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Sufism History and Meaning

To: alt.magick.tyagi,alt.sufi,alt.islam.sufism,alt.religion.gnostic,talk.religion.misc,alt.consciousness.mysticism
From: (haramullah)
Subject: Sufism History and Meaning (was TASAWWUF:Its meaning and significance)
Date: 12 Jan 1999 12:43:47 -0800

49981209 IIIom ("sufism"/??; "Sufism"/Muslim sufism; nonMuslim sufis?)

assalam alaykum, my kin.

a discussion and analysis of the meaning and signficance of 'sufism'

thanks to Muntada Computer Services :
# This can be found at

here is my review for your comment/reply (be sure to bcc me your
replies if you want to be sure that I see them).

# TASAWWUF: Its meaning and significance
# Shaykh Siraj Hendricks
# Tasawwuf has been variously defined by various scholars....

this indicates to me that it had an obscure origin or an obscurant
force has smeared its meaning into a composite which has less 
application for spiritual lineage and more for speculative and 
eclectic groups.

# ...a cursory study of some of these definitions will reveal that 
# they differ mostly in their wording and their emphases. For the 
# purposes of this essay I will provide three definitions.

it would be helpful to hear how the variations have changed
wording or emphases, if this (of the 'thousands of definitions'?)
is all there is to their difference.

# Shaykh Abu Bakr ash-Shibli has defined Tasawwuf as follows:
# "Its beginning is the knowledge (Ma'rifa) of Allah and its end 
# is His unification (Tauheed)."

intellectual mysticism (or gnosticism).

# Junayd al-Baghdadi defines it as "... being dead to one's self 
# and alive in Allah".

self-abnegation in an expansion to universal kinship.

# And Shaykh ul-Islam Zakariyya Ansari has said:
# "Sufism teaches one to purify one's self, improve one's morals, 
# and build up one's inner and outer life in order to attain 
# perpetual bliss. Is subject matter is the purification of the 
# soul and its end or aim is the attainment of eternal felicity 
# and blessedness."

religion in pursuit of joy.

# These three definitions - the first pertaining to the intellect 
# ('aql), the second to a state of being (hal), and the third to 
# ethics (akhlaq) - cover the major concerns of the Sufi quest.

what about the heart (qalb) and love?

# The first definition therefore, sets out the ultimate nature of 
# things viz. That everything subsists through and by the Will of 
# Allah. 

what is not Allah?  is saying that Allah and Hir Creation are
not two problematic when speaking of the latter subsisting by
the Will of the former?

# The second emphasises the importance of renouncing the ego 
# or lower self. Arrogance, conceit, and self-centredness are 
# considered amongst the greatest veils between man and Allah.

however, a lack of confidence, awareness of the self, or sense
of orientation is just as problematic.  the hatred of the self
(body, mind and heart) is the curse of many of the 'spiritual', 
and it is with great honor that Allah provides these for both 
our guidance and edification in rational scientific and 
romantic exploration so as to come closer to Hir.
# It is this state of being or condition (hal) which Rabia 
# al-'Adawiyya gave expression to when she said: "If I seek 
# repentance of myself then I shall have need of repentance 
# again". Rabia counted the mere acknowledgement of the 
# individual ego amongst the greatest of sins. 

sins are only applicable within the context of the maturity
of the individual. for the saint (whose ego is typically
very huge, though if they are pure it is bolstered by a good
deal of humility and self-dissolution) this type of ascetic
ego-rejection is important, but for the meek who are just
beginning on the path it is a travesty!  

the ego is like the foundation of the building without which 
we could never construct the temple.  praying to it is likely
folly, but paying a good deal of attention to it, especially 
at the outset of the spiritual quest, is of extreme importance, 
and those who would castigate others for self-centeredness when
self-reflection and self-exploration are important elements
of the journey are myopic at best at cruel at worst.

