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Sufism (Arabic تصوف taṣawwuf) is a system of esoteric philosophy associated with Islam. In modern language it might also be referred to as "Islamic spirituality" or "Islamic mysticism". Some non-Islamic Sufi organizations also exist, especially in the West. [1] (

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Many Sufi practitioners are organized into a very diverse range of brotherhoods and sisterhoods. Although many orders ("tariqas") can be classified as Shi'a or Sunni or even both, there are a few that are clearly neither Shiah nor Sunni and so constitute a separate sphere of Islamic faith.

Sufis believe that their teachings are the essence of every religion, and indeed of the evolution of humanity as a whole. The central concept in Sufism is "love". Dervishes -- the name given to initiates of sufi orders -- believe that love is a projection of the essence of God to the universe. They believe that God desires to recognize beauty, and as if one looks at a mirror to see oneself, God "looks" at himself within the dynamics of nature. Since they believe that everything is a reflection of God, the school of Sufism practices to see the beauty inside the apparently ugly, and to open arms to what they believe as even the most evil one. Sufis also draw many analogies supporting natural theology from observation and Qur'anic passages, such as the need for earthquakes to act in contrast to earth's stability, disease to contrast good health, and countless other analogies. An example is the interpretation of Al-Khidr's story. This religious tolerance is expressed in Sufism via these lines which are often attributed to the famous Sufi philosopher and poet Rumi (but which were penned before his time, according to some scholars): "Come, come, whoever you are. Worshiper, Wanderer, Lover of Leaving; ours is not a caravan of despair. Though you have broken your vows a thousand times...Come, come again, Come." (In many Unitarian Universalist youth groups this poem is sung with minor alterations.)

Sufis teach in personal groups, believing that the intervention of the master is necessary for the growth of the pupil. They make extensive use of parables and metaphors, in such a way that the meaning is only reachable through a process of seeking for the utmost truth and knowledge of oneself.

Although philosophies vary between different Sufi sects, Sufism as a whole is primarily concerned with direct personal experience, and as such is often compared to Zen Buddhism and Gnosticism. The following metaphor, credited to an unknown Sufi scholar, helps describe this line of thought. "There are three ways of knowing a thing. Take for instance a flame. One can be told of the flame, one can see the flame with his own eyes, and finally one can reach out and be burned by it. In this way, we Sufis seek to be burned by God."

A large part of Muslim literature comes from the Sufis, who created great books of poetry (which include for example the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, the Conference of the Birds and the Masnavi), all of which contain the profound, and hardly graspable, teachings of the Sufis.

Offshoots of Sufism in Africa include, for example, the Muslim brotherhoods of Senegal. The Sidis of Gujarat migrated from East Africa to India in the twelfth century.

The word Sufi

The word Sufi has its origin in Tasawwuf. The root word of Tasawwuf is the Arabic word Saaf, meaning pure, clean or blank. So the word Tasawwuf means purifying or making clean. A Sufi is a person who practices purification of heart.

There are alternate theories of the origin of the word Sufi. One view is that it originates from Suf (صوف), the Arabic word for "wool", in the sense of "cloak", referring to the simple cloaks the original Sufis wore. Some scholars (see Tor Andrae's Garden of Myrtles) have suggested that this derivation gives credence to early Sufism's link with Syriac Christian monastic orders. Woolen clothes were common in these monastic orders, but uncommon amongst normal Muslims of the time.

The Greek terms Sophos/Sophia, literally implying "wisdom" or "enlightenment", have also sometimes been asserted as the source of the word Sufi. Although this etymology has largely been discredited, it was popular amongst orientalists in the early 20th Century.

Most Sufis agree with the first definition, while most scholars tend to adhere to the second. The two were combined by the acclaimed sufi Junayd al-Baghdadi (d. 920 CE) in the famous saying, "The Sufi is the one who wears wool on top of purity..."

Universal Sufism

Sufism is usually seen in relation to Islam. There is a major line of Non-Islamic or offshoot-Islamic Sufi thought that sees Sufism as predating Islam and being in fact universal and, therefore, independent of the Qur'an and the teachings of Prophet Mohammed. This view of Sufism has understandably been popular in the West and has been always opposed by Traditional Sufis who practice it in the framework of Islam. Major exponents of this universal Sufism were Inayat Khan and Idries Shah.

There is also an attempt to reconsider Sufism in contemporary Muslim thought from within. According to this view, Sufism represents the core sense of Islam that gives insight to Allah and His creation.

Orders of Sufism

Traditional orders

PHILTAR (Philosophy of Theology and Religion at the Division of Religion and Philosophy of St Martin's College) has a very useful Graphical illustration of the Sufi schools (

Non-Traditional Sufi Groups

External links



Online resources


Scholars/Imams on tasawuf

Audio files about Sufism


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