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Sufism And Its Origins
Apr 1, 1999

Sufism (tasawwuf) is the path followed by Sufis (adherents of Islamic mysticism) to reach the Truth-God. While this term 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-centredness 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 all that is bad or evil in order to acquire virtue.

Junayd al-Baghdadi, a famous Sufi master, defines Sufism as a method of recollecting "self-annihilation in God" and "permanence or subsistence with God." Shibli summarizes it as always being together with God or in His presence, so that no worldly or other-worldly aim is even entertained. Abu Muhammad Jarir describes it as resisting the temptations of the carnal self and bad qualities and acquiring laudable moral qualities.

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 to "see" Him, lives his 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 himself or herself from human vices and weaknesses in order to acquire angelic qualities and conduct 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 observing even the most "trivial" rule of Shari'a in order to penetrate their inner meaning. An initiate or traveler on the path (salik) 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, he or she travels 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 the initiate should strive continuously, like a honeybee flying from the hive to flowers and from flowers to the hive, to acquire this knowledge. He should purify his heart from all other attachments, and resist all carnal inclinations, desires, and appetites. He should lead his life in a spiritual manner, always be ready to receive divine blessing and inspiration, and in strict observance of the example left behind by Prophet Muhammad. Convinced that attachment and adherence to God is the greatest merit and honor, he should renounce his 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 individual's heart is purified and his senses and faculties are employed in the way of God, which means that he can now begin to live on a spiritual level. Sufism also enables man, through the constant worship of God, to deepen his awareness of himself as a devotee of God. It enables him to renounce this transient world and the desires and emotions that it engenders, and awakens him to the reality of the other world that is turned toward God's Divine 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 he had accepted only 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), and 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 what is in hearts or minds through facial expressions and the inner, Divine mysteries and meanings of surface 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 to 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 of the truth of religious beliefs and conduct, sincerity or purity of intention, and the sole desire to please God.

Two other elements may be added: acquiring knowledge and understanding of the religious and gnostic sciences, and following the guidance of a perfected, spiritual master. Both of these are of considerable significance the Naqshbandiyah Sufi order.

It may be useful to discuss Sufism according to the following 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 "Muhammadan Truth" in one's heart. They can also be considered lights by which to know and follow the spiritual path leading to God.

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


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 the people to memorize them. Thus it was not difficult to compile them in 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 pertaining to all fields of life. Traditionists established the Prophetic traditions (hadiths) and way of life (sunnah), 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), qira'at (Qur'anic recitation), ta'wil (exegesis), and others. 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 in these "outer" activities, Sufi masters were mostly concentrating on the pure spiritual dimension of the Muhammadan Truth. They sought to reveal the essence of man's being, 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 the Qur'anic commentaries, the narrations of the Traditionists, and the deductions of the legal scholars, the Sufi masters developed their ways through asceticism, spirituality and self-purification-in short, 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 individual's admission of his 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 established later on, it can be said that the basic core of this science has always been the essence of the Muhammadan Truth.

The two aspects of the same truth-the commandments of the Shari'a and Sufism- have sometimes been presented as mutually exclusive. This is quite unfortunate, as Sufism is nothing more than the spirit of Shari'a, which is made up of austerity, self-control and criticism, and the continuous struggle to resist the temptations of Satan and the carnal, evil-commanding self so as to be able to fulfill religious obligations. While adherence to the former has been regarded as exotericism (self-restriction to the outer dimension of religion), following the latter has been seen as pure esotericism. Although this discrimination partly arises from assertions that the commandments of the Shari'a are represented by legal scholars or muftis, and the other by the Sufis, it should be viewed as the result of the natural, human tendency of assigning priority to that way which is most suitable for the individual practitioner. 

Many legal scholars, Traditionists, and interpreters of the Qur'an produced important books based on the Qur'an and the Sunna. The Sufis, following the methods dating back to the time of the Prophet and his Companions, also compiled books on austerity, the spiritual struggle against carnal desires and temptations, states and stations of the spirit. They also recorded their own spiritual experiences, love, ardor, and rapture. The goal of this literature was to attract the attention of those whom they regarded as restricting their practice and reflection to the "outer" dimension of religion, and directing it to the "inner" dimension of the religious life.

