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date: 28 March 2017

Mysticism in Sufi Islam

Summary and Keywords

Sufism is the major expression of mysticism in Islam. While Sufism developed out of the fusion of Qur’anic ascetic tendencies and the vast fund of Christian (and other) mystical sayings present throughout the classical world, by approximately the 10th century it had become a uniquely Islamic feature. Major writers such as al-Ghazali and Ibn al-ʿArabi took this heritage and molded it both into a normative tradition for Islam as a whole (by wedding it to the Prophet Muhammad’s life experience) and, in the case of Ibn al-ʿArabi, into completely new spiritual paths. These interpretations of mysticism were critical in the vast conversion to Islam that happened during the period 1000–1800. Although other factors were involved as well, including trading by Muslims and the Islamic educational system, this conversion happened largely at the hands of the Sufis, especially holy men and healers, and thus the Muslim world is still largely Sufi or Sufi-influenced. Starting in the 19th century, however, and culminating in the mid-20th century, large numbers of Muslims abandoned Sufism, accusing it of being fundamentally anti-Islamic and even polytheistic. Today although Sufis still constitute the bulk of world Muslims, and they are visible throughout the non-Muslim world as well, their belief system is under attack as never before.

Keywords: Sufism, mysticism, al-Ghazali, wahdat al-wujud, Salafis, Rumi

Mysticism in Islam is understood in terms of a process (tariq) that is guided by the direction of a spiritual mentor (called a shaykh or a pir) having the goal of eventual union with God (Allah). This process is usually a life-long one, during the course of which it is crucial that the initiate combat his or her baser impulses located in the soul (Qur’an 12:53). To complete this process, the initiate must place himself or herself completely under the spiritual supervision of the mentor and carry out an ever-increasing series of spiritual (and sometimes physical) exercises. These exercises have the goal of emptying out the personality of the initiate and filling it with the remembrance of the divine and, ultimately, preparing the person for union. Additional exercises can include mortification of the body and deprivation of sleep and food, but interestingly not chastity, which is not seen as a value by Muslims. The initiate proceeds through a series of levels or stations that progress toward the promised union. Sufism as a religious development is unique to Islam as a system, but it is in itself a system that can be translated into other beliefs (Christianity, Judaism, and Hinduism) as well, and it has demonstrated a remarkable adaptability through the centuries.

From a very early period an ascetic strain emerged within Islam. While it is difficult to say whether the Prophet Muhammad (c. 570–632) was personally ascetic—as his character has been shaped in the stories about him to both the advantage of asceticism and against it—one finds a minority of his Companions (sahaba) who lived an ascetic lifestyle. This tendency stood in sharp contrast to the luxurious and wealthy lifestyles affected by many Muslims during the early period, especially in the wake of the great Islamic conquests (634–732) during the course of which the area of the eastern Mediterranean Basin and the Iranian Plateau came to be controlled by Muslims. While these conquests brought immense wealth to an elite, individuals could always be found who abstained completely from partaking in this wealth.

Early Asceticism and Sufism

In the process of abstaining, these Muslim ascetics, the best known of whom are Abu al-Darda’ (d. 651) and Abu Dharr al-Ghifari (d. 652), followed closely in the ascetic practices of the Christian monastics around them (and later, when in Central Asia, the example of Buddhism monks and, in India, Hindu yogis). For centuries Christian monks in the regions of Syria and Egypt had practiced very severe forms of bodily mortification and deprivation, and for these pains had acquired for themselves a high level of local social and religious prestige. In the words of Peter Brown, they had become the local holy men, looked to by the population for arbitration and miracles, and they were feared by the secular and ecclesiastical hierarchies, respectively.1 This social and religious prestige is reflected in the Qur’an, where it is said “and you will find that the closest in affection to the believers those who say ‘we are Christians.’ For among them are priests and monks and they are not arrogant” (5:82).2 Muhammad himself is said to have been close to a certain monk by the name of Bahira (or Sergius).

However, Muslim asceticism, while maintaining deprivation, did not embrace all of the elements of Christian monasticism. From a very early stage, as noted above, the chastity characteristic of monks and nuns was rejected (although some early examples do exist of Muslims castrating themselves), and the complete withdrawal from society of the anchorite lifestyle was also not accepted. Otherwise, what came to be called zuhd (asceticism) during the 7th, 8th, and 9th centuries became a popular lifestyle of a certain segment of Muslims. Even for those for whom it was not an actual lifestyle, zuhd constituted an ideal, a criterion by which to judge oneself.

Sufi Practice

The zuhd literature that has come down to us consists of a large number of sayings (many of them very obviously Christian in origin, some citations even from the Bible) and accounts of early Muslim ascetics (Khalidi). The asceticism that they practiced focused upon forms of spiritual excess (staying the night in prayer, doing supererogatory actions, meditation), bodily deprivation (fasting, extensive denial of sleep), and embracing holy poverty. Little mention is made in the sources of the extensive beatings and other bodily mortifications that are part of Christian asceticism. In general, the Muslim ascetic was one who embraced the contempt of early Muslim elites, dressing in rags, associating with the poor, and performing base occupations (like herding animals, blood-letting, or professional mendicancy), but he still tended to live in cities or at least in populated areas rather than seeking out complete isolation. If one could point to an obvious difference between Christian and Muslim ascetics, it would be that the latter were urban and practiced their asceticism within civilization rather than outside of it.

