The word Sufi is derived from the Arabic word ‘suf’ which means ‘ wool ‘ and which refers to the coarse woolen robes that were worn by the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) and by his close companions. The goal of a Sufi is none other than God Himself. There are signs of God everywhere in the universe and in man himself.

The Sufis have pointed out useful things about Iblis. Let’s continue with some of their teachings. Let us quote shaykh Fariduddin ‘Attar who has written these lines in his “Mosibat Nama”(Book of Adversity), p. 63, for people looking for a Sufi teacher:

Gar to gu’i nist piri aashkaarTo talab kon dar hazaar andar hazaarZe aanke gar piri namaand dar jahaanNa zamin bar jaai maand na zamaanPir ham hast in zamaan penhaan shodaTang-e khalqaan dida dar kholqaan shoda

If you say: There is no pir openly to be seen,Then you should seek another thousand times.For if no pir would remain in the world,Then neither the earth nor time would remain in place.The pir exists even now, but he is hidden.Having seen the narrow-mindedness of the people,He is wearing worn-out clothes.

Shaykh ‘Azizuddin Nasafi speaks about the role of Iblis in this respect: “O, dervish! You will not find this wise man or this verifier of thetruth in mosques, preaching from the pulpit or reciting dhikr. You will not find him in the religious schools giving lessons, and you will not find him among the people of high office among the bookish people or among the idol worshippers. You will not find him in the Sufi centre prostrating himself with the people of fantasy and self-worshippers.

Out of these three places for worshipping God, there may be one person out of a thousand working for the sake of God”. ” O dervish! The wise man and the verifier of the truth, and the men of God are hidden and this hiddenness is their guardian, their club, their fortress, and their weapon. This is the reason why they are clean and pure. He that is not hidden is a plot and a trick of Satan”. O, dervish! Their exterior is like the exterior of the common people and their interior is like the interior of the elite. They don’t give access to any leader or chief and they have no claim to be a leader…They spend most of their time in retreat and seclusion, and they don’t enjoy interaction with this world. They are opposed to company with those of high position. If it is useful, they spend their time in association with the dear ones and the dervishes”.


Sufis Serving Love :- The truly virtuous are they who? give food — however great be their want of it — unto the needy, the orphan, and the captive, saying, in their hearts, “We feed you for the sake of God alone: we desire no recompense from you, nor thanks: behold, we stand in awe of our Sustainer…”

One of the traditional roles of the dervish lodge was as community kitchen and hostel, providing food and shelter for the poor and for travelers. Many early Sufis were “sons of the road,” wandering during the warm season, and relying on the grace of God and the spontaneous generosity of fellow Sufis for shelter and sustenance. Followers of other faiths also could count on such generosity, with no questions asked about their religion.

One who entertains dervishes will be compensated in paradise. Uthman Haruni

A kitchen in which meals were cooking around the clock was the hallmark of many Sufi saints. The great Chishti Shaikh Nizamuddin Auliya was known to entertain large groups of traveling dervishes — even thirty or more — for up to three days at a time. The three-day limit is in keeping with Muhammad’s counsel: “Hospitality extends for three days, and anything beyond that is charity.” Ibn Batuta enjoyed and documented such hospitality during his travels in the 14th century, as did Evliya Efendi in the 17th century.

The desire to share food was one basis for the development of communities — the Turkish word tekke referred to a refectory or dining hall long before it became exclusively identified with a Sufi establishment. With the development of orders and communities came a greater capacity to serve greater numbers; but no matter what its size, each Sufi center had lodgings reserved for guests, and a place of honor for them at the table.

The Persian word langar was synonymous with a soup kitchen and resting place for travelers, or a Sufi residence. Ahmed Uzgani’s largely mythical “History of the Uwaysis,” set in East Turkestan around 1600 CE, includes stories of Sufi saints who established langars and spent years in this way of service. Legend has it that the kitchen of one of them, Ghiyath al-Din of Shikarmat, was miraculously granted a limitless supply of fire and water. The many references to holy men and women engaged in such work reflect the great value attached to it, and the widespread presence of langars throughout Central Asia.

Abdul Qadir Gilani, pir of the Qadiri Order, was known as Ghauth al-‘Azam, “The Great Helper,” and was renowned for his charity. According to the Qadiris, he was ‘born of love, lived in a perfect way, and died having achieved the perfection of love.” One of his characteristics was generosity, and the tradition which he started of feeding the poor is perpetuated every year by his followers on his urs, the anniversary of his death. On the 11th day of Rabi’al-Thani, at his shrine in Baghdad and throughout the Muslim world, thousands of people gather at meetings and festivals to recite Qur’an, to honor the memory of Abdul Qadir Gilani, and to partake of the large quantities of food cooked and distributed in his honor.

