An Understanding of Abrahamic Spirituality and Mysticism: Through the Tales of the Hasidim and Sufis.


An Understanding of Abrahamic Spirituality and Mysticism: Through the Tales of the Hasidim and Sufis.

                                                                                                                                ~  (Hamid Mahmood)

Toward the One,

The Perfection of Love, Harmony, and Beauty,

The Only Being,

United with All the Illuminated Souls,

Who Form the Embodiment of the Master,

The Spirit of Guidance .[1]

One way of understanding spirituality and mysticism in the Abrahamic faiths is by comparing and contrasting stories in the faith traditions. Hence I intend on exploring stories and experiences from both Jewish and Islamic spiritual sources. I will however focus my attention on Hasidic and Sufi sources, for the former I will evaluate ‘The Penitent’ from Martin Buber’s ‘Tales of the Hasidim’, and latter ‘Learning Humility from Bāyazīd al-Bistāmī’ taken from “Memorial of the Saints” of Farīduddīn Aṭṭār. I will creatively explore the Hasidic and Sufi story side by side comparing and contrasting the two alongside highlighting the differences between normative and Hasidic / Sufi notions of Judaism and Islam. I will thereafter conclude by exploring the fusion between Hasidism and Sufism by briefly looking at an order that combines both spiritual paths, ‘the Ināyatī-Maimūnī ṭarīqat’.

The Penitent

For six years and then for another six years, Rabbi David of Lelov had done great penance: he had fasted from one Sabbath to the next, and subjected himself to all manner of rigid discipline. But even when the second six years were up, he felt that he had not reached perfection and did not know how to attain what he still lacked. Since had heard of Rabbi Elimelekh, the healer of souls, he journeyed to him to ask his help. On the evening of the Sabbath, he came before the zaddik with many others. The master shook hands with everyone except Rabbi David, but from him he turned and did not give him a glance. The rabbi of Lelov was appalled and left. But then he thought it over and decided that the master must have taken him for someone else. So he approached him in the evening, after prayer, and held out his hand. But he was treated just as before. He wept all night and in the morning resolved not to enter the zaddik’s House of Prayer again, but to leave for home at the end of the Sabbath. And yet – when the hour of the holy third meal had come, the meal at which Rabbi Elimelekh spoke words of teaching, he could not restrain himself and crept up to the window. There he heard the rabbi say:

Sometimes people come to me who fast and torment themselves, and many a one does penance for six years and then for another six years- twelve whole years! And after that, they consider themselves worthy of the holy spirit, and come and ask me to draw it down to them: I am to supply the little they still lack. But the truth of the matter is that all their discipline and all their pains are less than a drop in the sea, and what’s more: all that service of theirs does not rise to God, but to the idol of their pride. Such people must turn to God by turning utterly from all they have been doing, and begin to serve from the bottom up and with a truthful heart.”

When Rabbi David heard these words, the spirit moved him with such force, that he almost lost consciousness. Trembling and sobbing, he stood at the window. When the Havdalah was concluded, he went to the door with faltering breath, opened it in great fear, and waited on the threshold. Rabbi Elimelekh rose from his chair, ran up to to his motionless visitor, embraced him and said: “Blessed be he that comes!” Then he drew him toward the table and seated him at his side. But now Eleazar, the zaddik’s son, could no longer restrain his amazement. “Father,” he said, “Why, that is the man you turned away twice because you could not endure the mere sight of him!”

“No, indeed!” Rabbi Elimelekh answered. That was an entirely different person! Don’t you see that this is our dear Rabbi David!”[2]

Learning Humility from Bayazid al-Bistami

There was ‘a certain ascetic’ who was one of the great saints of Bestam. He had his own followers and admirers, and at the same time he was never absent from the circle of Bayazid al-Bistami (or Abu Yazid al-Bistami). He listened to all his discourses, and sat with his companions.

One day he remarked to Abu Yazid, “Master, for thirty years I have been keeping a constant fast. By night too I pray, so that I never sleep at all. Yet I discover no trace of this knowledge of which you speak. For all that I believe in this knowledge, and I love this preaching.”

If for three hundred years,” said Abu Yazid, “you fast by day and pray by night, you will never realize one atom of this discourse.”

Why?” asked the disciple.

Because you are veiled by your own self,” Abu Yazid replied.

