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Sufism n : Islamic mysticism

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  • Croatian: sufizam
  • German: Sufismus

Extensive Definition

Sufism ( - taṣawwuf, Turkish: tasavvuf, Persian: صوفی‌گری, sufigari) is generally understood by scholars to be the inner or mystical dimension of Islam. A practitioner of this tradition is generally known as a Sūfī (), though some senior members of the tradition reserve this term for those practitioners who have attained the goals of the Sufi tradition. Another common denomination is the word Dervish (derived from - darwīš).
Shaykh Ahmad Zarruq, a 15th century Shadhili Sufi master, wrote in his major work "The Principles of Sufism" (Qawa`id al-Tasawwuf) that:
Shaykh Ahmad ibn Ajiba, a famous Moroccan Sufi in the Darqawi lineage, defined Sufism as:
Sufi Orders or Sufi Brotherhoods are traditionally known as Tariqa. They may be associated with Sunni Islam or Shia Islam, though the major ones, such as the Qādirī and Naqšhbandī orders, are associated with traditional Sunni Islam and are accepted by the majority of 'folk Muslims'.


The conventional view is that the word originates from (sūf), the Arabic word for wool, referring to the simple cloaks the early Muslim ascetics wore. However, not all sufis wear cloaks or clothes of wool. Another etymological theory states that the root word of Sūfi is the Arabic word صفا (safā), meaning purity. This places the emphasis of Sufism on purity of heart and soul.
Others suggest the origin of sufism is from Ašhab as-Sufā ("Companions of the Porch") or Ahl as-Sufā ("People of the Porch"), who were a group of Muslims during the time of the Prophet Mohammad who spent much of their time on the veranda of the Prophet's mosque, devoted to prayer. Yet another etymology, advanced by the 10th century Persian historian Abū Rayhān al-Bīrūnī is that the word, as sūfīya, is linked with the word sophia, the Greek term for wisdom.

Basic beliefs

While all Muslims believe that they are on the pathway to God and will become close to God in Paradise — after death and after the "Final Judgment" — Sufis believe as well that it is possible to become close to God and to experience this closeness while one is alive. The chief aim of all Sufis then is to let go of all notions of duality, including a conception of an individual self, and to realize the Divine unity.
Sufis generally teach in personal groups, as the counsel of the master is considered necessary for the growth of the pupil. They make extensive use of parable, allegory, and metaphor, and it is held by Sufis that meaning can only be reached through a process of seeking the truth, and knowledge of oneself. Although philosophies vary among different Sufi orders, Sufism as a whole is primarily concerned with direct personal experience, and as such may be compared to various forms of mysticism such as Bhakti form of Hinduism, Hesychasm, Zen Buddhism, Kabbalah, Gnosticism and Christian mysticism.
A significant part of oriental literature comes from the Sufis, who created books of poetry containing the teachings of the Sufis. Some of the more notable examples of this poetry are Attar's Conference of the Birds and Rumi's Masnavi.

History of Sufism


Sufism is generally believed to have originated among Muslims near Basra in modern Iraq, though there is a history of Sufism in Transoxania dating from shortly after the time of Muhammad. From the traditional Sufi point of view, the esoteric teachings of Sufism were transmitted from the Prophet Muhammad, who was taught by God, to those who had the capacity to contain the direct experiential gnosis of God, which was passed on from teacher to student through the centuries. Almost all traditional Sufi schools (or "orders") trace their "chains of transmission" back to Prophet Muhammad via his cousin and son-in-law Ali ibn Abi Talib. The Naqshbandi order is a notable exception to this rule, as it traces its origin to the first Islamic Caliph Abdullah (Abu Bakr).
Some orientalist scholars believe that Sufism was essentially the result of Islam evolving in a more mystic direction. For example, Annemarie Schimmel proposes that Sufism in its early stages of development meant nothing but the interiorization of Islam. According to Louis Massignon: "It is from the Qur’an, constantly recited, meditated, and experienced, that Sufism proceeded, in its origin and its development."

