Main Reasons for the Rise of Sufism and Sufi Institutions (Part One)

Assoc. Prof. Dr. Spahic Omer
Kulliyyah of Architecture and Environmental Design
International Islamic University Malaysia

madrasah khanqa egypt



In this chapter, the main reasons which caused and sustained the continuous existence of Sufism and Sufi institutions will be discussed. The chapter is divided into two parts. Firstly, the rise of Sufism and Sufi institutions between spontaneity and planning will be deliberated. That will be followed by expounding the main factors which were most responsible for the proliferation of Sufism and Sufi institutions. Four factors will be dwelled on, namely, the Turkish factor, the Persian factor, the Shi’ah factor, and the ahl al-sunnah wa al-jama’ah factor.



The Rise of Sufism and Sufi Institutions between Spontaneity and Planning


Sufism was at once a particular and distinctive side of Islam and yet integral to every manifestation of it.[1] Thus, it originated and grew naturally. However, as the conditions mainly inside the Sufi circles, and in part outside them, were changing, such developments called for the creation of uniquely Sufi institutions. Some of those decisive conditions were the mellowing and maturing of a number of fundamental Sufi conceptions and ideas, the emergence of personnel, both intellectual and spiritual leaders or masters and their zealous followers, who personified the Sufi path and struggle, and the fruition of a system of associations and fraternities which evolved into tariqahs and fellowships organized around and named for the ways or paths of given masters. Once at this stage, the stage of Sufism diversification and braking up, the Sufis, according to Ibn Taymiyah, came to be known as three types: (1) The Sufis of realities (sufiyyah al-haqa’iq), or the genuine Sufis who strove and sought the deep truth in relation to obedience (ta’ah) of Allah; (2) The funded Sufis (sufiyyah al-arzaq) who lived on the religious endowments of their institutions, such as khanqahs; (3) The Sufis by appearance only (sufiyyah al-rasm) who were interested in using the Sufi name and dress only so that the ignorant ones could think they were from Sufi ranks.[2]

In other words, Sufism soon became institutionalized. As a religious, educational and social order, it evolved a unique structure or mechanism that governed the behavior of its members. It transcended individuals and became identifiable with its religious, educational and social purpose and mission. It became a force to be reckoned with, so to speak, as was discovered and greatly valued by virtually all Muslim rulers following the Sufism institutionalization, especially from the dominant Saljuqi, Ayyubid, Mamluki and Ottoman states. For example, as the Ottoman sultans sought hegemony over Anatolia, they relied on the Sufis for military support and aid in consolidating newly acquired territorial holdings. In return, the Sufis received gifts of land and endowments for their tekkes. This standard was set from the very beginning, and the standard setters were nobody else but Sultan Mehmed II (d. 886 AH/ 1481 CE), the conqueror of Constantinople (later Istanbul), and his son and successor, Sultan Bayezid II (d. 918 AH/ 1512 CE). It has been reported that the two Ottoman sultans ceded to the Sufi troops numerous Byzantine church properties to convert them into tekkes.[3]

Over the course of the 2nd, 3rd and 4th AH / 8th, 9th and 10th CE centuries, Sufism transformed itself from individual efforts to a collective movement, from general, fluid and almost focus-free preaching and haranguing undertakings to a very specialized and complex school of thought, from targeting and educating general and huge audiences to guiding and training a closed circle of its own members and disciples, and from subsisting in mosques side by side with other social, political and even religious groups and guilds to flourishing in khanqahs as its own exclusive institutional arenas. The Sufis thus carved their unmistaken role and position in society. Their religious and epistemological niche in the history of Islam and its people became forever ensured. They created a special discipline which was not discussed by other representatives of the religious law. As a consequence, the science of the religious law came to consist of two kinds. One was the special field that belonged to jurists and other directly or indirectly linked fields and disciplines and their scholars. It was concerned with the general laws governing the acts of divine worship, customary actions and mutual dealings. The other was the special field of the community of Sufis which was concerned with pious exertion, self-scrutiny with regard to it, discussion of the different kinds of spiritual and ecstatic experience occurring in the course of self-scrutiny, the mode of ascent from one spiritual experience to another, and the interpretation of the technical terminology which was in use among the Sufis.[4]

