Syed Ameer Ali.

The spirit of Islâm : a history of the evolution and ideals of Islâm online

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and with reason — a crime. He had said that " ghosts,
apparitions, and the like have nothing to do with Islam."
They now believe firmly in them. He impressed on them
to go in quest of knowledge to the land of the heathens.
They do not take it even when it is offered to them in their
own homes.

Under the Safawis, rationalism and philosophy came to
life once more — though not in that vigorous shape in which
they had flourished under the earlier Abbasides. From the
twelfth to the fifteenth century Iran had suffered terribly ;
and in the darkness which enshrouded the land during this long
period of disaster and trouble, the Shiah Mullahs had assumed
the position of the clergy in Christendom to a larger degree than
even the Sunni lawyers. They claimed the sole and absolute
power of expounding the laws on the ground that they were the
representatives of the Fatimide Imams. Mulla Sadra, whom I
have already mentioned as the reviver of the Usuli doctrines, —
the religion of Mohammed as it was understood and accepted
by his immediate descendants, — applied himself to revive the
study of philosophy and science among his countrymen. It
was by no means an easy task, but he worked with tact and
judgment. Avicennism came to life again, and, in spite of the
political vicissitudes of Iran, the destruction of lives during
the Afghan domination, and the establishment of the Kajars
on the throne of Persia, has persistently maintained its hold
over many of the cultivated class. One of the best epitomes
of Avicennistic philosophy was published in the reign of^Shah


Abbas II., 1 by Abdur Razzak bin Ali bin al-Hassan al-Lahiji,
under the name of Gouhar-i-Murad, " The Pearl of Desire."
It contains a summary of Ibn-Sina's views, explained and
illustrated by references to the opinions of the Caliph Ali
and his descendants, and philosophers and physicists like
Imam Fakhr ud-din Razi, Nasir ud-din Tusi, Imam Taftazani,
and others.

Some of Abdur Razzak's views are extremely interesting.
For example, dealing with Mu'tazilaism and Asha'rism, he
states that " the Mu'tazilas invented the science of Kaldm with
the object of establishing a harmony between the precepts of
religion and the requirements of society, and of explaining by
principles of Reason the [Koranic] verses and the traditions
which at first sight seem unreasonable (_,*!£ v^'ll) ; whilst
their opponents (^Jls* &L\b) upheld the literal acceptance
[of the verses of the Koran and of the traditions] partly
from motives of bigotry and partly from policy ; prohibited
all interpretations, and pronounced the interpretations of the
Mu'tazilas and all their opinions as heresy ( ^?*i >, and
designated the Mu'tazilas heretics (^<^), and considered
themselves in opposition to them [the Mu'tazilas] as ahl-i-
Sunnat wa-Jamd'at. ... So much so, that many of them have
fallen into the sin of thinking God to be a material being, all
of them are immersed in that of anthropomorphism. — And this
has happened of their shutting the door upon all interpretations;
they have construed in their literal acceptation, the verse that
' He is seated on the Throne,' and such like, and the traditions
as to ojj) (the sight of God) until they derived tajsttn
(corporeality) from one, and tashbih (similarity, or anthropo-
morphism) from the other. These people had at first no
method of reasoning or putting forward of logical arguments ;
they relied only on the literal words of the Koran and traditions
until the appearance of Abu'l Hasan Asha'ri, who was a
prominent disciple of Abu Ali Jubbai, one of the learned Imams
of the Mu'tazilas. Abu'l Hasan had acquired great knowledge

1 Of this sovereign it is said that he was as tolerant to all religions as his
great ancestor Abbas I. He often declared the principle by which his conduct
on this point was regulated : " It is for God, not for me, to judge of men's
consciences : and I will never interfere with what belongs to the tribunal of
the great Creator and Lord of the Universe."


