Islamic Mysticism in Asia

views updated May 17 2018

Islamic Mysticism in Asia

There are a number of mystical movements within Islam, but by far the dominant tradition is that of Sufism, one of the most dynamic and interesting dimensions of Islamic religious and cultural expression. Sufism is an umbrella term for a variety of philosophical, social, and literary phenomena occurring within the Islamic world. In its narrowest sense, the term refers to a number of schools of Islamic mystical philosophy and theology, to the phenomenon of religious orders and guilds (tariqat ) that have exerted considerable influence over the development of Islamic politics and society, and to the varied expressions of popular piety and devotion to shrines found throughout the Islamic world. In a wider sense, Sufism is often seen as the spiritual muse behind much of premodern verse in the Islamic world, the idiom of much of popular Islamic piety, the primary social arena open to women's religious participation, and a major force in the conversion of people to Islam in Africa and Asia. The Sufi orders served as educational institutions that fostered not only the religious sciences but also music and decorative arts. Their leaders sometimes functioned as a challenge to the power of the juridic and theological establishment. In modern times (as at other periods in history), the Sufi orders have been praised for their capacity to serve as instruments of religious reform at the same time as they have been vilified for a lack of respect for Islamic law and for fostering ignorance and superstition in order to maintain control over the community.

The term Sufism or tasawwuf, as the tradition is called in Arabicmay derive from the practice of wearing wool (suf in Arabic), or possibly from the Arabic word for purity (safa ). The earliest Sufis spent almost all their waking hours in prayer, and frequently engaged in acts of self-mortification, such as starving themselves or staying up the entire night, as a form of prayer exercise. They renounced their connections to the world and possessed little other than the clothes on their backs. A large percentage of these early Sufis were women, several of whom, such as Rabi'a al-Adawiyya (d. 801), are revered to this day.

History: Early Period

In Muslim understanding the origins of Islamic mysticism in the form of Sufism lie in the life of Muhammad. His earliest biographies emphasize his habit of meditating in a cave and living a life of material simplicity bordering on asceticism, both of which are seen as prototypes of mystical belief and practice in Islam. As an organized movement, Sufism too owes its official origins to Muhammad and his cousin and son-in-law, 'Ali, who is viewed by the majority of Sufis as the first of their kind. Ali was the first male convert to Islam and the man closest to Muhammad in his private life. As such, he is said to have received levels of spiritual guidance from Muhammad that were not available to anyone else. Part of this was a body of mystical knowledge that was passed down through Ali to future generations. The concept of esoteric or mystical knowledge ('ilm al-batin, al-'ilm al-batini, or simply al-batin ) became central to the theology of Shiism, one of the two main sectarian divisions in Islam. It also remains at the center of Sufi understanding.

The historically traceable origins of Sufism begin approximately a century after Ali's death. Very little biographical information is available on some of the earliest Muslim ascetic and mystical figures, but they are important for their impact on the development of Sufism. By the late eighth century, members of the school of a famous mystical ascetic named Hasan al-Basri (d. 728) had established a convent (ribat ) at Abadan, and others had composed important treatises on Sufi etiquette. Important mystical figures of this period include Dhu'l-Nun Misri (d. c. 859), an Egyptian figure who is of importance to the development of Sufism in western Asia because later Sufis quote him frequently, seeing him as a Muslim exponent of the Hellenistic tradition. An Iranian Sufi named Bayazid Bistami (d. 874) became famous for ecstatic utterances (shathiyat ), which he was the first to use consistently as an expression of Sufi mystical experience. These somewhat scandalous declarations were dramatic statements made to demonstrate the merging of Bistami's individuality with the divine identity. This sense of union with God was the result of a life-long process of self-purification at both a physical and a spiritual level. In his practice of prayer and meditation Bayazid showed strong ascetic tendencies while at the same time ridiculing traditional asceticism because he felt that trying to renounce the physical world was to afford the physical realm an existence that it did not actually possess. The theme of asceticism appears frequently in Iranian Sufism in the ninth century even though many Sufis, like Bistami, rejected the outward trappings of an ascetic life.