# The third definition has in mind the development of the 
# human personality along the best of moral values. This 
# process is made possible through the twin processes of 
# purification (Tazkiyyah) and adornment (Tahliyya). That 
# is, purifying the self from all blameworthy qualities, 
# and adorning it with all praiseworthy qualities.

praise and blame are the twin streams of Skinnerian logic
that serve to drive the herd animal into the proper pen.
the partially-liberated no longer hold these in the place
of importance that they once did, sometimes importantly
assuming a *contrary* relevance within the scope of the
person's life.  defining in rigid categories what counts
as 'blameworthy' and 'praiseworthy' is very good for
beginners, but later these types of evaluatives can 
become actual barriers for the aspirant.
# Origin of the term "Sufi"
# Lexicographers have identified a number of source words 
# from which the term Sufi is derived. The most widely 
# accepted word from which Sufi is derived is "suf" meaning 
# wool. The earlier ascetics often donned woollen garments 
# to express their inner detachment from the world and 
# their rejection of the excessive materialism of the earlier 
# Islamic dynasties, particularly the Umayyad dynasty.

I have heard this often, but I have NEVER heard why this was,
in particular, unusual or considered to signify a rejection
of this supposed excessive materialism. did no others wear
wool in the region where these 'sufs' did their thing?  was
the wearing of wool uncommon?  I'd understood that it was
not, so did these early ascetics (why not go *without*
clothing if they are really ascetics?  was the wool scratchy
like horsehair shirts or something?) do other things besides
merely wear woolen garments (like wear them on special places
of their bodies, or in special regions, or during unusual 
times of the year)?

# Other terms that suggest themselves as source words are the 
# following: Safa, meaning purification.
# Safwe, which means those who are selected.
# Suffa, meaning a bench or low veranda. During the time of 
# the Prophet (may the [peace] and blessings of Allah be 
# upon him) a number of Companions disengaged themselves 
# from normal worldly activities and devoted themselves to 
# an ascetic way of life. They came to be known as the 
# Ashaab us-Suffa or "Companions of the Bench". They spent 
# the greater part of their lives in acts of devotion on a 
# low veranda in the vicinity of the Prophet's (may the peace 
# and blessings of Allah be upon him) mosque. 

is there no contradiction between such associations with
sufism and the very popular notion that, ultimately, the
sufi path is not ascetic in its character; that one does
not retire from the world so much as come to a new
relationship with it (sometimes 'in it but not of it')?
perhaps this was a condemnatory ascription to sufism?

# Saff, meaning rank, line, or row. The first row in 
# congregational prayers in Islam has been accorded a 
# special status for it symbolises those who are in the 
# first rank of spirituality.

interesting, I have heard that the most important of those 
engaging salat are those at the *rear*, that the front are 
reserved for those who are in the most need of it or who
are providing exemplary service to the congregation of the
devout (through their recitation of _Qur'an_ or leading of
the prayers themselves with the variety of mudra and mantra).

when at a few sufi salats the women were designated the rear 
of the prayer area, and I found that this was a way of making
the women (who are sometimes said to be 'far less in need
of religious regimen than men') more exalted, as well as
keeping them out of the social and adulatory consciousness.

# From the etymological point of view the only term that 
# qualifies as a source word is "Suf"....

'wool'.  could it be that this was a hint toward the kind
of weaving notions behind the word 'tantra'?  is it possible
that those who used the term 'sufi' saw what they were doing
was finding a way to weave the complex religious,
scientific and business culture into a unified fabric, and
that those who facilitated the weaving ought be associated 
with what would appear to have been a common type of fabric
in the area ('woolies')?  what are the qualities of wool
that a mystic would see some depth of commentary by virtue 
of being so associated?

