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.

The Palm Tree of the Soul: The Mystical-Philosophical Tafsir of ‘Abd al-Razzaq al-Kashani

Few thinkers of any sort in medieval Islam have had as much influence in later Islamic traditions—Sunni and Shi’i and all the permutations within those categories—as the great Andalusian mystic, philosopher, and prolific author Ibn ‘Arabī. Like so many seminal philosophical and mystical thinkers, his later followers and interpreters would vary greatly in their defense, appropriation, and creative expansion of the master’s work and thought. This is perhaps especially the case for Ibn ‘Arabī, an especially dense and difficult author. Already a figure of controversy in his lifetime, Ibn ‘Arabī’s value and legacy continue to be contested points, both within the field of Islamic thought and practice and within the field of historical enquiry. The passage translated below was written by one of Ibn ‘Arabī’s many later followers. Like many others, ‘Abd al-Razzāq al-Kashanī (d. 730/1329) drew upon the writings of the ‘Greatest Master’ in a creative fashion; he did not simply reproduce Ibn ‘Arabī’s ideas or methods—an improbable task, anyway. Rather, as we see in this example of al-Kashanī’s tafsīr, he drew upon Ibn ‘Arabī’s language, concepts, and tendencies to craft his own system of mystical-philosophical theology and hermeneutic. Having studied Avicennian philosophy before embracing Sufism via Ibn ‘Arabī, al-Kashanī’s mystical-philosophical ‘system’ draws upon both traditions. His writings—several of which are commentaries upon the work of Ibn ‘Arabī—tend to have a highly pedagogical edge to them, both in intention and in format and composition. Suffice to say, al-Kashanī is a much easier writer to read than Ibn ‘Arabī. This is not to say his ideas or language are simple, however; they are not. But they are deliberately more accessible and systematic than Ibn ‘Arabi’s works.

Among al-Kashanī’s numerous extant writings, one of the most frequently printed is his Qur’an commentary. However, despite the virtually uncontested ascription of the Ta’wīlāt al-Qur’ān to al-Kashanī, this text has been repeatedly printed by modern publishing houses under the name Tafsīr al-Qur’ān al-Karīm and ascribed to Ibn ‘Arabī himself; as one scholar has suggested, this strategy is probably at least in part a marketing ploy.[1] At any rate, the tafsīr is relatively brief (for commentaries)—about a thousand pages in two volumes in the edition I am using—and very readable, particularly compared to Ibn ‘Arabī’s dense and rather convoluted style. Al-Kashanī, like many other ‘specialized’ commentators in other ‘genres’ of commentary, engages in selective commentary, rather than trying to comment on every single line. His concerns are, as might be expected from my brief synopsis above, philosophical-mystical. His exegetical method in most of the commentary might be described as ‘allegorical’ (a problematic but still useful term, I think). However, as I plan on posting excerpts from several more ‘allegorical’ minded commentators, from multiple high medieval traditions, in coming days, I will refrain from a further analysis. Rather, take note of the obvious exegetical moves al-Kashanī makes here, and the underlying philosophical, religious, and ‘mystical’ ideas and concerns he reveals in this short passage. What sorts of things does al-Kashanī presuppose about the world, things that would be accepted by most people in his society? What sorts of things might be contested in his analysis? How does his mystical ‘system’ correspond to the Qur’anic text, and is he consistent in his application?

[Text]: Q.19:22-26: So she [Mary] became pregnant with him and withdrew with him to a remote place. Then the labor pains brought her to the trunk of the palm tree; she said: O that I died before [this], forgotten, forgetting. Then he cried out to her from below her—Lest you be sadded, your Lord has placed flowing water below you. And shake towards you the trunk of the plam tree; there will fall to you ripe harvestable dates. So eat and drink and refresh yourself. And if you see anyone from among men, say: I have vowed to the Merciful a fast, so I will not speak today to anyone.

[Commentary]: And the union of the spirit of Jesus with the sperm (al-nuṭfa), however, is after the occurrence of the sperm in the womb and its repose therein, while it mixes and merges into one, becoming a nature (mizājan) fit for the reception of the spirit.[2] So she withdrew with him (bihu), that is, with him (ma’hu), to a remote place, far from the first eastern place, for it happened to her in a foreign place which is the world of physical nature (‘ālam al-ṭabī’a), the material horizon, and so He said: Then the labor pains brought her to the trunk of the palm tree, the palm tree of the soul. So he cried out to her from below her, that is, Gabriel cried out to her from the lowest [place] in relation to her place in regards to the heart, that is, from the world of physical nature, that which had saddened her with respect to it, the pregnancy which was the cause of her being pointed out and expelled. Lest you be saddened, your Lord has placed flowing water below you, that is, a small stream, from the unseen of physical-natural knowledge, and knowledge of the oneness of actions, with which God singled you out and purified you—as you saw He who generated the fetus from your sperm, uniting it together.

