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The Sufis are not an ethnic or religious group, but a mystical movement that is found all over the Islamic world and that still has a deep influence on the varied populations of the Middle East.
Sufism grew historically as a reaction against the rigid legalism of the orthodox religious leadership and as a counterweight to the growing worldliness of the expanding Muslim empire.
One source of Sufism is to be found in the twofold presentation of God in the Qur'an: on the one hand he is described as the almighty creator, lord and judge, and on the other hand he is seen as abiding in the believer's heart and nearer to man than his own jugular vein.
Sufism searches for a direct mystical knowledge of God and of his Love. Its goal was to progress beyond mere intellectual knowledge to a mystical (existential) experience that submerged limited man in the infinity of God. It used Jewish, Christian, Gnostic, Hellenistic, Zoroastrian and Hindu traditions that were brought into Islam by converts from the many conquered populations. The name Sufi is derived from the Arabic word Suf which means wool. Early Sufis wore simple coarse woollen garments similar to those of Christian monks.
Sufism believed that the Qur'an and Hadith have secret, esoteric, meaning and symbolism (Batin). In opposition to the literal method of interpretation (Tafsir), Sufism used an allegorical method (Ta'wil) which looked for the hidden meaning and symbols in the holy texts.
Sufism had an important part in the formation of Muslim societies as it educated the masses and met their felt needs, giving spiritual meaning to their lives and channeling their emotions. Sufis were also great missionaries who converted new regions to Islam.
Its cultural contribution was a rich poetry in Arabic, Persian, Turkish, Urdu, Sindi, Pashto and Punjabi, which spread its mystical ideas all over the Muslim world and enriched local literature and identity.
Several techniques were developed to achieve the goal of a blissful union with Ultimate Reality. They were known as Dhikr (remembrance, mention of God) and Sama' (hearing). In the Dhikr Sufis would recite the many names of God and sing hymns of praise. Special forms of breathing were supposed to aid concentration and help them attain to an ecstatic state in which they actually felt they had reached union with God. During the Sama', poetry, music and dance were used as an aid to reaching the ecstatic state.
These informal groups later crystalized into Sufi brotherhoods gathered around famous leaders. In some countries even today most Muslims belong to one order or another. Around the Muslim world there are hundreds of orders and they are an important religious and political force.
Sufism is found amongst both Sunnis and Shi'a, being a movement within orthodox Islam.
Sufism developed in the 8th and 9th centuries in three major centres: 1. The cities of Basra, Kufa and Baghdad in Iraq. 2. The city of Balkh in the Khorasan district of Persia. 3. Egypt.
Each order has its own Silsilah (chain) that links it with Muhammad (SAWW) and 'Ali (AS).
1. FIRST STAGE - ASCETICISM
Under the Umayads (661-749) there was a growing tendency to compare the wealth and luxury of the ruling class with the simple lifestyle of the first Caliphs. Devout believers were shocked by the worldliness and opulence of court life and they reacted with a growing concern for reality in their own personal relationship with God.
SOME EARLY SUFIS
Hasan of Basrah (d.728) was one of the first Sufi ascetics. He exhorted his followers against attachment to this evil world and encouraged them to reject it and to follow a path of poverty and abstinence.
Ibrahim b. Adham (d. 777) of Balkh in Khorasan taught his disciples the importance of meditation and of silence in worship.
Shaqiq of Balkh (d.810) taught that only a rigid system of self-discipline could lead to absolute trust in God (tawakkul) and to the mystical state (hal).
Al-Muhasibi (d.837 in Baghdad) taught that self-discipline and self-examination were the needed preparation for fellowship and union with God.
Dhu an-Nun of Egypt (d.859) taught that Ma'rifah (inner knowledge, enlightenment, Gnosis) was necessary to attain real union with God.
Abu Yazid al-Bistami (d. 874) taught that union with God is achieved through the annihilation of self (Fana'). This is done by a total stripping away of a person's attributes and personality and by rigorous mortification of the flesh. He was the first "intoxicated" Sufi who in his ecstatic state felt that God had replaced his own ego and now dwelt in his soul. This caused him to exclaim: "Glory to me! How great is my majesty!"
