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Lesson Plan: Sufism

Erik S. Ohlander
Associate Professor of Religious Studies
Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne

Course: Introduction to Islam
Syllabus Section: Sufism


Sufism is a multifaceted and historically diverse form of Muslim religiosity that has often been characterized as the "mystical" tradition of Islam. It combines a system of metaphysics with various contemplative, ascetical, and ritual practices which its practitioners, or Sufis, hope will lead them to an intimate, unmediated, or unitive encounter with God. Although certain aspects of the tradition have at times met with opposition, Sufism has found a place in almost all Muslim societies, past and present. Given the tremendous diversity of attitudes, doctrines, practices, and forms of social and institutional organization identified with Sufism at different times and places, it is useful to introduce the subject through a broad schematization of its historical development coupled with expositions of major themes. Supporting examples drawn from both secondary and primary sources can easily be incorporated from the resources listed under Further Reading below.

I. From Asceticism to Mysticism

While the origins of Sufism remain a matter of debate, its antecedents are often located in the circles of certain Muslim ascetics and pietists who first appeared in Iraq and Syria in the early eighth century. Known for their vehement rejection of the vanities of the world in favor of religious reclusion, figures of the period such as Ḥasan al-Basrī (d. 728) and Rābiʿah al-ʿAdawīyah (d. 801) are upheld in later Sufi tradition as paragons of the mystically-inclined life in Islam. Combining the world-denying religiosity of such figures with increasingly sophisticated metaphysical doctrines, by the end of the ninth century groups of like-minded religious seekers calling themselves Sufis begin to coalesce around sage-like teachers such as Junayd al-Baghdādī (d. 910) and Manṣūr al-Ḥallāj (922).

II. The Mystical Path

By the late tenth and into the eleventh centuries, articulate Sufi apologists such as Abū Bakr al-Sarrāj (d. 988), Abū Bakr al-Kalābādhī (d. 990), and ʿAlī al-Hujwīrī (d. ca. 1072) began arguing that Sufism stood on par with the other Islamic religious sciences. Systematic exposition to the Sufi "sciences of the heart" began to take the form of handbooks.

At this point, the practice of Sufism was often likened to the journey of a traveller, or aspirant (murīd), making his way along a difficult path under the direction of a master, or guide (murshid). The mystical journey is typically delineated into a series of "stations" (maqām) which the aspirant is expected to reach, one after the other, as he moves onwards to his goal of union with the divine, over the course of which he is also said to experience various "states" (ḥāl), which come and go.

Questions for Discussion

  • How might we account for the rise of ascetical and mystical discourse in early Islamic history, and what may have been their major sources?
  • How might we characterize the Sufi understanding of the relationship between God and man, and how might a Sufi interpret what it means to be a Muslim?
  • How might we describe the nature of the master-disciple relationship in Sufism, and how does the authority of the Sufi master differ from other forms of authority in Islam?

IV. Expressions of Sufi Religiosity

Throughout the medieval period it was not uncommon for tomb-shrines to be constructed to house the remains of particularly noteworthy Sufi masters, the shrines often coming to serve as places of popular devotion and pilgrimage amongst the masses. Elements of such shrine culture have occasionally been criticized by more puritanically-minded religious scholars. The same period witnessed the blossoming of Sufi poetry, especially as articulated in the Persian language such as in the case of the celebrated Jalāl al-Dīn Rūmī (d. 1273), as well as the flourishing of a number of prolific Sufi authors, such as the profoundly influential yet controversial Sufi theoretician from Muslim Spain, Ibn al-ʿArabī (d. 1240).

V. Sufism and Society

Generally speaking, Sufism fared well in the later medieval and early-modern Muslim world, especially within the Ottoman and Mughal domains, and it should be noted that Sufis have not always remained averse to engaging in politics and religious activism. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, for example, a number of Sufi brotherhoods directly challenged European colonialism in the Muslim world while simultaneously combatting both the criticism of newly emerging Muslim revivalist movements and, later, the vagaries of the modern nation state. Recent decades have witnessed a certain popularization of Sufi thought, which some have upheld as an alternative to the divisiveness of Salafi discourse on the one hand, and the spiritually vacuous discourse of modernism or secularism on the other.