Following the example of their founder, Muinuddin Chishti, Chishti khanqahs have always kept open kitchens and have provided vital services in public emergencies. In 1976, when monsoon floods destroyed many houses in Ajmer, India, the Chishti khanqah there fed and housed many of the homeless. For centuries the Ajmer Langar Khana has cooked and distributed twice daily a barley porridge, itself known as langar. In 1904 the Rajputana District Gazetteer reported:

Two maunds and six seers of grain (178 lbs.) with six seers of salt (13 lbs.) are cooked and distributed to all comers before daybreak in the morning, and the same quantity before five o’clock in the evening… Besides the 1,570 maunds of grain (65 tons) which are thus yearly consumed, 644 maunds (27 tons) are annually distributed to infirm women, widows, and other deserving persons at their own houses.
Rajputana District Gazetteer
From the 15th to the 19th centuries CE, the Ansari caretakers of the shrine of Ali in Balkh (now Mazar-i-Sharif, Afghanistan) offered to all comers a meal of bread and soup every Friday and Monday evening; and when they could afford it, sweets and fruit were set out after Friday and Monday evening prayers. The 16th Century Helveti Shaikh Ibrahim ibn Muhammad Gulshani established a dergah in Cairo which became widely known for its public offerings of food; its staff included a baker, a cook, and a “tablesetter for the poor.”

In Ottoman lands, the imaret was a public institution serving travelers, the needy, dervishes, and the keepers of the mosques. The public kitchens of the imarets and many of the Sufi tekkes and zawiyas (all of which had open kitchens) were supported by waqf, charitable foundations established by government, and by wealthy and prominent men and women. Support also came from private donations and from the dervish orders’ agricultural activities and industries. (For instance, for centuries the Bektashi Order controlled the most productive salt mines in the Ottoman Empire; the salt from those mines was called Hajji Bektash salt.) In the 16th century, the Istanbul imaret of Sultan Mehmed II Fatih prepared meals for over 1,100 people every day; its guest house accommodated up to 160 visitors at a time. Stores of cheese, cream and honey were earmarked for guests, and those fortunate enough to attend a banquet there were served special rice dishes such as dane and zerde.

Sufis have carried this tradition of service into modern times. Although Kemal Ataturk outlawed the Turkish dervish orders in 1925, in the 1930’s Mevlevi Shaikh Suleyman Loras was permitted to open the kitchen of a Mevlevi tekke in order to feed the poor. Three evenings a week the Karagumruk Helveti-Jerrahi dergah, located in a poor section of Istanbul, accommodates 500 or more diners. Many local community residents come for dinner and leave after the meal, to be replaced by others who come to participate in dhikr. The Jerrahi dergah in Spring Valley, New York, serves 125 or more diners every Saturday night, and even more — and more frequently — during the month of Ramadan. Once a month, community members directly distribute cooked meals, person to person, to local families in need.

In Rufai dergahs throughout Turkey, tables are routinely set for 200-250 people. During Muharram, the Tirana, Albania, Bektashi tekke prepares ashura, a pudding of legumes and dried fruits, for 600 people. Throughout the year at the Bawa Muhaiyaddeen Fellowship in Philadelphia, 50 to 200 people take their evening meal together every night.

In modern Egypt, offerings of food and hospitality are central to Sufi life. The Sufi center or saha offers meals and lodging to guests; some have enormous concrete tables accommodating one hundred of more diners at a sitting. At annual moulid observances honoring the anniversary of the death of Sufi saints, khidamat — hospitality stations — are set up in tents, at nearby buildings, or on simple cloths laid out upon the ground. Guests are offered food and drink, called nafha — a word with the dual meaning of “gift” and “fragrance.” Nafha must be accepted, for not only is it a gift of the heart, but it carries with it the baraka of the saint being honored. Poor people partake of nafha for its nourishment; poor and rich alike partake of nafha for its baraka.

Dervish hospitality in the grand manner was described by an American guest of the Shaikh of the Tripoli Mevlevi tekke in the 1920’s:

[The Shaikh] shouted welcome in French and Arabic as he came, embraced Dr. Dray like a grizzly bear, shook hands with me, deplored the hot weather, and led us to a terrace where he hoped there would be a little breeze…
We found ourselves[…] sipping a delicious pale-green liquid, mixed from freshly crushed white grapes and lime juice… The luncheon was an Arabian Nights feast of more than twenty courses and lasted for two hours. Whole roasted chickens, and chicken pilaf with rice, almonds, and raisins; lamb on skewers; lamb wrapped in grape leaves and cooked in olive oil, lamb stewed with eggplant; lamb cooked with peppercorns; delicious salads; cucumbers peeled at the table and eaten as we eat fruit; no less than six desserts, beginning with a great pan of custard, running the gamut of pastries with ground-up nuts and honey, to end at last with watermelons cooled in the fountain.
[…] through all the exuberance of his welcome, through the elaborate material luxury of our entertainment and his obvious whole-hearted enjoyment of the delicious food, I sensed continually that there was another side to this man and felt that his abundant physical vitality was not incompatible, perhaps, with powers which might be equally unusual in other directions. I had been told that he was a great mystic, and I was not prepared to doubt it on the superficial evidence.
William Seabrook
Six hundred years earlier, that Shaikh’s Pir had written:

Sufis waits for the fulfillment of their desires —
that’s why they eat so much!
But the Sufi who takes nourishment from the light of God
is free from the shame of begging.
Such Sufis are one in a thousand,
the rest live under their protection.

