Nigerian Dialogue, 4 (1984), 11-16, here revised

Sfism is a movement in Islam concerned with the life of prayer. It endeavours to go beyond the mere external ritual of obligatory salt by emphasizing the interior aspect of prayer and experiencing God directly as the true reality (al-aqq). In pursuing this experience the Sfic brotherhoods have developed a great variety of supplementary structured prayer. The early Sf groups, in the second century after Muhammad, used to wear a kind of religious habit made of wool (sf in Arabic), giving rise to the name "Sfism", or "Sf" for a member of the movement.

1. History of the movement (1)

1.1 In Muhammad's time

From the beginning, Islam was concerned with both the next world and this, with worship of God in expectation of the rewards of the life after the resurrection and with the reform of society. These two concerns gave rise to a certain tension. Many of the early Muslims began to give themselves to prolonged prayer, vigils and fasting, but after Muhammad and his followers migrated from Mecca to Medina, they had to give up such practices because the demands of warfare and statecraft. In later Islam this activist tendency was reflected in hadths condemning monasticism.

Nevertheless, the Qur'n remained an insistent invitation to direct concentration on and worship of God. Throughout the Qur'n there is a proclamation of God's power over all things, his knowledge of all things, including the secrets of men's hearts, his otherness from everything that comes and goes, yet his all embracing nearness (50:16 2:115,186), his kindness, yet his demanding severity. Even while there is no incarnation for Islam, the Qur'n speaks of drawing near to God, of seeing him in the next life (75:23) and of the value of constantly being aware of him and preferring his favour to all the passing goods of this world (55:26-27).

Particular Qur'nic passages, moreover, have become focal points for searching and contemplation on the part of the Sfs because of their symbolic content, for instance:

God is the light of the heavens and the earth. His light is like a niche containing a lamp the lamp is in a glass the glass is as if it were a glittering star lit from a blessed olive tree which is neither of the east nor of the west its oil would almost give illumination though no fire had touched it. Light upon light, God leads to his light whom he wishes. (24:35)

1.2 Emergence and struggle for existence

Sfism originated from a search for something deeper than merely the externals of ritual prayer. Because the devotees of the movement spoke so much of inner experience and placed so much importance on their own liturgies or prayer meetings, the doctors of the law (ulam') were suspicious. Besides, the Sfs took the moral injunctions of the Qur'n seriously and were an open reproach to many corrupt politicians whose lives revolved only around the enjoyment of this world.

This precarious period was marked by figures such as asan al-Basr (d. 772), who is regarded as the ancestor of the Sfic brotherhoods, and Rbia al-Adawiyya (d. 801), a great woman recluse who has been the subject of many studies and literary works an Egyptian film portrays her life. Proclaiming disinterested love of God, she was met one day carrying a torch in one hand and water with the other. Asked what these were for, she replied: "I am going to burn up heaven and quench the fires of hell, so that these two screens may fall away from the eyes of men, and they may see God with no motive of hope or fear. It is too bad that men will not worship or obey God without these two motives." She was speaking to Muslims who did not consider heavenly joy to consist primarily in seeing God but in enjoying the good things of garden of Paradise. Against such a background the "pain of loss" of God is an inconceivable idea.

Another figure of this period, Dh-n-Nn the Egyptian (d. 859), was the first to elaborate a theory of stages (maqmt) of the spiritual life and of experiential states of dispositions (ahwl). Al-Muhsib (d. 857) insisted on the importance of examination of conscience, and taught that only the vision of God's essence gives perfect happiness.

Al-Bism (d. 874) initiated a new tendency by undergoing a rigorous ascetic training in an attempt to strip away his outer self as a snake sheds its skin and thus get at the centre of his being. In this pure state in which he saw himself mirroring the attributes of God to the negation of his own self-consciousness, he spoke theopathic utterances (shaaht) such as "Glory to me how great is my glory".

Al-Junayd (d. 910), on the other hand, was a cautious thinker, and the first to stress the necessity of a purification of the will and mind in order to discover the primordial pact of the human race with God and thereby to be dissolved and be with God. al-Junayd is more famous as the shaykh, or master, of al-Hallj.

Al-Hallj (858-922), whose life and works have been extensively studied by Louis Massignon, (2) is the culmination of the struggling period of Sfism. From an early age he associated with Sfic circles, leading alternately a hermetical and a coenobitical style of life. Coming back to Baghdad after a pilgrimage of Mecca in 895, he began preaching to all classes of people, urging them to repent because of God's impending judgement, to offer themselves to God in prayer, and to love him. His preaching brought him in 905 to India, Turkestan and the borders of China. On his return he shocked and alienated the orthodox by working wonders (karmt) in public as proof of his divine mission (implying a claim to be a prophet - after prophecy was closed with Muhammad) and by teaching that when a person is perfectly joined to God his acts become sanctified and attributable to God as the agent, even while remaining voluntary and deliberate on the part of the person. On this point al-Hallj differed both from the cautious ritualism of al-Junayd and from al-Bism's flight to an ecstatic void where the individual loses his identity and activity.

