Islamic organizations that have some similarities with religious orders in Christianity. Since the 12th century more than 30 such Muslim confraternities, often with widespread influence, have risen and fallen in islam, from the Qādiri fraternal order, named after a Persian mystic, ‘Abd-al-Qādir al-Jīlāni, who died in Baghdad in 1166, to the Sanūsi order, founded in 1837 by an Algerian warrior shaykh, al-Sanūsi. Members of these confraternities are commonly known as dervishes. Normally an applicant or novice (murīd ) enters upon an initial stage (‘ahd, covenant), passes through a course of instruction and discipline (tarīqah, path), and is then advanced into various stations (maqāmāt ) of the spiritual life.
Practices and Beliefs. In these the fraternal orders differ widely. The members of an early and still popular one, al-Rifā’i, named after an Iraqi mystic Ahmad al-Rifā’i (d. 1183), are commonly known as howling dervishes. They are distinguished by ability to perform strange feats, such as swallowing live coals and glass, holding red-hot irons, or passing knives through their bodies. Another fraternal order, al-Mawlawi, founded by a Persian, Jalāl al-Dīn al-Rūmi (d. 1273 in Qūniyah, Konieh), is commonly known as the whirling dervishes, because of the movements they practice to stimulate ecstasy. Their ritual includes music—frowned on by Islam—and monotonous chants, with a slow whirling circular movement while the arms are extended and eyes closed. The dance ends in the fall of one after the other of the exhausted participants.
All orders join in a common ritual, dhikr ("remembering," mentioning God's name, Qur’ān 33.41), which constitutes the main devotional exercise in the fraternities' quarters. The worshipers sit on the floor with legs folded in the Oriental pattern, turn their faces toward Mecca, close their eyes, and repeat the word Allah or such formulas as lā ilāha illa Hū (no God but He), while moving their heads from right to left. The dhikr is the only elaborate ritual in Islam.
The dervish orders' quarters (takīyah, zāwiyah ) are often called monasteries but in their social and educational functions they correspond more nearly to Protestant places of worship. In fact the corporate bodies behind them may be said to have assumed the position of the separate church organizations in Protestant Christendom. In addition to the few regular members, cloistered or wandering, the orders have numerous laymen attached to them. These continue to live in the world, observe daily prayers, and occasionally attend the dhikr ceremony. They are comparable to Franciscan and Dominican tertiaries. In pre-Kemalist Turkey most men had some such affiliation with one order or another. The most popular and influential of these was the Bektāshi, dating from the early 16th century and once connected with the redoubtable Janissaries. Bektāshis share excessive shĪ’ite reverence for ‘alĪ (‘alĪ ibn abĪ tĀlib) and manifest Christian theological influence. A Bektāshi branch, termed Qalandari, enjoins a life of unceasing wandering. Another dervish order called Khalwīyah (seclusion practitioners) requires of all members a stated period of retreat, with fasting to the utmost capacity of the individual and continuous repetition of religious formulas.
Position within Islam. It is clear from the above that dervish fraternities have developed practices in violation of the spirit and letter of Islam. A tradition ascribes to Muḥammad the saying, "No rahbānīyah (monasticism) in Islam." Ṣūfī orders, as a rule, exalt their respective founders and surround them with halos of sanctity. (see ṢŪfĪsm.) Miracles (karāmāt ) are often ascribed even to the successive superiors. This power was denied Muḥammad himself in the Qur’ān. Despite orthodox Islam's disapproval, orders have always flourished. They seemed to fill the gap between the finite worshiper and the infinite worshiped. The great theologian algazel (Ghazzālī, al-, d. 1111), who himself practiced for a time Ṣūfīn wandering in quest of spiritual satisfaction, contributed to making mysticism palatable. But those extremists who ended in pantheism or antinomianism were accorded no toleration. A Persian mystic, al-Hallāj, who went so far as to declare, "I am the Truth," was in 922 flogged, exposed on a gibbet, decapitated, and burned by an ‘Abbāsid inquisition. To the Ṣūfīs al-Hallāj became the first great martyr.
Besides introducing a form of monasticism and a ritual, dervish orders have contributed and popularized the cult of saints. Their sainthood did not preclude women. Female hagiology is headed by Rābi’ah al-‘Adawīyah (d. 801) of Baṣra, who lived a life of celibacy, asceticism, and otherworldliness, instructing and guiding disciples in the "mystic way." When the Prophet appeared in a dream and asked her whether she loved him, her reply was: "My love of God has so possessed me that no place remains for hating ought or loving any save Him." Dervishes were evidently also responsible for introducing, or at least diffusing, the rosary beads (subḥah ) as an instrument of Muslim devotion. They borrowed them from Eastern Christians, who had received them from Hindu sources. Only the austere wahhĀbis today reject the beads, as they do the cult of saints.
A fundamental difference between Ṣūfī and Christian monastic organizations stems from the fact that Islam, according to the learned system, is a lay religion, with no centralized authority, no hierarchy, no sacraments, no apostolic succession. This fact accounts for the self-development of the dervish orders, each in its own way, ending in a state bordering on chaos. It makes of the ulema, especially among the Sunnites, nothing but men learned in theology and canon law.
Bibliography: r. a. nicholson, Studies in Islamic Mysticism (Cambridge, Eng. 1921). m. smith, comp., Readings from the Mystics of Islām (London 1950). d. b. macdonald, Development of Muslim Theology, Jurisprudence and Constitutional Theory (New York 1903). h. lammens, Islām: Beliefs and Institutions, tr. e. d. ross (London 1929), ch. 6. c. h. a. field, Mystics and Saints of Islam (London 1910). a. j. arberry, Ṣūfīsm: An Account of the Mystics of Islam (New York 1952).