Orientalists have expressed various opinions concerning the origins of Sufism. Some authors argue that it was influenced by Greek philosophy. To support this hypothesis Professor R.A. Nicholson of Cambridge cited similarities between the works of Sufis and Greek philosophers. Other authors have asserted that Sufism derives from Vedanta or Buddhism. In our view, all these theories are mistaken. While some of the movements’ principles are similar, similarities do not prove that one movement comes from another.
Professor Louis Massignon, a leading French scholar of Islamic mysticism, concluded after extensive study that the origins of Sufism are embedded in the Holy Qur’an and the traditions of the Prophet Muhammad (saws). It was not transplanted from outside, but rather originated in Islam.
The Indian scholar Shah Waliullah (r.a.) (d. 1762) observed that the methods adopted by various orders conformed to the natural inclinations of people in the areas where these orders arose. Shaykhs may have drawn on certain aspects of other religions or systems, particularly when customs had become so deeply rooted as to unassailable. But we should avoid reading too much into superficial similarities. A Sufi aspirant sitting in meditation looks much like a yogi sitting in meditation, but the two differ significantly in their methods and purposes.
On another level, the question of which mysticism derives from what sources is academic. The mystic impulse exists within each human soul. Certain principles have found expression in every country, every language, every religion not because societies borrow from one another, but because God created us with an inborn yearning to know the Divine. It is human nature to turn towards spiritual improvement and training.
If concepts and practices found in Sufism are found also in Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism, and other traditions, it does not mean they are un-Islamic, any more than they are un-Christian, un-Judaic, un-Hindu or un-Buddhist. They are legitimately claimed by all faiths, for they reflect the human condition. Those who miss this point – who insist on establishing external sources for Sufism or other spiritual traditions – miss both the uniqueness of each monument of human discovery, and the unity that underlies all creation.