Sufism or tasawwuf, as it is called in Arabic, is generally understood by scholars and Sufis to be the inner, mystical, or psycho-spiritual dimension of Islam. Today, however, many Muslims and non-Muslims believe that Sufism is outside the sphere of Islam.

Sufism is not easily defined, for it is neither a distinct religion nor a doctrine. It does not require adherence to prescribed dogma or ritual and welcomes everybody regardless of race, gender or belief system. It has existed throughout centuries in many cultures.

Sufism is a movement of organized brotherhoods, who are grouped around a spiritual leader or sheikh. There are no Islamic states which regard themselves as officially Sufi. Sufism is characterized by the veneration of local saints and by brotherhoods that practice their own rituals. Sufis organize themselves into "orders" or groups, called Tariqas. These groups are headed by a sheikh. 

Sufis acknowledge that Tariqas were not established at the time of the Prophet. They consider that the Prophet his companions and their immediate successors, the first three generations, embodied Islamic mysticism but the phenomenon was too general to have a specific name. Later generations of Muslims became distracted by worldliness and so those, now in the minority, that were dedicated to worshipping Allah were given the name Sufi. This turn of events was eloquently described in the 10th Century by Abu l-Hasan Fushanji who said:
Today Sufism is a name without a reality. It was once a reality without a name.
(Abu l-Hasan Fushanji, quoted in Lings, Martin, What is Sufism?, The Islamic Texts Society, 1999, pg 45)

History and Development

These orders emerged in the Middle East in the twelfth century in connection with the development of Sufism, a mystical current reacting to the strongly legalistic orientation of orthodox Islam. The orders first came to Sudan in the sixteenth century and became significant in the eighteenth. Sufism seeks for its adherents a closer personal relationship with God through special spiritual disciplines.

The exercises (dhikr) include reciting prayers and passages of the Quran and repeating the names, or attributes, of God while performing physical movements according to the formula established by the founder of the particular order. Singing and dancing may be introduced. The outcome of an exercise, which lasts much longer than the usual daily prayer, is often a state of ecstatic abandon.

Sufi brotherhoods became extremely popular, particularly in rural areas, they exercised great influence and ultimately played an important part in the religious revival that swept through North Africa during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Sufi followers understand Islam in a mystic way. Sufi doesn't differ from Islam in the theological point of view, to use a Western term. The Sufi interpretation is a different way to look at Islam. Sufi followers use a variety of techniques to move toward God, like singing, circular dances, etc.

Many sufis were outstanding men of saintly stature. Not all sufis were accepted by the more conservative elements of Islam due to their unorthodox habits and beliefs. Sufi influence has grown over the centuries and today there are literally hundreds of mystic orders with millions of adherents. They are most prevalent in Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Turkey and Arabia.

The fundamental nature of a Sufi is that the person who has chosen this path can reach an individual contact with God. Sufi followers have a teacher who acts as an intermediary between God and the person. The teacher gives the precepts according to which people should behave. Usually Sufi followers respect these rules.

Islam’s mystical tradition emphasizes the direct knowledge, personal experience, and spiritual sovereignty of God. The Sufi doctrine of “the unity of being,” moreover, has inclined Sufis to emphasize interiority and the oneness of humanity, often at the expense of militant Islam’s insistence on the conformity of the external world of state and society to Shari‘a.

Sufism Today

The four main Sufi orders are the Chishtiyya, the Naqshbandiyya, the Qadiriyya [Quaddiri] and the Mujaddiyya. Other orders include the Mevlevi, Bektashi, Halveti, Jerrahi, Nimatalahi, Rufi, and Noori. The Mawlawis, the whirling dervishes, are famous for their dancing ritual, an organized variation of earlier practices which were confined to music and poetry.

Three Sufi orders are prominent: the Naqshbandiya founded in Bokhara, the Qadiriya founded in Baghdad, and the Cheshtiya located at Chesht-i-Sharif east of Herat.

Among the Naqshbani, Ahmad al Faruqi Kabuli, born north of Kabul, acquired renown for his teachings in India during the reign of the Moghul Emperor Akbar in the sixteenth century. Sometime during the nineteenth century members of this family moved back to Kabul where they established a madrassa and a khanaqah in Shor Bazar which became a center of religious and political influence.

The Cheshtiya order was founded by Mawdid al-Cheshti who was born in the twelfth century and later taught in India. The Cheshtiya brotherhood, concentrated in the Hari Rud valley around Obe, Karukh and Chehst-i-Sharif, is very strong locally and maintains madrasas with fine libraries. Traditionally the Cheshtiya have kept aloof from politics, although they were effectively active during the resistance within their own organizations and in their own areas.

Many Iraqi Sunni Kurds belong to Sufi orders, of which the Qadiri and Naqshbandi are the largest. Both orders have followers across the Middle East, Central, and South Asia. A Qadiri Sufi shrine in Baghdad attracts annual transnational pilgrimages. While Sufi Islam has broad acceptance in Iraqi society, Sufism has frequently been viewed by orthodox Sunni Muslim theologians with some degree of suspicion because of its strong mystical components. Shia Muslims tend to be hostile towards Sufism because they believe it is heretical. Sufi orders serve to both strengthen and divide Kurdish society. Kurds of the same order feel a common bond, regardless of tribe. There is, however, tension between rival orders. Jalal Talabani, the leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), follows the Qadiri order. The Massoud Barzani, leader of the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP), and the influential Barzani family are Naqshbandi Sufis.

The Tijaniyah (Tijaniyya) Order, founded in Morocco by Ahmad at-Tijani in 1781, extended the borders of Islam toward Senegal and Nigeria, and their representatives founded large kingdoms in West Africa. The Tijaniyah Order is strongly associated with the Muslim Brotherhood, which began in Egypt in the late 1920s and later spread throughout the Arab world. Hasan al-Banna, who founded the Muslim Brotherhood in 1928 in Egypt, called for radical measures to bring about a return of Islamic government. The goal of the Muslim Brotherhood was the establishment of an Islamic state based on Shariah. It transcended the narrower sectarianism of the more traditional political parties. Moreover, the Brotherhood's superior organization made it a political force far stronger than its numbers might suggest. Many of the methods which made Sufism a successful occult underground helped the Muslim Brotherhood function effectively.



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