TRANSITIONS TO MEDIEVAL SUFISM: SOME LEADING NAMES
Likely the most important figure in the history of Sufism is al-Ghazali (d. 1111). Prior to his appearance, Sufisms success had been partial. To be sure, it had become a powerful force among the common people, as it offered a more personal and emotionally satisfying approach to religion than that exhibited and prescribed by the orthodox interpreters of the Qur'an. However, it had not won acceptance from
The theologians and legalists had gone to great pains to develop an orthodox interpretation of the faith that would protect it from heretical innovation. They perceived that the Sufis' emphasis on experience as a superior source of truth, and their tendency to neglect legal prescriptions, could lead to the corruption of Muhammad's religion. They also feared that their own positions as religious leaders of the people might be supplanted by the popular Sufis. Consequently, the Ulama (religious authorities) sought, unsuccessfully, to silence the mystics. 'This conflict between doctrinaire legist and follower of the Inner Light was fundamental and seemed irreconcilable."5
Enter al-Ghazali. "The accepted position of Sufism, whereby it is acknowledged by many Moslem divines as the inner meaning of Islam, is a direct result of Ghazali's work."6
Al-Ghazali was orphaned at an early age, and raised by Sufis. Of Persian descent, by the age of 33 he was appointed a professor in Baghdad, where he became recognized as an authority on canon law In spite of his success, Ghazali entered a period of spiritual crisis. Concerning this he wrote in his autobiography Deliverance from Error: "I examined my motive in my work of teaching, and realized that it was not a pure desire for the things of God, but that the impulse moving me was the desire for an influential position and public recognition."7 In 1095 Ghazali became a wandering ascetic, returning to the Sufism of his youth. He spent 11 years in meditation and retirement, until a Sultan persuaded him to teach again.
In the public teachings and writings which followed his retirement, Ghazali set forth a synthesis of orthodox theology and mysticism. His greatest work The Revivification of the Religious Sciences, argues that only the Sufi emphasis on inner devotion can fulfill the strict demands of the Qur'an. Ghazali's arguments did much to relieve the hostility and suspicion that had developed between the Ulama and the Sufis. He has been widely regarded as Islam's greatest theologian, and the acceptance of his synthesis resulted in a large measure of tolerance (though never a full acceptance) between the legalists and the mystics. The two traditions came to regard each other as having necessary roles to fulfill within the larger Islamic community.
The acceptance of Sufism into the orthodox fold had monumental consequences. Islam "acquired a more popular character and a new power of attraction."8 Some historians credit Sufism for Islam's success at establishing itself in points beyond the Middle East. However, once Sufism achieved orthodox status the general distinction between what was and was not lawful became blurred, and several popular ideas and practices, previously kept under restraint by the Ulama (i.e., the cult of the saints, astrology and divination), became commonplace in the Islamic world.
Another important Sufi from the same era is al-Arabi (d. 1240). Raised by a Sufi family in a Spain that had been under Islamic control for more than 400 years, Arabi studied law and Islamic theology before establishing himself as one of Sufism's greatest poets and esoteric philosophers. He created a Sufi literature which did much to promote the cause of Islamic mysticism in many cultures.
While Ghazali stayed within an outwardly orthodox framework, Arabi offered a clearly monistic, gnostic system. "His commentary on the Koran is a tour de force of esoteric interpretation."9 With Arabi the emphasis on the Sufi path "was shifted from moral self-control to metaphysical knowledge with its sequence of psychological ascent to the 'Perfect Man, the microcosm in whom the One is manifested to Himself."10 In his Bozels of Wisdom Arabi explains: "When you know yourself, your 'I'ness vanishes and you know that you and God are one and the same."11
Arabi's poetic usage of erotic language to signify the relationship of the soul with God set the tone for much of medieval Sufism. Poetry became a favorite medium of expression, the imagery sometimes becoming so sensuous that it is difficult to distinguish whether the "Beloved" being referred to is heavenly or earthly. For the Sufis, this made little difference, since they believed that "'Whether it be this world or that/Thy love will lead thee yonder at the last!"12
The most important of the Sufi poets is Jalaluddin Rumi (d. 1273). Born to a noble family in Bactria (located in modern Afghanistan), he settled in Asia Minor (Iconium) where he taught, founded the Mevlevi Order (popularly known as the Whirling Dervishes), and wrote poetry in Persian.
Rumi was as much an esotericist as Arabi. He held that the teachings of the Qur'an are allegorical, having seven different meanings. The description of his search for God, which he gives in the following excerpt from one of his poems, reveals his gnostic and pantheistic convictions:
Cross and Christian, from end to end I
surveyed, He was not on the cross. I went to the idol temple, to the ancient
No trace was visible there.
I bent the reins of search to the Kaaba,
He is not in that resort of old and young.
I gazed into my own heart;
There I saw him, he was nowhere else,
In the whirl of its transport my spirit was tossed,
Till each atom of separate being I lost.13