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Sufism - Sufism  (Arabic: تصوّفý - tasawwuf, Turkish: tasavvuf), is the name given to a group of mystical Muslim movements. The word probably refers to wearers of woolen garments, apparently associated with the first Sufis.



Some claim that non-Muslims can be Sufis as well (EG:, see Idries Shah, The Sufis)  but this is denied by most authorities. Sufism is analogous in some senses to a pan-Islamic version of the Catholic Jesuit or Opus Dei movements with features of various monastic orders and mendicant friars such as St Francis of Assisi. Their work includes, proselytism, teaching, purity of the faith and political work as well as mysticism and introspection. Sufism may use music (see Sufi Music) , dancing and other means to reach a state of communion with God. Sufism has inspired pacific and pacifist teachings, but it has also inspired violent Jihad and support for militarism and tyrannical regimes. 

Sufi teachers evidently were present at the inception of Islam in the time of Muhammad or shortly thereafter, but the first recorded Sufi thinkers lived in the eighth or ninth century and most Sufi orders seem to have begun in the 12th or 13th centuries in Persia, Turkey and surrounding areas. The history of Sufism is the history of the Sufi orders (Ta'ifa or Tariqa) which is given in somewhat more detail below.

Sufi Teachings and Practices

Sufi orders vary in their beliefs and practices, but most have the following in common: attempts to reach God or a mystical state through dancing, music (Sema or Sama sessions) or chants of slogans,  the  need for an experienced spiritual guide - called a  "baba" in some orders and  the doctrine of the four gates that must be traversed: the Sha'aria (religious law), Tariqa (the spiritual path), Ma'rifa (true knowledge) and Haqiqah (reality). They usually establish edifices which serve as teaching centers and institutions (see below) and belong to one of many orders or suborders named after a founder and often governed by hereditary succession. The baba or teacher may also be a confessor.

The different teachings of Sufi orders seem to reflect borrowings from earlier religions and from various Christian sects.

Sufis are often ascetics. Sufi orders are active in promoting good works and also active in instigating violent Jihad rebellions against foreign rule. Sufi inspired rebellions took place in Algeria, Somalia, the Sudan and elsewhere.

Definitions of Sufism

There are numerous "definitive" definitions of Sufism that contradict each other, and none are entirely satisfactory. They all convey the central notion that Sufi doctrine is about getting closer to God and inner spiritual happiness and that intentions are as important as formalism in worship.

Early Definitions of Sufism

Abu Nasr al-Sarraj (about 960 AD) wrote the earliest comprehensive book on Sufism, the Kitab al-Luma' (The Book of Flashes - English edition - R Nicholson ed. ). He gives the following quotations (pages 34-35).   Muhammad ibn 'Ali al-Qassab--the master of Junayd--said, "Sufism consists of noble behavior (akhlaq karima) that is made manifest at a noble time on the part of a noble person in the presence of a noble people." This is a definition according to behavior, at variance with the mystical and introspective definitions. Junayd said, "Sufism is that you should be with God--without any attachment." Ruwaym ibn Ahmad said, "Sufism consists of abandoning oneself to God in accordance with what God wills." Samnun said, "Sufism is that you should not possess anything nor should anything possess you."  Abu Muhammad al-Jariri said, "Sufism consists of entering every exalted quality (khulq) and leaving behind every despicable quality."  'Amr ibn 'Uthman al-Makki said, "Sufism is that at each moment the servant should be in accord with what is most appropriate (awla) at that moment." 'Ali ibn 'Abd al-Rahim al-Qannad wrote that  "Sufism consists of extending a 'spiritual station' (nashr maqam) and being in constant union (ittisal bi-dawam)."

Medieval Islamic Definitions of Sufism

Abu Hamid al-Tusi al-Ghazali (1058-1128), scholar of Fiqh (jurist) and author of a well known work on Tasawwuf, Ihya ulum al-din (The revival of the religious sciences), wrote in his autobiography "al-Munqidh min al-Dalal" (Deliverance from error): The Sufi path consists in cleansing the heart from whatever is other than Allah."  Heconcluded that the Sufis are the seekers in Allah's Way, and their conduct is the best conduct, and their way is the best way, and their manners are the most sanctified. They have cleansed their hearts from all others except Allah and they have made them as pathways for rivers to run, carrying knowledge of Allah.

