[This is taken from Claud Field's Mystics and Saints of Islam, originally published in 1910.]
Sufism consists essentially in giving up oneself constantly to devotional exercises, in living solely for God, in abandoning all the frivolous attractions of the world, in disregarding the ordinary aims of men—pleasures, riches and honours—and finally in separating oneself from society for the sake of practising devotion to God. This way of life was extremely common among the companions of the Prophet and the early Moslems. But when in the second century of Islam and the succeeding centuries the desire for worldly wealth had spread, and ordinary men allowed themselves to be drawn into the current of a dissipated and worldly life, the persons who gave themselves up to piety were distinguished by the name of "Sufis," or aspirants to Sufism.
The most probable derivation is from "suf" (wool), for, as a rule, Sufis wear woollen garments to distinguish themselves from the crowd, who love gaudy attire.
For an intelligent being possessed of a body, thought is the joint product of the perception of events which happen from without, and of the emotions to which they give rise within, and is that quality which distinguishes man from animals. These emotions proceed one from another; just as knowledge is born of arguments, joy and sadness spring from the perception of that which causes grief or pleasure. Similarly with the disciple of the spiritual life in the warfare which he wages with himself, and in his devotional exercises. Every struggle which he has with his passions produces in him a state resulting from this struggle. This state is either a disposition to piety which, strengthening by repetition, becomes for him a "station" (maqam), or merely an emotion which he undergoes, such as joy, merriment, etc.
The disciple of the spiritual life continues to rise from one station to another, till he arrives at the knowledge of the Divine Unity and of God, the necessary condition for obtaining felicity, conformably to the saying of the Prophet: "Whosoever dies while confessing that there is no god but God, shall enter Paradise."
Progress through these different stages is gradual. They have as their common foundation obedience and sincerity of intention; faith precedes and accompanies them, and from them proceed the emotions and qualities, the transient and permanent modifications of the soul; these emotions and qualities go on producing others in a perpetual progression which finally arrives at the station of the knowledge of the Unity of God. The disciple of the spiritual life needs to demand an account of his soul in all its actions, and to keep an attentive eye on the most hidden recesses of his heart; for actions must necessarily produce results, and whatever evil is in results betokens a corresponding evil in actions.
There are but a few persons who imitate the Sufis in this practice of self-examination, for negligence and indifference in this respect are almost universal. Pious men who have not risen to this class (the mystics) only aim at fulfilling the works commanded by the law in all the completeness laid down by the science of jurisprudence. But the mystics examine scrupulously the results of these works, the effects and impressions which they produce upon the soul. For this purpose they use whatever rays of divine illumination may have reached them while in a state of ecstacy, with the object of assuring themselves whether their actions are exempt or not from some defect. The essence of their system is this practice of obliging the soul often to render an account of its actions and of what it has left undone. It also consists in the development of those gifts of discrimination and ecstacy which are born out of struggles with natural inclinations, and which then become for the disciple stations of progress.
The Sufis possess some rules of conduct peculiar to themselves, and make use of certain technical expressions. Of these Ghazzali has treated in Ihya-ul-ulum ("Revival of the Religious Sciences"). He speaks of the laws regulating devotion, he explains the rules and customs of the Sufis and the technical terms which they use. Thus the system of the Sufis, which was at first only a special way of carrying on worship, and the laws of which were only handed on by example and tradition, was methodised and reduced to writing, like the exegesis of the Koran, the Traditions, Jurisprudence, and so forth.
This spiritual combat and this habit of meditation are usually followed by a lifting of the veils of sense, and by the perception of certain worlds which form part of the "things of God" (knowledge of which He has reserved for Himself). The sensual man can have no perception of such things.
Disentanglement from the things of sense and consequent perception of invisible things takes place when the spirit, giving up the uses of exterior senses, only uses interior ones; in this state the emotions proceeding from the former grow feebler, while those which proceed from the spirit grow stronger; the spirit dominates, and its vigour is renewed.
Now, the practice of meditation contributes materially to this result. It is the nourishment by which the spirit grows. Such growth continues till what was the knowledge of One absent becomes the consciousness of One present, and the veils of sense being lifted, the soul enjoys the fullness of the faculties which belong to it in virtue of its essence, i.e., perception. On this plane it becomes capable of receiving divine grace and knowledge granted by the Deity. Finally its nature as regards the real knowledge of things as they are, approaches the loftiest heaven of angelic beings.
This disentanglement from things of sense takes place oftenest in men who practise the spiritual combat, and thus they arrive at a perception of the real nature of things such as is impossible to any beside themselves. Similarly, they often know of events before they arrive; and by the power of their prayers and their spiritual force, they hold sway over inferior beings who are obliged to obey them.
The greatest of the mystics do not boast of this disentanglement from things of sense and this rule over inferior creatures; unless they have received an order to do so, they reveal nothing of what they have learnt of the real nature of things. These supernatural workings are painful, and when they experience them they ask God for deliverance.
The companions of the Prophet also practised this spiritual warfare; like the mystics, they were overwhelmed with these tokens of divine favour such as the power to walk on the water, to pass through fire without being burnt, to receive their food in miraculous ways, but they did not attach great importance to them. Abu-bekr, Omar, and Ali were distinguished by a great number of these supernatural gifts, and their manner of viewing them was followed by the mystics who succeeded them.
But among the moderns there are men who have set great store by obtaining this disentanglement from things of sense, and by speaking of the mysteries discovered when this veil is removed. To reach this goal they have had recourse to different methods of asceticism, in which the intellectual soul is nourished by meditation to the utmost of its capacity, and enjoys in its fullness the faculty of perception which constitutes its essence. According to them, when a man has arrived at this point, his perception comprehends all existence and the real nature of things without a veil, from the throne of God to the smallest drops of rain. Ghazzali describes the ascetic practices which are necessary to arrive at this state.
This condition of disentanglement from the things of sense is only held to be perfect when it springs from right dispositions. For there are, as a matter of fact, persons who profess to live in retirement and to fast without possessing right dispositions; such are sorcerers, Christians, and others who practise ascetic exercises. We may illustrate this by the image of a well-polished mirror. According as its surface is convex or concave, the object reflected in it is distorted from its real shape; if, on the contrary, the mirror has a plane surface, the object is reflected exactly as it is. Now, what a plane surface is for the mirror, a right disposition is for the soul, as regards the impressions it receives from without.
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