The growth of Sufism (from suf, Arabic for wool; possibly referringto woolen robes worn by early ascetics) was another important development in thehistory of Islam. The great Sufi orders or brotherhoods (tariqa) werefirst established in the twelfth century by scholars disillusioned in theirsearch for Truth through the intellectual application of the austere practicesadvocated by the various schools of Islamic doctrine. A belief in the oneness ofman with God is central to Sufism. Sufis seek to achieve a personal communionwith God during mystic moments of union brought about by various methods,including meditation, recitation of sacred phrases, breathing exercises,dancing, hymn singing, music, and physical gyrations.
Sufi religious life centers around a learned religious leader or spiritualguide referred to as shaykh (in Persian, pir) whose mysticalteachings guide students (murids) along the path (tariqa) thatleads each to the ecstacy of his own moment of intimacy with God. Relationshipsbetween the master and disciple are very close. Many famous Sufi shaykhattracted large bodies of followers, and the sites of their brotherhoods becamenot only renowned spiritual institutions, but also popular social and culturalcommunity centers providing medical, educational, and welfare services,including soup kitchens for the poor and hungry. These centers oftentimesamassed considerable wealth from gifts from pilgrims and from endowments (awaqf;singular, waqf), an important institution providing community socialservices. With wealth they acquired social and political power. This building ofa sense of an alternative community within Sufism threatened the status ofestablished religious authorities (ulama), undermining theirinstitutionalized perceptions of an universal, unified Islamic community (ummah)following the Shariah, the "straight path" of Islamic law.The orthodox ulama initially declared Sufism heretical, but over time came totolerate it as long as its adherents abided by Islamic laws.
Sufi practices are found today among both Sunni and Shia communities,although it tends to be more widespread among Sunnis, perhaps because Shiaattach great value to the intercession of saints and most Shia embrace mysticismand encourage emotional responses to God and to Shia martyrs, especially thoseconnected with the tragedy of Karbala which is commemorated on Ashura, the 10thday of Moharram, when dramatic recitations, passion plays (taziya) andstreet processions, which include self-flagellation, take place.
Sufis describe their personal experiences in a vast variety of poeticexpression. The poetry of the Sufis is considered the best in the Persianlanguage, and among the most notable of all poetic styles. Particularly honoredare Sadi and Hafiz of Shiraz in Iran, and Baydil from the Persian-speakingMoghal court of Delhi. Universally acclaimed Afghan Sufi poets include Ansari(eleventh century) and Jami (fifteenth century) of Herat, Sanayi of Ghazni(twelfth century) , and Rumi of Balkh (thirteenth century), the founder of theorder of whirling dervishes, whose Mathnawi is considered by many to bethe greatest poem ever written in Persian.
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