Early Islam, Part 4: The Mystic Tide

By Namit Arora

Part 1: The Rise of Islam / Part 2: The Golden Age of Islam / Part 3: The Path of Reason

(This five-part series on early Islamic history begins with the rise of Islam, shifts to its golden age, examines two key currents of early Islamic thought—rationalism and Sufi mysticism—and concludes with an epilogue. It builds on precursor essays I wrote at Stanford’s Green Library during a summer sabbatical years ago, and on subsequent travels in Islamic lands of the Middle East and beyond.)

Surrender-to-god ‘Mysticism is ultimately rooted in the original matrix of religious experience, which grows in turn out of man’s overwhelming awareness of God and his sense of nothingness without Him, and of the urgent need to subordinate reason and emotion to this experience.’ [1]

Sufism, or Islamic mysticism, first arose in Syria and Iraq in the 8th century CE. Arab conquerors, a century earlier, had taken Islam all over the Near East, which included lands with a long tradition of ascetic thought and eastern Christian monasticism—a tradition that valued religious poverty, contempt for worldly pleasures, and a secret world of virtue beyond that of obedience to law—no doubt encouraged by the fact that for three centuries, until after the conversion of Constantine to Christianity, Christians in the Near East were a minority subject to suspicion and persecution by the pagan Romans.

But old habits die hard, and even as Islam spread, many new converts, beneath a slim veneer of their new faith, persisted with asceticism and detachment. What transformed asceticism into mysticism was something quite radical: an unabashed love of God. This transformation has been symbolically ascribed to a woman from Basra, Rabi’ah al-Adawiyah (d. 801?), among the first to articulate the mystic ideal of a disinterested love of God, as in her prayer below.

‘O God, if I worship Thee for fear of Hell, burn me in Hell, and if I worship Thee in hope of Paradise, exclude me from Paradise; but if I worship Thee for Thy own sake, grudge me not Thy everlasting beauty.’ [2]

SufiWaterColor Many believers who were also drawn to rational philosophy found its objective accounts of God unsatisfactory. They yearned for a God who was more immediate and sympathetic than the remote God of the philosophers and the legalistic God of the theologians (the ulema). Early Islamic mystics, or Sufis, [3] thus evolved a more subjective notion of God: each of us can experience the divine differently; revelation is an event that unfolds deep within us; each of us, through our own effort, can reach out to the divine.

A systematic destruction of the ego (fana) and surrender of the self to God became central to the Sufi ideal: one who discards his ego to discover the divine presence at the heart of his own being would experience greater self-realization and self-control. ‘Man becomes dead unto himself and alive unto God.’ [4] Many practiced celibacy as a mystic ideal, flouting the example of matrimony set by Muhammad himself. Scholars like Majid Fakhry have noted Hindu influences on ‘this bold concept of annihilation of the ego and the reabsorption of the human in the divine’ (many early mystics in Persia had Hindu teachers).

Such views were clearly antithetical to the religious establishment, for whom there was no other God but Allah and His one revelation to Muhammad. How dare man approach God with a spirit of intimacy rather than reverence, piety, and awe? The Sufi ideal of a direct encounter with God, silently bypassing the Prophet and the Qur’an, drew further ire. It proved to be an expensive proposition: many early Sufis are known to have feigned madness to escape punishment. Sufi thought, therefore, spread slowly in the early centuries, in small circles led by sheikhs, or Sufi mystical teachers. Mainstream Sufis nominally remained within the bounds of orthodoxy to avoid the hostility of Sunni theologians, which led them to even avow that the observance of the Shari’ah was indispensable.

Early Sufis came from all schools of Islamic law and theology—Sufism had true cross-sectional appeal. But a systematic reckoning of scripture and this new spirituality had to await Muid ad-Din ibn al-Arabi’s bold and radical writings on mysticism. It was al-Arabi (1165-1240 CE) who exposed the immense chasm between orthodox faith and mysticism. Sufism, henceforth, had its own theological framework—nominally derived from the Qur’an, but inspired by, and much influenced by, far older traditions.

