The central place of mysticism within Islam

Re-visioning Sufism (Part 1)
by Yunas Atlas

The roof of the tomb of the great Sufi Hafez

One of the most misunderstood aspects of Islam today is the role and place of Islamic mysticism within the broader tradition. Commonly this aspect of Islam is referred to with the term ‘Sufism’. When this ‘Sufism’ is mentioned in popular literature, documentaries, news items or tourist guides, it’s described as a more tolerant, open and free branch of Islam which is frowned upon by mainstream Islam because it’s rife with poetry, music, dance and trance. What often gets added to such descriptions is a hint that giving some more attention to this marginalized spiritual current might perhaps serve two good purposes: in the West it can show a different image of Islam and within the Islamic world it can serve as a counterweight to rusted orthodoxy.

But no matter how much this might sound as a brilliant idea and no matter how widespread such a view might be, in the end, it shows a complete lack of comprehension when it comes to Islamic mysticism. The typical descriptions are full of misunderstandings and the conclusions they lead to are in great need of nuance.

Sufism within the structure of Islam

When typical textbooks on religion or encyclopedic articles describe the structure of Islam, they often single out Sufism and place it somewhat outside of the other branches, groups and sects. A nice example is the diagram one can find on Wikipedia under the heading ‘Denominations’ of the general article on ‘Islam’ where the Sufi tariqas are explicitly placed apart from other denominations.

However, this type of diagrams and overviews give a completely distorted image of the actual reality. Sufism isn’t a separate current within Islam. It isn’t a separate branch of the tree. In many ways, it’s more like the sap of the tree that springs from its roots and flows up to the leaves. It’s entwined into all the other branches, groups and sects.

The tariqas of Sufism aren’t some marginalized communities of Islam. Rather, they are ‘schools’ or ‘orders’ that originated around the teachings of a specific sheikh, that is to say, a spiritual teacher that gathered a group of students and transferred his specific interpretations of Islam onto them. In most cases the sheikh also appointed the next sheikh of the community. As such, long silsila’s arose, that is to say, ‘chains of transmission’ from master to pupil.

Such master-pupil chains were the dominant pattern of Islam’s ‘branching out’. This is just as well the case in the subdivisions that aren’t grouped under Sufism in the aforementioned diagram. The different categories in the overview above, aren’t different ‘splits’ like the schisms in Christian churches. Rather they are different ‘schools of thought’. As a result, for example, the Sunni brother- and sisterhoods that are generally placed under the heading of ‘Sufism’ mostly also follow one of the for juridical-theological school of thought. (Hanafi, Hanbali, Maliki of Shafi’i).

As such, the different Sufi tariqas that are separated in the family tree of the aforementioned diagram should actually be placed in different parts of that family tree. To give but two examples: the Mevlevi tariqa in fact belonged to the Sunni Hanafi group (that is to say: they belong to the Sunni branch and upheld a Hanafi jurisprudence) and the Bektashi in fact are a part of the Shia Alevi (that is to say: they belong to the Alevi part of the Shia branch). (One actually doesn’t need to struggle through much academic literature to know these things. Ironically enough, one can easily find this information on Wikipedia itself. But such discrepancies are apparently not noticed by Wikipedia readers or authors and thus do not bring about a change in the more general Wikipedia articles on Islam.)

The opposite is true as well. Groups that are normally not perceived as Sufi tariqas often teach very mystical ideas alongside their other theological and juridical views. Important Islamic figures who wouldn’t be described as mystics today often wrote very positively about Islamic mysticism.

It shouldn’t surprise, therefore, that ‘the religious establishment’ was drenched with mysticism in many times and places throughout the Islamic world. The fact of the matter simply is that, within Islam, one can find an abundance of movements, currents, styles, groups and sects that are connected to each other in various ways. And it’s simply impossible to extract the mystical groups from the whole.

All of this is also clearly visible in the life and the teaching of well known, highly respected and very influential figures in the history of Islam.

Two historical examples

A first example is al-Ghazali.


