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'Sufism' from Oxford Islamic Studies Online

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This article describes sufism and the history of mysticism in Islam. The article by John O. Voll and Kazuo Ohtsuka is reprinted from The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World in the Oxford Islamic Studies Online.


This entry contains four subentries:


ṢūfĪ Thought and Practice

Sufism can be described broadly as the intensification of Islamic faith and practice, or the tendency among Muslims to strive for a personal engagement with the Divine Reality. The Arabic term Ṣūfī, however, has been used in a wide variety of meanings over the centuries, by both proponents and opponents of Sufism, and this is reflected in the primary and secondary sources, which offer diverse interpretations of the term. Western observers have sometimes obscured the issue by referring to Sufism as “Islamic mysticism” or “Islamic esotericism.” Such terms are vague and often imply a negative value judgment, and they encourage people to consider as non-Ṣūfī anything that does not fit into preconceived categories.The original sense of Ṣūfī seems to have been “one who wears wool (ṣūf    ).” In the eighth century the word was sometimes being applied to Muslims whose ascetic inclinations led them to wear coarse and uncomfortable woolen garments. Gradually it came to designate a group who differentiated themselves from others by stressing certain teachings and practices of the Qurʿān and the sunnah. By the ninth century the gerund form taṣawwuf, which means literally “being a Sūfī” or “Sufism,” was adopted by some representatives of this group as an appropriate, though by no means the only, designation of their own beliefs and practices. Other terms were and continue to be used (on the Western preference for “Sufism,” see Ernst, 1997, chapter 1).

In general, Ṣūfīs have looked upon themselves as Muslims who take seriously God's call to perceive his presence in the world and the self. They generally stress inwardness over outwardness, contemplation over action, spiritual development over legalism, and cultivation of the soul over social interaction. Theologically, Ṣūfīs speak of God's mercy, gentleness, and beauty more than of the wrath, severity, and majesty that play defining roles in both fiqh (jurisprudence) and kalām (apologetic theology). Sufism has been associated with specific institutions and individuals as well as with an enormously rich literature, not least poetry.

Given the difficulty of defining Sufism, it is not easy to discern which Muslims have been Ṣūfīs. Being a Ṣūfī has nothing to do with the Sunnī-Shīʿī split, nor with the schools of jurisprudence. It has no special connection with geography, though it has played a greater role in some locations than in others. There is no necessary correlation with family, and it is common to find individuals who profess a Ṣūfī affiliation despite the hostility of family members, or people who have been born into a family of Ṣūfīs and consider it an unacceptable form of Islam. Men and, less commonly, women, become Ṣūfīs; even children participate in Ṣūfī ritual activities, though they are seldom initiated formally before puberty. Sufism has nothing to do with social class, though some Ṣūfī organizations may be more or less class-specific. It is closely associated with popular religion, but it has also produced the most elite expressions of Islamic teachings. It is often seen as opposed to the state-supported jurists, yet jurists have always been counted among its devotees, and Sufism has frequently been supported by the state along with jurisprudence. The characteristic Ṣūfī institutions—the “orders” (ṭarīqah)—do not begin to play a major role in Islamic history until about the twelfth century, but even after that, Ṣūfīs were not necessarily affiliated with an order.

A Working Description.

Specialists have reached no consensus as to the nature of Sufism. Those who take seriously the self-understanding of the Ṣūfī authorities usually picture Sufism as an essential component of Islam. Those who are hostile toward Sufism, or hostile toward Islam but sympathetic toward Sufism, or skeptical of any self-understanding by the objects of their study, typically describe Sufism as a movement that was added to Islam after the prophetic period. The diverse theories of Sufism's nature and origins proposed by modern and premodern scholars cannot be summarized here. One can only suggest that most of Sufism's own theoreticians have understood it to be the living spirit of the Islamic tradition. One of the greatest Ṣūfī teachers, al-Ghazālī (d. 1111), summarizes Sufism's role in the title of his magnum opus: Iḥyāʿ ʿulūm al-dīn (giving life to the sciences of the religion).

Understood as Islam's life-giving core, Sufism is coextensive with Islam. Wherever there have been Muslims, there have been Ṣūfīs. If there was no phenomenon called “Sufism” at the time of the Prophet, neither was there anything called “fiqh” or “kalām” in the later senses of these terms. All these names came to be applied to fields of learning and institutional forms that appeared once the tradition became diversified and elaborated.

In historical terms, it is useful to think of Sufism on two levels. On the first level—which is the primary focus of the Ṣūfī authorities themselves—Sufism has no history, because it is the invisible, life-giving force of the Muslim community. On the second level—which concerns both Muslim authors and modern historians—Sufism's presence is made known through observable characteristics of people and society or specific institutions. Ṣūfī authors who looked at Sufism on the second level wanted to describe how the great Muslims achieved the goal of human life, which is nearness to God (qurb). Their typical genre was hagiography, which aims at bringing out the extraordinary human qualities of those who achieve divine nearness. In contrast, Muslim opponents of Sufism have been anxious to show that Sufism is a distortion of Islam, and they have happily seized upon any opportunity to associate Sufism with unbelief and moral laxity (see Carl Ernst, Words of Ecstasy in Sufism, Albany, 1985, pp. 117ff.).

The frequent attacks on Sufism have many causes, not least of which is the social and political influence of Ṣūfī teachers, which often threatened the power and privileges of the jurists and even the rulers. Although the great Ṣūfī authorities set down guidelines for keeping Sufism at the heart of the Islamic tradition, popular religious movements that aimed to intensify religious fervor sometimes disregarded Islamic norms and were often associated with Sufism. Whether or not members of these movements considered themselves Ṣūfīs, opponents of Sufism were happy to claim that their excesses represented Sufism's true nature. The Ṣūfī authorities themselves frequently criticized false Ṣūfīs, and the dangers connected with losing contact with the ahistorical core of Sufism could only increase when much of Sufism became institutionalized through the Ṣūfī orders (see, for example, the criticisms by a sixteenth-century Ṣūfī in Michael Winter, Society and Religion in Early Ottoman Egypt: Studies in the Writings of ʿAbd al-Wahhāb al-Shaʿrānī, New Brunswick, N.J., 1982, pp. 102ff.). If Sufism is essentially invisible and ahistorical, the problem faced by those who study specific historical phenomena is how to judge the degree to which these deserve the name. The Ṣūfī authorities typically answer that the criteria of authentic Sufism are found in correct action and correct understanding, and these are rooted in the Qurʿān and the sunnah.

As a Qurʿānic name for the phenomenon that often came to be called Sufism, some authors have chosen the term iḥsān, “doing what is beautiful,” a divine and human quality about which the Qurʿān says a good deal, particularly that God loves those who possess it. In the famous ḥadīth of Gabriel, the Prophet describes iḥsān as the innermost dimension of Islam, after islām (“submission” or correct activity) and īmān (“faith” or correct understanding). Iḥsān is a deepened understanding and perception that, in the words of this ḥadīth, allows you “to worship God as if you see him.” This means that Ṣūfīs strive to be aware of God's presence in both the world and themselves and to act appropriately. Historically, islām became manifest through the sharīʿah and jurisprudence, whereas īmān became institutionalized through kalām and other forms of doctrinal teachings. In the same way, iḥsān revealed its presence mainly through Ṣūfī teachings and practices (see Murata and Chittick).

By codifying the sharīʿah, jurisprudence delineates the manner in which people should submit their activities to the instructions of the Qurʿān and the sunnah. Kalām defines the contents of Islamic faith while providing a rational defense for Qurʿān teachings about God. Sufism focuses on giving full due to both submission and faith, so it functions on two levels—theory (corresponding to īmān) and practice (corresponding to islām). On the theoretical level, Sufism explains the rationale for both faith and submission. Its explanations differ from those of kalām both in perspective and focus, but they are no less carefully rooted in the sources of the tradition. On the practical level, Sufism explains how Muslims can strengthen their understanding and observance of Islam in order to find God's presence in themselves and the world. It intensifies Islamic ritual life through careful attention to the details of the sunnah and by focusing on the remembrance of God (dhikr), which is commanded by the Qurʿān and the ḥadīth and taken by Ṣūfī authors as the raison d’être of Islamic ritual. Dhikr typically takes the form of the methodical repetition of certain names of God or Qurʿān formulae, such as the first Shahādah. In communal gatherings, Ṣūfīs usually perform dhikr aloud, rhythmically and sometimes with musical accompaniment. In some Ṣūfī groups, these communal sessions became the basic ritual, with a corresponding neglect of various aspects of the sunnah. At this point, Ṣūfī practice became suspect not only in the eyes of the jurists, but also in the eyes of other Ṣūfīs.

Like other branches of Islamic learning, Sufism has been passed down from master (typically called a shaykh) to disciple, and the chain of transmission (silsilah) leading back to the Prophet has been considered an important part of the master's credentials. His oral teachings give life to the articles of faith, and without his transmission, methodical performance of dhikr is considered invalid if not dangerous. The typical initiation rite is modeled on the handclasp known as bayʿat al-riḍwān (the oath-taking of God's good pleasure) that the Prophet made with his Companions at al-Ḥudaybīyah, referred to in the Qurʿān, surahs 48:10 and 48:18. The rite is understood to transmit an invisible spiritual force or blessing (barakah) that makes possible the transformation of the disciple's soul. The master's fundamental concern—as in other forms of Islamic learning—is to shape the character (khuluq) of the disciple so that it conforms with the prophetic model.

If molding the character of students and disciples was a universal concern of Muslim teachers, the Ṣūfīs developed a science of human character traits (akhlāq) that had no parallels in jurisprudence or kalām, though the philosophers knew something similar. Ibn al-ʿArabī (d. 1240), Sufism's greatest theoretician, described Sufism as “assuming the character traits of God” (Chittick, 1989, p. 283). Since God created human beings in his own image, they have the duty to actualize the divine traits that are latent in their souls. This helps explain the great attention that Ṣūfī authorities devote to the “stations” (maqāmāt) of spiritual ascent on the path to God and the “states” (aḥwāl) or psychological vagaries that spiritual travelers may undergo in their attempt to pass through the stations.

Ṣūfī theory offered a theological perspective that was far more attractive to the most Muslims than was kalām, which was an academic exercise with little practical impact on most people. From the beginning, the kalām experts attempted to explain Qurʿānic teachings in rational terms. In keeping with the inherent tendency of reason to discern and differentiate, kalām fastened on all those Qurʿānic verses that assert the transcendence and otherness of God. When faced with verses that assert God's immanence and presence, kalām explained them away through forced interpretations (taʿwīlāt). As H. A. R. Gibb has pointed out, “The more developed theological systems were largely negative and substituted for the vivid personal relation between God and man presented by the Koran an abstract and depersonalized discussion of logical concepts” (Mohammedanism, London, 1961, p. 127). Ibn al-ʿArabī made a similar point when he said that if Muslims had been left only with theological proofs, none of them would have ever loved God (Chittick, 1989, p. 180).

The Qurʿān speaks of God with a wide variety of terminology that can be conveniently summarized as God's “most beautiful names” (al-asmāʿ al-ḥusnā). For the most part, kalām stresses those names that assert God's severity, grandeur, distance, and aloofness. Although many early expressions of Sufism went along with the dominant attitudes in kalām, another strand of Ṣūfī thought became predominant by the eleventh or twelfth century, focusing on divine names that speak of nearness, sameness, similarity, concern, compassion, and love. The Ṣūfī teachers emphasized the personal dimensions of the relationship between the divine and the human, agreeing with the kalām authorities that God was distant, but holding that his simultaneous nearness was more important. The grand theological theme of the Ṣūfīs is epitomized in the ḥadīth qudsī (holy ḥadīth [tradition]) in which God says, “My mercy takes precedence over my wrath,” which is to say that God's nearness is more real than his distance.

