Sufism, an umbrella term for the ascetic and mystical movements within Islam. While Sufism is said to have incorporated elements of Christian monasticism, gnosticism, and Indian mysticism, its origins are traced to forms of devotion and groups of penitents (zuhhad) in the formative period of Islam. The early pious figures, later appropriated by Sufism, include Ali, Hasan al-Basri (d. 801), and Rabia al-Adawiyya, a woman from Basra (Iraq) who rejected worship motivated by the desire for heavenly reward or the fear of punishment and insisted on the love of God as the sole valid form of adoration. The word Sufi first appears in the 8th cent., probably in connection with the coarse wool that many ascetics wore.

Two central Sufi concepts are tawakkul, the total reliance on God, and dhikr, the perpetual remembrance of God. Al-Muhasibi (d. 857) and his disciple Junayd (d. 910) are representative early figures. The introduction of gnostic elements (marifa) into Sufism is often attributed to Dhu-n-Nun al-Misri (d. 859). Sufism nonetheless faced growing opposition from orthodox clerics. The scholastic and ecstatic paths further diverged with the concept of fana, the dissolution into the divine, advocated by al-Bistami (d. 874), and used by Hallaj in the declaration of his unity with God, which eventually led to his execution in 922. Islamic orthodoxy and Sufism were not irreconcilable, as attested by the attempt by al-Ghazali (d. 1111) to infuse conformist Muslim religious life with mysticism.

The evolution of Sufism in the post-Ghazali period was influenced by Ibn al-Arabi and Ibn al-Farid. Their theoretical contributions led to the development within Sufism of a complex system of initiation and progression toward the Divine and set the stage for the emergence of organized Sufi orders. This phase of literary Sufism was also characterized by the prominence of Persian works, notably those of Shihab ad-Din Suhrawardi (d. 1191), Farid ad-Din Attar, and Jalal ad-Din Rumi, and the subsequent development of Persian, Turkish, and Urdu mystic poetry. Important Sufi figures elsewhere in the Islamic world include Muin ad-Din Chishti in India and Baha ad-Din Naqshband (d. 1390) in central Asia.

Sufi orders, which assimilated aspects of native religious traditions more readily than more dogmatic versions of Islam, played a major role in the expansion of Islam into sub-Saharan Africa and central, S, and SE Asia. The oldest extant order with attested historicity is probably the Qadiriyya, founded by Abd al-Qadir al-Jilani (d. 1166) in Baghdad. Other important orders include the Ahmadiyya (notably in Egypt), Naqshbandiyya (Central Asia), Nimatullahiyya (Iran), Rifaiyya (Egypt, SW Asia), Shadhiliyya (N Africa, Arabia), Suhrawardiyya and Chishtiyya (S and central Asia), and Tijaniyya (N and W Africa).

The work of Idries Shah was instrumental in introducing Sufism to the West; see his The Sufis (1964) and The Way of the Sufi (1968). Although Sufism has made significant contributions to the spread of Islam and the development of various aspects of Islamic civilization (e.g., literature and calligraphy), many conservative Muslims disagree with many popular Sufi practices, particularly saint worship, the visiting of tombs, and the incorporation of non-Islamic customs. Consequently, in recent centuries Sufism has been a target for Islamic conservative and reformist movements.

See A. J. Arberry, Sufism (1970); L. Lewin, ed., The Diffusion of Sufi Ideas in the West (1972); A. Schimmel, Mystical Dimensions of Islam (1975) and As through a Veil (1982).

Sufism (تصوّف - taṣawwuf, Persian: صوفی‌گری, sufigari, Turkish: tasavvuf, Urdu: تصوف) is a mystical tradition of Islam. A practitioner of this tradition is generally known as a Sūfī (صُوفِيّ), though some adherents of the tradition reserve this term only for those practitioners who have attained the goals of the Sufi tradition. Another name sometimes used for the Sufi seeker is dervish.

Classical Sufi scholars have defined Sufism as:

"a science whose objective is the reparation of the heart and turning it away from all else but God."

Or, in the words of the renowned Darqawi Sufi teacher Ahmad ibn Ajiba:

"a science through which one can know how to travel into the presence of the Divine, purify one’s inner self from filth, and beautify it with a variety of praiseworthy traits."

