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Part 2, Origin of Sufism

Part 2

Origin of Sufism

Sufism is the mystical dimension of Islam based on the “inner-meaning” of its scripture, mainly the Qur’an. The followers seek to find divine truth and love through direct encounters with God. Sufism’s central doctrine is based on a verse of the Qur’an; in which God says, “I created man and breathed My spirit into him.” This “Divine spark” placed into every individual, says the Sufi, must be nurtured and cherished. Secondly, each individual’s spirit was separated from the Universal Spirit, and desires to return and reunite with the Universal spirit. This is confirmed by another verse in the Qur’an, which says “from God we came, and to God shall we return.” This “returning” is vital and central to the Sufi doctrine. Today, the Sufi’s are on a spiritual journey known as the Sufi Path; a path of devotion and love; which leads to none other than God.

1. Origin and Background

The word “Sufi is derived from the Arabic word “suf,” meaning “wool,” because garments woven from wool were generally worn by early mystics, who came to be known as “Sufis.” A Sufi is a mystic, if by “mystic” we mean a person who strives towards intimate knowledge or communion with God; through contemplation, meditation and/or “inner-vision.”

The origin of Sufism goes back to Prophet Muhammad, when he received the Divine Revelation “Qur’an,” over a period of 23 years altogether. The Holy Qur’an is a revelation with verses that can be interpreted literally, metaphorically, philosophically, and mystically. The Prophet used to explain and clarify the meaning of each chapter and verse of the Qur’an to his immediate friends and companions as he received them but to a few selected of his Companions he explained the mystical interpretation of the verses by starting a “chain of transmission” of the esoteric meaning of the Qur’an. This was conveyed “word of mouth” from master to pupil/disciple. Later this oral tradition has continued from generation to generation to the present day. It is interesting to note that the “Sufi pledge” between a Sufi-master and his disciple is still done orally but it was much later that Sufi teaching and practices were formally laid down in writing for future generations to come.

In the time of Umayyad caliphate (661-750 CE), Sufism began as a reaction to the materialistic and wealthy living and focused on altruistic love and union with God. Sufi teachers had started to attract large numbers of followers and settled down in established communities as they shared ideas.

During the colonial time, Sufi orders achieved a great military success as they resisted European dominance and colony ship in Africa. Others resisted the Russian expansion in the Caucasus and Central Asia as they had close ties to the Islamic Mughal and Ottoman Empire. One of the biggest reasons that Islam was fast growing and spreading in Africa and Asia, was the teachings of that all people from all faiths can experience the divine presence.

But there was also opposition within the Muslim world in the 20th century, when reformers started to criticize mysticism and superstition, an example when Turkish reformer Mustafa Kemal Atatürk banned the Sufi orders in 1925, but Sufism never stopped flourishing, especially in Africa and South Asia.

Sufi mysticism grew out of early Islamic scholars as the Muslim communities were expanding. Sufism has been known in Transoxania and Khorasan since its very beginning and some of the greatest and most known Sufi’s came from these regions such as Al-Farabi (9th century CE), Al-Ghazali (12th century CE) and Jalāl-ad-Dīn Rūmī (13th century CE). Some scholars traced the origin of Sufism back to the 8th and 9th century AD, when new emphasis began to develop within the religion of Islam. For many Muslims, the Shari’ah, as necessary as it was for them didn’t satisfy their deepest spiritual longings and desires. The search for a deeper meaning led to the development of a mystical side of Islam known as “tasawwuf” or “Sufism”.

Islamic mysticism had several stages of growth. The first stage of Sufism appeared in pious circles as a reaction against the worldliness of the early Umayyad period (AD 661-749). From the practices they performed by constantly mediating on the Qur’anic words, the worshippers became known as “those who always weep” and those who considered this world “a hut of sorrows”. The introduction of love, changed ascetism into mysticism is described by Rabi’ah al- Adawiyah (d.801), a woman from Basra, Iraq who fist formulated the Sufi ideal of love of God. In the years after Rabi’ah, mystical trends and traditions grew everywhere in the Islamic world and some generations concentrated their efforts upon tawakhul “absolute trust in God” which later became a central concept of Sufism.

2. Formative Years

The formative years of Sufism were between 620 and 1100 AD, as the Sufi masters, known in Arabic as “Sheikhs,” as they started to form the first Sufi orders but they were met with great hostility and resistance from certain sections of the Muslim communities when it came to interpretation of Islamic Theology and Law. Some early Sufis were even persecuted on account of their mystical utterances and beliefs as well, but there were also those who achieved great eminence because of their piety and practices. Between these we can find names such as Rabi’yah Basri (a female Sufi teacher, whose beautiful prayers and poems helped transform Sufism to a tradition of mystical love), Junaid Ibrahim Adheim and Hasan Basri. The most famous Sufi-martyr was Al-Hallaj of Basra in Iraq. The most notable one was the great theologian and philosopher Al Ghazalli who lived in Syria in the year of 1100 AD. His works, such as “Reconstruction of Religious Sciences,” the “Alchemy of Happiness,” and other works, convinced the Islamic world that Sufism and its teachings originated from the Qur’an and were compatible with Islamic thought and theology. With this he bridged the gap between traditional and mystical Islam.