Probably the most obvious characteristic of these early ascetics was the remembrance of God, called dhikr (remembrance or recollection). In Qur’an 2:152 it states: “Remember Me and I will remember you. Give thanks to Me and do not be ungrateful.” This constant dhikr of God became emblematic of both early ascetics and later Sufis and involved the attempt to clear the mind completely of all thoughts that did not center on God through constant repetition of the ninety-nine names of God (al-asma’ al-husna) or other mantric formulae. Even today the dhikr ceremony is basic to Sufi practice, although many local variations are found.

What Is Sufism?

By the beginning of the 9th century Muslim ascetic ideas coalesced around the term Sufism, with its singular “Sufi,” meaning “wool-wearer.” It is uncertain where this term came from or why precisely it came to be emblematic of Islamic mysticism. Many theories have been advanced, the most obvious of which is that possibly the early Sufis did wear this type of wool, although no evidence has been found that they, in fact, did. Suffice it to say that the Sufi movement took over the zuhd heritage in its entirety and many of its spiritual examples, such as al-Hasan al-Basri, Rabiʾa al-ʿAdawiyya, ʿAbdallah b. al-Mubarak, and Ibrahim b. Adham, were actually ascetics and belonged to the period before Sufism arose. Stories about them became mainstays in the Sufi literature from then until the present time.

Sufism has always suffered from a certain ambiguous relationship toward Islam, however. To begin with, Sufis embraced a lifestyle that stood in opposition to that of many Muslims, who embraced the Qur’anic notion of “it is no offense to seek a bounty from your Lord” (2:198), which meant to accept worldly success. There was also the major issue of the mystical nature of the union with God sought by Sufis and the practical implications of their relationship toward Muslim law (the Sharia). For many Sufis, the absolute love that they felt for God and the union they enjoyed with Him liberated them from the strictures of the law, which they felt was merely for those people who were in need of some form of coercion in order to compel them to behave. What need had Sufis for the five daily prayers, basic to Islam in all of its forms, when they were constantly in prayer to God day and night?

Moreover, some Sufis took their union with God in a direction that implied complete identification with God, and perhaps even a complete dissolution of self (the fana’ or cessation of being that was the goal of most Sufi systems). Probably the best known of these Sufis was the mystic Mansur al-Hallaj (c. 858–922), who was said to have stated in an ecstatic state (hal): “I am the Truth” (ana al-haqq), a statement that implied that he was God (or at least unified with Him). Al-Hallaj was crucified for these words, a fate that he made no attempt to hinder as he desired the mystical annihilation of fana’. But Sufism in general suffered as its opponents were able to demonize it as negation of the unity of God (a basis of Islam).3

The other side of Sufism was more establishment in nature, one that embraced a duality between the open observance of the Sharia and the private observance of the Sufi rituals of dhikr and self-deprivation. Sufis who lived in this manner were able to avoid spiritual ostentation. An interesting off-shoot of this tendency was that of the Malamatiyya, a movement current in eastern Iran from the 10th to the 12th centuries, which sought to keep its orthodoxy entirely out of the public eye while at the same time performing good deeds in private and deliberately courting the contempt and rejection of the public. This formula was designed to avoid the spiritual pride that the Malamatis felt was characteristic of the impoverished and abstemious lifestyle of mainstream Sufis—these latter could revel in their relative poverty just as much as more successful Muslim could in their wealth.4

Major Sufi Theorists

Probably the best-known establishment figure in classical Sufism was al-Ghazali (c. 1058–1111), who was a Sunni theologian at a prestigious Baghdad college, the Nizamiyya, and who, after going through a spiritual crisis that caused him to leave it all for fourteen years, converted to Sufism and became an ardent exponent of it in later life. As al-Ghazali was uniquely qualified to marry the mainstream Sharia-abiding element of Sufism with its radical antinomian wing, his influence on Sufism is immense. Al-Ghazali’s methodology, especially in his great work Ihya `ulum al-din (The revival of religious knowledge), was to take major categories of life (eating, drinking, death, etc.) and to spiritualize their primary manifestations through anecdotes and creative reinterpretations of preexisting materials. From his time until the present the vast bulk of Muslims have been Sufis, and it is hard to point to a major intellectual or religious figure in Islam that was not a Sufi or at least influenced by Sufism until the middle of the 19th century. Al-Ghazali in many ways made Sufism intellectually and socially respectable.5

