Saturday, December 5, 2015

History of Sufism: How did Islamic Sufism begin?

A seeker asked me to write about how Sufism started and when did it begin and how  it absorbed other mystical influences? 

I had to take two courses in my undergrad to fully understand the history and origins of Sufism but I would try to condense it in one post.

After its origin in Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) time (that I detailed in my earlier post), Sufism was continually invigorated by new trends and absorbed diverse influences including Christian monasticism, Hindu meditation, Greek Gnosticism, Neoplatonism.

After Prophet’s death, Sufism appeared in Muslim capitals as a reaction against the worldliness of the early Umayyad period (661–749). Ascetics meditated on the words in the Qurʾān (the Islamic holy book) about considered this world “a hut of sorrows.” They were distinguished by many acts of piety, and especially by a predilection for nighttime prayers.

A number of mystics in the early generations had concentrated their efforts upon tawakkul, absolute trust in God, which became a central concept of Sufism. These sufi’s greatly resembled the holy fathers of eastern churches, with their vows of celibacy and wool garments. For suf is the Arabic word for wool, a reference to the clothing worn by the Desert Fathers and taken over from them by the very first Sufis having forsaken the world and ambitions in pursuit of enlightenment.

Meanwhile, other Sufi orders strengthened their ties with other esoteric systems, such as the Magian secret societies in Persia and the Ismaili’s in Egypt during the chaotic and fermenting times of the 7th century. Shia Imams and their disciples were many of the initial Sufi masters and many Sufi orders trace their lineage to them or the masters trained by the Shia Imams.

 The result was a chain of hybrid secret societies around the globe whose roots were buried deep in a freedom-loving soil compounded of Sufism, Shi’ism and the Solomonic and Hermetic wisdom of the Egyptian Essenes. Sufi Masters borrowed and absorbed disparate influences and translated near extinct Greek texts on the nature of soul and metaphysics. Jewish kabblah and the magic of numbers also found its way to some sufi orders and sacred numbers were used to understand the hidden meanings of Quran and the names of Allah. Sufism, in Cairo, and Baghdad, and any wilderness that Sufi’s travelled to, had tapped into the secret mystical knowledge which had travelled from religion to religion in many guises.

It is paying homage to these ancient sages that Sufi master Attar says;

We are the Magians of old,
Islam is not the faith we hold;                                  
In irreligion is our fame,
And we have made our creed a shame.
 Now to the tavern we repair
To gamble all our substance there,
 Now in the monastery cell
 We worship with the infidel

By the 9th century, three different Sufi schools of thought came into being: Iraqi, Irani and Persian( much later Sufism would also make inroads into Andulas and Andulassian heresy of Ibn Arabi would perfume the Islamic world)

The Iraqi school was initiated by al-Muḥāsibī (died 857)—who believed that purging the nafs in preparation for companionship with God was the only value of asceticism. Its teachings focused on strict personal piety and poverty were later perfected by Junayd of Baghdad (died 910), to whom all later chains of the transmission of
doctrine and legitimacy.
In the Egyptian school of Sufism, the Nubian Dhū al-Nūn (died 859) focused on  maʿ rifah(“interior knowledge”), as contrasted to learnedness;

 In the Iranian school, Abū Yazīd al-Bisṭāmī (died 874) explained the doctrine of annihilation of the self, fanāʾ, He was also a disciple of the eighth shia Imam and a source of endless cryptic poems.

Rābiʿah al-ʿAdawīyah (died 801), a former freed slave woman from Basra, first formulated the Sufi ideal of a love of divine love in which Love of  Allah (God)that was , without hope for paradise and without fear of hell.  She wrote ecstatic poetry much like Saint Hildegard in which she yeraned for a union with God. 

This ideal of divine Love became the standard according to which Sufi’s measured themselves against. It is written in sufi tales that when Rabia could not travel for Hajj on the account of her being an unaccompanied woman, kaaba itself ( in its spirit) came to see Rabia so she could perform Hajj.

 Some Hellenistic ideas were later adopted by al-Ḥakīm al-Tirmidhī (died 898) who was the master of Manṣūr Al Hallaj, who has become famous for his phrase anā al-ḥaqq, “I am the  Truth” (often rendered “I am God”), which was considered hersey by nitpicking envious Theoligans( apparently Hallah was quite a handsome sufi rockstar in orange robes of a hindu sadhu)  in fact, was only a condensation ( and rather untimely proclaimation- in the middle of a bazar)  of his theory that God loved himself in his essence, and created humans  “in his image ( and yes I know he read too many  Latin church fathers treatise on Trinity or they read him, we can’t really be sure) . He was accused of being a secret Christian and- like his ideal Jesus -was crucified on the cross and immortalized for ages.

What a befitting end to someone named after Hussayn Ibn Ali!!!

The invasion of the Mongols into the Eastern lands of Islam and the end of the ʿAbbāsid caliphate, was also the golden age of Sufism ( chaos makes mysticism appealing because the material world is going to into Hellagu’s Hell anyways) : the Spanish-born Ibn alʿArabī created a comprehensive theosophical system of theory of “Unity of Being.”  (he read almost everyone from Hindu scriptures to Latin church fathers so  Jewish kabbalah ). According to this theory all existence is one, a manifestation of the underlying divine reality and God is everywhere even in the eyes of the Beloved. The theory rocked the Sufi world and nothing as ever the same again. Wahadut-ul-Wajood is the cornerstone of sufi belief system and is found in the poetry of Rumi and Iqbal. It’s also the cornerstone of all attacks of Shirk and heresy against sufi masters and disciples ( to those people I say, Have you read Einstein or modern string theory? )

His contemporary Persian poet, Farīd al-Dīn ʿAṭṭar, one of the most fertile writers on mystical topics and a Central Asian master, wrote a poem based on the psychological experiences through which a sufi mystic has to pass on the path to enlightenment.

