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The Necessity for the Rise of the Term Sūfī


Victor Danner

Source: Studies in Comparative Religion, Vol. 6, No. 2 (Spring, 1972). © World Wisdom, Inc.

WITHIN the Sūfic tradition, the term Sūfī is applied only to the initiate who has reached the end of the Path. Thus, for example, ‘Abd al-Qādir al-Jilānī (d. 561/1166), the celebrated Sūfī of Baghdad, defines the word as meaning al-muntahī, "the one reaching the end."[1] It is true, nevertheless, that the origins of the word have always been the subject of much discussion, and the masters themselves are of diverse opinions. But it is not so much the actual origin of the word that interests us herein (and it is only fitting, be it added in passing, that the origin be enshrouded in mystery, given the nature of Sūfism) as it is the necessity for a specific term defining Sūfism as distinct from something else in Islam. The term itself very likely derives from wool (sūf), which was worn by the early ascetics in imitation of the Prophet Muhammad and his Companions. The word tasawwuf ("Islamic esoterism") means literally "putting on a woollen garment," and this suggests the ultimate derivation of Sūfī from sūf, for tasawwuf figuratively means "adhering to Sūfism." The word Sūfī, therefore, is clearly related to wool. Why it should be wool, and not something else, like a diamond or a horse, is where the mysterious nature of the word comes in.

Anyone in the Path who is not a Sūfī in the sublime sense of the word, is called by a host of other names. In general, the beginner is called a mustaswif, the one making progress a mutasawwif, and the one who has reached the end a Sūfī. A term that is applicable to all of these categories, but without distinction of rank, is fuqarā’ (pl. of faqīr) which means "poor men" but technically "initiates"; and this is precisely the word that has gained ground over the centuries to cover all the adherents to Sūfism. In the West, the indiscriminate use of the word Sūfī to depict anyone having to do with Sūfism is a most unfortunate development, for it means that the tens of thousands of fuqarā’ in the Muslim world of the present day have reached the end of the Path, an assertion that any serious faqīr would reject out of hand. Westernized Muslim scholars make the same mistake, but at least they have an excuse; in the traditional Muslim world, those doctors of the Law (the fuqahā’) who have been hostile to Sūfism for some reason or other have not hesitated to call Sūfīs, not only the saints of Islam, but also the charlatans and the sinners, thus relegating all of them to the nether world in one fell swoop.

Sūfism has had a long and distinguished career in the history of Islam. As a matter of fact, for the Sūfīs, that career not only spans the long centuries since the inception of the word, sūfī and its cognates but begins with the origin of Islam in the Revelation. The very Message of Islam, that of the Divine Unity (at-tawhīd), is the foundation of their whole perspective. It is the Quran and the Sunna of the Prophet, and especially the grace (baraka) of the Prophet, that constitute the basic structures and life of the Path.

The Sūfīs are well aware that nothing called Sūfī existed in the time of the Prophet. But that is not the point, so far as they are concerned. What they have in mind is not the "name" but the spiritual "reality" to which the name refers, and that is something else altogether. In their judgement, that reality is the inner dimension of Islam, its spiritual Path (tarīqa). Complementary to it is the external facet of the religion, its Law (sharī‘a). Thus, both the Path and the Law are of revealed origins. If all Muslims do not agree with the Sūfīs on this or that, they do agree that Islam is of otherworldly origin and that the religion has a spiritual source. It is on that source that Sūfism rests its case.

The division of Islam into an esoteric Path and an exoteric Law was not as clear-cut a phenomenon in its early history as it was to be later on, especially when Sūfism developed its own institutionalized framework. If a well-defined separation of the two levels of Islam is not discernible in the first century or so of its existence, one is compelled to wonder why that should not be the case. There is, of course, a germinal period at the beginning of every new religion when things seem in flux and the general outlines of an emerging tradition are not yet distinctive. This already explains a great deal in the subsequent bipolarization of Islam into an eso-exoteric tradition. Historically speaking, the bifurcation of the over-all Islamic tradition becomes quite evident only after the 2nd/8th century, when the substance of the religion suddenly begins to crystallize. It is at this moment that we begin to hear of the word Sūfī more and more.[2] But what was the necessity for the term to arise, to begin with?

