Al-Ma’mun and the triumph of the Mu‘tazilites; the Mihna and Ahmad ibn Hanbal; al-Farabi; the Fatimids and the Ikhwan as-Safa; the early mystics, ascetic and pantheistic; al-Hallaj.
SUCH for long was the situation between the Mu‘tazilites and their orthodox opponents. From time to time the Mu‘tazilites received more or less protection and state favor; at other times, they had to seek safety in hiding. Popular favor they seem never to have enjoyed. As the Umayyads grew weak, they became more stiff in their orthodoxy; but with the Abbasids, and especially with al-Mansur, thought was again free. As has been shown above, encouragement of science and research was part of the plan of that great man, and he easily saw that the intellectual hope of the future was with these theological and philosophical questioners. So their work went slowly on, with a break under Harun ar-Rashid a magnificent but highly orthodox monarch, who understood no trifling with things of the faith. It is an interesting but useless question whether Islam could ever have been broadened and developed to the point of enduring in its midst free speculation and research. As the case stands in history, it has known periods of intellectual life, but only under the protection of isolated princes here and there. It has had Augustan ages; it has never had
great popular yearnings after wider knowledge. Its intellectual leaders have lived and studied and lectured at courts; they have not gone down and taught the masses of the people. To that the democracy of Islam has never come. Hampered by scholastic snobbishness, it has never learned that the abiding victories of science are won in the village school.
But most unfortunately for the Mu‘tazilites and for Islam, a Khalifa arose who had a relish for theological discussions and a high opinion of his own infallibility. This was al-Ma’mun. It did not matter that he ranged himself on the progressive side; his fatal error was that he invoked the authority of the state in matters of the intellectual and religious life. Thus, by enabling the conservative party to pose as martyrs, he brought the prejudices and passions of the populace still more against the new movement. He was that most dangerous of all beings, a doctrinaire despot. He had ideas and tried to make other people live up to them. Al-Mansur, though a bloody tyrant, had been a great statesman and had known how to bend people and things quietly to his will. He had sketched the firm outlines of a policy for the Abbasids, but had been cautious how he proclaimed his programme to the world. The world would come to him in time, and he could afford to wait and work in the dark. He knew, above all, that no people would submit to be school-mastered into the way in which they should go. Al-Ma’mun, for all his genius, was at heart a school-master. He was an enlightened patron of an enlightened Islam. Those who preferred to dwell in the darkness of the obscurant;
he first scolded and then punished. Discussions in theology and comparative religion were his hobby. That some such interchange of letters between Muslims and Christians as that which crystallized in the Epistle of al-Kindi took place at his court seems certain. Bishr al-Marisi, who had lived in hiding in ar-Rashid's time on account of his heretical views, disputed, in 209, before al-Ma’mun on the nature of the Qur’an. He founded at Baghdad an academy with library, laboratories, and observatory. All the weight of his influence was thrown on the side of the Mu‘tazilites. It appeared as though he were determined to pull his people up by force from their superstition and ignorance.
At last, he took the final and fatal step. In 202 a decree appeared proclaiming the doctrine of the creation of the Qur’an as the only truth, and as binding upon all Muslims. At the same time, as an evident sop to the Persian nationalists and the Alids, Ali was proclaimed the best of creatures after Muhammad. The Alids, it should be remembered, had close points of contact with the Mu‘tazilites. Such a theological decree as this was a new thing in Islam; never before had the individual consciousness been threatened by a word from the throne. The Mu‘tazilites through it practically became a state church under erastian control. But the system of Islam never granted to the Imam, or leader of the Muslim people, any position but that of a protector and representative. Its theology could only be formed, as we have seen in the case of its law, by the agreement of the whole community. The question then
naturally was what effect such a new thing as this decree could have except to exasperate the orthodox and the masses. Practically, there was no other effect. Things went on as before. All that it meant was that one very prominent Muslim had stated his opinion and thrown in his lot with heretics.
For six years this continued, and then a method was devised of bringing the will of the Khalifa home upon the people. In 217 a distinguished Mu‘tazilite, Ahmad ibn Abi Duwad, was appointed chief qadi, and in 218 the decree was renewed. But this time it was accompanied by what we would call a test-act, and an inquisition (mihna) was instituted. The letter of directions for the conduct of this matter, written by al-Ma’mun to his lieutenant at Baghdad, is decisive as to the character of the man and the nature of the movement. It is full of railings against the common people who know not the law and are accursed. They are too stupid to understand philosophy or argument. It is the duty of the Khalifa to guide them and especially to show them the distinction between God and His book. He who holds otherwise than the Khalifa is either too blind or too lying and deceitful to be trusted in any other thing. Therefore, the qadis must be tested as to their views. If they hold that the Qur’an is uncreated, they have abandoned tawhid, the doctrine of God's Unity, and can no longer hold office in a Muslim land. Also, the qadis must apply the same test to all the witnesses in cases before them. If these do not hold that the Qur’an is created, they cannot be legal witnesses. Other letters followed; the Mihna
was extended through the Abbasid empire and applied to other doctrines, e.g., that of free-will and of the vision of God. The Khalifa also commanded that the death penalty for unbelief (kufr) should be inflicted on those who refused to take the test. They were to be regarded as idolaters and polytheists. The death of al-Ma’mun in the same year relieved the pressure. It is true that the Mihna was continued by his successor, al-Mu‘tasim, and by his successor, al-Wathiq, but without energy; it was more a handy political weapon than anything else. In 234, the second year of al-Mutawakhil, it was abolished and the Qur’an decreed untreated. At the same time the Alids and all Persian nationalism came under a ban. Practically, the status quo ante was restored and Mu‘tazilism was again left a struggling heresy. The Arab party and the pure faith of Muhammad had re-asserted themselves.
