122. What is Sufism?

Sufism (Arabic: تصوف ; taṣawwuf) is a concept in Islâm, defined by scholars as the inner, mystical dimension of Islâm. Traditional Sufis, throughout history such as Bayazid Bastami, Jalaluddin Rumi, Haji Bektash Veli, Junaid Baghdadi, and Al-Ghazali have maintained Sufism to be purely based on the tenets of Islâm and the teachings of Muhammad.

Practitioners of Sufism or ‘Tasawuf’ are called Sufis who belong to different ‘ṭuruq’ or “orders” led by a grandmaster referred to as a ‘Mawla’ who recognises a line of teachers back to the Prophet of Islâm. These orders meet for spiritual sessions in meeting places known as ‘zawiyahs’, ‘khanqahs’, or ‘tekke.’ Sufis strive for ‘ihsan’ (perfection of worship) as detailed in a hadith: ‘Ihsan’ is to worship Allâh as if you see Him; if you can’t see Him, surely He sees you.’ Jalaluddin Rumi stated: ‘The Sufi is hanging on to Muhammad, like Abu Bakr.’ Sufis consider themselves to be the original true proponents of this pure original form of Islâm. Sufi orders have faced criticism in the Muslim world; it is generally opposed by followers of Wahhabist or Salafist movements within Sunni Islâm, causing tensions due to a resurgence of Sufi practice in Saudi Arabia. Iran bans the practice of Sufism because it views Sufism as unauthentic and incompatible with Twelver Shi’ite Islâm.

Sufi orders (‘turuq’) trace many of their precepts from the Islâmic prophet Muhammad through his cousin and son-in-law Ali ibn Abi Talib – with the notable exception of Naqshbandi order, which does so through the first Caliph, Abu Bakr. Sufi orders are largely Sunni and follow one of the four schools of Sunni Islâm and maintain a Sunni Aqidah or creed. Over the years various Sufi orders have been influenced by and adopted into various Shi’ite movements including Ismailism – which led to the Safaviyya order’s conversion to Shi’ite Islâm and the spread of Twelver Shi’ism throughout Persia. The Twelver Shi’ite influenced Alevi and Sunni Bektashi orders who both claim that all Sufi orders trace their spiritual lineage ‘Silsila’ back to one of The Twelve Imams. Some orders include Alevi, Bektashi, Burhaniya, Mevlevi, Ba ‘Alawiyya, Chishti, Rifa’i, Khalwati, Naqshbandi, Nimatullahi, Oveyssi, Qadiria Boutshishia, Qadiriyyah, Qalandariyya, Sarwari Qadiri, Shadhiliyya and Suhrawardiyya.

Classical Sufi scholars have defined Sufism as ‘a science whose objective is the reparation of the heart and turning it away from all else but God.’ Sufi teacher Ahmad ibn Ajiba, describes it as ‘a science through which one can know how to travel into the presence of the Divine, purify one’s inner self from filth, and beautify it with a variety of praiseworthy traits’. These concepts have a close affinity with Zoroastrianism and that troubles the Iranian clerics.

Muslim scholars of Islâm define ‘Sufism’ as simply the name for the inner or esoteric dimension of Islâm which is supported by outward practices of Islâm, such as Islâmic law. In this view, ‘it is absolutely necessary to be a Muslim’ to be a true Sufi, because Sufism’s ‘methods are inoperative without’ Muslim ‘affiliation.’

Historically, Egypt has been a centre for the development of Sufism, and it has spread across North Africa, and as far as Indonesia where its mystical practice is widespread.