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  The name ‘Sufi’ comes from the Arabic word suf (‘wool’). In the 8th century, the century following the death of Muhammad, an Islamic empire was established under a ruling dynasty, the Umayyads, which became associated with moral laxity and corruption. Some believers reacted against this decline in standards by practising a more austere lifestyle, including the wearing of garments made of rough wool (hence the name), partly in imitation of Christian monks and ascetics in Egypt and Palestine at that time.

Sufis are generally known as Muslim mystics, but Sufism is much more varied than that, even if mysticism has been a central strand. Its influence, especially in the spread of Islam, has been enormous, though the forms in which Sufism is found have not always been acceptable to either the ulama or modern reformers. The deep personal piety of these first Sufis caused them to concentrate on the inner life. At one level this led them to meet in groups for prayer, and in contrast to the routines of mosque worship they developed their own routines of rhythmic chanting, singing and dancing. This is still a feature of Sufi gatherings today. In particular, they chant repeatedly the 99 ‘names of God’ contained in the Qur\'an.

At another level, complex theories were developed about different states of the soul and how to attain them. The highest state was union of the soul with God. This is the basis of the claim that Sufis are mystics. The goal of union with God was controversial and to those outside the Sufi movement it was regarded as blasphemous. In one notorious case, in 922, a Sufi, al-Hallaj, was crucified for blasphemy. (As a result of his mystical experiences he had allegedly claimed, ‘I am the Truth’.) Eventually, partly under the influence of the great Muslim thinker, al-Ghazali (d. 1111), Sufism became tolerated at least as long as the Sufis moderated their more extravagant claims and remained within the framework of the shari\'a. At the same time Sufism took on the institutional form, which it retains today, of the Sufi orders or brotherhoods.

Certain individuals gained great prestige as spiritual teachers or guides. They are referred to as shaikhs. Their followers passed on their particular teachings and techniques, which then continued to be handed down to succeeding generations in a particular line of spiritual heritage called a silsila. Adherents of a particular silsila had their own meeting places, and gradually these came to form networks which could be purely local, regional or even international in scope. These are the Sufi orders, of which there are more than a hundred. On occasion an English nickname encapsulates a distinctive feature of a particular order, and this is certainly so with the ‘Whirling Dervishes’, the Mawlawiyya in Turkey.

Sufi centres often provided education, health care and accommodation for travellers. These could become large and socially powerful complexes, especially if built around the tomb of the order\'s founder, as in Konya. Others might be small, but associated with the tomb of a local spiritual leader, a person referred to in English as a ‘Sufi saint’. Some of these centres have become pilgrim shrines (see cult) with great annual festivals being held to commemorate the saint. JS



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