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Sufism is a mystic tradition that found a home in Islam and encompasses a diverse range of beliefs and practices dedicated to Allah, divine love and the cultivation of the heart.

"Sufism" has been defined as a type of knowledge by the great Muslim Sufi masters. Shaykh Ahmad Zarruq, a 14th century Sufi who wrote "The Principles of Sufism" defined Sufism as, "a science whose objective is the reparation of the heart and turning it away from all else but God.” Ibn 'Ajiba, one of the best known Sufi masters defined Sufism as "a science through which one can know how to travel into the presence of the Divine,purify one’s inward from filth,and beautify it with a variety of praiseworthy traits."

The man-made Tariqas (Sufi orders) may be associated with Shi'a Islam, Sunni Islam, other currents of Islam, or a combination of multiple traditions like Hinduism and Buddhism. It has been suggested that Sufi thought emerged from the Middle East in the eighth century, but adherents are now found around the world.[1] A few new Sufi groups have also claimed that Sufism pre-dates Islam and they operate with only very tenuous links to Islam.

Basic Beliefs

The essence of Being/Truth/God is devoid of every specific form and quality, and hence unmanifested, yet it is inseparable from every form and phenomenon either material or spiritual. All created beings carry within themselves, or more precisely within their spiritual being, the spiritual presence of God. This is often understood to imply that every phenomenon is an aspect of Truth and at the same time attribution of existence to it is false. The chief aim of all Sufis then is to let go of all notions of duality, therefore the individual self also, and realize the divine unity.

Sufis teach in personal groups, as the interaction 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 false truth, and wrong knowledge of oneself. Although philosophies vary between 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 Zen Buddhism and Gnosticism.

A significant part of Persian literature comes from the Sufis, who created books of poetry (which include for example the Walled Garden of Truth, Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, the Conference of the Birds and the Masnavi), all of which contain teachings of the Sufis.


The word Sufism comes from the Greek 'Sophia' which means wisdom. Another possiblity is the Arabic sūf, meaning wool, a reference to their rough woolen robes.[2] Sufism is generally reckoned to originate from the Shiite muslims around in Basra which is todays Iraq. Some Sufi teachers[How to reference and link to summary or text] have claimed that Sufism pre-dates Islam and simply adopted Islam as a suitable vehicle. Almost all traditional Sufi schools (orders) trace their "chains of transmission" back to the Prophet via his cousin and son-in-law Imam Ali ibn Abi Talib except the Naqshbandi order which traces its origin to caliph Abu Bakr. From their point of view, the esoteric teaching was given to those who had the capacity to contain the direct experiential gnosis of God, and then passed on from teacher to student through the centuries.

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. And Louis Massignon states: "It is from the Qur’an, constantly recited, meditated, and experienced, that Sufism proceeded, in its origin and its development."[3]

The Great masters of Sufism

The Sufis dispersed throughout the Middle East, particularly in the areas previously under Byzantine influence and control. This period was characterised by the practice of an apprentice (murid) placing himself under the spiritual direction of a Master (shaykh or pir).

Schools were developed, concerning themselves with the topics of mystical experience, education of the heart to rid itself of baser instincts, the love of God, and approaching God through progressive stages (maqaam) and states (haal). The schools were formed by reformers who felt their core values and manners had disappeared in a society marked by material prosperity that they saw as eroding the spiritual life.

Uwais al-Qarni, Harrm Bin Hian, Hasan Ul-Basri and Sayid Ibn Ul Mussib are regarded as the first mystics among the "Taabi'een" in Islam. Rabi'a al-'Adawiyya was a female Sufi and known for her love and passion for God. Junayd was among the first theorist of Sufism; he concerned himself with ‘fanaa’ and ‘baqaa’, the state of annihilating the self in the presence of the divine, accompanied by clarity concerning worldly phenomena.

Formalization of philosophies of Sufism

Al Ghazali's treatises, the "Reconstruction of Religious Sciences" and the "Alchemy of Happiness," argued that Sufism originated from the Qur'an making it compatible with mainstream Islamic thought and theology. It was around 1000 CE that the early Sufi literature, in the form of manuals, treatises, discourses and poetry, became the source of Sufi thinking and meditations.

Data Durbar Complex in Pakistan , Mausoleum of Data Ganj Bakhsh

Propagation of Sufism

Sufism, during 1200-1500 CE, experienced an era of increased activity in various parts of the Islamic world. This period is considered as the "Classical Period" or the "Golden Age" of Sufism. Lodges and hospices soon became not only places to house Sufi students, but also places for practising Sufis and other mystics to stay and retreat.

