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A Thousand Years of Constancy

The Beginning

The Qur'an

By the year AH 300 (912-13), the Islam of the learned had taken the form it was to keep for a thousand years. Mainstream Islam had defined itself intellectually, though it still had not needed to name itself ‘Sunni'. It had reconciled its internal differences, with its Seven Readings of the Koran, its Six Books of Tradition and its Four Schools of Sharia (though as yet there were still others). Learned versions of the other branches of Islam, too, were fully formed: Ibadism and Zaydi, Ismaili and Twelver Shiism. As yet ill-integrated with the rest, Sufism was a fully developed system of belief and practice. All that was left, in order to shape the Islamic world as we know it, was for the different branches to take up their present positions in relation to each other, and for Sufism to provide a bridge between learned and popular Islam.

Until the middle of the fifth century of Islam, it seemed uncertain whether Sunni Islam could survive as the mainstream. It was divided between two rival caliphates - that of the Abbasids being challenged by a revived Umayyad Caliphate based in Spain. Both were threatened by the Fatimid Caliphate, and Baghdad was still under attack from the Qarmatians, and its caliphs were controlled by the Iranian Buyids, who were Twelver Shiites. However, the structures of Sunni Islam were too solid for it to be seriously threatened by the divided Shiites. In political terms the turning point was the final defeat of the Buyids by the Sunni Seljuq Turks in AH 447 (1055).

In intellectual terms the chief architect of the classical system was al-Ghazali, author of The Confounding of the Philosophers. After his years of lecturing in philosophy and theology at the Nizmia of Baghdad, a spiritual crisis rendered him unable to continue, and he abandoned his post after only four years. He made arrangements for his family, disposed of his wealth and became a wandering Sufi. After visits to Damascus and Jerusalem and a pilgrimage to Mecca, he settled back in his native Tus, where he founded a virtually monastic Sufi community. After ten years he was persuaded to return to teaching, at the Nizamiya College in Nishapur. The year was AH 499 (1106), and he was in effect putting in his claim to be seen as the Renewer for the next century. After a further five years teaching, he retired again to Tus, where he died shortly afterwards, in AH 505 (1111), aged only 54.

The Spread of Popular Sufism

Sufi Circle

Al-Ghazali was an immensely learned man, and he wrote many books and pamphlets on a great variety of topics. However, his most important contribution was to reconcile Sufism with orthodox Islam, bringing to an end the period of marginalisation that had begun with the imprisonment and execution of al-Hallaj. He also opened the way for the development of almost monastic communities, contrary to the tradition attributing to the Prophet the saying: ‘Let there be no monasticism in Islam.' However, there was no move to introduce lifelong celibacy, which would have been contrary to the whole ethos of Islam. A negative feature of Ghazali's Sufism is that it was tending to become a male preserve, turning its back on the tradition of Rabia al-Adawiya and other great Sufi women.

The conflict between Sufism and orthodoxy was not completely ended by Ghazali, however. The most controversial figure was Muhyi-'l-Din Ibn al-Arabi, usually known simply as Ibn Arabi, who was born of pure Arab ancestry in AH 560 (1165) in Murcia, Spain. He spent the first half of his life in Spain and the Maghreb, studying with a number of spiritual masters.

While still a beardless youth he met the great Ibn Rushd (Averroes), who was so struck by the spiritual depth of the boy that he trembled and became speechless. At the age of 35, Ibn Arabi had a vision instructing him to leave for the East. He spent a fruitful time in Mecca where he began his great compendium of Sufism, Al Futuhat al-Makkiya. He also shocked timid spirits by addressing a series of poems of spiritual love to the daughter of a respected sheikh. He eventually settled in Damascus, where he produced a copious succession of books. Despite the daring nature of his thought, he managed to avoid trouble with the authorities and lived into his seventies, dying in AH 638 (1240)

Whirling Dervishes

Picture 1: The Qur'an, by Ahmad Tarek, Flickr

Picture 2: Sufi Percussion, by madmonk, Flickr

Picture 3: Whirling Dervishes, by shioshvili, Flickr

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Introduction: 

In this extract of Philip Stewart's forthcoming book, Unfolding Islam, the author explores Islam's development and its relationship with Sufism.