Mufti Ebrahim Desai:
There are four famous schools in Sufism – Chistiyya, Naqshabandi, Saharwardiyya, Qaadriyya. Each school has prescribed its own way of reformation. However, the ultimate purpose is Ma’ rifat (recognition) of Allah Ta’ala and Ittiba-e-Sunnah (following the Sunnah).
1. The Qadiri silsilah: which is attributed to Shaykh Abdul Qadir al-Jilani (470-561 A.H.)
2. The Chishti silsilah: which is attributed to Khwaja Mu’inuddin al-Chishti (527-633 A.H.)
3. The Suhrawardi silsilah: which is attributed to Shaykh Shihab al-Din al-Suhrawardi (539-632 A.H.)
4. The Naqshbandi silsilah: which is attributed to Khwaja Baha’ al-Din al-Naqshbandi (718-791 A.H.)
The silsilahs of these four pious saints (may Allah enlighten their graves) became more well-known because Allah used the four of them extensively for the task of spiritual purification (tazkiyah). Their influence not only spread very far but was also pure and complete (in its adherence to Islamic principles). These mashayikh, in terms of both knowledge and practice, served tasawwuf and suluk so magnificently that all later-day mashayikh openly accepted their greatness and spiritual excellence and they took pride in attributing themselves to and understood the protection of their deen to be in their noble silsilahs. At the same time, one cannot forget that aside from these four saints, other great shaykhs also existed and served the deen with their knowledge and action.
The chains of these four particular silsilahs, after passing through many well-known and pious walis of Allah eventually reach the Tabi’in and Sahabah (may Allah be pleased with them), and the chain of ba’yah (pledge) of the four silsilahs end at the pious khalifahs (may Allah be pleased with them). The Pious Khalifas (may Allah be pleased with them) pledged allegiance at the hands of the Noble Prophet (upon him blessings and peace) (bay’ah of faith, jihad, leaving sin), a manifest fact for which no evidence is needed.
Below the four mashayikh of the famous silsilahs, many branches later came into existence and the branches of these spiritual chains still exist today (like the lineal family trees of ancestral heritage). Fourteen branches of tasawwuf are more well-known, but Shaykh Mawlana Rashid Ahmad Gangohi (may Allah have mercy on him) once wrote in a letter:
“…and there are four families: the Qadiri, Chishti, Naqshbandi, and Suhrawardi. A family lineage is that which consists of branches. The branches are numerous. Those who have mentioned fourteen did so because at the time only fourteen branches existed. Later more came into existence. In other words, the spiritual lines are many and fourteen were only at a particular time. Now, it is not correct to say fourteen. It is old terminology.” (Makatib Rashidiyya pg.79 Mirath edition)
In the silsilas of some of the mashayikh of the near past, such as Haji Imdadullah Muhajir Makki, Mawlana Rashid Ahmad Gangohi, and Mawlana Ashraf Ali Thanwi (may Allah enlighten their graves), the salik was instructed to give bay’ah in all four silsilahs so that all the saints be respected equally and to avoid any discrimination between them.
Part of an article: http://www.ilmgate.org/the-silsilahs-of-tasawwuf-and-the-reality-of-bayah/