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

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


(1)The Turkish Factor

The Turkish factor played an important role in making Sufism and its institutions a ubiquitous phenomenon in Islamic society. Soon after they had been introduced in the early 3rd AH/ 9th CE century as Turkish soldiers in the army of the Abbasid caliphs, the Turkish populace set out to etch its undeletable place and significance on the Muslim scene. In slightly more than a century later, Turkish soldiers started emerging as the de facto rulers of several sections of the Muslim world, especially of the Muslim Middle East. Some of the prominent Turkish, or Turkish influence dominated, Muslim dynasties were the Tulunids in Egypt and Syria (254-293 AH/ 868-905 CE). “The Tulunid dynasty was the earliest manifestation of a political crystallization in the unruly and heretofore inarticulate Turkish element in the heart of the (Abbasid) caliphate. Other and more important Turkish dynasties were soon to follow.”[1] There were also the Ikhshidids (4th AH/ 10th century CE), as a quasi-independent state in Egypt, Syria, Palestine, Makkah and Madinah; Ghaznawids (4th-6th AH/ 10th-12th centuries CE) in Afghanistan, India and Khorosan; the Saljuqs (5th-7th AH/ 11th-13th centuries CE) in Anatolia, parts of the Arabian peninsula, Iran, Iraq and Transoxania; and finally the Ottomans (7th-14th AH/ 13th-20th centuries CE) who ruled most of the Muslim world.


            Philip K. Hitti said that the permanent contribution of the Saljuq and Ottoman Turks to Islam was a Sufi coloring. “This is well represented in the several dervish (Sufi) orders which flourished on Turkish soil and maintained ideas of early shamanistic origin with an admixture of indigenous beliefs of Asia Minor and schismatic Christian doctrines.”[2] In the Saljuq and Ottoman states, Sufism at times appeared as though it was almost an official state canon. Institutional Sufism was in its glory days.

           The religion of the early Turks consisted of shamanism, “a religious phenomenon centered on the shaman, a person believed to achieve various powers through trance or ecstatic religious experience. Although shamans’ repertoires vary from one culture to the next, they are typically thought to have the ability to heal the sick, to communicate with the otherworld, and often to escort the souls of the dead to that otherworld.”[3] Shamans are normally “initiated” or “called” by dreams or signs which require lengthy training. But some shamanic powers may be inherited. Shamans gain knowledge and power by entering into the spiritual world or dimension. “The shaman may fulfill his obligations either by communicating with the spirits at will or through trance. The latter has two forms: trances of possession, in which the body of the shaman is possessed by the spirit, and wandering trances, in which his soul departs into the realm of spirits. In the former the possessed gets into an intense mental state and shows superhuman strength and knowledge: he quivers, rages, struggles, and finally falls into a condition similar to unconsciousness. After accepting the spirit, the shaman regains a degree of consciousness and becomes its mouthpiece… In active, or wandering, trances the shaman’s life functions decrease to an abnormal minimum. The soul of the shaman, it is believed, then leaves his body and seeks one of the world strata. After awakening, he relates his experiences, where he wandered, and with whom he spoke. There are also cases in which possession and wandering combine, as when the spirit first enters the shaman and then leads his soul to the world of supernatural beings.”[4]

           However, many believe that shamanism was just the magic system of the early Turks. It was not their religious system per se as shamans are believed to have had no authority over the social and even genuine religious life of the ancient Turkish community. As a consequence, calling shamanism as a religion would be somewhat inappropriate; it should be envisaged rather as a summation of ecstatic and therapeutic methods from the archaic ages on.[5] Certainly, the Turkish supporters of shamanism, irrespective of whether such was a religious or just a supernatural system, must have been attracted to the Sufi notions of the sheikh-murid relationship, Sufi sainthood, Sufi miracles (karamat), gnosis, rapture or ecstasy, drawing near to God and knowing Him better, etc.

