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Sufi Islam


The term "Sufi" derives from the Arabic word "suf" (meaning "wool") and was applied to Muslim ascetics and mystics because they wore garments made out of wool. Sufism represents a dimension of Islamic religious life that has frequently been viewed by Muslim theologians and lawyers with suspicion. The ecstatic state of the mystic can sometimes produce extreme behaviour or statements that on occasion appear to border on the blasphemous. The cause of this is that the Sufis can sometimes feel so close to God that they lose a sense of their own self identity and feel themselves to be completely absorbed into God. This in fact is the goal of the Sufi. Through following a series of devotional practices, which lead to higher levels of ecstatic state, Sufis aspire to realise a condition in which they are in direct communion with God. Ultimately the individual human personality passes away and the Sufi feels his soul absorbed into God.

The origins of Islamic mysticism can be traced back to the 8th century. A consequence of the rapid spread of Islam under the Ummayad dynasty was the exposure of Muslims to a large number of different ethnic groups and the acquisition of considerable wealth that was the fruit of military conquest. The growing opulence of Islam was symbolised by the relocation of the capital of the empire from Medina to the more cosmopolitan city of Damascus. In reaction to the more worldly outlook of the Ummayads various groups and figures emerged who encouraged a return to the pure values of the Prophet and the Qur'an. One such figure, Hasan al-Basri (642-728), preached a rejection of the world and courageously criticised those in power when he felt that they were not conducting themselves according to the ethical standards of Islam. A second figure, Rabi'ah al-Adawiyah (d.801), cultivated the attainment of mystical union with God through the love of God. A third, and controversial, mystic, al-Hallaj (857-922), lived as a wandering preacher who gathered around him a large number of disciples. Such was al-Hallaj's sense of the intimate presence of God that he sometimes appeared to be identifying himself with God. He is reported to have made one statement - "I am the Truth!" - which caused such outrage that he was imprisoned for eight years and in 922 crucified by execution. Al-Hallaj's death illustrates in an extreme way the tensions that would characterise the relationship between Sufi mysticism and the Islamic legal authorities.

The kind of loose master-disciple relationship characteristic of 9th century mystical Islam gradually evolved into organised establishments. By the 11th century there were distinctive groups associated with a particular master. These groups, however, were often not cohesive enough to survive the death of the master. It was only in the 12th and 13th centuries that orders emerged which were stable enough to continue after the death of the founder. This continuity was achieved through the current master nominating a successor who would lead the order following the current master's death. Thus, these orders were able to trace their origins through a chain of masters. Such orders were called tariqahs.

The three regions principally associated with Sufism are Mesopotamia (Iran and Iraq), Central Asia and North Africa. The most important orders to emerge out of Mesopotamia are Rifa'iyyah, Suhrawardiyyah, Kubrawiyyah and Qadiriyyah. These are all among the earliest of the Sufi orders. Rifa'iyyah was founded in Basra, Iraq in the 12th century, soon spreading from Iraq into Syria and Egypt. Suhrawardiyyah, also founded in 12th century Iraq spread westwards into India. Qadiriyyah and Kubrawiyyah are both Iranian orders. Qadiriyyah, the earliest of the two orders, emerged in the 12th century, and spread both eastwards and westwards into India and North Africa. Kubrawiyyah is historically linked to Suhrawardiyyah in that its founder, Nayim al-din Kubra (1145-1221), was a disciple of the founder of Suhrawardiyyah, Abu Najib as--Suhrawardi (1097-1168).

Sufism was transplanted into North Africa as a result of the expansion of the Rifa'i order into Syria and then Egypt. The presence of Rifa'iyyah inspired the founding of other orders. In the 13th century Badawiyyah was founded in Egypt by Ahmad al-Badawi (1199-1276), who acquired a reputation for mysticism and the performance of miracles. This order continues today and thousands of visitors attend its annual festival in Tanta, Egypt.

At about the same time that Sufism was developing in Egypt, it was gaining in strength in North-West Africa through the support of the ruling Almohad dynasty (1130-1269), who ruled over Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Muslim Spain. In 13th century Tunisia a certain al-Shadhili acquired a group of disciples and formed who formed the basis of an order that came to be known as Shadhiliyyah. This order continues to flourish in Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco.