It was during this period (11th–12th centuries) that the process of Sufis converting people to Islam began to be a major factor. Although the ascetic literature gives examples of conversion to Islam from the early period, following al-Ghazali larger numbers of Sufis began to organize themselves into brotherhoods (tariqa). These organizations have continued to be critical in the spread of Islam to the present time, and they are most usefully compared to orders (in the Roman Catholic Church) or to denominations (in the Protestant world). Groups of mendicant Sufis (called faqirs, meaning “poor” or dervishes) began to gather at the borders of the Muslim world, in Central Asia, in West and East Africa, in India, and eventually in Southeast Asia. In each one of these regions the process of conversion was remarkably similar. Sufi holy men (following in the footsteps of Christian monks of the early period) gained the reputation of constituting a spiritual elite. They had healing and intercessory powers, and they could—and did—confront Islamic rulers and their religious intellectuals (the ʿulamā). This confrontation was often to the benefit of the Sufis, as they could position themselves as local heroes and gain converts.

It was not at all unusual during this period and to the present day for these Sufi holy men to cultivate an entire aura of sanctity around their persons. This sanctity was usually conveyed by the term baraka, or “blessing.” Sometimes this baraka accrued to a given person, who would then pass it down to his descendants, or to a place, usually his tomb or a place closely associated with his teachings or miracles during his lifetime and thereafter. Baraka was something that continued to be in effect and constituted a strong draw to the people of the region and sometimes far beyond (as pilgrims). People would come for miracles, healing, and, most especially, to gain the intercession of the holy man for their sins against the moment on the Day of Judgment when they would be judged. It was commonly hoped that the holy man’s general baraka would protect his followers or those who had revered his holy site. On a popular level, all sorts of amulets, prayers, and paraphernalia would be sold and cultivated at such sites.6

At the same time as these popular trends were growing, developments took place in Sufi cosmology and metaphysics. The Spanish Muslim figure Ibn al-ʿArabi (1165–1240) was arguably the most intellectually rigorous individual that Islam has ever produced, and in his voluminous works he solidified abstract notions of God’s being, God’s relation to the cosmos, and its interrelation with humanity. Bringing together many strands of Sufism and writing in the most careful yet often obscure manner (because his many opponents believed him to be destructive to Islam), Ibn al-ʿArabi formulated a theory that later became known as wahdat al-wujud (although he himself did not use that term). Wahdat al-wujud, as Ibn al-ʿArabi formulated it, emphasized the absolute existence of God as opposed to the finite and fleeting existence of all created creatures, and God’s absolute oneness. This latter emphasis has opened the doctrine of wahdat al-wujud to charges that it is pantheistic. Ibn al-ʿArabi’s emphasis and enthrallment with the nature of God’s existence can possibly lead one in that direction. However, it is unlikely that the man himself was a pantheist.7

Wahdat al-wujud constituted only part of a larger intellectual framework that Ibn al-ʿArabi developed. As William Chittick, one of Ibn al-ʿArabi’s most comprehensive interpreters writing in English, has stated: “Ibn al-ʿArabi’s teachings come together on the issue of human perfection, which is none other than for human beings to be fully human … the degree to which they achieve this goal establishes their worth as God’s servants and vice-regents and determines their situation in this world and the next.”8 In this manner, Ibn al-ʿArabi developed the doctrine of al-insan al-kamil, the Perfect Man, which became the goal to which Sufis aspired. Although the archetypal Perfect Man was of course Muhammad, Ibn al-ʿArabi allowed for the possibility of others gradually attaining types of perfection. Moving away from mystical annihilation of the earlier periods, he proposed that the gnostic Sufi, through his cognizance of God, could (hypothetically) attain a level of perfection that would be similar to that of the Prophet Muhammad. This doctrine continued to have ramifications throughout Sufism during the following centuries.

Almost at the same time as Ibn al-ʿArabi was formulating his theories, the major Sufi poet and thinker Jalal al-Din Rumi (1207–1273) was composing his epic ecstatic verses on the theme of universal love. Rumi, who was a refugee from the onslaught of the Mongol invasions, based himself in Anatolia (in present-day Turkey), where he dictated to his disciples Mathnawi (in Persian, Masnavi), in which the formulation of ecstatic Sufism took final form. Rumi avoids any Hallaj-like proclamations of complete union with God, but he emphasizes a type of Islamic universalism that has served as spiritually attractive for many even to the present day. His followers, the Mevlevis, developed the emblematic pattern of dance (the “whirling dervishes”) in his honor, and they helped to bring music and dance into the repertoire of mainstream Sufism. However, it should be noted that these elements, so attractive to outsiders, have been problematic within the context of Islam.

