The Cosmopolitan Language of Sufism
by Muhammad Ashraf
'We Are Devotees of Love; We Do Not Have Time for Enmity' – Said Nursi [1877-1960 CE], a Turkish Sufi Saint (Damascus Sermon)
I have been a serious researcher on Sufism, specializing in the Arabic and English versions of Sufi texts, for a long time. My conviction is that this spiritual path, which has supported and influenced almost all the faith traditions, as well as secular humanism, in our world, has helped, with its diverse forms in multiple languages, humans in acquiring a foundation of hope for reconciliation between different nations and cultures. Islamic Sufism has attracted adherents among secular humanists, Jews, Christians, Hindus and Buddhists. Hence, Sufism has been considered by many as a compassionate life journey beyond religious and philosophical borders.
In this short essay, I will put forth an argument in particular, that the diverse languages of Sufi literature have already developed a transnational humanity, a world of cultural openness and a roadmap to global harmony. And more generally, I will argue that the ability to be expressed in many languages has helped humanity to advance practically its capacity to know each other and to live with the diversities of our world. In what follows, I would try to sketch the pivotal role of multilingualism in developing a world of pluralism and constantly widening intercultural dialogues and exchanges. In doing so, I would rely on the method of Sufi literature ranging from classical Arabic and Persian literature to its present forms, including Turkish and Balkan variants, since all the mystical narratives are a literary treasure useful for a significant portion of the world population. The identity of global citizenship may epitomize the Sufi character of mercy and love towards all of humanity.
Multilingualism in the Global Village
Many travelers from different corners of the world have transcended geographical boundaries by engaging in cultural and philosophical transactions. They could imbibe various dialects and regional diversities and give form for the new traditions to come in each region. Sufis have been important examples for such travelers. The cosmopolitan character of the scriptural languages that they learned was responsible for the development of an illuminating exchange between them and the native speakers. Ibn Battuta, the Moroccan traveler who roamed from Tangier to the extreme southern parts of the known world, has conceptualized the cosmopolitan utility of the Arabic language, as he could even serve as a judge in the royal court of Muhammad bin Tughluq in India during the 14th century CE. The ability he possessed in many languages (he is often credited with learning fifteen languages) helped him to engage in dialogue with different cultures. It is said that he even learned Sanskrit during his stay in India.
Many Indian contributions to philosophy and science were translated into Arabic and later to English. Muslims, including those who resided in the eastern Christian lands, are known for preserving Greek philosophy and science, the works of Aristotle and Plato – to name only the important – and helping the West to regain them through their Arabic versions. This knowledge exchange was done by the ability of scholars in many languages.
The Western artist Gary Bunt has said of the modern digital world, that it has become in many ways a transnational state of cultural and religious interactions. The ability to use many languages helps us explore distinct religions and cultures. More significantly, it prepares a way to cultural openness. Modern multilingual scholars have delved deeply in the understanding of Sufi literatures. And they can even illustrate and elucidate the pluralist teachings of Sufi saints such as Rumi and Al-Ghazali. Their influence is felt on the Kabbalah, on the successors of the Judeo-Arabic scholar and Jewish philosopher Maimonides, and on Christian monastic mystics such as Saint John of the Cross and Saint Teresa of Ávila, as well as the modern American Transcendentalists. When Islam is considered at least by some only in the image of brutal militancy by terrorists claiming to act in the name of faith, the understanding of Sufi literatures and their translations may be influential in the reconciliation between the Judeo-Christian tradition and the Islamic world, helping to forge a way of learning, and practicing the blossoming of coexistence of peoples in the Semitic religious family.
Sufi Literature and Hope For Humanity
From the classical period onwards, Sufi texts have been read to achieve knowledge of spiritual mysteries, the recognition of inner selves and devotion to the Almighty. Those who wished in the past to understand these collections of metaphysical teachings had to acquire the authors' languages. But every important work on metaphysics has now been translated into the languages of the world religions. Many Americans who have read him in translation know Rumi and his devotion to love.
In addition, the illuminating insights of Sufi literature have attracted many modern readers who seek verses for meditation to gain calm and serenity. The Sufi orders around which Sufi literature revolves are similar to the Jewish schools of traditional Kabbalah and Christian monastic institutions. Sufi practices may include dhikr, the remembrance of the God through a variety of forms such as singing, dancing, reading, seclusion and sermons. They further include charitable services to the poor. Therefore, someone who believes in and practices Sufi rituals may remain non-Muslim in the modern world.
As Sufism has found a significant number of adherents among Westerners (both Jewish and Christian), Easterners (both Hindus and Buddhists) and Zoroastrians, this Sufism has produced a diverse, distinguished and interesting literature. This literature embedded with love towards nature and humanity may enlighten readers in the present age. Consequently, they will strive to preserve nature for posterity, in a time of ecological imbalance, and treat every human being as their brothers and sisters in a world situation of extensive migration. This literature will help forge an identity for humanity that must be the embodiment of global citizenship.
