Islam in Arabic literally means “peace” and “submission,” but has the implication of “the peace of or submission to the will of Allah.” The followers of the religion are called Muslims, literally meaning “those who submit.” Islam is a strictly monotheistic religion, denying that Allah (or God) has any aspects (like the Christian Trinity). This is expressed in the constantly repeated phrase “There is no God but God” (la ilaha ill’ Allah). Islam was introduced in 610 CE into the Arabian Peninsula by the Prophet Muhammad (also written Mohammed, Mahomet, etc.), who is called “the Messenger of Allah.” The religion is sometimes, therefore, called Muhammadism. Although the Qur’šn, the Holy Book of Islam, identifies several of the Jewish Prophets as well as Jesus as messengers of God, it claims that Muhammad is the last and final Prophet. The Qur’an, in fact, is considered to be revealed from a Heavenly Book, from which other religious revelations are also said to come. Sura (i.e., chapter) 10, ayat (verse) 47 states, “And every people [or nation] has had a Messenger [or Apostle],” and 35.24 states, “And there never was a people without a Warner having lived among them.” Christians and Jews are specifically identified in the Qur’an as “People of the Book,” but many Muslims consider Hindus and Zoroastrians to be included as well. Some include adherents of other revealed religions and some even include Buddhists. Theosophists prefer this more liberal, inclusive, tolerant interpretation (cf. Annie Besant, Islam, TPH Adyar, 1966; pp. 25-7).
Islam, like Buddhism and Christianity, has two main sources of inspiration: the life of the Prophet and his teaching. The first is set forth in the hadith (“tradition”), composed of statements said to have been made by Muhammad (but not collected from personal recollections until two centuries after his death), which are not considered revelations, as well as in various biographies by his followers. The second is embodied in the Holy Qur’an. There are numerous detailed accounts of the former available and several excellent translations of the latter (especially those made by devout Muslim scholars), but a brief sketch of both may be useful at this point.
The Life of the Teacher. Muhammad, whose name in Arabic means “the Praised One,” was born into the noble Quraish tribe on April 20, 571 CE, in the city of Mecca on the Arabian Peninsula. His father’s name was ‘Abd Allah ibn ‘Abd al Muttalib; his mother’s name was šmina. The Prophet lost his parents early in life and his guardianship was left first to his grandfather ‘Abd al Muttalib, and then later to his uncle Abu Talib. Little is known of the boy’s childhood. It is written that he was handsome, of medium height, had long black hair, and was in good health. As a young man, Muhammad entered the service of a wealthy noble widow named Khadija, leading caravans in trade to surrounding areas. Because of his skill and integrity, he became known as “honest Mohammad.” At about the age of 25, he married Khadija, and, although she was 15 years his senior, they loved each other deeply and he married no one else (polygamy being a common practice in his society) until after her death when he was 50. They had several children, but only one, a daughter named Fatima, survived beyond early youth.
Muhammad was apparently a very spiritually-minded individual and would often retire to the mountains of Jebal-ul-nur near Mecca to pray and meditate in caves there, which were also frequented by the kuh’an, poets who wrote in a rhymed prose style known as saj, which is also the literary style of the Qur’an. It was in the year 611, during the lunar month of Ramadan, when Muhammad was 40 years of age, that he received his first revelation in the cave of Hira, identified as coming from the Archangel Gabriel (Arabic Jibrail). The angel appeared as a vision and told him to “read” or “recite” (iqra’). This event is called by Muslims the Night of Qadr. Since Muhammad had rejected animism and the supernatural, he was greatly troubled by this apparition, thinking he might have gone mad, and was only later convinced by his wife that he was quite sane and should pay attention to these revelations. She and other members of his immediate family became his first disciples.
Thereafter, the revelations continued to come intermittently for the next 23 years. There were 114 in all. Because the first one (later placed as sura 96), requested Muhammad to “recite” (iqra’), the collection is known as Al-Qur’an, “The Recitation.” The earlier revelations received at Mecca, especially, came without warning; Muhammad would feel a dead weight on his body and go into a trance, beads of sweat would form on his forehead even on cold days, and his utterances would be rapturous as if a power other than himself were using him as a vehicle of communication. All revelations (except sura 9, which is thought to be a continuation of sura 8) are prefaced by the phrase “In the name of Allah, Most Beneficent, Most Merciful” (bismalla al-rahman al-rahim), which is known as “the bismallah.” It was this phrase which enabled Muhammad and his followers to recognize the utterances that followed as a revelation.
