First generation mystics
Amongst the companions of Muhammad there was an ascetic element which involved fasting, the spiritual retreat and meditation. The ascetics of the 7th and 8th centuries did not leave the community but were involved in preaching and telling appropriate anecdotes in rhymed prose. They publicly called for repentance (‘the weepers’) and spoke at length on the end of the world.
One such figure was Hasan al-Basri (642-728) who settled in Basra during the Umayyad dynasty and gathered students around him. Some consider him as the ‘patriarch of Muslim mysticism.’ His mystical and ascetic doctrine is rooted in a feeling of contempt for the world as he detached himself from everything that is transient and abstained (wara) from actions that were questionable in Islamic law. He is considered to be a link in the transmissions of hadith material as he is said to have known many Companions in Medina, where he once lived; most of the Sufi chains pass through him. He is famous for saying “the world is a bridge upon which you cross but upon which you should not build.”
The second generation of ascetics formed a religious community at ‘Abbadan, near Basra and Rabi’a al-‘Adawiyya (717-801) joined this group. She was born into a poor home, kidnapped and stolen as a child and taken into slavery. She eventually secured her freedom and retired into a life of seclusion, asceticism and celibacy, at first in the desert and then in Basra. Embellished miracles are attributed to her; food was provided for her when she was starving; a camel which died when she was on pilgrimage was restored to life for her use; the halo of light provided her needs when she had no lamp. She sought to base her understanding of God from the Quran particularly the verse “soon will Allah produce a people whom He will love as they will love Him” (Al-Maidah 5:54). Her ecstatic devotion was expressed in the theme of divine, pure and ardent love that unites the lover to her beloved (Allah). She was one of the first of the Sufi’s to teach the doctrine of Pure Love and the unveiling of the Beatific Vision to the lover.
Contemporaneous with the school of Basra was the school of Kufa who at the beginning of the ninth century formed many hermitages around Baghdad. The mystic Al-Junayd (830-910) was influenced by this school and it became a centre for traditionalists who were in sympathy with the mystics. He is considered an orthodox ‘sober’ exponent of Sufism, in contrast to others clasified as God-intoxicated Sufis. He encouraged Sufi’s to move away from being wandering mendicants and taught sobriety (sawh) as opposed to ecstasy. He maintained that mystic knowledge was not intended for the average person. As a mystic scholar, who studied law and the traditions, he later combined mysticism with a grasp of theology. His theological orthodox background caused him to recognise and practice Islamic law unlike so many Sufi’s who then gave Sufism a bad name. He was also a hafiz. He was the first to develop the doctrine of fana ‘extinction,’ dying to oneself, in order to achieve perfect union with Allah but he also taught continuation (baqa) in God. It is this desire of fana that leads one to “annihilate” oneself so as to be in a closer union with the Divine.
There is evidence that al-Junayd may have been exposed to Neoplatonic ideas yet with regard to the idea of God al-Junayd is an orthodox Moslem teaching that all things originate in Allah and ultimately return to him.
Al-Hallaj (858-922), a native of Iran moved to Baghdad and became a disciple of Al-Junayd. He however, did not have the same level of theological background as his master, and made extreme claims and ideas concerning his conception of union with God. He was condemend by mystics, juridicial and political circles alike for blasphemy and was executed. His death led to vigorous apologetics and the seeking of reconciliation between orthodox Islam as the mystics strove to show that they were good Muslims respectful of traditions and official teaching. Their apologists included people like Abu Nassar Sarraj (d. 988), Abu Bakr Kalabadhi (d. 994), al-Hujwiri (d. 1072) and al-Qushairi (d. 1074).
The characteristics of their doctrine included the mystic path which required purification in preparing the soul for union with the divine. It was Dhu-i-Nun al-Misri (796-859) who developed the theory of mystical stages (maqamat), mystical states (ahwal) and spiritual knowledge (ma’rifa). Mystical love (hubb) and joy played an important part of his teaching. He promoted music and dancing (sama’) in spiritual experience and was the first to use the symbol ‘wine of love’ to describe the intoxicating relationship of love between the mystic and God. According to Abu Nassar Sarraj there are seven stages: repentance, a delicate conscience, renunciation of earthly goods, poverty, acceptance of all adversity, trust in God, acceptance of the divine will. The inner struggle for perfection is carried out under the guidance of a spiritual director. The stages maqamat are attained by personal effort but the states (ahwal) such as love, fear, hope, tranquility are dependent upon divine mercy.
