Sufism in Baghdad, the Sober and Intoxicated Forms of Mysticism

Subject: Religion
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Religion and spirituality are the highly important subjects in the Islamic culture. Sufi thought is characterized by the attempt of those who practice it to intensify the individual inclusion in the reality of the divine. The teachings of Sufism have many opponents and supporters, and that is why there are various ways to interpret this school of thought. Overall, Sufis regard themselves as the kind of Muslim individuals who treat the presence of God and perceive the divine as a part of their everyday reality. Sufism is a deep and multidimensional practice that is filled with a lot of meaning and a rather special approach.

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Sufism is often recognized as Islamic esotericism or mysticism, and it is also divided into two main movements that are “sober” and “intoxicated” Sufism (Voll & Ohtsuka, 2015). This paper will attempt to introduce both movements, and compare them discussing the most influential figures in these teachings.


The school of Sufism focuses on the exploration of the divine as an ever-present aspect of the surrounding world. In Sufi practice, the main attention is concentrated on the inner development of an individual; their soul but not their social interactions (Voll & Ohtsuka, 2015). The fact that Sufis prefer “contemplation over action” makes them resemble the school of Zen Buddhism in some aspects, as both of the teachings explore the inner world of the individuals instead of attempting to comprehend what is around (Voll & Ohtsuka, 2015, para. 2). The feature that makes the school of Sufism stand out among all the other Islamic teachings is its focus on the kind and gentle nature of God which contrasts with the thought of the majority of other teachings that associate God with wrath, strictness, and severity (Voll & Ohtsuka, 2015).

The strict nature of Sufism is reflected in the name of this school. The word “sufi” has been interpreted in a variety of ways. There is an opinion that it originates from the Arabic word “wool” and is connected to the habit of the Sufis to wear very crude woolen clothing expressing their ascetic lifestyle (Sufism, 2009). Another point of view relates the word “sufi” to a similar one from the Greek language; namely – “sophia” that means “wisdom” (Sufism, 2009).

The movement is characterized by the deep devotion to the religious worshiping and the rejection of mundane pleasures and material values that are typically pursued by the majority of people. Worshiping of Allah is the main purpose of life, as perceived by the followers of Sufism. Besides, Sufis believe that the religious wisdom is to be passed from a person to a person instead of being learned from books and manuscripts (Sufism, 2009).

According to the idea of Sufis, the true Islamic wisdom follows right from the Prophets to the masters who are to enlighten the others verbally, the chain of the masters’ successors were deemed the ultimate representatives of knowledge carriers, even though the actual word “Sufism” is not present in the speeches of the prophets (Sufism, 2009). The school of Sufism is represented by multiple thinkers and artists among whom there are a lot of writers and poets such as Omar Khayyám, Al-Ghazali, and Rumi, to name a few. Sufism is generally divided into “sober” and “intoxicated” movements; these characteristics reflect the orientation to the mysticism in sharia (Hughes, 2013).

“Sober” and “Intoxicated” forms of Mysticism in Sufism

“Sober” Sufism

The followers of the “sober” stream of Sufism emphasize the common ground between mysticism and law in the society (Hughes, 2013). In their understanding, embracing the mystical concept of the world around will provide the worshipers with the deeper perception of the legal norms and opinions. In addition, the approach to law from the point of view of mysticism is recognized as more helpful in the aspect of integrating the rules and norms in the daily life. This way of thinking is unusual because typically mysticism is considered as the worldview that clouds one’s mind and distracts the individuals from reality making their perceptions biased and incorrect.

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“Intoxicated” Sufism

The approach practiced by the “intoxicated” form of Sufism contradicts the “sober” point of view and argues that spirituality is incompatible with the law (Hughes, 2013). In the opinion of the “intoxicated” Sufis, the unity with the divine and the worshiping of God is to be pursued regardless of its costs and even if it clashed with the law (Hughes, 2013). This form of Sufism is known for its antinomian perspective, according to which the law of people could be breached for the sake of the religious law. At the same time, antinomian position justified some the behaviors deemed unlawful legally as they obeyed the rules dictated by faith.

Even though the majority of the followers of the “intoxicated” or “drunken” Sufism were not the lawbreakers, this teaching is pursued as a potential threat to the legal aspect of the society even these days (Hughes, 2013).


