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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Online LibraryD. S. (David Samuel) MargoliouthThe early development of Mohammedanism; lectures delivered in the University of London, May and June 1913 → online text (page 12 of 18)
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begged that alms might be put into their hands, only
because with the Arabs it was thought humiliating


to have anything put into the palm. The process
which the ascetic should go through is not unlike
that which Plato recommends the just man ; he
should find no fault when charged with capital
offences ; he should chafe under no depreciation or
detraction. He should feel no pleasure when he is
praised. Christ is said to have pointed out that
things grow in the mould, and the divine knowledge
only takes root in a heart that is like the mould in
abasement. HumiUty is their trade like the sweeper's
or the scavenger's. Yet this humility is external
only ; and it is even defined as being too proud to be
proud. The Sufi who willingly casts his lot with
the lowest is prepared to say Glory to me ! in his
identification of himself with the object of his
adoration. He can take liberties with God which
to ordinary men seem blasphemous.

Just as the Sufi should be satisfied with ill-health,
so he should practise resignation in things great and
small. He should not complain of the weather ; he
should not say poverty is a trial and a family a
nuisance ; he should say, like Ibn MasTid, " Wealth
and poverty are a pair of steeds, I care not which of
the two I ride."

According to this doctrine he has no more right
to find fault with prosperity than with adversity ;
finding fault at all is ingratitude, which in the Arabic
idiom is synonymous with unbelief. Anas, who
served the Prophet ten years, never heard him find
fault with anything, or complain of omission or com-
mission. When an ancient prophet prayed to be


delivered from poverty, he was shown that this
prayer meant a rewriting of the whole system of
events foreordained by God : by repeating this prayer
he would forfeit his claim to be written in the book
of life.

Examples are quoted of the degree of resignation
which some of the saints aspired to attain. One who
claimed to be little more than a beginner expressed
his willingness to be damned alone among mankind.
Another who acknowledged to having got on a little
way was satisfied to be the bridge over Hell whereby
the saved will pass, and when all mankind had passed
over him, to fill Hell by himself, in order that the oath
of God, who had sworn to fill it, might not be violated.
A saint who had been bedridden with dropsy thirty
years repudiated sympathy, because he liked best
what God liked best. One whose prayers were by
the Prophet's blessing always answered, and so healed
numbers who solicited his aid, was asked why he did
not pray that he might recover his own sight : he
replied that God's will was to him a better thing.

Since resignation cannot easily be displayed save
where there are troubles, the theory that misfortunes
are a just cause for glorification speedily arises. No
one of you, said a preacher, will meet God without
having lied to Him : meaning without having con-
cealed some misfortune : if one had a golden finger, he
would parade it ; if he had a broken finger, he would
conceal it.

A question which suggested itself was the attitude
which the devotee should adopt towards death :


should he desu^e it for the sake of meeting God ;
or should he prefer to live because life was all trouble
and service ; or should he not mind — have no wish
either way ? Clearly the last had attained the ideal
state and was above the other two ; but the relative
merits of the other two might be the subject of dis-
cussion. There was always the danger in the case of
the lover of life that he might be mistaken about his
real motive : he might confuse what was in reality a
physical repulsion to death with the desire to exhibit
resignation ; the true attitude towards life and death
was that of the water in a well : it remained there
without choice of its own, ready at any time to be

This attitude of complete passivity seems something
very different from the active life of the followers of
the Prophet, with its fierce enmities and warm loves.
The only way wherein the two theories of life could
be reconciled was by the doctrine that the devotee
should be in complete sympathy with God, and share
His loves and hates.

Hence we come back to personal choice, and the
doctrine of resignation is not found to work. The
mystic SirrI Sakati gave up his- business because he
had said " Thank God " when he was told that all
the shops in the street had been burned down except
his ; he uttered this exclamation, but immediately
became conscious of its selfishness, and selling all he
had, gave it to the poor. Discontent, then, was what
first started him on the road to resignation.

