D. S. (David Samuel) Margoliouth.

The early development of Mohammedanism; lectures delivered in the University of London, May and June 1913 online

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A class of persons called variously "ascetics,"
" devotees," " worshippers," " saintly men," is the sub-
ject of occasional allusions in the history of the first
two dynasties. In some dying injunctions of the year
82 A.H., "the ethics of the saintly" is recommended
as a subject of study. '^ An example of the proper
conduct for such persons is given in the chronicle
for the year 98 ; "^ a priceless crown has been taken
in some plunder, and it occurs to the conqueror to
try whether anyone would refuse such a gift. A
certain saint is offered it and declines ; it is forced
upon his acceptance, and he then presents it to a
beggar, from whom the commander reacquires it
for a vast sum. Persons of saintly reputation are

1 T^abariii. l622. 2 md^ joss. s J bid., 1326.


occasionally employed in minor political roles ; e.g.
as messengers to induce subject kings to pay their
tribute ; ^ as arbiters in the case of disputes between
commanders ; ^ or as preachers dissuading the Mos-
lems from factiousness.^ At times their studies end
in their rebelling against the powers that be/ or
supporting some pretender who will undertake to
live up to their standard. The first use of wool in
connection with them appears to be in the year 128,
when one of these fighting ascetics has some of that
material on his standards.^ Woollen garments, how-
ever, not unfrequently figure in narratives of this
period, as the dress of condemned criminals,^ or of
beggars.^ The colour white, as the colour of grave-
clothes, is also at this time connected with mourning
and asceticism.^ By a man's coarse white raiment
it was possible to guess that he was an ascetic,^
though he might be either a Moslem ascetic or a
Christian monk ; and, indeed, this costume of white
wool is identified sometimes with the attire of monks,
who were supposed by an early Moslem observer to
put it on in order to impress their fellows with the
idea of their saintliness, and so obtain the right to
live in idleness at other people's expense. ^^ There

1 Tabarl ii. 1228. 2 /^f^^ 1386.

3 ih'id., 1392. 4 m^^ 1628.

^ Ihid., 1921. 6 i\yi^^^ 1452.

' Ihid., 1351. 8 Ihid., l62 ; Yakut, Udaba vi. 375.

9 Mas'udi, Muruj ii. 231.

^^ Jahiz^ Hayawan i. 103 ; iv. 137. At a later time the white is
distinguished from the wool as a different degree of mourning.
Ibn lyas iii. 20.


can be little doubt, then, that the name Sufi means
no more than " wearer of wool," and, indeed, a poet
who perhaps does not yet know of it as a technical
name for ascetic speaks of "time having put on
wool," meaning that it has put on mourning.^

In the early part of the third century it appears
that the Moslem ascetic was not easily distinguished
from the Christian ; and, indeed, they had much in
common. Their ancestor in the Grasco-Roman world
was the Cynic, who in the analysis of Epictetus is
the Stoic who carries his principles to their logical
conclusion, and who, in order that he may be able
to defy fortune, gives fortune no pledges. The Cynic
in that brilliant description addresses mankind from
a higher plane than theirs, for he is free from all their
cares and passions. His business requires qualifica-
tions no less remarkable and rare than those of the
general or the steward.

Where life was lived so much in public, any devia-
tion from ordinary conduct was liable to be sus-
pected and to provoke resentment. In the year 33
a man was summoned to appear before the Caliph
on the ground that he was a vegetarian, disapproved
of marriage, and failed to attend the Friday service
in the mosque." Vegetarianism might seem a harm-
less enough practice, but it was associated with the
name of one Mazdak, who in the century preceding
the rise of Islam was supposed to have shaken Persian
society to its foundations. In the Wisdom of

