By the mid-8th Century, the Islamic world had reached a moment of spiritual crisis. The Umayyad Caliph, the successor to the Prophet Muhammad as leader of the Muslim community, ruled like an old-style Persian king, and there was general consensus that Muhammad’s vision, articulated in the Qur’an and his own life, was in abeyance.
In response, many Muslims proposed a new society run on a more explicitly Islamic form of piety. Whilst some looked to a newly-conceived religious law, the Shari’a, and others to Greek rationality, a third group, centred in modern day Iraq, proposed that the true Islam consisted in turning away from all else but God. In time, these renunciants were to be named “Sufis”, on account of the woollen cloaks that they donned.
The formative stage of Sufism
The early Sufism of the Basran school was characterised by asceticism, the rejection of the trappings of the material world. Soon, other forms of Sufi piety developed amongst the mystics of 8th and 9th century Iraq. Rabi’a, the greatest female Sufi, was the first to stress unconditional love of God, rejecting the concern of the Shari’a-minded for the rewards of Paradise in favour of direct vision of God in the here and now.
Also around this time were Junayd and Bayazid Bistami, who came to represent respectively the “sober” and “intoxicated” forms of mysticism, the former more closely adhering to the law, and the latter based upon the quest for a trance-like state of God consciousness, for which the repeated chanting of God’s name (dhikr) was employed. One disciple of Junayd’s who became particularly notorious in his own day, and a model for later Sufis, was Hallaj, who, on realising the Sufi’s goal of seeing no separation between himself and God, famously declared, “Ana al-Haqq!” (I am the Truth!), for which he was executed (pictured) by the authorities. This concluded the formative stage of Sufism.
Between the 10th and 12th centuries, great effort was made both to transmit the wisdom of these early masters, and to reconcile the Sufi path with the Shari’a. This latter task was most famously attempted by the great theologian Ghazali who found solace in Sufism at a time of spiritual crisis but rejected the more extreme tendencies of Hallaj. Though his masterful Revival of the Religious Sciences won much approval in intellectual circles, the tension between the Shari’a-minded and the Sufis never fully disappeared. During this middle period and afterward, Sufism was to play a central role in the conversion of non-Muslims to Islam, notably the Seljuk Turks, tribal warriors from Central Asia, who would come to make the first Islamic inroads into Anatolia, and Berber nomads in North Africa. Thus followed the incorporation of non-Islamic and local folk traditions into Sufi piety, which gave Sufism a rich diversity that lasts until this day.
Sufism as we know it today, as a collection of distinct, structured orders (tariqahs) with a shaykh at their head and their own specific rituals, is recognisable from around the 13th century onwards. It is from this time that we find many of the great saints who were the eponymous founders of, or at least inspiration for, the various orders, including ‘Abd al-Qadir, Shadhili, and the most famous Sufi of all, the Persian Jalal al-Din Rumi. This last figure is celebrated throughout the world as one of the great mystical poets, and initiated the famous dance of the whirling dervishes (pictured) of his Mevlevi order in Anatolia. Near contemporaries of Rumi from the Arab world are Ibn al-Farid, the most profound Sufi poet of the Arabic language, and Ibn al-‘Arabi, who developed the philosophy of “The Unity of Existence” (wahdat al-wujud), which proposed the oneness of God and the entirety of creation.
Alongside this profound intellectual tradition, the special knowledge of Sufism was increasingly made available to the general populace, both through the local orders, and through the efforts of wandering dervishes and folk poets like the Turk, Yunus Emre. Amongst these there developed a folk tradition that made fun of the formal piety and seriousness of the self-proclaimed orthodox, and criticized the political ruling class. To this day Sufi orders have remained vibrant centres of local piety and social criticism.
The Sufi tariqahs spread throughout the Islamic world during the early modern period, often, as at the height of the Ottoman Empire in the 16th century, situating themselves along important trade routes, thus attracting ever more followers. The role of the tariqah, though always primarily connected with mediation of the divine grace, developed according to the particular needs of the locality. Some, as in the rural regions of the Morocco or West Africa, where Islam and Sufism went almost hand in hand, took on the governance of entire communities. Others came to be almshouses for the poor or even outposts of military activity. The latter fact reflects the ever-important political role played by the orders. Safavid Iran was founded by the leader of a Sufi order, whilst such prominent military leaders of recent history as Uthman Dan Fodio, the founder of the Sokoto Caliphate in modern Nigeria, and the Algerian freedom fighter ‘Abd al-Qadir were members of Sufi orders.
In modern times, Sufism suffered from the rise of the twin threats of Wahhabism and secularism. The former is a conservative approach to Islam that seeks to rid the faith of elements not practiced by the earliest Muslims of Muhammad’s time. The latter ideology, first adopted in the Muslim world by Mustafa Kemal, the founder of modern Turkey, who banned the Sufi tariqahs in Turkey, has seen in Sufism a backward attachment to local custom and myth, as well as a potential political threat. At the same time however, there has recently been a great upsurge in interest in Sufism, both amongst moderately inclined yet pious Muslims, and western scholars and spiritual seekers. Many hope that the wonderfully diverse, yet authentically Islamic, form of piety that Sufism proposes will serve to counter negative stereotyping of Islam and the suggestion that there is some necessary clash between the West and Islamic civilisation.