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The Idea of Love and Compassion in Sufi Literature

Sami Rafiq


Sufi literature draws its inspiration from the core of the Quran, the sacred book of the Muslims. With its unique perspective on life and living, Sufi literature can offer solace and wisdom in the face of the trials and tribulations of modern existence such as existential alienation, exile, fragile peace, loss of values and meaningless violence.The paper attempts to explore sufi literary texts for the hope and redressal they offer in a world that is a constant struggle against risks which could be material, emotional or spiritual. 

The paper will take into consideration the Sufi literary texts by Ibn Arabi, Muhammad Iqbal and Idries Shah. Ibn Arabi was a seminal thinker and Sufi of the 11th c.

The great poet, writer, philosopher and mystic, Mohammad Iqbal belongs to the 20th century whose works are inspired by the great mystic poet Jalaluddin Rumi.

Idries Shah also called a modern American Sufi writer has been very popular for introducing Sufism to the west.A close study of these texts will reveal the spiritual and the transcendental elements in the esoteric Sufi mind.

Modern society and the modern world could be defined as a synonym for risk because of the precariousness of human existence which is poised between many forces which could be political, commercial or psychological (pertaining to the self ). The combined impact of all these forces puts the individual at risk that could be defined on many levels. But the gravest, is the fear of losing one's identity or values.

The paper will demonstrate how Sufism addresses the redressal of risks through a spiritual point of view. Great spiritual leaders have offered human beings a salve and a source of hope through their lives and writings. In this context Sufism doesn’t owe its origin to any single leader, rather it is based on a spiritual essence that is shared by the spiritually evolved everywhere irrespective of race or religion. The word Sufi is derived from the Persian word 'suf' meaning wool corresponding to the cotton gown of the seeker. For the Sufis ‘seeking’ is a metaphor that can be associated not only with religion, but also with art, dance and music.

The Sufi is essentially a lover of God and his/her life is devoted to preparing the soul for a meeting with God. There have been different Sufi systems in various countries which have variously interpreted Sufism, but the basic tenets of the relationship between the Sufi and God are the same.The Sufi's vision of life is profound for it demonstrates a path to God through learning and soul testing.

The events of Sufis' lives of simplicity and self discovery hold the keys to redress and resolve the risks of modern life. To study Sufism in its entirety would lead one into entirely unrelated fields such as philosophy and psychology.

The Sufi texts under consideration are in different forms such as poetry, stories and anecdotes.

In the poetry genre Jalaluddin Rumi's Masnavi is perhaps the most famous of all mystical poetry and has inspired and influenced many writers in the East and West alike and has been translated in many languages around the world. The poetic work titled Payam -e -Mashriq by Allama Iqbal has been strongly influenced by Rumi's Masnavi and is important as a valuable resource for ideas related to spiritual evolvement.

In his book of verse Payam- e –Mashriq (originally in Persian) Iqbal talks about identifying one’s soul and one's goals through different images and different couplets.


The following verse:

Dil e man roshan soz e duroon ast

jahaan been man az ashk e khoon ast

Ze ramze zindagi begana tar baad

Kasi ko ishq ra goyad junoon ast


These lines could be translated as --the talks about the heart being aglow with the inner light of love and the eyes weeping tears of blood have changed my vision of the world. The real secret of life and the real passion of life is love.(translation mine).

The next verse expresses that the purpose of a Sufi’s life as service to humanity.


Na paiwastam dar in bostansara dil

Ze bande in wa aun azade raftam

Chu bade subh gardidam dame chand

Gulaan ra aab wa range dade raftam


My heart does not stagnate in the garden of the world

Not bound by the world here and there

Like the short lived morning breeze

Giving dew and colour to the flowers and disappearing (translation mine)


This idea of death is an oft repeated subject in Iqbal's writing and Iqbal sees death as something that is feared by all.In the following lines he says that one should not fear death and rather learn the true secrets of life which would lead to an understanding the immortality of the soul.


Dilat mi larzat az andeshai marg

Ze beem ash zard maninde zareeri

Bakhud baaz aa khudi ra pukhte tar geer

Agar geeri? Pas az murdan na meeri


Your heart trembles with the fear of death

It turns yellow with fear

Return to yourself and strengthen your self

If you have caught it, you will die even in death (translation mine)


This idea has relevance to the risks of modern life where doubts and insecurities make a person weak and vacillating leading to a host of other ills. But to understand the immortality of the soul gives one focus and stability.


Iqbal also sees risk or strife or struggle as essential to the soul’s spiritual development in the following lines.


