Week 4: Stories of Sufi Saints

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Background Reading

Depending on the week's assignment, you may have several pages of Background Reading. This week, you have THREE PAGES of Background reading.

  1. Islam and Sufism
  2. Attar's Lives of the Saints
  3. Terms and Definitions


Islam is one of the world's major religions, with over a billion adherents around the world. Islam itself is an Arabic term, meaning "submission [to God]," but only a minority of Muslims today are Arabs. Islam is a major religion throughout the Middle East, Asia and Africa, and there are also Muslims living in Europe and in the Americas. There are several million Muslims who live in the United States.

Islam was founded in the early 7th century C.E. by Mohammad, who is recognized as the Prophet of Islam. When he was 40 years old, Mohammad began to receive a series of revelations from God. The holy book of Islam, the Koran (or Qu'ran), contains the revelations which Mohammad received and wrote down. During his lifetime, Mohammad gained many adherents, and within a century after his death in 632, Islam had spread from Spain in the west to India in the east (and there continues to be a large Muslim population in India to this day).

There are five central practices or "pillars" of Islam:

Muslims recognize the God of Islam as the God also of the Jewish and Christian traditions, and many of the holy figures of the Islamic tradition are shared with Jewish and Christian traditions. For Muslims, Mohammad is the final prophet of God, culminating a line of prophets that includes Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, and Jesus. Islam also acknowledges the existence of angels who bear the same names as they do in the Jewish and Christian traditions (such as the angel Gabriel, known as Jibril, and so on).

Although there is not a formal division of Islam into denominations, there is a distinction made between Sunnism and Shiism. The Shiites, who are a minority group consisting of approximately 15% of Muslims, insist that that Mohammad designated his son-in-law Ali as his successor, and that all subsequent leaders must be descended from Ali. The majority of Muslims are Sunnis who do not acknowledge the exclusive claim of Ali and his descendants. There are also differences in the traditions of religious law acknowledged by the majority Sunnis and the minority Shiites.


Sufism is a term that refers to a broad range of mystical movements within Islam. The word "Sufi" itself first begins to be used in the 8th century. It literally means "rough wool," and seems to have originally referred to the patchwork cloak of rough wool that was worn by these Muslim ascetics. Although there is an ascetic tendency that runs throughout the Islamic religion as a whole, the Sufis took this to new extremes, rejecting all luxuries and material comfort.

The key features of Sufism are a complete and total devotion to God, along with a repudiation of the material things of this world. Love of God is cultivated for its own sake, not for the purpose of some heavenly reward, or out of a fear of punishment. For Sufis, union with God does not have to wait until the afterlife; it can take place here and now, in this lifetime. One of the main figures associated with Sufism, Jonaid (d. 909 C.E.), proclaimed: "Sufism is that you should be with God -- without any attachment." Another early Sufi and contemporary of Jonaid, Samnun, explained, "Sufism is that you should not possess anything nor should anything possess you."

The extremes of Sufi belief and practice have sometimes been rejected as heretical by the Islamic establishment, and some prominent practitioners of Sufism, most notably al-Hallaj, were executed for their beliefs. One of the stories you will read this week is an account of Hallaj's execution in the year 922.

  1. Islam and Sufism
  2. Attar's Lives of the Saints
  3. Terms and Definitions


Modern Languages MLLL-2003. World Literature: Frametales. Laura Gibbs, Ph.D. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License. You must give the original author credit. You may not use this work for commercial purposes. If you alter, transform, or build upon this work, you may distribute the resulting work only under a license identical to this one.
Page last updated: October 9, 2004 12:48 PM