If we look at the second/eighth century and a bit later, we see that most of the schools of Islamic exoterism begin to surface at that epoch, each bearing a "name." The four major schools of Sunnite jurisprudence (the Mālikite, the Shāfi‘ite, the Hanbalite, and the Hanafite) all go back to their founders who lived in the second/eighth and third/ ninth centuries. They represent the Law of Islam, and their more or less simultaneous appearance, with distinctive names attached to each school, is a matter of great importance, for they fixed the outlines of the Law for the great masses of Muslims.

At the same time, there came into being another series of fixations: the grammar of Classical Arabic was given its definitive form by the schools of Basra and Kūfa; the hadiths of Muhammad were collected in authoritative compilations which became second only to the Quran in importance since they are the bases for determining the Sunna of the Prophet; and Arabic lexicography, poetry, the oral heritage of pre-Islamic and early Islamic days, the laws of chanting the Quran, and a mass of other disciplines and sciences, were all reduced to writing. A sort of collective instinct of self-preservation came over the Muslims. A massive codification of everything in Islam took place that makes of the second/eighth and third/ninth centuries one of the cyclical water-sheds, clearly the first major one after the founding of the religion, in the history of that religion. Inevitably, with the codification of everything, there came the sects, the schools, the disputes, and the charges and counter-charges.

Islam in the time of the Prophet and somewhat later amongst his immediate successors had been rather fluid, as was said. With the passage of time, however, that situation changed. The expansion of Islam, so lightning-like in its nature, brought into its fold myriads of converts who needed to be taught with books. The Empire of Islam had also created a vast civilizational superstructure on its previously modest Beduin foundations that exploded in due time into a magnificent city-culture with its own distinctive beauty. It had likewise its own distinctive worldliness that saddened the more pious members of the Community and made them look back to the time of Muhammad and his Companions as a sort of halcyon age. It was the corruption (fasād) of the times that prompted the codification of everything and the rise of distinctive groups with names of their own designating authentic Islam. This would be enough to account for the rise of Sūfism, but there is still another factor that played its role.

The elect in the time of Muhammad were called the "Companions," and after their demise the mantle of election was passed to the "Followers" of the Companions, who could be relied upon to maintain the integrity of the tradition in the midst of the increasingly disruptive forces of time. Then came the "Followers of the Followers," and with them came the differences and problems. Then it was that the title of the elect (al-khawāss) fell on the saintly ascetics (zuhhād) and devotees (‘ubbād) of Islam. But here too problems arose: when innovations and disputes broke out, it happened that each warring sect claimed for itself the only zuhhād and ‘ubbād in the entire Community, all others being outside the pale.[3]

If we were to search for the traces of the Path in early Islam, before the rise of the Sūfīs as such, it would have to be amongst those ascetics and devotees, for they were the elect of Islam. But it soon became obvious, as time passed, that asceticism and devotionalism had turned into ends in themselves amongst their practitioners. The cognitive bases of the Path, those relating to gnosis (ma‘rifa or ‘ilm),[4] were brushed to one side. Amongst all of those ascetics and devotees of the second/eighth century, one might well ask, which ones represent the Path in its gnostic sense and who are its real masters? Clearly, not all were treading the integral Path. How could anyone, in those days, distinguish between the ones who were in the Path and the ones who were not? How could one distinguish, amongst the many pious leaders and their circles of disciples, the real master (shaykh) and his disciples? Those were questions that the seeker of the Path in that day might have posed to himself.

Therein lies the rationale for the rise of the term Sūfī in the second/eighth century: just as the schools of Law gave themselves names to delineate the true forms of the Law, so similarly the masters of the Path began to call the perfect adept a Sūfī and to refer to their spiritual esoterism as tasawwuf. They did this by way of distinguishing the Path from the Law, on the one hand, and from the mass of free-lance mystics, on the other. They wanted to distinguish the Path from the Law because of the obvious differences in depth and perception between the two, and because they did not want Islam to fall exclusively into the hands of the doctors of the Law, who were already claiming a kind of total monopoly on the Revelation for themselves. They wanted to distinguish the Path from the practices of the zuhhād and the ‘ubbād, not because there are no ascetical or devotional elements in the Path, but because these elements are not ends in themselves; rather, it is ma‘rifa that represents the integral Path, and it is the masters of Sūfism who are the real representatives (nuwwāb, pl. of nā’ib) of the Prophet's spiritual legacy.[5] And finally, they wanted to distinguish the Path from everything else because, in a period of decline, it is best to come out straightforwardly and without hesitation rather than let things drift out of control due to a sense of modest self-effacement. [6]

