On the path to God…with company

Sufis and Jesuits: Religious Orders in Islam and Christianity

There are numerous scholastic tracts in Arabic on the theory and practice of Sufism (tasawwuf) or what would be called in Christian terms, Muslim ascetical and mystical theology, For most Muslims the reality  of Islam was, however, the tarîqa or brotherhood into which Islam’s ascetics, the Sufis, began to assemble themselves. As in Christianity, the earlier eccentric “hermit” saints of Islam came to Sufism as a social enterprise, with the variety of community houses that were the counterparts of the Christian monastery.

In Christianity the communal cenobitic life may have been more sustainable in the depths of the wastelands than that of the solitary hermit, but the koinobion soon developed its own moral character, with obedience to a superior, and later to a rule, as its most highly prized virtue. In Islam, Sufis seem originally to have come together under one roof chiefly by reason of the attraction of a single master, with the master and his circle often moving from place to place. In the end, these circles became more stationary, with a fixed abode variously called a khânqâh, ribât or zâwiya, a tekke among the Turks and a dargâh in the Persianized Sufi circles of India.

The khânqâh, the Sufi convent or lodge, first appears in an Islamic religious context in the tenth century. It had its origins on the eastern edges of Iran—the word itself is Persian—where it may have owed something to residences for the Manichean elect. The word, and perhaps the institution was borrowed by Islamic sectaries. By the early eleventh century, however, the Sufi Abu Sa‘id (d. 1048) was already drawing up rules for Sufis living in a khânqâh, and in short order the khânqâh was a recognized institutional ingredient in what was emerging as normative Sunni Islam.

The charter documents for the founding of khânqâhs indicate that they were intended as places where Sufis could live and pray and pursue their vision of a mystical vocation in common, under a rule that stipulated their behavior and a shaykh who guided their spiritual progress. As it evolved, the khânqâh became a more public institution, with the characteristics of a Friday mosque, a minaret and a pulpit for Friday sermons, so that what began simply as a Sufi residence with an oratory or prayer-hall eventually became a mosque with boarding facilities for Sufis. And, as the “normalization” of Sufism proceeded in Sunni Islam, they became madrasas as well: by the mid-fourteenth century, khânqâhs had spaces where sharî‘a was taught.

The point of Sufi associations, like their counterpart in Christianity and Judaism, was essentially the imitation of and instruction by a recognized holy man. In the tenth century communal Sufism was a vocation for the few and the elite. There was no question at first  of rules or a formal way of life. Tasawwuf  was everywhere different, everywhere centered upon a recognized master whose task was to show forth the Sufi’s intimate union with God rather than to explain or define it. As Ghazali was later to remark, the Sufi life “cannot be learned but only achieved by direct experience, ecstasy and inward transformation…”

By the thirteenth century, the system had become transformed and the elitist aspects of the movement yielded to a more general membership. The teaching had become institutionalized into a doctrine and method, and the life of those living in the community was governed by a rule, as the influence of the Muslim legal tradition began to manifest itself. Tarîqas now had formal identifications which were validated by a chain of masters going back to the holy man who was its “founder” or better, its anchor since it is transparently clear that no one of those early “friends of God” intended “founding” anything.  Finally, in the fifteenth century, under the Ottomans, tasawwuf  becomes a fully articulated system of distinct and characteristic “religious orders,” both popular and corporate in character, with an emphasis on both “membership” and the now full-blown cult of the saintly founder.

As in the case of Christianity, the rule governing a community of ascetics can be either constructed, as it was in the case of a Basil or a Benedict, or else, as in the case of the Franciscans, inspired directly by the living example of the founder. Sufi orders almost universally attempted to follow the second paradigm. The sainted man who stood at the head of the file of Sufis was not so much a founder, as has been said, as a paragon or paradigm around whom followers collected in the original khânqâhs in the hope of sharing, by association and imitation, his baraka, the blessing or grace that he possessed. The rule evolved from an attempt to recollect and emulate at least his behavior. But two things must be noted. The rule did not come from the saint, as it did in Christianity, and it required no one’s formal approval or approbation. In Christianity, there was no “order” until it was approved, and in the West by the highest authority, the bishop of Rome.

If the founder of a Christian religious order possessed a baraka, as they were generally thought to since the Church later formally canonized almost all of them as saints, the best that could be hoped for was that it might be shared through the agency of the rule. But the charisma disappeared with the saint: Saint Francis of Assisi was followed by Brother Elias among the Franciscans and Saint Ignatius of Loyola by Father Diego Lainez as the head of the Jesuits.  In Islam it was quite otherwise. The saint’s baraka was a spiritual gift that could be transferred, like episcopal powers in Christianity and those of the Shi‘ite Imam in Islam (which may in fact have influenced the evolution of this Sufi belief), to a designated successor. Thus the baraka of the founding father passed down to his order, preeminently to his successor as shaykh or master who served as its mediator, but also in a lesser but no less real degree to all the members of the tarîqa. Its passage was marked by a series of rituals and guaranteed by the silsila or spiritual chain that passed in an unbroken fashion from the founder to the newest recruit.