offlogicTand argumentation. He abandoned the Mazhab-i-
'iiizdl, and^ adopted that of the Ahl-i-Sunnat w a- Jama' at and
made great endeavours to advance the cause of this sect, which up
to his time-had no influence whatsoever. Henceforth it began
to be called after him. He invented principles and rules according

to'the^Mu'tazilite'models And as the tyrannical sovereigns

found, that the doctrines of this Mazhab suited their policy,

W e^f J^< &lf° ej'-^'l ^^ ^I^J <tf &lji Uj i.jJil j£\$ )?*■ t+J\ j laU.

they supported this sect ; and so Asha'rism spread widely
among the Ahl-i-Isldm. But, as the doctrines of the Mu'tazilas
(J_>kja*ijj) were founded on the principles of reason
( *i 1 ^ J>*>' ) v they found acceptance among a large number
of the true-hearted people , (*w=^ <>». ^1,3 j&\ And as the
Mu'tazilas had studied deeply the philosophical and scientific
works, they introduced arguments borrowed from them
in the discussion of metaphysical and theological subjects.
And when the Asha'ris became aware of this, as they considered
everything which was not contained in the bosom of Islam a
heresy — Ab>J*wij ovt» t^\ J,*** fiU ;s>#^ 4>^y*>, they at once
pronounced the study of philosophy ^-*£a. ^lf **lUa<) to be
unlawful and dangerous. It was owing to the endeavours of
this sect that philosophy became so unpopular among the Ahl-i-
Isldm as to affect even the learned of the Mu'tazilas. But the
Asha'ria were the originators of this antagonism to philosophy,
for, otherwise, it is in truth in no way inconsistent with religion
or the mysteries Cj^—f), of the Koran and traditions. . . .
The prophets and their representatives ^rV!) have ex-
plained the truths of philosophy which are Divine by tamsil,
similitudes." ... " With regard to the freedom of human
actions, there are three Mazhabs : the first is the doctrine of
Jabr, and that is the Mazhab of the Asha'rias ; they hold that
the actions of man are immediately created by God without
any exercise of will on the part of human beings — so much so,
that if a person lights a fire, the lighting is said to be an act of
God." Then after exposing the immorality of this doctrine,
the author proceeds to say, " the second Mazhab, that of tafwtz,
was adopted by a few Mu'tazilas, who held that man has
absolute power to choose what is right and what is wrong, and


do accordingly. The third is the Mazhab of the Fatimide
Imams, and the majority of the philosophers and rationalists
who maintain that human actions are the immediate creations
of man, but evil and good are pointed out by God." . . .

We cannot help contrasting the present condition of the
Church which claims to be orthodox in Christendom with that
of the one which advances a similar claim in Islam. From the
fourth century, ever since its foundation, until the revolt of
Luther, Catholicism proved itself the mortal enemy of science,
philosophy, and learning. It consigned to the flames myriads
of beings for heresy ; it trampled out the lispings of free-
thought in Southern France : and closed with violence the
schools of rational theology. But Catholicism, after the great
break of Luther and Calvin, discovered that neither the cultiva-
tion of science nor the pursuit of philosophy renders the faithful
an unbeliever. It broadened its base and now includes men of
the largest minds, scientists, litterateurs, etc. To an outsider
it presents a more liberal aspect than even the Reformed
Christian Churches. For five centuries Islam assisted in the
free intellectual development of humanity, but a reactionary
movement then set in, and all at once the whole stream of
human thought was altered. The cultivators of science and
philosophy were pronounced to be beyond the pale of Islam.
Is it impossible for the Sunni Church to take a lesson from the
Church of Rome ? Is it impossible for her to expand similarly
— to become many-sided ? There is nothing in Mohammed's
teachings which prevents this. Islamic Protestantism, in one
of its phases, — Mu'tazilaism, — has already paved the way.
Why should not the great Sunni Church shake off the old
trammels and rise to a new life ?