In this long conflict, the most prominent figure was certainly that of Ahmad ibn Hanbal. He was the trust and strength of the orthodox; that he stood fast through imprisonment and scourging defeated the plans of the Mu‘tazilites. In dealing with the development of law, we have seen what his legal position was. The same held in theology. Scholastic theology (kalam) was his abomination. Those who disputed over doctrines he cast out. That their dogmatic position was the same as his made no difference. For him, theological truth could not be reached by reasoning (aql); tradition (naql) from the fathers (as-salaf) was the only ground on which the dubious words of the Qur’an could be explained. So, in his
long examinations before the officials of al-Ma’mun and al-Mu‘tasim, he contented himself with repeating either the words of the Qur’an which for him were proofs or such traditions as he accepted. Any approach to drawing a consequence he utterly rejected. When they argued before him, he kept silence.
What, then, we may ask, was the net result of this incident? for it was nothing more. The Mu‘tazilites dropped back into their former position, but under changed conditions. The sympathy of the populace was further from them than ever. Ahmad ibn Hanbal, saint and ascetic, was the idol of the masses; and he, in their eyes, had maintained single-handed the honor of the Word of God. For his persecutors there was nothing but hatred. And after he had passed away, the conflict was taken up with still fiercer bitterness by the school of law founded by his pupils. They continued to maintain his principles of Qur’an and tradition long after the Mu‘tazilites themselves had practically vanished from the scene, and all that was left for them to contend against was the modified system of scholastic theology which is now the orthodox theology of Islam. With these reactionary Hanbalites we shall have to deal later.
The Mu‘tazilites, on their side, having seen the shipwreck of their hopes and the growing storm of popular disfavor, seem to have turned again to their scholastic studies. They became more and more theologians affecting a narrower circle, and less and less educators of the world at large. Their system became more metaphysical and their conclusions more unintelligible to the plain man. The fate which has
fallen on all continued efforts of the Muslim mind was coming upon them. Beggarly speculations and barren hypotheses, combats of words over names, sapped them of life and reality. What the ill-fated friendship of al-Ma’mun had begun was carried on and out by the closed circle of Muslim thought. They separated into schools, one at al-Basra and another at Baghdad. At Baghdad the point especially developed was the old question, What is a thing (shay)? They defined a thing, practically, as a concept that could be known and of which something could be said. Existence (wujud) did not matter. It was only a quality which could be there or not. With it, the thing was an entity (mawjud); without it, a non-entity (ma‘dum), but still a thing with all equipment of substance (jawhar) and accident (arad), genus and species. The bearing of this was especially upon the doctrine of creation. Practically, by God's adding a single quality, things entered the sphere of existence and were for us. Here, then, is evidently an approach to a doctrine of pre-existent matter. At al-Basra the relation of God to His qualities was especially discussed, and there it came to be pretty nearly a family dispute between al-Jubba‘i (d. 303) and his son Abu Hashim. Orthodox Islam held that God has qualities, existent, eternal, added to His essence; thus, He knows, for example, by such a quality of knowledge. The students of Greek philosophy and the Shi‘ites denied this and said that God knew by His essence. We have seen already Mu‘tazilite views as to this point. Abu Hudhayl held that these qualities were God's essence and not in it. Thus, He knew
by a quality of knowledge, but that quality was His essence. Al-Jubba‘i contented himself with safe-guarding this statement. God knew in accordance with His essence, but it was neither a quality nor a state (hal) which required that He should be a knower. The orthodox had said the first; his son, Abu Hashim, said the second. He held that we know an essence and know it under different conditions. The conditions varied but the essence remained. These conditions are not thinkable by themselves, for we know them only in connection with the essence. These are states; they are different from the essence, but do not exist apart from it. Al-Jubba‘i opposed to this a doctrine that these states were really subjective in the mind of the perceiver, either generalizations or relationships existing mentally but not externally. This controversy spun itself out at great length through centuries. It eventually resolved itself into the fundamental metaphysical inquiry, What is a thing? A powerful school came to a conclusion that would have delighted the soul of Mr. Herbert Spencer. Things are four, they said, entities, non-entities, states and relationships. As we have seen above, al-Jubba‘i denied the reality of both states and relationships. Orthodox Islam has been of a divided opinion.
But all this time, other movements had been in progress, some of which were to be of larger future importance than this fossilizing intellectualism. In 255 al-Jahiz died. Though commonly reckoned a Mu‘tazilite he was really a man of letters, free in life and thought. He was a maker of books, learned
in the writings of the philosophers and rather inclined to the doctrines of the Tabi‘iyun, deistic naturalists. His confession of faith was of the utmost simplicity. He taught that whoever held that God had neither body nor form, could not be seen with the eyes, was just and willed no evil deeds, such was a Muslim in truth. And, further, if anyone was not capable of philosophical reflection, but held that Allah was his Lord and that Muhammad was the Apostle of Allah, he was blameless and nothing more should be required of him. Here we have evidently in part a reaction from the subtilties of controversy, and in part an attempt to broaden theology enough to give even the unsettled a chance to remain in the Muslim Church. Something of the same kind we shall find, later, in the case of Ibn Rushd. Finally, we have probably to see in his remark that the Qur’an was a body, turned at one time into a man and at another into a beast, a satirical comment on the great controversy of his time.