The elders of the Quraish tribe were alarmed by Muhammad’s outspoken attack on idolatry and perceived it as an economic threat, since they controlled access to the Ka’aba (lit. “Cube”), which was used as a place of idolatrous worship by surrounding tribes. They persecuted Muhammad and tried to prevent him from spreading his teachings. After the death of his beloved Khadija and uncle Abu Talib (called “the year of mourning”), they plotted to kill Muhammad. However, he discovered the plot and fled in September 622 CE with his close companions (as-hab) to Yathrib, then renamed Medina. The Muslim calendar starts with this flight (hijra) and the event is commemorated (along with Ramadan and the haj or pilgrimage to Mecca) as an important celebration in the Muslim holy year.
In Medina his message received acceptance and the Muslim community grew. Because of opposition from Mecca and other tribes, the community raised an army, which met with several almost miraculous successes (especially the Battle of Badr in 2 AH, i.e., “After Hijra,” or 624 CE, in which his forces were greatly outnumbered). In 629 Muhammad made a pilgrimage to Mecca during which he made several important converts to his faith. In 630 he returned in force and the city fell without a fight. He destroyed the idols in the Ka’aba and made it the focal point of the Muslim’s daily worship. The faith then spread rapidly throughout the Arab world. Muhammad had initially thought Jews and Christians would accept his new revelation and was greatly disappointed when they did not.
Islam after Muhammad. After the death of Khadija, Muhammad married several wives, including šisha, daughter of Abu Bakr, Zainab, daughter of Khuzaima, and Zainab, daughter of Jaƒsh. Muhammad died June 8, 632 (or 9 AH), in the arms of his last favorite wife, šisha, and was buried in Medina. Abu Bakr, one of his closest companions, was chosen as his successor (khalifa, usually anglicized as Caliph). He died 2 years later and ‘Umar (sometimes written Omar) assumed that office for the next 10 years. “Umar commissioned Muhammad’s secretary, Zaid ibn Thabit to collect all written revelations and produce an authentic copy of the Qur’an, not relying solely on his own and others” memories (although several knew the entire work by heart).
The arrangement of the suras was done by Muhammad himself prior to his death and it is well established that he could recite it all from memory, choosing various passages for his daily prayers. Zaid’s copy was kept in the possession of Hafa, a daughter of ‘Umar and one of Muhammad’s later wives. After ‘Umar died (by assassination), ‘Uthman was chosen as Khalif. He gathered all versions of the Qur’an then in existence, checked them against the copy held by Hafsa, and had all variant versions destroyed. Therefore, we have in the present text (sometimes known as the ‘Uthmanic version) probably the most reliably preserved of all religious scriptures. The claim by some Western scholars that some of the revelations were lost has no evidential basis and is most certainly false.
‘Uthman was assassinated by an opponent in 656 and was succeeded by ‘Ali ibn Abu Talib, a cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet. But his succession was opposed by a group known as “people of the tradition and community” (ahl as-sunna wa-l-jama’a), later to be called simply Sunnis. When ‘Ali was assassinated in 661, his followers, known as “the party of ‘Ali” (shi’at ‘Ali), later called simply Shi’ites, split from the Sunnis. There were a number of other sub-sects that split off, including a mystical sect called Sufis, but the Sunnis and Shi’ites are the two major sects of Islam today. The former dominate Saudi Arabia and most other areas of the Muslim world; the latter are found mainly in Iran and Yemen. The Sufis had a big impact on converting Hindus to Islam during the various Muslim dynasties in India and have attracted the attention of many Europeans and Americans, including some theosophists. In the United States, most African-American converts are Sunnis. At the present time, in addition to the Middle East, there are predominant or substantial Muslim populations in Afghanistan, several states of the former Soviet Union, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Malaysia, North Africa, parts of sub-Saharan Africa, and Eastern and Central Europe.
