21.05.2018 Author: Psychologist Pavel Khoroshutin

Sufism (or Tasawwuf) is one of the Islamic denominations, characterized by asceticism and mysticism.

It includes both teachings and spiritual practices. The principles of Sufism are aimed at the struggle of an individual with the hidden vices of his/her soul and personal spiritual education.

Sufism encompasses a certain way of life for its followers, associated with the achievement of Muslim asceticism (self-denial to achieve self-improvement). Sufism is one of the most important branches of classical Muslim philosophy. It played a significant role in the development of the literature, art, ethics and aesthetics of the Muslim world.

Sufis are followers of Sufism who can achieve spiritual perfection only by completely obeying the teacher and following all his instructions. The famous Dervish dancing is the most symbolic manifestation of modern Sufism.


A brief history of sufism

It is believed that the term “Sufism” came from the Arabic “suf” which means “wool”. During the formation of Sufism, the words “zuhd” (asceticism, abstinence, renunciation of the world), “zahid” (ascetic) and the concept of “abid” (praying mantis, ascetic) were used instead of the term “tasawwuf”. From the 8th century, adherents of Sufism began to be called Sufis.

In its development, Sufism went through three stages.

  1. Asceticism Period. In the 7th-8th centuries, ascetic-mystical tendencies appeared and began to develop in Islam. This led to the formation of Sufism in the middle of the 8th to the early 9th centuries.
  2. Tasawwuf Period. This is characterized by the emergence of several Sufi schools and the active development of the theoretical and practical components of Sufism (9th century). At the end of the 9th century, Sufism began to converge with the esotericism of the Shiites and Ismailis. In the 10th and 11th centuries, the Sufi way of life and worldview began to gain in popularity. At the same time, works were created that reflected the main provisions of the “Sufi science”, and a common traditional understanding of Sufism was formed. The authors of classical Sufi works systematized knowledge and developed their own terminology.
  3. Tariqa Period (Sufi Brotherhoods). In the 12th and 13th centuries, Sufism in Islam became an integral part of the religious life of Muslims, and by the middle of the 12th and early 13th centuries, Sufi monasteries (zawiyas, khanqahs, ribats) had begun to gather Sufi brotherhoods, called tariqas. In the 12th and 13th centuries, the speculative and esoteric aspect of the doctrine became formed, and the heyday of philosophical Sufism occured a century later. At this time, concepts were developed under the names “perfect man”, “self-manifestation of the Absolute”, “unity of being”, “emanation”, etc.

During the modern period (19th and early 20th centuries), the role of Sufism in the political and religious life of Muslim states was still decisive. Despite the secularization of societies in the East and the changes that affected economic and cultural life, as well as criticism in most Arab countries, the doctrine continued to fulfil its main function—the spiritual improvement of people.

Today, the lower social strata and the middle class comprise the bulk of Sufis. The decision to join a tariqa is usually made based on family traditions, and not as a result of spiritual research.

The essence of the sufis teaching

Sufism as a religion is characterized by the predominance of ascetic, mystical, refined-spiritual and ascetic features.

The doctrine pursues the goal of educating a “perfect man” who is free from worldly vanity and has managed to overcome the negative qualities of his nature. Sufism influenced the development of ethics, aesthetics, literature and art. It has always been able to reveal the hidden spiritual qualities of its adherents and be an inspiration to them.

Representatives of Sufism believe that every person should be able to improve the spiritual world in the same way as the Prophet Muhammad did, according to the 21st verse of Surah Al-Ahzab. Through this, a Muslim can thus reduce the influence of the material on the individual, and practice constant spiritual improvement as well as faithfully and selflessly serving God.

Through Islamic Sufism, the following hidden spiritual qualities are realized in a person:

  • faith
  • obedience (islyam)
  • patience (sabr)
  • contentment (rida)
  • hope (tavakul)

At the same time, Sufism helps the believer to fight intolerance, pride and meanness.

According to Sufis, through the thoughtless performance of rites and legal prescriptions, it is impossible to spiritually educate a person. Only following the path of spiritual practice can contributions be made to the development of both religious understanding and the soul. Sufism, unlike the science of law (fiqh), which affects only the external and visible facets of a problem, can influence an individual’s inner world through the sincere and devoted service to God.

Sufism is also a special, irrational Islamic science, incomprehensible through practical experiments or logical proofs. Sufi teaching can be comprehended only with heart and soul, accepted with faith. Therefore, the path of Sufism, that is, spiritual perfection, is inextricably linked with complete obedience to the teacher and the fulfilment of his instructions.

Sources of sufism

Sources of sufism

The doctrine is based on the provisions of classical Muslim sources and adds  features of Sufism to them.

  1. The holy book of Muslims was interpreted in their own way by medieval Sufis. They tried to explain the Ayats (“verses” of the Quran) that are considered incomprehensible to the human mind (mutashabihat). The methods in which adherents of Sufism interpreted the Quran often contradict the provisions of traditional Islam, which does not accept interpretation using allegories (tawil), as well as hidden (batin) meanings of the holy book.

Lataif al-Isharat by Abul-Qasim al-Qushayri and Ruh al-Bayan by Ismail Hakki Bursevi and others are well-known interpretive texts created according to the Sufi methodology.

  1. The Muslim sacred tradition about the life of the Prophet Muhammad consists of hadiths (specific reports of statements or actions of the Prophet). When selecting hadiths, experts in Sufi teaching traditionally relied upon the spiritual component, ignoring the problems of their reliability and not checking the chain of their narrators. Therefore, Sufi collections consist of many weak and somehow dubious hadiths. The most authoritative of them are: Nawadir al-Usul by Al-Hakim al-Tirmizi, Haalat Ahlil Haqiqah Ma’allah by Ahmad al-Rifai, Bahjat al-Nufuz by Ibn Abu Jamrah and others.
  2. This is a set of social norms as perceived by Sufis as an integral part of their religion. Sufism empowers the legal decisions of the faqih with spirituality (an Islamic jurist, an expert in fiqh), based on primary sources and alternative methods of ijtihad (the activity of the theologian in the study and solution of issues of the theological and legal complex). Also, the teaching contributes to the development of hidden (batin) spiritual aspects in each legal instruction. With the help of Sufism, the law acquires sublime moral qualities and does not turn religion into an unconscious fulfilment of instructions.

Sufi literature was formed in the 10th and 11th century in the form of works, in which the main provisions of the science of Sufism were recorded (ilm at-tasavwuf). The authors tried to prove that Sufism had the right to develop in the fold of Islam, as well as to justify its theoretical and practical foundations. The systematization of Sufi knowledge and the consolidation of special terminology (istilahat al-kaum), with the help of which various elements of the Sufism practice were denoted, were the main results of these activities.

Some works have survived to the modern world:

  • Al-Ri`aya li-huquq Allah by Harith al-Muhasibi—a literary work that is one of the first classical Sufi works
  • Kitab Al-ta’arruf by Abu Bakr al-Kalabazi—a text describing and explaining the basic concepts of Sufism
  • Awarif Ul Maarif by Abu Hafs Umar Suhrawardi—an essay that describes the problems of the practice of asceticism, etc.

Literary works in Farsi (Persian) have also survived: Kashf Al-Mahjoub by Ali al-Hujwiri, and Masnavi by Jalaluddin Rumi.

Sufism as a mystical and ascetic movement of religious thought is an object of research by scientists of the Muslim Western world. Most Muslim scholars express a bias, condemning or, on the contrary, justifying and praising its provisions. Orientalists of Western Europe, America and Japan sometimes exaggerate the influence of Christian concepts on Sufism and modernize its concepts. Some researchers and philosophers consider Sufism a panacea for the spiritual crisis of society and consequently promote its revival.