Furthermore, according to Ziya Gokalp (d. 1343 AH/ 1924 CE), the Turkish sociologist, as reported by Xenia Celnarova, the Turks were relatively religious people and the national god of all ancient Turks was sky god (Gok Tanri). The Turks found many similarities between this god of theirs and the Islamic notion of tawhid (Allah’s Oneness). Also, their feelings of love for their god, who was the god of reward, peace and quiet life, found its fulfillment in Sufism and its concept of divine love. These were extra reasons why many Turks from the beginning had predilection for both Islam and Sufism. Wrote Xenia Celnarova: “Since Gok Tanri (the sky god) was a god who rewarded and protected and did not punish, the early Turks felt only love towards him. In accordance with this Gokalp understood the acceptance of Islamic monotheism by the Turks as a continuation of this tradition of one God of heaven. The strong feelings of the Turks towards the sky god found its fulfillment in Sufism with its idea of divine love.”[6]

In addition, the old Turks regarded their sovereigns as heavenly mandated and sacred persons who served as intermediaries between the supernatural powers and their people. “Everything which the monarch did was understood as an act of the divine will, a fulfillment of orders given by God.”[7]

Finally, it must be said that whenever a conceptual or a practical dimension of Sufism within a Sufi guild became a hybrid of foreign beliefs and practices, plus the original Islamic influences, that proved to be one of the most fertile grounds for breeding and nourishing the trends of pseudo Sufism. The Turkish factor, just like all other factors, was not immune to this unfortunate fate.  As a result, the Turkish contributions were not only to authentic, but also to pseudo, or theosophical, Sufism.

The Islam, and as such, the Sufism, of some early Turks was heterodox, despite their orthodox veneer. What little they took from Islam conformed to what was within the purview of their own religious experience. That experience was shamanism. On the word of John Robert Barnes, Sufi missionaries who preached along the eastern fringe of the Islamic world must have downplayed the differences between Sufism and shamanism, instead stressing the element that was common to both religions, the element of mysticism. This affinity facilitated the transformation of allegiance from tribal shaman to Sufi spiritual elders.[8] Lyric poetry was soon added to the mixture for the reason that lyric poetry as a form of collective self-expression was very much a part of the cultural life of the Turkish tribes. Thus, Turkish Sufi missionaries wishing to express Islam in sensible terms and in a familiar cultural form, made recourse to poetry.[9] No wonder then, why lyrical poetry always featured prominently in Sufi orders which were dominated by the Turks, be that poetry in the Turkish or in the Persian language. Additionally, under the circumstances, the kalender culture also thrived among a great many sections of the Turkish Muslim community, especially among those men and women who had propensity for Sufism. The kalender was “a vagabond whose appearance, beliefs and way of life were at once a scandal to the orthodox and a sign of sanctity to the credulous. The kalender held that religious law and conventional mores pertained to the masses, for whom they were intended; such restrictions, however, did not necessarily govern them, as kalenders sought a higher morality. The kalender led a mendicant life among the tribes, villages and towns, usually announcing their arrival with a fanfare of flags, flutes, drums and tambourines. As a type of vagrant holy men, the kalender came to replace the shaman in the religious life of the Turkish tribal and village community.”[10]


(2) The Persian Factor

The Persian factor also played a role in the growth and spread of Sufism and Sufi institutions. The contacts between Islam and the Persians and their predominantly Zoroastrian religion, date back to the time of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). The Islamic conquest of Persia in 16 AH/ 637 CE, barely five years after the death of the Prophet (pbuh), spelled the end of the Sassanid Empire and the eventual decline of the Zoroastrian religion in Persia. However, scores of the achievements of the previous Persian civilizations were not lost, but were absorbed by the new Islamic polity. Moreover, one of the characteristics of the worldview of the religious elite throughout Persian history was the emphasis upon the inner unity of religious traditions. As Seyyed Hossein Nasr contended, “every student of comparative religion knows some of the most sublime and beautiful expressions of the ‘transcendent unity of religions’ are to be found in Persian Sufi poetry from Attar and Mawlana Jalaluddin al-Rumi to Hatif Ispahani.”[11] Consequently, although Zoroastrian and Islamic traditions are of different nature and structure, many Persians believed that “they are related most of all by the fact that they are authentic traditions and not something else, that is, they are messages from the world of the spirit differing in their outward form but united in their inner essence.”[12]