Basic Teachings of Islam. These are usually summed up in what are called the Five Pillars: (1) the acceptance of the statement “There is no God but Allah and Muhammad is his Prophet” (cf. sura 112); (2) giving of alms (zakat) “to the poor and needy . . . and for the redemption of captives, and unto those who are in debt [and insolvent], and for the advancement of Allah’s religion, and unto the traveler” (9.60); (3) daily prayer (salat) five times a day, facing Mecca (cf. 29.45); (4) fast (roza) during daylight hours throughout the month of Ramadan (2.183-185, 187); and (5) pilgrimage (haj) to Mecca at least once in one’s lifetime if one is physically and financially able to do so. Theosophists would have no objection to these, but would generalize and reinterpret them. The absolute transcendence of Allah is very reminiscent of the Absolute Be-ness which Helena P. Blavatsky identifies in The Secret Doctrine as the ultimate Reality of the universe, with the possible proviso that sura 112 not only uses the Arabic word ahad (signifying unity) for Allah, but also uses the masculine pronoun “He” as well, which does not accord with the idea of an impersonal Absolute. As for the second pillar, Annie Besant suggests that “perfect submission to the divine Will” (which is, after all, what the word islam means) is what every religion teaches, therefore in that broader sense “is Islam the one religion” of all mankind (Besant, Islam, p. 27). Annie Besant agrees that Muhammad was a great Prophet, though not the final one, as Muslims claim. HPB’s charity, as that of Olcott, Besant, and so many other theosophists, is well documented. Many theosophists substitute daily meditation for prayer, but many also regularly engage in religious devotions. Fewer theosophists observe fasts, but the practice is certainly encouraged for purposes of health and purification. While pilgrimage, in the usual sense, is not generally undertaken (and certainly not specifically to Mecca), regular visits to important theosophical centers in India, the US, Australia, and the Netherlands is strongly encouraged for all theosophists. Theosophy, in other words, is not generally antithetical to the basic tenor of Islam.
Muslims observe certain dietary restrictions, such as not eating pork or drinking wine. There are also strong injunctions against gambling, usury, fraud, slander, and making images. This latter, especially, brought Muslims into direct conflict with Hindus in India, since Hindu temples often have a profusion of images. But it also conduced to construction of some of the most beautiful architecture in the world and the enhancement of their mosques with exquisitely stylized Arabic passages from the Qur’an.
In addition to the teaching of the Unity of God, Islam teaches the absolute justice of Allah. Also, like ZOROASTRIANISM, JUDAISM, and CHRISTIANITY it professes a belief in Resurrection (al-Sa’ah), although this is subject to varying interpretations. The Muslim concept of life after death is somewhat similar to that found in theosophical teachings. HEAVEN and HELL are states of consciousness and, as the Qur’an suggests, are to be met with during our lifetimes, not just after death. But even after death, the descriptions of heaven and hell are reminiscent of those of Devachān and KAMA-LOKA in theosophical literature (cf. 36.55-64). As Maulana Muhammad Ali observes in the introduction to his translation of The Holy Qur’an, “paradise and hell are more like two conditions than two places” (p. xviii). Abdullah Yusuf Ali, in his translation, comments that “the musician’s heaven will be full of music; the mathematician’s will be full of mathematical symmetry and perfection; the artist’s will be full of beauty of form, and so on” (p. 1183, fn. 4003). Furthermore, hell is conceived as a condition of purification, one in which to make spiritual advancement, not one of eternal punishment.
