Neoplatonism Through the Renaissance

Islam’s Influence

What is Sufism?

Sufism is the mystical branch of Islam. Its classical period, or “Golden Age,” was from 1000 to 1500. Sufism is believed to have branched out from Baghdad to spread through Persia, India, North Africa, and Spain. The movement supported lodges and hospices for students, Sufi adepts, and others visiting on retreat. Sufi practitionerswere expected to go through different levels of spirituality. First were the “stations,” requiring acts of will and actions to suppress individual egos and attachment to and desire for worldly things. This would lead to God’s grace. Once God’s grace was granted it could be experienced individually as love, mystical knowledge, or the loss of ego consciousness.

Sufism began as a marginal practice but was accepted by Islamic leaders in the eleventh century, mainly through al-Gazali’s (1058–1111) efforts. Sufism then developed along distinct practical and intellectual directions. The practical paths required training in religious formulas and initiation into orders. It was accompanied by many fraternal and social organizations that continue in the present Islamic world.

The intellectual path developed philosophical terminology and absorbed Neoplatonic influences, culminating in Ibn Arabi’s (d. 1240) system of theosophy. Within that system, God was held to be the only being. Everything else in existence was the result of his self-manifestation. The individual who could identify with all of God’s self-manifestations would have the goal of becoming The Perfect Man, thus far attained only by the Prophet Muhammad. It is perhaps ironic that this intellectual path of Sufism developed when al-Gazali had embraced Sufism as part of a belief that knowledge and reasoning was not a reliable way to experience God.


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