“What is the remedy for this?” the man asked.

“You will never accept it,” answered Abu Yazid.

“I will so,” said the man. “Tell me, so that I may do as you prescribe.”

“Very well,” said Abu Yazid. “This very hour go and shave your beard and hair. Take off these clothes you are wearing, and tie a loincloth of goat’s wool about your waist. Hang a bag of nuts around your neck, then go to the marketplace. Collect all the children you can, and tell them, `I will give a nut to everyone who slaps me.’ Go round all the city in the same way; especially go everywhere people know you. That is your cure.”

“Glory be to God! There is no god but God,” cried the disciple on hearing these words.

If a non-believer uttered that formula, he would become a believer,” remarked Abu Yazid. “By uttering the same formula you have become a polytheist.”

“How so?” demanded the disciple.

Because you count yourself too grand to be able to do as I have said,” replied Abu Yazid. “So you have become a polytheist. You used this formula to express your own importance, not to glorify God.”

“This I cannot do,” the man protested. “Give me other directions.”

“The remedy is what I have said,” Abu Yazid declared.

“I cannot do it,” the man repeated.

“Did I not say you would not do it, that you would never obey me?” said Abu Yazid.[3]

There are many significant and diverse points one could deduce from both stories, but I will focus my attention on two notions; where both spiritual traditions differ from their normative religious understandings. Alongside that, I will compare and contrast Hasidism and Sufism from the two tales mentioned.

Rabbi David and ‘a certain ascetic’, in both stories, are equally religious figures yet they feel there is ‘something’ missing from their mystical lives; and to attain ‘complete’ fulfilment in their spirituality they feel they must approach ‘a spiritual guide’. In Hasidism this guide is referred to as ‘zaddik’ and in Sufism to ‘sheikh’, ‘sīdī’ or ‘pīr’ (Persian, mostly used in Asia). It is interesting to note that in both Judaism and Islam the position of a zaddik and pīr is contrary to that of the normative understanding of ‘rabbi’ or ‘imam’. In normative religious understanding the leader is to guide the follower through ‘sacred texts’ and the teachings of Prophets, yet this is not the case in both, for fasting lengthy periods is virtuous when considering external worship, one may not judge the internal form of worship.[4] In the Hasidic story Rabbi David is to reach his full spiritual potential through that sudden ‘realisation’ and ‘regret’ after his feelings and thoughts are completely shattered, on the contrary the ‘ascetic’ was told, contrary to normative Islamic teaching, to shave his beard, be covered only in loin-cloth and give nuts to children who slap him in the presence of those who are familiar with his piety. They were fasting so that they may become pious for the sake of becoming pious, an unwittingly self-centred approach to worship and God, and if this was the mere goal then Bulleh Shah, a South Asian ṣūfi mystic, rightly exclaims:

“If the divine is found through ablutions [5]
surely frogs and fish would find him first
if the divine is hidden in jungles
the cattle would have discovered him by now
O Bulleh, the divine is found by those
with pure and true heart.” [6]

On the contrary if attaining virtues or salvation from hell and admittance into paradise was the sole intention, then this too is contrary to being one with God and the fulfilment of the spirit. This notion is well illustrated by an early Islamic female mystic Rābi’ah Baṣriyyah:

“O my Lord,
if I worship you
from fear of hell, bur n me in hell.
If I worship you
from hope of Paradise, bar me from its gates.
But if I worship you
for yourself alone, grant me then the beauty of your Face”. [7]

