What is a Sufi Order?

  • Carl W. Ernst
  • Bruce B. Lawrence


The first and major point to make about Sufi orders is simple but perplexing: We don't understand them, or at least we haven’t figured out how to understand them as historical developments. Despite the abundance of texts about Sufi orders, their place in the emergence of Islamic civilization remains unclear. Many sources remain unstudied or undervalued, none more so than the biographical compendia known as tazkiras. Despite this gap between sources and certainty, some scholars have not hesitated to describe a historical pattern that applies to all Sufi orders. The most ambitious historiographical project comes from J. Spencer Trimingham, a specialist in the history of Islam in Africa. In his book The Sufi Orders in Islam, Trimingham enunciates a threefold theory of the development of Sufism that has more than a passing resemblance to the tripartite schemes that litter the landscape of Western historiography (ancient-medieval-modern). The valuable information collected in his compendium is marred by a theory of classicism and decline. Trimingham calls the first period of Sufism, from the ninth century on, “a natural expression of personal religion … over against institutionalized religion based on authority.” During the next period, beginning around the twelfth century, tariqa “ways” began to emerge. They brought together groups based on chains of masters and disciples. Then around the fifteenth century there began to appear ta’ifas, or organizations. They marked the full institutionalization of Sufism. It is this third, and final, period of Sufism that persists to the present day.


Twelfth Century Muslim World Intuitive Knowledge Islamic Civilization Cognitive Knowledge 


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© Carl W. Ernst and Bruce B. Lawrence 2002

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  • Carl W. Ernst
  • Bruce B. Lawrence

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