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."
"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.
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.
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).
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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."
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.