The Sufi Path[1]

The Definition of Sufism

Different definitions have been given of Sufism (Tasavof) and gnosis (‘irfan), all of which amount to much the same thing. Tasavof is the journey of the soul in search of the Truth, as well as its arrival. This is the renunciation of everything but God. It is paying complete attention and having a heart-felt connection to Him. It is infinite resignation to the point that one sees nothing but God with the vision of the heart, to the point that all other beings are seen as mere shadows of the Divine, until the state is reached in which “There is no being but God,” and “There is nothing but Him (HU).”

The Origin of Sufism

There are a number of different ideas concerning the origin of Sufism, even with regard to the nation and religion in which it originated. Some say that it began in India, while others claim that it began in Iran among the Zoroastrians, and still others propose that its origins are to be found in the Platonism of ancient Greece. However, with respect to the definition of Sufism or gnosis given above, its origin is to be found in the very truth of religion itself. The quest for the Divine is an inherent aspect of man’s very nature and is not confined to any particular nation or religion. Hence, it is not necessary that any religion or nation should derive these ideas from another; all of them have drunk from the same source. In Islam, Sufism or gnosis is the inward dimension of the religion, like the kernel of a nut whose shell is the outward rules (Shari’ah) and whose kernel is the path (Tariqaht) whose principles have been handed down from the Prophet, to the Imams, and from them to their authorized Sheikhs.

The Etymology of Sufism

Scholars have different theories about the etymology of Sufi. Some say it has its etymological root in the word Suf (wool), while others say it is from Safa (purity), and still others say it is from suffah (porch) and the sincere companions who used to gather at the porch of the Prophet’s house, and there are yet others who claim that the word is derived from the Greek Sophia (wisdom). There are also different theories about when the term became current. There are reports of the sayings attributed to the Prophet and Imam ‘Ali from which it can be concluded that the word Tasavof was used by them. However, most scholars are of the opinion that the word was first introduced in the middle of the second century of the Islamic era (toward the end of the ninth century, C.E.). It is thought that the first man who was known as a Sufi was Abu Hashim Kufi. Whether any of these theories are correct or not, the truth of Sufism, as we have already mentioned, is not something separate from Islam but has been present with Islam from its inception, although the word may have gained currency later.

The History of Sufism and the Sufi Orders in Islam

After the Prophet, the Imams and their authorized Sheikhs spread Sufism. The chains of authorization may be traced through the Sheikhs to the Imams, and then through Imam ‘Ali to the Prophet. For the most part, the Sufi saints practiced dissimulation (taqiyyah) with respect to the Islamic religious law and apparently followed the school of jurisprudence that was dominant in their areas of residence. During the sixth and seventh centuries of the Islamic era (the twelfth and thirteenth centuries C.E.) the way of Sufism, or faqr (spiritual poverty), reached the height of its popularity and Sufi saints like Ibn ‘Arabi, Attar and Rumi wrote important books about the mysteries of gnosis (‘irfan) and the ‘journey toward God’ (Suluk).

The Ni‘matullahi Order of Sufism

One of the most famous saints in the history of Sufism was Sayyid Shah Ni‘matullah Wali (A.H. 731-831/1338-1428 C.E.), and all Shi’ia orders of Sufism trace their ancestry to the his Order, which has subsequently become known as the Ni‘matullahi Order. The uninterrupted record of the chain of authorization of this Order can be traced to Ma‘ruf Karkhi, who was the authorized sheikh of Imam Reza (A.H. 148-202/765-818 C.E.). Shah Ni‘matullah Wali is the author of more than three hundred works about the mysteries of Sufism according to a Shi’ia interpretation. He was the renewer of this Order, and most of the Sufis of his day in the other orders submitted to him. Most of

The Shi’ia Sufis after him have followed his way and have even followed his style and method in their writings. In more recent centuries, one of the vicegerents of Shah Ni‘matullah Wali is Hajj Mullah Sultan Muhammad Gonabadi, whose spiritual title is Sultan ‘Alishah (A.H. 1251-1327/1835-1909 C.E.). He was one of the most famous Gnostics (‘Urafa) and ‘Ulama in Iran. His chain of authorization has been recorded from Shah Ni‘matullah Wali. During his time, the Ni‘matullahi Order became more famous and popular. He is also the author of many books on Islamic, especially Sufi, topics, including an exegesis (tafsir) of the Qur’an called Bayan al-Sa‘adah (four volumes, in Arabic). His successor was Hazrat Hajj Mullah Nor ‘Alishah (d. A.H. 1337/1918 C.E.), who in turn was succeeded by Hazrat Hajj Muhammad Hassan Saleh ‘Alishah (d. A.H. 1386/1966 C.E.), author of Salehi’s Advice,[2] followed by Hazrat Hajj Sultan Hussein