3. Orders and lodges

Under the rule of kings and sultans, prominent Sufi masters received financial grants to build lodges and hospices to house the masters; their disciples, students, novices and even travellers. The lodges, soon after developed into schools of Sufi learning and scholarship, and attracted more. Attached to the lodges were other places of learning, such as colleges and universities; where students could learn Islamic law, theology, philosophy, and natural sciences. One of the well-known orders is the “Qadiryya” founded by the great Sufi-master Abdul Qadir Gilani in Iraq. Others were founded in different parts of the Islamic world by Sufi-masters such as Jalāl-ad-Dīn Rūmī in Turkey (originally from Balkh in Afghanistan), Suharwardy in Asia Minor, and Muinuddin Chishti in India. Although they were in different regions, their basic teachings and practices remained fundamentally the same and because of this, a mutual respect and admiration exists between various orders. It is estimated, that presently, there are some 40 Sufi Orders in the world.

4. Rituals and Practices

The Holy Qur’an and Prophet Muhammad and his hadith’s (narrations concerning the words and deeds of the Prophet) are sacred and very important to Sufi’s and they refer to the Prophet as their Master from whom they derive their spirituality and devotional practice where they strive after and focus on achieving a mystical union with God (described as the Beloved). They describe God’s unity, mercy and beauty in a loving way. Islam teaches that Muslims are on a path that will guide them close to God and paradise after the final judgment but it’s possible to experience the divine presence in this life as well.

The practices vary from prayers to chanting. Tombs of saints and great scholars are popular places for prayer, pilgrimage and festivals in South Asia. Dhikr (remembrance) involves repetition of God’s name or phrases from the Qur’an. These are the most important aspects and helps to draw us closer to God but to achieve this, there must be performed daily devotional exercises and rituals. Those who want to become Sufi’s, must first become disciples to a master (sheikh), who instructs in important terms such as humility, self-denial and patience. The disciple has to follow the master until he/she has and experiences an inner understanding of God and universal love.

It is very difficult to summarize all the practices and rituals associated with the various orders however; there are certain practices that are common in all orders:

1. Ritual prayer and fasting according to Islamic injunctions.
2. Remembrance of the “spiritual lineage” of each order. It is based on the Qur’anic verse in which God says; “Remember Me and I will remember you. It ultimate’s to create a spiritual awareness and love for God. It should be remembered that dhikr is not only performed by Sufi’s but of all Muslims as a part of the Islamic prayer and devotion.
3. The practice of “dhikr,” (remembrance) of God, by invocation.
4. Meditative and contemplative practices, including intensive spiritual training, in “spiritual retreats” from time to time.
5. Listening to musical concerts, to enhance mystical awareness.

Aspiring Sufi’s had to undergo a period of very intense training in self-discipline as they had to learn to control their instincts and desires while they were being guided by their Sufi-master, because it was the master who decided if they were ready to be initiated into the order. The initiation was and still is a “solemn pledge” by the novice as he/she has to obey the master implicitly in all matters both spiritually and morally. The master pledges in turn to teach and guide the new novice along the Sufi path and to find an “inner truth” which stems from the heart not from the mind. It is Sufism who has developed religious practices as it focuses on strict self-control to enable psychological and mystical insights as well as a loss of self to unite with God. The leaders must also train and assist their disciples in writing and reciting poetry and hymns as some of the most beautiful literature of the Islamic world has been written by Sufi’s for devotional purposes and there are many translated into different languages worldwide.

Another ritual and practice includes the recitation of God’s names as well as bodily rituals such as the “Whirling Dervishes,” a Turkish Sufi order that practices meditation and contemplation of God through spinning. The founder of Maulavi order in Turkey in 1200 AD, Jalāl-ad-Dīn Rūmī permitted this “mystical dance.” It’s not only a dance but has a deep symbolic and interpretation and meaning. Devout Sufi masters who led highly devotional and spiritual lives were elevated to sainthood. The Sufis believe in that a Sufi saint (although he has been dead for hundreds of years) can still make his “spiritual presence” to his disciples. It is therefore a common practice among Sufis to visit the tombs of Sufi saints to pay respect, recite Sûrah Fatiha (the first chapter in the Holy Qur’an) and/or other Quranic verses, pray to God for isa-e-thawab (praying to God that the rewards of such recitations be bestowed on the dead), and ask for the deceased saint’s blessings.

Other practices include prayer, fasting and meditation as they are directed by and under strict guidance of their master, enter into a “spiritual retreat” (usually between 3-40 days or for 24 hours) under strict prayer and meditation and daytime fasting. Through these practices, the Sufi is prepared to enter the spiritual journey on a path that leads towards God through love and devotion.