# Nevertheless the other terms are normally included in 
# discussions on the origin of the term "Sufi" for the 
# simple reason that all of them convey one or another of 
# the manifold dimensions of the Sufi Way.

this may be the case, but they cease to be glimpses into
the history of the word's usage and begin to be merely
commentaries (or ideals) of the social tradition.
# The Sources of Tasawwuf
# Earlier orientalist studies have been at pains to show 
# the non-Islamic origins of Tasawwuf. 

what pains?  Nicholson and others fairly analyze the sufic
culture and describe its similarities to a variety of
hellenic social and theoretical facets, albeit without a
depth that I would always prefer.  are all Western
academic analyses worthy of the title 'orientalist' (which
is usually a denigration and dismissal in modern use)?

# Islam, according to these studies, have emerged form the 
# dry wastelands of Arabia, could never contain within 
# itself the seeds of such a profoundly inspiring wisdom. 
# The beautific vision of the Sufis simply could not have 
# its roots in the desert....

usually I think the approach is more scientific, less biased
than is presented here.  the idea is that if we can find many
instances of similar cultural facets in the general region
out of which Sufism (Muslim sufism) comes, then we should be
careful not to ascribe unique origination to this religious
institution.  the burden of proof falls to the religious to
demonstrate why, when there is ample contribution from many
outlying and interweaving societies, we should presume that
what was called Sufism originated completely and wholly
without influence from other forces than what became Islam.

# This was one of the prejudices which blinded many western 
# orientalists to the vision and insights contained within 
# the Qur'an itself and within the Prophetic Traditions. The 
# Qur'anic origins, however, have been conclusively proven.

please provide us with references to these 'conclusive proofs'.
that Sufis (Muslim sufis) turn to the _Qur'an_ for its
inspiration and support of self-justified religio-origination
is not surprising, and it in no way confirms historical

# Surah Waaqiah.... ...Allah classifies people into 
# three categories:
# The people of the left-hand (Ashaab al-Mash-amah).
# the people of the right-hand (Ashaab al-Maymanah).
# Those who are near to Allah (Muqarraboon); alternatively 
# referred to as the "Foremost".
# The first group are those who have rejected faith. The second 
# group are the righteous ones who are consistent in the 
# fulfilment of their duties towards Allah. They are described 
# as "a multitude of those of old and a multitude of those of 
# later times (Waaqiah :39-40). And finally their are the 
# Muqarraboon. They are a special group of believers who have 
# attained the highest rank in spiritual development. They are 
# often described as the elect of the elect 
# (Khawaas ul-Khaswaas) whose intensity of faith (iman) has 
# bestowed upon them the special privilege of enjoying 
# nearness to Allah.
# They are described in this Surah as being "a multitude of 
# those of old and a few of later times" (Waaqiah : 13-14). 
# It is the attainment of this high level of faith and 
# spiritual development that describes the aspirations of the Sufi.

this may well show how integral _Qur'an_ is to Sufis, but it
does not demonstrate that the origins of sufism (which may
have preceded Islam, historically) are to be found in Islam.
you'd have to demonstrate that no similar mysticism within
the same geographical region had these aspirations (a high
level of faith and spiritual development) -- something I
doubt can be achieved.

# Later development in Tasawwuf
# During the formative period of Tasawwuf 

when was this, precisely?  how can this time period be
determined with such precision?  what elements were
assimilated by Islamic culture in the creation of Sufism?

# the Sufis were not strictly identifiable in terms of 
# specific orders. Students would gather around a Shaykh - 
# known for the depth of both his knowledge and his piety 
# - where they would often devote themselves to years of learning.

were these anything like Platonic academies or Jewish synagogues,
Buddhist schools or Christian seminaries?  were the participants
of specific and restricted classes, backgrounds, religious
upbringing, etc.?  what is the sociological analyses of the
early sufis?  did they precede, were they parallel to, or were 
they identical with the early Sufis?