THE mystical philosophy which forms the life and soul
of modern Persian literature owes its distinct origin
to the esoteric significance attached by an important
section of Moslems to the words of the Koran. The elevated
feeling of Divine pervasion with which the Prophet often spoke,
the depth of fervent and ecstatic rapture which characterised
his devotions, constitute the chief basis on which Moslem
mysticism is founded. During his lifetime, when the per-
formance of duties was placed before religious speculation,
there was little scope for the full development of the con-
templative and mystical element in Islam. This mystical and
contemplative element exists in all religions and among every
people. And yet it varies with the peculiarities of the indi-
vidual and the race, and according to their tendency to
confound the abstract with the concrete. The Hindu looks on
absorption of the finite into the Infinite as the culmination
of happiness ; and to attain that end he remains immovable
in one spot, and resigns himself to complete apathy. The
sense of infinity makes it difficult for him to distinguish
objectively between the priest and the God, or himself and
the God ; and eventually between the Deity and the different
forms of nature in which He is supposed to be manifested.
Gradually this train of contemplation leads to the formal
conclusion, as appears from the Bhagavad Gita, that Creator
and creation are identical. We see thus how curiously pan-
theism, in its extreme manifestation, approaches to fetishism,



which preceded every other idea of the Divinity. In its
infancy the human mind knows no spiritual sentiment but
one of unmixed terror. The primeval forests, which the hand
of man has not yet touched, the stupendous mountains looming
in the distance, the darkness of the night, with the grim, weird
shapes which hover about it, the howling of the wind through
the forest tops, all inspire fear and awe in the infant mind of
man. He worships every material object he finds more
powerful or more awe-striking than himself or his immediate
surroundings. Gradually he comes to attach an ideality to
all these objects of nature, and thinks these idealities worthy
of adoration. In process of time all these separate idealities
merge in one universal all-embracing Ideality. Materialistic
pantheism is the first step in the rise from fetishism.

Neo-Platonism, itself the child of Eastern thought, had
impressed its character on Christianity, and probably given
rise to the eucharistic idea. With the exception of Johannes
Scotus and Eckhart, 1 the mystics of Europe during the Middle
Ages fought only on this ground. Mysticism, properly so
called, with its higher yearning after the Infinite, was ushered
in by the Moslem doctrine of " inward light."

The idea among the nobler minds in the world of Islam,
that there is a deeper and more inward sense in the words
of the Koran, arose not from the wish to escape from the rigour
of " texts and dogmas," but from a profound conviction that
those words mean more, not less, than the popular expounders
supposed them to convey. This conviction, combined with a
deep feeling of Divine pervasion, — a feeling originating from
and in perfect accordance with the teachings of the Koran and
the instructions of the Prophet, led to the development
among the Moslems of that contemplative or idealistic
philosophy which has received the name of Sufism, and the
spread of which, among the Mohammedans, was probably
assisted by the prevalence of Neo-Platonic ideas. Imam
al-Ghazzali in the East, and Ibn-Tufail in the West, were
the two great representatives of mysticism among the Moslems.
The former, as we have already seen, dissatisfied with every
philosophical system, which based knowledge on experience
1 1260-1328 A.C.


or reason, had taken refuge in Sufi'sm. Al-Ghazzali's influence
served greatly to promote the diffusion of Sufi'sm among the
Eastern Moslems, and idealistic philosophy was embraced by
the greatest intellects of the Mohammedan East. Moulana
Jalal ud-din of Rum (Turkey), whose Masnavi l is venerated
by the Sufi ; Sanai, whom Jalal ud-din himself has called his
superior ; 2 Farid ud-din Attar, Shams ud-din Hanz, Khakani,
the moralist Sa'di, the romancer Nizami, — all belonged to this

