The ascetic and mystical element that was implicit in Islam since its very inception grew steadily during the first Islamic centuries (the seventh-ninth centuries), which witnessed the appearance of the first Muslim “devotees” 1 in Mesopotamia, Syria and Iran. 2 By the thirteenth century , they had coalesced into the primitive ascetic communities that spread across the Muslim world and that gradually transformed into the institution called taríqa —the mystical “brotherhood” or “order.” Each taríqa had a distinctive spiritual pedigree stretching back to the prophet Muhammad. It also had its own devotional practices, educational philosophy, headquarters, and dormitories, as well as a semi-independent economic basis in the form of a pious endowment (either real estate or tracts of land). During the late Middle Ages and the modern period, Islamic mysticism (Sufism) became an important part of the Muslim devotional and intellectual life and social order. Sufism’s literature and authorities, its networks of taríqa institutions, and its peculiar lifestyles and practices became a spiritual and intellectual “glue” that held together the culturally and ethnically diverse Muslim societies. Unlike Christian mysticism, which was gradually marginalized by the anticlerical and scientific-rationalistic tendencies that were dominant in Western European societies since the Enlightenment, Sufism retained its influence on the spiritual and intellectual life of Muslim societies until the beginning of the twentieth century. At that point, Sufi rituals, values, and doctrines came under critical fire from such dissimilar and often mutually hostile factions of Muslim societies as reformers and modernists, liberal nationalists, religious fundamentalists, and, somewhat later, Muslim socialists. Representatives of all these movements accused Sufis of deliberately cultivating “idle superstitions,” of stubbornly resisting the imposition of “progressive” social and intellectual attitudes, and of “exploiting the Muslim masses” to their advantage. Parallel to these ideological attacks, in many countries of the Middle East, the economic foundations of Sufi organizations were undermined by agrarian reforms, secularization of education, and new forms of taxation instituted by Westernized nationalist governments. The extent of Sufism’s decline in the first half of twentieth century varied from one country to another. On the whole, however, by the 1950s Sufism had lost much of its former appeal in the eyes of Muslims, and its erstwhile institutional grandeur was reduced to low-key lodges staffed by Sufi masters with little influence outside their immediate coterie of followers. It seemed that in most Middle Eastern and South Asian societies, the very survival of the Sufi tradition was called in question. However, not only has Sufism survived but also has been making a steady comeback of late. 3 Alongside traditional Sufi practices and doctrines, there emerged the so-called “neo-Sufi” movements whose followers seek to bring Sufi values in tune with the spiritual and intellectual needs of modern men and women living in industrialized Western societies. 4
Normative Sufi literature routinely portrays the Prophet and some of his ascetically minded companions as “Sufis” ( sufiyya ). However, this term does not seem to have gained wide currency until the first half of the ninth century, when it came to denote Muslim ascetics and world-renouncers in Iraq, Syria and, possibly, Egypt. More than just fulfilling their religious duties, these pious individuals paid close attention to the underlying motives of their actions and sought to endow them with a deeper spiritual meaning. This goal was achieved through a close reading and meditation on the meaning of the Qur’anic revelation, introspection, imitation of the Prophet’s actions, voluntary poverty, and self-mortification. Strenuous spiritual self-exertion was occasionally accompanied by voluntary military service ( ribat wa-jihad ) along the Muslim-Byzantine frontier, where many renowned early devotees flocked in search of “pure life” and martyrdom “in the path of God.” Acts of penitence and self-abnegation, which their practitioners justified by references to certain Qur’anic verses and the Prophet’s utterances, 5 were, in part, a reaction against the Islamic state’s newly acquired wealth and complacency, as well as the “impious” pastimes and conduct of the Umayyad rulers and their officials. For many pious Muslims, these frivolous activities were incompatible with the simple and frugal life of the first Muslim community at Medina. Whereas, as we have seen, some religiopolitical factions, such as the Kharijites and the Shi‘ites, tried to topple the “illegitimate” rulers by force of arms, others opted for a passive protest by withdrawing from the corrupt world around them and engaging in supererogatory acts of worship. Even though their meticulous scrupulousness in food and social intercourse were sometimes interpreted as a challenge to secular and military authorities, they were usually left alone as long as they did not agitate against the powers-that-be. As an outward sign of their pietistic flight from “corrupt” mundane life, some early devotees adopted a distinctive dress code-a rough woolen habit that set them apart from the men of the world who preferred more expensive and comfortable silk or cotton. Wittingly or not, the early Muslim devotees thereby came to resemble Christian monks and ascetics, who also donned hair shirts and rough woolen cloaks as a sign of penitence and contempt for worldly luxuries. 6 In view of its pronounced Christian connotations, some early Muslim authorities sometimes frowned upon this custom. In spite of their protests, wearing a woolen robe ( tasawwuf ) was adopted by some piety-minded Muslims in Syria and the Iraq under the early ‘Abbasids. By the end of the eighth century, in the central lands of Islam, the nickname sufiyya (“wool-people” or “wool-wearers”; sing. sufi ) had become a self-designation of many individuals given to an ascetic life and mystical contemplation.