Originally from Iran and with a lineage going back to the first caliph Abu Bakr, he was part of a well-known family of religious scholars and Shafi'i jurists. Like other members of the family, he moved from Suhraward in Iran and established himself in Baghdad, where he studied for eight years under his uncle Abu Najib al-Suhrwardi. Abu Najib (d. 563/1168) had been a disciple of Ahmad al-Ghazali, built a khānaqāh on the banks of the Tigris, and wrote a popular textbook Ādāb al-murīdīn. After his uncle's death in 563/1168, Abu Hafs 'Umar gave up his studies in favour of a lengthy period of retreat, fasting and dhikr. Having completed both his external and internal training, he then made a name for himself as public preacher in his uncle's madrasa.
In 579/1183 al-Nasir li-Din Allah became caliph, and at the age of forty Abu Hafs 'Umar became the director of a new Sufi institution named Ribat al-Ma'muniyya and formally assumed the title of shaykh al-tarbiya, responsible for initiating and training others. In 588/1192 he was sent by the caliph on the first of several important diplomatic missions. In 599/1203 he was installed as director of a new ribat, known as Ribat al-Marzubaniyya, which included his private home for his wife and family. He also became a preacher at the prestigious Badr al-Sharif Gate, near the Palace mosque Jami' al-Qasr. When the Hanbali theologian Ibn al-Jawzi fell from grace, the caliph al-Nasir appointed the more flexible Abu Hafs al-Suhrawardi as Shaykh al-Islam, and the latter, with the caliph's support and patronage, became instrumental in the formation of the futuwwa movement, the basis of the later Sufi orders.
One of the great teaching masters, who developed his uncle's methods, Abu Hafs was responsible for establishing the order that took his name, the Suhrawardiyya. He wrote ‘Awarif al-ma’arif (which can be translated variously as The Benefits of the Spiritually Learned or The Gifts of Spiritual Perceptions), one of the most popular Sufi textbooks for later generations. In later life he seems to have performed the pilgrimage to Mecca on a regular basis, granting students such as Baha' al-Din Zakariyya Multani (master of Fakhr al-Din 'Iraqi) permission to train disciples. Later reports also speak of al-Suhrawardi's meetings with other luminaries of his time, such as 'Abd al-Qadir al-Jilani, the Egyptian poet Ibn al-Farid and Ibn 'Arabi – these stories have been well analysed by Erik Ohlander in his study of Abu Hafs 'Umar, Sufism in an Age of Transition (Leiden 2008), pp. 113–133.
"Know – may God assist you – the creed which is protected against passions is a creed produced in a living heart through the recollection of God, a heart bedecked by piety and supported by guidance, a heart in which shines the light of faith, a light whose effects are apparent on the outer beig... it is a heart which God has returned to the spledor of its original nature (fiṭra) and a heart which He has cleasned from the effects of hearsay which accrue to the nafs, effects which imprint it with various idle suppositions and chimeras. It is a heart so fully preoccupied that suppositions and imaginative fancies are denied access, and indeed there is nothing like this heart except for the heart of the world-renouncer, because he has a heart surrounded by light, and verily the heart surrounded by light is none other than the heart of the renunciant (zāhid)." (from Aʿlām al-hudā, p. 49, trans. Erik Ohlander, p. 262)