The Sufi movement has spanned several continents and cultures over a millennium, at first expressed through Arabic, then through Persian, Turkish, and a dozen other languages. Sufi orders, most of which are Sunni in doctrine, trace their origins from the Prophet of Islam, Muhammad, through his cousin Ali or his father-in-law Abu Bakr. According to some modern proponents such as Idries Shah and Moustafa Gadalla, the Sufi philosophy is universal in nature, and its roots predate the arising of the modern-day religions. However, mainstream Sufis vehemently reject the notion of Sufism without Islam.


The lexical root of Sufi is variously traced to صوف (sūf), the Arabic word for wool, referring either to the simple cloaks the early Muslim ascetics wore, or possibly to the Arabic word صفا (safā), meaning purity. The two were combined by al-Rudhabari who said, "The Sufi is the one who wears wool on top of purity.

Others suggest the origin of the word Sufi is from Ashab as-Suffa ("Companions of the Porch"), who were a group of impoverished 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 and eager to memorize each new increment of the Qur'ân as it was revealed. Yet another etymology, advanced by the 10th century Persian historian Biruni is that the word is linked with the word sophia.

Basic views

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 also believe that it is possible to draw closer to God and to more fully embrace the Divine Presence in this life. The chief aim of all Sufis is to seek the pleasure of God by working to restore within themselves the primordial state of fitra , described in the Qur'an and similar to the concept of Buddha nature. In this state nothing one does defies God, and all is undertaken by the single motivation of love of God. A secondary consequence of this is that the seeker may be led to abandon all notions of dualism or multiplicity, including a conception of an individual self, and to realize the Divine Unity.

Thus Sufism has been characterized as the science of the states of the lower self (the ego), and the way of purifying this lower self of its reprehensible traits, while adorning it instead with what is praiseworthy, whether or not this process of cleansing and purifying the heart is in time rewarded by esoteric knowledge of God. This can be conceived in terms of two basic types of law (fiqh), an outer law concerned with actions, and an inner law concerned with the human heart. The outer law consists of rules pertaining to worship, transactions, marriage, judicial rulings, and criminal law — what is often referred to, a bit too broadly, as shariah. The inner law of Sufism consists of rules about repentance from sin, the purging of contemptible qualities and evil traits of character, and adornment with virtues and good character.

To enter the way of Sufism, the seeker begins by finding a teacher, as the connection to the teacher is considered necessary for the growth of the pupil. The teacher, to be genuine, must have received the authorization to teach (ijazah) of another Master of the Way, in an unbroken succession (silsilah) leading back to Sufism's origin with the Prophet Muhammad. It is the transmission of the divine light from the teacher's heart to the heart of the student, rather than of worldly knowledge transmitted from mouth to ear, that allows the adept to progress. In addition, the genuine teacher will be utterly strict in his adherence to the Divine Law .

Scholars and adherents of Sufism are unanimous in agreeing that Sufism cannot be learned through books. To reach the highest levels of success in Sufism typically requires that the disciple live with and serve the teacher for many, many years. For instance, Baha-ud-Din Naqshband Bukhari, considered founder of the Naqshbandi Order, served his first teacher, Sayyid Muhammad Baba As-Samasi, for 20 years, until as-Samasi died. He subsequently served several other teachers for lengthy periods of time. The extreme arduousness of his spiritual preparation is illustrated by his service, as directed by his teacher, to the weak and needy members of his community in a state of complete humility and tolerance for many years. When he believed this mission to be concluded, his teacher next directed him to take care for animals, curing their sicknesses, cleaning their wounds, and assisting them in finding provision. After many years of this he was next instructed to spend many years in the care of dogs in a state of humility, and to ask them for support.

As a further example, the prospective adherent of the Mevlevi Order would have been ordered to serve in the kitchens of a hospice for the poor for 1,001 days prior to being accepted for spiritual instruction, and a further 1,001 days in solitary retreat as a precondition of completing that instruction.

Some teachers, especially when addressing more general audiences, or mixed groups of Muslims and non-Muslims, make extensive use of parable, allegory, and metaphor. Although approaches to teaching vary among different Sufi orders, Sufism as a whole is primarily concerned with direct personal experience, and as such has sometimes been compared to other, non-Islamic forms of mysticism (e.g., as in the books of Seyyed Hossein Nasr).

