The Online Encyclopedia and Dictionary







Sufism (Arabic تصوف taṣawwuf) is a system of esoteric philosophy commonly associated with Islam. In modern language it might also be referred to as "Islamic spirituality" or "Islamic mysticism". Some non-Islamic Sufi organizations also exist, especially in the West [1]


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 neither Shiah nor 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. They believe that 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 they believe that everything is a reflection of God, the school of Sufism practices to see the beauty inside the apparently ugly, and to open arms to what they believe as even the most evil one. This religious tolerance is expressed in Sufism by the famous Sufi philosopher and poet Mevlana 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." (In many Unitarian Universalist youth groups this poem is sung with minor alterations)

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 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.

The word Sufism

The word Sufism is an anglicised form of the word Sufi, which in turn has its origin in Tasawwuf. The root word of Tasawwuf is the Arabic word Saaf, meaning pure, clean or blank. So the word tasawwuf means purifying or making clean. A Sufi is a person who practices purification of heart.

There is another view about the origin of the word Sufi, according to which it originated from Suf (صوف), 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'.

In fact, the Greek terms Sofos/Sofia literally imply "wisdom" or "enlightenment".

But most Sufis agree with the first definition.

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 Prophet Muhammad. 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

Islamic orders

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.

Non-Islamic Sufi Groups

The Traditional Islamic Schools of Thought and Sufism

The relationship between traditional Islamic Schools and Sufism is complicated by at least three important factors. Firstly, Sufism as a separate movement within Islam makes its appearance quite late, so we cannot know for sure how the very earliest of the scholars would have treated it. Secondly, the founders and earlier scholars of the schools have displayed mixed opinions towards Sufism. Thus, although some of them recognized Sufism, illustrated e.g. by Imam Hambal's frequent visits to the Sufi master Bishr al Hafi, there are others who considered Sufism to be heretical, to the extent of leading to disbelief. Thirdly, the term Sufism has had such a wide range of connotations attached to it, mostly emotive definitions rather than theological or logical ones, that a comparison to traditional Islam is essentially not possible except in a strictly defined context.

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 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 Lataif-e-Sitta (The six subtleties), Nafs, Qalb, Sirr, Ruh, Khafi & Akhfa. These lataif (sing : latifa) designate various psychospiritual "organs" or, sometimes, faculties of sensory and suprasensory perception

In general, sufic development involves the awakening in a certain order of these spiritual centers of perception that lie dormant in every person.. 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.

Lataif-e-sitta (The six Subtleties)


This is the first of these Lataif, located slightly below the navel, & is associated with yellow color. Its energies are increased by meditation.

The word nafs is usually translated as self 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-centeredness 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 psycho-spiritual 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-e-Ammara (self-accusing soul), Nafs-e-lawwama, and ends in Nafs-e-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 second faculty is located in the left of Chest & is associated with red color. In Latifa-e-Qalbi man witnesses his deeds. By awakening it man also gets the knowledge of the realm of Jins.

The word Qalb, stands for heart. In Sufi terminology, this spiritual heart (not to be confused with the blood pumping organ) 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

Qalb & Nafs form the “Rooh-e-haivani” (Animal Soul). This part of the soul has the record of every activity of life. It is also termed as Joviya (Confluence).


The third faculty is ruh, located in the center of the chest & color is green. After its activation the human gets acquainted with Alam-e-Aaraf (the place where man resides after death)

Ruh or spirit is 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.


The forth faculty is Sirr, located at the right side of the chest & is associated with white color. It records the orders of Allah for the individual in similitude to that which is originally present in Loh-e-mehfooz (Preserved Scripturum). After its activation, human being gets acquainted with Aalam-e-Misal (The Allegorical realm - Reflection of knowledge of the preserved Scripturum.)

Sirr, literally means "the secret". 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.

Sirr & Rooh form “Rooh-e-Insani (Human soul) or Ayan. This part of the soul is inscribed with commands characterizing the life. It is also termed as Ayan. When a human being gets acquainted with it, he can witness the record & scheme of “all that exists”, written on loh-e-mahfooz.


It is located in the middle of eyebrows & associated with blue color. It’s the equivalent of Kitab-e-Marqoom (The written book)

The term Khafi means mysterious, arcane or Latent Subtlety


The tem Akhfa means most arcane, deeply mysterious or obscure Subtlety. It is located above the head & is associated with violet color. It’s the Nuqta-e-wahida (point of unity) in every human where the Tajalliat (Beatific visions) of Allah are directly revealed. It has got recorded information about the hidden knowledge of universe. By entering into this point, the human being enters the system of universe & laws governing the universe & he understands the meaning of “ for you we(allah) have revealed whatever is in the earth & the heavens “.

Akhfa & khafa form “Rooh-e-azam” (the great soul), also called sabita. It is a bright ring of light in which all the information pertaining to the unseen & seen cosmos are inscribed. The Attributes of God that have been transferred to the existents and have become parts of the mechanism of the universe are collectively known as the Incumbent Knowledge (Ilm-e-wajib). The knowledge of Incumbent means that knowledge that has been transferred to the existents, that is, it refers to those Attributes of God with which existents enjoy an affinity and correlation. The Knowledge of Incumbent is also known as the Knowledge of the Pen (Ilm-e-Qalum}.

First Descent is that state when God exhibited the program present in His Mind as He Willed. The creative formulae of the cosmos are the secrets of the First Descent. Why did God opt to create the universe and what is the Will of God, which He intends to accomplish? Reflection of all these things is found in the Great Soul; The Firmly Affixed Inscription. One side of Great Soul is the Obscure Subtlety (akhfa) and the other side is the Latent Subtlety (khafi) Great Soul is the storehouse of eleven thousand Beatific Visions of God. The person, who manages to have the acquaintance of these two subtleties, can observe these eleven thousand Beatific Visions. It will not be out of place to remind that these two subtleties of akhfa and khafi are found in every human being irrespective of the fact that who he is, what he is or to where does he belong.

So, in these six "organs" or faculties: Nafs, Qalb, Ruh, Sirr, Khafi & Akhfa, 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), illumination of the spirit (Tajjali-I-Ruh), fortified by emptying of egoic drives (Taqliyya-I-Sirr) and remembrance of God’s attributes (Dhikr), & completion of journey with purification of the last two faculties, Khafi & Akhfa. Through these "organs" or faculties 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

It is important to mention that “ Great Soul ”, “ Human Soul “ & “ Animal Soul “ are actually “levels of functioning” of the same soul & not three different souls. These three parts of soul are like three rings of light infused in one another and are collectively called the soul, the indivisible entity, Lord’s edict of simply the man. Man gets acquainted with them one by one by Muraqaba ( Sufi Meditation ) , Dzikr ( Remembrance of God ) & purification of one’s psyche/life from negative thinking patterns (fear, depression), negative emotions (hate, contempt, anger, lust) & negative practices (hurting others psychologically or physically). Loving God & loving/helping every human being without considering for any reward, irrespective of his race, religion or nationality is the key to ascension according to Sufis.

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Last updated: 09-12-2005 02:39:13