Saturday, July 28, 2012

What is Sufism by Martin Lings

What is Sufism
This is an important title in the genre of Sufi Science. Written by Martin Lings who upon embracing Islam took the name Abu Bakr Siraj-ud-Din, may Allah have mercy on him.

Very recently I came across this title in e-book format online and wish to share here for those who are interested to download and read.

Here is the Book's description as found by it's publisher, Islamic Texts Society:

Martin Lings provides an excellent and authoritative introduction to the mystical movement of the Sufis based on his lifelong interest in Islamic culture. His explanation derives from a profound understanding of Sufism, and extends to many aspects which are usually neglected. His illuminating answer to 'What is Sufism?' gives a taste of the very subject matter itself. What do Sufis believe? What do they aim at? What do they do? Unlike other writers on the subject, Martin Lings treats all the three questions with equal justice. He is thus able to give a wealth of answers to the main question 'What is Sufism?', each answer being from a different angle but all going to the root of the matter. A reviewer wrote 'Should the book appear in paperback, I would use it for undergraduate and graduate courses on Islamic civilization', and in fact What is Sufism? has become a set book in colleges and universities on both sides of the Atlantic. It is now accepted as the authoritative statement on the subject of Sufism and it has been translated into French, German, Italian and Spanish.

In the Author's Preface which the writer wrote back in 1973:

The title of this book is a question; and that question, as far as the Western world is concerned, has been given some dubious and suspect answers in recent years. Moreover the rapidly expanding interest in Sufism increases still further the need for a reliable introductory book-introductory in the sense that it requires no special knowledge, and reliable in that it is not written any more simply than truth will allow. But though such a book may presuppose no special knowledge, it necessarily presupposes a deep and searching interest in spiritual things.

More particularly, it presupposes at least an inkling of the possibility of direct inward perception an inkling that may become a seed of aspiration. Or at the very least, it presupposes that the soul shall not be closed to this possibility. Nearly 1000 years ago a great Sufi defined Sufism as 'taste', because its aim and its end could be summed up as direct knowledge of transcendent truths, such knowledge being, insofar as its directness is concerned, more comparable to the experiences of the senses than to mental knowledge.

Most Western readers of this book will have heard quite early in life that 'the Kingdom of Heaven is within you'. They will also have heard the words.: 'Seek and ye shall find; knock and it shall be opened unto you'. But how many of them have ever received any instruction in the way of seeking or the art of knocking? And even as these last four words were being written down, it came to mind that they are, in this given context, an answer to the very question put by our title. Enough has now been said to make it clear that although our subject may be treated summarily-a book of this size, for so vast a theme, is bound to be summary-it cannot be treated superficially, for that would amount to a contradiction in terms.

Sufism is a touchstone, an implacable criterion which reduces everything else, except its own equivalents, to a flat surface of two dimensions only, being itself the real dimension of height and of depth.


The book is divided in 9 chapters, namely:

1 The Originality of Sufism
2 The Universality of Sufism
3 The Book
4 The Messenger
5 The Heart
6 The Doctrine
7 The Method
8 The Exclusiveness of Sufism
9 Sufism throughout the Centuries

You may download the book in PDF format from here: What is Sufism by Martin Lings


I quote here some highlights from the Book to appreciate the richness with which the author have really conveyed his message. I am quoting from the chapter The Heart.

... of all those Qur'anic terms which may be said to refer to them (the realised Sufis, the Saints) and to no one else except a priori the Prophets, the most significant as well as the most recurrent is probably the somewhat enigmatic phrase those who have hearts; and mention of this has been reserved until now because it is important enough to be the central theme of a chapter. For what indeed is Sufism, subjectively speaking, if not 'heart-wakefulness'?

In speaking of the majority, the Qur'an says: It is not the eyes that are blind but the hearts (Quran XXII:46).  This shows-and it would be strange if it were otherwise--that the Quranic perspective
agrees with that of the whole ancient world, both of East and of West, in attributing vision to the heart and in using this word to indicate not only the bodily organ of that name but also what this corporeal centre gives access to, namely the centre of the soul, which itself is the gateway to a higher 'heart', namely the Spirit. Thus 'heart' is often to be found as a synonym of 'intellect', not in the sense in which this word is misused today but in the full sense of the Latin intellectus, that is, the faculty which perceives the transcendent.