A typical story of Rumi is told that he saw a group of priests dressed in black, and a number of his followers made negative comments about their appearance. Rumi, on the other hand, stated: “There are no people in the world who are more generous.” Even though they would eventually be sentenced to hellfire, he affirmed that “nonetheless, when the sun of divine favor suddenly shines on them, they will immediately become illuminated and have white (bright) faces. [poem] ‘If a hundred year old infidel beholds you, he prostrates himself and quickly becomes a Muslim.’” Indeed, the group of priests did convert to Islam, and Rumi’s reaction was: “God Most High conceals blackness in whiteness and He gives whiteness a place within blackness.”9

Rumi’s importance within Sufism also represents the growth of Sufi poetry and epic, which, although it had its roots in early Arabic ascetic poetry, was closely linked to the revival of the Persian language in the 11th through 14th centuries. Poets such as Saʿdi (c. 1213–1291 or 1292), Nizami Ganjavi (1141–1209), and Hafez (d. 1390) developed this tradition and contributed greatly to the literary tradition of Sufism. Many writers used Sufi themes or heroes in their stories or allegories, and, in this manner, Sufism and Sufi ideas came to dominate the discourse of Islam, especially in lands influenced by Persian (Iran, Central Asia, India, Turkey). Sufism thus moved away from its early roots as a low-class phenomenon and became the language of the courtly elite while the Sufi lifestyle became the ideal to which they aspired.

Sufi Brotherhoods

Following the period of Rumi the process of the development of the Sufi brotherhoods continued apace. Starting with the Qadiriyya (associated with ʿAbd al-Qadir al-Jilani, 1077–1166), which today is both the oldest of the brotherhoods as well as the one that has the broadest reach throughout the Muslim world, brotherhoods became prominent in the Islamization of many regions. Each brotherhood has some specific characteristic that sets it apart from the others, but, with one major exception, all of them claim a spiritual link (known as a silsila, a “chain”) that leads from the founder of the brotherhood back to one of the prominent companions of the Prophet Muhammad (usually to ʾAli b. Abi Talib, his cousin, son-in-law, and fourth successor). Thus, the followers of a brotherhood claim spiritual continuity with early Islam as they claim to be the heirs of spiritual and esoteric knowledge that will have passed down this “chain” to the founder of the group, and from him to the rest.

Characteristics that set different brotherhoods apart are difficult to quantify. Sufis run the range from militancy (e.g., the Sanusiyya) to pacifism (e.g., the Shadhiliyya or the Chishtiyya), from being extremely close to mainstream Sunnism (e.g., the Naqshbandiyya) to groups that almost diverge entirely from Muslim practice (the Muridiyya and present New Age variants of Sufism in Europe and the United States). In general, the Naqshbandiyya has been closely associated with Central Asia and South Asia, and it has been a comparatively mainstream organization, very attractive to elites. The Chishtiyya, on the other hand, has been very much a vehicle of popular Islam, and in its practice in India it is strikingly similar to popular Hindu practices. In Africa many of the Sufi brotherhoods have been of a militant character, and some, such as the Qadiriyya under the leadership of Shehu Usuman Dan Fodio (1754–1817), spearheaded jihads against Muslims and non-Muslims alike. All major Sufi brotherhoods at one time or another fought against European encroachments during the 19th and early 20th centuries.

Some specifically African organizations include the Tijaniyya, whose founder, Ahmad al-Tijani (1735–1815), claimed to have seen the Prophet Muhammad in the flesh, and it is the only major brotherhood to eschew the silsila entirely. The Tijaniyya, in claiming what amounted to a new revelation, has proved to be very popular throughout West Africa. Similarly, the appearance of Ahmadu Bamba, associated with the Muridiyya in Senegal at the beginning of the 20th century, heralded a complete reinterpretation of the Sufi heritage. Ahmadu Bamba tied the idea of salvation closely to practical work (especially in the ground-nut culture of Senegal) and removed or allegorized many of the mainstays of Islam, such as prayer and pilgrimage. The Muridiyya cultivated a social order that was conducive to the development of song, dance, and art. Even today pictures of Ahmadou Bamba form a major component in the street art of Senegal.10

Opposition to Sufism

Without doubt, the majority of Muslims at the beginning of the 20th century were heavily influenced by Sufism. Additionally, most converts to Islam, including those of European extraction, have tended to convert to Islam through Sufism. However, hostility and antagonism toward Sufis and Sufism have been consistent throughout Muslim history. In general, this opposition has focused on the Sufi beliefs in an intercessory role for holy men (the baraka noted above), the veneration of the relics associated with these holy figures (which smacks of idolatry for many mainstream Muslims), and the indifferent attitude that Sufis can display toward strict observance of the Sharia. Anti-Sufis have shown a striking lack of gratitude toward the role that Sufism has played in the conversion of non-Muslims, and on a number of occasions Sufis or Sufi movements have been the targets of jihad on the grounds that they were not “true Muslims.”

These trends have their current roots, first, in the thought of Ibn Taymiyya (1263–1328), a polemicist and iconoclast living in Syria and Egypt who was largely rejected during his own time, but who today is seen as a prominent Muslim thinker by radical Muslims (Wahhabis or Salafis). Ironically, the best evidence is that while Ibn Taymiyya was critical of Sufi practices, especially the veneration of holy men, he was himself most likely associated with a Sufi order (Makdisi). These charges were revived and amplified by Muhammad b. ʾAbd al-Wahhab (1703–1792), who founded the theological–political tendency known as radical Islam (or Wahhabiyya). Again, he cited the position of intercessors within Sufism to classify it as shirk, or “polytheism,” a grave sin, and he listed it within his most famous document, “The Ten Nullifiers of Islam.”11 Many other Sufi practices were also placed within the categories of major sins. Ibn ʾAbd al-Wahhab, while viewed as an iconoclast by many Muslims during his own time, through this classifications of major sins nullifying one’s belief in Islam has had a normalizing effect upon the faith as well. Even if many Muslims do not agree with his harsh categorization of Sufism as polytheism it is backed up by Qur’anic verses and not easily refuted.

