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The following is taken from the Editor's Foreward to Reynold A. Nicholson's The Mystics of Islam:
The Mystics of Islam, first published in 1914, has long been recognized as a classic and defining introduction to the message of Sufism. In this short but comprehensive work, R.A. Nicholson—who was one of the greatest Islamic scholars of the early 20th century in the West and an early translator of Rumi's Mathnawi—provides the general reader with an accessible approach to the vast world of Islamic mysticism. He gives a broad outline of Sufism and describes the key principles, methods and characteristic features of the inner life as it has been lived by contemplative Muslims of every class and condition from the 8th century (C.E.) onwards. Many quotations are given, mainly in the author's own expert and beautiful translations from the original Arabic and Persian. The great value of this book can be appreciated in the simplicity of its presentation and in the beauty of its content. Nicholson writes with the refined sensitivity of a poet and the sympathy of a scholar who has profoundly understood his subject.
What is Sufism? Down through the centuries many of its adherents have attempted to answer that question, and the reader will find many of their answers inside the pages of this book. Nicholson himself comes to the conclusion that there are nearly as many definitions of Sufism as there are writers who attempt to define it. One definition, offered many years after Nicholson's book, seems to encompass all these in the simplest possible terms, so we will give it here: Sufism is to discern between the Real and the unreal, to concentrate the soul upon the Real, and to bring the soul to conform to the Real. These amount to the three great pillars of doctrine, method and virtue found in all authentic schools of spiritual practice, regardless of religious affiliation.
Sufism can be seen as the heart of the Islamic tradition. Its teachings, which synthesize the ways of love and knowledge, are founded upon many of the most beautiful verses of the Qur'an and the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad. Through an unbroken succession of wise and ecstatic voices—many of whom were among the greatest poets of both the Arabic and Persian languages—the doctrine of Sufism has been a constant fountain of spiritual illumination throughout its long history for seekers both within and outside Islam, though by definition all traditional Sufis follow at least the basic requirements of that great faith.
For the Sufis, the first of the fundamental axioms of Islam is “there is no God, but God.” This means that there is nothing absolute except God, the Absolute, or that there is no reality outside of God, the Real. Although this affirmation of faith declares in no uncertain terms to all Muslims the complete transcendence of the Supreme Being, it also implies that all reality as such is dependant upon an underlying Reality, or that the relativity of this world may only be fully understood in relation to the Absolute. Sufis, then, come to see through this kind of ontological transparency that everything possessing existence or reality does so only by, or through, the Divine. God is not the world—as a true pantheist would assert—but the world is mysteriously plunged in God. This is the central thesis of the greatest Sufi writers, such as Ibn al-‘Arabi, Niffari and Rumi. Each of these Sufi luminaries, and many others, combined the qualities of great scholars well aware of the need to ‘protect' God's transcendence, with the qualities of true mystics so attuned to God's Presence as to speak to Him as the Beloved.
Another way of understanding this central thesis of Sufism is to define it as sincerity of faith. This means saying “yes” to God from the deepest core of one's being. On the doctrinal level it implies an intellectual vision which draws from the idea of the Oneness of God all of its most rigorous consequences. The final outcome of this for the persistent Sufi “traveler” is not only the idea of the nothingness of the world and of the individual ego but then also the approach to Supreme Identity and the corresponding realization of what Ibn al-‘Arabi termed the Unity of Reality. It is in just such a state that the separation between the individual ego and the Divine Essence begins to melt away and it is from this state that the most ecstatic utterances recorded in The Mystics of Islam spring.
Because Nicholson has purposely chosen “extreme” examples of Sufi dialectic and poetry to illustrate his points, even the most sober readers will probably feel touched by the rapture and spiritual intoxication recorded in these pages. This is probably a great strength of the work. By Nicholson's expert guidance through short texts hundreds of years old, a Western reader can gradually come to understand unfamiliar modes of speech, usually rich with symbolism, and may even come to appreciate that special kind of hyperbole common to the poetry and other mystical writings of the Near East. Thus, another strength of this book is that it is an effective training ground from which prepared seekers and students may now go on to read full source materials with greater satisfaction.
It may be useful for the reader to draw some comparisons between Islam (of which Sufism is the kernel) and the other two great Abrahamic traditions, Judaism and Christianity. For the Jew and for the Christian, sanctity means “to love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might” (Deut. 6:5) or “and with all thy mind” (Matt. 22:37). For Jews this is accomplished through obedience to the sacred Law of the Torah; for Christians it is through the love of Christ. For Moslems, sanctity means to believe with his whole being that “there is no God, but God.” This is the “sincerity of faith” mentioned above, and it is well exemplified by this saying of the Prophet Muhammad: “Spiritual virtue consists in adoring God as if thou didst see Him, and if thou dost not see Him, He nonetheless seeth thee.” Where Jews and Christians put intensity and thus totality of love, Moslems put sincerity and so totality of faith, which for the Sufi becomes gnosis, union, and the mystery of non-otherness. This transformation is illustrated very well through numerous examples in The Mystics of Islam.
Nicholson's book also raises fascinating questions concerning the influences of Christianity, Neoplatonism, Gnosticism and Buddhism on the early development of Sufi thought and literature. Although there is evidence of some influences, it is clear that Sufism has its roots in the Qur'an. Although Nicholson is not entirely committed to this perspective, many of the most outstanding Western scholars of Islam such as Louis Massignon and Henri Corbin confirm the Qur'anic origins of Sufism. The West has been slow to recognize the spiritual currents within Islam for reasons which are outside the scope of this brief introduction. In the latter half of the 20th century, scholars such as Frithjof Schuon, Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Titus Burckhardt, Martin Lings, Annemarie Schimmel and William Chittick have all shed light on the indivisible link between Sufism and Islam. There has been a long-standing debate between scholars concerning spiritual influences and borrowings between different mystical traditions, and this debate will never be concluded. To the reader of this book, let us say that the single argument that best allows the most light to shine forth from diverse spiritual writings is the one that suggests that these doctrines and methods flow from the deep nature of things and that they manifest providentially for different human collectivities. Nevertheless, for the student who wishes to make a more exhaustive study of the development of Sufism, this should prove to be as interesting a question as it was for Nicholson.
The world is much changed since the first publication of Nicholson's book; however, that which is essential remains the same. Mountain peaks still soar into the sky and men still gaze into the heavens and think long thoughts of what might be beyond the sun. Although we are confronted by fundamentalisms and even fanaticisms both in and outside of the world of religion as such, Nicholson's book is a timely reminder of the beautiful and profound soul of the Islamic faith. The following words—written more that 700 years ago by one of the greatest Sufis, Ibn al-‘Arabi, and translated by Nicholson in his text—express the universal spirit of the mystical journey: “My heart has become capable of every form: It is a pasture for gazelles and a convent for Christian monks…I follow the religion of Love, whichever way his camels take. My religion and my faith is the true religion.”