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

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


(4) The Ahl al-Sunnah wa al-Jama’ah[1] Factor

 The ahl al-sunnah wa al-jama’ah factor also played a prominent role in instituting and advancing the Sufism and Sufi institutions phenomena. However, if the contributions of the previous three factors targeted both Sufism and Sufi institutions in equal measure, the contributions of the ahl al-sunnah wa al-jama’ah factor, it seems, aimed more at the Sufi establishments, as a palpable institutional evidence of the supremacy of Sunnism over the rest, than at Sufism as sets of doctrines and as a lifestyle. That could be the case because the scope of the ahl al-sunnah wa al-jama’ah factor in relation to the growth of Sufism and its institutions became crystallized only after the roles of the Turkish, Persian and Shi’ah factors were clearly defined, following which generating their expected impacts went into full swing. Moreover, such was the nature of the ahl al-sunnah wa al-jama’ah factor, and such were the circumstances in which it was formulated and in which it became fully operational insofar as Sufism and its institutions were concerned, that there was little time or space left for prolonged dealings with fluid and open-ended abstract and conceptual subject matters. What was needed most urgently was to strategize and regulate the orb of Sunnism in the face of both politically and ideologically assertive opponents by means of an out-and-out institutionalization of all of the religious, socio-political and educational facets and features of Sunnism. The preeminence of Sunnism was thus to be fully brought down from a world of ideas, principles and sentiments to a more concrete world of regulatory policies, systems and institutional organizations, with Sufism having been no exception. Unmistakable demarcating lines at both conceptual and practical levels were thus to be drawn between mainstream Sunnism and the rest of nonconformist ideologies and movements. Hitherto unheard of, the scheme was set to encompass all the governmental macro institutions and bodies, whence it was projected to cascade down to the micro level and have an effect on the rest of establishments and bodies. Prior to this far-reaching initiative, which was spearheaded by the Saljuqs and whose exemplar was later followed by the Ayyubids, the Mamluks, the Ottomans and many others, Sufi institutions belonged to the micro level establishments and bodies, but after that, commencing with the Saljuqs, when numerous Sufi institutions became state-owned, Sufi institutions became well represented at macro and micro levels alike. They belonged to and were utilized by both the government and the common herd of Muslims. Just as Sufism became almost an official state canon, many Sufi institutions likewise became virtually of a nationalized character.


            In the early days, there was no such thing as the concept of ahl al-sunnah wa al-jama’ah. The Prophet (pbuh) spoke much about the virtues of following the jama’ah (community), the Qur’an and his Sunnah, the last component signifying the way Islam is to be lived and practiced as taught and shown by the Prophet (pbuh), the most excellent role model for believers. At the same time, both the Qur’an and the Prophet’s Sunnah warned against disunity, schism and sects. The Qur’an says for example: “Surely they who divided their religion into parts and became sects, you have no concern with them; their affair is only with Allah, then He will inform them of what they did.” (al-An’am, 159).

“Those who split up their religion, and become (mere) sects — each party rejoicing in that which is with itself.” (al-Rum, 32). It is not by a chance that this particular verse is preceded by verses wherein Allah speaks about the true religion, Islam, and some of its underlying qualities and traits, and how it had been patterned in accordance with the inner nature of man. Man’s inner disposition and Allah’s only religion, Islam, were meant for each other. This is to always serve as a powerful unifying factor among Muslims. It has so much potential that it can easily ward off all those forces which entail and advocate discordant and conflict-ridden inclinations. The Qur’an thus in the same context urges: “Then set your face upright for religion in the right state — the nature made by Allah in which He has made men; there is no altering of Allah’s creation; that is the right religion, but most people do not know.” (al-Rum, 30).

However, it has been made clear that making divisions and sects in Islam would in due course become inevitable. Such is to be viewed as a serious test for the followers of the final revelation to mankind and its Prophet, Muhammad (pbuh). It follows that those who fail the test will fall into grave error, but those who pass it will secure immense benefits. The Prophet (pbuh) once said that his Ummah (community) will split up into seventy-three sects or groups. All will enter Hellfire except only one which is the consensus of the community or the Ummah (jama’ah), or the one which will follow the course of the Prophet (pbuh) and his companions.[2] In the same vein, during his farewell pilgrimage in his last sermon, the Prophet (pbuh) stressed that he was leaving behind him two things, the Quran and his example, the Sunnah, and if the people followed those two they will never go astray.[3]

Since the dawn of Islamic culture and civilization, beginning with the Prophet’s era, Muslims coined different terms in order to describe those who followed the religious path trodden by the Prophet (pbuh) and his companions, and those who did otherwise. Some of the terms articulated for the purpose were: ahl al-qiblah (the people of the Qiblah, as a symbol of one vision, purpose and orientation), ahl al-sunnah (the people of the Prophet’s Sunnah), ahl ta’ah Allah (the people who duly obey Allah), ahl al-wafa’ bi ahd Allah (the people who fulfill their covenant with Allah), ahl al-tawhid (the people of Allah’s Oneness); ahl al-iman (the people of faith), ahl al-bid’ah (the people of religious innovations), ahl al-furqah (the people of separation and schism), ahl al-ahwa’ (the people who followed their vain desires). Of these idioms, most commonly utilized were ahl al-sunnah for true believers and the true followers of the Qur’an and Sunnah, and ahl al-bid’ah as well as ahl al-furqah for those who deviated from the clearly and straightforwardly delineated Islamic right path. In all probability, the first person who in academic circles used officially the expression ahl al-sunnah wa al-jama’ah was Imam Abu Ja’far al-Tahawi (d. 321 AH/ 933 CE) who in the introduction to his treatise on Islamic creed or aqidah (al-‘Aqidah al-Tahawiyyah) said that the book was an exposition of the creed of the ahl al-sunnah wa al-jama’ah in accordance with the understanding of Muslim jurists.