Overall, unlike the academic approaches to theology and law that are based on the logic and reasoning, the teachings of Sufism rely on imagination and the emotional aspect of spirituality and God worshiping (Esposito, 2004). As a result, the two streams of Sufism are referred to as “sober” and “drunken” hinting at the attitudes their followers practice in relation to religion. In other words, the “intoxicated” Sufis believe that legal norms are incompatible with the righteous behavior from the point of view of religion and should not limit the actions justified by faith, whereas the “sober” Sufis practice a more logical attitude and believe in the connection between the law and spirituality and the possibility of deeper understanding of the former through the latter (Esposito, 2004).

This aspect is the primary difference between the two points of view. Their main similarities are the idea of the presence of the divine in the surrounding world, the focus on the inner development as opposed to interactions with the others, an embrace of the ascetic lifestyle, and rejection of material pleasures (Esposito, 2004).

Another difference between the two movements is the social patterns among their followers. In that way, the drunken Sufism was common within all social classes, while sober Sufism was mainly associated with the intellectuals (Esposito, 2004). Besides, intoxicated Sufis mainly expressed their ideas in the forms of poetry, and other literary and artistic works praising the states of joy and pleasure, and sober Sufis related to more scholarly discussions concerning the issues of morality, manners, and behavior norms (Esposito, 2004).

Well-known Figures

“Sober” Sufis

Harith bin Asad al Muhasibi is regarded as one of the founders of sober Sufism. He was a renowned intellectual of the 9th century who focused on the Islamic traditions. Al Muhasibi’s teachings were banned, and that is why he was forced to escape from Baghdad and spend his life in secrecy (Khanam, 2009). Another representative of sober Sufism was Abu’l Qasim al Junayd, who was the contemporary and a student of al Muhasibi, and he is considered to be another founder of this direction of Sufism (Khanam, 2009).

Al Junayd was extremely respectful of the Sufi traditions and maintained a belief that only the initiated members of the movement were to be educated about its wisdom. Junayd believed that the Lord was communicating through his body. His devotion to the formal Sufism helped Junayd to become the chief judge of Baghdad during the time of social rejection of this school (Khanam, 2009).

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A female representative of sober Sufism was Rabi’ah of Basra, a woman who had been freed from slavery and focused on her faith, worshiping of God, and ascetic lifestyle. Rabi’ah believed in unconditional love for God saying that an individual is not supposed to love the Lord due to their fear of hell or hope for paradise, only love for the sake of loving and admiration was justified according to her perspective (Ayoub, 2013). One more practitioner of sober Sufism, Dhual-Nun al Misri, maintained that the source of knowledge was logical reasoning, and thus, the divine could be embraced and understood only if an individual followed the path of rationalism.

“Intoxicated” Sufis

The representatives of “drunken” Sufism are often referred to as the ecstatic ones. Bayazid Bistrami is, perhaps, the most famous followers of intoxicated Sufism. The contemporaries of Bayazid, who happened to listen to his speeches and teachings, were shocked deeply due to Bayazid’s points of view. The main feature of this Sufi was his belief that the purpose of a true God lover is not to worship the Lord but to unite with him dissolving one’s self in him (Ayoub, 2013).

The utterances of Bayazid were perceived as mad fanaticism and deemed blasphemous and offensive to Islam as Bayazid identified with God and cried out self-worshipping exclamations announcing his great majesty (Ayoub, 2013).

Another theopathic figure of intoxicated Sufism was Husayn al Hallaj, who for a long while interacted with and learned from Junayd within the sober direction. Al Hallaj’s individual way towards self-realization has led him to the idea that he was the personification of God. As a preacher, Al Hallaj traveled a lot promoting his rather unconventional approach that was shocking to most of the Muslim communities. Eventually, Al Hallaj was executed for attempting to convince the people around that he was an incarnation of God, which is more common for Christian beliefs than to those of Islam (Ayoub, 2013).


To sum up, the school of Sufism concentrates on the most devoted form of religious worshipping of the God who is ever-present in the world around. At the same time, the followers of this school tend to promote two worldviews that have some similarities, but, overall, are very different. Sober Sufis maintain a rational form of faith based on logic and reason, whereas the intoxicated one promote blinding and maddening love for God up to the point of personal annihilation within him.

Reference List

Ayoub, M. (2013). Islam: Faith and History. Oxford, UK: Oneworld Publications.

Esposito, J. (2004). The Oxford Dictionary of Islam. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

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Hughes, A. (2013). Muslim identities: An introduction to Islam. New York, NY: Columbia University Press.

Khanam, F. (2009). Sufism: An introduction. New Delhi, India: Goodword Books.

Sufism. (2009). Web.

Voll, J. O., & Ohtsuka, K. (2015). Sufism. Web.