Mysticism in Islam

(Text of a lecture by Muhammad Yakub Khan on August 15th  1923, in connection with the Summer School of Theology, in the hall of Trinity  College, Oxford; Dr J. Estlin Carpenter, M.A., D.Litt., D.D., being in the chair)


Whatever connotation is attached to the term mysticism, it is more or less, if not exactly, what is known as Tasawwuf in the literature of Islam. A brief reference to the origin of this word in Islamic nomenclature may not be without interest. Tasawwuf and its derivative Sufi (one possessed of mystic powers) were words unknown in the day of the Prophetﷺ of Islam; nor do we find them in vogue amongst his immediate successors. They are of a much later origin, having sprung up about the close of the second century of the Muslim era. Various are the explanations offered as to their growth. Some trace their origin to the well-known Ashab-i-Suffa, the Prophet´s ﷺ companions who used to sit and sleep on the suffa or raised terrace, in the mosque, devoting their entire time and energy to the acquisition of religious knowledge. In later times people piously inclined came to be called Sufis, after these companions of the Prophetﷺ. Others suppose the term of sufi to be derived from suf or wool. Like the Christian sackcloth, woollen garments suggest the idea of penance; but such garments did not form any part of the necessary insignia of the Sufi Order. And there is yet another surmise. Safa means purification, and so Sufi signifies the person with a pure heart. But according to a modern scholar, the word Sufi is in all likelihood an adaptation of the Greek word suf (σόΦια), which signifies deep wisdom.

Whatever the derivation of the word tasawwuf, there is no mistake about what it stands for. Knowledge of the reality of things, according to the Sufi, is beyond the reach of the bare intellectual vision of man. Questions such as the why and wherefore, the whence and whither of this fact of existence, have ever baffled all attempts at solution. No scientific research, no philosophic discourse, no metaphysical speculation, can offer a convincing answer to this riddle of life. Their vision is limited to the four walls of physical sense. On these wings we may soar to great heights, but when we do land, wherever it may be, we are still on the misty soil of doubt and obscurity. The highest flight of speculative thought may at best take us to the stage that there ought to be a Universal Mind pervading the entire realm of phenomena, but even this, after all, is only probable and not positive knowledge. The gulf between ought to be and is, is still there, yawning as wide as ever. It is the Sufi that comes forward to bridge this gulf, to raise that ought to be to the plane of is. This, he tells us, is done in the moments of “illumination,” “intuition,” “inspiration” or “revelation,” call it what you will.  There is no longer that tossing on the waves of doubt, uncertainty and obscurity. It is broad daylight, and things appear as they are.

This, in a nutshell, is the true purport of tasawwuf or mysticism. As a truth, it is grounded on the teachings of Islam – is every bit Islamic. It constitutes, in fact, the highest meaning of the religion of Islam – the uplifting of man to those celestial heights where one is in full view of the Reality.

Before proceeding, however, with the elucidation of this great Islamic Truth, a survey of the growth, development and subsequent decay of the Sufi Movement as a specific system or cult may not be out of place.

To begin with, this sufiistic system seems to owe its origin more to a counter-current set in reaction to the rigid formalism and hollow ceremonialism of the Commandment. The champions of the Commandment laid all their emphasis on observance, regardless of the corresponding spiritual purification which ought to be the sole purpose of all commandment. The Sufi, with a keen eye for the reality behind the appearance, for the kernel within the shell, was naturally disgusted with the mimic letter-worship of the Multa or the priest. To him, the latter´s ritualistic practices seemed sheer nonsense, and he was not slow to denounce them as such. This has ever kept the Sufi and the Multa at loggerheads. The Multa, often in the good books of the powers that be, has, on his part, invoked all the rigour of law and custom against the unfortunate Sufi and often made him the victim of ostracism, imprisonment and, at times, even the gallows. Theirs is a story of much akin to that of Jesus and Pharisees.

