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A History of Sufism for Western Readers
Sep 1, 2015

Among the general Western public, Sufism has often been confused with the mystical traditions of the Far East, and thus considered an independent religion without ties to Islam. However, the term Sufism has widely been defined as Islamic mysticism that prescribes a true love of God which can only be generated by ma'rifa (gnosis), or knowing God properly.1 Ma'rifa does not only generate love, but also fear of God, as men will eventually realize, through the true knowledge of God, how undesirable the wrath of God can be.

For Sufis, God is more than what the legalist scholars of the early Islam described. In Islamic legal terms, God is the One who created the universe and obligated people to show their obedience to Him through following His orders and refraining from the prohibited. For the Sufis, however, God is the One men can approach through genuine love and respectful fear.2 Thus, Sufis teach not only joyful obedience to God, but also remembrance of God at all times, and setting aside everything in this temporary world to reach purity, and achieve a state of direct experience of God, in which one can even annihilate himself in God's Divine being.3

For Junayd (d. 910), one of the greatest Sufis of the ninth century, the essence of Sufism is an attribute of God in mankind which involves the annihilation of human qualities.4 To annihilate the self in God, one has to separate himself from this world. In the words of one of the earliest of the Sufis, Abu al-Hasan Nuri's (d. 907), "[s]ufism is the renunciation of worldly pleasures and Sufis are the ones whose souls have been freed from the stains of humanity, and whose carnal desires have been annihilated to be purified, so that they could find rest with God."5

As this quote suggests asceticism has been a common feature in the lives of Sufis. Like Nuri, Junayd describes Sufis as people who "... did not take Sufism from talk or words, but from hunger and renunciation of the world and cutting off the things to which we were accustomed and which we found agreeable."6 For Dhun-Nun of Egypt (d. 859), another well-known Sufi from the ninth century, Sufis are the ones who do not get tired of being asked for anything; they are not saddened by the loss of anything. They have preferred God to everything, and God, in response, prefers them to everything.7 For this reason, early Sufis mainly focused on God and God's oneness (tawhid), and their spiritual paths were composed of acts and rituals which aimed at interiorizing Islam in the hopes of understanding God in a deeper way.

The exact time when certain Muslim mystics called themselves Sufis for the first time is not known. Mysticism and living an ascetic life had been practiced since the time of the Prophet. Prophet Muhammad's life (peace be upon him) was a model ascetic life for Sufis. Ali (d. 661), the Prophet's cousin, son-in-law, and the fourth Caliph of Islam, is the main figure among the Prophet's companions who transmitted his mysticism to the next generations. Thus, he appears in almost every Sufi chain (silsila) as the first link in the spiritual lineage from the Prophet to the present Shaykh. Names of other companions appear at the top of a few other chains.8 Sufis believe that the Prophet taught his mystical ways and esoteric knowledge (ilm al-ladun) to his companions, and they, in turn, transmitted these to the next generations and became the first link in a spiritual chain.

Unlike followers of the Sufi orders that appeared after the eleventh century, the first generations after the Prophet never considered mysticism as a separate way within Islam. They simply regarded the ascetic practices of the Prophet and the companions as a part of the Prophet's Sunna (traditions). Nonetheless, by the eighth century, the term Sufism was already in use as a distinguished practice within Islam. Yet, it had not been systematized, nor had it produced any organized groups like the Sufi orders, which would come later. Thus, until the twelfth century, Sufis functioned as independent individual scholars who taught their own ways of mysticism to students who were in search of esoteric knowledge. Very few people had the means to become Sufi, as few people knew, or had connections to, the proper way to being accepted into a Sufi training circle. Still, knowing the procedures, and even having connections, would not be enough. One had to go through rigorous purification processes, the least of which was renunciation of the benefits of this world. Hence, if the prospective student was seeking a bright scholarly future, then following the Sufi path would not be appealing.

The formative period

The period between the eighth century and the twelfth is the formative period to which Sufi orders trace their origins. The Sufis became visible for the first time in the political arena in the eighth century, when they openly criticized the extravagancy of the Umayyad dynasty. Islam had expanded to three continents, and prosperity came as cash flowed from the newly captured territories. Palaces were built, and luxury became the norm of the ruling class.9

The Sufis' reaction was quiet but highly political. They began protesting the government by stressing the virtues of asceticism (zühd) in their teachings.10 They encouraged their audiences to abhor anything temporary (fani – or of this world) in exchange for the eternal (baki - Godly). As one of the earliest Sufi manuals states, the Sufis considered purity a necessity for getting closer to God. Repentance was mentioned heavily as a tool for spiritual cleansing whereas abstinence and poverty were regarded as two virtues that would help one shed their worldly materials. Patience would help one endure the hardships of abstinence and poverty, and resist sinful temptations. Humility, fear of God's punishment, piety, and sincerity were just some of the other qualities that the early Sufis considered as tools to train one's soul in order to get closer to God, be intimate to Him, and possibly reach a state of intimacy with God.11

