The Foundations of Tolerance in Sufism

Ayatollah Seyed Salman Safavi

The following is based on the contribution of Ayatollah Safavi to this week’s recent debate on tolerance to mark Iraq’s national day of Tolerance and Coexistence:

Pictured above the Khaniqah of Sheikh Safi al-Din Ardabili (1252-133CE) Iran.

Keywords: tolerance, Sufism, Islam, Iran.

The definition of tolerance:

Tolerance is the ability or willingness to tolerate the existence of opinions or behaviour that one dislikes or disagrees with.

An example of tolerance is Muslims, Christians, Jews, Zoroastrians  and Atheists being friends. In the cultural sphere, tolerance towards individuals, society, nature and animals are examples of tolerance that can found in classical Iranian literature.

Tolerance as social dialogue:

Tolerance is not simply an individual act. Rather, it has been transformed into an individual and social virtue that Iranian society has manifested as one of its most important social virtues. Hospitality and religious tolerance during the rule of Shah Abbas the Great is attested to in the written works of all European travellers of that era. Such as the travelogue of the Shirley brothers, the travelogue of Sharden, the travelogue of Peter Delavale and that of Kampfer.

The role of public figures and important organisations in promoting a culture of tolerance:

Philosophers, Sufis and some kings, such as Shah Abbas Safavi, are important examples of tolerance in both prose and poetic, historical and narrative literature.

Avicenna (980-037),and Mulla Sadra Shirazi (15721640) are the most important examples of the culture of tolerance in the philosophical literature of Iran and the Muslim world. They narrate the opinion of all of the philosophers and mystics that came before them, such as the Greek philosophers (Socrates, Plato and Aristotle) as well as the Persian philosophers, both before and after Islam, with respect. As far as it was possible, they tried to stay true to their intended meaning and then critique their work with respect.[i]

Sufi literature as the engine of the discourse of tolerance:

After Islam, Ferdowsi, Kharqani and Sheikh Safi al-Din Ardabili became the pioneersof a culture and literature of tolerance in Iran, and after them ‘Attar, Rumi, Sa’di and Hafiz were the most important figures.

Sheikh Abu al-Hassan Kharqani born in the village of Kharqan in Shahrood, Iran, during the dogmatic rule of Ghaznavian wrote:

هر کس که در اين سرا درآيد نانش دهيد و از ايمانش مپرسيد.  چه آنکس که بدرگاه باري تعالي به جان ارزد، البته بر خوان بوالحسن به نان ارزد.

“Feed whoever is born in this world and ask not of his faith, for whoever is worth life in front of Allah, certainly should also be worth bread in front of Dining table (khan)” – Abu Al-Hassan

They asked Kharqani what chivalry (futuwat) is. He said it is three things: first, generosity; second, compassion towards people; and third, independence from people.

Sheikh Safi al-Din Ardabili said:

در نان دادن، بین دوست و دشمن و مؤمن و کافر فرق مگذارید تا خالصاً لِوجه الله تعالی باشد.[ii]

“In giving bread, do not differentiate between friend and enemy, and believer and disbeliever, so that it is purely for the pleasure of God.”

Hafiz Shirazi has an important verse in regards to tolerance:

آسایش دو گیتی تفسیر این دو حرف است **** با دوستان مروت با دشمنان مدارا

“The welfare of the world is the interpretation of these two words: Generosity towards friends and tolerance towards enemies.”

The theoretical foundations of tolerance:

The principle of unity of being:

In the world there is only one existence and everything else is a manifestation of Him. There is no God but He (La ilaha illa hu).[iii]

Unity of being from the perspective of Islamic mysticism means that being from the perspective of its reality and essence is one, i.e. God. And it is because of nonessential beings that it manifests itself in plurality, and the forms are representative of the Existent (Hu). So, whoever loves God also loves His manifestations and behaves towards them with tolerance. In this perspective, all the world is sacred for it is the light of God.[iv]

Baba Tahir’s famous Iranian poem about this principle:

به صحرا بنگرم صحرا ته وینم *** به دریا بنگرم دریا ته وینم. بهر جا بنگرم کوه و در و دشت *** نشان روی زیبای ته

“I look at the desert and I see the desert as You.

I look at the sea and I see the sea as You.

Wherever I look, to mountains, pearls and fields

I see the signs of Your beautiful face”[v]

The principle of unity in plurality and plurality in unity:

Being is graded and, although there are differences in the world, it has unity of action and destination. The champion of this theory is Mulla Sadra.

The theory of love:

بسم الله الرحمن الرحیم (in the name of Allah the compassionate and the merciful). The world is the manifestation of Divine love. God, because of love, is tolerant towards those who do not believe in God and have no religion for He is merciful and generous.

Love is the heart of a healthy society. Without love, tolerance is impossible. Love is the central focus of all six books of Rumi’s Mathnawi[vi].

