Tasawwuf (Islamic Mysticism)
Modern scholars of Islamic philosophy agree that Sufism is to be considered one of the most important and central areas within the field . Still, it seems to be an independent field of study: its questions and problems, even its language and terminology, are to be distinguished as having a specific nature. And those who seek to study it are required to spend an increasing amount of effort in observing it closely and pondering it continuously for many years.
Sufism is not a theoretical topic or set of topics that can easily be judged by logical analysis in terms of truth and falsehood. Rather, it is a matter of spiritual experience reaching depths in which spiritual manifestations and behaviors are rooted. From such experiences spring rational thoughts and literary productions, all the while the experiences being rooted in Islam from which it takes its spirit and is expressed through its values and teachings.
It is necessary at times to have a complete and clear understanding of the reality of Sufism and its various aspects and how it developed. The Madkhal and Tamhidat or preliminary or introductory overviews are considered one of the best ways to this, since they seek to provide an overview of all or most of its aspects, without belittling the importance of specialized studies focusing on an individual or a particular topic.
Sufism is a part of Islam’s great heritage and, in another aspect, continues to exist in the lives of Muslims today. Both aspects require serious study from students of Islamic studies so that they try to bring out the positive elements in it without overshadowing them by negative things.
A preliminary overview
Mysticism is a human phenomenon. It could be stated that it emerged in every civilization in some form or other and can be expressed as a desire of the soul to purify itself and its desire to free itself of material constraints. Muslims are not an exception to this rule, since mysticism manifested in Islam just as it did in the cultures of those who preceded Islam. Mysticism is humanity’s attempt to arm the soul with spiritual values that help people to overcome material existence and it gives them spiritual balance so as to confront the difficulties of life. In this sense, mysticism or Sufism is undoubtedly a positive rather force in human eistence, as long as it connects the individual to society and maintains a balance between spirituality and material needs.
There are positive principles in Sufism that lead to the progress of society by emphasizing that the individual should be accountable to himself continuously so that he corrects his mistakes and perfect his self through virtues. It makes his view of life balanced so that he does not overindulge in his own desires to the extent that he forgets himself and God and thus becomes extremely disoriented. Real Sufism sees life as a means and not an end so that one takes from it what is sufficient and does not get engrossed in money and fame so that he can be greater than others. By this, he can free himself of his desires.
The third century of Hijra is considered an important period in which Sufism reached maturity and perfection and obtained particular principles, just as the jurists and scholars of hadith formed the legal schools and the study of hadith. Ibn Khaldun (d. 808 H.), in clarifying the emergence of Sufism, states, “It was generally found amongst the Companions and the Predecessors but when people in the second century began to turn towards worldly gains, those who applied themselves specifically to worship were given the name “Sufis”.”
The history of Sufism spans all of Islamic Arabic civilization, beginning with the “Ahl al-Suffa” who lived in the time of the Prophet (peace be upon him) and ending with the various sufi orders (turuq) in modern times.
However, during the Abbasid period, what can be considered the period of the flourishing of theology (ilm al-kalam) and various sects, the great figures of Sufism, who had the fire of faith in their hearts, and were signs of the path to God, emerged. They were in the words of the Sufis: stations of light
There were of them however those who were only Sufis by name and did great harm to the Muslim community, either by transforming the values of Islam, by replacing reliance on God with refusal to act.
We rarely find a famous Sufi whose works have not been preserved by a public or private library. There are also many rare works that preserve the history and scholarship of Sufism.
Here, we are interested in the Sufism that began in the second century Hijri as a social and intellectual path which is free of anything contrary to purity and asceticism.
That is, Sufism was integrated in the live of people. In this sense, it is not permitted to consider the Prophet (peace be upon him), his family, companions and successors as Sufis in this sense. As well, Sufi experience is an individual experience that has internal personal aspects that cannot be generalized as applied more broadly to Muslim society.
The term Sufism emerged first in Kufa due to its closeness to Persia and due to the influence of Greek philosophy in the period of translation, as well as the morals of monks from the Judeo-Christian traditions.
Scholars and historians have disputed who was the first to be called a sufi. There are three opinions. According to Ibn Taymiyya (d. 1328 CE), and his followers, the first was Abu Hashim al-Kufi (d. 150). He was a contemporary of Sufyan al-Thawri (d. 155). Sufyan said, “If it weren’t for Abu Hashim, the subtleties of showing off would not be known.” He was also a contemporary of Ja’far al-Sadiq (d. 148 H.), and is associated with the early Shi’ites and is called the Shi’ite inventor of Sufism. Some historians state that Abdak Abd al-Karim or Muhammad (d. 210) was the first to be called sufi. Harith al-Muhasibi (d. 857) mentions that he was from a semi-Shi’ites sect that called themselves “sufiyya” that was founded in Kufa. Maltti in al-Tanbihwa-l-Radd ala Ahl al-Ahwa wa-l-Bida states that Abdak was head of a heretical sect who believed that the world was forbidden entirely and that nothing was permitted of it except subsistence, since the leaders of guidance hold that it is only permitted for the Righteous Imam and forbidden to everyone else. Ibn Nadim (d. 998CE) states in the Fihrist that Jabir ibn Hayyan (d. 208), a student of Jafar al-Sadiq, was the first to be called Sufi. The Shi’ites consider him an authority and the philosophers follow him.