Phew, that was a stunning journey and we have reached end of 14th century, in this seven century passage from its origins of Prophet Muhammad’s lectures to Suffah brother to the heights of metaphysics infused theory of everything: Sufism absorbed many mystical traditions and Philosophies.
But that to me is a proof of its universality and longevity rather than heresy. 

Sufi masters pursued their eternal quest into the cultures they were born into, absorbing the influences they came into contact with, employing the techniques of Essenes, Zoroastrians, kabbalah, Reading Greek Stoics and Latin Church Fathers but their ultimate search was for Allah and the language of their faith was Islam. The symbols they used were Islamic and the prophet, in whose name they wrote their poems, was Prophet Muhammad. Their mysticism revolved around him and his life.

This explains why the Muslim Rumi had Christian, Zoroastrian and other disciples; why the great Sufi 'invisible teacher' Khidr is said to be a Jew; why the Mogul Prince DaraShikoh identified Sufi teachings in the Hindu Vedas, yet himself remained a member of the Qadiri Order; how Pythagoras and Solomon can be said to be Sufi teachers because they advocated stripping the flesh so only name of God remains. It also explains Hallaj's 'Christianity'; why, indeed, Jesus is said to stand, in a sense, at the head of the Sufis and was venerated by Hallaj and Rumi.

Didn’t Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) advise seekers to go to China to pursue enlightenment if they had to ( somehow I doubt he was referring to pursuit of lean manufacturing techniques though if you want to interpret it that way, I am cool with that too) but I have always sensed that he was referring to the pursuit of enlightenment. Different archetypes ( not just Jungian but Ibn Arabi’s who wrote about them first) respond to different stimuli in the pursuit of enlightenment.

Is that heresy?
Is it heresy to practice Buddhist meditation after Namaz?
Or is it apostasy to read Hindu Scriptures like DaraShikoh to decipher the mysteries of Quran

I envy the seeker for whom namaz alone brings peace and proximity to God but the breaking the hold of Nafs on me –often- requires listening to deep raves and listening to samaa, occasionally dancing too.
But the end result is to be in a state of humility where all has been stripped away and you stand before your Creator in a state of absolute helplessness: stripped naked of your delusions, worldly ambitions and aware of your utter loneliness and asking for His grace because: you realize that nothing else but His blessing can redeem you now.

As this lovely poem by Ibn Arabi preaches:  My creed is Love.
Garden Among the Flames - Ibn 'Arabi
(translated by Michael Sells)
A garden among the flames!
My heart can take on
Any form:
A meadow for gazelles,
A cloister for monks,
For the idols, sacred ground,
Ka'ba for the circling pilgrim,
the tables for the Torah,
the scrolls of the Qur'an.
My creed is love;
Wherever its caravan turns along the way,
That is my belief,
My faith.

It is only our limited understanding and prejudices that we want to purely see Him clothed in our symbols and call Him only with the names of our language. Sufi masters freed themselves from such cultural and psychological constraints. They pursued the face of God in every book and walked on the path to seek Him in every monastery in their way. Their search should inspire every seeker.

Who are we to judge the symbols and paths that someone uses to walk on the path of Truth?

 If it’s not for you, you choose a different path but you do not judge or condemn anyone’s search.

You definitely do not call them heretics because they used kabblah to write the names of Allah!

Only Breath - Jalaluddin Rumi
(translated by Coleman Barks)
Not Christian or Jew or Muslim, not Hindu

Buddhist, Sufi, or Zen. Not any religion
or cultural system. I am not from the East
or the West, not out of the ocean or up
from the ground, not natural or ethereal, not
composed of elements at all. I do not exist,
am not an entity in this world or the next,
did not descend from Adam and Eve or any
origin story. My place is placeless, a trace
of the traceless. Neither body or soul.
I belong to the beloved, have seen the two
worlds as one and that one call to and know,
first, last, outer, inner, only that
breath breathing human being.

Rumi has always been the most universal of Muslim thinkers. In all his writings you have this idea that as God is located in the human heart, you don’t need ritual to get to Him, that He’s as accessible to Christians and Jews as He is to Muslims.
Because He is everywhere: in the hymns of Latin church fathers; in Prophet Isaiah’s prayer ; in Mary’s tears when she looks at the crucified Jesus on the cross; in Imam Hussain’s last sajda when he asks Him to forgive the one’s  martyring him at that very moment: He is everywhere!


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  2. Hi Sephora
    Thank you for the wonderful post. A quick question:
    I recall reading somewhere (probably one of Idries Shah's books) that Sufis existed long before Mohammed was born. The thinking & teachings of the Desert Fathers is pretty similar to that of Sufis. Is it a possibility that Desert Fathers took Islam & created the mystic tradition of Islam as Sufis? This is a strong possibility, as the mystic traditions quickly adapt to changing social conditions to keep the tradition alive

    1. Hey, that is certainly a very interesting way of interpreting the sufi tradition, The way of the desert fathers certainly merged with Islamic practices to create sufism but its very difficult to trace historically though it probably happened.

  3. I enjoyed this a lot. Very informative. I feel a connection to the sufi's for some reason. Thanks

  4. Hi Safoora,

    I accidentally but not coincidentally landed on your blog. The posts are heart touching and stir the soul. Are you in Canada? Would love to get in touch with you. We are all connected in such a deep way. Hope to hear from you soon.