What Is Sufism?

Sufism (tasawwuf) is the path followed by Sufis to reach the Truth—God. While Sufism usually expresses the theoretical or philosophical aspect of this search, the practical aspect is usually referred to as “being a dervish.”

What is Sufism?

Sufism has been defined in many ways. Some see it as the annihilation of the individual’s ego, will, and self centeredness by God and the subsequent spiritual revival with the light of His Essence.1 Such a transformation results in the direction of the individual’s will by God in accordance with His Will. Others view it as a continuous striving to cleanse one’s self of all that is bad or evil in order to acquire virtue.

Junayd al-Baghdadi, a famous Sufi master, defines Sufism as a method associated with “self-annihilation in God” and “permanence or subsistence with God.” Shibli summarizes it as always being together with God or in His presence, so that no worldly or otherworldly aim is even entertained. Abu Muhammad Jarir describes Sufism as resisting the temptations of the carnal, (evil-commanding) self (nafs al-ammara) and evil qualities, and acquiring laudable moral qualities.

Whirling darwish

Whirling Darwish

There are some who describe Sufism as seeing behind the “outer” or surface appearance of things and events, and interpreting whatever happens in the world in relation to God. This means that a person regards every act of God as a window through which to “see” Him, and lives his life as a continuous effort to view or “see” Him with a profound, spiritual “seeing,” indescribable in physical terms, and with a profound awareness of being continually overseen by Him.

All of these definitions can be summarized as follows: Sufism is the path followed by an individual who, having been able to free himself or herself from human vices and weaknesses in order to acquire angelic qualities and conduct pleasing to God, lives in accordance with the requirements of God’s knowledge and love, and in the resulting spiritual delight that ensues.

Sufism is based on observing even the most “trivial” rules of the Shari‘a2 in order to penetrate their inner meaning. An initiate or traveler on the path (salik) never separates the outer observance of the Shari‘a from its inner dimension, and therefore observes all of the requirements of both the outer and the inner dimensions of Islam. Through such observance, the traveler heads toward the goal in utmost humility and submission.

Sufism, a demanding path that leads to knowledge of God, has no room for negligence or frivolity. It requires the initiate to strive continuously, like a honeybee flying from hive to flowers and from flowers to hive, to acquire this knowledge. The initiate should purify his or her heart from all other attachments; resist all carnal inclinations, desires, and appetites; and live in a manner reflecting the knowledge with which God has revived and illumined his or her heart, always ready to receive divine blessing and inspiration; as well as in strict observance of the Prophet Muhammad’s example. Convinced that attachment and adherence to God is the greatest merit and honor, the initiate should renounce his or her own desires for the demands of God, the Truth.

After these (preliminary) definitions, we should discuss the aim, benefits, and principles of Sufism.

A Mughal miniature dated from the early 1620s depicting the Mughal emperor Jahangir (d. 1627) preferring an audience with Sufi saint to his contemporaries, the Ottoman Sultan and the King of England James I (d. 1625); the picture is inscribed in Persian: "Though outwardly shahs stand before him, he fixes his gazes on dervishes."

A Mughal miniature dated from the early 1620s depicting the Mughal emperor Jahangir (d. 1627) preferring an audience with Sufi saint to his contemporaries, the Ottoman Sultan and the King of England James I (d. 1625); the picture is inscribed in Persian: “Though outwardly shahs stand before him, he fixes his gazes on dervishes.”

Sufism requires the strict observance of all religious obligations, an austere lifestyle, and the renunciation of carnal desires. Through this method of spiritual self-discipline, the individual’s heart is purified and his or her senses and faculties are employed in the way of God, which means that the traveler can now begin to live on a spiritual level.

Sufism also enables individuals, through the constant worship of God, to deepen their awareness of themselves as devotees of God. Through the renunciation of this transient, material world, as well as the desires and emotions it engenders, they awaken to the reality of the other world, which is turned toward the Beautiful Divine Names of God.3 Sufism allows individuals to develop the moral dimension of one’s existence, and enables the acquisition of a strong, heartfelt, and personally experienced conviction of the articles of faith that before had only been accepted superficially.

