Citation for Rise and Spread of Sufism, The

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"Rise and Spread of Sufism, The." In Atlas of the World’s Religions, Second Edition. Ed. Ninian Smart, Frederick Denny. Oxford Islamic Studies Online. Dec 4, 2020. <>.


"Rise and Spread of Sufism, The." In Atlas of the World’s Religions, Second Edition. , edited by Ninian Smart, Frederick Denny. Oxford Islamic Studies Online, (accessed Dec 4, 2020).

Rise and Spread of Sufism, The

SUFISM REFERS to the inner and spiritual dimension of Islam. The term ‘sufi’ itself originated from the Arabic term suf (‘wool’), because of the coarse woollen garment worn by Muslim ascetics. Theologically, Sufism emphasizes the personal and intense relations between a merciful and caring God and a believer in the process of spiritual ascent. The believer expresses this relationship through practices such as meditation, dance and dhikr (the constant remembrance of God's name) which can be recited individually or in groups.

In its association with the cult of pious holy men or women (awliya', ‘saints’) who are believed to have miraculous powers, Sufism can be the expression of popular religiosity yet also serve as the elitist expression of a highly sophisticated individual quest. Among its most famous figures are the theologian Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (d. 1111), the sophisticated theoretician Ibn al-‘Arabi (d. 1240) as well as the popular Persian poet Jalal al-din Rumi (d. 1273) who inspired the Mawlawiyah order, known in the West as the ‘Whirling Dervishes’.

Sufi Orders

During the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, Sufi orders, or tariqas (‘way/path’), started to play a significant role as major social organizations within Muslim society, as a result of the theologically-based acceptance of Sufism within mainstream Islam. The two principal rituals of these orders were daily devotional exercises, such as meditation and retreat, and regular group meetings including dhikr, the recitation of prayers and songs. As tariqas formalized, a period of apprenticeship became customary before followers could become full members of the order. Tariqas were open to celibates as well as married men (like the Qadiriyah and Bekhtashiyah), and, occasionally, to women. Their hierarchical organization placed a shaykh (or founder) at the top, and was based on a master–disciple relationship. The majority of orders developed around their founder, whose teachings or writings became the core of their doctrine. For example, the Qadiriyah, the most widespread Sufi order, derived from ‘Abd al-Qadir al-Jilani (d. 1166). The reputation of the shaykhs of the tariqas travelled along the main trade routes where followers organized meeting places and founded shrines (mazar) in honour of the founders or famous holy men or women. In this way Sufism reached areas and sections of society previously untouched by mainstream Islam.

Rise and Spread of Sufism, The

1. The Spread of Sufism

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Three main areas of tradition have been identified in Sufi orders. The Mesopotamian tradition, centred in Baghdad, is seen as closer to mainstream Islam than other traditions. Adverse political circumstances meant that the Egyptian and North African tradition developed slowly and did not extend beyond its original confines. The third tradition spread from Central Asia and Iran to Turkey and India; it exhibits greater divergent and antinomian tendencies and, in some cases (Bekhtashiyah and Ni‘matullahiyah), is linked to the Shi'a.

The different orders emphasized many different paths to spiritual achievement. The Chishtiyah, with its vow of poverty, was an ascetic order, while the members of the Shadiliyah earned their own living. The Sanusiyah and the Qadiriyah, both politically active orders, were instrumental in organizing anti-colonial movements. The members of the more ecstatic Mawlawiyah used dance and music to achieve spiritual ascent.

Later Sufism and Sufism in the West

The last two centuries have witnessed dramatic shifts in attitudes towards Sufism. Sufi popular devotional practices, such as saint veneration, have been condemned as un-Islamic by several Islamic reformers and revivalists. Islamic modernists have also attacked Sufi orders for their alleged resistance to change and progress, and in 1925 they were outlawed in Turkey by Atatürk . Yet significant political events like Western colonialism and Soviet Communism have revealed the major role played by Sufi orders in forming ethnic or national identity in areas such as Afghanistan, the Caucasus and the former Russian Turkestan.

Rise and Spread of Sufism, The

1 Suffism in the Caucasus and Central Asia to the 19th century

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In Algeria and Libya Sufi leaders fought against French and Italian occupation.

Because of their inter-regional network system, Sufi orders have been instrumental in missionary activities among non-Muslims, especially in Africa and, more recently, in the West. Sufi teachings have reached the West through a vast number of popular as well as intellectual texts by classical and contemporary Sufis like Javad Nurbakhsh or writers like Idries Shah ( 1924 – 96 ). Well-known personalities have also played an influential but limited role in the diffusion of Sufi beliefs: in certain European intellectual circles, scholars and thinkers such as Titus Burckhardt, René Guénon or Martin Lings are known to have become Sufis. In America the Chishti master and musician Inayat Khan ( 1882 – 1927 ) has inspired several young seekers of a deeper spirituality.

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