In its general meaning mysticism is the name of “a person’s taking a stand against the world and searching for the truth within himself.” In a sense, it is the common aspect of all belief systems and philosophical schools. Together with differences of attitude, there is a mystical understanding in all systems. Sufism is the name of the path to attaining Islamic spiritual life and spiritual maturity. Sufism is a part of Islam’s contemplative, conscious and cultural heritage.
Islamic Sufism is the path of worship, virtue and ego training described in the Quran as “tazkiya (purification),” “taqwa (piety)” and “tabattul (renouncement)”. For this reason, like other Islamic sciences, it appeared in the Islamic 2nd and 3rd centuries as a branch of knowledge with method and aim. First, it developed as an ascetic life style, and later on it became systematized under the name of Sufism. Two important factors, one spiritual and the other social, played a role in the emergence of Sufism. The basic factor that enabled Sufism to appear is a spiritual one: the principles of Islam’s basic sources, the Quran and sunnah (practices of the Prophet). In the Quran and sunnah there are many messages directing people towards Sufi thought and ascetic life style. In fact, it is possible to list some of them as follows:
According to the Quranic statements, one of the Prophet’s (pbuh) prophetic duties was spiritual purification (Al-Jumua: 62/62). Allah gives the good tidings that those who purify their souls will attain salvation (Al-Shams: 91/9-10). He also informs that hard and constricted hearts lead to evil and do not allow for remembrance of Allah (Al-Zumar: 39/22), and that the heart which will be useful in the afterlife is the sound one (Al-Shuaraa: 26/88-89). Indicating that whoever teaches the Quran must be devout (Al-i Imran: 3/79), Allah says that it is necessary to turn to Him fully repeating His name (Al-Muzzammil: 73/8). The Quran indicates that people with faith love Allah very much (Al-Baqara: 2/165) and that this love is mutual; in other words, Allah loves His servants and His servants love Him (Al-Maida: 5/54). The word remembrance (dhikr) is mentioned in 254 places in the Quran; the reason it is mentioned so often is to point out that man should not forget Allah. These types of commands and messages in the Quran are the principles that form the basis for Islamic spiritual life and enable the formation of Sufi thought. It is possible to multiply evidence of Islamic spiritual life from the Quran and to increase them in a way to support every Sufi term. However, here I want to point out that Islam made mandatory the appearance of this kind of system from within its own constitution and that I call this the spiritual factor.
When we turn our focus to the time of Prophet Muhammad and examine his life, we see pure examples of Islam’s spiritual life and ascetic and Sufi existence. The Prophet’s leaving his home and family, before revelation came, to seek seclusion in the Mt. Hira and his going into retreat on the last ten days of Ramadan resembles the isolated life in Sufism called arba’in (penitence for 40 days) or halwat (solitude).
The Prophet’s whole life is full of spiritual experiences of retreat, contemplation and asceticism. Even though he was a prophet and head-of-state, he did not hesitate to mend tears in his clothing, ride a mule, wear clothing made from wool or animal hair, and associate with slaves; even in his most difficult times and most constricted moments, he always helped and supported others. He never exhibited weaknesses like becoming angry, getting revenge or damning others for his ego. He showed how much he had purified and trained his ego with Allah’s help.
Describing worship with the word “ihsan (gift)” and expressing it as “fulfilling servanthood as if you saw Allah,” the Prophet lived faith as a gift and tried to make his companions conform to that model throughout his lifetime. His distinguished companions, from the oldest to the youngest, became students in the Muhammadan school, and overcoming the obstacle of their egos, they showed that they were ready to sacrifice everything for Allah, His Messenger and Islam. In particular, the companions known to have been trained at the suffa (the place next to the Prophet’s masjid in Medina) who had no worldly interests were persons who can be considered representatives of the Sufis during the time of Prophet Muhammad.
After the breakdown of the otherworld-world balance of spiritual life taught in the Quran and sunnah and actively lived by the companions, which is described as “asceticism and piety,” and after it appeared in a manner in which the world overshadowed the afterlife, it was systematized as a counter measure. For the life style based on the principles of the Quran and sunnah was damaged by various means after the time of Prophet. The most important cause of damage to ascetic and spiritual life was the social prosperity and rise in living standards that accompanied conquest. This tendency was met with concern by religious segments of the people. Yearning for the ascetic life of the time of Prophet Muhammad increasingly grew and spread. Some people who had evolved in regard to asceticism and piety became uncomfortable with the attitude of state officials and the wealthy, who became immersed in this world and indifferent to the afterlife, and gave themselves fully to asceticism. Thus, the ascetic spiritual life found in the essence of the Quran and the sunnah was systematized as a reaction towards worldly obsessions.
The work, The Book of Asceticism, and other Sufi books were as influential in the systemization and spread of the ascetic life as was the behavior of the first ascetic Sufis.
Taking their place among Islamic institutions as a branch of knowledge and life style, asceticism and Sufism led members of this field to look for evidence in the Quran and hadiths (sayings of the Prophet) for confirmation of their view, life style and thoughts. Actually, in the formative period of Islamic sciences and Islamic sects, all schools and Islamic institutions gave great importance to expounding Quranic verses along the lines of their own views and to finding evidence in Quranic verses and hadiths to confirm their ideas. If there was no such meaning in the verses and hadiths, they tried to make a forced interpretation to that effect. Even members of sects and thought systems deemed to be heretical felt it necessary to do this to prolong their existence. Thus, a system based on reason and opinion was added to expostulation of verses and hadiths originally based on oral transmission. This was called the “comprehension” method. Sufis added a third method based on their ideas and life styles, their spiritual experiences and their mystical discoveries. This third method called “Ishari (inspirational sign)” is Sufi expostulation and commentary of verses and hadiths. In this respect, Sufis’ interest in the Quran and hadiths is of two kinds:
- For the reason that, like all Islamic sciences, the source of Sufism is the Quran and sunnah.
- Because looking at verses and hadiths with an approach different from other sciences, they have brought the “inspirational sign” method of interpretation and commentary.
While the Sufis’ interest in hadiths in early periods was in the form of evaluating the hadiths and their transmission as vehicles of advice, later it appeared in the “inspirational sign” understanding and commentary form. The inspirational sign method of expostulation of Quranic verse began before that of hadiths. The first writer of commentary based on Sufi experience that we know of today is al-Hakim al-Tirmidhi. The path he began was continued by Sufis like Kalabadhi, Konawi and Ismail Haqqi Bursawi.
There are many more hadith commentaries written by Sufis directed towards practical Sufism than there are those written giving weight to Sufism’s theoretical and intellectual aspect. Generally remaining bound to the forty hadith tradition, Sufis compiled forty hadith collections and commentaries, but they also wrote interpretation for single hadiths as well.
For the entire text, please see Yilmaz, Hasan Kamil, Tasavvufi Hadis Serhleri ve Konevinin Kirk Hadis Serhi (Commentaries on Mystical Hadith and the Forty Hadith Commentary of Konevi), IFAV, Istanbul, 1990