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Sufism includes the various movements of Islamic mysticism. Sufis pursue spirituality through the discipline of the mind and body. The Arabic term sufi, meaning “one who wears wool,” refers to an early group of Muslims who signified their renunciation of worldly goods by wearing coarse and uncomfortable woolen garments. By the 800s, the term had come to indicate a specific group of Muslims who focused on certain teachings from the Qur'an and sunnah. Sufis have played a major role in spreading Islam and have contributed greatly to Muslim culture, especially in their mystical poetry.

Sufi Thought and Practice

Sufis strive above all to gain an awareness of God's presence, both in the world and in themselves. They stress contemplation over action, spiritual development over legal doctrine, and cultivation of the soul over social interaction. They focus on God's mercy, gentleness, and beauty rather than the authority and judgment that interest Muslim legal scholars. Sufism has spread through all regions of the Muslim world and attracts both Sunni and Shi'i Muslims. Men and women of all social classes join mystical orders. Followers of Sufism consider it the inner core and spirit of Islam.

Development of Islamic Mysticism.

Sufism emerged in the decades following Muhammad's death. It began as a reform movement led by Muslims who objected to the materialism and wealth of the Umayyad caliphate ( 661 – 750 ). Sufis also reacted against Islam's increasing emphasis on rules for behavior. Many Muslims found their society spiritually empty. They wanted to gain access to the heightened state experienced by Muhammad when he received God's revelations.

Sufis became known as “those who always weep” and those who view the world as a “hut of sorrows.” From the beginning, they emphasized discipline and self-sacrifice. They sought to introduce God into their lives by winning a struggle against laziness and personal desire. They termed this battle the “greater jihad,” as opposed to the “lesser jihad” of warfare against nonbelievers. Sufis prayed, fasted, studied the Qur'an and sunnah, and tried to prepare themselves for the Day of Judgment. In the late 700s, Rabi'ah al-Adawiyah, an Iraqi woman, added love of God as a focus of Sufism. She helped to shift the movement's primary emphasis from asceticism to mysticism.

Sufis sought to attain complete trust in God, some condemning any thought of the future as a sign of lack of faith. They also emphasized tawhid, the doctrine of God's oneness. Sufism absorbed several additional ideas in the 800s. The Iraqi mystic al-Muhasibi stated that one must cleanse the soul in order to experience God. In Egypt, Dhu an-Nun stressed inner knowledge over traditional education. The Iranian scholar Abu Yazid al-Bistami introduced the concept of annihilating the self to admit the presence of God. In the early 900s, another Iranian mystic, Husayn ibn Mansur al-Hallaj , claimed that eliminating the personality could enable an individual to become one with God. Religious leaders had him executed for his extreme ideas, but al-Hallaj allegedly went to his death singing, happy at the prospect of merging with the divine.

Sufi thought continued to develop during the later medieval period. Abu Hamid al-Ghazali ( 1058 – 1111 ), legal scholar and mystic, stated that only ritual and prayer could grant Muslims a knowledge of God. He claimed that Sufism, unlike theological study, provided a direct knowledge of the divine. This endorsement from a top religious authority helped popularize the movement. The Spanish religious philosopher Ibn al-Arabi ( 1165 – 1240 ) furthered the spread of Sufism, stating that every person has the ability to experience God. Ibn al-Arabi believed that each human personifies one of God's attributes and that individuals can only know the God that exists within them. Because each person has a unique relationship with God, all faiths are valid. Islam serves as one lens among many through which humans can view the divine.

Path of the Mystic.

Sufi masters have devised a number of practices or paths (tariqahs) to develop a person's spirituality. Most paths include the following steps. After repenting for materialistic lifestyles, those who want to become Sufis seek a master who instructs them in perseverance and self-denial. Typically referred to as shaykhs, masters use many tactics to teach humility, including the performance of menial tasks. Shaykhs lead their disciples along numerous “stations,” such as abstinence from certain actions, renunciation of worldly goods, and poverty. They depict the lower soul as an animal that needs taming in order to serve God. Through hard work and self-denial, disciples learn patience, gratitude, and acceptance of hardship. They ultimately gain an inner understanding of God and a feeling of universal love. Once they have attained this state, they may return to the world. There, they continue their exploration of God and serve as witnesses for other Muslims. Sufi masters typically choose one exceptional student as their successor.


Sufi Muslims seek spirituality through the discipline of the mind and body. They emphasize contemplation over action and cultivation of the soul over worldly pursuits. This Mughal painting of the 1700s shows angels bringing food to a Sufi in the forest.

The Pierpont Morgan Library/Art Resource, NY

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Whirling Dervishes in Persian illustration of early 1500s

Werner Forman/Art Resource, NY

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painting showing a diplomatic event in mid-1500s

Giraudon/Art Resource, NY

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Ritual prayer (dhikr) is an important part of the path. Sufis initiated this practice to honor the Qur'anic command to remember God. Dhikr involves the repetition of God's name or another religious phrase, often set to music. The Mawlawis (Whirling Dervishes) recite prayers while performing a dance, and the Rifa'is (Howling Dervishes) inflict pain upon themselves to utter God's name more loudly. Some Sufis repeat formulas silently, while in meditation.

