Available languages:
Credit card

Privacy policy


The Divine Reality, Goal of the Sufi Teaching

Baha ud-Din of Naqshbandiyya mausoleum [LBM1948 - Wikimedia Commons]

In Islamic mysticism, "classical" education is only one stage of the path. Higher education is the one that leads to hidden knowledge

This article was published in Oasis 29. Read the table of contents

Last update: 2020-06-29 13:17:32

Contrary to frequent assertions, religious learning is a central feature of Islamic mysticism. In this context, however, “classic” education is only one stage. Indeed, the higher training is the one that leads to the hidden knowledge, which can only be acquired under the guidance of a spiritual master and by following precise rules of conduct.


One of the most persistent stereotypes circulating about Sufis is the belief that they are inspired mystics who are indifferent to religious knowledge or even downright ignorant of Islam. With the exception of the marginal groups who reject every form of education in order to lead a mendicant life, such as the Qalandars in Central Asia or the Malangs in the Indian subcontinent,[i] the overwhelming majority of Sufis recommend as thorough an education as possible. In fact, not all Sufis are scholars, quite the contrary. This is demonstrated by the existence, during the course of history and particularly in the Maghreb during the thirteenth century and in Egypt during the sixteenth century, of spiritual masters known as “illiterates” (ummī).[ii] However, it is equally true that knowledge acquisition has traditionally been considered a necessary stage in a Sufi’s personal realization.


This predilection for learning is not recent. If, from the ninth century onwards, religious experts differentiated into jurists, traditionists (hadith specialists) or spiritual men (who began to be called Sufis), they all made reference to knowledge (‘ilm). They belonged to the same world in which, all the evidence suggests, tensions ran high but the distinct identities were less exclusive than it might seem. Even an ebullient mystic like Hallāj, who was executed in Baghdad in 922, had been trained in the religious sciences. His master Junayd (d. 911) was a scholar in every respect. He defended a far more sober form of Sufism that seduced the Hanbali and Shafi‘i ulama of that era. The teaching collected together by his disciples (important authors in their own right) contained a spiritual and metaphysical doctrine founded on the Qur’an and the hadiths: one that continually sought a balance between the requirements of the law, on the one hand, and the stimuli of mystical experience, on the other.[iii] At an institutional level, in another centre where Sufism blossomed—the region of Khorasan (now in Iran) in the late eleventh century—the development of Muslim mysticism was accompanied by that of the madrasas, higher education centres. Different religious actors were moved by the same concern about training and organization. The Shafi‘i ulama introduced the study of Sufi thought as an optional subject in their students’ curriculum and some spiritual masters, such as Abū ‘Alī Daqqāq, themselves opened madrasas.[iv]


Nevertheless, “classic” education is only one stage. According to the Sufis themselves, training in the madrasa only provides an apparent, exoteric knowledge (zāhir). It is a higher training that leads to the hidden, esoteric knowledge (bātin). For this reason, it is necessary to follow the teaching of a spiritual master, more often than not in a Sufi “monastery” (zāwiya in Arabic, khānaqāh in Persian and tekke in Turkish).


The Sufi “Monastery”: A Training Place for Disciples


Some centres (called ribāt) were already accommodating Muslim ascetics during the early Middle Ages. One of the oldest was the one at Abadan, in the south of present-day Iraq. The Sufi monasteries appeared later, multiplying in Iran and then in the Near East between the tenth and thirteenth centuries. Similar institutions subsequently opened in India, central Asia and the Maghreb, in cities and countryside alike. Differing in their dimensions, form and organization, the monasteries could include the tombs of their founding masters, a refectory, bedrooms, a common room for prayer and the Sufi rituals, cells for spiritual retreats, a library and, obviously, spaces for teaching. Naturally, Sufism was also practised outside these structures—in the madrasas, mosques etc.—but it is principally in these specific places that the disciples were trained.[v]


