Some “Intoxicated” Sufis of Medieval Islam
In a few generations after Muhammad, the Arabs had spread out to take over huge areas of the civilised world, from the frontiers of France to the frontiers of China. Religious seekers in Islam were inspired by what they found in the religions of a vast number of subjugated peoples, including Hindus, Buddhists, Persians, Jews and Christians. All these traditions probably made some contribution to the development of Islamic mystical (usually known as Sufi) doctrine and practice. The Sufis were the contemplatives of Islam: some were hermits, ascetics and saints, while others were scholars and philosophers.
Some extreme examples will be studied here. Why have I chosen extreme cases? Firstly, extreme cases cause a stir, and so they tend to be better recorded. Secondly, extremists tend to concentrate upon, and to exaggerate, specific aspects of a movement, which are of particular importance to them. In this case, mystical extremists should display, without leaving much room for doubt, the true nature of their religious experience.
Of all the major religions, Islam has put the strongest emphasis on God’s transcendence. If anything, it has tried to widen the gap between creator and creature. It has always concentrated its attention on law and obedience. It could not, however, exclude the need, felt by contemplative seekers after truth, for a more personal relationship between man and God. These seekers, who usually lived very ascetic and pure lives, were often called Sufi, because of their simple garb of white wool (sūf). The name may later have been linked to their ambition to attain to wisdom (‘sophia’ in Greek could be transliterated into Arabic as sūfīya, – although with a different ‘s’ sound to that of sūf.) This name, first given to ascetics in the heartland of the Islamic empire, only gradually spread to cover all mystics in all parts. In the 9th century in the Basra area, for instance, mystics like Sahl al-Tustarī had referred to each other as God’s friends (awliyā’).
Here are five texts from the Qur’ān to which Sufis often referred: the first two justified them in seeing God everywhere and in everything:
“Whithersoever you turn, there is the Face of God,”
and: Qur’ān 4:126:
“God encompasses everything.”
In Qur’ān 50:15, God is described as present in man:
“We know what his soul whispers within him, and We are nearer to him than the jugular vein.”
The fourth is Qur’ān 57:2:
“He is the First and the Last, the Outward and the Inward.”
Qur’ān 24:35 is known as the ‘verse of light’, and has inspired all Islamic illuminism:
“God is the Light of the heavens and the earth; the likeness of His light is as a niche wherein is a lamp (the lamp in a glass, the glass as it were a glittering star) kindled from a Blessed Tree, an olive that is neither of the East nor of the West, whose oil wellnigh would shine, even if no fire touched it. Light upon Light. (God guides to His Light whom He will.)”
Sources of evidence
Our knowledge of well known Sufis, living in the period from the late 9th to the 11th century C.E., often comes in the form of fanciful and exotic stories, which have been written down much later on. Readers do not have to accept these stories as giving literally accurate information, although most of them were about real historical people. I am using these stories to give an insight into Sufi preoccupations or experiences, at the time at which the stories were recorded. I shall therefore be looking at stories written down before the 12th century.
In the first two centuries of the development of Islam, there was a desire on the part of certain ascetics to live a purer life, which accorded better with the simple life of their desert forebears. Such ascetics then began to direct their energy inward to the cultivation of an interior spiritual life.
By the third Islamic century (9th-10th century C.E.), some Sufis were more mobile and more educated, searching for philosophical wisdom wherever it might be found. Such Sufis were often receptive to radical ideas, which led to a certain amount of persecution. Some extreme examples will be the subject of this chapter. Many of these Sufis were Persian or came from a Persian background.
By the fourth Islamic century (10th-11th century C.E.), Sufis were likely to be better organised for mutual support and supervision. The famous Sufis of this period tended to be teachers, or compilers of Sufi histories and handbooks. These latter writers have gathered most of the material which will be used in this chapter. They include al-Sarrāj (d.988) in his Kitāb al-luma‘ fi’l-tasawwuf (a book throwing light on Sufism), al-Kalābādhī (who died in about 995) in his Kitāb al-Ta‘arruf (a book of enquiry into the religion of the Sufis), al-Sulamī (d.1021) in his Tabaqāt al-sūfiyya (lives of Sufis), Abū Nu‘aym al-Isfahānī (d.1038) in his Hilyat al-awliyā’ (an encyclopaedia of saints), al-Qushayrī’s Risāla of 1046 (a theoretical work on mysticism) and al-Hujwīrī’s Kashf al-mahjūb (the Unveiling of the Veiled), also of the mid-century (Hujwīrī’ is recorded as living between approx.1000 and 1072 C.E.). There will also be references to the Kitāb al-Nūr of al-Sahlajī (d.984), which retells many of the stories of Abū Yazīd al-Bistāmī (Bāyazīd), and to the Dīwān (poems) and the Akhbār (sayings and stories) by or about Husayn ibn Mansūr al-Hallāj, collected during the 10th century.
