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General Introduction to Islamic Mysticism and Spirituality

By: Reza Beranjkar
Taṣawwuf passed through many vicissitudes in the history of Islamic Culture. In every stage, it begot a special form, different from what it had. However, in some periods the dominant trend was that of practical and ethical spirituality. It had mainly an ascetic monastic character. Yet, in other periods its main characteristic was theoretical Ṣūfism and theosophy of monistic (waḥdat al-wujūd) character1. Some mystics followed their own rules and regulations, and were not particular about a following the sharīah; while the other group was practicing religious forms meticulously. Such differences rendered it very difficult to define Taṣawwuf and to judge its merits.
First of all, we will describe here the general characteristics of this School. Hence after, we will refer to the causes of its emergence and also the stages of its development.

Definition of Taṣawwuf:
Taṣawwuf (mysticism) has two aspects: firstly it has a cultural aspect (both theoretical and practical), and secondly it has a social aspect the difference between the mystics and experts of fiqh, tafsīr, Hadīth and the theologians was that ṣūfīs not only established a branch of knowledge, but also founded a social class in the Islamic world with its peculiar norms and rituals. For instance, many of them had particular kind of rugged dress, special places of worship and spiritual exercises in their, khānqāh and monasteries. Special religious rituals (zikr khafī and jalī) and norms like celibacy, vegetarianism and isolation from the people, were followed. These kinds of norms and rituals gave them special social identity and set them apart from general society, which was not the case with scholars and experts in theology, philosophy and other branches of knowledge.¬¬2 However, there were mystics, especially among Shīas, who mingled with society; did not have any apparent distinction with other people, but were profound spiritual masters. In fact, such persons are the real spiritual masters, not those who pretend to be, and invent hundreds of norms and innovations”.3 In other words, the cultural and social aspects are not necessarily co-existent. They can separate.
In this book, we are not going to deal with social aspects of Ṣūfīs or Taṣawwuf as an institution. Rather we purpose to discuss theoretical aspect of Taṣawwuf, as a branch of Islamic knowledge. However, while dealing with the history of mysticism, we will cover all these aspects.
As regards ‘Irfān, it too as a cultural-intellectual system consists of two parts namely (i) theoretical and (ii) practical. Practical ‘Irfān deals with theoretical knowledge, telling how to purify the heart from moral vices, to help produce moral virtues and thus to attain spiritual perfection. It also deals with regulating relationship of man with his ‘self’ and with the Almighty God5. Practical ‘Irfān stipulates practical ways: how a person should start his journey unto God, from which stages gradually he passes in his spiritual journey, and what states he experiences. The ‘urafa (mystics) believe that one should pass through these spiritual stages under the guidance of a perfect saint, who knows and has experience of these stages; and has reached to perfection. Such a spiritual master is called the celestial bird

#7789;āir al quds), or Khizr. Generally, this part of ‘Irfān is referred as a science of spiritual exercises (Sair wa sulūk) . This part of ‘Irfān in a way resembles Ethics, as it is also concerned with how to produce moral and spirituals virtues. However, there are some fundamental differences between ‘Irfān and pure Ethics. Firstly, the main concern of practical ‘Irfān is relation of man unto God and how to bring man nearer to God.
Secular Ethics is not concerned with God, but is concerned only with producing virtuous behavior. Secondly, while practical ‘Irfān is based on theoretical Gnosis and special theosophical view of God and Man, Ethics does not have such philosophic foundation. Its foundations are different from that of practical ‘Irfān. Thirdly ‘Irfān and Ethics pursue different goals: while the goal of practical ‘Irfān is to expand and enrich human consciousness by removing barriers and to take man’s consciousness to the stage of fanā if Allah (annihilation unto God), the goal of present day Ethics is purification of character and inner reform of human conduct and behavior as per the principles of morality with no reference of the Creator. We will explain more of it in the Section, dealing with practical ‘Irfān.
The other section of ‘Irfān is theoretical (‘Irfān). Qaiṣarī defines theoretical ‘Irfān thus: “‘Irfān consists of understanding God from the view point of His Names, Signs, Attributes and Manifestations. Likewise, it is to gain understanding of the beginning and end of the existence, knowing realities of the universe, and to realize how this multiplicity returns to celestial unity”7.