Unlike the organized and institutionalized structure of the Sufi orders of later times, Sufis of the formative period functioned as individual scholars who were committed to passing their esoteric knowledge to the new generations. There were not established standards for such activities, nor was there a tradition of establishing a lodge – tekke – in which to conduct their activities. Abu Hashim (d. 767) from Kufa, who used the term Sufi for the first time, was also the one who established the first lodge of Sufism in Ramla, a city in Palestine on the road from Cairo (Fustat) to Damascus, the Capital of the Umayyads, where he lectured on Sufism to visiting students.12 Unlike the twelfth century Sufi lodges that functioned as hospices where students of a particular Sufi order lived, studied, and were trained in the Sufi way, Hashim's lodge was in the form of contemporary educational facilities, where wandering students heard lectures on Islamic sciences. Sufi masters of the formative period lectured either at their homes or at local mosques and educational complexes.13

Sufis of the formative period mostly lived in the vicinity of Baghdad, which had become a center for learning after the Abbasid takeover of the Caliphate in 750 CE. This area is the only location that superseded Khorasan (Transoxania) as a center for Sufi learning. The Abbasids generously funded learning activities and students seeking knowledge began visiting Baghdad, and they stayed if they could carve out a place for themselves.

As freelance scholars who championed ascetic lives along with teaching Islamic sciences, the Sufis of the formative period drew numerous students. However, they could not build a strong following resembling any of the post-eleventh century Sufi brotherhoods. This was most probably due to the fact that the later Sufi practice of strict allegiance to one master-shaykh had not been developed yet, and thus the students were not devotees of a certain Sufi tradition but were seekers who constantly travelled between several different masters in search for esoteric knowledge. Still, the great shaykhs' of the period must have had charismatic influence as they left their tracks in the Sufi world in the form of distinguished traditions which we now think of as "schools" within early Sufism. Hujwiri, in Kashf al-Mahjub, mentions twelve distinguished Sufi schools – ten genuine and two reprobated. Two of these – the Junaydiyya of Junayd al-Baghdadi (d. 910), and the Tayfuriyya of Abu Yazid Tayfur al-Bistami (d. 874) – represented two opposite poles in Sufi tradition. The Junaydiyya's doctrine was based on sobriety (keeping consciousness despite the intoxicating spiritual influence of the love of God) and observing Islamic Law (Shari'a), whereas Tayfuriyya represented the school of rapture (ghalabah) and intoxication (sukr, jazbah), a spiritual state of unconsciousness with the love of God.14

The sober Sufis of the formative period were the closest to the legal scholars of early Islam in their understanding of the religion. Thus, these Sufis were mostly on good terms with the legalists who had gained political influence through their legal professions.

The first known sober Sufi was Hasan al-Basri (d. 728), whose key tools in reaching God were fear of God and sadness. Based on the Prophet's saying that if people had known what the Prophet knew, they would laugh little but weep much, Hasan al-Basri and the followers of the school of sobriety would constantly weep for the miserable state of the world and their own shortcomings.15 Basri's sober school was carried by much celebrated Sufis like Habib al-Ajami (d. 767), Davud al-Tai (d.800), Maruf al-Karhi (d. 815), and Sariyy al-Saqati (d. 867) to Junayd al-Baghdadi, in whose personality the school of sobriety found its most refined form. Junayd was born in Baghdad in 830. According to Farid al-Din Attar (d. 1221), one of the most famous biographers of the Sufis, Junayd's way was that of the Qur'an and the Prophet's traditions, as only these two would save one from destructive doubts about belief and bad innovations within the religion.16 Therefore, in Hujwiri's words, Junayd was accepted by both the externalists (legalists) and the spiritualists (Sufis).17

Abu Yazid Tayfur al-Bistami's Tayfuriyya school would be a perfect example of the schools of intoxication. Al-Bistami was born in the early ninth century in Bastam, a city in the north of what is today Iran, near the Caspian Sea, in the early ninth century. He was best known for his piousness, and for his rapturous longing for God and the intoxication of his love of God.18 Bistami's school of intoxication suggests that once a man is intoxicated with love of God and enraptured upon his spiritual experiences with God, he does not notice anything else in creation since he is blinded with the love of God and loses his consciousness.19

The systematization of Sufism and the formation of the Sufi orders

The school of intoxication attracted much attention from the legalists, who accused the Sufis of polytheism. As their state of intoxication affected Sufis as a whole, Sufi intellectuals authored books and treatises in the defense of Sufism against extreme manifestations of intoxication. These works were crucial in the development of Sufi orders in later centuries, as these works ignited a long tradition of scholarship which helped formulate Sufism.20

Manuals of Sufism and biographical works were the final two intellectual steps in the development of organized Sufi groups. Sufi scholars authored manuals on Sufism to prove that the true Sufism belonged to mainstream Islam (sirat al-mustaqim, or the straight path). Biographical works on great Sufis of the past followed the manuals. In these hagiographical dictionaries the authors narrated stories of the early Sufis, and provided later generations with their educational and training backgrounds. While manuals helped the Sufis theorize their ways of Sufism, biographies provided later Sufis with an indispensable tool to track their spiritual lineages to the Prophet for authenticity and legitimacy purposes.

