The Four Duties of a Dervish
Oriental Department, May, 1894
The faith of Islam, the latest of the world-wide religions, is also, in many things, the most materialistic and dogmatic. The Semite peoples, Hebrew or Arab, Jew or Mahommedan, had always far less genius for the divine and mystical side of religion than for the human and formal. Their race character found its most congenial work in purification and ritual; in sincere, though almost always bigoted zeal.
But the mystical and spiritual side of religion belongs to a real and imperative demand of the soul. Even in the midst of dominant, dogmatic formalism, the soul will have its own; will express its own life in mystical and spiritual faith.
This unconquerable impulse of the soul to put forth its own life in the divine and mystical side of religion, is one of the most persistent facts in history. Even at the most adverse epochs, in the midst of materialist and formalist Islam, among the Semite Arabs, the original virtue of the soul bore its perfect flower of spiritual and mystic faith; and as the source of this divine side of religion is universal, so the teaching of the real mystic schools is universally the same, among all men, in all times.
The first school of divine religion among the Mahommedans, was the Arabian Brotherhood of Purity, that worked a golden lining into the religion of the Prophet eight or nine centuries ago; when the faith of Islam was three or four centuries old. One passage from the books of the Brotherhood of Purity will show the quality of their whole teaching; the unity of their teaching with the divine side of religion, all the world over. There is, they say, a grade of man which is near unto the angels:
The grade of men which is near unto the angels, is the grade of those whose souls have awakened from the sleep of folly to the life of reality; they possess a clear eye, and perceive by the light of their hearts the spiritual things that are hidden to the senses. By the purity of their essence, they have conscious knowledge of the world of spirits and lofty intelligences; they grasp the nature of those beings free from matter, the angels, the spiritual messengers, and all the bearers of the throne. Their beatitude becomes manifest to them; they strive to attain to it, and therefore avoid the lusts of this evolving and decaying world. Though by their bodies they are related to mankind, in their essence they belong to the angels.
This Arabian school declared the inner light of the soul, the divinity of man; the never-changing key-note of all who put forward the divine and spiritual side of religion. They taught the reality of the One Eternal, above all the gods; and the gradual putting forth of the worlds from the One, whither they are to return when their day of outward life is past.
Thus the golden lining shines through the dark cloud of Mahommedan bigotry, that spread over the whole mediæval world, from Spain to the Malay Peninsula. In its zealous, fanatical progress, the faith of Islam made war on the old religions of the world, threatening the faiths of India, and uprooting, almost destroying, the old Zoroastrian religion of Persia.
But even in Persia, all the fanatical zeal and tyranny of Islam could not hold back the divine and mystical side of faith. The soul that had built the old religion of Zoroaster, wove itself a new vesture out of the garments of Islam. The name of the Zoroastrian religion was driven out of the uttermost corners of Persia. But the spirit of the old mystical faith established itself in the very heart of the land. A new vesture hid the same aboriginal soul.
Much has been written of this Sufi mysticism of Persia; but its essence could hardly be summed up more briefly than in a tract on the Four Duties of a Dervish, which we shall translate in full. No name is attached to this tract; nor is the date of its origin quite certainly known. It was most probably written by a Sufi Master or Murshid, for his Murids or pupils. And the style would lead us to believe that it belongs to the sixteenth or seventeenth century, when the genius of the great Persian poet-mystics, Attar, Jellaluddin, Senai, and Saadi, had built up a rich symbolic imagery that colored all the writings of their successors.
The tract begins:
In the Name of the Merciful and Compassionate God.
Four Rules are laid down for the practice of a Dervish.
To look on the ground he treads.
To think on every breath he draws.
To long for his fatherland.
To find solitude even in society.
And the meaning of the rules is this.
To look on the ground he treads, is, having entered on the Path that was trodden by the Pilgrims of Salvation, and by those who have learned the Truth, to walk on it diligently, step by step.
And there is this verse:
—It is unthinkable, O Saadi, that one should enter the true Path, otherwise than by following the Chosen One.
To think on every breath he draws, is, to be careful never to spend a breath, without remembering the Supreme Builder.
