Notes on Islam and Sufism: The Basics

Islam and Sufism: The Basics

Centuries before the time of Christ, monadic Arabs known as Bedouins lived in dessert peninsula of Arabia east of Egypt.

Bedouins=animistic, pagan, tribal people who worshipped nearly 300 diff nature deities, idols of these gods and the sacred black stone housed in Kaaba (cubic black roofless sanctuary located in Mecca). Arabs remained polytheistic until 6th C C.E.

Muhammad born 570 CE in Medina

Orphaned at age 6, he had no formal education, travelled with his uncle who was a camel driver in a caravan. This experience brought him into contact with all types of peoples, cultures and faiths.

Married at 25 to older widow: Khadijah, and assisted in running her flourishing caravan trade.

Muhammad experienced periods of solitary mediation in the dessert in a cave—according to Muslim teaching the angel Gabriel came to Muhammad to proclaim his role as a prophet of Allah (god).

Mohammed was 41 years old when declared himself final human messenger for G-d, a line that ran from Abraham to Jesus to Mohammed.

  • Allah is the same god of the Jews and Christians.
  • Islam-submission to God’s will and also = peace.
  • Messages from Muhammad were the same messages of Christianity and Judaism. These messages are addressed to all people

Five pillars:

  1. Declaration of faith: “There is no god but Allah and Muhammad is the messenger of god”
  2. Recitation of prayers five times a day
  3. Charity
  4. Fasting (during the month of Ramadan, from sunrise to sunset)
  5. Make pilgrimage (hajj) to Mecca if possible…circle Kaaba seven times. This spot is believed to be where Abraham was commanded to sacrifice Isaac.

In 622, Muhammad emigrates to Medina because of persecution and resistance—journey known as the hegira. He converts the people of Medina to Islam, returns to Mecca, conquers the city and destroys the idols. Becomes political and spiritual leader.

Dies in 632. 622 becomes the first year in Muslim calendar.

Koran is written in Arabic. It is comprised of 114 chapters (suras) and is considered to be sacred poetry, absolute word of G-d. It is to be recited aloud and committed to memory. For Muslims, it is thought to be untranslatable because its contents are holy and because translation corrupts the meaning.

Other main text: Hadith (sayings/teachings of Mohammed)

Koran + Hadith=Sharia (the path to follow) code of ethical behavior.

Prayer leaders (imams) and scholars trained in Muslim law (mullah) interpret sharia.


The Greater jihad= struggle for moral and religious perfection, for self control and to avoid desires.

Lesser jihad=war, self-defense against those who wage war

Muhammad never designated a successor, so after he dies, a bitter controversy arises concerning religious leadership.

Rival claims produced division:

  • Sunni ( from sunna, the tradition of the prophet) consider themselves the orthodoxy of Islam, represents 80 percent of modern Muslim world pop. Rulers should be chosen by the faithful.
  • Shiites claim descent though Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law Ali, and believe that only his direct descendents should rule.

Caliphs (successors) are appointed by Muhammad’s followers after his death.


Diversity is part of Islam: absorbed art styles form many cultures

Islam also promotes the seeking of knowledge—Arab scholars preserved Greek manuscripts by copying them into Arabic. Arab scholars absorbed much medicinal and herbal knowledge from ancient Greece. Science and technological knowledge and translations of Aristotle’s works in logic and natural philosophy ultimately make it to the west….and to US! Thus many of the core texts (like Plato’s Republic and Trials of Socrates) were only accessible to Europeans because of this great preservation and veneration of texts.

Muslim philosophers compared the theories of Aristotle and the Neo-Platonist with precepts of Islam, seeking a unity of truth that would become the object of inquiry among Italian Renaissance thinkers.

Also contributed original thought to mathematics, science, chemistry, optics, geography.

Ibn Sina (Persian physician) 980-1037 responsible for medical knowledge used up through 16th C in Europe.

Muslim chemists invented distillation process for alchohol

Geography…mapped the earth’s circumference, advances in geography, etc.


As early as 8th C some followers became interested in meditative, world-renouncing religious life….

Sufi= coarse wool

Suf= garments they wore, committed to purification of the soul and mystical union w/ Gd though mediation, fasting, prayer.

  • Emphasis is in a visionary experience and the practice of intensifying physical sensation through music, poetry, and dance.
  • Whirling—Persian Sufi dervishes, dance transports the pious to a state of ecstasy.
  • Allows for a union of the senses and the spirit!

Sufi poetry draws on non-rational, intuitive dimensions of religious experiences and contends that our access to the divine, or the beloved is not limited to life after death. We can connect with the divine in the here and now. We can connect through our love for one another, through our ability to scrape away the outer petty self, to release the ego, and to connect to the universality of all being.


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