The Great Masters of Sufism

The Sufis dispersed throughout the Middle East, particularly in areas previously under Byzantine influence and control. This period was characterized by the practice of an apprentice (murid) placing himself under the spiritual direction of a Master (shaykh, pir or murshid).
Schools were developed, concerning themselves with topics of mystical experience, education of the heart to purify it of baser instincts, the love of God, and approaching God through progressive stages (maqaam) and states (haal). The schools were championed by reformers who felt their core values and manners were threatened, as the material prosperity of society seemed to them to be eroding the spiritual life.Uwais al-Qarni, Harrm bin Hian, Hasan al-Basri and Sayid ibn al-Mussib are regarded as the first mystics among the "Taabi'een" in Islam. Rabia al-Basri was a female Sufi and known for her love and passion for God. Junayd al-Baghdadi was among the first theorists of Sufism; he concerned himself with fanā and baqā, the state of annihilating the self in the presence of the divine, accompanied by clarity concerning worldly phenomena derived from the altitude of that perspective.
Mevlânâ Celaleddin-i-Rumi (Jalāl-e-Dīn Rūmī, Balkh, 30 September 1207 - Waksh , 17 December 1273 - Konya) is known as Rumi in the West. He was a universal mystic and a devout Muslim. His way of sufism teaches unlimited tolerance, positive reasoning, goodness, charity and awareness through love. The Mevlevi order was formalized and propagated by his son Sultan Walad and the scribe of the Mathnawi, Husamaddin Chalabi.
"So long as my life persists, I'm the servant of the Qur'an"
"A dust on the path of Muhammad, the Chosen,"
"If one conveys contrary to my words,"
"Disgusted I am from the conveyor and from the conveyed."
It has been suggested that Sufism was later influenced by Hindu, Sikh, and Buddhist culture when Islam was introduced in South Asia.
The Chishti order was founded by Abu Ishaq al-Shami ("the Syrian") who brought Sufism to the town of Chisht, now Afghanistan. The Chishti Order was first introduced in India by Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti (1143-1223 AD) and is the oldest known order.
The dates of the founding of the orders are as follows:
The propagation of Sufism started in Baghdad, and spread to Persia, India, North Africa, and Spain. There were tests of conciliation between Sufism and other Islamic sciences (Sharia, Fiqh, etc.), as well as the beginning of the Sufi Brotherhoods (Turuq).
One of the first orders to originate was the Yasawi order, named after Khwajah Ahmed Yesevi in modern Kazakhstan. The Kubrawiya order, originating in Central Asia, was named after Najmeddin Kubra, known as the "Saint-producing Shaykh," because a number of his disciples became Shaykhs. The most prominent Sufi master of this era is Abdul Qadir Jilani, the founder of the Qadiriyyah order in Iraq. Others included Rumi, founder of the Mevlevi order in Konya, modern day Turkey, Sahabuddin Suharwardi in Iran, Moinuddin Chishti and Makhdoom Ashraf in India.
Mujaddid Alf Sani, a 17th century reformer of the Naqshbandi order, is also a seminal personality in the propagation of Sufism, as he began a movement that aimed to purify Islam of pantheist influence by returning to its basic sources (Quran and Sunna), while maintaining the integrity of its spiritual dimension.

Sufism's Role in the Expansion of Islam

Sufism is flexible in terms of religious materiality. This characteristic of Sufism attracted the nomadic people of mid-western Asia (mainly the current Iranic and Turkic republics of Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan). Sufism also spread quickly among the Anatolian and Azerbaijani Turkmen and among the Balkan peoples of modern Albania, Bosnia, Macedonia, and Bulgaria.
The mystics of Khorasan, like Ahmad Yasavi and Hajji Bektash Wali, were influential in the spread of Sufi Islam first in Asia Minor and then in Eastern Europe as the Seljuk and Ottoman Turks extended their empires.

Modern Sufism

One of the first Western Sufis to return to Europe as an official representative of a Sufi path, and with the specific purpose to spread Sufism in Western Europe, was the Swedish-born wandering Sufi Abd al-Hadi Aqhili (1869-1917).
During the 20th Century, as the ottoman caliphate was abolished, the Muslim world fragmented and experienced major upheavals Sufis gave birth to political movements; Hassan al-Banna, founder of the Muslim Brotherhood was from a Sufi background, as was Taqiuddin Nabhani founder of Hizb ut-Tahrir; taught by his great Sufi grandfather Yusuf Nabhani. Important Sufis alive today include Nader Angha, Nazim al-Qubrusi, Nuh Ha Mim Keller, Hamza Yusuf, Gohar Shahi, Tahir-ul-Qadri and Muzaffer Ozak. These individuals have in some measure been responsible for the continued introduction and spread of the Sufi path in the modern West.
Sufism also is popular in such African countries as Senegal, where it is seen as a mystical expression of Islam in Senegal. Mbacke suggests that one reason Sufism has taken hold in Senegal is because it can accommodate local beliefs and customs, which tend toward the mystical.


