Is Sufi from Arabic Tasawuf or IE. forms?

Discussion in 'Etymology, History of languages and Linguistics (EHL)' started by mojobadshah, Jul 19, 2013.

  1. mojobadshah Senior Member

    Is Sufi from Arabic Tasawuf "wool" or IE. like maybe Av. spitama "white" or Gk. -sophy?
  2. fdb Senior Member

    Cambridge, UK
    French (France)
    ṣūfī is from Arabic ṣūf “wool”. Wearing wool rather than silk was a sign of poverty, or humility, in mediaeval Islamic societies. But who told you that spitāma means “white”?
  3. mojobadshah Senior Member

    Read it in a book somewhere. The morpheme -pit- in Av. spitama is cognate to Eng. white after -fit- > vit. Spitama is also cognate to NPer. safid "white" Gk. sofia "wisdom" and L. sapean "wise" or am I wrong?
  4. fdb Senior Member

    Cambridge, UK
    French (France)
  5. mojobadshah Senior Member

    No way. Wait. I see that I'm wrong about Spitama's connection to Gk. sofia and L. sapient, but but all the sources I've seen define Spitama as "white," and I know I read something close to what I said about the -pit- > -vit- shift cf. Eng. white. And I'm assuming that NPer. safid "white" is akin to Spitama "White" because the two words resemble each other, which makes Safid look like a likely candidate for an ancestor of the Arab. Sufi "wool" which is white. So if it doesn't mean "white" or "white garments" which is what Zoroastrian priests wore. If Spitama doesn't mean "white" what does Spitama mean?
    Last edited: Jul 20, 2013
  6. Wolverine9 Senior Member

    American English
    Spitāma- means “possessing brilliant attacking strength”; read this. The avestan word for “white” is spaēta-.
  7. palomnik Senior Member

    There are four common theories on where "sufi" comes from, but nobody really knows for sure.

    One is from ṣūf - "wool" - as you point out. The second is from Greek sophia. The third is that it comes from ahl is-suffa - "people of the bench", a group who would meet in the Medina mosque at the time of the prophet. The fourth is from ṣafa' - purity.
  8. mojobadshah Senior Member

    I thought that Spaetama was an alternate rendering for Spitama and that Spaetama/Spitama means "white" and spaeta is a cognate to Spaetama. Do you agree that Spaeta is a cognate of the Eng. white? This is what other sources say anyhow: see + white&f=false and + "white"&f=false. Pretty much every source I've read asserts that Spaetama : white, up until you showed me yours. It doesn't say very much. Can you support your source?
    Last edited: Jul 20, 2013
  9. Wolverine9 Senior Member

    American English
    Spitāma was the family designation of Zoroaster and is used in the Avesta as a patronym for him. Anything you read beyond that is merely conjecture. That being said, the sources claiming it means "white" are all mainly from the 19th century. It seems the name consists of spita- + Hma-. The root spit- can mean "grow, swell, increase, fatten." The suffix -ama or -āma (<Hma) can mean "strength" or "power." That would be the explanation behind the meaning I mentioned.
    Last edited: Jul 20, 2013
  10. mojobadshah Senior Member

  11. mojobadshah Senior Member

    I think this source "Iranian loanwords in Syriac" comes from 2008 and it seems to maintain that Spitama means "white." I googled Spaeta + Spaetama on google books. It says something like: 214 Note that Av. Spitama-, as well as Av. spaeta- and MP spld, are all forms that come from the same IE root *£weyt- "light, white": the literal meaning of Av.Spitama- is "mit glanzender ['weisser'] (Angriffs-)Kraft" (Walde - Pokorny I 469; IPNB ...