A few figures may help to assess the extent of the phenomenon: during the eleventh century, the monastery in Khorasan run by Abū Sa‘īd Abū-l-Khayr accommodated 120 people, 80 of whom were temporary residents whereas 40 stayed there for three years, on average; the al-Salāhiyya complex founded in Cairo in 1174 could host between 100 and 300 Sufis; the Iranian city of Shiraz counted 32 monasteries during the fourteenth century; later, during the eighteenth century, Shāh Ghulām ‘Alī’s monastery in Delhi, India, held 200 Sufis and it is estimated that, before their closure in 1925, the tekke in Istanbul numbered 319, whereas those in Anatolia and Rumelia numbered between 2,000 and 3,000.


Before describing the process of the disciples’ training inside the zāwiya and the khānaqāh in detail, it should be remembered that, in these places of essentially male sociability (although there are known cases of centres directed by women, who were often masters’ wives appointed to educate the women), the education imparted was informal. Beyond spiritual exercises, collective rituals and moments of learning, both the common meals and the partaking of sweets, tea or even coffee constituted moments for exchange during which Sufis obtained information and discussed various subjects.


The Novice’s Initiation


A Sufi’s spiritual training begins at the moment of his initiation, which simultaneously marks the beginning of a new life and the postulant’s insertion into the long chain of initiatory teachings transmitted from generation to generation (silsila). Initiation rituals differ but they usually include three parts: the pledge of allegiance (bay‘a), the secret teaching of the formulaic invocations (talqīn) and the clothing ceremony (khirqa).[vi]


During the first part, the candidate asks the master for permission to join the brotherhood. The novice sometimes has to submit to a period of testing before his admission is confirmed. It is in that moment of confirmation that he sits in front of the master, says prayers of repentance and puts his hand (or both hands) in that(/those) of the master. During this clasping of hands (musāfaha), the master recites certain devotional formulae and gives the novice instructions. In return, the latter declares allegiance and obedience to his master. The second part of the initiation ritual consists in the transmission of invocations that the master murmurs several times in the disciple’s ear while the latter keeps his eyes closed. From this lesson onwards, the novice will have to repeat these invocations both out aloud and in silence, under his master’s direction: this is what Sufis call dhikr. In a Sufi order like the Naqshbandiyya, the master also teaches the disciple about the sensitive points of the body on which the Sufi concentrates as he repeats his invocations (these are called latā’if and are rather like the chakras in yoga). Lastly, during the third part of the ritual, the master consigns the Sufi garment to the candidate; a mantle or, rather, a piece of cloth in colours that differ from one brotherhood to another. From the symbolic point of view, this garment does not only represent the master’s authority that is being imposed on the disciple but also the transmission of spiritual realization from the former to the latter.


The ceremony just described takes place in a group, often at the end of the day. One or more postulants are admitted in the presence of the other disciples. It is therefore also a moment of entry into the Sufi community. It should be added that this community includes some initiated members who do not follow the master’s teaching and do not regularly participate in the ceremonies. For these simple associates or sympathizers, the training ends there or, at least, is limited to consultations regarding moral or existential problems and, more generally, the attempt to capture the holy man’s spiritual influence or baraka. Finally, it should be remembered that Sufis have commonly practised multiple affiliation during the course of their history: if a disciple had a recognized mentor, he also frequented other masters in order to benefit from their wisdom, whilst members of a certain brotherhood were invited to participate in the rituals of another.


The Relationship Between Master and Disciple


Initiation is based on the intimate bond between master (murshid) and disciple (murīd). Very early on, Sufis began to strongly advise aspiring novices to place themselves under the authority of a master. This for fear that the faithful would get lost along the way. Thus Bistāmī, a ninth-century Iranian dervish, was able to say, “He who does not have a guide has Satan for a guide.” On the other hand, Hujwirī, an eleventh-century sheikh buried in Lahore, explained that masters were doctors for the soul.[vii] Better still, the murīd must submit totally to the murshid, obey him in all circumstances and have faith in his judgment, however disconcerting it may be. Far from being reduced to a simple servitude, this master-disciple relationship must be understood as the ego’s subjection to the interior master whom only the exterior master can reveal. An incisive formula cited very frequently by Sufis and attributed to Sahl Tustarī (who died in Bassora in 896) teaches, “The servant must be in the hands of his sheikh like a corpse is in the hands of the body-washer.”