Some researchers find influences in Sufism from pre-Islamic and non-Islamic schools of mysticism and philosophy such as Neoplatonism. Some of these perspectives originate from the synthesis of Persian civilization with Islam, an emphasis on spiritual aspects of Islam, and the incorporation of ideas and practices from other mysticisms into Islam. The same has been said of Buddhism and ancient Egyptian spiritual practices. However, most Muslim theologians disagree with this.

Sufi Concepts

The Six Subtleties

Realities of The Heart: Drawing from Qur'anic verses, virtually all Sufis distinguish Lataif-e-Sitta (The Six Subtleties), Nafs, Qalb, Ruh, Sirr, Khafi & Akhfa. These lataif (singular : latifa) designate various psychospiritual "organs", or faculties of sensory perception.
Sufic development involves the awakening of these spiritual centers of perception that lie dormant in an individual. Each center is associated with a particular color and general area of the body, often with a particular prophet, and varies from order to order. The help of a guide is considered necessary to help activate these centers. After undergoing this process, the dervish is said to reach a certain type of "completion."
The person gets acquainted with the lataif one by one by Muraqaba (Sufi meditation), Dhikr (Remembrance of God) and purification of one's psyche of negative thoughts, emotions, and actions. Loving God and one's fellow, irrespective of his or her race, religion or nationality, and without consideration for any possible reward, is the key to ascension according to Sufis.
These six "organs" or faculties: Nafs, Qalb, Ruh, Sirr, Khafi and Akhfa, and the purificative activities applied to them, contain the basic orthodox Sufi philosophy. The purification of the elementary passionate nature (Tazkiya-I-Nafs), followed by cleansing of the spiritual heart so that it may acquire a mirror-like purity of reflection (Tazkiya-I-Qalb) and become the receptacle of God's love (Ishq) and illumination of the spirit (Tajjali-I-Ruh). This process is fortified by emptying of egoic drives (Taqliyya-I-Sirr) and remembrance of God's attributes (Dhikr), and completion of journey by purification of the last two faculties, Khafi and Akhfa.

Sufi Cosmology

Although there is no consensus with regard to Sufi cosmology, one can disentangle at least three different cosmographies: Ishraqi visionary universe as expounded by Suhrawardi Maqtul, Neoplatonic view of cosmos cherished by Islamic philosophers like Ibn Sina and Sufis like Ibn Arabi, and Hermetic-Ptolemaic spherical geocentric world. All these doctrines (each one of them claiming to be impeccably orthodox) were freely mixed and juxtaposed, frequently with confusing results – a situation one also encounters in other esoteric doctrines.
One of the most thorough declarations of Sufi cosmology is found in the book God Speaks by Meher Baba.

Sufi Practices


Dhikr is the remembrance of God commanded in the Qur'an for all Muslims. To engage in dhikr is to have awareness of God according to Islam. Dhikr as a devotional act includes the repetition of divine names, supplications and aphorisms from hadith literature, and sections of the Qur'an. More generally, any activity in which the Muslim maintains awareness of God is considered dhikr.
The practice of Muraqaba and Dhikr have very close resemblance with the practices of the Jewish mystics. Muraqaba is very similar to the Merkavah practice, which is one of the meditations used by Kabbalists to attain higher states of consciousness.
Some Sufi orders engage in ritualized dhikr ceremonies, the liturgy of which may include recitation, singing, instrumental music, dance, costumes, incense, meditation, ecstasy, and trance. (Touma 1996, p.162).


Hadhra is a form of dhikr practiced primarily in the Arab world. The word Hadhra means Presence in Arabic.


Qawwali is a form of devotional Sufi music common in Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Afganistan, Iran and Turkey. It is known for its secular strains. Some of its modern-day masters have included Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and the Sabri Brothers. Amir Khusro, a disciple of Nizamuddin Auliya, of the Chishti Order, is credited with inventing Qawwali in the 14th century.


Sama or Sema' (Arabic "listening") refers to Sufi practices which can involve music and dance (see Sufi whirling). In Uyghur culture, this includes a dance form also originally associated with Sufi ritual. See Qawwali origins and Origin and History of the Qawwali, Adam Nayyar, Lok Virsa Research Centre, Islamabad, 1988.


