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What is Sufism ?


The spirit of Sufism exists in all religions and is that sense Sufis are found wherever God is revered,worshipped and loved.Historically,Sufism is an offshoot of Islam mysticism which is called Tasawuf.Sufism is a complex ideology and no date of origin can be ascribed to it.Nevertheless,at present there is a great ideal of interest in Sufism,and Rumi is one of the most widely read authors and his original work has been translated into many languages.One of the reasons of the popularity of Sufism is that its doors are open to people of all faiths and all humans are regarded as children of God.How can a father not love his child and the child his father?It is a love-based relationship and according to the Sufis,is of greater intensity than any other form of love.

A number of theories exist with regard to the origin of the word Sufi.The most widely accepted view is that it is derived from the Arabic word "Suf" which means wool.The early Muslim ascetics used to wear a garment of white wool (jama-e-suf) , as a symbol of purity and unworldliness.Sufis have appeared randomly in various time periods and accurate historic records are not available of their coming.Many of them preferred obscurity,like the Buddhist monks,who also chose isolation from the world.

The Sufi movement can be divided roughly into two periods

(A)The early ascetic period and

(B) the later doctrinal period.

The early ascetic period can be traced to the Prophet Mohammad and the four Caliphas,particularly Hazrat Abu Bakar and Hazrat Ali.The Sufis developed their mystical knowledge purely on the basis of Quran and Hadith.The love of God was central to their thinking but this was more a form of subservience than God realization.They did not distinguish between the Sharia (the religious law) and the Tariqa (the Sufi path).There are numerous Sufis in this category but a well known example is Rabia-al-Adawiyya of Basra (717-801).She did not marry and lived a life of self denial and charity.To her,love of God was supreme and when asked if she hated Satan,she replied,"My love of God leaves no room for hating Satan".According to legend,she gainded her high status as a Sufi without being initiated by any Shaikh or Pir.People accepted her as "second spotless Mary".Rabia teaches love of God for the sake of God.In her prayer she says,"O my God! If I worship Thee with the account of the fear of Hell,burn me in Hell;if I worship Thee with the hope of Paradise,exclude me from it,but if I worship Thee for Thine own shake,then withhold not from me Thine eternal Beauty."

The later doctrinal Sufism started from the second half of the ninth century.During this period,Sufis came in contact with the mystics of Christianity,Hinduism and Buddhism.It is the generally believed that this contact resulted in a slightly different approach than the previous one.For example,Maraf-al-Karkhi (AD 815) states,"Lovee is not to be learned from men,it is one of God's gifts and comes as a grace."This is also the Christian concept.

The Sufis developed the concept of Fana,which stands for disintegration of the self with all its earthly moorings.The Sufis describe self as Nafs of Nafs-e-amareh which is by nature impulsive,cunning,greedy and motivated by passions.During the stage of Fana the worshipper learns to drop all desires and worldly involvements through a vigorous dicipline of prayer and meditation.In meditation he concentrates on the attributes of Allah and eventually reintegrates into "cosmic self".This process is known as Baqa.In other words,there is first disintegration (Fana) and then integration (Baqa).Thus the whole personality is reconstruced.

Another point of view was expressed during this period by Husayn ibn Mansur al-Hallaj (AD 922),according to which we are part of God and ultimately we merge with Him.It is said that Hallaj proclaimed "Ana'l-Haqq" (I am the truth) which is tantamount to saying,"I am God".Hallaj explains this idea in one of his sayings:

"I am He Whom I love,and He Whom I love is I,We are two spirits indwelling in one body,when thou seest me,thou seest Him,And when thou seest Him,then thou seesh us both"

These expressions infuriatted orthodox Muslims who regareded this as blasphemy and Hallaj was torrtured to death.

Four orders of Sufis appeared in India in the 13th century.These were

  • Chistia
  • Suhrawardia
  • Qadria
  • Naqshbandia.

They were all united by fervent love of God,described as "God intoxication".Amongst the leading Sufis who lived and preached in India,are Khawaja Mo'inuddin Chishti,Qutubuddin Bakhtiyar Kaki,Bahauddin Zakariyya,Fariduddin Msood Ganj Shakar,Shaikh Hamiduddin,Nizamuddin Awliya,Shaikh Ali el Hujwiri (Data Ganj Baksh),Baba Farid,Mohammed Gesu Daraz,Hazrat Mian Mir,Bulleh Shah,Hamiduddin Nagauri and Bawa Muhaiyaddeen of Sri Lanka.

