The Origins and Rise of Sufi Institutions (Part One)

{jcomments on}Assoc. Prof. Dr. Spahic Omer
Kulliyyah of Architecture and Environmental Design
International Islamic University Malaysia
Mevlana Museum Konya


 In this paper, the origins and rise of Sufi institutions will be discussed. Our discussion will revolve, mainly, around the impact of the mosque institution and the decentralization of its multifaceted roles and functions, which themselves evolved into independent institutions, on the emergence of first independent Sufi institutions, such as duwayrahs, ribats, khanqahs, zawiyahs and tekkes. The main religious, intellectual and social activities in early Sufi institutions will also be discussed.




The Mosque Institution as a Community Center


Islam teaches that man was created as Allah’s vicegerent on earth. With his honorable vicegerency (khilafah) mission, man signifies both the climax and the epicenter of Allah’s act of creation and its divine purpose. As such, when completely submitting to the Will and Word of his Creator and Master – as man’s ultimate fate ought to be — man elevates himself to the highest level in the hierarchy of life’s multifaceted constituents and beings, including angels. Man’s life, then, in its totality becomes one sweet song of worshipping, glorifying and praising Allah, the Lord of the universe. It becomes a form of worship (‘ibadah) where Allah in all the life interests and pursuits of man becomes the ultimate object of all his spiritual cravings and desires.

In Islam, life is a perfectly meaningful, consequential, purposeful, beautiful, pure and wholesome affair. Thus, it is regarded as sacred, and living it in accordance with Allah’s guidance, which is meant for that very purpose, is synonymous with worship and submission to Allah. Allah says that He had created both men and Jinns only that they may worship and serve Him (al-Dhariyat, 56). Moreover, Islam is a religion of actions and deeds. Islam is a religion of life accomplishments. Islam is life, and life, the way Allah created and predetermined it, echoes the quintessence and ethos of Islam. The word “islam” which implies a total submission to Allah through one’s acts, words and thoughts, clearly attests to it. Islam is not a religion of mere words, slogans, or symbols. Islam is not a religion of an abstract philosophy, or a set of sheer religious rituals. Islam knows no distinction between the spiritual and material realms of existence along the ideological and ontological lines.

Furthermore, Islam is a religion of culture and civilization. It is as much a matter of a personal spiritual transformation and enrichment, as it is a matter of an all-embracing societal upbringing, reform and advancement. Islam is a religion of wisdom and erudition where revelation and reason are not at loggerheads with each other. Rather, they cooperate with and support each other, each one knowing its respective intent and scope, while honoring the intent and scope of the other pole. Thus, practicing Islam inevitably signifies the creation of a comprehensive culture and civilization that carry the imprints of Islamic values, teachings and principles, in some aspects more and in other aspects less. Islam is so much concerned about quenching man’s thirst for socializing and interacting with others that some people could not help observing that Islam, as a matter of fact, have a preference for the sedentary over the nomad, and for the city dweller over the villager.[1] While contending that Islam is a “profoundly urban faith” [2], those people were implicitly suggesting the universalism, comprehensiveness, pragmatism and dynamism of Islam’s teachings and value and belief systems, which in no way can be restricted to a geographical region, a point of time, a group of people, or a single aspect — or a few aspects — of human existence.

Islam likewise strikes a fine balance between the exigencies of the material and spiritual aspects of existence, between the requirements of one’s well-being in this world and in the Hereafter, and between the needs of personal, family as well as societal development. Islam means having a strong and complete faith in Allah and the other required realities from the spiritual and corporeal worlds plus performing good deeds under all circumstances. Appropriation of simply one aspect of Islam without the other is insufficient for attaining salvation. The two must be integrated in a whole that we call “Islam”, which, in turn, must be interwoven with the life-force of the notion of comprehensive excellence or ihsan. In Islam, faith and good deeds go hand-in-hand. Neither faith suffices without good deeds, nor good deeds are of value without faith. A strong relationship between faith and good deeds is the way towards comprehensive excellence. That, too, is the way towards an Islamic quality culture.

Apart from creating virtuous cultures and civilizations, Islam also creates individuals who through a complex hierarchy of institutions and establishments are organized in a community (ummah) which is well equipped to meet the challenges of its and its members’ earthly mission. This is so because life in its totality is seen as both the field and a form of worship (‘ibadah) in Islam. Every life activity believers effortlessly transform into an act of worship. Every part of the earth where they live, believers, as a result, turn into a vibrant place of worship as well. They turn it into a mosque (masjid). Thus, Islam, believers, worship as a lifestyle, and the notion of the mosque, one originating from the other and each one needing the others for its functioning and continued existence, are inseparable.

