Sufism and the Sufi Orders

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Islamic mysticism.

The word Sufi is generally assumed to derive from suf (wool), in reference to the simple clothing of the early ascetic mystics. It refers to the practice and philosophical tradition in Islam that relates to spiritualism and mysticism.

Theological and Philosophical Basis

Mysticism in Islam has two distinct origins. The first is the Qurʾan itself, which postulates an intensely personal and direct relationship between the individual and God. This fervent devotion was expressed in the early practice of Hasan al-Basri (d. 728) and the poetry of Rabiʿa al-Adawiyya (d. 801) and gave rise to spiritual Sufism. Practiced by preachers who embraced a simplealmost asceticlife, it also included celibacy and extensive religious worship and contemplation carried out individually or, more often, in a halaqa, or circle of devotees.

The second source is the mystical doctrines of other religious traditions, including gnosticism, Christianity, Zoroastrianism, and Hinduism, which converts to Islam brought into their new faith, giving rise to theosophical Sufism. These traditions had elaborate theosophical doctrines, at the heart of which lay the concept of the unity with the divine, the ultimate goal of the mystic. However, the principle of tawhid (divine unity), the cornerstone of orthodox Islamic belief, establishes God's absolute unity and absolute transcendence, thereby precluding any possibility of the creature joining with the Creator.

Theosophical Sufism eventually resolved this contradiction through the elaboration of a number of paradoxical concepts that maintain at once unity and difference, annihilation of self into the divine (fana) and self-persistence (baqa), presence and absence, intoxication and sobriety. The analogy of seeing God in a mirror image of oneself is often used to explain this unity with the divine. The reinterpretation of tawhid as unity of being, according to which the mystic could claim unity with divine existence or attributes while preserving the transcendence of divine essence, allowed Sufism to claim adherence to fundamental orthodox Islamic dogma and gave Islamic mysticism its distinctive flavor.

On the basis of this new interpretation, divine truth (haqiqa) became the ultimate object of the Sufi gnosis, which was called maʿrifa (intuitive knowledge) to set it apart from the rational and exoteric discourse of the law; the law itself became secondaryeither a mere step to reach unity with the divine or a hindrance that could be dismissed after a certain level of illumination. Knowledge of the divine nature was called kashf and was considered to be infallible, a characteristic that in orthodox Islam is attributed only to Prophetic revelation. The concept of the unity of being was tied to the Hellenistic understanding of God as a First Intellect from whose self-contemplation the world emanates, and that was reinforced by the Greek-inspired Muslim philosophers, who adopted that understanding against the dogma of the Muslim theological schools. The articulation of theosophical Sufism and its harmonization with the shariʿa (Islamic law) was carried out by Muhyi al-Din ibn al-Arabi (d. 1240), who systematized a sainthood hierarchy that culminated in a "seal of sainthood" parallel to the Qurʾanic "seal of prophecy" that he attributed to himself.

Although at first fought by the orthodox, this process of presenting the theosophical concepts in Islamic terms and justifying them through the esoteric interpretation of the Qurʾan eventually made Sufism legitimate. The process was furthered by the elaboration of a body of Sufi prophetic sayings (hadith) that justified Sufi practice (although that led to the elaboration of anti-Sufi hadith. ) The full adherence by theosophical Sufism to the shariʿa and the nominal adherence to the concept of tawhid met the main legal requirement of the faith. In addition, the materialism that accompanied the economic, technological, and cultural expansion of the Islamic empire in Umawi and Abbassid times, as well as the tendency among literalist jurists and theologians to reduce the law and the faith to a numbing amalgam of rules and rituals, helped the spread of Sufism by causing a popular reaction against these trends. In the eleventh century, Abu Hamid al-Ghazzali (d. 1111), who dominated the orthodox movement with his powerful intellect, strongly defended the spiritual dimension in Sufism against the impoverished literalist views of its most vocal opponents and integrated it into the theological expression of the faith; and although he opposed the unity of being and the asceticism and withdrawal preached by some Sufis, the stature of al-Ghazzali helped validate Sufism. Sufism could now spread unimpeded in all its various expression, although any unambiguous claim of having achieved unity with the divine met with retribution or persecution from the orthodox theologians (as happened to Husayn bin Mansur alHallaj, executed for heresy in 922.)

Sufi Orders

Partly because orthodox resistance precluded its integration in the theological disciplines and partly because of its very nature, Sufism did not become an organized discipline and came to refer to anything from intense piety to specific devotional steps to mystical philosophy. Most often, however, a Sufi cell (called tariqa or zawiya or ribat ) was formed around a teacher, and spiritual doctrine and practice could vary widely from one cell to another. Generally, the Sufi experience centers on a number of practices (including dhikr or recitation of the Qurʾan, contemplation, prayer, singing, dancing, and fasting) prescribed by the Sufi shaykh, who determines the progress of the disciple through the maqamat (stages of spiritual development, codified by Dhu Nun, d. 859.) Sufism contributed greatly to Islamic art in poetry (that of Jalal al-Din al-Rumi, d. 1273, is the best known in the Muslim world as well as in the West) and in literature and music.