And there is this verse:
—Never forget right mindfulness for a moment; for that very moment may be thy last.
To long for the fatherland, is, that, living in this world of men, he must direct himself to the world invisible, through true inwardness and meditation. Or, he must continually think on the life beyond; as that life is the real abode, the house eternal.
Said the Prophet, on whom be blessing:
—Death is a bridge that leads the loving to the Loving.
To be in solitude even in society; for he who is in love with God is in solitude even in society; as oil and water poured into the same vessel, do not mix. And he who sits enthroned, but has turned his heart away from Truth follows the poet’s words:
— He who turns from Truth, even for a moment, becomes an infidel, even though a secret one.
And there are these notes to the Second Rule:
I saw a righteous man who was holding council with himself, and said—O my soul, worship the Creator! and if thou dost not worship Him, then taste not His food.
Another word of God says:
—I have created spirits and men, that they should worship me.
Therefore be content with whatever food thou receivest from God; and if thou art not content, then seek another Master.
Thus said the Prophet, on whom be blessing:
—Abstinence is the pleasure of the Faithful.
Obey the laws of thy Creator; but if not, then leave his kingdom.
The Most High has said:
— Obey God, His ambassadors, and your Kings.
Sin not; but if thou wouldst sin, then seek a place where the Most High cannot see thee.
And there is this verse:
—Nothing is hidden from Thee; neither the world invisible, nor my secret thoughts.
And there are these notes to the Third Rule:
God, to whom be praise and glory, has made four pearls in man: Faith, Wisdom, Modesty, Virtue. But they have also their opposites: Falsehood, Wrath, Greed, Slander.
Said the Most High:
—Unbelievers are accursed from God.
Said the Prophet, on whom be blessing:
—Unbelievers cannot be my people.
The Law also forbids wrath. And in the Life of the Prophet it is said that modesty is generated by Faith.
And a poet has said:
—Desire and greed give men a yellow look; therefore man of virtue, force thy greed to droop its head.
Said the Most High:
—Be not unkind to each other; speak not evil of each other. For no one would eat the flesh of his dead brother, even though he hated him. Fear God, for God is forgive in and gracious.
Said the Prophet, on whom be blessing:
—Evil speaking is a greater sin than lust.
If these four opposites are active in a man, then the four pearls are lost.
And there are these notes to the Fourth Rule:
In a man there are three ruling principles or kings, Soul, Heart, Passion; and each of these has a subordinate principle or minister, Intelligence, Tongue, Satan. Intelligence is the servant of the Soul; Tongue is the servant of the Heart; Satan is the servant of Passion.
In the Sufi school, the Pilgrims on the road to Perfection—the whole human race—are divided into three classes. The first and highest class are those who have reached the goal. The second class are those who wander on the Path. And the third class are those who stand still on the road. But the true Sufis are only those of the first two classes and even not all of these. The first class is composed of pure pantheists, who seek the Eternal for the Sake of the Eternal, and to be united with the Eternal. The second class are the saints and martyrs, who seek the Eternal, but for the sake of bliss and life. And of the first class there are three subdivisions. First the Perfect Souls, who have reached their aim; the Imperfect Sufis; and the Secret Sufis, who think it a virtue to hide their good deeds from the eyes of men.
In accordance with their first principle—that the Eternal is in everything, and that everything is contained in the One—the pure Sufis say that happiness lies in the absence of selfishness and selfish desire; and in making the will one with the Eternal.
But others who claim to be Sufis say that when the personal will is abolished, a man need no longer resist bodily temptation and practise morality. And thus the pure pantheism of the true Sufis degenerated into a negation of the moral law, and a contempt for the world’s opinion; a philosophy of scepticism, a reaction from the original truth. This distorted philosophy has many followers; and they are divided into many classes and sects.
