What the Oxford English Dictionary Doesn't Tell You About Sufism

What the Oxford English Dictionary Doesn't Tell You About Sufism

What is Sufism and its history?

Sufism is a mystical branch of Islam that emphasizes the inner spiritual dimension of Islam. It is also known as Islamic mysticism or tasawwuf in Arabic. The term "Sufism" is derived from the Arabic word "suf" which means wool, and refers to the simple woolen garments worn by early Sufi practitioners.

Sufism emerged in the 8th century in what is now Iraq, and spread throughout the Islamic world over the following centuries. It developed as a response to the rigid legalism and formalism that characterized mainstream Islam at the time. Sufis sought a more direct and personal experience of God, often through the use of meditation, prayer, and other spiritual practices.

The early Sufi masters, or shaykhs, were known for their asceticism and detachment from worldly pursuits. They emphasized the importance of purifying the heart and the soul in order to achieve closeness to God. Over time, Sufism developed a rich spiritual and intellectual tradition, with a wide variety of practices, rituals, and beliefs.

One of the most influential Sufi orders, or tariqas, is the Qadiriyya, which was founded in the 12th century by the Sufi master Abdul-Qadir Gilani. Other major tariqas include the Naqshbandiyya, the Chishtiyya, and the Suhrawardiyya.

Sufism has had a profound impact on Islamic civilization, and has contributed to the development of literature, music, and art in the Islamic world. It has also played a significant role in spreading Islam to non-Muslims, particularly in South Asia, where Sufism became deeply integrated with local cultures and traditions.

The relationship between Sufism and Islam

Sufism is a mystical and spiritual tradition within Islam. It emphasizes the inner spiritual dimension of Islam and seeks to cultivate a direct and personal experience of the divine. Sufism has been an important part of Islamic culture and history for over a millennium and has had a significant influence on the development of Islamic thought and practice.

Sufism emerged within the broader context of Islamic civilization in the 8th century CE, and its roots can be traced back to the Quran and the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad. Sufis believe that Islam is not just a set of external practices but a path of spiritual transformation that requires an inner journey towards the divine. They emphasize the importance of self-discipline, self-awareness, and self-purification in order to achieve a deeper understanding of God and a closer relationship with Him.

Sufism has been practiced by both Sunni and Shia Muslims, and it has evolved over time into various schools and orders. Some of the most famous Sufi orders include the Qadiriyya, the Chishtiyya, and the Naqshbandiyya. Sufis use a variety of spiritual practices to deepen their connection with God, including prayer, meditation, chanting, and physical exercises.

Despite its deep roots in Islamic history and culture, Sufism has sometimes been viewed with suspicion by some conservative Muslim scholars who view some of its practices and beliefs as deviant from mainstream Islamic teachings. However, many Muslims throughout history have recognized the value of Sufism as a means of cultivating a more intimate relationship with God and have embraced it as an important part of Islamic spirituality.

The different schools and orders of Sufism

Sufism is a mystical branch of Islam that emphasizes the inward search for the divine. Over time, various schools and orders of Sufism have developed, each with its own unique approach to spiritual practice and teachings. Here are some of the major schools and orders of Sufism:

Qadiriyya: Founded by the renowned Sufi scholar and mystic Abdul-Qadir Gilani, this order emphasizes the importance of love and devotion to God and the prophet Muhammad. The Qadiriyya order is known for its emphasis on spiritual discipline and its use of music and poetry in its rituals.

Chishtiyya: This order, founded by Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti, is known for its emphasis on the importance of serving humanity as a means of serving God. The Chishtiyya order places great importance on the teacher-disciple relationship and the transmission of spiritual knowledge through a direct and personal connection with a living master.

Naqshbandiyya: This order, founded by Baha-ud-Din Naqshband Bukhari, places great emphasis on the purification of the heart through the remembrance of God. The Naqshbandiyya order is known for its emphasis on silence and introspection, and its followers practice a form of meditation called zikr, which involves the repetition of certain names or phrases related to God.

Mevleviyya: Also known as the Whirling Dervishes, this order was founded by the poet and mystic Jalaluddin Rumi. The Mevleviyya order is known for its distinctive ritual of spinning in circles while listening to music as a form of meditation and devotion.

