17 OCTOBER 1931, Page 23

Saints and Su - fis Studies in Early Mysticism in the Near

and Middle East. By Margaret Smith, M.A., Ph.D. (Sheldon Press. 12s. 6d.) WE are already indebted to Dr. Margaret Smith for her admirable monograph on the mystic 'tibia. In her new

book she surveys a wider field, and makes an original con- tribution of great importance to the history of religious thought. The early appearance of the Sufi mystics within the Moslem system, and the origin of their characteristic ideas, has so far presented to scholarship a problem which no student has satisfactorily solved. The Platonic elements in the Sfifi philosophy are obvious ; and the many points at which it resembles Christian mysticism have generally been attributed to this common source, though without any clear indication of how the first Sufis could have become familiar with Neoplatonic thought. Dr. Smith, however, suggests that the relationship was far more direct than is generally realized. She reminds us that Christian mysticism flourished in the Near and Middle East at least as early as the fourth century. Monasticism, as conceived by St. Anthony and St. Basil, was a flight from the world deliberately undertaken in order that the contemplative life might be lived undis- turbed. The extreme asceticism of the monks and solitaries had as its object such a subjugation of the body as should ensure the freedom of the soul in its ascent to God. Among the " Fathers of the Desert " were many practising mystics to whom, as Cassian shows, pupils resorted for direction in the contemplative life; and theory followed in the wake of practice. In the fourth-century writings of Ephraim the Syrian and John of Lycopolis, we already find the beginnings of a Christian mystical philosophy ; largely dependent on Neoplatonic conceptions of the Divine Being and the nature of the soul. The process is continued by later writers, among whom the best known is Dionysius the Areopagite; a primary source-book of the developed mysticism of both West and East.

All this means that Islam came into a world in which the mystical life had been practised and taught by countless ascetics for some three hundred years. And this practice and doctrine, being at least as much Platonic as Christian, had plenty to offer to spiritual minds which refused the distinctive beliefs of Christianity. The first Sfifis, then, owed much to the strongly Christian environment in which they emerged ; and should be regarded as in some sense the stepsons of the Church. We easily forget how long and how firmly the Cross had been established in the lands into which the Crescent came :

" At the time when Muhammad appeared Christianity was a living force in Arabia, Egypt, N. Africa, Nubia, Syria and Asia Minor, in Mesopotamia and Persia, on the shores of the Persian Gulf, in Turkestan, and still farther East . . . later, when his armies and those of his successors sought to secure political power for Islam, and to enforce its acceptance, it was into countries mainly Christian that they penetrated, it was peoples strongly influenced by Christianity whom they conquered, and it was in the midst of populations permeated by Christian teaching and Christian culture that they established themselves."

The origins of Sfifiism are therefore, in Dr. Smith's view, to be sought partly in that desire for interiority and immediate contact with God which is the motive force of all mysticism ; and partly in the spiritual doctrines and practices which Islam found already established in the countries to which it came. In the first part of her book she describes the growth of this Christian ascetic and mystical life in the Near

and Middle East from the fourth century onwards ; the monastic and eremitical system in which it was embodied ; and the principal writers which it produced. In the second, and most exciting section, she deals with the early contacts between Christianity and Islam; showing how greatly the Moslem conquerors depended on existent Christian culture, how easy and tolerant the relations between the two faiths often were, and how naturally an infiltration of Christian spirituality might have taken place. Education was almost entirely in the hands of the Christians, and the teachers were often monks or priests, through whom their Muslim pupils must have become familiar with the beliefs and practices of the ascetics, and conceivably with the actual writings of the mystics. Inter-marriage between Christian and Moslem was frequent, and Christian wives were mostly permitted to keep their faith ; inevitably transmitting something of its spirit to their children :

" So, while the Christian Near and Middle East was rapidly Islamized, Islam in its turn became to some extent Christianized ; and this influence showed itself most plainly in the rise and development of Islamic Mysticism."

In an account of the mystical doctrines of the early Sufis, and of some of their lives and works, Dr. Smith illustrates and presses this conclusion home. A final section on the real origin and meaning of all mysticism relates its temporal manifestations to their universal object ; and successfully draws together the threads of her important and original work.