This term is the Europeanized form of the Arabic taṣawwuf. According to Muslim authors, several etymologies are possible: ṣafā' (purity), ṣuffa (the "bench" of Medina, where the "Companions of Muḥammad" sat). But it seems simpler and more accurate to translate taṣawwuf by: leading the life of the ṣūfī, of the man clothed in wool (ṣūf ).
Taṣawwuf or Ṣūfīsm is a Muslim mysticism, i.e., the rules of life and the doctrines of the Muslims "athirst for God," straining in pursuit of union with God. It appears as a complexus of schools and tendencies, sometimes accepted but more often condemned by the official teachings of islam. However, it did have at several stages a profound influence on Muslim life and piety, and it sometimes found written expression in literary masterpieces of the highest importance. Its poems and treatises were written primarily in Arabic, often in Persian, and to a lesser degree in Turkish, Urdū, and other languages.
Origins and Early Forms. The influences that helped shape Ṣūfīsm have been studied many times by Orientalists, whose various theses are in conflict. Miguel Asín Palacios insists that there were Christian influences, and explains the very origins of Ṣūfīsm in terms of these. (Conversely, he affirms that later Ṣūfīsm in turn influenced subsequent Christian mysticism, especially that of St. John of the Cross.) Iranian sources and themes (myths of ancient Iran) were given greater stress by E. Blochet, and in more recent time by H. Corbin. Indian influences are emphasized by I. Goldziher, R. A. Nicholson, and others. Without denying these various contributions, we should stress that Ṣūfīsm is first of all a Muslim phenomenon, and a debt of gratitude is owed to L. Massignon for having clearly pointed this out (see bibliography).
Indeed, even in the early days of Islam, there were believers who could not be satisfied merely with the testimony of faith in the One God, the Creator and Master of Judgment. However, the qur’Ān teaches that God, through His Prophets, has communicated His Word to men, that He is "very close to man whom He created," that He knows "what his soul suggests to him," and is "closer to him than his jugular vein" (Qur’ān, 34.50;50.16). How could sincere hearts not be eager to live this Word in the depths of their being, and hence go forward to meet the Speaker? Very early, two Qur’ānic texts (3.31; 5.54) that suggest mutual love between God and man served as the basis for Ṣūfī meditations. It can be said that Ṣūfīsm was one of the virtualities that presented itself from the earliest centuries to Muslim souls. The opposition it encountered among jurists and doctors and the condemnations it received must not make us forget this fact.
Muslim mysticism has a long history. During the 1st century of the Muslim era (from a.d. 622) it became rooted in the ascetical tendencies of certain "Companions of the Prophet," such as Abūl-Dardā’ and especially Abū Dharr al-Ghifarī. Meanwhile the preaching of various ascetics, sermonizers, and "weepers" incited the people to repentance and piety. But the first ascetics, clothed either in patched tunics or wool robes, quickly organized themselves into small group of disciples united around the "master," the shaykh. The outstanding names of the first two Muslim centuries are Ḥasan al-Baṣrī, the poet of the "desire for God" (‘ishq ), and Rābi’a, the converted woman flute-player, who celebrated divine love (ḥubb ). In the 3d Muslim century, special mention must be made of an isolated figure, Abū Yazīd al-Bisṭāmī, who, through a radical intellectual self-stripping, set up the pure "I"—the pure act of being "without attribute or form"—face to face with the inaccessible divine Essence. Whereas Ḥasan al-Baṣrī and Rābi’a announced a mysticism of union through love, Bisṭāmī's way has been compared to certain negative dialectics of Indian yoga.
Official Opposition. During the first two Muslim centuries, the Ṣūfīs were not opposed by the doctors of the Law, and some of them even sprang from the most traditional circles. Even Bisṭāmī, in his mountains of Tabaristān (Persia), was not called upon to answer for his doctrine before constituted authority. But the 3d century H. (of the Hijra: from about a.d. 820) saw the decisive rupture between taṣawwuf and official Islam. Dhū ‘-Miṡrī was persecuted in Egypt; Muḥāsibī, the master of the "examination of conscience," was sent into quasibanishment in Kūfā; Ibn Karrām, the philosopher, was imprisoned; Sahl Tustarī, the apostle of continual attrition, died in exile at Baṣra; and finally Nūrī was brought before the tribunals with several of his disciples for having taught divine love (not without a certain self-affliction), and was released only because of his firm attitude.
