say, Nasr himself is fully aware of the dangers
of abstracting the esoteric from exoteric and always insists
on the need to couple together as a whole both text and
interpretation, zihir and balin . One further point should
be made . Shah is typical of certain popular approaches
which seek to use Sufism as a means of mental integration
rather than of spiritual progress, and his anecdotes may be
seen in this light .

David P . Brewster 35

Returning to Caspar's paper, the third approach which

he describes is that of Anawati and Gardet . This may be
characterised as a distinction between a natural and a
supernatural mysticism . (18) Gardet's writing on Islam is
familiar to many and is always thought-provoking and subtle,
and his comparisons with Neo-Thomism, while not accepted by
all, are nevertheless fruitful in their stimulus . Anawati
and Gardet start from this assumption and they try to force
their material into _this mould . The result of this appears
to be that Al-Bistami is classed as a natural mystic while
Al-Hallaj is shown to be a supernatural mystic . The first
relies upon human powers alone, while the other is illumi-
nated by divine assistance .
One must ask whether Sufism is thus studied for
its own sake, or whether it serves simply as a
means of applying and verifying a theory which
has been derived from another type of mysticism .
. . . To find in Al-Bistami and Al-Hallaj, for
example, types of natural and supernatural
mysticism, is this not to simplify experiences
which are complex and difficult to interpret . . .?
The origin of the theory to which Caspar alludes seems to be
the researches of Lacombe into Hindu mysticism, which are
taken up and extended by Maritain in his work, The Degrees of
Knowledge . (20) The theory derives from one Roman Catholic
view of such spirituality as develops outside the Christian
Church . Strong objection has been taken to this approach by
other present-day scholars, notably by Lings in his review of
the work by Anawati and Gardet on its first appearance . (21)
Caspar's fourth approach may be described as that of
the patient scholar who seeks to enter into the experience
and vocabulary of the mystic whom he is studying . Caspar
selected for his purposes Serge de Beaurecueil, a name which
deserves to be better known in the English-speaking world .
But to that of de Beaurecueil we may add the names of many
others, such as Browne, Nicholson, and Arberry, Massignon,
whose magisterial works include the definitive study of
Al-Hallaj, and Ritter, all of whom have put subsequent
scholars in their debt . In the Middle East and Iran a
number of scholars have published primary texts on the Sufis
and they, tdb, follow this tradition - Badawi and Mold are
but two names that come to mind .
There is little need to spell out in detail the methods
of scholarship which this group adopts . Meticulous concern
for the authenticity of the texts is of course only the
beginning of good scholarship . To this must be added a
sensitivity for the subject matter and person of the mystic
under investigation, an awareness of the richness of the

David P . Brewster 36

vocabulary used by the mystics, and an awareness of the danger

of drawing false and misleading comparisons between similar
terms in Sufism and Christian mysticism . The task is enor-
mous, and can hardly be said to have been more than begun,
given the size of the Sufi corpus to be edited . In stress-
ing the scholarship of this fourth approach we do not of
course intend to belittle the achievements of the other three
groups . We intend, rather, to emphasise the approach which
places the student of Sufism before the texts being studied
and asks the question, What does this mystic say in his or
her situation? In this approach we do not force mysticism
into a pre-conceived framework of ideas, or indeed press
mysticism into the service of some idea completely alien to
it .
The second part of this paper therefore seeks to dis-
cuss the development of Sufism, noting its characteristic
features . It will be noticed that no attempt has been made
so far to define Sufism . Sufism, it is the contention of
this paper, is a convenient term for a wide range of experi-
ments within Islam rather than a movement which can be
rigidly labelled . When Nicholson sought definitions of
Sufism from the Sufis themselves he found that these were so
wide-ranging as to preclude any one precise formulation . (22)
We prefer the approach of Clifford Geertz who stated that
Sufism is better conceived as 'a series of different and
even contradictory experiments' . It has been, he wrote,
less a definite standpoint in Islam, a distinct
conception of religiousness like Methodism or
Swedenborgianism, than a diffuse expression of
that necessity . . . for a world religion to come
to terms with a variety of mentalities, the
multiplicity of local forms of faith, and yet
maintain the essence of its own identity . (23)
Following this approach it will be useful to consider the
ways in which Sufis saw their own expression of their faith .
The starting point of such a consideration must
properly be the Qur'an, and not the possible influences that
Christianity or other religions such as Hinduism may have
had upon Sufism . To emphasise the Qur'an as the focal
point of all Islamic devotion, and in particular of all Sufism,
is to recognise the central place that the revelation
through Muhammad holds for all Muslims . Massignon and
Nwyia have devoted important works to an examination of the
vocabulary of Sufism which derives from the Qur'an, (24) and
Massignon cites the following illuminating statement of
Khawwas :
To begin with, in order to regain sweetness in my
reading of the Qur'an, I read it as if it were
Muhammad who was announcing it to me ; then as if