Al-Hallj was then charged for (1) assuming the equivalent of a prophetic role and (2) teaching an idea of love that belonged to the Manicheans, who held that the soul is a divine spark imprisoned in the body and gravitating back to God. For the theologians of the time man's relation to God could not properly be described as love, but as faith and obedience. Even al-Hallj had the problem of believing that "love is enjoyment, but there is no enjoyment in God" that is, God can only truly be reached by experiencing suffering and death, which he prayed for. Nevertheless, he held that the reality of God's essence is love, and one of his students commented that when love is purified and perfected, it rises to a level of "pure, ever-flowing water coming from God". Al-Hallj was also censured for (3) such theopathic utterances as "I am the Truth (God)", which he spoke in moments of trance.

First arrested in 909, al-Hallj escaped for three years and was then caught and imprisoned for eight years in Baghdad. For a while his case began to improve, but in a second trial in 922 he was condemned to death. He was scourged, cut open, crucified, beheaded, and the ashes of his burned body were thrown into the Tigris. A line from on of his poems runs: "I will die in the religion of the cross Mecca and Medina mean nothing more to me". This assertion has no explicitly Christian reference nor was it intended as a repudiation of Islam. It merely indicates his personal way to God through suffering with love.

For al-Hallj, the Sf begins with an inward negative motion described as stripping (tajrd) of one's consciousness from images and attachments, culminating in a state of isolation (tafrd) and oblivion of oneself. But, in contrast to Sfs, such as al-Bism, who stopped at the stage of negative isolation and found themselves in the agonizing impasse of finding no further road to God, al-Hallj taught that there is also an outward positive motion described as being isolated (infird) through love and desire in God, who gives the person a participation in his own all possessive solitude (ifrd). Such a transformation gives peace to the soul, eliminating all disorders which pull the soul in conflicting directions, and turns it with simplicity and purity to God. In this way a believer reaches the perfection and full realization of his own profession of God's unity "There is no deity but God". At the same time he acknowledges God as other and distinct from himself, (3) as he declared:

I am the one I love and the one I love is I
we are two spirits melted in one body. (4)

Sfism in this period received support and some influence from the philosophers. Al-Frb (875-950) and subsequent philosophers propounded the neo-Platonic theory that that all intellectual ideas and physical forms come from above, through an "agent intellect" or angel stationed on the moon. Ibn-Sn (980-1037), in particular, promoted the cult of this spirit to achieve illumination in this life and blissful union with that spirit in the next. Ibn-Rushd (1126-1198) rejected Sfic practice as a means of achieving illumination from and eventual fusion with the Agent Intellect. For him study was the means.

1.3 Triumph and reconciliation with orthodox Islam

Sfism in the eleventh century saw its triumph and reconciliation with orthodox Islam, due mainly to the monumental efforts of al-Ghazl (1059-1111). He tells us in his autobiography, al-Munqidh min a-all, (5) how after a thorough study of law, theology and philosophy, he went through a crisis of scepticism. Finding the illumination and satisfaction he was searching for in Sfism, he retired from teaching for ten years. Seeing his own soul cured and the world in great need, he then returned to teach in Nshpr (Persia) and carry on his work of revivifying Islam. While engaging in much deep religious speculation and controversy himself, he held that religious sciences should not be indiscriminately disseminated among the common people, but each should be taught according to his capacity and need. Because he was recognized as the greatest theologian in the Muslim world, his endorsement of Sfism gave it an accepted place in Islam. From then on, a Muslim could put love of God before and in the carrying out of legal obligations.

The reconciliation of Sfism with orthodox Islam did not take place, however, without compromise on some burning issues. The doctors of the law opposed Sfism chiefly on three grounds:

  1. the teaching that love of God culminates in union with him and his indwelling (hull) in the soul,
  2. the teaching that the obligations of revealed law (shara) are only for beginners and can be dispensed with when one moves into the progressive stage of following the way (arqa) of a Sfic brotherhood, or moved further to the perfect stage of union with the Divine Reality (aqqa), and
  3. the claims of a divine mission proved by miracles.

The Sfs could thenceforward claim only:

  1. a love which brings nearness (muqraba) to God, but not union or indwelling (but in fact the term "union" (ittisl) reappeared in later Sfism)
  2. an advancement to arqa and aqqa which preserves the observance of shara, and
  3. divinely wrought wonders (karmt), but not strict miracles (mujizt) which are worked by God as proof that the person is a prophet.

Among other figures of this period is the important Sf al-Ansr (d. 1089), on whom Serge de Laugier de Beaurecueil OP has published several specialized studies. (6) Also to be noted is Abdalqdir al-Jln (d. 1166) of Baghdad, from whom derives the important brotherhood of the Qdiriyya. (7)

1.4 Popularization

From the 12th century onwards, Sfism grew in popularity, leading around the 16th century to a phase of decadence which lasted until the beginning of the 20th century. Some great literary works were produced by Sfs of this time, such as the Persian Jalladdn ar-Rm's (d. 1273) Mathnw (8), which has retained world fame to this day.