The principles of Sufism may be listed as follows:

  • Reaching true belief in God’s Divine Oneness and living in accordance with its demands.
  • Heeding the Divine Speech (the Qur’an), discerning and then obeying the commands of the Divine Power and Will as they relate to the universe (the laws of creation and life).
  • Overflowing with Divine Love and getting along with all other beings in the realization (originating from Divine Love) that the world is the cradle of brotherhood and sisterhood.
  • Giving preference or precedence to the well-being and hap­piness of others.
  • Acting in accordance with the demands of the Divine Will—not with the demands of our own will—and living in a manner that reflects our self-annihilation in God and subsistence with Him.
  • Being open to love, spiritual yearning, delight, and ecstasy.
  • Being able to discern what is in the hearts or minds of oth­ers through facial expressions and the inner, Divine mysteries and the meanings of surface events.
  • Visiting spiritual places and associating with people who encourage the avoidance of sin and striving in the way of God.
  • Being content with religiously permitted pleasures, and not taking even a single step toward that which is not permitted.
  • Struggling continuously against worldly ambitions and illusions, which lead us to believe that this world is eternal.
  • Never forgetting that salvation is possible only through certainty of or conviction in the truth of religious beliefs and conduct, sincerity or purity of intention, and the sole desire to please God.

Two other elements may be added: acquiring knowledge and understanding of the religious and Gnostic sciences, and following a perfected, spiritual master’s guidance. Both of these are of considerable significance in the Naqshbandiyah Sufi order.

It may be useful to discuss Sufism according to the following basic concepts, which often form the core of books written on good morals, manners, and asceticism, and which are viewed as the sites of the “Muhammadan Truth”4 in one’s heart. They can also be considered as lights by which to know and follow the spiritual path leading to God.

The first and foremost of these concepts is wakefulness (yaqa­za), which is alluded to in the Prophetic saying (Hadith): My eyes sleep but my heart does not, and in the saying of ‘Ali, the fourth Caliph: Men are asleep. They wake up when they die. The many other stages on this path will be discussed, at some length, in this book.

Maṭnawīye Ma'nawī Mevlâna Museum, Konya, Turkey

Maṭnawīye Ma’nawī Mevlâna Museum, Konya, Turkey

The Origin of Sufism

As the history of Islamic religious sciences tells us, religious commandments were not written down during the early days of Islam; rather, the practice and oral circulation of commandments related to belief, worship, and daily life led the people to memorize them.

Thus it was easy to compile these in books later on, for what had been memorized and practiced was simply written down. In addition, since religious commandments were the vital issues in a Muslim’s individual and collective life, scholars gave priority to these and compiled books. Legal scholars collected and codified books on Islamic law and its rules and principles pertaining to all fields of life. Traditionists5 established the Prophetic traditions (Hadiths) and way of life (Sunna), and preserved them in books. Theologians dealt with issues concerning Muslim belief. Interpreters of the Qur’an dedicated themselves to studying its meaning, including issues that would later be called “Qur’anic sciences,” such as naskh (abrogation of a law), inzal (God’s sending down the entire Qur’an at one time), tanzil (God’s sending down the Qur’an in parts on different occasions), qira’at (Qur’anic recitation), ta’wil (exegesis), and others.

Thanks to these efforts that remain universally appreciated in the Muslim world, the truths and principles of Islam were established in such a way that their authenticity cannot be doubted.

While some scholars were engaged in these “outer” activities, Sufi masters were mostly concentrating on the pure spiritual dimension of the Muhammadan Truth. They sought to reveal the essence of humanity’s being, the real nature of existence, and the inner dynamics of humanity and the cosmos by calling attention to the reality of that which lies beneath and beyond their outer dimension. Adding to Qur’anic commentaries, narrations of Traditionists, and deductions of legal scholars, Sufi masters developed their ways through asceticism, spirituality, and self-purification—in short, their practice and experience of religion.

Thus the Islamic spiritual life, based on asceticism, regular worship, abstention from all major and minor sins, sincerity and purity of intention, love and yearning, and the individual’s admission of his or her essential impotence and destitution became the subject matter of Sufism, a new science possessing its own method, principles, rules, and terminology. Even if various differences gradually emerged among the orders that later were established, it can be said that the basic core of this science has always been the essence of the Muhammadan Truth.