Khalwa refers to a form of retreat, once widespread but now less common. A khalwa may be prescribed by the shaykh (spiritual advisor) of the murid or talib (student). Muslims believe that most of the prophets, and also Maryam (Mary) the mother of Issa (Jesus), lived in some form of seclusion at some point in their life. Prophet Muhammad, for example, used to retreat to the cave on Mount Hira where he received his first revelation – but had been going there for many years prior to his meeting with the angel Gabriel. Similar examples include Moses' going into seclusion for 40 days in a cave in Mt. Sinai. Mary was in seclusion in the Jewish temple for a year, where only Zakariya was permitted to see her.

Sufi Poetry

Sufism has produced a large body of poetry in Arabic, Persian, Punjabi, Sindhi, Turkish, Pashto and Urdu which notably includes the works of Sultan Bahu, Jalal al-Din Muhammad Rumi, al-Hallaj, Ibn al-Farid, Hafiz, Jami, Ibn Arabi, Farid Ud-Din Attar, Abdul Qader Bedil, Bulleh Shah, Amir Khusro, Gohar Shahi,Yunus Emre, Shah Abdul Latif Bhittai, Sachal Sarmast, Muhammad Iqbal as well as numerous traditions of devotional dance, such as Sufi whirling, and music, such as Qawwali.

Orders of Sufism

Traditional Orders

The traditional Sufi orders emphasise the role of Sufism within Islam. Therefore, the Sharia (traditional Islamic law) and the Sunnah (customs of the Prophet) are seen as crucial for any Sufi aspirant. Among the oldest and most well known of the Sufi orders are the Naqshbandi, Qadiri,Sarwariyya, Qadri Al-Muntahi, Chisti, Oveyssi, Shadhili,Jerrahi, Ashrafi, Bektashi, and Nimatullahi. One proof traditional orders assert is that almost all the famous Sufi masters of the past Caliphates were also experts in Sharia and were renowned as people with great Iman (faith) and excellent practice. Many were also Qadis (Sharia law judges) in courts. They held that Sufism was never distinct from Islam and to fully comprehend and practice Sufism one must be a practicing Muslim obeying the Sharia.
For a longer list of Sufi orders see: Sufi orders.

Non-Traditional Sufi Groups

In recent decades there has been a growth of non-traditional Sufi movements in the West. Some examples are Universal Sufism movement, the Golden Sufi Center, the Sufi Foundation of America, the Blaketashi Darwishes, Universalist Sufis and Sufism Reoriented.

Universal Sufism

Mainstream Sufism is seen by its scholars and supporters as a part of traditional Islam. However, there is a major line of non-Islamic or offshoot-Islamic Sufi thought that sees Sufism as predating Islam and being a universal philosophy, that is independent of the Qur'an and the teachings of Prophet Muhammad. This view of Sufism has been popular in the Western world. Universal Sufism tends to be opposed by traditional Sufis, who argue that Sufism has always been practiced from within an Islamic framework and can never be separated from it. Inayat Khan founded Universal Sufism whilst also maintaining his lineage in Chisti Sufism. It is fascinating to note that Khan's western lineage passed through his carefully chosen, Murshida Rabia Martin, and his western Order (America, Europe, and Australia) was respectfully given to Meher Baba which community ultimately became known as Sufism Reoriented. Idries Shah advocated similar concepts to those of Inayat Khan. Irina Tweedie and Abdullah Dougan also taught outside the Islamic context while maintaining the connection to their Naqshbandi heritage.

Traditional Islamic Schools of Thought and Sufism

Islam traditionally consists of a number of groups. The two main divisions are the Sunnis and the Shia. Shia and Sunni Islam consist of a number of schools of legal jurisprudence (called Madhabs). Majority of Sunni muslim scholars today follow one or more of the four major madhabs viz Hanafi, Shafi, Maliki and Hanbali. Sufis do not define Sufism as a madhhab — what distinguishes a person as a Sufi is practicing Sufism, usually through association with a Sufi order. In this sense, traditional practitioners of Sufism don't see it as an exclusive group but just as a form of training necessary to cultivate spirituality and Ihsan in their lives. Thus, sufis can be from shias or sunnis following any of the schools of jurisprudence. W. Chittick explains the position of Sufism and Sufis this way:
''In short, Muslim scholars who focused their energies on understanding the normative guidelines for the body came to be known as jurists, and those who held that the most important task was to train the mind in achieving correct understanding came to be divided into three main schools of thought: theology, philosophy, and Sufism. This leaves us with the third domain of human existence, the spirit. Most Muslims who devoted their major efforts to developing the spiritual dimensions of the human person came to be known as Sufis.''
The relationship between traditional Islamic scholars and Sufism is complicated due to the variety of views held among them. Many traditional scholars, such as Al-Ghazali, helped its propagation while certain medieval scholars, such as Ibn Taymiyyah, opposed it as an innovation.

