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Religion Library: Sufism

Exploration and Conquest

Written by: Nancy Khalek

Sufism was impacted by elements of the Classical world, most especially by Neoplatonism, which had become known to the Islamic world through translations since the beginning of the 9th century. Neoplatonism is a term for a concept attributed to Plotinus (a Greek philosopher of the 3rd century C.E.) that holds God to be the source and goal of everything. Sufism was most impacted by this concept in its own conception of the body and soul, good and evil, and the purpose of Creation. Because Neoplatonism was perceived as a foreign Greek concept, Sufi intellectuals of a slightly later period were often criticized for having allowed non-Islamic elements, especially Greek philosophy, to unduly influence their ideas. Ibn al-'Arabi (d. 1240) devised his own Neoplatonic system for how to achieve religious knowledge, central to which is the concept of unity of all beings. That is, everything is part of the One God and everything only exists insofar as it reflects the existence of the Divine. This type of religious consciousness is sometimes defined as monism, and flourished in the period called post-classical Sufism. It is chiefly characterized by the concept that God is One, and is the One who exists all alone, a doctrine called wahdat al-wujud. God's existence, according to this line of thought, is solitary and unique.

Later on, the scholar and jurist Ibn Taymiyya (d. 1328) criticized these aspects of the Post-Classical theosophy that they considered "extreme." Ibn Taymiyya is an interesting case in the history of Sufis and anti-Sufis. He himself was probably a Sufi, and he said that in his youth he had almost been "deluded by the works of Ibn al-Arabi." What he opposed was not Sufism in principle, but what he considered to be heretical interpretations that deviated from mainstream Islamic doctrine. Among the concepts considered heretical were monism (the doctrine of wahdat al-wujud), or esotericism, the idea that only a few had access to the truth about religious knowledge. Ibn Taymiyya was also famously opposed to some of the cultural aspects related to Sufi practice, namely the use of musical instruments, dance, and celebration of Saint's death-days at tombs.