A Journey with Muslim Mystics

Article by

The following is an excerpt from a longer paper by Omid Safi for Colgate University.

There is a strong tendency among many scholars of Islam, and other observers and scholars, to treat the legacy of Islamic thought through the trite lens of a “Golden Age”, followed by the inevitable “decline.” This favoring of “Classical” Islam usually translates into a favoring of Muslims who lived from 632-1258, lived in what today we would call the Middle East, and wrote primarily in Arabic. While my focus in this essay will be the notions of love, human and Divine, as espoused in the earliest and most foundational sources, let us begin with a 20th century Muslim mystic expressing these same ideas. He was in many ways a typical figure of 20th century globalism: a young Indian man who was sent to Europe, performed classical Hindustani concerts, and then brought his message of universal mysticism to the United States. His languages were Gujarati and English, not Arabic. Here is one of his most well known poems on the theme of love:

I have loved in life
and I have been loved.
I have drunk the bowl of poison
from the hands of love as nectar,
and have been raised above life’s joy and sorrow.

My heart, aflame in love,
set afire every heart that came in touch with it.
My heart has been rent
and joined again;
My heart has been broken
and again made whole;
My heart has been wounded
and healed again;
A thousand deaths my heart has died,
and thanks be to love,
it lives yet.

I went through hell and saw there love’s raging fire,
and I entered heaven illumined with the light of love.
I wept in love
and made all weep with me;
I mourned in love
and pierced the hearts of men;
And when my fiery glance fell on the rocks,
the rocks burst forth as volcanoes.
The whole world sank in the flood
caused by my one tear;
With my deep sigh the earth trembled,
and when I cried aloud the name of my beloved,
I shook the throne of God in heaven.

I bowed my head low in humility,
and on my knees I begged of love,
“Disclose to me, I pray thee, O love, thy secret.”
She took me gently by my arms and lifted me above the earth,
and spoke softly in my ear,
“My dear one,
thou thyself art love, art lover, and thyself art the beloved
whom thou hast adored.”

(Hazrat Inayat Khan)

Hazrat Inayat Khan’s heartfelt poem in many ways stands in a thousand-year-old line of what has been referred to as the madhhab-i ‘ishq , or “Path of Love” in Islam. What holds this thousand-year old “path” together is neither creedal statements nor particular initiatory rituals, but rather an aesthetic, a “mood”, a rasa : the intuitive experience of love, which must be tasted personally. This is what the Sufis of this path referred to as the “taste” ( dhauq ) of love:

Of love one can only speak with lovers. Only a lover knows the true value of love. One who has not experienced it considers it all a legend. For such a person, even the claim of love, even the name of love, are forbidden!

In offering a genealogy of the madhhab-i ‘ishq , it is also important to point out that there were important pre-Islamic and early Islamic strands of love discourse (such as the ‘udhri love tradition) that would be soon woven into this path. Still, my focus in this essay will be on the Islamic articulations of the Path of Love.

There is another tendency that I would like to avoid in this presentation. In order to fully situate Islamic mysticism ( tasawwuf ) as an unmistakably Islamic discourse, the early Sufis present Sufism as largely emerging out of the Qur’an and the statements of the Prophet Muhammad ( ahadith , sing. hadith ). This approach has also been followed by many contemporary scholars of Islam and Sufism. It is, surely, a well-respected practice. There is no doubt great merit in going through the passages of the Qur’an, identifying all the many verses that talk about the great intimacy between humanity and the Divine: one could point to the very identification of the Divine as both Rahman and rahim , often translated as “compassionate, merciful”, or perhaps even more accurately, “Infinite Tenderness, Eternal Kindness.” One could point to the passages that talk about God as being closer to the believers than their own selves, as well as the ones that emphasize the quality of God’s being overflowing in love towards those who have faith.