# Amongst the outstanding Sufi masters of this period were Hasan 
# al-Basri (d.728), Ibrahim ibn Adham (d.777), Rabia al-'Adawiyyah 
# (d.801), Fudayl ibn "Iyaad (d.803), Ma'ruf al'Karkhi (d.815), 
# Abu "Abdullah al-Muhaasibi (d.857), Sar as-Saqati (d.867), Abu 
# Yazid al-Bistaami (d.874), and Abul Qasim al-Junayd al- Baghdadi 
# (d.910).

are there reliable descriptions (from diaries or something) of
sufi gatherings, inclusive of these individuals, or do all we
have left is the names in the chain of religious succession?
where did you obtain your knowledge of history?

# The shaykh - murid relationship entailed three important features. 
# The first is the Ilbaas ul-Khirka. This entailed the donning of a 
# patched frock that indicated the aspirant's initiation into 
# Tasawwuf. 

was the frock patched in special places?  was it made of special
material or created of a certain special pattern and style?  did
it have some kind of identifying insignia or base-color?

# The second is known as the Talqin udh-Dhirk which was the 
# shaykh's instruction to the murid with regard to the type 
# and nature of the dhikr (invocation) to be practiced. 

is this something like Indian mantra then?  is it something akin
to Transcendental Meditation (mantra yoga) in that one is
accepted into the fold and provided with a meditation technology
which was predominantly vocal?  or did the dhikr also contain
physical movements (like mudra) or visualizations?

# The third is the suhba which referred to the nature and quality 
# of the murid's companionship with the shaykh. 

not unlike the guru-chela relationship of yogic tradition.

# These features formed an integral part of the Sufi Way righ 
# from the outset. In fact most of these practises are traceable 
# to the Sunnah of the Prophet (may the peace and blessings be 
# upon him). The teachings of the Sufi masters, along with the 
# different dhikr forms, were handed down from shaykh to murid 
# in a continuous chain of transmission called a silsila. It is 
# through these silsilas - accompanied by the ijaaza system - 
# that the teachings of the Sufi masters were protected as part 
# of our spiritual heritage. The Ijaaza simply refers to the 
# right, or licence, granted to the student by the shaykh with a 
# view to furthering the shaykh's teachings.

this is an important glimpse (as it is devoid of citation and
specific dating) into what some think early Sufism was like.  it
says nothing about what may have preceded it (if anything), and
provides no references to back up its most extensive claims.

# It was, however, only during the 12th and 13th centuries that 
# the Tariqah orders were formalised and officially adopted 
# particular names by which they came to be identified. 

what inspired this particularization?  why did the orders come
into existence?  was there some kind of political or legal
pressure which required it (which would be typical)?

# This does not mean though, that certain gorups were not 
# identified previously with certain great masters. On the 
# contrary, Hujwiri (d.1077) in his classic work the Kash 
# al Mahjub already refers to the followers of some of the 
# great masters by the names of these masters. The followers 
# of Abdullah al-Muhaasibi, for example, he calls the 
# Muhaasibis, those of al-Junayd the Junaydis and so forth.

which could indicate that there was, previous to the orders,
a bubbling social miasma of innovation and degeneration,
perhaps even a greater degree of disunity and disagreement.
it is possible, given this historical description, that the
orders developed in order to obtain some greater degree of
social control over authority within the sufi tradition,
and since Islam has no absolute human authorities, a system
of initiatic sheikhs could facilitate this somewhat.
# Nevertheless, the institutionalisation of the Orders really 
# only started with the followers of Sayyid 'Abdul Qadir 
# al-Jilani (d.1166). Later on a number of other Orders 
# developed along similar lines such as the Suhrawardiyyah, 
# the Shadhiliyyah, the Naqshabandiyyah, etc.

is there a finite number of 'presumed' Sufi orders?  can these
be explicated and identified with their respective grand-sheikhs 
and contact addresses for the benefit of the global mystical
community?  if this has been done, where might we find it?

the secondary value would be a composition of all 'contested'
(likely either nonMuslim or quasi-Muslim) sufi organizations
(orders?  why is this word used in translation?).

