On the Poor Ones and Why They Are Called Sufis

While later medieval Sufism is represented in some extremely subtle, sophisticated, and often very complex texts, produced by and for the intellectual elite, writings intended for a less rarified milieu were also very common. Indeed, many prominent Sufis wrote treatises and commentaries designed to make esoteric, philosophical tenets of mystic though and practice more accessible and more widely dissimulated. Treatises and pamphlet from less prominent and indeed unknown writers were also common, often attached to and advocating a particular Sufi ‘order’ (ṭarīqa), with its particular rites, canon, saints, and chain of authorities often stretching back to a semi-legendary eponym. The text I have excerpted and translated below is an example of this less ‘sophisticated’ and generally more accessible strain of Sufi writing, writing that was intended for, if not the masses, at least a relatively broad audience. Furthermore, as the text below especially demonstrates, we can get a better idea of the actual reception of the often difficult, even impenetrable, ideas of mystico-philosophic Sufism, and the ways in which rituals and ritualized behavior and dress (among other things) were perceived and practiced.

This text, entitled the Sirr al-Asrār—‘Secret of Secrets’ is a workable, if imperfect, English translation—is also an excellent example of another phenomenon common in the medieval world: the automatic verification of a text by attaching it to the name of a prominent, respected figure in the past. In this case, at some point in its history (either at the hands of the original author or a later redactor) the Sirr al-Asrār was attributed to none other than the great Sufi-Hanbali preacher of eleventh-century Baghdad, ‘Abd al-Qadir al-Jīlānī. This attribution continues to this day, and is almost certainly the reason an otherwise rather unremarkable introductory text can today be found in numerous printed editions and in various translations, including a couple into English (which should be considered devotional paraphrases, not translations, I might add). That it simply cannot in fact be from the Baghdadian preacher’s pen is obvious from even a cursory comparison between the established authentic writings of al-Jīlānī and this text: not only is the Arabic much choppier and less rhetorically powerful, but the ideas and practices expressed here are often derived from a quite different, and chronologically later, mystical milieu than that of al-Jīlānī. That is to say nothing of the now anonymous author’s occasional citation of Persian poetry, including Rumi, who lived long after ‘Abd al-Qadir’s death. Rather, it is likely that the text was either composed by a now anymous author, perhaps a member of the Qadiriyya order (which claimed ‘Abd al-Qadir as its eponym), and then later attributed to the famous Eponym accidentally or otherwise; or it was labeled with ‘Abd al-Qadir’s name from the beginning. The former seems more likely, as other than the initial attribution—an easy thing to modify—the text does not make any further effort to identify with ‘Abd al-Qadir.

As for the content translated and presented here, there are several interesting points. First, our author presents a simplified Sufi cosmology, which curiously emerges as a result of the question of the much debated etymological origins of the term ‘Sufi.’ After establishing a mystical cosmology, our author then continues his discussion of Sufi ‘poverty’ and how the true inner nature of Sufism is reflected in both the practices and clothing of the Sufis. As is often the case with handbooks and introductory treatises such as this, objects and rituals provide an easy locus for allegorical explication and theological teaching. Here, clothing is our author’s springboard for laying out the inner meaning of Sufism. Yet we should not imagine that such connections are incidental for our author: rather, as is indicated by the opening discussion of cosmology, and the constant reference to Qur’an and hadith (especially hadith), the world and all its parts are part of the things symbolized. Allegorical connections are not accidental, but reflective of essential properties, of an essential divine economy linking things together and providing the world with divine significance. Hence while the objects discussed might be mundane, and the language of this treatise not exactly representative of high-style, our anonymous author sought to introduce his readers to a truly rarefied, and wondrous world indeed, one in which they also could participate and partially, at least, understand.

 

The Twelfth Chapter, On the Poor Ones and Why They are Called Sufis

Some of them say because they used to dress in wool (al-ṣūf) or because they purified (ṣafū) their hearts from worldly worrisome affairs or because they purified their hearts from all other than God. And some say because they will stand on the Day of the Resurrection in the first row (al-ṣaff al-awwal) in the World of Proximity (‘ālam al-qurba). For the world is four:[1] the World of Kingship, the World of Sovereignty, the World of Divine Omnipotence, and the World of the Divine Essence, and it is the world of reality. And likewise the knowledges are four: the knowledge of the Shari’ah, the knowledge of the Mystical Way, the knowledge of Gnosis and [the knowledge of] Reality. And likewise the spirits are four: bodily spirit, luminescent spirit, governing spirit, and holy spirit. And likewise the divine manifestations are four: the manifestation of the subtle traces, the manifestations of the acts, the manifestation of the attributes, and the manifestation of the essence. And likewise the intellect is four: the basic intellect, the customary intellect, the spiritual intellect, and the universal intellect.[2]

And in the reception of the four aforementioned worlds, knowledges, spirits, manifestations, and intellects, some of the people are bound to the first knowledge, the first spirit, the first manifestation, the first intellect, in the first Garden, which is the Garden of refuge. And some of them are bound in the second and they are in the second Garden, the Garden of beneficence. And some of them are bound to the third, and they are in the third Garden, the Garden of paradise. And they are heedless of the reality of those things, while the people of the Truth from among the gnostic renunciants flee from all of it and are united to the reality and the proximity; they are not bound to anything other than God, exalted is He, and the follow after His word, exalted is He. So they flee to God, and as he—the most perfect of prayers and peace be upon him—said, ‘This world and the next are ḥarām for the people of God.’ And the intended meaning of ẖarām here is not that the two things are prohibited to them, but rather they have prohibited them from themselves that they would seek them and be attached to love of them. For they say: ‘Verily, we are sinners [?], while those two things are temporally originate—so how can one temporal being seek after another temporal thing? On the contrary, it is incumbent on such a one that he seek the originator.’

