Sufism (sōō´fĬzəm), an umbrella term for the ascetic and mystical movements within Islam. While Sufism is said to have incorporated elements of Christian monasticism, gnosticism, and Indian mysticism, its origins are traced to forms of devotion and groups of penitents (zuhhad) in the formative period of Islam. The early pious figures, later appropriated by Sufism, include Ali, Hasan al-Basri (d. 801), and Rabia al-Adawiyya, a woman from Basra (Iraq) who rejected worship motivated by the desire for heavenly reward or the fear of punishment and insisted on the love of God as the sole valid form of adoration. The word Sufi first appears in the 8th cent., probably in connection with the coarse wool that many ascetics wore.

Two central Sufi concepts are tawakkul, the total reliance on God, and dhikr, the perpetual remembrance of God. Al-Muhasibi (d. 857) and his disciple Junayd (d. 910) are representative early figures. The introduction of gnostic elements (marifa) into Sufism is often attributed to Dhu-n-Nun al-Misri (d. 859). Sufism nonetheless faced growing opposition from orthodox clerics. The scholastic and ecstatic paths further diverged with the concept of fana, the dissolution into the divine, advocated by al-Bistami (d. 874), and used by Hallaj in the declaration of his unity with God, which eventually led to his execution in 922. Islamic orthodoxy and Sufism were not irreconcilable, as attested by the attempt by al-Ghazali (d. 1111) to infuse conformist Muslim religious life with mysticism.

The evolution of Sufism in the post-Ghazali period was influenced by Ibn al-Arabi and Ibn al-Farid. Their theoretical contributions led to the development within Sufism of a complex system of initiation and progression toward the Divine and set the stage for the emergence of organized Sufi orders. This phase of literary Sufism was also characterized by the prominence of Persian works, notably those of Shihab ad-Din Suhrawardi (d. 1191), Farid ad-Din Attar, and Jalal ad-Din Rumi, and the subsequent development of Persian, Turkish, and Urdu mystic poetry. Important Sufi figures elsewhere in the Islamic world include Muin ad-Din Chishti in India and Baha ad-Din Naqshband (d. 1390) in central Asia.

Sufi orders, which assimilated aspects of native religious traditions more readily than more dogmatic versions of Islam, played a major role in the expansion of Islam into sub-Saharan Africa and central, S, and SE Asia. The oldest extant order with attested historicity is probably the Qadiriyya, founded by Abd al-Qadir al-Jilani (d. 1166) in Baghdad. Other important orders include the Ahmadiyya (notably in Egypt), Naqshbandiyya (Central Asia), Nimatullahiyya (Iran), Rifaiyya (Egypt, SW Asia), Shadhiliyya (N Africa, Arabia), Suhrawardiyya and Chishtiyya (S and central Asia), and Tijaniyya (N and W Africa).

The work of Idries Shah was instrumental in introducing Sufism to the West; see his The Sufis (1964) and The Way of the Sufi (1968). Although Sufism has made significant contributions to the spread of Islam and the development of various aspects of Islamic civilization (e.g., literature and calligraphy), many conservative Muslims disagree with many popular Sufi practices, particularly saint worship, the visiting of tombs, and the incorporation of non-Islamic customs. Consequently, in recent centuries Sufism has been a target for Islamic conservative and reformist movements.

See A. J. Arberry, Sufism (1970); L. Lewin, ed., The Diffusion of Sufi Ideas in the West (1972); A. Schimmel, Mystical Dimensions of Islam (1975) and As through a Veil (1982).

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright© 2014, The Columbia University Press.

Sufism: Selected full-text books and articles

Sufism: A Global History
Nile Green.
Wiley-Blackwell, 2012
Sufism: The Formative Period
Ahmet T. Karamustafa.
Edinburgh University Press, 2007
The Divine Flood: Ibrahim Niasse and the Roots of a Twentieth-Century Sufi Revival
Rüdiger Seesemann.
Oxford University Press, 2011
Sufism in Europe and North America
David Westerlund.
RoutledgeCurzon, 2004
Beyond Dogma: Rumi's Teachings on Friendship with God and Early Sufi Theories
Jawid Mojaddedi.
Oxford University Press, 2012
Early Islamic Mysticism: Sufi, Quran, Miraj, Poetic and Theological Writings
Michael A. Sells; Michael A. Sells.
Paulist Press, 1996
Sufism and Islamic Reform in Egypt: The Battle for Islamic Tradition
Julian Johansen.
Clarendon Press, 1996
Islam in the World
Malise Ruthven.
Oxford University Press, 2000 (2nd edition)
Mysticism: Holiness East and West
Denise Lardner Carmody; John Tully Carmody.
Oxford University Press, 1996
Mystical Poems of Rumi: First Selection, Poems 1-200
A. J. Arberry; Rūmī.
University of Chicago Press, 1968
Mystical Poems of Rumi 2: Second Selection, Poems 201-400
A. J. Arberry; Ehsan Yarshater; Maulana Jalal al-Din al-Rumi.
University of Chicago Press, 1991
Islam: An Introduction
Annemarie Schimmel.
State University of New York Press, 1992
Librarian’s tip: "Mystical Islam and Sufi Brotherhoods" p. 101
Mawdudi and the Making of Islamic Revivalism
Seyyed Vali Reza Nasr.
Oxford University Press, 1996
Librarian’s tip: "The Struggle Against Sufism and Popular Islam" p. 122
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