Junaid of Baghdad (d.910), stressed the importance of wisdom and sobriety in achieving both fana' (dying to self, extinction of self) and baqa' (abiding in God).
2. SECOND STAGE - MYSTICISM OF LOVE
A woman from Basrah in Iraq, Rabi'a al-Adawiya (d.801) introduced the theme of Divine Love into Sufism. She yearned to love God only for Himself, not for hope of any reward (paradise) nor out of fear of judgement (hell). Following her death the love theme became a dominant feature of Sufism. It expressed the Sufi's yearning for the development of a love relationship with God that would lead to an intimate experience of God and finally to a total union with God.
The love theme found its main expression in Sufi poetry in which the relations between God the Divine Lover and the man searching for his love were symbolically described.
Persia had the greatest flourishing of Sufi poetry, and most of its classical poetry has a Sufi content. One example is the Mathnawi "Mantiq al-Tair" (speech of the birds) by Farid al-Din 'Attar, an allegory which portrays the mystic on his pilgrimage from asceticism through illumination to union with God.
Jalal ad-Din Rumi (1207-1273), named "Mawlana" - our Lord or Teacher - was the greatest Persian mystical poet. His famous Mathnawi of 26,000 rhythmic couplets is a real encyclopaedia of Sufi allegorical and mystical thought and experience. Persian Sufis regard it as next to the Qur'an in holiness. Rumi also founded the Mawlawi (Mevlevi) order of whirling dervishes.
Sufi poetry uses the symbols of wine (God's intoxicating love), the wine cup (the Sufi's heart) and the cup bearer (the spiritual guide).
3. THIRD STAGE - SUFI APOLOGETICS
Early Sufi masters gathered informal circles of disciples and transmitted their teachings orally. At first, the orthodox religious authorities were very suspicious of the Sufis and accused them of heresy and blasphemy. This led some Sufis in the 10th century to defend Sufism by writing handbooks of their teaching and practice in the hope of proving their orthodoxy. Al-A'rabi (d.952), Makki (d.996), Sarraj (d. 988), Kalabadhi (d.1000) and Hujviri (d.1057) were such masters who wrote in defence of Sufism. They also published histories and biographies of Sufism, trying to prove that it was based on the practice (Sunnah) of the Prophet.
Al-Qushairi (d. 1072) defended Sufism against the accusations of antinomianism (lawlessness). In addition to writing biographies of Sufi saints he wrote "Risala", a book in which he defined Sufi doctrines and terms. He defined the mystical stations (maqamat, a result of the Sufi's own labours), and states (ahwal, mystical states bestowed by God's grace).
Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (d.1111), called Hujjat al-Islam - Proof Of Islam, was a great Muslim thinker who found no satisfaction in his extensive study of theology and law. Turning to Sufism he found in it the certainty of God he had yearned for and failed to find in his previous studies. In his book "The Revival of the Religious Sciences" (Ihya' 'Ulum ad-Din) he attempted to reconcile Sufism with orthodoxy. It was immensely popular and finally guaranteed Sufism an official place in orthodox Islam alongside Law and Theology.
4. FOURTH STAGE - PHILOSOPHICAL-MYSTICAL SYSTEMS (THEOSOPHY)
Theosophy is any mystical system of religious philosophy that claims a direct intuitive insight into God's nature. Theosophical speculations on the nature of God and man were introduced into Sufism by Sahl al-Tustari (d.896) and at-Tirmidi (d 898).
The greatest of all Sufi theosophical writers in Arabic was Ibn al-'Arabi (d.1240) who was born in Spain. He travelled to Tunis and Mecca and finally settled in Damascus. In his 500 books he teaches that all existence is but a manifestation of God, the one ultimate divine reality which is totally "other", an undifferentiated unity, but in whom the archtypes of all potential beings exist.