David P . Brewster 37

it were Gabriel who was announcing it to Muhammad ;

and finally as if it were God Himself . Thus all
sweetness in reading it is given . (25)
The Qur'an is thus 'interiorised' in the heart of the mystic .
A study of Sufism must begin with this fundamental study of
the Qur'anic passages and vocabulary used by Sufis . The
groundwork of lexical analysis is arduous but only in this
way can we begin to appreciate the central importance of the
Qur'an to Sufism .
Following upon this basic study, the development of
Sufism is then seen in five phases . The phases, or cate-
gories of development, are by no means rigid, nor are they
intended to be mutually exclusive in that one or more
phases may co-exist simultaneously . They are simply
intended to illustrate the type of historical framework that
may be used to assist in the appreciation of Sufism .
Seyyed Hossein Nasr has suggested that 'in its essence
Sufism has no history' . He does, however, concede that it
is possible 'to speak of the distinct features of the Sufi
tradition in each period' . (26) It is the 'distinct
features' with which this paper is concerned and the five
major groupings suggested are :
The Ascetics, the Affectives, the Ecstatics, the
Orthodox and the Monists .
These categories are by no means imposed upon Sufism from a
study of Christian mysticism although certain parallels may
be seen . They are, rather, categories which derive from the
manuals written by Sufis themselves . Numerous statements
could be cited in which these terms are implicit, statements
which range from the need for asceticism and repentance at
the beginning of the Sufi path, to descriptions of the final
achievements to be expected . For example, Al-Ghazali
writes :
Love for God is the highest station, the sum of
highest degrees, and there is no station after
that of love, except its fruits and consequences
. . . nor is there any station before love which is
not a prelude to it, such as penitence, long
suffering and asceticism . . . (27)
Ibn 'Arabi writes of the culminating state :
Then you will see all your actions to be His
actions and all your attributes to be His attri-
butes and your essence to be His essence, though
you do not hereby become He or He you, in either
the greatest or the least degree . 'Everything
is perishing save His face', that is, there is
nothing except His face, 'then, withersoever you
turn, there is the Face of God .' (28)
To repeat the major premise of this paper, such an approach

