Sufism: what it is, and who the Sufis really are

Sufism (Arabic: ٱلصُّوفِيَّة) is a current of Abrahamic religious thought, philosophy, and practice. Also known as Tasawwuf (ٱلتَّصَوُّف) can be considered a branch of Islam, classifiable within it though characterized by a focus on spirituality and asceticism. Defined by many scholars as “Islamic mysticism,” or “the mystical expression of the Islamic faith,” as an internalization of Islamic faith and practice.

Practitioners of Sufism are referred to as “Sufis” (from صُوفِيّ, ṣūfīy), congregations formed around a wali grandmaster who represents the last in a chain of masters who link back to the Prophet Mohammed (Muhammad).

Definition and Etymology

The Arabic word tasawwuf (literally “to be” or “to become a Sufi”) is generally translated as “Sufism,” but the Arabic term Sufi has been used in Islamic literature with a wide range of meanings.

The term Sufism was originally introduced into European languages in the 18th century by Orientalist scholars, who saw it primarily as an intellectual doctrine and literary tradition in contrast to what they saw as a less fruitful monotheism of Islam.
The original meaning seems to be “he who wears wool (ṣūf),” woollen garments traditionally associated with ascetics and mystics, such as John the Baptist who wore animal skins as clothing in the gospels (Gospel according to Matthew 3:4). This was the typical attire of pilgrims, viands who used fabrics of camel or goat hair: compact against the rain and winter cold, but also aerated and porous in warm weather. These types of tunic made of hair do not only refer to Bedouin clothing, but also to the garment of the prophet, who according to the testimony of Zechariah (13,4) in ancient times wore this “a garment of hair”.
Another explanation traces the lexical root of the word to ṣafā (صفاء), which means “purity” in Arabic, and in this context another similar idea of tasawwuf as considered in Islam is tazkiyah (تزكية, meaning: self-purification), a fundamental practice in Sufism.


Sufism has existed as an individual inner practice of Muslims since the earliest days of Islam, and according to Carl W. Ernst the earliest figures of Sufism can be considered Mohammed himself and his first companions (Sahabah). Sufi orders are based on the bay’ah (بَيْعَة bay’ah, مُبَايَعَة mubāya’ah “pledge,” or “allegiance”) that was given to Mohammed by his Ṣahabah, but by swearing allegiance to the prophet, followers pledged to serve GOD:

“Verily, those who give Bai’âh (pledge) to you (O Muhammad) give Bai’âh (pledge) to GOD. The hand of GOD is on their hands. Whoever breaks His pledge, breaks it only to his own detriment, and whoever fulfills what he has bargained with GOD, He will give him a great reward.”
(Qur’an 48:10)

Sufis believe that by swearing allegiance to a legitimate Sufi shaykh, one swears allegiance to Mohammed himself, establishing a spiritual connection between the seeker and the prophet. It is through Mohammed therefore that Sufis aspire to “know” and connect with GOD. Sufis therefore argue that in its early stages of development, Sufism was simply about internalizing the pure doctrine of Islam, namely “submission” to GOD.
According to the late medieval mystic, the Persian poet Jami, Abd-Allah ibn Muhammad ibn al-Hanafiyyah (died c. 716) was the first person to be called a “Sufi.”

Sufism as an Islamic discipline

Existing in both Sunni and Shi’a Islam, Sufism is not a distinct sect as is sometimes assumed, but a method of approaching religion that strives to elevate the believer through the fulfillment of religious duties and by finding a “way and means to take root through the ‘narrow door’ into the depths of the soul, into the domain of the pure and imprisonable Spirit that opens to Divinity. ” (Martin Lings, What is Sufism? – Lahore: Suhail Academy, 2005; p.15 ).

As a mystical and ascetic aspect of Islam, it is considered as the part of Islamic teaching that deals with the purification of the inner self. Focusing on the more spiritual aspects of the religion, Sufis strive to obtain a direct experience of GOD by making use of “intuitive and emotional faculties” that one must be trained to use. Tasawwuf is regarded as a science of the Soul that has always been an integral part of orthodox Islam.