The two aspects of the same truth—the commandments of the Shari‘a and Sufism—have sometimes been presented as mutually exclusive. This is quite unfortunate, as Sufism is nothing more than the spirit of the Shari‘a, which is made up of austerity, self-control and criticism, and the continuous struggle to resist the temptations of Satan and the evil-commanding self in order to fulfill religious obligations.6 While adhering to the former has been regarded as ex­otericism (self-restriction to Islam’s outer dimension), following the latter has been seen as pure esotericism. Although this discrimination arises partly from assertions that the commandments of the Shari‘a are represented by legal scholars or muftis, and the other by Sufis, it should be viewed more as the result of the natural, human tendency of assigning priority to that way which is most suitable for the individual practitioner.

Many legal scholars, Traditionists, and interpreters of the Qur’an produced important books based on the Qur’an and the Sunna. The Sufis, following methods dating back to the time of the Prophet and his Companions, also compiled books on austerity and spiritual struggle against carnal desires and temptations, as well as states and stations of the spirit. They also recorded their own spiritual experiences, love, ardor, and rapture. The goal of such literature was to attract the attention of those people who the Sufis regarded as having restricted their practice and reflection to the “outer” dimension of religion, and to direct their attention to the “inner” dimension of religious life.

Both Sufis and scholars sought to reach God by observing the Divine obligations and prohibitions. Nevertheless, some extremist attitudes—occasionally observed on both sides—caused disagreements. Actually, there was no substantial disagreement, and such conflicts should not have been viewed as disagreements, for they only involved dealing with different aspects and elements of religion under different titles. The tendency of specialists in jurisprudence to concern themselves with the rules of worship and daily life and how to regulate and discipline individual and social life, while Sufis chose to provide a way to live at a high level of spirituality through self-purification and spiritual training, cannot be considered a disagreement.

In fact, Sufism and jurisprudence are like the two colleges of a university that seeks to teach its students the two dimensions of the Shari‘a, enabling them to practice it in their daily lives. One college cannot survive without the other, for while one teaches how to pray, be ritually pure, fast, give charity, and how to regulate all aspects of daily life, the other concentrates on what these and other actions really mean, how one can make worship an inseparable part of one’s existence, and how to elevate each individual to the rank of a universal, perfect being (al-insan al-kamil)—a true human being.7 That is why neither discipline can be neglected.

Although some self-proclaimed Sufis have labeled religious scholars as “scholars of ceremonies” and “exoterists”, real, perfected Sufis have always depended on the basic principles of the Shar­i‘a and have based their thoughts on the Qur’an and the Sunna. They have derived their methods from these basic sources of Islam. Al-Wasaya wa’l-Ri‘aya (The Advices and Observation of Rules) by al-Muhasibi, Al-Ta‘arruf li-Madhhab Ahl al-Sufi (A Description of the Way of the People of Sufism) by Kalabazi, Al-Luma’ (The Gleams) by al-Tusi, Qut al-Qulub (The Food of Hearts) by Abu Talib al-Mak­ki, and Al-Risala al-Qushayri (The Treatise) by al-Qushayri are among the precious sources that discuss Sufism according to the Qur’an and the Sunna. Some of these sources concentrate on self-control and self-purification, while others elaborate upon various topics of concern to Sufis.

After these great compilers came Hujjat al-Islam Imam al-Ghazzali, author of Ihya’ al-‘Ulum al-Din (Reviving the Religious Sciences), his most celebrated work. He reviewed all of Sufism’s terms, principles, and rules, and, establishing those that were agreed upon by all Sufi masters and criticizing others, united the outer (Shari‘a and jurisprudence) and inner (Sufi) dimensions of Islam. Sufi masters who came after him presented Sufism as one of the religious sciences or a dimension thereof, promoting unity or agreement among themselves and the so-called “scholars of ceremonies.” In addition, the Sufi masters made several Sufi subjects, such as the states of the spirit, certainty or conviction, sincerity and morality, part of the curriculum of madrassas (institutes for the study of religious sciences).