In the fourteenth century, Taqi ad-Din Ahmad Ibn Taymiya, wrote: "Tassawuf has realities and states of experience which they talk about in their science. Some of it is that the Sufi is that one who purifies himself from anything which distracts him from the remembrance of Allah and who will be so filled up with knowledge of the heart and knowledge of the mind to the point that the value of gold and stones will be the same to him. And Tasawwuf  safeguards the precious meanings and leaves behind the call to fame and vanity in order to reach the state of Truthfulness, because the best of humans after the prophets are the Siddiqeen (Truthful Ones). And the Sufi is in reality a kind of Siddiq, that Siddiq who specialized in zuhd(the self-denial or abstention from the worldly life.) and worship. Some people criticized Sufi and Tasawwuf and they said they were innovators, out of the Sunnah, but the truth is they are striving in Allah's obedience "

Ahmed Zarruq (1442 – 1493), founder of the Zarruqiye Sufis,wrote that there are over 2,000 definitions of Tasawwuf. All of them refer the sincerity of one's self application to Allah.


A Persian poem, undated, tells us:


What is Tasawwuf?

What is Tasawwuf? Good character and awareness of God.
That’s all Tasawwuf is. And nothing more.

What is Tasawwuf? Love and affection.
It is the cure for hatred and vengeance. And nothing more.

What is Tasawwuf? The heart attaining tranquility–
which is the root of religion. And nothing more.

What is Tasawwuf? Concentrating your mind,
which is the religion of Ahmad (
pbuh). And nothing more.

What is Tasawwuf? Contemplation that travels to the Divine throne.
It is a far-seeing gaze. And nothing more.

Tasawwuf is keeping one’s distance from imagination and supposition.
Tasawwuf is found in certainty. And nothing more.

Surrendering one’s soul to the care of the inviolability of religion;
this is Tasawwuf. And nothing more.

Tasawwuf is the path of faith and affirmation of unity;
this is the incorruptible religion. And nothing more.

Tasawwuf is the smooth and illuminated path.
It is the way to the most exalted paradise. And nothing more.

I have heard that the ecstasy of the wearers of wool
comes from finding the taste of religion. And nothing more.

Tasawwuf is nothing but shari’at.
It is just this clear road. And nothing more.

Translated by A.A. Godlas (see here). 

Modern Islamic Definitions of Sufism


Abu al-`Ala' al-Mawdudi was the father of modern Islamic reform and inspiration for political Islam and  Islamism. He wrote in his "Mabadi' al-Islam" (Principles of Islam): "Fiqh addresses only external actions: "Did you perform them according to what is required"? The condition from your heart is not taken under consideration. As for the science that investigates the states of the heart and its conditions: it is Tasawwuf. The questions asked by Fiqh are: Did you complete your ablution correctly? Did you pray towards the Qibla? Did you fulfill the pillars of prayer? If you do all your prayer, it is correct according to the rules of fiqh? On the other side tasawwuf, asks questions about your heart such as: Did you repent and turn to your Lord in your prayer? Did you empty your heart of the preoccupations of the world in your prayer? Did you pray in fear of Allah knowing that He sees and hears you? If you did all this and other things, then your prayer is correct according to Tasawwuf, otherwise it is defective... Tasawwuf is the establishment of the Law of Islam to the utmost point of sincerity, clarity of intention, and purity of heart."


Modern Western Definitions of Sufism


Paul Yachnes summarizes modern Western definitions of Sufism:

R. A. Nicholson in his little introduction to Sufism, The Mystics of Islam (1914), remarks: "Sufism, the religious philosophy of Islam, is described in the oldest extant definition as `the apprehension of divine realities'," and although referring to it as "Islamic mysticism," he still maintains the popular idea that Sufism was largely the product of diverse philosophical and spiritual influences, including Christian, Neoplatonic, and others. He further states that it is "a subject so vast and many-sided that several large volumes would be required to do it anything like justice".

More than 35 years later his student, A.J. Arberry, in his brief introduction to the subject, Sufism (1950), similarly states that Sufism is "the name given to the mysticism of Islam" and "the mystical movement of an uncompromising Monotheism". It was this author that first maintained that although Sufism was the recipient of many influences from Neoplatonic and other sources, that it was in essence derived from the Qur'an and Prophetic (Muhammadan) tradition, and attempted to view "the movement from within as an aspect of Islam, as though these other factors which certainly determined its growth did not exist". This approach became generally accepted and was echoed by later scholars.

Martin Lings, writing in an article on Sufism in the 14th edition of the Encyclopaedia Brittanica (1968), defined Sufism as "the name by which Islamic mysticism came to be known in the 8th or 9th century A.D." and stated: "It is only in secondary respects that there can be said to have been any development In Sufism, or for that matter in Islam as a whole, since the time of the Prophet". Taking this idea one step further, he writes: "The influences on Sufism from outside have been enormously exaggerated. Probably the chief influence was Neoplatonism, but even this was confined mostly to terminology and to methods of doctrinal exposition".

