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An Introduction to Sufism

Tile with Calligraphy, 1275-1325

Tile with Calligraphy, 1275-1325. Iran; probably Kashan. Fritware with underglaze decoration. The Avery Brundage Collection, B60P2132.

Islamic mysticism, or Sufism, was a distinct tradition within Islam that aimed to cultivate inner spiritual life. Sufism probably derives from the word suf, meaning wool, a reference to the woolen clothing worn by early Sufi mystics. The focus of Sufism changed over the centuries as Islam grew and expanded. Initially moved by the fear of God, Sufism eventually adopted an affirming doctrine of love, and later the concept of the spiritual journey of the individual towards God. Sufism certainly appealed to worshippers on an emotional level. Sufi masters or shaikhs attracted disciples.

New practices such as singing, dancing, and the worship of saints were introduced into the faith. Sufi claims to experience God directly led to conflicts with learned scholars or ulama, who insisted on faith based on learning the scriptures. The ulama focused their efforts on the transmission of knowledge through institutional means, through teaching in schools, and the administration of other social organizations such as hospitals and orphanages. Both Sufi mystics and ulama (scholars) traveled extensively throughout Arab lands and beyond in search of knowledge and to help spread the faith.

A dervish or Sufi is a Muslim mystic who is a member of a religious order, and who vows to lead a life of poverty and austerity. Dervish orders stressed the attainment of a state of ecstatic trance through recitation and dance, culminating in a closer union with God. Many dervish orders existed in Turkey under the Ottomans, and some wielded considerable political influence. The highly literate calligraphers who copied Korans and religious writings were often members of dervish fraternities or associated closely with them.

The Mevlevi order was one of the most powerful of these brotherhoods. It was founded by the great Persian Sufi poet Jalal al-Din Rumi (1207–1273) and was led by his descendants. The order was known for its piety, music, and the ecstatic dancing that gave rise to the term “whirling dervish.” The Ottoman sultans became the protectors of this order, endowing mosques for it and granting lands. Imperial support for the Mevlevi order grew over the centuries, and members were permitted to take part in important imperial ceremonies, including the investiture of a new sultan.

Another prominent Sufi order was the Bektasi, who accompanied the Janissaries, the sultan’s most highly disciplined warriors, on their military campaigns. The more than seven million Bektasi adherents in Turkey were strong political allies for the Janissaries, although the order was suppressed after the disbanding of the Janissary troops in 1826. Other dervish fraternities continued as a strong force in the empire until its end in 1922.

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