One could easily take that time-honored approach, yet in this essay I would like to proceed in a slightly different fashion. Rather than starting with the jewels of the Qur’an and the highlights of the Prophetic tradition before moving on to the statements of the Sufis, I would like to propose that we undertake a more historical study of the Sufis themselves. In my examination of particular Sufis and their teachings, I will of course bring up the key Qur’anic passages and ahadith that they bring up. My reason for this is to acknowledge that there is no direct teleology between the Qur’an and Love-Sufism. These verses can and have been interpreted in a thousand and one ways, and indeed many earlier Sufis (9th, 10th century ones) do not make the frequently cited verses of the Qur’an the cornerstone of their teachings. In other words, I am not arguing here that the Qur’an “really” focuses on these love teachings to the exclusion of other interpretations, as that would be a partial and even polemical view that denigrates other interpretations of the Qur’an. Rather, I wish to come to the foundational sources as interpreted by the later sources. It is not a difficult task to identify passages in the Qur’an that lend themselves to “love readings”, but I urge us to consider that it is imperative to identify interpretive communities that have identified the same verses before us. In other words, whether the question to which we are tending is Divine love or jihad or gender constructions, it is important to avoid what some have called a naïve protestant reading of the Qur’an, and focus as well on the interaction of particular interpretive communities with the Sacred text throughout history. That, it seems to me, is perhaps a grander but much more sincere project from the perspective of both a scholar and an admirer of the richness of meanings contained in the Qur’an.

What is the path of Love? Towards a typology of Path of Love:

My concern in this essay is with that loosely affiliated interpretive community that identifies itself as walking on the “path of Love”. This hermeneutic community appeared fully in the early 12th century, and continues down to today. If we accept Ibn ‘Arabi’s (d. 1240) premise that the human heart is by nature synthetic and dynamic rather than discursive, there is surely a problem with offering a static “list” of traits to identify the Sufis of the Path of Love. It is important to point out that any such list is merely suggestive, and not exclusionary. Furthermore, many “Path of Love” Sufis meet some but not all of the criteria in the “typology” offered below. Still, it might help us in getting a better sense of how these loosely affiliated Sufis differed from other Sufis, many of whom were also likely to give a high place of prominence to love in their teachings.

As simple as it might seem, there are a large number of Sufis who have chosen to identify themselves as following the madhhab-i ‘ishq . In doing so, they have privileged passionate love ( ‘ishq ) as the foremost means of approaching God. These Sufis elaborated upon the conventional dichotomies posed by earlier Sufis between ‘ishq-i haqiqi (“Real” Love, that directed to God) and ‘ishq-i majazi (“metaphorical” love, that directed toward other creatures,), and at times distanced themselves from it. Their conception of love was a more fluid and even mysterious one, and they sought to explore the various nuances of the manifestations of love. In their explorations of love, they utilized well-known imagery which had been first developed in the context of human love, such as themes of the Cruel Beloved and affliction in love, to talk about the Divine.

In speaking of the Divine (and humanity), these Sufis demonstrated a particular fascination, even obsession, with beauty ( jamal ) as the paramount manifestation of the Beloved. This often led them to envisage particular humans as manifestations ( tajalli ) of the Divine, though not in the sense of incarnations, which they dismissed as hulul . They would also see many Divine manifestations in the natural realm: a rose could be a reminder of Divine Glory, the beauty mark on a beloved’s face a reminder of Divine Unity. Perhaps most importantly, they have explored the consequences of God being revealed in phenomenal beings, including of course humanity. The fascination with beauty often led them to intricate examinations of the beloved as a shahid , “witness”, which comes from the same root as shahada , or witnessing to Divine Unity. The Unity of God and Prophethood of Muhammad that most Muslims witnessed through repeated La ilaha illa ‘l-lah , these mystics would testify to through an immersion in love’s baffling aesthetics.

Since they sought the Divine inside humanity, these Sufis connected the path of God, from God, to God ( inna lilahi wa inna ilayhi raji’un ) [Qur’an 2:156], and even in God, as something distinct from the conventional journey from here to Hereafter. Its Ultimate aim is found neither in this world, nor even in Paradise. It is not to be found simply through intellection and what the seeker knows and sees: the path of the seeker is inside his/her own self. One must search inside one’s own self; as the Qur’an commands: “Do they not contemplate in their own selves ( fi anfusikum afala tubsirun )?” [Qur’an 51:21] It is above all with this inward path of love that the madhhab-i ‘ishq has been concerned with. The first aim of this path is to point out to the thirsty seeker that he, parched lips and dying of thirst, stands knee deep in a river, even an ocean:

always traversing the world
tell me:
what benefit has come of it?

which you are seeking
is with you;
and you seek

(‘Ayn al-Qozat)

Consistent with seeking the Divine inside their own being, the Sufis of the Path of Love consistently valued spiritual experience over theoretical knowledge. It is important to point out that they did not wish to abolish theoretical knowledge: indeed they themselves have left some of the richest theoretical works in all of Islamic history. Rather, they wished to emphasize that ultimately it is personal experience that will lead one down the path, not theoretical knowledge. As ‘Ayn al-Qozat (d. 1131) said, it is honey in the mouth which is sweet, not the letters h-o-n-e-y.

