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Origin, Character and Historical Analysis of Sufism,
This review is from: The Mystics of Islam (Forgotten Books) (Paperback)
"I propose to offer a few remarks on the origin and historical development of Sufism, its relation to Islam, and its general character. Not only are these matters interesting to the student of comparative religion; some knowledge of them is indispensable to any serious student of Sufism itself." R. A. Nicholson
Roots of Sufism:
It is obvious that the ascetic and quietistic tendencies to which Nicholson has referred were in harmony with Christian mystical theology and drew nourishment therefrom. He advocates, "Many Gospel texts and apocryphal sayings of Jesus are cited in the oldest Sufi biographies, and the Christian anchorite (rahib) often appears in the rôle of a teacher giving instruction and advice to wandering Moslem ascetics. We have seen that the woollen dress, from which the name 'Sufi' is derived, is of Christian origin: vows of silence, litanies (dhikr), and other ascetic practices may be traced to the same source."
Sufism Mystical Milieu:
Nicholson suggests that the conspicuous place occupied by the influence of gnosis in early Sufi speculation suggests contact with Christian Gnostics, and it is worth noting that the parents of Ma`ruf al-Karkhi, whose definition of Sufism as 'the apprehension of divine realities' was quoted on the first page of this Introduction, are said to have been Sabians, i.e. Mandæans, dwelling in the Babylonian fenland between Basra and Wasit. He affirms that the early Sufis borrowed from the Manichæans the term siddiq, which they apply to their own spiritual masters.
Now, since the Arabs encountered Aristotle philosophy from his Neoplatonist commentators, like Yehya Al-Nahawy (John Philoponus), Nicholson debated that the system with which they became imbued was that of Porphyry and Proclus, concluding "the so-called Theology of Aristotle, of which an Arabic version appeared in the ninth century, is actually a manual of Neoplatonism." Another major work of Neoplatonic core, attributed to pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, who may have been a Syrian monk, identified with Stephen Bar Sudaili, a prominent mystic and a contemporary of Jacob of Saruj in late fifth/ sixth century. Dionysius quotes a complete work, the Book of Hierotheus on the Hidden Mysteries of the Divinity. The Dionysian writings, including "The Divine Names," turned into Latin by John Scotus Erigena, and influenced Western Mystics greatly, was adopted as The 99 beatific Names of God.
The Book on Sufi Path:
This compelling work was written in 1914 by the eminent British orientalist, scholar of Islamic literature and Sufism, and one of the greatest Rumi specialists and translators into English. This serious work, still in print after 95 years, exposes in six chapters in plain English the Sufi roots and path, with amazing quotations by a poetical writer who taught Arabic and Pharsi.
After a masterful informative introduction, he takes the reader on an illuminating tour of the Sufi Path, Illumination and Ecstacy, The Gnosis, Divine Love, Saints and Miracles, The Unitive State, which closes the Sufi mystery as Divinization to Eastern Orthodox Mysticism.
"Strange as it may seem to our Western egoism, the prospects of sharing in the general impersonal immortality of the human soul kindles in the Sufi an enthusiasm as deep and triumphant as that of the most ardent believer in a personal life continuing beyond the grave."
Why should I fear? When was I less by dying?
Yet once more I shall die as man, to soar
With angels blest; but even from angelhood
I must pass on: all except God doth perish.
When I have sacrificed my angel soul,
I shall become what no mind e'er conceived.
R. A. Nicholson, (1868-1945)
Son of paleontologist, was educated at Aberdeen and the University of Cambridge. Nicholson was lecturer in the Persian language (1902-26) and Professor of Arabic at Cambridge (1926-33). He is a leading scholar in Islamic literature and mysticism who exercised a lasting influence on Islamic scholarship, wrote two milestone books: Literary History of The Arabs (1907) and The Mystics of Islam (1914).