Sufism is a mystical form of Sunni Islam whose members pursue a spiritual experience using bodily discipline and mystical intuition. The sect also incorporates ecstatic experiences and the veneration of Muslims or saints. The word Sufi comes from the Arabic word for wool because early followers wore robes of coarse white wool. In medieval times Sufis were also known as dervishes (their Persian name) and fakirs, both of which mean “poor brother.”

Sufis seek a close personal experience with God and believe they have acquired a special mystical knowledge directly from Allah. Many Sufis define their belief as a “religiosity” rather than a religion because it revolves around personal experience rather than doctrine and involves contemplation, awareness and a quest for purity.

The mysticism of Sufism is justified by passages from the Koran that describe the nearness of God and the way that people can respond and on the mysterious night journey Mohammed made after his death to Jerusalem and Paradise.

Sufism was never a unified movement. Rather it existed in the form of separate schools that had their own teachers, techniques, philosophies and beliefs. Teachers, often known as Shaiks or Pirs, passed their methods down to disciples. Schools and sects, that often became centered around the tomb of the school’s founder, were formed. They generally were not associated with with any legal school of ore other theological group.

Conservative governments and Muslim extremist often oppose Sufism and regard Sufis as heretics. Even so Sufi adepts are often more extreme in their views and their intolerance towards non-Muslims that typical Sunni Muslims.

Websites and Resources: ; ; Islam 101 ; Islamic History Resources ; Internet Islamic History Sourcebook ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Religious Tolerance ; BBC article ; Islamic History ; Timeline ; Islamic Civilization ; Muslim Heritage

Early History of Sufism

20120510-Ghazali ebetbuch_makff.jpg
Ghazali poetry
Sufism was founded by Islamic purists who were disgusted with the materialism of Islam's leaders and wanted to have personal experience with and direct contact with God under the guidance of teachers or masters. Sufis have traditionally practiced their esoteric beliefs in private and that way avoided the problems that Christians branded as heretics had. There was also the understanding that Sufi experiences were so personal and unfathomable that no one would understand them even if an effort was made to explain them.

Sufism has its roots in the 8th century, when Christian asceticism was nearing its peak and Muslims who resented the materialism of the ruling Muslim elite were attempting to get at the essence of Islam through living simply like Christian monks, even though Islam has traditionally frowned upon monasticism, and having a direct relationship with God. One of their goals was to try to duplicate the conditions in which Mohammed received his revelations.

Although Sufism was clearly influenced by acetic Christianity, Gnosticism, Hermitic traditions and even Buddhism it seems to be an outgrowth of acetic Islam that seems to have been motivated by fear of God, search for oneness with god and an exploration of perceived mystical notions found within the Koran and within Islam. As Sufism developed it was also influenced by the traditional animistic beliefs of Turks and Berbers, and Zoroastrianism of Persians and other local beliefs and superstitions.

Drunken Sufis and Poets

20120510-Imam Ghazali.gif
Imam Ghazali
In the 9th century mystics, who fasted and used rhythmic breathing to send themselves into ecstatic states, became known as the “drunken Sufis.” Some of them claimed to have been wooed Allah like lover. Other said they achieved a perfect state of Islam by totally denying themselves. A few were executed for blasphemy. The “sober Sufis” who arrived in the scene a short time later, offered that mature Sufis returned to the world from the transcendence and lived like good Muslims in a humble sense.

The great Persian scholar al-Ghazali (1058-1111) was the great poet and articulater of Sufism. He also helped reconcile many esoteric Sufi beliefs with mainstream Islam and helped defend orthodox Islam from attacks by Greek-influenced philosophers. He believed that Sufi mysticism offered unique opportunities to discover the true knowledge of God but emphasized that some instruction was necessary to properly guide the the seeker.

Sufis have mostly been a fringe movement. They took up the call to defend Muslim sites from the Crusaders. The sect then became organized around brotherhoods and holy places, often the tombs of the brotherhood founders. There was a secretive, spy-like quality to some of the brotherhoods.

Later History of Sufism

Sufis gained strength when wealthy individuals became fascinate by the movements and used their money to found Sufi madrassahs and other institutions. Some were quite large and housed a large number of followers.

In India, Central Asia and other parts of the Muslim world, Sufis served as missionaries and were key to the spread of Islam. They often were able to win converts who were attracted by their claims as miracle workers and their message of love while playing down Islam’s rigid beliefs and rules. In some places cell-like Sufi groups infiltrated craft and trade organizations in the cities.

As Sufism became increasingly popular and widespread it triggered back-to-basics movements among Muslim groups such as Wahhabis that opposed Sufism, arguing it was a superstition and insisting that Muslim return to basic doctrines of the early Islamic era. In the 18th and 19th century Sufis were persecuted and driven underground.