The concept of REINCARNATION is generally rejected by orthodox Muslims, but some, at least, interpret the references to resurrection allegorically to mean rebirth in another human form. They would also suggest that when sura 83, verse 14 speaks of men’s actions becoming “like rust on their hearts” it is referring obliquely to a doctrine of Karma, in Arabic called mizan (cf. 36.54). They would interpret 99.7-8 similarly: “He who has done an atom’s weight of good shall see it. And he who has done an atom’s weight of evil shall see it.” Furthermore, the frequent reference to a “book of deeds” or kitab (17.13-14, 18.49, 21.94, 43.80, 45.28-29, 82.10-12, 83.7-9 and 83.18-20) in which all our actions are recorded could easily be interpreted as an allusion to what is called in theosophical literature the “akashic records.” The frequent mention of “seven heavens” could plausibly be interpreted to refer to the seven planes of manifestation described in theosophical literature, since the word sama’, usually translated “heaven,” primarily means merely “above,” and as Shaikh Abu-l-Qasim Al-žusain al-Raghib al-Ifanani observes in his Dictionary of Qur’an, “Every sama’, i.e., heaven, is a heaven in relation to what is beneath it and an earth in relation to what is above it” (cf. Maulana Muhammad Ali, loc. cit., p. 16, fn. 46). Finally, sura 2, verses 36-37 could be interpreted to refer to involution and subsequent evolution to perfection, the Arabic words azalla (slip) suggesting an unintentional (i.e., not willful) fall [into matter] and taubah (repentance), which comes from taba which originally meant “he returned,” suggesting an ultimate return to Allah (cf. Maulana Muhammad Ali’s commentary, loc. cit., pp. 20-1, fns. 62 and 66). There are, of course, alternative non-theosophical interpretations of all of these concepts.
The Qur’an indicates (40.67) three stages in human biological development: out of sperm (53.46, 75.37, 76.2), which becomes a “clot” (23.15, 40.68, 75.39) or “clot of blood” (96.3), and subsequently develops into a child (40.67). This is a clear reference to pre-natal development. It also indicates in two different ways three stages in human perfection. In one of these, the three are given as the uncontrolled soul (nafs ammarah) given over to animal desires, the self-accusing soul (nafs lawwamah) in which the voice of conscience begins to gain control over animal desires, and the soul at rest or at peace (nafs mu˜ma’innah) when one’s spiritual nature predominates entirely (cf. e.g., 73.3). In the other, the three are given as creation of man out of dust (3.60), out of clay (6.3), and out of “baked pottery” (55.15). This is a metaphorical way of indicating spiritual development, since only a kiln-fired pot emits a sound when struck, suggestive of responding to a touch by the Divine, and clay, formed from moist “dust,” is what pots are made of. Furthermore, three stages of awakening spiritually in Paradise are listed: (1) kafur (literally camphor, but also the name of a river in Paradise), (2) zanjabil (literally ginger, but formed from zana, “to ascend” and jabal, “mountain”), and (3) salsabil, which is given by the Lord Himself. These metaphorically suggest (1) the cooling of animal passions, since camphor is both cool and pure white and sweet-smelling, (2) the warmth of spiritual ecstacy, since ginger produces warm sensations when eaten, but its etymology also suggests an elevated state of consciousness, and (3) the final elixir of spiritual consciousness and union with the Divine (cf. 76.5, 17-18, and 22).
The Muslim admonition to engage in jihad is usually interpreted as a call to “holy war” for the purposes defending one’s nation or religion, or of conversion — by force if necessary. But it need not mean that. Primarily it means taking action to advance religion and it has two aspects: major and minor. The minor consists of working toward the spread of Islam. The major refers to struggling with one’s own nature to eliminate the enemies of religion in ourselves — our wicked behavior and bad habits. One can hardly object to these, since all religions advocate the same. The Bhagavad-Gita, for instance, also uses a war metaphor for that “major” struggle.
Women in Islam. Since The Theosophical Society stands for equality of the sexes, as is indicated in its First Object, and since democratic ideals as promulgated by most countries in the Western world decry any attempt to reduce women to positions subordinate to men, there is often criticism of Muslims from both of those quarters concerning Muslims’ treatment of women. While some of that criticism may be justified, the whole question of the status of women in Islam must be seen in the context of Arab society prior to Muhammad as well as in light of statements made in the Qur’an.
Prior to Muhammad, Arab women had an extremely low status, essentially that of “chattel” or property, and had no rights of inheritance in case their husbands divorced them or died. The injunctions contained in the Qur’an must be understood in that context. If women were not then (or even now) accorded completely equal status with men, it was (and is) largely due to pre-Islamic habits and male chauvinism, for the Qur’an states that men and women were created equal (4.1) and that they are “clothing” for each other (2.187). It expressly gave women the same rights as men (2.228). Furthermore, the Qur’an (4.21) considers marriage a “covenant” (mithaq), and that implies an agreement between equally consenting parties (cf. Maulana Muhammad Ali, loc. cit., p. 195, fn. 557a). Dowry was given by the groom to his bride, rather than the reverse as is the case in most societies, so that a woman would not enter into marriage without property of her own (2.229, 4.4, 5.5). It also guaranteed women rights of inheritance (2.236, 2.240-241, 4.7, 4.11-12), a novelty in pre-Islamic society.
