The Historical Origins of Sufi Movement

Many of the early names to which the title of "Sufi" is attached in Muslim hagiography are little more than that, names alone. Hasan al-Basri is a firmly historical witness, however, and he stands close to the top of the page in every attempt, medieval and modern, to get back to the beginnings of the spiritual discipline that the Muslims call Sufism. He is an important authority for the Spanish philosopher-historian Ibn Khaldun (d. 1406 C.E.), who, as he did with Islamic jurisprudence (chapter 4 above), provides in his Prolegomenon to History a schematic view of the origins of Sufism.

Sufi Ascetics Sufi Autobiographies Monasticism in Islam Monks and Sufis
Sufi Communities Convent Life in Islam Lamp in the Niche The Mystic Way?
Junayd on Oneness Self-Obliteration Oneness with God Mystic Al-Hallaj
Ecstatic Utterances Face in the Mirror Mystic al-Jili Evaluate the Sufi's
Sufis and Shi’ites Illumination of Intellect    

The Science of Sufism. This science belongs to the sciences of religious law that originated in Islam. Sufism is based on the assumption that the method of those people (who later came to be called Sufis) had always been considered by the important early Muslims, the men around Muhammad and the men of the second generation, as well as those who came after them, as the path of true and right guidance. Their approach is based upon constant application to divine worship, complete devotion to God, aversion to the false splendor of the world, abstinence from pleasure, property and position to which the great mass aspires, and retirement from the world into solitude for divine worship. These things were general among the men around Muhammad and the early Muslims. (Ibn Khaldun, Muqaddima 6.10) [IBN KHALDUN 1967: 3:76]

The habit of a simple and unworldly life, if not actually the practice of what a later generation understood as asceticism, was traced back, then, to the earliest generation of Muslims, and even to the most eminent and powerful of them, as this account by the early Sufi author al-Kharraz (d. 890 C.E.) illustrates.

When Abu Bakr [Caliph, 632–634 C.E.] succeeded to the leadership, and the world in its entirety came to him in abasement, he did not lift up his head on that account, or make any pretensions; he wore a single garment, which he used to pin together, so that he was known as "the man of the two pins." Umar ibn al-Khattab [Caliph, 634–644 C.E.], who also ruled the world in its entirety, lived on bread and olive-oil; his clothes were patched in a dozen places, some of the patches being of leather; yet there were opened to him the treasures of Khusraw and Caesar. As for Uthman [Caliph, 644–656 C.E.], he was like one of his slaves in appearance; of him it is related that he was seen coming out of one of the gardens with a faggot of firewood on his shoulders, and when questioned on the matter, he said, "I wanted to see whether my soul would refuse." Ali [Caliph, 656–661 C.E.] bought a waistband for four dirhams and a shirt for five dirhams; finding the sleeve of his garment too long, he went to a cobbler and taking his knife, he cut off the sleeve level with the tips of his fingers; yet this same man divided the world right and left. (Kharraz) [Cited by ARBERRY 1950: 32]

It was at that point, at the death of Ali and the accession of the dynasty called the Umayyads, that there occurred a turning in the spiritual direction of Islam, according to what later became a commonly held view of the community's history. Ibn Khaldun resumes:

Then worldly aspirations increased in the second century [= eighth century C.E.] and after. People now inclined towards worldly airs. At that time, the special name of "Sufis" was given to those who aspired to divine worship. … The most obvious etymology (of the term Sufi), if one uses one, is that which connects the word with al-suf, because Sufis as a rule were characterized by the fact that they wore woolen garments. They were opposed to people wearing gorgeous garments, and, therefore, they chose to wear wool.

Ibn Khaldun then passes to the transition within the still young Sufi movement from asceticism to mysticism, the latter here characterized by its possession of a "particular kind of perception."

The Sufis came to represent asceticism, retirement from the world and devotion to divine worship. Then, they developed a particular kind of perception which comes about through ecstatic experience. This comes about as follows. Man, as man, is distinguished from all the other animals by his ability to perceive. His perception is of two kinds. He can perceive sciences and matters of knowledge, and these may be certain, hypothetical, doubtful or imaginary. Also, he can perceive "states" persisting in himself, such as joy and grief, anxiety and relaxation, satisfaction, anger, patience, gratefulness and similar things. (Ibn Khaldun, Muqaddima 6.16) [IBN KHALDUN 1967: 3:76–78]

These "states" of self-awareness referred to by Ibn Khaldun represent stages in the Sufi's training, as we shall see, and lead eventually to the mystical experience. All of this had been worked out in great detail by Ibn Khaldun's day. But the road to that point was a long one; the Sufi had to make a place for himself in the Islamic experience, a process that was accompanied by opposition, rejection, suffering, and even on occasion death.

Book Title: A Reader on Classical Islam. Contributors: F. E. Peters - author. Publisher: Princeton University Press. Place of Publication: Princeton, NJ. Publication Year: 1994.