According to Professor Henry Corbin (1903-78), a modern scholar of Islamic mysticism, al-Arabi was ‘a spiritual genius who was not only one of the greatest masters of Sufism in Islam, but also one of the great mystics of all time.’ [5] His mysticism, says Professor Majid Fakhry, ‘culminated in a grandiose cosmological and metaphysical world-scheme, which is of decisive philosophical significance.’ [6] Much as we did for Islamic rationalism, let’s explore Sufi mysticism through the life and times of an acclaimed practitioner of the form, namely, al-Arabi.


Al-Arabi Al-Arabi was born in 1165 CE in Andalucia to an influential and religious family. He was educated in Seville, then an outstanding center of Islamic culture and learning. He studied traditional Islamic sciences with several mystic teachers who saw in him a marked spiritual inclination and exceptional intelligence; two of his uncles were Sufis. His teachers included two women—Shams of Marchena and Fatima of Cordoba. The latter, it seems,

‘was a spiritual mother to him; he speaks with devotion of her teaching, oriented towards a life of intimacy with God. An extraordinary aura surrounds their relations. Despite her advanced age, the venerable shaikha still possessed such beauty and grace that she might have been taken for a girl of fourteen, and the young Ibn Arabi could not help blushing when he looked at her face to face. She had many disciples, and for two years he was one of them.’ [7]

Al-Arabi didn’t follow any particular Sufi order for very long, and when he disagreed with the teachers, he disputed with them openly. He was briefly employed as a secretary of the governor of Seville when he led a profligate life, indulging in ‘carousels and merry pastimes,’ [10] before his reorientation to the Sufi path. He was helped in this by his first wife, whom he spoke of in terms of respectful devotion.

Cordoba-Mestiza1 He traveled to various cities of Spain and North Africa in search of Sufi masters renowned for their spiritual progress. On one of these trips, al-Arabi had a dramatic encounter with the great Aristotelian philosopher Ibn Rushd (aka Averroës; 1126-98), which he related as follows:

‘As I entered the house the philosopher rose to greet me with all the signs of friendliness and affection, and embraced me. Then he said to me, ‘Yes!’ and showed pleasure on seeing that I had understood him. I, on the other hand, being aware of the motive for his pleasure, replied, ‘No!’ Upon this, Ibn Rushd drew back from me, his color changed and he seemed to doubt what he had thought of me. He then put to me the following question, ‘What solution have you found as a result of mystical illumination and divine inspiration? Does it agree with what is arrived at by speculative thought?’ I replied, ‘Yes and No. Between the Yea and Nay the spirits take their flight from their matter, and the heads are separated from their bodies.’ At this Ibn Rushd became pale, and I saw him tremble as he muttered the ritual phrase, ‘There is no power save from God.’ This was because he had understood my allusion.’ [8]

Whatever we make of this—did the allusion have a less ambiguous interpretation then?—it does reveal al-Arabi’s supreme self-confidence. In light of the subsequent course of Islamic philosophy, this famous encounter is often seen as the symbolic end of medieval Islamic rationalism, a process that had received fresh impetus two generations earlier from the skeptic and mystic philosopher al-Ghazali’s landmark The Incoherence of the Philosophers. By the time Ibn Rushd got around to writing his brilliant rebuttal to al-Ghazali, The Incoherence of the Incoherence, the tide had already turned against him and al-Farabi.

According to Professor Henry Corbin, al-Arabi came to believe that the insight he sought ‘is obtained neither by the effort of rational philosophy, nor by conversion to what he was later to term a God created in dogmas. It depends on a certain decisive encounter, which is entirely personal, irreplaceable, barely communicable to the most fraternal soul, still less translatable in terms of any change of external allegiance or social quality. It is the fruit of a long quest, the work of an entire lifetime; al-Arabi’s whole life was this long quest.’ [9]

Such a decisive encounter seems to have happened in Fez in the year 1198, as al-Arabi prayed in the Azhar mosque. He described the event as follows:

‘I saw a light that seemed to illuminate what was before me, despite the fact that I had lost all sense of front and back, it being as if I had no back at all. Indeed during this vision I had no sense of direction whatever, my sense of vision being, so to speak, spherical in its scope, I recognized my spatial position only as a hypothesis not as reality.’

