Organized Sufism: The Sufi Orders

The choice of the Sufi Orders in this section is based on several factors: their long history, geographical spread, impact on Islamic society, and intellectual and artistic significance. Some of the oldest orders such as the Rifa'iyyah have not been treated separately because of their relatively limited geographical extension, although the order has been mentioned in the discussion of Sufism in the Arab world. Others like the Tijaniyyah have also not been treated separately, since, although such an order has spread over large areas, it is of fairly recent origin. In any case, the limitation of space forced a choice upon us that has resulted in the present treatment of the orders. What is certain is that the orders that have been treated separately are all major orders which have had a profound impact on Islamic history. They have been vibrant centers and guardians of Islamic spirituality and esoteric teachings starting with the Qadiriyah Order, the most universal of all Sufi orders, whose centers are spread from the Philippines to Morocco.

Mystical Islam

 Sufism and Orthodoxy

The Shadhiliyah


By the 13th century, Islamic educational and legal institutions had been formalized, as had the relationship between the government and theological and legal scholars. It is therefore no surprise that Sufism would also take an organized form and compete for social legitimacy and authority with other religious movements and institutions.

The earliest Sufi orders were made up of the disciples of a particular master; after these disciples had themselves become accomplished Sufis, they imparted their masterís teachings to their own students. So began the tradition of students following in the lineage of an initial master, and emulating his tariqa (path), an organizational system which became formalized by the 15th century. Before an aspirant Sufi could join an order, he would often be turned away repeatedly to test his sincerity, or forced to perform menial tasks as a process of initiation. Admission into an order was normally a ceremonial occasion, when new members would be given robes signifying their new status. Many Sufi orders have been extremely important in the evolution of Islamic society. Not only did they have prominent scholars and philosophers developing their ideas, but frequently major figures in the government belonged to these orders. This meant that Sufi orders could influence the official policies of the kingdom.

The truth and reality of the inner teachings of Islam became crystallized mostly in Sufism. Sufism therefore embodies more than any other facet of Islam the various aspects of Islamic spirituality, although this spirituality also manifests itself in the religious life of Sunni Muslims, as well as in the intellectual and artistic life of Islam. Within the world of Sufism itself, the traditional teachings were transmitted from generation to generation going back to the origin of the revelation. It was only later in the history of Sufism that the orders or ṭuruq (pl. of ṭariqah) appeared on the scene and became the main depositories and guardians for the teachings of Sufism.

During the first four to five centuries of Islam, Sufi instruction was transmitted by an individual master around whom disciples would gather. Gradually the downward flow of time and further removal of the Muslim community from the source of the revelation necessitated a more tightly knit organization revolving once again around the master (called shaykh, pir, or murshid), and usually named after the founder, but based on a definite set of rules of etiquette and behavior, litanies, forms of meditation, etc. Gradually Sufi orders appeared throughout the Islamic world having at the heart of their teachings the truth of Divine Unity (al-tawḥīd) and methods of reaching the Truth based on the invocation (dhikr) of various Divine Names and the acquiring of virtues (faḍa'il or Iḥsān), which alone allow the dhikr to penetrate into the depth of the human soul and which are at the same time the fruit of the dhikr.

Each order emphasized some element of the path and adapted itself to various ethnic and psychological climates in a vast world which included such different human types as Arabs and Berbers, Nigerians and Persians, Turks and Malays. While the basic practices of dhikr and the Shari'ite foundation remained the same for all orthodox orders, other elements of the path, including the use of artistic forms ranging from music and poetry to the sacred dance, differed from order to order. As a result, an incredibly rich diversity of spiritual possibilities came into being in the Islamic world, which enabled men and women of very differing ethnic, mental, and psychological types to participate in the teachings of Sufism. At the same time the orders guaranteed the perpetuation of the teachings of Sufism, the continuity of initiation and initiatic transmission, and brought into being organizations that could protect the flame of Sufism in the storm of outward human life with its entire vicissitudes.

During the 9 centuries since the beginning of the organization of the Sufi orders, numerous orders have appeared in various parts of the Islamic world. Some have remained of importance in only one locality, and others have spread over vast areas. Some have lived for a short period only to decay and then die out, and others have survived over the centuries and continue to attract disciples to this day. Among the surviving orders some still make possible traveling upon the path (sulūk), whereas others only provide the grace of Sufism (tabarruk) without the possibility of a vertical ascent. In the major orders one can observe the occasional decay and death of one branch and the birth of another branch through the appearance of a veritable master. It is also possible for an order to be dormant and in a state of decadence only to be revived at a later time, as long as the chain of initiation and the initiatic transmission have remained intact.

A work such as the present one cannot deal with all the Sufi orders that have existed or continue to exist in the Islamic world. The manifestations Islamic spirituality in the form of Sufism have been presented by treating separately the major orders and schools and then adding complementary essays for various regions of the Islamic world. In this way it is hoped that most of the central manifestations of Sufism have been covered and that the teachings and history of the major orders have been brought out in an integral manner.

It is important to add, however, that despite the overwhelming importance of the orders as the major depositories of Sufi teachings during the past eight or nine centuries, the teachings of individual masters who cannot be identified with a particular order remain important. This is true not only of the earlier centuries, when Sufism was identified with the teachings of individuals, but also of later times, when the orders had already become established. Such a major figure as Hazrat Ibn 'Arabī (may Allah be pleased with him) did not establish a specific ṭariqah, although there is a distinct Akbarian current to be found during later centuries and he wielded great influence among members of several orders.  There are also a variety of Sufi figures guided by al-Khiḍr, the everliving "prophet of initiation" or by members of the "invisible hierarchy" who form a part of the Sufi universe. 

Courtesy: Seyyed Hossein Nasr