Monday, September 11, 2017

History of Sufism

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

There is a dangerous myth floating around ( funded by Wahabi petro dollars and TV evangelists)that somehow Sufism isn't REAL Islam ----and its a hodge podge of ancient pagan/christian/ Jewish/ Buddhist mystical traditions which has corrupted millions of the most learned Muslim in every era; a Jewish conspiracy to weaken Islam! 

I can give you links to such ( badly written) propaganda but I would rather not add to their propagation. 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 into one post to demonstrate that Sufism has a 1400-year history. ITS PATH AND EVOLUTION HAVE CLOSELY mirrored Islam and influenced Islamic civilizations from North Africa to India. 

The history of Sufism records that during the lifetime of the Prophet Mohammed, fifteen centuries ago, there was a group of pious individuals alongside him who seeked an inner understanding of the message. 

From various hadiths and biographies of the Prophet, their presence and influence can be assessed( if you are a skeptic that is). It is from this group that all the schools of Sufism that have ever existed owe their origin, for by pursuing the path of unsullied inner knowledge they were the founders of Sufism and the binding link between its subsequent developments

These individuals met on the platform, or suffe, of the mosque where Prophet Mohammed used to pray in Medina, Arabia. They would meet there almost everyday to discuss the ways to inner knowledge, the truths of revelation, and debate the meanings of the revelations of the prophet Muhammad. The platform of that mosque in Medina became the first gathering place of one of the most influential groups in the history of mankind's spiritual civilization. 

They were called Ahle suffe, the People of the Platform.who lived during the lifetime of Muhammad, in the 7th century. This group consisted of a number of poor émigrés who had accompanied Muhammad to Medina after facing persecution in Mecca. Destitute after having been cast out by their families, and without homes of their own, they lived in the courtyard of Muhammad's mosque. Among the most famous of these companions were: Salman Farsi, Ammar Yasser, Balla'al, and Abdullah Masoud; some historians have added Oveyse Gharani to this list as well. Avoiding proselytizing among the multitude, their gatherings were held in private, open only to true seekers of reality. Instead of preaching in public, these pious individuals were searchers for truth, not performers of rhetoric or seekers of the glory.These individuals sought for the direct experience of the Divine.They were hungry.They were the seekers.These men recognized that Prophet Muhammad knew the mysteries of the heart.

After the Prophet (PBUH) passed away, each of the people of suffe returned to his homeland to instruct students eager to follow the path of inner knowledge. History shows that within a century or two their style of self-understanding and discipline were introduced by their students to nations as diverse and widely separated as Persia, India, Indonesia, Syria, Egypt, Mesopotamia, and North Africa. 

Two of Al Ghazali's greatest treatises, the "Revival of Religious Sciences" and the "Alchemy of Happiness," argued that Sufism originated from the Qur'an and was thus compatible with mainstream Islamic thought, and did not in any way contradict Islamic Law—being instead necessary to its complete fulfillment. This became the mainstream position among Islamic scholars for centuries, challenged only recently by Wahabism. 

According to Sufi tradition, the descriptive term 'Sufi' was decided at a council of 45 mystics in 623 c.e., the second year of the Islamic calendar and the first documentary evidence of Sufis arrives with the founding of the first Sufi Order in 657 ce. 

After Prophet’s death, Sufism appeared in Muslim capitals as a reaction against the worldliness of the early Umayyad period (661–749).

This was a time of rampant materialism in the Islamic world, Islamic Caliphate had extended all the way to India and Spain and lands of Ummah were washed with Persian gold and tales of the Spanish conquest. The inner contemplative side of Islam was being overshadowed by a more worldly militaristic side. 
Rather than the asceticism practiced by Prophet of Islam and his companions, the pursuit of glory in battlefield and wealth had crept into the Muslim ummah.

Many newly converted Muslims were confused and scared, their world had been uprooted and they needed answers. The civil wars within Islam in the past 50 years with Karbala and the revenge of Karbala by Mukhtar Sakhfi had further creates fault lines

It was a dark night of the soul.

This social background is very important so you could understand how Sufism seeped into the bazaars of Baghdad from the meditation cave of Prophet(PBUH) and the zikars of Imam Ali.

Ideas go "viral: when the sociological condition is ripe for them. The Muslim world suffering under brutal Ummwi rulers needed light and guidance. Sufi's provided that light in the darkness. 

Ascetics meditated on the words in the Quran about considered this world “a hut of sorrows.” They were distinguished by many acts of piety, and especially by a predilection for nighttime prayers. 

