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					Irfan and Sufism

     Saeed Dyanatkar

         July 2001

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.

I.     Irfan
       A. Definition
       B. Who is an ‘Aref.

II.    Sufism
       A. Definition and origin
       B. Sufism and Islamic Irfan
       C. Practices

III.   Poetry, a Prefect Medium
       A. Multi layer poetry
       B. Symbolism
        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

its origin:

         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

of Sufism:
        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.

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