Sufi Beliefs

Sufis seek the truth of divine love and knowledge through direct personal experience with God. They attempt to reach a state of fana (a temporary ecstatic intoxication of divine love) and baqa (a prolonged condition of complete "human in-dwelling with God”). Some Sufis viewed the high of spiritual consciousness as the “Light of Lights” and described the process of reaching it as “ascending degrees of illumination.”

Rather than focusing on the numerous rules and regulations enumerated by the Koran, Sufism picks out poetic and mystic verses’such as “Wherever you turn, there is the face of God—“which also abounds”---and mines them for meaning. Sufis have mapped out a mystical theology that aims to seek out soul of God and have given Islam some unique spins. The Koran scripture about God being “closer to man than his own neck vein” becomes “I am near to answer the call of the caller when he calls to me.”

Unlike mainstream Muslims, who regard the soul as a material substance connected to the body, Sufis regard the soul as something more abstract and separate from the body and connected to God, a notion that many Muslim consider blasphemous. For Sufis, Mohammed’s ascension to heaven is regarded as model for the flight of the human soul to God.

Sufis have worked out their own schemata of the universe. They have been heavily influenced by the 13th century Persian sage Rumi who argued that earth, water, air and fire are the basic elements and we are worth no more that whatever we fear and a seeker of knowledge goes through many phases.

According to the Encyclopedia of World Religions Sufis believe that: “the human spirit being a direct emanation from the divine Command, is therefore an emanation of God himself, and could find its highest aim only in the obliteration of its illusory selfhood and absorption into the Eternal Reality. The supreme mystical experience is thus achieved in union with God, even if only momentarily.”

Sufi Masters, Holy Men and Structure

Sudan dervish in the 1920s
Many Sufi orders are organized around masters known in different sects as pir , sheik , ishan , murshid or ustad . Revered as teachers with divine connections to God, they provide guidance and spiritual help for followers and are a source of inspiration. According to an old Sufi saying: “he who has no sheik, the Devil is his sheik.” Many masters and teachers trace their lineage back to pioneering teachers by way “chains” of spiritual affiliations, which in turn are often linked to Companions of Mohammed, often Ali.

Followers pass through different stages in their spiritual journey. Sufi initiates are given a skullcap and black cloak. In the early stages of their quest they were not unlike newly saved Christians, who announced they would repent and promised to turn away from their sinful past. The journey often involved a progression from the body to energy to spirit and a return to the world that was not unlike the path taken by Buddha.

Some Sufis are wandering dervishes who carry a wooden cane and have hair tinted with henna. They travel from place to place and try to spread the word of their religion but are elusive when talking about themselves. If you ask where a Sufi ascetic where he is going, comes from or how he earns his money he will say "Only Allah knows." Some are hermits who live in caves like Buddhist or Hindu holy men. One Sufi master spent 50 years in the jungles of Sri Lanka observing animals and learning about God.

The structure of Sufism is more hierarchal than orthodox Islam, which stresses the equality of all believers. Sufism was something that was learned. Initiates pass through different levels to became masters, with each higher level having corresponding higher status. In the past masters developed large following and became quite famous. They received large amounts of money as gifts, built large buildings and were honored with large shrines and treated as saints after they died. Mohammed discouraged this kind of adoration.

Sufism is a relatively laid back when it comes to rules and structure. On some levels Sufis reject religious hierarchy and stress direct human contact with the infinite. Sufi sects are often decentralized and secretive. They often flout some of the rules of Sharia which puts them in a bad light in the eyes of conservative Muslims. There are some Sufi sects that aim to operate within the confines of the Koran and stay close to orthodox Islam.

Sufi Saints

Holy graves of Khwaja Wali
Sufism encourages rather than discourages the worship of religious leaders. Sufi saints are believed to have performed miracles, broken the laws of nature and cured illnesses. Some were executed because their beliefs were regarded as heretical by mainstream Muslims. The graves of Sufi saints are sought by pilgrims.

Many Sufi orders and school are associated with famous Sufi saints and mystics, which include al-Hallaj (d. 922), who was executed while in an ecstatic state, and shouting “I am the Truth”; Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (d. 1111), the famous Sufi poet and philosopher; and Muhyi al-Din Ibn “Arabi (d. 1240) who preached that all beings are unified under Allah.

Sufi saints are chosen more or less by popular acclaim. One of the most important Sufi figures in Central Asia is Bakhautdin Naqshband, a 14th century woodcarver and He was the founder of the Naqshbandi sect. He stressed the importance of work and good deeds in living a full spiritual life.