Myara bazm bar sahil ke anja

Nava e zindagani narm khez ast

Ba darya galt wa bamoujash dar awez

Hayat e javidaan andar sateez ast


Do not decorate the shore with hope

Where the sound of waves is soft

Drown in the sea and join the wave

Eternal life can only be found in strife (translation mine)


Therefore living life in all its struggle and strife is a must to develop wholeness of personality and to gain eternal life. According to Iqbal it is neccessary to engage in the turbulence of trials and agony in order to realize one's true self.

Iqbal gives importance to spiritual strength and wisdom. He contrasts material prosperity with spiritual wisdom and shows how acquisition of wealth cannot contribute to the spiritual enlightenment.



Bisaatum khali az murg e kabab ast

Na dar jamum mai aine taab ast

Ghazal e man khurd barg e gyahi

Wale khoon e dil e ou mushq e naab ast


My plate is empty of chicken kebabs

Niether does my goblet hold the glitter of wine

Like the deer I feed on grass

And its blood turns into musk (translation mine)


In other words he doesn’t need expensive food to produce spiritual wisdom.

He has used the life of Hazrat Ali as an example to show that physical strength does not come from expensive food. The life of the seeker is an example to show that material progress is more a hinderance than an incentive to spiritual evolvement. In relation to the risks of modern life which come from material prosperity, the idea is that material prosperity corrupts the soul and weakens the personality of the human being.

In yet another verse he refers to the mythical Narcissus which in Urdu poetry is 'nargis' a flower shaped like an eye that weeps at its blindness. In the following verse Iqbal uses the image of narcissus to suggest blindness towards the spiritual world. To save one's self from getting trapped in risks of stagnation and death found in the material world, Iqbal suggests that one awaken to the universe and the unseen spiritual world.


Chu Nargis in chaman na deede maguzar

Chu bu dar guncha e pecheda maguzar

Tura haq deeda e roshan tari daad

Khirad bedar wa dil khabida maguzar


Don’t leave this garden blindly

Don’t stay hidden like fragrance in flowers

God has given you brilliance of vision

Don’t have an awakened mind and sleeping heart (translation mine)


In another verse Iqbal talks about finding one's own way and not blindly imitating others.

Tarash az teesha e khud jada e kheesh

Barah e deegraan raftan azaab ast

Gar az dast e tu kar e nadir ayad

Guna hai hum agar baashad swaab ast


In his mystical poetry which is about the sufi/lover seeking God the beloved there is the transmutation of all material things into spiritual.

Muhyi-ad-Din Ibn Arabi (1165-1240) was a great Spanish mystic who wrote mystical poetry, Quranic commentaries, and works of philosophy, jurisprudence, theology, cosmology and spiritual psychology.

William C. Chittick in his book Ibn Arabi Heir to the Prophets writes thus about Arabi's concept of soul and consciousness:


Human knowledge then is an internal image of an external image....The internal image is more real than the external image. The external image, after all, pertains to the physical, inanimate realm of being and corruption, but the internal image pertains to a higher level of existence and reality, a realm that is identical with life, awareness and consciousness (Chittick 2005,108)


The inner world is the spiritual world which according to the Sufi is all important and its wakefulness and alertness determines how one deals with the risks of life. On a higher level the awakening of the soul is brought about by risking the loss of the material world along with all its attractions.


The lover in Ibn Arabi's collection of poetry titled Tarjuman Al Ashwaq, is one who sacrifices everything in order to reach God.


In Verse LVII the following lines express the Sufi's proximity and distance from the beloved. He is the seeker as well as the sought and has risked everthing to reach that point:


7. Is this a vague dream or glad tidings revealed in sleep or the speech of an hour in whose speech was my happy fortune?

8. Perchance he who brought the objects of desire (into my heart) will bring them face to face with me, and their gardens will bestow on me the gathered roses.


The material objects are symbolic of spiritual stages and stations that the Sufi passes through in order to unite himself with the Divine. The gardens are stations of beauty and illumination that the sufi experiences and it is a vague dream (7. 'Is this a vague dream?' (cf. Kor. xii, 44), i.e. this union is impossible, for my spirit cannot escape from the corporeal world).

The phrase vague dream counter poses the material and spiritual world and shows the difficulty of crossing over into the spiritual realm because of the material existence of the Sufi. This agony of being imprisoned in the material world is heightened even though the sufi has sacrificed everything.

In another verse there is a link created between God and creation showing the necessity of such a relationship for the seeker.

In verse X the seeker is proud that he has gained a vision of God in creation:


1. She said, 'I wonder at a lover who in conceit of his merits walks proudly among flowers in a garden.

'2. I replied, 'Do not wonder at what thou seest, for thou hast beheld thyself in themirror of a man.'

Here the flowers refer to created things and garden is Gods essence.

To her (who represents a quality of God) he answers that Man has found Gods essence reflected in creation

In verse XI the attributes of the heart have been brought out.For the Sufis the heart is a source of love. When the heart falls sleeps and only the intellect reigns supreme, human beings cannot determine their identity in a risk ridden world.