If kalām and jurisprudence depended on reason to establish categories and distinctions, the Ṣūfīs depended upon another faculty of the soul to bridge gaps and make connections. Many of them called this faculty “imagination” (khayāl) and understood it to be the soul's power to perceive the presence of God in all things. They read literally the Qurʿānic verse, “Wherever you turn, there is the face of God” (2:115), and they found a reference to imagination in the “as if” of the Prophet's definition of iḥsān—“It is to worship God as if you see him.” Through methodical concentration on the face of God as revealed in the Qurʿān, Ṣūfīs attempted to remove the “as if” and to achieve “unveiling” (kashf      ), the generic term for suprarational vision of God in the world and the soul. Ibn al-ʿArabī asserts that unveiling is superior to reason, but he also insists that reason provides the indispensable checks and balances without which it is impossible to differentiate among divine, angelic, psychic, and satanic inrushes of imaginal knowledge.

The most characteristic emphasis of the Sūfī teachers is on the need to love God. One of their favorite Qurʿānic passages is surah5:54: “He loves them, and they love Him.” Typical Qurʿānic rhetoric highlights God's greatness and human smallness, God's wisdom and human ignorance, God's lordship and human servitude, but here the Qurʿān attributes love to both sides—even if God's love necessarily precedes human love, just as grace precedes good works. It was lost on no one that the goal of love is union with the beloved, and this led to endless meditations on the nature of the nearness that is to be achieved by responding to God's love. It was understood that God already loves human beings, so much so that he is nearer to them “than the jugular vein” (surah50:16), but, for human beings to love God in return, they must heed the call in the verse, “Say [to the people, O Muhammad!]: If you love God, follow me, and God will love you” (surah3:31). Here is the rationale for following the sunnah: lovers of God are attempting to achieve an intimate nearness. This is made explicit by the often quoted authentic ḥadīth qudsī, “My servant draws near to Me through nothing I love more than that which I have made obligatory for him, and My servant never ceases drawing near to Me through supererogatory works until I love him. Then, when I love him, I am his hearing through which he hears, his eyesight through which he sees, his hand through which he grasps, and his foot through which he walks.”

Spectra of Ṣūfī Theory and Practice.

One way to make sense of the great variety of phenomena that have been called Sufism in Islamic history is to look at the types of responses to basic Islamic theological teachings, the first of which is tawḥīd, the assertion of God's oneness that is expressed most succinctly in the first Shahādah, “There is no god but God.” The centrality of this statement to the Qurʿān and later discussion of the nature of God can hardly be overestimated. If the characteristic Qurʿānic way of speaking about God is to mention his most beautiful names, the characteristic way for Muslims to understand the significance of these names has been to meditate upon them in terms of the formula of tawḥīd. If God is merciful and just, then there is none merciful and none just but God, and if he is the Real (al-ḥaqq), then there is none real but God. The formula of tawḥīd simultaneously asserts the absolute and exclusive reality of the One God and the relative, contingent reality of everything else, for any mercy, justice, life, knowledge, and power that appear in the universe can be nothing but the signs (āyāt) and disclosures of that One Reality (see Murata and Chittick, chap. 3).

God is one in himself but many in his names, and each divine name throws light on the nature of reality, whether the absolute reality of God or the contingent reality of the world. God knows not only himself but also all things, and his omniscience provides the link between his own oneness and the world's manyness. Knowing all things for all eternity, God commands them to come into existence: “His command, when He desires a thing, is to say to it ‘Be!’, and it comes to be” (surah36:82). The result is an indefinitely diverse universe, within which God reveals scriptures that differentiate between true and false, right and wrong, absolute and relative, and all other qualities that have a bearing on human salvation.

Oneness and manyness represent two poles not only of reality but also of thought. Imaginal thinking tends to see the oneness and sameness and identity of things, while rational thinking focuses on manyness, diversity, and difference. A creative tension has existed between these two basic ways of looking at God and the world throughout Islamic history. Kalām authorities and jurists have generally emphasized the rational understanding of God's distance, and Ṣūfīs have countered with the imaginal perception of God's nearness. On occasion the balance between these two perspectives has been broken by a stern and exclusivist legal-mindedness on the one hand or an excessively emotional religiosity on the other. In the first case, what is lost is participation in the inner realms of love, and in the second, the necessity for the divine guidance provided by the prophets. In modern times, the two extremes are represented by various forms of fundamentalism on the one hand and deracinated Sufism on the other (for a case study, see Mark Woodward, Islam in Java, Tucson, Ariz., 1989, especially pp. 234ff.).

Within the theory and practice of Sufism itself, a parallel differentiation of perspectives can be found. Many expressions of Sufism vigorously assert the reality of God's omnipresent oneness and the possibility of union with him, while others emphasize the duties of servanthood that arise from discernment between Creator and creature, absolute and relative, right and wrong. In order to describe the psychological and spiritual accompaniments of these two emphases, Ṣūfīs offer various sets of terms, such as “intoxication” (sukr) and “sobriety” (ṣaḥw), or “annihilation” (fanāʿ) and “subsistence” (baqāʿ). Intoxication is to be overcome by the presence of God and to lose one's ability to discriminate among creatures. It is associated with intimacy (uns), the sense of God's loving nearness, and this in turn is connected with the divine names that express God's love and compassion. Sobriety in contrast is associated with awe (haybah), the sense that God is majestic, mighty, wrathful, and distant, far beyond the petty concerns of human beings. God's distance and aloofness allow for a clear view of the difference between servant and Lord, but his nearness blinds the discerning powers of reason. Perfect vision of the nature of things necessitates a balance between reason and imaginal unveiling.

The contrast between sobriety and drunkenness, or between the vision of oneness and the vision of manyness, reverberates throughout Ṣūfī writing and is reflected in the hagiographies of the masters. Those who live in intimacy are boldly confident of God's mercy, and those who live in awe remain wary of God's wrath. Drunken Ṣūfīs generally de-emphasize the sharīʿah and declare union with God openly, and sober Ṣūfīs observe the courtesy (adab) that the Lord-servant relationship demands. The sober fault the drunk for disregarding the sunnah, and the drunk fault the sober for forgetting the predominant reality of God's mercy and depending instead upon reason. Those who, in Ibn al-ʿArabī's terms, “see with both eyes” keep reason and unveiling in perfect balance while acknowledging the rights of both the sober and the drunk (Chittick, 1989, pp. 356ff.).

Expressions of sobriety and intoxication often have rhetorical purposes. Ṣūfīs wrote for the purpose of edification, and teachers attempted to inculcate psychological attitudes depending upon the various needs that they perceived in their listeners. An author who disregards rational norms has not necessarily been overcome by the divine wine—if he had, he would hardly have put pen to paper. So also, sober expressions of Sufism do not mean that the authors know nothing of intoxication—typically, sobriety is described as a station that is achieved after intoxication.

Sober Sufism tends to employ prose and to provide rational explications that are ideal for manuals of doctrine and practice and for keeping an eye on the opinions of jurists and kalām experts. It has usually attracted the more educated Ṣūfī practitioners, who were willing to devote long hours to studying texts that were no easier than works on jurisprudence, kalām, or philosophy. The attention that it pays to all sorts of juridical and theological issues can quickly prove tiring to any but those trained in the Islamic sciences.

Drunken expressions of Sufism predominate in Ṣūfī poetry, which is ideally suited to descriptions of the imaginal realm of unveiled knowledge. In the best examples, such as Ibn al-Fāriḍ in Arabic, ʿAṭṭār, Jalāl al-Dīn Rūmī, and Ḥāfiẓ in Persian, and Yunus Emre in Turkish, the poetry gives rise to a marvelous joy and intoxication and conveys the sense of the divine presence in creation through the beauty of the language. Such a vision of things flies in the face of juridical and theological discourse, and it is often expressed in ways that shock the pious. Drunken Sufism has always been popular among Muslims of all classes and persuasions, and even the most literal-minded jurists are likely to enjoy the poetry while condemning the ideas (for a good study of the role of poetry and music in contemporary Sufism, see Earl H. Waugh, The Munshidīn of Egypt: Their World and Their Song, Columbus, S.C., 1989).

For many Western observers, whether scholars or would-be practitioners, “real” Sufism has been identified with the drunken forms that denigrate the external concerns of uncompromising “orthodox” Islam. It is seldom noted that many of those who express themselves in the daring poetry of union also employ the respectful prose of separation and servanthood. In any case, most Ṣūfī teachers have attempted to strike a balance between sobriety and drunkenness, or reason and unveiling. If sobriety is lost, so also is rationality, and along with it the strictures of islām and īmān; if drunkenness is lost, so also is love, spiritual vision, compassion, and iḥsān.

The classic example of the contrast between drunk and sober is found in the pictures drawn of Ḥallāj (d. 922) and Junayd (d. 910). The first became Sufism's great martyr because of his open avowal of the mysteries of divine union and his disregard for the niceties of sharīʿah-oriented propriety. The second, known as the “master of the [Ṣūfī] sect” (shaykh al-ṭāʿifah), kept coolly sober despite having achieved the highest degree of union with God. Another example can be found in the contrast between two of the greatest teachers of the Ṣūfī tradition, Ibn al-ʿArabī and his contemporary Rūmī (d. 1273). The former wrote voluminously in Arabic prose and addressed every theoretical issue that arises in the context of Islamic thought and practice. His works are enormously erudite and exceedingly difficult, and only the most learned of Muslims, those who were already trained in jurisprudence, kalām, and other Islamic sciences, could hope to read and understand them. In contrast, Rūmī wrote over 70,000 verses of intoxicating poetry in a language that every Persian-speaking Muslim could understand. He sings constantly of the trials of separation from the Beloved and the joys of union with him. But the contrast between the two authors should not suggest that Rūmī was irrational or unlearned, or that Ibn al-ʿArabī was not a lover of God and a poet. Among Western scholars, Henry Corbin argues forcefully that Rūmī and Ibn al-ʿArabī belong to the same group of Fedeli d’Amore, devotees of the divine beauty present in all of creeation who can be compared to Dante's companions (Creative Imagination in the Ṣūfism of Ibn ʿArabī, Princeton, 1969, pp. 70–71, 100–101).

In Ṣūfī texts, there are two basic and complementary ways of describing Sufism. If the drunken side of Sufism is stressed, it is contrasted with jurisprudence and kalām; if sobriety is stressed, it is viewed as the perfection (iḥsān) of right practice (islām) and right faith (īmān). The great theoreticians of Sufism, who speak from the viewpoint of sobriety, strive to establish a balance among all dimensions of Islamic thought and practice, with Sufism as the animating spirit of the whole. These include Sarrāj (d. 988), Kalābādhī (d. 990), Sulamī (d. 1021), Qushayrī (d. 1072), Hujwīrī (d. 1072), Ghazālī, ʿAbd al-Qādir al-Jīlānī (d. 1166), Shihāb al-Dīn ʿUmar Suhrawardī (d. 1234), Ibn al-ʿArabī, Najm al-Dīn Rāzī (d. 1256), and ʿIzz al-Dīn Kāshānī (d. 1334/1335). In contrast, the practice of everyday Sufism, especially in its popular forms, tends to appear in an antagonistic mode with legalistic Islam, though this is by no means always the case (see, for example, Jonathan Berkey, The Transmission of Knowledge in Medieval Cairo, Princeton, 1992, especially chap. 3, which demonstrates that Ṣūfīs and jurists have sometimes been indistinguishable).

Sufism in the Modern World.