History of Sufism


In its early stages of development Sufism effectively referred to nothing more than the internalization of Islam . According to one perspective, it is directly from the Qur’an, constantly recited, meditated, and experienced, that Sufism proceeded, in its origin and its development. Others have held that Sufism is the strict emulation of the way of Muhammad, through which the heart's connection to the Divine is strengthened.

From the traditional Sufi point of view, the esoteric teachings of Sufism were transmitted from the Prophet Muhammad to those who had the capacity to acquire the direct experiential gnosis of God, which was passed on from teacher to student through the centuries. Some of this transmission is summarized in texts, but most is not. Important contributions in writing are attributed to Uwais al-Qarni, Harrm bin Hian, Hasan Basri and Sayid ibn al-Mussib are regarded as the first Sufis in the earliest generations of Islam. Harith al-Muhasibi was the first one to write about moral psychology. Rabia Basri was a Sufi known for her love and passion for God, expressed through her poetry. Bayazid Bastami 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 that perspective.

Sufism had a long history already before the subsequent institutionalization of Sufi teachings into devotional orders (tarîqât) in the early Middle Ages. Almost all extant Sufi orders trace their chains of transmission (silsila) back to Prophet Muhammad via his cousin and son-in-law Ali. The Naqshbandi order is a notable exception to this rule, as it traces the origin of its teachings from the Prophet Muhammad to the first Islamic Caliph Abu Bakr.

Different devotional styles and traditions developed over time, reflecting the perspectives of different masters and the accumulated cultural wisdom of the orders. Typically all of these concerned themselves with the understanding of subtle knowledge (gnosis), education of the heart to purify it of baser instincts, the love of God, and approaching God through a well-described hierarchy of enduring spiritual stations (maqâmât) and more transient spiritual states (ahwâl).

Formalization of doctrine

Towards the end of the first millennium CE, a number of manuals began to be written summarizing the doctrines of Sufism and describing some typical Sufi practices. Two of the most famous of these are now available in English translation: the Kashf al-Mahjûb of Hujwiri, and the Risâla of Qushayri .

Two of Imam Al Ghazali's greatest treatises, the "Revival of Religious Sciences" and the "Alchemy of Happiness," argued that Sufism originated from the Qur'an and was thus compatible with mainstream Islamic thought, and did not in any way contradict Islamic Law — being instead necessary to its complete fulfillment. This became the mainstream position among Islamic scholars for centuries, challenged only recently on the basis of selective use of a limited body of texts. Ongoing efforts by both traditionally-trained Muslim scholars and Western academics are making Imam Al-Ghazali's works available in English translation for the first time, allowing readers to judge for themselves the compatibility between Islamic Law and Sufi doctrine.

These remarks concern written sources. It is to be remembered that Sufism is transmitted from the heart of the teacher to the heart of the student, not through texts; and also, that texts may not convey everything, or may be read by different seekers on different levels. Therefore the notion of a "formalization of doctrine" in Sufism is not strictly correct.

Growth of Sufi influence in Islamic cultures

The spread of Sufism has been considered a definitive factor in the spread of Islam, and in the creation of integrally Islamic cultures, especially in Africa and Asia. Recent academic work on these topics has focused on the role of Sufism in creating and propagating the culture of the Ottoman world , and in resisting European imperialism in Africa and South Asia .

Between the 13th and 16th centuries CE, Sufism produced a flourishing intellectual culture throughout the Islamic world, a sort of "Golden Age" whose physical artifacts are still present. In many places, a lodge (known variously as a zaouia, khanqah, or tekke) would be endowed through a pious foundation in perpetuity (waqf) to provide a gathering place for Sufi adepts, as well as lodging for itinerant seekers of knowledge. The same system of endowments could also be used to pay for a complex of buildings, such as that surrounding the Süleymaniye Mosque in Istanbul, including a lodge for Sufi seekers, a hospice with kitchens where these seekers could serve the poor and/or complete a period of initiation, a library, and other structures. No important domain in the civilization of Islam remained unaffected by Sufism in this period.

Contemporary Sufism

Sufism suffered many setbacks in the modern era, particularly (though not exclusively) at the hands of European imperialists in the colonized nations of Asia and Africa. The life of the Algerian Sufi master Emir Abd al-Qadir is instructive in this regard . Notable as well are the lives of Amadou Bamba and Hajj Umar Tall in sub-Saharan Africa, and Sheikh Mansur Ushurma and Imam Shamil in the Caucasus region. Sufism being the central organizing principle of many traditional Islam cultures, It is not surprising that colonial powers attacked Sufi masters as one means of undermining the forces of indigenous self-determination.

