By Namit Arora
(This five-part series on early Islamic history begins with the rise of Islam, shifts to its golden age, examines two key currents of early Islamic thought—rationalism and Sufi mysticism—and concludes with an epilogue. It builds on precursor essays I wrote at Stanford’s Green Library during a summer sabbatical years ago, and on subsequent travels in Islamic lands of the Middle East and beyond.)
‘Mysticism is ultimately rooted in the original matrix of religious experience, which grows in turn out of man’s overwhelming awareness of God and his sense of nothingness without Him, and of the urgent need to subordinate reason and emotion to this experience.’ 
Sufism, or Islamic mysticism, first arose in Syria and Iraq in the 8th century CE. Arab conquerors, a century earlier, had taken Islam all over the Near East, which included lands with a long tradition of ascetic thought and eastern Christian monasticism—a tradition that valued religious poverty, contempt for worldly pleasures, and a secret world of virtue beyond that of obedience to law—no doubt encouraged by the fact that for three centuries, until after the conversion of Constantine to Christianity, Christians in the Near East were a minority subject to suspicion and persecution by the pagan Romans.
But old habits die hard, and even as Islam spread, many new converts, beneath a slim veneer of their new faith, persisted with asceticism and detachment. What transformed asceticism into mysticism was something quite radical: an unabashed love of God. This transformation has been symbolically ascribed to a woman from Basra, Rabi’ah al-Adawiyah (d. 801?), among the first to articulate the mystic ideal of a disinterested love of God, as in her prayer below.
‘O God, if I worship Thee for fear of Hell, burn me in Hell, and if I worship Thee in hope of Paradise, exclude me from Paradise; but if I worship Thee for Thy own sake, grudge me not Thy everlasting beauty.’ 
Many believers who were also drawn to rational philosophy found its objective accounts of God unsatisfactory. They yearned for a God who was more immediate and sympathetic than the remote God of the philosophers and the legalistic God of the theologians (the ulema). Early Islamic mystics, or Sufis,  thus evolved a more subjective notion of God: each of us can experience the divine differently; revelation is an event that unfolds deep within us; each of us, through our own effort, can reach out to the divine.
A systematic destruction of the ego (fana) and surrender of the self to God became central to the Sufi ideal: one who discards his ego to discover the divine presence at the heart of his own being would experience greater self-realization and self-control. ‘Man becomes dead unto himself and alive unto God.’  Many practiced celibacy as a mystic ideal, flouting the example of matrimony set by Muhammad himself. Scholars like Majid Fakhry have noted Hindu influences on ‘this bold concept of annihilation of the ego and the reabsorption of the human in the divine’ (many early mystics in Persia had Hindu teachers).