Prompted by a dream, al-Arabi began a pilgrimage to the east in his thirties and never returned home, which, by then, was shrinking in the face of the Spanish Reconquista. His first stop was Mecca in 1201, where he claims to have received a divine commandment to begin his magnum opus, Al-Futuhat al-Makkiyah (‘Meccan Revelations’). [10] It was also in Mecca that he met Nizam, a gifted and beautiful young woman who he saw as an embodiment of eternal wisdom and inspiration to him, and she is said to have played a role much like that of Beatrice in Dante’s life, and for whom al-Arabi wrote a collection of love poems. [11] One of the more accessible goes as follows: [12]

Stay now at the ruins
in La`la`i, fading,
and in that wasteland, grieve,
for those we loved.

At the campsite, now abandoned,
stay and call her name,
as your heart is softly
torn away,

For the time of one like me
spent near her moringa’s gossamer flowering,
plucking at fruits, in measure,
and at the petals of a rose, red, ripening.

Everyone who wanted you—
you showered with graces.
Only to me did your lightning flash, unfaithful.

Yes, she said,
there we used to come together,
in the shade of my branches,
in that luxuriant land.

My lightning
was the flash of smiles,
Now it is the blaze
of barren stone.

So blame that time
we had no way of warding off.
What fault is it
of La`la`i?

I forgave her as I heard her speak,
grieving as I grieved with a wounded heart.
I asked her—when I saw her meadows
now fields of the four scouring, twisting winds—

Did they tell you
where they'd take their noonday rest?
Yes, she said,
at Sandrock,

Where the white tents gleam
with what they hold—
from all those rising suns—
of splendor.

When the orthodox establishment protested that such expression was not conducive to religious feelings, al-Arabi wrote a lengthy defense in which he said, ‘All our poems are related to divine truths in various forms, such as love themes, eulogy, the names and attributes of women, the names of rivers, places, and stars.’ His daring ‘pantheistic’ expressions soon drew upon him the wrath of Muslim orthodoxy, some of whom forbade the reading of his works even as others were elevating him to the rank of prophets and saints. [13]

Al-Azhar3 From Mecca, he traveled to Egypt, Anatolia, Baghdad, and Aleppo. In each place, he seems to have found favor with the rulers who, for their own expedient ends, shielded him from the hostility of orthodox theologians (in Cairo an organization was formed with the express aim of assassinating him). As the story goes, the Seljuk ruler of Konya in Anatolia gave him a house. When a beggar called one day for alms, al-Arabi gave away the house because ‘that was all he had to give.’ [14]


Al-Arabi did what the traditionalists had done all along: He returned to the Qur’an, but only to find expressions of the mystic ideal. Drawing upon Neo-Platonism,[15] he created an elaborate theosophy by reinterpreting the Qur’an and the Hadith, or the traditions of the Prophet, who, al-Arabi claimed, was a mystic himself. He noted that in one Hadith, God said, ‘I was a hidden treasure and I desired to be known, therefore, I created the creatures in order that I might be known.’ Man, al-Arabi said, is the embodiment of universal reason and the being in whom all attributes or perfections of God are reflected. God created man in His own image, and then designated him as His vicegerent on earth (khalifah, or caliph). Other Suras claimed God to be closer to the believer than ‘his jugular vein’ (Qur’an 50:15) and so omnipresent and omniscient as to witness man’s every deed and read his every thought. Clearly, man is of God and God is present in him.

Fusus.JPG According to al-Arabi, the path of man’s ascent to God—and his union with God—leads through various stages of spiritual progress. These stages include repentance, renunciation, trust in the divine, and perseverance, leading ultimately to a spiritual awakening. These are nothing but stages in his knowledge of himself: ‘He who knows himself knows the lord.’[16] The role of reason is to inform religious experience, to keep it on track. The rational soul discovers, experientially and intuitively, the absolute unity of the whole and its own identity with it; God’s existence cannot be proved by logic; we must concentrate on the particular word spoken in our own being. It was the same reality that all prophets spoke of; all men worshipped the same God in different forms; God does not belong to any one creed exclusive of all others. Al-Arabi’s religious pluralism is evident in his famous verse below.

My heart is capable of every form.
A cloister for the monk, a fane for idols,
A pasture for gazelles, the votary's Kabah
The tables of the Torah, the Koran.
Love is the faith I hold: wherever turn
His camels, still the one true faith is mine.