    Up until you showed me your source it made perfect sense that the family name would be called "white" because the Spitamas were hereditary priests and white was the color of their priestly garbs. In any case that doesn't rule out Safid "white" as a candidate. Apparently Arabic sufi is derived from safa which makes the two words resemble each other more. Is NPer. Safid related to Av. Spaeta "white"?
    Last edited: Jul 20, 2013
  12. Wolverine9 Senior Member

    American English
    Yes, they're cognates.
  13. mojobadshah Senior Member

    Are Safavid and Sufi cognates? The Safavids popularized Shiaism and its my understanding that Shia Islam was a Sufi movement.
  14. Wolverine9 Senior Member

    American English
    Safavid is derived from ṣafī “pure” (<ṣafā “purity”), which was the name of the founder of a Sufi order who also was an ancestor of the Safavids, while ṣūfī is most likely from ṣūf “wool.”
    Last edited: Jul 21, 2013
  15. mojobadshah Senior Member

    This source says its debatable and that it could come from Per. saf "pure": Are you sure Per. saf "pure" is not a cognate of Per. safid "white"? And sufi comes from Arabic suf or saf "wool."
    Last edited: Jul 21, 2013
  16. Wolverine9 Senior Member

    American English
    āf, ṣafī, etc. are of Arabic origin and not cognate to Persian safīd.
  17. thelastchoice Senior Member

    Arabic S.A.
    The greek origin theory has no basis but the similar pronunciation. Arab and Muslim scholars did not mention such theory although they usually mention such information. They mentioned 8 theories. Greek S in Sophia as never transliterated as صاد Sad. It was always transliterated as سين Seen like in φιλοσοφία which became فلسفة not فلصفة .
  18. sotos Senior Member

    The early Sufi movement evolved in the east of the then Byzantine Empire in a mixed Christian/Greek/Muslim environment and thus inherited some Neo-Platonic and pagan elements (Mevlana Rumi and his son wrote poems in Greek). So, I believe the etymology from Gr. σοφοί (in plural, wise men) is plausible. On the other hand, the connection with the "wool" has a parallel in other Greco-Christian-to-Muslim converts: In Cyprus the cryptochristian muslims were called "linovamvakoi" (linen-cottons). The "folk-etymology" could possibly take into account both meanings.
  19. mojobadshah Senior Member

    My original hypothesis was that Zarathushtra Spitama "The White" worshipped Mazda "Wisdom." Spitama was a family name that designated one who wore the white priestly garbs. Av. spaeta or Per. safid was therefore used to designate priests. White was actually the common priestly garb of most ancient Indo-European priestly castes. Saf "white" could then be the root of Sufi. I'm also tempted to think that Per. saf "white" is akin to Per. saf "pure," (it would sort of make sense semantically: white, clean, pure) but I have no evidence for this. According to wikipedia saf "pure" is arguably a candidate for Sufi.

    Would the fact that not all Muslims wore wool, but also cotton detract from the fact that Sufi is derived from the Arab suf or saf "wool"?
    Last edited: Jul 21, 2013
  20. Treaty Senior Member

    The three words ṣaff (ṣ-f-f), ṣāf (ṣ-f-w) and ṣūf (ṣ-w-f) come from unrelated Arabic roots as shown in brackets. Among them, ṣūf (=wool) is revered as the sign of belief and the cloth of people in paradise by Sufis. For example, Hujviri (c. 1070) cites a number of early Islamic hadiths to justify the religious significance of wool. The woolen cloth was considered harsh, cheap and crude which connoted abstaining from luxurious, comfortable and mundane urban life. The association of woolen cloth to Sufis and abstinence is well attested in Persian literature as a Persian-based equivalent for Sufi was pašmīneh-pūš (= one who wears woolen cloth).

    Muslim society began to divide from the moment of Prophet's death if not before it. Let's say Muslims were never practicing the exactly same thing that the absence of a common practice leads us to a detraction. On the other hand, the Muslim lands undergo repetitive insurgency against the "luxury" (tajammul) and "mundaneness" of khalifs and rulers, demanding the "simplicity" and "humility" of pioneer khalifs like Omar and Ali. It suggests that the anti-luxury tendency is genuinely Islamic. Sufis were probably one category of demonstrating this concern.
  21. fdb Senior Member

    Cambridge, UK
    French (France)
    Persian safēd “white” begins with س , and Persian (Arabic actually) ṣafiyy “pure” with ص . But why worry about mere facts?