Sfism in this period retained the up-beat positive tone of al-Hallj, who believed that union with God was possible and desirable. Similarly Ibn-al-Fri (d. 1235), absorbed with the void of self-purification, declared in his long T'iyya, which is still sung in Sf gatherings: (9)

And I was whom I loved without a doubt (v. 529)
My saluting her is thus but metaphorical
my greeting is from me unto me, in reality. (v. 1073-5) (10)

Recent studies defend Ibn-al-Fri from the accusation of pantheism, which these verses might suggest. (11) The same accusation has been made more strongly against the Spaniard Ibn-Arab (d. 1240), (12) although he too has his defenders. Ibn-Arab formulated in his voluminous works a kind of Logos theology, echoing a number of late Platonic and Gnostic sources. The concept of Logos was applied to God, universal ideas and archetypes, the world, and especially to the Perfect Man (al-insn al-kmil) who reflects the perfections of God it was in this way applied to the prophets, especially Muhammad. The distinctive result of Ibn-Arab's writings was to mark a new tendency in Sfic mysticism, aiming now to achieve not a unity of attesting to God (wahdat ash-shuhd) where man and God are distinct, but a unity of existence with him (wahdat al-wujd).

By the 16th century Sfism had developed techniques for anyone to put himself into an ecstatic trance with ease. Sfism then turned into a popular pastime, a seemingly legitimate and more satisfying alternative to forbidden alcohol. Sfic whirling dervish dancing, miracle demonstrations such as fire eating, sword tricks, snake charming etc. and exaggerated veneration of wals (holy men) both living and dead. (13) Most of the objectionable aspects of Sfic practice have been eliminated by the reform movements of the end of the last century and the beginning of this century.

In the area of doctrine the popularization of Sfism took up Ibn-Arab's Logos emanation theory as applied to Muhammad. Poems on his mawlid (birthday feast) said:

When God wished to project the higher and lower worlds, he took a fistful of his light, and its was Muhammad, who was the first thing God created. Later, after this light passed through Adam's seed down to Muhammad 's birth as a man, Muhammad said to Gabriel, 'How old are you?' Gabriel answered, 'I do not know, except that a planet appears in the fourth heaven once every 70,000 years, and I have seen it 72,000 times exactly.' The Prophet then made known his rank and the secret of his light and said, 'by the glory of the Lord, I am that planet which you have seen, O Gabriel, in the sky of the Benefactor. (Mawlid al-Mirghn, ch. 2).

The emanation of the Logos is also seen in the belief in a hidden leader in every age called the qub (axis, or pole star), who heads a hierarchy of wals who are known only to himself and a chosen few. The qub and his wals can become invisible, can transfer from one place to another instantly and possess many other extraordinary powers.

The Sfic brotherhoods have been curtailed or discouraged to varying extent by modern governments for their political activities and sometimes unprogressive attitudes, but in Cairo and many other places they still flourish and meet regularly for their weekly dhikr sessions.

The Wahhbs of Saudi Arabia opposed Sfic brotherhoods as a deviation from the fundamental purity of Islam which excludes mediators and sacramentals.

2. Dhikr

The word dhikr literally means "remembering", or better "calling to mind", or still better "keeping in mind". The Qur'n exhorts Muslims to keep God in mind "often" (33:41) and "when standing, sitting or lying down" (4:103). Although the word dhikr suggests primarily a mental activity, Muslim tradition applies it first to verbal activity, keeping God in mind with the tongue by invoking him by any of his names (compare Psalm 1:2).

2.1 Vocal dhikr

Vocal dhikr is of three kinds:

  1. the supererogatory prayer said after the five daily salts. (14)
  2. the formulas which the shaykh of a arqa prescribes for the disciple who wishes to advance through the various stages of spiritual progress. These formulas consist of several short phrases which include one of the names of God, and are to be said a certain number of times (often 500,000 times each), usually in a certain posture and with a certain breathing rhythm.
  3. the weekly communal prayer meeting, usually on Thursday evening or Friday morning. This prayer session varies according to the arqa or brotherhood concerned, but there are some common features. As I observed them in Cairo, the members gather in rows forming a rectangle with the shaykh in a presiding position. sitting on the mosque carpeting, they chant in a slow marked rhythm an opening invocation and a blessing on Muhammad which extends for maybe ten minutes as a warm-up. In rhythm with the chanting there is a movement of the head and torso.

When this is finished, all stand up for a series of repeated chanting of the profession "There is no deity but God" or of the name "Allah", sometimes with the name of Muhammad. In each "psalm" of this "office" all chant and swing to a rhythm guided by the clapping of a cantor in the middle. It begins slowly and solemnly, with the body swinging back and froth in a right-left sway, then gains in acceleration and intensity until, after about five minutes, a near frenzy peak is reached. Suddenly, at the cantor's signal, everything instantaneously subsides to complete silence and calm, leaving the participants in varying degrees of trance and absorption.