^ Abii Tammani ; ridiculed by Mutanabbi, Yakut vi. 514.
2 Tabari i. 2924


Solomon the "just man "is charged by the others
with following a different line of conduct from theirs.
And, in fact, it would appear to be the case that
ostentatious piety was often the sign of anarchical
tendencies and the prelude to revolt. Religion in
the first century after the Prophet's death was so
closely connected with politics that the earnest Moslem
was compelled to take a political line ; and that line
would be dictated by his attitude towards those who
had started and taken part in the civil wars. The
greatest devotees appear to have regularly been
against both the Umayyads and the party which
recognised the right of the Prophet's family to suc-
ceed ; their devotion was accompanied by a ruthless-
ness which shocked their less religious contemporaries.
Still, it is clear that there were pious men who kept
out of the world altogether, and were in favour of
nothing but peace and order, so far as they occupied
themselves with the affairs of their time at all. The
** conduct of the pious," which, as we have seen,
developed into a subject of study by the year 82,
was then elaborated by these persons, who in the
main exaggerated or amplified what they found re-
commended in the Koran.

For the Umayyad period we possess few documents
which testify to these persons' activity, but in the
Abbasid period the ascetic becomes an institution.
In part he attracts attention by his attitude towards
the world, wherein he is without being of it ; the
prizes for which others contend have no attraction
for him. But he is also the preacher whose words


have the power to produce ecstasy, or at least elevate
the hearer.

Of the first of these preachers who also figured as
an author we possess several works in MS. They
seem to follow the lines of the Christian sermon, to
the extent even of reproducing matter from the New
Testament ; they are fervent, and their moral tone is
high ; yet it is difficult to imagine their producing
that ecstasy among their audience with w^hich they
are credited. They seem quite free from the elabor-
ate technicaUties with which the later Sufi treatises

A certain amount of licence is ordinarily allowed
the preacher in his treatment of history, for his
lessons must be enforced by references to patterns of
conduct, w^hence the tendency arises to accommodate
history to his ideals. As one of the later Sufis
expresses it, the authority of a great name is wanted
for something, and no harm seems to be done if a
man is credited with some extra virtues.

The use in these homiletic works of matter taken
directly from Christian sources is sufficiently remark-
able to justify us in finding Christian influence or
the survival of Christian ideals at the base of the
movement. Sometimes the matter is taken over
bodily ; thus the Parable of the Sower is told by
the earliest Sufi writer. Abu Talib takes over the
dialogue in the Gospel eschatology between the
Saviour and those who are taunted with having seen
Him hungry and refused Him food ; only for the
questioner he substitutes Allah, and for " the least of


these " his Moslem brother. Not a few of the Beati-
tudes are taken over, sometimes with the name of
their author. Commonplaces which are found in
Christian homiletic works reappear with little or no
alteration in the Sufi sermons. In the Acts of
Thomas, the Apostle, when employed by a king to
build a palace, spends the money in charity to the
poor. Presently the king's brother dies, and finds
that a wonderful palace has been built for the king in
Paradise with the alms which Thomas bestowed in
his name. This story reappears in the doctrine of
Abu Talib that when a poor man takes charity from
the wealthy, he is thereby building him a house in

One name which Sufism takes over from Christian
theorists is gnosis. As early as the Epistles of St
Paul we read of a " wisdom " or esoteric doctrine
which is only communicated to those that are
advanced spiritually ; and we know that in later
times at any rate that gnosis was something very
different from ordinary orthodoxy. This same word
"knowledge" is also employed by the Sufis as a
technical description of their system, and indeed as
the substitute which God has given them for the
world.^ In the later developments " knowledge "
branches out into three forms, which we might
render " knowledge," " acquaintance," and " under-
standing." The third is the highest stage, and the
person who attains to it is all but deified.

Here, however, as in the case of jurisprudence, the

1 K. K. ii. 201. 2 iiyici., ii. 193.


amount taken over from earlier communities does
not appear to have been considerable. It would
seem fairly clear that the ascetic is an early institution
in the East ; and even in the West there is a lurking
feeling of respect for the man who is above caring
for what constitute the object of ordinary aspirations.
When once men begin to speculate upon this instinct,
the system necessarily goes through a number of
stages — not unlike the stages which the ascetics
claim to go through individually. It is difficult to
maintain that present fortune may be prudently
resigned for a future of the same kind ; hence the
ascetic quickly becomes dissatisfied with a sensual
Paradise. The search after a substitute for that
Paradise leads on to the next stage, the doctrine of
the love of God and nirvana. Probably ideas originally
taken from Plato had somehow found their way
into these men's minds, just as Aristotelianism is
traceable in the Koran ; but the influence is very
indirect and has come tortuously.