As Rumi writes:

“Wherever you are, and whatever you do, be in love.”

“Love is the bridge between you and everything.”

“If I love myself, I love you. If I love you, I love myself.”

“Love is not an emotion, it’s your very existence.”

“Whenever we manage to love without expectations, calculations, negotiations, we are indeed in heaven.”

The principle of symmetry and harmony:

Ferdowsi writes:

میازار موری که دانه کش است *** که جان دارد و جان شیرین خوش است

“Do not torment the ant which is carrying a grain. For it has a life, and sweet life is good.”

Sa’di Shirazi writes:

درون فروماندگان شاد کن *** ز روز فروماندگی یاد کن.

“Make the heart of the poor happy, Remember the days of the poor.”

گرفتم ز تو ناتوان تر بسی است *** تواناتر از تو هم آخر کسی است

“I understand that there are many more powerless than you. But, there are also those who are more powerful than you.[vii]

The principle of solidarity

We belong to God and to Him we return. The universe has a nature from one to the other. The human world is also interconnected, and the individual and social behaviour of humans affect the general fate of society and nature.

Tolerance or intolerance to the environment affects the social and cosmic environment because the world is in solidarity.

Rumi writes:

این جهان کوه است و فعل ما ندا ** سوی ما آید نداها را صدا

“This world is the mountain, and our action the shout: the echo of the shouts comes (back) to us.”[viii]

Sa’di Shirazi writes:

بنی‌آدم اعضای یکدیگرند **** که در آفرینش ز یک گوهرند

چو عضوی به ‌درد آورَد روزگار **** دگر عضوها را نمانَد قرار

تو کز محنت دیگران بی‌غمی ***** نشاید که نامت نهند آدمی

“Human beings are members of a whole

In creation of one essence and soul.

If one member is afflicted with pain

Other members uneasy will remain.

If you have no sympathy for human pain

The name of human you cannot retain.”[ix]

Humanity requires that we empathise with human suffering regardless of an individual’s religion and race and try to play a constructive role in reducing human suffering.

A compassionate / Rahmani understanding of Islam based on the verse in the name of Allah the compassionate and the merciful and the Prophetic and Alavi tradition.

The Gate of Knowledge Treasure to the Unique Goddess is the golden verse of “Bismillah al-Rahman al-Rahim” (In the Name of Allah, the Merciful, the Most Merciful) with which the Quran and Sura Hamad (chapter 1) begin. It is the most important document of the truth of merciful Islam (Rahmani Islam) and the collection of pure Islam teachings.

The verse, which is the beginning of all the Surahs of the Qur’an except the chapter “repentance”, emphasises the key teaching of Islam that God’s mercy predominates over his wrath and mercy, and that mercy is the main attribute of God and that his attributes are subordinate to compulsion and compulsion.

The expression “metaphor” is the nominal manifestation of God in existence. “Bismillah al-Rahman al-Rahim” is semantically semantic in relation to the divine monotheism, creation, being, resurrection, and Asmaa al-Husna (the Good Names of God).

Basim Allah Rahman Rahim (In the Name of Allah, the Merciful, the Most Merciful) is the central meaning of the Qur’an. According to its semantic orientation, the world is a reflection of the seal of God, and all the components of the universe move toward God.

The One God is the Creator, the Lord, the Owner, the Godhead and the All-Merciful Ruler of the world. He has created the world with love and, with all the people as his creatures, enjoys the merciful. But, with God, the worshiper has a special relation of being and love. Lovers love him and He loves them too.

Figure 2: In the Name of Allah, the Merciful, the Most Merciful {بِسْمِ اللَّـهِ الرَّ‌حْمَـٰنِ الرَّ‌حِيمِ}

The Qur’anic verse “There is no compulsion in religion” لَا إِكْرَاهَ فِي الدِّينِ (Qur’an 2:256):

In Majma’ al-Bayan,Tabarsi, in regards to the context of revelation of verse 265 of chapter 2 of the Holy Qur’an, writes:

“Abu Hasin, A man from Medina had two sons. When some businessmen travelled to medina for business and met these two boys, they invited them to Christianity. They were influenced by them and became Christians. And when the business men left, they left with them to Damascus. Abu Hasin became very sad about this and informed the prophet about what had happened and asked them to bring them back to Islam, he asked the prophet whether he can bring them back to Islam by force. The above verse was revealed and pointed to this truth, that there should be no force in what religion a person chooses.”