The Sufis had their peculiar form of behavior and a peculiar linguistic terminology which they used in instruction. They had what could be called an exclusive Sufi vocabulary. This was so because, as elaborated by Ibn Khaldun, linguistic data apply only to commonly accepted ideas. When there occur ideas not commonly known or accepted, such as those connected with Sufism and the Sufis, technical terms facilitating the understanding of those ideas are coined to express them.[5] Thus, quite often the early authors of those Sufi books which emphasized the legacies of the Sufi forerunners and early masters were fond of highlighting which Sufi originators were responsible most for pioneering which ideas and concepts. For example, Siraj al-Din ‘Umar al-Misri Ibn al-Mulaqqan mentioned in his book on the categories or classes of the Sufis, or the friends of Allah, “Tabaqat al-Awliya’”, that a Sufi master called Abu Hamzah al-Bazzar (d. 289 AH/ 902 CE), one of the teachers of al-Junayd al-Baghdadi, was the first in Baghdad who spoke about divine love (mahabbah), longing (shawq), proximity (qurb) and amiability. Abu Hamzah al-Bazzar, in fact, was the teacher and master of all the Baghdadi Sufis. So knowledgeable, loved and esteemed was he that even Ahmad b. Hanbal used to consult him on various issues.[6] The same author also said that a Sufi Abu Hafs ‘Amr b. Salam al-Haddad (d. 264 AH/ 877 CE), one of al-Junayd al-Baghdadi’s contemporaries with whom he spent some time in Baghdad, was the first who made known and promoted the path of Sufism in Nishapur.[7]

On the same note, Abu Abd al-Rahman al-Sulami in his compendium of biographical information about the early Sufis and their classes, “Tabaqat al-Sufiyyah”, stressed that Abu Sa’id al-Kharraz (d. 279 AH/ 892 CE), from the vanguard of the Baghdadi Sufi masters who among others accompanied Dhu al-Nun al-Misri, was the first who talked about the concepts of annihilation of the self (fana’) and life or continued existence in God (baqa’).[8] Abu al-Hasan al-Saqati (d. 251 AH/ 865 CE), one of the Sufi leaders and imams in Baghdad who accompanied among others Ma’ruf al-Karkhi and was both a teacher and uncle of al-Junayd al-Baghdadi, is also said to have been the first Sufi in Baghdad who spoke about the realities of Sufi states (hal, pl. ahwal) and their relationship with the notion of tawhid (Allah’s Oneness).[9] Whereas the earliest Sufi master who talked about the sciences of Sufi states (ahwal) in the region of Khorosan, Abu Abd al-Rahman al-Sulami believed was Shaqiq al-Balkhi, who accompanied Ibrahim b. Adham and learned Sufism from him.[10] Moreover, a Khorosani Sufi Yahya b. Mu’adh al-Razi (d. 258 AH/ 871 CE) was among the first Sufis who propagated the idea of hope or anticipation (raja’).[11] He is credited with giving Khorosani Sufism its final shape.[12] Hamdun b. Ahmad al-Qassar (d. 271 AH/ 884 CE), on the other hand, is singled out as one of the founding fathers of the Malamatiyyah or the Path of Blame[13] whose members were known for modesty and desire to conceal their true spiritual state. This Sufi school encouraged that piety and godly devotion should infuse every vocation of people’s social lives. Any external manifestation of piety was denounced as vainglorious pretence meant to impress the ordinary believers.[14] Finally, Abu Abd al-Rahman al-Sulami also referred to Rabi’ah al-‘Adawiyyah as perhaps the earliest and most prominent Sufi woman, highlighting her obsession with the ideas of unconditional love of Allah and the Prophet (pbuh) (hubb Allah wa al-Rasul), trust in Allah (tawakkul), abstinence (zuhd) and “nearness” to Allah (qurb).[15]

