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What Everyone Needs to Know About Islam What is This? A guide to a wide variety of general questions asked by those looking to learn more about Muslim culture and the Islamic world.

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Who are the Sufis?

Sufis belong to the mystical tradition of Islam known as Sufism. The name “Sufi” is derived from the Arabic word suf (wool), in honor of the coarse woolen garments worn by the first Sufis, resembling the garb of Christian monks and mystics in other faiths. Like other mystical movements in Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, and Buddhism, the Sufi path seeks to discipline the mind and body in order to experience directly the presence of God. Sufis view their struggle to find God as one that takes place in the world, in contrast to the Christian monastic tradition of withdrawing from the world in order to find God.

Sufis set as their highest priority the individual spiritual effort of self-sacrifice and discipline in a struggle within oneself against greed, laziness, and ego. This struggle is known as the “greater jihad” (as opposed to the “lesser jihad” of armed struggle in the defense of Islam). This “greater jihad” is carried out by devoting oneself completely to fulfilling God's will, studying and meditating on the Quran and the Sunnah (the example of Muhammad), performing religious duties, especially prayer and fasting, focusing on the centrality of God and the Last Judgment, denying material desires that could distract one from God, and carrying out good works. A famous woman mystic, Rabia al-Adawiyya (d. 801), added the devotional love of God to Sufi practices.

Like Islamic law, Sufism began as a reform movement in response to the growing materialism and wealth of Muslim society that accompanied the expansion and increasing power of the Islamic empire. While some believed that strict adherence to Islamic law and rituals was the solution to the excesses of imperial lifestyles and luxuries, Sufis found the emphasis on laws, rules, duties, and rights to be spiritually lacking. Instead, they emphasized the “interior” path, seeking the purity and simplicity of the time of Muhammad, as the route to the direct and personal experience of God. Following the example of Muhammad in working tirelessly in the world to create the ideal Islamic society, Sufis have often played an important role in the political life of Muslims. For example, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, Sufi brotherhoods led jihad movements (for example, the Mahdi in Sudan, Fulani in Nigeria, and Sanusi in Libya) that spearheaded an Islamic revivalist wave that regenerated society, created Islamic states, and fought off colonial powers.

The Sufi orders also played an important role in the spread of Islam through missionary work. Their tendency to adopt and adapt to local non-Islamic customs and practices in new places, and their strong devotional and emotional practices, helped them to become a popular mass movement and a threat to the more orthodox religious establishment. In this way, Sufism became integral to popular religious practices and spirituality in Islam. However, their willingness to embrace local traditions also left them open to criticism by the conservative religious establishment for being unfaithful to the tenets of Islam. Indeed, popular Sufism at times slipped into magic and superstition, as well as withdrawal from the world. Some of the major Islamic revival and reform movements of the eighteenth, nineteenth, and twentieth centuries sought to eliminate superstitious practices from Sufism and bring it back into line with more orthodox interpretations of Islam.

Sufism today exists throughout the Muslim world and in a variety of devotional paths. It remains a strong spiritual presence and force in Muslim societies, in both private and public life, and enjoys a wide following in Europe and America, attracting many converts to Islam.

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