Both guest and host stand at the threshold between the known and the unknown worlds, between the mundane and the sacred. Whether the material setting be opulent or simple, the ultimate value of the relationship lies in the degree to which both are willing to reflect the divine qualities. The offering and acceptance of an invitation reflect the willingness of guest and host to render service and honor, to identify with each other, and to acknowledge that, in fact, there is no other. Knocking at the door, opening it in welcome, sharing company at the hearth, breaking bread in fellowship — these actions mirror the inner capacity for unconditional acceptance of the hospitality and sustenance God offers to all creatures. The epitome of such openness was depicted by the Hungarian traveler Arminius Vambery, who in 1862 was a guest in the tent of Allah Nazr, on the plateau to the north of Gomushtepe, Anatolia:

This old Turkoman was beside himself from joy that heaven had sent him guests; the recollection of that scene will never pass from my mind. In spite of our protestations to the contrary, he killed a goat, the only one which he possessed, to contribute to our entertainment. At a second meal, which we partook with him the next day, he found means to procure bread also, an article that had not been seen for weeks in his dwelling. While we attacked the dish of meat, he seated himself opposite to us, and wept, in the exactest sense of the expression, tears of joy. Allah Nazr would not retain any part of the goat he had killed in honor of us. The horns and hoofs, which were burned to ashes, and were to be employed for the galled places on the camels, he gave to Ilias; but the skin, stripped off in one piece, he destined to serve as my water-vessel, and after having well rubbed it with salt, and dried it in the sun, he handed it over to me.
Arminius Vambery
Whether he wore the robes of a Bektashi or not, it is clear that Allah Nazr understood the words of Hajji Bektash:

This is the state of the world: those who come shall pass away. Serve thou also. Lay out the meal. If you need help, seek it in generosity. When the people wanted courage and a miracle from ‘Ali, he commanded Kanbar, saying, “Lay on the meal.” Let all who would enter the tariqat and wear its dress seek out a traveler and serve him.
Hajji Bektash Veli


The origin and essence of man
Man is the mystery of God. For a mysterious purpose, man was outwardly created of clay and God breathed life into him, and all of the angels were commanded to prostrate themselves before him. As the Qur’an, which we believe is the highest form of revelation, declares:
“And remember when thy Lord said unto the angels: Lo I am creating a mortal out of potter’s clay. So when I have made him and shaped him and have breathed into him of My Spirit, do ye fall down prostrating yourself unto him.”

Sufism is a mystic tradition of Islam encompassing a diverse range of beliefs and practices dedicated to Allah/God, divine love and sometimes to helping fellow man. Tariqas (Sufi orders) may be associated with Shi’a Islam, Sunni Islam, other currents of Islam, or a combination of multiple traditions. It has been suggested that Sufi thought emerged from the Middle East in the eighth century, but adherents are now found around the world. Some Sufis have also claimed that Sufism pre-dates Islam and some groups operate with only very tenuous links to Islam.

The Qur’anic roots of Sufism
Sufism really has its roots in the Qur’an itself and in the religious experience of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh). The preliminary signs of revelation were given to the Prophet (pbuh) in the form of visions and the Prophet (pbuh) deliberately sought solitude until the book of his heart, which was pure and unspoiled by schoolmen, was opened and the Divine Pen engraved upon it the revelation, the Qur’an.

The Sufi’s knowledge of God comes from the Qur’an directly. And in spite of the Sufi’s proximity to God, the undisputed basis of their direct experience of God has always been the Qur’an. The Qur’an contains instructions suitable to man with varying levels of spirituality. It satisfies those who are content with merely exoteric practices, but also contains the deepest and most profound esoteric meaning for those who desire a closer, more mystical relationship with God.

The Qur’anic verses which are the favourites of the Sufis include:
“We [God] are closer to him [man] than his jugular vein.” “Say, surely we belong to God and to Him do we return.” “He is the First and the Last and the Manifest and the Hidden.” “God is the light of the heavens and the earth.”
Such verses are limitless in their depth, scope and meaning, and man may draw from them as much mystical meaning as he has the capacity to understand.

God says in the Qur’an that God sent His Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) first and foremost as a Mercy unto all peoples. And men of different levels of spiritual understanding may avail themselves of this Mercy according to their various capacities.

