Defining Sufism ‘Tasawwuf’ is strewn with complexities and anomalies. In principle, Sufism is inextricably linked with Islam, yet although there are Sufis who consider themselves Muslims; there are many Sufis who don’t subscribe to the Islamic faith. Linda S. Heard strives to find answers to a question what may, after all, be inherently unanswerable to those on the outside looking in: What is Sufism?
Even the derivation of ‘Sufi’ is unresolved. The word is believed to have been derived from the Arabic word ‘saf’ meaning ‘wool’, which the earliest adherents wore in the form of cloaks as a symbol of their aestheticism involving renunciation of extravagant worldly trappings. Others argue that Sufi is a derivation of ‘safa’ meaning purity in Arabic or comes from the Greek word for wisdom ‘Sofia’.
The original Sufi Masters, founders of three major Sufi orders, claimed they had been ordained by the Prophet Mohammed (PBUH) – and, indeed, it is generally considered true to say that Sufism didn’t exist prior to the birth of Islam during the early part of the 7th century, although one of the most widely-read 20th century authors on Sufism Idries Shah argued that Sufism was a universal concept predating Islam and Christianity. There are both Sunni and Shiite-guided Sufi orders as well as those entirely unattached from mainstream Islam, whose doctrine incorporates Hindu and Zoroastrian elements as well as thought expounded by ancient Greek philosophers.
Western scholars tend to characterise Sufism as the inner or esoteric dimension of Islam which isn’t imparted to the masses with Sufis portrayed as Islam’s mystics. However, Sheikh Saleh Al-Fawzan, an imam, prolific author and member of Saudi Arabia’s highest religious body says Sufism is an invention which has nothing to do with Islam. Many religious clerics are of a similar view based on the sayings of the Prophet who told his followers: “Beware! The people of the Book before you split up into seventy-two sects and this community will split up into seventythree. Seventy-two of them will be in the fire and only one will be saved.” In some Islamic countries, notably Saudi Arabia and the Islamic Republic of Iran, Sufism is frowned upon and the tombs of Sufi saints have been destroyed; in others, such as Morocco, Sufi saints and masters are highly revered. Sufis in post-Qaddafi Libya complain that their religious sites are being defiled or bulldozed by radicals.
A study titled ‘Sufism in the Gulf’ published by the Al Mesbar Studies and Research Center based in Dubai is enlightening as to the roots of Sufism in the United Arab Emirates. The only Sunni Sufi order that claims to trace its spiritual lineage back to the Prophet via Abu Bakr is the Naqshbandi order which is represented by the Haqqani Foundation of UAE in Ajman.
The American poet Charles Upton who has authored numerous books on Sufism says, in practice, Sufism “is the constant attention to God – the awareness that He is, and that He is here nearer to you than your jugular vein.” He advised those setting out on the Sufi path to, firstly, become a Muslim and “obey the universal norms of Islam”. Secondly, he says seekers must find a sheikh who is part of a valid silsila, a line of transmission stretching back to the Prophet Mohammed” to serve as their authoritative guide.
Stepping outside controversies for a moment, the main thing most Sufis would agree upon is that all faiths offer a route to enlightenment and all believe they are on a spiritual path to the Creator and aim to experience higher states of consciousness on that journey. They all long for an intense, personal connection with God.
The main tenets of the Sufi way are: good character, awareness of God, love, affection, a heart that’s tranquil, concentration of mind, contemplation, certainty, the most exalted paradise, ecstasy and taste. One of the ways that Sufis maintain a remembrance of God is through the devotional practice of dhikr which literally means “remembering”. This is achieved through the recitation of the names of God, verses from the Quran and supplications from texts from the Hadith (sayings ascribed to the Prophet). Sufis often ritualize dhikr with special ceremonies that vary from order to order but may include music, poetry, incense and movements to induce a trance. The more conservative Sufi schools denounce ecstatic or trance-like states and, certainly, the Naqshbandis prefer to practice dhikr silently. Arguably the Sufis which have attracted most public attention are the Whirling Dervishes of the Mawlawi Order, founded by followers of the poet, theologian, jurist and mystic Rumi in 1273. One of the best known dervish lodges is in Konya, Turkey that attracts both Sufis and curious tourists. Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, known as the father of modern Turkey, was a staunch secularist who closed down dervish lodges all over his country and passed a law dissolving Sufi orders. However, in 1950, the Turkish government began permitting Konya to hold a two-week annual festival during which the Whirling Dervishes are the star attractions. There are also Whirling Dervishes in Egypt but, unlike those of Konya, they are primarily entertainers who belong to theatre companies.
The ritual of whirling, known as sema, is surrounded by symbolism. The hat worn by whirlers or semazens is a representation of his ego’s tombstone and his wide ‘skirt’ is its shroud. As he turns, his right arm reaches for the sky to receive the Creator’s beneficence, while his right hand points towards the earth. Through his left-to-right revolutions he symbolically embraces humanity with love.
No doubt, Sufism has its advocates and detractors but whichever side of the fence an individual sits, no one can argue against the fact that Sufi poets – Al- Ghazali, Rumi, Hafiz and Ibn Arabi and Omar Khayyam - have produced some of humanity’s most memorable verses stirring the imaginations of people of all races and all faiths.