While commenting on the Qur’anic verse: “And as to those whose faces turn white (on the Day of Judgment), they shall be in Allah’s mercy; in it they shall abide.” (Al ‘Imran, 107), Abu al-Fida’ Ibn Kathir (d. 774 AH/ 1372 CE) remarked that a companion Abdullah b. Abbas (d. 68 AH/ 687 CE) said that the people implied in the said verse were (the people of) ahl al-sunnah wa al-jama’ah.[4] However, it is very unlikely that the term or the maxim in question was known as such during the early days of Islam and that Abdullah b. Abbas, therefore, could make use of it in his lifetime. This is because there are no reports whatsoever that anybody ever employed it at the time of the Prophet’s companions or afterwards till perhaps the end of the 3rd AH/ 9th CE or the early 4th AH/ 10th CE centuries soon after which using the maxim ahl al-sunnah wa al-jama’ah became a standard. What Abu al-Fida’ Ibn Kathir did in his exegesis of the Qur’an, it appears, was that he in the spirit of his time and the latter’s lexis interpreted, rather than narrated verbatim, the words of Abdullah b. Abbas who in point of fact said (the people of) ahl al-sunnah and not (the people of) ahl al-sunnah wa al-jama’ah. This could be further corroborated by another eminent exegete, al-Qurtubi (d. 671 AH/ 1272 CE), who made reference to the same account of Abdullah b. Abbas in the context of elucidating the same Qur’anic verse, but maintained that Abdullah b. Abbas said that those people whose faces will turn white on the Day of Judgment will be (the people of) ahl al-sunnah rather than (the people of) ahl al-sunnah wa al-jama’ah.[5]

Prior to the crystallization of the concept of ahl al-sunnah wa al-jama’ah, which entailed the quintessence of two most significant thrusts in Islam, that is, unity of the vision, purpose, struggle and goals of Muslims, and submission and conformity to the noblest divine standards and values, the Muslim community, as a part of God’s overall plan for his creations, including the followers of His religion, Islam, went through a rollercoaster of religious and socio-political ups and downs. Following an abrupt shift from perfect caliphate to hereditary monarchy – which henceforth was still called caliphate though — in year 41 AH/ 661 CE, which claimed the lives of some of the most illustrious personalities of early Islam and its nascent society, there appeared no end in sight for Muslim problems and dilemmas on all fronts. Some of the biggest upheavals always ensued whenever the institution of caliphate, regardless of how feeble, deficient and incompetent it and its personnel might have been, was overcome by some deviational teachings and tendencies as a result of which the same teachings and tendencies were then attempted to be championed and disseminated through the governmental institutional channels and means. Hence, Islamic society, for example, hit its lowest ebb when Abbasid caliph al-Ma’mun (d. 218 AH/ 833 CE) declared the Mu’tazili system of ideas (rational theology influenced by the rationalist methods of Hellenistic philosophy), which since their inception was at loggerheads with the mainstream of Islamic orthodox thought, an official creed not only of the government, but also of the whole state. What followed was one of darkest periods in Muslim history which lasted about 15 years, from approximately 218 to 234 AH / 833 to 848 CE, and involved three Abbasid caliphs, al-Ma’mun, al-Mu’tasim (d. 228 AH/ 842 CE) and al-Wathiq (d. 233 AH/ 847 CE). The period was characterized by mihnah or inquisition, which referred to Islamic courts established for a compulsory test of faith. For one to come closer to terms with the extent and depth of the political and ideological crisis which was then befalling Muslims, and which seems to have represented just the tip of the iceberg, one ought also to remember that the same caliph, i.e., al-Ma’mun, prior to the execution of his mentioned program, contemplated to adopt Shi’ism as his own ideology and to impose it on the government and society at large.[6] Those unfortunate developments spawned as spinoffs loads of other to some extent lesser in scope and effect political and religious crises at both local and national levels.

Another extremely excruciating calamity that shook the Muslim community to its foundations was the appearance and rapid expansion of the Buyid Shi’ah dynasty which dominated mainly the territories of Iraq and Iran from 323 to 454 AH/ 934 to 1062 CE. The territories controlled by the Buyids used to function as the strongholds of the Abbasid caliphate, including the city of Baghdad, the Abbasid capital. That made the Abbasids very weak and completely subservient to the Buyids. The Buyids thus were able to make and unmake caliphs at will, and that is exactly what they used to do. Iraq was governed as a province from the Buyid capital, Shiraz, in Iran. The caliphate institution was passing through the period of its arguably deepest humiliation with Abbasid caliphs mere puppets in the hands of the schismatic “commanders of the commanders” (amir al-‘umara’), the official position which the Buyid rulers accorded themselves. They insisted that they be mentioned along with the caliph in the khutbah on Fridays. They even had their names stamped on the coinage.[7] Moreover, having subscribed to Shi’ism, the Buyids established Shi’ah festivals, particularly the public mourning on the anniversary of the death of al-Husayn, Ali’s son and the Prophet’s grandson, and the rejoicing on the anniversary of the Prophet’s alleged appointment of Ali b. Abi Talib as his successor at Ghadir al-Kumm. The Buyids also built some Shi’ah funerary complexes. In this fashion, the perennial Shi’ah-Sunnah conflicts were brought to another level, and the religious and intellectual confusion that accompanied those conflicts were rendered even more profound and agonizing.[8]