Another theosophical system, that of illumination, was developed by Shihab al-Din Suhrawardi (executed in Aleppo in 1191). He taught that all things exist as varying degrees of light, beginning with the Absolute Light, the Light of Lights who is God himself.
The Naqshbandi order founded in the 13th century in Central Asia to preserve true Islam from the ravages of the Mongol invasions, succeeded in keeping them within orthodoxy.
Ahmad Sirhindi (d.1624) taught that the Unity of Being was a subjective experience occurring only in the Sufi's mind - not the Hindu concept of total annihilation of the personal in the infinite.
5. FIFTH STAGE - THE RISE OF SUFI ORDERS
Sufi orders began to form in the 12th and 13th centuries centering around a master founder and stressing companionship (Suhbah, fellowship) as essential to the Sufi spiritual path.
This was the time of the terrible Mongol invasions when the 'Abassid Caliphate in Bagdad was overthrown. Sufism was one of the forces that helped prevent the downfall of Islam. It helped convert the conquerors and had a stabilising influence on the community during those troubled times. This period was actually Sufism's golden age.
In its first stages Sufism had been the prerogative of a limited spiritual elite. From the twelfth century onwards it succeeded in involving the Muslim masses on a large scale in its network of orders. Sufi hospices, (Zawiyas in Arabic, Khanagas in Iranian, Ribat in the Maghreb and Tekkes in Turkish) were founded all over the Muslim world from Morocco to Central Asia. The Sheikh of each order, a successor of the original founder, presided over the hospice. In this centre he taught his disciples (Murids) and performed with them the Sufi rituals of Dhikr and Sama'.
There was an elaborate initiation ritual for the disciple when he was admitted into full membership (usually after three years). In this ceremony he received from the Sheikh a special cloak (Khirqa) which symbolised poverty and devotion to God. Sufis had no rule of celibacy and most were married. The orders received endowments from sympathetic rulers and rich citizens and some eventually became fabulously wealthy. Sufi orders had an extensive missionary outreach into Africa and into Southeast Asia where they are still very influential.
Each order developed its own specific set of techniques for its Dhikr and Sama', used by its members to attain to the ecstatic state. These rituals also had a social function, helping to unify people from widely varying backgrounds into a spiritual brotherhood.
The orders were thus a unifying force in society, drawing members from all social classes to their Dhikr and Sama' ceremonies as well as to their joyous celebrations of the anniversaries of the deaths of their founder ('Urs). They provided the masses with a spiritual and emotional dimension to religion which the hair splitting legalists could not supply.
The orders also established trade and craft guilds and provided hospices for travellers and merchants which were located along the great trade routes (such as the famous silk road). Between the 13th and the 18th century most Muslims belonged to some Sufi Tariqah.
SOME FAMOUS ORDERS
There are more than two hundred known Sufi orders. Some are local, others universal. Some are rural and others are urban.
THE QADIRIYAH - the oldest and most widespread order. It has branches all over the world loosely tied to its centre at Baghdad. It was founded in Baghdad by 'Abd al-Qadir Jilani (d.1166), considered to be the greatest saint in Islam. It later became established in Yemen, Egypt, Sudan, the Maghreb, Central Asia and India. The Qadiriya stresses piety, humility, moderation and philanthropy and appeals to all classes of society being strictly orthodox. It is governed by a descendant of al-Jilani who is also the keeper of his tomb in Baghdad which is a pilgrimage centre for his followers from all over the world.
THE JILALIYA - a Qadiri branch in the Maghreb, worship al-Jilani as a supernatural being, combining Sufism with pre-Islamic ideas and practices.
THE NAQSHBANDIYA - was founded in Central Asia in the thirteenth century in an attempt to defend Islam against the ravages of the Mongol invasions. It later spread to the Indian subcontinent. The Naqshbandis tried to control the political rulers so as to ensure that they implemented God's will. They were politically and culturally active, the great poet Mir Dad (d.1785) belonged to this order. They were also connected to trade and crafts guilds and held political power in the 15th century in Central Asia and in Moghul India. A Naqshbandi branch, the Khaltawiyah, had an important part in efforts to modernise the Ottoman Empire during the 18th and 19th centuries.
