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SUFISM has never had a first exponent or a historical origin. It existed from the beginning, because man has always possessed the light which is his second nature; and light in its higher aspect may be called the knowledge of God, the divine wisdom – in fact, Sufism. Sufism has always been practiced and its messengers have been people of the heart; thus it belonged to the masters as well as to others.
Tradition states that Adam was the first prophet, which shows that wisdom was already the property of the first man. There have always been some among the human race who have desired wisdom. These sought out spiritual beings in their solitude, serving them with reverence and devotion, and learning wisdom from them. Only a few could understand those spiritual beings, but many were attracted by their great personalities. They said, 'We will follow you, we will serve you, we will believe in you, we will never follow any other', and the holy ones said to them, 'My children, we bless you. Do this; do that. This is the best way to live.' And they gave their followers precepts and principles, such as might produce in them meekness and humility. In this way the religions were formed.
But in the course of time the truth was lost. The tendency to dominate arose, and with it the patriotism of the community and prejudice against others; and thus wisdom was gradually lost. Religion was accepted, though with difficulty, but the evolution of the world at that time was not such as could understand the Sufis. They were mocked at, ill-treated, ridiculed; they were obliged to hide themselves from the world in the caves of the mountains and in the solitude.
At the time of Christ there were Sufis among the first of those who gave heed to him, and in the time of Muhammad the Sufis on Mount Zafah were the first to respond to his cry. One of the explanations of the term Sufi is this association with Mount Zafah. Muhammad was the first to open the way for them in Arabia, and they had many followers, among them Siddiq and Ali.
Sufism then spread to Persia. But whenever the Sufis expressed their free thought, they were attacked by the established religions, and so Sufism found its outlet in poetry and music. Thus it happened that the great Sufi poets, such as Hafiz, Rumi, Shams-i Tabriz, Sadi, Omar Khayyam, Nizami, Farid, Jami, and others, gave the wisdom of Sufism to the world. Rumi's work is so great that if one has read and understood it one has learnt every philosophy there is. His poems are sung in the sacred assemblies of the Sufis as part of their worship. The lives of the Sufis were marvelous in their piety, in their humanity.
It was in India that the art of Sufism was brought to perfection: India has been a spiritual land for a very long time. Mysticism was a science to the Indians and their first object in life. This was so in the time of Mahadeva, and later in the time of Krishna. When Sufism had found this soil in which to sow the seed it reached perfection, and many highly talented people became followers, amongst them Khwaja Muinuddin Chishti. Music played an important part in their lives and training. In these Sufis the art of devotion, of idealization, reached its highest development, and their consciousness attained freedom from the external plane.
The translators and readers of the Persian poets, while admiring and praising them highly, have often made the mistake of not giving credit where it was due. They have spoken of the poets as if they had produced everything out of themselves, and inherited nothing from the lore of the past. But Persia, lying between Greece, Egypt, Arabia, and India, came under the influence of Plato and Socrates, of Hinduism and Buddhism, and especially of their poetry and philosophy. Everything in the world is influenced in some way by other things, so it cannot be said that Sufism was born in Persia and that it did not exist before; it is an undeniable fact that Sufis existed in the time of Muhammad and even previously, and that Muhammad liked to converse with them and advise them. Thus Sufism in the course of time absorbed the influence of many religions; and in its turn also influenced many other religions. Though very little of the ancient writings survives, and though that little has lost much through wrong interpretation, yet traces of this ancient Sufism can still be found.
In very ancient times the Safa was founded, the Brotherhood of Purity. Its doctrine was: Know thyself and thou wilt know God. These students of the self were Sufis, for Sufism is the study of the self.