Al-Arabi’s metaphysics describes the world as a product of the divine self-reflection that prompts God to manifest himself in the things and phenomenon of the empirical universe. [17] He wrote hundreds of books—one estimate claims 289—of which close to 150 have survived. He even translated into Arabic a Persian translation of a Sanskrit text on Tantric Yoga. ‘It is probable that no one has written on a broader range of spiritual matters and certain that these have never been described in greater depth [by one person] … a vast body of esoteric knowledge, previously confined to oral transmissions, was committed to writing.’ [1] On his method of writing, al-Arabi says,

‘In what I have written I have never had a set purpose, as other writers. Flashes of divine inspiration used to come upon me and almost overwhelm me, so that I could only put them from my mind by committing to paper what they revealed to me. If my works evince any form of composition that form was unintentional. Some works I wrote at the command of God, sent to me in sleep or through a mystical revelation.’

The Sufi poet Jalal ad-Din Rumi (1207-73 CE) and his father crossed paths with al-Arabi on one journey. Rumi was quite young at the time but the father-son duo made a favorable impression on al-Arabi for he said, ‘There goes a sea followed by an ocean.’ (Of wisdom, presumably.)

By the time his long pilgrimage ended at Damascus in 1223, his fame had spread all over the Islamic world. He married thrice in the course of his life and had three children and a stepson, Sadruddin Qunawi, who became his closest disciple and a continuing influence on Rumi. Venerated as the greatest spiritual master, al-Arabi spent the rest of his life in Damascus in peaceful contemplation, teaching, and writing. It was here that he composed what is regarded as one of the most important works of mystical philosophy in Islam: Fusus al-Hikam, or The Bezels of Wisdom.

AlArabiMosque1 At this time, in private moments, he is also said to have entertained messianic pretensions, coveting the Seal of Mohammedan Sainthood, reserved for one who embodies the mystery of the revealed God in each age for the benefit of his contemporaries—a public avowal, which he never made, might have been the last straw for the Sunni theologians. ‘Ibn al-Arabi was to die in Damascus in 1240, exactly sixteen years before the capture of Baghdad by the Mongols announced the end of a world.’ [18] Later, when the Ottoman sultan Selim II took Syria, he built a lavish tomb upon al-Arabi’s grave on the Qasiyun Mountain which overshadows Damascus from the west. It soon became a place of pilgrimage.


Sufi The reflective mysticism of al-Arabi evolved quaint mutations in its popular form. He himself never founded a mystic order for he believed, ‘The man of wisdom, whatever may happen, will never allow himself to be caught up in any one form or belief, because he knows his own essence.’ His writings were too abstruse and elusive for most. It was easy for the uninitiated and overzealous to misunderstand the ecstasy of a mystic master and his ‘union with God.’ A few began severe self-mortification to cleanse their souls in order to receive God. Others resorted to saint worship, visiting tombs, and miracle mongering. To reduce worldly distractions, the aspiring mystic was expected to learn techniques of breathing, right posture, concentration, and the recitation of ritual mantras. Some Sufi orders (Tariqas) used music, song, and dance to enhance concentration (the whirling dervishes, for instance [19]), and their pirs (holy men) became heroes to the people. Detractors claim that in its popular form, Sufism had a ‘narcotic effect’ on the masses.

By the 13th century, a time of extreme political turbulence caused by Mongol raids from central Asia, Sufism had become the dominant mood in large parts of the Islamic world, particularly in southwest Asia, and remained so down to the 19th century. Wandering monks and mystics brought Sufi tenets to the country folks, whose faith soon became far removed from the complex niceties of theology and far more colorful. A characteristic expression was the communal Sufi brotherhood (e.g., Naqshbandiyya). Commentators on the works of al-Suhrawardi, al-Ghazali, and al-Arabi began harmonizing and integrating the views of the masters. Sufi poets like Rumi expressed the yearning of the lover, besides emotions of wonder and elation attendant upon the path to his union with God, in rich metaphor. Others used Bacchic and erotic imagery to symbolize the mystic union of the devotee with God. These became part of common culture, encouraged later by the Ottomans. Missionaries took Sufism to India, which proved particularly amenable to it, blending it naturally with its own mystical movement, Bhakti. [20] In South Asia, the Sufis evolved the vibrant musical tradition of the Qawwali. Sufi vocabulary infused a special charm to Persian and the related literatures of Turkish, Urdu, Sindhi, Pashto, and Punjabi—their poetries, in turn, facilitated the spread of mysticism.