It was during those and other similar turbulent events that the concept of ahl al-sunnah wa al-jama’ah evolved and its usage was optimized. When the Saljuqs, the loyal supporters of the notion of ahl al-sunnah wa al-jama’ah arrived on the scene and defeated the Buyids, a new hope was given to everybody, to rulers and the public alike. The Saljuqs triumphantly entered Baghdad in 447 AH/ 1055 CE, thus “liberating” the caliphate institution from a Shi’ah nuisance. In order to bolster and sustain the victory of ahl al-sunnah wa al-jama’ah over ahl al-bid’ah wa al-furqah, no sooner had the Saljuqs crushed their foremost opponents, the Buyids, than they set out on a mission to institutionalize and thereby fortify orthodox Islam. This resulted, essentially, in the creation of scores of schools, or madrasahs, and khanqahs where the study and dissemination of Sunni Islam, as well as Sufism as a thought, tradition and movement, were meant to be carried out in a hitherto unprecedented manner and mode. Those institutions were set up firstly in the early centers of the Saljuqi power, such as Nishapur, Isfahan and Baghdad. The trend soon extended throughout the territories which were controlled by the Saljuqs. It was to be followed quickly in Syria, Egypt and elsewhere, by the members of other independent or quasi-independent states and dynasties, such as the Ayyubids and Mamluks in Syria and Egypt.

It is of note that such was the ideological and political turmoil in society that immediately after their enthronement, the Saljuqs themselves needed sometime to adopt and defend a unified stand in relation to the question of ahl al-sunnah wa al-jama’ah and its various institutional considerations. There were in the Saljuqi midst those who favored Hanafism, as a Sunni school of jurisprudence (madhhab), and its relative rationalistic inclinations due to some of the Hanafis having been drawn to Mu’tazili theology. There were also those who subscribed and followed Shafi’i madhhab and Ash’ari theology. And of course, there were still some residues of Shi’ism and its populist and esoteric sentiments. The anti-rationalist Hanbali madhhab was well represented too. Several Abbasid caliphs were Hanbalis. One of them, caliph al-Qadir (d. 423 AH/ 1031 CE), who did not live long enough to experience the Saljuq rule, was so much concerned about restoring the ideological order firstly in capital Baghdad which was controlled by the Buyids and then if possible in the rest of the country, that he began a series of public condemnations of the Fatimids, their Isma’ili sympathizers, and all other parties and dynasties that did not support the Abbasids and their traditional beliefs. Embraced and amplified by Ash’ari theologians, those declarations were collected to form the famous al-risalah al-qadiriyyah (the Epistle of al-Qadir).[9] The Qadiri Creed became the cornerstone of the new Abbasid orthodoxy and the official dogma of the caliphate. This traditionalist creed rejected Shi’ism and rationalism in all their forms but saved its severest condemnation for the Fatimids in Egypt and their Mu’tazili theologians. It was drawn heavily from Hanbali theology but benefitted from the dialectical reasoning of the Ash’arites.[10] The Qadiri Creed was in effect long after the death of caliph al-Qadir. Abu al-Fida’ Ibn Kathir made a reference to it and its application and immense effect approximately thirty seven years after caliph al-Qadir’s passing away, in year 460 AH/ 1067 CE.[11] Due to its critical objectives and purpose, the Qadiri Creed was for long regarded in many circles as the standard belief system of Islam and all Muslims. It was, according to Abu al-Fida’ Ibn Kathir, the official theological madhhab of ahl al-sunnah (the people of the Prophet’s Sunnah). Those who contravened it were deemed sinners and even disbelievers.[12]

As an illustration of how severe and widespread the sectarian conflicts were in the nascent Saljuqi sultanate, it has been reported that in year 447 AH/ 1055 CE when the Saljuqs triumphantly entered Baghdad, the city witnessed violent clashes not only between the Sunnis and the Shi’ah, who in that particular year fought for long and so intensely that the government could not separate them, but also between the Ash’arites and the Hanbalis. The latter, having been backed by the Abbasid government, ultimately prevailed and became so dominant in the city of Baghdad that the Ash’arites were unable to attend neither Friday prayer nor the other five daily prayers in mosques.[13]

