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Sufism (also known as Tassawuf) is a group or branch in Islam with a mystic path or system. Someone who practices Sufism is called a Sufi, a Dervish or a Fakir.


In its early stages of development Sufism referred to nothing more than the personalization and 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 direct way of the Holy Prophet Muhammad, through which the heart's connection to the Divine is strengthened. Indeed, he is known to have passed on in his lifetime some of his own esoteric teachings to a few of his disciples.[1] Additionally, the Muslim conquests had brought large numbers of Christian monks and hermits, especially in Syria and Egypt, under Muslim rule.[2] They were practitioners of a deeply spiritual and mystical (even 'Platonic') way of life and many of their techniques and methods came to be incorporated into very early Sufi practise.[2]

Some of these teachings were then summarized in texts (in Arabic initially). Important contributions in writing are attributed to Uwais al-Qarni, Harrm bin Hian, Hasan Basri and Sayid ibn al-Mussib, who are regarded as among 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.

Sufism had thus a long history already, when some teachers began to form or set up formal teaching schools or orders (Tarika or Tariqah) in the early Middle Ages. Almost all existing Sufi orders today trace their roots and chain of transmission (silsila) back to Muhammad, via one of these schools/orders.

Sufi ideas and principles

The underlying theme of Sufism is that an individual can achieve a 'personal knowledge' or oneness with God during his mortal life.[3] The way is to first destroy the difference or the duality that exists between God and man by destruction of the self or the ego. This is known as fanaa (Arabic, lit: annihilation).[4] Besides various Sufi prayers (which are different for different Sufi orders), one should make it a part of life to remain humble, considerate and indulge only in acts which help one in the quest to control one's desires.

After fanaa is achieved, the individual is resurrected in the mould of God (this is called baqaa, Arabic lit:subsistence)). This is the state where he has achieved the divine love of God. In a certain sense, it may be said that he has 'achieved God', now.[5] He should now try to keep increasing this closeness throughout his lifetime. A person who has crossed the various Sufi 'stages' and achieved this sort of mystic 'union' with the Divine, is called a Wali (a saint or friend of God) and the state is termed Wilayat (friendship/union).[6]

Sufic Orders

In Sufism there exist many different orders (tarikas), that were founded from the 12th and 13th centuries until today/contemporary times. Some of the major Sufi orders are:

Notable Sufis

Some of the major, notable Sufis in history, from the 'classical age' of Sufism, include:[7]

Modern practitioners, who have achieved the degree of sheikh (Master/Preceptor) and are accounted to have a high spiritual status, are still found in various places.[9]

Sufism and Islamic orthodoxy

Sufi practices are usually defined within the basic tenets of Islam, the Sharia (or Shariah) although some orders include singing and dancing in the love of God, something some Muslims frown on. Hence some Muslims of a more orthodox mind-set believe that any actions outside the scope of Sharia, or Sufi activities practised by non-Muslims are 'wrong'. However the underlying message and aim of the quest for the love of God is true for all humanity. For a non-Muslim the most important ideas in Sufism are love for fellow human beings (which reflects one's love of God) and living ones life in such a way where all actions are against the self. This automatically starts him on the path of fanaa. In terms of discipleship and training, almost all the major Sufi orders are themselves quite willing to take students who are not Muslims.[10]

There are some Muslim schools of thought, such as the Wahhabi for example, who oppose Sufism because they feel it obliterates the difference between God and man and bypasses the common method of salvation as prescribed by their interpretations of Sharia. Although there are non-Islamic versions of Sufism too (generally defined as 'Universal Sufism') puritanical and rigid people in Islam tend to view them with considerable hatred and anger. As a result, we often see a great deal of misunderstanding and conflict regarding Sufism and Sufic practices.

Historically speaking, orthodox Islam, especially fundamentalist groups like the Wahhabi and Salafi have been the most intolerant and violent against what they think of as 'Deviant Sufism'.[11] In the past centuries, severe persecution has been carried out by them against the Kharijites, the Ismaili Shia cult (sometimes termed the 'Assassins'), the Ahmadiyya movement and several other groups and individuals with Sufi-like mystical tendencies and practices. During the time of the later Mughal Empire in India, even the early gurus of Sikhism were persecuted by orthodox Islamic mullahs (theologians) since they had chosen to incorporate some of the ideas and poetic verses of the Sufi saint Baba Farid into their holy scriptures. In more recent times, over the last two decades, considerable persecution has been made of the spiritual reformer and sage Riaz Ahmed Gohar Shahi and his followers in Pakistan.[12] He was opposed and threatened and forced to flee the country and his books banned there, and anyone publicly supporting him is liable to immediate arrest.[13]

Even proper, formal Sufi orders have suffered persecution for various reasons. In recent times the most notorious example was the outright banning of Sufism in Iran.[14] This happened in spite of the famous Amman Message, a joint declaration made by over 200 of the most noted moderate Islamic scholars in a conference in Amman, Jordan, in 2005, stressing that Sufism is very much 'part' of Islam.[15]

Further reading

Some volumes for further reading on Sufism include:

  • Abu-Nasr, J (2007) Muslim Communities of Grace:Sufi Brotherhoods in Islam London;
  • Burckhardt, T (1963) An Introduction to Sufi Doctrine Lahore;
  • Godlas, A (2000) Sufism's Many Paths U of Georgia Press;
  • Shah, Idries (1971) The Sufis New York;
  • Schimmel, A (1983) Mystical Dimensions of Islam Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina Press;
  • Smoley, Richard & Kinney, Jay. 2006. Hidden wisdom: a guide to the western inner traditions. 2nd ed; Wheaton, Illinois: Quest Books. ISBN 978-0-8356-0844-2 (Chapter 10 deals with Sufism in the West)


  1. Sheikh Abu Bakr Muhammad Sibahi, Tareekhi Tassawuf aur uss ka Irtaqa (Historical Tassawuf/Sufism and its Later Evolution) Lahore: Qurtaba Press, 1966, pp.23-28
  2. 2.0 2.1 Sibahi, p.28
  3. See Idries Shah, The Sufis, 1971 ed ISBN 9780385079662; , also on the Sufi Studies Today website, Retrieved 2.11.2012
  4. O.Tarin, 'Some Basic Sufi Practices: An Introduction', in Spirals, 1992, pp.169-178
  5. O.Tarin, p.170
  6. O.Tarin, p.171
  7. The classical reference volume which gives the biographies of most of the great early Sufi saints is Sheikh Farid-ud-din Attar's, Tazkirat al-Aulia'' (A Mention/Remembrance of the Saints), English translation by Prof AJ Arberry, n.d.; the online version is available at, Maktabah Islamic E-Librray site, Retrieved 2.10.2012
  8. "The Meccan Revelations". 1900-1999. Retrieved 2013-07-14.
  9. Tarin, p.176
  10. Tarin, p.27
  11. Ehsan Ur Rehman, Islam ya Kufr? Deen mein biddat ke maamlay (Islam or Unbelief? Some innovations in the Faith) Monograph, Lahore and Karachi, 1992, pp.51-52
  12. The Daily Times Lahore, Pakistan, 8 July 2004
  13. Daily Dawn Karachi, Pakistan, news item, 26 June 2002, Retrieved 2 Nov 2012
  14. See US Report on International Religious Freedom May 2009, Section on Iran
  15. The Amman Message Summary Retrieved 2 Nov 2012