In the 18th century the Islamic world fell under the influence of a reform movement called Wahabiyyah. This movement sought to rid Islam of what it regarded as illegitimate innovations such as the worship of saints and to encourage strict adherence to the shari'ah. The spirit of reform spread into North Africa, leading to the establishment of new orders which rejected the more extreme forms of behaviour characteristic of some Sufi orders. An important order that came out of this context is Tidjaniyyah, which was founded in the 1780s by Ahmad al-Tidjani (d.1815) and which rejected many popular Sufi practices such as the adoration of saints. This order continues to exist today and has spread throughout North Africa and western Sub-Saharan Africa.

Another order of this type is Sanusiyyah, which was founded in Cyrenaica (in eastern Libya) in the 1840s by Muhammad b. ali Sanusi (1787-1859). This order was characterised by the rejection of all forms of luxury and a strong sense of veneration for the Prophet. Following the departure of European colonialists from North Africa in the 1940s and 1950s the Sanusis established the state of Libya. The Sanusis were overthrown in 1969 by Colonel Muammar al-Qadafi. Since then the Sanusis have provided an important source of opposition to the Qadafi regime and survive to the present day in spite of the Qadafi regimes attempt to curtail their activities.

In Central Asia and Anatolia (equivalent to modern day Turkey) a number of major Sufi orders emerged between the 12th and 17th centuries. The earliest of these, Yasawiyyah, was founded in the region now known as Turkestan and played a major role in spreading Islam among the Turkish tribes of Central Asia. Possibly deriving from Yasawiyyah is the Bektashiyyah order. According to tradition, Hajj Bektash, the putative founder of Bektashiyyah, originally belonged to the Yasawiyyah order. Bektashiyyah continues to survive in the Balkan region to the present day.

Another Central Asian order is Chishtiyyah. The origins of this order are uncertain, although the founder is generally believed to be Mu'in al-Din Chishti (c.1142-1236), a native of Sijistan. The order gradually spread into India where it remains today as the largest and most important Sufi order.

Mawalwiyyah traces its origins to the famous Turkish mystic and poet al-Rumi (1207-1273). The order's name derives from the Arabic word Mawlana (our master), a title given to al-Rumi by the order. Mawlawiyyah is based in the Turkish town of Konya. Like many Turkish orders it was effectively suppressed when Turkey became a secular state in 1925. In other parts of the Islamic world the once important order has seriously declined or disappeared altogether.

The Naqshbandis, however, have enjoyed more success. Founded by Baha al-din Naqshband (d.1389) in a village near Bukhara in Central Asia, the order gradually spread eastwards into India and westwards into Turkey. Supported by the Ottomans, Naqshbandiyyah flourished until the demise of the Ottoman empire and the establishment of a secular state under Kemal Ataturk in Turkey. Ataturk regarded the Sufi orders as decadent, reactionary and an obstruction to the modernisation of Turkey. In order to reform the state in 1925 he ordered the abolition of all mystical orders in Turkey.

The Khalwatiyyah order was founded in Persia but spread quickly into Anatolia. Out of Khalwatiyyah two other important orders emerged: Bayramiyyah and Jalwatiyyah. Bayramiyyah was founded at Ankara in the 14th century and continued until its dissolution in 1925. Jalwatiyyah was founded in the 17th century by Aziz Mahmud Huda'i (d.1628) who was previously a member of the Khalwati order. Like the other Turkish orders it was banned in 1925 by the Ataturk government; the last master of the order died in 1946.

The abolition of these orders in Turkey demonstrates the kinds of pressures they have encountered as a result of the growing strength of secularism in the world during the modern period. In many parts of the Arab world the orders have all but disappeared. In other parts of the Islamic world, however, they have continued. In North Africa and India Sufism has lost the influence they once had but nevertheless remain a part of the religious identity of the area. The continued existence of such orders suggests the inseparability of religion and its mystical dimension.


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