In the modern period, many Muslims have sought a recovery of authentic Islamic teachings and practices, not least to fend off Western hegemony. Some have responded largely in political terms, and others have tried to revive Islam's inner life. Among most of the politically minded, Sufism became the scapegoat through which Islam's “backwardness” could be explained. In this view, Sufism is the religion of the common people and embodies superstition and un-Islamic elements adopted from local cultures; Islam must reclaim its birthright, which includes modern science and technology, by the eradication of Sufism. Until recently, most Western observers have considered the modernist reformers to be “Islam's hope to enter the modern age,” but this view has been tempered by the increasing awareness that fundamentalism and extreme forms of Islamist political activism are the logical conclusions of modernist thought. In the meantime, various Ṣūfī teachers have been working to revive the Islamic heritage by focusing on what they consider to be the root cause of every disorder—forgetfulness of God. (For information on contemporary Ṣūfī organizations and related subjects, see the website of Alan Godlas at the University of Georgia,

Parallel to the revival of Sufism in the Islamic world has been the spread of Ṣūfī teachings to the West. In America, drunken Sufism was introduced in the early twentieth century by the Chishtī shaykh and musician, Inayat Khan (1882–1927); his teachings were continued by his son, Pir Vilayet Inayat Khan (1916–2004), who was a frequent lecturer on the New Age circuit. In Europe, sober Sufism gained a wide audience among intellectuals through the writings of the French mathematician and metaphysician René Guénon (d. 1951). More recently, hundreds of volumes have been published in Western languages addressed both to Muslims and to non-Muslim seekers of Ṣūfī wisdom, and these reflect the range of perspectives found in the original texts, from sobriety to intoxication. Numerous websites have also appeared, usually championing one order or one shaykh over others. Much of this newly available material has been produced by authentic representatives of Ṣūfī silsilahs, but much has been written by people who have adopted Sufism in order to justify teachings of questionable origin.

Contemporary representatives of sober Sufism writing for a Western audience emphasize knowledge, discernment, and differentiation, typically while stressing the importance of the sharīʿah. Best known in this group is Frithjof Schuon (1907–1998), who was a shaykh of the Shādhilīyah-ʿAlawīyah order of North Africa. The main thrust of his more than twenty books is a theory of world religions based on the idea of a universal esoterism, the Islamic form of which is Sufism. Titus Burckhardt (1908–1984) represents a similar perspective, though many of his writings are more explicitly grounded in traditional Ṣūfī teachings. Martin Lings (1909–2005), who also published as Abū Bakr Sirāj ed-Dīn, presents a picture of Sufism that is intellectually rigorous but firmly grounded in explicit Islamic teachings. The Iranian scholar Seyyed Hossein Nasr (b. 1933) stresses intellectual discernment more than love and insists that there is no Sufism without the sharīʿah. The books of the Turkish Cerrahi leader Muzaffer Ozak (1916–1985) present sharīʿah-oriented Sufism that is much more focused on love than on intellectual discernment. The Naqshbandī master Nazim al-Qubrusi stresses love and often discusses the shariatic basis of Sufism. The Iranian Nīʿmatallāhī leader Jāvād Nurbakhsh has written several useful anthologies of classic Ṣūfī texts; his own perspective is from the side of intoxication, with emphasis on the oneness of being and the achievement of union with God. Even more from the side of love and intoxication are the works of Guru Bawa Muhaiyaddeen (d. 1986), who presents a synthesis of Sufism and Hindu teachings.


  • Chittick, William C., ed. The Inner Journey: Views from the Islamic Tradition. Sandpoint, Id.: Morning Light Press, 2007. An anthology of articles by contemporary scholars and Ṣūfī teachers.
  • Chittick, William C. The Sufi Path of Knowledge: Ibn al-ʿArabī 's Metaphysics of Imagination, Albany: State University of New York Press, 1989. A detailed exposition of Ibn al-ʿArabī's teachings.
  • Chittick, William C. Sufism: A Short Introduction. Oxford: Oneworld Publications, 2001. Essays on the place of Sufism in Islamic religiosity, with a focus on love and other major themes of the great teachers.
  • Ernst, Carl W. The Shambhala Guide to Sufism. Boston, Mass.: Shambhala, 1997. A fine introduction to the study of Sufism.
  • Ghazālī, Abū Ḥāmid al-. On Disciplining the Soul and On Breaking the Two Desires. Translated from the Arabic by Timothy Winter. Cambridge, U.K.: Islamic Texts Society, 1995. A portion of Ghazālī's Iḥyāʿ showing the rationale for basic Ṣūfī practices.
  • Jong, Frederick De, and Bernd Radtke, eds. Islamic Mysticism Contested: Thirteen Centuries of Controversies and Polemics. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1999. A collection of thirty-five specialized articles dealing with opposition to Ṣūfī organizations and teachings in diverse regions, mainly in recent centuries.
  • Knysh, Alexander. Islamic Mysticism: A Short History. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 2000. A broad-ranging historical survey of the Ṣūfī tradition.
  • Lewis, Franklin. Rumi: Past and Present, East and West. Oxford: Oneworld Publications, 2000. The best study of Rūmī, his role in the tradition, and his influence.
  • Lewisohn, Leonard, et al., eds. The Heritage of Sufism. 3 vols. Oxford: Oneworld Publications, 1999. A selection of scholarly studies originally published in London in 1992 by Khaniqahi Nimatullahi.
  • Lings, Martin. What is Sufism? Berkeley: University of California Press, 1975. An insider's view of basic teachings.
  • Massignon, Louis. The Passion of al-ḥallāj: Mystic and Martyr of Islam. 4 vols., Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1982. Monumental study of ḥallāāj's historical context and his importance in Sufism.
  • Meier, Fritz. Essays on Islamic Piety and Mysticism. Translated from the German by John O’Kane. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1999. Scholarly investigations by one of the most insightful historians of Sufism.
  • Murata, Sachiko. Chinese Gleams of Sufi Light. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2000. Ground-breaking study of Chinese-language Ṣūfī writings.
  • Murata, Sachiko. The Tao of Islam: A Sourcebook on Gender Relationships in Islamic Thought. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1992. The best overview of Ṣūfī views on God, the cosmos, and the human soul.
  • Murata, Sachiko, and William C. Chittick. The Vision of Islam. New York Paragon House, 1994.
  • Najm al-Dīn Rāzī. The Path of God's Bondsmen. Translated from the Persian by Hamid Algar. Delmar, N.Y.: Caravan Books, 1982. One of the best handbooks of Ṣūfī teachings, a thirteenth-century text that was influential throughout the Persianate world, from Turkey to China.
  • Nasr, Seyyed Hossein, ed. Islamic Spirituality. Vol. 1, Foundations. Vol. 2, Manifestations. New York: Crossroad, 1987–1990. An overview of Sufism's teachings and historical vagaries.
  • Nasr, Seyyed Hossein. The Garden of Truth: The Vision and Practice of Sufism. San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 2007. Nasr speaks here less as a scholar than as a Ṣūfī teacher.
  • Renard, John. Historical Dictionary of Sufism. Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow Press, 2005. A handy reference book including a sixty-page bibliography of Western language sources in twenty-one categories.
  • Renard, John. Knowledge of God in Classical Sufism: Foundations of Islamic Mystical Theology. New York: Paulist Press, 2004. A fine selection of early texts, translated and introduced.
  • Renard, John. Seven Doors to Islam: Spirituality and the Religious Life of Muslims. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996. Excellent introduction to the great diversity of Muslim expressions of the quest for God.
  • Ritter, Helmut. The Ocean of the Soul. Translated by John O’Kane. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 2003. Published in German in 1955, this is still the best study of the teachings of the great Persian poet Farīd al-Dīn ʿAṭṭār, as well as being a treasury of Ṣūfī lore.
  • Schimmel, Annemarie. Mystical Dimensions of Islam. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1975. The best overview of Ṣūfī history and literature.
  • Sells, Michael, trans. and ed. Early Islamic Mysticism: Sufi, Qurʿan, Miʿraj, Poetic and Theological Writings. New York: Paulist Press, 1996. A fine selection of texts.

William C. Chittick

ṢūfĪ Orders

Ṣūfī orders represent one of the most important forms of personal piety and social organization in the Islamic world. In most areas, an order is called a tarīqah (pl. turuq), which is the Arabic word for “path” or “way.” The term tarīqah is used for both the social organization and the special devotional exercises that are the basis of the order's ritual and structure. As a result, the Ṣūfī orders or tarīqahs include a broad spectrum of activities in Muslim history and society.

From its inception, Islam had mystical elements that were integral to the spiritual lives of the faithful. There were pious mystics who developed their personal spiritual paths involving devotional practices, recitations, and literature of piety. These mystics, or Ṣūfīs, sometimes came into conflict with authorities in the Islamic community and provided an alternative to the more legalistic orientation of many of the ʿulamāʿ (scholars). However, Ṣūfīs gradually became important figures in the religious life of the general population and began to gather around themselves groups of followers who were identified and bound together by the special mystic path of the teacher. By the twelfth century (the fifth century in the Islamic era), these paths began to provide the basis for more permanent fellowships, and Ṣūfī orders emerged as major social organizations in the Islamic community.

The orders have taken a variety of forms throughout the Islamic world. These range from the simple preservation of the tarīqah as a set of devotional exercises to vast interregional organizations with carefully defined structures. The orders also include the short-lived organizations that developed around particular individuals and more long-lasting structures with institutional coherence. The orders are not restricted to particular classes, although the orders in which the educated urban elite participated often had different perspectives from the orders that reflected a more broadly based popular piety, and specific practices and approaches varied from region to region.

Ṣūfī orders were characterized by central prescribed rituals, which involved regular meetings for recitations of prayers, poems, and selections from the Qurʿān. These meetings were usually described as acts of “remembering God” or dhikr. In addition, daily devotional exercises for the followers were also set, as were other activities of special meditation, asceticism, and devotion. Some of the special prayers of early Ṣūfīs became widely used, while the structure and format of the ritual was the distinctive character provided by the individual who established the tarīqah. The founder was the spiritual guide for all followers in the order, who would swear a special oath of obedience to him as their shaykh or teacher. As orders continued, the record of the transmission of the ritual would be preserved in a formal chain of spiritual descent, called a silsilah, which stated that the person took the order from a shaykh who took it from another shaykh and so on in a line extending back to the founder, and then usually beyond the founder to the Prophet Muḥammad. As orders became firmly established, leadership would pass from one shaykh to the next, sometimes within a family line and sometimes on the basis of spiritual seniority/mastery within the tarīqah. At times, a follower would reach a sufficient degree of special distinction that his prayers would represent a recognized subbranch within a larger order; at other times, such a follower might be seen as initiating a whole new tarīqah.

Within all this diversity, it is difficult to provide a simple account of the development of Ṣūfī orders, but at least some of the main features of the different types of orders and their development can be noted.

Premodern Foundations.

Different types of orders developed in the early centuries of tarīqah formation. These provide important foundations for the Ṣūfī orders of the modern era.

Large inclusive traditions.