Bektashiyya: This order, founded by the mystic Hajji Bektash Veli, places great emphasis on love and tolerance, and it is known for its inclusive and egalitarian approach to spirituality. The Bektashiyya order has a strong tradition of poetry and music, and its followers often gather together in communal settings to engage in spiritual practices.

Rifaiyya: Founded by Ahmad al-Rifai, this order emphasizes the importance of the spiritual master and the practice of asceticism and self-discipline as a means of attaining spiritual purity. The Rifaiyya order is known for its use of music and dance in its rituals, as well as its focus on the inner experience of God.

These are just a few of the many schools and orders of Sufism, each with its own unique approach to spiritual practice and teachings.

The concept of tawhid (oneness of God) in Sufism

Tawhid, or the oneness of God, is a fundamental concept in Islam, and it is also central to Sufism, the mystical dimension of Islam. Sufis believe that everything in the universe is a manifestation of God's divine unity and that recognizing the oneness of God is the ultimate goal of human life.

For Sufis, the concept of tawhid goes beyond a mere affirmation of God's unity. It involves experiencing the presence of God in all aspects of life and seeing everything in creation as a reflection of God's divine attributes. This means that Sufis seek to dissolve the boundaries between themselves and the divine, becoming one with God through spiritual practices such as meditation, chanting, and contemplation.

Sufis also emphasize the importance of the heart in understanding and experiencing the oneness of God. They believe that the heart is the seat of the soul and the gateway to the divine. Through purifying the heart of worldly attachments and filling it with love and devotion to God, Sufis believe they can achieve a direct experience of the divine.

In Sufi poetry and literature, the concept of tawhid is often expressed through the metaphor of the lover and the beloved, with the Sufi being the lover and God being the beloved. This imagery is used to illustrate the idea of a mystical union between the individual soul and the divine.

Overall, the concept of tawhid in Sufism represents a deep and profound understanding of the unity of all creation and the ultimate reality of God. It is a guiding principle for Sufis in their quest for spiritual enlightenment and union with the divine.

The role of spiritual practices (such as dhikr, meditation, and prayer) in Sufism

Sufism is a mystical branch of Islam that emphasizes the inner, spiritual dimension of the faith. Spiritual practices are an important part of Sufism, as they are seen as a way to cultivate a closer relationship with God and to attain spiritual enlightenment.

One of the most important spiritual practices in Sufism is dhikr, which is the repetition of the names of God or other sacred phrases. Dhikr is considered to be a form of meditation, and it is believed to help the practitioner achieve a state of heightened awareness and a closer connection to God.

Meditation is also an important spiritual practice in Sufism. There are many different forms of meditation that are practiced in Sufism, including silent meditation, visualization, and breathing exercises. Meditation is seen as a way to quiet the mind and to cultivate a deep awareness of one's innermost self and connection to God.

Prayer is another important spiritual practice in Sufism. In Sufi practice, prayer is not simply a recitation of words, but rather a way to connect with the divine. Through prayer, Sufis seek to express their love and devotion to God, and to ask for guidance and blessings.

Overall, spiritual practices play a central role in Sufism, as they are seen as a way to cultivate a deep, personal relationship with God and to attain spiritual enlightenment. Through practices such as dhikr, meditation, and prayer, Sufis seek to purify their hearts and minds, and to become closer to the divine.

The importance of love and devotion in Sufism

Love and devotion are central to Sufism, the mystical branch of Islam. Sufis believe that love is the most powerful force in the universe, and that it is through love and devotion that one can attain spiritual enlightenment and a closer relationship with God.

Sufis use various techniques to cultivate love and devotion in their practice. These include reciting the names of God or sacred phrases (such as the famous Sufi chant of "Allah hu"), performing devotional dances (such as the whirling dervish), and engaging in acts of service and charity.

Love in Sufism is not just a romantic or emotional feeling, but rather a profound spiritual experience that involves the surrender of the ego to the divine will. Sufis believe that by cultivating love and devotion towards God, one can transcend the limitations of the ego and experience a sense of unity with all of creation.

Sufi poetry and literature are full of references to love and devotion. For example, the famous Sufi poet Rumi wrote extensively about the power of love and its transformative effects on the human soul. Sufi music and art also often depict themes of love and devotion.

Overall, love and devotion are seen as essential components of the Sufi path, which aims to bring the individual closer to God and achieve spiritual union with the divine.

