SUFISM (Arabic, "Tasawwuf"):

The mystic and ascetic doctrines of the Mohammedan sect of the Sufis, whose name is derived from the Arabic noun "ṣuf" (wool), having reference to the woolen cloth worn by its adherents to typify the primitive simplicity enjoined by Islam. Sufism has a special claim upon the attention of Jewish scholars because of its influence on the ethical and mystic writings of the Judæo-Arabian period. According to their own view the Sufis are simply esoteric Mohammedans, setting aside the literal meaning of the words of Mohammed for a mystic or spiritual interpretation.


The Sufic movement arose in the land of the Magis; and in the first stages of its development it bore a purely ascetic and ethical character. It declared theological knowledge to be far inferior to inward perception, or mystic intuition acquired through religious ecstasies. Later, however, under the influence of Arabian Neoplatonism, and partly also under that of the Vedanta school of the Hindu philosophers, speculative, metaphysical, and pantheistic elements were added; and in this way arose the Sufic theological system. For the Sufis, God alone has a real existence, while the material world or contingent being is merely a reflection of Him, revealing His attributes and perfections without partaking of His substance. In loving wisdom, beauty, or goodness, man in reality loves God; and in realizing that God is the only reality he is able to overleap, as it were, his own limitations and to attain the state of absorption in God. This can only be reached after one has passed through the following three stages: (1) humanity ("nasut"), in which the disciple, or seeker after God, must live according to the Law, observing all the rites, customs, and precepts of religion; (2) angelhood ("malkut"), through which lies the pathway of purity; and (3) the possession of power ("jabrut"), through which man acquires knowledge—the knowledge of God, which is diffused through all things. As the soul of man is an exile from its Maker, and human existence is its period of banishment, death should be the desire of the Sufi; for thereby he returns to the bosom of his Creator. According to the Sufis, all religious beliefs, such as those relating to paradise, hell, etc., are allegories. There does not really exist any difference between good and evil; all is reduced to unity, and God is the real author of the acts of mankind. It is He who determines the will of man: the latter therefore is not free in his actions. No one can obtain spiritual union without God's grace; but this is vouchsafed to those who fervently ask for it.

Influence on Yudghanites.

To the spread of Sufism in the eighth century was probably due the revival of Jewish mysticism in Mohammedan countries at that period. Under the direct influence of the Sufis arose the Jewish sect called Yudghanites. Like the Sufis, the Yudghanites set aside the literal meaning of the Torah for a supposed mystic or spiritual interpretation (comp. Saadia, "Emunot we-De'ot," pp. 39b and 68a; Ibn Ezra, Commentary on the Pentateuch, Introduction). There are also many points of similarity between the mysticism of the Sufis and that of the Merkabah-riders of the geonic period (see Merkabah.). To enter the state of ecstasy inwhich the Merkabah-ride was taken one had to remain motionless, with the head between the knees, absorbed in contemplation, and murmuring prayers and hymns. The Sufis distinguished seven different ecstatic stages, each of which was marked by the vision of a different color. The contemplative successively saw green, blue, red, yellow, white, and black; while in the seventh and last stage he saw nothing, being completely absorbed in God, like a drop of water which, falling into the sea, loses its individual identity and acquires an infinite existence. The same distinction by colors of the ecstatic stages was made by the Merkabah-rider, who at each new stage entered a heavenly hall ("hekal")of a different color, until he reached the seventh, which was colorless, and the appearance of which marked both the end of his contemplation and his lapse into unconsciousness (comp. Zohar, i. 41b).

Influence on Baḥya.

A far greater influence was exercised by Sufism upon the ethical writings of the Judæo-Arabian period than upon the mysticism of the Geonim. In the first writing of this kind, the "Kitab al-Hidayah ila Fara'iḍ al-Ḳulub" of Baḥya ben Joseph ibn Paḳuda (translated by Judah ibn Tibbon into Hebrew under the title "Ḥobot ha-Lebabot"), the author says: "The precepts prescribed by the Law number 613 only; those dictated by the intellect are innumerable." This was precisely the argument used by the Sufis against their adversaries, the 'Ulamas. The very arrangement of the book seems to have been inspired by Sufism. Its ten gates or sections correspond to the ten stages through which the Sufi had to pass in order to attain that true and passionate love of God which is the aim and goal of all ethical self-discipline. It is noteworthy that in the ethical writings of the Sufis Al-Kusajri and Al-Harawi there are sections which treat of the same subjects as those treated in the "Ḥobot ha-Lebabot" and which bear the same titles: e.g., "Bab al-Tawakkul" (); "Bab al-Taubah" (); "Bab al-Muḥasabah" (); "Bab al-Tawaḍu'" (); "Bab al-Zuhd" ( ). In the ninth gate Baḥya directly quotes sayings of the Sufis, whom he calls "Perushim." However, the author of the "Ḥobot ha-Lebabot" did not go so far as to approve of the asceticism of the Sufis, although he showed a marked predilection for their ethical principles.