5. The Path and its teachings

A Sufi believes that every individual person’s spirit has a desire to unite with God after death but also that it’s possible to “experience God’s presence” in this life. This is the goal of every Sufi but only a few of the elite has experienced it in such way. The Sufi that seeks God must go through some stages like “repentance”, “abstinence”, “renunciation”, “poverty”, “patience” and “trust in God”.

The main teaching in Sufism is love, divine love. The Qur’an states that “God’s mercy is greater than His wrath”. The Sufi has the fear of God and “God’s wrath of the Day of Judgment.” For this, the Sufi maintains strict obedience to God’s commands, but not out of fear, but rather for the desire and pleasure and bounties of the reward of Paradise and with the sincere motive and intention of attaining unity with God. Something that is worth to be mentioned is that the Sufi longs for what is beyond Paradise, the vision of God himself that is considered as the ultimate reward after entering Paradise. Nothing is sweeter to them when the Lord removes his “veil”, the garb of grandeur.

God has created the man with free will and love and therefore the main thing in Sufism is love. Based on this, the Sufi walks on the path of love as he/she becomes a lover and God the beloved. This “love affair” ends with the ultimate union with the Beloved as it is described in the Sufi literature and poetry.

The primary teaching in Sufism is called “tawheed” in Arabic and emphasizes in the Oneness and Uniqueness of God. Sufi writers have through the year’s written volumes on this subject explaining immanence and transcendence. Further, Sufism also teaches that there is both an outer law, the Shar’iah and an inner law that consists of rules of repentance and a virtuous and pious character. Sufism is the product of Islam’s native soil and verses in the Qur’an backs up the mystical interpretation.

Last, Sufism is also more open to the leadership of women as there have been hundreds of female Sufi teachers and women seen as saints and some have even had built shrines in their honour.

6. Literature and Poetry

Sufism in earlier time was transferred orally from master to disciple but around 1000 AD, its teachings were put into writing for the next centuries to come and flourished into forms of mystic tales, anecdotes, philosophy, metaphysic and mystical poetry.

The Sufi manuals were written for the purpose of being instruction of practice for the new disciples on correct behaviour and conduct within the order as well as dealing with strict obedience to the master, methods of remembrance (dhikr), mediation and devotion to God. A famous manual was written by Ibn Arabi called “Journey to the Lord of Power,” a handbook for spiritual retreat.

Tales and anecdotes written as literature are meant for the purpose of “teaching tales” to achieve morality. A classical example is Attar’s “Conference of the Birds.”

The Sufi poetry is recited to enhance a mystical awareness. Jalāl-ad-Dīn Rūmī is best known in the West for his poetry called “Masnavi” and “Divan-I-shams.”

7. Sufi Music and Dance

The practice of music and dance in Sufism is not universally accepted by all Sufis as some Sufi orders frown upon it. Others meditate in the recitation of mystical poetry, accompanied by musical instruments and performed as part of their prayers and devotions. Some Sufis consider such music as “mystical ecstasy,” and these Sufis maintain that music can arouse passion – either sensual or spiritual. It is spiritual passion, desiring and longing for God that is the Sufi’s goal to reach. The Sufi dance, founded by the Sufi master Jalāl-ad-Dīn Rūmī is called “whirling dervishes.”

8. Aspects

There are two aspects of Sufism, “practical Sufism” that deals with the practice and “philosophical Sufism,” that deals with the way and how Sufism is practiced. An example is; a philosopher looks at the water and describes its properties while a Sufi drinks it to quench his thirst.

Sufism was in fact brought to the west within a period of 200 years by several different western scholars who were Christian missionaries. It is now that the western scholars look and study Sufism within the framework of Islamic theology and traditions as they present it as “the mystical dimension of Islam.”

For the devotional type of Sufi, there is enough inspiring material in the Quran itself, but the Prophet is believed to have left for his select disciples a good deal more than what is embodied in the Holy Book. It is believed that he taught certain doctrines to a few selected companions, and that Sufism is actually based on these doctrines. Who told him about these mysteries in the first place many will wonder. The answer is the “awliyà”, the saints, those invisible spiritual guides Sufis believe.

It is said that he taught certain esoteric doctrines to a few select companions and that Sufism is based on those doctrines. The question arises, who initiated him in those mysteries? The answer is, the awliyā the saints, the invisible spiritual guides and the masters of compassion, in whose existence and benign dis­pensations the Sufis believe.

Comments on: "Part 2, Origin of Sufism" (4)

  1. Fahad Hussain said:

    Very descriptive & great post.


  2. Loveleen said:

    I have seen Sufi dance at Mela festival in Oslo. Very beautiful. Thank you for a very interesting blog.

    • Thank you dear Loveleen. It is my pleasure that you had time to read and comment the blog. Your inspiring words are warming and even though my Norwegian isn’t perfect, i do translate your articles and read them 🙂 I wish a bright future and success for your activities in future and wish you a great weekend with your family. Warm regards Hatef Mokhtar

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