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Thematic Guide to Sufism

Erik S. Ohlander, Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne


Sufism is a multifaceted and historically diverse form of Muslim religiosity that has often been characterized as the "mystical" tradition of Islam. Known by the Arabic term taşawwuf, Sufism combines a system of metaphysics with various contemplative, ascetical, and ritual practices which its practitioners, or Sufis, hope will lead them to an intimate, unmediated, or unitive encounter with God. By this means, Sufis hope to experience in this life what other Muslims hope to experience in the life to come. Marked as it is by a diversity of attitudes, doctrines, practices, and forms of social and institutional organization related to the realization of this hope, certain aspects of the tradition have at times met with opposition. Nonetheless, Sufism has found a place in almost all Muslim societies, past and present.

Origins and Early History

The word taşawwuf appears neither in the Qur'an nor in the hadith, and although later Sufis would trace its teachings and practices directly to the practice of the prophet Muhammad, the term itself did not gain currency until at least the first half of the ninth century. Its antecedents are typically located in the circles of certain Muslim ascetics and pietists who first appeared in Iraq and Syria in the early eighth century. Many of these circles appear to have been reacting to the increasing worldliness of the Muslim community, whose spectacular territorial acquisitions in the former domains of the Byzantines and Persians led to the acquisition of wealth and power unimaginable in the desert steppe of the Arabian Peninsula. This is perhaps no better represented than in the stern world-denying teachings of the celebrated Ḥasan al–Başrī (d. 728). Near the end of the eighth century, the dour attitudes of such world-enouncers begin to give way to more inner-worldly mystical perspectives, a shift well represented in the fabled female ascetic of Basra, Rābiʿah al–ʿAdawīyah (d. 801). In the century to follow, this inner-worldly perspective came to be expressed in increasingly more sophisticated ways, such as in the teachings of the itinerant Nubian mystic Dhūal–Nūn al–Mişrī (d. 859). By the end of the century, groups of likeminded seekers begin to coalesce around sage-like teachers such as Junayd al–Baghdādī (d. 910) and the more flamboyant, yet no less influential, Manşūr al–Ḥallāj, who was executed on charges of heresy in 922.


By the late tenth and early eleventh centuries, the Sufis came to envision themselves as a body of likeminded religious seekers whose tradition and practice stood on par with the other Islamic religious sciences. This development is well displayed in the collective literary output of a series of prolific Sufi apologists of the period, such as Abū Bakr al–Sarrāj (d. 988), Abū Bakr al–Kalābādhī (d. 990), Abū ʿAbd al–Raḥmān al–Sulamī (d. 1020), ʿAlī al–Hujwīrī (d. ca. 1072), and Abūal–Qāsim al–Qushayrī (d. 1074). Concerned with securing a place for Sufism within the broader field of the Islamic religious sciences, these authors produced a host of biographical compendia, speculative and doctrinal treatises, and, most significantly, handbooks or manuals in which the history, teachings, and practices comprising the Sufi "sciences of the heart" were given systematic exploration.

Within this literature, the practice of Sufism is often likened to the journey of an intrepid traveler or an aspirant (murīd) making his way along a difficult and winding path. It is said that this path is best traveled under the direction of a guide (murshid) who has traversed it before. In this simile, the mystical journey is typically delineated into a series of "stations" (maqām), which the aspirant is expected to reach, one after the other, as he moves toward his goal. The first of these stops is typically identified as the station of "repentance" (tawba) and the last the stations of "annihilation" (fanāʾ) and "abiding" (baqāʾ). Over the course of his journey, the aspirant is also said to experience various "states" (ḥāl), altered states of consciousness often enumerated in dichotomous pairs such as "contraction" (qabḍ) and "expansion" (basṭ).

Emergence of Sufi Orders

The period spanning the later twelfth through the beginning of the fourteenth century witnessed a widespread flowering of Sufism across the Muslim world. It was during this period that the so-called Sufi orders emerged. Organized by the former disciples of various Sufi masters, the orders were often associated with residential centers (ribāṭ; khānaqāh; zāwīyah; tekke). At each location a master teaching a particular order's "method" (ṭarīqah) of wayfaring on the Sufi path superintended over groups of aspirants. Students would often undergo ceremonies of initiation, which might have included taking an oath of allegiance (ʿahd), being invested with the Sufi cloak (khirqah), or simply coming to learn of the chain of transmission (silsilah) authorizing an order's teachings. Additionally, once under the direction of a Sufi master, an aspirant would be directed in the methodical practice of various ascetical and contemplative practices, which might have included ritualized repetition of religious formulae (dhikr)—alone or in unison with other aspirants—periods of solitary retreat (khalwah), the performance of supererogatory prayers and fasts, and perhaps even participation in the samāʿ. A type of "mystical concert," samāʿ utilizes music, the recitation of litanies (wird) or devotional poetry, or even ritualized dance to cultivate mystical experience.