Sufis recieved a lot of patronage and support,not only from the Muslim kings but also from the Hindu Rajas.Dara Shikoh,the great granson of Emperor Akbar,was particularly devoted to the Sufis and his Pir was Mian Mir of the Qadri order.Dara Shikoh wrote two scholarly books on Sufism.These are "The Safinat ul Awliya",which contains short biographies of four hundred and eleven Sufi saints,and "The Sakinat ul Awliya",in which brief sketches are given of saints of the Qadri order.

The mausoleums of Sufi saints are scattered all over the sub-continent and are visited by Muslims,Hindus,Sikhs and the people of other religious denominations.It is said that Indira Gandhi,the late Prime Minister of India,used to visit Khawaja Mo'inuddin Chisthi's mausoleum frequently.

Traditionally,the Hindus have sung Bhajans or devotional music in temples,and amongst the christians,music too has been an intergral part of religious activities,The Indian Sufis adapted this trend and established group singin known as Qawwali.By listening to this music,some devotees go into a tracne known as Hal and experience spiritrual heights not otherwise attainable.Hal is not static or rigid,"it is like a flash of lightning that appears and disappears".


Sufism could be described as a journey of love towards God.It includes the few who have reached the goal and many who are struggling towards it.One of the best descriptions of a Sufi is,"One who is in the world but not of it".The aspirant proceeds from the observance of religious rituals to inner conviction,and from mere belief to actual experience.Unfortunately,the ultimate experience is beyond description hence the ambiguity of the goal.

The overriding question which has always confronted man is how to undertake this Sufic journey,so as to transcend human limitations and to achieve what has been described as "union with God".Most religions of the world have an exoteric,(outer) meaning and an esoteric,(inner) meaning.One starts with the outer and gradually moves to the inner world,as and when the spirit longs for a nearness to the Creator.This is done through meditation and prayer.The meditation can be based on Allah's attributes,a sentence,a short prayer or even silence.This enables one to reduce,and to ultimately stop the constant mental dialogue and chatter.This proess takes time and effort,and most of all,persistance.As one becomes more and more proficient with the meditations,the inner growth is accelerated and one gets closer and closer to the goal.As the soul moves into higher and more subtle regions it experiences feelings of bliss and selflessness;at the same time it becomes more aware of the pain and suffering of other human beings.The soul has reached a point where it is less concerned with self and more concerned with helping humanity.More efforts and faith is required of the seeker if he is to reach yet higher states.In the final state of growth,self is forgetten or transcended.The self is thus consumed and burnt to nothingness in the unity of love,life after this will be completely God-centered.

According to a well known Hadith:

"My servant draws near to me through works of supererogation,until I love him.And when I love him,I am his ear,so he hears by Me,and his eye,so he sees by Me,and his tongue,so he speaks by Me,and his hand,so that he takes by Me".

Each religion has its esoteric side.The foundation of this journey to God is faith and hope which makes one take the first faltering steps and so the journey starts wtih courage,fortitude,intense longing,determination and perhaps most important of all,love.As Julian of Norwich,a 14th century mystic,beautifully and humbly prays:

"God,of Your goodness,give me Yourself,for You are enough for me and I can ask for nothing else than full worship of You.And if I ask for anything that is less,I shall always want,for only in You have I everything."

In the words of the early Christian monk,St.Augustin,"Love and do what you will,knowing fully well that if you truly love you will only do what is right."


The goal of the Sufi is to attain the nearness to God through meditation and prayer.He must follow a regimen of strict discipline and watch his every thought and action with vigilance.This journey generally starts when all the outer requirements of religion have been completed.Then and only then does he embark on the inner journey to know the "Supreme Reality".


The Sufis practice and preach evolution;however,it is not Darwinian evolution.This evolution is from the materially inclined man to a spiritually refined one and then on and on until finally he can be called,"the man of God".A seeker must crawl before he can walk,and walk,before he can run,and later,much mcuh later,he may be able to fly.Five centuries before Darwin,the Sufi Saint Jalaluddin Rumi wrote:

"I have again and again grown like grass;I have experienced seven hundred and seventy moulds.I died from minerality and became vegetalbe;and from vegetativeness I died and became animal.I died from animality and became man.Then why fear disppernce though death?Next time I shall die bringing forth wings and feathers like angels;After that,soaring higher than angels,what you cannot iamgine,I shall be that".

