Excerpts from the foremost Orientalist, Rumi and Islamic Studies scholar par excellence, Reynold .A. Nicholson's book 'Sufism: The Mysticism of Islam'.
The Rise Of Sufi Orders
Sufi Orders began to form in the 12th and 13th centuries centering around a master founder and stressing companionship (Suhbah, fellowship) as essential to the Sufi spiritual path.
This was the time of the terrible Mongol invasions when the 'Abassid Caliphate in Baghdad was overthrown. Sufism was one of the forces that helped prevent the downfall of Islam. It helped convert the conquerors and had a stabilizing influence on the community during those troubled times. This period was actually Sufism's golden age.
In its first stages Sufism had been the prerogative of a limited spiritual elite. From the twelfth century onwards it succeeded in involving the Muslim masses on a large scale in its network of orders. Sufi hospices, (Zawiyas in Arabic, Khanaqas in Persian, Ribat in the Maghreb and Tekkes in Turkish) were founded all over the Muslim world from Morocco to Central Asia. The Sheikh of each order, a successor of the original founder, presided over the hospice. In this center he taught his disciples (Murids) and performed with them the Sufi rituals of Dhikr and Sama'.
There was an elaborate initiation ritual for the disciple when he was admitted into full membership (usually after three years). In this ceremony he received from the Sheikh a special cloak (Khirqa) which symbolized poverty and devotion to God. Sufis had no rule of celibacy and most were married. The orders received endowments from sympathetic rulers and rich citizens and some eventually became fabulously wealthy. Sufi orders had an extensive missionary outreach into Africa and into Southeast Asia where they are still very influential.
Each order developed its own specific set of techniques for its Dhikr and Sama', used by its members to attain to the ecstatic state. These rituals also had a social function, helping to unify people from widely varying backgrounds into a spiritual brotherhood.
The orders were thus a unifying force in society, drawing members from all social classes to their Dhikr and Sama' ceremonies as well as to their joyous celebrations of the anniversaries of the deaths of their founder ('Urs). They provided the masses with a spiritual and emotional dimension to religion which the hair splitting legalists could not supply.
The orders also established trade and craft guilds and provided hospices for travelers and merchants which were located along the great trade routes (such as the famous silk road). Between the 13th and the 18th century most Muslims belonged to some Sufi Tariqah.
Some Famous Sufi Orders
There are more than two hundred known Sufi orders. Some are local, others universal. Some are rural and others are urban.
THE QADIRIYAH - the oldest and most widespread order. It has branches all over the world loosely tied to its centre at Baghdad. It was founded in Baghdad by 'Abd al-Qadir Jilani (d.1166), considered to be the greatest saint in Islam. It later became established in Yemen, Egypt, Sudan, the Maghreb, Central Asia and India. The Qadiriya stresses piety, humility, moderation and philanthropy and appeals to all classes of society being strictly orthodox. It is governed by a descendant of al-Jilani who is also the keeper of his tomb in Baghdad which is a pilgrimage center for his followers from all over the world.
THE JILALIYA - a Qadiri branch in the Maghreb, worship al-Jilani as a supernatural being, combining Sufism with pre-Islamic ideas and practices.
THE NAQSHBANDIYA - was founded in Central Asia in the thirteenth century in an attempt to defend Islam against the ravages of the Mongol invasions. It later spread to the Indian subcontinent. The Naqshbandis tried to control the political rulers so as to ensure that they implemented God's will. They were politically and culturally active, the great poet Mir Dad (d.1785) belonged to this order. They were also connected to trade and crafts guilds and held political power in the 15th century in Central Asia and in Moghul India. A Naqshbandi branch, the Khaltawiyah, had an important part in efforts to modernise the Ottoman Empire during the 18th and 19th centuries.