Sufism faced another attack at the beginning of the 20th century launched by Muslim liberals and reformers such as Muhammad ʾAbduh (1849–1905) of Egypt. Liberals and reformers identified Sufism as the primary factor contributing to the backward social and structural status of the Muslim world (vis-à-vis European domination). They usually accused Sufis of being otherworldly, anti-technological, and passive (from a military point of view). While this critique is not necessarily fair, especially given the fact that many of the anti-European jihad movements of the 19th and early 20th centuries were led by Sufis, these were characterizations that have tended to stick to Sufism until the present day, especially in the opinions of Muslim elites. For these elites, the Sufis were the primary collaborators with European colonialists—their passivity and otherworldliness encouraged foreigners to take advantage of Muslims in general. Toward the end of the 20th century both liberal and radical critiques of Sufism tended to join together in a doctrinal opposition to Sufism, in many cases claiming that Sufis are either non-Muslims or even anti-Muslim.

In the face of these attacks Sufism has demonstrated remarkable resilience. While the social prestige of Sufism remains low within the Arabic-speaking Middle East (the core lands of Islam), many Arabs remain associated with Sufi brotherhoods. Throughout other Muslim regions, such as South Asia, Southeast Asia, and Africa, the strength of Sufism remains phenomenal, and in many cases it can be compared in its dynamism to the concurrent growth of Pentecostal Christianity. It has usually been Sufis who have reached out to non-Muslims in dialogue, and a great many Islamic ideas have passed into common religious discourse in Europe and the United States (through the medium of New Age religion) from Sufism. As globalization proceeds apace, it has become more and more evident that Sufism is not only an Arab or a Persian phenomenon, but also equally an Indonesian and an African one.

This tendency toward a somewhat ecumenical outlook was common in Sufism in the Middle Ages, as one finds both Jewish and Christian Sufis in Egypt and elsewhere. Europeans, such as Louis Massignon (1883–1962), his student Henri Corbin (1903–1978), and Frithjof Schuon (1907–1998), have engaged in Sufi practices or converted to Islam themselves and have led Sufi movements. This tendency is especially strong in Europe, but it is also present in Sufi groups in the United States. Beginning with the teachings of Hazrat Inayat Khan (1882–1927), who founded an International Sufi Movement in Switzerland, and continuing on through the intellectual followers of Ibn al-ʾArabi (both in the United Kingdom at the Muhyi al-Din Ibn ʾArabi Society at Cambridge University and in France through the followers of Michel Chodkiewicz and others) and the devotees of the Haqqani Foundation (associated with the Naqshbandiyya brotherhood) Sufism has proven consistently attractive to Westerners.

Sufism in the Early 21st Century

Perusing English-language works on the bookshelves of major bookstores, one can usually find many volumes by Rumi, some by Ibn al-ʾArabi (who might be too deep for a popular audience), and other prominent classical writers such as al-Ghazali and especially Persian-language literary figures such as Hafez. On the Internet and through specialized ordering much of the canon of Sufism can be read in English (and French, German, Spanish, or Italian) in competent scholarly translations, the result of 150 years of sustained foreign interest in Sufism. The same could not be said for any other subject with regard to Islam, whether historical or literary in nature. Indeed, the major problem for the teacher in this regard is the embarrassment of riches that presents itself in reading the mystical heritage of Islam.

Just as definitions of mysticism overall are problematic, one of the chief difficulties of dealing with Sufism is not merely the vastness of the subject or the fact that Sufism has intertwined itself with many of the constituent cultures of Islam, but that it is so difficult to define. In this regard, radical Muslims, depending upon Ibn ʾAbd al-Wahhab’s “Ten Nullifiers of Islam” (discussed above) in order to define what they consider to be non-Muslim Sufism out of Islam, have the edge. It is far easier from this dogmatic perspective to state what Islam is “not” than to state what Sufism “is.” From the earliest stages of the movement in the 9th and 10th centuries, Sufism embraced a number of logical oppositions, including those who followed the Sharia carefully together with the most extreme types of antinomians, Arab and non-Arab Muslims, rich and poor, free-born and slaves, as well as many other oppositions. Uniquely for Islam, there is well-documented evidence of the participation of women in Sufi circles; al-Sulami’s 11th-century treatise on the subject proves as much.12

These differences mean that both classical and contemporary definitions of Sufism (and mysticism in general) suffer from incoherence and a tendency to mean all things to all people, and they feature only a few commonalities. These include the desire to achieve union with God, a belief in the efficacy of spiritual guides for the Sufi “path,” a willingness to read the Qur’an (and the tradition literature) in an allegorical fashion, and a preference for experience-based religious knowledge or gnostic knowledge (maʾrifa) as opposed to the revelation-based knowledge of the Sharia (the ʾilm). These commonalities remain in effect and continue to influence the mystic of today.