Sufi literature is considered as a way to worldwide harmony because almost all the Sufi teachers were conversant in practical terms with other major faith traditions such as Judaism and Christianity. For instance, Sufis always recited a prophetic phrase, which says of God: 'I was a hidden treasure, and I desired to be known, and I created the world that I might be known'. Prophet Muhammad described this as an answer given by God to a question by the Jewish King David. David asked why the world was brought into being. As Sufism embodies mutual respect, cooperation between every human being and a respect for all believers, Sufi literature produces strategic engagement, with other disagreements being grounded in the practice of merciful conversation.
Said Nursi was one of the foremost Muslim theologians and saints in the Ottoman empire, who maintained through his writings a powerful dialogue with the emerging trend of secularism and with other faith communities. Sufi literature never stood for implementing any racial superiority such as that of Arab culture over others in the Muslim lands.
The reading of 'others' and our reading the 'other' would help us engage in an important exchange of ideas and a significant understanding of each other. Miguel Asín Palacios, a Spanish Catholic scholar, identified Sufism as 'Christianized Islam', while engaged in a reading of Ibn Arabi, the ecstatic Sufi scholar in the classical period. Asín Palacios argued that Sufism brought two rival religions together. And even though the proposal that God had any offspring is unacceptable to Muslims, Jesus as an emissary of the divine love is a classical Sufi Muslim interpretation. And the praise of and love for Jesus has remained significant in classical Islam. These conceptions would only bolster the relation between traditions and cultures.
Multilingual ability has many peculiar aspects in this understanding of one each other, rendering everyone as an integral part of our broader humanity. If Rumi has become a best-selling poet in the United States, it is to be stated axiomatically that translated works in and about Sufism have a profound impact in disseminating this beautiful solution of love for the clashes of cultures and civilizations. Through these writings, Westerners are capable of finding spiritual tranquility and psychological stability amid worldly chaos. And many times, practicing Jews and Christians partake in reading Sufi texts and benefit from their higher awareness of spirituality while remaining truly faithful to their own traditions.
One of the parallel aspects in spiritual philosophies of Jewish, Islamic, and Christian mysticisms can be found in the famous quote attributed to the woman Sufi saint Rabiya Al-Adawiyya who spoke eloquently about divine love: 'I have never worshipped God so that I would be rewarded; nor have I prayed to be saved. If I did I should be an ordinary servant. I pray only because I love God with all my soul. To weep and cry out for God's mercy would be for nothing; for all I want is to approach God and dissolve my inner self in Him'. This is also one of main and overarching themes in Jewish and Christian mysticisms. And it is even said by many that the writings of Rabiya and her descendants resembled parts of the Song of Songs, which is ascribed to Solomon and studied by traditional Jewish Kabbalists. There are many teachings of this variety in metaphysical literature, describing purification of the mind, entertaining services to humanity and spiritually realizing the self.
Once a man came to the house of the Sufi mystic Bayazid Al-Bastami and said he had spent a long time looking for Al-Bastami. Al-Bastami answered, 'I have spent thirty years searching for Al-Bastami and have yet to find him'.
Multilingual ability fosters a significant potential for humankind to define its interactions and cultural understanding in a broad, humanitarian sense. Interested in living with the diversities of the world, modern people in the time of globalization read and benefit from multiple Sufi literatures in their original and translated forms. These Sufi literatures project for humanity a means to avoid the clash of cultures and religions, to a mutually beneficial and enriching encounter of various traditions, both religious and secular humanist.
The effort to understand multiple dimensions in other faith traditions and cultures is especially significant today. Multilingual ability and Sufi literature bring about a synthesis of the various cultural and religious dimensions present in the world. More than a spiritual journey, Sufism possesses an inherent means of settling the mind with calm and mercy for the entirety of humanity. Modern people in the globalized world should imbibe the way this Sufism works, while using multilingual abilities as an instrument in developing the notions of pluralism and harmony for all. Translation and multilingualism are necessary for a better tomorrow.
Consulted and Recommended Works
Amedroz, H.F., 'Notes on Some Sufi Lives', Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, July 1912.
Stephen Schwartz, The Other Islam, Doubleday, 2008.
Thachara Padikkal, Muhammad Ashraf, 'An interview with Prof. Ian Markham'. Café Dissensus Everyday (New York), September 14, 2015.
Thachara Padikkal, Muhammad Ashraf, 'Plural Islam in South Asia: An interview with Stephen S. Schwartz', Centre for Islamic Pluralism, December 11, 2015, Café Dissensus Everyday (New York), January 21, 2016.