What is Sufism?
Sufism is less an Islamic sect than a mystical way of approaching the Islamic faith. It has been defined as "mystical Islamic belief and practice in which Muslims seek to find the truth of divine love and knowledge through direct personal experience of God."1
Sufi Terminology and Etymology
Islamic mystics are called Sufis and their way of life is Sufism (also spelled Sufiism). These terms evolved in Western languages in the early 19th century and derive from the Arabic term for a mystic, sufi, which in turn derives from suf, “wool.” This likely refers to the woollen garment of early Islamic ascetics.
Similarly, Islamic mysticism in general is called tasawwuf (literally, “to dress in wool”) in Arabic. Sufis are also referred to as fuqara, “the poor,” the plural form of the Arabic faqir. The Persian equivalent is darvish. These are the roots of the English terms fakir and dervish, used interchangeably for an Islamic mystic.
History of Sufism
Sufism has been a prominent movement within Islam throughout most of its history. It grew out of an early ascetic movement within Islam, which, like its Christian monastic counterpart, sought to counteract the worldiness that came with the rapid expansion of the Muslim community.
The earliest form of Sufism arose under the Umayyad Dynasty (661–749) less than a century after the founding of Islam. Mystics of this period meditated on the Doomsday passages in the Qur'an, thereby earning such nicknames as "those who always weep."
These early Sufis led a life of strict obedience to Islamic scripture and tradition and were known for their night prayers. Many of them concentrated their efforts upon tawakkul, absolute trust in God, which became a central concept of Sufism.
Another century or so later, a new emphasis on love changed asceticism into mysticism. This development is attributed to Rabi'ah al-'Adawiyah (d. 801), a woman from Basra who formulated the Sufi ideal of a pure love of God that was disinterested, without hope for Paradise or fear of Hell.
Other important developments soon followed, including strict self-control, psychological insight, "interior knowledge," annihilation of the self, mystical insights about the nature of man and the Prophet, hymns and poetry. This period, from about 800-1100 AD, is referred to as classical Sufism or classical mysticism.
The next important stage in Sufi history was the development of fraternal orders, in which disciples followed the teachings of a leader-founder. The 13th century is considered the golden age of Sufism, in which some of the greatest mystical poetry was composed. Important figures from this period include Ibn al'Arabi of Spain, Ibn al-Farid of Egypt, Jalal ad-Din ar-Rumi of Persia, and Najmuddin Kubra of Central Asia.
By this time, Sufism had permeated the whole of the Islamic world and played a large role in the shaping of Islamic society.
Sufi beliefs are based firmly in orthodox Islam and the text of the Qur'an, although a few Sufi teachers have strayed too close to monism or pantheism to remain within the orthodox fold.
The core principles of Sufism are tawakkul (absolute trust in God) and tawhid (the truth that there is no deity but God). Tawhid is rich in meaning for mystics: it has been interpreted by some as meaning that nothing truly exists but God or that nature and God are but two aspects of the same reality.
The love of God for man and the love of man for God are also very central to Sufism, and are the subjects of most Islamic mystical poetry and hymns.
Sufi practices have their foundation in purity of life, strict obedience to Islamic law and imitation of the Prophet. Through self-denial, careful introspection and mental struggle, Sufis hope to purify the self from all selfishness, thus attaining ikhlas, absolute purity of intention and act. "Little sleep, little talk, little food" are fundamental and fasting is considered one of the most important preparations for the spiritual life.
Mystical experience of the divine is also central to Sufism. Sufis are distinguished from other Muslims by their fervent seeking of dhawq, a "tasting" that leads to an illumination beyond standard forms of learning. However, the insight gained by such experience is not valid if it contradicts the Qur'an.
The Sufi way of life is called a tariqah, "path." The path begins with repentance and submission to a guide (sheikh or pir). If accepted by the guide, the seeker becomes a disciple (murid) and is given instructions for asceticism and meditation. This usually includes sexual abstinence, fasting and poverty. The ulimate goal of the Sufi path is to fight the true Holy War against the lower self, which is often represented as a black dog.
On his way to illumination the mystic will undergo such changing spiritual states (hal) as qabd and bast, constraint and happy spiritual expansion, fear and hope, and longing and intimacy, which are granted by God and change in intensity according to the spiritual "station" in which the mystic is abiding at the moment. The culmination of the path is ma'rifah (interior knowledge, gnosis) or mahabbah (love), which implies a union of lover and beloved (man and God). The final goal is annihilation (fana'), primarily of one's own qualities but sometimes of one's entire personality. This is often accompanied by spiritual ecstasy or "intoxication."
After the annihilation of the self and accompanying ecstatic experience, the mystic enters a "second sobriety" in which he re-enters the world and continues the "journey of God."
Rituals: Prayers, Music and "Whirling"
A central method on the Sufi path is a ritual prayer or dhikr (“remembrance”, derived from the Qur'anic injunction to remember God often in Surah 62:10). It consists in a repetition of either one or all of the most beautiful names of God, of the name “Allah,” or of a certain religious formula, such as the profession of faith: “There is no God but Allah and Muhammad is his prophet.” A rosary of 99 or 33 beads has been in use since as early as the 8th century for counting the thousands of repetitions.
In the mid-9th century some mystics introduced sessions with music and poetry recitals (sama') in Baghdad in order to reach the ecstatic experience—and since then debates about the permissibility of sama', filling many books, have been written. Narcotics were used in periods of degeneration, coffee by the “sober” mystics (first by the Shadhiliyah after 1300).
Mystical sessions of music and poetry called sama (or sema) were introduced in Baghdad in the mid-9th century with the purpose of achieving an ecstatic experience. Narcotics have sometimes been introduced as part of the method, but this is considered a degeneration of the practice.
The well-known "Whirling Dervishes" are members of the Mevlevi order of Turkish Sufis, based on the teachings of the famous mystic Rumi (d.1273). The practice of spinning around is the group's distinctive form of sama. The whirlers, called semazens, are practicing a form of meditation in which they seek to abandon the self and contemplate God, sometimes achieving an ectastic state. The Mevlevi sect was banned in Turkey by Ataturk in 1925, but performances for tourists are still common throughout the country.
The clothing worn for the ritual and the positions of the body during the spinning are highly symbolic: for instance, the tall camel-hair hat represents the tomb of the ego, the white cloak represents the ego's shroud, and the uplifted right hand indicates readiness to receive grace from God.2
References and Sources
- Sufism - Encyclopaedia Britannica
- The Whirling Dervishes of Rumi
- An American Sufi website
- An academic website on Sufism
- Konya, Turkey (center of the Whirling Dervishes sect) - Sacred Destinations