Western Encounters with Persian Sufi Literature
by Farhang Jahanpour

One of the major contributions of Sufism to inter-religious dialogue, which has not been much commented upon, has been to serve as a bridge between Islam and other religions. On the one hand, it has softened the attitude of the followers of other religions towards mystical Islam and, on the other hand, it has made the Muslims much more open and receptive towards other religions. Noting the essential oneness of Truth, Sufism has embraced the spiritual truth in all religions and, due to its tolerance of other faiths, it has also encouraged mutual tolerance among the believers of other religions, helping them to get rid of their hostility towards Islam.

The Persians and the Persian language played a major role in the propagation and the spread of Islam in the Sub-Continent, Central Asia and even as far as China and the Far East. The Persian language became the second most important Islamic language and the lingua franca of Eastern Islam. At its height, the Perso-Islamic culture stretched from the Aegean in the West to Sinkiang and the Bay of Bengal in the East and from the Russian steppes in the North to the Indian Ocean in the South. From the earliest days of the establishment of Islam in Iran, Sufism has been an integral part of the Iranian Islam, and consequently Sufi literature and various Sufi orders have played a leading role in the spread of Islam in the Sub-Continent and Central Asia as well as in the Ottoman Empire.

It is interesting to note that what seemed most attractive in Islam to many people in the Sub-Continent and Central Asia was the mystical message of Islam, hence the existence up to the present time of many Sufi orders in Turkey, Central Asia, the Sub-Continent and the Far East. Sufism was instrumental in creating greater understanding and establishing closer links between Islam, Hinduism and Buddhism. The spread of Islam in the Sub-Continent was mainly the work of various Sufi orders.

From the time of Biruni to that of Dara Shikuh, Muslim scholars have explored the similarities between Islam and Hinduism. Abu Rayhan Biruni's monumental works dealing with Indian matters, including his Kitab fi Tahqiq ma lil-Hind and Al-Athar al-Baqiya 'an al-Qurun al-Khaliya portrayed a sympathetic view of Hinduism. Contrary to many Muslims who regarded the Hindus as Mushrik(Polytheists), Biruni repeatedly asserts that Hindu philosophies were based on monotheism. He revels in the pure theories of the Bhagavadgita and is very sympathetic to the idea that all religions are basically one and that different paths to God ultimately lead to the same goal. He even goes so far as to speak of Hindu scholars as "enjoying the help of God," or being guided by divine inspiration (Sachau 1910, II, 108).

Many centuries later, Dara Shikuh in his Majma' al-Bahrayn also pointed out many similarities between Hindu and Islamic ideas (Dara Shikuh 1929). However, here we are not dealing with the impact of Sufism in the Sub-Continent, but mainly with the role that it played in creating greater understanding and harmony between the followers of Islam and Christianity.

The history of the Western approach towards Islam is one of a long period of hostility, followed by a more tolerant attitude towards it, mainly brought about as the result of mystical teachings of Islam. From the time that Islam appeared, it seemed to be a problem to the West. Those who believed in it were enemies on the frontier. In the seventh and eighth centuries, armies fighting in the name of the first Muslim empire, the Caliphate, expanded into the heart of the Christian world. They occupied provinces of the Byzantine empire in Syria, the Holy Land and Egypt, and spread westwards into North Africa, Spain and Sicily. The conquest was not only a military one. It was followed in the course of time by conversions to Islam on a large scale.

The Crusades marked the next major encounter between Islam and Christianity. Between the eleventh and thirteenth centuries-some put the duration of the Crusades up to the conquest of Islamic lands by the West in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries-there was a Christian counterattack, successful for a time in the Holy Land, where a Latin kingdom of Jerusalem was created, and subsequently a more permanent kingdom in Spain. The last Muslim kingdom in Spain was brought to an end in 1492 with the expulsion of Muslims from Spain. The Crusades ushered in many centuries of bloodshed among Christians and Muslims, intensifying mutual hostility.

