The Koranic Origins of Sufism
by Martin Lings

What is mysticism? We speak of something becoming second nature to men and one could say that non-mysticism has become man’s second nature. All religions agree that man was created in the image of God and in a state of intimacy with God, that is, with knowledge of the mysteries. Furthermore, all religions agree that this lost state can be regained. Now we could answer the question. “What is mysticism?” by saying that it is everything that lies between the aspiration to regain this state, the lost state, and the actual regaining of it.

Sufism is Islamic mysticism. However, Sufism has not always been fully considered in that way by Western scholars, and one of the reasons is this: If you liken different religions to different points on the circumference of a circle, every religion has an inner aspect which may be likened to a radius from the point on the circumference leading to the center. The Center is One. It is the Absolute, Infinite Perfection of God Himself, and the radii are the different mysticisms. The nearer they approach the center, the nearer they approach each other. Therefore, Sufism has always appeared much nearer to Christianity than to the outer aspect of Islam and that is why Western people in general, while not being attracted by what they know as the religion of Islam, have been very greatly attracted by some of the outstanding saints of Islam, such as Rabe’a al-‘Adawiya,Hallaj, Rumi, and Mohyo’d-Din Ebn ‘Arabi.

As a result, the idea came into being that Sufism must have come from a Christian influence on Islam, and that it could not have come from Islam itself. Others, to be original, suggested that it might have been a Buddhist influence, still others pointed to a Neo-Platonic influence. Many scholars of the past refused to accept the Sufis’ own view of the origin of Sufism, that it is fundamentally based on Islam. Some Western scholars would say, “We are objective and therefore our opinion about the origin of Sufism is of far more value than the opinion of the Sufis which is a purely subjective wishful thinking. They cannot be objective about this question.” Others said that Sufis merely pretend that Sufism is Islamic in order to avoid persecution and also be accepted as members of the community.

We must, however, be grateful to Massignon, who was unquestionably a great scholar, for breaking away from these general Western opinions and saying that, “Contrary to the Pharisaical opinion of many foqaha, [that is, the legal authorities in Islam), an opinion which has been accepted for the last 60 years by many Arabists, have had to admit, with Margoliouth, that the Koran contains real seeds of mysticism, seeds capable of an autonomous development without being impregnated through any foreign source” (Massignon 1975, p. 480). This is refreshing, but as we shall see, it is a very considerable understatement. The Sufis themselves have never doubted for one instant that Sufism began with Islam itself. The tenth-century Sufi, Fushanji, said, “Today Sufism is a name without a reality, but formerly it was a reality without a name” (Hojwiri 1911, p. 44). And the great Hojwiri, the author of the Kashf al-mahjub, commenting on this a hundred years later, said, “In the time of the companions of the Prophet… this name did not exist, but the reality thereof was in everyone; now the name exists but not the reality” (ibid.), meaning that today those who call themselves Sufis are not really Sufis. We have lost the reality of Sufism. This is, of course, a grave exaggeration, but nonetheless commendable in the sense that it shows the very high standards which prevailed in those days. Ebn Khaldun, the historian, simply says that at first, in Islam spirituality — that is mysticism — was too general to be given a special, name but. “when worldliness spread and the majority of people sunk below the mystical level then Islamic mysticism had to be given a special name.”

The word ‘Sufi’ means ‘wearer of wool’. ‘Suf’ is the Arabic for wool, and there is no doubt that wool was associated with spirituality, even as far back as the times of the beginning of Judaism. The Prophet mentioned that Moses was dressed in wool when God spoke to him on Mount Sinai and the fact that he felt it important to mention this is significant. But the word ‘Sufi’ has other possible meanings. It is the passive of the verb safa which means, “he chose him for himself as a friend.” If God is the subject of this active verb, then the passive, ‘Sufi’, means, “He was chosen as a friend by God.” Other explanations have been given, and there is no denying that the word is mysterious, but the Sufis needed a mysterious name because mysticism, Sufism in this case, is mysterious.

