DARWĪSH . The Persian word darwīsh, from the Pahlavi driyosh, is most likely derived from the term darvīza, meaning "poverty," "neediness," "begging," and so forth. The word darwīsh has entered the other Islamic languages, such as Turkish and Urdu, and is even found in classical Arabic sources. It has become an English word in the form of dervish. In all these cases, including the original Persian, it is related primarily to spiritual poverty, equivalent to the possession of "Muhammadan poverty" (al-faqr al-muḥammadi). Hence the term darwīsh referring to a person who possesses this "poverty" is the same as the Arabic term faqīr used in Sufism in many Islamic languages besides Arabic (including Persian itself) for Muhammadan poverty. Within Ṣūfī circles, these words are used interchangeably, along with mutaṣawwif, "practitioner" of Sufism.
The term darwīsh appears in Persian literature as early as the tenth century and in such early Persian Ṣūfī texts as the works of Khwājah ʿAbd Allāh Anṣārī of Herat, where it carries the basic meaning referred to above but encompasses such variations as "ascetic," "hermit," and "wandering Ṣūfī" (qalandar). Later it also became an honorific title bestowed upon certain Ṣūfīs such as Darwīsh Khusraw, the leader of the Nuqṭawiyah school at the time of Shah ʿAbbās I. Throughout the history of Sufism, the state of being a darwīsh, or darwīshī, has been held in great honor and respect, as seen from the famous ghazal of Ḥāfiẓ that begins with the verse
Rawḍiy-i khuld-i barīn khalwat-i darwīshānast
Māyiy-i muḥtashimī khidmat-i darwīshanast
The sublime eternal Paradise is the spiritual
retreat of the dervishes;
The essence of grandeur is the service of the dervishes.
There is, however, a secondary meaning associated with darwīsh that carries negative connotations, interpreting simplicity of life, limitation of material needs, reliance upon God for sustenance, and other aspects of Muhammadan poverty or Sufism as laziness, lackadaisicalness, indifference to cleanliness, neglect of duties toward oneself and society, and other injunctions emphasized by the sharīʿah, or Islamic law. This negative aspect of the term increased with the decay of certain Ṣūfī orders during the past two or three centuries and also with the attempt by some people to pass themselves off as darwīsh without any involvement with Sufism at all. Nonetheless, the association with spiritual poverty, self-discipline, and the basic virtues of humility, charity, and veracity remains the primary meaning of the word.
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Seyyed Hossein Nasr (1987 and 2005)