Islamic Mysticism in Asia
History: Early Period
In Muslim understanding the origins of Islamic mysticism in the form of Sufism lie in the life of Muhammad. His earliest biographies emphasize his habit of meditating in a cave and living a life of material simplicity bordering on asceticism, both of which are seen as prototypes of mystical belief and practice in Islam. As an organized movement, Sufism too owes its official origins to Muhammad and his cousin and son-in-law, 'Ali, who is viewed by the majority of Sufis as the first of their kind. Ali was the first male convert to Islam and the man closest to Muhammad in his private life. As such, he is said to have received levels of spiritual guidance from Muhammad that were not available to anyone else. Part of this was a body of mystical knowledge that was passed down through Ali to future generations. The concept of esoteric or mystical knowledge ('ilm al-batin, al-'ilm al-batini, or simply al-batin) became central to the theology of Shiism, one of the two main sectarian divisions in Islam. It also remains at the center of Sufi understanding.
The historically traceable origins of Sufism begin approximately a century after Ali's death. Very little biographical information is available on some of the earliest Muslim ascetic and mystical figures, but they are important for their impact on the development of Sufism. By the late eighth century, members of the school of a famous mystical ascetic named Hasan al-Basri (d. 728) had established a convent (ribat) at Abadan, and others had composed important treatises on Sufi etiquette. Important mystical figures of this period include Dhu'l-Nun Misri (d. c. 859), an Egyptian figure who is of importance to the development of Sufism in western Asia because later Sufis quote him frequently, seeing him as a Muslim exponent of the Hellenistic tradition. An Iranian Sufi named Bayazid Bistami (d. 874) became famous for ecstatic utterances (shathiyat), which he was the first to use consistently as an expression of Sufi mystical experience. These somewhat scandalous declarations were dramatic statements made to demonstrate the merging of Bistami's individuality with the divine identity. This sense of union with God was the result of a life-long process of self-purification at both a physical and a spiritual level. In his practice of prayer and meditation Bayazid showed strong ascetic tendencies while at the same time ridiculing traditional asceticism because he felt that trying to renounce the physical world was to afford the physical realm an existence that it did not actually possess. The theme of asceticism appears frequently in Iranian Sufism in the ninth century even though many Sufis, like Bistami, rejected the outward trappings of an ascetic life.
The end of the tenth century marks a transition in the development of Sufism from the early formative period that was characterized by a high degree of individualism in practice and a central focus on asceticism to a classical age wherein there is greater emphasis on organization and systematization. This is also a time when Sufism in western Asia appears somewhat divided between two schools, the first being the Iraqi one (which was transplanted to Nishapur in Iran) and the second being the Khurasani one, centered in northeastern Iran and Afghanistan. The differences between these two schools are not altogether clear and at times appear to have more to do with the theological and legal affiliations of Khurasani Sufis than with any major differences over mystical theory and practice.
The transitional phase of the tenth and eleventh century also witnessed an increased emphasis on the formalization of Sufi doctrine, the canonization of earlier Sufi figures, and an apologetic attempt to show potential Sufis and the society at large that Sufism was in complete harmony with orthodox Islam. Two of the most important figures in this regard are Abu Bakr Kalabadhi (d. between 990 and 995) and Abu 'Abd al-Rahman Sulami (d. 1021).
Kalabadhi is most famous as the author of the Kitab alta'arruf li-madhab ahl al-tasawwuf, a widely circulated book that attempts to explain Sufi terminology and beliefs and to show the essential orthodoxy of Sufism. Among Sulami's many works his Tabaqat al-sufiyya served as a model for many later Sufi biographical works. He also wrote treaties on Sufi ethics, particularly on the concept of Sufi chivalry (futuwwa) and on antinomian trends in Islamic mysticism.
Two of the most important mystical figures of the formative period of Sufism in Asia are Khwaja 'Abd Allah Ansari (d. 1089) and Abu Sa'id ibn Abu al-Khayr (d. 1049). They are both central to the development of organized Sufism but represent two distinct models of leadership. Abu Sa'id is perhaps the most colorful of the famous Iranian Sufis of this period. He studied law, theology, and other religious sciences before adopting a contemplative life, which he pursued under the guidance of a master for fifteen years. Following his teacher's death, Abu Sa'id entered into a flamboyant, public phase of his life during which he ran two Sufi centers, one in his home town of Mehana and the other in Nishapur, the biggest city in Iran at the time. Abu Sa'id was accused by his critics of accepting too much money from devotees, living too luxurious a lifestyle, and having attractive young men dance and sing in public. Abu Sa'id is one of the key figures in the earliest evolution of successful Sufi orders and centers.
Khwaja 'Abd Allah Ansari is a Sufi of a very different kind, though comparable in importance to Abu Sa'id. Ansari was a committed polemicist belonging to an important school of Sunni Muslim legal thought. His personal and professional fortunes changed as the religious pendulum swung in different directions. It was toward the end of his life, after he had gone blind and at the urging of his disciples, that Ansari dictated his main works, including the very popular Kitab manazil al-sa'irin, a brief didactic text providing an itinerary for the soul's journey to God. His other important works include a mystical treatise emphasizing the importance of love in the journey toward God.
The period immediately before and after the Mongol invasion of Iran in the early thirteenth century was perhaps the single most vibrant phase in the history of Iranian Sufism. The social and political instability of the era combined with a high degree of intellectual vitality to produce major thinkers and teachers. Undoubtedly the most famous of these is the Andalusian emigré Muhyi al-din Ibn al-'Arabi (d. 1240). Ibn al-'Arabi's mystical and philosophical ideas reshaped much of Sufi thought and, to a large extent, fashioned the language if not always the content of Sufi discussions since his time. His central philosophical idea was that the universe is the physical manifestation of God; as such, it is not entirely distinct from him but represents one of his aspects, the other being his uniqueness. This doctrine came to be known as "Oneness of Being" (wahdat alwujud). The doctrine that God is utterly separate from creation is a central belief of many Muslims for whom Ibn al-'Arabi's teachings represent an unorthodox position. Over the two centuries after his death a modified version of the theory of "Oneness of Being" emerged; named "Oneness of Witnessing," it attempted to reconcile the philosophical aspects of Ibn al-'Arabi's philosophy with common Muslim theological beliefs.
It was in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries that Islamic mystical ideas and institutions consolidated their positions in South and Central Asia, although mystical thought and Sufi individuals had been common in these regions since the eleventh century. The Naqshbandi Sufi order started in present-day Uzbekistan. Its eponymous founder, Baha' al-din Naqshband (d. 1389), had a tremendous impact on the development of Islam all across Central and inner Asia, as well as in South Asia and the Ottoman Empire. It remains one of the most influential Sufi orders in modern times and is involved in global Muslim debates over the place of religion in modern society.
Of similar importance is the Chishti order, which derives from Mu'in al-din Sijzi (d. 1235), a Sufi master from Afghanistan who settled in the Indian town of Ajmer. The Chishti order had tremendous importance in popularizing Islam among non-Muslim or nominally Muslim Indians, at the same time as Chishti Sufi masters maintained closed relationships with the ruling elite of South Asia. To this day the Chishti order remains notable for its openness to outsiders, in terms of both its warm welcome into its gatherings and its widespread use of music.