What I wish to say first of all is that it was highly significant that the Archangel Gabriel came to the Prophet when he was in a spiritual retreat. This practice of spiritual retreats was taken from a group of people in Arabia called the honafa who were the last repositories of the tradition of Abraham in Arabia. They kept alive the Abrahamic tradition throughout the centuries. They were in the habit of making spiritual retreats and they, almost alone of the Arabs. were believers in one God and total rejecters of the polytheism which prevailed over most of those pans. And it is precisely the Sufis who have maintained — and the Sufis alone one might say — the practice of spiritual retreats until the present day. Now, that is an esoteric practice. It could be said indeed that the Prophet was a mystic, a Sufi in all but name, before he was actually Prophet, which he became during a retreat in a cave on Mount Hira, through the revelation of the Koran.

To consider the descent of the Koran, let us quote a verse from it: “If we had sent down this Koran upon a mountain, thou wouldst have seen it humbled, split asunder through fear of God. We coin such similitudes for men that they may meditate” (LIX: 21). Now the two immediate objects of meditation are, firstly, the tremendous pressure of the Divine Word and, secondly, the amazing strength of endurance of him who received it. In this last connection we may quote another verse, addressed to the Prophet himself, “Verily thou art of a tremendous nature” (LXVIII: 4). Nonetheless, to begin with, the Prophet had a certain dread of receiving a revelation and he told his wife to pile garments over him when he slept. But all to no purpose, for one very early revelation begins: “0 thou who art wrapped in thy cloak, arise and warn” (LXXIV: I ). Another very early revelation be-gins, “0 thou who art enshrouded in thy raiment, keep vigil all the night save a little, or half of it or take from that a little or add to it and recite the Koran with exact recitation” (LXXIII: 1-4). And then it adds: “And invoke in remembrance the name of thy Lord and devote thyself unto Him with an utter devotion” (LXXIII: 8). We have here, right at the beginning of Islam, the inauguration of what has been throughout the centuries, and still is, the very essence of Sufi practice: the invocation of the Divine Name. With respect to this invocation another early revelation having mentioned the power of the canonical prayer adds, “The invocation of Allah is greater” (XXIX: 45). Finally, the particular revelation which begins, “0 thou who art en-shrouded in thy raiment,” goes on to say: “Verily this is a reminder, so let him who will take unto his Lord a Way” (LXXIII: 19).

Another very early sura, (that is, the name given to chapters in the Koran), repeats these words “Let him who will take unto his Lord a Way,” and mysticism, in this case Sufism, is precisely the Way to God, the way beyond salvation to sanctification which itself is being in God’s presence. It must be remembered that every rev-elation that was received by the Prophet was passed on immediately to his followers who learnt it by heart and recited it again and again, together with what they had already been given of the Koran. Nor were the verses addressed to him in particular, or considered as being for him alone, except what especially concerned his function as Prophet; such words as “Keep vigil all the night save a little,” quoted above, as also from another already quoted early sum the words “Glorify Him the live-long night” (LXXVI: 26), were taken as being for every member of that first small community in Mecca. And we may note that the first two men to start that community, the Prophet’s cousin and future son-in-law, ‘Ali, and the Prophet’s best friend and future father-in-law, Abu Bakr, have always been considered by the Sufis to be the first great prototypes. of Sufism, after the Prophet himself.

In a word, when we read these earliest revelations, we are conscious of an elite whose lives were utterly dedicated to God and-whose intensity of worship clearly went far beyond the possibility of all but a few. The path of Islam was at its outset the highly rigorous path of doing one’s utmost, unalleviated as yet by the establishment of a legal minimum. We recall in this connection the already quoted saying, “Sufism was once a reality without a name.” It had, in fact a name: Islam. Nor is it possible to refute the Sufi claim that Sufism is the heart of Islam, a claim admitted throughout the centuries by many non-Sufi Muslims, and I may say, in this context, that it is the Sufis who are, in the strict meaning of words, the fundamentalists. One speaks of Islamic fundamentalists today as meaning something totally different from Sufism, but if words are to have their correct meaning and one is asked who are the fundamentalists of Islam, the answer is: the Sufis.

