1 minute read

Islamic Mysticism in Asia

History: Early Period, Doctrine And Practices, The Sufi Path, Impact On Literature And The Arts

There are a number of mystical movements within Islam, but by far the dominant tradition is that of Sufism, one of the most dynamic and interesting dimensions of Islamic religious and cultural expression. Sufism is an umbrella term for a variety of philosophical, social, and literary phenomena occurring within the Islamic world. In its narrowest sense, the term refers to a number of schools of Islamic mystical philosophy and theology, to the phenomenon of religious orders and guilds (tariqat) that have exerted considerable influence over the development of Islamic politics and society, and to the varied expressions of popular piety and devotion to shrines found throughout the Islamic world. In a wider sense, Sufism is often seen as the spiritual muse behind much of premodern verse in the Islamic world, the idiom of much of popular Islamic piety, the primary social arena open to women's religious participation, and a major force in the conversion of people to Islam in Africa and Asia. The Sufi orders served as educational institutions that fostered not only the religious sciences but also music and decorative arts. Their leaders sometimes functioned as a challenge to the power of the juridic and theological establishment. In modern times (as at other periods in history), the Sufi orders have been praised for their capacity to serve as instruments of religious reform at the same time as they have been vilified for a lack of respect for Islamic law and for fostering ignorance and superstition in order to maintain control over the community.

The term Sufism—or tasawwuf, as the tradition is called in Arabic—may derive from the practice of wearing wool (suf in Arabic), or possibly from the Arabic word for purity (safa). The earliest Sufis spent almost all their waking hours in prayer, and frequently engaged in acts of self-mortification, such as starving themselves or staying up the entire night, as a form of prayer exercise. They renounced their connections to the world and possessed little other than the clothes on their backs. A large percentage of these early Sufis were women, several of whom, such as Rabi'a al-Adawiyya (d. 801), are revered to this day.

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Intuitionist logic to Kabbalah