The Naqshbandiya developed mainly as an urban order with close links to the orthodox hierarchy. They recite their Dhikr silently, ban music and dance, and prefer contemplation to ecstasy. Their "middle way" between extreme asceticism and extreme antinomianism seemed acceptable to the orthodox hierarchy. They have been involved in underground movements against Soviet rule in Central Asia and supported the Afghan Mujahedin against the Russians.
THE MAWLAWIYAH - this order was founded by Jalal al-Din Rumi (d.1273, called Mawlana), the greatest Sufi poet who wrote in Persian. Their rituals are aesthetically sophisticated, and their Sama' is famous for its exquisite combination of music, poetry and whirling dance (in the West they are called "Whirling Dervishes") which transports them into the trace like state.
The Mawlawiya were especially attractive to the educated elite of the Turkish Ottoman Empire and were widespread in Anatolia where they had close links with the authorities.
THE BEKTASHIYA - a syncretistic order whose ritual and beliefs are a mixture of Shi'ism, Orthodox Christianity and gnostic cults. By the sixteenth century the Bektashis were the order of the famous Janissary corps, the elite military unit of the Ottoman Empire. Their magic-like rituals appealed to the illiterate masses of Anatolia. Their clergy were celibate, they practiced ritual confession and communion and had a trinitarian concept of God similar to that of the 'Alawis.
THE TIJANIYA - founded by al-Tijani in 1781 in Fez, Morocco, extended the borders of Islam towards Senegal and Nigeria and founded great kingdoms in West Africa. They taught submission to the established government and their influence is still an important factor in these countries where it is associated with conservative businessmen.
THE DARAQUIYA - was founded in the early 19th century by Mulay 'Arabi Darqawi (d. 1823) in Fez in Morocco. It was the driving force behind the Jihad movement which achieved mass conversions to Islam in the mixed Berber-Arab-Negro lands of the Sahel. It is influential today in Mali, Niger and Chad and still widespread in Morocco.
THE KHALWATIYA - was founded in northwest Persia in the 13th century and spread to the Caucasus and to Turkey. It was closely associated with the Ottoman Sultans and had its headquarters in Istanbul. It has also spread to Egypt and Indonesia.
THE SUHRAWARDIYA - was started in Iraq by al-Suhrawardi (d.1234) who stressed serious training and teaching. They have many adherents in the Indian subcontinent. They were very involved politically in Iraq and Iran during the Mongol threat, seeking to ensure the survival of Islam.
THE RIFA'IYA - was founded in the marshlands of southern Iraq by al-Rifa'i (d.1187). They stress poverty, abstinence and mortification of the flesh, and are also known as the "Howling Dervishes" because of their loud recitation of the Dhikr. They focus on dramatic ritual and bizarre feats such as fire eating, piercing themselves with iron skewers and biting heads off live snakes.
THE SHADILIYA - was started by al-Shadili (d.1258) in Tunis. It flourished especially in Egypt under ibn-'Ata Allah (d.1309) but also spread to North Africa, Arabia and Syria. It is the strongest order in the Maghreb where it was organised by al-Jazuli (d. 1465) and has sub-orders under other names. The Shadiliya stress the intellectual basis of Sufism and allow their members to remain involved in the secular world. They are not allowed to beg and are always neatly dressed. They appealed mainly to the middle class in Egypt and are still active there. It is said that the Shadiliya were the first to discover the value of coffee as a means of staying awake during nights of prayer!
THE CHISHTIYA - were founded by Mu'in al-Din Chishti in Ajmer, India. His teaching was simple and the order is known for its fervour and hospitality. They helped in the islamisation of the Indian subcontinent.
THE SANUSIYA - are a military brotherhood started by al-Sanusi (d.1837) in Libya with political and military as well as religious aims. They fought against the colonising Italians and the former King of Libya was head of the order.
THE NI'MATULAHIYA - developed first in Persia and then in India as a specifically Isma'ili oriented Sufi order.