It must not be supposed that al-Ghazzali was the first
preacher of " inward light " in Islam. Intuitive knowledge of
God (ta'arruf) is inherent in the Faith. The intent {niyyet) of
" approach " (kurbat) to and communion with Him is the
essential preliminary to true devotion ; the " Ascension "
(the mi' raj) of the Prophet meant the absolute communion of
the finite with the Infinite. Not only does God speak to the
hearts of men and women who in earnest sincerity seek divine
help and guidance, but all knowledge is from the Supreme
Intelligence ; it comes to the Prophets by direct revelation
( cfi ) and often " The sacrament of the heart " is
conveyed by Him to His chosen few, " fi-sirraf-kalbi,
&£ z>z*<J' > without an intermediary. This in Islam is
called 'Ilmi-ladimni. 3 It is referred to in the Koran, where
it says, " We taught him [His chosen servant] knowledge from
Ourself." 4 The same conception of intimate communion with
God occurs in the well-known hadis, where the Almighty says,
" My earth and My heaven contain Me not, but the heart of
My faithful servant containeth Me." 5 And the Divine promise
finds a responsive note in the human heart when it is uplifted

1 One of the apologues of the Masnavi on true devotion being the service
of man, has been beautifully rendered into English by Leigh Hunt in the lines
beginning —

" Abou ben Adhem (may his tribe increase)
Awoke one night from a deep dream of peace," etc.

2 See Appendix III. s ^^JiU

« Koran, Sura xviii. v. 65, fotcJc*? »t£U 3

5 See Appendix II. Also quoted by Dr. Reynold Nicholson of Cambridge
in his Mystics of Islam. This work, by a scholar whose knowledge of Suli
literature is unrivalled in Europe, gives in a small compass a lucid summary
of Persian mysticism.


in prayer : " The Almighty God hears whatever prayers (lit.
praises) I offer Him. my Lord, I thank Thee." 1

The same transcendentalism is to be found in other
traditions ; and Ali discourses on the inward light in his
sermons ; 2 Fatima'-t az-Zahra, " our Lady of Light," dwells
on it in her preachings ; 3 and it finds ecstatic expression
in the prayers of the grandson of Ali, the son of Husain the
Martyr. 4 But nowhere in these earliest records of the concep-
tion of " Inward Light " is there any ground for the suggestion
that either the Prophet or the direct inheritors of his spiritual
heritage ever preached the abandonment of the affairs of the
world in the pursuit of Truth, or the observance of asceticism
which he so strongly reprobated. 5 And that is exactly what
has happened in the evolution of Moslem esotericism. In the
endeavour to obtain spiritual perfection 6 numbers of Moslems
have forgotten the precept that human existence depends on
constant exertion. How this has taken place is not without

The mystic cult neither in Christianity nor in Islam is a new

2 The Nahj-ul-Baldghat. There are two commentaries on the Nahj-ul-
Baldghat, one bv Ibn Abi'l Hadid, the other in Persian by Lutf Ullah
Kashani. The full name of Ibn Abi'l Hadid is given in the editorial note
to the Shark as " Abu Hamid Abdul Hamid bin Hibatullah bin Mohammed
bin Mohammed bin Husain bin Abi'l Hadid." He was born at Madain
in the month of Zu'l Hijja 586 a.h. (December 1190 a.c). He was a
Mu'tazili and a Shiah, and those designations are applied to him in the
note. He was a jurisconsult of the first rank, profoundly versed (mutabahhir)
in science and learning, a mutakallim (dialectician) and a poet ; and was
attached to the Chancellery (the Diwd>i) under the Caliphs Nasir and Zahir.
Ibn Khallikan (De Slane, vol. iii. p. 543, in the biography of Zia-ud-din Ibn
ul-Athir) speaks of him as the " jurisconsult Izz-ud-din and a man of letters " ;
but does not mention Ibn Abi'l Hadid's great work, the Commentary on the
Nahj-ul-Baldghat ; nor the fact that he was a Mu'tazili and a Shiah. Ibn
Abi'l Hadid refutes at the beginning of his work, where he propounds the
human duty of thankfulness and worship to the Almighty, the Asha'ri doctrine
of the corporeal vision of God on the day of Judgment (r'uyat ul-Bdri ft' I

Ibn Abi'l Hadid died at Bagdad in a.h. 655 (1257 a.c), the year before its
destruction by the Mongols (Persian Ed., date apparently 1304 a.h.).