The end of the tenth century marks a transition in the development of Sufism from the early formative period that was characterized by a high degree of individualism in practice and a central focus on asceticism to a classical age wherein there is greater emphasis on organization and systematization. This is also a time when Sufism in western Asia appears somewhat divided between two schools, the first being the Iraqi one (which was transplanted to Nishapur in Iran) and the second being the Khurasani one, centered in northeastern Iran and Afghanistan. The differences between these two schools are not altogether clear and at times appear to have more to do with the theological and legal affiliations of Khurasani Sufis than with any major differences over mystical theory and practice.

The transitional phase of the tenth and eleventh century also witnessed an increased emphasis on the formalization of Sufi doctrine, the canonization of earlier Sufi figures, and an apologetic attempt to show potential Sufis and the society at large that Sufism was in complete harmony with orthodox Islam. Two of the most important figures in this regard are Abu Bakr Kalabadhi (d. between 990 and 995) and Abu 'Abd al-Rahman Sulami (d. 1021).

Kalabadhi is most famous as the author of the Kitab alta'arruf li-madhab ahl al-tasawwuf, a widely circulated book that attempts to explain Sufi terminology and beliefs and to show the essential orthodoxy of Sufism. Among Sulami's many works his Tabaqat al-sufiyya served as a model for many later Sufi biographical works. He also wrote treaties on Sufi ethics, particularly on the concept of Sufi chivalry (futuwwa ) and on antinomian trends in Islamic mysticism.

Two of the most important mystical figures of the formative period of Sufism in Asia are Khwaja 'Abd Allah Ansari (d. 1089) and Abu Sa'id ibn Abu al-Khayr (d. 1049). They are both central to the development of organized Sufism but represent two distinct models of leadership. Abu Sa'id is perhaps the most colorful of the famous Iranian Sufis of this period. He studied law, theology, and other religious sciences before adopting a contemplative life, which he pursued under the guidance of a master for fifteen years. Following his teacher's death, Abu Sa'id entered into a flamboyant, public phase of his life during which he ran two Sufi centers, one in his home town of Mehana and the other in Nishapur, the biggest city in Iran at the time. Abu Sa'id was accused by his critics of accepting too much money from devotees, living too luxurious a lifestyle, and having attractive young men dance and sing in public. Abu Sa'id is one of the key figures in the earliest evolution of successful Sufi orders and centers.

Khwaja 'Abd Allah Ansari is a Sufi of a very different kind, though comparable in importance to Abu Sa'id. Ansari was a committed polemicist belonging to an important school of Sunni Muslim legal thought. His personal and professional fortunes changed as the religious pendulum swung in different directions. It was toward the end of his life, after he had gone blind and at the urging of his disciples, that Ansari dictated his main works, including the very popular Kitab manazil al-sa'irin, a brief didactic text providing an itinerary for the soul's journey to God. His other important works include a mystical treatise emphasizing the importance of love in the journey toward God.

The period immediately before and after the Mongol invasion of Iran in the early thirteenth century was perhaps the single most vibrant phase in the history of Iranian Sufism. The social and political instability of the era combined with a high degree of intellectual vitality to produce major thinkers and teachers. Undoubtedly the most famous of these is the Andalusian emigré Muhyi al-din Ibn al-'Arabi (d. 1240). Ibn al-'Arabi's mystical and philosophical ideas reshaped much of Sufi thought and, to a large extent, fashioned the language if not always the content of Sufi discussions since his time. His central philosophical idea was that the universe is the physical manifestation of God; as such, it is not entirely distinct from him but represents one of his aspects, the other being his uniqueness. This doctrine came to be known as "Oneness of Being" (wahdat alwujud ). The doctrine that God is utterly separate from creation is a central belief of many Muslims for whom Ibn al-'Arabi's teachings represent an unorthodox position. Over the two centuries after his death a modified version of the theory of "Oneness of Being" emerged; named "Oneness of Witnessing," it attempted to reconcile the philosophical aspects of Ibn al-'Arabi's philosophy with common Muslim theological beliefs.