Both Sufis and scholars sought to reach God by observing the Divine obligations and prohibitions. Nevertheless, some extremist attitudes-occasionally observed on both sides-caused disagreements. Actually there was no substantial disagreement, and it should not have been viewed as a disagreement, for it only involved dealing with different aspects and elements of religion under different titles. The tendency of specialists in jurisprudence to concern themselves with the rules of worship and daily life and how to regulate and discipline man's individual and social life, and that of Sufis to provide a way for man to live at a high level of spirituality through self-purification and spiritual training cannot be considered a disagreement. In fact, Sufism and jurisprudence are like the two schools of a university that is seeking to teach its students the two dimensions of the Shari'a and to enable its students to practice it in their daily life. One school cannot survive without the other, for while one teaches how to pray, how to be ritually pure, how to fast, how to give charity, and how to regulate all aspects of daily life, the other concentrates on what these and other actions really mean, how to make worship an inseparable part of man's existence, and how to elevate man to the rank of a universal, perfect being-a true human being. That is why neither discipline can be neglected.

Although some self-proclaimed Sufis have labelled religious scholars as "scholars of ceremonies" and "exoterists," real, perfected Sufis have always depended on the basic principles of the Shari'a and have based their thoughts on the Qur'an and the Sunna. They have derived their methods from these basic sources of Islam. Al-Wasaya wa al-Ri'aya (The Advices and Observation of Rules) by al-Muhasibi, al-Ta'arruf li-Madhhabi Ahi al-Sufism (A Description of the Way of the People of Sufism) by Kalabazi, al-Luma' (The Gleams) by al-Tusi, Qut al-Qulub (The Food of Hearts) by Abu Talib al-Makki, and al-Risala (The Treatise) by al-Qushayri are among the precious sources where Sufism is dealt with according to the Qur'an and the Sunna. Some of these sources concentrate on self-control and self- purification, while others elaborate upon various topics concerned with Sufism.

After these great compilers came Hujjat al-Islam Imam al-Ghazzali author of Ihya' al-Ulum al-Din (Reviving the Religious Sciences), his most celebrated work. He reviewed all of Sufism's terms, principles, and rules, and, establishing those agreed upon by all Sufi masters and criticizing others, united the outer (Shari'a and jurisprudence) and inner (Sufi) dimensions of Islam. The Sufi masters coming after him presented Sufism as one of the religious sciences or a dimension thereof, promoting unity or agreement among themselves and the so-called "scholars of ceremonies." In addition, they made several Sufi subjects, such as the states of the spirit, certainty or conviction, sincerity and morality, part of the curriculum of madrassas (institutes for the study of religious sciences).

Although Sufism mostly concentrates on the inner world of man and deals with the meaning and effect of religious commandments on man's spirit and heart and is therefore abstract, it does not contradict any of the Islamic ways based on the Qur'an and Sunna. In fact, as is the case with other religious sciences, its source is the Qur'an and the Sunna, as well as the conclusions drawn from the Qur'an and the Sunna via ijtihad (deduction) by the purified scholars of the early period of Islam. It dwells on knowledge, knowledge of God, certainty, sincerity, perfect goodness, and other similar, fundamental virtues.

Defining Sufism as the "science of esoteric truths or mysteries," or the "science of man's spiritual states and stations," or the "science of initiation" does not mean that it is completely different from other religious sciences. Such definitions have resulted from the Shari'a-rooted experiences of various individuals, all of whom have had different temperaments and dispositions, over the centuries. It is a distortion to present the viewpoints of Sufis and the thoughts and conclusions of Shari'a scholars as essentially different from each other. Although it is undeniable that some Sufis have been fanatic adherents of their own ways, and that some religious scholars (i.e., legal scholars, Traditionists, and interpreters of the Qur'an) have restricted themselves to the outward dimension of religion, those who follow and represent the middle, straight path have always formed the majority. Therefore it is wrong to conclude that there is a serious disagreement, which most likely began with some unbecoming thoughts and words uttered by some legal scholars and Sufis against each other, between the two groups. When compared with those on the side of tolerance and consensus, those who have started or participated in such conflicts are very few indeed. This is natural, for both groups have always depended on the Qur'an and Sunna, the two main sources of Islam.

In addition, the priorities of Sufism have never been different from those of jurisprudence. Both disciplines stress the importance of belief and of engaging in good deeds and good conduct. The only difference is that Sufis emphasize self-purification, deepening the meaning of good deeds and multiplying them, and attaining higher standards of good morals so that one's conscience can awaken to the knowledge of God and thus embark upon a path that leads to the required sincerity in living Islam and obtaining God's pleasure. By means of these virtues, man can acquire another nature, another heart, a spiritual intellect within the heart, a deeper knowledge of God, and another "tongue" with which to mention God, he can observe all Shari'a commandments based on a deeper awareness of, and with a disposition for, devotion to God.

An individual practitioner of Sufism can use it to deepen his or her 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.