In the face of so many arrests and persecutions, Junayd sought refuge in a prudent solution of esotericism, and Shiblī withdrew into calculated eccentricity. But the second half of the 3d century H. was dominated by the great figure of Ḥallāj, whom Massignon has thoroughly 'l-Miṣusayn Ibn Mans:ūr al-Ḥallāj was born in Fars (Persia) c. 244 H. (a.d. 858). He was a disciple of Junayd (who was to repudiate him), a pilgrim and hermit at Mecca, a traveler on the distant routes of Sind, and a fiery preacher in the sūq (marketplace) of Baghdad. The "carder of consciences," which is what his name Ḥallāj signified, was denounced to the public authorities. After a long trial, he was condemned to death under false political pretexts, and executed in 309 H. (a.d. 922). On his gibbet, scourged and mutilated, Ḥallāj bore witness to the God who is Love, and to the possibility of a union of love between God and His human creature, though they are as far removed from each other as "the Eternal and the perishable contingent" can be. The mere mention of Ḥallāj remains, in the bosom of Islam, as it were, an unceasingly repeated question.
Literary Expression. However, the position of Ṣūfīsm in relation to official Islam was to change during subsequent centuries. An indication of this is seen in the growing success of a didactic teaching provided by the manuals. Suffice it to mention the Luma' of Sarrāj, the Kitāb al-ta‘arruf of Kalābādhī (written about 50 years after the execution of Ḥallāj), Qushayrī's Risāla, Abā Tālib al-Makkī's Qūt al-qulūb, Anṣārī's Manāzil al-sā’irīn; many others might be cited. In the end it was algazel (Abū Ḥāmid al-Ghazzālī) who had the distinction of making the notion of love of God (maḥabba ) acceptable in the religious climate of Islam. His conversion to Ṣūfīsm is famous; he expatiated on it in his autobiography, and the last part of his great work Iḥyā' ‘ulūm al-dīn (Revivification of the Sciences of Religion) bears witness to it. Thanks to Ghazzālī, taṣawwuf became a "religious science," no doubt very controversial and reserved to the few, but taught nonetheless as an optional subject in certain great mosques.
The efforts of the authors of manuals proved only partially successful in assuring to Ṣūfīsm the stamp of orthodoxy. In the 6th century H. (12th century a.d.), the secular arm once again exercised bloody coercion against ‘Ayn al-Quḍāt al-Hamadhānī, who was executed in 525 (1131); and against Suhrawardī, "master of the doctrine of illumination," which is still professed in Iran. The latter was condemned to death by saladin (Ṣalāḥ al-Dīn), but it is certainly true that political questions were also involved in this condemnation. While Suhrawardī probably was, as Massignon says, "the last of the nonmonistic ṣūfīs," his disciples crossed the threshold into monism.
Powerful Neoplatonic influences had made themselves felt, especially through avicenna; and they were accompanied or followed by Indian influences, whether direct or brought in by the mongols. Beginning with about the 7th century H., Ṣūfīsm tended to express itself under cover of a sapiential gnosis, which was the basis of several great literary works. Certainly the traditions of the first centuries were not forgotten. They appeared dominant here or there, but more often remained submerged by the search for an interior experience conceived as a realization of substantial identity.