Al-Jahiz may be for us a link with the philosophers proper, the students of the wisdom of the Greeks. He represents the standpoint of the educated man of the time, and was no specialist in anything but a general scepticism. In the first generation of the philosophers of Islam, in the narrower sense, stands conspicuously al-Kindi, commonly called the Philosopher of the Arabs. The name belongs to him of right, for he is almost the only example of a student of Aristotle, sprung from the blood of the desert. But he was hardly a philosopher in any independent sense. His rôle was translating, and during the
reigns of al-Ma’mun and al-Mu‘tasim a multitude of translations and original works de omni scibili came from his hands; the names of 265 of these have come down to us. In the orthodox reaction under al-Mutawakhil he fared ill; his library was confiscated but afterward restored. He died about 260, and with him dies the brief, golden century of eager acquisition, and the scholastic period enters in philosophy as in theology.
That the glory was departing from Baghdad and the Khalifate is shown by the second important name in philosophy. It is that of al-Farabi, who was born at Farab in Turkestan, lived and worked in the brilliant circle which gathered round Sayf ad-Dawla, the Hamdanid, at his court at Aleppo. In music, in science, in philology, and in philosophy, he was alike master. Aristotle was his passion, and his Arabic contemporaries and successors united in calling him the second teacher, on account of his success in un-knotting the tangles of the Greek system. It was in truth a tangled system which came to him, and a tangled system which he left. The Muslim philosophers began, in their innocence, with the following positions: The Qur’an is truth and philosophy is truth; but truth can only be one; therefore, the Qur’an and philosophy must agree. Philosophy they accepted in whole-hearted faith, as it came to them from the Greeks through Egypt and Syria. They took it, not as a mass of more or less contradictory speculation, but as a form of truth. They, in fact, never lost a certain theological attitude. Under such conditions, then, Plato came to them; but it was
mostly Plato as interpreted by Porphyrius, that is, as neo-Platonism. Aristotle, too, came to them in the guise of the later Peripatetic schools. But in Aristotle, especially, there entered a perfect knot of entanglement and confusion. During the reign of al-Mu‘tasim, a Christian of Emessa in the Lebanon--the history in details is obscure--translated parts of the "Enneads" of Plotinus into Arabic and entitled his work "The Theology of Aristotle." A more unlucky bit of literary mischief and one more far-reaching in its consequences has never been. The Muslims took it all as solemnly as they took the text of the Qur’an. These two great masters, Plato and Aristotle, they said, had expounded the truth, which is one. Therefore, there must be some way of bringing them into agreement. So generations of toilers labored valiantly with the welter of translations and pseudographs to get out of them and into them the one truth. The more pious added the third element of the Qur’an, and it must remain a marvel and a magnificent testimonial to their skill and patience that they got even so far as they did and that the whole movement did not end in simple lunacy. That al-Farabi should have been so incisive a writer, so wide a thinker and student; that Ibn Sina should have been so keen and clear a scientist and logician; that Ibn Rushd should have known--really known--and commented his Aristotle as he did, shows that the human brain, after all, is a sane brain and has the power of unconsciously rejecting and throwing out nonsense and falsehood.
But it is not wonderful that, dealing with such materials
and contradictions, they developed a tendency to mysticism. There were many things which they felt compelled to hold which could only be defended and rationalized in that cloudy air and slanting light. Especially, no one but a mystic could bring together the emanations of Plotinus, the ideas of Plato, the spheres of Aristotle and the seven-storied heaven of Muhammad. With this matter of mysticism we shall have to deal immediately. Of al-Farabi it is enough to say that he was one of the most patient of the laborers at that impossible problem. It seems never to have occurred to him, or to any of the others, that the first and great imperative was to verify his references and sources. The oriental, like the mediæval scholastic, tests minutely the form of his syllogism, but takes little thought whether his premises state facts or not. With a scrupulous scepticism in deduction, he combines a childlike acceptance on tradition or on the narrowest of inductions.
But there are other and more ominous signs in al-Farabi of the scholastic decline. There appears first in him that tendency toward the writing of encyclopædic compends, which always means superficiality and the commonplace. Al-Farabi himself could not be accused of either, but that he thus claimed all knowledge for his portion showed the risk of the premature circle and the small gain. Another is mysticism. He is a neo-Platonist, more exactly a Plotinian; although he himself would not have recognized this title. He held, as we have seen, that he was simply retelling the doctrines of Plato and Aristotle. But he was also a devout Muslim. He
seems to have taken in earnest all the bizarre details of Muslim cosmography and eschatology; the Pen, the Tablet, the Throne, the Angels in all their ranks and functions mingle picturesquely with the system of Plotinus, his ἕν, his ψυχή, his νοῦς, his receptive and active intellects. But to make tenable this position he had to take the great leap of the mystic. Unto us these things are impossible; with God, i.e., on another plane of existence, they are the simplest realities. If the veil were taken from our eyes we would see them. This has always been the refuge of the devout Muslim who has tampered with science. We shall look for it more in detail when we come to al-Ghazzali, who has put it into classical form.
