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Origin of Sufism

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At the Time of the Prophet Muhammad

At the time of the Prophet and his companions, the term Sufism (Tasawwuf) did not exist as a distinct discipline. Rather it was inseparably present in the spirituality of Islam. ‘It was a reality without a name’ which was practiced in the daily lives of the companions through their spiritual initiation at the hand of the Prophet. He was their ‘living model’ and source of inspiration.

The ‘People of the Bench’ (Ahl As Suffa)* can historically be regarded as the first Sufis as they regularly held gatherings of invocation and received the blessing of being alluded to in the following revelation;‘ Restrain yourself together with those who pray to their Lord morning and evening seeking His Face.  Do not turn your eyes away from them in the quest for the good things of this life; nor obey any whose heart we have made heedless of Our remembrance who follows his own lust and gives loose reign to his desires.’ ( Qur’an Al-Khahf (The Cave), verse 28). It is therefore clear that the Prophet received the divine order to be present with this group of companions and to call upon GOD with them. The People of the Bench* were companions of the Prophet Muhammad (..) many of whom were of foreign origin (e.g. Bilal from Ethiopia, Salman from Persia and Suhaib from Rome. They had suffered much injustice and maltreatment from the nobility of the tribe of Qureysh. Both their material poverty and their high spiritual aspiration qualify them to be described as ‘faqir’ meaning poor in front of GOD and as a murid’ (A murid one who wants to reach the knowledge of Allah. This term is used in the Quranic verse ‘yuridoune wajhahu’ (wanting the vision of His  face). This contains the verb ‘yuridu’ meaning ‘to want’. The one who is in the state of ‘wanting’ is known as a 'murid‘.

Sayyiduna Ali (died 46 A.H. / 666 A.D.) was the cousin, son-in-law and companion of the Prophet. He is regarded as the starting point of the principal chains of transmission of the spiritual heritage of the Messenger of GOD. Other transmitters of note include Anas bin Malik (died 93 A.H.) and Salman Al Farsi (died 36 A.H.)

 * The name ‘The People of the Bench’ (Ahl As Suffa) according to some Muslim historians provided the origin of the word ‘Sufi’.



Etymology of the word Sufi

According to sources the word 'Sufi' is connected etymologically to ‘purity’ (Assafaa, Safa, yasfou in Arabic) i.e. that which aspires to purify the heart of its hidden defects, inclinations and hidden attachments (Assiwa). The  beauty and cleanliness of the heart (Safaa Albatin) will become apparent through the nobility of character and goods deeds. According to the traditional methodology of Islamic scholarship all opinions of other authors considered to be admissible on a question should be quoted.

They are characterized by the description of a connection between traditional Sufism and the Islam in their. The reference work, par excellence on this issue, is the treatise of the Persian Al- Kalabadhi (died 384 A.H. / 994 A.D.) translated by A.J. Arberry under the title ‘ The Doctrine of the Sufis’.  Certain orientalists put forward the idea that the word ‘sufi’ or ‘soufi’ could be derived from the Greek ‘sofov’ ( the wise one). This appears far from probable as the Arabic word for wisdom is ‘hikma’.Furthermore the Greek term passed into Arabic in the form of ‘faylasuf’ (philosopher) without having any connection with the word ‘Sufi’.

The word ‘Sufism’ has been connected to another French term ‘ marabout’ which is derived from the Arabic word ‘murabit’. Initially this meant a frontier fortress containing a garrison (Rabat, the capital city of Morocco is derived from the same word). Muslim of the first centuries were in the habit of making temporary stays with soldiers. The term also has the meaning of stages on a journey that involves staying at hostels along the way. From the century ribats were sometimes used by solitary mystics or groups who sought remote, unused or derelict places.

The Ribat of Abbadan in Susiane was occupied by the mystic Abd Al-Wahid Bin Zayd  (177/793) and his disciples (Massignion, Essay, 213). The last of these establishments bearing this name were built in the cities. Whereas they were initially intended to shelter various specialists in the religious sciences, as in the madrassas, it became the general rule for these establishments to be associated with the Sufis.

The Persian term ‘khanqah/khanagah was used in the Indo-Iranian world.  In the Middle East, as far as Cairo, the Arabic term ‘Zawiya’ was used. In Turkey and the Western Islamic world the Ottoman Turkish word, ‘Tekkeh’ is used. Given the multiplicity of these terms, which offer cover different realities, it is hazardous to translate them by a single word such as monastery. A case in point is the term morabout/murabit. Its original military meaning has lost its original military connotations and is now used in the western Islamic World to denote a locally venerated character or a Master of a brotherhood.