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The Arabic word tarika refers to mystical and semi-secret brotherhoods of Muslims (followers of Islam). These groups were usually distinct from the ulema or officially mandated scholars, and often acted as informal missionaries of Islam. They provided accepted avenues for emotional expressions of faith, and their takirs or dervishes (not all of whom were Sufi), spread to all corners of the Muslim world, and often exercised inordinate political influence.

Their history is poorly documented. One could reasonably trace their history at least to the Sufi military advisors of Tamarlane. They were little known outside the Muslim world even at the end of the 19th century, a mark of their success at concealing their existence and doctrines. Through most of the 20th century, even Islamic scholars were reluctant to discuss their role in Islam, and few sources were available (most of which are listed at end of this article).

Some believe that such groups as the Muslim Brotherhoods (in many countries) and specifically the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt (the first, or first known), are modern inheritors of the tradition of lay tarika in Islam.

This characterization is probably unfair. Certain scholars, e.g. G. H. Jansen, credit the original tarika with several specific accomplishments:

  1. preventing Islam from becoming a cold and formal doctrine, by constantly infusing it with local and emotionally popular input, including stories and plays and rituals not part of Islam proper (a parallel would be the role of Aesop relative to the Greek mythos.
  2. spreading the faith in east Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, where orthodox Islamic leaders and scholars had little or no direct influence on people.
  3. leading Islam's military and political battles against the enroaching power of Christian West, as far back as the Qadiri order of the twelfth century.

The last of these accomplishments suggests that the analogy with the modern Muslim Brotherhoods is probably accurate, but incomplete.

See also: Turuq, Sufi, Tijaniyya, Sanusi, Moulids, Bektashi, Dervishes, Mevlevi. Muslim brotherhoods, and (for contrast) ulema, mullah, ayatollah.

External references:

G. H. Jansen, "Militant Islam", Pan, London 1979
F. de Jong, "Turuq and Turuq-Linked Institutions in Nineteenth-Century Egypt", Brill, Leiden,1978
M. D. Gilsenen, "Saint and Sufi in Modern Egypt", Oxford, 1978
M. Berger, "Islam in Egypt today - social and political aspects of popular religion", London, 1970
J. M. Abun-Nasr, "The Tijaniyya", London 1965
E. E. Evans-Pritchard, "The Sanusi of Cyrenaica", Oxford, 1949
J. W. McPherson, "The Moulids of Egypt", Cairo, 1941
J. K. Birge, "The Bektashi Order of Dervishes", London and Hartford, 1937
O. Depont and X. Coppolani, "Les confreries religieuses musulmans" (the Muslim brotherhoods as they existed then), Algiers, 1897