            It could be assumed, it follows, that apart from the “transcendent unity of religions”, which was espoused by many Persians and which in the world of Islam was found most reminiscent of the ways some people interpreted the “mystical” dimension of Sufism, Sufism likewise appealed to many Persians because both Sufism and the traditional character of the different epochs of Persian history greatly emphasized some shared, yet to both the cultural, spiritual and intellectual outlooks essential, factors, such as the spiritual world, the orientation of human life towards the life beyond, a sensitivity to earthly beauty as an image of the beauty of Paradise, and so many other spiritual attitudes.[13] As an example of this in reality relative and very nominal and superficial closeness between some aspects of the Zoroastrian religion and Islam in general, and Sufism in particular, Seyyed Hossein Nasr said that of the older religions, none has emphasized the angelic world and its purely spiritual character as much as Zoroastrianism, which could in fact be called in a sense a religion of angels rather than directly of God. Islam, too, places a great deal of emphasis upon angels, so much so that belief in them is a part of the definition of Islamic faith (iman). Illustrating further some of his arguments, Seyyed Hossein Nasr pointed out that Shihab al-Din Yahya al-Suhrawardi (d. 587 AH/ 1191 CE) successfully incorporated the angelology of Zoroastrian Mazdeism in his philosophical thought, as well as his theosophical form of Sufism, which was dominated by the idea of ishraq or illumination, which revolved around a very complex and profound emanationist cosmology.[14] This was possible only due to the alleged partial and very nominal ideological proximity between some aspects of Zoroastrianism and Islam about which Seyyed Hossein Nasr rather audaciously inferred: “Because it was destined to be the last religion and the seal of the prophetic cycle, Islam possesses a unique power of assimilation and synthesis. This characteristic enabled Islam to remain fully itself and yet allow the Persians not only to participate in its life and to contribute fully to its elaboration, but also to enable them to contemplate in its vast firmament the shining stars of the most profound elements of their ancient religious and spiritual past, a past which far from dying out gained a new interpretation and became in a sense partly resurrected in the new spiritual universe brought into being by the Islamic revelation.”[15]

Furthermore, it stands to reason that the emergence of some early quasi-independent Persian Muslim dynasties and states only expedited the promotion and integration of some elements from the Persian spiritual, mystical and cultural past into the spheres of Islam in general, and Sufism in particular. Of those early states or dynasties worth mentioning were the Samanids who reigned about 180 years (204-390 AH/ 819–999 CE), encompassing a territory which included Khorosan (including Kabul),Ray, Transoxania, Tabaristan, Kerman, Gorgan, and west of these provinces up to Isfahan. We have already mentioned that some of the earliest ribats were built under the patronage of the Samanids in Samarkand, and perhaps in their capital at Bukhara.[16] There was also the Tahirid Persian dynasty that governed the Abbasid province of Khorosan from 206 AH/ 821 CE to 260 AH/ 873 CE, and the city of Baghdad from 205 AH/ 820 CE until 278 AH/ 891 CE.[17] Lastly, we have already brought up the case of the Turkish Saljuq dynasty whose advance marked the beginning of Turkish power in the Middle East and whose members were staunch proponents of institutionalized Sufism. However, the Saljuqs were reputed as a dynasty that gradually adopted Persian culture and contributed to the expansion of the Turko-Persian tradition. “Persian cultural autonomy flourished in the Saljuq empire. Because the Turkish Saljuqs had no Islamic tradition or strong literary heritage of their own, they adopted the cultural language of their Persian instructors in Islam. Literary Persian thus spread to the whole of Iran, and the Arabic language disappeared in that country except in works of religious scholarship.”[18]


