The ascetic movement (I-II/VII-VIII). – Sufism emerges in early Islamic times as an ascetic movement, a reaction against the life of luxury and corruption at the courts of the Moslem Caliphs and princes enriched by recent Islamic conquests. It was also a fidelity protest calling for a return to the original Koranic message, against the worldliness and corruption of political Islam with its conquests and wars. A typical representative of this ascetic movement was al-Hasan al-Basrî (m. 110/728), the great preacher of Basra (present-day Bassora in Iraq).
He preached: conversion, renunciation of the world, the scrupulous observance of the religious law, the examination of conscience, the fear of the judgement of God, continual contrition etc.
These acetic themes will again be taken up and developed in the following centuries by the Sufis and will constitute one of the fundamental stages of the interior Sufi journey.
The way of love (II-III/VIII – IX) – It was a woman, the well-known mystic Râbi’a al-‘Adawiyya (m. 185/801) who introduced the theme of absolute love for God into the austere ascetic movement of Islam. She expresses in clear terms the experience of absolute and exclusive love for God alone, a love that demands the radical renunciation of everything of this world as well as all desire for reward (Paradise) and the fear of punishment (Hell) in the next life. “God is to be loved for himself and no other reason”, was her slogan. In the history of Sufism, there is short poem of hers in which she sums up all her experience of love for God: “I love you with two loves (hubb): one is the fruit of my passion and one is that of which you alone are worthy. The love of my passion causes me to be concerned only with the memory of you (dhikr), excluding all that is not You. The love of which you alone are worthy occurs when You remove the veils (kashf) so that I may see You (ru’ya). There is no praise for me in this (love) or in that, but to You goes all praise in this (love) and in that”.
Towards the mysticism of union (III-IV/IX-X) – The way of love, when followed in its extreme requirements, necessarily leads to union: the lover can desire only one thing, union with the Beloved, and this love is as deep as the love which gives rise to it – the love of God – and is great. New experiences and speculations about union with God increasingly develop in the centuries that follow. One of the chief representatives of that current was without doubt the Sufi and martyr al-Husayn b. Mansûr al-Hallâj (m. 309/922), who achieved a profound synthesis between personal experience and Sufi speculation. Developing the theme of man created in the image of God, al-Hallâj showed that the love of God is the centre of relations between God and man, since in God love is ‘the essence of his essence’. Love leads to union. This means that the ‘I’ of the Sufi must be completely absorbed by God, now understood as the only true agent above all and in all. On such a basis, al-Hallâj could exclaim “I am the Truth-Reality (haqq)”, an expression that caused his martyrdom which he accepted as a supreme sign of the truth of his mystical experience.
In fact, al-Hallâj carried the requirements of love to their extreme and logical consequences that had by then matured in Sufi circles: love requires that the lover and the beloved become one. For this reason, in the thrill of such an experience he could exclaim in his famous short poem: “I am the one Whom I love, and the One I love is me: we are two spirits living in a single body. When you see me, you see Him: and if you see Him, you see Us. But such a union is the fruits of God’s work alone”. Therefore, al-Hallâj never ceased to pray that God himself will be the one who makes him proclaim the true attestation of his Unity (tawhîd), which is not the fruit of human capability: “Make me one with you, O my Only One, in true attestation of your Unity (tawhîd): to this no human path can lead! I am a true witness (haqq), but only the Real (haqq) is a true witness (haqq) of the Real (haqq), clothing himself with Himself: between us there is now no separation! Behold how the all is illuminated with shining rays, sparkling, in the heartbeat of the lightening”.
The true proclamation of the divine Unity, in fact, involves a transforming presence in the heart itself of the human being who must somehow be assumed into the eternal self- proclamation that God makes of his own Unity. The problematic of the ‘true tawhîd’ continues to be, even if not always explicitly, a constant in the Sufi search throughout the centuries following the martyrdom of al-Hallâj.
But how can the Sufi enter into that act of ‘true proclamation of the divine Unity’? By himself, through his own ascetic power and the observance of the law?
Or by a grace and an encounter with God himself one on One, as al-Hallâj affirmed?
With what conditions? These were questions that weighed heavily on the Sufi experience throughout the centuries.
Sunni Sufism (IV-V/X-XI) – After the tragedy of al-Hallâj, the Sufi movement felt the need to re-examine its own experience in the light of Islamic orthodox tradition, Sunnism, and to become reconciled with it. Then there appeared the first manuals on Sufism, tracts and biographies, clearly apologetic in tome, to show that there exists a profound agreement between the Sufi experience and Islamic law (sharî’a), a law that must govern all that human behaviour believes and does.
The most important representative of that current was, without doubt, the great theologian ash‘arîta Abû Hâmid al-Ghazâlî (m. 505/1111) who, for his unquestioned orthodoxy, was nicknamed ‘The Proof of Islam’. Al-Ghazâlî intended to narrow down the Sufi experience to the limits allowed by Islamic orthodoxy and condemned all the exaggerations of those Sufis who, like al-Hallâj, were speaking of union with God in the most real sense of the word. However, behind the façade of rigid Sunni orthodoxy, its seems that al-Ghazâlî himself concealed an esoteric teaching, borrowed from various philosophical (especially Neo-Platonism) and religious (such as Illuminism, Iranism, Gnosticism currents etc.) sources. Some truths of the Sufi, he was saying, must not be exposed to the public, under pain of death. Nevertheless, it is important that al-Ghazâlî placed the love of God at the summit of the Sufi journey which, in turn, represents in its thinking the apex of the religious life of Islam. That love can only bring about a closeness (qurb) to God, understood as an imitation of the divine qualities, far from any sort of union with Him as was understood and proclaimed by the Sufi such as al-Bistâmî, al-Hallâj and others. In al-Ghazâlî we may note somewhat the game of appearing to be orthodox, far removed from the absolute sincerity of those ecstatic Sufis. (J.S.)