Sufism and Society in the Ottoman Empire

free essaySufism is a form of adherence to the truth that has attracted both adoration and condemnation across various religious circles. This practice is mostly associated with Islamic religion although recent opinions from Sufi scholars suggest that the practice originated before the establishment of Islamic religion. However, there have been controversies over the continued association of practice with religion in Islamic states like Iran considering sanctioning over the practice of Sufism in the country. Another intricacy is that Sufi practice is the existence of various orders that make it complicated thus dissociating itself from Islamic religion that ascribes to a single order.

The world has numerous religious practices that have been adhered to for centuries. Some of these practices include Sufi, which is traditionally associated with Islamic religion. However, contemporary practice of Sufism is marginally associated with the religion with leading Islamic scholars suggesting that the practice is far removed from the fundamental practices of Islam. Some scholars are even asserting that it is a backward practice that deters the spread of Islam. Others completely dissociate Sufism from religion and argue that it represents a completely different area of practice.

Many Islamic scholars consent that the word Sufi is a derivative of the Arabic word soof which means wool. It is arguably because those who subscribed to the Sufi doctrines at the time of its founding had the habit of wearing woolen coats as a designation of their initiation into the Sufi order. Evidently, the wearing of the woolen coat was an imitation of Isa bin Maryam (Jesus Christ) thus prompting the criticisms like that which came from Ibn Taymiyyah even Prophet Mohammed did also wore cotton and other garments. This is the beginning of the emergence of the many orders that followed the habit of putting on wool in reference to Isa bin Maryam (Mardin, 2006).

Sufi is commonly known as the Islamic Mysticism where those who ascribe to the Islamic teachings embark on a path to seek for divine love and knowledge through what is referred to as a personal and direct experience of God. Pedagogically, mysticism is seen as a form of experience of mystical union and direct interaction with ultimate realty together with the unwavering belief that knowledge of God can be attained with subjective experiences including instances of insight and intuition. Despite the usual relationship between Sufism and Islam, the foundations of Sufism have no basis in the Quran. This fact is acknowledged by both the Sufis and Islamic scholars. In practice, Sufism can be seen as a conglomeration of many other religious practices that have had an interaction with Sufism and therefore enabling it to borrow from them. However, the association of the Sufi practice is more evident among the Muslims than in any other religion even though it accepts all religious teachings as being truthful.

Sufism was initially characterized by particular attachment to remembering of Allah commonly referred to as zikr and seclusion together with many other innovative practices that were aimed as aiding in religious practices. Many of the Muslim scholars who interacted with Sufism at its initial stages warned of its extreme approach to some of the followers. Furthermore, Sufism developed tremendously in Ottoman Empire despite the fact that the Ottoman society was largely ruled and a more conservative religious establishment and a system that was largely based on Shariah law and the Quran. Sufism in Ottoman was based on the belief that it is possible for one to find a path where they could travel to sainthood and achieve a personal reunion with the divine truth about God. As a result, the growth of Sufism was parallel to Islamic teachings which emphasized the fact that God as the creator could not be reached or conceived by human beings. Because of this, Sufis were perceived as heretics in the initial stages of development, but later their teachings were accepted by those who criticized them initially (Mardin, 2006).

As a result of the popularity that Sufism was gathering, there arose two schools of Sufis—one associated with the Iranian mysticism which was based on the ecstasy and divine love and the other based on Iraqi asceticism. Even at the time when Ottomans were expanding, Sufism had already established into several sects with each sect having different paths through which its followers could achieve perfection with various rituals complete with different apparels and practices. Each sect had one teacher congregating in a permanent central location with the emphasis being on men. Thus, Ottoman Empire became a host to some of the first major sects of Sufism such as Mevlevi, Rifai, Qadiri, Halveti, Bektasi, among other things. The ottoman rulers were greatly involved in the Mevlevis sect (Mardin, 2006).

Description of Sufism

Godlas (2012) observes that Sufism is understood to be the inner, mystical, and psycho-spiritual dimension of the Islamic religion. However, contemporary adherents of the practice consider it outside of Islamic spheres. According to Godlas (2012), the essence of Sufism is the complete surrender to God through love time and again. At each moment of expressing surrender to God, one should maintain his consciousness in terms of perceptions, thoughts, feelings as well as self-awareness. These states of mind should then be connected with God as their originator thus the person practicing should subconsciously link them to God or as God’s manifestations. It builds on the substance of truth hence demands a selfless experiencing and actualization of truth as the fundamental building block. Therefore, practicing Sufism involves a conscious devotion to the ways of truth through undivided love and devotion. Such spiritual practice of Sufism is referred to as tarigat and requires the Sufi to surrender all the rest and follow the ways of love (Godlas, 2012). Sufi was initially thought to be a repetitive practice of calling out the names of God in a practice called dhikr. It was thus based on the foundations of purity of body and mind. Therefore, adherents were those who were running away from filthy ways of the world.