The idea of the Sufi path (tariqa) and spiritual journey

The Sufi path, also known as the tariqa, is a spiritual journey that seeks to deepen one's relationship with God and attain a higher level of consciousness. Sufism is an Islamic mystical tradition that emphasizes the importance of the inner spiritual dimension of Islam.

The Sufi path is often described as a journey of self-discovery, where the seeker (murid) strives to purify the heart and cultivate spiritual virtues such as love, compassion, and humility. This journey involves various practices such as prayer, meditation, and contemplation, as well as engaging with a spiritual teacher (shaykh) and a community of fellow seekers.

One of the key principles of the Sufi path is the concept of tawhid, or the oneness of God. Sufis believe that everything in creation is a manifestation of the divine, and that the ultimate goal of the spiritual journey is to realize this unity and merge with God.

The Sufi path is often described as a journey with stages or levels of attainment, with each stage representing a deeper level of understanding and awareness. The ultimate goal of the Sufi path is to attain a state of spiritual perfection or annihilation (fana) where the individual self is completely merged with the divine.

Overall, the Sufi path is a journey of love and devotion, a quest for the divine, and a path towards greater awareness and understanding of the self and the world.

The symbolism of the Sufi tradition (such as the whirling dervishes)

The Sufi tradition is a mystical branch of Islam that emphasizes the search for inner knowledge and the experience of direct union with God. The tradition employs a rich array of symbols, rituals, and practices that are designed to facilitate this journey of spiritual realization.

One of the most famous symbols of the Sufi tradition is the whirling dance performed by the Mevlevi dervishes, also known as the whirling dervishes. This dance is meant to be a form of meditation and a way of achieving a state of spiritual ecstasy. The whirling motion represents the movement of the universe and the turning of the planets, and by participating in the dance, the dervishes hope to become one with this cosmic movement.

Another important symbol in the Sufi tradition is the idea of the Beloved, which represents the ultimate reality of God as the object of the Sufi's love and devotion. The Beloved is often described as a beautiful and enchanting presence that draws the Sufi toward ever-greater heights of spiritual realization.

Other important symbols in the Sufi tradition include the rose, which represents the beauty of God's creation, the mirror, which represents the soul's journey toward self-knowledge and spiritual realization, and the nightingale, which represents the soul's yearning for union with the Beloved.

Overall, the symbolism of the Sufi tradition is designed to help the practitioner connect with the divine reality in a more direct and experiential way, leading to greater spiritual realization and a deeper understanding of the nature of existence.

The concept of fana (annihilation of the ego) and baqa (subsistence in God) in Sufism

Fana and baqa are two important concepts in Sufism, which is a mystical branch of Islam. These concepts refer to the process of spiritual transformation that a Sufi follower undergoes in order to achieve unity with God.

Fana, which means "annihilation" or "extinction" in Arabic, is the process of erasing one's ego or self from consciousness in order to achieve a state of oneness with God. This process involves surrendering one's individual identity and desires to the divine will of God, and focusing solely on the divine presence. Through fana, the Sufi follower experiences a state of transcendence, where the individual self is lost and merged with the divine.

Baqa, on the other hand, means "subsistence" or "permanence" in Arabic, and refers to the state of remaining in God after achieving fana. In baqa, the individual self is no longer dominant, but rather subsists within the divine will. The Sufi follower experiences a state of unification with God, where their will and desires are aligned with the divine will.

Fana and baqa are often viewed as two stages of a spiritual journey in Sufism. The goal of the Sufi follower is to achieve fana, which involves the complete annihilation of the ego and the attainment of a state of oneness with God. Once this is achieved, the Sufi strives to remain in God through baqa, which involves a continual surrender of the self to the divine will.

Sufi practices such as meditation, prayer, and asceticism are used to help the follower achieve fana and baqa. These practices are designed to help the follower detach from the material world and focus on the divine presence. Ultimately, the goal of fana and baqa is to achieve a state of spiritual enlightenment and union with God.

The role of music and poetry in Sufism

Music and poetry have been central to the practice of Sufism, a mystical Islamic tradition, since its inception. Sufi poetry and music serve as vehicles for expressing devotion and love for God, as well as for conveying the teachings of Sufism.