Probably the conduct of Sirri Sakati will be found


philanthropic and commendable ; but we fancy that
the Sufi is unable to maintain his transmutation
of values very long ; they have an extraordinary
tendency to come back, and be assumed as current
after they have definitely been repudiated. If loss
of property is not a fit subject for complaint, it is not
clear why this saint should have adopted this course ;
his thanking God was not an act that required thirty
years' atonement. And the willingness which these
saints display to endure Hell-fire seriously invalidates
the threats of the Koran ; for only that can be used
as an effective threat which men will avoid to the
very uttermost.

Difficulties and contradictions also arise from the
maxim of sympathising with God's loves and hates.
To the Prophet this maxim was simple enough : God
loved those who acknowledged His Prophet, hated
those who rejected him. But in the more complicated
conditions of the later Islamic states this simple
distinction was insufficient : the whole population
by no means consisted of saints. Hence high
authority was quoted for the doctrine that a man
who was beloved by his neighbours was necessarily a

The cultivation of poverty, humiliation, and resig-
nation belong to the negative aspect of the first
proposition of the creed ; if the word *' god " signifies
an object of attachment, then the ascetic who follows
the discipline which has been sketched has clearly
severed bonds which ordinarily attach men to other
things than God ; but there is also the positive side


of the proposition to be considered — and this is
summed up in the phrase '*Iove of God." That
notion is, of course, taken over from older systems,
and is found in the Koran. The erotic sentiment,
which is rarely quite absent from religion, has prob-
ably been identified with it by the Snfis more than
by any other devotees. Wives are supposed to have
left their husbands because the love of God tolerated
no other affection besides itself. The woman saint
Rabi'ah 'Adwiyyah rejected one proposal of marriage
after another, declining the most munificent offers,
on the ground that the whole of the suitors' fortune
was not good enough to distract her mind from the
thought of God for a single instant. Some wonder-
ful verses wherein she described her sentiment are
preserved :

" I love thee with two loves, a love that is passion

And one which besides thou hast earned as thy due.
The passionate love is the thought which forgetting

All else is of you, aye, for ever of you.
Thou earnedst the other by rending asunder

All veils and disclosing thyself to my view.
Not mine be the praise for the one or the other.

The praise and the thanks are all thine for the two."

According to Abu Talib God's love resembles
human affection in some respects ; those whom the
Divine Being loves can count on pardon when they
sin. The brethren of Joseph in the Koranic narrative
committed no fewer than forty offences ; yet, because
they were beloved of God, all were forgiven. On the
other hand, Ezra committed one offence only — he


asked a question about predestination, and was erased
from the list of prophets in consequence. God's love
is not, however, due to anything, as human affection
is due to kinship, to the possession of qualities, to the
hope of advantage, etc. ; it is a free and mysterious
choice from the beginning of the world. Such a
mystery is known only to prophets, and to reveal it
would be unbelief Only by special revelation does a
man know that he has been thus favoured ; and the
Sufis agree with older thinkers that affliction and
bereavement are a surer sign thereof than prosperity.

Unintelligible as is much of the Sufi language from
the abstruseness of their subject, the authors confess
that there are further mysteries which either cannot
or may not be revealed, and which can only be
transferred from heart to heart. An example is to
be found in the eighth fear, which Abii Talib
mentions, but dare not describe.

That the higher stages of Sufism were akin to
madness is not only clear of itself, but is sometimes
acknowledged ; Ibn *Arabi boasts of having for a
time lost his reason. A fraction of a grain of the
love of God bestowed at the intercession of a saint
upon an aspirant drove him mad ; by renewed inter-
cession the dose was so reduced that the aspirant
recovered his reason. Ibrahim Ibn Adham com-
plained of the constant mental agitation which his
spiritual progress caused : he was asked in reply if he
knew of any lover who was free from agitation. The
attitude of the Divine Being towards these lovers is
made to resemble that of the capricious beauty : the


lover's attachment is kept warm by occasional frowns
and neglect. Perfect love does not cast out fear.