In something of a departure from previous definitions, Victor Danner, in his introduction to his translation of Ibn `Ata'illah's Book of Wisdom (1978), writes: "When dealing with Sufism, it is best to leave to one side such terms as `mystic' and `mysticism,' if only because in the modern Western world such words nowadays often lead to confusion". He prefers to identify it operatively and institutionally, as he does in his book The Islamic Tradition (1988): "Sufism is the spiritual Path (tariqah) of Islam and has been identified with it for well over a thousand years...It has been called `Islamic mysticism' by Western scholars because of its resemblance to Christian and other forms of mysticism elsewhere. Unlike Christian mysticism, however, Sufism is a continuous historical and even institutionalized phenomenon in the Muslim world that has had millions of adherents down to the present day. Indeed, if we look over the Muslim world, there is hardly a region that does not have Sufi orders still functioning there". Such is his estimation of the importance, within Islam, of Sufism that he says: "Sufism has influenced the spiritual life of the religion to an extraordinary degree; there is no important domain in the civilization of Islam that has remained unaffected by it".(Source: Paul Yachnes:  Sufism: Name and Origin)

Sufi Institutions

Sufi established three sorts of institutions built around physical edifices:


Zawya: The zawya (Zaouie) is a shrine, residence or grave of a Sufi teacher,  used also as schools to teach people spiritual studies, and to hold Sufi contemplative music recitals ("sama').

Al-Ribat: The second Sufi institution is known as al-Ribat or Rebat, meaning "border forts." In war. these places were used as camps for the Moslem soldiers. In peace time they where used by the Sufi as schools for teaching their spiritual studies and as libraries where they use to keep their books. In the late middle Ages they were used also as guest houses or shelters where the poor people can stay.

Khaniqah: A khan is an inn. "Khaniqah" or "Khanqah" is a Persian word for the pilgrimage inns or dormitories where the Sufis used to stay to worship, study and sleep. In the late middle ages, under the Ottoman rule, a new name "Tkiyya" or tekke was used instead of the "Khaniqah". It became one of the government institutions; the government chose the head of the "Khaniqah" and payed his salary. These institutions are often confused with Zawiye, both in the literature and perhaps in practical use.

Major Sufi orders

There are, and have been numerous Sufi orders throughout the world, some of which were disbanded.

The  correct term for a Sufi order is evidently tā'ifa. Orders are generally called "tariqa" (plural "turuq") which really refers to the method of the founder, Founders are shaikhs, and their followers may be called murid, dervishes, ikhwan or faqirs. 


Some of the major ones:

Ba'Alawi tariqa: This originated with the Bani Alawi in Arabia but is popular in South Africa

Sufi Dervishes

Bektashi Sufi Whirling Dervishes  - The fifth part of the
Sema is the whirling dance, a series of salutes to God's

Bektashi Tariqa: The Bektashi order is associated with the Alevi, who are sometimes not considered to be Muslims at all and sometimes considered to be a branch of Shia Islam. It was founded in the 13th century by Haci Bektas Veli (Hajj Baktash Wali. The Bektashi order was greatly influenced by the Hurufi missionary Ali al-'Ala (15th century) and Bektas himself was probably originally an Iranian Shi'a and follower of the Khorasan based Qalandariyah (wandering) Sufi movement, which had spread to Anatolia. The Bektashi were reorganized by Balim Sultan in the 16th century. They were the chaplains of the Turkish Janissary corps and were outlawed in 1826 in Turkey when the Janissaries were suppressed. Because they are not viewed as Muslims by many, and are certainly not Sunni Muslims, they have been subject both to persecution and to humorous ridicule.

The Bektashi gained popularity in the Balkans and elsewhere where they made many converts. They were popular in Albania until their near-total suppression by the Communist regime, and have now re-established many Tekkes. They are also active in Albania and Kossovo.

Chishti Tariqa: The Chishti tariqa is a major Sufi order in Pakistan and India. They also have branches in North America and South Africa. It was originated by Shaykh Khwaja Moinuddin Chishti, who lived in the 12th Century CE. 

Jerrahi Tariqa: The Jerrahi tariqa is based in Turkey, It follows Nuruddin al-Jerrahi, who lived in Turkey in the 18th Century CE.

Mevlevi Tariqa: The Mevlevi Order or the Mevleviye are a Sufi order founded by the followers of Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Balkhi-Rumi, a 13th century Persian poet, Islamic jurist, and theologian, in Konya, Turkey. The order was founded in 1273 by Hüsamettin Çelebi, the successor of Rumi, who built a Zawiye (Mausoleum) for him. When the Mevlevi leaders married into the ruling Ottoman dynasty (Bayezid I) they achieved political power and popularity. Bayezid's son, Mehmet I, became sultan and heavily endowed the order. They spread into the Balkans, Egypt and Syria. They are the famous whirling dervishes, named after their famous practice of whirling as a form of dhikr (remembrance of Allah) in their Sama'a (Sema) ceremonies. The Mevlevi and all other dervishes were outlawed by Kemal Ataturk, the Mevlevi were legalized again in the 1950s, and they perform their dance ceremony in Konya as well as appearing in performances abroad.