The basic historiographic problems with regard to Sufism have to do with its origins—what exactly is the relationship of the early ascetics both to the Christian tradition and to the Sufi tradition—and the influence that Sufism has had on other religions as well as what it has received from them. An intriguing line of inquiry, for example, would be to establish the connections between Buddhism (which flourished in Afghanistan during the early development of Sufism) and Islam. Although much work remains to be done in editing and translating Sufi texts, the principal difficulties in writing about the subject have to do with the immensity and breadth of the texts. This problem particularly hamstrings general introductions to Sufism, which, in general, are focused not upon Sufism in general but upon Sufism in a particular geographic or linguistic region. Both African and Indonesian Sufism, for example, are often ignored in general discussions on Sufism. Hitherto the lion’s share of the research on Sufism is directed at Middle Eastern, Turkish, and South Asian Sufism, in spite of the fact that every region of the Muslim world has a significant Sufi heritage.

One of the major conceptual problems in writing about Sufism (at least from the point of view of a non-Muslim) is the fact that most materials on the subject tend to be written by those researchers who are favorably inclined toward Sufism or those practicing it. Thus, it is relatively rare to find actual critiques of its historical and religious myths. One of the best-known and most enduring of those myths is the idea that Sufis are peaceable and practice the “greater jihad” (fighting against one’s lower soul, as opposed to the “lesser jihad,” fighting against enemies of Islam). Even though historically it can be documented that Sufis regularly participated in battles (from the 10th century until the present Jaysh al-Naqshbandiyya fighting in Iraq), many researchers insist upon ignoring this militant aspect of Sufism. For this reason, Western scholars tend to overidealize the Sufis (especially noticeable in the work of Annemarie Schimmel) and to make them out to be quite different from what they actually were (and are).

Having said that, the scholarship on Sufism is quite broad (within the context of Islam) and more Sufi texts have been translated into foreign languages from primary Muslim languages than any other topic from within Islam. The reasons for this focus are plain: Sufism continues to attract not only scholarly interest, but spiritual interest as well. This latter fact is a positive one, but it also has a negative side in that many of these translations are done by practicing Sufis and are sometimes substandard or selective in their content. While the material is copious, the standards are often low. An opposite problem is found in Western non-Sufi translations: sometimes research and translation, reflecting the nonreligious nature of the translator, ignores the religious core of a given Sufi text, and the work can turn it into a philosophical or psychological study that is equally foreign to the original. As with all major traditions one has to read thoroughly prior to coming to any conclusions about the overall whole.

Primary Sources

The primary sources for Islamic mysticism are extremely plentiful, and over the past 150 years many of them have been translated into either English, French, or German (or other European languages). Fundamental to the study of Sufism are the early histories, such as those by Muhammad al-Sulami (d. 1021), Tabaqat al-Sufiyya, as yet untranslated; Abu al-Qasim al-Qushayri (d. 1072), al-Risala al-Qushayriyya, Principles of Sufism, translated by B. R. von Schlegell; also Al-Qushayri’s Epistle on Sufism, translated by Alexander Knysh; Ali ibn Usman al-Hujwiri (c. 990–c. 1077), Kashf al-mahjub, Revelation of the Mystery, translated by Reynold Nicholson; and Farid al-Din ʾAttar, Tadhkirat al-awliya’, Muslim Saints and Mystics, partially translated by Arthur Arberry.13 The material from popular Sufi figures such as al-Ghazali, Ibn al-ʾArabi, and Jalal al-Din al-Rumi is extremely broad, and although some of al-Ghazali’s and Ibn al-ʾArabi’s materials remain untranslated, the interested reader can now access a great deal of their literature. Only select examples can be given: al-Ghazali, from the Ihya ʿulum al-din (his largest compendium), al-Ghazali on Intention, Sincerity and Truthfulness … Book XXXVII of the Revival of the Religious Sciences, translated by Anthony Shaker; al-Ghazali on Love, Longing, Intimacy and Commitment, translated by Eric Ormsby; al-Ghazali on the Manners Relating to Eating, translated by Denys Johnson-Davies; and, most especially, his spiritual autobiography, The Deliverance from Error, translated by R. J. MacCarthy.14

If possible, those sources for Ibn al-ʾArabi and al-Rumi are even more copious. Ibn al-ʾArabi, `Anqa’ al-maghrib; Islamic Sainthood in the Fullness of Time, translated by Gerald Elmore; Bezels of Wisdom, translated by R. W. J. Austin; Tarjuman al-ashwaq: A Collection of Mystical Odes, translated by Reynald A. Nicholson; and many others, especially in French and in Spanish.15 For Rumi, the standard translation of his Mathnawi is Reynold A. Nicholson, The Mathnawi of Jalal al-Din al-Rumi.16 Wheeler Thackston, Signs of the Unseen: The Discourses of Jalaluddin Rumi, translates al-Rumi’s table talk.17 Arthur Arberry, in his Mystical Poems of Rumi and Mystical Poems of Rumi II, gives an authoritative translation of Rumi’s poetry.18 Popular translations of Rumi are numerous, such as Coleman Barks, The Essential Rumi; Deepak Chopra, The Love Poems of Rumi; and Kabir Edmund Helminski, The Rumi Collection.19 Some works are very free in their renditions.

