The Great Figures of Sufism
When Iraq was the centre of the Caliphate in the middle of the 15th Century and an intellectual crucible and crossroads of various influences (Massignon, Passion, chapters-Al Hallaj). There were mystical circles in metropolises such as Basra (Al Basra) and more particularly in Baghdad (The Abbasid capital founded in 145 A.H./762 A.D) that Sufism appears in the historical record (as a discipline and school bearing this name).
The Sufis dispersed throughout the whole of the Middle East particularly in the areas previously under Byzantine influence and control. Schools started to form around some famous masters such as Junayd (298/910) in Baghdad and Al-Tustari (283/896) in Basra. These were developed in a very open and public way and were then written up as treatises concerning such topics as; mystical experience, education of the heart to rid itself of baser instincts, the love of GOD and especially the approach towards Allah through a series of progressive stages or stations (maqam) and states (hal). The latter are seen as gifts of divine grace. These schools were formed by reformers in reaction to the disappearance of values and manners in the society of the time, which was marked by a material prosperity that was eroding the spiritual life.
Hassan Al Basri (from Basra) (died 110AH / 728 CE) is regarded as the first mystic in Islam. Rabia Al Adawiya was renowned for her love and passion for GOD. Al Hallaj (died 309 AH) was famous for his spiritual intoxication and death as a martyr. Al Junayd (died 298AH/91CE) was as the first theorist of Sufism and was known for his teachings on ‘fanaa and baqaa’, the state whereby the annihilation of the self occurs in the divine presence is accompanied by a great clarity towards the world of phenomena. In addition to these famous names Soulami (325-416AH) quotes more than one hundredShaykhs (spiritual masters) in his book ‘Tabaqat’. In it he classified the Sufis of this period (second and third century) into five sections, each one comprised of twenty names. The most famous of them are; Foudail Bin Ayad, Dhu Nun Al Misri, Ibrahim Bin Adtham, Sari Saqti, Al Harith Al Muhassibi, Abu Yazid Al Bustami, Marouf Khalkhi and Ibrahim Al Khawass to mention but a few.
Abu Abdur Rahman Soulami was a scholar and a Sufi of Arab origin, born of Sufi parents in 325 AH in Naysabour one of the main towns of Khorassan in Iran. He began writing the biographies of the Masters of his time when he was no more than ten years of age. He then left heading towards Iraq, Hamadan, Hijaz and other areas in the Middle East in a lifetime quest to seek out books of ‘Hadith’ and to meet Sufi Masters. His main works were ‘Tabakat Sufia’ (The Classification of the Sufis) (1986 Khanji Library, Cairo) and ‘Tahqiq Nur Deen Shadibih’.
A typical example of Soulami’s work is his description of Ibrahim Bin Adham; the son of an Amir of Khurassan, who gave up a life of comfort and fashion to don the dress of the ‘Zahid’ (one who only takes from the world the basest minimum of essential provision). Leaving the kingdom of his father he left for Makkah. There he met Sufyan Thouri. He accompanied other Shaykhs of his time; particulary Foudail Bin Ayad (died 187AH). He then went to Syria where he settled and worked for his living. Ibrahim ibn Bachar narrated, in a transmission from Abu Abbas Al Misri and Ahmed Al Khaz: ‘I was with Ibrahim Bin Adham in Syria in the company of Abu Yusuf Al-Ghassouli and Abdulla Sanjari. I then asked Bin Adham to speak to us about his beginnings in the Way. He said; ‘my father was one of the sovereigns of Khurassan. As a carefree young man I often went out hunting. One day I was with my horse, accompanied by my dog, hunting hare and jackals. Having seen an animal, I launched into the chase. When I was in hot pursuit a mysterious voice called out to me: ‘Oh Ibrahim, was it for this that you were created’. Surprised I stopped. Nobody was in sight. Thinking it was an illusion I continued the chase but the voice called out to me a second and then a third time. When the third call reached me it was as if the saddle of my horse replied; ‘By GOD, it is not to do this for which you were created. It is certainly not this which you must do.’ I gave up hunting there and then. On meeting a shepherd, who looked after my fathers flock, I gave him my horse, my clothing and all that I had. In return I took his worn woollen clothes. Then I took the road to Makkah. When I was walking in the desert I met a man who was as emaciated as I was. We went a little way together then we stopped to make the ‘magrib salat’ (sunset prayer). After the ‘salat’ he said some words in a language, which was unknown to me. At once two containers appeared, one of water and the other of food, on the ground in front of us. I then ate and drank. After having accompanied this man for a few days he initiated me into the ‘Greatest Name of GOD’ (Isma Allah Al Athaam). He then disappeared…’
This period was characterised by the practice of an apprentice (murid) placing themselves under the spiritual direction of a Master (shaykh or pir (Iranian term) in the same way as was exemplified in the original Prophetic model. (An initiation with a living Master who is heir to the secret ‘SIRR’ (hidden) knowledge of the Prophet). The revolution of religious thought engendered through the Sufism of this time did not go without causing some reactions. Certain attitudes were not considered to be very orthodox. This resulted in lawsuits being brought towards the end of the 11th Century. The crisis culminated in the famous case of Al Hallaj who had made inappropriate remarks in public whilst in a state of spiritual intoxication (sukr). Of special note was his theocratic statement; ‘I am the Truth’ (Ana Al-Haqq). He was sternly reproached, particularly for the very public way in which he declared himself. He was allegedly shown to have links with Shiite extremists who at that time were causing division. Consequently his adversaries played on this to have him imprisoned for ten years before finally condemning him to death. He was executed in 310AH/909CE (Massignon, Passion)