But by the end of the Prophet’s life this initial group had become a relatively small minority and the Prophet received a revelation which he was told to add to the end of this very early sum we have been talking about, “Verily thy Lord knoweth that thou keepest vigil nearly two thirds of the night. or its half or a third. Thou and a group of those who are with thee-(LXXIII: 20). It goes on to make the demands less exacting because of the great number of people in Islam for whom the Koran was addressed. The Koran was addressed to all Muslims and these demands were beyond their possibilities. But in virtue of this verse. the Sufis often refer to themselves as ‘the group’ (al-ta’efa). as mentioned in the above verse.

Here, as elsewhere, the early revelations of the Koran predict the minority status of mystics: in one of the earliest. the whole collectivity of the faithful is divided into two groups. the foremost and those on the right, that is the highest saints and the generality. The foremost are said to be many among the first, that is the peoples of old, and few among the last, that is, the later peoples. And two other early suras introduce a third group between the two, the righteous, who are clearly those who are following the highest saints — clearly, because they are said to he drinking draughts which have been flavored from the two highest fountains of paradise Kafur and Tasnim. To these fountains only the highest saints have direct access. Such passages relate directly to the theme of this talk; that is, the Koranic origins of Sufism. They relate to it in a twofold way. Firstly, they show that the concept of a mystic elite was altogether familiar to the first generation of Islam. Secondly, they have proved, and still prove, to he an origin of Sufism for members of each new generation. The more spiritually sensitive readers of the Koran inevitably ask their elders what they must do to become one of the foremost. Or Because the foremost are brought near to God. what must I do to become near? And how can I become one of the righteous? And there is only one answer to these questions, though. needless to say, it is not always given.

These suras bring us to another aspect of the mystic content of the Koran. The highest saints are referred to in one passage as the “slaves of God” (LXXVI: 5-6). Now it is important to understand that certain words are to be understood at different levels. In one sense every creature is a slave of God, even Satan. But in one verse Satan is told, “Over my slaves thou hast no power” (XVII: 65). And here the word is clearly used in its highest sense to indicate those who have realized the fullness of humility and effacement towards God. Ritually. it is the prostration in the prayer which may be said to enact slavehood in its highest sense. The Prophet was told “Prostrate thyself and draw nigh” (XCVI: 19). in one verse of the Koran. which he commented on by saying “The slave is nearest to his Lord when he prostrates” (Ebn Hanbal II. 421). This establishes an Identity between the slaves and the foremost, which is another name for the highest saints. For the foremost are characterized by nearness to God. They are those who are brought near, which means those who have realized the fact that God is always absolutely near — to quote the Koran. “…nearer to man than his jugular vein” (L: 16). The general situation was wonderfully expressed by the Sufi. Farid ad-Din ‘Attar, the author of the Conference of the Birds, when he said “God is near to us. We are far from Him?”

Analogous to slavehood is poverty. All are poor. The Koran says “0 men, ye are the poor and God is the rich, the owner of praise” (XXXV: 15). Poverty applies to everybody like slavehood. Spiritual poverty is the realization of this dependence on God. and the Sufis call themselves ‘the poor’ (foqara). They use this word far more among themselves than they use the word ‘Sufi’. And the singular, faqir. or in Persian darvish, is the origin of fakir and dervish in English.

Near to the question of poverty is extinction, which is used in the Koran and which represents a necessary prelude to the highest state. Union with God. But, from an Islamic point of view. the word ‘Union’ tends to be avoided. One plus one makes two. It has to be naught plus one which makes One because the Oneness has to he maintained and the naught is what extinction means. One has to reduce oneself to nothingness in order to enter the Divine presence.