As another indication of this much politicized religious chaos and how much it was able to impact the people, including some governmental officials, let us refer to the case of Abu Nasr al-Kunduri (d. 456 AH/ 1063 CE) who was the vizier of Saljuqi Sultan Tughrul Beg (d. 455 AH/ 1062 CE). During al-Kunduri’s tenure as vizier, the followers of the Shafi’i and Ash’ari madhhabs were persecuted by the Saljuqi government forces for both political and religious reasons. The persecution, most probably, was motivated by the conflict between two schools of Islamic jurisprudence, the Hanafi and Shafi’i schools, and also between two schools of Islamic theology, the Ash’ari and Mu’tazili schools. It is believed that the adherents of the Shafi’i and Ash’ari schools of thought would not have been persecuted except for al-Kunduri’s fanatical Mu’tazili viewpoints.[14] At any rate, al-Kunduri on the advice of the head of Nishapur’s Shafi’i jurists received permission from his prince Tughrul Beg to have the Shi’ah and instigators of innovation publicly cursed from the minbars or pulpits of the mosques in Nishapur. He then had this permission extended to Abu al-Hasan al-Ash’ari (d. 324 AH/ 936 CE), the founder of the Ash’ari theology. This was a provocative move as the Ash’arites were numerous in the city, especially among the Shafi’is. Rabia Harris supposes that quite possibly, some internal Shafi’i power struggle was involved.[15] Some accounts suggest that even Imam al-Shafi’i himself was the target of some of al-Kunduri’s invectives. However, in year 456 AH/ 1063 CE, about one year following the death of his main patron, Sultan Tughrul Beg, whom he served as vizier, Abu Nasr al-Kunduri was captured by Alp Arslan (d. 465 AH/ 1072 CE), the new Sultan, who clearly and for obvious reasons did not favor to retain the services of the controversial and divisive vizier. Next, Alp Arslan placed him under house arrest shortly after which he sent someone to have him killed.[16] It is said that prior to his death, al-Kunduri repented for insulting Imam al-Shafi’i, about which Ibn al-Athir (d. 630 AH/ 1232 CE) remarked: “If he did, he thus saved himself.”[17]

In Abu Nasr al-Kunduri’s place, Sultan Alp Arslan appointed Nizam al-Mulk (d. 485 AH/ 1092 CE) as the new vizier. During his tenure as vizier, a period that went on for thirty years, Nizam al-Mulk served two remarkable Saljuqi rulers or Sultans: Alp Arslan and Malik Shah (d. 485 AH/ 1092 CE). During these decades, the Saljuqi empire was at its zenith. Nizam al-Mulk’s influence guided the Sultan’s decisions, sometimes even military ones, and his firm control of the central and provincial administration, through his numerous dependents and relatives, he implemented those decisions. His influence was especially felt in the rule of Sultan Malik Shah, who succeeded to the Saljuqi throne when he was only eighteen.[18] Nizam al-Mulk was known as a pious and erudite person. Anecdotes abound describing, often in exaggerated terms, the extent of his piety and thirst for knowledge. His closest allies were scholars, the Sufis, the pious and the deprived. He regarded them as the most formidable and indispensable force. They were “the soldiers who whichever army assailed, they conquered it”. They did so through constant invocations in the “battlefields” of their prayers and other forms of worship performed in seclusion. He called jurists and other scholars “the grandeur of this world and the Hereafter”.[19] Nizam al-Mulk, at the same time, was very critical of those with heterodox religious views, the Shi’ah in particular. His support of Sunni Islam was not only for reasons of state, but also a matter of passionate conviction. Nizam al-Mulk expressed his religious devotion in ways that contributed to the Sunni revival. He founded a string of Nizamiyyah madrassahs or colleges of higher learning in many major towns throughout the empire to combat the propaganda of the Shi’ah and other forms of heterodoxy, as well as to provide reliable, competent administrators, schooled in his own branch of Islamic law. Pensions for the poor and extensive public works related to the pilgrimage to Makkah and Madinah were also created or sustained by his patronage.[20]

Naturally, the Sufis and emerging Sufi orders and institutions, too, greatly benefited from Nizam al-Mulk’s generosity. Khanqahs flourished under his patronage. One of the Sufis, as well as of the leading scholars of Shafi’i madhhab in jurisprudence and Ash’ari madhhab in theology, whom Nizam al-Mulk held in high esteem, was Abu al-Qasim al-Qushayri. The vizier is said to have stood up out of respect whenever Abu al-Qasim al-Qushayri joined his assembly. He would then seat him on a seat next to himself. Nizam al-Mulk used to do this to several other illustrious scholars of the day.[21] During the trial and tribulation which was caused by Abu Nasr al-Kunduri’s profanation, several scholars had to flee from the Khorosan region. One of them was Abu al-Qasim al-Qushayri. However, when the adversity was over and when Nizam al-Mulk was appointed vizier by Alp Arslan as the new Sultan, the absconders were asked to return. They did and they were greatly honored and respected ever since.[22] Eventually, vizier Nizam al-Mulk was assassinated. Lots of controversies surround his death. But many versions seem to be in agreement that he was killed by a man who approached him in the form of a devout Sufi and pretended to hand the vizier a gift. When Nizam al-Mulk reached out to take the gift from him, the man stabbed him.[23] Its stands to reason that on account of Nizam al-Mulk’s reverence for, as well as his affable relationship with, the Sufis, the assailant knew that the best chance he had for executing his design was to pretend to be a Sufi and to dress and behave like one, and in such a state to approach the vizier.