The famous Sufi Al-Ghazali, in Al-Munqidh min al-dalal states these words which reflect very much the doctrine of the Sufis:

The vicissitudes of life, family affairs and financial constraints engulfed my life and deprived me of the congenial solitude. The heavy odds confronted me and provided me with few moments for my pursuits. This state of affairs lasted for ten years, but whenever I had some spare and congenial moments I resorted to my intrinsic proclivity. During these turbulent years, numerous astonishing and indescribable secrets of life were unveiled to me. I was convinced that the group of Aulia (holy mystics) is the only truthful group who follow the right path, display best conduct and surpass all sages in their wisdom and insight. They derive all their overt or covert behaviour from the illumining guidance of the holy Prophet, the only guidance worth quest and pursuit.
(Ghazzali; al-Ghazali, Abu Hamid Muhammad; McCarthy, Richard Joseph 1999)


For Sufis, the transmission of Divine Light from the heart of the teacher to the heart of the student is the essence of life, rather than the knowledge of the World, that which enables the adept to progress.
According to Moojan Momen “one of the most important doctrines of Sufism is the concept of al-Insan al-Kamil (“the perfect man”), which states that there will always exist on earth a “Qutb” (Pole or Axis of the Universe), or a human being who is the perfect channel of grace from GOD to mankind, in a state of wilayah (holiness, being under the protection of ALLAH). The concept of the Sufi Qutb is similar to that of the Shia Imam, but this belief puts Sufism in “direct conflict” with Shia Islam, since both the Qutb (who for most Sufi orders is the head of the order) and the Imam play the role of “bearer of GOD’s spiritual guidance and grace to mankind.” The vow of obedience to the Shaykh or Qutb that is taken by Sufis is considered incompatible with devotion to the Imam.”

Although approaches to teaching vary among the 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.

Mohammed for the Sufis

Sufis historically are devotees and imitators of the Prophet Mohammed, recognizing him as a guide to lead the believer to a higher degree of Spirit. Sufi poet Saadi Shirazi stated, “He who chooses a path contrary to that of the prophet will never reach the goal. O Saadi, do not think that one can treat that path of purity except in the wake of the chosen one”(Aavani, Gholamreza, Glorification of Prophet Muhammad in the poems of Sa’adi, p. 4).
Even the great Rumi attributes his self-control and abstinence from worldly desires as qualities he attained through Muhammad’s guidance. Rumi states, “I ‘sewed’ my two eyes closed from [desires for] this world and the next, this I learned from Muhammad.”(Gamard 2004, p. 169). Ibn Arabi considers Muhammad as the “greatest man” and Fariduddin Attar stated, “Mohammed is the exemplar for both worlds, the guide of Adam’s descendants. He is the sun of creation, the moon of the heavenly spheres, the all-seeing eye…. The seven heavens and the eight gardens of paradise were created for him; he is both the eye and the light in the light of our eyes.”(Attar, Fariduddin, Ilahi-nama – The Book of GOD).
Sufis have historically emphasized the importance of Muhammad’s perfection and his ability to intercede.