Although Sufism mostly concentrates on the individual’s inner world and deals with the meaning and effect of the religious commandments on one’s spirit and heart, and is therefore abstract, it does not contradict any of the Islamic ways based on the Qur’an and the Sunna. In fact, as is the case with other religious sciences, its source is the Qur’an and the Sunna, as well as the conclusions drawn from the Qur’an and the Sunna via ijtihad (deduction) by the verifying scholars of the early period of Islam. It dwells on knowledge, knowl­edge of God, certainty, sincerity, perfect goodness, and other similar, fundamental virtues.

Defining Sufism as the “science of esoteric truths or mysteries,” or the “science of humanity’s spiritual states and stations,” or the “science of initiation” does not mean that it is completely different from other religious sciences. Such definitions have resulted from the Shari‘a-rooted experiences of various individuals, all of whom have had different characters and dispositions, and who lived at different times.

It is a distortion to present the viewpoints of Sufis and the thoughts and conclusions of Shari‘a scholars as essentially different from each other. Although some Sufis were fanatic adherents of their own ways, and some religious scholars (i.e., legal scholars, Tradition­ists, and interpreters of the Qur’an) did restrict themselves to the outer dimension of religion, those who follow and represent the middle, straight path have always formed the majority. Therefore, it is wrong to conclude that there is a serious disagreement (which most likely began with some unbecoming thoughts and words uttered by some legal scholars and Sufis against each other) between the two groups.

When compared with those who speak for tolerance and consensus, those who have started or participated in such conflicts are very few indeed. This is natural, for both groups have always depended on the Qur’an and the Sunna, the two main sources of Islam.

In addition, the priorities of Sufism have never been different from those of jurisprudence. Both disciplines stress the importance of belief and of engaging in good deeds and good conduct. The only difference is that Sufis emphasize self-purification, deepening the meaning of good deeds and multiplying them, and attaining higher moral standards so that one’s conscience can awaken to the knowl­edge of God and thus embark upon a path that leads to the required sincerity in living Islam and obtaining God’s good pleasure.8

By means of these virtues, men and women can acquire anoth­er nature, “another heart” (a spiritual intellect within the heart), a deeper knowledge of God, and another “tongue” with which to mention God. All of these will help them to observe the Shari‘a commandments based on a deeper awareness of, and with a disposition for, devotion to God.

An individual practitioner of Sufism can use this system to deepen his or her spirituality. Through the struggle with one’s self, solitude or retreat, invocation, self-control and self-criticism, the veils covering the inner dimension of existence are torn away, enabling the individual to acquire a strong conviction concerning the truth of all of Islam’s major and minor principles.

Sofi or Sufi

A Sufi saint in Muraqaba meditation, c. 1630.

A Sufi saint in Muraqaba meditation, c. 1630.

Sofi is used to designate the followers of Sufism, particularly by speakers of Persian and Turkish. Others use the term Sufi. I think the difference most likely arises from the different views of the word’s origin. Those who claim that it is derived from the word sof (wool), safa (spiritual delight, exhilaration), safwa (purity), or sophos (a Greek word meaning wisdom), or who believe that it implies devotion, prefer Sufi. Those who hold that it is derived from suffa (chamber), and stress that it should not be confused with sofu (religious zealot), also use Sufi.

The word sufi has been defined in many ways, among them:

  • A traveler on the way to God who has purified his or her self and thus acquired inner light or spiritual enlightenment.
  • A humble soldier of God who has been chosen by the Almighty for Himself and thus freed from the influence of his or her carnal, evil-commanding self.
  • A traveler on the way to the Muhammadan Truth who wears a coarse, woolen cloak as a sign of humility and nothingness, and who renounces the world as the source of vice and carnal desire. Following the example of the Prophets and their followers, as well as sincere devotees, they are called mutasawwif to emphasize their spiritual states and belief, conduct, and life-style.
  • A traveler to the peak of true humanity who has been freed from carnal turbidity and all kinds of human dirt to realize his or her essential, heavenly nature and identity.
  • A spiritual person who tries to be like the people of the Suf­fa—the poor, scholarly Companions of the Prophet who lived in the chamber adjacent to the Prophet’s Mosque— by dedicating his or her life to earning that name.