Marriage was considered by Muhammad the appropriate relation between adult men and women and child-bearing was one of the responsibilities of women (2.232). Celibacy, as Abdullah Yusuf Ali comments in his translation of The Holy Qur’an, “is not necessarily a virtue, and may be a vice” (p. 88, fn. 249), although those unable to find a suitable mate are expected to “keep chaste” (24.33). In fact, if a husband abstains from sexual intercourse with his wife for four months, that is grounds for her to divorce him (2.226-228). Divorce was permitted by both women and men in the case of irreconcilable differences (4.128-130). Both widows and divorced women were permitted to remarry (2.232, 2.234). But men were considered the “protectors” (or “maintainers”; qawwam) of their wives, therefore it was enjoined upon wives that they respect their husbands, not nag them, withhold conjugal relations, or speak ill of them to others (4.34). Husbands were expected to reciprocate (4.19) and, if physical admonition was needed, to do it gently (4.34), though some Imams consider any physical admonition improper. Polygamy was allowed up to four wives, but only if a man could “deal justly” with all of them; if not, only one was allowed (4.3).
The Qur’an expressly forbids a man to marry a former wife of his father (4.22) or her relatives (4.23), as was allowed in some cultures. It also forbids marriage with an unbeliever (sometimes translated “idolater” or “idolatress”) until that person converted to Islam (2.221, 5.5, 60.10). But since believers in most religions are considered “people of the Book,” intermarriage with women of other faiths is permitted, though giving a Muslim woman in marriage to a non-Muslim man is usually discouraged as likely to lead to conflict (cf. Maulana Muhammad Ali, loc. cit., p. 242, fn. 667).
The Qur’an (24.31) has an admonition against a woman’s displaying “adornments” (zinat), but there is a difference of opinion as to what that means. Some consider it to include beauty of body and take it to require that women must wear a burkha and veil. But the penultimate sentence of that ayat tells women not to “strike their feet so that the adornment (zinat) they hide may be known” and that can only refer to ankle bracelets or more generally, as Maulana Muhammad Ali comments, to “external ornaments” (loc. cit., p. 685, fn. 1751). This sura also enjoins women to wear a “head covering” (khimar) which would conceal their arms, neck, and breasts. Again, this must be understood in context. Prior to Islam, women would appear in public with their breasts partially uncovered. The injunction, as the Maulana points out (pp. xxiii-xxiv), did not include veiling their faces or the seclusion of purdah, as some Muslims interpret it. It merely was intended for modesty. The covering of women’s heads with a kind of handkerchief or doily is still required in mosques, though not necessarily in public, by Sunnis. The point of this injunction (cf. 33.59) is not the restriction of public activity by women, and it applied to men behaving modestly as well (cf. 24.30).
Thus, one can easily see that the status accorded women in Islam is one with which any theosophist or liberal democrat would agree. The fact that its liberal attitude is not always practiced by Muslims is what they should focus on, not on the injunctions to be found in the Qur’an.
Islamic Mysticism. The Sufis are the mystical branch of Islam. A J. Arberry states that “Sufism may be defined as the mystical movement of an uncompromising Monotheism” (Sufism: an account of the mystics of Islam; Harper Torchbooks, 1970, p. 12). There is a considerable difference of opinion concerning their origin. Scholars claim that the sect arose in the late 10th and early 11th centuries out of the Shi’ite sect, especially in Persia. They also speculate that its mystical theology may have been influenced by Christian, Persian, late Hellenistic, Gnostic, Hermetic, Zoroastrian, and Buddhist thought. Some modern Sufis claim that the movement considerably pre-dates Islam and only later associated itself with the Shi’ites. Where the truth lies may be impossible to determine with certainty. Since the aim of Sufism is to engender a direct mystical realization of God, it would be no surprise if it showed some similarities with other mystical theologies, whether it was actually influenced by them or not.