Imam Ghazali may be regarded as the chief exponent of the sufiistic thought. He was the first to formulate the notions of this school. His exposition of the system in a few words is just this: Like the school of Commandment, the school of tasawwuf comprises two parts, viz. knowledge and conduct.  The difference between the two lies in that in the first knowledge precedes conduct, whereas in the latter knowledge is the outcome of conduct. In other words – a matter of course – knowledge of things is first acquired through education, ratiocination and similar processes of the brain; and then comes one´s conduct, which is regulated according to the knowledge thus obtained. But in the case of tasawwuf knowledge comes, Imam Ghazali tells us, as a flash of light, without any physiological brain processes. Such knowledge is the outcome of a pure heart, which in its turn is the product of certain pious devotional practices. On hearts so cleansed of all worldly alloy Divine Light falls like a flash of lightning, which in the twinkling of the eye opens up before man´s mental eyes a vast vista of knowledge. The Imam elucidates the point in a beautiful parable. Says he:-

Once upon a time a competition was held between Roman and Chinese painters. Each claimed superiority in the art. The king called them to a trial of their skill, setting them to show their handiwork on opposite walls. And lest they should copy each other, a screen was suspended in the middle, between the walls, to shut them off from each other´s view. In a few days the Roman informed the King that their work was finished, and so did the Chinese. The curtain being lifted, it was found that the two did not vary even by a hair´s breadth.  The one was an exact copy of the other. Then it was discovered that the Romans, instead of doing any painting themselves, had only polished the surface of their wall, so that when the curtain was removed it reflected the painting on the opposite wall.

Another great figure of the same school, Maulana Jalaluddin of Rum (Turkey), whose Masnavi enjoys a great reputation, quotes the same illustration and says that the heart of man, when thus purified, becomes the tabernacle of the Divine.

The voluminous works of Imam Ghazali are considered the standard works on Islamic mysticism. They give a wonderfully minute dissection of the human mind, its shades and colours, passions, emotions, volitions and so forth, and contain a remedy for every conceivable moral or spiritual ailment. Maulana Rum´s Masnawi is known by the name of “Quran in the Pahlawi language.”

The pages of Islamic history have been bright with these spiritual luminaries, all down the ages. The names of Altar, Hafiz, Omar Khayyam, Sadi amongst the Persians are too well known to need any great introduction. Every Muslim land is rich in these beacon lights. Muinuddin, Nizamuddin, Ganj Bakhsh, Bahauddin and many others, shone on the spiritual horizon of India and their graves to this day adorn that ancient home of sages and seers, attracting crowds of pilgrims, both Muslims and Hindus. Their works are sweet to a degree. Of the Divine Beatitude, which is the goal of all their efforts, and which forms the burden of their tunes, they speak as of beloved. And so are the various spiritual pleasures of their ecstatic moments likened to wine or the gentle breeze, and quite a vocabulary of terminology  has been developed to express the hundred and one phases in relation to the Universal Mind. Here is a specimen of their bewitching notes:-


A philosopher you have become, but you know not

From where you are and where you are and what you are,

Throw your hundreds of books and leaves in the fire;

Turn your heart and soul towards the Beloved.

In your heart will you see the knowledge of the Prophets;

Without the aid of book, or tutor or teacher.

(Maulana Rum)

How long will you waste your toil in the philosophy of the Greeks?

Come and learn the philosophy of the believers too.

A lifetime have you wasted in discourses of grammar;

Come and read a word of love as well.

There is no knowledge but the knowledge of love;

All else is deceit of the Evil One.



The knowledge of the people of the physical is a burden unto them;

The knowledge of the people of the heart, is a lift unto them;

Knowledge of the heart – it is a bosom friend;

Knowledge of the body – it is a snake.



You have not come out of the closet of your low passions;

How can you hope to get to the street of Truth?

The beauty of the Beloved has no veil to cover it;

You have only to keep down the dust of your way to behold it.



These great souls, whose one care was Truth and nothing short of Truth, were quite right in the denunciation of hollow ceremonialism. The Qurán itself is unsparing in its disapproval of any such thing. Prayers five times a day is obligatory on every Muslim, and yet the Qurán says:-

Have you seen him who belies his religion? That is the one who treats the orphan with harshness, and does not urge others to feed the poor. So woe to the praying ones who are unmindful of their prayers (cvii. 1-5)