David P . Brewster 38

to Sufism does not seek to define it as holding one particular

view, or as fitting one definition . It sees, rather, the
variety of experiment within the Sufi tradition . The follow-
ing material attempts to illustrate each of the categories
stated above .
Al-Hasan Al-Basri has been chosen as a representative
of the first category . Living entirely during the period of
the Umayyads, Al-Basri was faced both with the decadent prac-
tices of some of the rulers of his time and also with the
dilemmas of public service as a judge . Qualities of piety,
self-examination, and integrity marked him out during his
career, and he was eventually obliged to relinquish office
in the face of extremely difficult situations . Typical of
his sayings are the following,
Faith does not consist of an adornment to put on ;
nor does it consist of vain desires . Rather it
resides in the deepest part of the heart, and
one's actions confirm it as true . (29)
The intention counts more than the act . (30)
Have constant discourse with your hearts, for they
are quick to cover themselves with rust . Like-
wise, keep your souls on a tight rein, for they
are quick to passion . (31)
Reflection is a mirror in which you may see your
good and your evil actions . (32)
It is reported that Al-Basri was habitually grieving, and
this attitude is reflected in the sayings :
Continual grief in the world is the way to con-
ceive good deeds . (33)
The laughter of the believer is his neglect of
his heart . (34)
The heart dies of much laughter . (35)
Like Al-Muhasibi, Al-Basri's life style was that of reflec-
tion . In his reported addresses he urged his hearers to
examine themselves, so that
their hearts are sad, their joys secure, their
needs are light, and their souls are chaste . . . .
Every night they are dressed for prayers . Their
tears course down their cheeks . (36)
But Al-Basri also spoke about the love of God :
When the preoccupation of my servant is his con-
cern with Me (God), I make his pleasure and
delight to consist in recollection of Me . And
when his pleasure and delight consists in such
recollection of Me, he loves Me deeply and I love
him deeply . . . I raise the veil that is betwixt
Me and him, and I become the signs before him . (37)
Here he uses the term 'ishq for 'love', which later mystics
were to criticise as being unworthy of God, preferring the
important Qur'anic term mahabba .

David P . Brewster 39

If the dominant note in the first phase is that of

Asceticism, that of the second phase is Affection for God,
which is typified by the well-known figure of Rabi'a .
Rabi'a's life is certainly ascetic, but her austerity is
tempered by and transcended by a deep love for God (mahabba) .
The term Affection is used here in its more technical sense,
rather than in the sense of romantic attachment . In this
more limited sense it is proper to speak of the soul's
affection for God, and of those who display this quality as
Affectives . Two groups of sayings about a person named
RAbi'a have come down to us . As Caspar has emphasised, (38)
one group of sayings is more chaste and severe than the other .
The former belongs to the Rabi'a under discussion, who never
married, while the latter may be attributed to Rabi'a bint
Isma'il, who married Ibn Abi Al-Hawwari . The first Rabi'a
rejected marriage in fairly strong terms :
Marriage is obligatory for those who have the
choice . But I do not have free choice for
myself . I belong to my Lord, and live in the
shadow of His commands . I am of no account . (39)
Similarly, her love for God precluded her from loving any
human being, even a child, as she made clear in her saying :
I would not have thought that there would be any
place free in your heart for the love of someone
other than God . (40)
More striking is the reply she is said to have given to
Muhammad in a dream :
My love for God has so completely filled my
heart that there is no room left for love for
any but He or hate . (41)
Rabi'a's poetry expressing her love for God is justly
celebrated :
I have made Thee the companion of my heart,
But my body is available for those who desire
its company .
And my body is friendly towards its guests,
But the Beloved of my heart is the Guest of my
soul . (42)
Her most famous poem, which is cited by Al-Ghazali, concerns
the quality of love which she feels for God . Nicholson
translates this poem as follows :
Two ways I love Thee : selfishly,
And next, as worthy is of Thee .
'Tis selfish love that I do naught
Save think on Thee with every thought .
'Tis purest love when Thou dost raise
The veil to my adoring gaze .
Not mine the praise in that or this :
Thine is the praise in both, I wis . (43)