Scholars believe that the name of this sect is derived from the Arabic word for wool (sufi) and claim that it arose from the material of which their garments were made. Arberry states that the name “appears to have been applied in the first place to a certain Abu Hashim ‘Uthman b. Sharik of Kufa, who died about the year 160 [AH]/776 [CE]” and who wore wool garments in an imitation of Jesus; the term then gained general usage and “a theosophical connotation” during the period between the 4th and 10th centuries AH (loc. cit., p. 35). The movement, according to this account, started in Kufa and Basra, then spread to all parts of the Islamic world, most notably to Khorasan (the northeast province of Iran which had been a center of Buddhism), Baghdad, and Spain. Initially its impetus was asceticism or self-denial (zuhd), but this developed, especially at the hands of Rabi‘a (d. 801; 185 AH), a female mystic of Basra, into the Sufi doctrine of Divine Love. Sought in marriage by several pious men, Rabi‘a declined, saying that her existence was so absorbed in God that “the marriage contract must be asked for from Him, not from me” (‘Attar, Tadhkirat al-auliya’; quoted in Arberry, p. 42). This mystical experience was then subjected to speculative reasoning and developed, especially in Baghdad, into a theosophic philosophy. One of its early writers was al-Harith b. Asad al-Muhasibi (781-837) of Baghdad, but its greatest exponent, most probably influenced by the writings of al-Muhasibi, was Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (1058-1111) who sought to harmonize Sufi mysticism with Sunni theology. His major work is the four volume Ihya’ ‘ulum ad-din (Revival of Religious Sciences) written between 1099-1102 (492-495 AH). He was also influenced by Attar (whose full name was Abu ‘Abd Allah al-Hareth ibn Asad al-Basri al-Mohasebi; 781-857 CE/165-243 AH), whom Arberry identifies as “one of the greatest figures in the history of Islamic mysticism” (loc. cit., p. 143).
It should be noted, however, that the Sufis themselves trace their lineage back to al-Khir, who appears in Qur’an 18.65-82 together with Moses, where the former represents esoteric knowledge or gnosis (‘ilm ladunni), the latter exoteric knowledge (shari‘ah). Al-Khir does not seem to have been an actual historical figure, but is nevertheless the prototype of saints for the Sufi (cf. R. W. Austin, Sufis of Andalusia [a translation of the Ruh al-quds and al-Durrat al-fakhirah of Ibn ‘Arabi]; Berkeley: University of California Press, 1971; copyright George Allen & Unwin, Ltd. London; p. 157, fn.2) and all Sufi sects claim to derive their spiritual lineage from him. Sufis also take the justification of their humble way of life from the Qur’an (24.37): “Men whom neither trading nor selling diverts from the remembrance of God (dhikr Allah) and the keeping up of prayer nor from the practice of regular charity. . . .” As Austin puts it, “Down the centuries the Sufis have striven to keep alive that essential and immediate experience of divine truth which filled those first fuqara’ (poor in God) who lived beside the Prophet and received through his mouth the words of God” (p. 50).
The preceding paragraphs indicate the three basic tendencies in Sufism: ascetic, mystical, and theosophic. In support of the first, Sufis cite, in addition to the above passage, two others from the Qur’an which admonish against “the splendor of this world’s life” (20.131) and “the multiplication of wealth” (57.20), as well as a hadith of Muhammad stating, “Poverty is my pride.” Such poverty is taken as the basis of the Sufi practice of having a sincere trust (tawakkul) in God as one’s provider. This trust leads to satisfaction (rida), which, in turn, leads to love of God. That love eventually evokes a response from God, which is the essence of the mystical experience. They give a metaphorical or esoteric interpretation of Qur’an 5.59 — which speaks of belief in Allah and “that which has been revealed” — to support their doctrine of a trinity of Lover (the devotee), Loved (Allah), and divine Love (mahabba). This apparent trinitarian idea, as well as other aspects of their theosophic philosophy, makes them, as Arberry puts it, “suspect in the eyes of orthodoxy” (loc. cit., p. 25). At various times they were persecuted and some were actually put to death.