The large inclusive tarīqah tradition has a clearly defined core of devotional literature. In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, some major figures emerged as the organizers of orders that were to become the largest in the Islamic world. In some cases, the orders may actually have been organized by the immediate followers of the “founders,” but these teachers represent the emergence of large-scale orders. The most frequently noted of these early orders is the Qādirīyah, organized around the teachings of ʿAbd al-Qādir al-Jīlānī (d. 1166) of Baghdad; it grew rapidly and became the most widespread of the orders. Two other major orders originating in this era are the Suhrawardīyah, based on the teachings and organization of Abū al-Najīb al-Suhrawardī (d. 1168) and his nephew, Shihāb al-Dīn al-Suhrawardī (d. 1234); and the Rifāʿīyah, representing the tarīqah of Aḥmad al-Rifāʿī (d. 1182). By the thirteenth century, increasing numbers of tarīqahs were being organized in the traditions of great teachers. Many of these were of primarily local or regional influence, but some became as widespread as the earlier orders. Among the most important of these are the Shādhilīyah (established by Abū al-Ḥasan al-Shādhilī, d. 1258) in Egypt and North Africa, and the Chishtīyah (Muʿīn al-Dīn Chishtī, d. 1142) in Central and South Asia. These large tarīqahs are an important type of order representing a coherent tradition based on a central core of writings by the founder. Within these broad traditions over the centuries, later teachers would arise and create their own particular variants, but these would continue to identify with the main tradition. For example, throughout the Islamic world there are distinctive branches of the Qādirīyah, but these are generally identified as part of the Qādirīyah tradition, as is the case with the Bakkāʿīyah established by Aḥmad al-Bakkāʿī al-Kuntī (d. 1504) in West Africa, or the various branches of the Ghawthīyah originating with Muḥammad Ghawth (d. 1517) in South Asia. This process of creating independent suborders continues to the present and can be seen in the variety of relatively new tarīqahs in the traditions of the early orders, often identified with compound names, such as the Ḥāmidīyah Shādhilīyah of contemporary Egypt.

Orders based on “Ancient Ways.”

A second major style of Ṣūfī order developed within less clearly defined traditions that appealed to the early Ṣūfīs and used some of their prayers and writings but developed their own distinctive identities. Many tarīqah organizers thus traced their inspiration back to early Ṣūfīs like Abū al-Qāsim al-Junayd (d. 910) or Abū Yazīd al-Bisṭāmī (d. 874). One may speak of the Junaydī tradition and the “way of Junayd” as insisting on constant ritual purity and fasting, or of the more ecstatic mood in the tradition of al- Bisṭāmī. However, the great Junaydī or Bisṭāmī orders are independent and have their own separate traditions. Among the most important Junaydī orders are the Kubrawīyah and the Mawlawīyah; orders such as the Yasawīyah and Naqshbandīyah are seen as being more in the Bisṭāmī tradition. Within the broader framework of affirming inspiration and instruction by a chain of teachers that stretches back to the early Ṣūfīs, new orders continue to be created.

Individual-based orders.

A third type of major order is the tarīqah that develops as a result of the initiatives and teachings of a later teacher and has its own clear identity. These teachers usually affirmed their ties to earlier teachers and tarīqahs, but in some significant ways they proclaimed the unique validity of their particular tarīqah. Sometimes this took the form of an affirmation that the new tarīqah was a synthesis of preceding tarīqahs; sometimes the claim for authority was based on direct inspiration from the Prophet Muḥammad, in which case the order might be called a tarīqah Muḥammadīyah, or from some other special agent of God, for example al-Khiḍr orders of this type have been very important in the modern Muslim world and include the Tijānīyah, the Khatmīyah, and the Sanūsīyah.

Shrine tarīqahs.

Local orders centered on particular shrines or families represent another very important type of tarīqah. Teachers with special reputations for sanctity might develop significant followings during their lifetime, but their writings and work might not provide the basis for the development of for a larger order. Tombs of such pious teachers throughout the Muslim world have been important focuses of popular piety, and the rituals surrounding the ceremonies of remembrance and homage become a local tarīqah. Sometimes these might be indirectly identified with some more general Ṣūfī tradition, but the real impact and identity is local. The special centers of popular piety in North Africa that have developed around the tombs of the marabouts, or the various centers of pilgrimage that developed in Central Asia and even survived the policies of suppression by the former Soviet regime, provide good examples of this style of tarīqah.

Foundations of the Modern Orders.

Many observers have proclaimed the effective end of the Ṣūfī orders in the modern era. A major French authority on medieval Sufism, for example, announced in the middle of the twentieth century that the orders were “in a state of complete decline” and that they faced “the hostility and contempt of the elite of the modern Muslim world” (Massignon, 1953, p. 574). This reflects both the long historical tension between the Muslim urban intellectual elites and the tarīqahs and also the specifically modern belief that mystic religious experience and modernity were incompatible. However, by the end of the twentieth century it was clear that Ṣūfī orders remained a dynamic part of the religious life of the Islamic world; moreover, they were at the forefront of the expansion of Islam, not only in “traditional” rural areas but also in modern societies in the West and among the modernized intellectual elites within the Muslim world. These apparently contradictory views reflect the complex history and development of tarīqahs since the eighteenth century.

There is an underlying continuity of experience in the Ṣūfī orders that provides an important backdrop to specific modern developments. The rituals of popular piety among Muslims—educated and uneducated, rural and urban—cannot be ignored. Although over the past three centuries educated Muslims have paid less attention to the more miraculous and magical elements of saint visitation and other aspects of popular Ṣūfī piety, the intellectual appeal of Islamic mysticism has remained strong, and the sense of social cohesion provided by the Ṣūfī organizations has been important, especially in areas like the Muslim Central Asian societies of the former Soviet Union. Popular participation in regular Ṣūfī gatherings and support for various types of tarīqahs remain at remarkably high levels throughout the Muslim world. Estimates of membership in Ṣūfī orders in Egypt, for example, are in the millions, in contrast to the hundreds or thousands in the more militant Islamic revivalist organizations.

Popular Islamic piety among all classes of people remains strong throughout the modern era and shows little sign of decline at the beginning of the twenty-first century. This popular piety frequently is expressed participation in the activities of tarīqahs or other groups reflecting Ṣūfī approaches to the faith. However, the activities of the organizations of this popular piety do not usually attract much attention, despite their long-term importance. This situation provides the proper background for examining the specific experiences of the more visible Ṣūfī orders of the modern era.

The history of tarīqahs in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries provides an important foundation for understanding the dynamics of the recent development of Ṣūfī orders. Ṣūfī organizations and leadership from this period remain significant in setting the discourse and defining the issues of Islamic piety in the modern era.

Some modern scholars argue that a number of new initiatives can be seen in the development of the Ṣūfī organizations and thought of the early modern era. Among some Ṣūfī teachers there were efforts to remove the more ecstatic and pantheistic elements of the Ṣūfī tradition and to create more reform-oriented Ṣūfī organizations and practices. Fazlur Rahman called this tendency “neo-Sufism” (Islam, Chicago, 1979), a term that came to be used by other scholars as well. “Neo-Sufism” referred to a mood rather than making any claim that the term represented a monolithic school of Ṣūfī thought. Other scholars have tended to reject the term because it seemed to ignore important continuities in Ṣūfī traditions and seemed to assume a greater degree of similarity among movements than might exist.

Regardless of the details of the debate, in the eighteenth century the broad spectrum of Ṣūfī orders and practices extended from the local varieties of popular folk religion to a more sober and sometimes reformist Ṣūfī leadership that did not approve of the popular cultic practices. Whether or not one calls the latter approach “neo-Sufism” is less important than it is to recognize that the less ecstatic and more sharīʿah-minded Sufism existed and that it provided the basis for emerging tarīqahs important in the modern era. These orders represented a “new organizational phenomenon” of orders that were “relatively more centralized and less prone to fission than their predecessors” (O’Fahey, 1990, p. 4).

In the context of Islamic societies in the eighteenth century, immediately before the major encounter with the modernizing West, Ṣūfī orders were a significant part of the social fabric throughout the Islamic world. They provided vehicles for the expression of the faith of urban elites, served as networks for interregional interaction and travel, acted as an effective inclusive structure for the missionary expansion of Islam, and in some ways shaped the context within which movements of puritanical reform or spiritual revival developed.

Elite tarīqahs.

In the large urban centers in regions where Islam was the established faith of the overwhelming majority of the population, the orders were vehicles for the expression of piety among both the masses and the elites. New presentations of the old traditions, such as the Qādirīyah, Shādhilīyah, and Khalwatīyah, were important in places like Cairo. By the eighteenth century the larger orders of all types were expanding into many different regions.

The history of the Naqshbandīyah in the Middle East provides an important example of this development. It spread from Central and South Asia into Ottoman lands in at least two different forms—that of Aḥmad Sirhindī (d. 1625), called the Mujaddid or (Renewer) of the second millennium, and the earlier line of ʿUbaydullāh Aḥrār. By the eighteenth century, notables in the tarīqah were prominent in Istanbul and other major Ottoman cities like Damascus, where the great Ḥanafī muftī and historian Muḥammad Khalīl al-Murādī (d. 1791) was a scion of a family associated with the Naqshbandīyah. At the beginning of the nineteenth century, Shaykh Khālid al-Baghdādī (d. 1827) of the Mujaddidī line led a major movement of revival in the lands of the Fertile Crescent; the activities of the Khālidī branch established the Naqshbandīyah as “the paramount order in Turkey” (Hamid Algar, “Nakshbandīya,” Encyclopaedia of Islam, new ed., 1960–, vol. 7, p. 936).

Interregional networks.

The Naqshbandīyah also presents a good example of how the orders provided structures for interregional networks among the ʿulamāʿ and commercial classes. Students, pilgrims, and travelers could move from city to city, finding shelter and instruction in the Naqshbandī centers. One such person was a Chinese scholar, Ma Mingxin (d. 1781), who traveled and studied in major Naqshbandī centers in Central Asia, Yemen, and Mecca and Medina. Combined networks of commercial activities and pious instruction can be seen in the activities of family-based tarīqahs like the ʿAydarusīyah, the order of an important family in the Hadramawt region in the south Arabian Peninsula, the ʿAydarus, with branches in the islands of Southeast Asia, India, South Arabia, and Cairo. The lists of teachers of scholars in the eighteenth century show that major intellectual figures often received devotional instruction in broad interregional networks of Ṣūfī masters.

Missionary expansion.

Ṣūfī orders had also long been vehicles in the missionary expansion of Islam. The less legalistic approach to the faith of Ṣūfī teachers often involved an adaptation to specific local customs and practices. This helped Islam to become a part of popular religious activity with a minimum of conflict. At the same time, the traditions of the Ṣūfī devotions represented ties to the broad Islamic world that could integrate the newer believers into the identity of the Islamic community as a whole. In this way, orders like the Qādirīyah played a significant role in the expansion of Islam in Africa. In Sudan, for example, its decentralized structure allowed specific regional and tribal leaders to assume roles of leadership within the order. In Southeast Asia, the tarīqahs were also important in providing a context within which existing religious customs could be combined with more explicitly Islamic activities. Thus orders like the Shaṭṭārīyah became major forces in the Islamic life of peoples in Java and Sumatra. This missionary dimension was visible wherever Islam was expanding in the eighteenth century—in Africa, southeastern Europe, and central, southern, and southeastern Asia.

Puritan reformism.

Ṣūfī orders also helped to provide concepts of organization for groups actively engaged in efforts to “purify” religious practice and revive the faith. Although the best-known eighteenth-century revivalist movement, Wahhābīyah, was vigorously opposed to the Ṣūfī orders, most revivalists in fact had some significant Ṣūfī affiliations. In West Africa, the leaders of movements to establish more explicitly Islamic states in Futa Jallon and Futa Toro, in the areas of modern Senegal and Guinea, were associated with important branches of the Qādirīyah. The great jihād at the beginning of the nineteenth century in northern Nigeria and neighboring territories was led by Usman dan Fodio, a teacher closely identified with the Qādirīyah. At the other end of the Islamic world of the eighteenth century, the reformist movement called the “New Teaching” that swept through Northwest China in the late eighteenth century was the Naqshbandīyah as presented by Ma Mingxin. In many other areas as well, Ṣūfī orders were associated with the development of reformist and jihadist movements of purification.

The developments of the eighteenth century provide important foundations for later events in Islamic life in general and in the history of Ṣūfī orders in particular. It was the Islamic world as it existed in the eighteenth and early nineteenth century, not some classical medieval formulation, that encountered the expanding and modernizing West. In those encounters the Ṣūfī orders played an important role, which sometimes does not receive as much attention as do the activities of more radical movements or movements more explicitly shaped and influenced by the West.