There may be five or so "psalms" following the same pattern. They are followed or interspersed with readings, or more precisely "hearings" (sam), for example from Ibn-al-Fri. The readings are sung and continue the psychological tone that was built up they may or may not be accompanied by physical motion on the part of the participants.

Afterwards all sit down again for prayers of intercession, some expressed aloud by one member, others private and in silence. They continue sitting while the shaykh, or usually a delegate, begins a solemn elaborate chanting (tajwd) of a passage from the Qur'n. This is the psychological climax of the session. During these moments of closest approach to God, some bread or candy is distributed to the participants and observers. This food derives its blessing and communalizing symbolism from being in front of the shaykh during the session. Before dispersing, the members of the brotherhood clasp the hands of the shaykh to gain his blessing (baraka), which derives from his having clasped the hands of his predecessor and so on to the founder of the arqa and ultimately to Muhammad.

Besides the weekly dhikr, public processions followed by dhikrs are held on the birthday (mawlid) of Muhammad and on the feast days of the saints, especially the founder of the arqa.

2.2 The inner experience of dhikr, and its stages

Besides vocal prayer, dhikr includes keeping God in mind with the heart, and thus can have various degrees of perfection. These are described by Ahmad ibn-Muhammad Ibn-Ajba al-asan (d. 1850) in his commentary Isq al-himam on the ikam, a Sfic classic by Ibn-At' Allh (d. 1309): (15)

  1. dhikr with the tongue alone, while the heart is distracted. This is better than no dhikr at all.
  2. dhikr with the heart awake to the meaning of what is said,
  3. dhikr with God sensed as being present to the heart and mind, filling it with peace,
  4. dhikr where the presence of God is so strong as to immerse the heart with light and exclude any other thought, and the person seems lost in and identified with the presence of God (yasr adh-dhkir madhkran - "The recaller becomes the recalled"),
  5. dhikr in which the operation of the tongue is suspended and the heart is in the realm of paradise. (16)
    This last state is also known as fan', a kind of ecstatic faint in which the greatness of God overwhelms the mind:

    When God wishes to purify someone for his presence and make his love (mahabba) known to him, he plants his love in the person's heart so that he will eagerly carry out the dhikr and tire his body in other service of God, and thirst for a deep knowledge (marifa) of God. The person keeps growing closer to God by doing supererogatory practices until the True One (al-aqq) manifests his love for the person. He does this by putting him in a state of fan', wherein he is conscious only of God and is alienated from his senses, including his hearing, his seeing, the use of his hands and of his whole body.

    But this state is a prelude to a higher one.

  6. "When God returns the person to his senses he may then choose to give the person baq' (permanence) in the deep knowledge (marifa) of God and all things." This kind of presence of God does not exclude the use of the senses and an awareness of the world.

    A person in this state is aware of God in everything else, whereas in the former state he was only aware of God. A person in this state sees God's power and also his wisdom and his works, whereas in the former state he saw only God's power. A person in this state has arrived at his goal and has possession of it, whereas in the former state he was only travelling towards it. (17)

From a comparative point of view, it would be well worth while to examine the similarities between these six degrees of dhikr and the degrees of prayer described by St. Teresa of Avila in her Interior Castle, Mansions 2 to 7. The parallelism is very striking, but this Sfic description lacks the concrete psychological and personal details given by Teresa, and we are not in a position to say that they are describing the same subjective experience, even apart from their different understanding of God as an object of experience. Perhaps Christian emphasis on going to God through the humanity of Christ is the reason for the concrete humanness of Christian mysticism, while the Islamic insistence on the transcendence of God is the reason for the somewhat abstract quality of the experiences described in Sfic literature.

3. Theories of spiritual growth

3.1 Works, dispositions and virtues (18)

The degrees of dhikr as an inner experience as just described already indicate a process of growth. Not only in dhikr-prayer, but in the exercise of any virtue Sfic theorists distinguish: 1) works (amal), which are bodily activities, 2) dispositions or experiences (hl), sometimes translated "states", which are passing movements of the heart given by God, and 3) virtues or stages (maqm), sometimes translated "stations", which are permanent possessions of the heart. In the preceding description of dhikr, number 1 and 2 could be called works, 3 to 5 dispositions or experiences, and 6 a virtue or stage.

Good works require effort. God rewards continued effort by giving a disposition or experience (hl) which makes activity easy and effortless but does not dispense with painful endurance (sabr) in the face of situations to be passively accepted. Perseverance in good works under the influence of a disposition leads to the possession of a virtue, which gives the heart rest and peace. The ease and goodness of works are the result and the sign of a good disposition. The ease and goodness of a disposition is the result and sign of a permanent God-given virtue.