It was in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries that Islamic mystical ideas and institutions consolidated their positions in South and Central Asia, although mystical thought and Sufi individuals had been common in these regions since the eleventh century. The Naqshbandi Sufi order started in present-day Uzbekistan. Its eponymous founder, Baha' al-din Naqshband (d. 1389), had a tremendous impact on the development of Islam all across Central and inner Asia, as well as in South Asia and the Ottoman Empire. It remains one of the most influential Sufi orders in modern times and is involved in global Muslim debates over the place of religion in modern society.

Of similar importance is the Chishti order, which derives from Mu'in al-din Sijzi (d. 1235), a Sufi master from Afghanistan who settled in the Indian town of Ajmer. The Chishti order had tremendous importance in popularizing Islam among non-Muslim or nominally Muslim Indians, at the same time as Chishti Sufi masters maintained closed relationships with the ruling elite of South Asia. To this day the Chishti order remains notable for its openness to outsiders, in terms of both its warm welcome into its gatherings and its widespread use of music.

Doctrine and Practices

Sufis are motivated by the desire to have a direct, personal experience of God while they are still alive, rather than waiting until after resurrection when, according to Muslim belief, all human beings will share this experience. The direct experience of God is considered so overwhelming as to be indescribable and can only be spoken about in metaphors, the most commonly used ones being those of falling in love and of being intoxicated with wine. These images are frequently encountered in Sufi literature, particularly in poetry, which tries to express the indescribable joy that Sufis experience through their relationship with God, combined with the heartache of being separated from Him.

The Sufi concept of union with God is expressed in many different ways. The main problem in Sufi philosophical circles is how a mortal human being can unite with the omnipotent, omniscient deity who is unlike us in every way. The union with God is normally called fana ', which literally means "destruction" or "annihilation." Sufis believe that in the final stage of an individual's spiritual development, she loses any consciousness of her individual identity and is only aware of the identity of God. In effect, God's identity then replaces the identity of the Sufi.

There is disagreement among Sufis over whether the final spiritual goal of Sufism is to lose one's identity completely in the identity of God or to reach a stage where one's own concerns no longer prevent us from seeing the world in its true nature. A common metaphor for the first approach is to describe the Sufi's individuality as a drop that vanishes into the ocean. It ceases to exist as an identifiable entity but does not actually cease to exist, since it is now part of the vastness of the sea. The latter view, that one sees things more clearly, depicts the human heart (which was the seat of the intellect in medieval Islamic thought) as a mirror that is normally dirty, tarnished by our everyday concerns and petty desires. Through engaging in mystical exercises we effectively polish the mirrors of our hearts and cleanse them to the point that they can accurately reflect the light of God.

The Sufi Path

Sufis believe that average human beings are unable to understand the true nature of spirituality because of their petty concerns. The quest for spiritual understanding in Sufism is seen as a path that each Sufi must travel under the guidance of a teacher or master. This path has many stages, the number and names of which vary according to the school of Sufi thought.

The Sufi path relies on the use of meditation to accomplish its goals. The various Sufi forms of mediation are called zikr (or dhikr ). Zikr literally means "repetition," "remembrance," "utterance," or "mentioning" and is a term that appears several times in the Koran. At its most basic level, Sufi zikr consists of repeating one of God's names over and over. In Islam, God is believed to have many names that describe some aspect of his nature. Of these, ninety-nine are considered special and are called the "Most Beautiful Names." The purpose of reciting these names is to concentrate wholly on what one is to lose all self-awareness by repeating the zikr formula enough times that it permeates one's entire being so that even if the person ceases to actively engage in zikr, it continues to be repeated in his heart.