The well-known sufi's of that time were Ibrahim Adham (d. 777 AD), a prince, gave up his family and his kingdom to find gnosis.
 The best known early Sufi saint was a woman, Rabi’a (d. 752AD), who lived and taught the concept of selfless love of God.
Most immediately, this meant combining elements of Islamic practice, like prayer and supplication, with modes of asceticism including a reduction in physical comfort in the form of food, sleep, and wealth constituted a form of worldly renunciation. Such renunciation was not foreign to the tradition of Prophet (PBUH), whose humble lifestyle and approval of such was a feature of the hadith. Early Muslim ascetics actually believed that a simple life of material renunciation was more in keeping with the true message of  Islam.

That is, from an antinomian perspective, practicing Islam through prescribed rites such as prayer and fasting is not an end in itself; it is important but is only a means of disciplining the soul and purifying oneself. That spiritual goal, purification, is the desired result.

Born in Medina, in Arabia, to Persian parents who may have been slaves, Al-Hasan al-Basri is said to have grown up in the company of Prophet (PBUH) Companions, and raised by one of his wives, Umm Salama. He lived during a time of turbulence in the Islamic world and trained thousands of disciples.

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 kabbalah 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 sacred names of Allah were recited in odd numerological orders to attain initiation into mysteries. 

Sufism--- in Cairo, and Baghdad, and any wilderness that Sufi’s traveled to----had tapped into the secret mystical knowledge which had traveled from religion to religion in many guises.
Sufism was continually invigorated by new trends and absorbed diverse influences including Christian monasticism, Hindu meditation, Greek Gnosticism, Neoplatonism.


But during Abbasid caliphate, Sufism was founded by Islamic purists who were disgusted with the materialism of Islam's leaders and wanted to have personal experience with and direct contact with God under the guidance of teachers or masters.

Sufis have traditionally practiced their esoteric beliefs in private and that way avoided the problems that Christians branded as heretics had. There was also the understanding that Sufi experiences were so personal and unfathomable that no one would understand them even if an effort was made to explain them.

Although Sufis always aimed at the heart of Islam, it wasn't until the 'Golden Age' of the Abbasid Empire 750-1258 c.e.) that Sufism rose to prominence. Whilst the early Islamic Empire was characterized more by the petty tribal bickering of the Arab armies who created it, the Abbasid dynasty (based in Baghdad) saw a shift of power to the more ancient Persian culture. The greater influence of music, poetry and intellectual pursuits suited the Sufis, many of whom began to make important cultural contributions to Islam. 

 Al-Junayd ibn Muhammad (d. 910 C.E.) became a leader of a Sufi school, and quickly became an authority for later tradition. His teachings about the annihilation of the self and cultivation of inner spiritual discipline were a less ambiguous endorsement for the Sufi way of life inspired thousands.)

    Abu Said al-Kharraz (d. 892 C.E.) was famous for applying the Gnostic principle that a thing is only known by the joining of opposites, based on the Quranic verse about God that states, "He is the First and the Last, the Outwardly Manifest and the Inwardly Hidden" (Quran 57:3). As seen in the distinction between the "visible and invisible," the paradox of philosophical opposites that illuminate or complement one another was particularly suited to Sufi thought. He also composed a work called "The Book of Truthfulness," which is the earliest extant manual for Sufi practice. It begins with an exposition on truthfulness and continues through various spiritual stations including fear, hope, trust, love, shame, longing, and intimacy.

    Abu al-Husayn al-Nuri (d. 907 C.E.) was known for his poverty and asceticism. He was a friend of al-Junayd's and he articulated his belief that the world was comprised of distractions from the contemplation of God. His asceticism was a practice rooted in his belief that by forgoing material comfort, he could remove any barriers between himself and Go

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

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 yearned for a union with God.

Farqad Sabakhi (died 729) was an Armenian Islamic preacher and an associate of Hasan al-Basri.  He was thus one of the Tabi'een (i.e. of the generation that succeeded the Sahabah). He mentored Maruf Karkhi, who was a pivotal figure in Sufism.

Ajami was an usurer by profession. 
He settled in Basra. He later renounced worldly life and became a mystic. He was a disciple of Hasan of Basra. He was known for performing miracles.

Habib al-Ajami residence in Baghdad and died there, and the tomb is known and has been created in the ninth century AH, it is located in the locality of Bashar on the banks of the Tigris River and has a mosque.

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”.

The first systematic books explaining the tenets of Sufism date from the 10th century; but earlier, Muḥāsibī had already written about spiritual education, Ḥallāj had composed meditations in highly concentrated language, and many Sufis had used poetry for conveying their experiences of the ineffable mystery or had instructed their disciples in letters of cryptographic density. 

The accounts of Sufism by Sarrāj and his followers, as well as the ṭabaqāt (biographical works) by Sulamī, Abū Nuʿaym al-Iṣfahānī, and others, together with some biographies of individual masters, are the sources for knowledge of early Sufism.