As suggested above, Sufis utilize the Qur’an as one of their main sources of inspiration, but they interpret it mystically and allegorically. Since Arabic is written as consonants, with only indications as to the vowels, Sufis undertake an elaborate analysis of the text, supplying different vowels in different places in a consonant cluster, to uncover multiple levels of meaning. Idris Shah (The Sufis, 1964) illustrates this by means of a Sufi analysis of one of Aesop’s fables where the word “mole” (KHuLD) is analyzed to mean “long-lasting” (KhaLaD), “perpetuation” (KhaLLaD), “faithful adherence” (aKHLaD), “paradise” or “eternity” (KhuLD), “soul” (KhaLaD), and “mountains” (eL-KHuaLiD). Thus the moral of the fable is not “It is easy to unmask an imposter,” i.e., the mole who pretended to have eyesight, but is that there is a heightened state of consciousness perpetuated in paradise (cf. Shah, pp. 12-3). They also employ their own system of Gematria, assigning numbers to Arabic letters in order to uncover hidden meanings in the words. In addition to that, as Austin points out, “The actual words and sounds of the Qur’an are considered to have power of their own deriving from their divine origin. This accounts for the frequent use of texts from the Qur’an as charms and talismans. This view of the power of sacred texts and sounds corresponds to Hindu teachings of Mantra” (loc. cit., p. 143, fn. 2).
A second source of inspiration, as suggested, is a study of the life and conduct of Muhammad as given in the hadith to discover how it was that he could have become a Prophet of God. But it should be mentioned that the Sufis have their own hadith, some of which are not accepted as authentic by Sunnis or Shi’ites. In addition, a third source of inspiration is a study of the lives of other Muslim saints (auliya, lit. “friends”; sing. wali). Much of this is to be found in the wonderful anecdotes about such men as Nasr du-Din (or Nasrudin; dates unknown; possibly mythical), Sheik Ibn al-‘Arabi (1165-1198), Sheikh Sa‘di of Shiras (1184-1291), the poet and Dervish Jalal ad-Din Rumi (1207-1273; often written Jalaluddin Rumi), or the poets Omar Khayyam (11th cent.) and Jami (1414-1492). Finally, the fourth such source is their own personal spiritual experience or intuitive knowledge (ma‘rifa).
Hamilton A. R. Gibb, in his Studies on the Civilization of Islam (Boston: Beacon Press, 1962, pp. 213-6), observes that while Sufism undoubtedly produced eccentrics and charlatans, it also produced men of great moral and spiritual character who left their mark on later Islam and greatly helped its spread, since the Sufis did extensive missionary work among the common people, who were struck by their obvious spirituality. Another characteristic of Sufi sheiks was the close personal relation which developed between them and their disciples. It was claimed that such saints (pirs) could perform miracles (what would now be called paranormal phenomena). In his Ruh al-quds, Ibn al-‘Arabi cites numerous examples of these paranormal powers, including telepathy, clairvoyance, precognition, the ability to control the minds of others (i.e., creating illusions or delusions as well as projecting thoughts telepathically into their minds), materialization, teleportation, matter modification, weather modification, appearance at a distance, walking on water, levitation, creating fire and being impervious to its effect, having tears that smelled like perfume, and paranormal healing (see R. W. Austin, Sufis of Andalusia). Al-‘Arabi also relates a story that a Sufi Sheikh, al-Rundi, was seen from a distance surrounded by a light so bright the man could not look directly at it, which is reminiscent of the account of Jesus’ Transfiguration. This led to a practice of saint veneration, including the belief that the blessed power (baraka) of such saints continued to be effective after their death and that they could then act as intercessors for salvation. It should also be noted that al-‘Arabi states that the Muslim jurists were skeptical of these phenomena and considered them hoaxes.
