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(Sūfīsm)(Arabic/Persian Tasawouf) Sufism or Tasawouf is the esoteric school of Islam, founded on the pursuit of spiritual truth as a definite and attainable goal. Sufi practices, including meditation and spiritual disciplines, are towards the understanding of the truth of Being as it truly is, as knowledge, or maarefat. Maarefat consist in that perfect self-understanding which leads to the understanding of the Divine; its philosophical foundation is found in the basic Muslim doctrine of shahadah: la illaha illa Allah, all there is is but the Divine, there is nothing but the Divine.

The origin of Sufism has been traced back to the lifetime of the Prophet Mohammad, fifteen centuries ago. At that time, there was a group of pious individuals called Ahl-e-Suffa, the People of the Platform, from different nations, who, guided by the Law of Islam, shariat, sought the direct experience of the Divine. They would gather on the platform of the mosque of the Prophet in Medina, Arabia, listen to his teachings and engage in discussions related to the reality of Being and the meaning of revelation. In search of the inner path they devoted themselves to spiritual purification and meditation. Companions of the Prophet, they were people of principles practicing certain disciplines and meditations for the sake of purification, the realization of Divine love and the understanding of reality. These individuals cultivated the seed of a school of spiritual practice based on knowledge of the self, an inward path ending in unity with the Divine. Thus, at the heart of Sufism is the doctrine of the knowledge of the inner heart, apart from the customary beliefs of culture or society. From this group all the schools of Sufism that exist trace their origins.

Sufis believed that it is the unique human right and privilege to be able to find the way towards understanding the reality of the Divine. As the tools of conventional logic are limited in their ability to comprehend the wholeness of Being, a path of understanding necessitates spiritual striving — the understanding and the knowledge of the heart in its quest to realize, in and through itself, the existence of the Divine. Such an approach separates Sufis both from conventional religious thinking based upon tradition and faith and also from philosophical systems founded upon traditions, assumptions about the nature of the world and man, the meaning of words, and logical inferences. The difference lies in Sufism’s stress on the possibility of achieving actual and direct understanding of all that exists. As a result, Sufis became known as the people of the farigh, or the way; their particular goal was to understand and introduce the esoteric aspect of Islam, as opposed to the exoteric public elements of this universal religion.

The principles of Sufism are all based upon the rules and teachings of the Qur’an and the instructions of the Prophet. To a Sufi (faqir, poor, empty of the false ego), there is no gulf of separation between all of Being, the Creator and His creations. The only guide towards the Divine is the Divine, but since the Divine is present in all of His creation, the proper path of annihilating the separation between the individual and the Divine may be found within the being of the individual.

Since all the principles that underlie the instructions of Sufis are based on the Qur’an, it is impossible to relate Sufism to any religion outside of Islam. Yet the search for true understanding and the abstract knowledge of reality is a universal quest. Therefore, it is essential to understand that the essence of Sufism did not spring from Greek philosophy, Hermetic Christianity, Buddhism, or Yoga or any other philosophy or religion. Sufism, as it has been practiced since its birth, is Islamic and was born out of Islam.

Among the essential principles of Sufi practice are: remembering Allah (zekr), meditation, purification, annihilation of the ego in the Divine (fana), servitude, and love.

After the Prophet passed away, many of those People of Suffa returned to their homelands and instructed students eager to follow upon the path of inner knowledge. There they became the great missionaries of Islam. History shows that, within a century or two, their style of self-understanding and discipline were introduced by their students to nations as diverse and widely separated as Persia, India, Indonesia, Syria, Egypt, Mesopotamia and North Africa. These Sufis organized groups that came to be known as farigh (“free from anxiety”). Students, Murids, grouped themselves around a Sufi master and established a center called khaneghah, tekkia, zawiyah-a (a meeting and gathering place).

The title “Sufi” did not come into widespread use until the second century after the advent of Islam. It is said that the first spiritual teacher that was referred to as Sufi was Abu Hashim Kufi, who lived in Iraq. Abu Hashim Kufi is also believed to have built the first khaneghah. He flourished in Palestine during the 8th century of the Christian era. (A. Zarinkub, “Arzesh Miraseh Sufieh,” Yaghma, spring 1942, p.15; and “The First Sufi and the Khaneghah,” Sufism: an Inquiry, 1.3, p. 38.)