David P . Brewster 40

Equally famous are her sayings which examine her motives for
seeking Paradise or shunning Hell .
My God, if I have adored Thee in fear of Hell,
burn me in its fire, and if in desire for Para-
dise, forbid it to me . But if I have not
worshipped Thee except for Thine own self, then
do not forbid me to see Thy face . (44)
Passing to the third phase, that of the Ecstatics, we
may properly place Al-Bistami and Al-Hallaj within it . Each
would require a whole paper to himself for an adequate discus-
sion, but the search for an ecstatic union is one essential
feature which each share . Zaehner's attempts to show that
Al-Bistami was influenced by Advaitan Vedantin thought cannot
be regarded as successful, and certain phrases in his discus-
sion belie his motives . (45) Al-Bistami's first phase of
life, as one of his biographers noted, (46) was that of
scrupulous observance of the sunna, but he abandoned this way
of life in middle age to seek ecstatic experiences . His
'outpourings' shocked the elders of the village where he
lived, and he is said to have been run out of it seven times .
Whether in fact Al-Bistami spoke of an ontological union, or
whether he was only describing an experience depends upon
one's view of such statements . Gardet has put forward an
important distinction between the wahdat ash-shuhud (experi-
ential union) and the wahdat al-wujud (ontological union), and
suggests that these terms go back to the 2nd or 3rd centuries
of the Islamic era . (47) Mold, on the other hand, has
questioned whether such a radical distinction can be sustained
from the early texts . (48) Certainly the later theorists of
Sufism, such as A1-Hujwiri and Al-Ghazali, were concerned to
rescue both Al-Bistami and Al-Hallaj from the charge of heresy
by suggesting that both described an experiential union .
The offence, says Al-Hujwiri, lies solely in the
expression, not in the meaning . A person over-
come with rapture has not the power of expressing
himself correctly ; besides, the meaning of the
expression may be difficult to apprehend, so that
people mistake the writer's intention, and repud-
iate, not his real meaning, but a notion which
they have formed for themselves . (49)
Al-Ghazali writes in similar terms, using the image of the
balance of reason by which the mystic judges his interpreta-
tion after his return to a normal state of mind . (50)
The whole context of Al-Hujwiri's and Al-Ghazali's
judgments is extremely important, and Al-Hujwiri sought to
classify some mystics as Orthodox, the fourth phase, and some
as heretical and even antinomian . (51) The tensions after
the execution of Al-Hallaj are reflected in what A1-Hujwiri
writes in the next century . Both these writers seek to

David P . Brewster 41

rescue Sufism from the shadow under which it had fallen and
to put forward what was, in their view, an Orthodox presen-
tation of Sufism . Al-Ghazali speaks of the proper way in
which 'union' with God may be described, regarding some views
as permissible and others as heretical . (52) In this sense
'orthodoxy' is by no means a category imposed upon Sufism
from outside, but an attempt by its participants to define
what they regard as a permissible articulation of their
experience . As is well known, Al-Ghazali goes further than
mere definition and seeks to integrate Sufism into Islam in
such a fashion that the very words Sufism and Islam are almost
synonymous in later periods of Islamic history when the Sufi
orders are the very means of propagating and sustaining Islam
in countries distant from the heartlands . (53) Al-Ghazali
regains his faith and assurance through Sufi practices after
his intense personal crisis, and until at least the time of
Muhammad 'Abduh of Egypt, who died in 1905, many theologians
have been Sufis . (54)
Any attempt to do justice to the fifth and final phase,
that of the Monists who accept the teaching of wahdat al-
wujud, would again require a separate paper . Voluminous
works exist in the two main languages, Arabic and Persian,
and in several others . Some of their modern interpreters
have already been indicated, notably those of Ibn 'Arabi and
Rum!, the two most important and prolific authors . What
needs to be stressed in discussing this category is not a
possible Greek source in Neo-Platonism for such teaching, but
rather the way in which this development was seen as a legi-
timate inference from the Qur'an . Fundamental to this school
are the paired terms, zahir and batin, applied in the Qur'an
to God, and the term ta'wil, interpretation, used inter alia
of the interpretation of the dreams of Joseph . (55) Ta'wil
is seen as the legitimate extension of the Qur'an from one
context to another . It is true that Al-Ghazali and other
theo l ogians have important discussions about the use of
ta'wi1, but what distinguishes the Monists is that the con-
nection between the external and internal meanings is no
longer as tightly controlled as in Al-Ghazali's
exegesis . (56) Whether the Monists claim to be Sunni or
Shi'i is immaterial for the purposes of this discussion - the
method is the same . Corbin states that
ta'wil, Shiite hermeneutics, does not deny that
prophetic Revelation was concluded with the
prophet Muhammad, the 'seal of prophecy' . It
postulates, however, that prophetic hermeneutics
is not concluded and will continue to bring
forth secret meanings until the 'return', the
parousia, of the awaited Imam . (57)
He also writes of 'the revealed Book as the "cipher" of an

