Hen panta einai. All Is One

“Sufi” – wrote an American student in the rubrics “Religion” of the statistical questionnaire distributed at the seminary of phenomenology of religion. “Sufi?” I asked her. “What do you do as a Sufi?” “Well, we perform Sufi dances and read the poems of Rumi.” “That is, you know Persian?” “No, why? Rumi has been translated in English!”

The philologically faithful translation of the great didactic poem Mathnawī of Jalaladdin Rumi in fact renders correctly the content of the work, but it does not convey anything of the beauty of the poem. And in the very free versions made on the basis of English prose translations quite often the original meaning is lost, as well as the wonderful word plays and associations. I breathed a sigh. “Do you also study the Quran?” I asked the Sufi girl. She looked incredulously at me. “Why? We are Sufis, not – how do they say it – Mohammedans!” I shaked my head. “But Sufis are Muslim mystics!” I answered. “Oh no, we love every religion. Love is the most important thing!” she said with shining face. I did a last attempt. “And what do you know about the prophet Mohamed?” As I had suspected, she did not know anything about him who for every Sufi is the starting and focal point of his own chain of masters and disciples, and who, in their eyes, was the first real Sufi. I gave it up.

But what can we do when a very popular author boldly asserts that Goethe, Saint Francis, Napoleon and many others were Sufis? On what basis can we expect of the public a deeper knowledge of the history and essence of Sufism? For it is not easy anyway to answer the question what Sufism is and what makes a Sufi.

(Annemarie Schimmel, Sufismus. Eine Einführung in die islamische Mystik, München: Beck, 2000)