It appears as though the Saljuqi rulers realized that the best policy under the circumstances would be favoring religious diversity, so long as it did not transgress the bounds of orthodoxy, and a measure of tolerance. Hence, the Sultan and his family were Hanafis; Nizam al-Mulk and other state officials were Shafi’is; while the caliph remained true to his Hanbalism.[24] When Abu Hamid al-Ghazzali arrived on the scene, it was none other than him who as the foremost Shafi’i jurist and Ash’ari theologian added Sufism to the scale of the rising supremacy of Shafi’i and Ash’ari madhhabs – as dimensions of Sunnism — something which the likes of Abu al-Qasim al-Qushayri, in fact, had been attempting to accomplish approximately around the time when Abu Hamid al-Ghazzali was not even born. It follows that Abu Hamid al-Ghazzali created a legacy whose seeds had been sown much earlier through the efforts of such Sufi scholars as Abu al-Qasim al-Qushayri and others. This paradigm of a broad middle road of Islamic Sunni thinking and practice, which accommodated all the Muslim mainstream schools of thought plus bona fide Sufism, was to dominate Muslim religious development for centuries to come.[25]

Because their chief concern was to preserve the unity and interests of Sunnism whose scope and disposition were reasonably flexible and accommodative to ijtihadi (striving in decision making) differences of opinion not only in jurisprudence (fiqh), but also in theology, the Saljuqs rarely actively participated in the ongoing religious disputes between different madhhabs, the only exception having been the vizierate of Abu Nasr al-Kunduri. In other words, they did not strive to change the balance of power of the local factions. Nor did they keenly side with any of the Sunni groups in the religious rivalries in the state, no matter what madhhab that group might have represented. The Saljuqs managed to transcend that level of confrontation, focusing instead on defending and safeguarding the Sunnism entity and its global repute and interests. On the same note, it could be asserted that “the main objective of Nizam al-Mulk and other members of the ruling elite was to put an end to, or at least reduce, the turmoil caused by debates among the local factions over proper creed and behavior. Hence, only when such debates involved large segments of the population posing a threat to public order, did the rulers step in to restore peace and order. On such occasions, they usually acted in favor of the religious faction that had already gained the largest local following. This may explain why, while patronizing the Shafi’is, Nizam al-Mulk took the side of the Hanbalis, their rivals in Baghdad, yielding to their demand to frustrate any attempt to preach Ash’arism in the city’s madrasahs and mosques.”[26]

What’s more, the Saljuqs promoted Sufism and Sufi institutions also because they saw in that combination a power to be reckoned with in their quest to establish the supremacy of Sunni Islam in provinces under their rule. In the midst of the enduring sectarian debates and conflicts, Sufism must have been perceived as a genre that if duly brought into play could be used at once as a constructive element in upholding Sunnism, for a majority of the Sufis, at least on the exterior, belonged to it, and as a defusing and counterbalancing influence by promoting some of the Sufi tenets and values that could be correlated with the merits of amiability, clemency, honesty, and for some even a measure of escapism and passivism, which were all in their respective capacities needed then and were viewed as fine assets in the abiding struggle. On that score, vizier Nizam al-Mulk and his supreme benefactor, Sultan Alp Arslan, must have appreciated the dignified response of Abu al-Qasim al-Qushayri, who was not only a Sufi master and an epitome of authentic Sufism, but also a well-known theologian, jurist and a scholar of hadith (the Prophet’s tradition), to the crisis caused and fanned by the policies and actions of former vizier, Abu Nasr al-Kunduri. Apart from walking out on both the vizierate of Abu Nasr al-Kunduri and all those segments of the Saljuqi administration under whose tutelage the vizier was able to operate, Abu al-Qasim al-Qushayri, in addition, assumed the duty of commanding the right and forbidding the wrong. Having witnessed that a coercive manipulation of Sunnism had been attempted, he passed an edict arguing that Abu al-Hasan al-Ash’ari was a great leader of the followers of the Prophet’s tradition (hadith) whose creed was Sunni and entirely congruent with the faith of the Sunni Muslims. Accordingly, he and his followers could not be cursed. Next, Abu al-Qasim al-Qushayri wrote an epistle addressed to all the scholars of the Islamic world entitled “Complaint of the People of the Sunnah with Reports of the Trials that have Afflicted them”. Within a short time, the situation appeared threatening to the regime and the crackdown predictably ensued. As a result, Abu al-Qasim al-Qushayri was arrested and imprisoned in Nishapur for some time, after which he absconded, firstly to Makkah then to Baghdad.[27] In the same way, the Saljuqi sovereigns could not overlook, nor close the eyes to the contributions of Abu Hamid al-Ghazzali not only to the overall state of mainstream Islamic scholarship and religious and cultural development, but also to the advancement of genuine Sufism, which by then had become integral to the Sunni spheres. Almost the same estimation holds true in connection with Jalaluddin Muhammad al-Rumi who lived most of his life under the Saljuqi Sultanate of Rum – an offshoot, or a division, of the great Saljuqi empire which lasted from 470 AH/ 1077 CE to 707 AH/ 1307 CE — where he produced his works and died in 672 AH/ 1273 CE. Indeed, in leading Sufi personalities of the day, as well as in their huge following, the Saljuqs found a trustworthy and at the same time zealous ally in shoring up and advancing the cause of ahl al-sunnah wa al-jama’ah. Such an alliance, which later was boosted even further and was sustained by some extra participative efforts and charges of the Ottomans, was destined to last for many subsequent centuries, and whose effects were so influential and ubiquitous that some of them are still felt today in a great many corners of the Muslim world.