Medieval Sufis used metaphors of intoxication and sobriety to describe their experiences on the path. Ecstatic in the divine presence, Sufis openly declared their union with Allah. They emphasized love and compassion and viewed God in everything, losing the ability to make distinctions. “Intoxicated” (or ecstatic) Sufis produced great works of mystical poetry. Sober Sufis viewed God as distant, majestic, and mighty—far above the concerns of humans. They emphasized law and rightful conduct. Sober Sufism appealed primarily to legal scholars and philosophers, who produced texts of Islamic doctrine. The Sufi movement generally represents a balance between these two expressions.

Influence on the Arts.

Sufis had a tremendous impact on the Islamic arts. Although their devotional practices stimulated the development of music and dance, they made their most remarkable contributions in the field of literature. The hadith “He who knows God talks much” served as the basis for an outpouring of Sufi writings. Books on Sufi etiquette informed followers on correct behavior— Shihab al-Din Umar Suhrawardi's Adab al-muridin (The Adept's Etiquette) served as a cornerstone. Sufis also wrote numerous commentaries on the Qur'an and hadith and published the sayings and letters of Sufi masters.

Sufis made their greatest contribution to Islamic literature in the form of poetry. Mystics composed short, musical verses expressing the yearning of the soul for the beloved, a figure that could serve as either a romantic figure or the divine spirit. They also wrote hymns praising God with lines of repetition that evoked the practice of dhikr. Scholars of all religions consider Jalal al-Din Rumi ( 1207 – 1273 ) the greatest poet in the Persian language. Inspired by his mystical union with the teacher Shams-i Tabrizi and others, he composed poems of several thousand couplets that expressed every state of spiritual attainment. Other Sufi authors explored similar themes, and Turkish mystical poets contributed greatly to Ottoman literature during the 1700s and 1800s.

Sufi Orders

Sufism took root slowly. In the early days of Islam, a small number of Sufi masters taught a handful of disciples. Over time, Sufi teachers rose in stature and attracted larger groups of followers. By the 1100s, established orders (tariqahs) had formed. Some lasted for only a few decades and observed a simple set of rituals. Others became permanent organizations that included different regions and took in people from all social classes.

Sufi orders served a variety of functions. In large cities such as Cairo and Istanbul, they encouraged devotion among Muslims and promoted religious teaching and trade activities. Some sponsored reform campaigns to purify Islamic faith and practice. Rural Sufi orders converted large non-Muslim populations through missionary activities.

Types of Institutions.

All Sufi orders involve regular group meetings and the recitation of prayers, poems, and selections from the Qur'an. They also include daily devotional exercises and meditative rituals. Three main types of Sufi orders developed—those based on large, inclusive traditions; those based on ancient ways; and those based on individuals. The large orders have clearly established traditions and a core body of devotional literature. The Qadiriyah, organized by Abd al-Qadir al-Jilani's followers in the late 1100s, grew rapidly, becoming the most widespread of the orders. Other inclusive groups include the Suhrawardiyah, the Rifa'iyah, the Shadhiliyah, and the Chishtiyah. Over the years, teachers added to the doctrines of their orders. The process of creating suborders continues today.

Orders based on ancient ways stem from less clearly defined traditions. Their founders drew from the prayers and writings of early Sufis but added elements to create orders with distinct identities. The Mawlawiyah is the most famous order of this type. Based on the teachings of Jalal al-Din Rumi (died 1273 ), it continued to evolve with the teachings of later masters. Mawlawi followers, or Whirling Dervishes, incorporate dance into their meditation rituals.

Individual-based orders developed around the teachings of a master who affirmed ties to an earlier teacher but created a completely independent tradition. Founders sometimes claimed inspiration from Muhammad or other figures to validate their orders. Important individual-based orders in the modern world include the Khatmiyah and the Sanusiyah.

Shrine Culture.

Certain Sufi orders revolve around shrines. These groups began when the leaders of various orders developed reputations as saints. Followers believed that they had access to supernatural powers and that they could perform miracles such as predicting the future, being in two places at one time, and curing illness. Some even considered them divine beings. These leaders received numerous requests for blessings. After their deaths, followers believed that the leaders could still respond to such requests.

Many Sufis visit shrines to ask for blessings from a deceased saint. Some make pilgrimages to distant lands to visit shrines. Sufis petition their saints for general blessings, success in business, healing, or other favors. Some shrines attract thousands of pilgrims each year. Many Sufis perform dhikr and other rituals at these sites, and several orders hold annual festivals there. Across the Islamic world, Sufis gather at shrines to honor the births or deaths of saints. Many of these occasions involve lively celebrations that include feasts and processions.