# Despite this proliferation of Sufi Orders, the Sufi path 
# has been identified by most scholars as a threefold process:
# The Shari'ah - that is to acquaint oneself with and to 
# meticulously follow the legal rulings of the Shari'ah.

I understand this to be a predominant facet of Islam, and so
the Sufis would of course conform to it (sufis, on the other
hand, might not, in any strict sense, conform to the Shariah
as outlined or rendered by Muslim authorities).  since all
Muslims ostensibly do so, however, it is not a defining
quality in any sense.

# The Tariqah - to engage in various spiritual excersises 
# (such as [dhikr]) recommended by the Prophet (may the [peace]
#  and blessing be upon him) and the established adepts of Tasawwuf.

the name of the email list (Tariqas, Ways, Paths) within which
this post originates. the mystical practice and its theoretical 
justifications/underpinnings are, in my mind, what provide the 
most integrity to what should be called 'sufism' or 'Sufism'.
# The Haqiqah, that is the attainment of a spiritual consciousness 
# or inner enlightenment that witnesses that all things ultimately 
# come from and belong to Allah.

due to the contestation and lack of aggreement within most human 
cultures as to what constitutes 'spiritual consciousness' or
'inner enlightenment' (people who are presumed to have attained
these things are intermittently discovered to have been doing
very 'unenlightened' things, rendering the assessment standards
of the religious fairly moot), this is also not a very good guide
as to what constitutes 'real' sufism or Sufism.

in my own assessment, therefore (I doubt I should be considered
'scholarly'), I would look to the historical background of sufi
culture, identify practical and theoretical aspects of it that
appear to remain consistent or very common, and then set about
constructing a general character model (orderly, nonorderly,
individual, etc.) for which the identification 'sufi' obtained.

# Shari'ah and Tasawwuf
# During the first few centuries of Islam the Islamic world 
# spawned a bewildering number of theological, philosophical, 
# and legal schools of thought. 

was this unusual?  I remember that the Chinese went through what
are sometimes called the 'Warring States Period' during something 
like 600 BCE, during which a great deal of strife and innovation
appeared to take place within what academics call Taoism, for 
example.  was the region within which Islam developed heavily 
trafficked by world cultures?  I had it from scant reading that a 
great deal of Muhammad's life was spent in precisely such a region.

# All these tendencies seemed to be straining in mutually 
# exclusive directions, to the point where the initial fabric 
# of tolerance which had existed amongst Muslims was in danger 
# of being torn apart. 

what exemplified this tolerance?  are the stories about the
great Muslim warfare which it is said that Muhammad helped
to initiate or for which he set the stage?  should this be
counted when we talk about 'tolerance'?  was the destruction
of the pagan temple in Mecca to set up a black stone (ka'ab)
to Allah an act of 'tolerance'?  of what did this tolerance
consist and what was it that was problematic amongst Muslims
(was tolerance only shown to members of the religion, or was
this in some way also taken beyond the religious culture?)?

# The increasing tensions, too, between the Jurists and the 
# Sufis further exacerbated the situation. It was left to the 
# celebrated scholar Abu Hamid al-Ghazaali (1058-1111) to 
# restore a more balanced perspective to the situation. Amongst 
# the great contributions left behind by Imam al-Ghazaali was 
# his ability, and his success, in harmonising between the 
# legal (or exoteric) and the sufic (or esoteric) strands of 
# Islam. A rejection of either would have left Islam as nothing 
# more than a caricature of itself.

it is interesting to me that the author of this text here uses
the generalization 'sufic' to describe esoteric strands of
Islam.  it sets the stage for a blurring of the distinctions
between esoteric mysticism and Sufism generally (see my essay
on a taxonomy of sufism and Sufism, at the following URL:

and reply to its content with a cc to me if you like) or can
be seen as as the result of this blurring.