Ṣūfī Orders in the Modern Era.

In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries the different Ṣūfī traditions were involved in many different ways in helping to shape Muslim responses to the West and also in defining Islamic forms of modernity. At the same time, although in changing contexts, many of the main themes of the older experiences of the orders continue. Among the many aspects of the history of Ṣūfī orders in the modern era, it is important to examine a number more closely: the Ṣūfī orders continued to serve as an important basis for popular devotional life; they were important forces in responding to imperial rule; they helped to provide organizational and intellectual inspiration for Muslim responses to modern challenges to the faith; and they continued to be an important force in the mission of Muslims to non-Muslims.

Popular piety.

Tarīqahs remained very important in the life of popular piety among the masses; however, this important level of popular devotional life is not as visible in the public arena as the more activist roles of the orders. New orders continued to emerge around respected teachers and saintly personalities important in the daily lives of common people. Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth century it is possible to identify such orders in virtually all parts of the Islamic world. It is especially important to observe that these new devotional paths were not simply the products of rural, conservative, or so-called “traditional” people.

An example is the career of Qarīb Allāh Abū Ṣāliḥ (1866–1936), a pious teacher in Omdurman, Sudan, and a member of the Sammānīyah tarīqah, an order established in the eighteenth century within the Khalwatīyah tradition. He participated in the Mahdist movement in the late nineteenth century and during the early twentieth century attracted disciples from both the poorer people and the emerging modern educated classes in Sudan. His devotional writings and mystic poetry were published and became an important part of the modern literature of Sudan. The Qarībīyah was not politically active as an organization, although its members may have been politically involved as individuals.

Across the Islamic world, similar groups have emerged as a pious foundation for devotional life at all levels of society. Similarly, intellectuals and professionals as well as the general population continued in significant numbers to participate in activities of the older established orders. This phenomenon could be observed, for example, in Cairo during the 1960s at the peak of enthusiasm for Gamal Abdel Nasser's Arab Socialism. Although the contexts had changed since the beginning of the nineteenth century, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, new orders that served popular devotional needs continued to be created and to flourish in ways that provide a sense of both great continuity and significant adaptability to changing conditions.

Anti-foreign resistance.

Ṣūfī orders provided significant organization and support for movements of resistance to foreign rule. This was especially true in the nineteenth century, when many of the major wars against expanding European powers were fought by Muslim organizations that originated with Ṣūfī orders. At the beginning of the nineteenth century in Sumatra, a revivalist movement building on reform activities initiated by the Naqshbandīyah and Shaṭṭārīyah, and possibly inspired by Wahhābī strictness or the teachings of Aḥmad ibn Idrīs, provided major resistance to Dutch expansion in the Padri War of 1821–1838. The strongest opposition to the French conquest of Algeria, which began in 1830, was provided by a Qādirīyah leader, Amīr ʿAbd al-Qādir, whose resistance lasted until 1847. In the Caucasus region, Naqshbandīyah fighters under the leadership of Imam Shāmil maintained a holy war against Russian imperial expansion for twenty-five years, ending in 1859. At the end of the nineteenth century, it was a tarīqah leader, Muḥammad ʿAbd Allāh Ḥasan (1864–1921) of the Ṣāliḥīyah, who led a major anti-imperialist holy war in Somaliland against the British. Ṣūfī orders provided the basis for many other movements of resistance, but these examples confirm that the phenomenon was significant and widespread.

Some other Ṣūfī orders that came into conflict with expanding European imperialism also reflect the development of distinctive, new tarīqah traditions. Perhaps the most important of these orders are those established by followers of Aḥmad ibn Idrīs (d. 1837) and others influenced by this Idrīsī tradition. Ibn Idrīs was a North African scholar who taught for several years in Mecca; some of his major students established tarīqahs that became important orders throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The best-known of these groups is the Sanūsīyah, founded by Muḥammad ibn ʿAlī al-Sanūsī (d. 1859). This order established centers in North Africa and Saharan areas, with special centers in Libya. It provided stability and regional coordination among nomadic tribes and became very influential in a vast area in northern Africa. As a result, expanding French imperial forces in many Saharan areas contacted and eventually came into conflict with the Sanūsīyah in the later nineteenth century. When Italy attempted to conquer Libya in the twentieth century, it was the Sanūsīyah that provided the most effective opposition, both during the Ottoman-Italian war of 1911–1912 and after World War I. When the victorious allied powers decided to create an independent Libya, it was the head of the Sanūsīyah who was proclaimed Idrīs I, the king of independent Libya. The Sanūsīyah as a Ṣūfī order was tied to the newly created tradition of Aḥmad ibn Idrīs rather than being solely associated with older tarīqah traditions.

Other similarly independent orders that developed in this Idrīsī tradition were the Khatmīyah, which became one of the major Islamic organizations in the modern Sudan; the Ṣāliḥīyah and Rashīdīyah, which were important in East Africa; and the Idrīsīyah, established by the family of the original teacher. These orders, along with the Sanūsīyah, represent a major Ṣūfī tradition in the modern era, especially in Africa. Less directly, teachers influenced by the Idrīsī tradition had some impact in southeastern Europe and South and Southeast Asia.

Another independent Ṣūfī tradition developed as a result of the work of Aḥmad al-Tijānī (d. 1815). The Tijānīyah was an exclusive order that claimed to be a synthesis of major tarīqah traditions inspired and instructed initially by the Prophet Muḥammad himself. The order became an important force in North Africa but did not get involved in opposition to French expansion in the Mediterranean countries. However, the Tijānīyah expanded rapidly into Saharan and sub-Saharan Africa. Al-Ḥajj ʿUmar Tal (d. 1864) organized a major holy war under the Tijānīyah banner in the regions of Guinea, Senegal, and Mali; ultimately his successful movement was restricted and then ended by the consolidation of French imperial control in the region. However, the Tijānīyah was more than an anti-foreign movement. It became a major vehicle for intensification of Islamic practice in already Muslim areas and for the expansion of Islam into non-Muslim areas. By the end of the twentieth century, the Tijānīyah had become a major force throughout the Sudanic region, with growing numbers of supporters as far east as Darfur in Sudan.

It is clear that major orders like the Sanūsīyah and Tijānīyah, which were established in the nineteenth century, were not simply anti-imperialist movements in Ṣūfī form. They represented an important style of cohesive social organization based on the traditions of tarīqah structures. They were not necessarily alternatives to emerging modern state structures but were autonomous within the developing polities defined as sovereign nation-states. This alternative mode is also seen in the developments of distinctive orders whose self-definition was more closely identified with older Ṣūfī traditions. Thus the Naqshbandīyah suborder established by Said Nursî in Turkey in the twentieth century became an important vehicle for the articulation of a revivalist Islamic worldview in the context of an officially secular state. Similarly, a number of orders provided important foundations for the unofficial, “underground” Islam that was so essential for the survival of the Muslim sense of community in Central Asia under Soviet rule.

Responses to modernity.

Ṣūfī orders also were important in helping to shape the responses to the challenges to Muslim faith in the modern era. In the nineteenth century this was more in terms of providing organizational bases for opposition to European expansion and in the direct continuation of the traditions of activist reformist movements such as the Naqshbandīyah. In the twentieth century, tarīqahs responded to specific societal needs in a variety of ways. In some countries orders provided the direct organizational basis for modern-style political parties. In Sudan, for example, the Khatmīyah provided the foundation for the National Unionist Party, then the People's Democratic Party; late in the twentieth century the head of the order was also the president of the Democratic Unionist Party. In Senegal, the Murīdīyah provided an organization for the development of cash crops and played an important role in modernizing the agricultural sector of the Senegalese economy. In the days of Soviet communist rule in Central Asia, the popular local tarīqahs and the established traditional ones like the Naqshbandīyah provided the framework within which Islamic communal identity could be maintained in the face of the official efforts to suppress religion. In the holy war in Afghanistan after the Soviet occupation in 1979, leaders of established orders like the Qīdirīyah and Naqshbandīyah Mujaddidīyah were among the most important organizers of mujāhidīn groups. These examples affirm the fact that in many different areas, the organizational traditions of the Ṣūfī orders provided important bases for responding to specific challenges.

In the twentieth century, however, the role of the orders was sometimes different. The established tarīqahs might seem ineffective in meeting particular challenges of modernity, but the basic structures or the general approach might still provide models for new Islamic revivalist and reformist movements.

Sufism and participation in a reform-minded tarīqah was, for example, an important part of the early experience of Ḥasan al-Bannā (d. 1949), the founder of one of the major modern Muslim revivalist organizations in the twentieth century, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. As a young man, al-Bannā was impressed by accounts of the strictness of a Ṣūfī shaykh, Ḥasanayn al-Ḥaṣāfī (d. 1910), and became an active member of the ṭarīqah he had founded, the Ḥaṣāfīyah. Al-Bannā was involved with the tarīqah for twenty years and maintained a respect for this strict style of Sufism throughout his life. It appears to have influenced his organizational thinking in terms of the methods of instruction in his Muslim Brotherhood and the daily rituals required of its members. Another major Islamic activist movement, the Muslim Brotherhood in Sudan, has some similar aspects. Many of its early organizers came from families strongly identified with tarīqahs in Sudan. The most prominent of the leaders in the Sudanese Brotherhood in the second half of the twentieth century is Ḥasan al-Turābī, who came from a religiously notable family whose center was a school-tomb complex of a traditional localized Ṣūfī type. One of his ancestors in the eighteenth century had proclaimed himself to be a mahdī bringing purification to the Muslims. Turābī emphasized the continuing need for humans to reinterpret the implications of the Islamic faith in changing historical circumstances. One active member of Turābī's movement noted that “Turābī's revolution” was a “reaffirmation of the ancient Ṣūfī ethic, with its emphasis on the spirit rather than the letter of Islam” (Abdelwahab El-Affendi, Turābī's Revolution, London, 1991). The Ṣūfī organizational traditions thus both provided direct means for meeting challenges in modern situations and also helped to inspire new approaches.

Missionary expansion.

The Ṣūfī orders continued in the modern era to serve as important vehicles for the expansion of Islam in basically non-Muslim societies. In many areas, this is simply a direct continuation of past activities. In sub-Saharan Africa, for example, under colonial rule the Ṣūfī orders were among the few types of indigenous social organizations that imperial administrators would allow. As a result, they became important structures both for the expression of indigenous opinion and for the expansion of Islam. It was under colonial rule in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries that Islam was able to make significant advances in areas south of the Sudanic savannas.

More remarkably, the Ṣūfī orders have become important vehicles for Islamic expansion in modern Western societies, where the open inclusiveness and the aesthetic dimensions of the great Ṣūfī philosophies have considerable appeal. Ṣūfī thought was important in influencing nineteenth-century Western intellectuals such as Ralph Waldo Emerson; in the later twentieth century, the writings of Idries Shah became very well known and could be found in bookstores that appealed to popular as well as intellectual tastes. Important Western converts to Islam in the twentieth century were often Ṣūfī in orientation and institutional affiliation. The writings of Martin Lings and his description of the tarīqah of the Tunisian Ṣūfī shaykh Aḥmad al-ʿAlawī are significant examples.

Ṣūfī orders are active organizationally in Western societies. They provide a clearly satisfying and effective vehicle for the expression of religious life and values in modern Western societies and have an appeal among professionals and the general population. The communities established by orders in Western Europe and the Americas have been strengthened in the second half of the twentieth century by the significant growth of the Muslim communities through immigration and conversion. A good example of this tarīqah activity is the expansion of the Niʿmatullāhī order, which by 2007 had centers in thirteen major cities in North America, published a magazine, Sufi, and worked with academic institutions in organizing conferences on Sufism. In ways like this, Ṣūfī orders continue to serve as an important means for the modern expansion of Islam.

