Sufism in Islam is a widespread popular form of mystic or esoteric Islam.

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Sufism in Islam is a widespread popular form of mystic or esoteric Islam, in which adherents hope to gain a “realization of the Oneness of God.”1 Throughout the history of Islam, Sufism, in its many forms, has played an important role in the spread of the religion to both Arab and non-Arab lands.  One of the great branches of Sufism is the Khalwatiyya, which gained prominence in Anatolia, Egypt, Syria, and Azerbaijan. This tariqah, or path, is one rich in history, having many influential sheikhs and intricate practices.  In order to best understand the Khalwatiyya, it is necessary to investigate early Sufism and the rise of tariqahs.

A Sufi is “anyone who believes that it is possible to have direct experience of God and who is prepared to go out of his way to put himself in a state whereby he may be enabled to do this.”2  Sufism derives its doctrines and methods for the Quran and revelation of the Prophet Mohammed (peace be upon him).  It is a spiritual experience that often comes into conflict with mainstream Islamic consciousness because it infers that Knowledge cannot be gained only through the traditional means.  It is, however, ultimately in coherence with orthodoxy because it depends on the framework of traditional Islam.3   The fourth caliph, Ali, is widely regarded to be the original pioneer of Sufi Knowledge.  Another widely regarded teacher of Sufism is Hassan of Basra who has been greatly respected worldwide by Sufis since the early days of its formation.

“Early Sufism was a natural expression of personal religion.”4  The tariqahs formed on the basis of the relationships between the sheikhs and their disciples. The sheikh or director was known as the murshid and the disciple became known as the murid.  Two main ways emerged.  The Junaidi, was a more restrained form and, thereby, gained the approval of the orthodoxy.  The founder of this way was Abul-Qasim al-Junaid came to be known as “the Sheikh of the Way”. The second way was the Bistami and was based on intoxication of the soul and the expression of that intoxication.

Originally, in the 8th century A.D., the groups were loose and mobile but came to have foundations based around sites of retreat or rest-houses known as ribat.  By the 11th century these ribat had become organized and companionship (suhba) rules emerged.

As Turks gained dominance in the Arab world in the 11th century, they discouraged Sufism and regarded it with suspicion due to its appearance as a form of Shi’sm, to which they, as Sunnis, were obviously opposed.  Institutional development of ribat coincided with the development of madrasas (schools) that taught traditional Islam, which allowed for divergent paths to emerge. By this time, however, Sufism was still only appealing to the few because it was more highly regarded as a philosophical way to God than a popular expression of religion.

At the beginning of the 13th century the emergence of tariqahs came into being when a murshid’s circle of disciples became intent on perpetuating his name, teachings, mystical exercises, and rule of life.5  This was continued down the generations and with each successive generation it was not uncommon for a new tariqah to form with a new founder and slightly differing practices to obtain Truth.  Although they differed in their beliefs, founders of the tariqahs maintained links w/ traditional Islam as they still believed in the formal duties of Islam.

         The emergence of tariqahs was also aided by the Sunnis winning battles against Shiite dynasties (e.g. Buyids 1055, Fatimids 1171, and Mongols in Baghdad 1258) and the spread of Sufism through migration. Another important factor in this change to the formation of tariqahs was the adoption of the Shiite custom of bai’a (initiation w/ oath of allegiance to the sheikh).  This perpetuated each sheikh’s name and practices and was important in the passage of the tariqah down generational lines.

There have been three main stages of the development of Sufism.  The first was the spread of the khanaqah, which constituted a place for retreat and learning for the Sufis from the 8th to 11th century A.D.  Tariqahs were then established from the 11th to 14th century A.D.  The ta’ifa, in the 15th century then became a popular movement, whereby new foundations for tariqahs began to branch out and become “fully incorporated with the saint-cult.”6  This was a natural progression based on the veneration of the sheikhs that formed the tariqahs and pilgrims often fled to the sights of their tombs to pay homage, much like what is done in other religions.  This type of worship, however, is generally condemned by orthodox Islam as it is just once step away from polygamy.  As such, it is no wonder why many orthodox sheikhs protested the existence of Sufism. Nonetheless, Sufism gained widespread popularity among common people in the Ottoman Empire and beyond.

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The Khalwatiyya is an important early foundation for unique tariqahs, different in thought and exercises which carried the message of Sufism throughout the Islamic world.7 The Khalwatiyya is a tariqah of the Junaidi Way and claimed itself to be Sunni. This allowed for its spread to be less contested than other tariqahs in the Middle East.  The name of this tariqah stems from the Arabic, khalwa, meaning retreat or isolation in a solitary place.7  The founder of the Khalwatiyya is widely regarded to be Umar al-Khalwati who died in 1397.  His master was Mohammed ibn Nur al-Balisi and was known as ...

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