Among Sufis, Mohammed is regarded as the greatest saint and has been viewed in terms similar to a Jewish or Christian Messiah. Sufis developed a mystical cult of the Prophet linked with the Koranic thesis of the “Covenant.” Adherents to this concept believe a cosmic link was made between Mohammed and God and Creation when Mohammed took on his role as a human intermediary between God and humanity. One Sufi text reads: “All the lights of the Prophets proceeded from his light; he was before all, his name was the first in the Book of Fate; he was known before all things and all beings, and will endure after the end of all.”

Sufi Miracles and Shrines

Bibi Jawindi's Tomb
Sufi saints are said to have walked on water, turned themselves invisible, teletransported themselves to faraway places, produced objects out of thin air, ascertained the needs of troubled souls, sensed disasters and helped the sick by submitting themselves to Islam and praying so deeply they achieved a high level of spirituality. Many of the karama miracles performed by later Muslim saints and mystics, were performed by charismatic Muslim leaders associated with Sufism.

Hisham Mohammed Kabbani, a Sufi saint from the Naqshbandi order, told Newsweek that in 1971 he received an unexpected visit from his former master. He said the master told him, “I have received an inspiration from a chain of our grandmasters that your father is going to die tonight at 7 p.m.” Kabbanis said, How do you know this? My father is old but in good health?” The master replied, “It is through our essence and spiritual connection that has been passed on over thousands of years.”

Kabbani said it as around 5 in the evening when his master visited. He called his family together. At around five minutes before 7 the father began complaining of chest pains. By 7 he was dead from a heart attack.

Sufis are big on shrines built around the tombs of Sufi masters and saints. The can be inside mosques or stand alone. Pilgrims flow to the shrines to show their respect and wish for things by tying handkerchiefs to trees and making offerings similar to those made in Hindu and Buddhist rituals. Followers have claimed that miracles have occurred after visits to the shrines of dead Sufi saints. Some Sufis have stone platforms with carved stone plinths that are designed for Sufi prayers.

At sufi shrines, childless women pray for children, businessmen pray for success. Sometimes qawwali musicians perform. Special festivals are often held at the shrines on the saint’s birthday or other special days. Some are just local events. Others are big events that draw people from all over. Some have been the central events of major trade fairs and markets and have survived because the brought money to local people.

Sufi Love and Ecstacy

Parvati Baul
According to Sufism, the possession of moral disciple and absolute trust and obedience in God leads to intense ecstatic experiences similar to those achieved by Christians who speak in tongues and are filled with the holy spirit.

Sufi poets used expressions like “flooded with sweetness” and “intoxication” to describe their experiences. One 10th century Sufi wrote: “The love of God in its essence is the illumination of the heart by joy, because of its nearness to the Beloved; and when the heart is filled with that radiant joy, it finds its delight in being alone with the recollection of the Beloved, the joy of that intercourse overwhelms the mind, so that it is no longer concerned with this world and is therein.”

The Sufi writer and theologian Ibn Taymiya (1263-1328) wrote: "When the heart throbs with exhilaration and rapture becomes intense and the agitation of ecstasy is manifested and conventional forms are gone, that agitation is neither dancing nor bodily indulgence, but a dissolution of the soul.”

Sufi Mystical Discussions and Poetry

Ghousavi Shah at Masjid
Sufi students debate questions like which did God create first the body or the soul and use logic and reason to examine things like the uncleanliness of monkeys and right of women to be religious leaders.

Dervish sessions are often accompanied by a discussion on mystical subjects led by a master. Describing such as session, Abercrombie wrote: The master "spoke slowly to my thought, lighting a cigarette in his long black holder. 'Is time real? Or merely an illusion, something man has fashioned to measure his progress in a timeless universe...In one's inner self, time takes a different form. Not flowing like a river but calm like a lake,' he said. 'Have you noticed, for instance, that in dreams, past, present, and future blend freely.'"

Sufism has inspired traditions and canons of literature and poetry in local languages. The verses often deal with the pain of separation from God and the great joy of reunion as expressed with romantic metaphors. The divine is often expressed as a man and the person seeking the union is expressed as a woman. Ecstacy is expressed as a merging of the two.

Sufi Ecstatic Techniques

Sufis have developed techniques to create ecstatic experiences and heighten them. Among them are the repetition of poems and holy names, music, dance, meditation, rhythmic beating, chanting and self hypnotism. The goal is to work oneself into a trance and loose contact with the immediate world to intensify one’s awareness of God. Ritual used to open a path to divine ecstacy are called dhikr .

20120510-ast judgment Arabi-Plain-of-Assembly.jpg
Describing a Sufi sect in Egypt, Thomas Abercrombie wrote in National Geographic, "Devotees from the poorer quarters gather under colored lights to the cadent spell of flutes and drums. Wearing agate prayer beads and a red fez wrapped with a green turban, the tall, clean-shaven master led the emotional dhikr , a “memorial service to God,” waving the rhythm with a gilded baton."