Sufi Teachings:

The Sufi seeker is therefore taught only when he is ready to imbibe spiritual teachings and is taught in seven stages.After he has mastered a particular teaching he is taught what comes next and so on and so forth.The appropriate growth must be one that matches the current stage of development.According to Sufis,only a teacher can acheive this because he has tarversed this path himself and so is in a position to guide the seeker in his quest for truth.A great deal of importane is attached to the teacher in the Sufic tradition and,once accepted into pupilship,the aspirant comes into the spiritual guardianship of his Pir.Sufic knowledge is non-verbal and is essentially intuitive or innate wisdom which can be released by certain practices.


A.J.Arberry, a well known author on Sufism states,one of the ways of coming closer to God and creating a state of ecstasy is the practice of Zikr."Remember God often" is a phrase which contantly recurs in the Quran:The Sufis interpret this in a special way,and the word 'remembrance' has acquired in time a very particular connotation.

"Everything on earth passeth away,save His face" (Quran)

This is taken by the Sufis as the peg upon which to hang their characteristic doctrine of the passing away of human attributes through union with God,whereby the mystic achievies the eternal contiuance of spiritual life in Him.

The desire of these mystics is to attain to the nearness of God and union with Him is of paramount importance.It is the raisond'etre for which the seeker of any mystic tradition enters the path.It is the 'Pearl of all wisdom' for which he is willing to sacrifice all,including his life,if need be.

Such is the zeal of the seeker God and in many of the Sufic writings examples of this are given is allegoric form;the moth that immolates itself joyously in the flame,the shining dew-drop that slides silently into the sea;the river that in ecstasy joins with and merges with the oceans.As we can see,love of the Divine or 'mahabba' is the driving force and great emphasis is placed on this love,"He loveth them and they love Him" (Quran).An aspect of great importance in the Sufi tradition is the nearness of God.You do not have to search anywhere outside of yourself-God resides in your heart.The seeker has to cleanse his heart and mind,his body and soul then he will discover his beloved in the deepest recesses of his being.

"He is nearer to him than his own jugular vein" (Quran)

and again

"wither so ever ye turn,there is the Face of God" (Quran)

What the Sufi is trying to acheive is to leave this dimension of the physical world and its imperfections,its sorrows,its trials and tribulations,and reach a spiritual dimension.The Sufis claim that reality as we know it is shaped by our expectations,coloured by our culture and designed to keep us earth-bound and barely aware of our spiritual heritage.

Rumi says in his short poem,called "Another Dimension"

"The hidden world has its clouds and rain - Buf of a different kind - Its sky and sunshine are of a different kind - This is made apparent to the refined ones - Those not decieved by the seeming completeness of the ordinary world."

Rumi futher states:

"Out beyond ideas of right doing and wrong doing,there is a field. - I'll meet you there."

The Sufis then are searching precisely for this dimension, to escape from the boundries of this earh-plane and to free themselves once and for all from the shackles that bind them to this world of space and time.

The Sufi path:

The Sufi idea of evolution is on two levels,one is at a subconscious level,which is a natural process involving all forms of life-the other is a concious level which is dependent on one's own efforts.The first thing a would-be murid (aspirant) is advised to do is look for a Pir (Teacher) who will initiate him into the order that the Pir belongs to.There are many orders i.e Chistia,Nakashbandia,Shadilia,Suhrawardia,Qadirya etc.Different schools have their own rules and rituals-some schools are quite secretive and will not divulge any information unless you are initiated into their order.

An important facet of Sufism is the concept of Nafs or ego.This egoistic state has to be transcended or negated at some stage along the way if the aspirant is to reach the goal o desires.Another interesting aspect of Sufism is the concept of barakah or grace,this is a quality which probably is not present in the aspirant until he is well into the path.It is a gift and is given when aspirant is deemed ready to recieve it.However there are recorded instances where this 'grace' is bestowed freely upon a person who has not yet embarked on this journey.Once this grace is recieved the person is so enamoured by the sense of the new dimension which is present to his senses that it is only a matter of time before he starts his search to look for the higher Reality, and begins to look for a teacher to guide him towards the correct path to salvation.The need for a spiritual guide is stressed in almost all Sufi literature as being of primary importance.Without a guide the seeker is warned of the possibility of losing his way and going away.


In summation,love of God,love of human-kind and love of nature is taught by all mystics and these are the universal threads that link the mystics of the world together in a web.At the center is the Divine Reality and the different religions have woven a beautiful tapestry of poetry,prose and love around it.All ardent seekers have arrived at the center of this divine mystery,no matter from which point they started and all have poured out their very best;all the praise they were capable of ,with words and feelings that at times reached sublime heights of beauty and tenderness of this unfathomable source of love so gently and silently hidden in the deepest recesses of one's heart.