Sufi Islam (Sufis) What is Sufism Definition Muslim

Sufism, also known as Tasawwuf is described as “Islamic mysticism” or “the inward dimension of Islam,” which through belief and prudent practice helps Muslims attend nearness to Allah. Sufism began very early in Islamic history and represents the major manifestation of the fundamental components of Islamic belief, which is pursuing a path that leads to closeness with Allah. People who practice Sufism are generally referred to as “Sufis.”

What Order Does Sufi Belong?

Sufis have historically belonged to different orders or turuq. A turuq is like a congregation built around a grandmaster known as a Wali. A Wali’s legitimacy and authority is derived from a chain of successive tutelage and instruction (silsilah) passed down through continuous generations that reach back to prominent saints and eventually to the Prophet Muhammad himself. 

The orders which sufis belong to, meet periodically for majalis (a spiritual session) in their meeting places known as khamqahs, tekke or zawiyas. Sufis strive for perfection of worship (Ihsan), as contained in a hadith:  “Ihsan is to worship Allah as if you see Him; if you can’t see Him, surely He sees you.” Sufis regard Prophet Muhammad as al-Insān al-Kāmil, the perfect example of God’s Morality. The also regard Prophet Mohammad as their prime spiritual guide and leader. 

Apart from the Naqshbandi order, most Sufi orders trace their original precepts from Prophet Mohammad through Ali ibn Abi Talib. The Naqshbandi order trace their original precepts from Mohammad through Abu Bakr. 

While most Sufis, both modern and pre-modern, are and were adherents of Sunni Islam, during the late medieval era, some other strands of Sufi practice sprung up within the framework of Shia Islam. Particularly  after Iran was converted from majority of Sunni to Shia. The traditional Sufi orders were all rooted in Sunni Islam during the first five centuries of Islam. While Sufis rejected dry legalism, they adhered strictly to Islamic laws and were members of various schools of Islamic theology and jurisprudence. 

What are Sufis Known For?

Sufis are known for their asceticism, they are especially characterized by their attachment to dhikr, which is a practice of remembering God, usually performed during prayers. Sufism gained traction among Muslims as a reaction against the perceived worldliness of the Umayyad Caliphate of 661 to 750. Sufism have since spanned several cultures and continents over a period of more than a thousand years. 

Sufis initially expressed their beliefs solely in Arabic but later expanded into Turkish, Persian, Punjabi, Urdu and several others. Sufis have historically played a key role in the establishment of Muslim societies through their educational and missionary activities. In the words of William Chittick, “In a broad sense, Sufism can be described as the interiorization, and intensification of Islamic faith and practice.” Despite criticism of some Sufi practices by conservative Salafists and modernist thinkers, coupled with a relative decline in the prevalence of Sufism, Sufism has nonetheless continued to play a vital role in the Islamic world. It has also influenced several forms of spirituality in the West. 

Definitions of Important Terms


Tasawwuf is an Arabic word which literally means being or becoming a Sufi. It is generally translated simply as Sufism and is commonly defined by authors in the West as meaning “Islamic mysticism.” 

In Islamic literature, the term Sufi has been used by both proponents and opponents of Sufism to denote a wide range of meanings. In classical Sufi literature, where certain practices and teachings of the Quran and the sunnah are stressed, Tasawwuf is used to describe spiritual and ethical goals and is also regarded as a teaching tool for their attainment. 

However, several other terms which describe particular spiritual qualities replaced Tasawwuf in more practical contexts. Definitions such as “process of realizing spiritual and ethical ideals” and “intensification of  Islamic practice and faith” have been used for some modern scholars to describe Tasawwuf. 

Sufism as a term is believed to have been introduced into European languages during the 18th Century by Orientalist scholars. The scholars then regarded it mainly as a literary tradition or more like an intellectual doctrine which was at variance with what they considered as sterile monotheism of Islam. Modern scholars have adopted the term to serve as a description for a wide range of cultural, religious, social and political phenomena associated with Sufism. 


The original definition of the term “Sufi” seems to have been “one wearing wool (ūf).” A host of other etymological hypotheses are regarded as “untenable” by the Encyclopedia of Islam. One of the reasons for a general acceptance of the “woolen clothing” etymology is because woolen clothing has historically been synonymous with mystics and ascetics. On linguistic grounds, Ibn Khaldun and Al-Qushayri both dismissed all options but ūf.