Again, he was, in modern terms, a monarchist and a clericalist. His conception of the model state is a strange compound of the republic of Plato and Shi‘ite dreams of an infallible Imam. Its roots lie, of course, in the theocratic idea of the Muslim state; but his city, which is to take in all mankind, a Holy Roman Empire and a Holy Catholic Church at once, a community of saints ruled by sages, shows a later influence than that of the mother city of Islam, al-Madina, under Abu Bakr and Umar. The influence is that of the Fatimids with their capital, al-Mahdiya, near Tunis. The Hamdanids were Shi‘ites and Sayf ad-Dawla, under whom al-Farabi enjoyed peace and protection, was a vassal of the Fatimid Khalifas.
This brings us again to the great mystery of Muslim history. What was the truth of the Fatimid movement? Was the family of the Prophet the fosterer of science from the earliest times? What
degree of contact had they with the Mu‘tazilites? With the founders of grammar, of alchemy, of law? That they were themselves the actual beginners of everything--and everything has been claimed for them--we may put down to legend. But one thing does stand fast. Just as al-Ma’mun combined the establishment of a great university at Baghdad with a favoring of the Alids, so the Fatimids in Cairo erected a great hall of science and threw all their influence and authority into the spreading and extending of knowledge. This institution seems to have been a combination of free public library and university, and was probably the gateway connecting between the inner circle of initiated Fatimid leaders and the outside, uninitiated world. We have already seen how unhappy were the external effects of the Shi‘ite, and especially of the Fatimid, propaganda on the Muslim world. But from time to time we become aware of a deep undercurrent of scientific and philosophical labor and investigation accompanying that propaganda, and striving after knowledge and truth. It belongs to the life below the surface, which we can know only through its occasional outbursts. Some of these are given above; others will follow. The whole matter is obscure to the last degree, and dogmatic statements and explanations are not in place. It may be that it was only a natural drawing together on the part of all the different forces and movements that were under a ban and had to live in secrecy and stillness. It may be that the students of the new sciences passed over, simply through their studies and political despair--as has
often happened in our clay--into different degrees of nihilism, or, at the other extreme, into a passionate searching for, and dependence on, some absolute guide, an infallible Imam. It may be that we have read wrongly the whole history of the Fatimid movement; that it was in reality a deeply laid and slowly ripened plan to bring the rule of the world into the control of a band of philosophers, whose task it was to be to rule the human race and gradually to educate it into self-rule; that they saw--these unknown devotees of science and truth--no other way of breaking down the barriers of Islam and setting free the spirits of men. A wild hypothesis! But in face of the real mystery no hypothesis can seem wild.
Closely allied with both al-Farabi and the Fatimids is the association known as the Sincere Brethren (Ikhwan as-safa). It existed at al-Basra in the middle of the fourth century of the Hijra during the breathing space which the free intellectual life enjoyed after the capture of Baghdad by the Buwayhids in 334. It will be remembered how that Persian dynasty was Shi‘ite by creed and how it, for the time, completely clipped the claws of the orthodox and Sunnite Abbasid Khalifas. The only thing, thereafter, which heretics and philosophers had to fear was the enmity of the populace, but that seems to have been great enough. The Hanbalite mob of Baghdad had grown to be a thing of terror. It was, then, an educational campaign on which this new philosophy had to enter. Their programme was by means of clubs, propagating themselves and spreading over the country from al-Basra and Baghdad, to
reach all educated people and introduce among them gradually a complete change in their religious and scientific ideas. Their teaching was the same combination of neo-Platonic speculation and mysticism with Aristotelian natural science, wrapped in Mu‘tazilite theology, that we have already known. Only there was added to it a Pythagorean reverence for numbers, and everything, besides, was treated in an eminently superficial and popularized manner. Our knowledge of the Fraternity and its objects is based on its publication, "The Epistles of the Sincere Brethren" (Rasa’il ikhwan as-safa) and upon scanty historical notices. The Epistles are fifty or fifty-one in number and cover the field of human knowledge as then conceived. They form, in fact, an Arabic Encyclopédie. The founders of the Fraternity, and authors, presumably, of the Epistles, were at most ten. We have no certain knowledge that the Fraternity ever took even its first step and spread to Baghdad. Beyond that almost certainly the development did not pass. The division of members into four--learners, teachers, guides, and drawers near to God in supernatural vision--and the plan of regular meetings of each circle for study and mutual edification remained in its paper form. The society was half a secret one and lacked, apparently, vitality and energy. There was among its founders no man of weight and character. So it passed away and has left only these Epistles which have come down to us in numerous MSS., showing how eagerly they have been read and copied and how much influence they at least must have exercised. That influence must
have been very mixed. It was, it is true, for intellectual life, yet it carried with it in a still higher degree the defects we have already noticed in al-Farabi. To them must be added the most simple skimming of all real philosophical problems and a treatment of nature and natural science which had lost all connection with facts.
