Idries Shah on words for Sufis

Idries Shah’s 1964 book The Sufis, which I read over the holidays, has several interesting passages on language, a couple of which I quote below. The first excerpt concerns the history and use of the protean word Sufism and some of the various terms used to refer to Sufis:

Exactly how old is the word “Sufism”? There were Sufis at all times and in all countries, says the tradition. Sufis existed as such and under this name before Islam. But, if there was a name for the practitioner, there was no name for the practice. The English word “Sufism” is anglicized from the Latin, Sufismus; it was a Teutonic scholar who, as recently as 1821, coined the Latinization which is now almost naturalized into English. Before him there was the word tasawwuf – the state, practice or condition of being a Sufi. This may not seem an important point, but to the Sufis it is. It is one reason why there is no static term in use among Sufis for their cult. They call it a science, an art, a knowledge, a Way, a tribe – even by a tenth-century portmanteau term, perhaps translatable as psychoanthropology (nafsaniyyatalinsaniyyat) – but they do not call it Sufism.

Tarika-sufiyya stands for the Sufi Way; and makes a very good English parallel because tarika stands for Path, as well as a way of doing something, and also conveys the notion of following a path, a line or streak – the Path of the Sufi. Sufism is referred to by different names in accordance with the sense in which it is being discussed. Thus, ilm-al-maarifat (the science of Knowing) may be found; or el-irfan (the gnosis); and the organized Orders or groups tend to be called the tarika. Similarly, the Sufi is known as the Seeker, the Drunken man, the enlightened one, the good, the Friend, the Near One, the dervish, a Fakir (humble, poor in spirit), or Kalandar, knower (gnostic), wise, lover, esoterist. Because there would be no Sufism without the Sufis, the word always applies to people, and cannot be considered as an abstract form, as, say, “philology” or “communism” could mean respectively the study of words or a theory of communalist action. Sufism, then, involves the body of the Sufis as well as the actual practice of their cult. It cannot really mean any theoretical presentation of the Way of the Sufis. There is no theoretical or intellectual Sufism; any more than there can be a Sufi movement, which latter is a redundancy, because all Sufic being is movement and a movement embracing all phenomena of a similar kind.

Idries Shah - The Sufis book coverLater in the book Shah returns to the topic of definition, teasing out the subtleties in different perceptions and categorisations of Sufi and other words applied to the Sufis (albeit with some generalisation).

I’m reluctant to paraphrase much, because Shah’s prose is so deliberately structured and admirably plain:

A dervish is a Sufi. In North Africa, “dervish” is a term of respect, denoting something less than an arif (Knower, Wise One), while a Sufi is looked at askance as someone engaged in mysterious processes. In England, a Sufi is thought to be “a Mohammedan mystic of the pantheistic type,” while a dervish is something weird – what a North African might call a “Sufi.”

Although even kings may sign themselves “Fakir,” the label can be embarrassing in some places. A distinguished Indian academician said: “‘Fakir’ is confused with Hindu jugglers – and worse. I regard you not as a Fakir, but as a Man of the Path.”

Putting the word into a phrase helps to establish the usage. “He is a dervish,” means, “a good, simple person, devoted to truth.” “He is a Fakir,” means, “one who struggles to improve himself, with humility.” “He is a Sufi,” means, “one who follows the Sufi way,” also, “one who has attained progress in the Way.”

The confusion arises because of several factors. Not least of these is the fact that the Sufis do not use labels to denote fixed states or stages, since there is no such thing in Sufism. You can label a pound of butter “butter,” but a Sufi is never entirely a dervish or a Knower. His status changes in relation to the infinite gradations of truth and objectivity.

(Sufis’ aversion to labels is reminiscent of Alfred Korzybski’s warning, in his system of General Semantics, about what he called the is of identity. This philosophical approach to language gave rise to the variety of English known as E-Prime, which proscribes the verb be. Some writers adopted it for occasional use, and it remains an interesting experiment albeit one whose efficacy is disputed.)

Shah writes that the terms Sufi, dervish and Fakir are used in Sufi literature less often than Knower, lover, follower and traveller, because the former set “tend to be externalist labels”. He feels that dictionary definitions fall strikingly short, commenting on these entries in Chambers 1955:

DERVISH: “A member of one of numerous Mohammedan fraternities….”
SUFI: “A pantheistic Mohammedan mystic….”
FAKIR: “A religious (esp. Mohammedan) mendicant, ascetic….”

The meanings of the word “Mohammed” – or even “Mohammedan” – “fraternity,” “pantheism,” “mystic,” “religion,” “mendicant” and “ascetic” are different in Eastern usage, and especially in Sufi application, than in English.

A Persian dictionary, perhaps more poetically, if with less seeming precision, says: “What is a Sufi? A Sufi is a Sufi” – and succeeds in rhyming the entry: Sufi chist? – Sufi Sufi’st. This is actually a Sufi quotation. The compiler does not believe in trying to define the indefinable.

One reason definition can be elusive is the inconstancy of language, though dictionaries based on historical principles accommodate this to a degree. While going through my old Twitter favourites (which are like bookmarks) I rediscovered this wonderful expression of semantic change from historian and poet Matthew Battles:

Something tells me the Sufis would approve.

