Sufi Orders

In the early centuries of Islam, the Sufis were not organised into particular circles or Orders. However, as time went by, the teaching and personal example of Sufis living the spiritually decreed code of life began to attract many groups of people. Between the ninth and eleventh centuries, we find that various Sufi Orders, which included adepts from all strata of society, began to emerge. As these Sufi Orders, or brotherhoods, came into existence, the centre of Sufi activities was no longer the private house, school or work place of the spiritual master. A more institutional structure was given to their gatherings, and the Sufi Order began to use centres which existed specifically for these gatherings. A Sufi centre was usually called a Khaneqah or Zawiyya. The trucks called their Sufi sanctuary a tekke. In North Africa such a centre was called a ribat, the name which was also used to describe the frontier fortresses of the Sufi soldiers who defended the way of Islam and fought against those who tried to destroy it. In the Indian sub-continent a Sufi culture was called a jama’at Khana or khanegah.

In the same way that the various schools of Islamic Law which emerged in the early centuries after the Prophet Muhammad’s death were meant to define a clear path for the application of that law, so the Sufi Orders which emerged during the same period also intended to define a simple path for the practice of inner purification. In the same way that many great schools of Islamic Law ceased to be propagated and accordingly ended, likewise many great Sufi Orders faced a similar situation. During the ninth century, more than thirty schools of Islamic Law existed, but later on this number was reduced to five or six. During the twelfth century, you could not count the number of Sufi Orders, partly because there were so many, and partly because they were not yet defined as such. Most of the great spiritual masters and teachers of the Sufi Orders and schools of law did not expect that their teachings would be given a defined and often a rigid interpretation at a later stage after their deaths, or that the Sufi Orders and schools of law would be named after them. However, the preservation of the Sufi Orders was often partly a result of their physical isolation as well as the direction that mainstream Islam took.

A noticeable trend within these Sufi Orders is that many of them intermingled, often strengthening each other and at times weakening each other. Most of the Sufi Orders kept a record of their lineage, that is their chain of transmission of knowledge from master to master, which was often traced back to one of the Shi’ite spiritual leaders and accordingly back through Imam Ail to the Prophet Muhammad, as a proof of their authenticity and authority. The only exception to this is the Naqshabndi Sufi Order whose lineage of transmission of knowledge traces back through Abu Bakar, the first leader of the Muslim community in Medina, to Muhammad.

The following are a few of the Sufi Orders which are still established today, each with its own predominating characteristics. Seekers of knowledge can be members of one or more of the Sufi Orders, as indeed they often follow more than one spiritual master. The following are only a sample of those Sufi Orders with which the author has personal familiarity.


The Qadri Order was founded by Shaykh Abd al-Qadir al-Gilani (d. 1166) from Gilan in Persia, who eventually settled in Baghdad in Iraq. After his death, his Sufi Order was propagated by his sons. The Qadri Order has spread to many places, including Syria, Turkey, some parts of Africa such as Cameron, the Congo, Mauritania and Tanzania, and in the Caucasus, Chechen and Ferghana in the Soviet Union, as well as elsewhere.


Founded by Shaykh Ahmad ar-Rifa’I (d. 1182) in Basra, the Rifa’I Order has spread to Egypt, Syria, Anatolia in Turkey, Eastern Europe and the Caucasus, and more recently to North America.


The Shahdhili Order crystallised around Shaykh Abdu’l-Hasan as-Shadhili of Morocco (d. 1258) and eventually became one of the greatest Sufi Orders, having an extraordinarily large following. Today it is found in North Africa, Egypt, Kenya and Tanzania, the Middle East Sri Lanka and elsewhere, including the West and North America.


The Mevlavi or Mawlawi Order centres around Mawlana Jalal ud_din Rumi of Qonya in Turkey (d. 1273). Today it is mostly found in Anatolia in Turkey and more recently in North America. The followers of this Order are also known as whirling dervishes.


The Naqshbandi Order takes its name from Shaykh Baha ud-Din Naqshbandi of Bukhara (d. 1390). It is widely spread in central Asia, the Volga, the Caucasus, the north-west and south-west of China, Indonesia, the Indian sub-Continent, Turkey, Europe and North America. This is the only known Sufi Order which traces the genealogy of its lineage of transmission of knowledge back through the first Muslim ruler, Abu Bakar, unlike the rest of the known Sufi Order which trace their origins back to one of the Shi’ite spiritual leaders, and therefore through Imam Ali, and so to the Prophet Muhammad.


The Bektashi Order was founded by Hajji Bektash of Khurasan (d. 1338). Shi’ite ideas strongly permeate this Sufi Order. It is limited to Anatolia in Turkey and was most powerful up until the early twentieth Century. The Order is regarded as a follower of Shi’as Islamic Law.


The Ni’amatullah Order was founded by Shaykh Nur ud_din Muhammad Ni’amatullah (d. 1431) in Mahan near Kirman in South-west Iran. . its followers are found mostly in Iran and India.


The Tijani Order was founded by Shaykh Abbas Ahmad ibn at-Tijani, an Algerian Berber (d. 1815). It has spread from Algeria to the South of the Sahara and into western and central Sudan, Egypt, Senegal, West Africa and northern Nigeria, as well as being represented in the West and in North America.


The Jarrahi Order was founded by Shaykh Nur ud-Din Muhammad al_jarrah of Istanbul (d. 1720). It is limited mostly to Turkey, with some representation in the West and in North America.


The most influential Sufi Order in the sub-continent of India and Pakistan has been the Chisti Order, which takes its name from Khwaja Abu Ishaq Shami Chisti (d. 966). Its spread has been primarily within south-east Asia.

Sufi Orders, like other movements, have tended to be cyclical in nature. A Sufi Order has generally had a cycle of two to three hundred years before weakening and decaying. Whenever there has been a need for it, a Sufi Order begins to rise, then reaches its, climax, and then gradually declines and disintegrates.

One observable trend in the history of Sufism has been that whenever there has been a lack of Islamic source material, such as the Qur’an or the original way of Muhammad, within a Sufi Order then it has tended to be dominated by the stronger and older culture of its environment. This adulteration is noticeable in the Chisti Order of south-east Asia and in the Sufi Orders of Indonesia which have integrated many elements of Hindu and Buddhist customs into their practices. Similarly the Sufi Orders of Africa below the region of Sudan have integrated some of the African tribal religious customs into their practices. All these Sufi Orders seem to have taken on some of the colour of cultishness in these remote regions.