Sufi poetry, which is often in the form of ghazals, qasidas, or rubais, is characterized by its use of metaphor and symbolism to describe the relationship between the lover and the beloved (i.e. the seeker and God). The poems often describe the seeker's longing for God, the pain of separation, and the ecstasy of union. Sufi poets such as Rumi, Hafiz, and Attar have had a profound influence on Persian and Islamic literature.

Similarly, Sufi music, which includes devotional songs (qawwali) and instrumental music (sama), is used as a means of attaining spiritual states. The lyrics of qawwali songs often include poetry by Sufi poets and express the yearning for spiritual union with God. The instrumental music of Sufism, called sama, is often performed in a group setting, with participants listening and moving to the music in a trance-like state. The goal of sama is to achieve a state of ecstasy and oneness with God.

In Sufism, music and poetry are not just forms of artistic expression, but are considered to be powerful spiritual tools that can help the seeker attain a deeper connection with God. Through music and poetry, Sufis seek to transcend the limitations of the physical world and experience the divine directly.

Sufism and mysticism in other religions (such as Christian mysticism)

Sufism is a form of Islamic mysticism that emphasizes the direct personal experience of God through practices such as meditation, prayer, and spiritual contemplation. While it is primarily associated with Islam, similar forms of mysticism can be found in other religions as well, including Christianity, Judaism, and Hinduism.

Christian mysticism, for example, refers to the various mystical practices and experiences associated with Christianity, particularly in the Middle Ages. Christian mystics sought to deepen their relationship with God through practices such as prayer, meditation, and contemplation, as well as through direct experiences of divine revelation and ecstatic visions.

Like Sufism, Christian mysticism emphasizes the importance of personal spiritual experience, and seeks to transcend the limitations of traditional religious doctrine and dogma. Christian mystics often expressed their experiences in poetic or metaphorical language, and their writings and teachings have had a profound influence on the development of Christian spirituality and theology.

Other examples of mystical traditions in different religions include the Jewish Kabbalah, which seeks to understand the nature of God through contemplation and the study of sacred texts, and the Hindu and Buddhist traditions of yoga and meditation, which aim to achieve spiritual enlightenment and union with the divine.

Despite their differences, all of these mystical traditions share a common emphasis on the direct experience of the divine, and the belief that such experiences can lead to a deeper understanding of the nature of reality and the purpose of human existence.

The impact of Sufism on art and culture in the Muslim world

Sufism, a mystical Islamic tradition, has had a significant impact on the art and culture of the Muslim world. Sufism emphasizes a direct personal experience of the divine and focuses on the inner, spiritual dimension of Islam.

One of the most notable ways in which Sufism has influenced art in the Muslim world is through the use of symbolism. Sufi poets, for example, often used symbols such as wine, love, and the nightingale to convey spiritual themes and ideas. This symbolism has been used in various art forms such as calligraphy, painting, and architecture.

In addition to symbolism, Sufism has also had an impact on music in the Muslim world. Sufi music is characterized by its trance-like rhythms and the use of repetitive melodies and chants to induce a state of spiritual ecstasy. Sufi music has influenced many different genres of music in the Muslim world, including Qawwali in South Asia and Gnawa music in North Africa.

Sufism has also had an impact on architecture in the Muslim world. Sufi orders have built many important religious and cultural sites, including mosques, tombs, and dargahs (shrines). These structures often feature intricate geometric designs and calligraphy that reflect Sufi symbolism and spiritual themes.

Finally, Sufism has had an impact on literature in the Muslim world. Many classic works of Islamic literature, such as Rumi's Masnavi and Hafez's Divan, were written by Sufi poets and contain themes related to Sufi philosophy and spirituality.

Overall, Sufism has had a profound impact on the art and culture of the Muslim world. Its emphasis on spiritual experience and symbolism has inspired many artists and thinkers and has helped shape the rich artistic and cultural traditions of the Muslim world.

The challenges and controversies facing modern-day Sufism

Sufism is a mystical Islamic tradition that emphasizes the inner search for divine knowledge and the purification of the soul. Modern-day Sufism faces several challenges and controversies, which are discussed below:

Misunderstanding and Misrepresentation: One of the main challenges facing modern-day Sufism is the misunderstanding and misrepresentation of its teachings. Many people associate Sufism with extremism or view it as a deviation from mainstream Islam. This misunderstanding has led to negative stereotypes and prejudices against Sufism and its followers.