The Prophet (pbuh) and his close associates never stopped at merely observing the minimum requirement in regard to prayer and devotional practices. All through his life, the Prophet (pbuh) kept long night vigils and practised voluntary fasts during most days. He never ate barley bread (the staple food of his day) on three consecutive days, and he never even touched a loaf of wheat bread — which was a luxury. One of his favourite sayings was “Poverty is my pride,” and this saying came to be quoted in every manual of Sufi doctrine, making the rule of poverty a basic characteristic of Sufi life.

Basic beliefs

The exact form of the basic beliefs depends on the Sufi School or current in question. While there are significant variations in approach among them, the underlying concepts remain similar.

Sufis believe that love is a projection of the essence of God to the universe.

The central doctrine of Sufism, sometimes called Wahdat or Unity, is the understanding of Tawhid: all phenomena are manifestations of a single reality, or Wujud (being), or al-Haq (Truth, God). The essence of being/Truth/God is devoid of every form and quality, and hence unmanifested, yet it is inseparable from every form and phenomenon either material or spiritual. It is often understood to imply that every phenomenon is an aspect of Truth and at the same time attribution of existence to it is false. The chief aim of all Sufis then is to let go of all notions of duality, therefore the individual self also, and realize the divine unity.

Sufis teach in personal groups, as the interaction of the master is considered necessary for the growth of the pupil. They make extensive use of parable, allegory, and metaphor, and it is held by Sufis that meaning can only be reached through a process of seeking the truth, and knowledge of oneself. Although philosophies vary between different Sufi orders.

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 significant part of Persian literature comes from the Sufis, who created great books of poetry (which include for example the Walled Garden of Truth, Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, the Conference of the Birds and the Masnavi), all of which contain teachings of the Sufis.

Sufi Poetry

Sufism has produced a large body of poetry in Arabic, Turkish, Persian, Kurdish, Urdu, Punjabi, Sindhi, which notably includes the works of Jalal al-Din Muhammad Rumi, Farid Ud-Din Attar, Abdul Qader Bedil, Bulleh Shah, Amir Khusro, Shah Abdul Latif Bhittai, Sachal Sarmast, Sultan Bahu, as well as numerous traditions of devotional dance, such as Sufi whirling, and music, such as Qawwali.

History of Sufism

The history of Sufism can be divided into the following principal periods:


The history and methodology of Sufism
Sufism is an esoteric doctrine transmitted by word of mouth, and sometimes without even a spoken or written word, by an authorized teacher to a disciple, and from disciple to another disciple, in confidence. These secret instructions are acted upon by a disciple with perfect faith in the teacher. The disciple gives a report of his condition and experience in confidence to his teacher and receives another set of instructions most suitable to his state.

It is only the writings of the Sufi teachers, who speak from within the tradition, that allow an outsider a glimpse of the inner beauty of Sufism. One of the greatest scholars of all times was al-Ghazzali. He lived in the later eleventh and early twelfth centuries. He wrote his famous work The Revival of the Sciences of Religion in Arabic, with an abridged form, The Alchemy of Happiness, in Persian. These works were followed by the other writings and poetry by such Sufi teachers as Abdul-Karim al-Jili, Ibn Arabi, Suhrawardi, the famous Chishti saints, Hafiz, Sadi, Rumi and so many other Sufi poets.

At the same time there was an immense upsurge of open Sufi activity under the auspices of different Sufi orders in all parts of the Islamic world. Each Sufi order constituted a focal point of activity, from which Sufi teachings were carried to the mass of the population by the representatives of the head of the order. The Sufi organizations constituted the social cement of the society in which they lived. Because of the strength of this social cement, Islamic civilization was able not only to withstand the many political upheavals of this period, but it also acted as a civilizing influence on the powers that were responsible for these upheavals.


The conventional view is that the word originates from Suf (صوف), the Arabic word for wool, referring to the simple cloaks the early Muslim ascetics wore. However, not all sufis wear cloaks or clothes of wool. Another etymological theory states that the root word of Sufi is the Arabic word safa (صفا), meaning purity. This places the emphasis of Sufism on purity of heart and soul.

Others suggest the origin is from “Ashab al-Suffa” (“Companions of the Veranda”) or “Ahl al-Suffa” (“People of the Veranda”), who were a group of Muslims during the time of the Prophet Muhammad who spent much of their time on the veranda of the Prophet’s Masjid devoted to prayer.

Yet another etymology, advanced by the 10th century author Al-Biruni is that the word, as ‘Sufiya’, is linked with the Greek term for ‘Wisdom’ – ‘Sophia’, although for various reasons this derivation is not accepted by many at the present.

The Great masters of Sufism

The Sufis dispersed throughout the Middle East, particularly in the areas previously under Byzantine influence and control. This period was characterised by the practice of an apprentice (murid) placing himself under the spiritual direction of a Master (shaykh or pir).