In virtue of being the centre of the body, the heart may be said to transcend the rest of the body, although substantially it consists of the same flesh and blood. In other words, while the body as a whole is 'horizontal' in the sense that it is limited to its own plane of existence, the heart· has, in addition, a certain 'verticality' for being the lower end of the 'vertical' axis which passes from the Divinity Itself through the centres of all the degrees of the Universe.

If we use the imagery suggested by Jacob's Ladder, which is none other than this axis, the bodily heart will be the lowest rung and the ladder itself will represent the whole hierarchy of centres or 'Hearts' one above the other. This image is all the more adequate for representing each centre as separate and distinct from the others and yet at the same time connected with them. It is in virtue of this interconnection, through which the centres are as it were merged into one, that the bodily heart receives Life from the Divinity (according to Sufi doctrine all Life is Divine) and floods the body with Life.

In the opposite direction the bodily heart may serve as a focal point for the concentration of all the powers of the soul in its aspiration towards the Infinite, and examples of this methodic practice are to be found in most forms of mysticism and perhaps in all. It is also in virtue of the same interconnection that 'Heart' may be used to indicate the topmost rung of the ladder, that is, the Infinite Self, as in the following Holy Tradition: 'My earth hath not room for Me, neither hath My Heaven, but the Heart of My believing slave hath room for Me.' Another example is to be found in the poem of the Sufi Ijallaj which begins: 'I saw my Lord with the Eye of the Heart. I said: "Who art thou?" He answered: "Thou".'

From this last point of view, 'Heart' can be considered as synonymous with 'Spirit', which has a Divine as well as a created aspect; and one of the great symbols of the Spirit is the sun which is the 'heart' of our universe.

.. So far we have considered the Heart mainly as a centre which includes all its 'vertical' prolongations. But when the term 'Heart' is used in Sufism (as in other mysticisms) of one particular centre as distinct from others, it normally denotes neither the highest nor the lowest but the next to the lowest, that is, the centre of the soul. In the macrocosm, the Garden of Eden is both centre and summit of the earthly state.

Analogously the Heart, which in the microcosm corresponds to the Garden is both centre and summit of the human individuality. More precisely, the Heart corresponds to the centre of the Garden, the point where grows the Tree of Life and where flows the Fountain of Life. The Heart is in fact nothing other than this Fountain, and their identity is implicit in the Arabic word 'ayn which- has the meaning of both 'eye' and 'spring'. The extreme significance of this penultimate degree in the hierarchy of centres is that it marks the threshold of the Beyond, the point at which the natural ends and the supernatural or transcendent begins. The Heart is the isthmus(bartalch) which is so often mentioned in the Qur'an as separating the two seas which represent Heaven and earth the sweet fresh-water sea being the domain of the Spirit whereas the brackish salt sea is the domain of soul and body; and when Moses says: I will not cease until I reach the meeting-place of the two seas,he is formulating the initial vow that every mystic must make, implicitly if not explicitly, to reach the lost Centre which alone gives access to transcendent knowledge.

One of the Quranic keys to inner meanings is the verse: We will show them Our signs on the horizons and in themselves. This draws our attention to the correspondence between outer phenomena and inner faculties, and in considering what is meant by the Heart it is particularly instructive to consider which of 'the signs on the horizons' is its symbol.

When it is said that God is Love, the highest meaning this can have is that the Archetype of all the positive relationships conjugal, parental, filial and fraternal-are Indivisibly One in the Infinite Self-Sufficing Perfection of the Divine Essence.

A less absolute meaning is that the central relationship, namely the conjugal one on which the others depend and in the background of which they are already present, has its Archetype in the polarisation of the Divine Qualities into Qualities of Majesty and Qualities of Beauty. It results from this Archetype that mutual concord depends on likeness and unlikeness, affinity and complementarity. Both the Majesty and the Beauty are Infinite and Eternal, whence their affinity. But one is Active Perfection and the other is Passive Perfection, whence their complementarity.

