History of Sufism can be divided into the following principal periods:
Sufism originates in the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad. Almost all traditional Sufi schools (orders) trace their “chains of transmission” back to the Prophet, either via his cousin and son-in-law Imam Ali ibn Abi Talib or caliph Abu Bakr. From their point of view, the esoteric teaching was given to those who had the capacity to contain the direct experiential gnosis of God, and then passed on from teacher to student through the centuries.
Some scholars believe that Sufism was essentially the result of Islam evolving in a more mystic direction. For example, Annemarie Schimmel proposes that Sufism in its early stages of development meant nothing but the interiorization of Islam. And Louis Massignon states: “It is from the Quran, constantly recited, meditated, and experienced, that Sufism proceeded, in its origin and its development.”
The Great Masters of Sufism:
The Sufis dispersed throughout the Middle East, particularly in the areas previously under Byzantine influence and control. This period was characterized by the practice of an apprentice (murid) placing himself under the spiritual direction of a Master (shaykhor pir).
Schools were developed, concerning themselves with the topics of mystical experience, education of the heart to rid itself of baser instincts, the love of God, and approaching God through progressive stages (maqaam) and states (haal). The schools were formed by reformers who felt their core values and manners had disappeared in a society marked by material prosperity that they saw as eroding the spiritual life.
Uwais al-Qarni, Harrm Bin Hian, Hasan Ul-Basri and Sayid Ibn Ul Mussib are regarded as the first mystics among the “Taabi’een” in Islam. Rabia was a female Sufi and known for her love and passion for God. Junayd was among the first theorist of Sufism; he concerned himself with fanaa and baqaa, the state of annihilating the self in the presence of the divine, accompanied by clarity concerning worldly phenomena.
Formalization of Philosophies of Sufism:
Al Ghazali’s treatises, the “Reconstruction of Religious Sciences” and the “Alchemy of Happiness,” argued that Sufism originated from the Qur’an making it compatible with mainstream Islamic thought and theology. It was around 1000 CE that the early Sufi literature, in the form of manuals, treatises, discourses and poetry, became the source of Sufi thinking and meditations.
Propagation of Sufism:
Sufism, during 1200-1500 CE, experienced an era of increased activity in various parts of the Islamic world. This period is considered as the “Classical Period” or the “Golden Age” of Sufism. Lodges and hospices soon became not only places to house Sufi students, but also places for practicing Sufis and other mystics to stay and retreat.
The propagation of Sufism started from its origin in Baghdad, Iraq, and spread to Persia,India, North Africa and Muslim Spain. There were tests of conciliation between Sufism and the other Islamic sciences (sharia, fiqh, etc.), as well as the beginning of the Sufi brotherhoods (turuq).
One of the first orders to originate was the Yasawi order, named after Khwajah Ahmed Yesevi in modern Kazakhstan. The Kubrawiya order, originating in Central Asia, was named after Najmeddin Kubra, known as the “saint-producing shaykh” , since a number of his disciples became shaykhs. The most prominent Sufi master of this era is Abdul Qadir Jilani, the founder of the Qadiriyyah order in Iraq. Others included Rumi, founder of the Mevlevi order in Turkey, Sahabuddin Suharwardi in Asia Minor, and Moinuddin Chishti in India.
This period includes the effects of modern thoughts, science, and philosophy on Sufism and the advent of Sufism to the West. Important Sufis of this period include Hazrat Salaheddin Ali Nader Shah Angha, Hazrat Shah Maghsoud Sadegh Angha, Hazrat Mir Ghotbeddin Mohammad Angha and Hazrat Jalaleddin Ali Mir Abolfazl Angha from theOveyssi-Shahmaghsoudi order.
A number of scholars perceive influences on Sufism from pre-Islamic and non-Islamic schools of mysticism and philosophy. Some of these new perspectives originate from the synthesis of Persian civilization with Islam, an emphasis on spiritual aspects of Islam, and the incorporation of ideas and practices from other mysticisms such as Gnosticism and Hinduism into Islam . The evidence in support of non-Islamic influences in formation of Sufism includes the existence of similarities between Sufism and mystic systems outside Islam. There are also claims regarding ancient Egyptian roots of Sufism which are not widely accepted.. Others oppose the idea of extensive non-Islamic influences on Sufism and believe that these theories are based on misunderstanding Islam as a harsh and sterile religion, incapable of developing mysticism.
Dervishes the name given to initiates of Sufi orders believe that love is a projection of the essence of God to the universe. They believe God desires to recognize beauty by looking at himself within the dynamics of nature. Divine love is not restricted to what the term “love of God” implies; it also includes human loves with a perspective that views everything a manifestation of God.
The central doctrine of Sufism, sometimes called Wahdat or Unity, is the understanding of Tawhid: all phenomena are manifestations of a single reality, or Wujud (being), or ‘al-Haq (Truth, God). The essence of being/Truth/God is devoid of every form and quality, and hence unmanifested, yet it is inseparable from every form and phenomenon either material or spiritual. It is often understood to imply that every phenomenon is an aspect of Truth and at the same time attribution of existence to it is false. The chief aim of all Sufis then is to let go of all notions of duality, therefore the individual self also), and realize the divine unity.
Sufis teach in personal groups, believing the interaction of the master is necessary for the growth of the pupil. They make extensive use of parable, allegory, and metaphor, and it is held by Sufis that meaning can only be reached through a process of seeking the truth, and knowledge of oneself. Although philosophies vary between different Sufi orders, Sufism as a whole is primarily concerned with direct personal experience, and as such may be compared to various forms of mysticism such as Zen Buddhism and Gnosticism.
The following metaphor, credited to an unknown Sufi scholar, helps describe this line of thought.
There are three ways of knowing a thing. Take for instance a flame. One can be told of the flame, one can see the flame with his own eyes, and finally one can reach out and be burned by it. In this way, we Sufis seek to be burned by God.
A significant part of Persian literature comes from the Sufis, who created great books ofpoetry (which include for example the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, the Conference of the Birds and the Masnavi), all of which contain teachings of the Sufis.