Having developed their own discipline, peculiar form of behavior and peculiar linguistic terminology, the next step for the Sufis was to produce a literature on their unique subject, thus making Sufism a systematically treated discipline in Islam. Before that, however, Sufism had merely consisted of divine worship, and its principles, customs and nascent vocabulary had existed only in the breasts of men, just as had been the case with all other Islamic disciplines. But when Islamic sciences were written down systematically, and when the scholars of Islam wrote works on jurisprudence and the principles of jurisprudence, on speculative theology, Qur’an interpretation, and other subjects, the Sufis, too, wrote on their subject.[16] According to Ibn Khaldun, there emerged three types of Sufi literature. Firstly, some Sufis wrote on the laws governing asceticism and self-scrutiny, how to act and not act in imitation of model saints. That was the earliest form of Sufi writings the best representation of which is Abu Abdullah al-Harith al-Muhasibi and his book “al-Ri’ayah li Huquq Allah”. Other subsequent Sufi authors wrote on the Sufi behavior and their different kinds of spiritual and ecstatic experiences in the “states” or ahwal. The best instance of this type of literature is the epistle “al-Risalah al-Qushayriyyah” written by Abu al-Qasim al-Qushayri. Then came Abu Hamid al-Ghazzali who composed his celebrated “Ihya’ ‘Ulum al-Din” wherein he combined both the types of early Sufi writings and thus raised the whole science of Sufism to a new and afterwards rarely ever paralleled level. In his book, Abu Hamid al-Ghazzali “dealt systematically with the laws governing asceticism and the imitation of models. Then, he explained the behavior and customs of the people (Sufis) and commented on their technical vocabulary.”[17]

It is noteworthy at this juncture that Abu Hamid al-Ghazzali benignly credited the books from the first and second categories with their critical role in his own spiritual transformation and uplifting. He said that while on a spiritual mission to disentangle the truth lost in the medley of sects and divergences of thought, when he had finished his examination of the doctrines of scholastic theology and philosophy, he applied himself to the study of Sufism and immediately realized that in order to understand it thoroughly one must combine theory and practice. He then studied first of all those Sufi books which contained their doctrines, i.e., Sufi theories. Then, as Abu Hamid al-Ghazzali continued, “I acquired a thorough knowledge of their (Sufi) researches, and I learned all that was possible to learn of their methods by study and oral teaching. It became clear to me that the last stage could not be reached by mere instruction, but only by transport, ecstasy and the transformation of the moral being.”[18] It was then that Abu Hamid al-Ghazzali decided to become a full-fledged Sufi. Indeed, the remarkable spiritual journey and even more remarkable Sufi personality as well as intellectual legacy of Abu Hamid al-Ghazzali personify the evolution and ultimate maturity of Sufism at once a social, religious and intellectual phenomenon and movement. It goes without saying, therefore, that just as Abu Hamid al-Ghazzali could be regarded as a symbol and microcosm of the authentic Sufi world and its diverse and vibrant trends and dimensions, so could his magnum opus Ihya’ ‘Ulum al-Din” be looked upon as a symbol and microcosm of the evolution and maturity of the authentic Sufi literature and with it a great many Sufi tenets, ideas and practices.

