Islam Revival - Part 3

Article Index

THE SUFI ORDERS

Charismatic and/or devout shaikhs (often possessing pronounced psychic powers) frequently attracted large followings. These gatherings of initiates constituted brotherhoods, or communities, growing around the residence of the shaikh. Gifts from lay supporters enabled the members of these budding monasteries to devote all of their time to spiritual concerns. Succeeding generations would highly venerate the founders of the orders as saints (their tombs becoming monastery focal points), and the successors to the headship of the orders would either be through family line, or by election. Additionally, disciples who achieved a high level of initiation would often bring their masters teachings to new areas, where they would attract disciples of their own, and found new sub-orders. In this way, from the twelfth and thirteenth centuries onward, Sufi orders spread throughout the Islamic world.

The two most important Sufi orders are the Qadiri Order, founded by Abd al-Qadir (d. 1166) in Baghdad, and the Shadhili Order, whose founder, al-Shadhili (d. 1258) lived in Alexandria, Egypt. The Qadiri are known for their moderation, while the Shadhili are more given to extravagance and emotion. An important order in India is the Chishti, founded in the thirteenth century. As would be expected, it bears several marks of Hindu influence.

Sufi orders differ from Roman Catholic orders in that they are not under the control of an outside authority and also in that they often do not require celibacy.15 The chief differences between the orders themselves involve variations in ritual and litany (dhikr), and also in attitude (e.g., orthodox/unorthodox; militant/tolerant). Professor AMA Shustery affirms that the current number of Sufi orders reaches above 175.16

In addition to the established orders, itinerant, independent fakirs, reminders of Sufism's less organized days, persisted throughout the medieval period, and continue down to the present day. They have been described as" 'holy fools,' spiritual ecstatics who were also social eccentrics, openly flaunting the norms of acceptable behavior...."17

During the period spanning the sixteenth through the eighteenth centuries, the Sufis reached the height of their influence in the Islamic world. The number of Muslims affiliated with Sufi brotherhoods at that time has been estimated to have been anywhere from 50 to 80 percent of the total population.18 The Sufis were also Islam's greatest missionaries during these centuries.