Political Interference: Sufism has historically been apolitical, but in recent times, political actors have sought to co-opt it for their own purposes. This has led to Sufi organizations being drawn into political conflicts, resulting in tensions and controversies within the Sufi community.

Fragmentation and Division: Sufism is not a monolithic tradition, and there are different schools and orders within it. However, in recent times, there has been a fragmentation of the Sufi community, with different groups adopting divergent interpretations of Sufi teachings. This has led to tensions and controversies among Sufi groups.

Commercialization: Sufi practices and teachings have been commercialized in some parts of the world, with some individuals and organizations exploiting the popularity of Sufism for financial gain. This has led to accusations of the commodification of Sufi spirituality and the dilution of its teachings.

Gender Issues: Sufism has traditionally been a male-dominated tradition, with women being excluded from some aspects of its teachings and practices. This has led to calls for greater inclusivity and gender equality within the Sufi community.

Overall, modern-day Sufism faces a range of challenges and controversies that require careful consideration and engagement. Addressing these challenges will require dialogue, mutual respect, and a commitment to the core values of Sufism, including love, compassion, and humility.

The contributions of notable Sufi figures throughout history (such as Rumi, Ibn Arabi, and Al-Ghazali)

Sufism is a mystical Islamic tradition that emphasizes the inward search for God and the attainment of spiritual enlightenment. Throughout history, there have been many notable Sufi figures who have contributed to the development and spread of this tradition. Some of the most influential Sufi figures include Rumi, Ibn Arabi, and Al-Ghazali.


Rumi (Jalaluddin Rumi) was a 13th-century Persian poet, jurist, and Sufi mystic. He is considered one of the most influential poets in the world and is known for his spiritual and mystical poetry. Rumi's teachings emphasize the importance of love, tolerance, and compassion, and he believed that the ultimate goal of human life was to achieve unity with God. His works, including the Masnavi and the Divan-e Shams-e Tabrizi, have been translated into many languages and continue to inspire people around the world.

Ibn Arabi:

Muhyiddin Ibn Arabi was a 12th-13th-century Andalusian Sufi mystic, philosopher, and poet. He is known for his writings on Islamic mysticism and his philosophy of the unity of being, which emphasizes the oneness of all things and the interconnectedness of the universe. Ibn Arabi believed that the ultimate goal of human life was to achieve a state of spiritual enlightenment and union with God. His most famous work, the Fusus al-Hikam, is considered one of the most important texts in Sufi literature.


Abu Hamid al-Ghazali was an 11th-12th-century Persian philosopher, theologian, and Sufi mystic. He is considered one of the most important figures in Islamic intellectual history and is known for his contributions to the development of Islamic theology and philosophy. Al-Ghazali's works, including The Incoherence of the Philosophers and The Alchemy of Happiness, are considered some of the most influential books in Islamic philosophy and Sufi mysticism. He emphasized the importance of both rational inquiry and spiritual experience in the search for truth and believed that the ultimate goal of human life was to achieve a state of spiritual enlightenment and union with God.

The relevance of Sufism in contemporary spirituality and personal growth

Sufism, which is the mystical branch of Islam, has gained a lot of attention in recent years as a spiritual path that can promote personal growth and well-being. Although Sufism has its roots in Islamic tradition, its teachings are often seen as universal and can be practiced by individuals of any religion or spiritual tradition.

One of the central teachings of Sufism is the concept of oneness, which emphasizes the interconnectedness of all things and the unity of God with the universe. This perspective can help individuals to develop a sense of compassion and empathy towards others, as well as a deeper connection to nature and the world around them.

Sufism also places a strong emphasis on inner transformation and self-awareness. Practices such as meditation, contemplation, and dhikr (remembrance of God) can help individuals to cultivate a greater sense of self-awareness and to develop a deeper understanding of their own spiritual nature.

In addition to these personal benefits, Sufism can also offer practical guidance for living a meaningful and fulfilling life. Sufi teachings emphasize the importance of moral values such as humility, compassion, and gratitude, which can help individuals to develop positive relationships with others and to lead a more purposeful life.

Overall, the relevance of Sufism in contemporary spirituality and personal growth lies in its emphasis on inner transformation, compassion, and the interconnectedness of all things. By practicing Sufi teachings, individuals can develop a deeper sense of self-awareness, cultivate positive values, and lead a more fulfilling life.

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