Mysticism in Islam

December 2020

External Influences on Sufism

To understand Islamic mysticism one needs to go back to the mystic systems that existed prior to Islam, for in all mysticism there has been a longing for a ‘fundamental feeling.’

Christian Influence

The general opinion of the identity of the Hanifs to which the Quran refers is that they were pre-Islamic ascetics who had been very much influenced by the monks of Arabia. The influence of Christianity is very evident in the earliest Sufi literature and it is astonishing how frequently one comes across references to the words and works of the Lord Jesus Christ; most of them apocryphal as one might expect from what we know about Christianity in Arabia in those days.


Oriental Christian mysticism contained a pagan element which had been adopted from Plotinus and the neo-Platonic school. Egypt was steeped in Hellenism at the beginning of the Christian era and the influence of Neo-Platonism, with its mystical element, was felt in the monasteries of the country. This influence continued following the Muslim invasion of Egypt and millions of enforced converted Copts carried these traditions learnt from the monks for generations into Islam.


There are resemblances in Islam to the Gnostic quest of the ‘great name of God’ the discovery of which gives miraculous powers to the finder; dualism: one a power of good, the other of evil; the conception of a number of veils between the soul and God; and the ascending scale in nearness to God from a hierarchy of celestial beings.


Much Buddhist influence came to Islamic mysticism through Persia and Iraq. Some have suggested that the great Sufi saint Ibrahim Ibn Adham at one time Prince of Balkh (died 161 AH approx) is just the story of Buddha again. Added to this there were many Buddhist monasteries in Balkh at that time and the influence of the Sufi doctrine of fana (complete destruction) is said to correspond to the Buddhist concept of Nirvana ‘absorption.’ The use of the rosary (sibha) is likely to be introduced from Buddhism along with the practices for the inducement of contemplation and ecstasy.

The Quran

The Sufi’s were drawn to the following verses which suggest a mystical approach :

O ye who believe! if any from among you turn back from his faith, soon will Allah produce a people whom He will love as they will love Him, (Al-Maidah 5:54)

 Allah is the Light of the heavens and the earth. The Parable of His Light is as if there were a Niche and within it a Lamp: the Lamp enclosed in Glass: the glass as it were a brilliant star: Lit from a blessed Tree, an Olive, neither of the east nor of the west, whose oil is well-nigh luminous, though fire scarce touched it: Light upon Light! Allah doth guide whom He will to His Light: Allah doth set forth Parables for men: and Allah doth know all things. (An-Nur 24:35)

Glory to (Allah) Who did take His servant for a Journey by night from the Sacred Mosque to the farthest Mosque, whose precincts We did bless,- in order that We might show him some of Our Signs: for He is the One Who heareth and seeth (all things). (Al-Isra 17:1)

 Say: “Whether ye believe in it or not, it is true that those who were given knowledge beforehand, when it is recited to them, fall down on their faces in humble prostration, “And they say: ‘Glory to our Lord! Truly has the promise of our Lord been fulfilled!'” They fall down on their faces in tears, and it increases their (earnest) humility. (Al-Isra 17:107-109)

There are a few verses in the Quran which express a real aspiration after a full knowledge of God, but they are very few indeed. They give, however, to the Sufi sufficient excuse to interpret the Quran in the light of his systemized mysticism. Some of these methods very much recall the allegorical methods of interpretation of the early Church Fathers of Alexandria.

The life of Muhammad

The influence of the life of Muhammad on the mystics is profound. Muhammad may have been impressed with the lonely hanifs who were possibly mystics neither Christian nor Jew but were dissatisfied with idolatry. There were also some Christian hermits who may also have displayed forms of mysticism to whom Muhammad was impressed. In some ways Muhammad was a mystic for he at times practised solitude and fasting and certainly his revelations were mystical. Certainly  Islamic mysticism has made much of the inner life of their Prophet.

Mysticism and orthodoxy

One of the marvels of Islam is the acceptance by the orthodox of the Sufis with their doctrines. At one time they were put to death for their views. The early Muslim mystics had not forseen that they would come into open conflict with the administrative authorities of the Muslim community. The retired life of voluntary poverty (faqr) had as its purpose the meditation of the Quran and the seeking of drawing near to God. The mystic call as a rule is the result of inner rebellion of the conscience against social injustices, particularly ones own faults in this area, and a seeking of inner purification in order to find God. The professional theologians opposed this inner tribunal since the Quranic law had only legislated for an external tribunal which was able to punish public sins. Because of oppression from the orthodox Sufis became even more reclusive and their ecstatic experiences became secrets of their order.