… There is nothing in the world which has not its Divine Archetype. But harmony demands also that the world shall be a complement, and complementarity implies invertedness. Thus man, whose Archetype is the Divine Being Itself from which everything derives, is the last of all created things, the finality towards which all creation tends. It is thi.s precedent that causes, on the lowest plane of all, the reflection of an object to be a faithful yet Inverted image of the object itself. The mountain whose top appears to be at the bottom of the lake which reflects it is a natural prototype of the Seal of Solomon, the world-wide symbol of the Union of the Active and Passive Perfections and by extension the symbol of all the pairs which are the images of this Union throughout the worlds of the universe.

The perfect balance of the primordial soul depends on the harmonious union of the domains of inner and outer man. If we take the apex of the upper triangle of the Seal of Solomon to represent the Heart's direct experience of Spiritual Truths which are the fruits of the Tree of Life, the down-turned apex of the lower triangle will represent taste in the literal sense, whereas the two interpenetrating bases will represent the indirect mind-knowledge which derives from the two direct experiences. The Seal's message here is that if we want to know what Heart-knowledge is like we must consult the senses rather than the mind, at any rate as regards directness. But our symbol also figures the gulf which separates the senses from the Heart: sense-knowledge, being the lowest mode of perception, is the most deeply submerged in space and time and other earthly conditions and is therefore narrower and more fleeting than mind-knowledge, whereas the inner 'taste' escapes from these conditions in virtue of its exaltation and is thus of all experiences the vastest and most enduring.

The Seal of Solomon is a key to the interpretation of many texts which have eluded the comprehension of those who are ignorant of the laws of symbolism, and amongst such texts are the Quranic descriptions of Paradise. It is true that spiritual bliss is often indicated simply by an affirmation that there is no common measure between earthly and heavenly joys, or by: such words as Verily thy Lord shall give and give unto thee and thou shalt he satisfied.

But in descriptive passages, the Qur'an speaks in terms of the pleasures of the senses, because these direct pleasures are in fact the earthly projections or shadows of the Paradisal archetypes which it is seeking to convey. Having their roots in these archetypes, the sensations have power to recall them, for the 'tether' which attaches the symbol to its reality not only traces the path by which the symbol came into existence but can become, in the opposite direction, a vibrating chord of spiritual remembrance. These Quranic descriptions, while serving to remind the soul that Paradise is intensely desirable, serve also to re-endow life on earth with a lost dimension; and here lies a significant aspect of Sufism, already hinted at in connection with Islam's claim to be a restoration of the primordial religion.

… Since everyone has always a centre of consciousness, everyone may be said to have a· 'heart'. But the Sufis use the term on principle in a transcendent sense to denote a centre of consciousness which corresponds at least to the inward Moon. This principle has its roots in the Prophet's definition of ihsan (excellence) which is directly related to Heart-knowledge: 'Excellence is that thou shouldst worship God as if thou sawest Him; for it thou seest Him not, yet He seeth thee.' 'As if thou sawest Him.' As if man were still in full possession of his primordial faculties. The whole of one aspect of Sufi method lies in the word ka' annaka, 'as if thou ... '; and this rule of idealism has many applications, some of which we shall see later. But it needs to be combined with the rule of actualism, the rule of 'but in fact'. No one is more acutely conscious of the fall of man than the mystic-so much so that a thing counts for him as positive according to the measure in which it is capable of setting up a vibration towards the Heart and clearing an access to it. In principle, since there is nothing which doth not glorify Him with praise, everything has this capability. Yet ye understand not their glorification. It has to be admitted that the symbols which could penetrate the Heart of primordial man are prevented from being fully operative for fallen man by his obstructedness. In other words he cannot react to them powerfully enough to effect the necessary vibration; and if left to his own resources he would be impotent to achieve access to the Heart. The sight of a beautiful landscape, for example, arouses not only wonder and delight but also longing inasmuch as the subject cannot merge with the object; and this longing is no less than a degree of the already mentioned presentiment of one's higher possibilities, a degree of 'remembrance' that in the archetypal world of the Spirit a merging of subject with object actually does take place. But such a presentiment would be, in almost every case, no more than a qualification for the spiritual path. In itself it would be hopelessly measured.

It is not for nothing that in most traditions the obstacle to be overcome is represented as a gigantic monster with supernatural powers. Nothing will serve short of a sword that has been forged and tempered in Heaven; but as an auxiliary to such a sword, the presentiment will be a precious strength in the soul; in other words, it needs to be consecrated by some Heaven-sent incantation, above all by the Divine Name itself.