Al-Ghazali is attributed with changing the perception of Sufism that was prevailing in the 9th century through his writings and teachings. He is credited with suggesting that the God existed in Essence and therefore could be approached through a practice that involved actions and thoughts that reflected this essence. He advocated for the use of intellect as the noblest human attribute for receiving divine illumination and understanding the mysterious science of devolvement. This science as expounded by al-Ghazali is used today in Sufism and involves total opening of the heart to the delighted knowledge of God (Mardin, 2006). Al-Ghazali’s writings on the practice of Sufism convinced the Muslim scholars of the day to accept it as an official practice of Islam. Initially, this practice had been received with reservation in the Islamic world although it drew most of its philosophies from the Qur’an. In poem number three, the Sufi spirit is exemplified as being in unity with immortal God. Thus, whatever a Sufi thinks has already gone through the minds of God. The soul of Sufi is also close to the soul of God making these two be in tandem with each other. Similarly, the Sufi spirit is always happy through offering of one’s life that in reciprocate is gifted with more love.

Sufi spirits are also represented as being in a world full of commotion and chaos which are signified by a thousand dead and still souls while others are crying for what they used to be. Nevertheless, despite all this, Sufi spirit is comforted with a voice of love that has always been around the Sufi although they might not have realized it. This indicates that Sufism requires great dedication and devotion failure to which one can easily drift away with the cares of the world. Poem number four is the emphasizing on the everlasting nature of love and its good characteristic. This exemplifies the Sufi spirit to be continuously immersed in an everlasting source of love that is void of all but sorrow and joy. This is important in signifying the journey of a Sufi as that with many obstacles but that which definitely leads to everlasting love.

Mevlevi Order

The Mevlevi order was one of the well-known Sufi orders which were founded by Rumi’s followers in 1273 after his death in Konya spreading rapidly throughout the Ottoman Empire. As an order of the Sufis, Mevlevi served a special position in the Ottoman Empire by producing some of the known officials in the Caliphate. The order also influenced art by producing musicians and poets with music playing an integral part in influencing the growth of Mevlevi order. The Mevlevi sect of the Sufi, which was founded by Mevlana Jalaladdin Rumi, was based on the principles of tolerance whose level is unlimited, goodness, awareness brought by love, positive reasoning, as well as charity. The followers of the Mevlevi participate in whirling ceremony which signifies their attempt to unite with their God. Despite the ban on Sufism in 1925 in Turkey, Mevlevi was not persecuted as much as other sects were and this was because of the connection that the sect had with the republican founder of Turkey Mustafa Kemal Ataturk (Mardin, 2006).

Bektaşi Order

This order alongside with Mevlevi has its roots in the 13th century and was founded on the teachings of Haci Bektas Veli originally from Persia. Most of the followers were drawn from the Ottoman military and Anatolia area and were commonly thought of as the official sect of the famed Janissary corps with popularity also in southern Balkans where they still command a strong following.

Importance of the Tanzimat Era

Because of the deep rooted practice of Sufism and the many sects that were in existence in Ottoman Empire, the society had lagged behind in terms of social and economic development. The Tanzimat period was an era that experienced numerous reforms in both the economic as well as in social aspects of the Ottoman Empire as a way of modernizing it alongside secular and bureaucratic lines. The Ottoman Empire was greatly involved in the religious practices of the Sufism and thus in 1839 there were a series of reforms that were mainly meant to emancipate the government from the Mevlevi and Baktar sects. This was to be done through reforms in property and taxation as well as military conscription. In 1856, there was also an establishment of a secular school system complete with a set of new laws with efforts from all quarters to centralize the administration of the government. During this period of Tanzimat, it was the Sultan who enjoyed the full authority. They were known to abuse power (Mardin, 2006).

Accomplishments During the Tanzimat Era

Tanzimat era was important in modernizing the Ottoman Empire especially when the accomplishments are put into perspective. It was during this period that there was a total transformation in the central and provincial bureaucracy and changes in the military which had hitherto been a preserve of the Baktar sect of the Sufis. Tanzimat era also brought about the development of infrastructures and therefore helped open up the Ottoman Empire for trade with the outside world. Also, there was a notable progress towards justice in the empire because Sufism has introduced systems and structures in leadership that explicitly denied people justice and rights. Thus, during this period, law codes were rationalized and salaries of the people improved. However, despite the changes that took place during this time, the level of political freedom and participation was still limited to many of the people in the empire. Equally, economic inequality continued to be a problem throughout the empire, thanks to the structures that established different sects of Sufis with each pledging allegiance to different teachings and practices. Furthermore, the concentration of power in the hands of a few meant that abuse of power would continue to be a problem to the people of Ottoman (Jung & Piccoli, 2001).