It has been suggested, and the suggestion seems luminous and fertile, that this Fraternity was simply a part of the great Fatimid propaganda which, as we know, honey-combed the ground everywhere under the Sunnite Abbasids. Descriptions which have reached us of the methods followed by the leaders of the Fraternity agree exactly with those of the missionaries of the Isma‘ilians. They raised difficulties and suggested serious questionings; hinted at possible answers but did not give them; referred to a source where all questions would be answered. Again, their catch-words and fixed phrases are the same as those afterward used by the Assassins, and we have traces of these Epistles forming a part of the sacred library of the Assassins. It is to be remembered that the Assassins were not simply robber bands who struck terror by their methods. Both the western and the eastern branches were devoted to science, and it may be that in their mountain fortresses there was the most absolute devotion to true learning that then existed. When the Mongols captured Alamut, they found it rich in MSS. and in instruments and apparatus of every kind. It is then possible that the elevated eclecticism of the Ikhwan as-safa was the real doctrine of the Fatimids, the
[paragraph continues] Assassins, the Qarmatians and the Druses; certainly, wherever we can test them there is the most singular agreement. It is a mechanical and æsthetic pantheism, a glorification of Pythagoreanism, with its music and numbers; idealistic to the last degree; a worship and pursuit of a conception of a harmony and beauty in all the universe, to find which is to find and know the Creator Himself. It is thus far removed from materialism and atheism, but could easily be misrepresented as both. This, it is true, is a very different explanation from the one given in our first Part; it can only be put alongside of that and left there. The one expresses the practical effect of the Isma‘ilians in Islam; the other what may have been their ideal. However we judge them, we must always remember that somewhere in their teaching, at its best, there was a strange attraction for thinking and troubled men. Nasir ibn Khusraw, a Persian Faust, found peace at Cairo between 437 and 444 in recognizing the divine Imamship of al-Mustansir, and after a life of persecution died in that faith as a hermit in the mountains of Badakhshan in 481. The great Spanish poet, Ibn Rani, who died in 362, similarly accepted al-Mu‘izz as his spiritual chief and guide.
Another eclectic sect, but on a very different principle, was that of the Karramites, founded by Abu Abd Allah ibn Karram, who died in 256. Its teachings had the honor to be accepted and protected by no less a man than the celebrated Mahmud of Ghazna (388-421), Mahmud the Idol-breaker, the first invader of India and the patron of al-Beruni, Firdawsi,
[paragraph continues] Ibn Sina and many another. But that, to which we will return, belongs to a later date and, probably, to a modified form of Ibn Karram's teaching. For himself, he was an ascetic of Sijistan and, according to the story, a man of no education. He lost himself in theological subtleties which he seems to have failed to understand. However, out of them all he put together a book which he called "The Punishment of the Grave," which spread widely in Khurasan. It was, in part, a frank recoil to the crassest anthropomorphism. Thus, for him, God actually sat upon the throne, was in a place, had direction and so could move from one point to another. He had a body with flesh, blood, and limbs; He could be embraced by those who were purified to the requisite point. It was a literal acceptance of the material expressions of the Qur’an along with a consideration of how they could be so, and an explanation by comparison with men--all opposed to the principle bila kayfa. So, apparently, we must understand the curious fact that he was also a Murji’ite and held faith to be only acknowledgment with the tongue. All men, except professed apostates, are believers, he said, because of that primal covenant, taken by God with the seed of Adam, when He asked, "Am I not your Lord?" (Alastu bi-rabbikum) and they, brought forth from Adam's loins for the purpose, made answer, "Yea, verily, in this covenant we remain until we formally cast it off." This, of course, involved taking God's qualities in the most literal sense. So, if we are to see in the Mu‘tazilites scholastic commentators trying to reduce Muhammad, the poet, to
logic and sense, we must see in Ibn Karram one of those wooden-minded literalists, for whom a metaphor is a ridiculous lie if it cannot be taken in its external meaning. He was part of the great stream of conservative reaction, in which we find also such a man as Ahmad ibn Hanbal. But the saving salt of Ahmad's sense and reverence kept him by the safe proviso "without considering how and without comparison." All Ahmad's later followers were not so wise. In his doctrine of the state Ibn Karram inclined to the Kharijites.
Before we return to al-Jubba'i and the fate of the Mu‘tazilites, it remains to trace more precisely the thread of mysticism, that kashf, revelation, which we have already mentioned several times. Its fundamental fact is that it had two sides, an ascetic and a speculative, different in degree, in spirit and in result, and yet so closely entangled that the same mystic has been assigned, in good and in bad faith, as an adherent of both.
It is to the form of mysticism which sprang from asceticism that we must first turn. Attention has been given above to the wandering monks and hermits, the sa’ihs (wanderers) and rahibs who caught Muhammad's attention and respect. We have seen, too, how Muslim imitators began in their turn to wander through the land, clad in the coarse woollen robes which gave them the name of Sufis, and living upon the alms of the pious. How early these appeared in any number and as a fixed profession is uncertain, but we find stories in circulation of meetings between such mendicant friars and al-Hasan al-Basri
himself. Women, too, were among them, and it is possible that to their influence a development of devotional love-poetry was due. At least, many verses of this kind are ascribed to a certain Rabi‘a, an ascetic and ecstatic devotee of the most extreme other-worldliness, who died in 135. Many other women had part in the contemplative life. Among them may be mentioned, to show its grasp and spread, A’isha, daughter of Ja‘far as-Sadiq, who died in 145; Fatima of Naysabur, who died in 223, and the Lady Nafisa, a contemporary and rival in learning with ash-Shafi‘i and the marvel of her time in piety and the ascetic life. Her grave is one of the most venerated spots in Cairo, and at it wonders are still worked and prayer is always answered. She was a descendant of al-Hasan, the martyred ex-Khalifa, and an example of how the fated family of the Prophet was an early school for women saints. Even in the Heathenism we have traces of female penitents and hermits, and the tragedy of Ali and his sons and descendants gave scope for the self-sacrifice, loving service and religious enthusiasm with which women are dowered.