That volume not unjustly calls attention to its
miscellaneous character, and though it by no means
despises the acquisition of spoil in this world, and
condemns lavish expenditure, whilst promising the
faithful in Paradise delights greater in quantity but
not differing in quality from what they might enjoy
down here, still it occasionally takes a line more in
accordance with ascetic spiritualism ; it pronounces
the favour of God to be a better thing than talents of
gold and the like. Moreover, the theory of atone-
ment at any rate gives some hints as to the sort of


acts which win God's favour ; if offences can be
atoned by charity or fasting, it is clear that these acts
must possess positive value ; otherwise they could
not serve as makeweights against such negative
quantities as sins. And there is a tendency to extend
the theory of atonement to all religious observances ;
since God does nothing in vain, the purpose of these
performances must be to atone for acts committed
wittingly or unwittingly which have incurred God's
displeasure. The first line wherein asceticism can
develop is, then, that of supererogation : doing what
the Koran prescribes to a more liberal extent than it
actually enjoins. And so far as Islamic asceticism is
expressed in practice, it regularly adopts this method.
It wins merit by excessive performance of those acts
which on the authority of the Koran are known to
win it.

^The work from which the details to be given in
this lecture are mainly taken is of the fourth century
of Islam, by which time asceticism had long been
recognised as an institution with many provincial
varieties. Possibly the earliest place with which it
is connected is Kufah, the city which showed so
infelicitous a devotion to the Prophet's family. The
" conduct of the saints," which, as has been seen, had
become a recognised subject of study before the end
of the first century, had by the fourth acquired con-
siderable proportions ; fairly copious hagiologies had
by that time been amassed, and numerous sayings of
an edifying nature either recorded of or attributed to
the saints. The question of the accuracy of these


legends is of little importance ; what they indicate is
the general notion of sanctity current, and what
view of life a saint was expected to take. Although,
then, we have ordinarily restricted ourselves to
authorities who are not later than the third century,
in this particular matter we are not likely to be led
into serious error by employing a work of the fourth.
As earlier sources of information become open to us,
we constantly find the doctrines and the statements
which are to be found in the later works anticipated ;
even the astounding perversions of the Koran which
are usually associated with the mysticism of the sixth
century are to be found with little divergence in the
mysticism of the third. The mystics are not only
like the jurists conservative, but show a tendency to
preserve theories and practices which are immemorial,
and which have accidentally adopted Islam as their
local attire.

The five daily salawat might be thought to
constitute a considerable devotional exercise, since
each of them occupies some minutes. How they
came to assume their stereotyped form will never be
known ; it is clear that their purpose is rather
" making mention of God," and keeping the mind in
constant recollection of the Divine Being, than peti-
tion or supplication. To the devout these five daily
exercises did not nearly suffice ; their aim was rather
to occupy the whole day and night with devotion of
the kind, and numerous different rites were devised
compassing this end. Traditions were invented
promising greater and ever greater rewards to those


who practised these extra devotions ; their spiirious-
ness was evident, and probably little importance was
attached to them.

The extra devotions invented by the ascetics and
mystics introduced into Islam something far more
analogous to the prayers of other religions than the
salat, Abri Talib al-Mekki prescribes forms for use
on lying down and rising which do not differ materially
from the prayers recommended in Christian manuals
of devotion ; what is solicited is preservation from
the dangers of the day and of the night. But with
the limitation of human desires which the ascetic
system compasses, the number of possible requests is
naturally reduced. The discipline which frees the
mind from worldly desire very soon liberates it from
all desires for the next world also : the prospect of
Hell-fire itself, from which religion at the start
promises immunity, comes to be contemplated with
indifference ; hence even these prayers tend to
become confessions rather than supplications, and
the blessings which they procure become immaterial
— immunity from forgetting the text of the Koran or
sleeping when the saint should be vigilant.

