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Sufism (Arabic تصوف taṣawwuf) is the esoteric aspect of Islam. In modern language it might also be referred to as "Islamic spirituality".

Many Sufi practitioners are organized into a very diverse range of brotherhoods and sisterhoods. Although many orders ("tariqas") can be classified as Shi'a or Sunni or even both, there are a few that are clearly not either Shiah or Sunni and so constitute a separate sphere of Islamic faith.

Sufis believe that their teachings are the essence of every religion, and indeed of the evolution of humanity as a whole. The central concept in Sufism is "love". Dervishes -- the name given to initiates of sufi orders -- believe that love is a projection of the essence of God to the universe. God desires to recognize beauty, and as if one looks at a mirror to see oneself, God "looks" at itself within the dynamics of nature. Since everything is a reflection of God, the school of Sufism practices to see the beauty inside the apparently ugly, and to open arms even to the most evil one. This infinite tolerance is expressed in the most beautiful way, perhaps, by the famous Sufi philosopher and poet Mevlana (also known as Rumi) : "Come, come, whoever you are. Worshiper, Wanderer, Lover of Leaving; ours is not a caravan of despair. Though you have broken your vows a thousand times...Come, come again, Come."

Suf (صوف)is the Arabic word for "wool", in the sense of "cloak", referring to the simple cloaks the original Sufis wore. Given the Sufis use of composing letters of words to express hidden meanings, the word is simultaneously taken to mean 'occlusion' and 'enlightenment'. This reflects the fact that Sufism is at once a popular yet occult form of Islam. In fact the Greek terms Sofos /Sofia literally imply "wisdom" or "enlightenment" . Then there is the Arabic root in certain languages - 'Saaf' which literally means "pure," "clean," "blank."

Sufis teach in personal groups, believing that the intervention of the master is necessary for the growth of the pupil. They make extensive use of parables and metaphors, in such a way that the meaning is only reachable through a process of seeking for the utmost truth and knowledge of oneself.

Although philosophies vary between different Sufi sects, Sufism as a whole is primarily concerned with direct personal experience, and as such is often compared to Zen Buddhism and Gnosticism. The following metaphor, credited to an unknown Sufi scholar, helps describe this line of thought. "There are three ways of knowing a thing. Take for instance a flame. One can be told of the flame, one can see the flame with his own eyes, and finally one can reach out and be burned by it. In this way, we Sufis seek to be burned by God."

A large part of Muslim literature comes from the Sufis, who created great books of poetry (which include for example 1001 Arabian Nights, the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, the Conference of the Birds and the Masnavi), all of which contain the profound, and hardly graspable, teachings of the Sufis.

Offshoots of Sufism in Africa include, for example, the Muslim brotherhoods of Senegal.


Universal Sufism

Sufism is usually seen in relation to Islam. There is a major line of Non-Islamic or offshoot-Islamic Sufi thought that sees Sufism as predating Islam and being in fact universal and, therefore, independent of the Qur'an and the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad (saw). This view of Sufism has understandably been popular in the West and has been always opposed by Traditional Sufis who practice it in the framework of Islam. Major exponents of this universal Sufism were Inayat Khan and Idries Shah. There is also an attempt to reconsider Sufism in contemporary Muslim thought. According to this view, Sufism represents the core sense of Islam that gives insight to Allah and His creation. In Bangladesh, there is a young group, named 'Sanskriti O Biddya CharchaPit', that claims that Sufi insight is the core of Islamicity and that it could help to realize the cosmos that includes not only religiosity but also polity. This attempt could be marked as 'de-divinization of Sufism'.

Orders of Sufism

PHILTAR (Philosophy of Theology and Religion at the Division of Religion and Philosophy of St Martin's College) has a very useful Graphical illustration of the Sufi schools .

Sufi-leaning Islamic schools

There are also a number of historic and contemporary Islamic groups which are Sufi at the core. All the four schools of thought recognize Tasawwuf (Sufism) as an Islamic Science. Only the Salafis and Wahhabis regard it as an innovation in religion.

