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Who are the Sufis?

Brotherhood, mysticism, saints, and mausoleums. A guide to understanding the most spiritual stream of Islam and its history

Chiara Pellegrino | 27 June 2017
A shrine in Achalpur - India [CRS PHOTO /]

The image of the restless human being – who travels every path searching for the Highest, moved by an insatiable thirst for the Absolute and animated by the desire to meet the One – is fitting for the Muslim mystic. To enter the mystical dimension, explains Giuseppe Scattolin – one of the greatest Sufism’s scholars – means, “to take seriously the fundamental aspiration of the human for the Absolute, to test it in ones daily existence, to bet ones own life on it.” 1

Therefore, “mystic” is not something unreal or imaginary, but something hidden in the depths of the human being – from the Greek myô, which means “to veil the eyes, to conceal a secret.” Thus, a Sufi is a pilgrim who has made God’s quest the ultimate purpose of his life.

The Origins of Sufism
The etymology of the term Sufi is debated. The most likely hypothesis is that it indicates the woolen dress (sūf) traditionally worn by the first Muslim ascetics as a sign of poverty and fear of God, the so-called “dress of piety” mentioned in the surah of the Battlements (7,26). Other interpretations read the term in reference to ahl i-suffa, the “people of the Veranda” – a group of Companions of the Prophet (400, according to some studies) who had left behind their wealth at the Mecca in order to follow Muhammad and used to spend their time in prayer under a veranda designed specifically for their first mosque in Medina. The history includes Abū Bakr, ‘Umar, ‘Uthmān and ‘Alī among these Companions, who would later become the “well-guided” caliphs. These ascetics led an extremely austere life, but although they could be considered the Sufis’ predecessors, it would be wrong to make the term sufi derive from suffa, veranda. From an etymological point of view, the root of suffa is “s-f-f”, while the root of term sufi is “s-f-w”. Then, there are those who identify the origin of the word in the term safā, purity, and those who, on the contrary, believe that it derives from the Greek sophos, wise. Such plurality of interpretations suggests the existence of different theories on the genesis of Sufism: the first Western scholars, for instance, thought that it was the synthesis of the encounter between Islam, Neoplatonic philosophy, Eastern Christian monasticism, and Eastern sapiential doctrines. In the early twentieth century, Louis Massignon demonstrated the lack of ground of this theory: according to him, the movement originates within Islam, precisely in the recitation and prolonged meditation of the Qur’an, and in the metaphysical scope of the principle of Divine Unity (tawhīd).

Sufism (tasawwuf), understood as a movement, was born in the eighth century and distinguished itself from asceticism (zuhd) that had preceded it. Indeed, the latter was mainly a practical attitude, characterized by fasting, penance, vigils and prolonged prayers, aimed at perfecting the soul for the afterlife. Precisely for this reason, it has never faced objections. Sufism, on the other hand, aspired to realize the divine presence within man starting with life on earth (the testimonial monism of the early centuries), through a process similar to what the primitive Christian mysticism had called theósis, or the assertion that only God exists (the existential monism of the twelfth century onwards). The realization of Divine Unity has its archetype in the mystical experience of some prophets, including Moses, called on the Mount to talk to God, and Muhammad, who saw God in the Celestial Ascension. Another fundamental difference is that, contrary to the first ascetics, the Sufis, especially in the early centuries, were being initiated by a master, with whom they stipulated a covenant in memory of what the Prophet had stipulated with his Companions, mentioned in the Surah of the Victory (48,10). This covenant, from a theological point of view, recalls the so-called Pre-eternal Covenant (7,172-173), with which all of Adam’s descendants recognize God’s sovereignty before the beginning of time.
Sufism affirms itself as a complement to legal Islam; it is the inner science (ilm bātin) counter posed to the outer science (‘ilm zāhir), represented respectively by the Sufi and the jurist.

The Great Masters
Mystical literature agrees in considering al-Hasan al-Basrī (d. 728) the most representative master of the first generation of ascetics: in fact, many Sufi brotherhoods would go back to him. Unlike subsequent mystical texts, matters such as distress (huzn), fear of divine judgment, renunciation of what is destined to end, and exhortation to live a life of poverty still prevail. Two of his sayings recite, “Be alert on this earth, for it is like a snake, smooth to touch, but with a lethal poison,” “Sell this world for the one to come, and you will earn them both; but do not to sell the world to come for the present: you will lose them both.”2

To topics such as poverty and the renunciation of the earthly world, Rābi‘a al-‘Adawiyya (d. 801) – a famous mystic freed from slavery after her master saw her as a chosen of God – would add pure and absolute love for the Loved One. Rābi‘a’s spiritual experience, culminating in the perfect love for God, would lay the foundations for the Sufism to come.