In the Sufi poetry, as we have seen, some female
name is employed as the symbol for the object of the
poet's passion, and it is hard to separate this practice
from the old worship of goddesses which was so pre-
valent among the ancient nations. The danger of
the practice was obvious : one Ahmad Ibn 'Isa al-
Kharraz in a dream told another Sufi that he had
been rebuked for putting the likeness of the Divine
Being on Layla and Sauda — stock-names in the
erotic poetry of the Arabs. Such verses, then, it is
held, are only for those who can penetrate through
the symbolism.

The close connection between music and things
erotic is evinced by the history of this Sufi poetry.
It seems clear that music and poetry, which played
so important a part in both Christian and Jewish
ritual, were eschewed by the Prophet, who even
delivered a polemic against the poets, though at a
later period he accepted the services of a court-poet,
whom he is even said to have declared inspired by
the Holy Spirit. Still, the Koran says of the Prophet,
'' We have not taught him versification " ; and there
is no place in the religious services which he instituted
for hynms or odes. The Sufis, however, found that
the ode had the power to remind the devotee of God,
to stir his religious emotions, and they cannot there-
fore neglect it as a means of approaching the Deity.
According to Abu Talib this use of poetry goes back

to Ja'far the winged, the brother of Ali who died a



martyr's death at Mutah and was seen by the Prophet
winged in Paradise. Music was employed in the
services of the days in Ramadan called Tashrik, by
the devotees of Arabia, the practice having been
introduced by 'Ata Ibn Abi Rabah. This personage
kept two singing women to aid his companions in
their devotions. If such a performance excites the
hearer to any worldly passion, then indeed he is not
entitled to listen ; but if it turns his thoughts to God
and excites purely spiritual longings, then he may
listen with profit. To spiritual poetry of this sort
the name kasidah, usually used for encomium, might
be employed, but not ughniyali, which was too
suggestive of the frivolous performance which aided
the toper in the enjoyment of his wine.

One other point wherein this spiritual love re-
sembles the tender passion is that it should be
concealed — kept as a secret between subject and
object. If a man be asked whether he love God,
he should remain silent ; to deny it would be a
sin, to confess it would be indecorous. Yet among
the lovers some are sober, others intoxicated, and
this concealment can only be expected of the former :
the latter have lost all self-control and so are to be

If in the Prophet's time love might be bestowed
upon him as deputy for God, since his departure it
may instead be bestowed on the Koran. The sacred
book inherits the affection once bestowed upon the
Arabian goddesses, just as with the Jews the Law
gave a vent to the passion once lavished on Ashtoreth


— a curious psychological parallel. A Moslem does
not merit the title " aspirant " until he finds in the
Koran all that he desires. Love of the Koran is
not, it would seem, quite easy to acquire. A saint
asserted that he had enjoyed the Koran twenty years,
but it had been a burden to him for twenty years

Love of God is not only incompatible with the
bestowal of affection on other rational beings, but
even with the most innocent enjoyments. In a
revelation to Moses fault was found with a man
who was perfect in every other respect, but enjoyed
the morning air. Another lost rank in the spiritual
world because he transferred his oratory to a tree
where he could enjoy the singing of a bird. God
is jealous. A devotee who had given away all he
possessed asserted that this was because he had
heard a human lover promising his beloved the like
— sacrifice of everything ; and the divine beloved can
claim no less.

This road also leads to the doctrine which is so
characteristic of Sufism — contempt of Heaven and
Hell. If God had created neither, they scornfully
ask, would he be unworthy to be obeyed? Christ,
according to one of their Apocrypha, passed by three
sets of ascetics : a party who feared Hell ; a party
who hoped for Paradise ; and a party whose sole
motive was love of God. He reprimanded the first
and second for making created things the object of
their hopes and fears, and took up his abode with
the third.