The mosque or masjid in its narrowest meaning means a place of prostration (sujud).[3] However, since the word sujud in some of its broadest meanings also implies worship or ‘ibadah, the mosque or masjid thus also implies the place of worship. And because the latter meaning more accurately reflects the quintessence of Islamic worship and the designated private and public places meant exclusively for it, it has become common knowledge that mosques or masjids are the places of worship. The English word mosque is anglicized from French mosquee which in turn derives from Spanish mezguita. The extraction of the latter from the Arabic masjid is readily apparent.[4]

Wherever Muslim believers live, there must exist a mosque, or mosques, to function as a symbol of their identity and as a ground and a facility for their implementation of scores of fundamental religious, social, cultural and educational obligations. Without mosques, Muslim believers’ lives are greatly impaired. Some of their basic human rights are thus denied. There can be no substitute for the lack of functional mosques. In the long run, the very existence of Muslims without mosques could be on the line. The Prophet (pbuh) said: “If there are three men in a village or in the desert among whom the prayers are not offered (in congregation), the devil has got the mastery over them. So observe (the prayers) in congregation, for the wolf eats only the straggling animal.”[5] Congregations and mosques are very similar to each other both in concept and practice. In view of that, Muslim believers never hesitated to invest heavily in building and maintaining mosques at all the levels of the Islamic presence. Investing in mosques meant investing in the future of the Islamic community (ummah). Neglecting mosques meant neglecting the community and, by an extension, Islam. In view of that, too, whenever there was a conflict between Muslims and some of their foes — both in the past and at present — it is not a coincidence that frequently mosques were one of the main targets by the enemy.

Building mosques out of societal needs falls within the category of wajib or obligation. It is an Islamic dictum that if an obligation (wajib) cannot be performed without something, the latter then becomes an obligation (wajib) as well. Undeniably, an obligation is providing Muslim communities with places for collective worship and other beneficial communal activities. Without them, Muslim communities would be unable to assert themselves and perform their expected roles. Building mosques is also considered as an act of lasting charity (sadaqah jariyah), that is to say, he who builds or takes part in building a mosque will have his good deeds being recorded even after his demise, as long as the effects of his actions in the form of the mosque built and its functions are extant on earth. The Prophet (pbuh) spoke a lot about the concept of the lasting charity (sadaqah jariyah). In a tradition of his, he referred among other things to building mosques and houses for travelers as forms of the lasting charity.[6]

The Prophet (pbuh) said: “He who built a mosque for Allah, Allah would build a house for him like it in Paradise.”[7] Based on this and many other traditions, plus the Prophet’s personal practices, building mosques, thus seeking the pleasure of Allah so that people’s collective worship is facilitated, is one of the most desirable and so rewarding activities. Mosques vary in size and function: from simple places meant for a small group of people to perform collectively their daily prayers to large and impressive masterpieces that function as both the catalysts and centers for the development of community. Since the dawn of Islamic civilization, therefore, Muslims hastened to build mosques whenever even slight needs arose. As a result, mosques with their minarets and domes emerged as the most dominant elements in the skyline of Muslim urban and rural settlements. The language of Mosque architecture likewise emerged as the most prevailing in the total organization of Islamic architecture. In fact, the language of mosque architecture came first into being as most complete, which then was modified and incorporated as much as possible into the rest of Islamic built environment’s elements.

Certainly, due to this significance of the mosque institution, the first thing that the Prophet (pbuh) did upon migrating from Makkah to Madinah was building a mosque, the Prophet’s mosque. Such was the first initiative in the Prophet’s Madinah urbanization scheme. Everything else, such as building houses and providing a market for Muslim business activities, had to be put on hold till the completion of the Prophet’s mosque which functioned as a community development center. No wonder then, that while building his mosque in Madinah with his companions, the Prophet (pbuh) praised the involvement of every individual promising them a handsome reward for that.[8] In the same vein, the Prophet (pbuh) directed his companions to create mosques in their quarters and to cleanse and odorize them on special religious occasions.[9] He even consented to the idea of his companions earmarking some spaces meant for worship in their houses. Such spaces served symbolically as private mosques, places of prayer and other forms of worship. The Prophet (pbuh) is said to have graced some of such places by personally praying in them.[10] Of the first instructions that the Prophet (pbuh) used to give to the visiting tribes that professed Islam was to build, liven up and maintain mosques in their respective communities.

