Sufism is the inner, mystical dimension of Islam. Its focus tends to be on the mystical, first-hand, direct experience of God called dhawq or “tasting”, rather than on doctrine or authority. Sufism began as an ascetic discipline. An ascetic person is characterised by their rigorous self-discipline and self-control; they will abstain from all forms of indulgence – money, material goods, sex, food, comfort – for religious reasons.
The Sufis can be compared to monastic Christianity, which developed early in the history of the Church and included monks and nuns. The word monk means “alone” and the first monks did live alone in the wilderness, but eventually they congregated to form a community (or monastery), albeit still one separated from the world at large. Likewise, Sufism aimed to counteract the wealth, power and indulgence that came with the expanding Muslim community by branching off and forming their own community.
Sufi mystics can also be compared to bhikkhus and bhikkhunis which are the equivalent of Buddhist monks and nuns who live a similar sort of monastic life. The 14th century historian Ibn Khaldun gives an accurate description of Sufism which would apply to Sufis today; he describes it as:
dedication to worship, total dedication to Allah most High, disregard for the finery and ornament of the world, abstinence from the pleasure, wealth, and prestige sought by most men, and retiring from others to worship alone.
The earliest form of Sufism began less than a century after the founding of Islam and mystics of this period were known to concentrate on the Doomsday passages in the Koran, earning names such as “those who always weep.” Sufism would develop to become a much different kind of mysticism, one not so focused on the destructive aspects of Islam.
Early Sufi mystics were also known to concentrate all of their efforts on the Muslim concept of tawakkul, which means an absolute trust in God. This would become a central concept for Sufis and involved having an extreme faith in God to the point where you do not need to have faith in anything else. The concept can be found in the Koran, such as in the lines: “And whoever puts all his trust in God, He will be enough for him”; “And put all your trust [in the God], if you truly are believers.” Another core principle in Sufism is tawhid which means the realisation that there is no deity but God or Allah. Tawhid has been interpreted by Sufi mystics in different ways. Some see it as meaning that nothing but God truly exists or that God and nature are just two aspects of the same reality.
The second interpretation is very similar to some forms of pantheism. Pantheism is the belief that God is Nature or God is the Universe. The philosopher Spinoza was a pantheist who argued that there is one eternal substance called God or Nature and that everything else is just an aspect of that substance. Both Sufism and pantheism tend to be monistic, that is, they believe that there is only one kind of substance in the world and everything else is an expression of that. Dualists, in contrast, believe that there are essentially two kinds of substances in the world, e.g. mind and body, good and evil (which Zoroastrians believe) or spirit and matter.
About a century later, however, the emphasis in Sufism was no longer on Doomsday, leading an ascetic life or putting all of your trust in God. A new emphasis was placed on the concept of love – many see this as the point in which Sufism changed from an asceticism into mysticism. This development was set in motion by Rabi’ah al-‘Adawiyah in 801 AD, who set up the Sufi ideal of loving God, without hope of being reborn in Paradise or a fear of being sent to Hell. What’s worth pointing out is that Rabi’ah was a woman, which suggests from the outset that Sufism is not an aspect of Islam which excludes or discriminates against women, but welcomes, if not depends, on their views on God.
The period of 800-1100 AD is usually considered the age of classical Sufism, where other key concepts were thought out, such as strict self-control, a focus on “interior knowledge” and annihilating the self in order to unite with God. Annihilating the self seems to be an aim of other kinds of mysticism as well. The ultimate purpose of yoga in ancient Indian philosophy, for example, is to achieve union with the Supreme (or God) by dissolving the self. This is achieved through different mental, spiritual and physical techniques depending on the kind of yoga which is being practised.
Mystical poetry is also rich in Sufism and it helps to translate many important mystical concepts in Sufism – the most famous poets include Rumi, al-Ghazali, Omar Khayyam, Attar and Ibn Arabi. By the
13th century, largely because of all the mystical poetry that was produced, Sufism had filtered through into the whole Islamic world. The idea of loving God for the benefit of man and loving man for the benefit of God is also central to Sufism and features heavily in most Islamic mystical poetry and hymns. In Attar’s poem The Conference of the Birds, the story communicates the message that God is not external to us but is the totality of existence. Attar says that the Sufi must realise this and that therefore God is within each of us. The Masnavi, a poem by Rumi, is considered one of the foundational texts of Sufi mysticism. In books 5 and 6 for example, Rumi says that man must deny his physical existence in order to understand God’s existence.
Sufis engage in many practices which are supposed to get them closer to God. These include strict obedience to Islamic law and introspection as a way to purify the self from all selfishness. This is similar to the Tibetan meditation practice of metta bhavana which means “loving-kindness”. The meditator in this tradition sends out (through breathing in) happiness to loved ones, friends, enemies and strangers while receiving (through breathing out) suffering from all of these people. This kind of meditation, much like the Sufi practice of self-denial and concentration, is supposed to cultivate compassion. Charity and giving are therefore central to the Sufi way of life.
According to al-Ghazali, solitude, sleeplessness, silence and hunger are important Sufi practices if one wants to strip away all of their habits and bad characteristics. Fasting is considered one of the most important ways to follow the path of a spiritual life. This path, called tariqah, also involves a kind of spiritual ecstasy or “intoxication” and happens once the self is annihilated. This ecstasy is described in other mystical traditions as well. Other practices which allow the Sufi to become closer to God include ritual prayer or dhikr which consists in repeating over and over again the different names of God. There are thousands of repetitions. This is similar to the practice of chanting in some forms of Buddhist meditation – it is supposed to help the mystic enter into a trance state. Sessions of music and poetry recitals called sama have also been used to achieve an ecstatic experience.
The most visually impressive practice is Sufi whirling or spinning which is a form of meditative dance. The dance involves listening to music, focusing on God and spinning repetitively in circles, which has been said to symbolise the planets orbiting in the Solar System. The purpose of this dance is to abandon one’s ego and desires and enter into a trance, getting the Sufi closer to God. This dance is still practised by some Sufis today and it is a gender-neutral practice, meaning that women can participate in it as equals.