In some countries today, the institutional expression of Sufism is simply illegal. Most famous as an example is the case of Turkey, where in 1925 Mustafa Kemal Atatürk imposed a law outlawing and disbanding the Sufi orders. This law remains in effect, and the famous "whirling dervishes" are tolerated only as a form of folk entertainment, a politically acceptable remnant of the once-prominent Mevlevi Order.

In spite of this recent history of official repression, there remain many places in the world with vital Sufi traditions. Sufism is popular in such African countries as Senegal, where it is seen as a mystical expression of Islam. 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.

In South Asia, four major Sufi orders persist, namely the Chishti Order, the Qadiriyyah, the Naqshbandiyya, and the Suhrawardiyya. The Deobandis (i.e., adherents of the Darul Uloom Deoband) and Barelwi are two significant Islamic movements in this region whose followers often belong to one of these orders.

For a more complete summary of currently active groups and teachers, readers are referred to links in the site of Dr. Alan Godlas of the University of Georgia ..

A number of Westerners have embarked with varying degrees of success on the path of Sufism. One of the first 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. The ideas propagated by such spiritualists may or may not conform to the tenets of Sufism as understood by orthodox Muslims, as for instance with G. I. Gurdjieff. On the other hand, American- and British-born teachers such as Nuh Ha Mim Keller, Hamza Yusuf, and Abdal Hakim Murad have been instrumental in spreading messages that conform fully with the normative tenets of Islam.

Other noteworthy Sufi teachers who have been active in the West in recent years include Riaz Ahmed Gohar Shahi, Muhammad Emin Er, Nazim al-Qubrusi, Javad Nurbakhsh, and Muzaffer Ozak.

Theoretical perspectives in Sufism

Traditional Islamic scholars have recognized two major branches within the practice of Sufism, and use this as one key to differentiating among the approaches of different masters and devotional lineages.

On the one hand there is the path from the signs to the Signifier (or from the arts to the Artisan). In this branch, the seeker begins by purifying the lower self of every corrupting influence that stands in the way of recognizing all of creation as the work of God, as God's active Self-disclosure or theophany. This is the way of Imam Al-Ghazali and of the majority of the Sufi orders.

On the other hand there is the path from the Signifier to His signs, from the Artisan to His works. In this branch, the seeker experiences divine attraction (jadhba), and is able to enter the path with a glimpse of its endpoint, of direct apprehension of the Divine Presence towards which all spiritual striving is directed. This does not replace the striving to purify the heart, as in the other branch; it simply stems from a different point of entry into the path. This is the way primarily of the masters of the Naqshbandi and Shadhili orders.

Contemporary scholars may also recognize a third branch, attributed to the late Ottoman scholar Said Nursi and explicated in his vast Qur'ân commentary called the Risale-i Nur. This approach entails strict adherence to the way of the Prophet Muhammad, in the understanding that this wont, or sunnah, proposes a complete devotional spirituality adequate to those without access to a master of the Sufi way.

Contributions to other domains of scholarship

Sufism has contributed significantly to the elaboration of theoretical perspectives in many domains of intellectual endeavor. For instance, the doctrine of "subtle centers" or centers of subtle cognition (known as Lataif-e-sitta) addresses the matter of the awakening of spiritual intuition in ways that some consider similar to certain models of chakra in Hinduism. In general, these subtle centers or latâ'if are thought of as faculties that are to be purified sequentially in order to bring the seeker's wayfaring to completion. A concise and useful summary of this system from a living exponent of this tradition has been published by Muhammad Emin Er.

Sufi psychology has influenced many areas of thinking both within and outside of Islam, drawing primarily upon three concepts. Ja'far al-Sadiq (both an imam in the Shia tradition and a respected scholar and link in chains of Sufi transmission in all Islamic sects) held that human beings are dominated by a lower self called the nafs, a faculty of spiritual intuition called the qalb or spiritual heart, and a spirit or soul called ruh. These interact in various ways, producing the spiritual types of the tyrant (dominated by nafs), the person of faith and moderation (dominated by the spiritual heart), and the person lost in love for God (dominated by the ruh).