Since its inception, the Prophet’s mosque in Madinah served as a community centre quickly evolving into a multifunctional complex. It was meant not only for performing prayers at formally appointed times, but also for many other religious, social, political and administrative functions. The main roles performed by the mosque revolved around being a centre for congregational worship practices, a learning centre, the seat of the Prophet’s government, a welfare and charity centre, a detention and rehabilitation centre, a place for medical treatment and nursing, and a place for some leisure activities. The Prophet’s mosque was the nerve-centre of the wide spectrum of the activities and aspirations of the fast-emerging Muslim Ummah. The impact of the mosque complex on the development of Madinah was such that the core of the city eventually grew to be almost ring-shaped, centring on the complex. Thus, the standard was set for most future Muslim cities in terms of the role of their principal mosques and their positions vis-à-vis the rest of the cities’ spatial components.

After the Prophet (pbuh), the Islamic state grew and expanded rapidly. Madinah remained the capital city until the second part of the rule of Ali b. Abi Talib, the fourth rightly guided caliph, when the capital was moved to Kufah in Iraq. After Ali, when Mu’awiyah b. Abi Sufyan assumed the power in 41 AH/ 661 CE, establishing in the process the Umayyad dynasty, the capital of the Islamic state was transferred to Damascus in Syria, the seat of the Umayyad dynasty. Following the ousting of the Umayyads from power by the Abbasids in 132 AH/ 750 CE, the capital of the state was also moved to some low profile towns in Iraq, the center of the Abbasid rule. This was until the city of Baghdad was established in 145 AH/ 762 CE. By the time the city of Samarra in Iraq was established in 222 AH/ 836 CE by the Abbasid caliph al-Mu’tasim, who acted on expediency rather than principles in order to replace Baghdad as the state capital,[11] the Islamic state was going through a critical period which marked the end of a powerful and effective centralized government and with it the virtual end of the reasonably unified and resilient Muslim community. What ensued thereafter was the formation of a number of independent and semi-independent states and quasi-states whose recurring warring tendencies and disputes at times were due to the people’s vast differences as regards some fundamental ideological and religious substance of Islam. This, in turn, spawned a sizeable measure of disunity, schism, conflicts, spiritual laxity and general decline in Muslims and their civilizations initiative.

The mosque institution, the center and symbol of Islam and the Islamic community since its inception, was not immune to those rapid and sweeping changes. At times, the mosque was victimized too. It was attempted to be manipulated for some improper goals. At times, moreover, the mosque tried to transcend the current predicaments and just stay neutral. Yet, at some other times, it played the active roles of a reformer. It was an agent of positive change. Its roles were proactive rather than reactive to its surrounding volatile milieu.

The history of the mosque institution after the Prophet (pbuh) went through several crucial phases and was characterized by several significant characteristics. By and large, those phases revolved around the full institutionalization of the mosque’s multifaceted roles and functions. That was followed by institutional decentralization in Islamic cities. Following the full institutionalization of many roles and functions of the mosque, the Muslim society and the way it functioned underwent quite a few drastic changes from what it used to be. There became many independent socio-political, educational and religious institutions which were responsible for advancing, guiding and administering the society. Those institutions gradually evolved from the simple and rudimentary roles and functions which were performed by the mosque institution since the earliest days. Their evolution went hand-in-hand with the evolution of the Muslim society and its civilizational and global aspirations, goals and challenges. Following the latest developments, the Muslim society became a complex and multi institutional one. The mosque institution, despite its most prominent and most influential position in society, was just one of many institutions.

Consequently, three patterns in the mosque’s relationships with the newly modeled social, political, educational and religious institutions occurred. The first pattern was that the main mosque (jami’) stood alone, or with a few institutions attached to it, or standing nearby, while other institutions were separated and scattered individually throughout a city. The second pattern was that the main mosque stood alone, or with a few institutions attached to it, or standing nearby, while some other institutions clustered around each other away from the mosque, thus forming new separate community centers or thrusts. The third pattern of the mosque’s relationship with the other institutions was that the main mosques at the midpoints in cities were surrounded by a majority of social and educational institutions, thus forming huge, vast and bustling city centers containing the largest part of the cities’ institutions which were dominated by principal mosques. Although several institutions managed to branch out from the main jami’ mosques, that, however, was due to expediency rather than guiding principles. One gets a feeling that only those institutions which could not function properly and could not be sustained in the vast and congested city centers, and also those which did not serve the interests of all people, were reluctantly let go away from the main mosques.