By the middle of the ninth century, Sufi orders had established schools throughout the Muslim world. Since any teacher could establish a cell, these were innumerable. However, the main Sufi schools established a silsila (chain) through which the master's teachings were transmitted from teacher to disciple, and a loose lineage was traced back either to Abu al-Qasim al-Junayd (d. 910) in the Arab world or to Abu Yazid al-Bistami (d. 874) in Central Asia and Iran. Within the Arab tradition, the Rifaʿiyya (Ahmad al-Rifaʿi, d. 1182), became know for some wild practices and spread widely until overtaken in the fifteenth century by the Qadiriyya (Abd alQadir al-Jilani, d. 1166), whose orthodox bent and more flexible teachings became popular. Less famous because of its emphasis on strict mystical discipline was the Suhrawardiyya (al-Suhrawardi, d. 1168), which gained favor with the upper classes. Within Central Asia and Anatolia, were the Mawlawiyya (also Mevlevis; Jalal al-Din al-Rumi, d. 1258), an introspective order known for its use of chanting and its dancing dervishes, the nomadic Yasawiyya (Ahmad al-Yisavi, d. 1166), and the powerful and orthodox Naqshbandiyya (Muhammad Bahaʾ al-Din al Naqshabandi, d. 1389), which was popular with the elite in India and Central Asia. Also popular in the Indian subcontinent was the Chishtiyya (Muʿin al-Din Chishti, d. 1236). In Africa, the Badawiyya in Egypt (Ahmad al-Badawi, d. 1276) and the Shadhiliyya (Abu al-Hassan alShadhili, d. 1258) had emerged from the Rifaʿiyya, though the latter was more insistent on following the Sunna (tradition of the Prophet) and discouraged asceticism. The Tijaniyya (Ahmad al-Tijani, d. 1815) became very active in fighting European colonization in Northern Africa in the nineteenth century. Amongst the Shiʿa, the most popular orders were the Safawiyya (Safiy al-Din, d. 1334), which originally had been a Sunni movement, and the Niʿmatullah (Niʿmatullah bin ʿAbdullah, d. 1431). The orders shared the same general structure, an initiation ceremony during which the disciple (or the affiliate) was inducted in a similar path, marked with individual and collective rituals that focused on total obedience to the Sufi master.

These orders contributed greatly to the spread of Islam and often served as social protest movements, through their association with craft and commercial guilds, against state authority and abuses of power. But the veneration of the saints and the belief in their power to perform miracles (a claim that was eventually sanctioned by orthodoxy) slowly degenerated in popular practice into a muddle of saint worship, fatalism, superstition, and magic and cultic practices. This was accentuated by the excesses of the more extreme Sufi organizations, which demanded profession of faith in the saints as part of the shahada (Muslim creed); other organizations allowed followers to use illicit substances and disregard the law in the pursuit of the loftier goal of achieving knowledge of the divine; still others preached extreme asceticism and withdrawal from the world. Such excesses had always met with strong disapproval from orthodox jurists, although all of the jurists accepted the spiritual dimension of Sufism, but it was not until the reform movements of the eighteenth century that a reaction against these excesses took place. Building on the criticism of theosophical Sufism by Taqiyy al-Din ibn Taymiyya, Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab (d. 1792) introduced a strict return to the pristine sources of Islam, namely the Qurʾan and the Sunna (the Prophet's tradition), and condemned the morally lax practices and quasi-worship of the saints and the Prophet that were practiced by Sufis.

In India and North Africa, reform was also under way, although for different reasons. The Sufi movements, whose active preaching had brought massive conversions to Islam in those areas, had adopted beliefs and practices from their converts that were at times clearly in opposition to Islamic belief and to the shariʿa. Alarmed by this syncretism, Sufi masters including Muhammad al-Baqi Billah and Ahmad Sirhindi in India and Muhammad ibn Idris in North Africa initiated a move to restore orthodoxy and in the process reinterpreted the Sufi concepts and shifted their content from unity of being to unity of witnessing God (wahdat al-shuhud) and from a traditional Sufi path (tariqa) centered on a saint to a tariqa Muhammadiyya (the Prophet's tariqa ) centered on the emulation of the Prophet through strict and active observation of the shariʿa. But the threat that European colonialism posed to the Muslim movements transformed their efforts from religious and social reform to a national jihad against the invaders, which only hastened the disintegration of a Sufi worldview based on otherworldliness and ascetic withdrawal. Modern Muslim movements facing many of the same political challenges have generally been critical of Sufism and have espoused more and more a legalistic interpretation of the faith. However, despite the decline of the Sufi orders in recent history, many of the Sufi rituals and traditions survive today in individual and communal practice.

The Muslim world's understanding of its faith has constantly oscillated between the poles of excessive spiritualism and legalistic interpretation, although the existence of these poles has kept Islam from falling permanently into one or the other extreme, in the one case by preserving the spiritual dimension of the faith and preventing the reification of religious consciousness and in the other by grounding the faith in textual sources and moral activism. The great jurists and theologians have attempted to maintain a balance between these two dimensions of Islam, and despite opposition to certain elements in it, Sufism is generally seen as part of normal religious commitment. Thus, it was considered perfectly acceptable during the 1980s for the vice president of Cairo University, a noted scholar in Arabic-Islamic philosophy, to serve as the leader of Sufi circles in Egypt. Popular religion, however, has generally swung from one extreme to the other.

see also hadith; mevlevi brotherhood; naqshbandi; qadiriyya order; qurʾan; shariʿa; sunna.


Nasr, Sayyed Hossein. Three Muslim Sages: Avicenna, Suhrawardi, ibn Arabi. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1964.

Rahman, Fazlur. Islam, 2d edition. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979.

Trimingham, J. Spencer. The Sufi Orders in Islam. Oxford: Clarendon, 1971.

maysam j. al faruqi