Sufism (Arabic: تصوّف – taṣawwuf, Persian: صوفیگری, sufigari, Turkish: tasavvuf, Urdu: تصوف), is the inner or mystical dimension of Islam. A practitioner of this tradition is generally known as a Sūfī (Arabic: صُوفِيّ), though some adherents of the tradition reserve this term only for those practitioners who have attained the goals of the Sufi tradition. Another name sometimes used for the Sufi seeker is dervish.
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.”
Or, in the words of the renowned Darqawi Sufi teacher Ahmad ibn Ajiba:
“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.”
Islamic mysticism is one of the most extensive traditions of spirituality in the history of religions. The Sufi movement has spanned several continents over a millennium, at first expressed through Arabic, then through Persian, Turkish, and a dozen other languages. Sufi orders, most of which are Sunni in doctrine, trace their origins from the Prophet of Islam, Muhammad, through his cousin Ali or his father-in-law Abu Bakr.
According to certain new-ageist groups and personalities, Sufi philosophy is rooted prior to the modern day religions and is universal in nature. However, mainstream Sufis vehemently reject the notion of Sufism without Islam.
The lexical root of Sufi is variously traced to Arabic: صوف (sūf), the Arabic word for wool, referring either to the simple cloaks the early Muslim ascetics wore, or possibly to the Arabic word صفا (safā), meaning purity. The two were combined by al-Rudhabari who said,”The Sufi is the one who wears wool on top of purity”..
Others suggest the origin of of the word Sufi is from Ashab as-Suffa (”Companions of the Porch”), who were a group of impoverished Muslims during the time of the Prophet Mohammad who spent much of their time on the veranda of the Prophet’s mosque, devoted to prayer and eager to memorize each new increment of the Qur’ân as it was revealed. Yet another etymology, advanced by the 10th century Persian historian Biruni is that the word is linked with the word sophia.
While all Muslims believe that they are on the pathway to God and will become close to God in Paradise – after death and after the “Final Judgment” – Sufis believe as well that it is possible to draw closer to God and to more fully embrace the Divine Presence in this life. The chief aim of all Sufis is to seek the pleasure of God by working to restore within themselves the primordial state of fitra , described in the Qur’an and similar to the concept of Buddha nature. In this state nothing one does defies God, and all is undertaken by the single motivation of love of God. A secondary consequence of this is that the seeker may be led to abandon all notions of dualism or multiplicity, including a conception of an individual self, and to realize the Divine Unity.
Thus Sufism has been characterized as the science of the states of the lower self (the ego), and the way of purifying this lower self of its reprehensible traits, while adorning it instead with what is praiseworthy, whether or not this process of of cleansing and purifying the heart is in time rewarded by esoteric knowledge of God. This can be conceeived in terms of two basic types of law (fiqh), an outer law concerned with actions, and an inner law concerned with the human heart. The outer law consists of rules pertaining to worship, transactions, marriage, judicial rulings, and criminal law – what is often referred to, a bit too broadly, as shariah. The inner law of Sufism consists of rules about repentance from sin, the purging of contemptible qualities and evil traits of character, and adornment with virtues and good character.
To enter the way of Sufism, the seeker begins by finding a teacher, as the connection to the teacher is considered necessary for the growth of the pupil. The teacher, to be genuine, must have received the authorization to teach (ijazah) of another Master of the Way, in an unbroken succession (silsilah) leading back to Sufism’s origin with the Prophet Muhammad. It is the transmission of the divine light from the teacher’s heart to the heart of the student, rather than of worldly knowledge transmitted from mouth to ear, that allows the adept to progress. In addition, the genuine teacher will be utterly strict in his adherence to the Divine Law.
Scholars and adherents of Sufism are unanimous in agreeing that Sufism cannot be learned through books. To reach the highest levels of success in Sufism typically requires that the disciple live with and serve the teacher for many, many years. For instance, Baha-ud-Din Naqshband Bukhari, considered founder of the Naqshbandi Order, served his first teacher, Sayyid Muhammad Baba As-Samasi, for 20 years, until as-Samasi died. He subsequently served several other teachers for lengthy periods of time. The extreme arduousness of his spiritual preparation is illustrated by his service, as directed by his teacher, to the weak and needy members of his community in a state of complete humility and tolerance for many years. When he believed this mission to be concluded, his teacher next directed him to take care for animals, curing their sicknesses, cleaning their wounds, and assisting them in finding provision. After many years of this he was next instructed to spend many years in the care of dogs in a state of humility, and to ask them for support.
As a further example, the prospective adherent of the Mevlevi Order would have been ordered to serve in the kitchens of a hospice for the poor for 1,001 days prior to being accepted for spiritual instruction, and a further 1,001 days in solitary retreat as a precondition of completing that instruction.
Some teachers, especially when addressing more general audiences, or mixed groups of Muslims and non-Muslims, make extensive use of parable, allegory, and metaphor. Although approaches to teaching vary among different Sufi orders, Sufism as a whole is primarily concerned with direct personal experience, and as such has sometimes been compared to other, non-Islamic forms of mysticism (e.g., as in the books of Seyyed Hossein Nasr).