Literal and Terminological Meaning of ‘Irfān and Taṣawwuf:
The word ‘Irfān is generally used in the meaning of knowledge and understanding8. Fars bin Zakarīyā believes that ‘irfān means understanding, its root being “’urf”, which means peace and calm 9. Therefore, the Arabs called this particular kind of knowledge as ‘Irfān, which gave them calmness and spiritual peace10.
Unlike the word ‘Irfān, there exists much controversy about the meaning and root of the word Taṣawwuf; and, diverse views have been expressed11. However, most of these views do not seem credible in the light of the Arabic grammar and lexicography as these and, are not accorded approval in the light of historical evidences. Thus, it appears that the correct view is to consider that the word ṣūfī and taṣawwuf are derived from their root ṣūf, which means silk or rugged dress. Suharwardī, a great mystic and author of the book ‘Awārif al M’ārif, says: The view that Taṣawwuf is derived from its root ṣūf is more appropriate than any other view. When in Arabic language, it is said ‘taṣawwafa’, means a person, who wore silk or rugged dress; while taqammaṣa means wearing a cloth12.
Abū Naṣr Sarrāj, author of the earliest book on Taṣawwuf (al-Lum’ah), and also the revered and learned personalities like Qushairī and Ibn Khalladūn have confirmed this view13.
Both the terms, ‘Irfān and Taṣawwuf, are applied on all the three social, theoretical and practical aspects of Mysticism. The term Taṣawwuf is generally used in the books of history. Sometimes, these two terms are used in particular and more specific meanings. The word ‘Irfān is sometimes used for knowledge of God and sometimes for special kind of knowledge, gained through intuitive method of musticism14. In some cases, the word Taṣawwuf is used to denote social aspect only and sometimes to denote practical and ethical aspects of mysticism. In general usage, the word Taṣawwuf is used for the practices and socio-spiritual behavior, and ‘Irfān is used for theoretical knowledge and system of spiritual methods of living and behavior.
In the coming discussion, we will use these two terms as synonyms and as applied to institutional, social, practical and theoretical aspects of mysticism. However, while referring to Theosophy and theoretical gnosis, we will use the word ‘Irfān.

Subject of ‘Irfān:
Mystics confine to apply Existence and Real Being only to the Creator and sustainer the world God the Almighty. Therefore, they consider theoretical ‘Irfān confined to discussion of God, His attributes and his Sway Qaiṣarī considers the divine person and his internal attributes, as the main subject of ‘Irfān. Some mystics emphasized that God is not the subject of ‘Irfān, rather it is the relation of God with the universe, that is the main subject16.
From the viewpoint of the subject distinction between mysticism and Philosophy is this that the subject matter of Philosophy is discussion about the being, irrespective of the necessity of contingent being: however, in mysticism, the subject pertains only to discussion about the being of God, because according to them, there is no other being, really existing and the contingent beings are only manifestation of the Divine Being, God, the Almighty.

Issues in ‘Irfān:
In theoretical ‘Irfān, the nature of emanation of multiplicity, the One Being, and the manifestations of His names and attributes i.e., of God are discussed. Other issues of practical ‘Irfān include the nature of spiritual exercises and meditations, the ‘states’ and ‘stations’ on the path of spiritual journey unto God, and also the results of these spiritual exercises17.
Thus, the issues of ‘Irfān, like Philosophy carry their descriptive nature; and, the issues of practical ‘Irfān like ethics, have their normative nature. Practical Irfān also has its descriptive aspects like the description of ‘states’ of soul and the realities that are seen by a Ārif.

Fundamentals of ‘Irfān:
Fundamentals of ‘Irfān include its definition, its benefits and concepts and also those principles on which science of mysticism is based18. In fact, the issues of mysticism are based on fundamentals and intuitive knowledge that is gained by a mystic through the way of inspiration and intuition; though, it is described in rational terms. The basic difference between ‘Irfān and Philosophy is that a philosopher does not know the results of his researches before hand. It is through the rational method that he reaches to philosophical conclusions. However an Ārif (theosophist) is after rational affirmation and interpretation of the knowledge that he has already gained through meditation and inspiration. As he goes ahead reaches and of the states, and ‘stations’ he is in a never ending spiritual journey.

The Goal of ‘Irfān:
‘Urafa do not presume intellectual and rational interpretation of being. Their main goal is attaining truth and reaching God; gaining intuitive insight into the reality of being and extension in it. However, apart from this ultimate goal, the ‘Urafa also presume the medium. Sometimes, these are referred as the goal of ‘Irfān.
‘Irfān is just like the knowledge of soul, purification of character, reaching to the ‘state’ of inner peace and abstraction of soul, etc.

Method of ‘Irfān:
‘Urafa avail of an inner and Esoteric Method, which consists of two aspects (i) positive, and (ii) negative. In the negative section which refers to abstaining from certain things, ‘Urafa emphasize physical exercises and abstaining from carnal desires. The positive section consists of strengthening the power of soul, self-training and remembering names of God and reminding the heart about the spiritual knowledge.
Thus, ‘Irfān does not rely on rational arguments in discovering the reality. ‘Urafa consider rational arguments as weak. They pursue the goal of inner insight of the reality and rely on. One reaches to this stage through different spiritual exercises, and the strengthening ‘self’. In this way the heart of an Ārif may prepare for inner insight of the ultimate reality.

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