Sufism – An Introduction to Mystical Islam

Sufism in an umbrella term for a variety of philosophical, social, and literary phenomena occurring within the Islamic world. In its narrowest sense, the term refers to a number of schools of Islamic mystical philosophy and theology, to religious orders and guilds that have greatly influenced the development of Islamic politics and society, and to the varied expressions of popular piety found throughout the Islamic world.

In a wider sense, Sufism is often seen as the spiritual muse behind much of pre-modern verse in the Islamic world, the idiom of much of popular Islamic piety, the primary social arena open to women’s religious participation, and a major force in the conversion of people to Islam in Africa and Asia.

Sufism has been referred to as Tazkiya Nafs (purity of soul) in the Quran. Islamic scholars and those who have learned Quran with translation know the connotation of this verse. “The Day when neither wealth nor sons will avail, But only he (will prosper) that comes to Allah with a purified heart”. Surah Ashurah, 26:88-89. Sufi orders served as educational institutions that fostered not only the religious sciences but also music and decorative arts. Sometimes Sufi leaders served as theologians and judges, combining within themselves scholastic and charismatic forms of leadership; at other times, they led the challenge against the legal and theological establishment.

Where Sufism Began:

The origins of Sufism lie in a very informal movement of personal piety that emerged in the first century of Islam. These earliest Sufis emphasized prayer, asceticism, and withdrawal from society. The term “Sufism” or tasawwuf, as the tradition is called in Arabic – may derive from the practice of wearing wool (suf in Arabic), or possibly from the Arabic word for purity (safa). The earliest Sufis spent almost all their waking hours in prayer, and frequently engaged in acts of self-mortification, such as starving themselves or staying up the entire night, as a form of prayer exercise. They renounced their connections to the world and possessed little apart from the clothes on their back. A large proportion of these early Sufis were women, several of whom, such as Rabia Basri, are revered to this day.

It is very likely that the Sufis adopted the practices of asceticism and the wearing of wool after observing the Christian ascetics of Syria and Palestine. Sufis, however, see the origins of their movement in the Quran and in the life of Muhammad (peace be upon him). They are quick to observe that Muhammad S.A.W. lived an extremely simple, almost ascetic life, and that he had a habit of withdrawing from Mecca to go and meditate in a cave. Indeed, it was while he was meditating in this manner that he received his first revelation. Sufis therefore see their practices as an imitation of Muhammad, and they hope to achieve the same close relationship with God as he did.

The Sufi Path:

Sufis believe that average human beings are unable to understand the true nature of spirituality because of their petty concerns. The quest for spiritual understanding in Sufism is seen as a path, which each Sufi must travel under the guidance of a teacher or master. This path has many stages, the number and names of which vary depending on the school of Sufi thought.

In most instances, the first stage on the Sufi path is learning the Quran with translation and then comes the stage of repentance. The Sufi is expected to repent of all the bad deeds he or she has committed in life and to take a vow to avoid all earthly pleasures. After having repented of the past, the Sufi is supposed to divest him or herself of earthly belongings, which even include attachment to friends and family. In practice, this process of material and emotional divestment is extremely difficult, often takes a long time, and requires strict meditational exercises under the directions of a master.