3 Lutn' at-ul-Baiza. 4 Sahifai Kdmila.

5 The Prophet and the early disciples spent " the greater part of the night
in devotion ; and their days in transacting the affairs of the people." So
did Omar ibn Abdul Aziz, the fifth Ommeyyade Caliph, who deserved the
title of saint more than many others.

6 To become what in Sufi phraseology is called a " perfect man," " insdni


development. It existed in the Roman world and was not
unknown to the Jews. In Aryan India, it practically ran riot
and was cultivated in every form. From India it was trans-
ported into Western and Central Asia, where it assumed from
time to time most fantastic shapes. Wherever it was planted
it implied the abandonment of all commerce with the outside
world, the renunciation of family ties and obligations, and the
concentration of the human mind on one object to the exclusion
of all others. This, in fact, represents the essence of the mystic
cult. The call of Jesus was an echo of the world-old teaching
of the Mystic. The Prophet of Islam, on the other hand,
emphasised the faithful performance of the less impressive
duty, the service of man, as the most acceptable worship to
God. His call was the direct antithesis of the older con-

Unfortunately, the convulsions that followed on the break-
up ot the original and true Caliphate with the assassination
of Ali, 1 the sack of Medina with all its attendant horrors, and
the pagan licence which came into vogue in social life under
the more dissolute Ommeyyade sovereigns of Damascus, drove
many earnest-minded Moslems to take refuge in retirement and
religion. From piety there is only a step to Quietism. Thence-
forward the evolution of the mystical cult runs a natural course.
The adoption of the distinctive woollen garment (the khirka)
as a mark of penitence and renunciation of the world dates
from early times. 2 The Sufi theory of spiritual development is
based on complete self-abnegation and absolute absorption in
the contemplation of God. The Sufi believes that by this
absorption and mental concentration 3 he can attain a far

1 See ante, p. 296 ; also Short History of the Saracens, pp. 52 and 70.

2 In Christianity garments made of sackcloth or hair served the same
purpose. The Khirka is a sort of gaberdine like a long pillow-case. The Sufi
derives his name from the woollen garment he wears, the word suf meaning
wool. The term silfi has no connection either with the ahl-us-Suffa, the
religious men who were wont to sit and sleep outside the Prophet's mosque
and receive daily their food from him, nor with the Ikhwan-us-Safa, "The
Brethren of Purity."

3 It is stated that Abu Sa'id bin Abi'l Khair who also holds a high place
in Sufi hagiology, kept his mind, like the Hindu yogis, centred on his navel.
An excellent biography of Abu Sa'id bin Abi'l Khair is given in Dr. Nicholson's
Studies in Islamic Mysticism, published by the Cambridge University Press ;
see also Professor E. G. Browne's Literary History of Persia. He is said to
have been a contemporary of Avicenna. He died in 1049.


closer communion with the Divinity and a truer cognition of
the Truth. This belief, whilst it no doubt led many pious
and devout men and women to consecrate their lives to
religion, produced at the same time a rank growth of fantastic

Ali the Caliph and the Imams of his House are regarded as
having possessed in a superlative degree the " Inward Know-
ledge." Abu Nasr as-Sarraj, in his work al-Luma on the
philosophy of Sufism, 1 quoting Junaid 2 says, that had Ali
not been occupied in so many wars, he would have imparted
to the world the vast measure of the ' Ilm-ul-ladunni 3 with
which he was endowed. 4 And in the Tazkirat-ul-Awlia* of
Farid-ud-din 'Attar 6 the first place in the list of mystic saints
is given to Ja'far as-Sadik, the sixth apostolical Imam. It is
worthy of note that in the case of almost every Sufi saint the
line of spiritual descent is traced back to Ali and through
him to the Prophet. 7 A few only trace it to Abu Bakr.