Both the baraka of the founder and the rule that attempted to capture it in practice were institutionalized within the convent, and particularly in what might be called the mother house of the order. It was in that zâwiya, as it was most often called, that the sainted founder was ordinarily buried,  his tomb was venerated, and his spiritual descendants carried on the ascetical and mystical practices he had begun. This and the other Sufi convents were built and supported, like the mosques and madrasas of Islam, by the type of pious foundation called waqf, and the externals at least of the life prescribed for the Sufis who dwelled there were set down in the charter document.

The Sufi initiate took an oath of allegiance (bay‘a, the same word used for the pre-Islamic allegiance oath to the tribal shaykh and then to the earliest caliphs) to the founder of the order and to his present day earthly successor and deputy, the current link in the spiritual chain (silsila) that led uninterrupted back to the saintly founder. The initiate in a Christian religious order made three permanently binding vows to God, one of personal poverty, one of celibacy, and one of obedience to the rule, as expressed in the will of the superior. It is precisely in this matter of the oath/vow that the difference between the Christian monk and the Sufi becomes clearest. The latter swears allegiance to an individual, the former to a rule, or an ideal. Even more telling, perhaps, is the fact that the Sufi initiate receives, again at the bay‘a, the wird or prayer formulary proper to his order. Part of the wird is like the monks’ “office” and will be recited in common and in public at the dhikr of the tarîqa. But part too is personal and secret. The secret formulary is imparted to the Sufi initiate, is expanded by degrees, and will become complete on the occasion of his final oath of allegiance. Members of a zâwiya met regularly for a “session” (majlis) and which, in addition to the prescribed liturgical prayers (salât), the dhikr and the wird were performed, the latter often with the help of a Muslim “rosary,” a beaded cord called a subha. Sometimes there was a common meal eaten either in silence of while listening to spiritual reading.     

Sufi tarîqas had an immense popular appeal in Islam, not least because they were a social and spiritual reaction to the increasingly clerical and legal character of what had come to be official Islam, which was dominated by a rabbinate with powerful economic, social, and political connections. Functionally, the Sufi orders filled many of the same roles as the Christian clergy generally in the medieval West. Like the diocesan or local clergy of the Western Church, the Sufi “brethren” (ikhwân) were drawn from and remained close to the local community and its people, and they offered, like their Western clerical counterparts, a variety of spiritual and corporeal services to their fellow Muslims. Their dhikrs in town and countryside provided an ongoing liturgy with an emotive, dramatic and mystical content not present in the daily salât, which was, in essence, a private devotion. And finally, the tombs of holy Sufis became a rich source of blessings (barakât) and graces (karamât). What the dead saint delivered from beyond the tomb, so too could the living shaykh of the tarîqa as the recipient of the founder’s own charismatic karamât. Both were channels through which blessings and favors might flood to the ordinary Muslim and protectors against ills and tragedy. The Christian Church directed those blessings through the highly institutionalized and depersonalized sacramental system; Sufism accomplished the same end through its personalized and decentralized rituals celebrating the “friends of God,” both living and dead.

A Sufi order or tarîqa was essentially a collection of local chapters bound together by their common devotion to a single saintly founder, from whom they derived both their legitimacy and their spiritual privileges. The Western religious orders, monks, friars and clerks regular, all formed societies that were closely regulated within the Church they served, and many of them were, no less than the Church itself, international in scope. The Western Christian orders were legitimized by formal papal approval of their rule and organization and they were regulated by the norms of canon law; they were controlled from Rome through a Superior General who resided there and internally through visitations and general chapters.  Islam had no supreme spiritual authority like the Pope, nor did the tarîqas have elected officials. The shaykh’s authority was charismatic and permanent, not attributed and temporary, like that which prevailed in Christian monastic communities, and his jurisdiction was local. Muslim rulers, like the Ottoman sultans, who also claimed the title of caliph, attempted to control the tarîqas  by appointing a “shaykh of shaykhs” to serve as a liaison between them and the orders, but it was never successful. The shaykhs and their followers in the tarîqas were essentially a local phenomenon grounded in popular support, and though the government might squeeze the waqf endowments that supported them, it had no way to limit or undermine the tarîqas’ charismatic authority.

The Western Church could dispose its religious orders when and where it seemed good, to proselytize the non-believers in newly-opened lands, for example, as the Franciscans did in the New World and the Jesuits in the Far East, or to combat the Church’s enemies at home, as the Dominicans did the Albigensians in the south of France and relapsed Jewish and Muslim converts in Spain and as the Jesuits did Protestants in southern Germany. Indeed, the Jesuits, who took a particular fourth vow of obedience specifically to the Pope, were founded precisely to provide the Holy See with a rapid response force. The Sufi orders, on the other hand, though they generally recognized the political authorities under whom they lived, did not serve them, and their relations with Islam’s other spiritual elite, the ‘ulamâ’, were often antagonistic. The ‘ulamâ’ never explicitly condemned  the Sufis’ striving for a closer, more personal relationship with God—the Sufis’ link with the Prophet were perhaps too strongly forged—but the more conservative among them were often outspoken in their condemnation of Sufi practices, the dhikrs that included music and dance, for example, and the Sufis’ often extravagant veneration of the sainted dead.

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