Thus, by the third/ninth century, Islam had crystallized out into the gnostic esoterism that was called Sūfism (tasawwuf), and which henceforth would be synonymous with the tarīqa, and the rather cut-and-dried exoterism of the schools of jurisprudence, concerned with the sharī‘a. [7] The two aspects called each other into being: just as there were no Mālikites or Hanbalites in the days of Muhammad, so likewise there were no Sūfīs, if we go by names. But as soon as some started calling themselves Hanbalites and Mālikites, others started calling themselves Sūfīs. From that century on, both levels of the Islamic tradition would be distinct and operate in their own ways. Conflicts would indeed arise, but some sage of inspired nature, like Abū Tālib al-Makkī (d. 386/996) or al-Ghazzālī (d. 505/1111), would intervene to effect a temporary reconciliation. But whatever the nature of the conflicts, they would never result in a divorce between the two, for Sūfism without the Law is inoperative. Still, the perspectives of the two would differ: the Law envisaging posthumous salvation (najāt) through the ritual, moral, and dogmatic elements of Islam, the Path envisaging liberation (takhlīs) in this life through the spiritual practices leading to luminous knowledge of the Real.

As a consequence of these historical remarks, the necessity for the rise of the word Sūfī came about because of the readaptation that the Islamic tradition had to make in view of a decline that threatened its spiritual bases. The readaptation furnished the means of rebirth that permitted the Community at large to regain its equilibrium both as regards the Law and the Path.

How is it, nevertheless, that a science as sacred as Sūfism could be associated with such a thing as "wool" (sūf), for the word Sūfī literally means "relating to wool." One would have thought that a more flattering epithet could have been chosen for the adepts of the Path, such as "sage" (hakīm) or "theosopher" (muta’allih). True, more exalted origins for the word have been proposed over the centuries.[8] But it seems to be really in intimate alliance with wool, and there the matter stands. One thing is clear: it is not a word of human origin. It could not have arisen by mere social convention nor could it have been something that occurred to a particular person by chance. The air of mystery surrounding it denotes its celestial source, its "non-human" point of departure. Another sign of its providential inception is its alliance with wool, a "non-human" substance. What better way for the Spirit to thwart the tendency to over-estimate man as such, with his penchant for mental abstraction, than to clothe its adepts in such a concrete thing as wool and to call them Sūfīs?

Wool, to be sure, was the preferred fabric of Muhammad and his Companions, as it must have been for Abraham. Its connection with sheep immediately evokes a pastoral life, a primordial nomadism ante-dating the rise of sedentary cultures and civilizations, with their innate tendency towards locking themselves up behind walls or cutting off their contacts with Nature. The simple woollen garments worn by the early Sūfīs (and very often they were nothing but patched woollen frocks, or muraqqa‘as, worn in imitation of the Prophet and his Companions) represented, not only an observance of the Sunna, but also an intrusion of the nomadic style of simplicity within the complex worldliness of the rising sedentary civilization of Islam. Their dress contrasted with the sumptuous garments of late Umayyad and early ‘Abbāsid times, especially in the urban centres. It was also a throwback to the days of the Prophet, when the desert and the Beduin culture of primitive Islam, bound to the rigorous beauty of Nature, still held sway. The use of woollen garments was therefore a reaction against the prevailing corruption in dress and, at the same time, a reaffirmation of archaic Islam. It was the badge of the real Muslim amongst the lukewarm. [9]

But why was a garment of wool signalled out by Providence for special attention, to the point that the mark of the Sūfī was his dress? Because the garment proclaims the man: it exteriorizes what he has inside of him. This was certainly the case for such a traditional civilization as Islam. It will be noted that when the Easterner of the present day becomes Westernized, the first thing he casts off is his traditional garment, as if instinctively sensing that the garment impedes his catching-up with the modern world. But in those early days of Islam, the situation was different: it was a question, for the Sūfīs who wore the simpler woollen dress enjoined by the Sunna, of re-manifesting the simplicity of primitive Islam in an age of rich complexity on all levels. Once the reaffirmation was made, the name Sūfī stuck with the accomplished adherents of the Path and thenceforth designated the saint or sage who had reached the end. [10]


[1] In al-Ghunya li-tālibi tariq al-Haqq (Cairo, 1375/1956), p. 160.