The second century Hijri witnessed the birth of Sufism, which was the development of the asceticism that was widespread in the Islamic Arab society at the time. Sufism took deeper roots after that, from its primary focus on asceticism to a philosophical Sufism through a certain contemplative Sufism. Here, we find the phase of inspiration, illumination, witnessing, enlightenment, and unveiling. The task of the Sufi is to establish a bridge between the divine and humanity through certain spiritual states and stations which the sufi arrives at through spiritual exercise.
The Sufis have, wittingly or unwittingly, aimed at overcoming every problem laid in front of them in terms of authority, law and so on in order to realize their direct connection to God by means of gnosis and divine love, something the ultimately lead to their assertion of unification and the unity of existence as we shall see.
If we examined the encyclopedic works of the Sufis, we can find a fertile ground and source for sayings that establish the foundations for bridging human and divine love. The narrations of the authors of Hilyat al-Awliya, al-Risala al-Qushayriyya, Qut al-Qulub are good indications of that.
Some Orientalists have tried to distinguish between Sufi orders and Islam. Indeed, they have tried to present Sufism as phenomenon influenced by the religious culture of Christianity, Buddhism, and the Ancient Greeks, which is incorrect. That is, there is much in Sufism that derives from the Qur’an and the Prophetic Sunna. There are many studies on Sufism that define the approach of Sufis and explain the spiritual stations that realize the purity of the soul and self and open all the ways to faith. There are certain Islamic notions and principles in the Sufi approach, for example:
Repentance is a path to God and is a pillar of Sufism, which is based on the teachings of the Qur’an. There is “truthfulness” as well which is considered an important aspect of the Sufi’s life. There is also “sincerity”, which is one of the highest stations between the believer and God. There is also “reliance” on God, getting closer to God which is love as the Qur’an states, “If my servant asks of me, I am close, and I answer the prayer of a caller if he calls.” There are many stations that the Sufi passes and all are through the Qur’an and Sunna. The Prophetic example is the primary model in Sufism, especially for Sunni Sufis.
Sufism, before anything, represents a personal experience as we noted, and is not something that is common to people. For every Sufi, there is a specific path which expresses his states. In other words, it forms an internal private experience. This makes Sufism very close to an art, especially since its masters rely on symbolic style in expressing their states. This is to hide their spiritual experiences from those who are not worthy of them. For this reason, we find some Sufis say, “The number of paths to God are as many as the number of souls,” to confirm the specific difference between them and due to the impossibility of one experience being comparable to another.
In an anecdote about Sufism, showing that its knowledge is solely on spiritual taste, is that a student of the famous Muhiyyadin Ibn Arabi (d.1240 CE) came to him to say: People are condemning us for our knowledge and asking us for proof for it. Ibn Arabi responded with the following advice: “If anyone demands a proof or demonstration for knowledge of divine secrets, then say to him: what is the proof for the sweetness of honey? He must respond by saying that this knowledge can only come by means of taste. Say the same is knowledge of divine secrets.” Perhaps from this the Sufis refrained from expressing their states. Indeed, they went beyond this to raise their place, a result of which is that Sufi secrets developed and the insider aspect grew.
The Most Important Sufi Sources
These are the most important sources of Sufism are the following, and they are not all but the researcher will find to what extent the Sufis expended effort in it through the ages. It is clear the Sufi corpus and biographies are plenty, which requires a team of experts to complete its publication, organization, and indexing according to modern contemporary methods, to make it easier to access and study.
Sources (analytic bibliography):
It is possible to divide the sources for Sufism into two:
First, those that are specific to Sufism, which comprise the principles, sources, and sayings expounded by Sufis, as well as the birth and development of Sufism.
Second, those that concern the biographies of the Sufis which comprise the birth, death, life, including the most important aspects of their lives.
The connection between the two kinds is very strong to the extent that they are intermixed. That is, some sources have biographies as a part as Qushayri (d. 418 H) did in his Risala, and Hujwayri (d. 1077 CE) in Kashf al-Mahjub just as the books of biographies are full of Sufi sayings and opinions which is an important part of the life of a Sufi.
Source for Sufism
Hijri Century Name of Source Author Death Date
3rd Riaya li-Huquq Allah
Khatim al-Awliya Al-Muhasabi
Al-Hakim al-Tirmidhi 243 H
4th Al-Luma fi Tasawwuf
Al-Ta’arruf li-Madhhab al-Tasawwuf
Qut al-Qulub Al-Tusi
Al-Makki 378 H
5th Kashf al-Mahjub (Persian)
6th Ihya Ulum al-Din
Al-Ghunya li-Talibi Tariq al-Haqq Al-Ghazali
7th Awarif al-Ma’arif
Al-Futuhat al-Makkiyya Suhrawardi
Ibn Arabi 632H
This chart about sources for Sufism is organized chronologically, with the most important works listed in it. It shows the progression of works written and their respective dates.
Al-Ri’aya li-Huquq Allah, Al-Muhasabi (d. 243H)
One of the most famous books on Sufism in history treats the notions of piety, taking the self into account and its actions, words, and thoughts. As well, they treat repentance, its motives and ways, and ostentation, truthfulness, arrogance, pride and so on.
Khatim al-Awliya: al-Hakim al-Tirmidhi (d. 285H)
One of the most important works of al-Hakim al-Tirmidhi, and one of the first works written on sainthood and its relation to prophethood. This book led to Hakim being prevented from teaching due to some extreme views in it. The book focuses on spiritual exercises regarding truthfulness, which refers to special activities that the Sufi does to get closer to God. It also examines “endowment” which is a divine gift that is given to some chosen individuals irrespective of their efforts.