Challenges and Prospects.

Throughout Islamic history there have been strong critics of Ṣūfī teachers and organizations. In one of the most famous instances, a medieval mystic, al-Ḥallāj (d. 922), was executed for proclaiming his mystical union with God in an extreme manner. More literalist and legalist interpreters of Islam have opposed the practices of the Ṣūfī orders as providing means of non-Islamic practices and beliefs. In the eighteenth century, some of the strongest opposition to the tarīqahs came from the developing Wahhābī movement. In the modern era, modernizing reformers strongly criticized the orders for encouraging and strengthening popular superstitions, and Islamic modernists attempted to reduce the influence of Ṣūfī shaykhs in their societies.

Such modernist opposition can be seen in actions of reformers throughout the Islamic world. Wherever the Salafīyah modernist movement—which emerged with the thought and actions of late nineteenth-century scholars such as Muḥammad ʿAbduh (d. 1905) of Egypt—had influence, there was strong opposition to the popular devotional practices and influence of the Ṣūfī orders. This can be seen in the activities and teachings of ʿAbd Allāh ibn Idrīs al-Sanūsī (d. 1931) in Morocco, the Association of Algerian ʿUlamāʿ organized in the 1930s, the Muḥammadiyah in Indonesia throughout the twentieth century, the Jadīdist movement within the old Russian Empire, and many other areas. In addition, more explicitly Westernizing reform programs attempted to eliminate the influence of the orders, best illustrated in the reforms of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk during the 1920s and 1930s in the new republic of Turkey.

Many observers also thought that as societies became more modern and industrialized, the social functions of the Ṣūfī teachers and their organizations would decline. In the mid-twentieth century, many analyses painted a picture of reduced and possibly disappearing Ṣūfī orders. Despite the opposition and the predictions, however, Ṣūfī orders continue strong in most of the Islamic world and in communities of Muslims where they are minorities.

The Ṣūfī orders continue to provide vehicles for articulating an inclusive Islamic identity with a greater emphasis on individual devotional piety and small-group experience. The contrast with the more legalist orientation with its emphasis on the community as a whole is a long-standing polarity in Islamic history. It is clear that the great transformations of the modern era have not destroyed the basis for this polarity.

In the changing contexts of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, the traditions of the Ṣūfī orders have special strengths in situations where there is a high degree of religious pluralism. They allow the believer to maintain an individual Islamic devotional identity in the absence of a national or society-wide Muslim majority. These traditions also allow for an articulation of Islam in a form compatible with secularist perspectives. Thus Sufism has importance in the non-Muslim societies of Western Europe and North America. In addition, as it becomes clear that it is not possible simply to transfer institutional copies of Western-style associations such as labor unions, political parties, and other nongovernmental organizations, tarīqah traditions may provide ways of adapting modern institutions to the needs of emerging civil societies throughout the Islamic world.


  • Awn, Peter J. “Sufism.”The Encyclopedia of Religion. 2d ed. Edited by Lindsay Jones. Vol. 13, pp. 8809–8825. Detroit, 2005. Good introduction to the medieval foundations of Ṣūfī beliefs and orders but little on the modern era.
  • Bennigsen, Alexandre, and S. Enders Wimbush. Mystics and Commissars: Sufism in the Soviet Union. Berkeley, 1985. The best source on the experience of Ṣūfī orders under Soviet rule.
  • Gilsenan, Michael. Saint and Sufi in Modern Egypt. Oxford, 1973. Important analysis of the general issues involved in the development of orders in the modern era, using the Ḥāmidīyah Shādhilīyah as a case study.
  • Hoffman-Ladd, Valerie. Sufism, Mystics, and Saints in Modern Egypt. Columbia, 1995. Important study showing the continuing vitality of Ṣūfī organizations at the level of popular religion.
  • Jong, F. de. Ṭuruq and Ṭuruq-Linked Institutions in Nineteenth-Century Egypt. Leiden, 1978. Careful and detailed discussion of Egyptian orders and their relations with the state.
  • Knysh, Alexander. Islamic Mysticism: A Short History. Leiden, 2000. A comprehensive presentation with emphasis on the earlier centuries, using many important articles from the Encyclopaedia of Islam.
  • Lewisohn, Leonard. The Heritage of Sufism. 3 vols.Oxford, 1999. A massive collection of essays on the history and content of “Persian Sufism,” emphasizing philosophical and aesthetic elements more than organizational aspects of Sufism.
  • Lings, Martin. A Sufi Saint of the Twentieth Century: Shaykh Aḥmad al-ʿAlawī. Berkeley, 1973. Sympathetic presentation showing the basis for the continuing appeal of Sufism in the modern era.
  • Malik, Jamal, and John Hinnells, eds. Sufism in the West. London and New York, 2006. A wide-ranging collection of essays by many of the major scholars doing research on the subject of Sufism in Western Europe and North America.
  • Mardin, Şerif. Religion and Social Change in Modern Turkey: The Case of Bediüzzaman Said Nursi. Albany, N.Y., 1989. Study of the experience of a revivalist Ṣūfī tradition in the context of official Turkish secularism.
  • Martin, B. G.Muslim Brotherhoods in Nineteenth-Century Africa. Cambridge, 1976. Well-documented study of major African activist orders in their historical context.
  • Massignon, Louis. “Tarīḳa.”Shorter Encyclopaedia of Islam, edited by H. A. R. Gibb and J. H. Kramers, pp. 573–578. Leiden, 1953. An old but still useful summary of the development of the orders, with a long descriptive list.
  • Netton, Ian Richard. Sūfī Ritual: The Parallel Universe. Richmond, Surrey, 2000. An important analysis dealing with both religious content and organization of orders, using the Niʿmatullāhī and Naqshbandī orders as basic examples.
  • O’Fahey, R. S.Enigmatic Saint: Ahmad ibn Idris and the Idrisi Tradition. London and Evanston, Ill., 1990. Very important study of a major tarīqah tradition that emerged at the beginning of the modern era.
  • Rahman, Fazlur. Islam. 2nd ed.Chicago, 1979. This excellent introduction to Islam provides a helpful summary of Sufi beliefs and of the development of the orders. The author is the first scholar to use the term “neo-Sufism” to describe the reformist orders of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
  • Schimmel, Annemarie. Mystical Dimensions of Islam. Chapel Hill, N.C., 1975. Sound and readable presentation of the full range of issues related to understanding Sufism.
  • Schimmel, Annemarie. Islam in the Indian Subcontinent. Leiden, 1980. Helpful interpretation giving special attention to the role of the orders in South Asia.
  • Sedgewick, Mark J. Sufism: The Essentials. Cairo, 2003. A helpful summary of the theological and historical dimensions of Sufism.
  • Trimingham, J. Spencer. The Sufi Orders in Islam. Oxford, 1971; reprint, New York, 1998. The single most comprehensive presentation of the origin and development of the Sūfī orders.
  • Van Bruinessen, Martin, and Julia Day Howell, eds. Sufism and the ‘Modern’ in Islam. London, 2007. A collection of important studies of a wide variety of Sūfī groups and trends in all of the parts of the Muslim world at the beginning of the twenty-first century.

John O. Voll

ṢufĪ Shrine Culture

In many Muslim countries special shrines have been constructed honoring famous Ṣūfī leaders or “saints” who, it is believed, could work miracles during their lives and even after their death. This kind of shrine may be called ḍarīḥ, mazār, zāwiyah, or maqām in Arabic. In some areas it is called qubbah after the cupola that is the most characteristic architectural element in many shrines. The saint's tomb is the essential part of such a shrine; it is a place to which people make visits to receive divine blessing (barakah). It is thus one of the focal points of popular Islam. Consequently, Ṣūfī shrine culture, supported enthusiastically by common Muslims, has occasionally been criticized both by rigorous Muslim scholars (ʿulamāʿ) and by some modern reformers as bidʿah or heretical innovation added to authentic early Islam.

Historical Origin.

Starting as an individual ascetic movement, Sufism had become regarded as a legitimate part of orthodox Islam by the twelfth century. Great Ṣūfī adepts lived according to strict discipline in their training centers or lodges, where disciples followed the way (ṭarīqah) of training that their master taught them. These gatherings developed into the Ṣūfī orders (also called ṭarīqahs). Drawing recruits mainly from the illiterate masses, who had formerly lacked access to the Islamic teaching that had been largely monopolized by scholars, Ṣūfī orders gradually spread over parts of the Muslim world and had become very popular with the Muslim masses by the fifteenth or sixteenth century. Among them were the Qādirīyah, the Rifāʿīyah, the Shādhilīyah, the Suhrawardīyah, the Mawlawīyah, and the Aḥmadīyah. The first four established many branches in different countries; the Mawlawīyah was centered mainly in Anatolia and the Aḥmadīyah in the Nile Delta.

As the Ṣūfī orders penetrated into common Muslims’ lives and influenced their ritual behaviors, some of the Ṣūfī leaders, usually the founders of orders or the heads of branches, began to develop reputations as saints (awliyāʿ; sg., walī) who had supernatural power or divine blessing (barakah) granted by God. Through this power, it was believed, the saint could work miracles (karāmāt) such as foretelling the future, mind-reading, flying, treating illness, and other extraordinary acts. Devotees from both within and outside the order often visited the saint asking for a small share of divine blessing, so that he gradually began to be venerated as if he were a divine being. When the saint died, it was firmly believed that he would still respond favorably to requests made at his tomb. Therefore followers erected a special building at the site of the tomb.

Two Cases.

Ṣūfī saint shrine-culture displays great variation in factors such as the person enshrined, the social categories of devotees, the architectural structure of the shrine, the rituals performed in and around it, its political and economic significance, and the form and activities of the Ṣūfī order that provides its main support. In order to illustrate its historical development, two examples will be discussed. Although both come from Egypt, they exemplify respectively a traditional, rural-based Ṣūfī saint cult and a modern, urban-based one.

Sayyid al-Badawī.

Aḥmad al-Badawī, also called Sayyid al-Badawī because of his presumed descent from the Prophet, was born in Fez, Morocco, in 1199 and went to Mecca with his family in his childhood. He later visited Iraq, where he was strongly influenced by the thought of two other great Ṣūfīs, Aḥmad Rifāʿī and ʿAbd al-Qādir al-Jīlānī, and by the activities of the Ṣūfī orders that followed these masters, the Rifāʿīyah and the Qādirīyah. Obeying a divine command received in a vision, Aḥmad al-Badawī decided to go to Tanta, a town in the Nile Delta. Situated in the center of a rich agricultural area, Tanta then flourished as a large marketplace for agricultural products, as it still does today. Overcoming challenges from other religious leaders, he won over a great number of followers in and around the town. He was said to have worked many miracles, through one of which his first supporter in the town was able to prosper in his business. He was also paid homage by the great Mamlūk king, Ẓāhir Baybars, and he even fought against the Crusaders.

Sayyid al-Badawī died in 1276. His senior pupil ʿAbd al-ʿĀl assumed responsibility for the Aḥmadīyah and became his successor (khalīfah). The saint's followers from every district flocked to Tanta to pledge their loyalty to his successor; this is said to be the origin of the annual festival or mawlid of Sayyid al-Badawī. ʿAbd al-ʿĀl commanded that a large building be erected over the Sayyid's tomb, and this has developed into his shrine together with a large mosque called the Masjid al-Badawī.

The mystical power of the saint began to appeal not only to the peasants and townspeople of the Delta but also to the masses in Cairo and some parts of Upper Egypt, and the devotees of his cult increased greatly. The Aḥmadīyah order in due course developed into one of the four largest Ṣūfī orders in Egypt, and his mawlid came to be something of a national festival.