In the matter of the saldt or regular devotion en-
joined by the code, the Sufis endeavour to spiritualise
the ceremony by making it an occasion for complete
abstraction from the world. Some saints could boast
that for forty years they had said their devotions
without knowing who was on their right side or on
their left. Salat was rendered void if the mind of
the devotee admitted any thought besides : if, e.g..


he read anything written on wall or carpet. The
formulae should not be pronounced as such, but out
of conviction : when a man says " Allah is greater," he
should, tacitly indeed, but because he is convinced of
its truth, add "than the great." But in order to say
this he must in his own mind subordinate all else to
God ; for otherwise he will be saying what he does
not mean. There were saints who when they started
their salcit told their women-folk that they might
chatter as much as they liked and even beat drums :
they were too much absorbed in prayer to hear, how-
ever loud the noise. When one of them was saying
his saldt in the mosque of Basrah a column fell,
bringing down with it an erection of four storeys ;
he continued praying, and when after he had finished
the people congratulated him on his escape, he asked
what from. Great names were quoted for the
practice of praying hastily, and so shortening the
time taken by the devotion as to give Satan no
chance of distracting the thoughts.

The Islamic Fast is an obscure subject, as it seems
to belong in origin to some system with which we are
unfamiliar, although it contains Jewish and Christian
elements also. With the Christians, fasting seems
regularly to have meant not complete abstinence, but
abstinence from dainties ; and, indeed, unless fasting
is to interfere seriously with the business of life, this
would seem to be the best interpretation of the
process ; food is retained as a necessity, but the
element of enjoyment is so far as possible abstracted.
The Jewish theory is that fasting means complete


abstinence from food, but then they fast for one
complete day only: which is not sufficient to per-
manently injure the health. The Mohammedan
theory of fasting is complete abstinence, but only
during the day : the substitution of the night for the
day as the feeding time, for a period somewhat
shorter than the Christian forty days, yet during a
month which from its name must at one time have
been part of the hot summer. This institution clearly
was useful as military discipline, seeing that the night
was the best time for forays ; yet it is not quite easy
to think of it as a substitute for the Jewish fasts,
although the text of the Koran expressly asserts
that this is so. What the Koranic ordinance has in
common with those of the older systems is the pre-
scription of a number of days for this purpose ; but
the reason assigned for the choice of Ramadan is that
in that month the Koran was revealed — it must be
supposed was revealed for the first time. The
connection of ideas seems to be this : it appears
from Deuteronomy ix. 9 that Moses fasted on the
mountain forty days and forty nights, and at the end
of the time received the Law. With this fast of
Moses the Christian fast of forty days is not un-
naturally confused ; the latter is supposed to be
commemorative of the former. From the text of
Surah ii., then, we learn that the Moslem fast is
similarly commemorative of the descent of the Koran,
which the tradition connects with a similar period of
asceticism ; this the Koran does not assert, though
it perhaps implies it; and in Surah vii. 138 we see


how the number forty is reduced to a month. The
original appointment with Moses was for thirty days ;
these " we supplemented with ten, so that the
appointment with his Lord was made up to forty
days." The forty days, then, represented an increase
on an original thirty, or one whole month. And to
this month the Koranic legislation returns. How
the particular mode of fasting originated it might be
hard to conjecture.

Fasting was regarded by the Sufis not only as
a devotional exercise, but as a pious act pleasing to
God, whence on the one hand it is assigned propitia-
tory value in the Koran itself, whilst on the other
the devout were by no means satisfied with a fast
of thirty days in the whole year ; they endeavour
to extend the limits. Monday and Thursday in each
week are prescribed as fast days, wherein perhaps we
see the principle of antedating the Christian fasts,
somewhat as the Friday anticipates the Sabbath and
the Sunday. Calculations came to be made of the
amount of the year which it was desirable to fast,
and some care had to be exercised to see that the
special glories of Ramadan were not obscured, as
would be the case if similar sanctity attached to the
whole year. Fasting every other day, fasting two
days out of three, fasting one day out of three, were
all commended practices. Nevertheless, the doctrine
is sometimes heard that the true fasting is abstinence
from the gratification of evil passions, and that the
fasting of the heart is a more important matter than
the fasting of the frame.