Al-Luma fi al-Tasawwuf: al-Tusi (d. 378H)
This is considered one of the longest sources on Sufism and as having the most material. It is like Kitab al-Umm in Arabic language, insofar as subsequent authors came to use and rely on it. The author sets out the principles of practical Sufism and defines in principles and notions. It records the sayings of the Sufis, and their opinions, that were not recorded previously.
Al-Ta’arruf ila Ahl al-Tasawwuf: al-Kalabadhi (d. 380H)
This is one of the important compendia that was written early on and is distinguished by its theological bent. It explains the creed of Sufis with regard to tawhid and the attributes of God, and sight of God, createdness of actions, and the Good. It also treats the most important Sufi concepts, like repentance, asceticism, patience, poverty, piety, contentment, certainty and so on. The author is clearly Sunni and even-handed in presenting his views.
Qut al-Qulub, Abu Talib al-Makki (d. 386H)
The book treats the behavior and protocols of the Sufis. It also treats ritual worship and how it is performed according to Sufis. It focuses on the various ritual practices that are spread out through the day and night as well as taking account of the soul and training the seekers. It discusses at length the Sufi stations, the reality of asceticism and reliance.
Kashf al-Mahjub, al-Hujwayri (d. 456H)
The oldest work on Sufism in Persian and the first organized according to practical and theoretical principles of Sufism. It parallel Tusi’s Luma in Arabic. The book expounds the principles of Sufism and derivative principles. It has a specific section of the saints of the Sufis and their biographies. It also has a section of Sufi sects. It also treats creedal matters and ritual worship according to the Sufis as well as the protocols, symbols, and ways of the Sufis.
Al-Risala, al-Qushayri (d. 465H)
It is known as al-Risala al-Qushayriyya. It is a work directed to a Sufis through the Islamic lands. He wrote is in 437H when he noticed the deviance of a large number of those who adhered to the Qur’an and Sunna. It has two parts: 1. Biographies of major figures of Sufism and their sayings; 2. The principles of Sufism and their true ways.
It consists of 53 chapters and various sections. The first chapter is devoted to the shaykhs of Sufism and the rest to stations, states, terms, and behavior of the Sufis. It is a primary source on Sufism.
Ihya Ulum al-Din, al-Ghazali (d. 505H)
It is said, rightfully, that this is the work that allowed Sufism to thrive among the other religious sciences in Islamic society. It has a lot of material concerning a wide range of subjects. He divided into four famous parts:
1. Rituals (10 parts)
2. Customs (10 parts)
3. Sources of Destruction (10 parts)
4. Sources of Salvation (10 parts)
It comprises everything that Sufis arrived at before him. It presents the material in a balanced manner with Prophetic reports. But the book is grounded on strong rational foundation, which is only lightened by Ghazali’s literary style and his strong belief.
Al-Ghunya li-Talibi Tariq al-Haqq, al-Jilani (d. 561H)
It is a book on morals, Sufism, behavior in Islam. It tries to mix Islamic rituals and Sufi morality. It pays attention to the times of remembrance and rituals and the seasons.
It deals much with the obligatory acts and duties that one does throughout the night and day, including entering the bathroom, sleeping, and animal sacrifice, naming, and visiting the sick. It is said that Ghunya influence the masses more than the educated in Sufism.
Awarif al-Ma’arif, Al-Suhrawardi (d. 632H)
This is a short introductory text that focuses on practice rather than ideas and principles. After mentioning the states of the Sufis and their practices in circles of remembrance and ritual, companionship and unveiling, the author discusses a number of sufi terms. The book is distinguished by its clear language and the well-defined information presented by each chapter (63 chapters).
Al-Futuhat al-Makiyya, Ibn Arabi (d. 638H)
This is the largest encyclopedic work on Sufism without exception. Ibn Arabi finished writing it, the second time, in 632H. The book is a personal and philosophical presentation of all of Islamic knowledge according to the Sufis. In it, rational analysis attains the highest levels. It also comprises certain occult information like knowledge of the secrets of the alphabet and other things taken from Neoplatonic thought. It is also considered an important source for intellectual activity during the time of the author and for Sufism during the sixth and early seventh centuries Hijra. Ibn Arabi expressed some of his views regarding the unity of existence which was condemned by the jurists. But the spirit of the book makes it possible to refute this accusation.
Table of Biographies of Sufis in Chronological Order
Century (Hijri) Name of Work Author Death Date (Hijri)
Fifth Tabaqat al-Sufiyya
Hilyat al-Awliya Al-Sulami
Abu Nuyam 412
Seventh Tadhkirat al-Awliya (Persian)
Ruh al-Quds, Mukhtasar al-Durra al-Fakhira Al-Attar
Ibn Arabi 627
Ninth Nafahat al-Uns Al-Jami 989
Tenth Al-Tabaqat al-Kubra Al-Sha’rani 973
Tabaqat al-Sufiyya, al-Sulami (d. 412H)
It is the most important source for the life and sayings of the masters of Sufism in the fourth and fifth centuries of Hijra. It is divided into five parts, each of which contains 20 Sufis. Then he added further parts, reaching 102 biographies precisely. The author sought to tied Sufism to Islamic principles by mentioning Prophetic hadith at the beginning of each biography.
Hilyat al-Awliya, Abu Nuyam al-Asfhani (d. 430H)
This is the largest work on the biographies of Sufis (10 volumes) in Arabic. The reason for this is that the author included a large number of Companions, Successors, and Successors of Successors. As well, the author included many individuals that are not well known. Moreover, it contains the largest collection of reports with various transmissions. It mentions the names of Ahl al-Suffa. The author tries to show the Islamic bent of the Sufis included in the biographies.