THE AHMADIYA - is the leading order in Egypt with its centre at Tanta. It was founded by Ahmad al-Badawi (d. 1276).
The orders helped spread Islam and their Sufi concepts in frontier lands such as India, Central and Southeast Asia, Sudan, Morocco and sub-Saharan Africa.
6. SIXTH STAGE - THE DECLINE AND REVIVAL OF SUFISM
The Sufi orders grew steadily in wealth and in political influence, but their spirituality gradually declined as they concentrated on Saint worship, miracle working, magic and superstition. The external religious practices were neglected, morals declined and learning was despised.
In many areas Sufi orders succeeded in ruling the ignorant masses through a well organised and power hungry hierarchy. Their local saints were revered by the populace and worshipped after their death as mediators and intercessors. Pilgrim's flocked to the Saint's tombs, willing to pay for a share in the Sheikh's baraka.
Some sincere mystics still rose above the general decline. In Egypt, al-Shar'ani (d.1565) lived at the time of the Ottoman conquest and was a serious and comprehensive scholar.
In Iran Sadr al-Din Shirazi (d.1640), also known as Mulla Sadra, was a great thinker who continued to develop the theology of illumination founded by Suhrawardi and integrated it with Ibn-'Arabis Unity of Being. His impact is still felt on theologians and philosophers in Iran today.
In Iran the Safavid order gained political power for two centuries (1499-1720). The Sheikhs of this order claimed descent from 'Ali and they were favourably treated by both the Mongol and the Timurid dynasties. Based in Ardabil in Azerbaijan the order became a local power in the 15th century as it alternatively allied itself with and fought against the rulers of the Turkmen tribal confederations (Ak-Koyunlu, the White Sheep and Kara- Koyunlu, the Black Sheep).
The Turkmen Safavids of Anatolia and Azerbaijan were called Kizilbash (Redheads) from the red headgear they wore. In 1501 the Safavid Sheikh Ismail I defeated the Ak-Koyunlu and took the old Mongolian capital of Tabriz where he proclaimed himself as Shah. Later he instituted Twelver Shi'ism as the state religion of Persia and imposed it by force on the population.
Colonialism, nationalism and secularisation had a negative impact on Sufism in the 19th and 20th centuries. The modern revival of Islamic learning was accompanied by a violent reaction against the superstitions of Sufism. It was accused as being the cause of the Islamic world's backwardness compared to the West. The two great Muslim reformers of the 19th century, Jamal al-Din al-Afghani and Muhammad 'Abduh, both campaigned successfully against Sufi orders helping to diminish their influence.
In Turkey, Kemal Ataturk abolished the Sufi orders in 1925 and confiscated their lands and property. He saw them as corrupt and backward forces that hindered the modernisation of Turkish society. In other countries too post-colonial independent central governments were often suspicious of the orders. They were suspected of being cells of political unrest and revolution who held the loyalty of the masses by their superstitions, religious emotionalism and outmoded power structures.
Despite religious and political attempts to eliminate them, the Sufi orders continued to exist, often underground. Sufism still flourishes in North Africa, Egypt, Sudan, Iran, Central Asia, Pakistan, India and Indonesia. In Soviet Central Asia their underground networks helped Islam survive until the reforms of the late eighties. The disintegration of the Soviet Union has allowed them to return to full public activity in the new republics.
Sufism today is still a formidable force in the Islamic world. It still touches and transforms the lives of Muslim people, giving them meaning and emotional support in a world that is increasingly unstable and full of economic woes, suffering and confusion.
Initiation into a Sufi order is seen as a necessary ritual that transmits the spiritual grace (barakah, spiritual power) of the guide (murshid) to the disciple (murid). This special grace goes back in an unbroken line to the Prophet himself. At the initiation ceremony the Master who has experienced union with God and annihilation of self, in addition to giving the disciple the special garment also gives the him a secret word or prayer to help him in his meditation.
Sufis also believe in Spiritual Guides who reveal themselves to the Sufi in visions or dreams and help him on his path. Al-Khidr is one well known such guide who is sometimes identified as the prophet Elijah.
