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The Origins and Development of Sufism Essay

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Updated: Oct 14th, 2021

Sufism is a mystical form of Islam that has flourished in the Muslim world for centuries. There are many variants of Sufism, differing from region to region as also within each country. These variations are a result of following different Sufi masters, each of who had their own interpretation towards the realization of God. Nevertheless, Sufism has had a profound effect on mainstream Islam in the countries where it is practiced. In today’s globalized world, Sufism has spread to almost all parts of the world with both believers and ‘non-believer’ following its tenets. This essay attempts to trace the origins of Sufism with a view to explain its practices and its present state of development.

The Definition and Origins of the Word Sufi

The Oxford Companion to Philosophy defines Sufism as “a variety of Muslim mysticism characterized by the concept of a union of the human being with God through the power of love. The union was thought by many to be of the will and it was held that suffering, as well as love, was a necessary condition of the union” (Oxford University Press 860). Some Muslim experts trace the roots of Sufism to Prophet Mohammed’s practice of retreating to the cave on Mount Hira during the month of Ramadan to reflect in solitude. Some hold that the word Sufi is the anglicized version of the Arabic term Tasawwuf which in turn is derived from the Greek word Sophia meaning wisdom (As-Saleh 7). Yet others hold that Sufi is derived from the Arabic word suf, meaning “white wool”, which refers to a type of clothing preferred by the Prophet and his early followers. Some Sufi scholars have held that the name is linked to the Ahlus-Sufaah (people of As-Suffah) who were a tribe in the times of the Prophet. The term As-Safaa, meaning clearness, purity, and sincerity is also considered as yet another possible origin of the word Sufi. The multiplicity of the possible origins of the word of Sufi does not detract from its popularity amongst the Muslims. In fact, soon after the times of Prophet Mohammed, Sufism gained acceptance as also its myriad forms of practices.

Basic Philosophical Tenets

The basic philosophy of Sufism revolves around Prophet Muhammad whom the Sufis call the “Perfect Man”. Sufism refers to two terms of Islamic theology namely Qurb (nearness to God) and Dhauq (taste that is, direct intellectual intuition). According to the tenets of Islam, three stages for attaining unity with Allah were revealed to the Prophet namely; al-Islam (submission to the tenets of Islam); al-iman (Having faith); and al-Ihsan (having perfect virtue, excellence) (Uždavinys 121). Sufism identifies with the third stage; al-ihsan as the way to rid oneself of worldly needs and attaining divine knowledge. Al-Ihsan is also called the ‘Science of the way to Afterlife’. Saritoprak states that the “ theology of Sufism is a deep and mystical means through which one is able to penetrate into the world of unseen (al-ghayb) or into the realm of utmost reality” (Baran 3). Sufi practices revolve around showing their love for the Prophet and use different methods such as abstaining from food, marriage, and general abstention to be closer with the prophet and to attain knowledge and enlightenment. The different paths to attain that knowledge are collectively known as Dhikruullah (remembrance of God) and comprises what is obligatory for all Muslims to follow such as chanting the name of Allah and keeping a fast in the month of Ramadan. Where Sufi practices differ from mainstream Islamic practices is in the degree of worship of God and the means employed to gain unity. Mainstream Islam is portrayed as a way of life that applies to all aspects of human existence. Islam is an egalitarian and practical religion that regulates the daily life of Muslims. Here Sufism diverges from Islamic tenets in that it focuses exclusively on devotion and reaching attainment with a renunciation of daily life.