It is important to remember here that Dhikr Allah (Remembrance of God or Invocation of God) is a name of the Prophet, and that according to the Qur'an this invocation is 'greater' even than the ritual prayer. The word in question could also be translated 'greatest', without the comparison, for both interpretations are linguistically possible; and in the present context it can be affirmed that calling on the Name of God, whether it be accompanied by some other experience 'Or not, is the most positive thing in all the world because it sets up the most powerful vibration towards the Heart. The Prophet said: 'There is a polish for everything that taketh away rust; and the polish of the Heart is the invocation of Allah.'

… it may be mentioned that although the invocation of the Supreme Name Allah takes precedence over all the other practices of Sufism, the term Dhikr Allah is also extended to other rites and in particular to the recitation or audition of the Qur'an which is, as we have seen, of one substance with God; arid in the context of causing vibration and of the passage from the outward to the inward, it is relevant to quote what the Revealed Book says of itself in virtue of the power of its own verses in this respect: It causeth the skins of those that fear their Lord to thrill. Then their skins and their hearts grow pliant (or supple) unto the rememhrance ofGod. The Sufis have here all the authority they need for using outward movement, such as the swaying of the body in the sacred dance, as a means to inward concentration.

The words their hearts grow pliant or, as it could be rendered, their hearts soften, can be glossed 'their Hearts grow less hard'. The barrier in question may be spoken of as hardness of heart or rust on the heart or clouds over the Moon or as a dragon that guards the access to the Fountain of Life. If it were not for this barrier, which is the direct result of the fall of man, there would be no need of religion in the ordinary sense, for Revelation could come directly to each man in his Heart which would then refract the Message to the mind and to the rest of the psychic substance. There would thus be a perpetual flow and ebb between the Self and the self. But as things are, a special Messenger has to be sent that he may transmit to others what his Heart receives. This does not mean however that all other souls are entirely cut off from the inward reception of spiritual light. It means that for so tremendous a descent as the Revelation, the Heart must be fully operative as is the case only with the Prophets and the Saints; but between these and the majority is the minority of mystics-'travellers' for . whom by definition the barrier is or has become relatively transparent. They seek, as we have seen, to identify themselves with the Prophet and to ebb as he ebbs in response to the Revelation. In other words, it must be for the traveller as if the Revelation has come directly to him, in his Heart; and this ka' anna, like all the other 'as ifs' of Sufism, is only possible on the basis of certainty.

What then is certainty? Or what is the difference between certainty and conviction? Conviction is indirect and belongs to the mind, being the result of purely mental processes such as arguments But certainty, being always direct, belongs to 'the apex of the triangle'. As such it can be the result of sensory perception; hearing or touch or sight can give certainty. But in its spiritual sense, when it has for object the Transcendent, certainty is the result of Heart-knowledge. Moreover, failing this knowledge in its fullest sense, those elements which are nearest the Heart at the summit of the soul must also be considered as faculties of direct perception, albeit in a fragmentary way; and through the light which these faculties of intuition receive in virtue of the transparency of the barrier, a soul may claim to be possessed of a faith which is no less than certainty.

Before closing this chapter, and as a preface to the doctrine which like all mystical doctrines presupposes at least a virtual certainty in the soul-otherwise the seed would 'fall on stony ground' -let us consider the three degrees of certainty as Sufism defines them. The Divine Truth is symbolised by the element fire. The three degrees, in ascending order, are the core of Certainty (' ilm al-yaqin), the Eye of Certainty (' ayn al-yaqin) and the Truth of Certainty ('aqq al-yaqin). The Lore is the certainty that comes from hearing the fire described; the Eye is the certainty that comes from seeing its flames; the Truth is the certainty which comes from being consumed in it. This last degree is the extinction (fana') of all otherness which alone gives realisation of the Supreme Identity. The second degree is that of Heart-knowledge, for the Eye which sees is the Heart. As to the Lore, it is a mental understanding which has been raised to the level of certainty by the faculties of intuition which surround the Heart; and it is one of the functions of the doctrine to awaken these faculties and make them operative.


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