Sufis and Yogis can respect each other, as the only difference between the Yogi and the Sufi is that the Yogi cares more for spirituality and the Sufi more for humanity. The Yogi thinks that it is better to be God; the Sufi thinks that it is better to be man, because if one is only spiritual, there is always the danger of a fall; our body has the tendency to fall down. The Sufi says that as all the needs and desires of this body and its senses exist, one should satisfy them; he says that we should have whatever we can have, but if we cannot have it, we should not care. Yet there is no inner difference between the Sufi and the Yogi. In wisdom there is no difference; if there seems to be any it is only a difference of form.
Joy is in union; neither in the spiritual nor in the material realm alone, but in both. Why does one join one's hands? Because where there are two the joy is in meeting. The eyes are two; when they are closed there is a joy. When the breath goes through both nostrils the mystic feels an ecstasy. Why do people shake hands? Why do people enjoy it when they embrace? Why do people seek the society of a scientist or a sage? Because a soul is attracted to and united with another soul. The joy is not in spirituality alone, but in the union of the spiritual and the material.
To be all animal is not good; and to be all angel is not good either, because we are made with an animal body which needs to eat, drink, and sleep, and whose senses have a thousand needs. We should keep those animal attributes that are harmless, and give up those that are harmful. To eat is not bad and to drink is not bad, but to snatch the food from another's plate when we already have food on our own, that is a bad thing.
The central theme of the Sufi's life is the freedom of the soul. As the great Persian Sufi poet Rumi says, 'The soul on earth is in a prison, and it remains there as long as it lives on earth'. Man may or may not realize it, but there is a deep yearning in every soul to rise above this imprisonment, to escape from this captivity; and the answer to this yearning is spiritual attainment.
There are two aspects of Sufis: one is called Rind and the other Salik. The aspect which is called Rind is very well expressed in Fitzgerald's translation of Omar Khayyam: 'O my Beloved, fill the cup that clears today of past regrets and future fears. Why, tomorrow I may be myself, with yesterday's sev'n thousand years!' By this he means: Make the best of this moment; it is now that you can clearly see eternity, if you live in this moment. But if you keep the world of the past or the world of the future before you, you do not live in eternity but in a limited world. In other words, live neither in the past nor in the future, but in eternity. It is now that we should try to discover that happiness which is to be found in the freedom of the soul.
This is the central theme of all great poets who may be called Rind. Their lives are not bound by so-called principles, such as those known to the orthodox. They are free from every kind of bigotry, dogma, and principle urged upon mankind. At the same time they are men of high ideals and great morals, deep thoughts, and very advanced realization. They live a life of freedom in this world of imprisonment where every being is a captive.
Then there are the Salik among the Sufis, who study and meditate and ponder upon ethics, living according to certain principles. Life teaches them and guides them on the right path, and they live a life of piety and renunciation. The way of the Salik is to understand whatever religion a person may have, and to follow it from his own point of view. The Salik makes use of religious terminology as the orthodox do, and he attends the same ceremonies; but to him their meaning is different. Thus every line of the sacred scriptures has a particular meaning for a Salik, for he sees it in a special light.
Higher and more subtle thoughts about God and man and life can be understood only according to the evolution of man; and therefore it is natural that those Sufis who are called Salik accept the religious form first in order to be in harmony with other people; and then they interpret the true wisdom found in that religion.
Most of the Sufi literature is written in such a way that to someone who does not know the inner, underlying meaning it will be very surprising. If we take the poems of Hafiz, we notice that the name of God is scarcely mentioned in any of them. If we take the poems of Omar Khayyam, which are so much appreciated in the Western world, we shall see that he is always speaking of wine, of the beloved, of the goblet, of the solitude. A person might say, 'What kind of spirituality is this? He speaks of nothing but wine and the goblet! If this were spirituality it would be a great pity for humanity!' Indeed, in these poems these is little devotional expression. In the poems of Jami there is no expression of devotion at all; nor in those of a hundred other Sufi poets who are considered great sages and mystics. They feared that if once they got the name of being spiritual, they would always have to appear as a spiritual person, look like a spiritual person, speak like a spiritual person; and they feared that in this way their freedom would be lost and they would be considered hypocritical.