In matters of doctrine Allah for the orthodox is more of a transcendental abstract in the Quran whilst the Allah of the Sufis is immanent sometimes to the degree of extreme pantheism. The brilliant scholar Al-Ghazalli had much to do with the reconciling the two and once expressed himself in the following way: “most theologians reflect mainly on God’s actions, whereas Sufi’s are more concerned with God’s being.”

Internal influences on Sufism

Here we are now looking at the growth and development of mystical teaching in Islam itself.

The development of fear

During the eighth century the predominating feature of the Islamic religion was fear of God, fear of Hell, fear of death and fear of ritual sin. The Quran paints a vivid picture of the torments of hell-fire on the Judgement Day which drove some to seek salvation by fleeing from worldly influences. On the other hand, the Quran warned them that salvation depended entirely on the inscrutable will of Allah who guides aright the good and leads astray the wicked. Their fate was inscribed in the eternal tables of His providence, nothing could alter it. Only this was sure, that if they were destined to saved by fasting, praying and pious work then he would be saved. This teaching leads into a state of complete and unquestioning submission to the divine will, an attitude characteristic of Sufism in its oldest form.

The developing new Sufism

It was the female saint Rabi’a (717-801) who introduced the element of truly mystical self-abandonment  and in the ninth century Sufis began to regard asceticism as only the first stage of a long journey – a training ground for a larger spiritual life with its ideas of light, knowledge and love. The one transcendent God of Islam is the only one real being who dwells and works everywhere, and whose throne is not less, but more, in the human heart than in the heaven of heavens.

The development of the Sufi Creed

The primary proposition of the system derives from the principle that there is no God but Allah with whom nothing must be associated and concludes that if Allah is to be loved then nothing else may be loved; no other object of affection should be associated with Allah and such a person who displayed such affections would be a pagan. The consequences of this are that all desires should be excluded: if the worshipper’s desire is Paradise then he is desiring something other than Allah. The true Unitarian is he who recognises in the world no existence, save Allah’s.

As in neo-Platonism the human soul had some spark of the divine remaining but the human heart was dimmed because it was imprisoned in the world. By escaping from this world one would receive ’minor inspiration.’ This revelation was received in a state of ecstasy. A whole science then developed as to how this state of ecstasy could be induced. Man’s piety was judged not by his holiness but by his ecstatic states. The transcendent God of orthodox Islam was replaced by the Only Reality of the Pantheist.

The Sufi Orders

The term orders is a western concept taken form its use in monasticism; the Arabic word is al-Taruq (the ways) or in the singular al-tariqa – the way to mystic union with Allah. From time to time throughout Islamic history various men and women stood out notably because of their intense devotion. The reputation of their ‘saintliness’ was carried to the farthest confines of Arabic conquests and those souls who longed for a more satisfying spiritual life gathered around these people as pupils to learn from them the secret of their ’saintly’ ways and so various schools emerged.

It is often said that in Islam there is nothing equivalent to an organised Christian clergy. This is certainly true in orthodox Islam but is far from true in the Sufi system. While all the spiritual genealogical chains (isnads) are said to go back to either Abu Bakr or Ali (Ali is the fountainhead of esoteric knowledge) most of the Sufi schools attribute their origin to four persons:

  1. Abd al-Qadr al-Jilani
  2. Ahmed al-Rifa’i
  3. Ahmed al-Badawi
  4. Ibrahim al-Disouqi who seems to have been influential through Egypt for his speaking in tongues.

The four chief Sufi orders today are:

1. Qadiriyyah – The most widespread. The Qadiri community acknowledges nominal allegiance to ‘Abd al Qadir’s tomb in Baghdad but the chief authority appears to be in India.

2. Chishtiyyah – The Chishti Order was founded by Khwaja Abu Ishaq Shami (d. 941 C.E.) who brought Sufism to the town of Chist in present-day Afghanistan. The Chishtiyya as they are also known flourished as a regional mystical order specializing in sema  – ritual music and Islamic prayer combined with sacred dancing. Qawwali, devotional music is very popular in the Indian subcontinent and particularly in Pakistan and is the most influential order in the Indian sub-continent. It is regarded as being less orthodox than Qadiri or Naqshbandi.