While the Muslims were expelled from Spain, there was a further Muslim expansion elsewhere, by dynasties drawn from the Turkish peoples: the Seljuqs advanced into Anatolia, and the Ottomans extinguished what was left of the Byzantine empire and in 1453 they occupied its capital, Constantinople, and expanded into eastern and central Europe. As late as the seventeenth century they were able to occupy the island of Crete and to threaten Vienna. From the fifteenth to the nineteenth centuries, the Ottoman empire was regarded as the West's greatest and most powerful enemy. Not only did it represent a hostile military power, but as the seat of self-proclaimed Islamic caliphate, it also represented the hostile face of Islam to the West.

Consequently, from its inception in the seventh century right up to the nineteenth century, Islam was regarded as the enemy by the Christian West, and most accounts of Islam written in the West were marked by strong hostility and resentment. Islam was often portrayed as fanatical, unbending and devoid of spirituality with its characterization based on such vices as the sword of Islam, a physical representation of paradise, sexual promiscuity and polygamy.

Thomas Cariyle was probably the first Western thinker who, in his Heroes and Hero Worship, spoke favorably of Islam and portrayed Muhammad, if not as a saint and a prophet, at least as a hero. However, before this change of perception, the road to greater understanding had been paved over many centuries as the result of the greater contact between Muslims and Christians.

It was as the result of greater commercial and political interests between tile West and the Safavid and Mughal governments that the West began to show an interest in Islamic and Sufi ideas and Persian literature. The works of travelers, merchants and diplomats such as Anthony Jenkinson (1562), Thomas Alcock (1564), Richard Cheney (1564), John Newbury (1580) and Ralph Fitch (1583-91), the three English brothers Sir Thomas, Sir Anthony and Robert Sherley who stayed in Iran for a long time and even acted as Iran's ambassadors to various European courts, Jean Chardin and Tavernier from France, opened the gates of the Orient to the West and introduced Western readers to the mysteries of the East, including Persian literature and Sufism. The Safavids, who had themselves come from Sufi orders, turned against Sufism and started persecuting the Sufis. However, it is ironic that Shah Abbas, the most famous Safavid King, was known in the West as the "Great Sophy".

The political and commercial interest gradually led to the appreciation of literary and religious ideas. Tne earliest reference to Persian poetry in English appears to be in The Arte of English Poesie, 1589, where George Puttenham gives four poems in translation. He mentions receiving them from a gentleman in Italy who had been to the East. The German Orientalist Adam Olearius was perhaps the first Western traveler to introduce the great poets of Persia to the West. He visited Iran in 1633 as secretary to the ambassador of Frederick III of Schleswig-Holstein. In his work, he compares Persian literature to that of France and says that the Persians are the people most addicted to poetry in the world. Among the leading Persian poets he mentions Firdowsi, Sa'di, Hafiz and Nizami (Orlearius 1669, p. 251).

Sir Gore Ouseley (1770-1844) became the first ambassador to go from England to Iran after Sir Dodmore Cotton, ambassador from Charles the First. In 1823 Sir Gore Ouseley assisted in the founding of the Royal Asiatic Society of London, which has performed and continues to perform great service to the cause of Oriental studies in the West. In 1842 he was appointed president of the Society for the Publication of the Oriental Texts. It was under his direction that the Gulistan of Sa'di with a translation of Francis Gladwin was printed. It is interesting to note that Sir Gore's only printed work was Biographical Notices of Persian Poets, with Critical and Explanatory Remarks 1.

As the result of the works of early travelers and diplomats, Western writers began to get acquainted with Eastern lands. However, the real change of perception in the West concerning the East came about as the result of the dedicated work of a number of distinguished orientalists. The first person to truly introduce Persian language and poetry to the English-speaking world was Sir William Jones (1746-1794). Jones should be acknowledged as one of the founders of both comparative religion and comparative literature. He did a great deal in introducing some great Indian masterpieces to the West, but his role as one of the first serious students of Persian studies is also very important.