Now these words, like poverty, slavehood and so on, are used in different degrees, and may be interpreted at different levels; but there are certain things which are said in the Koran which have to be taken in a profound sense. On one occasion the Koran says. “It is not the eyesights that are blind, but blind are the hearts that are in the breasts” (XXII: 46). Now, in the whole of the ancient world, the word ‘heart’ had two meanings: the bodily heart and the center of the soul. that is, the heart of the soul. This higher or deeper heart is the gateway to the spirit. And it is that which is meant here by the word ‘heart’, and when one speaks of the *eye of the heart’, the reference is always to the center of the soul, not the center of the body, but of which the center of the body is as an image. “It is not the eyesights that are blind, but blind are the hearts… ” and the Prophet said in commenting on this verse, “For every-thing there is a polish that taketh away rust and the polish of the heart is remembrance of God,” (or ‘invocation of God’, for dhekr al-Allah can be translated either way). In other words, it is the essence of Sufism which is capable of taking rust away from the heart, the rust which prevents the eye of the heart from seeing. The heart is known to all ancient traditions as the organ of transcendent vision. We know from the Bible, when it says in Solomon, “I sleep but my heart is awake.” The Prophet said that his heart was awake like the hearts of the prophets before him. The wakefulness of the heart, of course, means that the eye of the heart is open. But the Koran makes it clear that this prophetic state can be shared in varying degrees by others. Throughout the Koran, almost as a refrain, are the words, “Only those who have hearts,” usually in the sense of those who heed the revelation and other signs of God (cf. Koran II: 197; XIII: 19; XXXIX: 9 & etc.). And this is the nearest thing in the Koran to the actual mention of the Sufi: one who has a heart.

This brings us to another essential point. If we consider what revelation is, and what the heart is, it is through the heart that the vertical axis passes, the axis which is known sometimes as the axis of the universe, or the tree of the universe (shajarat al-kawn). It is really the inward tree of life, which passes through the heart, and the heart thereby is the gateway to the Spirit, that is the gateway to the beyond, to all the highest spiritual states. Now Sufism, like all mystical schools, is concerned with man’s primordial nature. All mysticism is concerned with that. Man was, or is, by his primordial nature, the mediator between heaven and earth. The first preoccupation of mystics is to adopt a vertical point of view and reject what has become second nature to man, that is horizonality and outwardness. “They only know an outward appearance of this earthly life” (XXX: 7), the Koran says in one verse referring to the majority of people. To enter a mystical order means rejecting totally, as far as possible, that horizonality and that outwardness and adopting inwardness and verticality, that is adopting the Divine point of view instead of a human or worldly point of view.

The Koran, like every revelation, is nothing but verticality. We are always being snatched back to God, if we are on the horizontal for a few moments. There is always mention of descent continually throughout the Koran: sending down rain. sending down the revelation itself, sending down mercy. Apart from the continual mention of the Names of Mercy, every chapter begins with the words, “In the Name of God, the Infinitely Good, the Boundlessly Merciful.” There is also continual mention of the return of all things to God. Again and again we are reminded that we shall be brought back, that “unto Him is the Ultimate Becoming.” The whole book vibrates with verticality so that the Sufi is, as it were, at home in the Koran in the way that other people are not. People have complained that the Koran dots not have many stories in it. The reason for this is that one is being continually snatched back to God in the middle of the story. There is one story in which it seems as if someone had made that complaint to God, and He had said by concession, “Well I will tell you a story,” and that is the story of Joseph which is wonderfully told from beginning to end, but again, not without being snatched back to God several times. In a word, the Book Is a perpetual descending and a perpetual ascending; and there is the ever-repeated cadence in the Koran of the words, “the heavens and the earth” (al-samawat wa’a-ardh) which continue to echo in one’s soul after reading the Koran, a cadence that haunts us, as it were. with the whole vertical hierarchy of existence. This verticality is bound, in a sensitive person, to awaken an inward verticality, or what used to be his first nature, the nature of one who is the mediator between heaven and earth.