Almost all Sufis trace their lineage back to Amir al Mamenin Ali, one of the companions of the Prophet and the first Imam of the Shi’ia Sect. The subsequent history of Sufism is defined by Sufi masters who either had many followers or introduced significant principles. People who gathered around those teachers took the name of the teacher or the place he lived and related themselves to that name, so they became organized groups or orders. At present, many Sufi Turuq (plural of tarigh, “order”) exist; among these are the Chishti, which took its name from Chisht, a city in northeastern Iran. The basic principle of this order is to devote oneself to the spiritual guide, pir. The founder of this order in India was Muin-al din Hasn (13th cent.); the Chishti order achieved fame mainly in India. The Naqshbandi Order has taken its name from Baha al-Din Muhammad Naqshband (14th cent.) who came from northeastern Iran. Among the principles practiced in Naqshbandi is remaining close to the tradition of the Prophet and Islamic shariat. Nowadays, Naqshandis are spread around the world. The Oveysi, taking their name from Oveys Gharan, who did not see the Prophet face to face but was one of his followers and devotees, are known for the teaching style (mashrab) of Oveysi: the belief in the unseen teacher, admitting that a physically present teacher is not necessary to understand the Divine. As is the nature of the Oveysi, many of the Sufi affiliated with other Sufi orders can also practice Oveysi mashrab. Nowadays Oveysis are spread in the Middle East, Russia, India, Bangladesh, Africa and America. The Qadiri Order is named after Shaikh Abdul Ghadir Gilani (12th cent.) from northern Iran. This order has spread to Iraq, Arabia, Africa and India. The Mawlavi Order is named after Jalal-ud-din Mawlavi (13th cent.) from northeastern Iran, also known as Jalal-ud-din Rumi, whose book of poetry, Mathnavi, is considered as one of the masterpieces in Sufism. Today, the Mawlavi order extends from the middle east to America. One of the characteristic practices of this Order is the turning while repeating “la illaha illa Allah”; this is interpreted as whirling, so that many people know this Order as the “whirling dervishes.” The Shadzili Order is named after Imam Abdul-Hassan Shadzili (13th cent.) from northern Morocco; among his primary teachings was the understanding of the Law and inward realization of the Divine. Nowadays Shadzili is most likely spread in Africa. There are also a number of other Sufi orders that now have members throughout the world.

Throughout the history of Sufism we also come across many Sufis whose commitment to this esoteric path of Islam has made Sufism one of the most influential spiritual, as well as intellectual, movements in the history of civilization. Among many noted Sufis is Ba Yazid Bastami, a Persian Sufi, who said, “After thirty years searching for Allah, when I opened my eye I discovered that it was He who was seeking me.” Another noted Sufi was the Persian Mansur Halaj who was martyred for proclaiming “I am the Truth,” which is blasphemy to an orthodox Muslim. The crowd shouted, “You are not the Truth. Only Allah is the Truth.” He replied, “You people see duality. Only in Unity is there Truth. I see nothing but the Truth.”

The Origin of the Word “Sufism” (tsvf). A majority of scholars believe the word “Tasawouf’ derives from the word ”suf” which means “wool.” This assumption is based on a story told regarding the reason for wearing woolen garments by the pious people of the first century of Islam. It has been narrated that the Prophet and faithful Muslims wore garments of wool to show their detachment from the world and their simplicity in living. But even though Sufis wore suf, wool, from the very beginning of Islam, the word “Sufism” according to Arab grammar is not a derivative of the word “suf” and not whoever wears suf is a Sufi. Other scholars believe that the word “Sufi” derives from “sufateh,” the name of a thin plant, given by analogy to Sufis who were usually thin because of extreme mortification and fasting. Thus they were likened to sulfate as a symbol of their emaciation. But, as in the preceding theory, this assumption is not linguistically or grammatically correct.

Another group of scholars claimed that the word “Tasawouf” is a derivative from the Greek word Soph, meaning wisdom or knowledge. But this assumption does not fit well with the tenet of Sufis and especially the Sufis of the first few centuries, who deemed that philosophy could not be a sufficient tool for understanding reality.

There are also other explanations of Sufism, which are all literary descriptions based on particular Sufi practices such as piety and purity of the heart, avoiding bad temper and evil qualities, remembering God, essence without form, absorption into the Almighty, secrecy, inner purity, closeness to reality, eternal life, absence from the self and presence with God. Each one of these descriptions refers to a discipline and practice performed by Sufis, none embraces the essence of Sufism.

Sufism may have been best described in the words of its most mysterious teacher, Amir-al-Moumenin Ali, who has been referred to as Vali, the Guide, in almost all schools of Sufism. It is narrated from Amir-al-Moumenin Ali (as well as Imam Sadegh, his grandson) who said that “Tasawouf” is an acronym of four letters. (“Tasawouf” is a four letter word TSVF and pronounced “Tasawouf” in its original language.) Each letter holds a secret representing one stage or quality of a Sufi. Together the word TSVF makes the twelve Principles; one who perfects these principles is a Sufi.



Al-Hujwiri. Kash al Mahjub. Trans. R. Nicholson (London: Luzac and Co., Ltd. 1976).

Kianfar, Ali. Oveys-e-Gharan and the History of the Robe. (original in Farsi). (Yuin University, 1983).

Maasam, Ali Shah. Taraeghl-haghayegh. (in Farsi). (Tehran, 1939).

Nahid, Angha, “The First Sufi and the Khaneghah.” In Sufism: an Inquiry. vol. 1, number 3 (1988). _____. Principles of Sufism. California: Asian Humanistic Press, 2nd ed. 1994. _____. “Sufi Orders; the Founders of Sufism,” in Sufism: An Inquiry. Vol. 1, nos. 1 & 2 (1988).

Nasr, Seyyed Hassein, ed. Islamic Spirituality. NY: Crossroad, 1991.

Sajad, Seyyed Jafar. Farhang-e-lughat va Estalahate-e-Erfani. (in Farsi) (Tehran: 1975).

Williams, John Alden, ed. Islam. NY: George Brazziller, 1961.


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