Sufi primary materials exist in all major languages of the Muslim world: Arabic, Persian, Turkish, Urdu, Bengali, Gujarati, Hausa, Swahili, Wolof, Malayu, Bahasa Indonesia, and many others. One of the most unusual Sufi texts published in the recent past is William Chittick, Chinese Gleams of Sufi Light: Wang Tai-yu’s Great Learning of the Pure and Real and Liu Chih’s Displaying the Concealment of the Real Realm, which, in providing a unique Chinese interpretation of Sufism, indicates the breadth of this material.20

Further Reading

Numerous introductions to Sufism are available. Works by competent scholars that provide introductions to Sufism include Annemarie Schimmel, Mystical Dimensions of Islam; Julian Baldick, Mystical Islam: An Introduction to Sufism; William Chittick, Sufism: A Short Introduction; Hamid Algar, Imam Abu Hamid Ghazali: An Exponent of Islam in Its Totality; Carl Ernst, The Shambhala Guide to Sufism; and Alexander Knysh, Islamic Mysticism: A Short History.21 Schimmel’s introduction is the easiest to read and focuses heavily upon the South Asian and Turkish heritage of Sufism. Other introductions have also tended to focus upon issues of interest to the authors rather than providing a broad focus upon Sufism as the primary component of Islamic culture throughout the last millennium. Examples of this genre are Vincent Cornell, The Realm of the Saint: Power and Authority in Moroccan Sufism; Cheikh Anta Babou, Fighting the Greater Jihad: Amadu Bamba and the Founding of the Muridiyya of Senegal, 1853–1913; Ernst Lawrence and Bruce Lawrence, Sufi Martyrs of Love: The Chishti Order in South Asia and Beyond; and Saiyid Athar Abbas Rizvi, A History of Sufism in India.22 In a more contemporary vein, Sufi art in Senegal associated with the Murids is treated in Allen Roberts and Mary Nooter Roberts, A Saint in the City: Sufi Arts of Urban Senegal.23 Introductory texts by practicing Sufis include Seyyed Nasr, An Introduction to Islamic Cosmological Doctrines; Seyyed Nasr, The Garden of Truth: The Vision and Promise of Sufism, Islam’s Mystical Tradition; and Seyyed Nasr, Sufi Essays. See also Nahid Angha, Principles of Sufism, among many others.24


(1.) Peter Brown, “The Rise and Function of the Holy Man in Late Antiquity,” Journal of Roman Studies 61 (1971): 80–101.

(2.) Masjid Fakry, trans. The Qurʾan: A Modern English Version (London: Garnet, 1997).

(3.) Louis Massignon, The Passion of al-Hallaj, Mystic and Martyr, trans. Herbert Mason (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1982).

(4.) Muhammad al-Sulami, Majmūʿah-ʾi āsār-i AbūʿAbd al-Rahmān Sulamī (Tehran: Markaz-i Nasjhr-i Danishgahi, 1990).

(5.) Hamid Algar, Imam Abu Hamid Ghazali: An Exponent of Islam in Its Totality (Oneonta, NY: IPi, 2001).

(6.) Vincent Cornell, The Realm of the Saint: Power and Authority in Moroccan Sufism (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1998).

(7.) Abdul Haq Ansari, “Ibn ‘Arabi: The Doctrine of Wahdat al-wujud,” Islamic Studies 38 (1999): 149–192.

(8.) William Chittrick, The Self-Disclosure of God: Principles of Ibn al-ʾArabi’s Cosmology (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1998), xxiii.

(9.) John O’Kane, trans. Shams al-Din Ahmad-e Aflaki: The Feats of the Knowers of God (Manaqeb al-arefin) (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2002), 98.

(10.) Allen Roberts and Mary Nooter Roberts, A Saint in the City: Sufi Arts of Urban Senegal (Los Angeles: UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History, 2003).

(11.) Talha Ibn Shahid. 10 Nullifiers of Islam. Accessed on September 2, 2014. . The version of ʾAbdallah b. Baz.

(12.) Muhammad al-Sulami, Early Sufi Women, trans. Rkia Cornell (Louisville, KY: Fons Vitae, 1999).

