Christian monks often live ascetic lives, devoting themselves to living a godly life. This usually includes a mystical element, which means an attempt at direct communion with God. Sufism shares this desire as well, and there are many similarities between Christian monks and Sufis. Sufism, however, should be understood as an Islamic form of mysticism rather than a version of Christian monastic life.
Defining Monks and Sufis
The Catholic Encyclopedia defines a monk as "a member of a community of men, leading a more or less contemplative life apart from the world, under the vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience." A Sufi is a Muslim mystic, and according to Oxford Islamic Studies Online, Sufis concentrate on being constantly aware of God, and they stress "contemplation over action, spiritual development over legalism, and cultivation of the soul over social interaction."
Similar, But Not the Same
A common misunderstanding of Sufism equates it with Christian mystical practices and points to Christianity as its origin. Sufism, however, understands itself as indigenously Islamic. Sufis believe Muhammad was the first of their kind, and they believe they are following his example. "Sufism, the mystical current inside Islam, developed logically out of the serious study of the Koran," wrote Annemarie Schimmel, an expert on Sufism.
Famous Monks and Sufis
A prominent Christian monk was Benedict of Nursia, who founded the Benedictine Order and developed the Rule of St. Benedict, which is still standard in most Catholic monasteries. Rabia was the first well-known Sufi, a woman who advocated a pure love of God that was not based on the promise of rewards or the punishment of hell. Other famous Sufis include Al-Hallaj, Hafiz and Rumi.
Muhammad and Bahira
Muhammad's most famous interaction with a Christian monk takes place in the story of Bahira. It's not known if Bahira actually existed, but the short version of the popular story is as follows: A young Muhammad travels to Syria with his uncle and a commercial trading caravan. A monk named Bahira invites the men to a feast, but Muhammad is left outside with the camels. Bahira insists on seeing everyone in the group, and upon seeing Muhammad, Bahira recognizes him as a prophet.
Christian Monks in the Quran
The Quran both compliments and condemns certain types of Christian monks. Surah 5, verse 82 states: "And you will find the nearest of them in affection to the believers those who say, 'We are Christians.' That is because among them are priests and monks and because they are not arrogant." On the other hand, surah 9, verse 34 of the Quran strongly rebukes monks who hoard gold and "devour the wealth of the people unjustly."
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