Nonetheless, barring some atypical and rare cases and circumstances, the mosque institution and the other independent institutions supported and collaborated with each other towards the common goals of Muslims. They were allies towards a mutual good, rather than adversaries conspiring against each other, or attempting to outdo each other in the process of attaining their respective and particularized goals. There existed the highest level of institutional ideological harmony, rather than dichotomy, between the mosque institution and the rest of social institutions and establishments.


The Evolution of First Sufi Institutions


Just as it is nigh on impossible to study the formation and rise of Sufism away from the domain of the study of the advent and spread of Islamic message, it is likewise nigh on impossible to study the genesis and rise of Sufi institutions outside the study of the ambit of the origins and rise of Islamic institutions. At first, when Sufism was yet to assert itself as a distinctive mode of submission and worship, the mosque institution was its sole home. We have seen earlier that the word sufi (Sufi) might not have been coined earlier than the 2nd AH/ 9th CE century. It denoted a reference to some ascetics and hermits who wore wool as opposed to other ascetics and devout men from the majority of Muslims who wore linen and cotton.[12] However, the designations tasawwuf and sufi did not become common until the first half of the 3rd AH/ 9th CE century, when it came to be applied to the Muslim ascetics and recluses in Iraq, Syria and, possibly, Egypt. If there existed earlier some resembling words and expressions in use, such must have been a sheer coincidence and those alike terms must have meant something else. Thus, the lines demarcating the world of Sufism and the Sufis were yet to be clearly drawn before the first half of the 3rd AH/ 9th CE century. There were no needs calling for the establishment of independent Sufi institutions. Mosque institutions which functioned as inclusive and dynamic community development centers were sufficient. Sufism was yet to transform itself from a pioneering mode of piety to an established pietistic tradition.[13] Early Sufi masters taught in mosques, just like other mainstream Islamic scholars who taught Islamic jurisprudence (fiqh), exegesis (tafsir) of the Qur’an, the Prophet’s Sunnah and theology also in mosques. In fact, those early Sufi masters were regarded as genuine members of the Islamic mainstream scholarship and their teachings were integral to the thriving Islamic epistemology. Their complete basing of authentic Sufi theorizing on the Qur’an and Sunnah meant that their views were widely accepted and that their knowledge of other religious sciences was creditable. Hence, many Sufis were also known as scholars of jurisprudence, Qur’anic exegesis, the Sunnah and theology. Many excelled in preaching in mosques too, because their propensity to authentic Sufism which implied both theory and practice caused them to be actively involved in enjoining good and forbidding evil. As a result, both their followers and admirers were numerous. Virtually living in mosques was a norm for some Sufis, like Abdullah al-Murta’ish, as mentioned earlier.[14] Thus, a Sufi once advised that an aspiring Sufi should strive to be a guest of some mosque every night.[15] Muhammad b. Isma’il al-Farghani, a Sufi whose identifying mark was displaying wealth in poverty and who regarded poverty as the finest thing, did not own a house. He lived in mosques.[16] Ibrahim b. Adham also used to sleep in mosques.[17]