The difference between works, dispositions and virtues can be illustrated in asceticism (zuhd). Its definition is contained in the adth "Asceticism does not consist in declaring forbidden what is lawful nor does it consist in piling up wealth, but it means that you are more secure with what comes from the hand of God than with what comes from your own hand." As a work, asceticism consists in the effort of foregoing the world and its attractions. As a disposition, it consists in enduring poverty with patience. As a virtue, it consists in the heart's resting and tasting inner sweetness in such a situation.

3.2 Distinction of stages

Some authors distinguish different stages (maqm) of spiritual growth on the basis of acquiring single virtues in succession. Thus Ab-Nasr as-Sarrj (d. 988) gives seven stages, marked by: 1) repentance (tawba), 2) respect for God's law (wara), 3) asceticism (zuhd), 4) poverty before God (faqr), 5) endurance (sabr), 6) trustful dependence on God (tawakkul), 7) joy in God (ri'). (19) Ab-Sad ibn-Ab-l-Khayr (d. 1048) distinguishes forty such stages. The Persian Khwjah Abdallh Ansr (d. 1089) gives one hundred. The Tijns distinguish three: 1) mm (faith), 2) islm (outer submission), and 3) ihsn (doing good).

Other authors mark each stage by describing a combination of virtues (or dispositions) or the lack thereof. In the Qdiriyya manual al-Fuyt ar-rubbniyya, seven stages are distinguished, as discerned by the symbolism of one's dreams: (20)

  1. the evil-prone person (an-nafs al-ammra, Q. 12:53), noted for his unbelief, rebelliousness, doing what is forbidden, anger, ignorance, envy, covetousness, miserliness, hypocritical speech, slander, bitterness, secret sins of sensuality, doing what is disapproved or useless, and worldliness.
  2. the admonishing person (an-nafs al-lawwma, Q. 75:2), noted for the faults of cunning, vanity, evil desire and dominativeness, (21) and also for the virtues of doing what is permitted or beneficial to others, putting up with pain and not inflicting it on others, maturation in praiseworthy habits, correction and improvement of speech manners, and unperturbedness. (22)
  3. the inspired person (an-nafs al-mulhama, Q. 91:7-8), noted for the faults of defective understanding, shortcomings in the practice of religion and the Shara, rejecting what is right, disobedience to God's commands, avoiding to profess the faith, inattentiveness to the shara and to preaching about it, silence about what is right, talking about the faults of others to their face, negligence of the Sunna, excessive desires, negligence of worship, performing worship to gain the approval of men, doing what is forbidden, looking the other way when others do what is forbidden, lying, and hardness and wandering of heart, (23) and also for the virtues of contentment, liberality, knowledge, humility, repentance and patience. (24)
  4. the tranquil person (an-nafs al-muma'inna, Q 89:27-28), noted for his goodness, trustful dependence on God (tawakkul), patience, purity of heart, strong faith (mn) and submissiveness to God (islm), contemplative rest in God, stability, concern for the worship of God, prudence in his own affairs, obedience to God's commands, cleanness of heart from deceit and backbiting, though at the same time he is subject to many Satanic suggestions.
  5. the contented person (an-nafs ar-riya, Q 89:27-28), noted for his magnanimity, asceticism, dhikr, strong desire for God (ishq), perfect understanding, closeness to God, and knowledge of the deep things about God.
  6. the approved person (an-nafs al-mariyya, Q. 89:27-28), noted for his good personality, kindness (luf), closeness to God, concern for the Sunna of Muhammad, looking towards God, being luminous in his spirit and heart, being lost in God (fan') and undistracted.
  7. the pure, genuine or perfect person (an-nafs as-sfiya/ a-amma/ al--kmila), noted for his merciful kindness (rahma), solitude, silence, truthfulness, helpfulness, fulfilment of God's commands, and pure devotion to God with deep knowledge of him and assent to his truthfulness.

3.3 Critique

By way of criticism, not all Sfic literature appears to describe genuine experience of spiritual growth. For instance, the foregoing description seems based more on logical projections than on actual cases. Besides, the author pretends that one can advance from one stage to the next simply by reciting one or several of the divine names 500,000 times. And when one finishes reciting all that is prescribed and reaches the last maqm, he returns to the beginning and starts all over (25) Such theology represents the decadent phase of Sfism matching the counterfeit experiences referred to above, and contrasts with the seemingly genuine experience of God described by early Sfs such as al-Hallj and al-Ansr.

In the present day genuine religious experience and growth can be found, even among ordinary people who do not belong to a Sf order or practices its methods, as has been observed by J. Jomier. (26) Seyyed Hossein Nasr, in Sufi essays, likewise has a good theological commentary on Qur'n 95:4-5: "Surely we created man of the best stature (ahsan taqwn) then we reduced him to the lowest of the low (asfal sfiln)". Professor Nasr remarks: (27)

No amount of supposed evolution and change can destroy the divine image which is man's origin or the state of separation and hence wretchedness and misery in which he finds himself due to this very separation from his spiritual origin.