Naqshbandi Tariqa: Naqshbandi are evidently the largest and most influential Sufi order. They are politically active Sufis who are orthodox Sunni Muslims and therefore noncontroversial. Unlike other orders the trace their spiritual lineage through Abu Bakr rather than Ali, and they do not engage in musical Sema or dance rituals. They used the dhikr as a kind of mantra to be repeated. They were founded in 1380 by Baha-ud-Din Naqshband Bukhari in Bukhara. The name "Naqshbandi" may have been an eponym that has religious meaning (see below).  Naqshbandi have been active in supporting revolt against foreigners in Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere. They have numerous suborders founded by different disciples. They are said to be the main political support of the Assad regime in Syria. The 11 principles of the Naqshbandi:

Yad Kard - Remembrance, or making mention. Both oral and mental. Be always repeating the Dhikr imparted to you so that you may attain the beatific vision.

Baz Gasht - Restraint. The person saying the Dhikr, when engaging in the heart-repetition of the blessed phrase [shahada] should intersperse it with such phrases as "my God you are my Goal and your satisfaction is my aim", to help to keep one's thoughts form straying. Other masters say that it means 'return' or 'repent', i.e, return to al-Haqq by way of contrition [inkisar].

Nigah Dasht - Watchfulness. Over wandering, passing thoughts when repeating the blessed phrase.

Yad Dasht - Recollection. Concentration upon the Divine Presence in a condition of Dhawq [zoq], foretaste, intuitive anticipation or perceptiveness, not using external aids.

Hosh dar dam - Awareness while breathing. The technique of breath control. Said Khwaja Bahauddin Naqshband, "The external basis of this tariqa is the breath." One must not exhale in forgetfulness or inhale in forgetfulness.

Safar dar watan - Journeying in one's homeland. This is an interior journey, the movement from blameworthy to praiseworthy qualities. Others refer to it as the vision or revelation of the hidden side of the Shahada.

Nazar bar qadam - Watching one's steps. Let the salik [pilgrim] ever be watchful during his journey, whatever the type of country through which he is passing that he does not let his gaze be distracted from the goal of his journey.

Khalwat dar anjuman - Solitude in a crowd. The journey of the salik, though outwardly it is in the world, inwardly it is with God. Leaders of the Tariqa have said, "In this tariqa association is in the crowd [assembly] and disassociation in the khalwa." A common weekly practice was to perform the dhikr in the assembly.

Wuquf-e zamani - Temporal pause [Awareness related to time--ed.]. Keeping account of how one is spending one's time, whether rightly and if so give thanks, or wrongly- and if so asking for forgiveness, according to the ranking of the deeds, for "verily the good deeds of the righteous are the iniquities of those who are near [to God]."

Wuquf-e adadi - Numerical pause [Awareness related to number--ed.]. Checking that the heart dhikr [said in the heart, silently] has been repeated the requisite number of times, taking into account one's wandering thoughts. The Rashahat mentions that Khwaja Bahauddin Naqshband considered numerical awareness the first stage of esoteric knowledge.

Wuquf-e qalbi - Heart pause [Awareness related to the heart--ed.]. Forming a mental picture of one's heart with the name of Allah engraved thereon, to emphasize that the heart has no consciousness or goal other than God. This is the meaning of the word "Naqshband.".


Nimatullahi tariqa:  This tariqa originated in Iran, and follows the Persian Sufi tradition. It is now based in London, with branches in North America, Europe, Australia, and Africa.

Qadiri Tariqa: The Qadiri Sufi tariqa was founded by Shaykh Abdul-Qadir Jilani, a  Baghdad Shaykh of  the 12th century C.E. 

Rifa'i Tariqa: Founded by Shaykh Ahmed ar-Rifa'i, another blessed Shaykh also of the 12th century C.E.

The Shadhili tariqa: The Shadhili Sufi tariqa is the branch of the Sufis founded by Shaykh Ali Abu-l-Hasan as-Shadhili in Egypt in the 13th Century CE.

Tijani tariqa - The Tijani Sufi tariqa was founded by Ahmad al-Tijani, who lived in the 18th-19th Century C.E. in Morocco, and it has many followers in West Africa and Sudan.  

Ami Isseroff

Synonyms and alternate spellings: Tassawuf, Suffism

Further Information: See  

Bibliography - Sufism

Sufi Music

An Introduction to Islam - Khaled Nusseibeh - 6.About Sufis


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