David P . Brewster 42

eternal Word, forever capable of producing new creations' . (58)

It is this fluidity of form which enables the Monistic tradi-
tion to adapt to change and, simultaneously, to appeal to the
changeless identity of the Ultimate . Corbin even goes so far
as to claim that Sufism, by his definition, did not begin
until _ this method of exegesis had been created by Ibn 'Arabi
and Rumi .
By Sufis we mean precisely all those whom . . . we
group as Fedeli d'amore . This group is dominated
by two great figures : Ibn 'Arabi, the incompar-
able master of mystic theosophy, and Jalaluddin
Rumi, the Iranian troubadour of that religion of
love whose flame feeds on the theophanic feeling
for sensuous beauty . (59)
He has also stated :
We shall observe that this term Fedeli d'amore
. . . does not apply indiscriminately to the entire
community of Sufis ; it does not, for example,
apply to the pious ascetics of Mesopotamia, who
in the first centuries took the name of Sufi . (60)
The implication of these two statements taken together is
clear - for Corbin, Sufism has only one authentic expression,
that of the Fedeli d'amore, the lovers of God in the Monistic
tradition . Corbin's attitude may be contrasted with that of
other Western scholars, and with that of some members of Al-
Azhar who stated in A .H . 1372 (1953) :
Islam is very precise in its determination of
that which is Islamic and that which is not .
Thus the greater part of that which Orientalists
call Muslim mysticism has nothing in common with
Islam . (61)
Any survey of Sufism would not be complete without
reference to the Sufi orders . Recent publications in this
area include the first comprehensive survey of the origins
of the orders . (62) Trimingham's detailed discussion pro-
vides a landmark . The role of the orders in spreading
Islam has already been referred to . Their devotional
methods, the use of the invocation of the Divine name (dhikr)
to create psychological states, has been briefly surveyed in
the work by Gardet and Anawati . (63) The structure of their
hierarchy and the progression within it is detailed by
Trimingham . (64) Older works dealing with the orders by
Browne and Subhan, both recently reprinted, are useful in
giving descriptions of the orders as they flourished in more
active periods . (65) In addition, Aziz Ahmad's detailed
notes on Islam in the context of the Indian environment (66)
enables an assessment to be made of the extent to which
local expressions of Sufism have been influenced by Hindu
ideas . Schimmel's important article on the influence of

David P . Brewster 43

Al-Hallaj on Sindhi literature (67) provides another perspec-

tive for the study of Sufism in the Indian environment, and
her work on Iqbal suggests ways in which Sufism inspired a
generation of Muslim modernists . (68) A field which has
received little Western attention is that of Indonesian
Islamic thought, including the indigenous orders . Professor
A .H . Johns, of the Australian National University, Canberra,
continues research in this area after earlier publica-
tions . (69) He has shown the extent to which the Monistic
thought of Tbn 'Arabi was acceptable to the Muslims of what
is now Indonesia precisely because it could be interpreted so
as to harmonise with their previously dominant Hindu culture .
Geertz's study (70) has elaborated the levels of Islamisation
of Java, and has demonstrated that many of these aspects of
Hindu culture remain deeply embedded in the popular Islam of
the island, through the work of the orders, in spite of the
efforts of the orthodox teachers to purify the popular
beliefs .
Several recent works have concentrated on the Sufi
orders from the point of view of the sociologist . Two in
particular, those by Berger (71) and Gilsenan, (72) enable
us to assess the present position of the orders in the Middle
East . Berger presents a useful summary of the views of
Egyptians towards the orders and suggests reasons why the
orders remain attractive to some and why others see them as
a relic of the past, to be swept away as impeding pro-
gress . (73) Gilsenan examines the development of a 20th
century order in Egypt and analyses very effectively the
factors which shape its present form . Another work, by
Lings, (74) examines the growth of a different order in
Morocco and, although not written from a sociological stand-
point, nevertheless provides important material . Finally,
the views of the nation-builders of this century towards the
orders are exemplified in the attitudes of AtatUrk, and
President Bourguiba of Tunisia . The latter has often ex-
pressed his ideas in forceful terms, declaring that his
country needs, not Sufism, but war on the economic front in
order to create justice in material terms . (75)
This paper has attempted to provide a sketch of the
way in which Sufism may be studied . It has argued from the
premise that Sufism is an autonomous development within
Islam, and that this is the only proper perspective from
which to examine it . It has further argued that normative
judgments as to whether certain forms of Sufism are legiti-
mate or otherwise ought not to be made . In this stance, as
will have appeared, it departs from the views of a number of
scholars . It seeks what might be termed a developmental
and contextual approach to the study of Sufism, examining the
forms which it took over a long period . It has argued that,
to quote the words of Crapanzano :

