Sufism is Islamic mysticism:

Sufism is not so much a sect within Islam as a mode of religious experience that began as a yearning for the deeper spiritual springs of Islam and personal fellowship with God. In this respect it was a reaction against Sunni Islamic formalism and legalism. It became known as Sufism because the early Muslim mystics wore garments made of suf (wool), in imitation of Christian monks. Even though monasticism as an institution is condemned in the Quran (57:27), Christian monks are praised for their devotion and humility (5:85). They thus provided the initial stimulus and inspiration to early Sufis, who adopted an ascetic lifestyle in the belief that worldly materialism and power are impediments to attaining a fulfilling spirituality. Thus Sufis are also referred to by the Arabic word faqir (poor) and the Persian word dervish (beggar). Poverty was thus a virtue for early Sufis.

Sufis draw their teaching mainly from the Qur’¯an, and in particular from verses like ‘God is nearer to you than your jugular vein’ (50:16) and ‘wherever ye turn, there is Allah’s face’ (2:115). In Sufi teaching, Jesus is a model wayfaring ascetic. Sufis also emphasise that God alone exists and acts. Thus all existence and acts are attributed to him. There is no distinction between good and evil as God is the author of everything. To the Sufis, no one has real free will.

While traditional Islamic teaching does not distinguish between spiritual and temporal matters, Sufism regards these worlds as incompatible. They regard the material world as transient and corrupt. Some have taught that it is like a snake, smooth but deadly, and that from the moment God first looked at his handiwork, he hated it!

The main characteristics of Sufi theology as opposed to Islamic theology are:

  • Sufis teach God’s nearness to believers, as opposed to mainstream Islamic theology which teaches his absolute
  • Sufis teach a personal relationship with God as opposed to mechanical observance of the five pillars of Islam. The ultimate aim of this personal relationship is faana (self-extinction in God) and complete union with the Allah(SWT).
  • Sufism teaches the love of God towards believers and their reciprocal love for God, rather than emphasising fear of God or punishment in Sura 5:57 serves as a source of inspiration and justification for the emphasis on love.
  • Sufis emphasise tariqa, the spiritual path of contemplation, rather than the way of the Shari’ah. They see themselves as travellers in this world, on a journey whose final destination is Allah(SWT).

In contrast to traditional Islam, Sufism teaches the need for a mediator in the form of a spiritual master and guide known as a shaykh. A famous saying has it that ‘a believer who does not have a human shaykh has Satan for his shaykh’. The disciple must place himself entirely in the master’s hands and become ‘like a corpse in the hands of the body- washer’.

The master blesses his disciples, intercedes for them, prays for them, and prepares amulets and charms to bring them good luck and protection. Some groups believe that the master prays on behalf of his disciples, absolving them from the need to perform the five daily prayers themselves.

Sufis believe that their shaykhs can perform signs and miracles (karama), including sometimes creating things ex nihilo (out of nothing). Saints are venerated and their intercession is sought. Pilgrimages are undertaken to saints’ shrines and tombs to offer sacrifices, ask for blessings and make pledges.

Sufis organise spiritual meetings (majalis) once a week, normally on Friday evenings. The meetings involve dhikr (uninterrupted repetition of the names of God), singing and special dances.

Some groups inflict pain on themselves, and practise fire-walking, glass-eating and playing with serpents. In some cases, Sufi communal devotions are substituted for the obligatory ritual prayers. Pilgrimages to the tombs of saints replace the pilgrimage to Mecca.

When questioned about the hajj, one leading Sufi, Abu Sa‘id ibn Abi al-Khayr (died 1089) replied that it was a waste of time to travel so far simply to walk round a stone house (the Ka‘bah) when the black stone should rather walk round him!

Sufism has a tendency to absorb elements from other religions and philosophies. For example, the Bektashi Order (established at the end of the fifteenth century in Turkey) has borrowed from Christianity the idea of a sort of communion with the sharing of wine, bread and cheese and the practise of confession to spiritual masters (babas).

Such syncretism has meant that Sufism across the Muslim world has adopted many extra- Islamic superstitions and practices, which are sometimes corrupt. This trend has been particularly strong since the nineteenth century.

Famous Sufi leaders include

  • Al-Hasan al-Basri (died 728), one of the first and most distinguished mystics.
  • Rabi‘ah al-‘Adawiyya (died 801), a famous female mystic who popularised the notions of divine love and intimacy with God in Sufism.
  • Husain ibn Mansur al-Hallaj (died 922), crucified for declaring that

ana al-Haqq (I am the Truth).

  • Abu Hamid Muhammad al-Ghazali (died 1111), credited with gaining credibility and acceptability for Sufism within mainstream of Islamic
  • Muhyi al-Din Ibn ‘Arabi (died 1240), described by one scholar as ‘the greatest mystical genius of the Arabs’.1 He is known for formulating the doctrine of saintship and declared himself the ‘Seal of the Saints’, the perfect manifestation of the Spirit of Muhammad, the ‘Seal of the Prophets’.

Well-known organised Sufi orders in Africa include the Qadiriyya, Tijaniyya, the Mouride Order in Senegal and the Gambia, and the Salihiyya and Shadhiliyya in East Africa. In some African countries like the Sudan, Sufi orders have acquired great political clout, transforming themselves into political parties.