Irfan and Sufism
Thesis: What westerners know as Sufism is a combination of Sufism and a broader
concept known in Iran as Islamic Irfan, and for both disciplines, Persian classic
poetry is the powerful medium that their masters chose to communicate and
teach their lessons.
B. Who is an ‘Aref.
A. Definition and origin
B. Sufism and Islamic Irfan
III. Poetry, a Prefect Medium
A. Multi layer poetry
Recently, Sufism or Islamic mysticism is becoming known in western
countries, and is associated with its Icon Jalal Al-Din Rumi, Persian poet (1207-1273), or
its practices such as sama’, or so called sufi dance. Although Irfan is not as well known
as Sufism, it existed in Persia in different forms before and after the introduction of Islam
to Persians. What westerners know as Sufism is a combination of Sufism and a broader
concept known in Iran as Islamic Irfan, and for both disciplines, Persian classic poetry is
the powerful medium that their masters chose to communicate and teach their lessons.
Irfan or Ma'rifat are Arabic words that correspond to the Greek ‘gnosis’, or a form of
spiritual knowledge. These terms have been used to define a combination of knowledge
and emotional practices. Irfan is translated to mysticism, defined as “the attempt to gain,
or practice of gaining, a knowledge of real truth and union with God by prayer and
meditation”.i Most people think of Irfan as an Islamic term, but in fact, it is originally a
way towards the plain truth, regardless of the religion. Although Irfan is an Arabic word,
its concept existed before Islam, associated with Zoroastrianism, ancient Persian
religion, or Buddhism in different parts of Persia. An ‘Aref is a person who believes in
his or her potential to reach perfection, or God. ‘Arefs practice a divine, non-
materialistic, form of love and “… are characterized by their inward approach in their
relationship with God.”ii ‘Aref in Arabic means a person who has knowledge; however, it
is different from a scientist. To make this difference clear, there is a story about a
meeting between two Persian Icons, Avicenna (Ibn-Sina), a scientist, and Abu-Saeed
Abel-Kheir, an ‘Aref. After their meeting behind closed doors, they were asked by their
students about the outcome of the meeting. Avicenna said, “Whatever I know he sees,”
and Abel-kheir said, “Whatever I see he knows.”
Defining the origin of Sufism is not an easy job. The name Sufism came from Suf, which
is a rough-hair woolen cloth. The pioneers of Sufism were called Sufi because of their
habit of wearing Suf.iii Cyprian Rice’s definition gives a clear picture about Sufism and
The Sufis never set out to found a new religion, a mazhab or denomination.
They were content to live and work within the framework of the Moslem religion,
using texts from the Quran much as Christian mystics have used to Bible to
illustrate their tenets. Their aim was to purify and spiritualize Islam from within, to
give it a deeper, mystical interpretation, and infuse into it a spirit of love and
liberty. In the broader sense, therefore, in which the word religion is used in our
time, their movement could well be called a religious one, one which did not aim
at tying men down with a new set of rules but rather at setting them free from
external rules and open to the movement of the spirit.iv
In fact, this definition is quite useful to define Irfan as well, except for its emphasis on the
association with Islam, which makes it Islamic Irfan. This shows why Sufism and Islamic
Irfan are often confused. While Sufism is the concept that is better known in western
countries, possibly because of its practices such as Sama’ or Sufi dance, it is merely
part of a broader spiritual movement that consists of both Islamic Irfan and Sifism. Sufis
have their practices, Zikr and Sama’, that help them to reach their desired level of
spirituality. According to Cyprian Rice, Zikr, remembrance, “as used by the mystics, …
denotes the devout invocation and repetition of the holy Name of God, either alone or
enshrined in some formula.”v Sama’, listening or audition, is another practice in which
Sufis use a combination of mystical music, songs, and rhythmic movements, also called
Sufi dance, to attain a complete absorption in the real truth or God. Cyprian Rice has an
interesting description of Sama’:
Rumi and his followers gave themselves up without compunction to the ecstasy
caused by the Sama’ of instrumental music or of songs which, on the face of it,
often expressed profane love. Dancing was also pressed into the service of the
Poetry is the popular medium chosen by both Arefs and Sufis to present their messages
and lessons. Through poetry, they have a powerful tool to communicate with their
audience. In most cases when Irfan is the main theme of a poem, it has more than one
layer. This is because the mystical concepts are not easy for the average person to
understand. In fact, Arefs believe that higher levels of mystical knowledge might even
be dangerous for naïve people who do not know the fundamentals, and since they are
not prepared, they might be shocked by the exposure of plain truth. Therefore, most
Persian Aref poets such as Rumi and Hafez wrote their poetry with a romantic and
artistic style at the most superficial layer, along with a mystical message on a more
complex level. As a result, a Persian-speaking person can enjoy the poetry regardless
of his/her knowledge about Irfan or Sufism. Using mystical symbols enables poets to
have multi layer poetry. The symbols have physical meanings, which surprisingly, are
even selected from concepts that are prohibited in Islam, such as Sharab (wine), Mei-
Khaneh (the place in which liquor is served), or Saghi (a woman who serves liquor).
Using these symbols, Persian poets picture earthy forms of enjoyment as a symbolic
demonstration of what they gain by achieving high levels of spirituality.
Although in the past, the idea of Irfan or Sufism has been used as a revolutionary
approach for human perfection in Persia and some other eastern countries, Sufism
seems to be known and appreciated widely in the past few years (in 1996, Rumi was the
“best-selling poet” in America)vii. The following is Cyprian Rice’s opinion about the future
Perhaps we may say that if, in the past, its function was to spiritualize Islam, its
purpose in the future will be rather to make possible a welding of religious
thought between East and West, a vital, oecumenical commingling and
understanding, which will prove ultimately to be, in the truest sense, on both
sides, a return to origins, to the original unity.viii
Rice is suggesting, in other words, that the idea of Irfan might be the best choice for
those who are tired of their materialistic life and looking for a new way to reconcile their
life and their spiritual needs in the 21st century.
Longman Interactive American Dictionary, Addison Wesley Longman Ltd. 1997.
Mary Kim, “Rumi Lives on Through the Community of Spirit,” The Source 4 July 2001: 3.
Mir Valiuddin, The Quranic Sufism, (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1977), p. 2.
Cyprian Rice, The Persian Sufis, (London: George Allen and Unwin Ltd., 1964), p. 9.
Ibid, p. 89.
Ibid, p. 97.
Kim, p. 3.
Rice, p. 10.
Kim, Mary. “Rumi Lives on Through the Community of Spirit.” The Source 4 July 2001: 3.
Longman Interactive American Dictionary, Addison Wesley Longman Ltd. 1997.
Massignon, Louis. Hallaj: Mystic and Martyr. Trans. and Ed. Herbert Mason. Princeton, NJ: Princeton
University Press, 1994.
Rice, Cyprian. The Persian Sufis. London: George Allen and Unwin Ltd., 1964.
Valiuddin, Mir. The Quranic Sufism. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass, 1977.