What is Sufism? Martin Lings


Martin Lings provides an excellent and authoritative introduction to the mystical movement of the Sufis based on his lifelong interest in Islamic culture. His explanation derives from a profound understanding of Sufism, and extends to many aspects which are usually neglected. His illuminating answer to ‘What is Sufism?’ gives a taste of the very subject matter itself. What do Sufis believe? What do they aim at? What do they do? Unlike other writers on the subject, Martin Lings treats all the three questions with equal justice. He is thus able to give a wealth of answers to the main question ‘What is Sufism?’, each answer being from a different angle but all going to the root of the matter.

A reviewer wrote ‘Should the book appear in paperback, I would use it for undergraduate and graduate courses on Islamic civilization’, and in fact What is Sufism? has become a set book in colleges and universities on both sides of the Atlantic. It is now accepted as the authoritative statement on the subject of Sufism and it has been translated into French, German, Italian and Spanish. It has also been published in Sarajevo in Bosnian, and is available in Braille.

The late Dr Lings, formerly Keeper of Oriental Manuscript in the British Museum and the British Library, is the author of two works on Islamic mysticism, The Book of Certainty and A Sufi Saint of the Twentieth Century, both published by the Islamic Texts Society.

  • 9780946621415
  • Paperback
  • 134

Product Description

“The title of this book is a question; and that question, as far as the Western world is concerned, has been given some dubious and suspect answers in recent years. Moreover the rapidly expanding interest in Sufism increases still further the need for a reliable introductory book-introductory in the sense that it requires no special knowledge, and reliable in that it is not written any more simply than truth will allow.

But though such a book may presuppose no special knowledge, it necessarily presupposes a deep and searching interest in spiritual things. More particularly, it presupposes at least an inkling of the possibility of direct inward perception an inkling that may become a seed of aspiration. Or at the very least, it presupposes that the soul shall not be closed to this possibility. Nearly 1000 years ago a great Sufi defined Sufism as ‘taste’, because its aim and its end could be summed up as direct knowledge of transcendent truths, such knowledge being, insofar as its directness is concerned, more comparable to the experiences of the senses than to mental knowledge.

Most Western readers of this book will have heard quite early in life that ‘the Kingdom of Heaven is within you’. They will also have heard the words.: ‘Seek and ye shall find; knock and it shall be opened unto you’. But how many of them have ever received any instruction in the way of seeking or the art of knocking? And even as these last four words were being written down, it came to mind that they are, in this given context, an answer to the very question put by our title.

Enough has now been said to make it clear that although our subject may be treated summarily-a book of this size, for so vast a theme, is bound to be summary-it cannot be treated superficially, for that would amount to a contradiction in terms. Sufism is a touchstone, an implacable criterion which reduces everything else, except its own equivalents, to a flat surface of two dimensions only, being itself the real dimension of height and of depth.”

MARTIN LINGS, London 1973


Author’s Preface page 7

I The Originality of Sufism

II 2 The Universality of Sufism 17

3 The Book 25

4 The Messenger 33

5 The Heart 45

6 The Doctrine 63

7 The Method 74

8 The Exclusiveness of Sufism 92

9 Sufism throughout the Centuries 100

Index of Persons,

Book Titles and Places 128

Index of Arabic Words 132


Excerpt from Chapter 1:

“The great Andalusian Sufi, Muhyi ‘d-Din Ibn ‘Arabi, used to pray a prayer which begins: ‘Enter me, 0 Lord, into the deep of the Ocean of Thine Infinite Oneness’,  and in the treatises of the Sufis this ‘Ocean’ is mentioned again and again, likewise by way of symbolic reference to the End towards which their path is directed. Let us therefore begin· by saying, on the basis of this symbol, in answer to the question ‘What is Sufism?’

From time to time a Revelation ‘flows’ like a great tidal wave from the Ocean of Infinitude to the shores of our finite world; and Sufism is the vocation and the discipline and the science of plunging into the ebb of one of these waves and being drawn back with it to its Eternal and Infinite Source. ‘From time to time’: this is a simplification which ‘calls for a commentary; for since there is no common measure between the origin of such a wave and its destination, its temporality is bound to partake, mysteriously, of the Eternal, just as its finiteness is bound to partake of the Infinite. Being temporal, it must first reach this world at a certain moment in history; but that moment will in a sense escape from time. Better than a thousand months is how the Islamic Revelation describes the night of its own advent…”


"The discussion of Sufi aims, psychology, doctrine and method is original (many previously untranslated texts are cited), sensitive and readable. The mood of Sufism is conveyed here with a clarity that is rare, even unique, yet is done in a responsible, non-proselytizing manner."
Review of Books and Religion.
"It is an invaluable contribution to the study of the subject and may well become a standard textbook… Highly recommended."
‘He has treated all the most important features of Sufism with a degree of profundity and understanding rarely to be found among modern writers.’
"The book is a sheer delight to read, and is here recommended unreservedly to the adept as well as to the layman."
The Asian Student.