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What is Sufism?
Jul 1, 2004

Q: What is Sufism?

A: Sufism is a path followed by Sufis (adherents of Islamic mysticism) to reach the Truth-God. While the term Sufism usually expresses the theoretical or philosophical aspect of this search, its practical aspect is usually referred to as “being a dervish.”

Sufism has been defined in many ways. Some see it as God’s annihilating the individual’s ego, will, and self-centeredness, and then reviving him spiritually with the lights of His Essence so that he may live according to His will. Others view it as a continuous striving to cleanse one’s self of that which is bad or evil in order to acquire virtue.

There are some who describe Sufism as seeing behind the outer or surface appearance of things and events and interpreting whatever happens in the world in relation to God. This means that a person regards every act of God as a window through which to “see” Him, that they live their life as a continuous effort to view or see Him with a profound, spiritual “seeing” indescribable in physical terms and with a profound awareness of being continually overseen by Him.

All of these definitions can be summarized as follows: Sufism is the path followed by an individual who is seeking to free themselves from human vices and weaknesses in order to acquire angelic qualities and conduct that is pleasing to God. Such a goal can be realized by living in accordance with the requirements of God’s knowledge and love, and in the resulting spiritual delights that ensue.

Sufism is based on meticulously observing the rules of the Shari’a down to the smallest detail in order to penetrate their inner meaning. An initiate or traveler on the path never separates the outer observance of the Shari’a from its inner dimension, and therefore observes all of the requirements of both the outer and the inner dimensions of Islam. Through such observance, the traveler heads toward the goal in utmost humility and submission.

Sufism, being a demanding path leading to knowledge of God, has no room for negligence or frivolity. It requires that initiates should strive continuously, like a honeybee flying from the hive to flowers and from flowers to the hive, to acquire this knowledge. They should purify their heart from all other attachments, and resist all carnal inclinations, desires, and appetites. They should lead their lives in a spiritual manner, always being ready to receive divine blessing and inspiration, and in strict observance of the example left behind by Prophet Muhammad. Convinced that attachment to God is the greatest merit and honor, they should renounce their own desires for the demands of God, the Truth.

After these preliminary definitions, we should discuss the aim, benefits, and principles of Sufism.

Sufism requires the strict observance of all religious obligations, an austere lifestyle, and the renunciation of carnal desires. Through this method of spiritual self-discipline, the heart of an individual is purified and their senses and faculties are employed on the way of God, which means that they can now begin to live on a spiritual level. Sufism also enables humans, through the constant worship of God, to deepen their awareness of themselves as a devotee of God. It enables them to renounce this transient world and the desires and emotions that it engenders, and awakens them to the reality of the other world that is turned toward God’s Beautiful Names.

Sufism allows the individual to make this transition, for it develops the angelic dimension of one’s existence and enables the acquisition of a strong, heart-felt, and personally experienced conviction of the articles of faith that have formerly only been accepted superficially.

The principles of Sufism may be listed as follows:

1- Reaching true belief in God’s Divine Oneness

and living in accordance with its demands.

2- Heeding the Divine Speech (the Qur’an), discerning, and then obeying the commands of the Divine Power and Will as they relate to the universe (the laws of creation and life).

3- Overflowing with Divine Love and getting along with all other beings in the realization (originating from Divine Love) that the universe is a cradle of brotherhood.

4- Giving preference or precedence to the well-being and happiness of others.

5- Acting in accord with the demands of the Divine Will-not with the demands of our own will and living in a manner that reflects our self-annihilation in God and subsistence with Him.

6- Being open to love, spiritual yearning, delight, and ecstasy.

7- Being able to discern divine mysteries by studying things and events.

8- Visiting spiritual places and associating with people who encourage the avoidance of sin and striving in the way of God.

9- Being content with permitted pleasures, and not taking even a single step toward that which is not permitted.

10- Continuously struggling against worldly ambitions and illusions that lead us to believe in the eternal nature of this world.

11- Never forgetting that salvation is possible only through certainty or conviction in the truth of religious beliefs and conduct, sincerity or purity of intention, and the sole desire to please God.

Sufism has some basic concepts, which often form the core of books written on good morals, manners, and asceticism, and which are regarded as the sites of the “Muhammadi Truth” in one’s heart. They can also be considered lights by which to know and follow the spiritual path leading to God.

The foremost of these concepts is wakefulness, which is alluded to in several hadiths (Prophetic sayings): “My eyes sleep but my heart does not,” and “Men are asleep, they wake up when they die.”

The Origin of Sufism

As the history of Islamic religious sciences tells us, religious commandments were not written down during the early days of Islam; rather, the practice and oral circulation of commandments related to belief, worship, and daily life allowed people to memorize them. Thus, it was not difficult to compile them into books later on, for what had been memorized and practiced was simply written down. In addition, since religious commandments were the vital issues in a Muslim’s individual and collective life, scholars gave priority to them and compiled books on them. Legal scholars collected and codified books on Islamic law, and its rules and principles that pertained to all fields of life. The

Traditionists established the hadiths and sunna (the Prophet’s way of life), and preserved them in books. Theologians dealt with the issues concerning Muslim belief. Interpreters of the Qur’an dedicated themselves to studying its meaning, including issues that would later be called “Qur’anic sciences,” such as naskh (abrogation of a law), inzal (God’s sending down the entire Qur’an at one time), tanzil (God’s sending down the Qur’an in parts on different occasions). Thanks to these universally appreciated efforts, the truths and principles of Islam were established in such a way that their authenticity cannot be doubted.

While some scholars were engaged on these practical activities, Sufi masters were mostly concentrating on the pure spiritual dimension of the Muhammadi Truth. They sought to reveal the essence of humans, the real nature of existence, and the inner dynamics of man and the cosmos by calling attention to the reality of things lying beneath and beyond their outer dimension. Adding to Quranic commentaries, the narrations of the Traditionists, and the deductions of the ways through asceticism, spirituality, and self-purification, developed their practice and experience of religion. Thus the Islamic spiritual life based on asceticism, regular worship, abstention from all major and minor sins, sincerity and purity of intention, love and yearning, and the admission of one’s essential impotence and destitution became the subject-matter of Sufism, a new science possessing its own method, principles, rules, and terms. Even if various differences gradually emerged among the orders that were later established, it can be said that the basic core of this science has always been the essence of the Muhammadi Truth.

An individual practitioner of Sufism can use it to deepen their spirituality. Through the struggle with one’s self, solitude or retreat, invocation, self-control, and self-criticism, the veils covering the inner dimension of existence are torn apart, enabling the individual to acquire a strong conviction of the truth of all the major and minor principles of faith.