Still, it has to be confessed that the Koran contains
a great deal about Paradise and its sensual delights,
and that Allah therein has encouraged mankind to
look forward thereto. Hence if a man's purpose
in his service be the hope of attaining these delights,
this cannot be said to affect his sincerity and devout-
ness ; for he has the highest authority for such
aspiration.^ All that can be said is that these
persons fall short of the rank attained by the " lovers
of God " ; for these persons aim at complete freedom
from every other passion but the love of God, and,
as we have seen, are indifferent to all pains and
pleasures, not excepting Heaven and Hell.

But besides the moral conclusions to be drawn
from the doctrine of the divine unity, there is also
a metaphysical conclusion ; and this appears to be
the extreme attainment of the gnosis. The aim of
mystical speculation may be formulated as the
identification of the subject with the object; and
the name " unitarian " is mystically interpreted with
reference to this identification. The true unitarian
is he who recognises in the world no existence save
God's ; who regards both himself and the world
outside him as a mirror, yet rather one wherein the
Deity shows Himself than one wherein He is re-
flected. It is conceivable that this notion may have
come into Islam from outside ; on the other hand,
speculation on the doctrine of the divine unity ap-
pears sufficient to account for its development and
indeed for its origin. Had there been more gods

1 K. K. ii. 151.


than one, says the Koran, the heavens and the earth
must have come to grief; but if any attempt be
made to define the word " god " metaphysically,
speculation quickly leads to something like the truly
existing or the necessarily existing ; even with
Homer the difference between God and man is that
the former is eternal, the latter transient. The
relation between God and matter immediately sug-
gests questions : is matter independent of God, or
not ? The former supposition leads to polytheism,
the latter only is consistent with real monotheism.
If, then, God is not outside matter. He must in a
way be identical with matter ; and the most thought-
ful of the Sufis, accepting this conclusion, based on
it a series of inferences as unlike the original doctrines
of Islam as any that could have been evolved.

The main proposition of the esoteric Sufism is, then,
this — that there is no distinction between subject
and object, and that God, nature, and man are
identical. The consciousness of this is to be obtained
through a variety of exercises, and it would seem
that not everyone possesses the capacity to attain
thereunto ; but those who do attain thereto are
apparently thought to possess divine powers. Indeed
it would seem clear that when once the individual's
identity with the Deity is realised he can do and will
do what the Deity does. The earliest existing author
who clearly formulates this theory is one Hallaj, who
was executed in the year 922. We possess accounts
of this personage by contemporaries and by others
who are little later, and according to them he claimed


divine powers, and even undertook to display them.
He was the author of numerous works, of which
a hst was drawn up within a century of his death ;
they were thought by his enemies to be imposture.
One of these treatises has recently been recovered
and given to the world, called the Tawasin after
a Surah of the Koran ; the composition is very
largely infantile, consisting of the stringing together
of rhymes with very little meaning ; but it is quite
decided on the doctrine which has been quoted, and
the famous words wherein Hallaj identified himself
with God, " I am the Truth," are to be found therein.
Like somewhat later mystics he divides mankind
into circles, the inmost being that of the persons
who attain to the consciousness of this identity with
the Divine Being ; and he is followed by later mystics
in giving the Koran interpretations which it is clear
that its author had never conceived of its bearing.
In that work, naturally Iblis (Satan) and Pharaoh
are quoted not as models of conduct, but as examples
to be avoided ; but the Sufis take a different view.
Hallaj reports a dialogue between himself and these
two worthies, wherein they are called his masters, and
the words put into their mouths in the Koran are
shown to indicate the lofty stage which they had
attained ; when Pharaoh says he is not aware of any
god for the Egyptians but himself, what he means
is that he was the only person in the country who
had attained to this esoteric knowledge of the
identity of the creator with the created ; and when
Iblis or Satan declined to bow down to Adam on the


ground that he had been created of fire and Adam
of clay, this too is shown to have been in order.