Some say that the word sufi is derived from saf (pure). Although their praiseworthy efforts to please God by serving Him continually and keeping their hearts set on Him are enough for them to be called pure ones, such a derivation is grammatically incorrect. Some have argued that sufi is derived from Sophia or sophos, Greek words meaning wisdom. I think this is a fabrication of foreign researchers who try to prove that Sufism has a foreign—and therefore non-Islamic—origin.

The first Muslim to be called a Sufi was the great ascetic Abu Hashim al-Kufi (d. 150 AH9). Thus, the word sufi was in use in the second Islamic century after the generation of the Companions and their blessed successors. At this point in time, Sufism was characterized by spiritual people seeking to follow the footsteps of our Prophet, upon him be peace and blessings, and his Companions by imitating their life-styles. This is why Sufism has always been known and remembered as the spiritual dimension of the Islamic way of life.

Sufism seeks to educate people so that they will set their hearts on God and burn with love for Him. It focuses on high morals and proper conduct, as shown by the Prophets. Although some slight deviations may have appeared in Sufism over time, these should not be used to condemn that way of spiritual purity.

While describing Sufis who lead a purely spiritual life, Imam Qushayri writes:

The greatest title in Islam is Companionship of the Prophet (pbuh). This honor or blessing is so great that it can only be acquired by an actual Companion of the Prophet. The second rank in greatness belongs to the Tabi’un, those fortunate ones who came after the Companions and saw them. This is fol­lowed by the Taba‘i al-Tabi‘in, those who came after the Tabi‘un and saw them. Just after the closing years of this third generation and coinciding with the outbreak of internal conflict and deviation in belief, and along with the Traditionists, legal schol­ars, and theologians who rendered great services to Islam, Su­fis had great success in reviving the spiritual aspect of Islam.

Early Sufis were distinguished, saintly people who led upright, honest, austere, simple and blemish-free lives. They did not seek bodily happiness or carnal gratification, and followed the example of the Prophet, upon him be peace and blessings. They were so balanced in their belief and thinking that they cannot be considered followers of ancient philosophers, Christian mystics, or Hindu holy men. Early Sufis considered Sufism as the science of humanity’s inner world, the reality of things, and the mysteries of existence. A Sufi who studied this science was one determined to reach the final rank of a universal or perfect being.

Sufism is a long journey of unceasing effort leading to the Infinite One, a marathon to be run without stopping, with unyielding resolution, and without anticipating any worldly pleasure or reward. It has nothing to do with Western or Eastern mysticism, yoga, or philosophy, for a Sufi is a hero determined to reach the Infinite One, not a mystic, a yogi, or a philosopher.

Prior to Islam, some Hindu and Greek philosophers followed various ways leading to self-purification and struggled against their carnal desires and the attractions of the world. But Sufism is essentially different from these ways. For example, Sufis live their entire lives as a quest to purify their selves via invocation, regular worship, complete obedience to God, self-control, and humility, whereas ancient philosophers did not observe any of these rules or acts. Their self-purification—if it really deserves to be considered as such— was usually a source of creating conceit and arrogance in many of them, instead of humility and self-criticism.

Mawlānā Rumi's tomb, Konya, Turkey

Mawlānā Rumi’s tomb, Konya, Turkey

Sufis can be divided into two categories:

those who stress knowl­edge and seek to reach their destination through the knowledge of God (ma‘rifa),


those who follow the path of yearning, spiritual ecstasy, and spiritual discovery.

Members of the first group spend their lives traveling toward God, progressing “in” and progressing “from” Him on the wings of knowledge and the knowledge of God. They seek to realize the meaning of: There is no power and strength save with God. Every change, alteration, transformation, and formation observed, and every event witnessed or experienced, is like a comprehensible message from the Holy Power and Will experienced in different tongues. Those in the second group also are serious in their journeying and asceticism. However, they may sometimes deviate from the main destination and fail to reach God Almighty, since they pursue hidden realities or truths, miracle-working, spiritual pleasure, and ecstasy. Although this path is grounded on the Qur’an and the Sunna, it may lead some initiates to cherish such desires and expectations as spiritual rank, the working of miracles, and sainthood. That is why the former path, which leads to the greatest sainthood under the guidance of the Qur’an, is safer.

