Islamic Mysticism: Sufism as Reconciliatory Movement

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Frankly, I’m a little skeptical of posting this last entry on Islam.  I’m not even sure why, really.  It’s long, it’s probably out of the range of interests for a lot of our readers, and some of our readers seem to be annoyed at my recent foray into Islamic studies.  Nonetheless, I think Christians must strive to better understand Islam (I am, at this point, at least echoing the feelings of other theophilicas: see this post, #4).

So, here is the discussion I want to have about this piece of research: Do you think mysticism is a common enough thread to open dialogue between religions?  I am under the impression that most (all?) religions have their own mystics, so what about the human condition and pursuit for experiential knowledge of the divine drives mystics?  I, again, cannot get over how many similarities exist between the development of Islamic orthodoxy and Christianity (no matter how loudly critics shout about the differences that do exist, and I do acknowledge that those differences exist).


            Mysticism, as a philosophy, contends that knowledge about reality exists beyond sense perception.  Within the context of religious experience, the object of that knowledge finds its locus in the personal experience of the divine and its execution of the prescribed ritual behavior of the sect in question.[1]  Mysticism within monotheistic traditions like Christianity and Islam incorporate various disciplines in order to achieve an experiential knowledge of God so intimate that it may be referred to as a union with God.[2]  Ultimately, mysticism seeks to use this union to bridge the gap that exists between the believers’ temporal expression of faith and the metaphysical reality of God’s direct presence.  As such, mystical traditions initially give the impression of correcting the inclination to focus exclusively on the manual, orthodox expressions of faith exhibited by those religious sects that adhere to monotheistic creeds.

            The creed, then, is irrevocably central to the faith of Islam, and Islam’s understanding of the creed is ubiquitous in its assertion that Allah is, by ontological necessity, a distant God.  The resulting religious institution demonstrates a long history of stringent adherence to protocol.  George W. Braswell affirms that, “Islam is a religion of law, ritual, and duty.”[3]  It should come as no surprise, then, that Islam has often been assailed by the tyranny of orthodox legalism and ritualism.  Sufism emerged naturally as an internal response to the emotional and spiritual disconnect bred by such developments.  It attempted to surmount the distance felt by Muslims by accentuating the nearness of God as a concept taught in both the Qur’ān and Ḥadith through the demonstration of the love, closeness, and presence of God.[4] 

            Like many ascetic movements, though, nearness to God in Sufism is best accomplished and then demonstrated through denial of worldly excess and personal discipline in matters of piety.  The term Sufism, which has become the nomenclature associated with Islamic mysticism, is etymologically derived from an Arabic verbal noun which means “the habit of wearing woolen garments.”[5]  Muslims commonly hold that the term “Sufism” harkens back to those original mystic believers whose only common element was a renouncement of the superficial outward observance of religious law endemic to the corrupt rulers in favor of a spiritual piety that clothed itself modestly in “wool.”  Accordingly, theological rigidity was also traded for supernatural experience and esoteric knowledge.

            However, the orthodox Islamic understanding of God’s transcendence, something of which Sufism has learned to stay well within, limits the mysticism of Sufis to a kind of gnostic experience.  Thus, early Sufism was also influenced by Christian Gnosticism.  Within that influence, a preference for allegory, symbolism and metaphor feeds the Sufi experience of esoteric knowledge.  Nevertheless, interestingly, elements of Islamic mysticism have existed within most Muslim sects, and in many cases create an avenue for divisive groups to reintegrate with orthodoxy.  The interplay that occurs between the theological knowledge of orthodoxy and the gnosis of mysticism creates a system of accountability between the legal and practical communities within Islam.  Sufism seems to vacillate between reconciling both strict legalistic movements and radical secessionist groups to orthodox readings of the Qur’ān, especially those readings whose content share important motifs (e.g. using “light” as a metaphor for God) with other mystic traditions.  This paper attempts to enumerate those ways in which Sufism has proven to be a reconciliatory movement within the greater Islamic community.

