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Religion Library: Sufism


Written by: Nancy Khalek

Al-Junayd's practical approach to worldly matters is attested to by his declaration at the trial of fellow mystic Al-Hallaj, who had been charged with blasphemy for his more extreme views regarding his own union with God, which he claimed to have achieved during an ecstatic episode. Al-Junayd, unwilling to comment on Al-Hallaj's inner disposition, pronounced his opinion that judging such matters should rely only on an assessment of outward appearances.

Sufi circles, like schools of historical tradition or legal thought, were to some extent defined even further by geography. There is no set of founding fathers or delineated schools of thought in the Sufi tradition, but there are some influential foundational figures:

In Baghdad

  • Abu Said al-Kharraz (d. 892 C.E.) was famous for applying the Gnostic principle that a thing is only known by the joining of opposites, based on the Quranic verse about God that states, "He is the First and the Last, the Outwardly Manifest and the Inwardly Hidden" (Quran 57:3). As seen in the distinction between the "visible and invisible," the paradox of philosophical opposites that illuminate or complement one another was particularly suited to Sufi thought. He also composed a work called "The Book of Truthfulness," which is the earliest extant manual for Sufi practice. It begins with an exposition on truthfulness and continues through various spiritual stations including fear, hope, trust, love, shame, longing, and intimacy.
  • Abu al-Husayn al-Nuri (d. 907 C.E.) was known for his poverty and asceticism. He was a friend of al-Junayd's and he articulated his belief that the world was comprised of distractions from the contemplation of God. His asceticism was a practice rooted in his belief that by forgoing material comfort, he could remove any barriers between himself and God.
  • Mansur al-Hallaj (d. 922 C.E.) was a controversial Sufi who was executed for his beliefs under the charge of blasphemy when he expressed his union with God by the utterance "I am the Truth." His experience is an example of "intoxicated Sufism" in which one attains union with God while in an ecstatic trance-like state, and it earned him a reputation as a threat to orthodox authorities who were wary of his movement gaining numbers. Al-Hallaj became a larger-than-life figure in the minds of his followers, and the brutal and graphic story of his martyrdom by crucifixion and burning has made some modern scholars compare his hagiography to the Passion of Christ and to the martyrdom of Husayn, Muhammad's grandson.

In Basra

  • Al-Hasan al-Basri (d. 728 C.E.) (see above)
  • Sahl ibn Abdallah al-Tustari (d. 896 C.E.) wrote treatises of Sufism and also Quranic commentary. This was especially important in debates surrounding the interpretation of apparently anthropomorphic verses of the Quran. For example, in one verse in which God is said to be seated on a throne, Al-Tustari claimed that the verse described a divine act that should not be questioned in a literal sense because "reason alone cannot explain One [God] Who is without beginning and without end being upon a throne. God built the Throne as a sign and as tidings for us so that hearts should be guided to Him . . . He did not require the hearts to obtain knowledge of its exact nature. Therefore it is impermissible to ask 'how?' The believer must only accept and submit."
  • Rabia al-Adawiya lived during the 8th century C.E., and is one of the most famous female Sufis in history. She is most well known for her asceticism, and stories about her conversation with Al-Hasan al-Basri seem to indicate that in some ways, he was her disciple. In a very popular story, she is said to have carried a pail of water and a hammer-like tool, claiming that she wanted to douse the fires of hell and raze heaven, so that the worship of God be unfettered by either fear of the former or hope of the latter.

In Tirmidh

  • Al-Hakim al-Tirmidhi (d. 910 C.E.) was a prolific scholar and much of his work on saints and mysticism has survived. He is said to have written over sixty books.

These regional exemplars depict the various aspects of Islamic mysticism (Gnosticism, renunciation of physical comfort, poverty) that were characteristic of the Sufi movement in its earliest stages. Later Sufis who were also respected and well-established intellectuals and scholars, like Al-Ghazali or Ibn 'Arabi (13th century), elaborated upon a vast tradition that was much more developed by their lifetimes. In these foundational figures are the roots of the practice and belief in cultivating outer poverty in exchange for spiritual well being, a notion, which some say originated with the Prophet and his earliest followers, that formed the basis of later mystical thought.