Tadhkirat al-Awliya, Farid al-Din al-Attar (d. 627H)
Al-Attar is considered one of the three greatest of the poets of Iran (Sana’I, Rumi, Attar). It is considered the oldest works in Persian on the biographies of Sufis. It also relies on Arabic sources like Tabaqat of al-Sulami and Hilyat al-Awliya by Abu Nuyam.
Ruh al-Quds, Mukhtasar al-Durra al-Fakhira, Ibn Arabi (d. 638H)
These two books, written by Ibn Arabi, contain biographies of nearly 50 masters, men and women, under whom he studies and who pointed him to the path of Sufism. The book is important because Ibn Arabi mentions in it Sufi personalities who are at a high level of distinction and describes them in a direct manner.
-Nafahat al-Uns, Abd al-Rahman al-Jami
Jami wrote the book in 883H, relying of Sulami’s Tabaqat. It contains a short introduction and various chapters on Sufi principles and biographies of Sufi shaykhs exceeding 600 entries.
Al-Tabaqat al-Kubra, al-Sha’rani (d. 973H)
The author states: I summarize in it a group of saints who are to be followed on the path to God, including Companions, Successors, to the ninth and some of the tenth centuries. It also includes many miracles of the saints and extraordinary acts what occurred to them without criticism or commentary.
-Sufism in Islam: Its Inception and Development
Islam embraced early on the age groups: children, youth, and the elderly. It was necessary for those advanced in years, who has spent a good portion of their lives in ignorance and disbelief, to spend their efforts in applying God’s commands and the teachings of their new religion. So they did more prayers and fasting than what was prescribed for them, so that they could make penance for their sins in disbelief. So they devoted their lives entirely to worship and asceticism in the world and desires. They devoted themselves to the masjid and were called “Ahl al-Suffa”. No one contested them because they were close to the Prophet (peace be upon him). Rather, the Prophet used to give them gifts of food that would be sent to them, as did the Companions. Indeed, the life of the Prophet (peace be upon him) was an example of asceticism in the world, rugged living, and neglect of worldly desires. The Qur’an also calls to preferring the afterlife over this world.
The teachings of Islam embody the highest meanings of truthfulness, sincerity, purity of the soul, and observing God’s way. All these aspects of Islam helps create a spiritual environment that developed in early Sufism that began in its first stages as implementing the pillars of the faith. It then turned to calling society to asceticism until after two centuries it was named Sufism as we know it now.
Ibn Khaldun defined Sufism as the “sciences of Shariah that is generated in the religion,” rooted in a number of inclinations:
devotion to ritual worship;
devotion to God;
turning away from the attractions of the world;
turning away from people and secluding oneself.
Ibn Khaldun (d. 808 H) states that these characteristics were not specific to a particular group in the time of Companions, Successors, or early predecessors in the first century. Rather, they were adopted generally by Muslims who were righteous and pious. When, in the second century, people began to turn toward the world and indulge, those who devoted themselves to worship were hidden and called Sufis.
Ibn Khaldun states: It is clear that the basis of their path is: taking the soul into account with regard to its actions and inactions, and discussion of the tastes and experiences that they one receives due to spiritual struggle. Then the seeker arrives at a station and moves to another. Moreover, they are given hidden traits.
Ibn Khaldun emphasizes that development in Shari’a occurred in two kinds:
1. A kind that is specific to the jurists and muftis, which is the general rulings regarding worship, practice, and transactions.
2. A kind that applies only to Sufis, who endeavor to struggle and purify the soul, which involves the discussion of experiences, tastes and terms that they use.
When the sciences were written down and recorded in books, the jurists wrote on law, legal principles, theology, and exegesis and so on. The Sufis also wrote works about their path. Some of them wrote on piety and taking the soul into account like Muhasabi (d. 857) in his book al-Ri’aya. There are also those who wrote on the manners of the Sufis and their states and experiences like al-Qushayri in al-Risala
Al-Ghazali combined the two approaches in Ihya Ulum al-Din, so that rules of piety and the path are mentioned, and then he clarifies the manners of the Sufis, their practices, and their terminology.
In this way Sufism became a recorded science, after it was simply a path of worship and was transmitted from person to person, in the same way that all the other sciences were recorded, including hadith, exegesis, law, and so on.
The Relation between Ideas and Principles of Shi’ites and Sufis
Ibn Khaldun (d. 808 H) points out that the influence and exchange between Sufism and Shi’ism was mutual. He also adds that the later Sufis also mixed with later Isma’ilis who believed in the incarnation of God and the divinity of the Imams. The result of this was the appearance of certain Shi’I beliefs in Sufism, foremost is the claim regarding the qutb, which means the leader of the gnostics. He notes that this exchange occurred in Iraq when the Isma’ilis emerged, and their positions on the Imam. The Sufis took the comparison between the exoteric and esoteric from them. So they made the qutb esoterically equivalent to the Imam exoterically, just as they made the abdal like the nuqaba or the appointed leaders of the Imam. Ibn Khaldun states: “Consider that which in the discussions of the Sufis regarding the Fatimids, and they filled their books with, which had no confirmation or negation in the words of the pious predecessors. Rather it is taken from the words of the Shi’ites and the Rafidis and their sects as found their books.
Ibn Khaldun notes that one of the reasons for Sufis being attacked is because many jurists and muftis took up the cause of refuting those later Sufis in these positions, condemning all that went this way. They did not differentiate between what was original in this and what entered from elsewhere.