[2] Significantly, one of the first to be called a Sūfī was the founder of Islamic alchemy, Jābir ibn Hayyān (d.c. 200/815), a disciple of Ja‘far as-Sādiq, one of the great figures of Islamic esoterism. Another early ascetic to be called a Sūfī was Abū Hāshim (d. 160/776). The liaison between the "purification" (safā’) of the alchemist and the "wool" (sūf) of the ascetic, as Massignon points out in his Essai sur les origines du lexique technique de la mystique musulmane (Paris, 1954), pp. 155-156, was already in evidence at an early date.

[3] Al-Qushayri (d. 465/1072), in his Risāla (Cairo, 1359/1940), p. 8, says that the Sūfīs set themselves apart from such sects by way of showing they were the real elect. Likewise, Shihāb ad-Dīn as-Suhrawardī (d. 630/1232) says that the term Sūfī arose to set the contemplatives apart from the worldlier members of the Community (‘Awārif al-ma‘ārif [Cairo, 1358/1939], pp. 48-49). Ibn Khaldūn (d. 808/1406), the Moroccan historian, says in his Muqaddima (Beirut, 1956), p. 842, that the tarīqa existed amongst the Companions and later Followers but that in the second/eighth century, when worldliness set in, the pious were distinguished by the name Sūfī and its cognates. (The ascetics were pious, too; he means the gnostics.)

[4] The word ma‘rifa came to prevail over the word ‘ilm in the course of time because the former carries an experiential nuance to it that ‘ilm ("knowledge," "science") does not have.

[5] Suhrawardī, op. cit., p. 60, states that the highest rank in the tarīqa is that of the shaykh, who exercises a sort of representation (niyāba) in respect to the Prophet's station of Prophethood (nubuwwa).

[6] Many of the early Sūfīs are characterized by their shathiyyāt ("ecstatic expressions") that shocked exoteric Islam into an awareness of the Sūfīs; but this tactic faded with the passage of time. The Anā ’l-Haqq ("I am the Truth") of al-Hallāj (d. 309/922) is but one of many of these expressions.

[7] In between the two would be the zuhhād and the ‘ubbād, whom the Sūfīs would always distinguish from the ‘ārifūn, or gnostics, even though the fuqahā’ (those hostile to Sūfism, in any case) would continue using the first two terms to cover all of them by way of stripping the Sūfīs of their ma‘rifa. Thus, the Sūfī al-Yāfi‘ī (d. 768/1367) takes the religious scholar Dhahabī (d. 748/1348) to task for referring to Shaykh Abū ’l-Hasan ash-Shādhilī (d. 656/1258), the great Moroccan Sūfī and founder of the Shādhiliyya, as a zāhid only and omitting the all-important fact that he was an ‘ārif and a spiritual guide (murshid): cf. Mir'at al janan (Hyderabad, 1339/1920), IV, 143 (and he notes, in op. cit., I, 349, that Dhahabī and others like him amongst the fuqahā’ always do that with the eminent ‘ārifūn of Sūfism).

[8] The possibility that the word may derive from the passive of the third form of the verbal root safā ("to be pure") has been mentioned by many masters. The formula sāfā-hu ’llāh fa-sūfiya wa-kana Sūfiyyan ("God purified him so that he became pure and was a Sūfi") is often cited.

[9] Generally, the garment was of white wool. But there is nothing absolute about the wearing of woollen garments, whether simple or patched. Since hypocrisy can easily infiltrate into clothes, many of the masters wore no distinctive dress at all and imposed none on their disciples, but this would be in later ages.

[10] The zuhhād and the ‘ubbād also wore woollen garments, but they did not bear the name Sūfī since they were not bent on ma‘rifa. The Sūfīs were therefore the superior nucleus of the elect ("the elect of the elect") of the second/eighth century, and stood out as such by virtue of their representing the total Path. By the end of that century (the year 200 A.H.), the words Sūfī, tasawwuf, and the like, were in widespread usage and designated the followers of the Path, the initiates. From that time on, Sūfism and the initiatic Path would be one and the same thing.

Original editorial inclusion that followed the essay in Studies:
A devotee who can call on God while living a householder's life is a hero indeed. God thinks: ‘He who has renounced the world for My sake will surely pray to Me. He must serve Me. Is there anything very remarkable about it? People will cry shame on him if he fails to do so. But he is blessed indeed who prays to Me in the midst of his worldly duties. He is trying to find Me, overcoming a great obstacle pushing away, as it were, a huge block of stone weighing a ton, Such a man is a real hero.’
Sri Ramakrishna