At Harrow, Jones had studied Hebrew; this in turn took him on to Arabic, and this to Persian which made a great impact on his life. His biographer tells us: "His life was permanently changed by his first reading of Hafiz, which acted to him as the Fairie Queene on Keats, and for about six years he engaged in advocating the claims of Eastern poetry" (Sir W. Jones 1807, II, 146).

In 1774, J. Richardson issued his Specimen of Persian Poetry, based on the work of Count de Rewiczki; and in 1787, J. Nott published his Select Odes of Hafiz. These in turn encouraged a large number of other translations of the works of Hafiz, Sa'di and other Persian poets into English.

In 1858 we have the publication of the first edition of the Ruba'iyat of 'Omar Khayyam by Robert Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald has, of course, become famous in the West for his masterly translation of the Ruba'iyat, which became the most popular translation of any literary work from any language. However, he was also very interested in Persian Sufi literature. In addition to the Ruba'iyat, Fitzgerald also translated the great mystical allegory, Salomon and Absal (1850) by Jami (1414-1492), and a summary of the Bird Parliament [Mantiq al-Tair\ by Farid al-Din 'Attar. However, although both of them are very fine translations, neither of them achieved the same fame as the Ruba'iyat. He also tried his hand at Iran's greatest lyric poet Hafiz, but decided that he was untranslatable. He referred to the metaphysical Mathnawi of Rumi as "the best Persian poem". He had also urged Mrs. Cowell to ask his former teacher Reverend E. B. Cowell who had introduced him to the Ruba'iyat, to translate the Mathnawi, adding that, "Surely the finest Persian poem ought to be done in English."

Fitzgerald's teacher, Rev. Edward Byles Cowell (1826-1903) who had introduced 'Omar Khayyam to Fitzgerald and who had taught him to read the Ruba'iyat, nevertheless, disapproved of the philosophy of 'Omar Khayyam. When Robert Fitzgerald wanted to dedicate his book to Cowell, he refused, saying that in these weighty matters he, "would rather turn to Nazareth than to Nishapur". However, Cowell was very sympathetic towards Sufism. He translated a number of poems by Hafiz. He defended Sa'di's religion, praised the "thoroughly unwestern and new" charm of his Gulistan, and admired the unorthodox and non-sectarian character of its ethics. Regarding Sufism Cowell wrote:

The Sufis ... spring up apparently by a necessary law in the human mind... The inherent love of mysticism, which lies in the heart, finds in every religion the necessary warmth to quicken it... The Eleusinian mysteries, the Hindu Brahmanism, the Persian Sufeyism, and, in our own time, the new German philosophy, are only developments of the same deep rooted principles in the soul, under different outward circumstances of time and place. (Quoted in Yohannan, op cit., pp. 63-64)

It was in the year 1671 that Oxford University Press, published its first book in Arabic script, a book called Philosophus Autodidactus, or Hayy Ibn Yaqzan edited by Edward Pococke, together with a Latin translation 2. The book had an introduction by Edward Pococke's learned father, Edward Pococke senior. This major mystical work by Ibn Tufayl was translated directly from Arabic by Simon Ockley in 1708. The book became very popular and for a long time remained greatly in vogue.3

In his solitary existence on a deserted island, Hayy Ibn Yaqzan finds himself occupied with the great problem of Creation and the Creator. In this book we see the progressive and gradual development Hayy's reasoning on the Creator of the world, and he concludes with words borrowed from the Koran: "He is the Existence, He is the Absoluteness, He is the Perfection, He is the Beauty, He is the Glory, He is the Power, He is the Knowledge, He is He, and all things perish beside Him." This great work became the prototype for the first English novel, Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe.

Although this version of Hayy Ibn Yaqzan was a translation of the sole remaining work of Ibn Tufayl, Ibn Tufayl's version was based on a work of the same name by the great Persian mystic and philosopher, Abu 'Ali Sina (Avicenna). Ibn Tufayl, a native of Andalusia who flourished in the twelfth century, was a religious skeptic and was critical of institutional religion based on revelation. In Hayy Ibn Yaqzan he maintained that religious dogmas were merely symbols of the truth which could be discovered independently, as was done by Hayy Ibn Yaqzan. Avicenna's version is more mystical in nature and shows how an individual, through intuition and contemplation of nature can, unaided by formal education, discover the spiritual nature of the world and find communion with God.