Notes that Must be Heeded and Relied upon in the History of Sufism
In Ibn Khaldun’s presentation of the history of Sufism by means of analysis and commentary, it is necessary to make the following notes which need to be followed and observed in studying the history of Sufism:
1. Ibn Khaldun attributes Sufism in its inception to Islamic sources. Indeed, he considers the first generation of Muslims in the first century and expresses it in terms of this Islamic characteristic, like the ascetic or ritual bent, and denial of worldly desires.
2. The first point of change in Sufism is represented in the focus of some Sufis on the practice of religious experiences in depth on their souls in terms of experiences and insights. This then increased in sharpness in terms of denying the bodily desires and continuing to train the self and examining its every thought in detail.
3. The second point of change is represented by the written record of these practices and experiences in Sufi works, some of which focused on the self, others on practice, and still others on both. In this stage, Sufism moved from a lived experience in society to a science that is written, recorded and studied
4. The scholars of the Shariah attacked Sufism on the grounds that only they understand the reality of faith and that the other sciences only provides knowledge of external things. The jurists find in the obscure words an opportunity to reject Sufism entirely.
5. A strong influence from Shi’i notions affected Sufism, especially from the Isma’ilis in Iraq. By this various notions that did not exist spread in Sufism, like qutb, abdal, esoteric knowledge, external and internal. As Ibn Khaldun states, “Characteristics were appropriated, one from another.”
6. It can be noted that Ibn Khaldun did not treat the flourishing of Sufism, even though it existed in his time, just as he did not point to the sufi houses which he himself was a part of at the end of the 8th century Hijri, namely Khanqa of Baybars.
-The Stages of Islamic Sufism
Sufism is specific spiritual phenomenon that represents devotion to worship, accountability of the self, and asceticism in the world and avoidance of the material world and love of God in absolutely.
This began with the inception of Islam and then it continued to develop until it reached the third and fourth centuries of Hijra, and it never ceased to enter life after that . Sufism was related to social and political developments in Islamic society and was influenced greatly by cultural factors that developed.
The scholars do not agree on the origins of the word tasawwuf. Some view that it is related to the cloth, wool, that some of the monks and ascetics used to wear in earlier times. Others believe that it is derives from spiritual purity and still others that maintain it comes from Ahl al-Suffa. Some see it as rooted in the Greek term for wisdom, Sophia . The word tasawwuf did not emerge until the second century of Hijra. This does not mean that its sense did not exist before then. The fact is that Sufism appeared in many forms, connected to various stages, which can be summarized thus:
1. The stage of worship:
In the first stage of Islam, Muslims devoted themselves to worship. They went to extremes to the extent that the Prophet (peace be upon him) warned them to not neglect practical life but they continued to go to beyond the average.
2. The stage of asceticism:
Beginning with the early Islamic conquests and the expansion of the Umayyad kingdom, with result of increasing wealth returning to the leaders. This period saw asceticism in worldly enjoyments from the devout worshippers and ascetics who sufficed with what is necessary in their life.
3. The stage of practical Sufism:
In this stage, manners were mixed with ideas and Sufis had a presence in society and a special form of interaction and language. There new ideas developed like the notion of gnosis and divine love, which the Sufi means to worship God not out of fear of punishment or for desire for paradise but only for God Himself. This had many aspects in the third century, in which a major group of Sufi masters emerge, like Hallaj (d 309 H), Dhu al-Nun al-Misri (d. 859), and al-Hakim al-Tirmidhi (d. 910 CE).
4. The stage of philosophical Sufism:
This stage is represented in what was written by some of the Sufi philosophers like Suhrawardi (d. 1191) and Ibn Arabi(d. 1240 CE). We see in Suhrawardi a philosophy of light, in which one sees God a perfect light, followed by lesser forms of light in perfection. This stage is distinguished by speculative thought purely as opposed to the next stage.
5. The stage of the Sufi orders:
These orders focus on practice and individual and social behavior of the Sufis. In this stage, we find that each order has a shaykh that is its highest leader, which the order usually carries its name. The order takes from his words and advice. The seeker who wishes to join must take a pact with the shaykh, which concern observing the rules of the order, in terms of obedience, practice and cooperation. As a result of this, the phenomenon of complacency overtook the Islamic world during its weak period.
The most famous of the Sufi orders is the Shadhiliyya, Rafi’iyya, and Ahmadiyya.
This division does not cover every stage from beginning to end, because something like Sufism cannot be defined precisely in terms of its stages. Various stages overlap for a certain period without there being a clear line. Also, the substance of Sufism remains the same even if its forms differ and its stages vary.
-The Understanding of Rituals according Sufis
Despite the allegations against Sufis, with regard to their neglect of religious practices (like prayer, fasting, and so on), or in their considering ritual as the lowest form with respect to the activities of the heart or practices of the order, it has not been reported by any of them that they neglected a religious ritual. Rather the opposite. That is, they proclaim that they take the rituals as a means to arriving at their goal, which is getting closer to God. Indeed, sometimes they go to extremes in doing so.
The important point about misconceptions relating to Sufis in this regard is that the conception of worship according to Sufis differs from the jurists’ conception. This arises from their general method in interpreting religious sources. They believe that religious sources have an external meaning that is for the masses and majority. There is also an esoteric aspect which is for the elite few. When they apply their approach to religious ritual we see that they arrive at the natural result. That is, performing ritual worship is on two levels: formal and external, and the other internal and deep.