The final stage in the development process of Sufism was the development of Sufi institutions which reached its climax with the emergence of the khanqah institution. The emergence of Sufi institutions was an effect which was preceded by myriad causes. The latest Sufi developments were triggered, by and large, by institutional decentralization which was taking hold in Islamic cities especially during the 4th and 5th AH/ 10th and 11th CE centuries. Not only Sufi institutions, but also other social, religious and educational establishments, were cropping up under the circumstances. It stands to reason, therefore, that as the schools and colleges (madrasahs), for example, were fully emerging from the ambit of the mosque institution, the foundation and heart of all Islamic institutions, so as to cater to the needs of flourishing and diversifying sciences — both religious and mundane — so did the khanqah institution, as an epitome of flourishing Sufism and the growing Sufi fraternity, follow suit. In the same vein, just as madrasahs and other educational establishments, khanqahs, too, as religious and educational institutions, were private, semi-private or government sponsored. Many subsisted on pious endowments either from government officials or ordinary people. Historically, the emergence of madrasahs and khanqahs as autonomous institutions could be placed in approximately the same, but fairly wide, time-zone, even though the materialization of the latter and its antecedents, to some extent, preceded the former and its own antecedents.

In practice, Sufism by definition is no more than an interpretation and avid implementation of orthodox Islam. Things in relation to Sufism are thus not to be generalized, neither assuming that Sufism and everything that was transpiring inside its realm, utterly and exclusively represent the world of Islam and its traditions, nor believing that the former is completely alien to the latter, rejecting it outright. As mentioned earlier, there are two types of Sufism: authentic and pseudo, or theosophical, Sufism. From the very beginning, the Sufis were most concerned with obtaining experiential knowledge of God’s unity, with distilling the reality of the Islamic profession of ‘There is no god but God’ into their daily lives. Human life presented itself to them as a journey towards the ever-elusive goal of achieving true ‘God-consciousness’, as an on-going attempt to draw near God. In practice, this meant training and domestication of the lower self through appropriate measures that included continuous cultivation of the heart, asceticism, seclusion and poverty.[19] At the start when the major Sufi concepts and its language were yet to crystallize, the Sufis did not significantly differ from the rest of the Muslim community. The only, but still very much hazy, difference that could be pinned down was the excessive manner in which the early Sufis embraced and practiced those burgeoning concepts and traditions which were set to be linked with them more than anybody else. The excesses and extremities of the Sufis were related either to how their Sufi aspirations and goals were to be conceived and established, or how and through which measures and means those aspirations and goals were to be achieved. Hence, many Sufis always lived at the edge constantly probing the ultimate boundaries and secrecies of Islamic spirituality, ontology as well as epistemology. Spirituality-wise, they were, to a large extent, at once insatiable, restless and curious souls. Islamic culture and civilization, it stands to reason, always owed Sufism and the Sufis a great deal for their notable involvements in invigorating and enriching the former. Were it not for authentic Sufism and the genuine Sufis, Islamic culture and civilization would have hardly become what it became, and what it came to be known today.

It is because of this that the biographies of the early Sufis are overflowing with accounts and narrations to the effect of their immoderate, yet extreme, interpretations of some fundamental religious concepts and ideas, as well as their unprecedentedly zealous and obsessive implementations of the same, so much so that some of such accounts and narrations, with a dose of exaggeration flavor though, were eventually turned into folk tales and legends. So, for example, we hear some astonishing things about Rabi’ah al-‘Adawiyyah and her notion of love for God which was so total and unconditional that it almost consumed her being. She claimed that her complete identity had disappeared; she became naughted to self and existed only through God. She belonged wholly to God.[20] Another example is Fudayl b. ‘Iyad (d. 187 AH/ 803 CE) whom Sufi anecdotes and legends portray as one who observed renunciation and pietism to such a point that grief and mourning became his permanent companions. Upon his death, “sadness disappeared from this world”, was a remark by his contemporary Abdullah b. al-Mubarak, also a Sufi master. Fudayl b. ‘Iyad’s grief and mourning were signs of his repentance and compassion for his fellow believers.[21] Moreover, Abu Sulayman al-Darani (d. 215 AH/ 830 CE) epitomized those early Sufis who placed special emphasis on the trust in God (tawakkul) and a total, unquestioning acceptance of the Divine Will (rida), as the pinnacle of one’s ascetic piety. As did Dhu al-Nun al-Misri typify the trend of teaching about the privileged, intuitive knowledge, or gnosis, of God. Then, what could be called a Sufism of sobriety, embodied in the personality and teachings of al-Junayd al-Baghdadi, appeared, as well as a Sufism of “intoxication”, which is traditionally connected with Abu Yazid al-Bistami (d. 261 AH/ 875 CE) and Abu Mansur al-Hallaj (d. 309 AH/ 922 CE).[22] It is also worth mentioning here Sahl al-Tustari (d. 283 AH/ 896 CE) and that the central idea of his Sufi teaching was the constant recollection of God (dhikr) which if practiced continually assures the faithful servant passage into the immediate presence of his Lord.[23] Soon, what Alexander Knysh calls “Sufi psychology” and “Sufi pedagogy”, emerged, the early proponents of which were Abu Abdullah al-Harith al-Muhasibi (d. 243 AH/ 857 CE) and Abu Talib al-Makki (d. 386 AH/ 996 CE) and their vastly influential intellectual legacies.[24]