3. Naqshbandi – is one of the major Sufi orders.  The word Naqshbandi is Persian  taken from the name of the founder of the order, Baha-ud-Din Naqshband Bukhari.  The order is considered by some to be a “sober” order known for its silent dhikr (remembrance of God) rather than the vocalized forms of dhikr common in other orders. It focuses on internal development and meditation.

4. Suhrawardiyya – A sufi order founded by Iranian Sufi Diya al-din Abu ‘n-Najib as-Suhrawardi (1097- 1168).

There are a good number of other orders including the Malawi’s, founded by Jalal al-din al Rumi (1273) and famous for their ecstasies in  a whirling dance.

Hereditary nature of the Sufi Orders

Each Sufi order has several branches and the leadership in most of them is hereditary. In addition to the visible rulers of the orders there is a vast hierarchy of invisible rulers. In fact it is the unseen rulers of the orders who also rule the world. The idea of God’s ‘hidden ones’ being the actual rulers of the world is one found in all mystical systems be it Christian, Muslim or Pagan. Every night in the realm above the earth there is a parliament of saints in which are not only present the departed saints but also many living saints; here all the affairs of the world are settled. It is to the chief of the living hierarchy that the needy turn for he has extraordinary powers.

There seems very little doubt that the Muslims inherited all this idea of a saintly hierarchy from the angelic hierarchy of the Gnostics who thought they could approach God through ranks and ranks of angels. St Paul in his letter to the Colossians takes pains to show how God can be reached directly through Jesus Christ.

The purpose of the orders:  direct knowledge of God.

Sufism is an inward path of union. Sharia is an outward path which is the formal clothing of religion but the essence of all things is that which is perceived by the heart. The outward is for all the inward is a vocation. The central belief of Sufism is that the ego-centred life has to be destroyed. The Pirs role is to teach how this it happen, by learning habits of dhikr remembrance of God, chanting, singing and music.

Sufis set out to return to the divine origin to the ‘only one who is’ and to attain perfect knowledge of God; perfect union with the divine being. Their journey back to God is marked by various stages known as the Sufi Journey.

Worship and the ‘remembrance of Allah’

A dervish in the broadest sense is a Muslim who belongs to a religious fraternity which practices a tarika, a certain method of instruction, initiation and religious exercise. The religious service common to all fraternities is dhikr, that is ‘a remembering’ of Allah.

The Sufi finds its foundational authority in the following verse:

Recite what is sent of the book by inspiration to thee, and establish regular prayer: for prayer restrains from shameful and unjust deeds; and remembrance of Allah is the greatest (thing in life) without doubt. (Al-Ankabut 29:45)

However, they can also point to the following verses to support their cause:

“Men who celebrate the praises of Allah, standing, sitting, and lying down on their sides” (Al-Imran 3:91)

Except those who believe, work righteousness, engage much in the remembrance of Allah, (Ash-Shuara 26:227)

 Then do ye remember Me; I will remember you (Al-Baqarah 2:152)

O ye who believe! Celebrate the praises of Allah, and do this often; (33:41)

The idea of remembrance is to bring home to the worshipper the thought of the unseen world and of his dependence upon it. The repetition of the name of God (dhikr) is adapted by the different orders to induce the trance state and in its varied forms, is the chief instrument in the purifying of the soul. It brings with it a sense of religious exaltation and pleasant dreaminess, along with the hypnosis certain physical states can occur such as barking, howling, dancing. It need hardly be said that Muhammad had no such thing in mind as the dhikrs of these Sufi orders when he gave this text. The Sufi orders have exaggerated it to an absurd degree and left the masses with an orgy of extreme excitement.

There are individual dhikrs for personal spiritual development and corporate dhikrs into which they are expected to put all their energy. Practical books state that the more energy is placed in expelling the sounds and swaying the bodies the greater the spiritual effect.

Nearly every order has its zawiya, where the head of the order presides over regular performances of public dhikr. This may be in a mosque or a special building. At their assemblies the Sufi’s recite special poems which is intended to provoke among listeners a psychic excitement by aesthetic means so as to release an artificial ecstasy.  Poetry has a large part in Sufism as all nature abounds with love divine.

Various sources but particularly ‘An outline for the study of dervishism’ which was prepared by George Swan.