In the ninth century, Sufism experiences an extraordinary growth, and is the means of expression of great masters including Dhu l-Nūn al-Misrī (d. 859), the first who supported the usefulness of spiritual music as a means of entering a state of ecstasy; Abū Yazīd al-Bistāmī (d. 874), the first Sheikh to experience unity with God – an experience that led him to be accused of heresy by the jurists – and the first “intercessor” Sufi for men; and al-Junayd (d. 910), master of al-Hallāj, who paid his quest for God with his own life. Indeed, in 922, al-Hallāj was sentenced to death on the cross, punished by Sunni jurists for the experience of union with the divine that he was celebrating (testimonial monism), by the Shi’ites, fervent defenders of their Imams’ esoteric authority, and the Sufis themselves, who accused him of having shared the secret of the “privileged”.

Al-Hallāj’s crucifixion marks a turning point in the history of Sufism. Among the Sufis, the idea that it is necessary to rethink and redirect the movement in order to avoid the allegations launched by official Islam starts to spread. Indeed, a movement committed to define the canon and to distinguish orthodoxy from heresy led the latter. In this context, an apologetic stream emerges within Sufism, which aims to normalize Sufi practice by bringing it within the boundaries of orthodoxy. This movement communicates essentially through two literary forms, treatise and biography. Treatises collect expositions of the Sufi doctrine that prove it to be non-contradictory with the official Sunni doctrine, while biographies are stories of Sufis that want to highlight their pious conduct and reconstruct their initiation processes by tracing them back to the Prophet, the first Islamic ascetic. It is within this context of rethinking and reforming that lies the figure of Abū Hāmid al-Ghazālī (d. 1111), one of the most influential Muslim thinkers of all Islamic history, who defends the Sunni orthodoxy, threatened by the philosophical and theological rationalist tendencies, and by Shi’ite esotericism. Al-Ghazālī criticized the Islamic philosophical thought that started with the translation of Greek philosophy in the first two centuries of the Abbasid Caliphate and culminated in the speculative thought of al-Kindī, al-Farābī and Ibn Sīnā. In fact, al-Ghazali challenged the excessive importance given to human reason, which, in his opinion, cannot claim to reach absolute certainty. He then criticized the Shi’ite esoteric schools, which claimed to possess a secret science taught by an infallible imam. For al-Ghazālī only faith, which is knowledge and inner intuition, saves the human being from doubt, despite the claims made by the knights of reason, and the Sufi path is the only experience that leads to the truth. According to the theologian, the truths of faith are given by God to prophets, and then transmitted through generations. However, knowledge of tradition and blind imitation (taqlīd), while necessary, are not sufficient in order to achieve a state of certainty, which instead requires an ascetic experience capable of placing man in the condition of enjoying the Divine Truth. Moreover, al-Ghazālī shelters Sufism from the accusation of heresy by rejecting the idea of Union with God, or of God indwelling in man, which years before had stirred up many disputes and had caused al-Hallāj to be sentenced to death. Thus, al-Ghazālī’s work marks the culmination of the path to make Sufism orthodox and to draw a clear distinction between official Sufism and esoteric Sufism.

In the following centuries, Sufism will live further elaborations. In 1200, a kind of Sufism emerged, which then became known as existential monism (wahdat al-wujūd) and whose most famous interpreter was certainly the Andalusian Muhyī al-Dīn Ibn ‘Arabī (d. 1240): the “Supreme Master” brings the notion of tawhīd, the uniqueness of God, to its apex, claiming that God alone exists, while the world and man are nothing but his reflection.
To al-Hallāj’s testimonial monism, Islam preferred Ibn ‘Arabī’s existential monism which culminates in the annihilation (fanā’) of the mystic and the exaltation of the absolute divine unity and transcendence.

The Ways of Mystic Ascent
In his quest, a Sufi comes to the awareness of being nothing but a reflection of God. In this regard, the Qur’anic verse of the Light (24,35), one of the most famous and mentioned in Sufi literature, is particularly evocative. To the eyes of the mystics, it encloses the essence of God, primordial Light and substance of all things.