The propagation of Sufism started from its origins in Baghdad in Shiah majority areas, such as Iraq and Khorasan, and spread to Persia, Pakistan, India, North Africa, and Muslim Spain. There were tests of conciliation between Sufism and the 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" , since 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 Turkey, Sahabuddin Suharwardi in Iran, and Moinuddin Chishti in India.

Mausoleum of Shah Rukn-e-Alam (A sufi saint) in Multan, Pakistan

Sufi Mosque in Katwijk, The Netherlands

Modern Sufism

This period includes the effects of modern thoughts , science & philosophy on Sufism, and the advent of Sufism to the West. Important Sufis of this period include Salaheddin Ali Nader Shah Angha, Shah Maghsoud Sadegh Angha, Inayat Khan , Idries Shah, Bawa Muhaiyaddeen, Muzaffer Ozak, Javad Nurbakhsh, Hisham Kabbani, Nuh Ha Mim Keller, Samuel L. Lewis and Shaykh Sidi Muhammad al-Jamal who have in great measure been responsible for the continued introduction and spread of the Sufi path in the modern West.


A number of scholars perceive influences on Sufism from pre-Islamic and non-Islamic schools of mysticism and philosophy. Some of these new 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 such as Gnosticism, Judaism, and the concept of God realisation and becomming one with is very similar with the Advaitha ( Non-dual) philosophy of Vedic system Hinduism into Islam [4]. There are also claims regarding ancient Egyptian roots of Sufism which are not widely accepted. [5]

Sufi concepts

Main article: Sufi philosophy

The Six Subtleties

Realities of The Heart:[6] 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 colour and general area of the body, ofttimes 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 Muraqabah (Sufi Meditation), Dhikr (Remembrance of God) and purification of one's psyche from 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 & 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), illumination of the spirit (Tajjali-I-Ruh) fortified by emptying of egoic drives (Taqliyya-I-Sirr) and remembrance of God's attributes (Dhikr), and completion of journey with purification of the last two faculties, Khafi & Akhfa. Through these "organs" or faculties and the transformative results from their activation, the basic Sufi psychology is outlined and bears some resemblance to the schemata of kabbalah and the tantric chakra system.

Sufi cosmology

Main article: 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 al-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.

See also: Plane (cosmology) Esoteric cosmology.

Sufi practices

A Sufi man goes into a trance during a ritual in Khartoum, Sudan


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.

It is interesting to note that 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. This may imply that the Sufi mystical system has its origins in Judaism and its mystical tradition the Kabbalah.

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).


Main article: Hadhra

Hadhra is a dance associated with dhikr practiced primarily in the Arab world. The word Hadhra means Presence in Arabic. Sometimes the sufi songs, or dances are performed as an appeal for the Presence of God, his prophets, and angels.


Qawwali is a form of devotional Sufi music common in India, Pakistan, 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.


Sama or Sema' (Arabic "listening") refers to Sufi worship practices involving 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 inspiration – 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.

Orders of Sufism

Main article: Tariqa

Traditional orders

The traditional Sufi orders emphasize 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 Qadiri, Chisti, Oveyssi, Shadhili, Jerrahi, Naqshbandi, Naqshbandia Owaisiah, Ashrafi, Nimatullahi and Mevlevi. One proof traditional orders assert is that almost all the famous Sufi masters of the Islamic Caliphate times 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 live correct with 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 Mevlevi Order of America, the Golden Sufi Center, the Sufi Foundation of America, and Sufism Reoriented.

Universal Sufism

Main article: 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.[How to reference and link to summary or text] 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, and Idries Shah advocated similar concepts. Irina Tweedie and Abdullah Dougan also taught outside the Islamic context while maintaining the connection to their Naqshbandi heritage.

There is also an attempt to reconsider Sufism in contemporary Muslim thought from within. According to this view, Sufism represents the core sense of Islam that gives insight to God and His creation.