The holy men and women who flourished in the first two
centuries were more Quietists than Sufis. They had abandoned
the world and devoted themselves exclusively to devotion and
piety (zuhd and takwa). Such were Imam Hasan al-Basri, 8

1 Al-Luma' fi-tasawwuf ; tasawwuf is the philosophy of Sufism. The
Luma' of as-Sarraj has been recently edited with great care and erudition by
the learned author of Studies in Islamic Mysticism. According to Nur-ud-
din Abdur Rahman J ami (Nafahdt-nl-Uns, Calcutta ed. p. 319) as-Sarraj
occupies an eminent position among the Sufi saints. He appears also from
J ami's account to have been a proficient mathematician, versed in the abstract
sciences. As-Sarraj died in 378 a.h. (988 A.c), nearly 100 years before

2 Al-Luma', p. 129. Junaid was one of the earliest mystics of Islam ; he
died a.h. 297 (a.c. 910). He is stated to have declared that " the Sufi system
of doctrine is firmly bound with the dogmas of the Faith and the Koran "
(Ibn Khallikan).

8 aiiifw

4 The Indian poet Dabir calls Ali the " Knower of the mysteries of God,"

B Biography of the Saints.

6 See ante, p. 396 ; 'Attar was born in 545 a.h. (1150 a.c), and is believed
to have been killed by the Mongols in 627 a.h. (1229-30 a.c).

7 See post.

8 Wasil bin 'Ata, the founder of Mu'tazilaism, was a pupil of Hasan
Basri. Imam Hasan Basri died in a.h. iio (a.c 728).


Ibrahim ibn Adham, 1 Ma'ruf Karkhi, 2 Junaid, 3 Rabi'a, 4 the
pious lady whose name has become famous in the annals of
Islam, Bayezid Bistami and a host of others. In the third
century when Junaid flourished, Sufism had become a recog-
nised offshoot of Islamic philosophy, but owing to the scope it
afforded to indulgence in undisciplined thought, Sufism began
to assume in different minds distinctly non-Islamic shapes.
Abu Nasr as-Sarraj denounces the erratic tendencies which
now emerged from the welter of old ideas and conceptions.
Some of the professors of the mystic cult anticipated Johannes
Agricola in declaring that perfect knowledge absolved the
" knower " from all trammels of the moral law. 5

As-Sarraj was the predecessor of al-Ghazzali in his endeavour
to systematise Sufistic philosophy. In spite of his efforts to
shape Sufism into a disciplined channel, it still continued to
run in the old gnostic and often antinomian currents. And
yet throughout the five centuries which elapsed between the
death of the Prophet and the rise of Al-Ghazzali there flourished
numbers of men and women revered for their learning, piety
and nobleness of character. One of these was the famous
Imam-ul-Haramain, the master of al-Ghazzali.

To Imam al-Ghazzali eastern Sufism owes in a large measure
its systematisation and most of the colour and beauty in which
it is clothed. His appearance on the stage of the world was
well-timed ; for the Sunni Church, owing to causes which I
propose to review briefly, needed vitalisation.

1 Abu Ishak Ibrahim ibn Adham ibn Mansur is spoken of in the Tazkiral-
ul-Awlia as the son of a prince of Balkh. His father appears to have been a
rich magnate. He abandoned the world, gave all his riches to the poor and
lived a life of piety and devotion. He is said to have been a disciple of Abu
Hanifa. He died in 161 a.h.

2 Ma'ruf Karkhi was the son of a Christian ; he was converted to Islam by
the eighth Apostolical Imam AH ar-Riza the son of Imam Musa. He was

Online LibrarySyed Ameer AliThe spirit of Islâm : a history of the evolution and ideals of Islâm → online text (page 49 of 55)