Among the Sufis, there are far more wanderers on the road of Perfection than perfect Adepts who have reached the goal. And the wanderers no longer take as their basis the pure pantheism of the perfect Adepts, but follow asceticism, seeking to gain immortality and bliss by neglecting the ties and duties of this life. Of the wanderers, there are four degrees; and each of these has its false disciples. The first are hermits, who have renounced the world altogether. The second are the servants of God; whose duty it is to serve the saints. They strictly perform all religious duties and charity. In the third degree are those who pay much heed to the forms and ceremonies of religion; distinguished thus from the second, who place charity above all other duties. These two degrees are not necessarily bound either to poverty or solitude; they may be wealthy and high in the world, but their salvation depends on a right use of their wealth. Then there is a fourth class, the Fakirs, who are also called Dervishes and they are closest to the pure Sufis. The Fakirs hate earthly possessions, from dread of eternal punishment, and the desire to obtain grace on the day of judgment. Their aim is the mastery of their souls, a quiet life, and a free entrance into paradise; as it is said that the Kingdom of Heaven belongs to the poor.
But though higher than the Imperfect and Secret Sufis, the Fakirs and Dervishes are immeasurably lower than the true, perfect Sufis. And we may best point out the difference between a hermit, a Dervish, and a perfect Sufi—the three most closely allied of these mystic orders—by referring to the text of the Four Duties.
The first duty of the Dervish is to walk on the path of the just; the path of self-abnegation and poverty. This rule is confirmed by a verse of the poet-mystic Saadi:
—This ocean of life has been crossed over by the Shepherd; and he who has not obeyed his voice, is lost. Those who listen not to his words, remain in danger; and he who follows not the path of the Ambassador, cannot reach the shelter. It is unthinkable, O Saadi, that one should enter the true Path, otherwise than by following the Chosen One.
From this the Dervish concludes that, as only the prophets and the just enjoy the bliss of heaven, their renouncement of riches and this world’s goods should be imitated by all who seek the goal. Therefore the fakir, if he be a true fakir, puts his poverty between himself and the deity, through his willful desire to be poor. But the perfect Sufi has no willful desire; no will, but the will of the Eternal, in wealth and poverty alike. Sufis have chosen to be poor, to imitate the saints; but their poverty is never obligatory nor a necessary condition for the perfect Sufi.
The difference between a Dervish and a perfect Sufi is again marked by the second and third rules. Both bid the Dervish meditate on the world to come. But a true, perfect Sufi can neither meditate on the world to come nor long to enter it; the bliss of that world must come to the Sufi of itself; gradually and imperceptibly, as he becomes one with the Eternal. But this is not Mahomeds Paradise. For as Attar says,
—True Being is a vast ocean, of which Paradise is only a tiny drop; if thou can’st gain the whole ocean, why seek a single drop of evening dew?
And the third rule, when speaking of ecstasy and contemplation, does not point to the Nirvana of the perfect Sufis; for this is the House Eternal itself; while the lower ecstasy is only a foretaste of the future life, which is not to be forgotten by the Dervish even for a moment.
The fourth rule, bidding the Dervish seek solitude even in society, clearly points to the difference between the Dervish and the hermit. The Dervish must not flee from the world; but he must renounce the desires of the world, while living in their midst. This verse of Saadi’s sheds more light on the difference:
—The true path of a Dervish is the service of man, and not rosaries, prayer-carpets, and beggarly attire. Remain on the throne, but be a Dervish through purity of life. Great men have attained glory by wearing the true robe of a Dervish, his virtue, under kingly attire.
A parallel to the Four Duties of a Dervish is found in the Ten Duties of a perfect Sufi, written by Saïd Ali q Hamadan. Two are missing from the manuscript, but the remaining eight are these: Repentance; Contentment; Celibacy; Forgetfulness of all but the Eternal; Turning toward the Eternal; Patience; Contemplation; Having no will but God’s. The first of these are almost the same as the duties of the Dervish. But for the Persian mystics, the perfect Dervish was only, the stepping-stone to the perfect Sufi. The goal of the perfect Sufi, who—
Soars on the wings of the Eternal to regions far above the world of man.
Thus rising above the life of the world, they mystically fulfil the words of the Prophet,
—Kill thyself before thou art dead!
But only the Sufis understand these words in a mystic sense. The mass of Mahommedans find in them only a command to kill out physical fear, and to give their lives for the Prophet.
This article is partly based on an essay in the Proceedings of the Archæological Society of Moscow, Russia.