David P . Brewster 44

Sufism itself is no one thing . . . . To generalize

about Sufism is like generalizing about Western
European philosophy, or at least Scholasticism .
Not only is all the subtlety of the individual
thinkers lost in such an approach but the depth
and variety of their emotional and mystical
experiences are flattened . (76)
It has accepted Geertz's verdict that Sufism is a series of
experiments, a verdict which implies both a certain fluidity
and also a willingness to depart from normative estimates,
using varying styles of religious language . The only
criteria for the success of these experiments must surely be
the conviction and sincerity of those who took part in them,
and whether the experiments were found to be successful .


Revised version of a paper read at the 13th Congress of

the International Association for the History of Reli-
gions . I am grateful to Prof . A .-M . Schimmel for her
comments .
1 Robert Caspar, 'La Mystique musulmane : Recherches et
tendances', IBLA : Revue de l'Institut des Belles Lettres
Arabes, Tunis No . 99, 1962, p . 271-89 . I am indebted to
Fr Caspar for his advice over a number of years, and for
his articles . For reasons of space a bibliography of
Sufism cannot be given here . See : G .C . Anawati,
'Introduction I la mystique musulmane', Angelicum, Rome
vol . 43, 1966, p . 153-66 ; the bibliographies in the
works of Trimingham and Gilsenan cited below ; and the
standard reference works, such as Brockelman and Sezgin .
For an important review of recent research in this area,
see : R . Caspar, 'Mystique musulmane : Bilan dune
d4cennie (1963-73)', IBLA, No . 133, 1974, p . 69-101 and
No . 135, 1975, p . 39-111 (with index) .
2 Caspar, Recherches, p . 275 .
3 Ibid .
4 Ibid ., p . 276 .
5 Ibid ., p . 277-8 .
6 Ibid ., p . 278 ; see for example, Henri Corbin, Creative
Imagination in the Sufism of Ibn 'Arabi, t rans . by Ralph
Manheim, Princeton and London 1970, p . 5 : 'What we have
tried to do is to live his spirituality for a moment with
him' (author's emphasis) .
7 Caspar, Recherches, p . 282 .
8 Ibid ., p . 283 .
9 See his book with this title (N .Y . and London 1953) .
See also Titus Burckhardt, An Introduction to Sufi

