The Sufism

Sufism is a Mystical Tradition

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Sufism is an ancient tradition of spiritual development, which has become popular in the modern world. It arose in the context of Islam. However, some Sufi teachers-sheiks assert that Sufism cannot be limited to a particular religion, historical period, society, or language. It has always existed but has been changing in accordance with the cultural and historical environment.

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Nevertheless, the question of the place and role of Sufism in Islam is still controversial, and there exist various points of view on the issue. The question of the origins of Sufism, its place in the structure of cultures, and its role in the spiritual life of Muslims is hardly explored. Therefore, these issues are of particular educational and cultural interest. In order to understand the nature of Sufism, it is crucial to explore its features, history, and key ideas.

Among all peoples and at all times, there has existing knowledge of a secret, special, and higher form. In order to get the revelation, a person has to experience difficult circumstances and certain pass tests on the path of moral perfection. People, who have managed to wade through this spiritual quest and become moral and spiritual guidance, lived in all ages and among all nations. However, each culture had a specific name for such individuals. In the Middle East, they were called Sufis. These groups of people knew that the source of all religions is one and constant, and their main foundation is the truth. The paper will discuss the origin of Sufism, its history, Sufi path, and culture.

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Origin of Sufism

There are many opinions about the origin of the word Sufism. Some people believe that its root is related to the word suf, which means wool in Arabic. It is known that woolen cloaks were worn by the Greek philosophers, the first ascetic Christians, and Tibetan monks. Probably, this word was referred to as any ascetic person regardless of religious affiliation. Meanwhile, others assert that suf means pure (pure from ignorance, bigotry, dogmatism, selfishness, and bigotry, as well as from any caste, racial, national, and religious differences). In turn, some people believe that the word sufi derives from the Greek word Sophia, which means wisdom.

At the same time, there are many opinions about the origin of Sufism, as well. Some scientists assert that Sufism has developed from the historical coexistence of Islam and Sufi authorities (van Bruinessen & Howell, 2007). Others say that the situation is just the opposite. They believe that Sufism is a reaction to the position of Islam. Meanwhile, others consider that Sufi ideas originated from Christianity, or were partially or completely shaped by the Persian Zoroastrianism, or came from China or India. Sufis themselves assert that Sufism is esoteric teaching in the context of Islam, which is considered compatible with it and, at the same time, much wider than it.

History of Sufism

During the reign of Muhammad and his first two deputies, Abu Bakr and Omar, the Arab Society of Mecca and Medina was a religious community, in which the secular power did not exist in the full sense of the term (Renard, 2009). There was the power of the Spirit, which was considered a direct command of God. The life of the first caliphs (Abu Bakr and Omar) did not differ much from the lifestyle of any member of the community. The nature of power began to change at the times of the third Caliph Osman. Despite the claim that he was a carrier of holiness and godliness, as well as a representative of conscience, the excitement that led to his death was caused by the fact that the material enrichment of the ruling elite began. After Osman's murder, the struggle for power began. The representative of the genus Omayn seized power. Since that time, the power of the caliphs has become more secular in nature.

The spiritual functions of power are based on the Koran, which has an answer to each question. Then, hadith or memories of the closest associates of the Prophet about what he said concerning different situations and suggested behavior and actions were created. As a result, there emerged gatherers and interpreters of hadith, which combined the full amount of theological and legal knowledge (Green, 2012). Gradually, certain requirements were developed for people. Muhadis should not only keep the hadiths but also transmit them. The observance of the hadith required people to follow the life of the founder of Islam in great detail (Arberry, 2012). This life was rather ascetic, full of awe before God, and excluded anything that might be considered taboo.

As a result, the ascetic movement, which was later called Sufism, began to shape. Its representatives were distinguished from other believers by the increased role of religion in their lives and some differences in religious practice. They paid great attention to the frequent remembrance of one of the names of God with certain breathing exercises. Gradually, a similar practice that was a kind of self-observation and monitoring of the own mental state began to develop. An important role in the development of a theoretical framework of the self-observation was played by al-Muhasibi. He developed a specific method, in which the task was to trace the relationship between the external actions of a person and the intentions of his or her heart (Arberry, 2012). Another founder, al-Bisri was called the founder of the science about hearts and minds (van Bruinessen & Howell, 2007). In the statements and in the sermons of their ascetic disciples and followers, the main motives focused on unselfish and inescapable love for God and desire to get closer to Him. Since the time, they have become the distinctive features of the Sufi ideology, which have created its distinctly mystical nature.