The asfal sfiln is identified with "the world of natural passions and heedlessness. The grandeur of the human state and origin together with fallen condition is the reason for the mystical quest, which is a dissatisfaction with the finite and search for the Infinite Reality. The concrete implications of this search are the subject of a good part of the book.

4. The Sf orders

4.1 General considerations

Sf communities began to emerge around the second half of the 8th century as the early great Sfs began to attract followers. The evolution of Sf orders went through three phases: (28)

  1. the khnaq (monastery) phase. The disciples were few and serious. They gathered under the guidance of a shaykh, but regulations were few and the disciples' direct guidance by God was paramount.
  2. the arqa (way, order) phase. By 1100, as Sfism through al-Ghazl became an accepted movement and came under the control of the jurists, guidance by a rule became paramount. Sfic teaching and methods of producing altered states of consciousness were developed and transmitted by a chain of authority (silsila).
  3. the 'ifa (group) phase. By the 15th century Sfism became a popular movement and new orders and cells multiplied at an amazing rate. The focus of the Sfic groupings became the shaykh or holy man (wal) himself, and guidance under his absolute authority - "like a corpse in the hands of its washer" - became paramount.

The baraka of a Sf is validated by a chain of authority (silsila) of Sfic shaykhs to the founder of the order, and then through other famous men, ultimately reaching Al and then Muhammad, who is portrayed as the first of God's creation, through whom all blessings flow. This Logos emanation theory of Ibn-Arab is contained also in al-Jazl's (d. 1465) extremely popular devotional book Dal'il al-khayrt and in the poems commonly recited on Muhammad 's birthday.

The initiation of a disciple into an order includes any of several elements, each of which is validated by a chain of authority. Some of them are: 1) dressing the disciple in the khirqa or habit of the order, 2) giving the disciple dates and water as a gesture of hospitality (iyfa), 3) clasping the hand (mushafa) of the disciple to show the bond between him and his shaykh, 4) the conferring of a rosary (mushbaka), 5) instruction in the divine names the disciple is to recite for his private dhikr (talqn adh-dhikr), and 6) spitting into the mouth of the disciple (basq f l-fam) to put a seal on the whole ceremony. (29)

There is often a hierarchy uniting the local groups of an order, and sometimes an international head, but their control is loose, operating mainly through attraction to their personal holiness and baraka. A Sf becomes a shaykh sometimes by inheritance from his father, sometimes by election, and sometimes by designation by another shaykh who gives an ijza (licence). Sometimes authority is claimed directly from divine intervention, as when the founder of the Tijniyya claimed to have had a vision of Muhammad conferring on him the baraka to become the shaykh of a new order.

4.2 The distribution of orders in Nigeria (30)

The oldest order in Nigeria is the Qdiriyya, to which Uthmn an Fodiye belonged. It is the strongest in Sokoto and presumably also Gwandu, Birnin Kebbi and other settlements influenced directly by the an Fodiye brothers. Related to the traditional Qdiriyya are the reformed Qdiriyya, centred in Kano, and the Usmaniyya (after Uthmn an Fodiye, and promoted by the late Sardauna of Sokoto Ahmadu Bello), centred in Kaduna.

The traditional Tijniyya is strongest in Zaria and Katsina, while the reformed Tijniyya, headed by Ibrhm Niass of Kaolack, Senegal, is strongest in Kano, Gusau, Argungu, Yauri and the Hausa diaspora settlements of Ibadan etc. The Northeast of Nigeria has almost no presence of orders, except for the Mahdiyya in Adamawa, a small rural group associated with the Mahdism of Sudan.

4.2.1 The Qdiriyya

The Qdiriyya order is named after Abdalqdir al-Jln (1077-1166), who did not actually found the order, and in his lifetime had no reputation as a Sf, but as a teacher of the anbal schools of law. After his death some Sfs claimed to be followers of his way in order to use his reputation for holiness, popular preaching and orthodox teaching as a support for their Sfic practices. Numerous prayers, sermons and poems are attributed to Abdalqdir al-Jln, (31) but their authenticity is very doubtful.

Although Abdalqdir al-Jln became a universally popular saint, the Qdiriyya order was not very popular until the 16th century. Today it is widespread, from India to North and West Africa, but has no organizational unity on an international level.