WhirlingDevish Not surprisingly, medieval Islamic mysticism remained politically quietist—mystic philosophers did not expound on the structure of authority or right governance. Instead, it furthered a private, pacifist, and tolerant belief system. As long as temporal power remained non-intrusive, it went unnoticed: caliphs could come and go, dynasties rise and fall. Like Islamic rationalism (Falsafah), Islamic mysticism (Tasawwuf) became a parallel current of thought to theological Islam (Sunni and Shi’a), although with a much larger following and richer folklore.

An old Turkish anecdote relates that a Sufi dervish one day went to the house of a rich man to ask for alms. The latter, to test the dervish’s piety, asked him to enumerate the five pillars of Islam. [21] The dervish recited the declaration of faith (no God but Allah, Muhammad is the messenger of Allah) and went silent. ‘What about the rest, the other four?’ the rich man asked. To this the dervish replied, ‘You rich men have abandoned pilgrimage and charity, and we poor dervishes have abandoned prayer and fasting, so what remains but the unity of God and the apostolate of Muhammad?’

The Arabian Nights abounds with wise and gentle dervishes always interceding on behalf of the little guy. The Islamic injunction of militant jihad too did not find any support among the Sufis. On record is an account of a Bektashi dervish who, during the Ottoman war against the Habsburg empire in 1690,

‘… went among the Muslim troops when they were encamped for the night, and went from soldier to soldier saying: ‘Hey, you fools, why do you squander your lives for nothing? Fie on you! All the talk you hear about the virtues of holy war and martyrdom in battle is so much nonsense. While the Ottoman emperor enjoys himself in his palace, and the Frankish king disports himself in his country, I can’t think why you should give your lives fighting on the mountaintops!’

Dervish.JPG Sufism, after centuries of being the most prominent current of Islam, was besieged in the modern age by the forces of secularism, nationalism, and modernism (for instance, Sufi orders were banned in Turkey in 1925), as well as by the resurgent neo-orthodoxy of the Wahhabis in Arabia and the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Nevertheless, it has often asserted its vitality, not the least as a progressive voice in the social realm.


Notably, even Eastern Christianity evolved a significant mysticism, in sharp contrast to Western Christianity, where mysticism played a relatively minor role in the faith of the masses, remaining confined to monasteries and to tiny segments of the population. [22] The overt theological disputations between Eastern and Western Christianity thus obscured their deep-seated and much older cultural differences. By the early second millennium, the Western Christian masses were swept up by an intense religious enthusiasm that, in part, found expression in the Crusades and the Inquisition. Theirs was a faith preoccupied with dogma and rituals, beset with guilt and sin, and largely devoid of a non-denominational spirituality that seeks worldly detachment. [23] This was the ideal substrate, as I shall argue in the epilogue to this series, for the rise of the Protestant Reformation and the Renaissance.

(Part 5, the epilogue to this series, will appear on January 04.)