And shake towards you the trunk of the palm tree of your soul, which was lofty through hearing the Spirit, through your connection to the Spirit of holiness, and became verdant with true life, after its aridity from spiritual exercise and its dryness from being forbidden the water of passion and its life. And it bore fruit of gnosis (al-ma’ārif), and inner meaning; that is, Set it in motion with contemplation. There will fall to you, of the fruit of gnosis, and realities, ripe harvestable dates. So eat, that is, from above you, the dates of the realities, of divine gnosis, of knowledge of the manifestation of the [divine] attributes, of the gifts, and of the states. And drink, from below you, the water of the knowledge of physical nature, of the wonders of creation, of the mysteries of the divine actions, of knowledge of tawakkul, of the manifestation of the actions, of the virtues, of the acquisitions, as God says: They would have eaten from above them and from below their feet (Q. 5.66b).

And refresh yourself, by grace, by the blessed son, the existent through divine power, the gift through divine providence. And if you see anyone from among men, that is, from among the people of exotericism, those veiled from the realities by the outer appearances of the means, by the creation, by the judgements, from the wonders and from divine power—those who do not understand your word, and do not speak truthfully regarding you or your state, due to their conformity with custom, and their being veiled by intellects muddied by delusion, veiled from the light of God. Then say: I have vowed to the Merciful a fast, that is, not to talk about anything of your matter, nor to keep on talking with them about what they are not capable of receiving, as one speaks in accordance with his own state.


[Text]: Q. 20:6-13: And what is in the heavens is His, and what is on the earth, what is between the two, and what is under the ground. And if you speak publicly, He knows the secret and [the] more hidden. God—no god save He; His are the beautiful names. And has there come to you the story of Moses? When he saw a fire, he said to his people: remain; I espied a fire, perhaps I will you from it a firebrand or may find at the fire guidance. And when he came to it, it was cried out, O Moses! Verily, I am your Lord, so take off your two sandals, for you are in the holy valley Ṭuwa. And I have chosen you, so listen to what is revealed.[3]

[Commentary]: And what is in the heavens is His, to and what is under the ground: evidentiary proof of the total embrace of His force and of His dominion over all, that is, everything is under His dominion, His force, His governing power, His effectual influence: you do not come-into-being, do not move, do not come-to-rest, do not change, do not subsist, save by His command. And likewise, you pass away in whole overcome by His oneness, and the obliterating power of His compulsion: you do not hear, do not see, do not strike, do not walk, except in Him and by His command.

And if you speak publicly, He knows the secret and [the] more hidden: evidentiary proof of the perfection of His kindness. That is, His knowledge is effective in all things. He knows their exteriors and interiors, the secret, and the secret of the secret. Likewise, if you act publicly, or covertly, then He knows it, public and covert.

And whereas the aforementioned attributes were the sources with which there is no attribute save under their totality, and there is no name save it is included in these aforementioned names, and the essence is not made multiple by them, so He says: God. That is the way-station (al-manzil) described by these attributes, He is God, there is no god save He, His unitary essence is not made multiple, nor is the reality of His He-ness [made multiple] by them, and He is not numerically compounded. For He is He in eternal duration, just as He was in eternity. There is no he save He, no existence other than Him in regards to His absolute unicity and His being the source of all things. Whereas He mentioned: His are the beautiful names which are His essence in regards to the particularization of the attributes.

When he [Moses] saw a fire, it is the Spirit of holiness, that which kindles from itself light in human souls; he saw it by the refreshed eye of his inner sight, by the light of guidance. He said to his people the capacities of the lower self, Remain, be at rest, and do not set out, since the course (al-sīr), rather, arrives at the holy world (al-‘ālam al-qudsī), and he is joined to it in the presence of these human capacities, from the outer and inner senses, the objects of concern for it.[4] I espied a fire, that is, I saw a fire. Perhaps I will bring you from it a firebrand, that is, a conjunctive luminescent aspect (hai’a), by which all of you (pl.) will be benefited. So [Moses] will be illumined and his essence become an excellent quality. Or I will find at the fire one who will guide me through knowledge and gnosis, the reason for divine guidance to God (al-Ḥaqq), that is, the [revealed] scriptures, by the conjunction through them to the luminescent aspect (hai’a: or, ‘form’), or the cognizant aspect.