Tabandeh Gonabadi, whose spiritual title is Reza ‘Alishah. He is the great grandson of Hazrat Sultan ‘Alishah, and is also one of the famous Islamic Gnostics and ‘Ulama. He has written many books, including commentaries on parts of the Qur’an. He passed away on the eleventh of Rabi‘ al-Awwal, A.H. 1413, the ninth of September 1992, may he rest in Peace. He was succeeded by his son, Hazrat Hajj ‘Ali Tabandeh, whose title in Tariqaht is Mahboub ‘Alishah. He is the author of Khorsid-e Tabandeh, a detailed biography of his father along with a detailed introduction to Sufism, as well as several other unpublished works. He passed away on the sixth of Ramadan 1417, the sixteenth of January 1997, may he rest in Peace.[3]

Characteristic Teachings of the Ni‘matullahi Gonabadi Order

(1) Members of the Order are required to observe the religious law (Shari’ah) strictly, and to respect the external aspects of the religion, even to the extent that they avoid religiously discouraged activities (makruhat), and regularly perform recommended acts (mustahabbat) including maintenance of ritual purity, performance of prayers at the recommended times, vigil in the early dawn, and recitation of the Qur’an.

(2) Members are required to work for a living, and to avoid idleness. Even the masters of the Order have often engaged in farming to support themselves. Those who are addicted to opium and other drugs are not admitted to the Order, and smoking opium is expressly forbidden. Despite the emphasis on gainful employment, work is forbidden from Thursday evening until Friday afternoon, which time is reserved for ritual observation in accordance with the injunction of the Qur’an (in Surah Jum‘ah).

(3) The followers of the Order are enjoined to respect the followers of other orders and the adherents of other religions, and to treat them with kindness. They are to accord praise and blame to the deeds of others and not to the persons who perform them. A wayfarer (Salik) on the spiritual path is to obey the order to be in servitude to God, to be kind and benevolent to people in general, and to demonstrate humility and to be at the service of the other wayfarers on the spiritual path.

(4) As far as possible the number of wives should be limited to one. Divorce is also allowed only in case it is absolutely impossible for the couple to live together, or in case the religious life of the partners would otherwise be corrupted.

(5) Respect is to be accorded to the ‘Ulama who are authorized to narrate sayings of the Prophet and Imams and to propagate the religious law, because it is believed that the religious law (Shari’ah) is the basis of the spiritual way (Tariqaht).

(6) The followers of this Order are not permitted to engage in politics or in political parties under the auspices of Sufism.

(7) There is no special distinctive dress for the members of the Order so as to avoid causing divisions among the Muslims. Sufism is considered as something spiritual which does not require any special outward appearance.

(8) The masters of the Order believe that religious authorization (idhn) is required in both external religious affairs (Shari’ah) and in matters of the way (Tariqaht). Occupation in religious affairs without such authorization is prohibited. The documented chain of authorization must be traced through the Imams and through them to the Prophet. The authorization for being Master of the Order has nothing to do with scholarship, publishing books, founding Khanaqahs, or any other socio-cultural affairs. The Prophet of Islam may the Peace and Blessings of Allah be with him and his folk, himself was illiterate, but, as is stated by Allah, the Exalted in the Qur’an:

“Allah knows best where to place His message” (6:124).[


[1] This article was originally written in Persian by the late Qutb of the Ni‘matullahi Sultan ‘Alishahi Order, Hazrat Hajj ‘Ali Tabandeh, Mahboub ‘Alishah, at the request of some of the fuqara in Western countries. Minor revisions have been made in accordance with the instructions of the present Qutb, Hazrat Dr. Nor‘Ali Tabandeh, Majzoub ‘Alishah. [Translator].

[2] Pand-e Saleh was first published in Persian in 1939. The Persian text with an English translation first appeared in 1986, (Tehran: Husayniyah ‘Amir Sulaymani Library), and a second revised edition appeared in 1993. This is a concise epistle containing teachings and instructions of the Sufi path. [Translator].

[3] The present Qutb of the Order is Hazrat Hajj Dr. Nor‘Ali Tabandeh, whose title in Tariqaht is Majzoub ‘Alishah. He is the son of Hazrat Saleh ‘Alishah.

[4] Appended to this epistle are the proclamation of Hazrat Mahboub ‘Alishah delivered on the occasion of the fortieth day after the passing of Hazrat Reza ‘Alishah and the proclamation of Hazrat Majzoub ‘Alishah issued the day after the passing of Hazrat Mahboub ‘Alishah. [Translator].