Of note with regard to the spread of Sufi psychology in the West is Robert Frager, a Sufi teacher authorized in the Halveti Jerrahi order. Frager was a trained psychologist, born in the United States, who converted to Islam in the course of his practice of Sufism and wrote extensively on Sufism and psychology.

Sufi cosmology and Sufi metaphysics are also noteworthy areas of intellectual accomplishment.

Sufi practices

The devotional practices of Sufis vary widely. This is because an acknowledged and authorized master of the Sufi path is in effect a physician of the heart, able to diagnose the seeker's impediments to knowledge and pure intention in serving God, and to prescribe to the seeker a course of treatment appropriate to his or her maladies. The consensus among Sufi scholars is that the seeker cannot self-diagnose, and that it can be extremely harmful to undertake any of these practices alone and without formal authorization.

Prerequisites to practice include rigorous adherence to Islamic norms (ritual prayer in its five prescribed times each day, the fast of Ramadan, and so forth). Additionally, the seeker ought to be firmly grounded in supererogatory practices known from the life of the Prophet Muhammad (such as the so-called "sunna prayers"). This is in accordance with the words, attributed to God, of the following, a famous Hadith Qudsi:

My servant draws near to Me through nothing I love more than that which I have made obligatory for him. My servant never ceases drawing near to Me through supererogatory works until I love him. Then, when I love him, I am his hearing through which he hears, his sight through which he sees, his hand through which he grasps, and his foot through which he walks.

It is also necessary for the seeker to have a correct creed (Aqidah) , and to embrace with certainty its tenets . The seeker must also, of necessity, turn away from sins, love of this world, the love of company and renown, obedience to satanic impulse, and the promptings of the lower self. (The way in which this purification of the heart is achieved is outlined in certain books, but must be prescribed in detail by a Sufi master.) The seeker must also be trained to prevent the corruption of those good deeds which have accrued to his or her credit by overcoming the traps of ostentation, pride, arrogance, envy, and long hopes (meaning the hope for a long life allowing us to mend our ways later, rather than immediately, here and now).

Sufi practices, while attractive to some, are not a means for gaining knowledge. The traditional scholars of Sufism hold it as absolutely axiomatic that knowledge of God is not a psychological state generated through breath control. Thus, practice of "techniques" is not the cause, but instead the occasion for such knowledge to be obtained (if at all), given proper prerequisites and proper guidance by a master of the way. Furthermore, the emphasis on practices may obscure a far more important fact: The seeker is, in a sense, to become a broken person, stripped of all habits through the practice of (in the words of Imam Al-Ghazali words) solitude, silence, sleeplessness, and hunger.


Dhikr is the remembrance of God commanded in the Qur'an for all Muslims. To engage in dhikr is to practice consciousness of the Divine Presence (some would say "to seek a state of godwariness") according to a variety of means. Some types of dhikr are prescribed for all Muslims, and do not require Sufi initiation or the prescription of a Sufi master because they are deemed to be good for every seeker under every circumstance . Other types of dhikr require specific instruction and permission.

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.

Some Sufi orders stress and extensive reliance upon Dhikr and termed it the source to attain Divine Love likewise in Qadri Al-Muntahi Sufi tariqa, which was originated by Riaz Ahmed Gohar Shahi. This practice of Dhikr called Dhikr-e-Qulb(remembrance of Allah by Heartbeats). The basic idea of this practice is to visualize the Arabic name of God, Allah as having been written on the disciple's heart.

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.


The practice of muraqaba can be likened to the practices of meditation attested in many faith communities. The word muraqaba is derived from the same root (r-q-b) occurring as one of the 99 Names of God in the Qur'an, al-Raqîb, meaning "the Vigilant" and attested in verse 4: 1 of the Qur'an. Through muraqaba, a person watches over or takes care of the spiritual heart, acquires knowledge about it, and becomes attuned to the Divine Presence, which is ever vigilant.