All these stood and stand in Islam on exactly the same footing as men. The distinction in Roman Christendom that a woman cannot be a priest there falls away, for in Islam is neither priest nor layman. They lived either as solitaries or in conventual life exactly as did the men. They were called by the same terms in feminine form; they were Sufiyas beside the Sufis; Zahidas (ascetics) beside the Zahids; Waliyas (friends of God) beside the Walis;
[paragraph continues] Abidas (devotees) beside the Abids. They worked wonders (karamat, closely akin to the χαρίσματα of 1 Cor. xii, 9) by the divine grace, and still, as we have seen, at their own graves such are granted through them to the faithful, and their intercession (shafa‘a) is invoked. Their religious exercises were the same; they held dhikrs and women darwishes yet dance to singing and music in order to bring on fits of ecstasy. To state the case generally, whatever is said hereafter of mysticism and its workings among men must be taken as applying to women also.
To return: one of the earliest male devotees of whom we have distinct note is Ibrahim ibn Adham. He was a wanderer of royal blood, drifted from Balkh in Afghanistan to al-Basra and to Mecca. He died in 161. Contempt for the learning of lawyers and for external forms appears in him; obedience to God, contemplation of death, death to the world formed his teaching. Another, Da’ud ibn Nusayr, who died in 165, was wont to say, "Flee men as thou fleest a lion. Fast from the world and let the breaking of thy fast be when thou diest." Another, al-Fudayl ibn Iyad of Khurasan, who died in 187, was a robber converted by a heavenly voice; he cast aside the world, and his utterances show that he lapsed into the passivity of quietism.
Reference has already been made in the chapter on jurisprudence to the development of asceticism which came with the accession of the Abbasids. The disappointed hopes of the old believers found an outlet in the contemplative life. They withdrew from
the world and would have nothing to do with its rulers; their wealth and everything connected with them they regarded as unclean. Ahmad ibn Hanbal in his later life had to use all his obstinacy and ingenuity to keep free of the court and its contamination. Another was this al-Fudayl. Stories--chronologically impossible--are told how he rebuked Harun al-Rashid for his luxury and tyranny and denounced to his face his manner of life. With such an attitude to those round him he could have had little joy in his devotion. So it was said, "When al-Fudayl died, sadness was removed from the world."
But soon the recoil came. Under the spur of such exercises and thoughts, the ecstatic oriental temperament began to revel in expressions borrowed from human love and earthly wine. Such we find by Ma‘ruf of al-Karkh, a district of Baghdad, who died in 200, and whose tomb, saved by popular reverence, is one of the few ancient sites in modern Baghdad; and by his greater disciple, Sari as-Saqati, who died in 257. To this last is ascribed, but dubiously, the first use of the word tawhid to signify the union of the soul with God. The figure that the heart is a mirror to image back God and that it is darkened by the things of the body appears in Abu Sulayman of Damascus, who died in 215. A more celebrated ascetic, who died in 227, Bishr al-Hafi (bare-foot), speaks of God directly as the Beloved (habib). Al-Harith al-Muhasibi was a contemporary of Ahmad ibn Hanbal and died in 243. The only thing in him to which Ahmad could take exception was that he made use of kalam in refuting the Mu‘tazilites;
even this suspicion against him he is said to have abandoned. Sari and Bishr, too, were close friends of Ahmad's. Dhu-n-Nun, the Egyptian Sufi, who died in 245, is in more dubious repute. He is said to have been the first to formulate the doctrine of ecstatic states (hals, maqamas); but if he went no further than this, his orthodoxy, in the broad sense, should be above suspicion. Islam has now come to accept these as right and fitting. Perhaps the greatest name in early Sufiism is that of al-Junayd (d. 297); on it no shadow of heresy has ever fallen. He was a master in theology and law, reverenced as one of the greatest of the early doctors. Questions of tawhid he is said to have discussed before his pupils with shut doors. But this was probably tawhid in the theological and not in the mystical sense--against the Mu‘tazilites and not on the union of the soul with God. Yet he, too, knew the ecstatic life and fell fainting at verses which struck into his soul. Ash-Shibli (d. 334) was one of his disciples, but seems to have given himself more completely to the ascetic and contemplative life. In verses by him we find the vocabulary of the amorous intercourse with God fully developed. The last of this group to be mentioned here shall be Abu Talib al-Makki, who died in 386. It is his distinction to have furnished a text-book of Sufiism that is in use to this day. He wrote and spoke openly on tawhid, now in the Sufi sense, and got into trouble as a heretic, but his memory has been restored to orthodoxy by the general agreement of Islam. When, in 488, al-Ghazzali set himself to seek light in Sufiism, among the treatises he studied
were the books of four of those mentioned above, Abu Talib, al-Muhasibi, al-Junayd, and ash-Shibli.
