Islamic mysticism, also known as Suﬁsm, is a complex of beliefs and practices which aims to ﬁnd the truth of divine knowledge through the direct personal experience of God. The term Suﬁ may have derived from Suf (wool), referring to the rough woolen garments which early Muslim ascetics used to wear. The Suﬁs is also known as fakirs and dervishes. Although Suﬁsm was deeply inﬂuenced by various non-Islamic sources, it is mainly rooted in Islam and may have grown out of early asceticism that developed as a counterweight to the increasing worldliness in ruling Umayyad circles in the 8th century A.D.
The ﬁrst Suﬁs emphasized the fear and awe of God, as well as ascetic self-denial. However, by the end of the 8th century, the Suﬁ-woman Rabiah of Basra had already changed Suﬁ asceticism into mysticism, which became centered on the idea of loving God “for his own sake”, not out of fear of hell or hope for heaven. During the 10th and 11th centuries, the ﬁrst handbooks were written about the tenets of Suﬁsm to attract new growing suspicions of the orthodox clerics, on the other. At the end of “the 11th century, Abu Hamed Ghazali formulated an orthodox brand of mysticism by combining a traditional theological position with a moderate form of Suﬁsm. His younger brother, Ahmad Ghazali, wrote one of the most beautiful treatises on mystical love, Sawanih (“Occurrences” [stray thoughts)], the subject which has become the main theme of Persian poetry. A little later, mystical orders (fraternal groups centering on the teachings of a leader-founder) began to crystallize.
The foundations of this monastic system were laid by the Persian Abu Said Abi al-Kheir, but real fraternities came into existence only from the 12th century onward. Each order had peculiarities in its rituals, and some, such as the Safavids, were even militaristic. Suﬁsim reached its golden age during the 13th century, in the turbulent times of the Mongol invasion. The Spanish-born Ibn Arabi, the Egyptian Ibn al-Farid, the central Asian Najm al- Din Kobra, and the Persian greatest mystical poet Jalal al-Din Rumi produced their famous poems and treatises during this epoch. In the ensuing years, new orders came into existence, and most literature was still tinged with mystical ideas and expressions. The Suﬁs developed a special vocabulary for conveying to others the ineffable experiences of a mystic in his search for the divine truth. Its profound symbolism of wine and cupbearer, lover and beloved rose and nightingale, etc. was often objectionable from the orthodox viewpoint.
If at ﬁrst mystical life was generally restricted to the relation between a master and a few disciples, gradually Suﬁsm ceased to be the way of the chosen few, and influenced the masses. Suﬁs began large-scale missionary activity all over the world. This activity continues, although it is mostly restricted to spiritual education. while all Muslims believe that they are on the pathway to God and will become close to Him in Paradise after death and the Final Judgment, Suﬁs believe as well that it is possible to become close to God and to experience this closeness while one is still alive. Each individual has his or her own personal, private way to the Divine Presence.
In Suﬁsm, the spiritual journey toward God is referred to as Tariqah (the path). The path begins with repentance. A Suﬁ Sheikh or mystical guide accepts the seeker as a Morid (disciple). He orders him to follow strict practices and suggests certain formulas for meditation. The disciple is often ordered to perform the lowest work in the community and to go out to beg (many of the old monasteries subsisted upon alms). A seclusion period of forty days under hard conditions is common for the adepts in most orders.
One of the means used on the path is the ritual prayer, or Zekr (remembrance), which consists of the repetition of the names of God, or of a certain religious formula, such as the profession of faith. In the mid-9th century, some mystics introduced Sama, sessions with music and poetry recitals to reach the ecstatic experience. Only a few members of the fraternity remain in Khaneqah, the cloisters, while most of the initiated return to their daily life and join mystic services only during certain periods. In general, the master teaches his disciple the ways of ﬁghting his Nafs (self or ego). The mystic dwells in several Maqams (spiritual stations), which, after the initial repentance, comprise abstinence, renunciation, and poverty.
Patience and gratitude belong to higher stations of the path, and consent is the loving acceptance of every afﬂiction. On his way to illumination, the mystic will experience Hals (changing spiritual states), which are granted by God, and last for longer or shorter periods, according to the Station in which the mystic is abiding at the moment. The way culminates in Marifah (interior knowledge, gnosis) or Mahabbah (love). The ﬁnal goal is Fana (self-having-passed-away), when the seeker is united with God and loses himself/ herself in the Divinity like a drop of water is lost in the ocean. Numberless beautiful images are used to describe the union of God and man. Rumi tells the following exquisite apologue:
There came one and knocked at the door of the Beloved. And a voice answered and said. Who is there? The lover replied: it is I. ‘Go hence’, returned the voice, there is no room within for thee and me. Then came the lover a second time and knocked, and again the voice demanded, ‘Who is there? He answered it is thou. Enter, said the voice, for I am within investiture with the Kherqeh, the frock of the master, was the decisive act by which the disciple became part of the chain of mystical succession. Some mystical leaders claimed to have received their Kherqeh directly from Khezr, a mysterious immortal saint. Today, the Suﬁ brotherhoods are regarded suspiciously, and generally keep a low proﬁle in Iran. The modern Iranian dervish is a strolling storyteller, with long, disheveled hair, a close-ﬁtting Skullcap, sometimes embroidered with the verse from the Quran and a Kashkul, a collection box.
Hallaj as a Famous Sufism
Mansur Hallaj is one of the most famous ﬁgures in Suﬁsm. He was born around 858 in Beiza in Pars and during his early years, he continued his father’s job of carding cotton, the meaning of which is preserved in his later title, al-hallaj (the cotton carder). As a youngster he memorized the Quran, and would often retreat from worldly pursuits to join other mystics in study. For many years, Hallaj was a diligent student of Baghdadi, a renowned Suﬁ master, with whom almost all later chains of the Suﬁs transmission of doctrine and legitimacy are linked.
Hallaj traveled extensively, his outward journeys having been inspired by his inward searching, and he made several pilgrimages to Mecca. Later, he settled down in the Abbasid capital of Baghdad. His ardent, unorthodox sermons attracted numerous followers, but they also made him many enemies. Many honored him as an adept who had come to realize the inherently divine nature of people, while others treated him as a sorcerer and a heretic. Even some Suﬁ masters, claiming that it was inappropriate to share mysticism with the masses, turned away from him. Hallaj’s longing for ultimate unity with God finally seized and intoxicated his entire being. He wrote in his mystic poetry:
I am He Whome I love, and He Whome I love is I.
We are two spirits dwelling in one body.
If you see me, you see Him.
And if you see Him, you see us both.
During his trances, when he claimed he was in the presence of God, he uttered Ana al-Haqq (I am the Truth). This utterance ﬁnally led him to a long trial, and subsequent imprisonment for eleven years in a Baghdad jail. In the end, he was tortured and publicly cruciﬁed by the Abbasid rulers. Many accounts tell of Hallaj’s calm demeanor even while he was being tortured, and indicate that he forgave those who had executed him. He died on March 26, 922. Hallaj left a rich literary legacy, though most of his books were lost in the passing of the centuries. He is particularly famed for his ecstatic poetry of exquisite beauty, written in that very pure language and reﬁned style that are characteristic of the greatest Persian masters. It is said that a Suﬁ once asked God why he allowed his servant Hallaj to die with horrible tortures, and he was answered, Thus the revealers of secrets are punished.