While variation exists, one description of the practice within a Naqshbandi lineage reads as follows:

He is to collect all of his bodily senses in concentration, and to cut himself off from all preoccupation and notions that inflict themselves upon the heart. And thus he is to turn his full consciousness towards God Most High while saying three times: “Ilahî anta maqsûdî wa-ridâka matlûbî — my God, you are my Goal and Your good pleasure is what I seek.” Then he brings to his heart the Name of the Essence — Allâh — and as it courses through his heart he remains attentive to its meaning, which is “Essence without likeness.” The seeker remains aware that He is Present, Watchful, Encompassing of all, thereby exemplifying the meaning of his saying (may God bless him and grant him peace): “Worship God as though you see Him, for if you do not see Him, He sees you.” And likewise the prophetic tradition: “The most favored level of faith is to know that God is witness over you, wherever you may be.”

Sufi pilgrimages

In popular Sufism (i.e., devotional practices that have achieved currency in world cultures through Sufi influence), one common practice is to visit the tombs of saints, great scholars, and righteous people. This is a particularly common practice in South Asia, where famous tombs include those of Khoja Afāq, near Kashgar, in China; Sachal Sarmast, in Sindh, Pakistan; and the Darbar-e-Gohar Shahi in Kotri Sharif. Likewise, in Fez, Morocco, a popular destination for such pious visitation is the Zaouia Moulay Idriss II.

Visitors may invoke blessings upon those interred, and seek divine favor and proximity. This practice is said to conform to the advice of some of the masters of the Sufi path: “Be with God in your heart, and if you are not able to do that, then be in your heart with the one who is with God."

Islam and Sufism

Many Sufi masters in the past as well as the present day have also been acknowledged masters of Islamic Law. The claim that Sufism is a heretical innovation within Islam has always been a fringe position, gaining traction mainly among partisans of Islamic Modernism who have not had access to rigorous training in the traditional sources of Islamic learning. Even today, most Islamic madrassa continue teaching from books authored by renowned Sufis.

Sufism and Islamic law

Scholars and adherents of Sufism sometimes describe Sufism in terms of a threefold approach to God as explained by a tradition (hadîth) attributed to the Prophet Muhammad,"The Shariah is my words, the tariqa is my actions, and the haqiqa is my interior states". Shariah, tariqa and haqiqa are mutually interdependent. The tariqa, the ‘path’ on which the mystics walk, has been defined as ‘the path which comes out of the Shariah, for the main road is called shar, the path, tariq.’ No mystical experience can be realized if the binding injunctions of the Shariah are not followed faithfully first. The path, tariqa, however, is narrower and more difficult to walk. It leads the adept, called sâlik (wayfarer), in his sulûk (wayfaring), through different stations (maqâmât) until he reaches his goal, the perfect tawhîd, the existential confession that God is One. This perspective is also emphasized by Imam Malik, founder of the Maliki School in Islamic Law , who stated that the one who attempts to practice Sufism without learning Sacred Law corrupts his faith, while he who learns Sacred Law without practicing Sufism corrupts himself.

While virtually all classical Islamic scholars agreed with the understanding of Imam Al-Ghazali that the practice of Sufism is personally obligatory for Muslims as a way to purify the intention (niyya) behind one's actions, a growing number of Muslims in the present day reject this view. A concise summary of both sides of this recent controversy is available on line.

Traditional Islamic thought and Sufism

The literature of Sufism emphasizes highly subjective matters that resist outside observation, such as the subtle states of the heart. Often these resist direct reference or description, with the consequence that the authors of various Sufi treatises took recourse to allegorical language. For instance, much Sufi poetry refers to intoxication, which Islam expressly forbids. 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.

For these and other reasons, the relationship between traditional Islamic scholars and Sufism is complex and a range of scholarly opinion on Sufism in Islam has been the norm. Some scholars, such as Al-Ghazali, helped its propagation while other scholars, such as Ibn Taymiyyah, opposed it. W. Chittick explains the position of Sufism and Sufis this way:

Traditional and non-traditional Sufi groups

The traditional Sufi orders, which are in majority, emphasize the role of Sufism as a spiritual discipline within Islam. Therefore, the Sharia (traditional Islamic law) and the Sunnah (customs of the Prophet) are seen as crucial for any Sufi aspirant. One proof traditional orders assert is that almost all the famous Sufi masters of the past Caliphates were 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 an observant Muslim.

In recent decades there has been a growth of non-traditional Sufi movements in the West. Examples include the Universal Sufism movement, the Golden Sufi Center, the Sufi Foundation of America, the neo-sufism of Idries Shah, and Sufism Reoriented. Rumi has become one of the most widely read poets in the United States, thanks largely to the translations published by Coleman Barks.