Some eleventh-century views of Sufism
Here is Kalābādhī’s introduction to Sufis in the preface to his work:
“Their feet were firm, their understandings were clean, their beacons were bright: they had understanding of God, and journeyed unto God, and turned away from what is other than God. Their lights pierced the veils. […] Very highly were they esteemed by Him who sits upon the Throne. […] They were absent [from men] but present [with God], kings in rags, outcasts from every tribe, possessors of all virtues and lights of all guidance, with their ears attentive, their hearts pure and their qualities concealed: chosen, Sufis, illuminated, pure.”
Sarrāj and Hujwīrī both describe a path to be followed, on which there are different ‘stations’ and ‘states’. A station, maqām, refers to an action that you take to improve yourself, a condition that you need to fulfil in order to participate in the tasks of the journey. A state, hāl, is a gift from God at a particular stage of the transformation, referring, not so much to what you do, as to how you are. Sarrāj gives 7 stations: repentance, abstinence, renunciation, poverty, patience, trust in God and satisfaction (of you with your situation, and of God with you); and 8 states: nearness to God, love, fear, longing, intimacy, tranquillity, contemplation and certitude.
If these states seem very close to those of a loving relationship leading to marriage, it is not surprising. In marriage, one seeks sexual fulfilment, wholeness of life and personality, and peace in union with one’s partner. In this tradition of mysticism one seeks, in a somewhat similar way, spiritual fulfilment, psychological integration of the self, and peace in union with God. Also, for many of the unmarried ascetics, a spiritual union with God must have provided a helpful compensation.
Hujwīrī distinguishes two grades among the followers of this path: the Mutasawwif and the Sufi. The first is an aspirant, who puts himself under the spiritual discipline of the second, who has already arrived. The novitiate is described, probably symbolically, as taking 3 years:
“The first year is devoted to service of the people, the second year to service of God and the third year to watching over his own heart.”
Some insight into Sufi life in the early 11th century can be obtained from the biography of Abū Sa‘īd ibn Abī ’l-Khayr (967-1049). His father, a druggist, was a Sufi in Mīhana, in Khurāsān in Persia. The Sufis of the town would meet every night at the house of one of their number, in order to eat, pray and sing together. After studying law and theology for many years, Abū Sa‘īd retired into solitude to learn self-discipline and the Sufi way. Having been given his patched frock, when his initiation was over, he then spent his life teaching and preaching.
However, he also managed to accumulate and distribute a certain amount of wealth, which was collected by those who venerated his years of extreme asceticism. He then seems to have lived sumptuously in Nīshāpūr for many years and he may have developed a taste for the good life. It is possible, but not at all clear, that he may be an example of a mystic who could not maintain the high ideals he had set for himself. He may have been one of those contemporary Sufis that Qushayrī castigated, in the preface to his work of 1046, for laxness and self-indulgence.
He certainly fits another picture that Qushayrī paints, of a Sufi who has little regard for religious duties or for the Law. This may have been sufficient reason for some to cast aspersions on his way of life. Abū Sa‘īd certainly held some unorthodox views, for example on the primacy of the revelation of the Qur’ān, and on the pilgrimage to Mecca. He described the latter as a meaningless journey to a pagan stone house. He also preached that to bring joy to a single heart was better than to build a great number of places of worship. What he was probably trying to do, in expressing such thoughts, was to shake people out of their blind acceptance of dogma and ritual, to make them sit up and appreciate the personal and spiritual needs behind religious observance.
This piece will concentrate on 10th and 11th century accounts of three Sufis, who exemplify extreme illuminist and pantheist positions.