Some of the first representatives of the Qdiriyya in West Africa were Ahmad al-Bakk' B-Dam (d. 1515) and Abdalkarm al-Maghl (d. 1504). The order continued to exist in West Africa under the leadership of scattered individuals until the time of sd al-Mukhtr al-Kunt (1729-1811), who consolidated and propagated it from Senegal as far as Katsina. His disciple Alfa Nhu a-hir, a Fulani from Masina, initiated Uthmn an Fodiye into the order together with his brother Abdallh and his son Muhammad Bello. (32)

4.2.2 The Tijniyya (33)

The Tijniyya order is named after Ahmad at-Tijn (1737-1815). He was initiated into a number of different orders. Then, between 1782 and 1786 in Tilimsn, Algeria, and in his desert place of retreat he claimed to have seen a series of visions of Muhammad in which he was instructed to found a new order. This order was to claim the exclusive allegiance of its followers, so that they could not belong to any other order. Ahmad at-Tijn rejected the initiations he had received into other orders, condemned their cult of holy men, and claimed to be the direct medium between Muhammad and followers of his order. Therefore the initiation silsila of a Tijn will lead back to Ahmad at-Tijn and no further.

Tijns hold common dhikr services every Friday afternoon, when they chant hundreds of times "L illh ill llh". One of their characteristic beliefs is that Muhammad is really present among them during their dhikr. The Tijns are more active and worldly than followers of other orders, in the sense that they do not emphasize ascetic practices and night vigils or prolonged prayers.

The Tijniyya order spread through West Africa especially through the influence of al-ajj Umar in the 19th century. In the second part of the 20th century the reformed variety of Tijniyya practically took over through the influence of Ibrhm of Kaolack and his sons. Although Amad at-Tijn was opposed to the cult of holy men, Ibrhm and his sons are intensely venerated by their followers, who attribute to them special supernatural powers such as the ability to read the secret thoughts of others.

4.3 Opposition to Sfism in Nigeria

In Nigeria Wahhbism is represented by the Izala movement (Jama izla al-bida wa-iqma as-sunna), which has conducted a vigorous but unsuccessful campaign to suppress Sfism. (34)

5. Magic

A discussion of Sfism would not be complete without mention of magic, because the Sfs' progress along the arqa to haqqa gave rise to the idea that they had special access to divine power. People consequently came to them for prayers in all their needs, and even prayed at their tombs to receive their baraka. Aspirants to similar power might try to imitate the Sfs by reaching inner purification and nearness to God, but some tries to get this power by a short-cut, by discovering a secret formula which would deliver the same results without so much effort and self-discipline. Such use of automatic devices to harness divine power for human aims is what is commonly meant by magic, or sihr in Arabic.

Magical practices were part of Arabian traditional religion before the coming of Islam. Muhammad rejected the charge that he was a magician (e.g. Q. 38:4 74:24). Yet some passages of the Qur'n contain mysterious oaths which are in the style of the soothsaying (kahna) of traditional religion (e.g. 34:1-4 51:1-6 77:1-7 79:1-14 100:106). Furthermore, 29 different sras begin with mysterious letters whose meaning or symbolism is not known, and which are sometimes given a magical meaning. The Tradition literature (e.g. the Sahh of Muslim, chapter Salm, section on medicine recommends not only prayer for healing while touching the affected part, but also the use of certain Qur'n passages, such as the Ftiha (sra 1) and the Muawwidhatn (sras 113 114), to heal physical ills and to protect from the evil eye and the influence of poison. Other Qur'n passages which became prominent in magical use are the sra Y Sn (36) and the Throne verse (2:255).

Another form of magic developed when Muslims tried to command the service of the Jinn and other spirits after the manner of Solomon, as described in Qur'n 21:79-82, 27:15-21, 34:12-14 38:36-40, even though another passage (2:102) cautions against the magic (sihr) associated with Solomon. This dabbling in spirits was then refined to the invocation of angels of Jewish extra-Biblical tradition, such as Kasfiy'l, Aniy'l, Sarafiy'l, Samsam'l, Ruqiy'l, and the Qur'nic angels Jibrl and Mkl in their Hebraized forms Jabray'l and Mk'l.

A further form of magic developed around the 99 names of God, which were written in a variety of forms, especially in magic squares consisting of 9 or more numbers or letters with a numerical value which adds up to the numerical total of the name in question, when each of its letters is equivalent ot a certain number. Along with the names of God, other symbolic or nonsense syllables are used (e.g. Ahamu, saqaku, halau, yahu), not only in squares but also in configurations representing various animals or objects of Islamic tradition, such as the boat of Noah, the Prophet's mosque, swords etc. The best popular book exemplifying such magic is the anonymous Umm Ms. Yet all such popular books draw their inspiration from the treatise on magic by al-Bn (d. 1225), called Shams al-marif wa-la'if al-awrif. (35)

The theologian al-Ghazl (d. 1111) believed in the reality and efficacy of magic squares. In his Munqidh he tells how a woman had a safe delivery by looking on one, yet in his Ihy' (Book 1, chapter 3) he opposes the use of magical knowledge because of its greater danger than help.

Nevertheless, for centuries Islamic magic has been one of the strong points of Islam in West Africa. It successfully competed with the magic and medicine of African traditional religion, and was one of the chief means of attracting converts. Western medicine has now taken the centre stage in promising health to Africans, but it has by no means displaced either the medicine of African traditional religion or Islamic religion, and has not stopped the rise of Christian healing rites, not only for bodily health, but also for other matters, like gaining a spouse, friends or money, or protection against enemies or any harm.


