The History of Islamic Piety Before Sufism, Christopher Melchert (University of Oxford)
Paul Webley Wing (Senate House) Room: Wolfson Lecture Theatre
10 Thornhaugh Street, Russell Square
London WC1H 0XG
Christopher Melchert, University of Oxford
Sufism itself is widely defined as Islamic mysticism, particularly the form that took shape around the Baghdadi master al‑Junayd (d. 298/911?). Biographers of the early 11th century c.e. worked out a spiritual lineage for Sufism going back to the Companions of the Prophet. The immediate forbears of the Sufis they identified as eighth- and ninth-century renunciants known as zuhhād, nussāk, and ‛ubbād. They underwent austerities, devoted extraordinary amounts of time to qur’anic recitation and prayer, and generally cultivated a solemn attitude toward life. Some spoke of thinking often and steadily of God, but the ideas of mutual love and mystical union were yet to come. A few wore wool, but express references to ṣūfīyah before the later ninth century usually have to do with marginal, disreputable figures not identified as forbears by the later Sufi biographers. Modern research has largely confirmed that Sufism grew out of this earlier, ascetic tradition.
Pious objections to austerity began to be raised in the last third of the eighth century. Staying up all night and spending all day in the mosque were impractical now that the Muslims were no longer a small élite supported by tribute but rather made up most of the population. In the mid-ninth century there arose a mystical trend, identified in Iraq with persons called Sufis. They talked of reciprocal love between themselves and God and found God to address them through things of the world. Their programme was notably for specialists only. By the end of the century, something like classical Sufism had developed in Baghdad, from which it would spread and absorb other pious movements over the next two centuries.
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