37. The Mahdi: Sufi particularities

In his introduction to the Discourse on Universal History of 1377 (Al-Muqaddima, chapter The Fatimide), the Muslim historian Ibn Khaldun explains how the gnostic doctrine of the Sufis developed. “As for the first generations of Sufis, their adepts never involved themselves in this type of research [on the Mahdi]. They sought spiritual elevation by devotions as well as benefits from experiences and the states of exaltation which resulted from them […]. As for the Ishmaelites, they spoke of the divinization of the imam (uluhiyya) by divine incarnation (hulul); certain others, of the return of deceased imams by the transmigration of their souls (tanassukh); others still of the coming of some of theirs whom death had separated from them […]. Then the new generations of Sufis (al-muta ‘akhirun) spoke of unveiling (kashaf) and of supra-material realities.” [1]. This gnostic doctrine has also given birth in turn to the belief in “Abdals” these persons who surround the Mahdi. “Then the Sufis spoke of Qutb, that is the supreme elite of the initiated. According to them, they occupy alone the highest rank in the hierarchy of the esoteric sciences.” [2].

Rigorist Islam globally rejects Sufiism because of its thought (gnostic) organizing the circles of initiates and tending to a union with God in contradiction to Islam; but can we prevent the thirst of humans for knowledge of their Creator? One of the masters of Sufiism, Ibn ‘Arabi, who acted as judge and was very sectarian against the Christians [3], went so far as to place the Mahdi above Muḥammad; he had to exile himself. As heirs of pre-Islamic gnostic movements, the Sufis seek an interior control of their proper life of which they pretend to be masters, a control which would reveal their hidden divine dimension. In reality as creatures at the summit of Creation, explains the Bible, we carry in us an image of God – this is why God loves men – but not a divine dimension. The Sufis often utilize states of trance, but these states render them permeable to spirits and to fallen angels who seek the perdition of men. The Gospel knows this problem well: “there was in their synagogue a man with an unclean spirit! […] But Jesus rebuked him, saying, ‘Be silent, and come out of him!’ And the unclean spirit, convulsing him and crying with a loud voice, came out of him” (Mark 1, 23-26).

In the same gnostic vein, Ishmaelite Muslims speak of the transmigration of souls and want to contact the spirits of the dead. Now, we read in the Bible: “There shall not be found among you […] a medium, or a wizard, or a necromancer” (Dt 18, 10-11). And “Saul died for his unfaithfulness; he was unfaithful to the LORD in that he did not keep the command of the LORD, and also consulted a medium, seeking guidance” (1 Chr 10,13).

On Mount Carmel, before all the people, the prophet Elijah shows the inanity and impotence of the states of trance (utilized in vain by the prophets of Baal), for on the contrary, simple and confident prayer to the Lord operates miracles (1 Kings 18, 20-39).


 [1] Mohamed BENCHILI, ibid., p. 117.

 [2] Mohamed BENCHILI, ibid., p. 47.

[3] Guiseppe SCATTOLIN, Soufisme et Loi dans l’Islam : un texte de Ibn ‘Arabi sur les sujets protégés (ahl al’dhimma), in COLL., L’Orient chrétien dans l’empire musulman – Studia Arabica n. 3, éd de Paris, Versailles 2005.