With the development of fundamental Sufi tenets, methods and vocabulary, educational and training modes and techniques were developing too, which in turn called for the gradual creation of independent Sufi institutions as well. That even before the emergence of specialized Sufi institutions, Sufism was steadily approaching the point of genuine maturity, testifies the verity that the notion of “murid”, or a Sufi disciple, which together with the notion of “sheikh”, or a Sufi teacher and guide, constitutes the central spine of the Sufism phenomenon, was known and widely articulated some time before the emergence of khanqahs. This was so on account of the practical aspects of Sufism being encapsulated in such ideas and procedures as special forms of circles of Sufi fellowship, mutual mentoring and relationship of the sheikh and his disciples (murids). Verily, Sufism is as much drawing near to God and knowing Him better, as drawing near to fellow seekers of truth and strengthening communal bonds within a tariqah. Equally, Sufism signifies as much personal spiritual growth and purification, as communal awareness and commitment. One of the earliest references to the concept of “murid” was given by Dhu al-Nun al-Misri in the early 3rd AH / 9th CE century when he said: “O company of murids, he who coveted amongst you the (Sufi) path, let him meet scholars with ignorance, renunciants with longing, and gnostics with silence.”[25] Around the same time, Abu Abdullah al-Harith al-Muhasibi wrote his book “al-Ri’ayah li Huquq Allah”, which is reputed as one of the earliest and, from that epoch, one of the most authoritative scholarly works on Sufism. In that book, Abu Abdullah al-Harith al-Muhasibi dedicated entire sections to expounding the etiquette of murids in various situations and when dealing with different categories of people.[26] In addition, of those who in the 3rd AH / 9th CE century comprehensively spoke about the “murid” notion, as well as about the elaborate relationship between a murid and a sheikh, were Sufi masters Mumshadh al-Dinuri (d. 299 AH/ 911 CE) and Abu Ya’qub Yusuf al-Razi (d. 304 AH/ 916 CE).[27] Afterwards, when with the likes of Abu Nasr al-Siraj al-Tusi and his book Kitab al-Luma’ and Abu al-Qasim al-Qushayri and his book al-Risalah al-Qushayriyyah producing the Sufi literature got into full swing, dedicating substantial space to discussing the manners of Sufi disciples, novices or aspirants, furnishing them with spiritual and intellectual advices which comprised the focal point of the Sufi curricula, became a norm.