Schools were developed, concerning themselves with the topics of mystical experience, education of the heart to rid itself of baser instincts, the love of God, and approaching God through progressive stages (maqaam) and states (haal). The schools were formed by reformers who felt their core values and manners had disappeared in a society marked by material prosperity that they saw as eroding the spiritual life.

Uwais al-Qarni, Harrm Bin Hian, Hasan Ul-Basri and Sayid Ibn Ul Mussib are regarded as the first mystics among the “Taabi’een” in Islam. Rabia was a female Sufi and known for her love and passion for God. Junayd was among the first theorist of Sufism; he concerned himself with ‘fanaa’ and ‘baqaa’, the state of annihilating the self in the presence of the divine, accompanied by clarity concerning wordly phenomena.

Formalization of philosophies of Sufism

Al Ghazali’s treatises, the “Reconstruction of Religious Sciences” and the “Alchemy of Happiness,” argued that Sufism originated from the Qur’an making it compatible with mainstream Islamic thought and theology. It was around 1000 CE that the early Sufi literature, in the form of manuals, treatises, discourses and poetry, became the source of Sufi thinking and meditations.

Propagation of Sufism

Sufism, during 1200-1500 CE, experienced an era of increased activity in various parts of the Islamic world. This period is considered as the “Classical Period” or the “Golden Age” of Sufism. Lodges and hospices soon became not only places to house Sufi students, but also places for practising Sufis and other mystics to stay and retreat.

The propagation of Sufism started from its origin in Baghdad, Iraq, and spread to Persia, Pakistan, North Africa, and Muslim Spain. There were tests of conciliation between Sufism and the other Islamic sciences (sharia, fiqh, etc.), as well as the beginning of the Sufi brotherhoods (turuq).

One of the first orders to originate was the Yasawi order, named after Khwajah Ahmed Yesevi in modern Kazakhstan. The Kubrawiya order, originating in Central Asia, was named after Najmeddin Kubra, known as the “saint-producing shaykh” , since a number of his disciples became shaykhs. The most prominent Sufi master of this era is Abdul Qadir Jilani, the founder of the Qadiriyyah order in Iraq. Others included Rumi, founder of the Mevlevi order in Turkey, Sahabuddin Suharwardi in Asia minor, and Moinuddin Chishti in India.


A number of scholars perceive influences on Sufism from pre-Islamic and non-Islamic schools of mysticism and philosophy. Some of these new perspectives originate from the synthesis of Persian civilization with Islam, an emphasis on spiritual aspects of Islam, and the incorporation of ideas and practices from other mysticisms such as Gnosticism, Judaism, and Hinduism into Islam . There are also claims regarding ancient Egyptian roots of Sufism which are not widely accepted.

Sufi concepts

The Six Subtleties

Drawing from Qur’anic verses, virtually all Sufis distinguish Lataif-e-Sitta (The Six Subtleties), Nafs, Qalb, Ruh, Sirr, Khafi & Akhfa. These lataif (singular : latifa) designate various psychospiritual “organs” or, faculties of sensory perception.

Sufic development involves the awakening of these spiritual centers of perception that lie dormant in an individual. Each center is associated with a particular colour and general area of the body, ofttimes with a particular prophet, and varies from Order to Order. The help of a guide is considered necessary to help activate these centers. After undergoing this process, the dervish is said to reach a certain type of “completion.”

Man gets acquainted with the lataif one by one by Muraqaba (Sufi Meditation), Dhikr (Remembrance of God) and purification of one’s psyche from negative thoughts, emotions, and actions. Loving God and one’s fellow, irrespective of his race, religion or nationality, and without consideration for any possible reward, is the key to ascension according to Sufis.

These six “organs” or faculties: Nafs, Qalb, Ruh, Sirr, Khafi & Akhfa, and the purificative activities applied to them, contain the basic orthodox Sufi philosophy. The purification of the 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), and completion of journey with purification of the last two faculties, Khafi & Akhfa. Through these “organs” or faculties and the transformative results from their activation, the basic Sufi psychology is outlined and bears some resemblance to the schemata of kabbalah and the tantric chakra system.

Sufi cosmology

Although there is no consensus with regard to Sufi cosmology, one can disentangle 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 Sufis like Ibn al-Arabi, and Hermetic-Ptolemaic spherical geocentric world. All these doctrines (each one of them claiming to be impeccably orthodox) were freely mixed and juxtaposed, frequently with confusing results – a situation one also encounters in other esoteric doctrines.

Sufi practices


Tamarkoz or Muraqaba is the word used by many Sufis when referring to the practice of meditation. The Arabic word literally means observe, guard or control one’s thoughts and desires. In some Sufi orders, muraqaba may involve concentrating one’s mind on the names of God, on a verse of the Qur’an, or on certain Arabic letters that have special significance. Muraqaba in other orders may involve the Sufi aspirant focusing on his or her murshid, while others (such as the Azeemia order) imagine certain colors to achieve different spiritual states.