With rabbi David he attains his goal following a shattered self through ‘realisation’ and ‘regret’ whereas the ascetic is to gain salvation through a shattered self but by literally annihilating the self of desires through physically defaming the self. This is contrary to normative Judaism whereby the adherent draws nearer to God through the study of the Torah. However, it is significant to note from both stories the critique of both normative Judaism and Islam and a critique of what religion at times can become, whereby fulfilling all acts of worship alongside supererogatory ones would ‘seem’ to one as being on the right track, but on the contrary through self-centeredness could lead someone in the opposite direction completely. This notion is further emphasised in both stories, in the former Rabbi Elimelekh points towards this self-centeredness and explains, ‘twelve whole years (of fasting and penance)… after that… their pains are less than a drop in the sea, and what’s more: all that service of theirs does not rise to God, but to the idol of their pride’.[8] With the ascetic, he is told by Bāyazīd al-Bistāmī that his ‘own self’ stands between him and ‘ilm-e-ladunnī (supernatural knowledge in contrast to ‘ilm-e-kasabī, earned knowledge) and after being exposed to the cure the ascetic ‘praises God’ in astonishment, upon which al-Bistāmī rectifies him, “If a non-believer uttered that formula, he would become a believer… by uttering the same formula you have become a polytheist.” [9] This was due to reciting and praising God in astonishment of his own humiliation, which is similar to reciting God’s name in vain, however this is similar to ‘the idol of their pride notion’, which is also explained in the Qur’ān, ‘[Prophet], consider the one who has taken his own desire as a god, whom God allows to stray in the face of knowledge, sealing his ears and heart and covering his eyes – who can guide such a person after God [has done this]? Will you people not take heed?’ (Q. 45:23). Another significant point to note is the supernatural power of the Rabbi, as he is able to express things not yet told to him. This I believe again is very similar to the ṣūfī notion of kashf in which the sheikh is able to read right through the heart and mind of his murīd (student). This leads on to the point that the zaddik and sheikh are to know ‘all’ the feelings in particular problems of their followers in order to help them and rightly guide them.

I believe that the ‘ināyatī-Maimūnī ṭarīqat’ is an order in which Sufi and Hasidic mysticism is fused and merged together. This idea would be highly controversial for normative teachings in both faith traditions. However, this movement claims to bring together the spirituality of pīr Hazrat Inayat Khan, the ṣūfī who first brought Sufism to the West, and Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer, the Ba’al Shem Tov. However, the origin of the latter part of the name ‘mainūnī’ comes from Rabbi Avraham Maimuni of Fustat, who was the son of Moses Maimonides, who is to have merged Sufi and Hasidic ideas. Although the use of such concepts could already be found in the Jewish writings of Bahya ibn Pakuda (ca. 1040), but Avraham Maimuni openly acknowledges his debt to Sufism, even going so far as to call the Sufis the ‘true lineal descendants of the Hebrew prophets’.[10]


Buber, M. (1966). Tales of the Hasidim: The Later Masters. (3rd ed.). Schocken Books: New York, USA.

Buber, M. (1994). Tales of the Hasidim. Schocken Books: New York, USA.

Naqshbandī, Z. A. (2003). Majālis-e-Faqīr (مجالسِ فقیر). Vol. 1 (3rd ed.). Maktabatul Faqeer: Faisalabad, Pakistan [Urdu]

Schachter-Shalomi, Z. & Miles-Yepez, N. (2009). A Heart Afire: Stories and Teachings of the Early Hasidic Masters. Jewish Publication Society: Philadelphia, USA

[Accessed: 18.01.2011]

[Accessed: 11.01.2011]

[Accessed: 31.01.2011]

[Accessed: 01.02.2011]

[Accessed: 18.01.2011]

[Accessed: 18.01.2011]

[1] A prayer of the ‘ināyatī-Maimūnī ṭarīqat’ a Sufi Hasidic order, written by pīr Inayat and also adopted by Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi:

Schachter-Shalomi, Z. & Miles-Yepez, N. (2009). A Heart Afire: Stories and Teachings of the Early Hasidic Masters. (p. 142)

[2] Buber, M. (1994). Tales of the Hasidim. (pp. 255-256)

[3] Story taken from “Memorial of the Saints” of Fariduddin Attar. [Accessed online 26.01.2011]:

[4] Here I have used the terms ‘external’ and ‘internal’ for I believe all worship encompasses these two notions. When one fasts, him avoiding food, drink and other necessities is the external form, and on the contrary the inner fulfilment and growth is considered the internal. It is more likely that the latter notion is easily corrupted.

[5] Ablution here refers to ‘wudhū’, the act of cleansing certain parts of the body with water before each ṣalāh (prayer)

[6] Bulleh Shah’s (1680-1758)poem. [Accessed online 01.02.2011]:

[7] Rabi’ah Basri’s (717-801) sufism. [Accessed online 01.02.2011]:

[8] Buber, M. (1994). Tales of the Hasidim. (p. 255)

[9]Memorial of the Saints” of Fariduddin Attar. [Accessed online 26.01.2011]:

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