Undeniably, there was no Sufi master in the 3rd AH / 9th CE century who better exemplified the progress of Sufism with all of its authentic conceptual and practical parameters than al-Junayd al-Baghdadi. This is how Ahmet T. Karamustafa describes the situation of Sufism towards the end of the 3rd AH / 9th CE century in Baghdad, for which several Baghdadi Sufi leaders were responsible, but most of all al-Junayd al-Baghdadi: “The special status of the (Sufi) friends manifested itself in a number of practices that simultaneously underscored their distinctness from the common believers (‘awamm) and served to forge bonds of fellowship, loyalty and mutual allegiance among the spiritual elect (khawass). They began to assemble in certain places of congregation (the Shuniziyya mosque for the circle around al-Junayd) and to travel in groups, they developed distinctive prayer rituals in the form of the invocation (dhikr) and the audition to poetry and music (sama’) that frequently led to rapture or ecstasy (wajd), and they adopted special initiation practices, notably investiture with the white woollen robe (khirqa) and the clipping of the moustache. It seems likely, though difficult to verify, that other initiatic acts that came to be characteristic of Sufism, such as the handclasp (musafaha, bay’a), the bestowal with the rosary (subha), and the entrusting of the initiate with the dhikr formula, were also practiced by the first Sufis of Baghdad.”[28]

It is true that the rise of Sufism and Sufi institutions was instigated by some natural processes to which the development of Islamic society and its culture and civilization in general were subjected. However, there were four factors that stood out as greatly responsible for expediting the whole thing. Those four factors were: (1) The Turkish factor; (2) The Persian factor; (3) The Shi’ah factor; and (4) The ahl al-sunnah wa al-jama’ah factor.

Gazi Hursev

sufi artwork

Sufi calligraphiy


[1] Ira M. Lapidus, Sufism and Ottoman Islamic Society, in “The Dervish Lodge”, edited by Raymond Lifchez, p. 16.

[2] Ahmad Ibn Taymiyah, Majmu’ah al-Fatawa, vol. 6 p. 6.

[3] The Dervish Lodge, edited by Raymond Lifchez (See “Introduction” by Raymond Lifchez), p. 6.

[4] Ibn Khaldun, The Muqaddimah, translated into English by Franz Rosenthal, vol. 3 p. 79.

[5] Ibid., vol. 3 p. 79.

[6] Siraj al-Din ‘Umar al-Misri Ibn al-Mulaqqan, Tabaqat al-Awliya’, p. 127.

[7] Ibid., p. 193.

[8] Abu Abd al-Rahman al-Sulami, Tabaqat al-Sufiyyah, p. 183.

[9] Ibid., p. 52.

[10] Ibid., p. 63.

[11] Ibid., p. 98.

[12] Alexander Knysh, Islamic Mysticism, A Short History, p. 95.

[13] Abu Abd al-Rahman al-Sulami, Tabaqat al-Sufiyyah, p. 109. Abu al-Qasim al-Qushayri, Al-Risalah al-Qushayriyyah, p. 426.

[14] Alexander Knysh, Islamic Mysticism, A Short History, p. 95.

[15] Abu Abd al-Rahman al-Sulami, Tabaqat al-Sufiyyah, p. 387.

[16] Ibn Khaldun, The Muqaddimah, translated into English by Franz Rosenthal, vol. 3 p. 80.

[17] Ibid., vol. 3 p. 80.

[18] Abu Hamid al-Ghazzali, The Confessions of al-Ghazzali, p. 46-47.

[19] Ahmet T. Karamustafa, Sufism, the Formative Period, p. 19.

[20] Farid al-Din Attar, Muslim Saints and Mystics, p. 46.

[21] Alexander Knysh, Islamic Mysticism, A Short History, p. 23. Abu al-Qasim al-Qushayri, Al-Risalah al-Qushayriyyah, p. 424.

[22] Alexander Knysh, Islamic Mysticism, A Short History, p. 36-69.

[23] Ibid., p. 86.

[24] Ibid., p. 43-45.

[25] Abu Abd al-Rahman al-Sulami, Tabaqat al-Sufiyyah, p. 34.

[26] Abu Abdullah al-Harith al-Muhasibi, al-Ri’ayah li Huquq Allah, p. 114, 229, 503.

[27] Siraj al-Din ‘Umar al-Misri Ibn al-Mulaqqan, Tabaqat al-Awliya’, p. 220, 267.

[28] Ahmet T. Karamustafa, Sufism, the Formative Period, p. 20.

Leave a Reply

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