Sufism in the Modern Era

The modern era brought significant changes to the Muslim world. Sufism faced opposition from reformers who sought to strengthen Islam by purging it of superstitious practices associated with some forms of Sufism. However, Sufism has remained a dynamic component of Muslim life. Over the past two centuries, Sufi orders have played a significant role in Islamic missionary work and politics.

Missionary Work.

Sufism has proven to be well-suited for spreading Islam. It teaches that people of all faiths may experience God and that religions come in many different forms. Because the mystic sees God everywhere, all forms of worship are considered valid. Such tolerance enabled Sufism to take a leading role in spreading Islam in non-Muslim lands. Moreover, Sufism's decentralized structure enabled local elites to assume leadership positions in the orders. The flexibility of the faith contributed greatly to its ability to attract a large number of converts.

Sufi orders played leading roles in converting Asian and African populations to Islam in the 1700s and 1800s. Sufism further advanced the spread of Islam to Europe and America in the 1800s and 1900s. Sufi writings influenced several leading Western intellectuals, such as Ralph Waldo Emerson . Many in the West found Sufism a satisfying vehicle of religious expression and an intriguing form of mysticism. Orders in Europe and America continue to grow. For example, the Ni'matullahi order has centers in several major cities in the United States, publishes a magazine called Sufi, and organizes academic conferences on Sufism. The immigration of Sufis to Western countries has also contributed to a rise in popularity of mystical orders.

Sufi Political Action.

Sufi orders had a great political impact during the colonial era. Sufis played a leading role in resisting European dominance of the Islamic world and had some notable successes in Africa. In the 1830s and 1840s, the Qadiriyah led Algerian fighters against the French, and the Salihiyah waged a major war against the British in Somalia. In Sudan, Qurashi Sufis supported the Mahdiyah campaign against colonial rule, inflicting a crushing defeat on the British at Khartoum in 1885 . The Sanusi order provided effective opposition to Italy's campaigns in Libya in the early 1900s. In Morocco, Sufis helped lead a major revolt against the French. Sufis also played roles in several independence movements in Africa after World War II ( 1939 – 1945 ).

Sufi orders also resisted Russian expansion in the Caucasus. Naqshbandi fighters waged a nine-year holy war against czarist troops in the late 1700s and the Qadiris later joined the Naqshbandis in anti-Russian revolts in Daghestan and Chechnya. The Naqshbandiyah opposed rulers in Central Asia as well. In China's Xinjiang province, the Naqshbandiyah waged several jihads against the Ch'ing dynasty in the 1800s. In the 1900s, Sufi orders resisted Soviet rule in Central Asia. They rose up against the government several times between 1920 and 1942 . Sufis in Central Asia helped Islam survive decades of Soviet oppression in the region. They also provided opposition to colonialism in Southeast Asia, participating in a series of anti-Dutch uprisings in Indonesia in the mid-1800s.

Sufi political influence extended beyond campaigns against European imperialism. Sufi orders played a role in legitimizing political authority in several countries. During the the Mughal Empire ( 1526 – 1857 ) and the Ottoman Empire ( 1300 – 1923 ), Sufis had close ties to the ruling classes. In the 1800s, the head of the Mawlawi order presented each new Ottoman sultan with the imperial sword. Although Sufism's political influence declined in the 1900s, it remains strong in Sudan and certain other areas.

Challenges for Modern Sufis.

Sufism has historically faced opposition within the Muslim world. Since the 700s, critics have attacked the movement as a distortion of Islam. Orthodox Muslims have condemned Sufis for embracing non-Islamic practices such as the venerations of saints, which they consider a form of polytheism. They reviled Sufi masters who incorporated superstitions in their rituals and spoke out against the use of music, dancing, and other nontraditional activities.

During the period of colonization, many Muslim reformers blamed Sufism for the weakness of Muslim nations. They criticized the orders for promoting superstition, arguing that Islam needed to embrace technology and the sciences. Certain reformers hoped to eliminate mysticism in the Muslim world. The Turkish leader Mustafa Kemal Atatürk labeled Sufism a subversive movement and banned Sufi orders from his country in 1925 . The former Soviet Union threatened the survival of Sufism in its Asian provinces throughout the 1900s, and Saudi Arabia continues to prohibit all Sufi activity.

However, Sufi influence in the Islamic world has not evaporated. Many Muslims prefer the personalized, intense form of worship that Sufism provides. Sufi orders continue to attract converts in non-Muslim lands, and the movement provides a spiritual identity for Muslims around the world. Millions of Muslims view Sufism as the means by which they may truly worship and experience God. See also Chishtiyah; Ghazali, Abu Hamid al-; Ibn al-Arabi ; Mahdiyah; Mawlawiyah; Naqshbandiyah; Qadiriyah; Rumi ; Saints and Sainthood; Sanusiyah; Shadhiliyah; Shrine; Tawhid; Zawiyah.

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