This metaphor of death and rebirth is used to describe the disciple’s training. Under the murshid’s direction, the disciple is reborn to himself, re-becoming a child before achieving maturity. He is assigned tasks according to his natural inclinations and these test his sincerity and will. To go begging for a year, remain silent for an indefinite period, sweep the common parts, wash the latrines or clean the Sufi convent for a thousand and one days, as happens with the Mevlevi (or whirling Dervishes): these were some of the tests that novices could undergo.[viii]


Called tarbiya (an Arabic verbal noun derived from the root RBW, which means “to rear or train”), education in the Sufi context is conceived as the murīd’s rearing or training at the hands of his master. It can therefore be particularly rigorous. In addition to the abovementioned tests, a disciple could be slapped or beaten with sticks. On the other hand, the bond uniting master and disciple is often described as maternal, thereby insisting on another connotation that the word tarbiya has i.e. “the fact of feeding a child.” So the master appears in the guise of a wet-nurse who offers her breast and takes care of her offspring.[ix] Alternating rigour and tenderness, the spiritual education is constantly handling different registers. The master’s teaching is imparted through words and silence in equal measure: a gesture or a simple look can say more than a thousand words. In the same way, his teaching can use exoteric knowledge whilst proposing an esoteric interpretation of it; books occupy an important place but practical life remains indispensable. As of the tenth century, certain rules were established so that every aspect of the disciple’s daily life could be considered.


The Sufi Rules for Life


The ādāb, or rules of conduct, form the basis of a disciple’s training. They are set out in certain medieval handbooks (such as the ‘Awārif al-ma‘ārif or Benefits of Gnosis by Suhrawardī, who died in 1234) that, with adjustments and adaptations to fit different regional situations, have served as points of reference throughout the history of Sufism. These instructions establish the disciple’s behaviour in daily life. He must not turn his back on his master, look him directly in the eyes, raise his voice in his presence, burst out laughing or contradict him etc. Such prohibitions are not merely restrictive: in fact they outline a code of conduct in which the duty of courtesy serves as an elementary form of education.


As the training proceeds, precise rules apply in different contexts.[x] We can cite three. In the first place, eating. The disciple begins by washing his hands, then says, “In the name of God” and eats only small mouthfuls that he chews slowly. He does not talk during the meal. Nor does he look at other peoples’ bowls. He ends the meal by saying, “Praise be to God” and washes his hands. His food must be frugal and his drinks limited. It is control of the natural instincts, rather than asceticism, that the disciple is taught through eating. A similar principle governs the second field of the ādāb’s application. In order not to yield to laziness or languor, it is better not to sleep too much. The disciple must go to bed in a state of spiritual purity and only when he is overcome by fatigue, not before: obviously, he gets up early for prayer, without counting the night-time devotions. Sufis do not deny the night’s virtues, however, since sleep, too, is part of a disciple’s training: indeed, dreams contain divine messages that he must learn how to receive and that his master will know how to interpret. A third field for regulation is the one of travel. Whatever the reason for moving from A to B, whether it be private business, pilgrimage or consultation with another spiritual guide, the disciple must ask his master for authorization to leave. He travels with a vessel so that he can perform his ablutions. When he goes to a place where there are Sufis, he must pay a visit to their sheikh and scrupulously observe the etiquette.