And when he reached it, that is, was joined to it, it was cried out, from behind the fiery veil, which is the pavilions of glory and might, the divine presence being veiled by it. O Moses! Verily, I am your Lord! Veiled by the fiery form, which is one of the veils of might manifest in it. So take off your two sandals, that is, your lower self and your body, or rather two existents, because one, if he is stripped of the two, he is stripped of two existents. That is, likewise, in your spirit and your secret you were stripped of their attributes and aspects, so that you are joined to the Spirit of holiness, and stripped in your heart and your chest from the two, the cutting off of attachment to all things, the effacement of the traces, the extinguishing of the attributes and actions. He names them two sandals, and He does not name them two articles of clothing, because if he were not stripped of wearing the two, he would not be united to the world of holiness. And the state is the state of union, so He commands him with the cutting off of all things in view of Him, as He said: Be devoted to Him entirely. So it is as if his attachment susbsisted with the two, and the attachment through the two caused his foot to slip, [the foot] being the lowest aspect of the heart, designated by ‘front’ (ṣadr). Then the two, after the the spiritual, secretual betaking towards holiness, He ordered the cutting off of the two in the station of the Spirit, and for this He justified the necessity of the taking off by His words, You are in the holy valley Ṭuwa, that is, the world of the Spirit, clear of the traces of attachment, the forms of dependencies, and the extended attachments; [it is] named Ṭuwa, due to the concealment (ṭayy) of the conditions of the domain, and of the celestial and terrestrial bodies beneath it.

He has spoken truthfully who said: ‘He commanded him to put the two [sandals] down due to their being made from the skin of a dead donkey, without tanning.’ And it is said: ‘When He cried out, Satan whispered to him: “Satan cried out to you.”’ So he said: I am discriminating! I heard from six sides with all my members—and that could not be save from the cry of the Merciful.’[5]

I have chosen you, so listen to what is revealed: this He promised with the election that is after the perfect essential manifestation, that which leveled the mountain of his being  (wujūdihi) with the annihilation in it by being leveled, and his thunderstruck prostration at his recovery through Real Being, as God said: when he was restored he said: Glory to you! I turn to You, and I am the first of the believers: [God] said: ‘O Moses! I have chosen you in preference to all other people, as My messenger and My word.’ This manifestation is the manifestation of the attributes, before the manifestation of the essence. And for this He sent him, and he did not here ask Him for information concerning the revelation. And He commanded him with spiritual exercise, with being-present, with watchfulness, and He promised him the great resurrection in short time, so this election is close to the foundational choosing alluded to in His words: Then his Lord chose him; so turn to Him and be rightly-guided, a middle between him and between the electing.

[1] James Winston Morris, ‘Ibn ‘Arabi and His Interpreters:  Part II (Conclusion): Influences and Interpretations, in Journal of the American Oriental Society, vol. 107 101-119.

[2] Mizāj is derived from a root that means ‘to mix, to stir’; the term might best be translated as ‘humoral nature’ or ‘disposition,’ as the conceptions behind the term lie in Galenic theories of the humors and their particular presences and circulations in the body.

[3] Some readers will perhaps be familiar with a much earlier instance of a mystical/allegorical interpretation of the story of Moses: St. Gregory of Nyssa’s Life of Moses. As we see here in al-Kashanī’s interpretation, Gregory reinterpreted the historically particular life of Moses along universal lines, as being the story of the human soul in its progress towards God. Likewise, al-Kashanī here finds in the story the opportunity to lay out theology and a supreme example of human experience of God. While he does not deny the historical particularity of the story, that historical particularity is not especially important here—rather, it is the universal truths al-Kashanī finds revealed, mystically and anagologically, in the story.

[4] I.e., Moses said to his lower capacities/potencies: remain here while I [viz., the higher self/spirit] go towards the fire. The sense is that the lower self cannot embark on the path to the ‘hallowed world.’ I am not entirely satisfied with my translation here, but I think the sense is clear.

[5] Al-Kashanī occasionally, as here, inserts material from ‘exoteric’ exegesis, most likely in order to demonstrate that his ‘esoteric’ reading of the text does not preclude more common, ‘established’ exoteric readings drawing upon other forms of explanation and exegetical authority. This is not unlike medieval Latin Christian exegesis, with its levels of meaning (four in many accounts, but more or fewer in other reckonings), the allegorical or the tropological not excluding the literal/historical. For al-Kashanī and other ‘esoteric’ exegetes of the Qur’an, however, the relation between the ‘literal/historical’ and the ‘allegorical/mystical’ could be somewhat more ticklish a subject than in Latin Christendom.