Yet another verse has been very popular among the spiritually inclined:


13. My heart has become capable of every form: it is a pasture for gazelles and a convent for Christian monks,

14. And a temple for idols and the pilgrim's Ka‘ba and the tables of the Tora and the book of the Koran.

15. I follow the religion of Love: whatever way Love's camels take, that is my religion and my faith.

These lines have inspired many sufi poets down the ages


In verse XXIV Ibn Arabi mentions a certain verse that he had heard from someone else and he tried to use the verse in his own writing. This verse shows how some people are blessed with Gods benedictions and some are not. Ibn Arabi happens to be one of those denied those benedictions which are lightening and rain which are symbolic of knowledge:


The author says: A dervish recited to me the following verse, to which I knew not any brother—'Everyone who hopes for thy bounty receives copious showers thereof; thy lightning never breaks its promise of rain except with me.'


The deeper significance of Arabi's predicament is applicable to a human being’s overwhelming identification with material possessions, because of which he/she  will not risk forgoing material wealth for the sake of spiritual wealth and knowledge. Ibn Arabi has actually reached such a high station that he cannot gain anymore knowledge. In a sense he has reached that station because he has taken the risk of sacrificing his ego and his material wealth for the love of God. In the context of the modern world, certain risks have to be taken to gain higher knowledge which would liberate one from fear and helplessness.

The stories of Sufis that have been icluded in the books by Idries Shah are especially illustrative of Sufi ideals and values that strenghten the soul to survive the risks of modern life.

In his book titled Seeker After Truth (Idries Shah 1982,27-29) there is a story titled “Recital of the Cave” taken from the Hadith or sayings of the Prophet. The Prophet narrated this tale to his companions that three men were going on a journey and got trapped in the cave where they were resting for the night. The cave was blocked by a large boulder.

Each began to recount the good deeds he had done in order to please God and perhaps be saved by a miracle.

The first one narrated how he stood by his sleeping parents all night and served them milk and food. After this the boulder moved a little.

The second one narrated how he had fallen in love with a beautiful blind girl, who refused to marry him. He sent her a large amount of gold with the message that she could have it all if she spent a night with him. She agreed, but he realized with the fear of God, that he was not doing the right thing. He therefore allowed her to have the gold and repented for his intentions. The boulder moved still further but the opening was not large enough to let them get out.

The third one said that he had hired some workers to do his work.When he paid their wages one worker had disappeared.

So the man put aside the man's wages and bought a sheep with them.That one sheep multipled into many. Many years later the worker appeared and asked for his wages. The man told the surprised worker to take all the sheep. The worker took away the sheep after the narrator convinced him that they belonged to him.

The three men in the story represent the three virtues (sabr) patience, (tauba) repentence and (khidmat) service to mankind. This story amply demonstrates that compassion and kindness are the common heritage of mankind.

In another story titled “The Man who found Fate” (Idries Shah 1982, 153-155) lies hidden the power of the human heart. The man who reasoned too much and did not let his heart express itself was the loser in this story.

A certain man called Najaf Kuli considered himself so unlucky so that he said even the waters of the river would recede when he went near them. He set out to find Fate and question him about his misfortune.

On the way he met three troubled beings: a wolf with a headache, a gardener with a walnut tree which would not bear fruit and a fish which suffered from wakefulness. They all wanted him to report their problems to Fate. When he finally found Fate (an old man with a long beard) he was overjoyed. To his query Fate replied that he should return and that he would find good fortune on the way. The prescriptions for the problems of the three others were thus:

That the fish had a huge pearl stuck in its nostril and removing it would bring it comfort; the wolf should eat a foolish man to banish his headache and the gardener should dig out the box of treasure at the root of the walnut tree which would free the tree to bear fruit.

When Najaf Kuli told the fish about the prescription the fish asked for his help but he refused saying that his good fortune lay ahead. He said the same thing to the gardener who asked him for help and was even ready to share the treasure. When he gave the prescription to the wolf, the wolf said ''I'm ready to eat you because you are the world's greatest fool.''

Realization then dawned on Najaf that he had closed his eyes to his good fortune. He saved himself somehow from the wolf and went back to the fish and the gardener.

By helping them he became comfortably established himself.

The story clearly reveals that Najaf represented human beings who will not risk the heart and will be losers. But when they open their hearts to love and compassion they acquire the wealth of wisdom and enlightenment symbolized by the rewards in the story.



Iqbal, Allama. 1993. Payam-e-Mashriq. New Delhi: Itqal Publishing House.

Chittick, William, C.2005. Ibn Arabi Heir to the Prophets. One Word Publications:England.

Arabi, Ibn.

Shah, Idries.1982. Seeker After Truth. London: The Octagon Press.