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The Roots of Tasawwuf

The first manifestation of tasawwuf among Muslims was the ascetic tendency to avoid worldly attachments. This acetic tendency was in evidence during the early days of Islam among the Companions and Successors and was given further impetus by the increasing affluence and prodigality resulting from the spoils pouring into the treasury from the lands being conquered in the course of the wars of conquest. Theories regarding the influence of Christian monks, the pious Manichaeans or Hindu yogis are mere speculation backed by no evidence. There is ample ground for encouraging an attitude of apathy towards worldly attachments in the teachings of the Holy Prophet (PBUH) as well as in the verses of the Qur’an, which make allusions to the forgiveness of sins and heavenly rewards. Such assertions preclude the possibility of any external influence and render all similarities into cases of mere coincidence. The insistence by certain western scholars on establishing a non-Islamic origin for Sufism is based on the belief that Islam is incapable of providing fertile soil for the growth of mystical tendencies. To the contrary, there are numerous examples in the teachings and practices of the Holy Prophet (PBUH) which provide instances of Islamic asceticism. The accounts of the de facto ascetic lifestyles of the Holy Prophet (PBUH) and his companions, the emphasis placed on detachment which characterizes a major part of the Qur’an and prophetic traditions, and the lofty status accorded to the Ahl al-Suffah, the poor among the Companions in Medina, provide ample ground for the rise of ascetic tendencies among Muslims. Further evidence may be sought in such verses of the Qur’an which refer to the fact that the faithful believe in the unseen (Baqarah, 2: 3), that God is closer to man than his jugular (Qaf, 50: 16), that on the Day of Resurrection the faces are turned towards God (Qiyamah, 75: 22), that the divine trust was offered to the heavens and man was the only one to accept it (Ahzab, 33: 72), that there is a group of people who are the object of God’s affection and who also love Him (Ma’idah, 5: 54), that whithersoever one turns there is the face of God (Baqarah, 2: 115), as well as a number of well known hadiths such as the one regarding man’s heart being in between God’s two fingers, or another which refers to God being present in the heart the faithful. All these are indications that Islam provides ample ground for the fostering of ascetic tendencies resulting in such phenomena as tasawwuf. 

The Sufis themselves provide parallels from the Qur’an and Hadith as a means of providing an Islamic foundation for their states and stations. Sufis view of the Holy Prophet (PBUH) as the perfect role model and their asceticism and aversion to worldly attachment, which they refer to as Muhammadan poverty – as opposed to `Isawite poverty – as well as the tradition of wearing woollen clothes by the Companions and Successors all underline the groundlessness of western scholars’ claim regarding an external origin for Sufism, such as the view which claims Sufism to have received its impetus from Hindu practices. Another similar theory set forth by certain orientalists considers Sufism as the reaction of the Aryan race to its Semitic counterpart, a contention whose corollary would be for Islamic tasawwuf to have only originated in Iran, something which is in contradiction to external reality. Those who attempt to suggest a non-Islamic source for Islamic asceticism and tasawwuf loose sight of the fact that it is perfectly possible for a people who reaches a particular level of development to give birth to a phenomenon of similar nature arrived at by a previous society with the same level of maturity. The interesting point to note is that the bulk of these untenable theories were formulated in the 19th century by orientalists living in an era heavily influenced by Darwin’s theory of evolution. The result of this outlook as regarded religion and language was an urge to prove a single source for both. Of course, such a tendency has come to loose its attraction among the scientific community. As regards the sources of Islamic asceticism, apart from the sirah of the Holy Prophet (PBUH), it should be noted that the practice of the first four caliphs which was an example of frugality, the accounts of the lives of the likes of Abu Dharr Ghaffari, Hudhayfah b. Yaman, Salman Farsi, Khubab b. Arat, `Amir b. `Abd Qays and `Uthman b. Maz`un, the asceticism and humility of the Infallible Imams (PBUT) and their companions, or the Eight Ascetics (al-Zuhhad al-Thamaniya), including Rabi` b. Khaytham, Hasan Basri, Hiram b. Hayyan, `Mir b. `Abd Qays, Abu Muslim Khawlani and Aways Qarani are all examples of ascetic tendencies of the time of the Successors, which may be viewed as a form of protest to the extravagance and prodigality of the Umayyad era.

 source: Zarrinkoob , Abdol Hossein "Islam Entry" The Great Islamic Encyclopedia. Ed. Kazem Musavi Bojnourdi.Tehran: The Center of Great Islamic Encyclopaedia , 1989-, V.8 , pp.471

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