David P . Brewster 45

Doctrine, trans . D .M . Matheson, Lahore 1959, p . viii,

and Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Sufi Essays, London 1972, p .
126, note 1 . This approach is influenced by R . Gudnon
see Nasr, Three Muslim Sages : Avicenna-Suhrawardi Ibn
'Arabi, Cambridge, Mass ., p . 156, note 1 .
10 Nasr, Sufi Essays, p . 30 ; cf . also chap . IX : Islam and
the Encounter of Religions .
11 Nader Ardalan and Laleh Bakhtiar, The Sense of Unity :
The Sufi Tradition in Persian Architecture, Chicago and
London 1973 .
12 Idries Shah, The Sufis, London 1964, and The Way of the
Sufi, London 1968 .
13 The Sufis, p . 25 .
14 Ibid ., p . 43 .
15 Islamic Studies, vol . 3, 1964, p . 531-3 ; see also L .P .
Elwell-Sutton, 'Sufism and Pseudo-Sufism' in Encounter,
May, 1975, p . 9-17, and the ensuing correspondence in
that journal ; and Toufy Fahd, 'De Petrus Alfonsi 'A Idris
Shah' in Revue des Etudes Islamiques, vol . XLI, 1973,
p . 165-79 .
16 Nasr's review, p . 532, 533 .
17 Ibid ., p . 531 .
18 G .-C . Anawati and L . Gardet, Mystique Musulmane : Aspects
et Tendances : Experiences et Techniques, 2d ed . Paris
1968 ; see also, L . Gardet, Mystique naturelle et mystique
surnaturelle en Islam, Recherches de Science Religieuse,
vol . XXXVII, 1950, p . 321-65 .
19 Caspar, Recherches, p . 285 .
20 J . Maritain, Distinguish to unite, or The Degrees of
Knowledge, trans . from the 4th French ed ., Gerald B .
Phelan, London 1959, p . 272-7 .
21 Review of the 1st ed ., J .R .A .S „ 1964, p . 71-3 .
22 R .A . Nicholson, 'A Historical Enquiry Concerning the
Origin and Development _of _ Sufiism, with a list of Defi-
nitions of the Terms "Sufi" and "Tasawwuf" Arranged
Chronologically', J .R .A .S ., 1906, p . 303-48 .
23 Clifford Geertz, Islam Observed, Chicago and London 1968,
p . 48 .
24 Louis Massignon, Essai sur les Origines du Lexique Tech-
nique de la mystique Musulmane, Nouvelle ed ., Paris 1968 ;
Paul Nwyia, Exdggse Coranique et Langage Mystique :
Nouvel Essai sur le Lexique Technique des Mystiques
Musulmans, Beirut 1970 .
25 Massignon, Recueil de textes inddits concernant 1'histoire
de la mystique en pays d'Islam, Paris 1929, p . 40 ; ibid .,
Essai, p . 46, note 1 .
26 Nasr, Three Muslim Sages, p . 85 .
27 A1-Ghazali, Ihya' 'Ulum ad-din, Cairo 1377/1957 . vol . IV,
p . 286, trans . J .A . Williams, Islam, New York 1961, p .
198 .

David P . Brewster 46

28 Ibn 'Arabi, Kitab al-ajwiba, t rans . b y T .H . Weir,

J .R .A .S ., 1901, p . 813-4, revised by Margaret Smith,
Readings from the Mystics of Islam, London 1950, p . 100 ;
Qur'an, 28 :88 and 2 :109 .
29 Cited in Massignon, Recueil, p . 4, no . 16 .
30 Ibid ., p . 2, no . 4 .
31 Ibid ., p . 3, no . 9 .
32 Ibid ., p . 2, no . 7 .
33 Ibid ., p . 2, no . 6 .
34 Ibn ca'd, Tabagat, Beirut, vol . 26, p . 170 .
35 Ibid ., p . 171 .
36 Massignon, Recueil, p . 3-4, no . 12 .
37 Ibid ., p . 3, no . 11 .
38 Etudes Arabes, Rome, No . 12, 1966, p . 33 .
39 Cited in A .R . Badawi, Shahida al- 'ishq al-ilahi : Ribi'a
al-'Adawiyya, Cairo n .d ., p . 150 .
40 Ibid ., p . 110-1 .
41 Ibid ., p . 151 .
42 Ibid ., p . 120 .
43 Ihya', ed . cit ., vol . IV, p . 302, trans . in Sir T . Arnold
and A . Guillaume (eds), The Legacy of Islam, Oxford 1931,
p . 213-4 .
44 Badawi, op . cit ., p . 156 .
45 R .C . Zaehner, Mysticism : Sacred and Profane, London
1957, p . 156-65, and Hindu and Muslim Mysticism, London
1960, p . 93f . See his comment in the former, p . 160 :
'Muslim mysticism is entirely derivative .'
46 Cited in A .R . Badawi, Shatahat as-sufiyya, Cairo 1949,
vol . I, p . 95 .
47 Anawati and Gardet, op . cit ., p . 83-4 .
48 Marijan Mold, Les Mystiques Musulmanes, Paris 1965, p . 59-
61 and 84 .
49 Al-Hujwiri, Kashf al-mahjub, trans . R .A . Nicholson,
London 1 911, reprinted, p . 152 .
50 Al-Ghazali, Mishkat al-anwar ('The Niche for Lights'),
trans . W .H .T . Gairdner, Lahore 1952, reprinted, p . 107 .
This, the only available reprint of this classic transla-
tion, unfortunately has many misprints, including a
crucial one on p . 119, where it should read : 'Were the
disappearance of Allah conceivable . . .'
51 Al-Hujwiri, op . cit ., p . 130-1, 152, 260 .
52 Mishkat al-anwar, ed . cit ., p . 105-8, and Al-munqidh min
ad-dalal, trans . W .M . Watt, in The Faith and Practice of
al-Ghazali, London 1953, p . 60-2 .
53 Bernard Lewis, The Emergence of Modern Turkey, London
1961, p . 398-9 ; and Howard A . Reed in R .N . Frye (ed .),
Islam and the West, 's-Gravenhage 1957, p . 139, citing
D .B . Macdonald's dictum : 'So far as a Muslim, now, is a
thinker he is a mystic .'
David P . Brewster 47