The Naqshbandiya developed mainly as an urban order with close links to the orthodox hierarchy. They recite their Dhikr silently, ban music and dance, and prefer contemplation to ecstasy. Their "middle way" between extreme asceticism and extreme antinomianism seemed acceptable to the orthodox hierarchy. They have been involved in underground movements against Soviet rule in Central Asia and supported the Afghan Mujahedin against the Russians.
THE MAWLAWIYAH - this order was founded by Jalal al-Din Rumi (d.1273, called Mawlana), the greatest Sufi poet who wrote in Persian. Their rituals are aesthetically sophisticated, and their Sama' is famous for its exquisite combination of music, poetry and whirling dance (in the West they are called "Whirling Dervishes") which transports them into the trace like state.
The Mawlawiya were especially attractive to the educated elite of the Turkish Ottoman Empire and were widespread in Anatolia where they had close links with the authorities.
THE BEKTASHIYA - a syncretistic order whose ritual and beliefs are a mixture of Shi'ism, Orthodox Christianity and gnostic cults. By the sixteenth century the Bektashis were the order of the famous Janissary corps, the elite military unit of the Ottoman Empire. Their magic-like rituals appealed to the illiterate masses of Anatolia. Their clergy were celibate, they practiced ritual confession and communion and had a trinitarian concept of God similar to that of the 'Alawis.
THE TIJANIYA - founded by al-Tijani in 1781 in Fez, Morocco, extended the borders of Islam towards Senegal and Nigeria and founded great kingdoms in West Africa. They taught submission to the established government and their influence is still an important factor in these countries where it is associated with conservative businessmen.
THE DARAQUIYA - was founded in the early 19th century by Mulay 'Arabi Darqawi (d. 1823) in Fez in Morocco. It was the driving force behind the Jihad movement which achieved mass conversions to Islam in the mixed Berber-Arab-Negro lands of the Sahel. It is influential today in Mali, Niger and Chad and still widespread in Morocco.
THE KHALWATIYA - was founded in northwest Persia in the 13th century and spread to the Caucasus and to Turkey. It was closely associated with the Ottoman Sultans and had its headquarters in Istanbul. It has also spread to Egypt and Indonesia.
THE SUHRAWARDIYA - was started in Iraq by al-Suhrawardi (d.1234) who stressed serious training and teaching. They have many adherents in the Indian subcontinent. They were very involved politically in Iraq and Iran during the Mongol threat, seeking to ensure the survival of Islam.
THE RIFA'IYA - was founded in the marshlands of southern Iraq by al-Rifa'i (d.1187). They stress poverty, abstinence and mortification of the flesh, and are also known as the "Howling Dervishes" because of their loud recitation of the Dhikr. They focus on dramatic ritual and bizarre feats such as fire eating, piercing themselves with iron skewers and biting heads off live snakes.
THE SHADILIYA - was started by al-Shadili (d.1258) in Tunis. It flourished especially in Egypt under ibn-'Ata Allah (d.1309) but also spread to North Africa, Arabia and Syria. It is the strongest order in the Maghreb where it was organised by al-Jazuli (d. 1465) and has sub-orders under other names. The Shadiliya stress the intellectual basis of Sufism and allow their members to remain involved in the secular world. They are not allowed to beg and are always neatly dressed. They appealed mainly to the middle class in Egypt and are still active there.
THE CHISHTIYA - were founded by Mu'in al-Din Chishti in Ajmer, India. His teaching was simple and the order is known for its fervour and hospitality. They helped in the islamisation of the Indian subcontinent.
THE SANUSIYA - are a military brotherhood started by al-Sanusi (d.1837) in Libya with political and military as well as religious aims. They fought against the colonising Italians and the former King of Libya was head of the order.
THE NI'MATULAHIYA - developed first in Persia and then in India as a specifically Isma'ili oriented Sufi order.
THE AHMADIYA - is the leading order in Egypt with its centre at Tanta. It was founded by Ahmad al-Badawi (d. 1276).
The orders helped spread Islam and their Sufi concepts in frontier lands such as India, Central and Southeast Asia, Sudan, Morocco and sub-Saharan Africa.