Sufis divide people into three groups:

  • The perfect ones who have reached the destination. This group is divided into two subgroups: the Prophets and the perfected ones who have reached the Truth by strictly following the prophetic examples. Not all perfected ones are guides; rather than guiding people to the Truth, some remain annihilated or drowned in the waves of the “ocean of meeting with God and amazement.” As their relations with the visible, material world are completely severed, they cannot guide others.
  • The initiates. This group also consists of two subgroups: those who completely renounce the world and, without considering the Hereafter, seek only God Almighty, and those who seek to enter Paradise, but do not give up tast­ing some of the world’s permitted pleasures. Such people are known as ascetics, worshippers, the poor, or the helpless.
  • The settlers or clingers. This group consists of people who only want to live an easy, comfortable life in this world. Thus, Sufis call them “settlers” or “clingers,” for they “cling heavily to the earth.” They are mainly people who do not believe, who indulge in sin and therefore cannot be pardoned. According to the Qur’an, they are unfortunate beings who belong to “the group on the left,” or those who are “blind” and “deaf ” and “without understanding.”

Some have also referred to these three groups as the foremost (or those brought near to God), the people on the right, and the people on the left.10

By M. Fethullah Gulen


1-God’s Essence (Zat) is the Divine Being Himself. The phrase “lights of His Essence” refers to the lights of His Being. (Trans.)) See God, His Essence And Attributes

2-The body of Islamic law, based on the Qur’anic commands and the actions and say­ings of the Prophet, and then further developed by legal scholars to apply Islamic concepts to daily life. (Trans.)

3- The world has three “faces.” The first face is turned toward the transient, materialistic world, in which people seek the satisfaction of their bodily (animalistic) desires. The second face is turned toward the “arable field” of the Hereafter, in which a person’s “seeds of action” are sown and, at the proper time, harvested in the Hereafter. The third face is the area in which the Beautiful Divine Names of God are manifested. Sufism requires the awakening to the last two “faces” of the world. (Trans.)

4- This term is essential to Sufism. It may be translated as the “reality of Muhammad” as God’s Messenger, the most beloved of God, the best example for all creation to follow, the embodiment of Divine Mercy, and the living Qur’an or embodiment of the Qur’anic way of life. (Trans.)

5- This term refers to scholars who have devoted themselves to the study of the Had­iths. Especially when used in the same sense as Sunna, the Hadiths are classified into three groups: The Prophet’s words, his actions or daily life, and the sayings or actions of his Companions of which he approved explicitly or tacitly. They have been transmitted to succeeding generations through verified chains of narrators. (Trans.)

6- Sufism is based on the purification of the carnal self (nafs). The self needs to be trained and educated, for in its “raw” form it is evil. The Qur’an calls it nafs amma­ra (bi al-su’): the evil-commanding self. (Trans.)

7- This very famous Sufi term denotes an individual’s final “spiritual” perfection, which causes him or her to have a universal “nature” that can represent the entire creation and reflect all that is best in it. (Trans.)

8- The phrase “God’s (good) pleasure” means that God has accepted the action of His servant. It does not reflect emotion, and therefore does not resemble human pleasure. (Trans.)

9- The Prophet’s hijra (emigration to Madina) marks the beginning of the Muslim calendar. This event took place in July 16, 622 CE. As the Muslim calendar is lunar, it is shorter than its solar counterpart. (Trans.)

10- On the Day of Judgment, there will be two groups of people: those on the left side and those on the right side of God’s Throne. The former did not believe in God and His Prophet, and led sinful lives. As they died without repenting, they will be judged worthy of entering Hell. The latter believed and sought to live according to the dictates and teachings of God, as revealed through His Prophets and Messengers. They repented and strove to obtain God’s pleasure. They will be judged worthy of entering Paradise.


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