15 Responses to Idries Shah on words for Sufis

  1. I absolutely love Sufism. Its influence in southern Spain, where I am from, is quite felt in modern writers and philosophical works. I once wrote quite the lenghty paper on Sufism in Spanish catholic religion, using as an example St. Teresa of Avila; the examples of Sufi influence were all over the culture. One cannot talk Spanish literature and not consider islamic mysticism. Great article!

  2. Nate says:

    love your posts man!

  3. Susannah says:

    Fascinating post – I’m simply delighted to have found your blog!

  4. Stan Carey says:

    thinkingliketheancients: Apparently it has wielded quite a strong influence on Christian mysticism too. I’ve been intrigued by the Sufis ever since I first heard about them, though it has mainly been through Shah’s books that I’ve read anything substantial about them. (I encountered Rumi and Omar Khayyam before knowing they were of that tribe.)

    Nate: Thanks for reading!

    Susannah: You’re very welcome to Sentence first, Susannah.

    Changuita: :-)

  5. shailayeewhatsinsurname says:


  6. Anthony says:

    This book looks interesting. I find the Sufi fascinating. I did quite a bit of research once, though never did much with it, on the parallels between Beckett’s writing and Sufism.

    I came across a verse from the Qur’an that I liked and summed up what Beckett’s work does for me: ‘That it is He who brings about both laughter and tears.’

  7. Stan Carey says:

    shailayee: Glad you enjoyed it.

    Anthony: It is an interesting book. I was biased right from the introduction, where Graves draws links with the ancient Irish poets. (He also describes it as a book “not addressed to intellectuals or other orthodox thinkers, or to anyone who will fail to recognize it at once as addressed to himself”.) The parallels with Beckett sound intriguing.

  8. languagehat says:

    Since you didn’t make the point, I will: the point of a dictionary definition is not to please the people whose identity or belief is described by the term (although of course it should not pointlessly insult them, as so many premodern dictionaries did) but to describe as efficiently as possible how the word is used by the majority of the speakers of the language. In the case of specialized beliefs, this will of course differ from the usage of the believers, and they may well be unhappy with the definition, but that is their problem, not the dictionary’s.

    Also, I hope that’s a really old Persian dictionary, because a lexicographer who “does not believe in trying to define the indefinable” should go into some other line of work.

    • Carl Grove says:

      An interesting point. But, to take just one example, the definition of “animal” should be something like, “a life form capable of various types of movement,” whereas the majority of speakers of English, when asked to give an example of an animal, will give exclusively mammal exemplars. Should majority usage always outweigh specialised knowledge? And in this case, a Sufi is not a “believer” in the sense you mean, but a person who has followed a highly sophisticated training system and acquired certain special perceptions as a result. Since most of us don’t share those perceptions, including the frustrated lexicographer quoted, we can only admit that we just don’t know the answer.

      • languagehat says:

        English speakers are not lexicographers and of course would not produce acceptable dictionary definitions; the point is that a definition should describe what they mean by a word. The first definition of “animal” in the American Heritage Dictionary is:

        Any of numerous multicellular eukaryotic organisms of the kingdom Metazoa (or Animalia) that ingest food rather than manufacturing it themselves and are usually able to move about during at least part of their life cycle. Sponges, jellyfishes, flatworms, mollusks, arthropods, and vertebrates are animals.

        The first sentence is highly technical and represents the scientific consensus; the second gives examples so the ordinary dictionary user can get an idea of what is being described. The same dictionary defines “Sufi” as “A Muslim mystic,” which is obviously inadequate, but it gives the basic idea, all that the average dictionary user needs to know — if they want more detail they will have to go to a more specialized book. Your “a person who has followed a highly sophisticated training system and acquired certain special perceptions” is quite tendentious; plenty of people who call themselves Sufis haven’t followed any highly sophisticated training system, and the idea that they acquire “special perceptions” is, to say the least, disputable. I have a number of books on mystical Islam (and quite a few more on Islam in general), and I would never dream of trying to define Sufis or Sufism — the most I would do is give examples of certain schools and traditions.

        • Carl Grove says:

          Another interesting angle: “plenty of people” do call themselves Sufis, as you say, but according to long tradition genuine Sufis never refer to themselves as such: the ones who do are effectively announcing their falsehood. Disputable the special perceptions (and abilities) may be, but that is the central claim of Sufism, and certainly demands part of any dictionary entry. But if — as you say — you would never dream of trying to define the Sufi phenomenon yourself, then “A Sufi is a Sufi” may be as good as it can get.

  9. SheikhShakur says:

    The sufis are the truth! Great post!

  10. Ben Y. Faroe says:

    Reblogged this on Ben Y. Faroe and commented:
    This is a bit of a departure from my usual content, but only because my blog is still young. This beautiful and fascinating post hit a major sweet spot for me. I love precision of language and tracing shifts in usage. Persian culture and poetry were a big influence on my Dad’s work with Ottoman Turkish. Best of all, this revitalized my thirst to seek my God in moment-by-moment practice as one drunk with love.

  11. Ben Y. Faroe says:

    Thank you for this. It touched me deeply. And I love the rigor of your background study on this. Absolutely fascinating!

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