Lastly, the Sufis’ rule of life is practised at the community level within the monastery framework. Abū Sa‘īd Abū-l-Khayr, whom we mentioned earlier, is particularly known for having established ten rules for disciples to follow:[xi] 1) be in a permanent state of ritual purity; 2) do not linger in a place arguing; 3) pray together; 4) recite night prayers; 5) pray at dawn to ask God for forgiveness; 6) read the Qur’an early in the morning and remain silent until dawn; 7) carry out the invocation (dhikr) and ritual oration (wird) between the two evening prayers; 8) take in and care for the poor; 9) never eat alone, and 10) never absent oneself without the master’s permission. To these are added three obligations: 1) acquire knowledge; 2) recite litanies and 3) do good or guard the peace of others. This body of rules and obligations has the disciple’s spiritual realization as its goal. Reciprocally, the same author has listed ten qualities that a master must possess in order to be worthy of his function. Beyond these moral, pedagogical and intellectual qualities, the content of the Sufi sheikh’s teaching remains to be explained.


Two Examples of Initiatory Teaching


Imparted orally for the most part, lessons vary from one brotherhood to another, from one master to another and according to a disciple’s personality or degree of education. Instead of concisely outlining the whole spiritual training process, let us seek to enter into its intimacy by way of two examples. Both are taken from the Shādhiliyya, a Sufi way that appeared during the thirteenth century, regarding which there exist valuable recent works. The peculiarities of this way nevertheless do not prevent light being shed on aspects of other schools of Sufi thought to the extent that they all converge in the journey towards God.


First example: the notes taken by Rāfi‘ Ibn Shāfi‘, disciple of the famous Shādhilī sheikh Ibn ‘Atā Allāh, during some courses given in Cairo at the beginning of the fourteenth century, offer an interesting testimony.[xii] There one can discover what an advanced student made of Sufi teaching. In a tone that is close to exhortation and with the aid of parables, Ibn ‘Atā Allāh pours out a doctrine inspired both by the early Sufi authors and by his Shādhilī predecessors. His disciple Rāfi‘ Ibn Shāfi‘ recounts the sessions during which these texts (treatises, commentaries on the Qur‘an, etc.) were read in the presence of the master, in case explanations should be needed.


Ibn ‘Atā Allāh does not seem to propose a progressive representation of the spiritual way; he prefers to begin by recalling the need for repentance and a continual return to God (tawba). The main obstacle hindering this return is none other than the soul. Its intrinsic perfidy forces the disciple to battle with his own soul in order to know it. Knowing one’s soul means constantly assessing it in light of the extent to which it welcomes God’s presence. Battling with one’s soul also means keeping its guilt and impotence in mind. The disciple must confess his weaknesses to God and ask His help if he is to hope in divine benefits. In order to frustrate the soul’s tricks, it is further necessary to stop worrying uselessly and understand that actions have meaning only when one goes back to the Creator. These interior dispositions lead the disciple to an authentic encounter with God, Who becomes the sole companion. That does not mean that the disciple can do without the intercession of the saints and prophets, which requires observance of God’s commandments and those of the Prophet, with the clear awareness of the formers’ presence.


Our second example comes from a later period. It is taken from the Darqāwiyya, a branch of the Shādhiliyya founded during the eighteenth century by Mūlay al-‘Arabī al-Darqāwī, who is considered to have brought about a renewal in Sufism.[xiii] The sheikh was himself a scholar trained in the religious sciences in Fes and he trained many disciples in the Moroccan zāwiya in Bou Brih. The training of a Darqāwī Sufi depends primarily on three conditions: the disciple must observe sharia scrupulously since this is the very beginning of the spiritual way (tarīqa); he must follow the way under the direction of a living master to whom he must submit and, lastly, he must apply the Darqāwiyya’s great principles of learning, namely, intensive recitation of the litanies (wird), the quest for knowledge, participation in the gatherings led by the master and a strengthening of the love of God through mental visualization of the master. Placed at the heart of the training, the practice of uninterruptedly invoking Allah allows the disciple to break with his perceptible environment and progress towards the state of closeness to God. This progression passes through various “psychological” stages (the passionate soul, then the reprimanding soul, followed by the serene soul etc.) as well as gnostic stages (from the terrestrial world to the divine footstool, from the divine footstool to the divine throne etc.).


