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(so͞o`fĭzəm), an umbrella term for the ascetic and mystical movements within IslamIslam
, [Arab.,=submission to God], world religion founded by the Prophet Muhammad. Founded in the 7th cent., Islam is the youngest of the three monotheistic world religions (with Judaism and Christianity). An adherent to Islam is a Muslim [Arab.,=one who submits].
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. 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 AliAli
(Ali ibn Abu Talib), 598?–661, 4th caliph (656–61). The debate over his right to the caliphate caused a major split in Islam into Sunni and Shiite branches, and he is regarded by the Shiites as the first Imam, or leader: Shiite derives from the phrase
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, 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-GhazaliGhazali, al-
, 1058–1111, Islamic theologian, philosopher, and mystic. He was born at Tus in Khorasan, of Persian origin. He is considered the greatest theologian in Islam.
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 (d. 1111) to infuse conformist Muslim religious life with mysticism.

The evolution of Sufism in the post-Ghazali period was influenced by Ibn al-ArabiIbn al-Arabi or Ibn Arabi, Muhyi ad-Din Muhammad bin Ali al-Hatimi at-Tai
, 1165–1240, a Muslim Sufi mystic b. in Murcia, Spain.
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 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 AttarFarid ad-Din Attar
, 1142?–1220?, b. Nishapur, Persia, one of the greatest Sufi mystic poets of Islam. His masterpiece is the Mantiq ut-Tair (The Conference of the Birds), a long allegory of the soul's search for divine truth.
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, and Jalal ad-Din RumiRumi, Jalal ad-Din
, 1207–73, great Islamic Persian sage and poet mystic, b. in Balkh. His father, a scholar, was invited by the Seljuk sultan of Rum to settle in Iconium (now Konya), Turkey.
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, 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. In more recent years, Sufis and Sufi shrines have been subjected to terrorist attacks by Islamist fundamentalist groups such as Al Qaeda and the Islamic State.


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).

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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.



a mystical movement in Islam, occurring in both the Sunnite and Shiite sects, that originated in the eighth century, in the area that is now Syria and Iraq, and that extended at various times from northwestern Africa to northern China and Indonesia. Generally, Sufism, as a doctrine, attempts to combine a spiritual striving toward gnosis, or illuminative knowledge (irfan), with an essentially ascetic way of life. It holds that the initiate, or disciple (murid), may attain to a knowledge of, and ultimate union with, god through mystical love. The task of leading the disciple along the path (tariqa) to such a union is consigned to an elder (pir), acting as a teacher (murshid). As he traverses the path, the disciple seeks, by means of either special dances or formulaic prayers chanted repeatedly, to achieve a state of ecstasy (hal), and hence an “illumination,” that would bring him closer to gnosis; he also undergoes, in accordance with his teacher’s instructions, a “mortification” of the flesh.

The fundamental principles of Sufism were set forth in the ninth century by the Egyptian Dhu an-Nun al-Misri and the Baghdadi Abu Abdullah al-Muhasibi. Muhasibi enunciated the principle of self-observation, which holds that in order for man to establish supreme truthfulness before god (as opposed to the hypocritical piety of the clergy), he must examine his deeds carefully in the light of his innermost intentions. Muhasibi is believed to have also developed the idea of the hal. From the Mala-mati school, founded in the ninth century in Nishapur, came the teaching that inner purification could be achieved partly through a deliberate and ostentatious display of impiety (for example, drinking wine), for the censure that such impiety would incur from others would serve to subdue one’s pride. Junaid (died 909), a representative of the Baghdad school, formulated the doctrine oifana—the mystical absorption of a Sufi into the divinity, leading to “superbeing” (baqa), or eternity in the absolute. The Sufi’s mystical journey, according to Junaid, was marked by three stages: the sharia, or universal Muslim religious law; the tariqa, or the Sufi path of purification; and the haqiqa, divine reality, or the mystical comprehension of truth in god. Junaid held that one of the basic precepts of Islam, the tawhid, the unicity of god, was demonstrated not through verbal proofs, as in theology, but through the Sufi’s own ascetic life in a transcendental unity with god.

