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The Great Iranian Sufi Masters of Khurasan

In the intervening period between the era of the tabaqat and that of the rise of major Sufi orders, there appeared three prominent Sufi masters, during the Ghaznavid reign, who met with the universal approval of the Sufi rank and file. These were Shaykh Abu ’l-Hasan Kharaqani and Shaykh Abu Sa`id Abu ’l-Khayr of Miyhanah, in Khurasan, and Shaykh Murshid Abu Ishaq Kazaruni, in Fars, whose disciples later established the eponymous Murshidiyyah Sufi order. 

Abu ’l-Hasan Kharaqani (d. 425 AH), in spite of his ostensible lack of knowledge regarding the sciences of his day, was, none the less, possessed of a profound insight into the secrets of the mystical path. He appears to have been an heir to the spirituality of Bayazid as well as a student of his views and states. He spent his youth as a wood carrier and a donkey-driver, while exhibiting a strong inclination toward spiritual practices and tariqah. According to Sam`ani, he first found God in the conversation with his donkey, i.e. in the course of his donkey-driving. The account of his reluctant meeting with Sultan Muhammad as well as that of Ibn Sina’s trip to visit with the Shaykh must be chalked up to the imagination of overzealous hagiographers. Accounts of his life and sayings are contained in the book of Nur al-`ulum, which in spite of a good deal of exaggeration is, none the less, an indication of his significant place in the history of Sufism. Kharaqani appears to have been predominantly under the state of qabd ((spiritual) contraction), unlike his friend the great Sufi master Abu Sa`id Abu ’l-Khayr, whose state is commonly characterized as one of bast ((spiritual) expansion), as is indicated in the accounts of his words and deeds which are marked by a sense of optimism and spiritual ecstasy. 

Abu Sa`id Abu ’l-Khayr, also known as the Shaykh of Miyhanah or Bu Sa`id of Mihnah, (d. 440 AH) spent his youth in the city of Sarakhs learning the customary sciences of his day. He attained to a high level of competency in the fields of fiqh and theology as well as exegesis and literature. However, his spiritual impulse compelled him to abandon the pursuit of the sciences of zahir. He exerted himself in ascetic practices which he took to the extreme. His assemblies and sermons attracted large followings in Miyhanah and Niyshabur. His views and his sama’ (spiritual audition) ceremonies roused the ire of the religionists, while his ever-increasing followers invoked the jealousy of his foes. As is implied in the account by `Awfi, towards the end of his life, he was treated by his disciples more as king than an ascetic and a spiritual guide. Kharaqani’s method is said to have been a combination of sukr and sahw, and his motto one of “honesty with God and patience with the people” (“al-sidq ma` Allah, wa ’l-rifq ma` al-khalq”). This resulted in his number of adherents being much larger than those of his rivals, a fact which roused the jealousy of the likes of Abu ’l-Qasim Qushayri, who conspired against him. Accounts of his life and spiritual states are contained in the two books of The States and Sayings of Shaykh Abu Sa`id and Asrar al-tawhid fi maqamat al-shaykh Abi Sa`id (The Secrets of Divine Oneness in the Stations of Shaykh Abi Sa`id), a good deal of which may be assumed to be exaggerated accounts by his disciples. 

Shaykh Murshid Abu Ishaq Kazaruni (d. 426 AH) resembled Abu ’l-Hasan Kharaqani in that he also spent his youth in the performance of menial jobs and laid claim to a direct succession to the spiritual essence (ruhaniyyat) of Abu `Abd Allah Khafif, in spite of the fact that he only met the latter toward the end of his life and received his teachings through the medium of his followers, hence the claim to have been heir to his spiritual essence. The accounts of his life and spirituality contained in the book of Firdaws al-murshidiyyah, though replete with hyperbole, implies a proselytizing passion for the propagation of Islam marked by an entrenched stand against the enemies, a tendency which continued to characterize his followers. 

These three shaykhs were viewed as the leaders of the Sufi movement of their day. They were followed by Shaykh al-Islam Khwajah `Abd Allah Ansari, also known as Pir-i Harat or Pir-i Hajat, (d. 483 AH) who passionately continued the task of promoting Sufi ideology, in spite of the fact that his words were more in line with the Sufi principles of his day – which advocated a policy of disengagement from the worldly conflicts – than his actions. His Manazil al-sa’irin as well as his commentary on Tabaqat al-sufiyyah of `Abd al-Rahman Sulami, in the Harawi dialect (Persian), is an indication of his profound insight into tasawwuf as an independent science. Also of special significance is his commentary on Kashf al-haqa’iq of Maybudi, which points to Ansari’s encompassing knowledge of Sufi concepts as well as his depth of mystical experience, a fact which is in stark conflict with his title of Shaykh al-Islam, which may be an indication of his belief in the need for adherence to the rules of shari`ah. 

During the same period, two prominent Sufis, Shaykh Ahmad Ghazzali (d. 520 AH) and `Ayn al-Qudat Hamadani (d. 525 AH), while advocating the necessity for remaining a practitioner of shar`i practices, spent a great deal of effort in elaborating the subtleties of the mystical path. They, however, differed fundamentally with Khwajah `Abd Allah Ansari, a fact that underlines that Sufism should not be viewed as a single, homogeneous movement. In sum, the era of tabaqat and the ensuing prior up to the rise of major Sufi orders, was marked by the introduction into mysticism of such concepts as sukr, sama’, shath, malamat, and antinomian tendencies, all of which, on the one hand, led to an ever-increasing attitude of suspicion on the part of religionists and, on the other hand, resulted in an ever closer alignment between tasawwuf and `irfan, i.e. delving into ma`rifah. In fact, the survival of Sufism was only made possible by the efforts of Abu Hamid Ghazzali (d. 505 AH) through his effective harmonization of shari`ah and tariqah, at a time when the memory of Hallaj was still fresh in the minds of religionists. Ghazzali’s works managed to bring legitimacy to Sufism, especially in the eyes of Ash`arite and Shafi`ite faqihs, and to pave the way for the continued development of Sufism in the Islamic world.

 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.474- 475

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