It is true that the Sufis possessed both quality and quantity which not only the Saljuqi rulers, but also the sovereigns of the Abbasid caliphate as well as other, especially subsequent self-governing and quasi-autonomous dynasties and states, coveted to capitalize on. Some of the earliest signs of that would-be coalition could be detected in the demeanors of two comparatively early Abbasid caliphs, al-Ma’mun and al-Mutawakkil, as mentioned earlier. The case of the founder of one of the earliest dynasties, the Tulunid dynasty in Egypt, Ahmad b. Tulun (d. 271 AH/ 884 CE), who is reported to have been counseled by a Sufi Bunan al-Hammal, should also be cited as evidence.[28] The swelling popularity and influence of Sufism and its leading figures were there for all to be seen; they went from strength to strength. For instance, when Fath b. Shakhraf al-Kissi (d. 273 AH/ 886 CE), a well-known Sufi who is said to have not eaten bread as a sign of extreme asceticism for thirty years, died in Baghdad, the city virtually came to a standstill. Between twenty five and thirty thousand people participated in the funeral prayer for him. The prayer was performed thirty three times.[29] Also, when al-Junayd al-Baghdadi passed away, his funeral prayer in Baghdad was attended by approximately sixty thousand people.[30] It has been related that fresh after completing his Sufi magnum opus Ihya’ ‘Ulum al-Din”, Abu Hamid al-Ghazzali taught it in his Ribat. Huge numbers of people from all walks of life attended the sessions every day.[31] Furthermore, Nuruddin Zangi (d. 570 AH/ 1174 CE), a member of the Turkish Zangid dynasty which ruled the Syrian province of the Saljuqi Empire, is said to have visited a Sufi called Hayah b. Qays b. Rihal al-Harani (d. 581 AH/ 1185 CE) prior to his military confrontation with the Crusaders, soliciting the Sufi’s supplications. A similar thing with the same Sufi was done by Sultan Salahuddin al-Ayyubi (d. 590 AH/ 1193 CE), the first Sultan of Egypt and Syria and the founder of the Ayyubid dynasty. On the whole, the Sufi Hayah b. Qays b. Rihal al-Harani is described as one frequented by the rulers who used to pay him a visit with the aim of seeking blessing.[32]

To digress a bit, in such conducive environments, the culture of erecting funerary structures over the graves of certain Sufi saints, producing codes of conduct and manuals concerning visiting those graves, and saint worship were all set to be introduced soon. Indeed, such signified as much novel Sufi traditions as circuitous, desperate and even contentious efforts aimed to contribute whatever they could in the enduring orthodoxy-versus-unorthodoxy debates and conflicts. It was a tit-for-tat approach, so to say, meant mainly to counter the like Shi’ah models anchored in excessive populism and esotericism. This explains, albeit to a certain extent only, why around the same time and in the same contexts – that is, in those regions where, and when, the idea of ahl al-sunnah wa al-jama’ah was foremost championed and defended, and where, and when, Sufism was welcomed aboard for the purpose – a tradition of erecting massive mausoleums and tombs for some leading Sunni luminaries was also initiated. As two illustrations for this supposition, we will refer firstly to the creation of a mausoleum for Imam Abu Hanifah (d. 150 AH/ 767 CE) in Baghdad in 459 AH/ 1066 CE, next to which a madrasah was built,[33] and secondly, to the mausoleum of Imam al-Shafi’i which was built by the Ayyubid Sultan al-Malik al-Kamil (d. 635 AH/ 1238 CE) in Egypt, another focal point of the Sunni revival following the eviction of the Shi’ah Fatimids from there.

However, just as the mainstream Muslim political leadership which rigorously defended and propagated the idea of ahl al-sunnah wa al-jama’ah, was drawn to the orb of Sufism, so were the true Sufis drawn to the jurisdiction of the same ideal of Sunnism, in equal measure upholding and propagating it. The affinity between the two sides was reciprocal, having been unified by a shared Sunni outlook and struggle. In retrospect, when in some earlier times the lines delineating the boundaries of Sunnism were not plainly drawn, there were Sufis who while observing their emerging distinctive Sufi intellectual trend and devotional style intentionally or otherwise failed to conform to certain required codes and standards. There were many Sufis who, for example, subscribed to the Mu’tazili, Shi’ah and even some other theological and political standpoints. That was the case in view of the fact that since the major disagreeing ideas and tendencies between the major Muslim religious and political factions needed some time to crystallize and develop into separate denominations, many people stood at the crossroads, fairly confused and unsure which side to go in with. Consequently, several run-ins with the mainstream rulers and even scholars came about. This trend is perhaps best exemplified by the case of Abu Mansur al-Hallaj. It has been said about him that he outwardly presented himself as a renunciant and a devout Sufi, but if he saw that the people of a city followed the Mu’tazili thought, he would follow them, and if they followed Shi’ism, he, too, would profess the same philosophy. Al-Hallaj was eventually killed, partly due to some of his alleged heretical beliefs, and partly due to some of his highly objectionable political affiliations and perspectives, most likely the Shi’ah ones.[34]