From the 7th to the 9th centuries H. (13th to 15th centuries a.d.), Islamic literature produced a constellation of great mystical poets and writers. Suffice it to mention 'Umar Ibn al-Fāriḍ, "prince of Lovers," who was born and died in Cairo, and whose beautiful poetic work has been studied by Msgr. di Matteo, R. A. Nicholson, and C. A. Nallino; and the Andalusian Muḥyī al-Dīn ibn ‘arabĪ, who left more than 200 works, especially the Futūḥāt al-makkiyya and Fuṣūṣ al-ḥikam, and whose theories of the logos and of the "Perfect Man" strongly influenced all subsequent gnoses. (He has been studied by Asin Palacios and Nicholson, among others.) Also to be mentioned are the masters of the Maghribi school of the Shādhilīs, namely, Ibn 'Ata' Allāh of Alexandria, and Sha'rānī. Ibn ‘Abbād of Ronda belongs to the Shādhilī school. He has remained famous for his "letters of spiritual direction," a collection of which has recently been edited by Father Paul Nwyia. There was also Jalāl al-Din al-Rūmī, the founder of the "whirling dervishes," who wrote in Persian and was the author of Mathnāvī, one of the greatest literary glories of Iran; also ‘Abd al-Karīm Jīlī, for whom the myth of the "Perfect Man," on which he wrote a long poem, transcends its own dimensions and encompasses those of the cosmos (also studied by Nicholson). At least 100 other names could be cited here.
Thus, the Ṣūfīs of this era left us works of literary merit, of which Arabo- or Irano-Muslim humanism is rightly proud. However, the increasing dominance—except among certain Shādilīs—of the monist thesis of the "Unicity of Being" should be noted. The creature is viewed as a necessary emanation of the Creator, and willed by Him; the world is God "expressed," and the spiritual creature, whether man or angel, belongs by nature to the "divine." When Hallāj speaks of "identification" (ittiḥād ), this must be understood, not as substantial, but as intentional identification, through a union of love. Beginning with Ibn ‘Arabī, mystical union becomes, or tends to become, an "identification" in which the empirical personality of the Ṣūfī is, as it were, volatilized to the advantage of a divine "I"; this is in a sense an echo of the "Thou, thou art That" of Indian mysticism.
Formalism and Decline. Concurrently with the great literary works, Ṣūfīsm found expression in the everyday life of the islamic confraternities (ṭarīqa, pl. ṭariqāt ). One of the most famous founders was the Ḥanbalite doctor ‘Abd al-Qādir al-Jīlānī (6th/11th century). We have mentioned Jalāl al-Dīn al-Rūmī and his "dervishes"; this movement was to grow in intensity beginning with the 15th or 16th centuries a.d., from the Maghrib to India and southeast Asia; it became diversified in a great number of confraternities and profoundly influenced popular piety. Yet the absence of any doctrinal criteria left the door open more than once to excesses and deviations. The exaggerations of the Oriental dervishes or "fakirs," and of Maghribi "Maraboutism" are well known. Too often the confraternities in their decadent form became the only image of Ṣūfīsm in modern times. In fact, condemnation of the confraternities, to the mind of many Muslim critics, has become tantamount to impugning Ṣūfīsm itself.
Beginning in the 16th century, Ṣūfīsm underwent a progressive decline. With few exceptions, the period of great writings was at an end. Meanwhile the position of S: ūfīsm remained ambiguous, or at least marginal, in Islam. A twofold temptation constantly threatened it. First, an intellectual preoccupation with the allurement of gnostic themes such as "Muḥammadan light" or the "Perfect Man" tended to reinforce and amplify the doctrine of "monism of Being." Secondly, a quasi exclusive use of the dhikr became widespread, i.e., the tireless and rhythmic repetition of a divine Name or an ejaculatory prayer. Whether or not the dhikr was accompanied by certain physical postures and respiratory exercises, it was transformed from a method into a technique, an efficacious technique that guaranteed the attainment of certain spiritual "states" (aḥwāl ).