" Allah! Allah! Allah! " the chant continued for half an hour, with hypnotic effect, then veered from prayer to poetry: Stranger in this world Shepherding the night starts Sleepless, forlorn.... Emotions flowed. before the evening was over I saw women swoon, grown men break into tears."

One Sufi technique involves repeating, “There is no god but God!” to a prescribed breathing and chest-beating sequence. Some techniques involve chains and are not that different from Shiite Ashura rituals. Others employ hashish or other drugs, In India, Sufis use techniques like those used by Hindu holymen and yogis. Sufi mystics are sometimes called fakirs.

Sufis sometimes thrust knives into their cheeks and swallow burning torches like Hindu sadhus. In technique participants purportedly go into such a deep trance they can pass heated skewers through their cheeks without experiencing any pain. Sometimes the experiences are said to be so intense that initiates were warned not to embark on the journey to learn them unless they have a skilled master or sheik to guide them.

Sufi Music and Festivals

20120510-baul Ektara_player.jpg
Baul Ektara player
The union of the body, spirit and music lies at the heart of Sufism. Sufis believe: "Music is the food of the spirit; when the spirit receives food, it turns aside from the government of the body." Sufis are credited with keeping the spirit of music alive in the Muslim world while orthodox Muslims tried to stamp it out. Sufis traditionally criticized those who criticized music.

According to 9th-century Baghdad philosopher Abu Suliman al-Darani Sufis believe that "music and singing do not produce in it that which is not in it" and music "reminds the spirit of the realm for which it constantly longs."

Sufi spiritual music is often highly-syncopated and hypnotic. One Sufi dancer said, "The music takes you over completely. It's a healing thing."

Some Sufi songs are popular villages songs about love with lyrics changed so the Mohammed is the object of love rather than a woman or a man. One songs goes, "It is he, it is only he who lives in my heart, only he whom I give my love, our beautiful Prophet Mohammed, whose eyes are made-up with kohl,"

Baul of the group Oikyotaan
Fixtures of Sufism include secret recitations and annual 40-day retreats known as chilla . Sufi mulids , religious festivals that honor the saints of mosque, sometimes attracts hundreds of thousands of people even though they are denounced as "heretical" by orthodox Muslims. Members of Sufi clans often walk to the festival from their home villages, carrying banners and flags. Groups of musicians make their living by traveling from one mulid to another.

Describing a Sufi ritual at such a festival David Lodge wrote in the Rough Guide to World Music: "To a binding hypnotic rhythm, heaving movements and respiratory groans, the leader conducts the congregation by reciting Sufi poetry, guiding them from one maqam mode to another. Bodies sway, head roll upwards on every stroke as they chant religious devotions with spiraling intensity."

Sufi Sects

Sufism has never been unified. Different sects arise over different methods used to reach various goals. These included poetry, music, dance, meditation, chanting and trances. Over times different schools, brotherhoods and order developed. Turkey is home to 11 major Sufi orders and some 400 sub-orders.

The main Sufi schools, which date back to the 12th century, are: 1) the Qadiriyya school (named after And- al-Qadiriyya, al-Gilan I of Baghdad, died 1166), which is well represented in the Middle East. Africa and the Caucasus; 2) the Melvini school (named after Jalal al-Din al-Rumi) found mostly in Turkey; and 3) the Chishtiyaya ( from Mu’in al-Din Chishti of Sistan, died in 1236), based in Pakistan, India and Southeast Asia There were numerous sub orders and small orders.

Sufi sects are often clandestine, decentralized. Some are fanatical. Some are ascetic. Many are involved with helping their communities, assisting the poor and educating the young. In the old days some were affiliated with craft guilds. Many Sufi sects do not allow women to join.

The Naqshbandi (named of Baha al-Din Naqshbandi, died 1389) sect is one of the biggest sects today. It has followers all over the Muslim world today. Naqshbandi sect members perform zikr in which they recite the names of God and sacred verses while doing breathing exercises in special postures and focusing their attention on particular parts of their body. The sect endured in Central Asia, through the Soviet era and reportedly was never penetrated by the KGB.

Tharundas Baul

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: World Religions edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); Arab News, Jeddah; Islam, a Short History by Karen Armstrong; A History of the Arab Peoples by Albert Hourani (Faber and Faber, 1991); Encyclopedia of the World Cultures edited by David Levinson (G.K. Hall & Company, New York, 1994). Also articles in National Geographic, the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Times of London, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Page Top

© 2009 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated March 2011

This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been authorized by the copyright owner. Such material is made available in an effort to advance understanding of country or topic discussed in the article. This constitutes 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. If you are the copyright owner and would like this content removed from, please contact me.