Sufi doctrines

Sufi cosmology

Although there is no consensus with regard to Sufi cosmology, one can disentangle various threads that led to the crystallization of more or less coherent mythic cosmological doctrines. The first is based on purely Quranic notions of the Afterworld (Ahiret), the Hidden (Ghayb- sometimes associated with “hidden” or “invisible” dimensions of human existence, but, more frequently with the state of God before creation or Unmanifest Absolute. Another term for the latter is “Amma”, ie. Divine Darkness) and seven-storeyed Universe explicitly referenced in the Qur’an (and cherished in prophet Mohammad’s “Miraj” or ascent to the God’s face -- the powerful spiritual motif that inspired generations of later Sufis and ordinary believers). However, these relatively simple Quranic concepts that gave basic structure to Islamic worldview had soon become exposed to Neoplatonist and Gnostic influences, as well as Zoroastrian religious imagery. As a consequence, Sufism developed a welter of frequently contradictory cosmological doctrines. Nevertheless, one can point out to a few basic features:

  • One of the most influential early Sufis, Mansur Al-Hallaj (martyred in 922. C.E. for the supposed adherence to the heterodox doctrine of “hulul” or incarnationism, according to which Divine nature can take possession or overwhelm human nature) exposed the psychospiritual doctrine of “two natures”. Technical terms were “Lahut” for the Divinity, and “Nasut” for humanity). Ironically, it seems that Al-Hallaj only affirmed the separateness between God and Man: his two natures are polar principles that cannot be mixed or fused. From these rather simple metaphors, Sufis later developed an intricate Kabbalah-like cosmology.
  • Suhrawardi Maqtul (martyr), the highly imaginative Iranian philosopher from 12th century C.E. completed this variant of cosmology. Although nominally not a Sufi (Suhrawardi Maqtul is the founder of Ishraqi or Illuminationist school of Islamic philosophy), his expansion and revision of rudimentary concepts early Sufis had bequeathed to their esoteric posterity played the crucial role in forming the dominant Sufi mythic cosmological Weltanschauung. In his visionary cosmography old Hermetic Ptolemaic cosmos of seven onion-like spheres has dissolved and a vast spiritual universe was revealed to the later generations of Sufis. Abstract concepts of “Lahut” and “Nasut”, designating fuzzy metaphors for divinity and humanity, have grown into full-fledged worlds, or dimensions of existence, quite similar to quasi-emanationist “worlds” of Neoplatonism and Kabbalah. Shihab al-Din Suhrawardi Maqtul imagined two more worlds between physical (Alam-I-Nasut) and Divine (Alam-I-Lahut): imaginal or subtle world, corresponding to Western medieval “mundus imaginalis”- Alam-I-Malakut (literally, “world of Angels”) and world of power, Alam-I-Jabarut, resembling Platonic Nous or “world of archetypal ideas”, the source of other worlds two rungs “down” in the emanationist ladder. So, fourfold emanationist universe was conceived in this spectacular cosmography- to stay with the Sufism for later generations. The fifth “world” was equated with unknowable God’s essence and named Alam-I-Hahut (the world of “He-ness”: etymologically, Arabic root word for God with attributes or Manifest Absolute is Al-Lah or “the Divinity” (hence Lahut) and Hu (“He”) for Unmanifest Absolute, naked essence of Godhead nothing can be said about (similar to Christian polarity of Deus revelatus and Deus absconditus, or Hindu notions of Saguna and Nirguna Brahman).
  • Yet other schools of Sufi thought came under Neoplatonist influence and operated with concepts like Aql-I-Awwal (Primary Intellect) and Nafs-I-Kulli (Universal Soul), which strictly correspond to the emanationist scheme of Plotinus and his followers.

This, as well as other, more orthodox variants of Quranic Sufism, also adopted Hermetic scheme of Ptolemaic spherical cosmos with planetary spheres serving as worlds of the created universe. The fixed stars (originating in ancient Sumero-Mesophotamian tradition) were a sort of limit of Hermetic cosmos: beyond lay the Quranic “Arsh” or God’s throne. Such a picture was integrated into Sufi mythic cosmography and is very similar to the image of the universe one can find in Dante’s “Divine Comedy”.

The Sufi cosmology is not a uniform and coherent doctrine. But, reading various authoritative texts, one can see that practitioners of Sufism were not much bothered with inconsistencies and contradictions that have arisen due to juxtaposition and superposition of at least three different cosmographies: Ishraqi visionary universe as expounded by Suhrawardi Maqtul, Neoplatonic view of cosmos cherished by Islamic philosophers like Ibn Sina/Avicenna (and later assimilated into majestic metaphysical edifice of Ibn al-Arabi) and Hermetic-Ptolemaic spherical geocentric world. All these doctrines (and each one of them claiming to be impeccably orthodox) were freely mixed and juxtaposed, frequently with confusing results- a situation one encounters in other esoteric doctrines, from Hebrew Kabbalah and Christian Gnosticism to Vajrayana Buddhism and Trika Shaivism.

Sufi psychology

The term "Sufi psychology" is probably a deceptive one, because it implies that there is a relatively homogenous doctrine of the psyche the majority of the Sufis would subscribe to. It is not the case. However, one can point out the terms most frequently used and expound on the meanings of these notions.

Drawing from Qur'anic verses, virtually all Sufis distinguish between Nafs, Qalb, Sirr and Ruh. These concepts designate various psychospiritual "organs" or, sometimes, faculties of sensory and suprasensory perception.

Nafs is usually translated as soul or psyche. Its etymology is rooted in "breath" (similar to Biblical or Kabbalistic nefesh) and is common to virtually all archaic psychologies where the act of breathing was connected with life, animating otherwise lifeless object. In this respect, ancient notions of "Atman" in Hinduism (cf. German noun "Atem", breath, respiration) or Greek "pneuma" (as well as Latin "spiritus")-all equate the basic visible process of breathing with energizing principle that confers existence to an individual human being. Some Sufis consider under the term "Nafs" the entirety of psychological processes, encompassing whole mental, emotional and volitional life; however, the majority of Quranic-based Sufis are of the opinion that Nafs is a "lower", egotistical and passionate human nature which, along with Tab (literally, physical nature), comprises vegetative and animal aspects of human life. Synonyms for Nafs are devil, passion, greed, avarice, ego-centredness etc. The central aim of the Sufi path is transformation of Nafs (technical term is "Tazkiya-I-Nafs" or "purgation of the soul") from its deplorable state of ego-centredness through various psychospiritual stages to the purity and submission to the will of God. Although the majority of the Sufi orders have adopted convenient 7 maqams (maqams are permanent stages on the voyage towards spiritual transformation), and some still operate with 3 stages, the picture is clear: the Sufi’s journey begins with Nafs-I-Ammare (self-accusing soul) and ends in Nafs-I-Mutma’inna (satisfied soul)-although some Sufis’s final stage is, in their technical vocabulary, Nafs-I-Safiya wa Kamila (soul restful and perfected in God’s presence). In essence, this is almost identical to Christian paradigm of "vita purgativa" and various stages the spiritual aspirant traverses in the journey towards God.

The next term, Qalb, stands for heart. In Sufi terminology, this spiritual heart (not to be confused with the pump in the breast ) is again variously described. For some, it is the seat of beatific vision. Others consider it the gate of Ishq or Divine love. Yet, for the majority, it is the battleground of two warring armies: those of Nafs and Ruh or spirit. Here, one again encounters terminological confusion: for the Sufis influenced by Neoplatonism, a "higher" part of Nafs is equated to the Aql or intellect (called Nafs-I-Natiqa) or "rational soul" and is the central active agent in spiritual battle: Ruh or spirit, notwithstanding its name, is rather passive in this stage. In short, cleansing of the Qalb or heart is a necessary spiritual discipline for travellers on the Sufi path. The term for this process is Tazkiah-I-Qalb and the aim is the erasure of everything that stands in the way of purifying God’s love or Ishq.

The third faculty is Sirr, or "the secret", located for the majority in the middle of the chest. Emptying of the Sirr (Taqliyya-I-Sirr) is basically focusing on God’s names and attributes in perpetual remembrance or Dhikr, hence diverting one’s attention from the mundane aspects of human life and fixing it on the spiritual realm. The "emptying" signifies negation and obliteration of ego-centred human propensities.

Ruh or spirit is the fourth "entity" and the second contender in the battle for human life. Again, opinions on Ruh differ among Sufis. Some deem it coeternal with God; others consider it a created entity. Be as it may, Ruh is the plateau of consensus for the majority of Sufis, especially the early ones ( before 11th/12th century C.E. ). For those Sufis with Gnostic leanings (which can be found in Bektashi or Mevlevi orders), Ruh is a soul-spark, immortal entity and transegoic "true self", similar to the Christian concepts of "synteresis" or "Imago Dei", or Vedantist notion of "jiva", as well as Tibetan Buddhist "shes-pa", principle of consciousness and Taoist "shen" or spirit. But, the majority of the Sufis would consider this an unnecessarily extravagant speculation and would stick to the more orthodox notion of dormant spiritual faculty that needs to be worked upon by constant vigil and prayer in order to achieve the Tajliyya-I-Ruh, or Illumination of the spirit. Ironically, this spiritual faculty is frequently referred to in terms one encounters in connection with Nafs- "blind" life force or life current that needs to be purified by strict religious observances in order to achieve illumination.

So, in these four "organs" or faculties: Nafs, Qalb, Sirr and Ruh, and the purificative activities applied to them, the basic orthodox Sufi psychology is contained. The purification of elementary passionate nature (Tazkiya-I-Nafs), followed by cleansing of the spiritual heart so that it may acquire a mirror-like purity of reflection (Tazkiya-I-Qalb) and become the receptacle of God’s love (Ishq), fortified by emptying of egoic drives (Taqliyya-I-Sirr) and remembrance of God’s attributes (Dhikr), gloriously ending in illumination of the spirit (Tajjali-I-Ruh)- this is the essential Sufi spiritual journey. Other spiritual faculties, like Khafi (the arcane) and Akhfa (the most arcane) are employed in other Sufi orders like Naqshbandi, but this is beyond general basic consensus.


In general, sufic development involves the awakening in a certain order what are known as the lataif (latifa, sing.) or spiritual centers of perception that lie dormant in every person. The term is roughly translated as "subtlety" or "light". Each center is associated with a particular color and general area of the body, as well as oft times with a particular prophet. The help of a guide is considered necessary to help activate these centers. The activation of all these "centers" is part of the special, inner methodology of the sufi way or "Work", and cannot be counterfeited. After undergoing this process, the dervish is said to reach a certain type of "completion" or becomes the Complete Man.

The first center, Qalb, or heart, in Sufi terminology "spiritual heart"(not to be confused with the anatomical) is again variously described. For some, it is the seat of beatific vision. Others consider it the gate of Ishq or Divine love. Its location is roughly the left side of the body, is often associated with YELLOW and is given the name MIND. The second center, Ruh, or SPIRIT, is connected with the right side of the chest and the color RED. For some Sufis with Gnostic leanings (which can be found in Bektashi or Mevlevi orders), Ruh is a soul-spark, immortal entity and transegoic "true self", similar to the Christian concepts of "synteresis" or "Imago Dei", or Vedantist notion of "jiva", as well as Tibetan Buddhist "shes-pa", principle of consciousness and Taoist "shen" or spirit. But other Sufis might consider this an unnecessarily extravagant speculation and would stick to the plainer notion of a dormant spiritual faculty that needs to be worked upon. Constant vigil and prayer would be the emphasis orthodox sufis would deem necessary in order to achieve the Tajliyya-I-Ruh, or Illumination of the spirit.

The third faculty Sirr, or SECRET, is located for in the solar plexus and is associated with the color WHITE. The fourth center, Khafi, MYSTERIOUS or INTUITION is situated in the forehead between the eyes and is BLACK. The fifth center, Ikhfa, or DEEPLY HIDDEN indicating a deep perception of consciousness, alternates its location between the center of the chest and inside the brain. It is associated with the color GREEN. A preliminary center, sometimes counted as but not a true latifa is Self,located under the navel. A seventh latifa also exists but is only known to the true sage or one who has developed all the others.

So, through these "organs" or faculties: Qalb, Ruh, Sirr, Khafi, Ikfa and so on and the transformative results from their activation, the basic Sufi psychology is outlined and bears some resemblance to the schemata known as the kabbalah or to some the Indian chakra system.

Related articles

External links

  • Graphical illustration of the Sufi schools
  • Tasawwuf -- Sufism Sufism & Sufi Orders in Islam
  • Sufism -- Sufis -- Sufi Orders by Dr. Alan Godlas, University of Georgia
  • The Threshold Society & The Mevlevi Order
  • Islam Way Online - Allah Muslims Spiritual Healing and al Quran
  • Excerpts from 'The Conference of the Birds' by Farid-ud-Din al-Attar
  • Sufi Practices Practices of the Friends
  • The Naqshbandi-Haqqani Sufi Order of America
  • The Halveti-Jerrahi Order of America
  • The Nur Ashki Jerrahi Sufi Order
  • The Sufi Study Circle of the University of Toronto
  • BBC - Religion & Ethics - Sufism
  • Sufi Order International , Universal Sufism, founded by Hazrat Inayat Khan, currently led by Pir Zia Inayat Khan.
  • Sufi Ruhaniat International , Universal Sufism, founded by Murshid Samuel Lewis, a student of Hazrat Inayat Khan.
  • The Sufi Movement , Universal Sufism, founded by Hazrat Inayat Khan, currently led by Hidayat Inayat Khan.

Last updated: 02-07-2005 01:47:22
Last updated: 04-25-2005 03:06:01