Surely, the protracted trial and execution of al-Hallaj by the Abbasid regime left a deep wound and an undeletable mark on the body of Sufism after which it needed a substantial amount of time to recover. Sufism and the Sufis were jolted. They came under the radar of both the rulers and scholars ever since. Hence, no sooner had the al-Hallaj scandal been blown out than a majority of the Sufis started to dissociate themselves from him and his controversial views, with one of his former mentors, al-Junayd al-Baghdadi, leading the way. Writing apologetic Sufi epistles and books was the next vital step. In those epistles and books, Sunnism was assertively defended and publicized, and all forms of unorthodoxy, especially the Mu’tazili thought, were as assertively repudiated. To prove that they really meant business, a lot of Sufis studied and became authorities in jurisprudence, Sunni theology, hadith and even in the Arabic language. Hence, when one reads compendiums of biographical information about famous Sufi personalities, especially those written by Siraj al-Din ‘Umar al-Misri Ibn al-Mulaqqan and Abu Abd al-Rahman al-Sulami, one does not need to make an extra effort to realize that the authors were keen on stressing which religious and even mundane sciences, apart from Sufism, many of the Sufis they wrote about had managed to master. No wonder then, why the Sufi icons of Abu al-Qasim al-Qushayri and Abu Hamid al-Ghazzali are often mentioned in the same breath as Imam al-Haramayni al-Juwayni (d. 478 AH/ 1085 CE), a master theologian and jurist, and Abu Ishaq al-Shirazi (d. 476 AH/ 1083 CE), a master jurist and scholar of hadith.

            Furthermore, the Saljuqs and other subsequent Sunni rulers decided to promote institutionalized Sufism by means of building extensive networks of khanqahs also because some forms of heterodoxy, including pseudo Sufism, was being promoted and disseminated in the same way. It was an effort to face the adversaries on an equal footing and with equally effective means and measures; it was an effort to level the playing field. As mentioned earlier, the Shi’ah Sufis used to build khanqahs. They did so in territories once controlled by the Buyids which later came under the purview of the Saljuqs. Some Saljuqi leaders then forbade the Shi’ah not only to have khanqahs, but also madrasahs.[35] Next, the Karramiyyah, a type of pseudo Sufism and a religious movement that combined theological beliefs and Sufi practices, also used khanqahs for the active propagation of its tenets among the rural and urban masses, including non-Muslims. The Karramiyyah khanqahs served as centers for instructions and ascetic life. Their khanqahs could be found not only in the towns and countryside of Khorosan and Transoxania, but also in the quarters of Jerusalem and Fustat (Old Cairo). They were especially prominent in Nishapur, where many Karramis resided in a large khanqah headed by the influential Mahmashadh family with strong ascetic propensities. The Karramiyyah movement was finally suppressed by the joint forces of the Hanafi and Shafi’i factions of Nishapur in the late 5th AH/ 11th CE centuries.[36] The threat and challenge from the Karramiyyah perhaps became a driving factor for the rapid founding of khanqahs by the Sufi jurists and theologians at the end of the 4th AH/ 10th CE century. These khanqahs served to counter the Karramiyyah rivals in educating the Muslims to the right path of authentic Sufism and Muslim devotion. In one such khanqah, Sheikh Abu Sa’id b. Abi al-Khayr (d. 441 AH/ 1049 CE), the initiator of the so-called Persian Sufism, was educated with a strong foundation of true Sufism and was initiated to the Sufi way.[37] Due to his vast experience with the khanqah life and tradition since his childhood, Sheikh Abu Sa’id b. Abi al-Khayr became the pioneer of the first systematic regulations governing communal life in khanqahs.[38] Definitely, it was not a coincidence that the ultimate demise of the Karramiyyah and their Sufi institutions, especially in the Nishapur area, coincided with the advent and rapid ascent of the Saljuqs on the Muslim political scene.

            Lastly, the task of reviving and preserving Sunnism, above all against the threat of Shi’ism, was further intensified by the Ayyubids who ruled in the late 6th AH/12th CE and early 7th AH/ 13th CE centuries over Egypt and what became upper Iraq, most of Syria and Yemen, in the process doing away with the menace posed by the Shi’ah Fatimids particularly in Egypt from 4th AH/ 10th CE to 6th AH/ 12th CE century, that is, to the Ayyubid accession to power. Equally integral to that Ayyubid undertaking was the endorsing and supporting of Sufism and its institutions. Thus, the Saljuqs and Ayyubids are often credited most for the preservation and application of Sunni Islam; as they are credited for steering institutionalized Sufism towards almost universal acceptance and application as part and strength of ahl al-sunnah wa al-jama’ah. Just like their Saljuqi counterparts, the Ayyubid rulers became munificent patrons of learning and education. Numerous madrasahs, which were meant for education in general, and for promoting and popularizing the religious studies of ahl al-sunnah wa al-jama’ah in particular, mushroomed throughout their country. Although the Ayyubids were from the Shafi’i madhhab, they built madrasahs for imparting instruction in all four conventionally accepted Sunni madhhabs or systems of religious-juridical thought. According to Ibn Jubayr (d. 614 AH/ 1217 CE), who traversed the Ayyubid lands controlled by Salahuddin al-Ayyubi, the founder of the Ayyubid sultanate, the city of Damascus was distinguished for its abundant and generously subsidized public facilities and services. It, for example, had twenty madrasahs, 100 public baths, two maristans or hospitals cum medical schools, and of course, a large number of Sufi institutions which Ibn Jubayr sometimes called ribats and sometimes khanqahs.[39] It was just appropriate therefore, that the first khanqah in Egypt was also established by Salahuddin al-Ayyubi, as was the first madrasah.[40] In order to completely overcome the Shi’ah Fatimid peril, which stemmed from, and was surviving on, emotions and sentiments oriented populism as a political ideology, and on spreading and psychologically manipulating certain esoteric opinions and beliefs, the Ayyubids, Just like the Saljuqs, resorted to widening and amplifying the realms of Sufism and Sunni scholarship as adequate alternatives for people. By popularizing the two dimensions of Islam, which, too, were fraught with a dose of emotional populism as well as esotericism, the Ayyubids were able to expedite the downfall of one of the main internal Sunni foes of the day, the Shi’ah Fatimids, and at the same time to implement speedily most of their socio-political and religious agendas.


sufi sections Mavlana konya

Ornately portal shah Nimatullah

Courtyard Jerrah Tekke Istanbul

[1] The meaning: “The people of the tradition of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) and the consensus of the Ummah (Muslim community)”.