Islamic positions on non-Islamic Sufi groups

The use of the title Sufi by non-traditional groups to refer to themselves, and their appropriation of traditional Sufi masters (most notably Jalaluddin Rumi) as sources of authority or inspiration, is not accepted by Muslims who are Sufi adherents.

Some traditional Sufis also object to interpretations of classical Sufis texts by writers who have no grounding in the traditional Islamic sciences and therefore no prerequisites for understanding such texts. These are considered by certain conventional Islamic scholars as beyond the pale of the religion. This being said, there are Islamic Sufi groups that are open to non-Muslim participation, and even membership.


Criticism within Islam

Critics of Sufism from within Islam tend to be adherents of Islamic Modernism, above all those committed to Salafism or Wahhabism. Traditional Sunni Muslims may also condemn certain Sufi practices, though never condemning Sufism as a whole.

The Modernist criticisms of Sufism emphasize the claim that Sufi masters have introduced special prayers and devotional acts into their schools that are not part of early Islam, or even that Sufi Muslims have contrived entirely new beliefs. Such criticisms may also be accompanied by the unsubstantiated claim that Sufism has never played a part in normative Islam.

The allegorical and often abstruse language used by Sufis in their texts, when interpreted by persons without proper qualification and guidance, may at times create potential for misunderstanding of the orthodoxy of traditional Sufism. For instance, some critics consider the concept of "unity of being" (Wahdat-ul-wujood) to be a form of pantheism and therefore incompatible with Islam. Sufi masters in many of their introductory texts caution aspirants from reading and interpreting texts by themselves, and explicitly correct mistaken impressions of pantheistic tendency. 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 delicate and subtle issue that remains a matter of contention among Muslim polemicists.

Riaz Ahmed Gohar Shahi was heavily criticized by orthodox theological scholars in Pakistan and abroad. Shahi's books were banned by the Government of Pakistan,. public meetings are not allowed to his followers and no press coverage is allowed to either Gohar Shahi or to his followers due to charges of blasphemy law violations. Many attempts were made on Shahi's life including a petrol bomb attack, thrown into his Manchester residence, and an attack with a hand grenade during the discourse at his home in Kotri, Pakistan. Gohar Shahi was booked in 1997 on alleged charges of murdering a woman who had come to him for spiritual treatment; Gohar Shahi, and many of his followers, were later convicted under Islamic blasphemy laws by an antiterrorist court in Sindh. Gohar Shahi was convicted in absentia—as then he was in England—resulting in sentences that totaled approximately 59 years. Gohar Shahi died abroad, prior to any decision on appeals filed with the High Court of Sindh.

Perception outside Islam

Sufi mysticism has long exercised a fascination upon the Western world, and especially its orientalist scholars. Figures like Rumi have become household names in the United States, where sufism is perceived as quietist and non-political.

The Islamic Institute in Mannheim, Germany, which works towards the integration of European muslims, sees sufism as particularly suited for interreligious dialogue and intercultural haromonisation in democratic and pluralist societies; it has described sufism as a symbol of tolerance and humanism in Islam – undogmatic, flexible and non-violent. The Indian government has likewise praised sufism as the tolerant form of Islam, in contrast to its more militant manifestations.

See also


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.
  • Bewley, Aisha. The Darqawi Way. London: Diwan Press, 1981.
  • Burckhardt, Titus. An Introduction to Sufi Doctrine. Lahore: 1963.
  • Colby, Frederick. The Subtleties of the Ascension: Lata'if Al-Miraj: Early Mystical Sayings on Muhammad's Heavenly Journey. City: Fons Vitae, 2006.
  • Emin Er, Muhammad. Laws of the Heart: A Practical Introduction to the Sufi Path, Shifâ Publishers, 2008, ISBN 9780981519616.
  • Emin Er, Muhammad. The Soul of Islam: Essential Doctrines and Beliefs, Shifâ Publishers, 2008, ISBN 9780981519609.
  • Ernst, Carl. The Shambhala Guide to Sufism. Boulder: Shambhala, 1997.
  • Gowins, Phillip. Sufism - A Path for Today : The Sovereign Soul. New Delhi: Readworthy Publications (P) Ltd., 2008. ISBN 9788189973490
  • 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.

External links

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