It seems clear that fasting in the Sufi sense
means something different from the normal fasting
of Ramadan, and has nothing to do with the substi-
tution of night for day as the meal-time. It means
abstinence from food of all sorts. Help towards
fasting was got from the Sufi melodies ; when these
were sung they reminded the devotee of his spiritual
needs and caused him to forget the pangs of hunger.

But besides this, some methods could be suggested
whereby the aspirant could accustom himself to the
minimum of nourishment necessary to keep body and
soul together. This could be done either by reducing
the amount to one-third of what was usual, or by
increasing the number of hours to elapse between
meals. One meal in seventy-two hours was thought
to be in ordinary cases the attainable limit. The
test whether food was taken to gratify the appetite
or merely to allay the pangs of hunger might be
either the desire for bread without relish of any sort,
or inability to distinguish between bread and other
foods ; one who desired a particular food, and not
food generically, was not really hungry.^ A some-
what less savoury test was to see whether a fly
settled on the saliva ; if none did, the aspirant might
be satisfied that he was really hungry.

Cases of longer abstinence than that suggested
were narrated among the glories of various saints.
Fasts of five or six days were not uncommon ; a
vision of power from the spiritual world would
appear to one who fasted forty days ; a Sufi converted

i K. K. ii. 165.


a Christian monk by showing that he could fast sixty
days successively, and so beat the Biblical records.

Naturally the theory of fasting was extended to
vetoing all refinements in diet ; the coarser the food
and the simpler, the better it corresponded with the
Sufi ideal. Some disapproved of the chase and food
so acquired because of the cruelty inflicted on the
animals.^ The change of raiment which the asceticism
of the gospel condemned was also tabooed by the
Sufis. The hungering and thirsting after righteous-
ness in the evangelical beatitude was interpreted of
actual hunger and thirst ; and similarly, the Prophet
is credited with the saying, " Whoso among you is
most filled in this life shall fast longest on the Day
of Judgment." Satan is said to follow the course of
the blood in the human body ; the contraction of the
veins which was said to be produced by fasting would
render it harder for him to get about.

To a certain extent the Sufic fasting and simplicity
of diet was based on medical theory, and the Prophet's
supposed prescription of one-third the usual amount
is said to have won warm eulogies from the faculty.
It could be shown that the temperature of the stomach,
i.e., as Aristotle had taught, the proportion between
hot and cold, dry and moist, was least disturbed by
water, wheaten bread, partridge meat, and pome-
granate or citron. And, indeed, according to Moslem
authorities the cosmogony of the Old Testament con-
tained not only the four Aristotelian elements, but the
doctrine of the four humours of the body besides.^

1 Hayawan iv. 137. 2 k K. ii. 170.


The Aristotelian philosophy could be employed
in defence of the fasting-doctrine in another way.
Wahb Ibn Munabbih, who is responsible for the last
quotation from the Torah, observed that the stomach
was the mean in the body ; and the secret of doing
right lay in getting hold of the mean. He, therefore,
who had his stomach in full control was also in
control of his other members. But if the stomach
was allowed to get the upper hand, the result was a
general mutiny among them.

Edifying stories connected with fasting are collected
by Abu Talib, some of which have their interest. A
Sufi desired rice-bread and fish for twenty years, but
each time he felt the desire he resisted it. After
death he appeared to a friend in a dream. The
delights of Paradise were ineffable, he said ; im-
mediately on his arrival he had been served with rice-
bread and fish. The Prophet appeared in a dream
to a man who had fasted thirty years ; not even
eating bread. The Prophet seized his arm, and
exclaimed : Hast thou fasted thus ? As he did not
tell the ascetic to stop fasting, the latter continued
his mode of life. 'Utbah asked 'Abd al- Wahid Ibn
Zaid why a fellow-devotee had attained a stage of
spiritual elevation higher than his own : he w^as told
that it was by not eating dates. If he too left off
eating them, he would attain to the same level.
'Utbah shed tears when told of this ; which the

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Online LibraryD. S. (David Samuel) MargoliouthThe early development of Mohammedanism; lectures delivered in the University of London, May and June 1913 → online text (page 10 of 18)