Dhikr (Zekr) is the remembrance of God commanded in the Qur’an for all Muslims. To engage in dhikr is to have awareness of God according to Islam. Dhikr as a devotional act includes the repetition of divine names, supplications and aphorisms from hadith literature, and sections of the Qur’an. More generally, any activity in which the Muslim maintains awareness of God is considered dhikr.

It is interesting to note that the practice of Muraqaba and Dhikr have very close resemblence with the practices of the Jewish mystics. Muraqaba is very similar to the Merkavah practice, which is one of the meditations used by Kabbalists to attain higher states of consciousness. Kabbalists also use a practice called Zakhor which in Hebrew literally means remembrance. Zakhor serves the same purpose in Kabbalah as Dhikr serves in Sufism. Another thing to notice here is that there is not only similarity in practice but also a strong similarity in the spelling and sounding of the words in Sufism and Kabbalah. This may imply that the Sufi mystical system has its origins in Judaism and its mystical tradition the Kabbalah.

Some Sufi orders engage in ritualized dhikr ceremonies, the liturgy of which may include recitation, singing, instrumental music, dance, costumes, incense, meditation, ecstasy, and trance. (Touma 1996, p.162).


Hadhra is a dance associated with dhikr practiced primarily in the Arab world. The word Hadhra means Presence in Arabic. Sometimes the sufi songs, or dances are performed as an appeal for the Presence of God, his prophets, and angels.


Qawwali is a form of devotional Sufi music common in Pakistan, North India, Afganistan, Iran and Turkey. It is known for its secular strains. Some of its modern-day masters have included Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and the Sabri Brothers.

SamaSama or Sema’ (Arabic “listening”) refers to Sufi worship practices involving music and dance (see Sufi whirling). In Uyghur culture, this includes a dance form also originally associated with Sufi ritual. See Qawwali origins and Origin and History of the Qawwali, Adam Nayyar, Lok Virsa Research Centre, Islamabad, 1988.


Khalwa refers to a form of retreat, once widespread but now less common. A khalwa may be prescribed by the shaykh (spiritual advisor) of the murid or talib (student). Muslims believe that most of the prophets, and also Maryam (Mary) the mother of Issa (Jesus), lived in some form of seclusion at some point in their life. Muhammad, for example, used to retreat to the cave where he received his first inspiration – but had been going there for many years prior to his meeting with the angel Gabriel. Similar examples include Moses’ going into seclusion for 40 days in a cave in Mt. Sinai. Mary was in seclusion in the Jewish temple for a year, where only Zakariya was permitted to see her.

Orders of Sufism

Traditional orders

The traditional Sufi orders emphasize the role of Sufism within Islam. Therefore the Sharia (traditional Islamic law) and the Sunnah (customs of the Prophet) are seen as crucial for any Sufi aspirant. Among the oldest and most well known of the Sufi orders are the Qadiri, Chisti, Oveyssi, Shadhili, Jerrahi, Naqshbandi, Nimatullahi, Mevlevi and the Ashrafi. One proof traditional orders assert is that almost all the famous Sufi masters of the Islamic Caliphate times were also experts in Sharia and were renowned as people with great Iman (faith) and excellent practice. Many were also Qadis (Sharia law judges) in courts. They held that Sufism was never distinct from Islam and to fully comprehend and live correct with Sufism one must be a practicing Muslim obeying the Sharia.

Non-traditional Sufi groups

In recent decades there has been a growth of non-traditional Sufi movements in the West. Some examples are Universal Sufism movement, the Mevlevi Order of America, the Golden Sufi Center, the Sufi Foundation of America, and Sufism Reoriented.

Universal Sufism

Mainstream Sufism is seen by its scholars and supporters as a part of traditional Islam. However, there is a major line of non-Islamic or offshoot-Islamic Sufi thought that sees Sufism as predating Islam and being a universal philosophy, that is independent of the Qur’an and the teachings of Prophet Muhammad. This view of Sufism has been popular in the Western world, and the terms yogi and sufi are used interchangeably. Universal Sufism tends to be opposed by traditional Sufis, who argue that Sufism has always been practiced from within an Islamic framework and can never be separated from it. Inayat Khan founded Universal Sufism whilst also maintaining his lineage in Chisti sufism, and Idries Shah advocated similar concepts. Irina Tweedie and Abdullah Dougan also taught outside the Islamic context while maintaining the connection to their Naqshbandi heritage.

There is also an attempt to reconsider Sufism in contemporary Muslim thought from within. According to this view, Sufism represents the core sense of Islam that gives insight to God and His creation.