Salāmah al-Rāḍī.

The founder of the Ḥāmidīyah Shādhilīyah order was born in 1867 in a shabby quarter of Cairo and died there in 1939. Unlike traditional saints such as Aḥmad al-Badawī, he was born into a modern Egypt which the Western powers had come to dominate politically and economically. Egyptian society and modern European ideas, both religious and secular, gradually infiltrated into Muslims’ daily lives. For this reason, the Ṣūfī orders, if they wanted to revitalize their movements and find recruits in the emerging modernist sectors of Egyptian society, had to deal with new problems in accommodating themselves to the rapidly changing social and cultural conditions.

Having memorized the whole of the Qurʿān before he was ten, Salāmah found intellectual satisfaction in Ṣūfī scholarship rather than in the formal school system. While working in a government office as a clerk, he led an ascetic life and joined a Ṣūfī order. In response to a divine vision he decided to set up his own ṭarīqah, the Ḥāmidīyah Shādhilīyah, which was officially recognized as an independent ṭarīqah by the supreme Ṣūfī council in 1926–1927.

He became venerated as a saint for his apparent miracles, which included the excellence of his religious knowledge without a formal education, his ability to defeat other eminent scholars in debate, and his supernatural power to see everything, including things hidden from normal people. Some educated members of the order, however, apparently discredited these stories of miracles, or at least hesitated to accept them as factual.

After Salāmah's death, one of his sons, Ibrāhīm, became the head of the order. Unlike his father, who attracted people with his personal charisma, Ibrāhīm tried to extend the order's influence by means of structural reform. He aimed to establish a more centralized, hierarchical organization. This reform led to the Ḥāmidīyah Shādhilīyah’ becoming one of the Ṣūfī orders that accommodated most fully to social and cultural changes in modern Egypt; however, it also stirred internal conflicts between the new elite members, recruited mainly from a somewhat modernized middle class, and the senior leaders, who had been attracted by the charisma of the founding saint.

The saint's tomb became one of the focal points in this conflict. Salāmah’s shrine was first set up in the Būlāq district of Cairo where he was born and where he established the headquarters of his ṭarīqah. After his death, a mawlid celebration for him was held there every year. Ibrāhīm died in 1975, and the new elite members, who organized a committee to manage and control the ṭarīqah, began to build a large new mosque in the Muhandisīn district on the opposite side of the Nile from Būlāq, an attractive residential area for the growing upper and upper-middle classes. Ibrāhīm's tomb was set up in this new mosque. Beside it they constructed a fine new tomb for Salāmah, though it remained empty in 1987 as the old members refused to move his tomb from Būlāq. Moreover, they recognized Ibrāhīm's younger brother as head of the ṭarīqah and carried on celebrating Salāma's mawlid separately in Būlāq; the Muhandisīn faction, of course, held the mawlid celebration at the new mosque.

Enshrinement of Non-Sūfīs.

These two examples have been cases of great Ṣūfīs who are venerated as saints and were enshrined after their death. These cases have to be distinguished from others in which the enshrined person is not a Ṣūfī in the strict sense.

First, veneration of the prophet Muḥammad must be considered. According to orthodox belief, he is not an equivalent of God but a mere man, though he is deeply respected as the Last Prophet and the ideal human being. Often, however, he has been venerated as though divine and similar to God by some groups of Muslims, especially among the less-educated masses. Great numbers eagerly visit his tomb in Medina before or after the pilgrimage to Mecca in order to receive divine blessing. The anniversary of his birthday (the twelfth day of Rabīʿ al-Awwal in the Islamic calendar), called Mawlid al-Nabī (the Prophet's Birthday), has been celebrated in many cities and villages since the thirteenth century. Visitation to his tomb and celebration of his birthday have been conducted like those of Ṣūfī saints. Members of the Ṣūfī orders actively participate in events of the Mawlid al-Nabī.

The Prophet's family is also widely respected in Muslim societies, and Shīʿī Muslims have developed especially elaborate cults of the first imam, ʿAlī, and his descendants. Their tombs are centers of folk Shiism, and many Shīʿīs visit them to receive divine blessing. ʿAlī‘s tomb in Najaf and that of his son Ḥusayn in Karbala are the most prestigious, and these towns in Iraq have served as Shīʿī sanctuaries. Although much less famous than these, there are many smaller shrines in Shīʿī areas, especially in Iran, which are presumed to belong to one of the imams and are generally called imāmzādah. They closely resemble Sunnī Ṣūfī saint shrines in their social and cultural functions.

Sunnī Muslims also revere Muḥammad's descendants and generally refer to them as sharīf (noble person) or sayyid (lord). Some rulers of states, such as the Moroccan and Jordanian kings, and some saints, such as Sayyid al-Badawī, claim descent from the Prophet. Some of the Prophet's descendants are venerated as holy in their own right and are celebrated annually in their own mawlids. The Mawlid al-Ḥusayn, for example, is held in Cairo, and a large number of his devotees, many of them members of Ṣūfī orders, visit the mosque-shrine where his head is said to be buried.

Also held in Cairo is the mawlid of Imam Shāfiʿī (d. 820), the founder of one of the four orthodox schools of Islamic law. His shrine is set up in a shabby district on the eastern periphery of the city. Although he was never a Ṣūfī, people visit his tomb to seek his mystical help, and they hold an annual celebration as they do for a Ṣūfī saint.

Prophets other than Muḥammad, together with some of the warrior heroes of early Islamic history, were also enshrined and celebrated, especially in Palestine, where there were many tombs and shrines that were presumed to belong to them. Such biblical figures as Abraham, Moses, David, Job, and even Jesus had one or more shrines where people came to receive divine blessing. Some of these shrines also held regular celebrations called mawsim (the season of visiting). Shrines set up for heroes in battle can be found in Palestine, Jordan, and other areas; usually such heroes are called not walī or Ṣūfī but ṣālīḥ.

There are various types of holy places in which some natural object such as a tree, a stone, or a cave is treated as sacred, although the ʿulamāʿ and others have harshly criticized these practices as non-Islamic. Some of them may be related to Ṣūfī saint shrine culture. In a Moroccan village, for example, a grotto where a great female spirit (jinnīyah) named ʿĀʿishah Qandīshah is said to dwell occupies a part of the sanctuary of the Hamdūshīyah order. Two shrines for its founding Ṣūfīs have been built there.

In the Maghrib, the local veneration and ritual surrounding a Muslim saint is generally known as “maraboutism.” The word “marabout” means “saint” and is derived from Arabic murābiṭ, which in this context means “a person living in a Ṣūfī lodge.” Some of the marabouts were evidently renowned Ṣūfīs in their lifetimes, and their shrines have kept a connection with one of the Ṣūfī orders; others, however, have no direct relation to a particular order. Some marabouts inherit their mystical powers (barakah) through the agnatic line, which results in the formation of a maraboutic family like those of the Sharqāwah in Boujad and the Ihansalen among the Berbers in the High Atlas.

In Sufism proper, both leadership and sainthood are passed on patrilineally and are consequently kept within one family or lineage in many Ṣūfī orders. The Majādhib family in El-Damer in the northern Sudan is one of numerous examples. The family has kept the leadership of the Majdhūbīyah Ṣūfī order, which had considerable political and economic influence in the area before the twentieth century, as well as being venerated as a holy lineage. The shrine of their ancestor has been maintained in the custody of the family.

Spatial Composition.

Except in a few cases, the tombs of Muslims are generally very simple in form. They usually have no special decoration except for plaques of ceramic or other materials on which are written personal details of the dead or phrases from the Qurʿān. In contrast, the tombs or shrines of saints, Ṣūfī or otherwise, have distinctive architectural features.

A saint's tomb is usually set up inside a building specially constructed for it, and it often has a cupola. Sometimes the building or shrine is situated in a cemetery. Other institutions such as mosques, Ṣūfī training lodges, or facilities for visitors may be annexed to large shrines.

The tomb itself usually consists of a rectangular box-like structure with a catafalque, a cloth cover, and other elements, with some variation. The catafalque (tābūt) is a wooden box or frame set up over the spot where the saint is buried. It is covered completely with a piece of cloth called kiswah, which is generally donated by a devotee. In a place on the upper part of the catafalque (on one of the shorter sides, or at the center of the rectangle) an ʿimmah is set up, which consists of a wooden post draped in a green cloth, looking like a head with a turban. The ʿimmah is supposed to symbolize the saint's authority.

There are other items, however, that are not found in all shrines. Some tombs, especially those belonging to renowned saints, are enclosed by a cage. A donation box may be set up to receive money offerings from devotees. Other features may include lamps, candles, copies of the Qurʿān, and plaques on which phrases from the Qurʿān are written or on which pictures of sacred places such as the Kaʿbah are drawn. Most of these, like the kiswah, are donated by pious devotees. There are of course neither pictures nor statues of the saint anywhere in the shrine.

Some of the items, however, do raise theological problems. In the shrine of Sayyid al-Badawī, for instance, there is a black stone in the corner of the chamber. On it can be seen two footprints, which are said to be those of the Prophet, and many devotees, mostly peasants of the Nile Delta, are eager to touch and rub it. This practice recalls pilgrims’ rituals relating to Abraham's footprints and the Black Stone in the Kaʿbah at Mecca, and many scholars and modernist Muslims criticize it severely as a deviation from orthodox Islam.

The shrine and the other facilities are in many cases maintained financially through a waqf, an endowment provided by the Ṣūfī order related to the saint enshrined. In the case of a small shrine a custodian, and in the case of a large shrine custodians or a committee, are responsible for the upkeep of the buildings and facilities.

Ritual Activities.

The Ṣūfī saint's shrine is one of the focal points of rituals carried out not only by the members of the Ṣūfī order that has a special spiritual relationship with the saint but also by common Muslims who simply admire the mystical power of the saint and venerate him. There are three important types of ritual: visiting the shrine, dhikr rituals conducted there, and the annual festival of the saint.


Many devotees of a Ṣūfī saint make frequent visits to his shrine to perform such rituals as special prayers to the saint, circumambulation of his tomb, and kissing its cloth cover. Some of them remain there for a longer period. The main aim of their visit, as with ordinary supplication (duʿāʿ), is to ask for divine blessing in general, as well as for more specific benefits such as success in business or study, or recovery from an illness. They may make a vow (nadhr) to give a suitable donation to the saint if their wishes are satisfactorily realized; many of the items belonging to the shrine are donations from supplicants. If they break the vow and give nothing to the saint as a reward, it is presumed that there will be divine retribution for their negligence.

Visits to some shrines can be regarded as a substitute for the pilgrimage to Mecca. Indeed, a visit to the shrine of Sayyid al-Badawī has been called “the pauper's ḥajj.” The shrine of al-Shādhilī (d. 1465), the founder of the widespread Shādhilīyah Ṣūfī order, is in a town on the Red Sea coast in southern Egypt. It is said that five visits to his shrine have an effect similar to that of one ḥajj. It is noteworthy, however, that the visit is not called ḥajj but ziyārah. Visitors apparently make an essential distinction between the two, even though they may think that repeated visits to a shrine may give them almost the same benefits as the pilgrimage to Mecca.


On the basis of the Qurʿān (sūrah33:41–42), the dhikr ritual, in which participants devoutly repeat the names of God or some formula such as “Allāh ḥayy” (God is the Eternal One) with prescribed gestures, has become one of the fundamental rituals for most Ṣūfīs. A gathering to perform the ritual, usually called ḥaḍrah, usually takes place in the afternoon or at night in the court of a private house, in a public square in a neighborhood, at a lodge, or in an open space near a saint’ shrine.