Impact on Literature and the Arts

Islamic mysticism has had a tremendous impact on shaping literature and the arts in Islamic society. This impact has been felt particularly in poetry and music. Mystical poetry has been composed in all languages spoken by Muslims. In Persian in particular, as well as Turkish, Urdu, and other languages that borrow much of their poetics from Persian, mystical poetry has traditionally represented one of the most important literary genres. Its influence has been so pervasive that almost all premodern love poetry in these languages borrows mystical metaphors, with the result that romantic poetry is ambiguous as to whether it refers to God or an earthly beloved. Complementing mystical poetry is a large literature of allegorical romances.

Among the many excellent mystical poets, the most famous is Mawlana Jalal al-din Rumi (d. 1273), whose three-volume didactic poem The Masnavi has been translated into all major Western languages. The Mevlevi Sufi order, which derives from him, is distinctive for the importance it gives to music and dance in its zikr practices. The Chishti order also makes extensive use of music in its religious exercises. Called qawwali, they involve a group of musicians singing religious songs in Persian or one of the languages of South Asia set to a very rhythmic beat. Qawwali music has attained global popularity over the past three decades.

See also Islam ; Mysticism: Islamic Mysticism ; Sacred Texts: Koran ; Sufism .


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Ernst, C. The Shambala Guide to Sufism. Boston: Shambala, 1997.

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Massignon, L. The Passion of al-Hallaj. 4 vols. Translated by Herbert Mason. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1982.

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Schimmel, A. Mystical Dimensions of Islam. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1975.

Jamal J. Elias

Islamic Mysticism

views updated May 14 2018

Islamic Mysticism

The mystical dimension of the Islamic religious tradition has roots in the divinely revealed text of the Koran. One passage often pointed to in this regard is the "Light Verse" (24:35), in which God is described as the Light of a blessed lamp, lit by a burning oil "neither of the East nor the West." One episode from the Koran, involving the prophet Moses, provided key evidence for the mystics' claim that an unseen world runs parallel to our own. The story describes Moses' meeting and deferring to one whom God had taught knowledge from His "own presence" (18:65). The understanding is that the prophets have their exoteric missions and knowledge, but that esoteric knowledge has a parallel, if not superior, position.

The earliest mystical practices seem to have been ascetic, probably based on earlier Syrian and Iraqi Christian models. The term Sufism, for example, probably derives from the early mystics' practice of wearing wool (suf ). A lost collection of biographies of ascetic women from the eighth and ninth centuries has been recovered. This work, by al-Sulami (d. 1021), presents themes such as scrupulous attention to God's law; excessive crying and fainting in response to one's guilt or to God's love; sincerity and control of the material appetites. These and the many other collections of ascetic exemplars that followed could evoke the prophet Muhammad's own spiritual retreats and supererogatory praying, as preserved in the Koran and the Tradition as precedents.

The concern with the self in this ascetic environment gave rise to theories of spiritual exercise that the aspirant would pursue in order to progress along the path to wisdom, purity, or even the presence of God. Among the most influential teachers and writers of the early period were Hasan al-Basri (d. 728), al-Muhasibi (d. 857), and the poet al-Bistami (d. 875). The tenth and eleventh centuries saw efforts at systematizing these paths, with the composition of a series of manuals describing and explaining such experiences as "extinction of the self in God," "trust in God," "certainty," "sincerity," and "repentance." These manuals (by al-Makki, d. 996; al-Hujwiri, d. 1071; al-Qushayri, d. 1074; and others) also present the mystical teachings of prominent Sufi masters.

Mystical thinking among the Shi'a also begins early. The sixth imam of the Twelver tradition, Ja'far al-Sadiq (d. 765) is taken by the Shi'a (and certain Sunni Sufis) to have been a master of esoteric teaching. The very concept of Shi'a leadership, or imama, included esoteric or mystical elements. The vibrant mystical tradition among the Twelver Shi'a, which came to be recognized as one of the religious sciences, would be known as 'irfan (literally, "knowledge").