And He says in the sacred hadith[3]: ‘My love is the love of the poor ones.’ And he said, peace and prayer be upon him, ‘Poverty is my pride, and I take pride in it.’ The intended meaning of poverty here is not the common meaning of poverty, rather, the meaning of poverty here is dependence upon God, mighty and glorious is He, and abandoning what is other than Him, from the benefits of this world and the next. The [ultimate] meaning from it is is annihilation (al-fanā’) in God, such that nothing remains in the self for the self, and nothing is encompassed within the heart other than God, as God, exalted is He said: ‘Neither My earth nor My heavens encompass me, but the heart of My believing servant encompasses Me.’ The intended meaning of ‘believing’ is he who has purified his heart from human attributes and has emptied [it] of alterities, so the Truth encompasses his heart in reflection. Abū Yazīd al-Bisṭāmī,[4] God be merciful to him, said:’If the Throne and what is around it were cast in a corner among the corners of the heart of the gnostic, he would not sense it.’ So He who loves those beloved ones, He is with them in the Other World. The sign of their love is their companionship and yearning for God, exalted is He, and encountering Him, as He said in the sacred hadith: ‘The desire of the pious stretches out towards encountering Me, and I strengthen desire toward [sic.] them.’

As for their clothing:[5] it is in three types, as we mentioned in chapter three. As for their works: the work of the novice is variegated with the praise-worthy and the blame-worthy. The work of the intermediate is variegated with praiseworthy colours like the light of the Shari’ah, the Mystical Path, and gnosis. Their clothing is variegated likewise, like white, blue, and green. The work of the realized one is emptied of colours entirely like the light of the sun—its light does not receive colours; likewise, his clothing does not receive colours, just as black does not receive colours. It is the sign of annihilation (al-fanā’), and it is the veil of the light of their gnosis, as the night is the veil of the light of the sun. And God, exalted is He, has said: ‘We made the night a garment, and we made the day as livelihood.’ Therein is a subtle indication for one who possesses the inner kernel of the intellect and of knowledge.

And also: the people of proximity are in this world in prison, homesickness, sorrow, distress, trial, testing, and oppression, as he—the best of prayer and the noblest of peace be upon him—said: ‘This world is the prison of the believer.’ So darkness [of clothing] is befitting. The saying of the Prophet, peace and prayer be upon him, has been shown to be true in this regard: ‘Tribulation is entrusted to the prophets and the saints, then those most like [them], then those most like [them].’ And the wearing of black clothes and the putting on of a black turban—this clothing is the clothing of tribulation and of those mourning the affliction of the escape of the reception [of divine things], such as unveiling, witnessing, and realization. And [it is for] the death of the life of eternity, and the like—of desire, tasting, passionate love, the holy spirit, and the degrees of closeness and union. Those [so afflicted] are among the greatest of the afflicted. Without doubt, whoever wears the clothing of mourning for the length of his life, it is because benefit of the Other World escapes him. It is like a woman who, when he husband dies, God commands her to wear the clothing of mourning for four months and ten days due the escape of benefit of this world below. As for the temporal extent of the mourning of the Other World, it is without limits, as he said, peace be upon him: ‘The sincerely purehearted are in possession of a matter of truly grave seriousness.’

So all of this is from the attribute of poverty and annihilation. And in the report (al-khabr), ‘Poverty is black of face in the two Houses,’ meaning, it does not receive colours save the light of the face of God. The descent of blackness totally makes empty the face and increases in it beauty and grace. And if the people of proximity look to the beauty of God, their eyes do not receive afterwards anything other than God, and they do not look with desirious love towards anything else. Rather, their object of love and their object of seeking is God, in the two Houses, not intending anything other than God, because God, exalted and blessed is He, created the human person for true knowledge of Him and union with Him. So it is incumbent upon the person that he seek what he was created for in the two Houses together, lest he waste his life with what will not aid him, and lest he forever rue after his death the wasting of his life.

Pseudo-‘Abd al-Qadir al-Jīlānī, Sirr al-Asrār, Chapter 12.


[1] The four-fold world scheme was, by the time this text was written, a pretty-well established trope in mystical cosmology. Like so many things, it was enumerated in the greatest depth and sophistication by ibn ‘Arabī, but the various ‘spheres’ or ‘levels’ of existence have a much older and broader pedigree. In some ways they can be traced back to Neoplatonic thought, and perhaps elsewhere. Their exact meanings and connotations vary, and anyway are not the issue here: here they simply appear as rather mysterious, esoteric signifiers.

[2] Lists of things, especially corresponding things, are of course a popular pedagogical device, and not just in the Middle Ages. Numerical symmetry is also a rather enduring trope.

[3] Sacred hadith: ḥadith qudsī, a saying attributed directly to God. While never a huge portion of canonical hadith collections, and often seen as dubious in nature, several such hadith attained prominence in formative Sufism. For instance, ‘I was a treasure and longed to be known…’ appears continuously in Sufi writings; it would become a particularly important text for ibn ‘Arabi and his followers.

[4] An important early Sufi, often described as belong to the ‘intoxicated’ ‘school’ of Sufism along with al-Ḥallāj—a description that while obscuring of much, does indicate the often ecstatic and somewhat radical nature of many of Bisṭāmī’s sayings.

[5] Our anonymous author here rather abruptly shifts gears, entering into a discussion of the mystical significance of the garb of particular Sufi orders and ranks: yet another indication that the author is writing during a period of proliferating Sufi orders, not during the period of ‘Abd al-Qadir al-Jīlānī.

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