               However, as some exclusive Sufi concepts and the ways and techniques for practicing and teaching them were evolving, plus as the followers and students of Sufism were increasing, needs for extending the physical institutional locus of Sufism beyond the precincts of the mosque institution, albeit with neither abandoning nor diminishing it and its significance, were proliferating. Hence, many early Sufi masters apart from mosques, were operating in their houses and even their shops. Some fancied wilderness. A need for travel and exchange of ideas was felt too, as was a need for lodging traveling and visiting Sufis.                As an illustration, upon his conversion to Sufism, Dawud b. Nasir al-Ta’i is said to have secluded himself in his house and began to practice ascetic austerities and perform acts of devotion. Similarly, Ali b. Sahl al-Asbahani (d. 253 AH/ 867 CE), one of al-Junayd al-Baghdadi’s contemporaries, used to leave his house only for performing the Friday or Jumu’ah Prayer and the five daily prayers in congregation. He said were it not for those prayers which he had to perform in mosques, he would have permanently locked himself inside his house.[18] Furthermore, al-Junayd al-Baghdadi would come every day to his shop, close its door and perform four hundred prayer units (rak’ah). He would then return to his house. About Ahmad b. Muhammad al-Nuri (d. 295 AH/ 908 CE), a Sufi master from Baghdad from al-Junayd’s contemporaries, people said that he used to leave his house every day carrying some bread with him. He would give out this bread as alms on the way. He would then enter the mosque and pray till around noon. He would then leave the mosque, open his shop and fast. His family thought that he ate at the bazaar, while the people of the bazaar thought that he ate at home. He maintained this practice for twenty years. It is no wonder then that the same Ahmad b. Muhammad al-Nuri defined Sufism as “the abandonment of everything that pleases the soul.”[19]                A hint as to why the Sufis felt that the time for expanding their physical institutional locus was getting ripe has been given by Abu Nasr al-Siraj al-Tusi. For example, he talked about four qualities that belong to prayer (salah) as the most fundamental tenet in Islam most of which however the commoners tend to ignore, but which are central not only to the ways the Sufis perform their prayers, but also to each and every other Sufi religious practice and ceremony. Those four qualities of prayer are: the presence of the heart, witnessing of the mind, reverence of the heart which is free of doubts, and submission of the bodily organs which are free of desires and cravings. Abu Nasr al-Siraj al-Tusi went on to say that the Sufis dislike to act as imams (leaders in prayer), to pray in the first row in mosques, and to make their prayers too long. Even if one of them knew the whole Qur’an by heart, he would prefer as imam someone who could only recite the opening chapter of the Qur’an (al-fatihah) and another chapter (surah), because the imam, as the Prophet (pbuh) said, is responsible (for the correctness of the prayer). The reason why the Sufis dislike to pray in the first row in mosques is because they do not want to add to the crowding of the place which is normally packed with people on account of the Prophet’s tradition that the first row in mosques is the best and most rewarding. If however the first row area is empty, the Sufis do not mind praying there so as to get the same rewards. Finally, why the Sufis dislike making their prayers too long is because long prayers are the cause of many lapses and inner whispers in prayers, and for one to busy himself with enhancing the quality of his prayers is better than to busy himself with their length and quantitative aspects.[20]                What is apparent from the above is that the Sufis were increasingly feeling not as much alienated from other Muslims as close to, and intimate with, each other both concerning religious rites and mere socialization, the natural consequence of which was an urgent need for independent Sufi institutions firstly on a part-time then on a full-time basis. Afterward, when independent Sufi institutions materialized, it was only then possible for the Sufis to evolve a system of associations or orders and fraternities and to categorize themselves into tariqahs and fellowships organized around and named for the “way” or “path” of given masters. The latter and arguably most decisive stage in the evolution of the Sufi way started to take place from the 6th AH/ 12th CE century onwards.

For the same reasons of intensifying and widening the maturing Sufi mission, multiplying and diversifying its audience as well as the perspectives and modes of delivery, many Sufis were known for possessing fondness for travel strongly recommending the same to their brethren. Many Sufis’ travels and their rather exaggerated proselytizing exploits are well documented. So important was the matter that in some Sufi manuals and epistles a special section for it and its rules and guidelines had to be set aside, such as in the one composed by Abu al-Qasim al-Qushayri. Abu al-Qasim al-Qushayri wrote: “Since most folks of this group (Sufism) recommend travel, we have dedicated a special chapter of this epistle to it. For it is indeed one of their greatest achievements. Yet, even within this group people still disagree as to whether (one should) travel. Some even give preference to staying in one place over travel. They would not travel unless this is a (religious) obligation (fard), such as, for example, the performance of the pilgrimage. Among those who preferred staying put were al-Junayd, Sahl b. Abdallah (al-Tustari), Abu Yazid al-Bistami, Abu Hafs (al-Haddad), and some others. Others, however, had chosen travel and remained committed to it until they departed from this world, for instance, Abu Abdallah al-Maghribi, Ibrahim b. Adham, and so on. Many of them traveled extensively at the beginning (of their Sufi calling), then, toward the end of their lives, they settled down and stayed put. This is the case with Abu Uthman al-Hiri, al-Shibli, and others. Each of them had principles upon which he built his progress (to God). Know that travel can be divided into two parts: travel with your body, which implies moving from one place to another; travel with your heart, which implies rising from one attribute to another. One sees many who travel with their bodies, while those who travel with their hearts are few.”[21]

