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Religion Library: Sufism

Early Developments

Written by: Nancy Khalek

After its initial growth over the first three centuries of Islamic history, Sufis began to espouse a distinct cosmological and metaphysical perspective. In part, these tendencies grew out of broader speculative trends in Islamic philosophy and theology. As the social acceptability of Sufism grew, its practitioners were organized by their shaykhs and disciples into Orders, or turuq  (singular: tariqa). These had a social and religious function, since they became vehicles for the passing down of knowledge and practices among distinct circles of students. The institutionalization of learning in Islamic schools, madrasas, overlapped with that of the tariqas, and the scholarly works of Sufis were part of broader educational curricula.

In the 12th and 13th centuries C.E., the Sufi scholar Ibn al-Arabi (d. 1240) was highly influential, but not without some controversy. He was called "Al-Shaykh al-Akbar," the "Greatest Shaykh." He wrote on all issues of theory and practice in Islam, not just mysticism, and he did so in ways that were so sophisticated and erudite as to be intimidating if not confusing. Due to the vast range of his work, it is not easy to make decisive statements about all of his views, and though many modern scholars have attempted to categorize his thinking, most agree that one cannot explicitly pinpoint his doctrine. Instead, Ibn al-Arabi is well known for his ability to expound at length from a multiplicity of perspectives.

Nonetheless, a number of concepts were central to his work and to subsequent Sufi thinking. One of these is wujud, which can mean "being, or existence"; this concept necessitates the disciple's realization of God's existence. Another is the understanding of God's names, of which, according to Islamic tradition, there are ninety-nine. Each name describes an attribute of God, such as "The Merciful" or "The All-Knowing." Sufis interpreted facets of their relationship to God through the lens of the ninety-nine names. For example, God as "All-Seeing" would affect the Sufi's awareness of God's omniscience and omnipresence, and have a corresponding effect on one's behavior and thought.

Ibn al-Arabi was central to the history of Sufism in the Islamic world. His teachings on the Quran (namely that every verse, word, and letter of the scripture reveals a different manifestation of God) were highly influential for other esoteric readings. Drawing on law, theology, and hadith, Ibn al-Arabi understood that shariah, or Islamic law in the broadest sense, was all the teaching brought by prophets. Secondarily, and more specifically, it refers to the teachings in the Quran and Sunna of Muhammad . Finally, and most narrowly, within the Sunna it refers to the revealed legal rulings as opposed to other anecdotal or historical reports. In his view, the purpose of obeying shariah is to die and return to God in such a way that one's eternal happiness, namely salvation, is assured.