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'Sufi' Etymology

To: alt.magick.tyagi,alt.islam.sufism,alt.sufi,alt.consciousness.mysticism,talk.religion.misc
From: (haramullah)
Subject: 'Sufi' Etymology (was Re: On "What is Sufism")
Date: 3 May 1997 03:30:48 -0700

[technical difficulties enforced delay -- apologies for outdatedness]

49970501 AA1  May Day!   the beginning of SUMMER!

assalam alaykum, my kin.

the curious (!) mohsen said:
#It was said that "Sufi" comes from the word "Suf" whick means wool. It
#refers to individuals who used to cover themselves with wool, reject
#materialistic life and go to the Kaaba in Mecca where they used to
#meditate and worship.

shorn from the sheep, refined into a sheltering garment of strength,
worn by the faithful, enveloping and obscuring the master.

#It was also said that it comes form the Arabic word "Safa" which means
#"purified himself".

Orphic resonances?

#A third origin could be the word "Safwah" which means the chosen or
#selcted ones.

elitism.  the nation of those who submit to the divine.  the path of
the righteous, who enter by the narrow gate into Paradise.  the Special 
Lovers (habibs!) of the Most Compassionate.

#Any other ideas or possible origins?

	As there is no standard appellation for Sufism, the inquirer
	may turn to the word *Sufi* itself, and discover that it
	suddenly became current about a thousand years ago, both in
	Near East and Western Europe; and it is still in general use
	to describe particularly the best product of certain ideas
	and practices, by no means confined to what people would
	conventionally call 'religious'.  He will find plenty of
	definitions for the word, but his problem is now reversed:
	instead of coming up against a mere label of no great age,
	he gets so many descriptions of *Sufi* that he might as
	well have none at all.

	According to some authors, and they are in the majority,
	*Sufi* is traceable to the Arabic word, pronounced *soof*,
	which literally means 'wool', referring to the material
	from which the simple robes of the early Muslim mystics
	were made.  These, it is further claimed, were made of
	wool in imitation of the dress of Christian anchorites
	who abounded in the Syrian and Egyptian deserts and
	elsewhere in the Near and Middle East.

	But this definition, plausible though it may appear, will
	not solve our problems as to name, let alone ideas, in
	Sufism.  Equally important lexicographers, however, stress
	that 'wool is the garb of animals' and emphasize that the
	Sufi objective is towards the perfecting or completing of
	the human mind, not the emulation of the herd; and that
	the Sufis, always highly conscious of symbolism, would
	never adopt such a name.  Furthermore, there is the
	awkward fact that the Companions of the Bench -- the
	*Ashab as-Safa* -- are traditionally supposed to have been
	the Sufis of the time of Mohammed (who died in A.D. 632).
	It is said that they formed themselves into an esoteric
	group in the year 623, and that their name is a derivation
	from the phrase *Ashab as-Safa*.  Although some grammarians
	have pointed out that the 'wool' origin is more likely --
	and more probable than, say, the derivation from *safwa*
	('piety'), or eve4n *saff* (contracted from the phrase
	'First Rank of the Worthy') -- others have contested such
	opinions on the grounds that nicknames do not have to abide
	by the rules of orthography.

	Now the name is important as an introduction to the ideas,
	as we shall see in a moment.  Meanwhile let us take a look
	at its associations.  The Sufis claim that a certain kind
	of mental and other activity can produce, under special
	conditions and with particular efforts, what is termed a
	higher working of the mind, leading to special perceptions
	whose apparatus is latent in the ordinary man.  Sufism is
	therefore the transcending of ordinary limitations.  Not
	surprisingly, in consequence, the word *Sufi* has been
	linked by some with the Greek word for divine wisdom
	(*sophia*) and also with the Hebrew cabbalistic term
	*Ain Sof* ('the absolutely infinite').  It would not reduce
	the problems of the student at this stage to learn that it
	is said, with all the authority of the *Jewish Encyclopaedia*,
	that Hebrew experts regard the Cabbala and the Hasidim, the
	Jewish mystics, as originating with Sufism or a tradition
	identical with it.  Neither would it encourage him to hear
	that, although the Sufis themselves claim that their 
	knowledge has existed for thousands of years, they deny that
	it is *derivative*, affirming that it is an equivalence of
	the Hermetic, Pythagorean and Platonic streams.

	Our still uninitiated student may by now be thoroughly
	confused; but he has had a glimpse of the problems of
	studying Sufi ideas, even if only because he can witness
	for himself the unproductive struggle of scholastics.

	A possible refuge would be found if our man could accept the
	affirmation of a specialist -- such as Professor R. A.
	Nicholson -- or if he asked a Sufi.

	Now Nicholson says: 'Some European scholars identified it
	with Sophos in the sense of "theosophist".  But Noldeke...
	showed conclusively that the name was derived from *suf*
	(wool) and was originally applied to those Muslim ascetics
	who, in imitation of Christian hermits, clad themselves in
	coarse woolen garb as a sign of penitence and renunciation
	of worldly vanities.'

	This characteristic, if not venturesome, opinion was published
	in 1914.  Four years earlier, Nicholson himself had offered
	his translation of the eleventh-century *Revelation*, the
	earliest available Persian treatment of Sufism, and one of the
	most authoritative Sufi texts.  In its pages the author, the
	venerable Hujwiri, specifically states -- and this is doggedly
	translated but ignored by the Professor -- that *Sufi* has no

	Nicholson shows no curiosity about this claim, but thinking
	about it could have led him to an important idea in Sufism.
	For him, quite clearly, a word *must* have an etymology.
	Unconsciously assuming that 'no etymology' must be absurd,
	he looks no further in that direction, but, all undismayed,
	continues to seek an etymological derivation.  Like Noldeke
	and many others, such a mind will prefer the word 'wool' to
	the seeming paradox of 'no etymology'.

	This is surely the reason why, in his recent book on Sufism,
	the learned Dominican Father Cyprian Rice (an admirer and
	pupil of Nicholson) says, half a century after the publication
	of the English translation of Hujwiri's text (a version which
	he praises): '...from their habit of wearing coarse garments
	of wool (*suf*) {they} became known as Sufis.'

	But acquaintanceship with Sufis, let alone almost any degree
	of access to their practices and oral traditions, could easily
	have resolved any seeming contradiction between the existence
	of a word and its having no ready etymological deriviation.
	The answer is that the Sufis regard the *sounds* of the letters
	S, U, F (in Arabic, the signs for *Soad*, *Wao*, *Fa*) as
	significant, in this same order of use, in their effect upon
	human mentation.

	The Sufis are therefore, 'the people of SSSUUUFFF'.
	_The Way of the Sufi_, by Idries Shah, Arkana, 1990; pp. 13-6.

now that I've spoken kind words let me share with you some of
my own wrathful poetry, adjusted for your ears:

	die, die, oh lemming angsters
	taking up good meatspace
	born into tragedy, but a prelude
	end of the line, life
	give flesh to the worms,
	who relish the taste
	heads pressing against the windshield
	puritanism destroyed, tyrants vanquished

peace be with you, my kin.

see  and  call: 408/2-666-SLUG!!!
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 * * * Asphalta Cementia Metallica Polymera Coyote La Cucaracha Humana * * * 

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