In some cases a dhikr is conducted after the communal prayers on Friday. For instance, the Hamad al-Nīl Ṣūfī order, a Sudanese branch of the Qādarīyah, regularly holds a dhikr gathering on Friday afternoon in an open space in front of the shrine of its founding Ṣūfī in a cemetery in a suburb of Omdurman. After the ʿaṣr prayer, members of the order march to the place from their nearby mosque and start to perform the dhikr rituals. Repeating the formulas to the rhythm of drums and religious songs, they line up in several rows and move around a pole set up in the center of the space. The ritual lasts until the sunset (maghrib) prayer.

Dhikr rituals, like visits to the shrine, can be carried out at any time. They are, however, enthusiastically conducted on a grand scale on the occasion of the annual festival of the saint.

Annual festival.

The yearly celebration in honor of a saint has several different names in Arab countries. In Egypt it is called a mawlid; the word mawsim (season, i.e., for celebrating a saint) is used in the case of a marabout in Morocco as well as for the festival of the prophet Moses in Palestine. Members of the Ṣūfī orders in Sudan hold annual celebrations of their founders called ḥūlīyah in commemoration not of their birthdays but of the anniversaries of their deaths. These festivals vary greatly in the way in which they are held, the number of participants, and the rituals performed; we will concentrate on the Egyptian cases.

Unlike for the mawlid of the Prophet, whose tomb is in Medina, Egyptian mawlid feasts for the Ṣūfī or other saints are celebrated in and around their shrines. The time when these rites are held is an interesting issue. Because the word mawlid originally meant “time and place of birth,” the date of the celebration would appear to be fixed by the birthday of the saint concerned. Many mawlids for famous holy people, including the Prophet and his family, do occur on or about the days of their birth according to the Islamic lunar calendar, although the feasts themselves generally start several days or weeks before the birthday: the Prophet's mawlid is on 12 Rabīʿ al-Awwal, Ḥusayn's on a Wednesday in the latter half of Rabīʿ al-Thānī, Zaynab's on the middle Wednesday of Rajab, and Shāfiʿī's on the middle Thursday of Shaʿbān. By contrast, the dates of some mawlids are fixed according to the solar calendar and may change according to historical and social conditions. The mawlid of Aḥmad al-Badawī is a typical case.

In the early nineteenth century there were three feasts in honor of al- Badawī. The largest of these was held a month after the summer solstice, which was then the slack season for the peasants in the area. In the second or third decade of the twentieth century, the date of this mawlid was moved to the latter half of October. The development of the irrigation system in the intervening period had resulted in fundamental changes in the annual agricultural cycle of the Nile Delta. Thus October in the Gregorian calendar became the slack season for the peasants, many of whom were enthusiastic devotees of the saint. The date of the great mawlid of Sayyid al- Badawī, therefore, is based not on his actual birthday but on the convenience of his devotees.

The space around the shrine of the saint being celebrated naturally becomes a center for the feast and is crowded with visitors to the tomb. There are a number of stands for food and drinks, amusements, and sideshows. Clusters of tents are pitched where Ṣūfīs conduct dhikr rituals during the feast days. The number of visitors hoping to receive divine blessing increases remarkably during this period.

In addition to the dhikr rituals, Ṣūfīs of various orders take part in other events during the feast. Members of some orders used to demonstrate their miraculous powers in front of crowds in performances involving eating live serpents or piercing their bodies with spikes. This kind of bizarre performance has often been criticized for deviation from orthodox belief and proper Sufism. Recently they have tended to disappear, especially in the large cities.

The attractions of a festival also include a procession (mawkib or zaffah) for which various Ṣūfī orders assemble, forming lines and marching around the town or village. They perform dhikr and other rituals in their own styles, as a demonstration to the local people. The saint's shrine is often the starting point and/or the destination of these processions.

Political and Economic Functions.

Like Sayyid al-Badawī, said to have led soldiers against Crusaders, a number of leading Ṣūfīs have played the role of military commanders fighting tyrannical rulers, ignorant heretics, and invading infidels. Among them was the leader of the Sanūsīyah movement, which fought against the Italian invasion of Libya. Founded by Muḥammad al-Sanūsī, the Sanūsīyah successfully propagated its beliefs among the bedouin tribes of Cyrenaica in the early stages of its development, by intentionally setting up lodges in the boundary areas between tribal territories. Thus the Ṣūfīs of the order could play the role of mediators in tribal conflicts, and this gave them great authority.

Saintly families in the High Atlas also arbitrate disputes among Berber tribesmen. Moreover, a collective oath, which is a customary legal procedure for judging the truth or falsity of an accusation, has to be made at a saint's shrine if it relates to a serious issue. The shrine is also the place where a special ritual alliance between two tribes is contracted. In Boujad in Morocco, al-Sharqāwah, a maraboutic family, plays almost the same role as do the saints of the Atlas.

A number of saints’ shrines can function as sites for conflict resolution and judicial decisions, although they seldom have the military power to enforce them. Because of the divine blessing saints have been granted by God, shrines can become holy places where people are subjected to mystical authority. Some of them have become not only asylums where killers involved in tribal feuds can come to ask for relief, but also sanctuaries where all bloodshed is prohibited.

Because people continually come and go, and the area around the shrine is relatively peaceful, the place may develop as a market center for the area; or, conversely, an existing market may also become a center for religious training, so that a saint's shrine is eventually built there. Such towns as Tanta in Egypt (the Aḥmadīyah order), Boujad in Morocco (the al-Sharqāwah marabout family), and El-Damer in the Sudan (the Majdhūbīyah order) are local centers for production, storage, and marketing. While the regular weekly market held in these towns has prospered, the annual saint's festival has become an occasion on which the town bustles with massive crowds and a large-scale fair is held, so that the festival has considerable economic effect.

The saint and his family may be able to maintain the economic importance of their town by emphasizing their mystical power. In the eighteenth century the Majādhib family was said to escort trading caravans from Shendi to Berber via El-Damer, its home town. They ensured safe travel for the tribesmen and consequently contributed to the prosperity of towns other than their own. Similar cases exist in other areas.


As mentioned earlier, criticisms of the Ṣūfī saint shrine culture, or at least at certain elements of it, have been expressed by theologians and politicians ever since it developed. Ibn Taymīyah (d. 1328), a strict jurist affiliated with the Ḥanbalī school of Islamic law, was one of the most distinguished critics in the premodern era, although he did not condemn all the activities of the Ṣūfī orders. He stressed that the veneration of a saint would probably lead to the worship of a divine being other than God—to loathsome polytheism—and that showy attractions during feasts were definitely contrary to Islamic law and should therefore be prohibited.

Muḥammad ibn ʿAbd al-Wahhāb (d. 1791), one of the theological successors of Ibn Taymīyah, condemned not only the folk customs of saint veneration but the whole of Sufism. The Wahhābī campaign was led militarily by the Saʿūd family, powerful supporters of Ibn ʿAbd al- Wahhāb's doctrines, who started from a small oasis in the Nejd and gradually expanded their influence in the Arabian Peninsula. In the end they conquered the Hejaz and gained control of Mecca and Medina by 1804. During this campaign, whenever they encountered Ṣūfī saints’ shrines or other holy places they did not hesitate to demolish them. Even the dome erected on the spot where the Prophet was born was destroyed. This strong hostility toward saints and Ṣūfīs has been maintained by the contemporary regime in Saudi Arabia, which follows Wahhābism as its state doctrine; officially, no Ṣūfī activity is permitted there.

Exponents of the Salafīyah movement, such as Muḥammad ʿAbduh and Muḥammad Rashīd Riḍā, openly criticized many elements of Ṣūfī saint culture. They insisted that a saint could not intercede with God for people in earthly matters and therefore did not have the mystical power to grant good fortune. Riḍā sternly rebuked participants in the mawlid of Sayyid al-Badawī for committing bidʿah (heretical innovation) through activities such as prayers to the saint's tomb and circumambulation of it, asking for worldly benefits, whistling, clapping, fortune-telling, selling charms and amulets, noisy music, the assembly of both sexes, and the practice of transvestism; however, he recognized the mawlid itself as legal.

The hostile attitude toward Ṣūfī saint shrine culture has been taken over by Islamic reformist movements, including so-called fundamentalist groups like the Muslim Brothers. Not only strict fundamentalists but also secular modernists have intensified their opposition to it. Generally speaking, the more widespread public education has become, the more general has been the criticism of shrine cults as mere superstition. Most contemporary devotees of the cult of saints are recruited from the less-educated urban and rural masses. It is noteworthy that some Ṣūfīs, especially those advocating neo-Ṣūfī trends, actively criticize some elements of popular Sufism as bidʿah, just as Islamic scholars from outside Ṣūfī circles do.


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  • Blackman, W. S. The Fellahīn of Upper Egypt. London, 1927. Detailed ethnography of the Upper Egyptian peasants in the early decades of the twentieth century, with special reference to their folk beliefs and practices. Descriptions of Muslim saints as well as those of the Copts and mawlid feasts are included.
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  • Eickelman, Dale F. Moroccan Islam. Austin and London, 1976. One of the best anthropological works on maraboutism. Based on field research conducted by the author with the al-Sharqāwah family in Boujad, central Morocco. His Knowledge and Power in Morocco (Princeton, 1985) contains a case study of the critical attitude of a reform-minded student to traditional maraboutism in the first half of the twentieth century.
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  • Hourani, Albert. Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age, 1798–1939. 2d ed. Cambridge, 1983. Standard study on the sociopolitical thought of great Muslim reformists, whether modernist or fundamentalist, in the modern age. Includes chapters on Muḥammad ibn ʿAbd al-Wahhāb, Muḥammad ʿAbduh, and Muḥammad Rashīd Riḍā who rebuked harshly some, or all, of the elements of Ṣūfī saint culture.
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  • Ohtsuka, Kazuo. “Toward a Typology of Benefit-Granting in Islam.” Orient, 24 (1988): 141–152. In this paper, published in the English bulletin of the Japanese Society of the Near Eastern Society, four types of benefit-granting practices in Islam are proposed, using exchange theory as the frame of analysis and locating the practice by which Muslim saints confer benefits within this typology.
  • Reeves, E. B. The Hidden Government: Ritual, Clientelism, and Legitimation in Northern Egypt. Salt Lake City, Utah, 1990. An anthropological study of Sayyid Aḥmad al-Badawī and other Muslim saints in Tanta. It includes valuable information about the historical development of the cult of al-Badawī, contemporary saint veneration in the area, and the actual conditions of mawlid and other rituals.
  • Schimmel, Annemarie. And Muḥammad is His Messenger: The Veneration of the Prophet in Islamic Piety. Chapel Hill, N.C., and London, 1985. Numerous cases of popular veneration of the Prophet are provided mainly from historical and literary sources, although most of them come from Turkey, Persia, and the Indian subcontinent.
  • Trimingham, J. Spencer. The Ṣūfī Orders in Islam. New York, 1998. Thorough, classic study of Ṣūfī orders, and an encyclopedic text on their history, thought, organization, and ritual.
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  • Westermarck, Edward. Rituals and Belief in Morocco. 2 vols.London, 1926. Encyclopedic account of Moroccan folk beliefs and rituals written by a Finnish anthropologist working in London. Westermarck conducted field research in Morocco at the turn of the century and devotes three chapters of his book to describing and analyzing actual cases of the concept of barakah, which he translated as “holiness” or “blessed virtue.”

Kazuo Ohtsuka


Voll, John O. and Kazuo Ohtsuka. "Sufism." In The Oxford Encyclopedia of the Islamic World. Oxford Islamic Studies Online,

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"Muslim Journeys | Item #196: 'Sufism' from Oxford Islamic Studies Online", April 16, 2024