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History of Sufism

Sufism has been a prominent movement within Islam throughout most of its history. It grew out of an early ascetic movement within Islam, which sought to counteract the worldliness that came with the rapid expansion of the Muslim community.

The earliest form of Sufism arose under the Umayyad Dynasty (661-749) less than a century after the founding of Islam. Mystics of this period meditated on the Doomsday passages in the Quran, thereby earning such nicknames as "those who always weep."

These early Sufis led a life of strict obedience to Islamic scripture and tradition and were known for their night prayers. Many of them concentrated their efforts upon tawakkul, absolute trust in God, which became a central concept of Sufism.

Another century or so later, a new emphasis on love changed asceticism into mysticism. This development is attributed to Rabi'ah al-'Adawiyah (d. 801), a woman from Basra who formulated the Sufi ideal of a pure love of God that was disinterested, without hope for Paradise or fear of Hell.

Other important developments soon followed, including strict self-control, psychological insight, "interior knowledge," annihilation of the self, mystical insights about the nature of man and the Prophet, hymns and poetry. This period, from about 800-1100 AD, is referred to as classical Sufism or classical mysticism.

The next important stage in Sufi history was the development of fraternal orders, in which disciples followed the teachings of a leader-founder. The 13th century is considered the golden age of Sufism, in which some of the greatest mystical poetry was composed. Important figures from this period include Ibn al'Arabi of Spain, Ibn al-Farid of Egypt, Jalal ad-Din ar-Rumi of Persia, and Najmuddin Kubra of Central Asia. By this time, Sufism had permeated the whole of the Islamic world and played a large role in the shaping of Islamic society.