(13.) Muhammad al-Sulami, Tabaqat al-Sufiyya (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 1960); Abu lʾQsim al-Qushayri, Principles of Sufism, trans. Barbara von Schlegell (Berkeley, CA: Mizan, 1990); Abu l’Qasim al-Qushari, Al-qushayri’s Epistle on Sufism, trans. Alexander D. Knych (Reading, UK: Garnet, 2007); Ali ibn Usman Hujwiri, Revelation of the Mystery, trans. Reynold A. Nicholson (Accord, NY: Pir, 1999); Farid al-Din Attar, Muslim Saints and Mystics: Episodes from the Tadhkirat al-awliyaʾ of Farid al-Din ʿAttar (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1966).

(14.) al-Ghazali, Al-Ghazālī on Intention, Sincerity and Truthfulness: Al-Kitāb al-niyya waʾl- ikhlāsʾl sidq: Book XXXVII of the Revival of the Religious Sciences, trans. Anthony Shaker (Cambridge, UK: Islamic Texts Society, 2013); al-Ghazali, Love, Longing, Intimacy and Commitment: Kitāb al-mahabba waʾl-shawq waʾl-uns waʾl-ridā: Book XXXVI of the Revival of Religious Sciences, trans. Eric Orsmby (Cambridge, UK: Islamic Texts Society, 2011); al-Ghazali, Al-Ghazālī on the Manners Relating to Eating: Kitāb ādāb al-akl: Book XI of the Revival of the Religious Sciences, trans. Denys Johnson-Davies (Cambridge, UK: Islamic Texts Society, 2000); al-Ghazali, Deliverance from Error: An Annotated Translation of al-Munqidh min al Dal-al and Other Relevant Works of al-Ghazālī, trans. Reynold A. Nicholson (London: Fons Vitae, 1980).

(15.) Ibn al-ʾArabi, ʾAnqaʾ al-maghrib; Ibn al-ʾArabi, Islamic Sainthood in the Fullness of Time, trans. Gerald Elmore (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 1999); Ibn al-ʾArabi, The Bezels of Wisdom, trans. R. W. J. Austin (New York: Paulist, 1980); Ibn al-ʾ Arabi, Tarjumán al-ashwáq: A Collection of Mystical Odes (London: Theosophical Publishing House, 1978), trans. Reynold A. Nicholson.

(16.) Maulana Jalal al-Din Rumi, The Mathnawi of Jalāludʾdin Rūmī, trans. Reynold A. Nicholson (Lahore, Pakistan: Sang-e-Meel, 2004).

(17.) Maulana Jalal al-Din Rumi, Signs of the Unxseen: The Discourses of Jalaluddin Rumi, trans. Wheeler Thackston (Boston: Shambhala, 1999).

(18.) Maulana Jalal al-Din Rumi, Mystical Poems of Rumi, trans. Arthur Arberry (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009); Maulana Jalal al-Din Rumi, Mystical Poems of Rumi II, trans. Arthur Arberry (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1991).

(19.) Coleman Barks, trans. The Essential Rumi (New York: HarperOne, 2004); Deepak Chopra, ed. The Love Poems of Rumi (New York: Harmony, 1998); Kabir Edmund Helminski, The Rumi Collection (Boston: Shambhala, 2000).

(20.) William Chittick, Chinese Gleams of Sufi Light: Wang Tai-yu’s Great Learning of the Pure and Real and Liu Chih’s Displaying the Concealment of the Real Realm (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2000).

(21.) Annemarie Schimmel, Mystical Dimensions of Islam (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1975); Julian Baldick, Mystical Islam: An Introduction to Sufism (New York: New York University Press, 1989); William Chittick, Sufism: A Short Introduction (Oxford: Oneworld, 2000); Hamid Algar, Imam Abu Hamid Ghazali: An Exponent of Islam in Its Totality (Oneonta, NY: IPi, 2001); Carl Ernst, The Shambhala Guide to Sufism (Boston: Shambhala, 1997); Alexander Knysh, Islamic Mysticism: A Short History (Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 2010).

(22.) Vincent Cornell, The Realm of the Saint: Power and Authority in Moroccan Sufism (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1998); Cheikh Anta Babou, Fighting the Greater Jihad: Amadu Bamba and the Founding of the Muridiyya of Senegal, 1853–1913 (Athens, OH: Ohio University Press, 2007); Ernest Lawrence and Bruce Lawrence, Sufi Martyrs of Love: The Chishti Order in South Asia and Beyond (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002); Saiyid Athar Abbas Rizvi, A History of Sufism in India (New Delhi: Munshiram Manoharlal, 2003).

(23.) Allen Roberts and Mary Nooter Roberts, A Saint in the City: Sufi Arts of Urban Senegal (Los Angeles: UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History, 2003).

(24.) Seyyed Nasr, An Introduction to Islamic Cosmological Doctrine, rev. ed. (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1993); Seyyed Nasr, The Garden of Truth: The Vision and Promise of Sufism, Islam’s Mystical Tradition (New York: HarperOne, 2007); Seyyed Nasr, Sufi Essays, 3d ed. (Chicago: KAZI, 1999); Nahid Angha, Principles of Sufism (Fremont, CA: Asian Humanities Press, 1994).