    (Overlap with Treaty)
  22. mojobadshah Senior Member

    What you say about wool and its significance is very detailed. Thanks.

    My notions are that Sufism pre-dated Islam. It is as old as Zoroastrianism, because Sufis incorporate Zoroastrian ideas. For example fire in Sufi poetry is prominent and derives from Zoroastrian veneration of fire as a symbol of God. In Orthodox Islam fire is associated with the damnation of hell. Spitama "white" clan was the heriditary priesthood among the Iran-Afghans and they wore white garbs. The word "white" in the Iranic languages would have long been a designation for the priests who wore white garbs. The Sufi movement was probably a Persian reaction to orthodox Islam, an attempt to put a Persian stamp on Islam. It would therefore have made more sense to use an unorthodox designation for the movement. And it would make sense that Sufi is actually a designation of a Persian movement and that the word Sufi ultimately derives from Persian and not Arabic.

    Do we know who the first person to self-designate himself "Sufi" was? That could explain something.

    fdb do you know if Per. safid "white" and Per. safa "pure" are related?
    Last edited: Jul 21, 2013
  23. berndf Moderator

    German (Germany)
    The earliest Sufis in Islamic traditions were Arabs not Persians. If you think this is all wrong, please explain on which sources you base this.
    He answered this in #21 above (the two words don't start with the same sound/letter which makes it unlikely).
  24. mojobadshah Senior Member

    That was my impression too, but can you name any Arab Muslims who used the designation Sufi, or is this designation a back-projection.
  25. Treaty Senior Member

    Islam itself predates Islam. No one, even the prophet, claimed that Islam is something totally new but returning the origin of the religion. There are a great deal of similarities, in details, between Islam and Zoroastrianism.

    Sufi poetry and symbolism (11th century onwards) are much later than the emerge of simple Sufism in 8th century. In 10th century, according to Al-Sulami there were already five categories of Sufis. In addition, in the canonical books kitāb al-tawahhum and ādāb al-ṣūfīyah there is no major difference between the so-called orthodox Islam and their teachings.

    There was nothing called "white clan" and no Magus claimed to be offspring of Zoroaster or Spitamids. I assume the association of "white cloth" with purity is primary visual and universal rather than ideological and belonging to a certain priesthood.

    And what is that so-called "Islamic orthodoxy"? What is the unorthodox Islam then? And how the detailed and strict laws of Zoroastrianism help relieve that orthodoxy? (Some say one of the reasons Iranian became Muslims was the relative simplicity and relaxation of Islam).

    No. There was always a dispute at least since 10th century. The name definitely goes before 9th century. As for themselves, they wondered between ṣūf (=wool: their "external" demonstration) and ṣafā' (=purity of soul: their ultimate goal), not considering some other five or six possibilities. These can be a genuine debate. However, as seen in some Shia hadiths there was a suspicion that woolen cloth had become an abusively demonstrative tool rather that a humble clothing as it should be. This may explain why Sufis gradually became reluctant to relate the term to wool.

    The question is what do you mean by Arab Muslim? Arabic became lingua franca of the Muslim lands since their occupation like Latin did in Europe. You should distinguish between Arabic language which was spoken by all Muslim scholars and Arabic ethnicity which was the ruling minority of Islamic lands. Not only many Sufi scholars but also other Sunni and Shia scholars were of non-Arab ethnicities especially Iranians.