Korean Sufism

Main article: Unificationism

However the former Unification Church wants to approach it's own existence the truth remains that by advocating the "unification" of all the world's religions Sun Myung Moon has preached a form of Sufism since the holy child appeared to him on Easter April 18, 1936 to give him his mission. The fact the the Unification church no longer exists as a church has to do with the reason that Rev. Moon never realized the true foundation his church rested on was not just christianity but the one built over the centuries by the Sufis themselves; whose message he ignored and trivialized by considering their work to be an offshoot of traditional Islam and not the one his own church was supposed to exemplify. The "land" of Korea as the "third Israel" is therfore a misreading of why Islam was given the land of Canaan itself by Jesus; and why America is considered the "Child of Israel"; which Sun Myung Moon calls the "second Israel". Properly speaking it was Islam which is the "second Israel" as when Muhammed cleansed the Kaa'ba he restored the position of the "elder brother" as being loyal in the "Cain position" as basic unification church theological terms. This group has been totally ignored by Sun Myung Moon: to his own detriment and that of his followers. That this relationship was known by the Templars and others can be seen in "Parsifal" by Wolfram Von Eschenbach and other Grail literature where the Grail Maiden is given in marriage to the "mottled" brother: the Muslim Fieferiz. That Lord Jesus gave the "kingdom to a nation bringing forth the fruits of it" can be seen in the "fruit" of the Tree of life which is Unity; this being what the flesh and blood of Jesus really signified to any who truly "ate" of him; as the Sufis obviously had; which is why they said: "Who tastes: knows". This is why the Sufis say that nominal christianity "had the Cross" but that they "had" Jesus(Isa). Being "unificationists" from the beginning it is all too clear why the Sufis have always preached the Unity behind the various "forms" of the 3 monotheistic religions; and the other attendent 4 as well. ( The Way of Confucious; the Path of Buddha; the Life of Socrates: and the Truth of Quetzacoatl. Of note to this "overlooked" avatar by Rev. Moon in his book "Divine Principle" (published in 1973) is when Jesus Christ referred directly to Quetzacoatl or "the avatar of the West" when he said: "Be thou wise as serpents: and innocent as doves." This is indeed the "winged feathered serpent".)

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. Sunni Islam consists of a number of schools of legal jurisprudence (called Madhabs). 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. Belief in Sufism is not sufficient for being recognized as a Sufi. Classic Sufi tariqas insist on adherence to one of the four Madhabs of Fiqh and one of the two orthodox schools of Aqida. 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.

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 Sufi orders and their history.

According to the followers of Sufism, the founders and early scholars of the schools (madhhabs) had positive attitudes towards Sufism, for example Imam Ibn Hambal used to visit the Sufi master Bishr al Hafi frequently. [7] Later, there were some scholars who considered some aspects of Sufism rank heresy as well as those like Al-Ghazali who defended Sufis as true Muslims. In time, even the controversial words of Al-Hallaj came to be accepted by some scholars.

Today, many Islamic scholars (though not all) hold Tasawwuf, in the sense of Sufi doctrines and philosophies, to be the science of the heart or gnosis (as distinct from other branches of Islamic knowledge which are exoteric in nature) and appreciate Sufis for their extensive contributions to Islamic arts and philosophy. This idea of the view of muslims about sufis and tasawwuf really depends on the persons knowledge about sufism/tasawwuf and sharia/islam. So be it a layman or a scholar to some extent, it is his access to or restriction to access to true knoweldge which makes him accept or hold back tasawwuf. True scholars of traditional Islam (sunni - following a madhhab and ashari or maturidi aqida) seldom go against it. They, on the other hand, place tasawwuf as the third of the three foundation of his action - faith, submission and perfection. Here tenets of faith deals with the faith or belief system - the doctrinal faith. Submission is by following the sharia and perfection is by cleaning the heart and purifying oneself from the mundane traits so that his devotion is completely and perfectly for Allah and no one else.

Many Muslims who are not themselves Sufis are influenced by Sufi teachings. Because they know that in order to complete their islam - the perfection part, they must practice sufism to some extent.

Controversy and criticism of Sufism

Sufism is a somewhat controversial subject today. For didactic convenience, the perspectives on Sufism as a part of Islam will be mentioned first and after that, the non Muslim groups who claim to be Sufi adherents.

Classic position on Sufism

Sufism was traditionally considered the systematisation of the spiritual component of Islam. It dealt with matters of the heart (just as Fiqh dealt with the body and Aqida dealt with the intellect). Many of the greatest Islamic scholars wrote treatises on the subject (eg. Al-Ghazali's ihya ulum-aldeen (احياء علوم الدين), Imam Nawawi's Bustan al-Arifeen etc.). Many of the traditional scholars who were part of famous Islamic institutions (eg. Al-Azhar) like Ibn Ata'illah were Sufi masters. Even today, many of the traditional Islamic universities like Al-Azhar endorse Sufism as a part of the religion of Islam [8]. Many of the famous Islamic scholars have praised Sufis and their practices. [9]

However, 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.[10] One of the most vocal critics of such deviations from the Islamic creed was Ibn Taymiya. [11]

Criticism of Sufism

The adherents of the Salafi school of thought form the majority of Muslims opposed to Tasawwuf. They hold that Sufism was always held to be an innovation even by the earliest scholars. [12][13] Some of their main criticisms are listed below.

