Sufism: Name and Origin

by Paul Yachnes

Sufism has been described in many different ways by scholars writing in English, throughout this century, but they all agree on its essential character as being the inner, esoteric, mystical, or purely spiritual dimension of the religion of Islam. R. A. Nicholson in his little introduction to Sufism, The Mystics of Islam (1914), remarks: "Sufism, the religious philosophy of Islam, is described in the oldest extant definition as `the apprehension of divine realities'," and although referring to it as "Islamic mysticism," he still maintains the popular idea that Sufism was largely the product of diverse philosophical and spiritual influences, including Christian, Neoplatonic, and others. He further states that it is "a subject so vast and many-sided that several large volumes would be required to do it anything like justice".

More than 35 years later his student, A.J. Arberry, in his brief introduction to the subject, Sufism (1950), similarly states that Sufism is "the name given to the mysticism of Islam" and "the mystical movement of an uncompromising Monotheism". It was this author that first maintained that although Sufism was the recipient of many influences from Neoplatonic and other sources, that it was in essence derived from the Qur'an and Prophetic (Muhammadan) tradition, and attempted to view "the movement from within as an aspect of Islam, as though these other factors which certainly determined its growth did not exist". This approach became generally accepted and was echoed by later scholars.

Martin Lings, writing in an article on Sufism in the 14th edition of the Encyclopaedia Brittanica (1968), defined Sufism as "the name by which Islamic mysticism came to be known in the 8th or 9th century A.D." and stated: "It is only in secondary respects that there can be said to have been any development In Sufism, or for that matter in Islam as a whole, since the time of the Prophet". Taking this idea one step further, he writes: "The influences on Sufism from outside have been enormously exaggerated. Probably the chief influence was Neoplatonism, but even this was confined mostly to terminology and to methods of doctrinal exposition".

In something of a departure from previous definitions, Victor Danner, in his introduction to his translation of Ibn `Ata'illah's Book of Wisdom (1978), writes: "When dealing with Sufism, it is best to leave to one side such terms as `mystic' and `mysticism,' if only because in the modern Western world such words nowadays often lead to confusion". He prefers to identify it operatively and institutionally, as he does in his book The Islamic Tradition (1988): "Sufism is the spiritual Path (tariqah) of Islam and has been identified with it for well over a thousand years...It has been called `Islamic mysticism' by Western scholars because of its resemblance to Christian and other forms of mysticism elsewhere. Unlike Christian mysticism, however, Sufism is a continuous historical and even institutionalized phenomenon in the Muslim world that has had millions of adherents down to the present day. Indeed, if we look over the Muslim world, there is hardly a region that does not have Sufi orders still functioning there". Such is his estimation of the importance, within Islam, of Sufism that he says: "Sufism has influenced the spiritual life of the religion to an extraordinary degree; there is no important domain in the civilization of Islam that has remained unaffected by it".

This discussion of the name and origin of Sufism was taken verbatim from Sufism: An Annotated Resource Guide, by Paul Yachnes. (Fixed, December 9, 2000.)


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