Traditional Islamic schools of thought and Sufism

Islam traditionally consists of a number of groups. The two main divisions are the Sunnis and the Shia. Sunni Islam consists of a number of schools of legal jurisprudence (called Madhabs). Sufis do not define Sufism as a madhhab – what distinguishes a person as a Sufi is practicing Sufism, usually through association with a Sufi order. Belief in Sufism is not sufficient for being recognized as a Sufi. Classic Sufi tariqas insist on adherence to one of the four Madhabs of Fiqh and one of the two orthodox schools of Aqida. In this sense, traditional practicers of Sufism don’t see it as an exclusive group but just as a form of training necessary to cultivate spirituality and Ihsan in their lives.

The relationship between traditional Islamic scholars and Sufism is complicated due to the variety of Sufi orders and their history.

According to the followers of Sufism, the founders and early scholars of the schools (madhhabs) had positive attitudes towards Sufism, for example Imam Ibn Hambal used to visit the Sufi master Bishr al Hafi frequently. Later, there were some scholars who considered some aspects of Sufism rank heresy as well as those like Al-Ghazali who defended Sufis as true Muslims. In time, even the controversial words of Al-Hallaj came to be accepted by some scholars.

Today, many Islamic scholars (though not all) hold Tasawwuf, in the sense of Sufi doctrines and philosophies, to be the science of the heart or gnosis (as distinct from other branches of Islamic knowledge which are exoteric in nature) and appreciate Sufis for their extensive contributions to Islamic arts and philosophy. Many Muslims who are not themselves Sufis are influenced by Sufi teachings.

Here are the views of some famous scholars about Sufism.

Imam Abu Hanifa (85 H. – 150 H) “If it were not for two years, I would have perished.” He said, “for two years I accompanied Sayyidina Ja’far as-Sadiq and I acquired the spiritual knowledge that made me a gnostic in the Way.” [Ad-Durr al-Mukhtar, vol 1. p. 43]

Imam Malik (95 H. – 179 H.) “whoever studies Jurisprudence (tafaqaha) and didn’t study Sufism [tasawwafa] will be corrupted; and whoever studied Sufism and didn’t study Jurisprudence will become a heretic; and whoever combined both will be reach the Truth.” [the scholar’Ali al-Adawi , vol. 2, p 195.)

Imam Shafi’i (150 – 205 AH.) “I accompanied the Sufi people and I received from them three knowledges: … how to speak; .. how to treat people withleniency and a soft heart… and they… guided me in the ways of Sufism.” [Kashf al-Khafa, ‘Ajluni, vol. 1, p 341.]

Imam Ahmad bin Hanbal (164 – 241 AH.) “O my son, you have to sit with the People of Sufism, because they are like a fountain of knowledge and they keep the Remembrance of Allah in their hearts. they are the ascetics and they have the most spiritual power.” [Tanwir al-Qulub p. 405]

Imam Nawawi (620 – 676 AH.) “The specifications of the Way of the Sufis are … to keep the Presence of Allah in your heart in public and in private; to follow the Sunnah of the Prophet (s) … to be happy with what Allah gave you…”[in his Letters, (Maqasid at-tawhid), p. 201]

Ibn Khaldun (733 – 808 AH.) “The way of the Sufis is the way of the Salaf, the preceding Scholars between the Sahaba and Tabi’een of those who followed good guidance…” [Muqaddimat ibn al-Khaldun, p. 328]

Tajuddin as-Subki (727 – 771 AH.) “May Allah praise them [the Sufis] and greet them and may Allah cause us to be with them in Paradise. Too many things havebeen said about them and too many ignorant people have said things which are not related to them. And the truth is that those people left the world and were busy with worship. … They are the People of Allah, whose supplications and player Allah accepts and by means of whom Allah supports human beings” [Mu’eed an-Na’am p. 190, the chapter entitled Tasawwufl

Jalaluddin as-Suyuti (849 – 911 AH.) “At-Tasawwuf in itself is the best and most honorable knowledge. It explains how to follow the Sunnah of the Prophet (s) and to put aside innovation.” [Ta’yid al-Haqiqat al-‘Aiiyya,p 57]

lbn Qayyim (691 – 751 AH.) “We can witness the greatness of the People of Sufism, in the eyes of the earliest generations of Muslims by what has been mentioned by Sufyan ath-Thawri (d. 161 AH), one of the greatest imams of the second century and one of the foremost legal scholars. He said, “If it had not been for Abu Hisham as-Sufi (d. 115) 1 would never have perceived the action of the subtlest forms of hypocrisy in the self… Among the best of people is the Sufi learned in jurisprudence.” [Manazil as-Sa’ireen.]