The initiate has to learn spiritual poverty (faqr) which means emptying the soul of self in order to make room for God. The illusion of the individual ego must be erased by humility and love of one's neighbour. This is attained by a rigid self discipline that removes all obstacles to the revelation of the Divine Presence.
THE PATH OR PILGRIMAGE
Sufism is seen as a spiritual path of self knowledge that leads to a knowledge of God. God is seen by the "eye of the heart", not by intellectual knowledge or legalistic customs. The outward form of religion is a mere shell, which hides the kernel inside it. The kernel is the real Truth, the Sufi's goal on his spiritual path.
The Sufi path contains many stages (Maqamat) and states (Ahwal). It begins with repentance when the seeker joins the order and prepares himself for initiation. The guide (Sheikh, Pir) accepts the seeker as his disciple by the ritual of initiation when he imparts his grace, gives him strict ascetic rules to follow and a certain secret word for meditation. The disciple's path is one of continuous struggle against his lower soul. He passes through a number of spiritual stations and states clearly defined by Sufi teaching.
These are the Sufi stations: 1. detachment from the world (zuhd). 2. patience (sabr). 3. gratitude (shukr), for whatever God gives. 4. love (hubb). 5. pleasure (rida) with whatever God desires. Linked to these stations are specific moods or emotions (ahwal) such as fear and hope, sadness and joy, yearning and intimacy, granted to the pilgrim by God's grace for a while with the goal of leading him to on to Ma'rifah (esoteric knowledge, Gnosis), Mahabbah (Love) and to the ultimate goal which is annihilation of personality and unity with God.
Beyond this stage the Sufi then enters the state of Baqa', or perseverance in God. He returns from his state of intoxication (Sukr) back into the world completely transformed - reborn.
The Sufi path has three ways: Makhafah, the way of fear of God leading to purification. Mahabbah, the way of love leading to sacrifice. Ma'rifah, the way of intuitive knowledge leading to illumination.
DHIKR AND SAMA'
Dhikr and Sama' were based on words attributed to the Prophet: "Whenever men gather together to invoke Allah, they are surrounded by Angels, the Divine Favour envelops them, the Divine Glory (as-Sakinah) descends upon them, and Allah remembers them in His assembly." The hospices became centres where lay people from the countryside would gather together with the members of the order to obey the Quran's injunction to remember God often.
This was done in the celebration of the Dhikr, which involved the communal rhythmic repetition of a phrase, usually from the Quran, in which one of the names of God appears. Breath control and body movements were also used as techniques to aid in achieving concentration and control over senses and imagination. The rosary with 99 or 33 beads was used since the 8th century as an aid to counting the many repetitions (it entered Christian Churches from Sufism via the Crusades). This concentrated meditation can lead to a mystical trance and enlightenment which transforms man's whole being.
Sama' was first developed in the mid 9th century in Baghdad. It is another communal ritual practice, defined as a concert of music, poetry recital, singing and dance, which leads the participants to a mystical experience where they seem to hear the music of the heavenly spheres and the voice of God Himself. It attunes the heart to communion with God and is thought to remove all veils hiding God from man's inner vision. Drugs were used by some as an aid to reaching the ecstatic state, coffee by the Shadiliya in the 14th century.
SUFI SAINTS AND FOLK ISLAM
Sheikhs who had reached the highest mystical stage of union with God, were revered by the masses as saints (Awliya') upon whom God had bestowed miraculous supernatural powers and grace.
A cult of living and of dead saints developed around them influenced by pagan customs. They were seen as miracle workers, healers, and intercessors for others before God. Their tombs became pilgrimage centres visited by many in order to partake of the Saint's Baraka (blessing, supernatural power) to meet their needs for healing and other help. They would make vows and pray for the saint's intercession on their behalf. Special celebrations which developed into folk festivals were held on the anniversary of their deaths ('urs). They were seen to be mediators between God and man, God answering their prayers on behalf of the supplicants.
SUFI ESOTERIC TERMINOLOGY
Ahadiya - unconditioned unity.