Development and Historical Theology of Sufism

            The earliest attempts at mysticism within Islam likely occurred during the last decades of the eighth century C.E.  Like the eastern Christian monasticism and asceticism that informed it, Islamic mysticism, in its seminal stages, was a reaction of the pious against those who held positions of power and influence within the ruling classes.[6]  They remain incomprehensible to scholars, though, because of poor documentation and an utter lack of homogeneity among the respective groups.[7]  However, the common thread that surfaced in each of the early mystical groups was a pious renunciation of the excessive living and shallow spirituality of the rulers.  Some renunciants were prominent figures, scholars, and famous preachers like Ibrāhīm ibn Adham al-Balkhī (778 CE), Ḥasan al-Baṣrī (728 CE), ‘Abd al-Wāḥid ibn Zayd (767 CE), Fuḍayl ibn ‘Iyāḍ (803 CE), and Bishr ibn al-Ḥārith al-Ḥāfī (841 CE).  All of them, though, were known to have worn wool.[8]  Ultimately, their heart of renunciation, their penchant for ascetic accoutrement, and their tendency to gather under the leadership of spiritual masters would earn them their sobriquet.  The resulting development of Sufism as a movement seems to owe itself to the impetus of at least two factors: political corruption and theological dogmatism.[9]

            In the early centuries of Islam, Muslim armies bent on conquest enjoyed immense success; and a rift spread between rulers that grew drunk on power and wealth and pious scholars that proved impotent in the wake.  This disparity left Muslims struggling with how to respond to the abuse of power perpetrated by their rulers.  They had opportunity to go along with the interpretation of Islam offered by their rulers and build wealth or to follow the lead of those ascetics who would reject the spoils of the world in favor of spiritual wealth.[10]  Such passive attempts to subvert the oppressive Umayyad regime went largely unnoticed, because of the more activist antics of groups like the Khārijīs and Shī ᷾īs.[11]  Ironically, the regime that drove its conscientious objectors to asceticism because of abuse of power allowed the same to flourish under its own watch as it fought to subjugate the other, more vocal insurrectionists.  As the Umayyad rulers sought to control the threat of insurgents, the Sufi quietly worked to disrupt that rule by demonstrating the benefits of a life dedicated toward the experience of God through personal piety.

             All of the political clashes and internal unrest inevitably lead to a standoff between Islamic scholars over which faction had the right to impose correct interpretation and practice on the general population.  A bitter conflict over orthodoxy that further divided Muslims also arose.  These conflicts lead to an atrophied spirituality and cold dogmatism within Islam.  As a result, Muslims that were weary with the quibbling of their leaders began to pursue experiences with God, not disputes about him.  Sufism was subsequently energized by this pursuit and the belief that if Muhammad could have revelations from Allah, so could others.[12]  According to Ahmet Karamustafa this transition resulted in, “new discourses on spiritual states, stages of spiritual development, closeness to God, and love; it also led to a clear emphasis on ‘knowledge of the interior’ (‘ilm al-bāṭin) acquired through ardent examination and training of the human soul.”[13]  In their own perception, this exaltation of a longing for closeness to and love for God, “justified the austerities to which they subjected themselves in order to demonstrate their faithfulness.”[14]  Thus, the Sufi were also able to rationalize driving the wedge between themselves and the legalists even deeper by rejecting the pedantic proclamations regarding righteous living within the intent of the State handed down by warring caliphs and imams.

            While the origin of the Sufi movement proves to be rooted in reaction against negative forces within Islam, its proliferation appears to be the consequence of a renewed understanding of the spirit of orthodoxy.  The renewed emphasis and nurture of the inner life was, “concomitant with a similar inward reorientation among the same circles of renunciants in the attempt to achieve a true understanding of the divine revelation.”[15]  Sufism had infused its adherents, not only with a desire to know God and the self truly, but also to know them through accurate, energetic study of the Qur’ān.  As such, the return to the inner self and the desire for esoteric knowledge necessitated a reciprocal return to Islamic orthodoxy within the Sufi communities.  Therefore, the emergence of a Sufi theology served to further galvanize the mystics, to expand the scope and diversity of Sufi influence, and eventually to provide a philosophical counterbalance for Muslim faith and practice that extended to every stratum of society.[16]