At the end of the 11th century al-Ghazali held the most prestigious academic post of the Islamic world at the University of Baghdad. One day, however, he was overtaken by a spiritual crisis. For several years he left his teaching position, wandered around as an ascetic and walked ‘the path of mysticism’. Yet, after this period of mystical wandering, he didn’t decide to completely break with the classical theology of the established order. On the contrary, he then wrote his famous forty volume work: the ‘Ihya’ Ulum al-Din’ (‘The Revival of the Religious Sciences’). Until today it’s one of the most read and most respected works of the Islamic world. It elaborates on a wide range of subjects related to Islam, from moral aspects (such as the etiquette of marriage) over jurisprudence (such as the manner in which religious rituals should be performed) to mysticism (such as contemplations on the 99 names of God). If al-Ghazali became the most influential scholar of medieval Islam, it’s exactly because he succeeded in so intimately intertwining ‘the way of mysticism’ with ‘traditional theology’.

A second example is Mevlana Rumi.

Mevlana Rumi

Rumi is the founder of the famous whirling dervishes. Since he left behind an enormous amount of mystical love poetry, the works of this 13th century mystic are eagerly read by people without any Islamic background. Only one example of some of his verses are the following:

Be drunk with love,
 for only love exists.
If one asks:
 “What is love?”
 “Pouring away the will.”
There is no free will 
 for those who didn’t forsake.
Abandon worry
 and become pure of heart
 like the image
 does not leave a trace on the mirror.
I asked:
 “What will it bring me?”
 No. Let it be quiet.
 So that the beloved doesn’t say:
 “He keeps no secrets.”

For many decades now, this kind of poetry makes Rumi very popular with a wide audience from New York to Delhi. Because of that, he’s often adorned with a sort of spiritual halo that makes it seem as if he’s an exceptional and unique Muslim. Yet, even though Rumi is, without a doubt, one of the greatest figures in Islamic history and even though his influence was of enormous influence on Islamic culture in general, he’s certainly not the only mystic.

The popular literature about Rumi predominantly focusses on his encounter with the unconventional sage Shams Tabrizi. This encounter had a great impact on the life and work of Rumi. It gave rise to a relationship full of mystical love and a deep spiritual search for unity with the divine. Yet Rumi’s mystical vision on life did not suddenly drop from the sky when he met Shams. Rumi’s father, Baha al-Din Muhammed Balkhi, already was a renowned mystic who often had spiritual visions. Ever since he was a young child then, Rumi came into contact with a mystical vision on life. But still, when he was twenty-five, his father send him to the ‘universities’ of his day in Aleppo and Damascus to receive a classical theological and juridical training.

When one engages with Rumi’s most elaborate work — ‘The Masnavi’ — it’s clear that it isn’t a collection of verses on love but rather a deep piece of ‘instructive’ poetry. Most certainly it’s one of the most important mystical works, not just of Islam but also of religious history in general, but still it’s an educational work, rife with explicit references to the Qur’an and as such presupposes a thorough knowledge of the Islamic way of life.

In this respect, people like al-Ghazali and Rumi certainly aren’t exceptions. The same is true of many other prominent figures from the history of Islamic mysticism. But for decades now, there has been a tendency to narrowly focus on particular spiritual-mystical aspects of the teachings and lives of some protagonists within the usual descriptions of the Sufis. Other elements — such as their strong ‘religiosity’ — have been largely ignored.

Sociological examples

On a purely sociologically basis as well, it doesn’t make any sense to portray ‘Sufism’ as a marginal phenomenon that few Muslims dare to explore.

Without the slightest look at the facts, it is simply supposed that the ‘average Muslim’ or ‘mainstream Islam’ doesn’t deal with something like mysticism. Nonetheless, many millions of Muslims are adherents of a Sufi tariqa. That’s amply shown by a worldwide poll conducted by the Pew Research Center in 2012. It revealed for example that 26% of Muslims in Bangladesh is a member of a brother- or sisterhood. That alone is about 34 million people. A few other remarkable figures are 19% in Russia, 18% in Tajikistan, 17% in Pakistan and 17% in Malaysia.