The Four Rituals in Islam
Hujwayri states in his book Kashf al-Mahjub: “Prayer lexically means remembrance and submission. According to the jurists it means a specific term that applies to the normal rules, which is a command of God that we pray five times and they have conditions required before beginning:
1. Purity from filth externally and desire internally;
2. Purity of clothes from filth externally and for it to be valid internally;
3. Purity of the soul from certain acts and ailments externally and corruptions and sin internally;
4. Facing the Qibla, which externally is facing the Ka’ba, and internally is the Throne, and the secret Qibla is witnessing;
5. Establishing the external according to power, and establishing the internal in the garden of proximity, with the condition that the time enters according to external Shari’a, and its continued observance in the level of reality;
6. Making intention pure in facing God;
7. Glorification with respect and maintaining the station of connection.
Recitation with respect, bowing with humility, prostration with submission, and sitting collectedly and sending peace with the ceasing of it. Just as the Prophet’s report: “He used to pray and inside him was the murmuring like the murmuring of a pot .”
Hujwayri reports that the stages of the various prayers represent the steps of the Sufi from beginning to end. That is when he states, “Prayer is worship that the seekers find in it a way to the Truth from beginning to end, and in which stations are unveiled:
Purification is for the seekers the stage of repentance and connection;
The connection to one’s shaykh is like the stage of facing the Qibla;
The struggle against the self is like standing in prayer;
Continued remembrance is like recitation;
Humility is like bowing;
Knowing one’s self is like prostration;
Sitting for tashahhud is like being close;
Salam is like giving up the world and freeing from the limits of stations.
There is no doubt of the depth of conceiving prayer like it is a continuing ascension, when the Prophet (peace be upon him) arrived close to God, each time which differs greatly from the level of the juristic conception of the ritual, which considers it a set of actions and statements beginning with the takbir and ending with the taslim. The Sufi conception of prayer leads the Muslim to a place more spiritual and of more gravity.
As for the releasing from religious obligations, of which Sufis have been accused, we do not see any real examples. Indeed, most of them affirm the opposite.
Fasting gains a deeper sense with the Sufis. They see that when Allah protects someone from sin, all his acts are fasting. Junaid (d. 910 CE) states, “Fasting is half of the path .”
Hujwayri reports that the reality of fasting is resisting, and resistance has conditions. Just as you protect your internal from food and drink, you must protect your eyes from looking at the forbidden and desires, as well as the ears and tongue.
The reality is that the Sufi view of fasting had a huge influence on the view of fasting as not simply avoiding food and sexual pleasures. They affirm that fasting from food and drink is what babies and the elderly do. It is necessary to fast from every bad desire, intention, and will. At the same time, the Sufis do not discard the ritual of fasting.
Sufis view zakat differently from the customary Islamic view of the ritual of zakat. This is rooted in the Sufi view of wealth and money. They do not own anything on which zakat can be placed. They give charity from it. As well, they consider wealth as something not praiseworthy. Indeed, Sufis expanded the notion of wealth or blessing on which zakat is placed and state that blessings are not only in wealth. There are blessings in many things external as well as internal, and there is zakat on all that.
So some Sufis used to take zakat on those things and other did not.
Sufis viewed Hajj at two levels. One is external and the other is internal. The external is the application of the ritual elements, going to Hajj, doing Tawaf, and so on. The internal aspect is to avoid all bad qualities and to devote oneself to God in one’s heart.
In this say the Sufis viewed the rituals of Islam with more depth with a spiritual bent. They go beyond the juristic conception of rituals to some extent. The rituals change in their hands into a means to arriving at their goal, of arriving closer to God.
-Sufi Ideas and Schools
Sufis had philosophers and thinkers. The characteristic of a philosopher is be concerned with thoughts, considering them at great length. The question is whether the practice of Sufism leads the Sufi to philosophical thought or is the Sufi a philosopher first and then engages in Sufism. The fact is that Sufism itself includes a philosophical approach that the philosophers used throughout the ages, which is known as the rising and falling dialectic. That is, the Sufi begins his life in isolation from people and ponders the higher dominion, in order to purify his soul and to train it in meanings and to prepare it to receive divine light. Then it receives certain spiritual gleams of light which invoke him to return to people so that he can tell them what he witnessed. This is done by using language that people can understand. This is the method that most philosophers used in the world, a rising dialectic and falling dialectic. The only difference is that the philosopher begins with what is given in the mind and logic and does not go beyond that usually. However, the Sufi philosopher or philosopher Sufi begins by a spiritual experience without paying particular attention to the intellect and its logic. Most Sufi philosophers claim that they take their material from the thing that goes beyond the horizon of the intellect .
-The Most Important Ideas and Notions of Sufi Philosophers
We examine here some of the most important ideas, notions and schools of thought that were founded by Sufi philosophers:
1. The notion of gnosis (Dhu al-Nun al-Misri "d. 859")
When Sufism began to mature in the third century of Hijra, most of its topics centered on the acts of the heart which corresponded to external actions that the jurists were concerned with. Each master of Sufism focused on an aspect of this. For example, al-Muhasabi focused on assessing the self. Junaid focused on balancing Shariah and Reality.
For Dhu Nun, the most important thing was making gnosis a central point on which Sufism is based. When he was asked: Who is a Sufi? He responded: Whoever only speaks of realities when he speaks, and when he is silent, his limbs speak of disconnection from things. This means that he joined truth in practice with truth in knowledge and wisdom.