(3) The Shi’ah Factor

The Shi’ah factor, too, had a role to play in the proliferation of Sufism and Sufi institutions. The potency of that role becomes all the more evident if we remember that the first seeds of both political and ideological Shi’ism were sown as early as during the first Muslim civil war, also called the first fitnah, which claimed the lives of Uthman b. Affan (d. 36 AH/ 656 CE) and Ali b. Abi Talib (d. 41 AH/ 661 CE), the third and fourth rightly guided caliphs of Muslims. Following the fitnah, on the ruins of which exemplary and rightly guided caliphate was transformed into hereditary monarchy – which henceforth was still called caliphate though — the Muslim world, as well as spirit and mind, would never be the same again. In the course of the mayhem, which fragmented the Muslim world shaking it to its foundations, several religious and political factions and parties took shape, the most important one of which, positively, was the Shi’ah fraction which, in turn, had its own numerous sub-sects and groups. Although they were subjected to many ups and downs in history, the Shi’ah generally played a very influential political as well as religious role all the way through. Accordingly, quite a few powerful Shi’ah dynasties emerged ruling over many key Muslim territories. Some of those acclaimed dynasties were the Idrisids (164-375 AH/ 780–985 CE) in Morocco, the Fatimids (297-567 AH/ 909–1171 CE) in Tunisia, Egypt and even Hijaz, the Hamdanids (277-395 AH/ 890–1004 CE) in Syria and northern Iraq, the Buyids (323-454 AH/ 934–1062 CE) in Iran and Iraq, and the Safavids (907-1149 AH/ 1501–1736 CE) in Iran.

The Shi’ah played a role in the growth of Sufism because of the ideological closeness between the two poles. Both of them lay clear emphasis on the esoteric dimension of Islam, as well as on the idea of gnosis or the intuitive apprehension of spiritual truths. Their respective notions of spiritual and intellectual leadership and authority were analogous too. Thus, in history many from the Shi’ah community were sympathetic towards the Sufi circles and their beliefs and traditions, and many Sufis were displaying propensity for the Shi’ah struggle and doctrines. For example, Abu Yazid al-Bistami and Abu Mansur al-Hallaj are believed to have been from the Shi’ah ranks. As might have been, albeit to a lesser extent, the case of Dhu al-Nun al-Misri as well. One of the secondary reasons which might have contributed to the slaying of Abu Mansur al-Hallaj, not including his heretical Sufi viewpoints as the prime reason, could be his penchant for the Shi’ah cause and dogmas.[19] The Shi’ah Sufis had their khanqahs as well. However, when the great Saljuqs, the torchbearers of Sunnism of the day, came to power, some of their leaders forbade the Shi’ah to possess both madrasahs and khanqahs.[20] Some of the early heterodox Sufi groups from Turkish ranks, whose beliefs and practices were an amalgam of Islam and ancient tribal shamanistic superstitions, magic and ecstatic traditions, were supporters of some extreme Shi’ah sects some of which even deified the figure of Ali b. Abi Talib.[21]

Seyyed Hossein Nasr explains the axis between the Shi’ah and Sufism in the following terms: “The esoteric dimension of Islam, which in the Sunni climate is almost totally connected with Sufism, in one way or another colors the whole structure of Shi’ism in both esoteric and even exoteric aspect. One can say that Islamic esotericism or gnosis crystallized into the form of Sufism in the Sunni world while it poured into the whole structure of Shi’ism especially during its early period. From the Sunni point of view Sufism presents similarities to Shi’ism and has even assimilated aspects thereof.”[22] For that reason while the personality of Ali b. Abi Talib to the Shi’ah signifies both the spiritual and temporal authority after the Prophet (pbuh), in Sufism, too, nearly all Sufi orders reach back to Ali b. Abi Talib where he is regarded as the spiritual authority par excellence after the Prophet (pbuh).[23]

Ibn Khaldun elaborated more than anybody else on how far the early Sufis had close contacts with the Shi’ah. “Each group came to be imbued with the dogmas of the other. Their theories and beliefs merged and were assimilated.”[24] For instance, Ibn Khaldun drew a parallel between the Sufi tenet of the “pole” (qutb), who is the chief gnostic, and the Shi’ah tenet of imamate. “The Sufis assumed that no one can reach his (qutb’s) station in gnosis, until God takes him unto Himself and then gives his station to another gnostic who will be his heir.”[25] This Sufi theory of successive “poles” or qutbs is identical with the Shi’ah theory of succession of the imams through inheritance. Ibn Khaldun concluded that Sufism clearly plagiarized this idea from Shi’ism and came to believe in it.[26] Another example is the Sufi doctrine of the order of existence of the “saints” who come after the “pole”, but which is comparable to the Shi’ah and the notion of their “chiefs”. Ibn Khaldun went on to say that the Sufis go so far in the identification of their own concepts with those of the Shi’ah that when they construct a chain of transmitters for the wearing of the Sufi cloak (khirqa) as a basic requirement of the Sufi way and practice, they made it go back to Ali b. Abi Talib. This point, too, can only be explained as Shi’ah influence.[27] According to Ibn Khaldun, it was owing to this doctrinal nearness and similarities between the Shi’ah and Sufis that in the lengthy discussions of the Shi’ah Fatimids in Sufi works, the Sufis made neither negative nor affirmative statements on them,[28] even though the Shi’ah Fatimids were such a nuisance and posed such ideological and physical threats to the rest of the Sunni Muslim world. It goes without saying that most of what Ibn Khaldun had to say about the resemblances between Sufism and Shi’ism falls under the class of pseudo or theosophical Sufism. Hence, his tone often appeared to be disapproving and judgmental. He did not hesitate to disapprove of most of those meeting points between Sufism and Shi’ism which were diametrically opposite to orthodox Islam and its mainstream beliefs and practices.

