The Sufis are the main 'mystical' manifestation of Islam. Although its acceptability to orthodox Muslims has always been essential to the function of Sufism as an 'Inner Tradition' within Islam, there remains speculation that its origins lie in much older near-eastern mystical traditions, perahps even dating back to ancient Egypt. According to Sufi tradition, the descriptive term 'Sufi' was decided at a council of 45 mystics in 623 c.e., the second year of the Islamic calendar, and the first documentary evidence of Sufis arrives with the founding of the first Sufi Order in 657 ce.. This gives some historical credence to the tradition that the Prophet Mohammed was himself a Sufi. Like many of the important Sufi terms, the word 'Sufi' is itself a complex pun on Arabic words of similar sound and meaning. Two of these are 'suf', meaning 'wool' (a reference to the cloth from which the cloaks worn by Sufis are made), and 'sufiy', meaning 'pious'.


Although Sufis always aimed at the heart of Islam, it wasn't until the 'Golden Age' of the Abbasid Empire 750-1258 c.e.) that Sufism rose to prominence. Whilst the early Islamic Empire was characterized more by the petty tribal bickering of th Arab armies who created it, the Abbasid dynasty (based in Baghdad) saw a shift of power to the more ancient Persian culture. The greater influence of music, poetry and intellectual pursuits suited the Sufis, many of whom began to make important cultural contributions to Islam. Perhaps most significant of these was Mohammed El-Ghazali, a great poet but also an influential theologian, who is still often referred to as 'the Authority of Islam' even by the most orthodox Sunni Moslems. Although a controversial figure in his own times, Ghazali's work offered acceptable solutions to some of the most pressing Theological questions of the era (the early 12th century). This effectively guarunteed the acceptability of the Sufis doctrines around which these solutions were based, thereby securing the future of the Sufi cults. The writer Idries Shah has often put foward the argument that Ghazali was also a major influence on St. Thomas Aquinas and St. Francis of Assisi, who may have been a Sufi initiate himself.


It is not uncommon for esoteric traditions to exist fairly comfortably within an exoteric doctrine for long periods of time, with various sects occasionally wielding enormous power. Many Sufi Orders continue to be very influential within orthodox Sunni Islam. For example the Tijaniyah Order is strongly associated with the Muslim Brotherhood, which began as an anti-British movement in Egypt in the 1920s, later playing an important role in the revolution which deposed King Faroukh in 1952. Today the Brotherhood is effectively acting as an intermediary between the oil-rich Saudi Arabia and Egypt, where it is still technically illegal. Many of the features which made Sufism so succesfull as an occult underground (for example the secret recognistion codes and 'cell' structure) helped the Muslim Brotherhood function effectively as a 'terrorist/freedom fighter' (as you Will) organisation and spy network. As with western Freemasonry, however, it seems likely that in many cases any esoteric aims have long sonce been submeregd by political objectives.


Unlike Christianity, ceremonial magic has a legitimate place in Islam. According to Islamic law, sihr-al-halal or pemitted magick may be used as a vehicle for religious discovery. This has given Sufis room to preserve magickal practices from the ancient world which were systematically supressed in Europe, which had to wait for the Renaissiance for their re-introduction. Like Qabalah, Sufi ideas played an important part in the European Rennaissance, in particular being hugely influential on the Rosicrucian movement. In terms of esoteric practice, there is also a large overlap between Qabalistic and Sufic magickal practice, hardly surprising when one considers the related languages, geographical proximity, and common religious heritage. Like Qabalists, Sufis have alway sought to maintain their legitimacy within mainstream religion. Like Qabalists, they maintained an intellectual tradition in continuity from the Hellenistic culture of the last few cenuries b.c.e.. There are also some similarities which both refuse to acknowledge. The practice of demonic magic (summoning and binding demons) has a central role in the magick of both traditions. This doesn't sit easily with modern Sufis, who like to stress the more image-friendly "spiritual development" side of their tradition. Nevertheless, demonic magick is probably one of the most ancient threads in the Sufi tapestry, dating back to the ancient Canaanite/Babylonian/Egyptian cultures. Many medieval grimoires (which mark the point at which demonology entered Western Europe) contain lists of demons with names directly traceable to these traditions. When Aleister Crowley 'restored' the Invocation of the Bornless One, he found good correlations between the nonsense-names contained in the Graeco-Coptic original and Egyptian godforms, correspondances born out by the context of the ritual.


As well as similarities, there are also important differences between Sufism and Qabalah. One is of scale. While the educated Jewish population was, for many hundreds of years, tiny, Islam has been the official religion of some of the largest Empires the world has seen. As a result of this, there is a much greater diversity within traditional Sufi thought and practice than in the Qabalah. In many ways, Qabalah as a force within Judaism has declined since its heyday in the 17th century. Partly to counter accusations of heresy, Jewish Qabalists adopted a conservative, traditional, aescetic image. This has resulted in a tradition which has become so divorced from mainstream culture, it is all but irrelevant. In many ways the bastard forms of Qabalah adopted by the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and their contemporaries are truer to the original aims of the Qabalah than the fossilized versions being practiced amongst the ageing bearded orthodoxy. Whilst some forms of Sufism have undoubtedly suffered this fate, and others have been subverted by politics, there are many Sufis still actively working within their communities. This is another disctinctive feature of Sufism. Withdrawal from the world is only a temporary phaze of a cycle which must inevitably lead the Sufi back into society. This concept has countered the anal autoconsumptive tendencies implicit in many 'spiritual' paths, which often fall into the trap of defining themselves as an alternative to ordinay human experience instead of as an extension of it.


Thanks to the Golden Dawn's adoption of the Tree of Life, the influence of Qabalah on western ceremonial magick is highly visible. However, the no less significant influence of Sufism has been all but ignored. Scholars are only now starting to admit the enormous influence on the Rennaissance exerted not only of Sufism but Islam in general. This is doubtless partly due to the endemic racist and Eurocentric tendencies of western scholars, but there are other mitigating circumstances. Whereas Qabalah is quite tightly described by the ritual practices it uses, Sufism has always been more of a free-form affair, stressing the importance of the 'internal' individual experience, rather than the means by which it is produced (the latter, according to Sufis, being a poor guide to the former). Where Qabalah can be recognised, for example, by schemes such as the tree of life, the name of an angel, or by some clever use of numerical equivalents of words, Sufi ideas are much harder to spot. Many authors trying to demonstrate the Sufi influence on Rennaisance art, literure, and music, such as the great Idries Shah, have found themselves foiled by need to explain the end-point of Sufi initiation in order to describe how one may move towards it.


As well as the invisible influence on the Rosicrucians, it seems likely that Crowley was also heavily influenced by Sufi ideas. He spoke Arabic and travelled extensively in many areas where Sufis practiced. And he was also fond of that least tangible means of Sufi teaching, the self-as-paradox. Crowley, like many Sufis before him, was not scared to contradict himself regularly, to cheat his pupils of their savings whilst lecturing them on the importance of honesty, to marry his friend's sister to save her from choosing between two lovers. The regressive nature of modern Thelema may be judged by the fact that this important, even central aspect of Crowley's teaching is still widely ignored, in favour of his boring and often inaccurate pronouncements on magick in books with impressive sounding titles. For God's sake, Wake Up!