The interpretation of paranormal powers as miracles and the idea of intercession would be rejected by theosophists, but if one identifies baraka with the Hindu notion of siddhi and substitutes post-mortem telepathic influence for “intercession” there is nothing reported by al-‘Arabi which cannot be found either in the literature of psychical research, mysticism, or theosophy. Col. Henry S. Olcott, to take but one instance, reports in his Old Diary Leaves several cases in which Madame Blavatsky influenced his mind so as to make him perceive something that was not there. And a lovely anecdote about Rabi’a clearly indicates the proper place of such phenomena in the Sufi’s life:
- One day the Sufi saint Hasan saw Rabi’a near a lake. Throwing his prayer rug upon the surface of the water and climbing upon it, he invited her to join him there in prayer. Instead she flung her rug in the air, levitated up to it and invited him to join her. Hasan, however, was unable to do that, whereupon she admonished him, saying, “Hasan, what you did fishes also do, and what I did flies also do. The real business is outside both these tricks. One must apply one’s self to the real business.” (Cf. Arberry, loc. cit., p. 45.)
The basic elements of Sufi philosophy, then, are (1) a belief in the fundamental Unity of all existence, (2) the recommendation of a variety of spiritual practices (fasting, prayer, meditation, whirling) designed to achieve mystical realization of that Unity, (3) the recognition of various paranormal phenomena that accompany those practices, (4) a belief in the septenary nature of the manifested universe as well as of human nature (which consists of “seven selves” or nafs, as Idris Shah puts it), (5) a belief in reincarnation, and (6) a fervent belief that spiritual development had primacy over material acquisitions.
John P. Brown, in his book The Darvishes or Oriental Spiritualism (1868; ed. and reprinted 1968, pp. 10-1), adds to those the following doctrines (slightly paraphrased) which he states are “generally adopted in the Darvish Orders”: (a) belief in Paradise, Hell, and other religious dogmas, are to be understood allegorically, not literally; (b) specific religions are merely a means to achieving mystical union with God, some, including Islam, more effective than others, but should not be a source of intolerance one against another; (c) there is no ultimate Good or Evil, per se, since God is the ultimate motive power behind all action, hence it is human intention which makes our acts “good” or “evil”; (d) the “free will” exercised by one’s psychological nature is an illusory kind of freedom since real free will rests in one’s divine nature; and (e) the soul pre-exists the body, in which it is confined as a kind of cage, therefore death is a release from this imprisonment and should not be mourned. One can easily understand from these two lists why Sufism is considered by scholars and Sufis alike to be a theosophy.
Since many of the Sufi doctrines were veiled in allegory to avoid condemnation by orthodox Muslims, it is difficult to know whether all Sufis accepted all of these beliefs or not, but it is likely that there were differences of beliefs among the several sects of Sufism. In any event, even sub-sets of them constitute what scholars identify as a theosophy. As Idris Shah puts it, “The Sufi life can be lived at any time, in any place. It does not require withdrawal from the world, or organized movements, or dogma.” Its basic philosophy is that humanity “is infinitely perfectible.” This is accomplished by attuning one’s whole being, physical and spiritual, with “the whole of existence” (loc. cit., p. 24). An often quoted verse of Jalal ad-Din Rumi from his Mathnawi (trans. by R. A. Nicholson, Rumi, Poet and Mystic [London: Allen & Unwin, 1950], p. 103) indicates that at least some Sufis believed in a doctrine of evolution (or unfoldment) of consciousness through reincarnation:
- I died as a mineral and became a plant,
- I died as plant and rose to animal,
- I died as animal and I was Man.
- Why should I fear? When was I less by dying?
- Yet once more I shall die as Man, to soar
- With angels blest; but even from angelhood
- I must pass on. . . .
Islam in Theosophical Literature. HPB includes a lengthy quote praising the beneficial influence of Islam on converts in an article in the April 1888 issue of Lucifer (cf. CW IX:143 fn.). But unfortunately, there is little actual discussion of the tenets of Islam in early theosophical literature and nothing of much significance in either Isis Unveiled or The Secret Doctrine. The former includes only a passing comment that the spread of Islam was “engendered” by internecine warfare between rival sects of Christianity (cf. IU 2:53-4) and a brief comparison of Hindu esotericism (“the Brahmanical Mysteries”) with “the very ancient ‘Paths’ of the Dervishes” (IU 2:316). The Mahatma Letters to A. P. Sinnett commends the spiritual methods of the Sufis (along with those of Buddhists, Hindus, and Zoroastrians) in a criticism of one of Sinnett’s suggestions about assigning “degrees” to those in the Society who study the occult philosophy (cf. letter 54; #35 in the Barker ed.).
See also SUFISM.
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