54 C .C . Adams, Islam and Modernism in Egypt, New York 1968,

reprinted, p . 23-5 and 31-3 .
55 Qur'an 57 :3 and 12 :6, etc .
56 Notably in his Ihya', ed . cit ., Vol . I, p . 103-4, and his
Mishkat al-anwar, ed . cit ., p . 136-41 .
57 Corbin, op . cit ., p . 29 .
58 Ibid ., p . 27-8 .
59 ibid ., p . 110 .
60 Ibid ., p . 100 .
61 Majallat al-azhar, rajab 1372, p . 892-3, cited in
M .I .D .E .O ., vol . I, p . 189 .
62 J . Spencer Trimingham, The Sufi Orders in Islam, oxford
1971 .
63 Anawati and Gardet, op . cit ., p . 187-212 .
64 Trimingham, op . cit ., chap . VI .
65 J .P . Browne, The Darvishes, or Oriental Spiritualism,
reprinted London 1968 ; John A . Subhan, Sufism : Its
Saints and Shrines, reprinted New York 1970 .
66 Aziz Ahmad, Studies in Islamic Culture in the Indian
Environment, oxford 1964 .
67 Annemarie Schimmel, 'The Martyr-Mystic Hallaj in Sindhi
Folk-Poetry', Numen, Vol . 9, 1962, p . 161-200 .
68 Ibid ., Gabriel's Wing, Leiden 1963 .
69 'Dak l
a'ik al-Huruf by 'Abd al-Ra'uf of Singkel', J .R .A .S .,
1955, p . 55-73 and 139-58 ; 'Malay Sufism', Journal of
the Malayan Branch, Royal Asiatic Society, vol . XXX,
Part 2, August, 1957 .
70 Clifford Geertz, The Religion of Java, New York 1960 .
71 Morroe Berger, Islam in Egypt Today, Cambridge 1970 .
72 Michael Gilsenan, Saint and Sufi in Modern Egypt, Oxford
1973 .
73 Berger, op . cit ., p . 73-9 .
74 Martin Lings, A Sufi Saint of the Twentieth Century :
Shaikh Ahmad Al-'Alawi, his spiritual heritage and
legacy, 2nd ed ., London 1971 .
75 Pierre Rondot, L'Islam et les musulmans d'aujourd'hui,
vol . II, Paris 1960, p . 193 .
76 Vincent Crapanzano, 'The Hamadsha', in Nikkie R . Keddie
(ed .), Scholars, Saints and Sufis, Berkeley, Calif .
1972, p . 327 .