He states: If certainty is true in the heart, then fear is also true of it, by making the act of the heart follow certainty which is the result of gnosis.
He expresses his view by stating: The key to worship is thought.
In this way Dhu al-Nun deserved to be known as the founder of the gnostic way in Sufism. It is true that some Sufis preceded him in their expression and sayings but he was the first to make it a central component of Sufism.
2. The notion of sainthood (al-Hakim al-Tirmidhi "d. 255 H")
The lexical meanings of sainthood revolve around the meaning of closeness. But when it is ascribed to God it means protection, trust, and help. The Sufis use the term to mean the highest station in proximity to God though they make clear that it is a station lower than prophethood.
Al-Hakim al-Tirmidhi distinguishes between two kinds: the first kind is one by which a Sufi gains through actions and the other is endowed. Naturally the second is higher than the first, since it is like prophethood which is not earned but is divinely bestowed.
Included in the characteristics of a saint is that God constantly helps him, and protects him from sins. As well, his prayers are answered when the Muslims are in need of help.
Al-Hakim al-Tirmidhi held that there is seal of the saints just as there is a seal of the prophets. He was criticized for this. But the Sufis clarify the meaning of the seal of sainthood. Ibn Arabi states that they derive their knowledge from the light of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), which shows that the saint is lower rank than the prophet.
The School of Illumination (Suhrawardi "d. 1191 H")
Suhrawardi is considered one of the most important philosopher Sufis who claimed this school. Here we are dealing with a sufi philosopher, who was influenced by Greek and Platonist philosophy, as well as Persian wisdom and Hermetic knowledge. The word “illumination” means the unveiling that results from the effusion of light from the divine light, which continuously flows into the hearts of people who are purified . But the Sufi will not gain this light unless he is free of all bodily attachments, and is free from material life and is fully devoted to pure spiritual life. Here Suhrawardi differs from the other Sufis with the condition that the Sufi knows rational philosophy. He divides Sufi philosophers into three:
1. Divine philosopher who is deep into metaphysics but devoid of rational investigation.
2. Philosopher who is adept at investigation but devoid of spirituality.
3. Divine philosopher who is adept at investigation and spirituality.
He places himself in the third category which combines Sufism and philosophy.
The School of the Unity of Being (Ibn Arabi "d. 1240 CE")
When one mentions this school, thoughts go to Ibn Arabi who was one of the greatest sufi philosophers, who wrote poems and books, including al-Futuhat al-Makkiyya.
This school is based on the notion that existence corresponds only to one reality, and that there is no duality or plurality in it, contrary to what our senses perceive in terms of many existent things in the external world, which we call creation .
Still, Ibn Arabi states very clearly the God is above all created things and that he is the Creator of the world, and that only God is to be worshipped. This school of thought has brought much criticism on Ibn Arabi. Some scholars have attacked him and others have defended him.
The Notion of the Perfect Man (Abd al-Karim al-Jili "d. 1424 CE")
Abd al-Karim al-Jili, who is a famous Sufi, and supporter of Ibn Arabi, was well known for this theory and wrote a book on the topic. Jili follows his teacher Ibn Arabi in asserting the Unity of Being. However, he focuses on the qualities of man which must be divested to arrive at that highest level of perceived the effusions of the Divine.
Jili states, “Individuals of this kind are an exact copy of the other completely, and one does not miss anything that the other has except in accidental qualities…So they are like two facing mirrors.”
The most important point to be noted regarding the ideas and notions of Sufis is that they diverged greatly from the Sunni Sufism that distinguished itself by practice and morals, especially in the third and fourth centuries. These notions were heavily influenced by foreign ideas, Indian, Greek, Persian, Christian and so on. Still, the ideas were connected closely to the founders even though they had roots in foreign sources.
An order means path or Sufi way that a particular master of Sufism founded. The shaykh gains followers and increases after his death. They continue to remember him by doing birthday party, by gathering around his grave.
Hujwayri mentions some of the names of the orders that existed in his time. He lists 12, two of which he rejected as incarnationists, and lists ten:
1. Al-Muhasabiyya related to al-Harith al-Muhasabi (d. 857)
2. Al-Qassariyya related to Hamdun al-Qassar (d. 271 H)
3. Al-Tayfuriyya related to Abu Yazid Tayfur al-Bistami (d. 877 )
4. Al-Junaydiyya related to al-Junaid (d. 910 CE)
5. Al-Nuriyya related to al-Husayn al-Nuri (d. 907 CE)
6. Al-Sahliyya related to Sahl al-Tusturi (d. 896 CE)
7. Al-Hakimiyya related to al-Hakim al-Tirmidhi (d. 869 CE)
8. Al-Khazariyya related to Abu Said al-Khazzar (d. 277H)
9. Al-Khafifa related to Muhammad ibn Khafif (d. 982 CE)
10. Al-Sayyariyya related to Abu al-Abbas al-Sayyari (d. 953 CE)
It is shown in history that these orders died along with their founders. As for those orders that continue to exist and are amongst the most important, even today in Egypt:
1. Qadiriyya, founded by Abd al-Qadir al-Jilani (d. 561H)
2. Rifa’iyya, founded by Ahmad al-Rifa’I (578H)
3. Shadhiliyya, founded by Abu al-Hasan al-Shadhili (d. 656)
4. Ahmadiyya, founded by Ahmad al-Badawi (d. 675)
5. Burhaniyya, founded by Ibrahim al-Dasuqi (d. 676)
6. Khalwatiyya, founded by Muhammad al-Khalwati
There are other orders like the Naqshabandiyya, Sa’diyya, Inaniyya, Shaybaniyya, Mirghiniyya, Khudhariyya, Sawiyya, Azaziyya, Rahimiyya Qanaiyya, Khaliliyya, Kitaniyya.