    There is no evidence that the fore-fathers of Sufism (either Arab or Iranian) called themselves "Sufi". The problem of considering an Iranian origin for the term "Sufi" is that the Iranian scholars who contributed to Sufism knew Persian well, so it is very unlikely that they have misspelled or mispronounced safid into sufi.
  26. mojobadshah Senior Member

    Al-Sulami is a start. But this proves my point. Using Sufi to designate historical figures is a backprojection. We're not really sure exactly who the first Sufi was. My understanding is that the Sufism is rooted in Shia Islam and therefore different from orthodox or Sunni Islam. Shia Islam was adopted by the Iranians because tracing their authority to Ali allowed them to put their own stamp on the religion, and most Iranian mystics and poets used Zoroastrian ideas heavily. I'm not totally convinced that Sufi wasn't a Persian development and that it's not linguistically unsound that the word developed like so: safid > safi > sufi

    I'm not sure I agree with you. The family name Spitama pops up a few times in the ancient history. The name is listed in bank records that are dated to the Acheamenid period, and Spitama was also the name of a Bactrian king during the Selucid period.

    The cloth was white, the garb of the hereditary Zoroastrian priesthood. Zarathushtra Spitama was a hereditary priest.

    Being that Shia Islam and Sufi Islam looks to be a Persianized form of Islam, Sunni Islam would be the orthodox Islam.

    The thing about wool which I haven't mentioned yet, is that its white. This is another reason to link the word Sufi to the Persian Safid "white."

    Well pretty much all the Muslim world except for the Shia who mainly inhabit Iran and are Persian speaking, and the Persian Sufis, and then there are mostly Arabic speaking Sunni Muslims.

    Maybe it wasn't misspelled, maybe it was used so much that they just innovated the word.
    Last edited: Jul 22, 2013
  27. Treaty Senior Member

    Incorrect! The concept which defines Shi’ism is īmāmah (the hereditary succession of Prophet), that is, the only real difference between Sunni and Shia. You cannot find even a scant trace of this concept in an absolute majority of Sufi traditions. So, on what base do you connect Sufism to Shia?

    In addition, Sufis devotedly venerated Omar and the founders of four Sunni schools which is totally un-Shi’ite.
    Nope, I would say wool is probably the only material that may NOT be white as we have non-white sheep and camel. Interestingly, all Sunni clerics traditionally wore white cloths while Shia clerics preferred brown or greyish cloths.

    Incorrect! There are about 200-300M Shias [by name] of whom only 70M are West Iranian speakers (inc. all Iranian languages of Iran and Iraq) while majority of Persian speakers in Tajikistan and Afghanistan, as well as Baluchi and Kurdish speakers are Sunni. What will you say for the majority of Sunnis (Hanafi), who belong to the school of Persian scholar Abu Hanifah? Does it make Sunnis also Persian?
    The current Irano-Turkic Shia people are living exactly inside the borders of the pro-Shia Safavid state (1600s) while the Irano-Turkic Sunnis live outside it. I think this clearly speaks what had made the current Shia-Sunni geographical distribution. Interestingly, Safavid kings “imported” many Lebanese Shia scholars to serve as religious teachers.
    Although I’ve gone too far into explaining non-linguistic topics but it was essential to demonstrate many of your presumptions are not factual. I don’t deny the influence of Zoroastrianism on Islam, even in details but there are tens of other eco-socio-politico-cultural situations as important (if not more) that may have resulted into the rise, evolution and fall of religious movements like Sufism.
  28. mojobadshah Senior Member

    Neither Shia nor Sufi trace authority to Abu Bakr.

    But the priests wore white wool. Good a reason as any to call their garbs white, no?

    The Sunnis are orthodox Muslims, but there were notable Sufi works which came out of Afghanistan (which is primarily Sunni today) such as those of Rumi. Most of the Arabic world is made up of orthodox Muslims or Sunnis. The Irano-Afghan zone is made up of unorthodox Shia Muslims, and unorthodox Sufis in other Iranic speaking areas which I suppose could even include the Yazidis in Kurdistan.
  29. Treaty Senior Member