One Baghdad Sufi, whose family came from Khurāsān, Abū’l-Husayn, an illuminist mystic and poet who died in 908 C.E., was known as al-Nūrī (nūr = light); and there were many legends connecting him with light. When he spoke at night, the house was illuminated by the light issuing from his mouth. Sarrāj quoted him on the ecstasy of illumination:
“The mystic ecstasy is a flame kindled in the heart by longing for the beloved, and whether it arises from joy or grief, it brings remembrance of Him. Love is the rending of the veil and the revelation of what is hidden from the eyes of men. I looked one day at the Light, and I did not cease looking at it until I became that Light.”
This openness to mystical illumination was only possible after a period of preparation involving mortification of the body. Nūrī defined Sufism as purification:
“Sufism means the renunciation of what belongs to the self, for the sake of what belongs to God; – the Sufis are those whose spirits have been freed from the defilement of human nature, purified from carnal taint and delivered from the lusts of the flesh, so that they have found rest with God in the first rank and the highest degree, and have fled from all save Him.”
Qushayrī puts a similar definition of Sufism into the mouth of al-Nūrī’s Baghdad contemporary, al-Junayd. When he talks about Tasawwuf he is referring to Sufism:
“Tasawwuf is this: that the Truth (i.e. God) should make thee die to thyself and should make thee live in Him.”
Another of al-Junayd’s definitions, stressing the importance of the mortification of the ego, is given by al-Qushayrī:
“The Sufi is like the earth, on which every foul thing is thrown, and from which only fair things come forth.”
Hujwīrī quotes al-Nūrī on the faqīr, the man who has chosen poverty:
“The mark of the true faqīr is that when he receives nothing, he is content; and when he receives something, he regards another person as better entitled to it than himself, and so he gives it away.”
There are many stories of al-Nūrī’s self-discipline and self-sacrificial actions. During the persecution of Baghdad Sufis, instigated by the fundamentalist preacher, Ghulām al-Khalīl in 877 C.E., Nūrī and others were condemned to death. When the executioner came to fetch the first victim, Nūrī offered himself, because
“one moment of this life is more precious than a thousand years of the next, because this is the place of service and that is the place of proximity [to God], and proximity [to Him] is gained by service.” 
Whether or not the executioner could work that out, he was so impressed that all the prisoners were sent to the qādī (judge), who questioned them on law and doctrine. At the end, Nūrī had the effrontery to criticise the qādī for failing to ask him questions of any substance about his religious experience; and he insinuated that the other was not himself close enough to God, when he told the qādī that:
“God has servants who eat through Him, sit through Him, and live through Him.”
The qādī had to report to the Caliph: if these are heretics, who is a true believer? They were dismissed with honour.
Abū Yazīd al-Bistāmī
Nūrī seems, on occasions, to have worn the mask of the fool for God, speaking deep truths as if they were jokes, in the manner of the ninth-century Persian Sufi, Abū Yazīd Tayfūr al-Bistāmī, often called Bāyazīd. The latter, when asked his age, replied “four years old”, because only the years of his new life, after his overwhelming vision of God, counted for anything (and could therefore be counted). (It was not, of course, acceptable for a Muslim to talk about ‘seeing’ God: Hujwīrī had to explain that Bāyazīd meant that he had contemplated God with the eye of the spiritual imagination.) After spending 35 years trying to abandon interest in material things, he eventually found God at the heart of his true self, and exclaimed
“Glory to Me! How great is My Majesty!”
Bāyazīd was later said to have been, at the time, keen to frighten off a group of supporters who wanted to follow him. By openly expressing to them his experience of union with the divine, he could shake them off with a clear conscience. If so, he was successful: they all left, thinking he was mad.
Sahlajī gives many examples of Bāyazīd’s ‘naughting’ of himself in God, losing himself in his identification with the God of his inner experience. Here is one:
“I gazed upon my Lord with the eye of certainty, after he had turned me away from other than Him, and had illumined me with His light, and showed me marvellous things of His secret. He also showed me His Selfhood. Then I gazed upon Him with the eye of truth and said to Him: ‘Who is this?’ He said: ‘This is neither I nor other than I. There is no God but I.’ Then He changed me out of my identity into His Selfhood.”
His statements often make him sound like a case of debased pantheism. They need to be read in conjunction with other accounts he has given of his experiences, in which it is clear that he does not think he has now become God, but he does think that for a brief moment of ecstasy, his own identity disappeared:
“Once God raised me up and stationed me before Him, and said to me, ‘O Abū Yazīd, truly My creation desire to see thee.’ I said: ‘Adorn me in thy Unity and clothe me in Thy Selfhood, and raise me up to Thy Oneness, so that when Thy creation see me, they will say: we have seen Thee, and Thou wilt be That, and I shall not be there at all’.”
