Image: "spring in Berlin" by Rahal Eks.
There are diverse opinions and views about the origins of the Sufi Tradition. My lines here are intended to help clarify the seemingly complex and contradictory matter. I do that by using my personal experience and standpoint, based on what I was taught, and some supportive research of what other Sufi sources have to say about it.
Let’s start with my experience. In my book ON THE PATH OF THE FRIEND, I wrote in more detail about an impactful encounter with a Sufi sheikh in southern Morocco at the Sahara’s edge.
Despite his advanced age of 95 plus, he came across very young in spirit, and as the liveliest man I’ve met in Morocco, his sense of humor was cracking me up.
Sidi Mohamed was totally switched on. He knew exactly what was going on in the world, and his spiritual knowledge was indeed a treasure. He held a very universalist Sufi Tradition view.
“Moses, Abraham, Jesus, Mohamed, and even Buddha all belong to us in the Sufi Tradition,” said Sidi Mohamed with a bright smile. “Sufism also existed at the times of the pyramids.”
He was referring to the initiated priests of pharaonic Egypt.
This was utterly in harmony with the gist I had been taught by my Sufi teachers, namely that the Sufi Tradition always existed, even before Islam, and that it could represent the mystical core of any religion.
However, the Sufi Tradition is said to be a living manifestation of spirituality. It was known under different names or labels, but we can use several terminologies you may be familiar with.
For example, we can use the word “esoteric” in this context without hesitation. Likewise, we might apply the term “mystic.” These terms, and many others, would cover the various facets and manifestations in historic time up to our contemporary times.
The word Sufism is really a Western invention. In the East, the terms “Sufi” and “Sufi Tradition” are known and used, but not as much. Meanwhile, the Arabic word tasawwuf is also in use among those familiar with this language.
Also in use are the expressions “The Great Tradition,” “The Path of Love,” “The Path of the Heart,” “The Friends,” “The People of the Secret,” or the Persian word Dervish.
Regarding the latter, there are, of course, diverse opinions: some would call a seeker entering the Sufi Path a “Dervish” – while someone who has gone through the station of annihilation, fana, and reached the goal of baqa, subsistence in the Divine, would be called a “Sufi.” Others use Dervish and Sufi interchangeably.
The Sufi Tradition is naturally also linked to the concept of spiritual chivalry, which in the original Arabic context is called futuwwa. In the Persian context, which existed prior or parallel, it is known as javānmardi. Practically both words are standing for the same spirit and have the same idea behind them.
This “Sufi” spirit can, of course, also be found in the mysticism of Zoroastrians, Jews, Christians, as well as in Hindu Bhakti yoga and Vedanta, or in certain Buddhist manifestations, and even in forms of shamanism.
Some Sufis also consider Plato and Pythagoras belonging to the “Esoteric Tradition” like the many well-known Sufis of the Islamic era.
They are regarded as Sufis, just as much as Abdalqadr Jilani, Jalaluddin Rumi, Abu Madyan, Muhyiddin Ibn’ Arabi, Bahauddin Naqshband, Hajji Bekstash, or Mo’ inuddin Chishti, to name a few (we will talk about important Sufi figures in-depth later).
The Sufi Master Hazrat Inayat Khan believed that “…the germ of Sufism is said to have existed from the beginning of the human creation, for wisdom is the heritage of all…”
It is, of course, also of interest to look at the very word Sufi. Suf means “wool” in Arabic; some relate this because the early Sufis around the Prophet Muhammad wore wool. Likewise, the blanket wearers, the kamal posh, that joined him after traveling through the ancient world in a quest for higher knowledge and truth. Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee mentioned in his book THE SUFI MEDITATION OF THE HEART a story about these Kamal Posh mystics…
The word Sufi is also linked to the Arabic word safâ, which means “purity.” Others try to find a very well sounding correspondence with the Greek words sophos, wise, and sophia, wisdom. It certainly rings a bell and makes sense, even if that it were just a delightful coincidence. Allah knows best!
Not to forget a potentially related term from the Qabbalah: ain soph, the Unknowable.
Others thought that the very sound of the Arabic letters sad, waw, fa – which make up the word Sufi – have a certain effect on the human mind. Idries Shah was one of them, who pointed this out in his book THE WAY OF THE SUFI.
The word Sufi came into use from the time of the Prophet Muhammad onwards.
In Ernest Scott’s fascinating book, THE PEOPLE OF THE SECRET, he wrote that during the Prophet’s lifetime, he received delegations from Afghanistan. These delegations were given the title “The Rudder” by the Prophet himself. One can conclude that this is another indication of the existence of the tradition before Islam.
“The people of the terrace” is another reference to the early Sufis around the Prophet Mohammad, pointing to a group of people who literally stayed on his terrace and belonged to the inner circle of the followers.
In his book THE SUFIS, Idries Shah quotes a beautiful poem about the Sufi Tradition being a gradual development:
The seed of Sufism
was sown in the time of Adam
germed in the time of Noah
budded in the time of Abraham
began to develop in the time of Moses
reached maturity in the time of Jesus
produced pure wine in the time of Muhammed.
In conclusion, we could perhaps visualize a circle. On the periphery are many dots, each representing a mystic path and/or a religion. From each dot of the periphery, there is a line going straight to the center of the circle, which is called the Truth, the Divine, the Friend, the Beloved.
In the area of the periphery, the distance between each line is bigger than when we get towards the center. And in the process of getting closer, the language of the lover, the mystic seeker, and wayfarer also begins to sound more similar in his or her expressions, if not the same.
Rumi really made a point here by stating: “The lamps are different, but the light is the same!”
Or his other line, which I love dearly, and it does really fit here: “Although you make a hundred knots, the string continues to be one.”
It also invokes instant echoes of Ibn’ Arabi’s beautiful words from his TARJUMAN AL-ASHWAQ, THE INTERPRETER OF DESIRES: “…my heart is capable of any form…”
From those disciples around the Prophet Muhammad, such as Ali and Abu Bakr, the first Sufi circles, or halqas, developed over time. In the early phase, these were loosely organized around the emerging Sufi teachers.
Gradually this turned into distinct Sufi Schools or Sufi Orders, in Arabic turuq, singular tariqa. In the West (North Africa and Moorish Spain), the more informal Sufi circles and wandering seekers flourished, while in the Middle East, Central Asia, and South Asia, the Sufi orders began to expand.
The Sufi Tradition tries to counter-act the fossilization process that befalls all of the created structures and things by keeping everything alive and in valid forms that make sense to the seekers/students, according to time, people, place, and culture.
We are currently living at a very special time where the Zeitgeist indicates an urgent need for peaceful coexistence and, thus, potential evolution. This means humanity in its glorious diversity and humanity in harmony on this planet.
Our time has become a time of fast changes and challenges, of travel and globalization. In the world of duality, this always has two sides: a good one and a bad one. But from a Sufi perspective, the coin has more than two sides, and we ought to aim for the world of unity and the awareness of the interconnectedness of all of creation and the Beloved who is closer to us than our jugular vein.
Therefore there is a need for new forms and new Sufi manifestations, crossing cultural and Tariqa borders and increasing intercultural spiritual dialogue and collaboration without feeding fears or catering to restrictive old conditionings. Au contraire, the idea is to dissolve those negative patterns and allow for freedom, love, and acceptance.
Saludos. May love and blessings be with you! Ishq bashad wa baraka bashad! Ya Haqq!
ولا غالب إلا الله