By the beginning of the fourteenth century, the Sufi orders had become a common feature of community life across the Islamic world. It was not uncommon for particularly charismatic Sufi masters to be patronized by political and economic elites looking to benefit from their spiritual authority. In fact, following the death of a particularly noteworthy master a tomb-shrine was often built to house his remains in hope that his spiritual charisma (barakah) would remain present in the region. Up until today, in many parts of the Muslim world the tomb-shrines of such "friends of God" (walī)-often referred to as "saints" in academic literature—serve as places of popular devotion and pilgrimage among the masses and are often the location of annual festivals. Consequently, elements of Sufi shrine culture have occasionally been criticized by more puritanically-minded religious scholars.

In addition to witnessing the rise of the Sufi orders, this period also produced a number of influential Sufi figures. One of the most important, Ibn al–ʿArabī (d. 1240), elaborated a complex system of monism (waḥdat al–wujūd) whose orthodoxy has long been debated by admirers and detractors alike. This period also saw a blossoming of Sufi poetry, especially in the Persian language. Arguably, the most celebrated Sufi poet of the age was Jalāl al–Dīn Rūmī (d. 1273), the eponym of the Mawlawīyah order, whose poetry is considered among the classics of Persian literature.

Contemporary Manifestations

Generally speaking, Sufism prospered in the later medieval and early modern Muslim world, especially within the Ottoman and Mughal domains. Although the Safavid dynasty itself began as a Sufi order, it eventually became subordinate to centralized military leadership. Conditions generally improved, however, under the Safavids' successors, the Qajars.

Sufis have not always remained averse to engaging in politics and religious activism, and in the nineteenth century a number of Sufi brotherhoods, such as the Sanūsīyah in Libya, directly challenged European colonialism in the Muslim world. At the same time, Sufis often found themselves facing the challenges posed by newly emerging Muslim revivalism. This was attempted on two fronts: by defending against criticism from puritanical reformers such as the Wahhābīyah that Sufi practices and institutions were un–Islamic, and answering the charges of Muslim modernists that certain aspects of Sufism promoted backwardness and superstition.

As with many traditional institutions in Muslim societies, in the twentieth century Sufism has also been forced to negotiate the vagaries of the state, ranging from the closing of tekkes in Turkey under Atatürk's program of secular modernization in the 1920s to the place of Sufi pīrs in contemporary Pakistani and Bangladeshi politics. At the same time, Sufism has remained a vital force among Muslim communities, with recent decades in particular seeing a certain popularization of Sufi thought, especially among those who have grown increasingly tired of the divisive nature of contemporary Salafī and fundamentalist discourse on the one hand, and the spiritual vacuity of modernist and secularist discourse on the other.

Further Reading

  • Arberry, A. J. Sufism: An Account of the Mystics of Islam. London: George Allen & Unwin, 1950.
  • Baldick, Julian. Mystical Islam: An Introduction to Sufism. London: I. B. Tauris, 1989.
  • Bruinessen, Martin van, and Julia Day Howell, eds. Sufism and the "Modern" in Islam. London: I. B.Tauris, 2007.
  • Curry, John J., and Erik S. Ohlander, eds. Sufism and Society: Arrangements of the Mystical in the Muslim World 1200-1800. Abingdon and New York: Routledge, 2011.
  • De Jong, Frederick, and Berndt Radtke, eds. Islamic Mysticism Contested: Thirteen Centuries of Controversies and Polemics. Leiden: Brill, 1999.
  • Ernst, Carl W. The Shambhala Guide to Sufism. Boston: Shambhala Publications, 1997.
  • Karamustafa, Ahmet T. Sufism: The Formative Period. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2007.
  • Knysh, Alexander D. Islamic Mysticism: A Short History. Leiden: Brill, 2000.
  • Lewisohn, Leonard, ed. The Heritage of Sufism. 3 vols. Oxford: Oneworld Publications, 1999.
  • Nasr, Seyyed Hossein, ed. Islamic Spirituality. 2 vols. New York: Crossroad, 1987-91.
  • Ridgeon, Lloyd, ed. Sufism: Critical Concepts in Islamic Studies. 4 vols. London: Routledge, 2008.
  • Schimmel, Annemarie. Mystical Dimensions of Islam. Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press, 1975.
  • Sedgwick, Mark J. Sufism: The Essentials. Cairo: American University in Cairo Press, 2000.
  • Trimingham, J. Spencer. The Sufi Orders in Islam. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1971.

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