Devotional practices

  • Dhikr. Dhikr is the remembrance of GOD commanded in the Qur’an for all Muslims through a specific devotional act, such as the repetition of divine Names, supplications, and aphorisms from hadith literature and the Qur’an. To engage in dhikr is to practice awareness of divine presence and love, or to “seek a state of divinity.” The Qur’an refers to Muhammad as the very embodiment of GOD’s dhikr (65:10-11).
    Some Sufi orders rely extensively on the dhikr called Dhikr-e-Qulb (invocation of GOD in heartbeats). The basic idea in this practice is to visualize GOD as being written over the heart of the disciple.
  • Muraqaba. The practice of muraqaba can be compared to meditation practices attested in many faith communities. While variations exist, one description of the practice within a Naqshbandi lineage reads as follows: “He must gather all his bodily senses into concentration, and cut himself off from all worries and notions that inflict themselves on the heart. And so he must turn his full consciousness towards GOD Most High, saying three times, “Ilahî anta maqsûdî wa-ridâka matlûbî-my GOD, you are my goal and your pleasure is what I seek.” He then carries in his heart the Name of the Essence – ALLAH (GOD) – and as it flows through his heart he remains alert to its meaning, which is “Essence without likeness.” The seeker remains aware that He is Present, Watchful, Understanding of all things, thus exemplifying the meaning of his saying, “Worship GOD as if 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 a witness over you, wherever you are.'”
  • Sufi whirling. Sufi whirling (or Sufi spinning) is a form of Sama or physically active meditation that originated among some Sufis, and is still practiced by Sufi Dervishes of the Mevlevi order. It is a customary dance performed within the sema, through which dervishes (also called semazen, from the Persian سماعزن) aim to reach the source of all perfection, or kemal. This is sought through the abandonment of nafs, ego or personal desires, listening to music, focusing on GOD and spinning one’s body in repetitive circles, which has been seen as a symbolic imitation of the planets of the solar system orbiting the sun.
  • Qawwali was originally a form of Sufi devotional chant popular in South Asia, and is now usually performed in dargahs. Sufi saint Amir Khusrau is said to have infused classical Persian, Turkish Arabic, and Indian melodic styles to create the genre in the 13th century. The songs are classified into hamd, na’at, manqabat, marsiya or ghazal, among others. Historically, Sufi saints allowed and encouraged this, while claiming that musical instruments and female voices should not be introduced, although these are common today.

Influence on Judaism

There is evidence that Sufism influenced the development of some Jewish schools of philosophy and ethics, or at least that they influenced each other. The earliest such writing is the Kitab al-Hidayah ila Fara’iḍ al-Ḳulub, “Duties of the Heart,” by Bahya ibn Paquda. This book was translated by Judah ibn Tibbon into Hebrew under the title Chovot HaLevavot. (A Sufi-Jewish Dialogue: Philosophy and Mysticism in Bahya ibn Paquda’s Duties of the Heart, Diana Lobel)

The precepts prescribed by the Torah are only 613; those dictated by the intellect are innumerable.
(Kremer, Alfred Von. 1868. “Notice sur Sha’rani.” Journal Asiatique 11 [6]: 258)

In the ethical writings of the Sufis Al-Kusajri and Al-Harawi, there are sections that deal with the same topics covered in the Chovot ha-Lebabot and bear the same titles: for example, “Bab al-Tawakkul”; “Bab al-Taubah”; “Bab al-Muḥasabah”; “Bab al-Tawaḍu'”; “Bab al-Zuhd.” In the ninth door, Baḥya directly quotes the sayings of the Sufis, whom he calls Perushim. However, the author of the Chovot HaLevavot did not go so far as to endorse the asceticism of the Sufis, although he showed a marked fondness for their ethical principles.
Abraham Maimonides, the son of the Jewish philosopher Maimonides, believed that Sufi practices and doctrines continued the tradition of the biblical prophets. Abraham Maimonides’ main work was originally composed in Judeo-Arabic and titled “כתאב כפאיה אלעאבדין” Kitāb Kifāyah al-‘Ābidīn (A Complete Guide for the Servants of GOD). From the surviving portion, it is assumed that the treatise was three times longer than his father’s Guide for the Perplexed. In the book, he evidences a great appreciation and affinity for Sufism. The followers of his way continued to promote a form of Jewish-Sufian pietism for at least a century, and he is rightly considered the founder of this pietistic school, which had its center in Egypt. The followers of this path, which they called, Hasidism (not to be confused with the [later] Jewish Chassidic movement) or Sufism (Tasawwuf), practiced spiritual retreats, solitude, fasting, and sleep deprivation. Jewish Sufis maintained their own brotherhood, led by a religious leader such as a Sufi sheikh.
The Jewish Encyclopedia, in its entry on Sufism, states that the resurgence of Jewish mysticism in Muslim countries is likely due to the spread of Sufism in the same geographical areas. The entry details many parallels to Sufic concepts found in the writings of prominent Kabbalists during the Golden Age of Jewish culture in Spain.




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