Prayer as a mere ritual is no prayer. It must lead to spiritual elevation, or else it is worthless trash. “Prayers is the Mi’raj of a believer,” says the Prophet. Mi’raj means a ladder, and so by prayer a believer has to ascend to higher planes of spiritual life. Again, the Prophetﷺ is reported once to have asked his companions: “What do you think of a man in whose house there flows a stream of crystal water and five times a day he takes a dip into it?” … “So is the case of the man,” continued the Prophetﷺ, “who says his prayers five times a day.” This is the value of these religious observances when performed in their proper spirit. On physio-psychological grounds, too, their value is obvious enough. The recent theory of psycho-physical parallelism bears testimony to the efficacy of bodily observances, postures, repetition of words by mouth, and so forth. They have an unfailing corresponding effect on our mentality. So, as a means to an end, these devotional practices are indispensable, just as food is indispensable if the body is to keep in proper order and strength. Therefore these great spiritual luminaries, though they placed all their emphasis on the soul of things, never gave up the observance of the law. It was the law as observed by the letter-worshipper that was a cause of spiritual decay; but for proper growth and development the law was none the less necessary. All that was needed was to keep an eye on the spirit of the law and aim at that. Nevertheless, their denunciation afforded a handle to many to evade the rigour of the law. Many an indolent person and idles, to whom a well-regulated, well-balanced life of law and commandment was rather irksome, would flock to the Sufi Order.

It was thus that the movement degenerated. In the common herd, to whom it meant no more than a refuge from the rigorous life of the law, its original spark was extinguished. It had arisen as a protest against formalism, but gradually it became itself a dead-weight of perhaps worse formalism. The letter again took the place of the spirit, rite and ritual of essence. A stupendous structure of terms and trappings was raised in the course of time, such as wird and wazifa (repetition of certain holy words), Pīr and Murid (the spiritual guide and the disciple), silsila (line of spiritual descent) and sajjada Nashin (those that sit in the seat of the teacher), baá at (swearing allegiance to the Head), of sajjadah and tasbih (prayer-carpet and strung beads), sarod and wajd (hymn-singing and ecstasy), zikr-bil-jahr and zikr khafi (loud repetitions and low repetitions), Darwaish and Fakir (the ascetic hermit), hāl (working up an ecstatic mood), mast and malang (oblivious of everything and reckless), Ghanth, Qutab, Abdāl, W ali (the various spiritual ranks), Sālik (the seeker after Truth), sir (the secret), and a hundred and one others. And under this superstructure was crushed the vision of Ghazali, Rumi, Hafiz and the rest of the great Sufis.  Theirs was a cry of “Back to Islamic simplicity.” But those that came after them, men of narrower views and commoner clay, outdid the Mullah himself in weaving a web of rites and rituals, forms and names, around the simple Truth of Islam. The general decadence of the world of Islam has in no small degree been influenced by the mushroom of the sufiistic schools, now deformed and degenerated, that sprang up here, there and everywhere. A wave of lethargy swept over all those that fell under their influence. What was this life worth?  A Sufi must look forward to things of the hereafter. While here, he must be content with whatever befalls him. His sole care must be to do the will of the Pīr, whose mysterious influence with God would secure him a position of special privilege with Him. Thus was undermined the moral backbone of a once manly, strenuous race. The Islamic life of strife and struggle gave place to a life of morbid humility and contentment. The Islamic straightforward common-sense code of life was sub-ordinated to the caprice of an ignorant Pīr.

Nevertheless, the fact remains that tasawwuf, as truly conceived and worked out by the great masters, has its roots in the teachings of the Holy Qur-àn and is, in fact, the highest culmination of the Islamic conception of a spiritual life. The Word of God is still, according to the Holy Qur-àn, the highest reward with which a truly good and noble soul can be blessed. Says the Book:-

The beloved of the Lord – those that have faith in Him and lead a virtuous life – for them is a good news in this life as well as in the next; … and this is the Highest Good.


Those who say, Allah is our Lord, and then firmly hold to it – God´s angels come to them (with the message): Fear not, nor grieve, and be of good cheer ….

Divine revelation still comes, and will ever come, to enlighten a clean and pure heart. And inasmuch as true tasawwuf stands for that grand truth, it is one with Islam. It may, however, be pointed out that for self-purification, necessary to make one a recipient of the  Divine Word, Islam recognizes no such forms and practices as laid down by the so-called tasawwuf. Islam has only one pathway that leads Godwards – the pathway of a good practical life, of duty, honesty, goodwill and charity. The image of God as He is. Let man but work out these potential virtues in him – and worked out they cannot be but through daily practical life – and Divine Light will reflect on His heart, even as the light of the sun does  on a clean mirror. “The life of this world is like a field for the life to come,” the Prophet ﷺ says; and so it is in this soil of practical life in which the All-wise Providence has placed us, is deceit, illusion, moonshine. No farm, no crop; no practical life, no spirituality. A true Sufi is thus one whose life is the richest, fullest, throbbing with vitality, and at the same time pure, noble and honourable – and he is the true Muslim.