  1. Majid Fakhry, A History of Islamic Philosophy, Second Edition, Colombia University Press, 1983, p. 5.
  2. Farid al-Din Attar (d. 1220?), Muslim Saints and MysticsEpisodes from the Tadhkirat al-Auliya (‘Memorial of the Saints’). Translated by A. J. Arberry. This work relates events, anecdotes and moralistic tales of divine intervention in the lives of pious people.
  3. The Arabic term sufi derives from suf, ‘wool’. Those who opted out of the conventional race for worldly advancement took to wearing a coarse woolen habit to proclaim their otherworldliness—the medieval equivalent of tie-dye!
  4. Fakhry, p. 245.
  5. Henry Corbin, Alone with the Alone—Creative imagination in the Sufism of Ibn Arabi, with a preface by Harold Bloom, 1969, Princeton Univ. Press, p. 4.
  6. Fakhry, p. xxiii.
  7. Corbin, p. 40.
  8. Al-Arabi, Fusus al-hikam (The Bezels of Wisdom, 1229) translated and introduced by R.W.J Austin, preface by Titus Burckhardt, Paulist Press, 1980. Al-Arabi's thought has inspired much debate and controversy in interpretation; some of his works still await critical evaluation.
  9. Corbin, p. 44.
  10. Al-Arabi, Al-Futuhat al-Makkiyah (The Meccan Revelations), completed much later in Damascus. In 560 chapters and 37 volumes, it is a personal encyclopedia spanning all esoteric sciences in Islam, with valuable insights into his life and thought. No comprehensive assessment is available yet.
  11. Tarjuman al-ashwaq (The Interpreter of Desires)
  12. Poem No. 24 from Tarjuman al-ashwaq (The Interpreter of Desires), translated by Professor Michael Sells.
  13. Encyclopedia Britannica, 1998.
  14. A. Dupre, P. Young, The Life and Influence of Ibn ‘Arabi, Proceedings of The First Annual Symposium of the Muhyiddin Ibn ‘Arabi Society, Durham University, April 1984.
  15. Neoplatonism: A philosophical system developed at Alexandria in the third century CE by Plotinus and his successors. It is based on Platonism with elements of mysticism and some Judaic and Christian concepts and posits a single source from which all existence emanates and with which an individual soul can be mystically united (source).
  16. Al-Arabi, Fusus al-hikam, p. 181.
  17. Alexander D. Knysh, Ibn Arabi in the Later Islamic Tradition—The making of a polemical image in medieval Islam, SUNY press, 1999.
  18. Corbin, p. 29.
  19. The Whirling Dervishes, or the Mevlevi Order, originated in thirteenth-century Turkey. In 1972, Jelaluddin Loras, Sheikh of the Mevlevi Order of America, brought it to the US. On December 17, Whirling Dervishes across the world celebrate the birth of the poet Jalal ad-Din Rumi who founded the Order.
  20. The Hindu mystical tradition most akin to Sufism is Bhakti—a devotional movement among followers of Vishnu—that began independently in Tamil country and brought to the north by Ramanuja (between 1017-1137) who could be called the ‘al-Arabi of Hinduism.’ Kabir (1440-1518), a medieval mystic poet and religious synthesist, was a link between Hindu Bhakti and Islamic Sufism, which had gained a large following among Indian Muslims. Another Hindu mystic was Mira Bai (1450?-1547), a Rajput princess, whose lyrical songs of love and devotion to Krishna are still popular in northern India. Other notable Indian mystics include Purandaradasa (1480–1564) of Mysore, Tukaram (1598-1649) from modern Maharashtra, Surdas (1483–1563) from northern India, and Chaitanya (1485-1533) of Bengal.
  21. The five pillars of Islam: The shahada, or declaration of faith; salat, or the prayer offered five times a day; hajj, or pilgrimage to Mecca during one's lifetime; fasting during Ramadan; and zakat, or a tax originally billed as a charitable contribution.
  22. For e.g., the Augustinian monastery of St Victor in Paris. The leading Western mystics include St Bonaventura, sometime Master of the Franciscans, ‘Meister’ John Eckhart of Strasbourg, and the Flemish Jan van Ruysbroek, ‘the ecstatic teacher.’ In fact, ‘some of the most profound [late medieval] expressions of Christ-mysticism are found in the women mystics, such as Catherine of Siena and Julian of Norwich.’
  23. 23. According to Karen Armstrong, ‘In the West, Christians were slower to develop a mystical tradition. They had fallen behind the monotheists in the Byzantine and Islamic empires and were perhaps not ready for this new development … the path to God [remained] beset with guilt, tears and exhaustion … clearly the West continued to find God a strain.’ Karen Armstrong, A History of God, 1993, Ballantine Books, p. 220.

EnsembleIbnArabi Images:

  1. Image found on the web, copyright unknown.
  2. A modern Sufi water color painting by Satish Chauhan (source).
  3. An imagined portrait of al-Arabi (source).
  4. The Mesquita, Cordoba.
  5. Al-Azhar mosque in Cairo, where Obama spoke in mid-2009.
  6. Calligraphy associated with the al-Arab’s The Bezels of Wisdom.
  7. A mosque named after al-Arabi, adjacent to his tomb in Damascus.
  8. Miniature painting showing sufi trance dancing (source).
  9. A whirling dervish in Doha, Qatar (source).
  10. A whirling dervish, copyright unknown.


More writing by Namit Arora?