1. Cf. G. Anawati L. Gardet, Mystique musulmane (Paris: Vrin, 1968), pp. 23-73 Louis Massignon, Essai sur les origines du lexique technique de la mystique musulmane (Paris: Vrin, 1968), chs. 4 5 A.J. Arberry, An introduction to the history of Sfism (London, 1943) Sfism, an account of the mystics of Islam (London, 1950).

2. L. Massignon, La passion d'al-Hallj, martyr mystique de l'Islam, 2 vols. (Paris, 1922) The passion of al-Hallaj, tr. H. Mason (4 vols. Princeton UP, 1982) Le Dwn d'al-Hallaj, Dwn, ed. L. Massignon (Paris: Guethner, 1955).

3. Cf. Anawati Gardet, op. cit., pp. 97-121.

4. Le dwn d'al-Hallj, ed. L. Massignon (Paris: Geuthner, 1955), p. 93.

5. Ed. al-Gind (Cairo, n.d.) cf. W.M. Watt, Muslim intellectual, a study of al-Ghazl (Edinburgh U.P., 1963).

6. Serge de Laugier de Beaureceuil, Abdallh al-Ansr al-Haraw, Les étapes des itinérantes vers Dieu (Cairo: IFAO, 1962) Khwadja Abdallah Ansari, mystique hanbalite (Beirut: Imprimérie Catholique, 1965) "Présentation d'Ansari" MIDEO Mélange de l'Institut Dominicain d'Etudes Orientales, 11 (1972), 291-300 "Le millénaire lunaire de la naissance de Kwaja Abdallah Ansari Harawi", MIDEO, 13 (1976), 305-314.

7. Cf. Aini, Mehmed Ali, Un grand saint de l'Islam, abd-al-Kadir Guilani, 1077-1166 (Paris: Geuthner, 1967, reprint of 1938).

8. Edited by R.A. Nicholson, in the E.J.W. Gibb Memorial Series.

9. Translated by A.J. Arberry, The poem of the way (London: E. Walker, 1952) cf. chapter 3 of his Studies in Islamic mysticism (Cambridge U.P., 1921/1967).

10. In A.J. Arberry, op. cit.

11. See especially his "Expérience mystique de Ibn-Ibn-Fri," MIDEO 19 (1989), 203-223.

12. Cf. R.W.J. Austin, The Sfs of Andalusia, (Allen Unwin, 1971) Henri Corbin, Creative imagination in Ibn-Arab (Princeton U.P., 1971).

13. Cf. Edward Lane, The manners and customs of the modern Egyptians (1860, reprinted London: Dent, 1966).

14. Cf. al-Qayrawn, Risla, tr. J. Kenny (Minna: Islamic Education Trust, 1992), 10:04.

15. Cairo, 1971.

16. On these five cf. Ajba, p. 103.

17. Ibid., p. 296-7.

18. Cf. ibid., p. 100 ff.

19. Cf. G. Anawati, "Introduction à la mystique musulmane", Angelicum, 43 (1966), p. 146.

20. Ed. Ismal ibn-Muhammad Sad al-Qdir, pp. 17-26 and 31-33.

21. P. 32.

22. Pp. 20-21.

23. Pp. 21-22.

24. P. 32.

25. Ibid., pp. 13-14.

26. In Mélanges de l'Institut Dominicain d'Etudes Orientales du Caire, 10 (1970), pp. 271-290.

27. Chapter 1.

28. Cf. J.S. Trimingham, The Sf orders in Islam (Clarendon, 1971), p. 103.

29. Cf. Muhammad ibn-Umar ibn-Ibrhm al-Malll, al-Mawhib al-quddusiyya f l-manqib as-Sansiyya, written in 1494 (Paris: Bibliotèque Nationale, manuscript n. 6897, folios 12b-14b).

30. Cf. John Paden, Religion and political culture in Kano (U. of California Press, 1973).

31. See the manual Fuyt ar-rubbniyya.

32. Cf. Abdal-Aziz Batran, "An introductory note on the impact of sidi al-Mukhtar al-Kunti (1729-1811) on West African Islam in the 18th and 19th centuries", Journal of the Historical Society of Nigeria, 6:4 (June 1973), pp. 347-352.

33. Cf. Jamil M. Abun-Nasr, The Tijniyya, a Sf order in the modern world (Oxford U.P., 1965).

34. Cf. Y.A. Quadri, "A study of the Izala, a contemporary anti-Sufi organisation in Nigeria" Orita, 17:2 (Deceember, 1985), pp. 32 ff. "Qadiriyyah and Tijaniyyah relations in Nigeria in the 20th century" Orita, 16:1 (June, 1984, pp. 15 ff.

35. Cf. G. Anawati, "Le nom suprême de Dieu", Atti del III Congresso di Studi Arabi e Islamici (Napoli, 1967).