Another possible etymological approach, traces the lexical origin of the word to afā, a term that denotes “purity” in Arabic. Another related definition of tasawwufas seen in Islam is tazkiyah (meaning self-purification) is also commonly used in Sufism. The Sufi al-Rudhabari (d. 322 AH), who said, ‘The Sufi is the one who wears wool on top of purity,’ merged these two definitions. 

However, there are some scholars who have suggested that the word comes from the term auffah (which means the people of the bench or suffah), who are considered to have been a group of Prophet Mohammed’s impoverished companions who held gatherings of dhikr. One of the most prominent among this particular set of Prophet Mohammed’s companions was Abu Huraira. These people who sat at al-Masjid an-Nabawi are regarded by many as the first Sufis.


Since early Islamic history, Sufism has been practiced as an individual inner tradition of Muslims. According to Carl W. Ernst, Muhammad and his companions (Sahabah) are the earliest figures of Sufism. Sufi orders or turuq are based on the “bay’ah” (pledge of allegiance) to Muhammad. The Sahabah commit themselves to serving God by pledging allegiance to Muhammad.

“Verily, those who give Bai’âh (pledge) to you (O Muhammad) they are giving Bai’âh (pledge) to Allâh. The Hand of Allâh is over their hands. Then whosoever breaks his pledge, breaks it only to his own harm, and whosoever fulfils what he has covenanted with Allâh, He will bestow on him a great reward. — [Translation of Quran, 48:10]

Adherents of Sufism believe that when a Muslim pledges allegiance (i.e gives bay’ah) to a legitimate Sufi Shaykh, he or she effectively pledges allegiance to the Prophet, Muhammad. Consequently, a spiritual connection between Muhammad and the person who pledges allegiance is established. It is ultimately through Muhammad that Sufis aim to understand, learn about and connect with God. Another prominent figure among the Sahaba is Ali. Ali directly pledged his allegiance to Muhammad, as such, Sufis believe that through him, a connection with Muhammad can be achieved. A concept of this nature can be understood through the hadith which Sufis regard as being authentic. 

In it Muhammad said, “I am the city of knowledge and Ali is its gate”. Some prominent Sufis like Ali Hujwiri describe Ali as a very high-ranking figure in Tasawwuf. Similarly, Junayd of Baghdad also regarded Ali as the Sheikh of practices and principals of Tasawwuf. 

Prominent historian, Jonathan Brown notes that during the lifetime of Muhammad, some of his companions like Abu Dharr al-Ghifari, had more propensity for ” intensive devotion, pious abstemiousness and pondering the divine mysteries” than Islam required. A tabi, Hasan al-Basri, a is referred to as a “founding figure” in the “science of purifying the heart.” Sufis are of the opinion that in the early stages of Sufi practice, Sufism almost specifically referred to nothing other than the internalization of Islam. One of such perspectives opines that it is through Qur’an, constantly meditated, recited and experienced, that Sufism evolved in its origin and development. Other adherents of Sufism tilt towards a perspective that describes Sufism as a strict emulation of Muhammad in way that strengthens the heart’s connection to the divine. 

What Do the Early Orientalist Theories Say?

Early orientalist theories that describes Sufism as having a non-Islamic origin have been rejected by modern scholars and academics. The consensus is that the origin of Sufism can be traced back to Western Asia. Many scholars are assert that Sufism is unique, but within the confines of Islam. They believe that Sufism evolved from people like Bayazid Bastami, who, in his rather strict adherence to the sunnah, refused eating watermelon on the grounds that there was no historical evidence that Muhammad ever ate it. 

The late Persian poet, Jami, Abd-Allah ibn Muhammad ibn al-Hanafiyyah is considered by late medieval mystic as the first person to be called a “Sufi”. Attributions are also given to Said ibn al-Musayyib, Harith al-Muhasibi, Uwais al-Qarani, Abu Nasr as-Sarraj and asan al-Barī. Ruwaym and Junayd are also considered influential early figures. A considerable number of early Sufis were disciples of either of the two. 

Sufism was already rooted even before the institutionalization of Sufi into tarîqât (devotional orders) in the early middle ages. The Naqshbandi turuq is an exception to the general practice of orders tracing their spiritual line through Muhammad’s grandsons. The Naqshbandi trace their spiritual lineage through the first Islamic Caliph, Abu Bakr to Muhammad. 

Shi’i movements like Isma’ilism have over the years been influenced by Sufi orders. The Nizari Ismaili tradition is particularly known to have a strong connection to Sufism.