               Abu Nasr al-Siraj al-Tusi in his Kitab al-Luma’ also dedicated a section to the Sufi manners in travel highlighting therein the Sufis’ main reasons, objectives and etiquette as regards the matter in question.[22] He used the opportunity to criticize those who travel extensively and boast of the number of Sheikhs whom they have met and deem themselves in a privileged position due to that. They are wrong, Abu Nasr al-Siraj al-Tusi concluded, for the purpose of travel is moral improvement devoid of all potential corporal or spiritual vices.[23]                For Shihab al-Din Umar al-Suhrawardi, furthermore, travel for legitimate spiritual and educational purposes is highly recommended. Travel subdues refractory lusts and softens hard hearts. Being separated from one’s native land, from friends and familiar things, and the exercising of patience and calamities cause lust and nature to rest from pursuing their way, and take up from hearts the effect of hardness. In subduing lusts, the effect of travel is not less than the effect of religious obligations and rituals. For the safety of his faith, a person should never stay in a place too long.[24] It appears as though Shihab al-Din Umar al-Suhrawardi was more eloquent and more enthusiastic about travel because during his time (he died in 632 AH/ 1234 CE) Sufi institutions became a norm in most regions of the vast Muslim state which was supported both conceptually and financially by governments. Thus, accommodation and Sufi training, preaching, learning and practicing opportunities, abounded. This was unlike the time of Abu Nasr al-Siraj al-Tusi, the 4th AH/ 10th CE century, and to some extent the time of Abu al-Qasim al-Qushayri, the 5th AH/ 11th CE century — who also spoke of travel but in much less fervent terms — when Sufi institutions, especially in the case of the former, though available, were rather sporadic, inconspicuous and more often than not privately or semi-privately owned and maintained establishments. Hence, Shihab al-Din Umar al-Suhrawardi delved into such issues as the customs of travelling Sufis when arriving and alighting at a Sufi institution (ribat), at what time of the day to do so, what to do upon entering, how to greet the permanent dwellers of the place, how long to stay, when and how to meet a sheikh, how to talk, how to leave the place, etc.[25] He even furnished potential traveling Sufis with all the necessary fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence) solutions and directives relating to travel, such as shortening and combining prayers, dry ablution (tayammum), the complete ablution (ghusl), wiping over socks, slippers or shoes while taking ablution (wudhu’), prayer (salah) under different circumstances including a state of riding an animal, purification by different available means,  fasting (siyam), etc.[26] On the whole, Shihab al-Din Umar al-Suhrawardi’s genus of Sufism was one saturated with a social and political core and agenda. An Abbasid caliph, al-Nasir (d. 622 AH/ 1225 CE), was attracted to the influential Sufi master and thus sought to shore up the crumbling authority of the Abbasid state by rallying around al-Suhrawardi’s cause various religious and social organizations in the lands under his sway. By patronizing al-Suhrawardi the caliph planned to secure the support of al-Suhrawardi’s numerous followers in Baghdad and nearby territories. To demonstrate his high esteem for the popular Sufi leader, in 599 AH/ 1203 CE caliph al-Nasir built for him a Sufi lodge or a cloister (ribat) named al-Marzubaniya in the western part of the city of Baghdad.[27]                If one considers the subject matter of the timeframe which was needed for Sufi institutions to completely evolve and for their signature roles and functions to diversify, one can comprehend why Abu Hamid al-Ghazzali, while residing two years in Damascus, used to live solitary life in the great Umayyad mosque and not somewhere in a Sufi institution. He was in the habit of spending his days on the minaret after closing the door behind him. From thence, he proceeded to Jerusalem where, again, every day he secluded himself in the sanctuary of Dome of the Rock, as a segment of al-Masjid al-Aqsa. Needless to say, the sole goal of Abu Hamid al-Ghazzali’s travels was spiritual retirement, meditation and devout exercises. He confessed that he only wanted self-improvement, discipline and purification of the heart by prayer in going through the form of devotion which the Sufis had taught him.[28] It stands to reason that in his travels, Abu Hamid al-Ghazzali did not reside in Sufi institutions because they at that time in Syria were yet to become pervasive and full-fledged institutions. That was set to become the case before long however, owing to the fast spreading of the Saljuqi influences and character from the East, and also owing to the forthcoming influences and character of the Ayyubid dynasty which in the late 6th AH/ 12th CE and early 7th AH/ 13th CE centuries ruled over Egypt and what became upper Iraq, most of Syria and Yemen. Besides, Abu Hamid al-Ghazzali lived in mosques because he, in particular at the beginning of his epic journeys, was yet to become a Sufi par excellence. When he set off from his home in Baghdad to Syria, Jerusalem and finally to Makkah, he did so on account of a spiritual crisis which befell him and due to which he had to abandon his successful scholarly career and leave Baghdad on the pretext of going on pilgrimage to Makkah. Abu Hamid al-Ghazzali, during the spell in question, was a true Sufi in making. He thus was yet to undertake a journey from the realm of the mosque institution to the realms of Sufi institutions. That did not happen until he returned to Baghdad and then to his birthplace, the city of Tus in Iran.                Indeed, in the early days it was a distant prospect for the Sufis to begin to group themselves into Sufi orders or fraternities (tariqah), but a handful of signs were already there pointing out that such a possibility though far-off, yet was unavoidably fast coming. The relation between Sufi scholars and masters and their numerous followers was transforming into something which was more profound and more intense than what it at first glance appeared. The relation between the two sides was becoming one between spiritual masters and guides, on the one hand, and disciples and apprentices, on the other, the latter having been as much enlightenment and guidance seekers as knowledge and wisdom pursuers.