This is the Sufi doctrine of fanā’– passing away into God – a concept that probably had Buddhist origins.
Many commentators pointed out that Bāyazīd only made outrageous statements when he was ‘intoxicated’ (meaning: in the grip of a divinely inspired ecstasy), and that when he ‘returned to himself’ afterwards, he was very anxious about what he might have said. Intoxication was described, by al-Kalābādhī, as a mystic’s inability to discriminate between what was acceptable to ordinary believers and what was not, because of his closeness to the extraordinary, i.e. to God. In spite of the difficulties Bāyazīd presented, the Sufi leader who had to guide his fellow mystics most carefully at the time of the 10th-century Baghdad persecutions, Abu’l-Qāsim ibn Muhammad al-Junayd, managed to write a commentary on all of Bāyazīd’s utterances, interpreting what he had said without blasphemy. Bāyazīd’s statements had a considerable influence on later Sufis, just because they were so startling.
In the account that Bāyazīd gave of his ascent to God (in which his imagination soared like a bird, and he felt purified and transformed as he gained height), he was aware that he could only explain the experience in terms of self, because he knew that he was finding his true self, and that this inner self was part of the universal Self, or God. It is pleasing to record that his ecstasy led to humility.
“Then I became a bird, whose body was of Oneness and whose wings were of Everlastingness, and I continued to fly in the air of the Absolute, until I passed into the sphere of Purification, and gazed upon the field of Eternity and beheld there the tree of Oneness. When I looked, I myself was all those. I cried: ‘O Lord, with my egoism I cannot attain to thee and I cannot escape from my selfhood. What am I to do?’ God spoke: ‘O Abū Yazīd, thou must win release from thy ‘thouness’ by following my Beloved. Smear thine eyes with the dust of his feet and follow him continually.”
Husayn ibn Mansūr al-Hallāj
Only a generation later, another radical and outspoken mystic and poet, an Arabic-speaker from the Persian province of Fars, would receive the most horrific punishment for his teachings. Husayn ibn Mansūr al-Hallāj, who settled his wife and four children in Baghdad, travelled widely (on preaching missions?) as far as India and Turkestan, and made three pilgrimages to Mecca, on the last occasion staying there for two years. He was an extreme ascetic. There is the story of him at Mecca, taking only four mouthfuls of biscuit and two drinks of water a day, while he sat out in the midday sun with the sweat pouring off him. To those who asked him for a word of advice, he told them to dominate their lower self before it dominated them.
Hallāj wrote many poems on the subject of mortification, dying to this bodily life in order to live in the spirit, including the poem that begins:
“Kill me then, my good companions, For in my murder is my life.”
The individual self must be left behind in union with God. Kalābādhī quotes a poem that “one of the Sufis composed” (i.e. al-Hallāj, whose name he never uses).
“When truth its light doth show,
I lose myself in reverence,
And am as one who never travelled thence
To life below.
[…] This mystic union
From self hath separated me:
Now witness concentration’s mystery
Of two made one.”
Having read the last line, one may not be surprised that he was accused of preaching incarnation (that God can become flesh). Of this union, he also wrote:
“Your Spirit has gradually mingled with my spirit. […] Now I am Yourself. Your existence is mine; my will is Yours.”
One of the best-known outrageous statements by al-Hallāj is:
“I have become the One I love,
And the One I love has become me!
We are two spirits infused in a (single) body.
To see me is to see Him,
And to see Him is to see us.”
Even here, however, note that he says ‘you have seen us’, not ‘you have seen me,’ because God is not to be identified with one person; but God could be seen in al-Hallāj and everyone else who has found God within himself.
Hallāj lamented that most people did not realise that the light of God was to be found within, and so wandered about in the darkness, assuming that God was elsewhere, probably in heaven. Hallāj must have been very courageous, if not rash, because his constant proclamation, that traditional religious teaching often turned people’s attention away from God, was bound to seem blasphemous to many ordinary believers.
He continued his attempt to provoke a re-evaluation of traditional religion, by subverting the tradition of hadīth, teachings attributed to Muhammad, which Muslims accept as authoritative. As these were collected after Muhammad’s death, they begin with an isnād, a chain of names of reliable witnesses, who have vouched for their authenticity. Hallāj wrote his own collection of teachings, in which the isnād became a string of religious symbols, which could be acceptable to a seeker from any religious faith. I will quote as an example number 24, on God as Being, because its teaching gives an insight into his pantheism:
“By the (rain)bow of God radiant with its vivid colours, by the easts, by the mansion (mother) of the zodiacal mansions, by the pole, by the one whose forefinger wrote on the tablets, by the lights, by the beings who control events, by absolute wisdom, by the supreme composite word:
‘God is, before everything. Whosoever knows that is close to Him. God appears in everything, God disappears in everything. Whosoever knows (that) is included in the ‘repose’ of God. Whoever has become like the sun, sings the glory of God.’”
He believed that all religions had the same foundations and the same goals; and that the differences, although they seemed so great, were insignificant when compared to the common task of understanding God’s purpose for the world.
“Know that Judaism, Christianity, Islam and the other beliefs are just different names; their Goal does not vary.”
He saw that Islam, like other religions, had grown in response to particular needs. This type of universalism is typical of illuminist religion.
Hallāj was far too revolutionary for the government of the time, and he was accused of preaching incarnation, subverting religious duties such as pilgrimage, and destroying Islam. It was alleged that he had said: anā’l-haqq (I am the Divine Truth). Since there is no evidence for this (and he never tried to cover up his views), most historians think that it is a false charge, to nail a man perceived as a political trouble-maker, because he had always fought hard against the authorities, on behalf of those suffering from the effects of injustice and corruption. It may also be an indication of the strength of the fear that he aroused, in those who had not the slightest comprehension of his religious experience.
A Sufi who did understand, called Ibn ’Atā, tried to intervene on his behalf, to ask for justice for his colleague. He was so badly beaten up by palace guards that he died from the assault.
Fifteen days later, on 26th March 922, Hallāj was taken out to be whipped, mutilated, hanged and then decapitated. Like Jesus Christ, who was one of his inspirations, he is said to have prayed for his tormentors.
His poem: The Flight of the Soul
This poem, by al-Hallāj, sums up much of the experience of the more illuminist Sufis. The experience of illumination (by the light of God within the spirit) may lead eventually to the annihilation of the self in union with God (as the One, as universal Being). This is described in the poem as a plunging down into the depths of the self to find the universal Selfhood underlying it. In contemplative prayer it is common for the mystic to feel that he is trying to peel away the concerns, needs and anxieties of his superficial, day-to-day life, in order to find an underlying universal authority, a spirit of humanity, a collective wisdom that has accrued during countless generations. After that, he may try to delve farther, to move beyond his humanity to find what is common to everything, and to envisage his oneness with all things.
Paradoxically, this experience, of a descent into the inner recesses of the mind, is usually described as an ascent towards the source of light, flying like a bird up into the heavens, going up Jacob’s ladder towards the Most High who is above the world, climbing up the mountain into the purer air and a more lofty perspective on the pettiness of everyday life. As Hallāj puts it in qasīda 2 of the Dīwān:
“I have climbed to a summit without having taken a step, […]
And I have dived to the bottom of an ocean without my foot entering it.”
The following poem (qasīda 7), on the illumination and annihilation of the soul, completely mixes the imagery of descent and ascent. At the same time as he is soaring up to the divine light, leaving behind all selfish concerns, he is also diving deep into the ocean, – which is always a good symbol for the unity of being, – in which all waters return to their original source and become one again, part of the eternal ebb and flow of the waves. The ascent is described as a soaring up to the heights of heavenly ‘proximity’ (a word used in Arabic to suggest sexual intimacy, and the closest one can come, in Islam, to talking of union with God). He feels that his own self has become at one with a greater whole. This is at once an intoxicating expansion of his own position, and a humbling effacement of his individual image.
“Looking with the eye of knowledge,
I found the secret of my meditation.
A Light shone in my conscience,
Subtler than any material thing.
I plunged into the ocean of my reflection,
Diving through it like an arrow.
My heart leapt up,
I flew on the wings of desire
To what I mask under an enigma,
That I may not name.
At last, having passed beyond every limit,
I wandered on the plains of Proximity.
But, looking into the mirroring waters,
I could not see beyond the traits of my own face.
Then I went to submit to my Beloved,
To annihilate my self in His will.
Already what an imprint has been branded
On my heart with the hot irons of desire!
So that any thought of myself has deserted me;
I am so near, I have forgotten my own name.”