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The Truth About the Origins of Sufism as We Know It Today!

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Qalandar. From Nicolas de Nicolay Daulphinoys.



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"Mention social protest, rebellion and counter-cultural revolution and most Americans immediately conjure up some stereotypical image of the 1960s -- long hair, tambourines, strange clothes and lots of hallucinogens. Some Americans, no doubt, would like to stamp the whole anti-establishment movement as something made in the USA, another byproduct of American ingenuity sweeping the globe.

Ahmet Karamustafa, Ph.D., associate professor of Islamic thought and Turkish literature in Arts and Sciences, would beg to differ.

Those who think of hippies as an American icon might gain valuable insight, he suggests, by reading his treatise on the Qalandars, a 13th-century Islamic dervish movement that also favored tambourines and psychoactive drugs, not to mention drums and naked revelry.

Among dervishes, he explains, such bizarre anti-establishment behavior was considered an intensely spiritual act of pious self-denial, an outward sign of disdain for earthly societal norms. It's an intellectual tidbit that might prove useful to anyone seeking answers to social unrest in the '60s.

"I think we in the modern world are all a bit too arrogant at times," Karamustafa said. "We're much too quick to write off whole chapters of human history as intellectually unimportant or irrelevant, when in truth, we have much to learn from thinkers who came long before us. We don't realize it sometimes, but we are always reinventing the wheel."

A native of Turkey and a faculty member here since 1986, Karamustafa is a respected scholar who has traced the evolution of legal, spiritual and philosophical thought throughout the premodern Islamic world. He also is a sincere and thoughtful advocate for the intrinsic value to be gained by mining the intellectual riches of forgotten cultures.

"Ahmet Karamustafa is one of my Washington University colleagues whose intellectual companionship I miss dearly," said Engin Akarli, Ph.D., a former Washington University Islamic historian now at Brown University. "He can bring the Medieval Muslim mystics to us not only in their authentic words but also as people to whom we can relate as fellow human beings. This is because Ahmet makes an effort to understand them in their social contexts as well as in comparison with other people around the world in different times who had similar concerns and asked similar questions."

Offering a holistic view

Ahmet Karamustafa, Ph.D., traces the evolution of legal, spiritual and philosophical thought in Islamic cultures.
Ahmet Karamustafa, Ph.D., traces the evolution of legal, spiritual
                           and philosophical thought in Islamic cultures.

In his 1994 book, "God's Unruly Friends: Dervish Groups in the Islamic Later Middle Period, 1200 - 1500," Karamustafa tells of Barak Baba, who led about 100 dervishes into Syria in 1306. Baba, who made a point of thumbing his nose at authority, liked to wander around nearly naked, wearing only a red cloth around his waist and a reddish turban on his head. His turban sported buffalo horns protruding from either side.

Baba's dervishes were renowned for their "immoral" ways, which included consumption of illegal foods and drugs and failure to observe the ritual Islamic fast. Like the free-spirited flower children of this century, dervishes were castigated as no-account beggars, idiots, lunatics and impostors, both by contemporary church leaders and waves of subsequent religious scholars.

Karamustafa's research requires an intimate understanding of the Arabic, Persian and Ottoman Turkish languages. But he also is fluent in English, German and French and reads Azeri, Chaghatay and Uzbek." -- Gerry Everding

With the advent of the Ottoman empire, a development within Islamic mysticism emerged consisting of a complex system of initiation, which  set the stage for the emergence of organized Sufi orders. In other words, Sufism became "respectable" in order to be deemed acceptable by the new social order established by the state. Therefore, one can say that up until the middle of the fourth Islamic/tenth Christian century, a trace of genuine Sufism was still left, although this gradually disappeared and became forgotten. After that date, however, despite appearances and the often great popularity and widespread following of significant figures in Sufism in the lands of Iran beyond the borders of the school of Baghdad -- in particular one should cite the names of Farid al-Din `Attar, `Ayn al-Qudat Hamadhani, Suhrawardi, Ghazali, Ruzbihan, Jalal al-Din Rumi, `Abdu'llah Ansari, Najm al-Din Kubra and Ibn `Arabi (albeit in Spain) -- most of these Sufis were either slain, exiled or subjected to severe pressures by the religious authorities of the state.

In a word, one may say that upon the death of Junayd in 295/910, the expanse of gnostic Sufism (tasawwuf-i `arifana) was folded up and came to an end, and with the death of Ruzbihan Baqli three hundred years later in 606/1210, the flame of Sufism based divine love (tasawwuf-i `ashiqana) was snuffed out. What is left of Sufism today can be summed up in the poet's verse:

So togged up

in gild and lacquer

you'd never recognize it

if you saw it.

Many Sufis and scholars have treated these dervishes as mere 'proto-Sufis', or worse, as 'degenerate groups'.

"Hoping to correct such lack of understanding and ignorance, Karamustafa carefully unveils the practices of three derwish groups in particular,- the Qalandars led by Jamāl al-Dīn Sāvī(d. 1232-33); the Haydars led by Qutb al- Dīn Haydar(d. 1221-22) and the Abdāls led by Otman Baba- to explain and clarify for the reader the true nature of these unique Muslims, who by their very extraordinary behaviour attempted to provide a strong, if not harsh, criticism of generally accepted Islamic mores. The way Karamustafa sees it, the judgment of Fazlur Rahmān is to a large extent based on his "Sunni" prejudices. Islam as it was first presented to the world, was not so clearly enunciated by either Quran or Tradition. The Sunni may like to emphasize the worldly nature of the creed, demanding that institutions of marriage and employment be established and maintained by law. But a more careful examination of the demands of Islam makes it difficult to understand where exactly the priorities lie: whether the ideal was to live by the norms set by a Sunni `ijma or rather, turned away, towards a private rapport with God. In this study entitled God's Unruly Friends, Karamustafa, investigates the development and growth of what appeared to be a "a confused and amorphous dervish movement." He persuasively argues that it was, in fact, a set of clearly differentiated religious collectivities that maintained their distinct identities throughout the 13th. to 16th. centuries, in the heartlands of Islam, from Turkey to India. The raison d'etre of these dervish groups was primarily "a new renunciation;" undertaken in significant urban centers of the empire and inevitably protesting the existing worldly interpretations of Islam." -- Rizwi Faizer