In the case of these and all the others already spoken of there was nothing but a very simple and natural development such as could easily be paralleled in Europe. The earliest Muslims were burdened, as we have seen, with the fear of the terrors of an avenging God. The world was evil and fleeting; the only abiding good was in the other world; so their religion became an ascetic other-worldliness. They fled into the wilderness from the wrath to come. Wandering, either solitary or in companies, was the special sign of the true Sufi. The young men gave themselves over to the guidance of the older men; little circles of disciples gathered round a venerated Shaykh; fraternities began to form. So we find it in the case of al-Junayd, so in that of Sari as-Saqati. Next would come a monastery, rather a rest-house; for only in the winter and for rest did they remain fixed in a place for any time. Of such a monastery there is a trace at Damascus in 150 and in Khurasan about 200. Then, just as in Europe, begging friars organized themselves. In faith they were rather conservative than anything else; touched with a religious passivism which easily developed into quietism. Their ecstasies went little beyond those, for instance, of Thomas à Kempis, though struck with a warmer oriental fervor.
The points on which the doctors of Islam took exception to these earlier Sufis are strikingly different from what we would expect. They concern the practical life far more than theological speculation.
[paragraph continues] As was natural in the case of professional devotees, a constantly prayerful attitude began to assume importance beside and in contrast to the formal use of the five daily prayers, the salawat. This development was in all probability aided by the existence in Syria of he Christian sect of the Euchites, who exalted the duty of prayer above all other religious obligations. These, also, abandoned property and obligations and wandered as poor brethren over the country. They were a branch of Hesychasts, the quietistic Greek monks who eventually led to the controversy concerning the uncreated light manifested at the transfiguration on Mount Tabor and added a doctrine to the Eastern Church. Considering these points, it can hardly be doubted that there was some historical connection and relation here, not only with earlier but also with later Sufiism. There is a striking resemblance between the Sufis seeking by patient introspection to see the actual light of God's presence in their hearts, and the Greek monks in Athos, sitting solitarily in their cells and seeking the divine light of Mount Tabor in contemplation of their navels.
But our immediate point is the matter of constant, free prayer. In the Qur’an (xxxiii, 41) the believers are exhorted to "remember (dhikr) God often;" this command the Sufis obeyed with a correlative depreciation of the five canonical prayers. Their meetings for the purpose, much like our own prayer-meetings, still more like the "class-meetings" of the early Methodists, as opposed to stated public worship, were called dhikrs. These services were fiercely attacked by the orthodox theologians, but survived
and are the darwish functions which tourists still go to see at Constantinople and Cairo. But the more private and personal dhikrs of individual Sufis, each in his house repeating his Qur’anic litanies through the night, until to the passer-by it sounded like the humming of bees or the unceasing drip of roof-gutters, these seem, in the course of the third century, to have fallen before ridicule and accusations of heresy.
Another point against the earlier Sufis was their abuse of the principle of tawakkul, dependence upon God. They gave up their trades and professions; they even gave up the asking for alms. Their ideal was to be absolutely at God's disposal, utterly cast upon His direct sustenance (rizq). No anxiety for their daily bread was permitted to them; they must go through the world separated from it and its needs and looking up to God. Only one who can do this is properly an acknowledger of God's unity, a true Muwahhid. To such, God would assuredly open the door of help; they were at His gate; and the biographies of the saints are full of tales how His help used to come.
To this it may be imagined that the more sober, even among Sufis, made vehement objection. It fell under two heads. One was that of leash, the gaining of daily bread by labor. The examples of the husbandman who casts his seed into the ground and then depends upon God, of the merchant who travels with his wares in similar trust, were held up against the wandering but useless monk. As always, traditions were forged on both sides. Said a man--apparently in a spirit of prophecy--one day to the Prophet,
[paragraph continues] "Shall I let my camel run free and trust in God?" Replied the Prophet, or someone for him with a good imitation of his humorous common-sense, "Tie up your camel and trust in God." The other head was the use of remedies in sickness. The whole controversy parallels strikingly the "mental science" and "Christian science" of the present day. Medicine, it was held, destroyed tawakkul. In the fourth century in Persia this insanity ran high and many books were written for it and against it. The author of one on the first side was consulted in an obstinate case of headache. "Put my book under your pillow," he said, "and trust in God." On both these points the usage of the Prophet and the Companions was in the teeth of the Sufi position. They had notoriously earned their living, honestly or dishonestly, and had possessed all the credulity of semi-civilization toward the most barbaric and multifarious remedies. So the agreement of Islam eventually righted itself, though the question in its intricacies and subtilties remained for centuries a thing of delight for theologians. In the end only the wildest fanatics held by absolute tawakkul.
