The very early period of Islam witnessed it as a religion where reconciliation and harmony with people was being gently persuaded rather than being coerced into it. However, the undutiful rule of the Umayyad immediately following the first four caliphs created such political and social conditions that many Muslims adopted asceticism and a life of seclusion to seek peace of soul. Towards the end of the first century Hijri, there were many who moved beyond the life of ascetics and seclusion to contemplation, to vision and to ecstasy. The life of austerity and poverty, which was hitherto conceived essential for gaining access to paradise, came to be reconciled as an expression of devotion to God. Not only that, gradually the focus shifted from material wealth to the lack of desire for possession i.e. a true detachment from all worldly things. Most of them were, however, orthodox Muslims in their beliefs and practices. They had yet not distinguished spirituality from the religion and laid great emphasis on the teachings of the Holy Quran and traditions.
The Sufis in the period immediately after Prophet Muhammad spent their lives in fasting and in observing the rules of Sharia (the Islamic code of conduct), giving up the worldly pleasures- wealth, fame, feasts and women. They spent their time in solitude away from the society, seeking anonymity, hunger and celibacy. They usually lived on scanty food and wore little clothes. They were more concerned with the punishments and rewards for the infidels and the believers.
The early Caliphs conquered large areas, accumulated lot of wealth and became supreme political powers of their time. This resulted in many ancient centres of learning and particularly the traditional schools of mystical teaching also falling under their stronghold. Buddhism by that time was firmly rooted in the Central Asia that had come under the empire of Islam together with northwest India. These external contacts had their impact on various Sufi practices. They adopted and evolved a variety of practices (apparently different from the ritual prayers) to enhance their spiritual experiences and to attain the state of ecstasy.
This evolution of Sufi thinking was greatly influenced by many factors including emergence of Mutazilis-a rationalist group within Islam, Batinis-an esoteric group, Bisheriyas-an antinomian group, Christological sects like the Gnostics and Manicheans and the mystical groups like the Hermetics and Neoplatonists. Sufi mystics are reported to be visiting monasteries of Christian monks, studying their devotional literature and having discussions with them on spiritual aspects. Many Sufis claimed their teachings were known even before the advent of Islam. They believed that these were received and handed down from antiquity through various saints and prophets in the form of knowledge transmitted from heart-to-heart.
By the end of eighth century AD, Sufism had evolved to a great extent as an unorthodox way of realising the Truth. Some of the early great Sufis were Hasan of Basra, Wasil Ibn Ata, Abdullah Ibn Maymun, Ibrahim Ibn Adham, Rabia of Basra, Maruful Karkhi, Khabit, Abu Sulaiman Darani, Ahmad Ibn Harith al Muhasibi, Dhul Nun Misri, Abu Yazid Bistami, Hussain Mansoor Hallaj, Abu Said, Omar Khayyam, Sanai, Ibn Arabi, Maulana Rumi and Hafiz.
During the eighth to ninth century AD theosophical and Gnostic speculations started finding place in the thoughts of various Sufi Masters, such as, Maruful Kharki, Abu Sulayman ud Darani and Dhul Nun Misri. This was the period when works of Greek philosophers such as Pluto, Aristotle and Porphyry were translated and studied. This period witnessed a rationalistic movement, which influenced Sufism to take a new form and absorb in it the characteristic features of theosophy, Gnosticism and Pantheism. Dhul Nun Misri was a learned person, who often experienced conditions of ecstasy. He considered devotional music to be a divine influence, which could help one attain unto the God. He is credited by Jami in Nafhat ul Uns to be the first person to profess the tenets of Sufism. Abu Yazid al Bistami was one of the greatest Sufi Masters of the ninth century AD, who was the first one to speak about the reality of Fana i.e. annihilation or merger of one's identity completely with the God. The pantheistic features of Sufism are attributed to Bayazid. Thus in the ninth century AD, the Sufis recognized that spiritual progress couldn't be achieved by following Sharia alone. It was necessary for guiding their conduct, but not enough. They started adopting various spiritual practices over and above Sharia, known as Tariqat (the path). They considered following Shariat and Tariqat essential to reach the Haqiqat (the Truth).
In the later centuries, Sufism was also greatly influenced by the broad mindedness of the Kashmiris, a composite of Hindu-Muslim culture, especially in the 15th century AD. It was during this time that Sufism came to be influenced by other religious beliefs as well.
The ideal of life was considered to purify the soul, have love, regard and trust in the humanity and to achieve a perfect harmony of co-existence. There appeared a close resemblance between the lifestyles of Sufis and Hindu saints as well as Buddhist monks.
It is therefore evident from the ongoing discussions on Sufism that the Sufis have been in existence since ancient times and Sufism is much older than Islam. Sufism as seen today has evolved as a synthesis of various thoughts. The advent of Islam, with the proclamation of Prophet Muhammad of the unity of the Supreme Being i.e. there is one God, had the greatest influence on the Sufis of post-Islamic period.
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