Questions for Discussion

  • How might we account for the increasing prevalence of organized Sufi communities across the Muslim world during the later medieval period, and how might the forms of organization and religious practice associated with the Sufi orders have been related to this spread ?
  • How might we describe the major practices and forms of religious expression in Sufism, and why have such practices and forms of religious expression at times been considered controversial?
  • How might we account for the persistence of Sufism in the modern Muslim world, and how might it be compared with other religious perspectives with which it might be seen as competing?

Further Reading to Support Lesson Plan

A useful overview of the topic may be found in the entry, Sufism. An example of the writings of the influential Junayd may be found in Three Passings Away (c. 900) and a vivid account of the controversial Ḥallāj in The Crucifixion of a Mystic (c. 900). Kalābādhī's Ṣūfī Sayings (c. 975), Sarrāj's The Station of Repentance (Tawba) (c. 975), and Hujwīrī's On Sufism (c. 1072) and Two Kinds of Contemplation (c. 1072) serve to introduce the style and content of classical Sufi handbooks. The discussion of the Sufi orders in the aforementioned overview is usefully read alongside the entries on the Bektāshīyah, Chishtīyah, Khalwatīyah, Naqshbandīyah, Qādirīyah, Sanūsīyah, Shādhilīyah, Tijānīyah brotherhoods, in addition to the map, Rise and Spread of Sufism. Discussions of Sufi centers may be found in the entries Khanaqah, Khānqāh and Zāwiyah, and overviews of two major practices in the entries Dhikr and Samāʿ. Key aspects of the so-called "cult of saints" and its critics are covered in the entry, Sainthood, as well as in the discussion of Sufi shrine culture in the above overview. Examples of classical Persian Sufi poetry may be found in The Bird Parliament (c. 1200) of ʿAṭṭār (d. c.1220) and in Rūmī's Love Poem (c. 1270), and an example of the lasting influence of Ibn al-ʿArabī in the Lamahat (c. 1750) and Sataʿat (c. 1750) of Shāh Walī Allāh of Delhi (d. 1762). On the theme of Sufism and society, the entry on Sufism and Politics is informative as is the relevant section on Challenges and Prospects in the aforementioned overview.

Additional Print Resources

  • Arberry, A. J. Sufism: An Account of the Mystics of Islam. London: George Allen & Unwin, Ltd., 1950.
  • Baldick, Julian. Mystical Islam: An Introduction to Sufism. London: I. B. Tauris, 1989.
  • van Bruinessen, Martin and Julia Day Howell, eds. Sufism and the "Modern" in Islam. London: I. B.Tauris & Co. Ltd., 2007.
  • Curry, John J. and Erik S. Ohlander, eds. Sufism and Society: Arrangements of the Mystical in the Muslim World 1200-1800. Abingdon and New York: Routledge, 2011.
  • Ernst, Carl. The Shambhala Guide to Sufism. Boston, Mass.: Shambhala Publications, 1997.
  • de Jong, Frederick, and Berndt Radtke, eds. Islamic Mysticism Contested: Thirteen Centuries of Controversies and Polemics. Leiden: Brill, 1999.
  • Karamustafa, Ahmet. Sufism: The Formative Period. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2007.
  • Knysh, Alexander. Islamic Mysticism: A Short History. Leiden: Brill, 2000.
  • Lewisohn, Leonard, ed. The Heritage of Sufism. 3 vols. Oxford: Oneworld Publications, 1999.
  • Nasr, Seyyed Hossein, ed. Islamic Spirituality. 2 vols. New York: Crossroad, 1987-1991.
  • Ridgeon, Lloyd, ed. Sufism. Critical Concepts in Islamic Studies. 4 vols. London: Routledge, 2008.
  • Schimmel, Annemarie. Mystical Dimensions of Islam. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1975.
  • Sedgwick, Mark. Sufism: The Essentials. Cairo: American University in Cairo Press, 2000.
  • Trimingham, J. Spencer. The Sufi Orders in Islam. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1971.

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