Various Sufi Practices

Each Sufi order has evolved its own way to reach God which is known as tariqat. The rituals or Zikr combine Quranic chants with dancing and singing to induce a state of ecstasy which according to the masters leads to knowledge. The early forms resembled many practices of Hindu Yogis such as rejection of worldly life and the need for solitude to be closer to God. This life of abstention was called Zuhd and the practitioners stressed the virtues of patience, clemency, sincerity, and truthfulness. Others such as the Turkish whirling Dervishes used to sing and dance which was called as Samaa’ to stimulate a state of Wajd (ecstasy) in an effort to realize unity with God. This use of dancing and music is a common Sufi practice across the various sects and other sects formulated newer forms of Sufism, each with its own tariqat to attain divine knowledge. Some Sufi saints claimed to have mystical experiences such as having the ability to see the unseen and perceiving multiple dimensions of reality. The ability to see the future, perform miracles (Karamat) has been attributed to many Sufi saints across the world. It was believed that the Sufi saints’ miraculous powers continued to stay with them even after death and remained resident in their graves (Mazar). Thus buildings of worship called Dargahs were built over the graves of Sufi saints where the faithful could come and pray. These Dargahs are credited with miraculous powers to heal the sick, clear the misfortunes of the needy and protect their faithful from invaders, and are spread over central Asia and the Indian subcontinent. The Dargahs attract thousand of followers both Muslim and non-Muslim.

Spread of Sufism

The various forms of Sufism were initially practiced by individual Sufis. However, by about the sixth century, creeds began to develop with a band of followers and disciples. Thus, Iraq had the Ar-Rifaa’I and Egypt had the Al-Badawi and Ash-Shaathili. By the eleventh century, Sufism had spread to almost the entire Muslim world. In central Asia, the Naqshbandiya form of Sufism gained popularity and spread to most of Asia. Naqshbandiya Sufism became popular in the Indian Subcontinent where it gathered many followers. The reason why Sufism spread so rapidly was that it preached an Islam which “promoted tolerance and inter-religious cooperation, and never abandoned the inner life and the spiritual core for the sake of solely political activism” (Baran 2).

Political Dimensions of Sufism

Sufism developed not only as a reaction to the extreme rigidity of Islamic orthodoxy but also as a reaction against corrupt Islamic rulers who used religion just to stamp their authority over the people. The Islamic orthodoxy disliked the Sufi movement because of their excessive devotion and use of methods not sanctioned by generally followed tenets of Islam. Political expediency arising out of the success of Western colonialism forced many Islamic rulers to have a tacit understanding with Sufi leaders to build opposition against colonial powers.

Present State of Development of Sufism

Sufism has an appreciable hold in the rural landscapes across Indonesia, Malaysia, India, Pakistan, Central Asia, and Turkey. The internet has played an important role in propagating the tenets of Sufism across the world. Even Western countries have many Sufi creeds developing within their boundaries. According to Ernst “the spectacular popularity of the poetry of the great Persian Sufi Jalaluddin Rumi, whose verse in modern English translation is said to be the best selling poetry in America” (4) shows its growing relevance in the West. The World’s largest Muslim nation, Indonesia, which follows a soft version of Islam, has seen a recent upsurge in interest in Sufism. This has resulted in many Islamic Studies centers such as the ‘Padepokan Thaha’ in Jakarta teaching Sufism to Jakarta’s well-heeled urban population. “Padepokan Thaha offers (among other things) tutelage in esoteric practices that have been carried by Sufi orders” (Howell 22).

The appeal of Sufism lies in its secular credentials. Unlike mainstream Islam, which has strict rules and injunctions against other religions, Sufism holds that the ways to God are many. The theological precepts of Sufism are syncretistic, allowing absorption of local customs and traditions into the basic body of Islamic theological works. Its output is intellectual and spiritual, which appeals to modern society, starved of spiritual and moral enlightenment in an environment of rank materialism. The global importance of Sufism lies in its ability to portray a softer face of Islam in a world dominated by concerns of growing Islamic fundamentalism and terrorism. In the years to come, the Sufi movement will play an increasingly cooperative role in preventing a ‘Clash of Civilizations’.

Works Cited

  1. As-Saleh, Saleh. “.” 2005. Web.
  2. Baran,Zeyno. “Understanding Sufism and its Potential Role in US Policy.” 2004. The Nixon Centre.
  3. Ernst, Carl W. “Sufism, Islam, and Globalization in the Contemporary World: Methodological Reflections on a Changing Field of Study.” 2006. 4th Annual Victor Danner Memorial Lecture.
  4. Howell, Julia Day. “Repackaging Sufism in Urban Indonesia.” 2007. ISIM Review.
  5. Oxford University Press. The Oxford Companion to Philosophy. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.
  6. Uždavinys, Algis. “.” 2005. Research Institute of Culture, Philosophy, and Arts, Vilnius.
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