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Religion Library: Sufism

Early Developments

Written by: Nancy Khalek

Ibn al-Arabi is seen as pivotal in the history of Sufism because his work exemplifies a moment in which themes such as God's oneness (tawhid) or the nature of prophecy, which had previously been the purview of theologians or philosophers, shifted into Sufi writing as well. Broadly speaking, these two issues dealt with the nature of God and the nature of God's relationship with humans, respectively.

The oneness of God was a matter of tremendous discussion in the early Islamic period, especially as it related to his attributes, mentioned above. Questions arose as to whether or not God's attributes were separate from him, or a part of him. That is, did they describe God, or were they somehow co-eternal entities? This opened up many complicated philosophical and theological lines of inquiry for medieval scholars, especially because of one attribute that calls God "the One who Speaks." The answer to the question "What is God's speech?" was "The Quran." This answer inspired yet another question: If the Quran is God's speech, did it always exist (are his attributes co-eternal)? If not, was it created at a specific moment, or was it always there? In other words, is the Quran eternal or created? At first glance, it seems that these questions are about the text of the Quran but in fact they originated from discussions about God's attributes, namely his speech.

Another dimension of how God communicates is the history of prophecy—namely, how does God choose to instruct humans regarding their behavior? When prophets speak and act, is it by their authority or God's? Are they infallible because they are guided by God? Sufis did not come up with a uniform set of responses to these questions, but their engagement in such matters illustrates how much philosophy and theology came to shape Sufi thought.

Before these philosophical questions arose, Sufi works had been more concerned with the practice of morality and the nature and status of the self and the soul. After the 13th century, performative writing, especially poetry (the most famous example of which is the poetry of Jalal al-Din Rumi, who died in the 13th century), came to dominate Sufi literature. With such luminaries of mystical poetry as Farid al-Din Attar (d. 1221 C.E.), Hafiz (d. 1390 C.E.), and Amir Khusraw (d. 1325), Sufi literature took yet another turn, making the 13th century a high point for Sufi intellectual writing.