Several details in Daniel Defoe's Robinson Crusoe show a great similarity to passages from The Life of Hayy Ibn Yaqzan, translated into English from Arabic eleven years before Defoe's novel was written. The description of the solitary hero's method of making himself comfortable on the island in The Life of Hayy Ibn Yaqzan easily recalls passages from Robinson Crusoe. Hayy Ibn Yaqzan, by the time he was twenty-one years old, "had made abundance of pretty Contrivances. He made himself both Clothes and Shoes of Skin of such Wild Beasts as he had dissected. His thread was made of Hair, and of the Bark of ... Plants... He learned the Art of Building from the Observation he made upon the Swallow Nests... He made a door of Canes twisted together, etc." (Tufayl 1708, p. 59).

The story concludes with an account of the friendship formed by Hayy Ibn Yaqzan with a holy man who came to his solitary island and of their "serving God... until they died." This, of course, recalls the story of the contact between Robinson Crusoe and his servant Friday.

Of course, unlike Robinson Crusoe, Hayy Ibn Yaqzan is a great mystical work. The idea underlying the story is to show how the human mind or spirit can, through its own intuition and its own efforts, attain to die knowledge of the spiritual world and find its rest in God. It describes the gradual awakening of the soul from its groping in the dark to the most dazzling light of certainty. However, apart from the form, there are some similarities between the character development of Robinson Crusoe and the spiritual development of Hayy Ibn Yaqzan. Thus, it is interesting to note that the first English novel was inspired by a Sufi book.

In an introduction to a new translation and abridgment of the book, published in 1910, Dr. Paul Bronnie writes: "Generally looked upon as a subject of repulsive aridity, in its strange combination of the most heterogeneous philosophical systems, devoid of the grace and charm of attractive style, unbrightened by brilliancy of wit or spirit, Arabian philosophy has, for centuries past, been subject to sad and undeserved neglect." However, this author who does not have a flattering view of Islamic, 01 what he calls "Arabian philosophy" cannot but be moved by the charm and spirituality of Hayy Ibn Yaqzan He writes: "Yet I cannot imagine 2 better and more eloquent refutation o this erroneous view than a rendering in fresh garb, of this romance of Hay Ibn Yokdhan, simple and ingenious, yet fragrant with poetry and withal fraught with deep philosophical problems the interest in which I wish to revive (Murray 1910, Introduction, p. 9).


Since the expulsion of the Muslims from Spain during the period of the Reconquest, this is the first time that Islam is again making its presence felt in the West. There are now some eight million Muslims living in Europe and probably some five or six million Muslims in the United States. In many European countries, such as Britain, France and Germany, the Muslims constitute the largest non-Christian minority. In addition to millions of immigrants who poured from North Africa into France, from Turkey into Germany, and from the Sub-Continent, Iran and the Persian Gulf into Britain, we are witnessing the beginning of some conversion of native Europeans and Americans to Islam.

I mentioned earlier on that Sufism has acted as a bridge between Islam and Christianity. It has shown the mystical face of Islam to the West and has helped to reduce religious prejudice. At the same time, it has helped Muslims to look at other religions, not as heresies, but as expressions of one divine truth. According to Hafiz, "goft bar har khan [dar] ki binshastam khuda razzaq bud", "At every table that I sat, God was the Host and the Provider."

It is interesting that even Christian missionaries whose works are not very complimentary to Islam as a whole were, nevertheless, quite touched by the spirituality of the Sufis. When Henry Martyn, the first English missionary to Iran, reached Shiraz in 1811, he found his most attentive listeners among the Sufis. "These Sufis" he writes in his diary, "are quite the Methodists of the East. They delight in everything Christian except in being exclusive. They consider they all will finally return to God, from whom they emanated" (Quoted by Claud Field 1911, p.207).