Controversy and Criticism of Sufism

Classic Position on Sufism

Sufism emphasises non quantifiable matters (like states of the heart). The authors of various Sufi treatises often used allegorical language which couldn't be read by an unknowledgeable person to describe these states (eg. likened some states to intoxication, which is forbidden in Islam). This usage of indirect language and the existence of interpretations by people who had no training in Islam or Sufism led to doubts being cast over the validity of Sufism as a part of Islam. Also, some groups emerged that considered themselves above the Sharia and discussed Sufism as a method of bypassing the rules of Islam in order to attain salvation directly. This was disapproved of by traditional scholars. An example of such a deviant sufi was Abu Hilman. One of the most vocal critics of such deviations from the Islamic creed was Ibn Taymiya.

Criticism of Sufism

  1. Sufi masters have introduced many special prayers and devotional acts into their schools.
  2. The allegorical and often abstruse language used by Sufis in their texts when interpreted by unqualified people opens avenues for many misunderstandings. As an example, some critics consider the concept of divine unity Wahdat-ul-wujood equivalent to pantheism and therefore incompatible with Islam. Sufi masters in many of their introductory texts caution aspirants from reading and interpreting texts by themselves. They hold that the subject can only be taught by a master to a student under strict guidance and supervision owing to its delicate nature. This discussion only scratches the surface of a very involved and subtle issue.


In the Islamic Republic of Iran, Sufism has been growing in popularity and has an estimated two to five million practitioners, but has sometimes found itself criticized by and generally at odds with the political and religious authorities there.
A 14 February issue of Kayhan newspaper quoted senior clerics in Qom as saying that Sufism should be eradicated in that holy city, while the Reuters news agency reported that in September one of Iran's hard-line clerics, Grand Ayatollah Hossein Noori Hamedani, called for a clampdown on Sufis in the city. The governor of Qom, Abbas Mohtaj, has reportedly accused the dervishes of having links to foreign countries. Others officials maintain that "contrary to the propaganda that the world spreads against" the Islamic Republic, "there is no kind of problem for" Sufis in Iran., however, Sufis often allow a higher degree of forbearance.


Additional Reading

  • Al-Badawi, Mostafa. Sufi Sage of Arabia. Louisville: Fons Vitae, 2005.
  • Ali-Shah, Omar, The Rules or Secrets of the Naqshbandi Order, Tractus Publishers, 1992, ISBN 978-2-909347-09-7.
  • Arberry, A.J.. Mystical Poems of Rumi, Vols. 1&2. Chicago: Univ. Chicago Press, 1991.
  • Austin, R.W.J.. Sufis of Andalusia, Gloustershire: Beshara Publications, 1988.
  • Awakening of the Human Spirit, by Hazrat Inayat Khan
  • Bewley, Aisha. The Darqawi Way. London: Diwan Press, 1981.
  • Colby, Frederick. The Subtleties of the Ascension: Lata'if Al-Miraj: Early Mystical Sayings on Muhammad's Heavenly Journey. City: Fons Vitae, 2006.
  • Ernst, Carl. The Shambhala Guide to Sufism. Boulder: Shambhala, 1997.
  • Jean-Louis Michon. The Autobiography (Fahrasa) of a Moroccan Soufi: Ahmad Ibn `Ajiba (1747-1809). Louisville: Fons Vitae, 1999.
  • Lewinsohn (ed.), The Heritage of Sufism, Volume I: Classical Persian Sufism from its Origins to Rumi (700-1300).
  • Nurbakhsh, Javad, What is Sufism? electronic text derived from The Path, Khaniqahi Nimatullahi Publications, London, 2003 ISBN 0-933546-70-X.
  • Shah, Idries, The Sufis, (1971) ISBN 0-385-07966-4.
  • Shah, Idries, The Way of the Sufi, (1991) ISBN 0-14-019252.

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