Abdullah ibn Muhammad ibn Abdul Wahhab (1115 – 1201 AH.) “My father Muhammad ibn Abdul Wahhab and I do not deny or criticize the science of Sufism, but on the contrary we support it, because it purifies the external and the internal of the hidden sins, which are related to the heart and to the outward form. Even though the individual might externally be on the right way, internally he might be on the wrong way. Sufism is necessary to correct it.” [ad-Dia’at mukathaffa did ash-Shaykh Ibn Abdul Wahhab,p.85 ]

Ibn ‘Abidin (1198 – 1252 AH.) “the Seekers in this Sufi Way don’t hear except from the Divine Presence and they don’t love any but Him. If they remember Him they cry, and if they thank Him they are happy; … May Allah bless them.” [Risa’il Ibn’Abidin p. 172 & 173]

Muhammad ‘Abduh (1265 – 1323 AH.) “Tasawwuf appeared in the first century of Islam and it received a tremendous honor. It purified the self and straightened the conduct and gave knowledge to people from the Wisdom and Secrets of the Divine Presence.” (Majallat al-Muslim, 6th ed. 1378 H, p. 24].

Abul Hasan ‘Ali an-Nadawi (1331 AH b.) “These Sufis were initiating people on Oneness and sincerity in following the Sunnah of the Prophet (s) and to repent from theirsins and to be away from every disobedience of Allah ‘Azza wa Jail. Their guides were encouraging them to move in the way of perfect Love to Allah ‘Azza wa Jail. “…In Calcutta India, everyday more than 1000 people were taking initiation into Sufism. “…by the influence of these Sufi people, thousands and thousands and hundreds of thousands in India found their Lord and reached a state of Perfection through the Islamic religion.”[Muslit-ns in India, p. 140-146]

Controversy and criticism of Sufism

Sufism is a somewhat controversial subject today. For didactic convenience, the perspectives on Sufism as a part of Islam will be mentioned first and after that, the non Muslim groups who claim to be Sufi adherents.

Classic position on Sufism

Sufism was traditionally considered the systematisation of the spiritual component of Islam. It dealt with matters of the heart (just as Fiqh dealt with the body and Aqida dealt with the intellect). Many of the greatest Islamic scholars wrote treatises on the subject (eg. Al-Ghazali’s ihya ulum-aldeen (····· ···· ·····), Imam Nawawi’s Bustan al-Arifeen etc.). Many of the traditional scholars who were part of famous Islamic institutions (eg. Al-Azhar) like Ibn Ata’illah were Sufi masters. Even today, many of the traditional Islamic universities like Al-Azhar endorse Sufism as a part of the religion of Islam. Many of the famous Islamic scholars have praised Sufis and their practices. For a list, please refer to scholars on Sufism.

However, Sufism emphasises non quantifiable matters (like states of the heart). The authors of various Sufi treatises often used allegorical language which couldn’t be read by an unknowledgeable person to describe these states (eg. likened some states to intoxication which is forbidden in Islam). This usage of indirect language and the existence of interpretations by people who had no training in Islam or Sufism led to doubts being cast over the validity of Sufism as a part of Islam. Also, some groups emerged that considered themselves above the Sharia and discussed Sufism as a method of bypassing the rules of Islam in order to attain salvation directly. This was disapproved of by traditional scholars. An example of such a deviant sufi was Abu Hilman. One of the most vocal critics of such deviations from the Islamic creed was Ibn Taymiya.

For a detailed essay on the role that Sufism plays in traditional Islam, please refer Place of Tasawwuf in traditional Islam.

Criticism of Sufism

The adherents of the Salafi school form the majority of Muslims opposed to Tasawwuf. They hold that Sufism was always held to be an innovation even by the earliest scholars. Some of their main criticisms are listed below.S

ufi masters have introduced many special prayers and devotional acts into their schools. These are criticised as being reprehensible innovations which are at best unnecessary. The supporters of Sufism defend their position by saying that innovations can be classified into good and bad ones. They hold that the textually transmitted prayers and invocations are superior in all respects to the ones they institute and that the latter only plays a reinforcing role rather than a main one.

Some point to certain practices like singing being inconsistent with the Sharia. Sufis defend their position by quoting prophetic traditions that condone certain forms of non instrumental music (refer links above).

The allegorical and often abstruse language used by Sufis in their texts when interpreted by unqualified people opens avenues for many misunderstandings. eg. The concept of divine unity Wahdat-ul-wujood which critics consider equivalent to pantheism and therefore incompatible with Islam. Sufi masters in many of their introductory texts caution aspirants from reading and interpreting texts by themselves. They hold that the subject can only be taught by a master to a student under strict guidance and supervision owing to its delicate nature.

Islamic positions on non Islamic Sufi groups

The use of the title Sufi by many groups to refer to themselves and their use of traditional Sufi masters (notably Jalaluddin Rumi) as sources of inspiration as well as the existence of interpretations of classical Sufis texts by people who have no grounding in traditional Islamic sciences has created a group of non-Islamic Sufis. These are considered by certain conventional Islamic scholars as “beyond the pale” of the religion. However, Sufis are often encouraged to observe a higher degree of forebearance. Some Sufi Sheikhs, although having been initiated in an Islamic setting themselves, have gone on to teach more widely and to make it clear that students of Sufism need not formally embrace Islam