  1. Sufi masters have introduced many special prayers and devotional acts into their schools. These are criticised as being reprehensible innovations which are at best unnecessary. The supporters of Sufism defend their position by saying that innovations can be classified into good and bad ones. They hold that the textually transmitted prayers and invocations are superior in all respects to the ones they institute and that the latter only plays a reinforcing role rather than a main one [14][15]
  2. Some point to certain practices like singing being inconsistent with the Sharia. Sufis defend their position by quoting prophetic traditions that condone certain forms of non instrumental music (refer links above).
  3. The allegorical and often abstruse language used by Sufis in their texts when interpreted by unqualified people opens avenues for many misunderstandings. eg. The concept of divine unity Wahdat-ul-wujood which critics consider equivalent to pantheism and therefore incompatible with Islam.[16] 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. [17]

Islamic positions on non Islamic Sufi groups

The use of the title Sufi by many groups to refer to themselves and their use of traditional Sufi masters (notably Jalaluddin Rumi) as sources of inspiration as well as the existence of interpretations of classical Sufis texts by people who have no grounding in traditional Islamic sciences has created a group of non-Islamic Sufis. These are considered by certain conventional Islamic scholars as "beyond the pale" of the religion.[How to reference and link to summary or text] However, Sufis are often encouraged to observe a higher degree of forebearance. Some Sufi Sheikhs, although having been initiated in an Islamic setting themselves, have gone on to teach more widely and to make it clear that students of Sufism need not formally embrace Islam.

See also

Sufism may have more about this subject.

  • Suluk
  • Sufi poetry
  • Salik
  • Malamatiyya
  • Haqiqa
  • Khanqah
  • List of famous Sufis
  • List of Sufism related topics
  • Nazar ill'al-murd
  • Nur al-Jerrahi
  • Ziyarat
  • Keramat
  • Wahdat-ul-Wujood
  • Frithjof Schuon
  • Sufi rock
  • Sufi whirling
  • Sema


  1. Encyclopedia Britannica 2005
  2. Bowker, John. Religions. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK. 2002. p. 285
  3. Massignon, Louis. Essai sur les origines du lexique technique de la mystique musulmane. Paris: Vrin, 1954. p. 104.
  6. Lataif
  8. Keller, Nuh Ha Mim. Reliance of the traveller. "we certify that the above-mentioned translation corresponds to the Arabic original and confirms to the practice and faith of the orthodox Sunni community (ahl al-Sunna wa al-Jama'a)"
  9. For a list, please refer to scholars on Sufism.
  11. For a detailed essay on the role that Sufism plays in traditional Islam, please refer to Place of Tasawwuf in traditional Islam


  • Tasawwuf an Objective Appraisalby Maullana Allah Yar Khan, reviver Shaikh of Naqshbandia Owaisiah order of Sufism
  • The Sufis by Idries Shah (1971) ISBN 0-385-07966-4
  • The Way of the Sufi by Idries Shah (1991) ISBN 0-14-019252-* "Yogis in Silence", by RKGupta published by M/s BRPC Ltd., Daryaganj, New Delhi
  • "Sufism Beyond Religion",by RKGupta published by M/s BRPC Ltd., Daryaganj, New Delhi
  • "Prem Pravartak Sufi" (in Hindi)by RKGupta published by M/s BRPC Ltd., Daryaganj, New Delhi
  • "The Science and Philosophy of Spirituality", by RKGupta published by M/s BRPC Ltd., Daryaganj, New Delhi
  • "Sufi Santmat-Darshan aur Vigyan" ( in Hindi) by RKGupta published by M/s BRPC Ltd., Daryaganj, New Delhi
  • The Rules of Secrets of the Naqshbandi Order by Omar Ali Shah (1998) ISBN 2-909347-09-5
  • [1][2][3] Excrepts/Books by Abdul Qadir Jilani
  • [4][5] Excrepts/Books by Ibn Arabi

External links


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