    Again what is your evidence? I just checked the works of some Perisan Sufis (Hujviri, Rumi, Attar, Sana'i) about Abubakr and all have considered him a righteous person (the second good after the Prophet). Anyway, Sufis traditionally didn't care about "authority" and "government" because it is a mundane concept for them.
    So what? The priests all over Middle East wore white garment. In addition, there are several hadiths associated to Mohammad which recommend bright or white garment. Why do you single out Magi's white cloth?
    So what? What's the connection between being from Eastern Iran and Zoroastrianism? I've just told you majority of Sunnis follow Abu-Hanifa who was from Afghanistan. Basically, all Sunni's six accredited books (Sahihs) are written by Afghano-Iranians. Why don't you consider your logic also for Sunnis?
    Their main capital (Baghdad) was in the former Zoroastrian powerhouse and their Khalifs were greatly depended on Iranians, politically and culturally.
    All I can say is that after death of Ali, the humility of the "golden age" rulers was replaced by the luxurious political bureaucracy of Umayyids. This simple fact may be a better explanation for the popularity of apolitical self-imposed poverty of early Sufis, which was parallel to the anti-Khalifs political movements of early Shi'ism.
  30. Wolverine9 Senior Member

    American English
    mojobadshah, why is it so difficult for you to believe that ṣūfī is of Arabic origin? Just because many Sufis were Persian doesn't mean the term itself is Persian.
  31. sotos Senior Member

    The simplicity of clothing as a spiritual symbolism is a pre-muslim tradition. Compare with Mat. 3, 4 "... John had his raiment of camel's hair ...". Wool was the cheapest material for clothes those days. Cotton, silk etc were luxury products.
    My example of "cotton-linen" crypto-christian muslims meaned to indicate that the clothe was used to identify certain religious communities. Another example, the Greek orthodox priests are often called "rassophoroi" (black-cloak-bearers).
    The relation between words meaning "white" and "wise" is not impossible. One may argue that the Gr. root "asp-" (> aspros, white) is anagrammatism of the root "sap-" (wise, to know etc).
  32. berndf Moderator

    German (Germany)
    Your simplistic equation Sunni=Arabic and Shia=Persion doesn't hold water. There are enough Arabic Shia Muslims and before the Safavids made Shia Islam state religion and several waves of forced conversion, Persians were predominantly Sunnis.
  33. mojobadshah Senior Member

    I'll be honest. I'm not well versed in Islam, but the fact that the Shia subverted Islam by tracing authority to Islam and the incorporation of Zoroastrian ideas such as the celebration of Noe Ruz, and the fact that the writers of these 6 sunni hadiths were Persian, and the fact that the Sufi's didn't care about authority shows that Islam was being radically altered by the Irano-Afghans. I'm not singling out the Magi's white cloth, but the fact is that they have been wearing white as far back as they can recall and the Muslims priests were wearing white garbs is why I'm tempted to think that the fact that the majority of priests wore white is why they were called Sufi's or holy men who wore white garments.
  34. berndf Moderator

    German (Germany)
    Nobody has ever denied the influence of Iranian scholars on the development of Islam. But please forget things like this: Shia subverted Islam by tracing authority to Islam and the incorporation of Zoroastrian ideas such as the celebration of Noe Ruz. The Iranians become Shiites only in the 16th century. That has nothing to do with what we are discussing here. Noe Ruz was reintroduced only after the demise of the califate. All this can't influence the etymology of the word Sufi. The only letter the word ufi shares with safēd is the "f"; and this is definitely not enough to build such a far fetched theory upon as you are offering to us. And even if Sufism where all an Persian invention, it wouldn't mean the word had to be of Iranian origin. Arabic is the sacred language of Islam and no Muslim, Arab, Persian or from any other part of the world has ever questioned that.
    Last edited: Jul 23, 2013
  35. fdb Senior Member

    Cambridge, UK
    French (France)
    I agree totally with Bernd, apart from one relatively minor point:

    The Zoroastrian New Year (­naw rōz) was in fact celebrated in early Islamic Persia and indeed marked the beginning of the tax year in the Eastern provinces of the caliphate. In the 11th century, however, Naw rōz was fixed to the spring equinox and thus detached from the Zoroastrian vague year of exactly 365 days. All is explained here (unfortunately only if you have access to JStor):
  36. berndf Moderator

    German (Germany)
    Thank you for the correction.
  37. mojobadshah Senior Member

    Noe Ruz is celebrated by all Irano-Afghans. Rumis work was called the Persian Koran and his predecessor beleived that Persian was better than Arabic for sacred writings. Another reason why Sufi could have been Persian. Maybe you only see 1 letter in common but I see potentially 2 s, f, ee or i and a vowel corresondence a > u.
  38. fdb Senior Member

    Cambridge, UK
    French (France)
    Or as Voltaire (is wrongly supposed to have) said: Les voyelles ne font rien, et les consonnes fort peu de chose.
  39. berndf Moderator

    German (Germany)
    There is no s in ṣufi.
  40. mojobadshah Senior Member

    Its more like Shia and Sufi-Sunni Muslim= Persian and Sunni Muslim=Arabic
    Last edited: Jul 23, 2013
  41. mojobadshah Senior Member

    Kindly elaborate on this. How is there no s in sufi? All the etymologies that have been proposed here involve the word sufi having developed from an initial s. Are you saying that the word sufi developed from the word ufi?
  42. berndf Moderator

    German (Germany)
    I don't understand a word of what you are saying.
  43. berndf Moderator

    German (Germany)
    Please read carefully how ṣufi is spelled. Hint: the little dot is *not* decoration.
  44. mojobadshah Senior Member

    The anti-orthodox and pro-Persian Muslim movement really began all the way back with Salman-i-Parsee and the murder of Omar who is still reverenced in a tomb today. The 6 hadiths of canon were all authored by Persian Muslims. Sufis such as Rumi reverenced Sunnis, but also incorporated Zoroastrian elements into his works. The Safavids concept of the Mahdi the 12 and hidden Imam is a direct borrowing from Zoroastrianism, the Saoyshant. As far as I know this motif does not appear in the Koran. The Safavids hence also partook in this subversion of Islam choosing the Shia religion was a part of it. So what you have is a Zoroastrianized Islam practiced in the Irano-Afghan zone (Noe Roz is another good example of antiorthodox practices), and a clearly orthodox sunni Islam practiced amongst most Arabic speakers.
    Last edited: Jul 23, 2013
  45. mojobadshah Senior Member

    OK, maybe there's something I don't know. What is your source for ufi > sufi? I don't see why there would be a debate about it if there is sound linguistic evidence for an Arabic origin of the word.
  46. berndf Moderator

    German (Germany)
    There isn't. It's just you who is debating. The two proposed Arabic etymons both start with the same letter as ṣufi; yours doesn't.
  47. Wolverine9 Senior Member

    American English
    It seems like you're asserting that "unorthodox" Shia Islam is a continuation of Zoroastrianism and distinct from "orthodox" Sunni Islam, and that the "unorthodox" Suffis are a continuation of the Spitamids. All of this is very far-fetched without any historical basis for support.
  48. Wolverine9 Senior Member

    American English
    There is a difference between and s. ṣūfī begins with , which is usually only found in words of Arabic origin.
  49. mojobadshah Senior Member

    OK I'm almost convinced that Sufi is an Arabic word, but didn't ṣ develop out of s? How did an ṣufi develop out of ufi? I'd like to see the source for this explanation.
    Last edited: Jul 24, 2013
  50. mojobadshah Senior Member

    Both Shia Islam and Sufism incorporate both direct and indirectly inherited Zoroastrian ideas, there's no doubt about that. I was merely proposing that the reason Sufi is developed from Safid "white" because white represented the forces of light and was the heriditary garb of many priestly castes during those days, and the Spitamids were one of them. Everything about this is historical apart from the connection between Sufi and Safid which is a linguistic question.
    Last edited: Jul 24, 2013

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