[1] See: From Madina to Metropolis, edited by L. Carl Brown, (Princeton: the Darwin Press, 1973), see the editor’s introduction, p. 38.

[2] Joel Kotkin, Islamic Cities: Can the Past Be the Key to the Future?, http:/

[3] Ibn Manzur, Lisan al-‘Arab, (Beirut: Dar Ihya’ al-Turath al-‘Arabi, 2003), vol. 6 p. 175.

[4] The Encyclopedia of Religion, (New York, Macmillian Publishing Company, 1987), vol. 10 p. 122. 

[5] Abu Dawud, Sunan Abi Dawud, Book 2, Hadith No. 0547.

[6] Ibn Majah, Sunan ibn Majah, al-Muqaddimah, Hadith No. 238.

[7] Muslim, Sahih Muslim, Kitab al-Salah, Hadith No. 1084, 1085.

[8] Al-Samahudi, Wafa’ al-Wafa, (Beirut: Dar Ihya’ al-Turath al-‘Arabi, 1997), vol. 1 p. 331.

[9] Al-Tirmidhi, Sunan al-Tirmidhi, Kitab al-Jumu’ah, Hadith No. 542.

[10] Ibn Majah, Sunan Ibn Majah, Kitab al-Masajid wa al-Jama’at, Hadith No. 146, 747, 748.

[11] Saleh al-Hathloul, The Arab-Muslim City, (Riyadh: Dar al-Sahan, 1996), p. 45.

[12] Ahmet T. Karamustafa, Sufism, the Formative Period, p. 6.

[13] Ibid., p. 56.

[14] Abu al-Qasim al-Qushayri, Al-Risalah al-Qushayriyyah, p. 431.

[15] Ibid., p. 290.

[16] Siraj al-Din ‘Umar al-Misri Ibn al-Mulaqqan, Tabaqat al-Awliya’, p. 228.

[17] Ibid., p. 42.

[18] Ibid., p. 134.

[19] Abu al-Qasim al-Qushayri, Al-Risalah al-Qushayriyyah, translated into English by Alexander Knysh, p. 46-47.

[20] Abu Nasr al-Siraj al-Tusi, Kitab al-Luma’, p. 208-209.

[21] Abu al-Qasim al-Qushayri, Al-Risalah al-Qushayriyyah, translated into English by Alexander Knysh, p. 297.

[22] Abu Nasr al-Siraj al-Tusi, Kitab al-Luma’, p. 250-252.

[23] Ibid., (English translation (accessed October 7, 2012).

[24] Shihab al-Din Umar al-Suhrawardi, ‘Awarif al-Ma’arif, translated into English by H. Wilberforce Clarke, (New Delhi: Taj Company, 1984), p. 42-43.

[25] Ibid., p. 37-38.

[26] Shihab al-Din Umar al-Suhrawardi, ‘Awarif al-Ma’arif, vol. 1 p. 296-301.

[27] Alexander Knysh, Islamic Mysticism, A Short History, p. 197. Ira M. Lapidus, Sufism and Ottoman Islamic Society, in “The Dervish Lodge”, edited by Raymond Lifchez, p. 26.

[28] Abu Hamid al-Ghazzali, The Confessions of al-Ghazzali, p. 52-53.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *