The term “Sufism” comes from the word suf referring to the wool worn by early Muslim ascetics. Sufism first emerged during the early Umayyad Dynasty (661-749 CE) predominantly in small circles of practitioners and devotees. The Sufis came to call themselves the “Friends of God” to denote their close relationship with him.
Sufi Doctrinal Beliefs
Sufism was involved with ascetic training and mystical contemplation from its beginning. The Sufis wanted to purify their consciousness which held to a dualism between oneself as a subject and God as an object. The Sufis thus came to refer to a union with God, sometimes even merging or becoming one with God. They believed that through the annihilation of the ego, one could make room for God and, in a sense, become God. There is the notion of the “oneness of being” that for some Sufis, including contemporary devotees, posits God being manifested in and one with everything, in particular the human being (1).
The emphasis on merging or becoming one with God was not received well by orthodox Muslims who had always emphasized a strong difference between God and man. This led to charges of blasphemy and we have, for instance, the well-known story of the mystic al-Hallaj who claimed: “I am the Real—al haqq.” He was thought to be teaching that he was God and was executed in Baghdad in 922 CE for blasphemy.
It is important to note that the Sufis viewed the Qur’an highly because it is believed to contain God’s divine revelation. The Sufi hermeneutic, however, employs a multiple meaning approach predicated on the Qur’an’s capacity to hold multiple layers and varied registers of meaning (Q31:27). Although for Sufi exegetes it is impossible to ever exhaust all the Qur’an’s meanings, it is possible to derive increasingly “better” interpretations of its text. Many of its verses became popular for mystics, especially those that supported “a lover’s approach to scripture” (2). Q37:164 (in which an angel says: “Each of us has a known station”) is applied broadly to humanity at large to show that just as the angels have different stations so do human beings: human beings do not have a fixed station, are a work in progress, and therefore undefinable until death. Sufi exegetes have also frequently cited Q2:148 (“Everyone has a direction to which he turns”) and Q3:31 (“If you love God, follow me, and God will love you”). Q2:148 is often interpreted to affirm diversity within creation and Q3:31 underpins the path of love, which constitutes central themes within Sufi poetry.
The Sufis have always engaged in various rituals, many of which center on having a direct personal mystical experience of God. Some practices include asceticism by devoting oneself fully to the spiritual journey. There is fasting, meditation, chanting, ritual prayer, ecstatic states, repeating the divine names of God (Q62:10), reciting poetry, musical sessions, and engaging in Jihad or Holy War against the lower self. The Whirling Dervishes of the Mevlevi order are famous for spinning in circles to experience oneness with God. There is a shaykh, or a guide, who helps disciples and devotees follow the correct ascetic path of devotion to God.
Sufi Philosophical Thought
Despite the emphasis on mysticism and mystical experience, philosophy and rational thinking also played a role in Sufi thought although these were never seen to constitute the dominant framework of their spiritual and devotional lives. Philosophy was seen to be complementary to Islamic beliefs such as in God, the Divine, and the soul, and reason is essential in developing the practical and theoretical components of the intellect to attain human perfection. From this perspective, reason and love, for a writer such as the poet Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi (d. 1273), are not mutually exclusive but instead complementary realities that both play important roles in Sufi belief. We see a great deal of philosophical thought expressed by Ibn ‘Arabi (d. 1240) who believed that a healthy intellect is essential to a sound heart and is needed to recognize God’s transcendence.
One of the important mystics to play a significant role in the development of Sufism and Islamic mysticism was a woman called Rabi’ah (d. 801 CE) well-known for her piety and communing with God. She preached the pure love of God and gathered disciples when she moved to Basra in Iraq. Much of Rabi’ah’s life is legendary but according to some traditions she is depicted with a flaming torch and a pail of water symbolizing her desire to set Paradise alight and put water in hell. This was a way of teaching that no person should love God out of a fear of hell or because of a hope for Paradise. In another legend, Rabi’ah is a pilgrim journeying to the holy city of Mecca and the Kab’ah moves forward to greet her arrival.
Sufism’s Spread and Contemporary Popularity
The Sufis were important in the spread of Islam across North Africa, Central Asia, India, Malaya, and Indonesia. The poet Rumi’s influence cannot be underestimated given his work had a large influence in the Balkans, Anatolia, Iran, Central Asia, Afghanistan, North India, and the Bay of Bengal. As one scholar observes, Rumi’s poetry became a common paradigm “of Islamic life and thought by which Muslims (and others) imagined, conceptualized, polarized, articulated and gave mutually-communicable meaning to their lives in terms of Islam” (3). In our analysis of Rumi’s poetry, we noted how Sufi poetry and many of its pluralistic, universal, and mystical themes have become popular in the West among the general population and celebrities alike.
Sufism has also been influential in recent scholarship, especially among gender theorists and feminists within Islamic Studies. The likes of the Sufi’s multiple meaning approach to the Qur’an has opened up a hermeneutical reading for feminist theorists to provide a destabilizing view of human nature. It happens that Sufism has produced historical persons who have challenged conventional norms, even along gender lines. This reading intends to bring Sufi concepts and hermeneutics into conversion with feminist thought and notions of gender, all of which seek to push the boundaries of both binary and patriarchal rationalities, and possibly engender a rethinking of gender hierarchies and hetero-normativities within Muslim (and possibly non-Muslim) traditions. These scholars maintain that Sufi theology and anthropology enables one to comprehend, affirm, and embrace human diversity, particularly that relating to pluralities of gender and sexual orientation.
1. Sargut, Cemalnur. 2018. Beauty and Light: Mystical Discourses by a Contemporary Female Sufi Master. 31-73. Louisville, KY: Fons Vitae. p. 31
2. Chittick, William. 2012. “The Koran as the Lover’s Mirror.” In In Search of the Lost Heart: Explorations in Islamic Thought, edited by Mohammed Rustom, After Khalil, and Kazuyo Murata. pp. 57-68. Albany, New York: State University of New York Press. p. 63.
3. Ahmed, Shahab. 2017. What Is Islam?: The Importance of Being Islamic. Princeton: Princeton University Press. p. 75, 82-83.