Another founder of Sufism, Abu Yazid (died 874), formulated the doctrine of the threefold gradation of the consciousness of being—I, Thou, and He Alone. Abu Abdullah Husayn ibn Mansur al-Hallaj affirmed that it was possible for a Sufi’s soul to enter into a real union with god, and in moments of ecstasy he cried, “I am the Truth!” (that is, god). He was denounced for this as a heretic and put to death in 922.

During the tenth and 11th centuries, the Sufi doctrine of tariqa was elaborated and refined, so that now various “stations” were added along the mystical path. Also developed was the theory of the threefold gradation of “true knowledge,” the last stage being the union of the knower with the known (god). In this same period, Sufi orders, or sects, were organized. At the head of each order was an elder, who, among other things, preserved and handed down the oath and rites of initiation devised by the founder. These orders established their own cloisters (khanaqahs), which closely resembled monasteries.

As Sufism came to abandon its original heretical features, particularly after the reforms of al-Ghazali, it won a measure of recognition from the orthodox Muslim clergy, who did not cease their persecution of Sufis until about the 12th century. (The argument, however, over whether Sufism may be deemed a “permissible” phenomenon in Islam has persisted into the 20th century.) The Sufi thinkers Ahmad Ghazali (died 1126), Ain al-Qudat Hamadani (died 1132), and Ibn al-Arabi (died 1240) developed the doctrine of wahdat al-wujud, or the unicity of being, which constitutes the metaphysical basis of asceticism and the principle of tolerance. According to this doctrine, an object has no true existence apart from its form, or idea; it merely passes from being to nonbeing, the two states being separated by a concatenation of individual moments. Therefore, the soul of a Sufi must cast off the “chain of plurality” that is inherent in matter and, through asceticism, return to the singularity of the divinity, that is, to a union with the absolute.

During the 12 centuries that Sufism has existed as a movement, its various doctrines and organized forms have been appropriated by different groups to support and justify their causes. Sufis, for example, took part in the “holy wars” (jihads) against infidels and in the popular uprisings of the Serbadars in the 14th century; they also formed armed bands of followers that brought the Safavid dynasty to power in Persia at the beginning of the 16th century. The Murids of Shamil in the 19th century were considered Sufis. Many feudal lords persecuted Sufis because of their connection with artisans; yet some Sufi elders themselves became great feudal lords, enjoying considerable political power. At the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century, bourgeois reformers in the East, joined by those seeking to modernize Islam, attempted to break up the Sufi orders, which they identified with feudal reactionaries. In the 1920’s, during the period of bourgeois reforms in Turkey, all Sufi orders were banned. In Iran, Reza Shah Pahlavi fought against the influence of the Sufis. In the USSR, Sufi orders ceased their activity in the 1920’s. Despite the constant campaign waged against them by progressives, the Sufis continue to play an important role in the life of the East.


Bertel’s, E. E. Sufizm i sufiiskaia literatura. Moscow, 1965. (Contains bibliography.)
Petrushevskii, I. P. Islam v Irane v 7–15 vv. Leningrad, 1966. Pages 310–50.
Istoriia persidskoi i tadzhikskoi literatury. Moscow, 1970. Pages 219–36. (Translated from Czech.)
Religiia i obshchestvennaia mysl’ stran Vostoka. Moscow, 1974. Pages 320–35. (Contains bibliography.)
Ritter, H. Das Meer der Seele. Leiden, 1955.
Corbin, H. Histoire de la philosophie islamique. Paris, 1964. Pages 262–68.
Gramlich, R. Die schiitischen Derwischorden Persiens, Vol 1. Wiesbaden, 1965. (Contains bibliography.)
Trimingham, J. S. The Sufi Orders in Islam. Oxford, 1971.


The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
References in periodicals archive ?
What is often referred to as the "traditional Islamic sciences" refers generally to the religious study (ilm in Arabic) of the Quran, Tafsir (Qur'an Commentary), Aqida (Theology), Hadith (the sayings of the Prophet Muhammad), Seerah (the life of the Prophet Muhammad), Fiqh (Islamic Law), Usul al-fiqh (Legal Theory), Arabic grammar, and Tassawuf (Sufism).