Sufism is a dimension of Islam that emphasises the spiritual path towards unity with God. Whereas sharia is the outward manifestation of the Muslim’s belief, the Sufi path emphasises the inner life. A Sufi expresses his devotion by remembering God in many ways including chanting God’s names, through prayer, meditation, poetry, Qur’anic recitation, and music.
The word Sufi is said to be derived from ‘Suf’ meaning wool, which referred to the simple cloaks the early Muslim ascetics wore. Sufi orders, known as tariquas, began as monastic establishments headed by a master who traced his lineage back to the Prophet. Learning passed from master to pupil directly rather than being derived from books.
The Sufi movement has spanned several continents and cultures over a millennium, at first expressed through Arabic, then through Persian, Turkish, and a dozen other languages.
Though many Sufi orders trace their origins to the early days of Islam, others see Sufi philosophy as universal in nature, its roots pre-dating Islam. Sufi practice can be found amongst Sunni, Shia and other Islamic groups.
Though relatively few in number, Sufis have shaped Islamic thought and history. Through the centuries they contributed hugely to Islamic literature. For example, Jalaluddin Muhammad Rumi, Omar Khayyám and Al-Ghazali’s influence extended beyond the Muslim world to be quoted by Western philosophers, writers and theologians. Sufis were influential in spreading Islam particularly to the furthest outposts of the Muslim world in Africa, India and the Far East.
Many in the west are attracted to Sufism because of its message of universal divine love, and the centrality that music and poetry play in exploring man and God’s nature. Just one example of the popularity is that in the 1990s, Rumi was the best-selling poet in the United States.