Sufi orders include Ba ‘Alawiyya, Chishti, Mevlevi, Khalwati  Badawiyya, Burhaniyya, Bektashi, Qadiriyya, Shadhiliyya, Ni’matullāhī, Tijaniyyah, Zinda Shah Madariya, Qalandariyya, Suhrawardiyya, Naqshbandi and several others. 

Sufism As A Discipline in Islam

Although it is sometimes erroneously assumed that Sufism is a distinct Sect, it exists in both Shia and Sunni Islam as a method of approaching or understanding Islam which strives to take the regular practice of Islam to a “supererogatory level.” Academic studies confirm Sufism as a separate tradition from Islam (apart from the practices labelled as pure Islam) is a product of modern Islamic fundamentalists and Western Orientalism. 

 Sufism is considered as the part of Islam that deals with the purification of the inner self. Focusing more on the spiritual aspects of Islam, Sufis are taught to obtain direct experience of God through the use of “intuitive and emotional faculties.” Tasawwuf is considered as a soul science and is regarded as always having been a part of Orthodox Islam. 

Tasawwuf is regarded as a science of the soul that has always been an integral part of Orthodox Islam.[56] In his Al-Risala al-Safadiyya, ibn Taymiyyah defends the Sufis as those who belong to the path of the Sunna and represent it in their writings and teachings. The reverence and inclinations of Ibn Taymiyya towards Sufis like Abdul-Qadir Gilani can be seen in his hundred-page commentary on Futuh al-ghayb, covering only five of the seventy-eight sermons of the book, but showing that he considered tasawwuf essential within the life of the Islamic community.

Ibn Taymiyya in his commentary stressed that the primacy of the sharia is what Tasawwuf is built on. He supports his points by listing several early masters and contemporary shaykhs ( like al-Ansari al-Harawi and Abdul-Qadir as well as Hammad al-Dabbas the upright who was Abdul-Qadir’s shaykh. Ibn Taymiyya also cites the early shaykhs such Ma`ruf al-Karkhi, Ibrahim ibn Adham, Al-Fuayl ibn ‘Iyā, Junayd of Baghdad, Sirri Saqti and some other early teachers, as well as Abu al-Bayan, Hammad, Abdul-Qadir Gilani, and some of the later masters) who asserted that it is not permissible for Sufis to deviate or depart from divinely legislated command and prohibition.

Al-Ghazali narrates in Al-Munqidh min al-dalal:

“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”

Aims and Objectives

In Islam, Muslims generally believe that they are on the path to Allah and are hopeful of eventually becoming close to God in Paradise after their death and the Last Judgement. Sufis also believe this, but in addition, they believe that is possible to fully embrace God’s divine presence and get quite closer to God in this life. The primary aim of all Sufis is to please God by taking actions  that restores in them the primordial state of fitra. 

The outer law in Sufism encompasses rules concerning worship, marriage, judicial rulings, transactions, and criminal law (what is often broadly referred to as Qanun). The inner law encompasses rules dealing with purging of evil traits and contemptible qualities, repentance from sin, and adornment with good characters and virtues. 


For the Sufi, it is the transmission of the light of God from the heart of the teacher to the heart of the student, not the secular knowledge, that makes an adept person progress. Sufis also believe that teachers should try to infallibly obey the Divine Law. 

According to the words of Moojan Moment, one of the most important doctrines in Sufism is the concept of al-Insan al-Kamil “the Perfect Man”. The doctrine states that there will always be a “Qutb” (Pole or Axis of the Universe) on earth. The Sufi Qutb concept is quite like that of the Shi’i Imam. However, both concepts are almost in direct conflict since both the Imam and the Qutb (who is the head of the order in most Sufi orders) play the role of purveying the guidance and grave of Allah to humankind. The vow of obedience to the Qutb or the Shaykh which is usually taken by the Sufis is considered incompatible with devotion to the Imam. 

Some Sufism teachers make extensive use of allegory, parables and metaphors when addressing general audiences or a mixed group of Muslims and non-Muslims. Although there is variance in the approach to teach adopted by each Sufi order, Sufism is generally concerned with direct personal experiences, that’s why it has been sometimes compared to other, non-Islamic forms of mysticism. Most Sufis believe that reaching the highest level of success in Sufism requires the disciple to live with and serve the teacher, usually for a long period of time.  

Visual Arts 

There have been numerous visual artists and painters who have extensively investigated the Sufi motif via various disciplines. An amazing peace can be found in the Islamic gallery of Brooklyn’s Museum. It is an appealing drawing of the battle of Karbala. The artist responsible for this painting was Abbas Al-Musavi. There are many more paintings and artwork around the world that perfectly depict this discipline.

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