Social Role of Sufism and Social Significance

In light of the shrinking attraction to universal approaches to ideas like communism or socialism together with many other secular ideologies, Sufism had found a formidable social role where it was on the forefront of building consensus between different diverging views and in a way fostering an environment for peace. Amid the huge gap that exit between cultural practices and religious divide, Sufism plays a big role in ensuring that there is a common ground on the different religious and cultural views which are exhibited by different communities around the world. Socially, the views expressed by the Sufis are sustainable since they are easily transferred from a generation to the other and across different communities with different religious views. Through Sufism, people in the society have been able to tap the usually untapped spiritual knowledge that provides wisdom. Because of the inclusivity of the religious views of Sufis, this form of practice found a lot of space in the Ottoman Empire given that the empire was spreading out and therefore needed to assimilate people from different cultural and traditional backgrounds (Jung & Piccoli, 2001).

Importance of Sufism in the Ottoman Empire

Sufism in Ottoman Empire defined the way of life of the people of this empire. As a result of different sects, Sufism contributed to the formation of different classes of people in the empire. The two well-known sects of Mevlevi and Baktar were considered to be the sect of rulers and military officials. Thus, it influenced the way in which people developed in this region both politically and socially. In terms of social development, Sufism provided guidelines for development of art and other forms of cultural practices in the empire. It was responsible for the kind of music and poems that were composed in the empire. As such, Sufism greatly influenced the culture of the Ottoman Empire by supporting cultural practices which were considered as promoting the principles of Sufism and also discouraging those that were seen as deviating from the teachings of Sufism. The sects could also organize themselves into political entities that had great influence on the decisions and programs that the sultans had despite the fact that they wielded a lot of authority (Jung & Piccoli, 2001).

How Sufi Influenced Environmental Conservation in the Ottoman Empire

Tucker & Grim (2009) observe that one of the challenges facing contemporary religion is the issue of environmental conservation given the assumptions that environmental degradation is caused by secularism and materialism that religion teaches against. Early religion was mostly concerned with the study of religious books and manuscripts that provided spiritual nourishment and moral guidance in the society. However, contemporary religion is composed of environmental movements that care for the environment apart from the conventional spiritual nourishment that it gives to their adherents. As a way of conservation and green politics, contemporary religion is organized into groups that observe the environmental rights of their adherents through education and forums. This meeting provide the religious organizations, drawn from various denominations, with the opportunity to come up with the proposal on how to preserve the environment. To this end, environmental religion has influenced contemporary religion through the provision of financial support in funding interreligious dialogue geared towards environmental conservation. For instance, the Worldwide Wildlife Fund (WWF) sponsored the 1986 interreligious meeting held as Assisi. Similarly, environmental movements have been associated with the religious movements that support the environment (Tucker & Grim, 2009).

Since environmental issues continue to draw different factions together, the promising trend is that more and more religious groups will continue coming together to share some of the controversial religious teaching, thus a pointer to the unification of the world religion. The coming together of religious movements for supporting environment has influenced the sharing of differing religious teachings. Sufism was on the forefront of supporting environmental and social development in the Ottoman Empire by its interpretation of what God is. Through most of their teachings, God was one with his creation and therefore things could be worshipped as God. It is based on such teachings that most of the people who ascribed to the practice preserved the environment believing that some of the natural things that were in their surrounding were actually their God and thus needed to be conserved.

New Introductions that Ottoman Empire Brought to Sufis

Despite the great influence that Sufism had on the social and political landscape of the Ottoman Empire, the empire also introduced new practices into Sufism. For instance, the teaching that free-born Muslims could not be held as slaves led to a practice that allowed Ottoman military to capture young Christians and make them slave soldiers. The captured non-Muslims were actually the majority in the famous Janissary Corps which was largely dominated by the Baktar sect members. Following the need of slave soldiers by the Ottoman Empire, Sufism had to adapt a practice of taking captives of non-Muslims to become military members. Most of those who were captured later converted into Islam and became full members of the Sufi communities. Another aspect was the introduction of political and cultural practices in Sufism. Sufism began as religious groups which were completely preoccupied with the way of discovering ones path’s towards divine place. However, Ottoman Empire after adapting the practices of the same introduced secular practices like officials’ artists, musicians, poets, and many others into Sufism so that it was no longer a religious organization but also a political entity (Jung & Piccoli, 2001).


From the discussion above, Sufism is a practice that has received different opinions in and out of Islamic religion. Thus, it is a form of practice that is adored by both Muslims and non-Muslims all over the world. The Ottoman Empire developed largely on the basis of the teachings and practices of the different Sufism sects that were operating at the time. The Sufism teachings and practices paved way for the social and economic reforms that were initiated in Turkey owing to the multiplicity of the sects which permeated greater injustices and segregation at the time. The reforms also led to the differentiation of the state and religion with state formulating policies and laws that could govern the daily activities of its people. This was unlike in the past when the laws were defined along the teachings of the ruling Sufi sect. The Ottoman Empire also opened up to new ideas from the Westerners and refused to associate the state with religion. This is contrary to the prevailing Islamic teachings where there is no distinction between religion and the state. The Ottoman Turkey broke away from the normal practices of other religious states like Iran and Egypt where the connection between the state and religion still persists despite the existence of other dissenting groups such as the Copts in Egypt. Arguably, it was through Sufism that Turkey was able to separate the state from the religion of Islam even though the same principles have failed to apply to other Islamic states in the region.