Sufi artwork Istanbul

Sufi artwork divan turkey

tawhid khanah Isfahan

Emin Baba tekke

[1] Philip K. Hitti, History of the Arabs, (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1996), p. 455.

[2] Ibid., p. 479.

[3] Shamanism, Encyclopedia Britannica Academic Edition, (accessed November 12, 2012)

[4] Ibid.

[5] Harun Gungor, The Religion of Ancient Turks, in “The Turks”, (Istanbul: Yeni Turkiye Yayinlari, 2002), Vol.1 p. 777. (accessed November 12, 2012). See also: C. Edmund Bosworth, Barbarian Incursions: The Coming of the Turks into the Islamic World, in “The Turks in the Early Islamic World”, edited by C. Edmund Bosworth, (Burlington: Ashgate Variorum, 2007), p. 227.

[6] Xenia Celnarova, The Religious Ideas of the Early Turks from Point of View of Ziya Gokalp, Asian and African Studies, 6, 1997, 1, p. 103-108.

[7] Ibid.

[8] John Robert Barnes, The Dervish Orders in the Ottoman Empire, in “The Dervish Lodge”, edited by Raymond Lifchez, p. 33.

[9] Ibid., p. 33.

[10] Ibid., p. 34.

[11] Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Mysticism and Traditional Philosophy in Persia, Pre-Islamic and Islamic, Studies in Comparative Religion, Vil. 5, No. 4 (Autumn, 1971), (accessed November 13, 2012)

[12] Ibid. See also: Richard N. Frye, The Golden Age of Persia, (London: Phoenix Press, 2000), p. 183.

[13] Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Mysticism and Traditional Philosophy in Persia, Pre-Islamic and Islamic, (accessed November 13, 2012)

[14] Ibid. See also: As-Suhrawardi, Encyclopedia Britannica Academic Edition, (accessed November 13, 2012)

[15] Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Mysticism and Traditional Philosophy in Persia, Pre-Islamic and Islamic, (accessed November 13, 2012)

[16] Maylyuda Yusupova, Evolution of Architecture of the Sufi Complexes in Bukhara, in “Bukhara: The Myth and the Architecture,” edited by Attilio Petruccioli, p. 121-132.

[17] Philip K. Hitti, History of the Arabs, p. 461.

[18] Seljuq, Encyclopedia Britannica Academic Edition, (accessed November 13, 2012)

[19] Abu al-Faraj Ibn al-Jawzi, al-Muntazim fi Tarikh al-Muluk wa al-Umam, vol. 13 p. 202, 204.

[20] Ahmad Kamal al-Din Hilmi, Al-Salajiqah fi al-Tarikh wa al-Hadarah, (Kuwait: Dar al-Salasil, 1986), p. 219.

[21] John Robert Barnes, The Dervish Orders in the Ottoman Empire, in “The Dervish Lodge”, edited by Raymond Lifchez, p. 34.

[22] Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Sufi Essays, p. 105.

[23] Ibid., p. 107.

[24] Ibn Khaldun, The Muqaddimah, translated into English by Franz Rosenthal, vol. 3 p. 92.

[25] Ibid., vol. 3 p. 92-93.

[26] Ibid., vol. 3 p. 93.

[27] Ibid., vol. 3 p. 93.

[28] Ibid., vol. 3 p. 94.


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