But all this time the second form of Sufiism had been slowly forcing its way. It was essentially speculative and theological rather than ascetic and devotional. When it gained the upper hand, zahid (ascetic) was no longer a convertible term with Sufi. We pass over the boundary between Thomas à Kempis and St. Francis to Eckhart and Suso. The roots of this movement cannot be hard to find in the light of what has preceded. They lie partly in the neo-Platonism
which is the foundation of the philosophy of Islam. Probably it did not come to the Sufis along the same channels by which it reached al-Farabi. It was rather through the Christian mystics and, perhaps, especially through the Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, and his asserted teacher, Stephen bar Sudaili with his Syriac "Book of Hierotheos." We need not here consider whether the Monophysite heresy is to be reckoned in as one of the results of the dying neo-Platonism. It is true that outlying forms of it meant the frank deifying of a man and thus raised the possibility of the equal deifying of any other man and of all men. But there is no certainty that these views had an influence in Islam. It is enough that from A.D. 533 we find the Pseudo-Dionysius quoted and his influence strong with the ultra Monophysites, and still more, thereafter, with the whole mystical movement in Christendom. According to it, all is akin in mature to the Absolute, and all this life below is only a reflection of the glories of the upper sphere, where God is. Through the sacraments and a hierarchy of angels man is led back toward Him. Only in ecstasy can man come to a knowledge of Him. The Trinity, sin and the atonement fade out of view. The incarnation is but an example of how the divine and the human can join. All is an emanation or an emission of grace from God; and the yearnings of man are back to his source. The revolving spheres, the groaning and travailing nature are striving to return to their origin. When this conception had seized the Oriental Church, when it had passed into Islam and dominated its
emotional and religious life; when through the translation of the Pseudo-Dionysius by Scotus Erigena in 850, it had begun the long contest of idealism in Europe, the dead school of Plotinus had won the field, and its influence ruled from the Oxus to the Atlantic.
But the roots of Sufiism struck also in another direction. We have already seen an early tendency to regard Ali and, later, members of his house as incarnations of divinity. In the East, where God comes near to man, the conception of God in man is not difficult. The Semitic prophet through whom God speaks easily slips over into a divine being in whom God exists and may be worshipped. But if with one, why not with another? May it not be possible by purifying exercises to reach this unity? If one is a Son of God, may not all become that if they but take the means? The half-understood pantheism which always lurks behind oriental fervors claims its due. From his wild whirling dance, the darwish, stung to cataleptic ecstasy by the throbbing of the drums and the lilting chant, sinks back into the unconsciousness of the divine oneness. He has passed temporarily from this scene of multiplicity into the sea of God's unity and, at death, if he but persevere, he will reach that haven where he fain would be and will abide there forever. Here, we have not to do with calm philosophers rearing their systems in labored speculations, but with men, often untaught, seeking the salvation of their souls earnestly and with tears.
One of the earliest of the pantheistic school was
[paragraph continues] Abu Yazid al-Bistami (d. 261). He was of Persian parentage, and his father had been a follower of Zarathustra. As an ascetic he was of the highest repute; he was also an author of eminence on Sufiism (al-Ghazzali used his books) and he joined to his devout learning and self-mortification clear miraculous gifts. But equally clear was his pantheistic drift and his name has come down linked to the saying, "Beneath my cloak there is naught else than God." It is worth noticing that certain other of his sayings show that, even in his time, there were Sufi saints who boasted that they had reached such perfection and such miraculous powers that the ordinary moral and ceremonial law no longer applied to them. The antinomianism which haunted the later Sufiism and darwishdom had already appeared.
But the greatest name of all among these early pantheists was that of al-Hallaj (the cotton carder), a pupil of al-Junayd, who was put to death with great cruelty in 309. It is almost impossible to reach any certain conclusion as to his real views and aims. In spite of what seem to be utterances of the crassest pantheism, such as, "I am the Truth," there have not been wanting many in later Islam who have reverenced his memory as that of a saint and martyr. To Sufis and darwishes of his time and to this day he has been and is a patron saint. In his life and death he represents for them the spirit of revolt against dogmatic scholasticism and formalism. Further, even such a great doctor of the Muslim Church as al-Ghazzali defended him and, though lamenting some incautious phrases, upheld his orthodoxy. At his trial itself
before the theologians of Baghdad, one of them refused to sign the fatwa declaring him an unbeliever; he was not clear, he said, as to the case. And it is true that such records as we have of the time suggest that his condemnation was forced by the government as a matter of state policy. He was a Persian of Magian origin, and evidently an advanced mystic of the speculative type. He carried the theory to its legitimate conclusion, and proclaimed the result publicly. He dabbled in scholastic theology; had evident Mu‘tazilite leanings; wrote on alchemy and things esoteric. But with this mystical enthusiasm there seem to have united in him other and more dangerous traits. The stories which have reached us show him of a character fond of excitement and change, surrounding himself with devoted adherents and striving by miracle-working of a commonplace kind to add to his following. His popularity among the people of Baghdad and their reverence for him rose to a perilous degree. He may have had plans of his own as a Persian nationalist; he may have had part in one of the Shi‘ite conspiracies; he may have been nothing but a rather weak-headed devotee, carried off his feet by a sudden tide of public excitement, the greatest trial and danger that a saint has to meet. But the times were not such then in Baghdad that the government could take any risks. Al-Muqtadir was Khalifa and in his weak hands the Khalifate was slipping to ruin. The Fatimids were supreme in North Africa; the Qarmatians held Syria and Arabia, and were threatening Baghdad itself. In eight years they were to take Mecca. Persia was
seething with false prophets and nationalists of every shade. Thirteen years later Ibn ash-Shalmaghani was put to death in Baghdad on similar grounds; in his case, Shi‘ite conspiracy against the state was still more clearly involved. We can only conclude in the words of Ibn Khallikan (d. 681), "The history of al-Hallaj is long to relate; his fate is well known; and God knoweth all secret things." With him we must leave, for the present, consideration of the Sufi development and return to the Mu‘tazilites and to the people tiring of their dry subtilties.