The twelfth and thirteenth centuries saw the rise of the Sufi brotherhoods, or turuq (singular, tariqa ). The most prominent are probably the Qadiriyya, the Shadhiliyya, the Rifa'iyya, the Naqshbandiyya, and the Chistiyya. As an institution based on the teachings and model of a saintly founder, each tariqa would give rise to its own devotional practices, mystical doctrines, and literature. Central among these practices are the dhikr, or remembrance of Goda ritual group recitation of the name(s) of God. Along with dhikr goes the stylized recitation of long prayers, usually passed down from the founder of the order. Mystical doctrines vary widely. One issue that has been debated recently among scholars is that of "neo-Sufism." This is the term given to the perceived shift in Sufi practice, from about the middle eighteenth century, which inflated the role of the prophet Muhammad as a figure of devotion. This shift also challenged the traditional structures of the established Sufi brotherhoods and saw itself as reformist.

The heyday of Islamic mystical thought, however, took place outside the brotherhood organizations. Independent thinkers such as Ruzbehan Baqli (d. 1209), Najm al-Din Kubra (d. 1221), Ibn 'Arabi (d. 1240), Ibn al-Farid (d. 1235), and Jalal al-Din Rumi (d. 1273), provided dynamic mystical perspectives on God, creation, and existence itself. Also, the Koran could be illuminated by mystical exegesis. Ruzbehan Baqli's writings describe dramatic visions of the divine and the intense experiences these provoke. He also defended the phenomenon of ecstatic utterances (shatahat ), for which the early Sufi al-Hallaj (d. 922) in particular had been known. Much of this defense rests on the notion that mystical language must be recognized as a reflection of the essentially nonverbal reality that is mystical experience. Kubra's innovative interpretation of the soul's mystical ascent associated certain colors with the levels of experience leading to sanctity.

Ibn 'Arabi's thought introduces a hermeneutic based on the assumption that an interpretation based on mystical insight is as true as that from any other human perspective. His elaboration of a qualified "oneness of being," that is, the recognition that only God's existence stands, has had an immense influence on the mystical tradition. The concept of sanctity (walaya ) was to undergo dramatic elaboration in his writings. Ibn al-Farid, poet and mystic, composed some of the most sophisticated verses ever in the Arabic language. His great poem, the Ta'iyya, reframes classical images such as love and drunkenness to point to the mystic's experience of and devotion to the divine. The Persian poet Rumi made an even larger impact with his epic the Mathnawi. This collection of fables and wisdom tales presents a sophisticated and humane perspective, which although mystical in approach has a universal appeal.

These thinkers introduced and elaborated a set of concepts that constitute the touchstones of Islamic mysticism. One of these is an extension of the idea of the Light of the prophet Muhammad. This is the Muhammadan Reality, which gave the Prophet a cosmic and existential role to playquite a leap from the earliest understanding of the man in Islamic tradition. The Muhammadan Reality stands between God and creation, an intermediary similar to the Universal Intellect of the Neoplatonists. The "oneness of being" concept has remained debated, but a fruitful subject for speculation up to the present. The concept of sanctity, and in particular the theory of the identity and nature of the "seal of saints" has provoked much thought among later mystics.

See also Islam ; Miracles ; Sacred Texts .


Knysh, Alexander. Islamic Mysticism: A Short History. Leiden, Netherlands and Boston: Brill, 2000.

Schimmel, Annemarie. Mystical Dimensions of Islam. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1975.

Sells, M. Early Islamic Mysticism: Sufi, Qur'an, Miraj, Poetic and Theological Writings. Edited and translated by Michael A. Sells. New York: Paulist Press, 1996.

Trimingham, J. Spencer. The Sufi Orders in Islam. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Richard McGregor

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Islamic Mysticism