God is the Light of the heavens and the earth; the likeness of His Light is as a niche wherein is a lamp, the lamp in a glass, the glass as it were a glittering star, kindled from a Blessed Tree, an olive that is neither of the East nor of the West whose oil wellnigh would shine, even if no fire touched it; Light upon Light; God guides to His Light whom He will. And God strikes similitudes for men, and God has knowledge of everything. (24,35)

The Sufis offer an allegorical interpretation of this Qur’anic verse, seeing in it an image of the inner path of the human being’s search for Knowledge. “He is the One who manifests His Essence and all things are manifested through Him,” writes Ibn ‘Arabī in his Qur’anic commentary [Tafsīr al-Qur’ān al-karīm]. The Niche – the mystic goes on – alludes to the human body, which by itself is darkness, and is lit up by the Lamp, that is, by the light of the Spirit. The Glass is the heart enlightened by the Spirit. The tree, whose oil makes the Lamp burn, is the sanctified soul, blessed for the divine gifts received: the teachings on ethics, works, and discernment. The level of perfection achieved by the soul depends upon the happiness of both lives; the lights’ manifestation; the revelation of secrets; of initiatory knowledge and truths; and the spiritual stations and states. The soul is lit up by the light emanated from the fire of the intellect, which reaches it through the Spirit and the heart, in the same way the Olive tree burns through the oil, the primordial divine Light.

This and other verses and traditions of the Prophet have inspired a rich Sufi literature on the geography of man’s inner forces in his tension towards the Absolute. Technically, the search for the divine consists primarily in becoming able to gain divine friendship or holiness (walāya) through spiritual exercises, ascetic efforts, practicing dhikr (the repetition of God’s name) – all of which help man to acquire full control of himself and his passions. In his other work (Al-Tadbīrāt al-ilāhiyya fī islāh al-mamlaka al-insāniyya, “Divine Governance of the Human Kingdom”), Ibn ‘Arabī compares man’s self to a reign governed by the spirit which God has placed to dwell in man’s heart. In order to help this king, the Most High has given it a minister, the intellect, which he has placed to dwell in the human brain. However, the king and its minister have rivals: passion and carnal desire. Hence, the human soul finds itself between two immense and opposing forces, spirit and passion, and acquires self-control only by overcoming the obstacles posed by the latter. Therefore, a Sufi puts himself in the condition of receiving the divine gift of holiness and knowledge if, in his inner struggle, spirit succeeds in defeating passion.

Starting in the twelfth century, Sufism began to develop a social dimension that finds its expression in the birth of brotherhoods (turuq, literally “paths”). These orders are linked to a founder and trace most of their line of initiation back to the Prophet through ‘Alī, the father of Shia. Since the beginning, such brotherhoods have been very successful in involving thousands of Muslims who were attracted by the methods of education and purification practiced by the Sufi, by the possibility of creating new social relationships, the desire to live in the shadow of the master and to practice the cult of the saints (awliyā’, literally “God’s friends”), which generated a true popular religiosity. Moreover, they have been a decisive factor in the spread of Islam beyond the boundaries reached by the early centuries’ conquests.

Quantifying brotherhoods is rather difficult because throughout history many of them have had a short life on the grounds of accusations of heresy, persecution or internal battles that have led them to an end. Today, however, there are hundreds of them, and they can be divided in two categories: those having an adherent’s ceremony and those having a simple spiritual transmission from the master to the disciple instead.

Some orders in particular have lived an exponential spread throughout the area today known as the Greater Middle East. Among them, the Qādiriyya order, founded by ‘Abd al-Qādir al-Jilānī (d. 1166), generated thirteen branches. Maghreb has brought to life, among others, the Shādhilīyya, founded in Morocco by Abū al-Hasan al-Shādhilī (d. 1258) and today also present in Egypt, the Balkans, Sub-Saharan Africa, East Asia and the United States; the Tijāniyya, established in Algeria by Ahmad Tījānī (d. 1815), and the Sānusiyya, founded in Mecca by Muhammad Ibn ‘Alī Al-Sanūsī (d. 1837), of Algerian origin, but very popular in Libya.

If we want to take into account the more eastern areas, Great Persia was certainly the home of several Sufi brotherhoods. In Iran, the Suhrawardīyya was born from Shīhab al-Dīn ‘Umar Suhrawardī (d. 1234), the first brotherhood to play a political role by the will of the caliph; and the Nematollah was born from Nim‘atullāhī (d. 1431), an order that after the Iranian revolution experienced significant growth in the United States, Europe and Australia. Afghanistan. On the other hand, we have Cishtiyya, founded by Mo’inoddin Cishti (d. 1236) in Cisht, close to Herat, and today mainly popular in Afghanistan and India, but with important centers also in the United States, Australia, East Africa and the United Kingdom.