As a general rule, the madhhab-i ‘ishq developed in the Persian and Persianate regions. Its teachings were easily passed on to the emerging Urdu and Turkish literary traditions. Perhaps as much as anything else, it seems to be the non-gender basis of these Persianate languages which allows for deliberately delicious ambiguities where a love poem can be taken as referring to a poet’s spouse, spiritual teacher, Prophet Muhammad, or God — and often times simultaneously to all of them!

Many writers of the madhhab-i ‘ishq favored the use of poetry and music as a means of spiritual exercise. These meticulous performances provided the contexts for some of the first concerts of spiritual music, to achieve ecstasy, or what is referred to as sama’ sessions, in these societies.

Many, though not all, of these Sufis favored using paradoxical statements to encourage the listeners to attain to a self-critical level of their own presupposed categories. At times these statements assumed the genre of shathiyat , or ecstatic utterances. [9] It is perhaps important to recall that not all of their utterances are to be read in a straightforward theological, legal, or philosophical fashion, all separate discourses in Islamic thought. The playfulness of such mystics vis-à-vis the blessed yet cursed medium of language should never be forgotten.

Perhaps a surprising aspect of madhhab-i ‘ishq has been the willingness of these Sufis to recognize ways in which many people’s adherence to Islam has become more rote than personal realization. Therefore, they have developed sophisticated ways in which they call for people to give up their “metaphorical Islam”, and transcend to a higher level of God-realization. There is no question here of abandoning religiosity altogether or of advocating a “spirituality” disconnected from particular religious traditions, notions that would have been anachronistic to any pre-modern Sufi. Rather, they would invert symbols which in popular Muslim imagination represented “inferior” forms of belief ranging from infidelity and idol-worship to Magian sages, wine drinking, and even Christianity to represent this type of God-actualization that has transcended the norms and the public acknowledgment of these norms. Naturally the Sufis would not become idol-worshippers and Christians any more than they became wine-drinkers. Perhaps the most deliberately shocking of the “inversions” of symbols were occasions when some Sufis on the Path of Love depicted Iblis (Satan) as the perfect lover of God, and “True Infidelity” as superior to “metaphorical Islam.” As it might be expected, these hermeneutical exercises earned them the wrath of many religious scholars, and even some Sufis.

In a related move, they often moved to de-exceptionalize Islam in their treatment of other religious traditions: one of them, ‘Ayn al-Qozat, freely acknowledged that just as all religious traditions become “worn out”, Islam too was becoming worn out in his own day] They often saw this message of God-realization primarily through love of humanity and Divine as the means of reviving and rejuvenating all religious traditions. A concurrent aspect of this teaching was their emphasis on the possibility of many spiritual paths to lead one to salvation and enlightenment. This universality earned them the affection of many different followers, even as it raised the ire of stricter theologians.

To the Sufis of madhhab-i ‘ishq , if any path brings humanity to the Divine, then that path is Islam, “Submission.” Likewise, a path that does not bring enlightenment ( agahi ) is worse than infidelity in the sight of God. The seeker is concerned with the One who instituted the path, not the path itself.

I will incinerate this creed and religion, and burn it.
Then I will put your love in its place.
How long must I hide
this love in my heart?
What the traveler seeks
is not the religion
and not the creed:
Only You.

Another tendency occasionally displayed in the Sufis of madhhab-i ishq has been their transcending of conventional master-disciple hierarchy. Close examinations of the relations between ‘Ayn al-Qozat and Ahmad Ghazali on one hand, and Rumi (d. 1273) and Shams (among the two most well known pairs of Sufi masters in history of Islam) on the other reveals the extent to which each mystic became a mirror in which the other contemplated himself.

Concurrent with transcending conventional master-disciple hierarchies, these Sufis often thought that the first step on this path of love was the abandoning of conventions and habits, tark-i ‘adat . They hold that the majority of people approach the Divine through the path of their ancestors, not one that they have realized for themselves. In a real sense, this critique is not a new one, but a reiteration of the Qur’anic message:

When they are told to follow the (Revelation) that God has sent down, they say: “Nay, we shall follow the ways that we found our fathers (following). [Qur’an 31:21]

The majority of the occasions where the Qur’an refers to following the ways “of our fathers”, it is to emphasize the dichotomy between recognizing the truth that is before one to the conventional ways of error that one’s forefathers have always followed. To underscore this point, Ahmad Ghazali quotes a Prophetic hadith in one of his sermons: bu’ithtu li-rafzi ‘l- ‘adat ; “I was sent to remove customs.” [14] ‘Ayn al-Qozat even connected the reading of the Qur’an to this transcending of norms:

O chivalrous youth…If you want to see the beauty of the Qur’an, abandon the worship of habits ( ‘adat-parasti ). Forget everything you have heard!