A mural painting in Senegal of the Mourides tariqa

However, the highest percentages of people who are a member of a Sufi tariqa can be found in Sub-Sahara Africa (e.g.: 47% in Niger, 48% in Cameroon and 55% in Chad). Senegal takes the absolute lead since the different brotherhoods are its dominant form of ‘organized religion’. 92% of its Muslims claims to belong to an order.

The idea that Islamic mysticism is a marginalized phenomenon becomes even less tenable when one does not limit it to ‘adherents’ of tariqas. The typical definitions of ‘Sufism’ in the media, academia and tourist brochures do not limit the concept to ‘membership of a Sufi order’ either. Sometimes they refer to the orders as a structure in which Sufis often organize themselves but as a broader concept ‘Sufism’ is related to ‘Islamic mysticism’ in general. The art, rituals and ideas that stem from it are thus also considered to be aspects of ‘Sufism’.

Amir Khusrow and his spiritual teacher Nizamuddin Auliya

This implies however that large parts of the Islamic world first came into contact with Islam through Sufism. In a region like Central-Asia, for example, Islam was spread by honored Sufis. One of the most important among them was the 12th century mendicant mystical sage Ahmad Yasawi. In India a Sufi like Amir Khusrow is considered to be the founder of certain styles of classical Pakistani and Indian music. According to his standard biography he used his music to bring the message of Islam closer to the common people. On a daily basis, his songs are still performed from Islamabad to Delhi and his spiritual verses are sang at marriages and in sanctuaries. And in Indonesia, Islam was introduced by the Wali Songo, a sort of council of nine Sufi sages that, in changing constellations, missionized the group of Islands in the 15th century.

A similar cultural entrenchment of mystical Islam that was introduced by wandering Sufis can be found throughout the Islamic world from Sub-Sahara Africa to South-East Asia. It shouldn’t wonder then, that various ritualistic and devotional expressions of mystical Islam can be found all over the Islamic world.

Common expressions of mystical Islam

One of the typical expressions of mystical Islam are visits to mausoleums. Exactly because the teachings of the Sufi’s was of such importance in the ordinary lives of many Muslims, their sanctuaries often draw large crowds. People show their respects to the saints, pray for help, immerse in contemplation and hope to be touched by the spirit of the Sufi.

The usual descriptions of Sufism often refer to these type of religious practices. Often they will add that the worship of saints within the Sufi tradition, makes the movement suspicious in the eyes of many traditional Muslims. And, obviously, certain specific Muslim groups denounce the worship of saints and mausoleums. But why those groups would be the ‘traditional Muslims’ remains a riddle. According to the Pew poll, for example, in most of the 23 countries surveyed, majorities endorsed visiting shrines of Muslim saints.

The same is true for other practices that are invariably linked to Sufism such as spiritual music, religious poetry, ecstatic dancing or contemplative dhikr. To offer a couple of visual examples thereof:

Drumming devotion in Pakistan.
Gnaoua trance in Morocco
Female Dhikr in Chechnya
Professionaly filmed male Dhikr in Turkey
A gathering at an Iranian shrine.

This sort of trance rituals are performed in small intimate circles as well as during larger pilgrimages that bring together many thousands of Muslims. It’s simply all over the place.

Conclusion: mysticism as ‘normative’ Islam

It should be clear then: whether you look at the subject from a historical, sociological, ritualistic or anthropological perspective, what the media, the academic world, the tourist brochures and the new age sector constantly present as ‘an exceptional and marginalized mystical expression of Islam’ is in fact the ‘normative’ experience of Islam in large parts of the Islamic world. One can find it in the theology of the scholars and experience it in the rituals of popular Islam. One can see it in the art and hear it in the language. One can perceive it in the devotion at sanctuaries and feel it in the traditional spirituality of people in a tiny village.

Yet, despite the central place of Islamic mysticism, sadly enough, one cannot deny the fact that mystical expressions of Islam in all their variations were far more prominently present before than they are today. In some Islamic environments there is presently a strong opposition towards such forms of traditional rituals and spirituality. How this shift in the norm came about, is addressed in part 2 of this series on Islamic mysticism.