            Perhaps most important to the study of Sufi theology, and subsequently to the notion of Sufism as a reconciliatory force, is the understanding that “Sufism did not isolate itself from the wider Muslim society and discourse.”[17]  Instead, Sufism proved to be a plausible branch of Islamic learning, demonstrating that it is a legitimate ‘ilm (knowledge/discipline) within the orthodox community.[18]  However, Sufi theorists strive to establish an important distinction between the ‘ilm within Islam and the ma‘rifa (gnosis or cognitio experimentalis) of Sufism.[19]  Renard cites that several Islamic scholars, like Kalābādhī, Makkī, Qushayrī, Anṣari, and Ibn al-‘Arīf, “locate experiential knowledge within their treatments of spiritual development, but do not make knowledge function as a structural basis for their overall approaches to the spiritual life.”[20]  Sufi theology, then, clearly includes the didactic, cognitive elements which place it firmly within the testable arena of orthodoxy as well as the experiential, esoteric knowing of self and God affiliated with mystic experience.  What emerges from such a construct within Islamic theology is a group of mystic scholars hailed as exemplary figures within both traditional and Sufi camps.

            Abū Ḥāmid Muḥammad al-Ghazālī is one important figure of such towering respect from the eleventh century C.E.  Ghazālī is a Sufi scholar whose prestigious career was dedicated almost singularly to the pursuit of knowledge (ma‘rifa).  According to Renard, “From the start Ghazālī makes it very clear that becoming a person of knowledge is a foundational religious calling, one that outranks even devotion and martyrdom.”[21]  Interestingly, one of the primary theological notions put forth by Ghazālī, the “divinely instilled human pre-disposition (isti‘dād) to ma‘rifa of God,” constitutes a theology of the heart wherein knowledge of God comes only from knowledge of self.[22]  A believer must, then, be able to recognize and submit to God’s grace, which enables a person to know God, before they are even able to understand themselves which itself is a prerequisite to experiencing the divine presence. 

            Abrahamov explains that while this metaphysical claim asserts orthodox requirements regarding God’s transcendence and sovereignty, “it is not one of passivity,” in fact, “Man should not wait for God’s assistance, but work and be active for the purpose of knowing the world and its phenomena which is the requisite for knowing God and hence loving Him.”[23]  Indeed, Ghazālī teaches that the experiential knowledge of God comes only through the thorough analysis of all the conditions of the heart, and that knowledge only comes by strict adherence not only to the disciplines of Sufism, but also adherence to the Pillars of Faith expressed in Islam.[24]  Abrahamov agrees that while Ghazālī’s postulations certainly fall to the philosophical, they are clearly Islamic as well.[25]  This clear observance of orthodoxy allows Sufism to direct Muslims in the pursuit of God’s presence without violating the sanctity of His transcendence, and readily allows the movement to adapt to the demands of the sectarian and cultural manifestations of Islam.  Sufism provides for mystical, experiential knowledge of God to be a natural extension of Islamic piety, and provides the necessary impetus for many groups to align themselves with orthodoxy.

Sufism as Reconciliatory Sect

            Perhaps the greatest testimony to the reconciliatory nature of Sufism is the response that kalām thinkers have had to it.  Winter observes that while kalām should not be seen as coterminous with “theology” within Islamic studies, import should be rendered to those Muslim scholars from the kalām tradition that show “increasing respect for Sufi approaches to knowledge,” a group that has even come to recognize the “centrality of Sufism in constructions of Muslim ‘orthodoxy.’”[26]  Toby Mayer explains why Sufism was able to integrate itself into orthodox thinking thusly:

But Sufism did not isolate itself from wider Muslim society and discourse.  On the contrary, it underwent an extremely productive tension which was arguably the central dynamic of Islamic intellectual history: though Sufism constituted an esoterism of the highest order, with all the exclusiveness which that implies, it also had to reckon with the Islamic genius.  The salient quality of that genius is integrality.  In this there is a subtle but definite link between the unity of God and that of man, theological tawhīd (“making one” – monotheism) implying societal tawhīd.[27]

 Thus, tawhīd is not only the theological impetus behind Sufism, but it remains one of the foundational theological elements by which Muslims demonstrate harmony under the revelation of God’s will[28] and successfully submit to the will of God in matters of personal piety.  Consequently, Sufi scholars, like al-Ghazālī, have been able to demonstrate successfully that Sufism exists at the core of Islam, and that it “could not divorce itself from Islamic society, despite constituting at times a radically esoteric movement.”[29]

            The tension mentioned by Mayer bears repeating, because the development of Sufism demonstrates that a simple devotional adherence to experiencing God, even in an esoteric sense, drove the amalgamation that occurred early in the movement’s history.  This reconciliatory nature, then, is not some modern derivation of the Sufi tradition, it is the Sufi tradition.  The Sufi practice of systematic self-examination as spiritual devotion, in particular, seems to be just as ubiquitous in the history of Islam as its theological ties to the tawhīd, especially within the classical theological schools.  Proto-Sufism exhibited within the doctrine of the Muʹtazilite movement was evidenced by the presence of Sufi followers at the school of Abū Sahl Bishr ibn al-Muʹtamir, and seemed to be an early verification of orthodoxy in spite of the school’s speculative nature.[30]  Ironically, Sufism’s influence is also seen in the schools of Bakriyya and Sālimiyya (kalām), institutions set at odds with the rationalism of Muʹtazila and still able to integrate with Sufism.[31]  Mayer also points out that one other major school, the Karrāmiyya, was “counter-Muʹtazilite,” but constructed a defense of orthodoxy and revised contemporary theological jargon based on the methods of mystic introspection.[32]

            Finally, though not exhaustively, the influence of al-Ghazālī by the eleventh century is of paramount importance in the eventual synthesis of Ashʹarism and Sufism.  Sufism has in Ghazālī the perfect esoteric argument from a renowned exoteric scholar.  In fact, Mayer points out that even Ghazālī’s conversion to Sufism was in effect a “bold attempt” to revive exoteric sciences through Sufism.[33]  Ashʹari’s school was a major kalām force that succeeded under Ghazālī’s patrons, and eventually produced the official theology (which emphasized the tawhīd) of the Seljuk domains.[34]  Subsequently, Sufism enjoyed greater synthesis into the Islamic ethos, and eventually became one of the elements of Islamic theology and philosophy that tied most Muslims together.  According to Mayer, “Philosophy and Sufism thus influenced each other theologically.  Sufism’s impact on philosophy is yet more obvious later in its history, in the Safavid period.  Its influence pervades the thoughts of the most eminent Safavid Shīʹite philosopher Mullā Ṣadrā.”[35]  Thus, Sufism and its emphasis on the internal state of humanity not only informed, but reconciled dissenting factions through Islamic history.


            There are numerous ways in which Sufism has proven to be a reconciliatory movement within the greater Islamic community throughout history.  Primarily, though, Sufism has proven to be a logical component of the greater orthodox canon in Islamic theology.  Initially, proto-Sufi groups inspired the introspective discipline that would later become a natural extension of the doctrine of tawhīd with their ascetic commitment to Islamic ideals.  The philosophical understanding of how the Qur’ān intends the unity of God and his creation to be understood and demonstrated allows for exegetical flexibility.  Once Sufism was able to establish such a strong philosophical connection to such an important doctrinal element of Islam, the Sufi path to knowledge was embraced by many sects throughout Muslim history.  Consequently, the esoteric goal of Sufism blended well with the Islamic commission to demonstrate and propagate the unity of God with his creation.  As such, Sufism continues to prove an able reconciliatory force among orthodox Islamic factions that cannot deny the call of the Qur’ān to proclaim the message of Allah through the prophet Muhammad to all of mankind.

