Excerpts from the foremost Orientalist, Rumi and Islamic Studies scholar par excellence, Reynold .A. Nicholson's book 'Sufism: The Mysticism of Islam'.
Philosophical-Mystical Systems (Theosophy) Theosophy is any mystical system of religious philosophy that claims a direct intuitive insight into God's nature. Theosophical speculations on the nature of God and man were introduced into Sufism by Sahl al-Tustari (d.896) and at-Tirmidi (d 898).
The greatest of all Sufi theosophical writers in Arabic was Ibn al-'Arabi (d.1240) who was born in Spain. He traveled to Tunis and Mecca and finally settled in Damascus. In his 500 books he teaches that all existence is but a manifestation of God, the one ultimate divine reality which is totally "other", an undifferentiated unity, but in whom the archetypes of all potential beings exist. This is the "unknown God" from whom emanates a hierarchy of divine beings (Names, Lords) the lowest of whom is the Lord of revelation and creation who is also called the First Intellect. The emanations are the mediating link between the unknowable, transcendent God and the created world. This teaching was the basis of the Sufi concept of the Unity of Being (Wahdat al-Wujud). The First Intellect, an emanation of the God was also called the "idea of Muhammad". He is the archetype through whom man was made. This emanation is incarnated in a Perfect Man in every generation - the perfect Sufi. This man most fully manifests the nature of God and he is the pole (Qutb, axis) around which the cosmos revolves. Ibn al-'Arabi saw himself as such a "pole" and he called himself the seal (the most perfect) of the saints.
Another theosophical system, that of illumination, was developed by Shihab al-Din Suhrawardi (executed in Aleppo in 1191). He taught that all things exist as varying degrees of light, beginning with the Absolute Light, the Light of Lights who is God himself. Light then spreads out from God in ever weaker degrees (angels), each reflecting the light above it to those beneath it. The whole world of being is composed of innumerable angels of light spreading out in geometrical patterns.
Indian Sufis were influenced by Hindu mysticism and strayed far from Islamic orthodoxy in their speculations. The Naqshbandi order founded in the 13th century in Central Asia to preserve true Islam from the ravages of the Mongol invasions, succeeded in keeping them within orthodoxy. Ahmad Sirhindi (d.1624) taught that the Unity of Being was a subjective experience occurring only in the Sufi's mind - not the Hindu concept of total annihilation of the personal in the infinite.
Mysticism of Love
A woman from Basrah in Iraq, Rabi'a al-Adawiya (d.801) introduced the theme of Divine Love into Sufism. She yearned to love God only for Himself, not for hope of any reward (paradise) nor out of fear of judgment (hell). Following her death the love theme became a dominant feature of Sufism. It expressed the Sufi's yearning for the development of a love relationship with God that would lead to an intimate experience of God and finally to a total union with God.
The love theme found its main expression in Sufi poetry in which the relations between God the Divine Lover and the man searching for his love were symbolically described. Early Sufi poems in Arabic express the soul's deep yearning for union with the beloved. Persian poetry often compared the soul's love relationship with God to that between a man and a beautiful youth. In Indian poetry the loving wife yearning for her husband symbolized the soul's yearning for God. Later poets developed the long mystical poems called Mathnawis ( Masnawis) which expressed in symbolical verse the manifold emotions of love to God and of unity with him.
Persia had the greatest flourishing of Sufi poetry, and most of its classical poetry has a Sufi content. One example is the Mathnawi "Mantiq al-Tair" (speech of the birds) by Farid al-Din 'Attar, an allegory which portrays the mystic on his pilgrimage from asceticism through illumination to union with God.
Jalal ad-Din Rumi (1207-1273), named "Mawlana" - our Lord or Teacher - was the greatest Persian mystical poet. His famous Mathnawi of 26,000 rhythmic couplets is a real encyclopaedia of Sufi allegorical and mystical thought and experience. Persian Sufis regard it as next to the Quran in holiness. Rumi also founded the Mawlawi (Mevlevi) order of whirling dervishes.
Sufi poetry uses the symbols of wine (God's intoxicating love), the wine cup (the Sufi's heart) and the cup bearer (the spiritual guide). The wine house is the religion of love and it is compared to the religion of law symbolized by the mosque. Learning the many Sufi symbols and their meaning is essential to an understanding of this kind of poetry.