from Vol. 1, No. 3
Ishaq Ibrahim Adham
by Seyedeh Sahar Kianfar
from Vol. 2, No. 4
Tariqa & Haqiqa
by Seyedeh Sahar Kianfar
from Vol. 9, No. 2
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Titus Burckhardt's influential
summary of the Philosophy of Sufism.
As much as any Western scholar,
Titus Burckhardt has brought to
public attention the wisdom and
beauty of the Sufi Way.
view other Titles by
in Volume 3, Number 2
Tasawwuf,1 which is the esoteric or inward (batin)
aspect of Islam, is to be distinguished from exoteric or external
(zahir) Islam just as direct contemplation of spiritual or divine
realities is distinguishable from the fulfilling of the laws which
translate them in the individual order in connection with the conditions
of a particular phase of humanity. Whereas the ordinary way of believers
is directed towards obtaining a state of blessedness after death,
a state which may be attained through indirect and, as it were, symbolical
participation in Divine Truths by carrying out prescribed works, Sufism
contains its end or aim within itself in the sense that it can give
access to direct knowledge of the eternal.
knowledge, being one with its object, delivers one from the limited
and inevitably changing state of the ego. The spiritual state of
baqa, to which Sufi contemplatives aspire (the word signifies
pure subsistence beyond all form), is the same as the
state of moksha or deliverance spoken of in Hindu doctrines,
just as the extinction (al-fana) of the individuality
which precedes the subsistence is analogous to nirvana,
taken as a negative idea.
For Sufism to permit such a possibility it must be identified with
the very kernel (al-lubb) of the traditional form which is its support.
It cannot be something super-added to Islam, for it would then be
something peripheral in relation to the spiritual means of Islam.
On the contrary, it is in fact closer to their superhuman source
than is the religious exotericism and it participates actively,
though in a wholly inward way, in the function of revelation which
manifested this traditional form and continues to keep it alive.
This central role of Sufism at the heart of the Islamic
world may be veiled from those who examine it from outside because
esotericism, while it is conscious of the significance of forms,
is at the same time in a position of intellectual sovereignty in
relation to them and can thus assimilate to itself at nay
rate for the exposition of its doctrine certain ideas or
symbols derived from a heritage different from its own traditional
It may appear strange that Sufism should on the one hand be the
spirit or heart of Islam (ruh al-islam or
qalb al-islam) and on the other hand represent at the same time
the outlook which is, in the Islamic world, the most free in relation
to the mental framework of that world, though it is important to
note that this true and wholly inward freedom must not be confused
with any movements of rebellion against the tradition; such movements
are not intellectually free in relation to the forms which they
deny because they fail to understand them. Now this role of Sufism
in the Islamic world2 is indeed like that
of the heart in man, for the heart is the vital center of the organism
and also, in its subtle reality, the seat of an essence
which transcends all individual form .
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Sufism gratefully acknowledges permission from Thorsons, part of
HarperCollins Publishers to reprint At-Tasawwuf which
comprises Chapter One from Titus Burckhardt: An Introduction to
Sufism (trans. D. M. Matheson), Aquarian/Thorsons (1990). This chapter
is printed in two parts due to space limitations.
The most usual explanation is that this word means only to
wear wool (suf), the first Sufis having worn, it is said, only garments
of pure wool. Now what has never yet been pointed out is that many
Jewish and Christian ascetics of these early times covered themselves,
in imitation of St. John the Baptist in the desert, only with sheepskins.
It may be that this example was also followed by some of the early
Sufis. None the less to wear wool can only be an external
and popular meaning of the term Tasawwuf, which is equivalent, in
its numerical symbolism, to al-Hikmat al-ilahiyyah Divine
Wisdom. Al-Biruni suggested a derivation of sufi, plural of
sufiya, from the Greek Sophia, wisdom, but this is etymologically
doubtful because the Greek letter sigma normally becomes sin (s)
in Arabic and not sad (i). It may be, however, that there is here
an intentional, symbolical assonance.
This refers to Sufism in itself, not to is initiatic organizations.
Human groups may take on more or less contingent functions despite
their connection with Sufism; the spiritual elite is hardly to be
recognized from outside. Again, it is a well-known fact that many
of the most eminent defenders of Islamic orthodoxy, such as Abd
al-Qadir Jilani, al-Ghazali or the Sulton Salah ad-Din (Saladin)
were connected with Sufism.