[1] Robert Audi, ed., The Cambridge Dictionary of Philosophy, 2nd ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 593.

[2] Walter A. Elwell, ed., Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2001), 806.

[3] George W. Braswell, Islam: Its Prophet, Peoples, Politics and Power, (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1996), 97.

 [4] Ibid., 75.

[5] Alexander Knysh, Islamic Mysticism: A Short History, Themes in Islamic Studies 1, (Leiden: Brill, 2000), 5.

[6] Keith E. Swartley, ed., Encountering the World of Islam, (Atlanta: Authentic Media, 2005), 216.

[7] Ahmet T. Karamustafa, Sufism: The Formative Period, (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2007), 1.

[8] Ibid., 2.

[9] See Knysh, Islamic Mysticism, 9; Swartley, ed., Encountering, 216.

[10] Swartley, ed., Encountering the World, 216.

[11] Knysh, Islamic Mysticism, 9.

[12] Swartley, ed., Encountering the World, 216.

[13] Karamustafa, Sufism: The Formative Period, 2.

[14] Knysh, Islamic Mysticism, 9.

[15] Karamustafa, Sufism: The Formative Period, 2; A point corroborated by Ernst on multiple occasions.  Carl W. Ernst, The Shambhala Guide to Sufism, (Boston: Shambhala, 1997), 25-26; 81.

[16] Ernst, The Shambhala guide, 31, 120; Karamustafa, Sufism: The Formative Period, 134; Knysh, Islamic Mysticism, 170.

[17] Tim Winter, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Classical Islamic Theology, Cambridge Companions to Religion, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 259.

[18] John Renard, trans., Knowledge of God in Classical Sufism: Foundations of Islamic Mystical Theology, The Classics of Western Spirituality, (New York: Paulist Press, 2004), 19.

[19] Renard classifies ‘ilm as “ordinary, traditional, discursive, acquired or ‘scientific’ knowledge” and ma‘rifa as “more intimate, infused, experiential or ‘mystical’ knowing.”  See Renard, Knowledge of God in Classical Sufism, 19.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid., 46.

[22] Ibid., 48.

[23] Binyamin Abrahamov, Divine Love in Islamic Mysticism: The Teachings of al-Ghazâlî and al-Dabbâgh, (London: RoutledgeCurzon, 2003), 84.

[24] Renard, Knowledge of God in Classical Sufism, 49-50.

[25] Abrahamov, Divine Love, 85-86.

[26] Winter, ed., The Cambridge Companion, 2.

[27] Ibid., 259.

[28] Swartley, ed., Encountering the World, 135.

[29] Winter, ed., The Cambridge Companion, 259.

[30] See Braswell, Islam, 96; Michael A. Sells, ed., trans., Early Islamic Mysticism: Sufi, Qur’an, Mi’raj, Poetic and Theological Writings, The Classics of Western Spirituality, (New York: Paulist Press, 1996), 308-310; Winter, ed., The Cambridge Companion, 260.

[31] Sells, ed., trans., Early Islamic Mysticism, 226; Winter, ed., The Cambridge Companion, 262-263.

[32] Winter, ed., The Cambridge Companion, 264.

[33] Ibid., 270.

[34] Sells, ed., trans., Early Islamic Mysticism, 318-320; Winter, ed., The Cambridge Companion, 270-271.

[35] Winter, ed., The Cambridge Companion, 280.



  1. Shawn
    Sufism—I have a different understanding….but…..

    Tawheed—From this springs the concept that we are all God’s creations and all knowledge is from God. Once we surmount the seperation caused by “labels” we are all one.

    Here is a poem by Rabia Al-Basri (not related to Hasan Al-Basri)


    my soul
    there is a temple, a shrine, a mosque, a church
    where I kneel.

    Prayer should bring us to an altar where no walls or names exist.

