Mysticism, history of

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-K050-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved March 24, 2019, from

7. Islamic mysticism

Scholars who distinguish sharply between mystical and prophetic experiences do not usually classify the prophet Muhammad as a mystic, although his experiences and certain texts in the Qur’an have lent themselves to later mystical interpretations. But Islamic mysticism seems to have first emerged on a broader scale as part of a reaction against the worldliness of the expanding Muslim empire, stressing deep personal devotion and an ascetic lifestyle in the quest for inner illumination and loving communion with God. The term ‘Sufism’, by which Islamic mysticism is generally known, may itself have been inspired by this lifestyle, since suf refers to the undyed wool worn as a sign of simplicity.

Rabi’ah (d. 801) ‘is generally regarded as the person who introduced the element of selfless love into the austere teachings of the early ascetics and gave Sufism the hue of true mysticism’ (Schimmel 1975: 38). Subsequent Sufi mysticism is love mysticism, and uses much of the same love imagery found in the Christian mystical tradition. The search for marifa (direct knowledge of God), however, sometimes led to seemingly unorthodox results. Abu Yazid (d. 875) introduced the notion of fana, the passing away of the empirical self, a crucial and sometimes controversial theme in later Sufi mysticism; his famous words ‘Glory to me, how great is my majesty!’ seemed to make a blasphemous claim to divinity. Al-Hallaj (854–922) was in fact put to death for blasphemy, after seeming to assert identity with God. Al-Ghazali (§4) was able to reconcile Sufism with orthodoxy by explaining the mystics’ sense of identity with God as a kind of passing illusion brought on by the intensity of the experience.

The pantheistic Sufism of Ibn al-‘Arabi (§5), though unorthodox, exerted a strong influence on the mystical poet Rumi (1207–73), who founded the Mevlevi darwish order, whose members engage in ritual swirling movements to induce states of intense religious devotion (the so-called ‘dervish dances’). After a long decline, Sufism has enjoyed a resurgence in the West in recent years (see Mystical philosophy in Islam).

Citing this article:
Payne, Steven. Islamic mysticism. Mysticism, history of, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-K050-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2019 Routledge.

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