Basic Tendencies. To sum up, the history of Ṣūfīsm has shown two great trends. The first prevailed during the 2d and 3d centuries of the Hijra, and then declined without completely disappearing. Ḥallāj was its typical exemplar. It corresponded to what was called "the Unicity of Testimony" (waḥdat alshuhūd). In other words, it is God who validly bears witness to Himself in the heart of the faithful. The union extolled was a union of the will through love, and—for Ḥallāj among others—the way to it was suffering, accepted and loved. Therefore union was accomplished by a divine presence, which, if it was authentic, had to be a supernatural presence of grace, as understood within the frame of reference of Christian theology. This is not to imply that Christian mysticism and Muslim mysticism must always be juxtaposed. One should beware of equivalences in literary images or procedures; and this is especially true with regard to the works of later Ṣūfīsm. For example: the similarity which Asín Palacios stresses between Ibn ‘Abbād and St. John of the Cross in the night-day metaphor, and which he interprets as at least an indirect influence of the Andalusian S: ūfī upon the Christian saint, is not very convincing. It would seem valid on the phenomenological level, but does not penetrate to the actual structure of their experience.
The second tendency gained strength only in the 7th century H., although preliminary signs of it can be discerned during the first few centuries. These were the Neoplatonic and Oriental influences that provided its mode of expression. It is clearly prefigured in Ibn ‘Arabi. It is the tendency characterized as the "Unicity of Being" (waḥdat al-wujūd ), in which created being annihilates itself and is transmuted into the divine, and in which the world is God manifested and set forth. Here the spiritual technique of the dhikr tends to become, more than once, a sort of substitute for the gift of God. Looking at it within the frame of reference of Christian theology, it would perhaps be fitting to speak of a natural experience directed toward a natural term, toward the grasping of the substantial actuality of the soul—a created absolute that the Ṣūfī, within the monotheistic climate of Islamic opinion, continued to call God. The vocabulary of both tendencies was often identical, but here and there it referred to very diverse experiences. Hence, it is necessary to study each case individually and to situate each ease within the total context. An understanding of Ṣūfīsm and of its history demands the knowledge and careful historical study of its relations through the centuries with the offficial teaching of Islam. For the Muslim, God reveals His word in the Qur’ān, but does not reveal Himself; and the doctors long taught that the human will can and must love the law, the gifts, the commandment of God, but not God Himself. The mystics who strove to go to God through love thus advanced in a certain respect beyond the explicit data of their faith. And since God never refuses grace to humble and sincere souls, the Ṣūfī who authentically penetrated to the depths of the divine Life under the impulsion of grace was justified—granted the religious climate in which he lived—in making his own personal experience his criterion of religious rectitude. But what happens when this criterion is measured by experiences less pure? The mistrust of many jurists representative of the established Community can readily be understood.
One can understand also the strength of the temptation toward "monism of Being." But in the measure that Muslim mysticism tended toward the God who is love and to a personal union with Him through love, the crux was that, in the Ṣūfī's heart, this could not be subject to an exterior criterion of faith. It is to be hoped that its most beautiful canticles and its noblest exemplars may be, as it were, testimony to the mysterious ways of divine grace.
Bibliography: a. j. arberry, Sufism: An Account of the Mystics of Islam (New York 1951); An Introduction to the History of Sufism (New York 1943). m. smith, The Ṣufī Path of Love: An An-thology of Ṣufīsm (London 1954); Rābi’a the Mystic and Her Fellow-Saints in Islam (New York 1929); Studies in Early Mysticism in the Near and Middle East (New York 1931). r. a. nicholson, The Mystics of Islam (London 1914); Studies in Islamic Mysticism (Cambridge, Eng. 1921). l. massignon, La Passion d'al-Ḥosayn-ibn-Mansour al-Ḥallāj: Martyr mystique de l'Islam, 2 v. (Paris 1922); Akhbar al Ḥallāj (Études musulmanes 4; 3d ed. Paris 1957). l. gardet and m. m. anawati, Introduction à la théologie musulmane (Paris 1948). t. j. e. andrae, Islamische Mystiker (Stuttgart 1960). o. biehn, Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche 9, ed. j. hofer and k. rahner, 1149–50. b. spuler, Die Religion in Geschichte und Gegenwart 6 (3d ed. Tübingen 1957–65) 517–518.