    Is there not a region of love where the sovereignty is
    illumined nothing,

    where ecstasy gets poured into itself
    and becomes

    where the wing is fully alive
    but has no mind or

    my soul
    there is a temple, a shrine, a mosque,
    a church

    that dissolve,
    dissolve in



  2. Kat,

    Thanks for the poem, I enjoyed it. Would you say that it is representative of Sufism?

    I’d be interested to hear how your understanding of Sufism differs from what I have presented.

    Thanks, Kat!



  3. Yes, I would say it is representative of Sufism in paricular and Mysticism in general. The universalist attitude of Mysticism is natural since their main internal struggle is against the ego/”self”–the identity that not only defines us but also seperates one from another and according to them, seperates us from the Divine.

    The Vedas—Truth is one, the wise call it by many names.
    Sufi Nizamuddin Auliya—There are as many ways of worshipping God as there are grains of sand.
    Buddhism-Hui Neng—Confused by thoughts we experience duality in life. Unencumbered by ideas, the enlightened see the one Reality.
    Tao te Ching—Tao is beyond words
    and beyond understanding
    Words may be used to speak of it,
    but they cannot contain it
    therefore, to see beyond boundaries
    to the subtle heart of things,
    dispense with names
    with concepts,
    with expectations and ambitions and differences.

    Everything you presented is correct (and you did a great job)—I only meant some nuance was missing.

    Islam is a religion of law, ritual and duty—this is very true—but the purpose of law, ritual and duty is to lead “us”/nafs to spirituality. —So I would say, Islam is a religion of law, ritual, duty and spirituality—-and it is this spiritual component of Islam that the Sufi emphasises.

    Law and Duty—The Quran says that we (both men and women) are responsible for social justice in our communities. That means the rule of law must provide justice for all. This ofcourse meant formulating the “Law”. (Eventually, 4/5 different “Schools of Law” developed in Isam)However, this naturally required people/scholars to engage in rational, logical discourse which is what the Sufi’s tried to “balance” by their emphasis on spirituality.

    Duty and Sufism—It is this concept of “Duty” that is different from mainstream(IMO). The Quran discourages “renouncing the world”—because this means we are “renouncing” our respsonsibilities. We are all sons/daughters and as such have a duty to our parents, we are members of a community and nation, we have responsibilities for its welfare, social justice, and governance and if we are parents/spouses, we are responsible for the welfare of our families. Pursuit of the Divine (Taqwa) must not come at the expense of responsibilities but must be balanced with it.

    Sufism and Hypocrites—The Quran refers to those who pick and choose only those parts of the religion that are convenient as hypocrites. The Prophet(pbuh) had been chosen as a leader of the Medina Comunity. After his death, the first 4 Caliphs were also chosen(elected). This tiny experiment in democracy did not last and Dynastic rule became the norm. However, as mentioned above—members of a community/nation have a “duty” to participate in governance (so as to ensure social justice)—however their activism was limited because of the nature of dynastic rule— and many choose to balance the “hypocricy” by upholding spirituality.

    Gnosticism and Sufism—Christian Gnosticism did have an influence on Islam—but this was part of the broader phenomenon of the “Pursuit of Knowledge.” Eastern,Persian and Greek philosophies also played a role. (The Falsafa). (To put it in perspective—most Philosophers were not only Sufis but also scientists, mathematicians, poets, astrologers and/or (medical) doctors…..)

    Kalam–A rational method of investigating theology by using “dialogue”(question/answer method)—It stems from the Quran. The Quran initiates conversation/dialogue with its readers by asking questions. (Such as—“have you considered….such and such….)

    enough for now.


  4. In fact the first four caliphs were not ‘elected’. The Prophet clearly designated his successor, Ali ibn Abi Talib, because of his knowledge and God-given qualifications. The ‘election’ was made by a small select group of influential people in the society. The second caliph was then appointed. The third caliph was assassinated for nepotism and corruption. Sufism was a state-sponsored mystical movement which borrowed wholesale the teachings of the Twelve Imams. As Henry Corbin says, Shiism is esoteric Islam par excellence, and Shiism has a long history of peaceful interaction with Christianity. If you would like any sources, please let me know.


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