Second generation mystics
Al-Ghazali (1058-1111) contributed the most to getting mysticism accepted by offical Islam. He was well versed in the Muslim religious sciences, assimilated Greek philosophy, particularly Neo-Platonism. He considered that certain theological truths of the mystical order could not be shared to the masses with impunity but should be given individualy as each one could bear. However, he considered that the essentials of spirtual teaching should not be the privilege of the intellectual or spiritual aristocracy but that all life should be filled with the presence of God. He believed that moralism in Islam needed to be passioantely illuminated in order to create an inner fervour to study the Law.
The diverse elements found in the teaching of al-Ghazali was directed in two lines, one intellectual ( metaphysical or gnostic) and the other in popular trends which were formed into religious lay organisations.
Intellectual Sufism: The charateristics of intellectual Sufism is the conviction that it is possible to go beyond the tangible world to spiritual realities by the means of an emotional intuition, the ma’rifa (gnosis). Using metaphysical philosophers of neo-Platonic and Pythagorean inclination, particularly Avicenna (980-1037), they considered that the prophets were emanations of the One. Men are creatures of God, and as such the soul of the mystic could be identified with the divine ego causing him to experience illumination and oneness of being. On the practical level methods employed turned into techniques such as scupulous fidelity to the acts of worship, mortification, dhikr and sama’ . The search for union with God is coupled with the acquision of mastery over nature, and human nature.
Al-Suhrawardi (1154-1191) is known as the founder of illuminationism expressed in his Haikil al-Nur (The Temples of Light) and Hikmat al-ishraq (The illuminative Wisdom). His starting point was the Quran “Allah is the Light of the heavens and the earth …………… Light upon Light!” (An-Nur 24:35) He considered that there was only one wisdom and this had been transmitted through the philosophers and was synthesised by being part of the mystical tradition which he re-expressed in a Quranic framework. The God of the Quran is source of all light but the aim of the spiritual life is to bear witness to the Unique Light.
Ibn ‘Arabi (1185-1240), centering his ideas on the Logos, considered that knowledge reached the climax of his creation in ‘the perfect man’. He argued that the mystical descent of the ‘First Intellect’, or ‘the Rational Principle’ is found in each prophet, but Muhammad is ‘the Logos’ where the single universal principle of all inspiration and revelation is gathered up. Muhammad is the eternal cosmic principle the Perfect man which mirrors and reflects exactly the perfections of God. Despite drawing on a plethora of philosophiocal ideas and disregarding any Christian influence, deeming them as myths, he integrates a vision of the world predominantly Islamic. He does tend towards a natural and universal love in which all distinctions and determinations are brushed aside and which heralds the deliberate ‘existential monism’ of his successors.
The religious fraternities
The teaching of al-Ghazali also influenced the extraordinary diffusion of religious orders. The practices of dhikr and sama’ existed before the time of al-Ghazali and many orthodox had protested against such innovations however, in his Ihya al-Ghazali defended these practises.
The structure and the authority of the Islamic doctors was now secure so now the Islamic World began to become sympathetic to the view that the background of Muslims, new and old, would naturally be coloured by folklore and ancestral customs. Those in towns remained in contact with the madrassas and kalam while those in the villages were more subject to local influences for example the Shadhili school of North Africa, in the cities, remained very close to official teaching, while in the village branches they were more animistic.
This Turkish mystic Mawalana Jalal al-Din Rumi (1207-1273) is known as the theologian of Persian poetry. His mysticism is influenced by Greek thought and other Sufi’s especially Ibn ‘Arabi. His poetical writings stand in sharp contrast with both Islamic theology and Islamic philosophy. At first Rumi concentrated on teaching in the madrassas but things changed when he came under the influence of the Iranian Sufi mystic Shams-e Tabrizi. Tabrizi was forced out of the city twice and eventually killed by a mob but in acknowledgement of the debt he felt to him Rumi called his own collection of poems (diwan) The diwan of Shams -i- Tabriz. He mentions him also repeatedly in his Mathnawi, which is a vast poem of 47,000 verses in six books. This collection of Persian poems containins a mixture of Quranic texts and exegesis, fables, anecdotes, symbols and reflections to illustrate and explain the Sufi doctrine. Although Rumi is considered to be a poet of lucid thought, depth of feeling and originality, this work, perhaps because it took fourteen years to complete, takes the reader on long digressions.
Rumi’s disciples formed the order of Mawalis or the “dancing dervishes”. The name mawlana means “our master.” Rumi believed passionately in the use of music, poetry, and sacred dancing (sama’) as a path for reaching the all consuming love of Allah. Music helped his devotees to focus their whole being on the divine, and to do this so intensely that the soul was both destroyed and resurrected. There does however, seem to be a theory that the whirling was a reproduction of the motions of the planets (as expressed in the Neo-Platonic idea of the perfection and the movement of the heavenly bodies) and that this induces a hypnotic state.