Sufi Path

Sufi mystics claimed that the full absorption in the meditation concerning the love of God and the unity with God could give the feeling of complete destruction of the self. The person disappears as a result; only God exists. The term fana (nothingness) is another important concept. Since the end of the ninth century, this word has developed into a technical term of Sufism. Today, it is of paramount importance as it begins the traveler Tariqa (Sufi path) by setting the ultimate goal (Renard, 2009). The actual path of mystical self-help was divided into three main stages. Sharia is the first stage. It is the beginning of the path of knowledge and comprises a set of Muslim religious laws.

Tariqat is the second stage or the path of spiritual development, which contains various moral and psychological methods, with the help of which a person strives for self-improvement and can achieve the target by taking a short cut. It is a kind of spirit guide towards seeking God. Tariqat means the spiritual life of a traveler on the path of knowledge about God (Green, 2012). Every traveler, who has chosen the Sufi method of true knowledge, has its own spiritual world. Moreover, there are certain locations on the road. These locations are called maqam. Each maqam is a known mental condition that is peculiar to a certain stage (Green, 2012). The basic maqams are tavba (repentance), vara (prudence, piety), zufd (abstinence, asceticism), fakhr, (poverty), sabr (patience), tavakkul (trust in God), and robe (humility, contentment) (Arberry, 2008). During the Tariqat way, a traveler should strive to purify own soul and heart of any evil traits. In the mind of a person, there should be nothing but the Truth.

When Tariqat is completed, the traveler enters the final stage - Hakikat. This term refers to a genuine and real being. When reaching Hakikat, the traveler comes to know the true nature of existence, God, and involvement. That is why Sufis often call themselves Ahl-ak-Haqiqa (people being true).

Culture in Sufism

Already in the ninth-tenth centuries, there was a kind of social organization of the Sufis. The passage of Tariqah required specialized knowledge, without which a person, who tried to acquire spiritual insight, could severely pay by losing own health and mind. Therefore, in the early eras, an individual, who desired to take the spiritual way, had to choose a spiritual mentor, who was named a Sheikh or the feast (the elder) (Green, 2012). A person that entered the ferrule of Sheikh was called a mureed. Initially, a mureed passed a series of tests and then went through a lot of ascetic exercises. A person had to fast, stay awake at night, read the Koran, spend forty days in meditation and prayer, and be alone. Sheikh rearranged the mureed’s way of thinking and made it more figurative and symbolic; moreover, it helped to develop the persistence and will, as well as become capable of overcoming any obstacles (Green, 2012). In turn, the Sheikhs, who were engaged in experimental psychology, worked out at complicated skills such as mind-reading and the ability to enter the hypnotic state, for example. These properties caused a huge increase in the authority of a Sheikh and helped him increase the number of followers. When a Sheikh saw that he could not teach mureed anything new, he gave him special permission (Ijaz) to accept own students and continue the work of his teacher (Green, 2012).

Sufis gave great importance to achieve the ecstatic state, which was considered a special divine favor. Therefore, it is not surprising that, in their circles, they used to seek any means that could facilitate the evocation of ecstasy. One of these means was soon recognized as the most effective one. It was music, especially instrumental and vocal pieces, that was combined with the artistic expression. This process received the name sama. For the Sufis, Sama is a sound that changes the internal state of the hearer. It is the flight of the human soul towards its original foundations, which is available for the traveler only through a true inner ecstasy. The engagement in sama is permitted only to those, who have a good heart and mortification of the flesh. Those who do not possess these traits should engage in prayer and fast instead. Later, sama was supplemented by dancing. In addition, when performing before a large audience, the Sheikhs extensively used parables, fairy tales, and folktales. Such conversations captivated listeners, while the Sheikhs brought the necessary theoretical framework in order to interpret the intended message in relation to the main topic and to ensure that the proper is communicated.

As a result, the Sufi literature began to develop. Since the main theme of the Sufi poetry was fixing Hala or mystical insight, the most characteristic feature of which was a short duration, no susceptibility of the logical definition, the sayings of some Sufis was passed in the special abstruse language. They were unclear for a stranger but not a Sufi. Consequently, special dictionaries of the Sufi poetic terms were created.


The conditions that were created by Islam were rather favorable for the development of Sufi teaching. Islam facilitated the spread of secret teachings in this area. Sufism is a mystical tradition, the ultimate aim of which is achieving spiritual transformation and perfection. Sufi ideas are universal and can be found in a variety of other spiritual teachings and religions. The teachings of Sufism cannot be limited to any doctrine, and it still acquires new forms, depending on the historical circumstances and the psychological traits of individuals. This path provides a seeker to true reality. It has many shapes and variations, just as life has; everyone has their own way. Overall, love and devotion are the foundation of Sufism.

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