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The roots and practices of Sufism

Sufism can be traced back to a pious minority within the early Islamic fold who felt that the more austere aspects of the Prophets teaching were being lost sight of in the midst of political expansion. For early Islamic ascetics fear of eternal punishment in hell was the primary incentive to piety.

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Professor E. Browne notes that early Sufism was characterized by. This ascetic Su fism… if influenced at all from without, was influenced rather by Christian monasticism than by Persian, Greek or Indian ideas. Over two centuries after the time of Muhammad, gnostic influences began to appear in some expressions of Islamic spirituality.

Junayd of Baghdad, d. Quietism, with its emphasis that God is all that matters and man is merely an instrument in His hands, provided fertile ground for the pantheistic beliefs that God is all there is, and man and the phenomenal world are merely shadows or emanations of His being. Likely the most important figure in the history of Sufism is al-Ghazali d. Prior to his appearance, Sufisms success had been partial.

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However, it had not won acceptance from the religious establishment. The theologians and legalists had gone to great pains to develop an orthodox interpretation of the faith that would protect it from heretical innovation. They also feared that their own positions as religious leaders of the people might be supplanted by the popular Sufis. Consequently, the Ulama religious authorities sought, unsuccessfully, to silence the mystics.

Enter al-Ghazali.

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  • Al-Ghazali was orphaned at an early age, and raised by Sufis. Of Persian descent, by the age of 33 he was appointed a professor in Baghdad, where he became recognized as an authority on canon law In spite of his success, Ghazali entered a period of spiritual crisis. He spent 11 years in meditation and retirement, until a Sultan persuaded him to teach again.

    Sufism - Wikipedia

    In the public teachings and writings which followed his retirement, Ghazali set forth a synthesis of orthodox theology and mysticism. The two traditions came to regard each other as having necessary roles to fulfill within the larger Islamic community. The acceptance of Sufism into the orthodox fold had monumental consequences. However, once Sufism achieved orthodox status the general distinction between what was and was not lawful became blurred, and several popular ideas and practices, previously kept under restraint by the Ulama i.

    The Sufi Mystics of Islam

    Another important Sufi from the same era is al-Arabi d. He created a Sufi literature which did much to promote the cause of Islamic mysticism in many cultures.

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    • Sufism: Into the Mystic | History Today.
    • While Ghazali stayed within an outwardly orthodox framework, Arabi offered a clearly monistic, gnostic system. The most important of the Sufi poets is Jalaluddin Rumi d. Born to a noble family in Bactria located in modern Afghanistan , he settled in Asia Minor Iconium where he taught, founded the Mevlevi Order popularly known as the Whirling Dervishes , and wrote poetry in Persian. Rumi was as much an esotericist as Arabi. The description of his search for God, which he gives in the following excerpt from one of his poems, reveals his gnostic and pantheistic convictions:.

      Cross and Christian, from end to end I surveyed, He was not on the cross. I went to the idol temple, to the ancient pogodaNo trace was visible there. I bent the reins of search to the Kaaba, He is not in that resort of old and young. I gazed into my own heart; There I saw him, he was nowhere else, In the whirl of its transport my spirit was tossed, Till each atom of separate being I lost.

      The master-disciple relationship is a facet of Sufism that was laid down by Ghazali, and has remained central to this day. Ghazali sets forth the reasoning behind it:. The disciple [murid] must of necessity have recourse to a director [shaikh or sheikh: in Persian pir] to guide him aright. Wherefore the disciple must cling to his shaikh as a blind man on the edge of a river clings to his leader, confiding himself to him entirely, opposing him in no matter whatsoever, and binding himself to follow him absolutely.

      Let him know that the advantage he gains from the error of his shaikh, if he should err, is greater than the advantage he gains from his own rightness, if he should be right. Once the seeker is initiated, his shaikh subjects him to a rigorous spiritual regimen, designed to induce the desired enlightenment.

      The discipline can come through a variety of forms, including assigned activity e. The precise training that the shaikh employs will vary from disciple to disciple, according to the perceived needs of the individual. These gatherings of initiates constituted brotherhoods, or communities, growing around the residence of the shaikh.

      Gifts from lay supporters enabled the members of these budding monasteries to devote all of their time to spiritual concerns. Succeeding generations would highly venerate the founders of the orders as saints their tombs becoming monastery focal points , and the successors to the headship of the orders would either be through family line, or by election.