The Sufi orders grew from the sixth century onward, when Salah al-Din al-Ayyubi recognized the Sufis and built from them and his minister a sufi house in Egypt. They were given stipends. In the seventh century, we see the emergence of some of the biggest orders that continue to exist today.
Currently, it is stated that the number of Sufis today in Egypt exceeds 10 million individuals, most of whom are in the countryside. Each order has a shaykh and a khalif who take pledges from followers, who observe the prayers and litanies . They attend mawlids and religious events.
The Sufi orders have faced much criticism from both Muslims and Orientalists, because the latter connect the decline of Islam to the rise of Sufism. The reason for this is that they took many commoners who are lazy and unproductive and encouraged them to stop work and doing worldly things to improve life .
As for Muslims, many have found that Sufism contain many things that go contrary to the teachings of Islam. They are involved in many innovations and heresies, which is a result of followers following the shaykh blindly.
Critique of Sufism
Sufism was subject to two kinds of criticism:
1. Direct criticism: this came from the Sufis themselves. They directed Sufis when Sufism was going in the wrong direction. From the third century on, we find that there are many shaykhs that condemn the deviances.
2. The criticisms of the jurists and scholars: This sort of criticism came from a focused perspective. That is, Sufism deviates from the Qur’an , Sunna, and Shari’a.
Ibn Taymiyya was the most famous who stood against the aspect of Sufism which deviated from the Qur’an and Sunna, as it applied to those who claimed incarnation and unity, and licentiousness and extremism.
There is another Hanbali jurist who stood against Sufism, Ibn al-Jawzi, who used to attack it. He devoted a large part of his book Talbis Iblis to the deviant aspects of Sufism.
Ibn al-Jawzi sees that Sufism is a path that is asceticism first, after which its adherents permitted music and dance, so commoners inclined towards it just as those of the world.
Ibn al-Jawzi states that the name tasawwuf appeared before the second century. The early generations discussed it and spiritual training and purification until Satan confused them in certain matters. Later the confusion increased until it was firmly rooted. Thereafter they began to discuss matters that were strange like incarnation and unity. Then the Sufi masters fabricated reports in support of their views. They then state that what they know is esoteric knowledge and Shari’a is exoteric. They used to take weak hadiths without knowing as well.
Ibn al-Jawzi states: “It is amazing their piety in food but liberality in interpreting the Qur’an”.
Summarizing, Ibn al-Jawzi (d. 751 H) states, “Sufism is a known school that goes beyond asceticism and the difference between is that asceticism was not condemned by anyone and Sufism was condemned.”
The scholars of Sufism have held in their works grand positions and have fabricated reports and so on. Ibn al-Jawzi attributes that to their lack of knowledge of Sunna and Islam. They also prefer the views of fellow Sufis and they only did so because they loved the praise of asceticism and they did not see a better state than that. As well, people are naturally attracted to them because of their focus on purification and worship.
Imam Ahmad was asked about deviant thoughts and he responded: What the Companions and Successors spoke of.
It should be noted that the criticism was addressed to the Sufis, that they invented a new area of knowledge that the predecessors did not speak of. It is from this angle that the jurists attacked Sufism, which the masses followed.
Ibn al-Jawzi admits that the authentic Sufis affirm the Qur’an and Sunna and that they only got confused because of their lack of knowledge. Then he lists many reports showing how they adhered to the Qur’an and Sunna.
Ibn al-Jawzi’s criticisms show that it is necessary for the scholars to distinguish for the commoners what is good and bad.
What do we gain from Sufism today?
Is there anything in Sufism that we could benefit from today?
The answer is certainly yes. We clarify how in the following:
1. So that a person can examine himself and evaluate his place in the world:
People are engrossed in the world and earning a living so that he is too preoccupied to be concerned with the afterlife. People thus need to balance between worldly needs and desires and the afterlife. Few people know that their responsibilities divide into two: worldly and afterwordly.
The Sufis take a third path which is to prefer the afterlife and forgo this world. But we insist that we should balance between the two and take from Sufism the attitude that we should not take the world as an end but as a path to the afterlife. .
2. Training and education:
The Sufis provide a method of training and education that goes beyond anything that modern education provides because it is based on several grounds and encompasses various stages which have specific goals in each stage. Mimshad al-Dainuri states, “My eyes are gladdened by a true poorman and my heart is made happy by a seeker who attains.” The meaning of this is that education is not something that the shaykh undertakes for profit but is something that he loves to do for the seeker. It also indicates the keenness of the shaykh in keeping the seeker true.
3. Balance between Body and Mind:
The Sufis’ were keen on elevating the soul above the body because they knew immediately that the human ego, with all its desires and needs is the cause of trials. So they tried to quell its desires. We say that Islam tries to balance between the desires of the body and the spirit because they are like two wings needed to fly.
4. Gaining from Sufi Wisdom:
The masters of Sufism left behind a great legacy and treasure of sayings that became parables. Indeed, they became words of wisdom that came from spiritual and intellectual experience. An example is al-Fudayl bin Iyad (d. 187 H): Three traits make the heart hard: excess of food, excess of sleep and excess of speech. Bishr al-Hafi states: Prayer is leaving sins. Al-Muhasabi states: Good character is bearing harm, avoiding anger, smiling and good speech.