Reaction against Sufism

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)

In the twelfth century, more than 100 works were produced by Sheikh Ruzbahan (1127
-1209 AD) about sufi practices.

Sheikh Najmuddin Kobra (1145-1220 AD) trained seventeen noble disciples. Among them were Ali Lala Ghaznavi, Farid-ud-Din Attar, and Seyfeddin Bakharzi. He wrote about enlightenment found in divine stations and methods of intoxication. 

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.

Allegories have been a favorite mode of expression for Sufis. Nezami (1141-1209 AD) contributed The Story of the "Haft Paykar" or "The Seven Princesses", and wrote the famed epic love story of Laylee and Majnun which is a profound spiritual allegory. Folk versions of Laylee and Majnun have been told from North Africa to India.

During this long period, the influence of Sufism spread widely. In the eighth century, the Sufi master Balkhi (d. 789 or 810 AD) was renowned as an expert in the sciences of physics and metaphysics.

 The great Sheikh Nakhshabi (d. 859 AD) is described as performing miracles. Several well known Sufis lived during the ninth century—Dhu’n Nun in Egypt, Muhasibi in Iraq, Bayazid Bastami of Persia, famous for poetry and paradox, as well as Karkhi from Baghdad, who taught that one, cannot learn love, since it is a divine gift. 

Neoplatonism in Islam reached its furthest limits of development in the thought of Isma'ili theologians such as Hamid al-Din al-Kirmani on the one hand, and that of Shihab al-Din Yahya al-Suhrawardi and Muhyi al-Din Ibn al-'Arabi on the other. 

Al-Kirmani espouses a Farabian elaboration of God and ten intellects in his Neoplatonic emanationist hierarchy.

Al-Suhrawardi, 'the Master of Illumination' (shaykh al-ishraq), as he became known, established an extraordinary complex Neoplatonic hierarchy of lights in which the divine and quasi-divine are seen all in terms of light. God is the Light of Lights (nur al-anwar), and from him emanates the First Light from which emanates the Second Light and so on; but bound into the whole system is a complex three-tier system of Angelic Lights. 

By late Abbasid Caliphate, there was a reaction against the more unorthodox beliefs of Sufism and perhaps most significant of these was Mohammed El-Ghazali, a great poet but also an influential theologian. 
The writer Idries Shah has often put forward the argument that Ghazali was also a major influence on St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Francis of Assisi, who may have been a Sufi initiate himself.

Al-Ghazzali (1058-1111 AD) cooperated with the regime in power while Sufis like Ansari were being persecuted, then had a breakdown and left teaching to enter the spiritual life. Ghazzali’s teachings combined mysticism and law, and made him the most influential theologian of medieval Islam, exerting a profound influence on Christian thought.

Ongoing efforts by both  Muslim scholars and Western academics are making Al-Ghazali's works available in English translation for the first time, allowing English-speaking readers to judge for themselves the compatibility of Islamic Law and Sufi doctrine.

 With the formation of mystical orders, books about the behaviour of the Sufi in various situations became important, although this topic had already been touched on in such classical works as Ādāb al-murīdīn (“The Adepts’ Etiquette”) by Abū Najīb al-Suhrawardī (died 1168), the founder of the Suhrawardīyyah order and uncle of the author of the oft-translated ʿAwārif al-maʿārif (“The Well-Known Sorts of Knowledge”). 


During the European dark ages, Islamic science and literature flourished and Sufi scholars proceeded in scientific and mathematical experimentation and discovery while Europeans who attempted the same were being tried for heresy. 

While the richest Christian monasteries then might be endowed with 300 to 400 books, the Muslim University at Granada had 105,000 volumes.

Interactions between Judaic, Christian, and Muslim scholars was widespread, particularly in Spain, where Muslims ruled from 711 to 1492, and allowed freedom of religion even during the Crusades. 

Muslim Spain produced Ibn Arabi and 

Muhammad ibn 'Abd Allah ibn Masarra was born in Cordoba, Spain, in ah 269/ad 883 and died in ah 319/ad 931. In a hermitage he had founded for his friends and disciples in the Sierra of Cordoba, Ibn Masarra undertook to instruct them in his doctrines, to initiate them into the use of esoteric knowledge and to practice zuhd (asceticism) through acts of penance and devotion. 