There is another question which is, to some extent, related to the question of inward verticality. This has also to do with the Koran as revelation. It has nothing directly to do with the contents of the Koran, but simply with the revelation itself. Man was made in the image of God: he was made to be mediator between heaven and earth, and he is still virtually what he was created to be. But, in the majority of people. that first nature has been concealed by an impenetrable rubble of second nature. Nonetheless, it is there, and naturally the question arises as to what is the most powerful thing that could awaken this first nature in the depths of men’s souls? One might say that the answer is the founding of a new religion, or more precisely, the Divine intervention, which constitutes the founding of a new religion. To use the image of a fire, we can say that this first nature of man, which is hidden, in the depths of his second nature, is an inflammability. It is an inflammable substance, liable to burst into flame when It comes close to fire. Now the descent of the Koran. and in fact the whole period of the Prophet’s mission, means a descent into this world of incalculable spiritual powers.

The Koran itself speaks in one of the suras, named after the night in which the Prophet received the Koran from the Archangel, of that night known as Latta: al-Qadr. night of power. This sura begins “Verily we sent it down in the Lailat al-Qadr, and what will tell thee what the Lailat al-Qadr is. The Lailat al-Qadr is better than a thousand months. The angels and the Spirit descend therein” (XCVII:4). This descent of the angels and the Spirit must be considered as extending beyond the great night itself because the Archangel Gabriel was continually present throughout the Prophet’s mission. It must be extended to the whole of his mission and the whole period of Divine intervention, when the earthly state we are in was penetrated by spiritual influences. That must have caused many virtual spiritualities to burst into flame. I used the symbol of fire because the sun is one of the great symbols of the spirit. In a word, the exceptional circumstances of the life-time of the Prophet, his own presence, the descent of the revelation and the descent of the celestial powers attendant upon it — all this was bound to awaken the latent spirituality in men’s souls. It is almost certainly for that reason that the Prophet said. “The best of my people are my generation.”

We cannot ignore in this context the sayings of the Prophet, because many of them, especially those which relate to Sufism. are what are called Holy Traditions (ahadith-e qodsi), so-called because God speaks in the first person on the tongue of the Prophet. Many other traditions, those in which the Prophet speaks in the first person, are comments on verses of the Koran. “My earth is not vast enough to have room for me, neither is my heaven. but the heart of my believing slave is vast enough to have room for me,” is said to be a comment on what the Koran says about the heart. That is equivalent to one of the most basic sayings of Christ. “The kingdom of heaven is within you.” It tells us that within us lies the infinite. Another Holy Tradition answers the question about nearness, which is so much mentioned in the Koran, as if somebody had asked, “What do I do to be near?” “My slave ceaseth not to seek to draw near to me with devotions of his free will until I love him and when I love him I am the Hearing with which he hears, the Seeing with which he sees, the Hand with which he smites, the Foot on which he walks.” And that is, again, the essence of Sufism.

The Sufi rites are based on what the Koran prescribes or recommends. They thus include all that is obligatory to Islam to all Muslims: the five prayers. the fast of Ramadan, the giving of alms, the pilgrimage, if possible. as well as the voluntary devotions mentioned in the hadith quoted above. We have already mentioned the invocation of the Divine Name as the essence of Sufi practice. Another of the practices of the Sufis is the saying of the rosary, usually containing three formulae. The first one asking forgiveness of God, the second invoking blessings on the Prophet and the third one testifying to the oneness and transcendence of God, but all these formulae are taken from the Koran itself. Another practice is the spiritual retreat, which one might say is pre-Islamic, but which was originally taken from the Abrahamic tradition and incorporated, like the pilgrimage, which was also Abrahamic, into Islam by the Prophet himself. Therefore it can be said that Sufism has all its origins in the Koran and that it began in all but name with the beginning of Islam itself.

(Lecture given by Martin Lings, on April 1, 1993 at the Temenos Academy, London.)


Hajwiri, A. (1911). Kash al-Mahjub: the Oldest Persian Treatise on Sufism, R.A. Nicholson (trans.). London & Leiden.
Massignon, L. (1975). La Passion d’Al-Hallaj, Martyr mystique de l’Islam. Paris.