Sufi orders started emerging by the twelfth century. One of the earliest orders, the Suhrawardiyya, emerged in Baghdad as Abu al-Najib Suhrawardi (d. 1168) started disseminating his way of Sufism in the area. Abd al-Qadir al-Jilani (d. 1166), the eponymous leader of the Qadiriyya tariqa, was Suhrawardi's colleague in training under Muhammad Ibn Muslim al-Dabbas (d. 1131).21 Around the same time that Suhrawardi established his order, Jilani was conquering people's hearts through emotionally moving sermons, a popular profession which brought him much fame and helped him disseminate the Qadiri way to a wide range of people.22 The Chistiyya and the Mawlaviyya were founded almost a century later, in Afghanistan and Anatolia respectively.

Another colleague of Jilani at al-Dabbas' place was Abu Yaqub Yusuf al-Hamadani (d. 1140), a freelance Sufi scholar who was among the ones who brought Sufism from Baghdad to Transoxania.23 His silsila (spiritual lineage) could be traced back to Junayd through various famous Sufi shaykhs.24 Al-Hamadani is considered to be one of the most influential Sufis of the formative period as two of his disciples, Ahmed Yesevi (d. 1167) and Abd al-Khaliq Ghujduwani (d. 1179) were among the founding fathers of two distinguished and widespread Sufi tariqas of Transoxania, the Yeseviyye and the Naqshbandiyya.

When its origins are taken into consideration, it is clear that Sufism has been well rooted in mainstream Islam. Its origins go back to the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, and his companions through the first generation Muslim scholars in the late seventh and early eighth centuries.


  1. Annemarie Schimmel, Mystical Dimensions of Islam (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1975), 24
  2. Fudayl b. Iyad says he worships God out of love. See Abd al-Rahman Jami, Nafahat al-Uns, trans. Lamii Çelebi (Istanbul: 1289 AH / 1872 CE), 91.
  3. Ali bin Usman al-Hujwiri, The Kashf al-Mahjub, trans. Reynold A. Nicholson (Lahore: Zia-ul-Quran Publications, 2001),101-105.
  4. Hujwiri, The Kashf, 107.
  5. Hujwiri quotes Abu al-Hasan Nuri (d.907), one of the greatest Sufis of the formative period. See Hujwiri, Kashf, 107-108.
  6. Schimmel, The Mystical, 58.
  7. Abu Nasr as-Sarraj, Kitab al-Luma fit-Tasawwuf, Ed. Reynold A. Nicholson (Leyden: E.J. Brill and London: Luzac &Co, 1914), 25. Schimmel quotes the same text but in the English version of her book the Arabic word of A-TH-R is translated as "choose"; however, "prefer" would be a better translation since "choose" distorts the meaning to some extent. See Schimmel, The Mystical, 15.
  8. Schimmel, The Mystical, 28.
  9. Schimmel, The Mystical, 29
  10. Abu'l Qasim Qushayri, al-Risala al-Qushayriyya fi ilm al-Tasawwuf, trans. Alexander Kynsh (Reading, UK: Garnet Publishing Limited, 2007), 17; Abdülkerim Kuşeyri, Kuşeyri Risalesi, trans. Süleyman Uludağ (Istanbul: Dergah Yayınları, 1978), 49.
  11. Abu Bakr al-Kalabadhi, Kitab al-Taarruf li-madhhab ahl al-tasawwuf, Trans. A.J. Arberry (Cambridge; Cambridge University Press, 1978), 82-102.
  12. Jami, Nafahat, 86.
  13. See Schimmel, The Mystical, for detailed information how early Sufis functioned.
  14. Hujwiri, Kashf, 263-361.
  15. Schimmel, The Mystical, 31.
  16. Fared al-Din Attar, Tadhkira al-Awliya, trans. Mehmed Zahid Kotku, 60, accessed November 22, 2014
  17. Hujwiri, Kashf, 208.
  18. Jami, Nafahat, 66.
  19. Hujwiri, Kashf, 273.
  20. Schimmel, The Mystical, 55-7.
  21. Diyanet Islam Ansiklopedisi, s.v. "SÜHREVERDI, Ebü'n-Necîb."
  22. Diyanet Islam Ansiklopedisi, s.v. "Abdülkadir-i Geylânî."
  23. Jami, Nafahat, 409, 588.
  24. Jami, Nafahat, 409.