Theirs was not a call towards “spiritual anarchy.” One can only transcend what one has mastered, and these Sufis were already masters of the normative religious sciences (law, theology, etc.). There is no indication that they intended to abandon their religious affiliations. Such an assertion is in fact a common misreading of these teachings in our own age. The dynamic Sufi tradition has never abandoned wholesale what has come before, but rather selected those elements that seem to address the contemporary situation, and re-articulated them in a fresh way. It is a sign of this “conservative” yet dynamic nature of Sufi teachings that many statements of the madhhab-i ‘ishq — to abandon conventions and norms, to give up “metaphorical Islam” and enter into “Real infidelity”, to adorn oneself with the Christian zunnar, etc. — all became tropes in due time! The aim of those on the “Path of Love” was to invest their religious tradition with a spirit of focusing on the Ultimate, and not the means towards the Ultimate.

Time and time again the Sufis of the “Path of Love” begged their disciples, readers and spiritual communities to transcend the conventions and norms in which they were steeped, to obtain a personal realization of God:

The people of the world have contented themselves with worship of habits ( ‘adat-parasti ). How far are they from this tale? …The others have so many veils before them that prevent them from comprehending: blind immitationism ( taqlid ), bigoted partisanship ( ta’assub ), haughtiness ( kibr ), conceit, and pride.

The Path of Love Sufis remind us that those who have fanatically attached themselves to their own experiences, their own communities, and their own fixed and limited articulations of The Truth have limited God to their own intellectual conceptions. Hafez’s aching rejoinder echoes this:

Excuse all the seventy-two sects at war.
They did not see the truth,
and took the road of fable.

In a poignant poem, full of the compassion of a living sage who has insight into the lives of those around him, Rumi cries out to the pilgrims setting out for Mecca:

O you who have left for Hajj,
where are you?
where are you?
The beloved is here!
Come, come!

The Beloved is your neighbor
what are you doing,
lost in the wilderness?

If you could see the formless face
of the Beloved
you’d know that you are the lord,
the house, and the Ka’ba! [19]

So many times you set out on that road to that house;
Just once…
come to the roof of this house.

Yes, that house [Ka’ba] is subtle,
you’ve told me about it.
But show me something
about the Lord of that house!

If you saw that garden,
where are the flowers?
If you dove in God’s ocean,
where is a single soul-jewel?

Having a fairly fluid typology of the path of love at hand, we will proceed to examine the legacies of the two key terms madhhab and ‘ishq before undertaking a chronological examination of the seminal figures of the Path of Love…

Read the full paper at The Journal of Scriptural Reasoning


#94 One Human Family

Podcast with , , ,

In this episode we present excerpts from the recent conversation (June 2024) as part of SAND’s “Conversations on Palestine” around the premiere of the film Where Olive Trees Weep hosted by the directors of the film and co-founders of SAND, Zaya and

Trauma and Awakening for Highly Sensitive People

Article by

There are still several unanswered questions surrounding the relationship between trauma and Highly Sensitive People

#92 Gaza & the Bodhisattva Path

Podcast with ,

A conversation from the <em>Where Olive Trees Weep</em> premiere on Palestine

The Heart Goes Rogue

Article by

May you find the beauty everywhere and the perfection in the apparent imperfection

Suzuki’s Waterfall: On Separation and Death

Article by

Whether it is separated into drops or not, water is water

Living with a Courageous Heart in Times of Crisis

Video with ,

More than ever, we need the inner reflections and meditations that help us connect with our capacities for clarity, bravery and openheartedness.

#90 Dancing in the Fire

Podcast with , , ,

A panel from <em>Where Olive Trees Weep</em> exploring Muslim Spirituality Illuminating the Path to Freedom

#89 Arab Jewish Mysticism

Podcast with

Deep connections in Arab Judaism, mysticismm science and activism

Support SAND with a Donation

Science and Nonduality is a nonprofit organization. Your donation goes towards the development of our vision and the growth of our community.
Thank you for your support!