Views of Abraham bar Ḥiyya.

On the other hand, Abraham bar Ḥiyya teaches the asceticism of the Sufis. His distinction with regard to the observance of the Law by various classes of men is essentially a Sufic theory. According to it there are four principal degrees of human perfection or sanctity; namely: (1) of "Shari'ah," i.e., of strict obedience to all ritual laws of Mohammedanism, such as prayer, fasting, pilgrimage, almsgiving, ablution, etc., which is the lowest degree of worship, and is attainable by all; (2) of "Ṭariḳah," which is accessible only to a higher class of men who, while strictly adhering to the outward or ceremonial injunctions of religion, rise to an inward perception of mental power and virtue necessary for the nearer approach to the Divinity; (3) of "Ḥaḳikah," the degree attained by those who, through continuous contemplation and inward devotion, have risen to the true perception of the nature of the visible and invisible; who, in fact, have recognized the Godhead, and through this knowledge have succeeded in establishing an ecstatic relation to it; and (4) of the "Ma'arifah," in which state man communicates directly with the Deity.

Influence on the Cabala.

Complete seclusion from the world was highly praised by many cabalists. In his commentary on the Pentateuch entitled "Me'irat 'Enayim" Isaac ben Samuel of Acre expresses himself as follows: "He who reaches the degree of attachment to God [] will reach that of indifference []; and he who reaches the degree of indifference will reach that of seclusion from the world." The degree of seclusion is illustrated by R. Abner in the following story: "A lover of wisdom once addressed himself to an anchoret and asked to be enrolled in his order. The hermit said to him: 'My son, may the blessings of Heaven be upon thee; for thy intention is good. But tell me, hast thou been indifferent or not?' 'Master, what do you mean by that?' "My son, is the man who respects thee, and the one who offends thee, equal in thy eyes or not?' 'By your life, master, I find pleasure in the man who shows me respect, and feel hurt by him who offends me; but I bear no grudge against the offender, and do not seek vengeance.' 'Depart in peace, my son,' said the anchoret; 'so long as thou art not completely indifferent to praise and blame, thou art not prepared for the life of a hermit'" (Deut. vii.).

Like the Sufis, the cabalists considered love of God to be the final object of the existence of the soul. "In the love of God," says the Zohar, "is found the secret of the divine unity: it is love that unites the higher and the lower stages, and that raises everything to that stage in which all must be one" (Zohar, ii. 216a).

The allegorical and symbolical style of the Sufic poetry found imitators among many liturgical poets of the Middle Ages. Of these the most renowned was Israel Najara, who, in the preface to his "Zemirot Yisrael," acknowledges this influence, saying that in his youth he had composed many religious hymns to Arabic and Turkish tunes, with the intention of turning the Jewish young men from profane songs. The characteristic feature of these hymns is the same as that of the Sufic poetry; namely, the representation of the highest things by human emblems and human passions, and the use of erotic terminology to illustrate the relations of man and God, religion being identical with love. Thus in the language of the Sufis, as well as in that of many Jewish poets, the beloved one's curls indicate the mysteries of the Deity; sensuous pleasures, and chiefly intoxication, the highest degree of divine love as ecstatic contemplation; while the wine-room merely represents the state in consequence of which the human qualities merge or are exalted into those of the Deity.

Although Ḥasidism is opposed to asceticism, it has many points in common with Sufism. Like the latter, it aims to create by means of psychologicalsuggestion a new type of religious man—a type that places emotion above reason and rites, and religious exaltation above knowledge. As the Sufis, too, the Ḥasidim believe that by means of constant spiritual communion with God it is possible to secure clear mental vision and the gift of prophecy, and to work miracles. A striking analogy between Ḥasidism and Sufism is the prominence, in both sects, of the spiritual guide. As Sufism inculcates the absolute necessity of blind submission to the "murshid," or inspired guide, so Ḥasidism teaches that the ẓaddiḳ is the mediator between God and ordinary persons, and that through him the salvation of the soul is achieved and earthly blessings are obtained.

  • De Slane, introduction to the Biographical Dictionary of Ibn Khallikan, Paris, 1843;
  • Bicknell, Translation of Hafiẓ of Shiraz;
  • Silvestre de Sacy, in Notices et Extraits, xii. 291;
  • Kremer, in Journal Asiatique, 1868, p. 271;
  • Jellinek, in Orient, xii. 577;
  • Steinschneider, Ma'amar ha-Yiḥud, pp. 21, 22;
  • Ignaz Goldziher, Materialen zur Entwickelungsgeschichte des Sufismus, in W. Z. K. M. xiii. 35-56;
  • Schreiner, Der Kalam in der Jüdischen Literatur, in Bericht für die Lehranstalt für die Wissenschaft des Judenthums zu Berlin, 1895.
K. I. Br.
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