      Additionally, disciples who achieved a high level of initiation would often bring their masters teachings to new areas, where they would attract disciples of their own, and found new sub-orders. In this way, from the twelfth and thirteenth centuries onward, Sufi orders spread throughout the Islamic world. The Qadiri are known for their moderation, while the Shadhili are more given to extravagance and emotion. An important order in India is the Chishti, founded in the thirteenth century. As would be expected, it bears several marks of Hindu influence. Sufi orders differ from Roman Catholic orders in that they are not under the control of an outside authority and also in that they often do not require celibacy.

      During the period spanning the sixteenth through the eighteenth centuries, the Sufis reached the height of their influence in the Islamic world.

      What Is Sufism?

      The number of Muslims affiliated with Sufi brotherhoods at that time has been estimated to have been anywhere from 50 to 80 percent of the total population. Based on experience rather than doctrine, Sufism has always been more open to outside influence than other forms of Islam. In addition to early influences from Christianity, one can find elements of Zoroastrianism, Neoplatonism, Hinduism, and other diverse traditions, around its Islamic kernel.

      As we proceed to examine Sufi beliefs and practices, these non-Islamic influences will be abundantly evident.

      Islamic Mysticism: An Introduction to Sufi Islam

      How then can anyone claiming to be a Muslim possibly hold to a pantheistic conception of God in good conscience? Martin Lings, himself a practicing Sufi, gives us an example of how such reasoning is typically carried out:. It is necessary to bear in mind that each of the Names of the Divine Essence comprises in Itself, like Allah, the totality of Names and does not merely denote a particular Divine Aspect. We can just as well say that there is no truth but the Truth, no reality but the Reality as that there is no god but God.

      The meaning of all these is identical. Every Muslim is obligated to believe in theory that there is no reality but the Reality, namely God; but it is only the Sufis, and not even all those who are affiliated to Sufi orders, who are prepared to carry this formulation to its ultimate conclusion. As do all pantheists, Sufis run into a morass when they attempt to resolve the problem of evil.

      World Religions Spirituality Quotations

      In their effort to reconcile the existence of evil with belief that God is all there is, they end up associating evil with the process of creation. Browne illustrates:. But Evil must not be regarded as a separate and independent entity: just as Darkness is the mere negation of Light, so Evil is merely the Not-Good, or, in other words, the Non-Existent. Corresponding to their pantheistic denial of actual evil, the Sufis affirm the inherent goodness of man. The human soul is the microcosm of the Universal Macrocosm God , related to God as rays are to the sun. It is restless because of its unnatural relation with matter and seeks union with its origin….

      Its weakness is in its being tempted by the wrong notion of its being material. Evil is, as we have seen, illusion; its cure is to get rid of the ignorance which causes us to take the Phantoms of the world of Sense for Realities. All sinful desire, all sorrow and pain, have their root in the idea of Self, and Self is an illusion. Unlike Indian mystical systems, this is not generally viewed in terms of reincarnation. Sufis believe that their homeland is beyond the stars, and to there they will ultimately return. For their time here on earth they purposefully submitted themselves to a state of forgetfulness, although one of the aims of Sufi discipline is to awaken from this sleep.

      At various. Sufis have done their best to make a science of the subjective. They have developed perhaps the most systematic, charted, and regulated progression into the mystical there is. For the serious seeker of mystical experience this aspect of Sufism is appealing, for it conveys the impression of a venerable tradition that can be trusted to produce authentic spiritual knowledge.

      Believing in the perfectiblity of man, the Sufi way is very much concerned with the perfecting of the individual disciple. This endeavor is known as work those familiar with Gurdjieff will recognize his debt to Sufism here. The work is prescribed by the Shaikh, performed by the Sufi, in the context of the community. It aims to break the hold of conditioned patterns of behavior which inhibit the desired spiritual awakening. For example, in addition to observing the nightly fasts required during the month of Ramadan, Sufis frequently engage in voluntary fasts. The use of dance for spiritual purposes has become one of the most distinctive characteristics of Sufism, though not all of the orders observe it.

      The dance is thus a rite of centralisation… intended above all to plunge the dancer into a state of concentration upon Allah. Repetition of a dhikr or sacred formula e. As the natural and, from the Christian perspective, God-given mental barriers to psychic intrusion are broken down, and a link is established to the spirit world, the Sufi may. It is a condition of joy and longing. Such spectacles will not be viewed in the same favorable light by all observers. John Alden Williams points out that.