Surah al-Kafirun(Quran, chapter 109):

}بِسْمِ اللَّـهِ الرَّ‌حْمَـٰنِ الرَّ‌حِيمِ

قُلْ يَا أَيُّهَا الْكَافِرُونَ ﴿١﴾ لَا أَعْبُدُ مَا تَعْبُدُونَ ﴿٢﴾ وَلَا أَنتُمْ عَابِدُونَ مَا أَعْبُدُ ﴿٣﴾ وَلَا أَنَا عَابِدٌ مَّا عَبَدتُّمْ ﴿٤﴾ وَلَا أَنتُمْ عَابِدُونَ مَا أَعْبُدُ ﴿٥﴾ لَكُمْ دِينُكُمْ وَلِيَ دِينِ ﴿٦﴾{

“Say, ‘O disbelievers

I do not worship what you worship.

Nor are you worshippers of what I worship.

Nor will I be a worshipper of what you worship.

Nor will you be worshippers of what I worship.

For you is your religion, and for me is my religion.’”

Chapter al-Kafirun of the Holy Qur’an invites Muslims to tolerance and respect for the religions and opinion of others. This chapter of the holy Qur’an has had an important and deep effect in the Sufi and Iranian literature of tolerance. This chapter of the Qur’an is a manual for living in peace with others.

There is a famous Persian proverb which has derived from the chapter of the Qur’an that says “Musa follows his own religion, and ‘Isa follows his own religion.”

Prophetic sayings:

The Prophet of Islam has said:

 اَلْخَلْقُ عِيَالُ اَللَّهِ فَأَحَبُّ اَلْخَلْقِ إِلَى اَللَّهِ مَنْ نَفَعَ عِيَالَ اَللَّهِ وَ أَدْخَلَ عَلَى أَهْلِ بَيْتٍ سُرُوراً.,

“People are the family of God, and the most beloved person to God is he who gives profit to the people and brings happiness and joy to a family.”

The prophet has said: “God has commanded me to be tolerant towards people, similar how he has commanded me to do my obligatory prayers.”[x]

The Prophet has further said: “tolerance towards people is half of belief, and friendship with them is half of life.[xi]

Conclusion, The role of Sufism in confronting religious extremism today:

Today, Sufi orders are the most important barrier against religious fundamentalism, such as Daesh, the Taliban and Alqaeda, in the Muslim world. In particular, the Shazeliyeh order in Egypt, Mawlawiyeh in Turkey, Qaderiyeh in Bosnia and Kurdistan, and the Safavid order[xii] have an in important role in moderating the religious space of these societies and preventing the youth to being attracted to fundamentalist readings of Islam.

The world is dark without tolerance.

The world today is dark because we do not practice tolerance.

For a better world, we must practice tolerance individually and socially.

Tolerance means treating people well beyond their religion, culture and nationality.


Ibn Baza, Safwat al-Safa, edited by Gholmreza Tabatabaei,. Tehran, Intesharat Zaryab, 1376.

Ibn Sina, Isharat wa Tanbihat, Qum, Bustan kitab, 1381 H.

Attar Nishapur, Farid al-Din, Tadhkirat al-Awliya, Tehran, 1360 H.

Kulaini, al-Kafi, Beirut, manshoorat al-‘alami, 2005.

Rumi, Jalal al-Din, Mathnawi, Ed: Tufiq Subhani, Tehran, Intesharat Ruzanih, 1378 H.

Safavi, Salman, Practice Sufism and Safavid Order, London, London Academy of Iranian Studies Press, 2018.

Safavi, Salman, Mulla Sadra: Life and Philosophy, London, London Academy of Iranian Studies, Press, 2018.

Safavi, Sadreddin, Allah in Quran, London, London Academy of Iranian Studies Press., 2018.

Safavi, Seyed G, Rumi Teachings, 2008.

Safavi, Seyed G, Sufism, 2009.

Sa’di, Mosleh-ibn Abdollah, Golestan, Tehran, Nashr Sarayeh, 1382 H.

Sa’di, Mosleh-ibn Abdollah, Bostan, Tehran, Alos, 1394.

Transcendent Philosophy Journal, chief editor: Seyed Salman Safavi, Vol 20, London, London Academy of Iranian Studies Press, 2019.

[i] See: Safavi, Mulla Sadra: Life and Philosophy, London, 2018.

[ii]–.Ibn Bazaz, Safwat al-Safa, pp 936-937.

[iii] Quran, chapter2, verse 255.

[iv] See: Safavi, Sadreddin, Allah in Quran, London, 2018.

[v] Baba tahir two verse, number 162

[vi] See Safavi, Rumi Teachings, 2008.

[vii] Sa’di, Bustan, Chapter 2.

[viii] Rumi, Mathnawi, Book 1, verse 215.

[ix] Sa’di, Golestan, Hekayat 10.

[x] Kulaini, Kafi, Tab’ al-Islam, volume 2, number 681

[xi] Kulaini, Kafi, manshoorat al-‘alami, Beirut, 2005, page 396, number 5 and 6.

[xii] See: Safavi, Seyed Salman, The Practice of Sufism and Safavid order, London, London academy of Iranian studies press, 2018.

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