An Historical Perspective

Sufism is the science by which one knows the methods of travelling towards the King of kings.  It is also the means to the purification of the inward from defects and its adornment with all virtues.  Sufism is the method by which the creation is obliterated, lost in the vision (shuhud) of the Truth (GOD; Al-Haqq), and then returned to the world of phenomena (Al-Athar).  

One generally distinguishes in the history of Sufism four principal periods:

  • The first is that of the Prophet and his companions.
  • The second is that of the great figures of Sufism such as; Hassan al Basri, Rabia Al Adawiya, Al Hallaj, Al Jjunayd etc.
  • The third corresponds to the formalisation of the doctrines and theory of Sufism.
  • The fourth period is characterized by the propagation of Sufism starting from its centre in Baghdad in Iraq from which it spread towards Iran and India in the east and the west (Maghrib) and Andalusia in the Europe.

Beyond the History

Sufism (Tasawwuf) is the term used to describe spirituality in Islam,  including both the purification of the heart from defects of character and state, as well as the search for truth (Haqiqah). Just like the religious law that governs outward interactions with creations, worship and so forth, (Sharia), similarly Sufism’s origin is the Prophetic teaching of our Master Mohamed, peace be upon him, and the practice of his companions (sahaba).

This is why the interior reality of Sufism characterized the practices of the ascetics of the first generations of Muslims, even though the term ‘Sufism’ was not then in use. It is consequently easy to understand the remarks of Hujwiri:

“Today Tasawwuf is a name without a reality whereas it was a reality without a name.”  Hujwiri adds “at the time of the Companions and their successors this name did not exist, but the reality which it indicates was known by each one of them.’”

(Abu Hassan Al-Fushunji (Died 318)

It is therefore necessary to distinguish between, on the one hand, the essence of Sufism and its doctrines, and on the other hand its historical and social manifestations, which are always only secondary phenomena.

Sufism draws from the source of Divine Lights and the Divine Secrets contained in the Qur’an and its true origin, which is nearness to GOD. It is the precise reason why the Sufis explained the science of Tasawwuf as a knowledge emerging from nearness to GOD (‘Ilm laduni).  This science is generally described by way of taste (dhawq), i.e. the intimate experience of the proximity of GOD. The noble Prophet, (may the peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) referred to this knowledge when he said: ‘He tasted the scent of Faith (dhaqa ta’my al-iman)’ (ref: Muslim, Iman 11).

It should be noted that some of the detractors of Sufism deny it on the basis that the term ‘Sufism’ did not exist at the time of the Prophet. Such critics fail to realize that Sufism is a religious science similar to the other sciences, such as Fiqh (undersanding of sacred law), Tafseer (Quranic exegesis). These sciences only serve to develop the potentialities already inherent in the Quranic revelation. Their appearance at more or less the same time was in response to the need of the community for the expression of the principles, sciences and lights contained in the revealed text.

Furthermore the reality of Sufism has been clearly formulated in the famous hadith known as the ‘Hadith of Jibril’ in which the Prophet (peace be upon him) was questioned about Ihsan (excellence in faith and good character). He (peace be upon him) replied: “Worship GOD as if you saw Him and if you do not see Him then do so in the knowledge that He sees you.” The Sufis and religious scholars are in agreement that this station of excellence is the same spiritual station as the one who has embodied the noble character and behaviour of the Prophet (makarim akhlaqand the one whose heart is purified of all that is not GOD. Nobody embodied the noble character of the Prophet  better than the Companions and the generation which followed them. This is why all the Sufis are convinced that all the Companions were truly Sufis, whatever the historical origin of the term may be. The composition of the traditional treaties on Sufism provides written clarification of experience and doctrines and explanations of their foundations, principles, methods and spiritual practices.  This clarification is beneficial because not only does it answer hostile criticisms but it also awakens desire for the spiritual life in those who are seeking assemblies for the remembrance of GOD (maglis al-dhikrullahand the experience of spiritual love(al-mahabba). This is the reason d’etre of all the Sufi ways in every time. As Al-Junayd said “ Our way (madhabis founded on the principles of the Book (Al-Quran) and on the prophetic way (Sunnah). He also said “ this science of ours is understood through the words of the Messenger of GOD”. (Risalat AlQushayriya)