# The Chistiyyah Order

much commentary on the history of this order omitted, see the original
essay for the lovely data that I have here omitted.

# [...portion specific to South Africa left out]
# Conclusion

it is very interesting to me that only the Chistiyyah Order is
described in an essay ostensibly pertaining to the meaning and
significance of Tasawwuf (sometimes rendered as a synonym or
substitute for 'Sufism').  I'd think that a fair representation
of at *least* the various orders (some of which were mentioned
previously in the essay) would be more complete.  The Jerrahi,
Mevlevi and others are very well-known, as I understand it,
and it would not surprise me if there are many many more Sufi
orders, not even to mention the variety of sufis (these latter
universalist in their approach, such as the Dances of Universal
Peace).  it is quite possible that Shaykh Siraj Hendricks is
only familiar with the Chistiyyah Order and wants to restrain
his comment to that of which he can speak first hand.

# Tasawwuf is [none] other than the inner, spiritual dimension 
# of Islam. 

this is merely a restatement of the assertions made previously,
without support.  the argument in response (convincing, I think)
is that Islam needs no *additional* element to its spirituality,
and that Sufism in some measure justifying itself by denigrating
the religion of Islam which is succinct and perfect as it stands.

there is a wide gap between the Muslim who accepts Sufism as a
kind of 'Muslim mysticism' and one who understands that Sufism
is a parasitic infestation and tool of Shaitan to confuse the
believer and lead people astray (into the veneration of saints
and sheikhs).  I take no position here on it but to mention
the very real difference of opinion (I presume even in the
community of Imams and Muslim scholars) that I understand exists.

# The Tariqah - as method - is the attempt to both preserve and 
# penetrate that dimension. 

I think this minimizes what 'the tariqah' ought to mean -- the
path of the mystic; the journey of the aspirant; the return to
Home; the embrace of the Beloved; the purification of the self
in the pursuit of liberation, awareness, or the heart-wisdom
(ma'rifat, gnosis) that is accompanied by these experiences.

# The Shari'ah is the divinely ordained mould within which that 
# spirituality takes on its distinctive "shape". These three 
# aspects of Islam are inseparable parts of an organic whole.

in the most gross sense, the Shari'ah is the Muslim law laid
out by an edifice of religious 'legal' authorities that have
some measure of influence in Muslim states.  they presume the
theological and ethical constraints of the religious cult,
and are therefore in no greater capacity to describe the path
of perfection than any of their competitors.

in the most exalted sense, the Shari'ah is the Law of God,
that ever-renewing, unresistable principle of perfecting
transmutation; a mystery unto the greatest genius and a
bouquet of rejuvenation unto the deepest heart.  it is not
defined by social groups nor is it identifiable in any
specific ethical system (though it may be approximated).

Tassawuf, Tariqah and Shari'ah are essential parts of
Sufism, and potentially defining elements as is argued 
here (when and if they may be ascertained).  However, this
says nothing about the real (often denied) dissent which
is contained within Muslim and Sufi culture, nor does it
speak to the wider social movement of sufism as a universal
mysticism without religious constraints.

# Imam Malik (RA) put it well when he said:
# "He who learns jurisprudence and neglects Tasawwuf becomes a 
# reprobate; and he who learns Tasawwuf and neglects 
# jurisprudence becomes an apostate. But he who combines both 
# will reach the Truth".

I aspire to these standards and feel them to be very important.

# As for the many paths which have developed over the centuries 
# the classical Sufi saying sums is up:
# "Tawhid is one, but the paths to Allah equal the number of 
# people since the time of Adam".
# These "different ways have always been viewed as a mercy 
# by the Ummah.

compare this to the multitude of paths to nirvana which are
extended to the aspirant of Buddhism (upaya, the compassion
of the Buddha makes possible innumerable methods of approach).
the parallels and overlaps amongst the mystical and religious
paths of the world are astounding.

peach be with you,

-- (emailed replies may be posted); cc me replies;;

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