The Ottoman Empire saw the birth of the Mawlawiyya, founded by the famous poet Jalāl al-Dīn al-Rūmī (d. 1273) and remains very widespread in Turkey (its adherents are mainly known as dervishes), and the Bektāshiyya, by Hajī Bektāsh (d. 1337) which was discussed because they also accepted the presence of women and borrowed elements from the Shia. Today, it is very widespread in Albania. The Naqshbandiyya, derived from the name of Muhammad Bahā’uddin Shāh Naqshband (d. 1389), one of the masters but not its founder, also plays an important role in Turkey and today it has numerous adepts in Europe too.

Sufism and Reformism
Sufism has undergone a fluctuating fate. If we look at the period after the second half of the nineteenth century, Sufism has lived a rather twisted evolutionary path. On the one hand, it was the target of those who looked at it with suspicion, believing that its practices could undermine the purity of Islamic monotheism. On the other hand, it played a role as a major actor of Islamic reformism, contributing, among other things, to the formation of fundamentalist streams, such as the Ahl-i hadith in India and Salafiyya in the Middle East.

Various are the aspects of Sufism that have made it unpopular among many “purists”. Among them, there is certainly the practice of dhikr which, accompanied by dance, can facilitate the ecstatic experience of union with the divine; there are also supererogatory prayers, seen as an innovation, initiation, seen as an attempt of the master to subdue the disciple to his knowledge, and visiting to the tombs of the saints. Overall, there was an aura of mystery and secrecy surrounding Sufi brotherhoods.

However, this hostility was not followed by the decline of Sufi movements, as it had been theorized by several Western scholars (Arthur J. Arberry, Clifford Geertz, Ernest Gellner) between the 1950s and 1990s. Actually, the movement’s historical developments refute their idea according to which Sufism, in strong recession among the rich and educated people, would only remain among the poorest and most ignorant parts of the population. On the contrary, in the entire Muslim world a cultured urban Sufism was being born, one that was able to attract the interest of traditional elite as well. Indeed, Sufism has been able to adapt to the changes that invested the Greater Middle East in the modern era. It is enough to think that in the early twentieth century some Sufi movements actively participated in the rebellion against colonial powers and/or leaders in their nation-states, thus acquiring an important (and in some cases determining) political role. The Sānusiyya brotherhood, for instance, played a decisive role in Libya in the formation of the nation-state, and in former Soviet Union’s republics with a Muslim majority Sufis acted as an agent of nationalist political mobilization. Such distinct political attitudes, often belligerent, of some Sufi streams, with focused attention on sharia and the rejection of innovations and practices aimed at achieving union with the divine, brought them to be defined as neo-Sufism, a term coined by Fazlur Rahman.

South Asia further offered fertile ground for this new orientation: the Indian subcontinent has always been inhabited by a Muslim minority in a Hindu majority, which has encouraged the development of a reformist thought, later exported into the Middle East.
The bond that exists among Sufism, political activism and fundamentalism is evident. For example, in the so-called “sufism without tasawwuf” born in Syria starting from Ahmad Kuftaru (d. 2004), the former Grand Mufti of Syria and leader of the Kuftariyya, a branch of the Naqshbandi movement is still widespread in Syria. The “sufism without tasawwuf” sought to avoid controversial Sufi terms in order to protect Sufism from Islamist accusations, the estrangement of those Sufis who adhered to the Ibn ‘Arabī school of thought, the battle against innovation and superstition, and a return to the teachings of the predecessor fathers.

The encounter between Sufism and Reformism has therefore favored the creation of hybrid products (that of Kuftaru is just an example) in which traditional Sufi spirituality combines with a fundamentalist ideology, presenting itself as a moderate alternative to the existential monism of Ibn ‘Arabī and Islamism.

To know more about the topic

Martin van Bruinessen and Julia Day Howell (eds.), Sufism and the “Modern” in Islam, I.B. Tauris, New York 2007.
Giuseppe Scattolin, Esperienze mistiche nell’Islam. I primi tre secoli, EMI, Bologna 1994.
Giuseppe Scattolin, Esperienze mistiche nell’Islam. Secoli X e XI, EMI, Bologna 1996.
Giuseppe Scattolin, Esperienze mistiche nell’Islam. Al-Niffarī e al-Gazālī, EMI, Bologna 2000.
Kalābādī, Il sufismo nelle parole degli antichi, (translation byPaolo Urizzi), Officina di studi medievali, Palermo 2002.
Souad al-Hakim, Il soft power dei sufi, «Oasis» 25 (2017), pp. 36-45.

1 Giuseppe Scattolin, Esperienze mistiche nell’Islam. I primi tre secoli, EMI, Bologna 2014, pp. 10-11.
2 Ibi, pp. 45-46.

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