If Islam is to have a permanentimpact in the West-and I believe it will-its appeal will surely be mainly due to the mystical writings of Rumi, Hafiz, Ibn 'Arabi and other Muslim Sufis, rather than to the more narrow and limited appeal of Muslim militants and fundamentalists. As the result of the great efforts of many Western scholars such as Louis Massignon, Henri Corbin, R. A. Nicholson, A. J. Arberry, Annemarie Schimmel, William C. Chittick, Bruce Lawrence, Leonard Lewisohn and many other Iranian scholars such as Professor Seyyed Hossein Nasr-and, of course, some Iranian Sufi masters, most notably, Dr.Javad Nurbakhsh-Sufism has already made its presence felt in the spiritual and intellectual life of the West. Incredibly, some translations of the poems of Rumi are becoming bestsellers in the United States and Europe.

However, it is interesting that even non-specialist Western scholars and scientists are also turning towards Sufism as a source of spiritual guidance. C.J.S. Clarke, Professor of Applied Mathematics and Dean of the Faculty of Mathematical Studies at the University of Southampton, ends his recent book on Reality Through the Looking-Glass, which is a kind of refutation of the materialistic view of life, with a chapter on Rumi. He ends that chapter with the following words:

"... When the logic of criticism has led you through the void of Derrida's skepticism, then the only way forward is to follow the heart. And it is here that the poetry of Rumi carries its own stamp of authenticity. Houseman's test of the poem that described reality was whether or not it made his beard stand on end if he recited the poem while shaving. Rumi's poems, for many of his readers, pass this test, leaving one physically gasping at what is revealed, raising every hair of the body in a tingle of recognition. I hope that some of my readers will also share that recognition:

Totally conscious,
and apropos of nothing,
he comes to see me.
Is someone here? I ask.
The moon. The full moon
is inside your house.
My friends and I go running
out into the street.
I'm in here, came a voice
from the house,
but we aren't listening.
We're looking up at the sky.

(C.J.S. Clarke 1996, p. 199)

If I may be allowed to borrow Rumi's image, Sufism has truly arrived and is "inside your house."


  1. Published posthumously, London (1846).
  2. It is interesting to note that the first book printed in England, Diets and Sayings of the Philosophers was also derived from the Arabic original of Abu 1-Wafa Mubashshir ibn Fatik al-Qaid, written in the eleventh Christian century.
  3. Written in Arabic over 600 years ago.


  • Biruni, Abu Rayhan: 1958. Kitab fi Tahqiq ma lil-Hind. Hyderabad. --. 1879. Al-Athar al-Baqiya 'an al-Qurun al-Khaliya. Translated by E. C. Sachau in The Chronology of Ancient Nations.
  • Clarke, C.J.S. 1996. Reality Through the Looking-Glass: Science and Awareness in the Post-modem World. Floris Books.
  • Dara Shikuh. 1929, Majma' al-Bahrayn. Text and translation by M. Mahfuz al-Haq. Calcutta: The Asiatic Society, rpl 1982. Field, C. 1911. Mystics and Saints of Islam. London.
  • Jones, Sir William. 1807. Works with a Life by Lord Teignmouth. London.
  • Murray, J. Translator. 1910. Hayy Ibn Yaqzan. London.
  • Olearius, A. 1669. The Voyages and Travels of the ambassador Sent by Frederick Duke of Hol-stein, to the Great Duke of Muscovy and the King of Persia. English translation by J. Davies. London.
  • Tufayl, Abu Ja'sar, Ibn. 1708. The Improvement of Human Reason, exhibited in the Life of Hayy Ibn Yakza. Translated from the Original Arabic by Simon Ockley. London: Edm. Powell, Black-friars.
  • Sachau, E.C. 1910. Alberuni's India. London.
  • Yohannan, J.D. 1977. Persian Poetry in England and America: A 200-Year History. Delmar, New York: Caravan Books.


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