[2] Mukhtasar Tafsir Ibn Kathir, Ikhtasarahu al-Sabuni Muhammad ‘Ali, vol. 3 p. 55.

[3] Muhammad Husein Haykal, The Life of Muhammad, translated into English by Isma’il Ragi al-Faruqi, (Kuala Lumpur: Islamic Book Trust, 1993), p. 487.

[4] Mukhtasar Tafsir Ibn Kathir, Ikhtasarahu al-Sabuni Muhammad ‘Ali, vol. 1 p. 307.

[6] Al-Mas’udi, Muruj al-Dhahab, (Beirut: Dar al-Ma’rifah, 1983), vol. 4 p. 5.

[7] Philip K. Hitti, History of the Arabs, p. 470.

[8] Ibid., p. 471-473.

[9] Yasser Tabbaa, The Transformation of Islamic Art during Sunni Revival, p. 15-16.

[10] Ibid., p. 16.

[11] Abu al-Fida’ Ibn Kathir, al-Bidayah wa al-Nihayah, vol. 12 p. 53.

[12] Ibid., vol. 12 p. 53, 103.

[13] Ibid., vol. 12 p. 71.

[14] Abdul Muhaya, Maqamat (Stations) and Ahwal (States) According to al-Qushayri and al-Hujwiri, (A Master’s Thesis), (Montreal: McGill University, 1993), p. 20-22.

[15] Abu al-Qasim al-Qushayri, Al-Risalah al-Qushayriyyah, abridged translation into English by Rabia Harris, see the translator’s introduction, p. xi.

[16] Abu al-Fida’ Ibn Kathir, al-Bidayah wa al-Nihayah, vol. 12 p. 96.

[17] Ibn al-Athir, al-Kamil fi al-Tarikh, (Beirut: Dar al-Kutub al-‘Ilmiyyah, 1987), vol. 8 p. 365.

[18] Nizam al-Mulk, Encyclopedia Britannica Academic Edition, (accessed November 20, 2012)

[19] Abu al-Fida’ Ibn Kathir, al-Bidayah wa al-Nihayah, vol. 12 p. 97, 149.

[20] Nizam al-Mulk, Encyclopedia Britannica Academic Edition, (accessed November 20, 2012)

[21] Abu al-Fida’ Ibn Kathir, al-Bidayah wa al-Nihayah, vol. 12 p. 149.

[22] Ibn al-Athir, al-Kamil fi al-Tarikh, vol. 8 p. 365.

[23] Theoharis Stavrides, The Sultan of Vezirs, (Leiden: Brill, 2001), p. 45. H. Bowen,
C.E. Bosworth, Nizam al-Mulk, (accessed November 20, 2012)

[24] Yasser Tabbaa, The Transformation of Islamic Art during Sunni Revival, p. 18.

[25] Ibid., p. 15.

[26] Daphna Ephrat, Religious Leadership and Associations in the Public Sphere of Seljuk Baghdad, in “The Public Sphere in Muslim Society” edited by Miriam Hoexter, Shmuel N. Eisenstadt and Nehemia Levtzion, (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2002), p. 31-45.

[27] Abu al-Qasim al-Qushayri, Al-Risalah al-Qushayriyyah, abridged translation into English by Rabia Harris, see the translator’s introduction, p. xii. Abu al-Faraj Ibn al-Jawzi, al-Muntazim fi Tarikh al-Muluk wa al-Umam, vol. 15 p. 345.

[28] Siraj al-Din ‘Umar al-Misri Ibn al-Mulaqqan, Tabaqat al-Awliya’, p. 108.

[29] Ibid., p. 210.

[30] Ibid., p. 116.

[31] Abu al-Fida’ Ibn Kathir, al-Bidayah wa al-Nihayah, vol. 12 p. 159.

[32] Siraj al-Din ‘Umar al-Misri Ibn al-Mulaqqan, Tabaqat al-Awliya’, p. 293.

[33] Abu al-Fida’ Ibn Kathir, al-Bidayah wa al-Nihayah, vol. 12 p. 101.

[34] Abu al-Faraj Ibn al-Jawzi, al-Muntazim fi Tarikh al-Muluk wa al-Umam, vol. 13 p. 202.

[35] Ahmad Kamal al-Din Hilmi, Al-Salajiqah fi al-Tarikh wa al-Hadarah, p. 219.

[36] Alexander Knysh, Islamic Mysticism, A Short History, p. 91-92.

[38] Ibid., p. 4-5.

[39] Ibn Jubayr, Rihlah Ibn Jubayr, p. 230-237.

[40] Abu al-‘Abbas al-Maqrizi, Al-Khitat al-Maqriziyyah, vol. 4 p. 200, 282.

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