Mystic, philosopher, poet, sage, Muhammad b. 'Ali Ibn 'Arabi is one of the world's great spiritual teachers. Known as Muhyiddin (the Revivifier of Religion) and the Shaykh al-Akbar (the Greatest Master), he was born in 1165 AD into the Moorish culture of Andalusian Spain. His works in Andalusia focused mainly on the perfect human individual, monastic metaphysics, and mystical path to spiritual and intellectual perfection. Central themes of Ibn 'Arabi's were the unity of all beings, or “wahdat al-wujud,” and also how God reflects God’s self in the world. According to Ibn ‘Arabi, the main practices of Andalusi Sufis included ascesis, poverty, and devotion to the Qur’an.

Sufi teachings were made known throughout the "Western" world through Spain and provided the foundation for the Christian mystics — St. Theresa, St. Catherine, Meiser Eckhart, Richard Rolle and others — who began to appear in the eleventh century.

The Late Period of Sufism 

The great and most beloved Sufi poet in the West is Jalaleddin Rumi (1207- 1273 AD), also known as Molavi. A conventional religious teacher, he was transformed at age 37 by the unexpected appearance of a wandering dervish named Shams Tabrizi. He found in Shams a mirror of the Divine Beloved.

The noble Semnani (1261-1335 AD) left the court to devote his life and his vast wealth solely to God, writing both poetry and prose extensively: "When I picked up the flower of love, I wounded the Intellect’s eye with a hundred thorns."[iv] Amir Seyyed Ali Hamedani (1313-1384 AD), known as "the second Ali" for greatness of rank, migrated to Kashmir with 700 followers.

Shamseddin Hafez Shirazi (d.1389 AD),
another well –known Iranian Sufi poet with a worldwide reputation who has inspired great philosophers and poets all over the world and who is much admired, especially by the German philosopher Goethe, was also a member of the Oveyssi School of Sufism. He was the disciple of Sheikh Mahmoud Attar Shirazi, who was the disciple of Pir Golrang.

From the fifteenth century to the present time, great Sufis have continued to emerge; Sufis such as Seyyed Mohammad Nourbakhsh (d. 1464 AD), Shah Ghassem Faizbakhsh (d.1520 AD), Darvish Mohammad Mozaheb Karandehi (d. 1627 AD), Seyyed Abdolvahab Naini (d.1798 AD), Haj Mohammad Hasan Kouzeh-kanani (d. 1834 AD), and Hazrat Agha Abdolghader Jahromi (d.1884 AD).

At that time, the basic ideals of Sufism permeated the whole world of Islam; and at its borders as, for example, in India, Sufis largely contributed to shaping Islamic society. 

The school of Eṣfahān

After Ibn al-ʿArabī, the new wisdom developed rapidly in intellectual circles in Eastern Islam. Commentators on the works of Avicenna, al-Suhrawardī, and Ibn al-ʿArabī began the process of harmonizing and integrating the views of the masters. Great poets made them part of every educated person’s literary culture. Mystical fraternities became the custodians of such works, spreading them into Central Asia and the Indian subcontinent and transmitting them from one generation to another

The mystics also contributed largely to the development of national and regional literatures, for they had to convey their message to the masses in their own languages: in Turkey as well as in the Punjabi-, the Sindhi-, and the Urdu-speaking areas of South Asia, the first true religious poetry was written by Sufis, who blended classical Islamic motifs with inherited popular legends and used popular rather than Persian metres. 

Sufi poetry expressing divine love and mystical union through the metaphors of profane love and union often resembled ordinary worldly love poetry, and nonmystical poetry made use of the Sufi vocabulary, thus producing an ambiguity that is felt to be one of the most attractive and characteristic features of Persian, Turkish, and Urdu literatures.

To look at Islam without seeing the Sufis is to miss the heart of the matter. Without taking account of the Sufis, we cannot understand the origins of most contemporary political currents in the Middle East and Muslim South Asia, and of many influential political parties. Right now sitting in the heartland of Punjab.

I am a Muslim because Sufi's decided to come to this part of the world and sing their songs and spread their message of acceptance

Sufism was the way whole populations expressed their Muslim identity. The expansion of Islam outside the core areas of the Middle East is above all a Sufi story.Propagated historically by travelling ascetics and storytellers, Sufism spread across the Muslim world, from its western flank in North Africa to the Indian subcontinent.

Sufi orders led the armies that conquered lands in Central and South Asia, and in Southeastern Europe; through their piety and their mysticism, the brotherhoods then won the local populations over to Islam. 

Over the centuries, the territories where Sufi orders seeded Islam have evolved from the faith’s frontiers to its demographic heartlands. These regions now encompass Islam’s largest and fastest-growing populations. Of the eight nations with the world’s largest Muslim communities, only one (Egypt) is Arab. A fifth of the world’s Muslims today identify with Sufism, and for many millions more, Sufism is simply part of the air they breathe.

The history of Sufism is the history of Islam itself! 


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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.

  5. lovely you can always email me through this blog or write your comments here.