This is how the Darqāwī masters present the architecture of a Sufi education (drastically summarized, here). An architecture that leaves to the masters and their disciples the task of constructing—themselves—the interior building that will, at the end of an undetermined period, receive divine Reality (haqīqa). This is the purpose of every form of mystical teaching in Islam.


The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of the Oasis International Foundation


[i] Alexandre Papas, Ainsi parlait le derviche. Les marginaux de l’islam en Asie centrale (XVe-XXe siècle). Paris: Cerf, 2018; Michel Boivin, Le soufisme antinomien dans le sous-continent indien. La’l Shahbâz Qalandar et son héritage, XIIIe-XXe siècle. Paris: Cerf, 2012.
[ii] Nelly Amri, Croire au Maghreb médiéval. La sainteté en question. Paris: Cerf, 2019; Eric Geoffroy, Le soufisme en Égypte et en Syrie. Sous les derniers mamelouks et les premiers ottomans. Orientations spirituelles et enjeux culturels. Damas: Institut Français d’Études Arabes de Damas, 1995.
[iii] Junayd, Enseignement spirituel. Traités, lettres, oraisons et sentences, trans. Roger Deladrière. Paris: Sindbad, 1983.
[iv] Margaret Malamud, “Sufi organizations and structures of authority in medieval Nishapur,” International Journal of Middle East Studies, no. 26 (1994), pp. 427–442. 
[v] Alexandre Papas, “Khānaqāh,” Encyclopaedia of Islam III. Leiden: Brill, online (forthcoming).
[vi] Id., “Initiation in Ṣūfism,” Encyclopaedia of Islam III.
[vii] ‘Alí B. ‘Uthmán al-Jullábí al-Hujwírí, The Kashf al-Mahjúb. The Oldest Persian Treatise on Sufism, trans. Reynold A. Nicholson. Leiden: Brill, 1911.
[viii] Eric Geoffroy, Initiation au soufisme. Paris: Fayard, 2003.
[ix] Michel Chodkiewicz, “Les maîtres spirituels en islam, ” Connaissances des religions, nos. 53–54 (1998), pp. 33–48; Rüdiger Seeseman, The Divine Flood. Ibrāhīm Niasse and the Roots of a Twentieth-Century Sufi Revival. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011.
[x] Eric Geoffroy, Initiation au soufisme; Francesco Chiabotti, Eve Feuillebois-Pierunek, Catherine Mayeur-Jaouen and Luca Patrizi (eds.), Ethics and Spirituality in Islam. Sufi adab. Leiden: Brill, 2017.
[xi] Paul Ballanfat, La direction spirituelle chez Abū Sa‘īd b. Abī l-Ḫayr (357-440/967-1049), in Geneviève Gobillot and Jean-Jacques Thibon (eds.), Les maîtres soufis et leurs disciples, IIIe-Ve siècles de l’hégire (IXe-XIe s.). Damas-Beirut: Presses de l’Ifpo, 2013, pp. 169–200.
[xii] Denis Gril, L’enseignement d’Ibn ‘Atâ Allâh al-Iskandarî, d’après le témoignage de son disciple Râfi‘ Ibn Shâfi‘, in Eric Geoffroy (ed.), Une voie soufie dans le monde: la Shâdhiliyya. Paris: Maisonneuve & Larose, 2005, pp. 93–106.
[xiii] Abdelbaqî Meftah, L’initiation dans la Shâdhiliyya-Darqâwiyya, in Eric Geoffroy (ed.), Une voie soufie dans le monde: la Shâdhiliyya, pp. 237–248.


To cite this article

Printed version:
Alexandre Papas, “The divine reality, goal of the Sufi teaching”, Oasis, year XV, n. 29, September 2019, pp. 49-57.

Online version:
Alexandre Papas, “The divine reality, goal of the Sufi teaching”, Oasis [online], published on 16th September 2019, URL:

Stay up to date: sign up for our newsletter

For insights and analysis subscribe to our biannual journal