The editor of this treatise has not furnished a
translation, thinking perhaps that the time has not
yet come when one could be executed with certainty ;
and the infantile jingles in which it is very largely
couched would render translation exceedingly difficult.
It is, however, of considerable interest to have before
us the actual work of the mystic who is most famous
or most notorious for identifying himself with the
Divine Being, and whose terrible execution is the
subject of numerous descriptions and allusions ;
though it would appear that it was not on account
of this particular doctrine that he was condemned
to a barbarous death, but because he had taught that
specific performance was not requisite in the case
of the pilgrimage. It is clear from the nature of the
work that it was not intended to appeal to the reason,
but to the emotion, and indeed that the mode of
delivery must have been of a special sort in order to
compass this effect.

In a treatise which professes to be the encyclopaedia
of a literary society of the fourth Islamic century
a threefold division of mankind is attempted with
reference to their religious needs. There is the
public, Le, the laity, who should be encouraged in
religious exercises because they are thereby kept out
of mischief ; for them all that is required is knowledge
of religious ordinances, especially prayer, fasting, and
alms, about which they need know no more than that
they are prescribed. A second class is constituted


by what we might call the clergy, or learned clerks,
i.e. those who make it their business to possess a
scholarly acquaintance with the sources of law, so
as to be able to state what the rule or approved
practice is on any subject into which the code enters.
But beyond this there is a third class, who occupy
themselves with deeper matters : the nature and
attributes of God. These are the thinkers of the
community, and to a certain extent their learning
must be encyclopaedic ; for they must be aware of the
problems of providence before they can be in a
position to find the answers. The problems suggested
by the inequalities of nature, e.g. why a centipede
which is so minute should require a hundred legs
whereas the bulky elephant can do with four, have
to be formulated first before the answer to them can
be discovered ; and such formulation requires observa-
tion and, indeed, occasionally experiment. Passages
could be cited from the Koran wherein reflection or
speculation is highly commended ; people are bidden
to think on the works of nature, and arrive at sound
religious opinions in that way. In our time there
are in consequence persons who assert that the
physicists of Europe are the true Moslems and the
traditionalists of the East heretics.

That these precepts and the belief that the highest
religious stage involved encyclopaedic attainments
led to no real scientific progress is due to another
doctrine, viz. that there was a short-cut to knowledge,
i.e. revelation. And, quite clearly, an explanation of
a difficulty furnished by the Divine Being would be


far more satisfactory than the best guess which the
student might make ; we philologists well know that an
authoritative explanation of a passage is a far better
thing than the most ingenious conjecture. Now, the
doctrine of prophecy involved the possibility that
certain persons might be privileged to receive such
authoritative communications. In a Surah of the
Koran we are told how Moses went about with one
who had been favoured with knowledge; this per-
sonage did some very extraordinary things, which
surprised and even shocked Moses ; Moses was
snubbed for his inquisitiveness, but before his com-
panion parted from him he condescended to explain
his conduct. Other prophets had been similarly
favoured ; they had looked down on what seemed
gross unfairness on the part of fortune, good luck
coming to those who neither required nor deserved
it, persons punished for offences which they had not
committed ; and a divine communication had shown
that the matter was of extreme simplicity. When a
man found a purse, the explanation was that the
father of the loser had owed the same sum to the
finder's father ; when a man was killed for an offence
which he had not committed, it turned out that he
was expiating his father's crime. When some busybody
endeavoured to interfere with the divine arrange-
ments, e.g, by giving a blind boy his sight, the result
was the upsetting of a beneficent arrangement.
Whether every reader of these explanations is
perfectly satisfied with the divine economy is
perhaps open to question ; but there is no doubt


that, supposing these explanations to be authoritative,
they could not have been obtained by any amount
of study. \

The fundamental belief of mysticism is, then,
that knov^ledge can be obtained in this way: com-
munication can be established between the human
being and the Divine Being, and the keys to the
inner meaning of phenomena be thus obtained.
It might indeed seem that such a pretension was
injurious to the majesty of the Koran ; for a new
revelation could not well be regarded as inferior to
the earlier, but should rather supersede the earlier.

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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 12 of 18)