Sufism, which is a branch of Islam, teaches the personal and mystical worship, and union with Allah or God. It was formulated in opposition to the formal, legalistic Islamic theology of the ninth century AD.
The term "Sufism" is derived from Arabic suf, and means "wool," which refers to the plain wool worn by the early Sufis ("wool-clad"). The Sufis, rejecting the excesses of the Caliphs, lived simple, communal, ascetic lives similar to the earlier Christian monks. Early Arab conquerors were impressed by the ways of the Christian mystics that they incorporated many of them into the Sufi tradition. Other elements of Sufi mysticism came from Buddhism, Hinduism, and Persian Zoroastrianism. Mystical love and oneness with God (tawhid) form the basic tenets of the Sufi faith.
The worshippers observe faqr, or "pious poverty," and are therefore known as faqirs (fakirs). They follow a path, or tariqa, to divine knowledge (gnosis) reading, study, prayer, and most especially the dhikr: the endless repetition of God's holy name or passages from the Koran, which may lead to self-hypnosis like repeating a mantra. Prayer beads, similar to rosaries, also are used.
The following of the Sufi Path to enlightened love entails a lifetime, since there is no single moment when true union with God, the vision of the face of God as described in the Koran, has occurred. It is the belief of the Sufis that mankind has always been one with God, and that the traveling of the Path serves as a remembrance of this realization. Death does not stop the faqir's spiritual communication and training but is only another stage of development. According to Grand Sheikh Idries Shah, the Sufi makes four journeys:
1. Fana, or annihilation: At this stage the Sufi becomes harmonized with objective reality and seeks the unification of his consciousness. He is intoxicated with divine love.
2. Baqa, or permanency: Here the Sufi becomes a teacher or qutub; the magnet to which all turn for wisdom. He has stabilized his objective knowledge and became the Perfect Man. Rather than uniting with God, the Perfect Man has subordinated his will to God and lives in and through God. (Traditionally, Sufi teachers are male.)
3. Sufis attaining the Third Journey become spiritual guides for all in accordance with their abilities, whereas Stage Two teachers work only in their local areas.
4. In the Fourth Journey, the Perfect Man guides others in the transition at death from physical life to another stage of development invisible to ordinary people. Few attain this plateau of wisdom.
Sufis consider guidance from wise teachers essential to prevent straying from the Path. These sheikhs, who are venerated as saints, are believed the only ones able to provide access to the knowledge of God. However, Sufi teaches discourage others from becoming their disciples because the goal of Sufism is for each believer to acquire his personal wisdom independently and develop a line of communication with the Beloved.
The mastery of such self-awareness requires a long time, however, most Sufis follow their leader, or sheikh throughout their lives. He is seen as the supreme ruler, possessing the greatest knowledge of God, charismatic, and the most disciplined. He is also known as pir (Persian for "old man") or mushid (Arabic for "one who directs"). The devotees bind themselves to the sheikh by an oath of allegiance and pledge to obey him unselfishly.
Various schools or Orders have been established over the centuries, which succeeding sheikhs have followed or amended. The principle goal of each Order is to prepare the Seeker for the Truth. The Orders provide the circumstances in which members can attain stabilization of their inner beings comparable to that of the students of Muhammad and are in fact organized similar to Muhammad's early gatherings.
The Orders include various teaching methods, which are employed within the Sufi worship. One example is the dervishes' frenzied dancing that is accompanied by music and poetry. Poets were always the disseminators of Sufi thought, using secret metaphorical language to guard the sanctity of the mystic messages and protect hem from heretical examination. It can be noted that the word "troubadour," the medieval songmaster of love, comes from the Arabic root TRB, or "lutanist."
The worship services become and endless repetition of chanting, swaying, dancing, and rhythmic drum-beating. They resemble the Voodoo, or Vodoun, services. The worshippers enter a trance or state of ecstasy in which it is thought they have became one with the Beloved.
It is claimed that such ecstasy with God does not represent the ultimate reward for the Sufis. The constant pursuit of the love of God can lead to ecstasy, but it only serves a purpose if the Sufi can take that boundless joy and use it in the temporal world as an experience of love: to live "in the world, but not of it," free from ambition, greed, and intellectual pride, showing love in living and not just knowing it.
No Sufi is allowed to practice spiritual healing until after he has studied twelve years. Spiritual healing is thought to be a love duty. The Sufi healer, like a teacher, acts as a guide leading the patient to diagnose himself or herself under hypnosis brought on by breathing techniques. The healer chants prayers over the patient and passes his hands over the patient's body. Requests, or demands, for healing cannot come from friends or relatives and the healer cannot impose his will upon the patient. Unlike more orthodox faith-healing methods, the patients are not expected to believe they will be cured. The payment may be no more than a handful of grain.
Unlike Muhammad who decried the worship of sheikhs as saints, and declaring Allah the only deity, the Sufis believe that knowledge of the Path to God comes only from master teacher, who attain saintly blessedness (baraqa). The devotees once worshipped these men publicly, making pilgrimages to their tombs and petitioning for their intercession.
The Sufi history extends back to the ninth and tenth centuries with several sheikhs predominating in the different periods. The message the permeated their teachings was that the human struggle in the physical world was to help the person fulfill God's covenants and become perfect through God. During the tenth century one sheikh took Jesus Christ, not Muhammad, for his example to that humanity could recognize that God is love by discovering such divinity within themselves.
In the 13th century a Spanish Moslem and mystic, Muhammad iben-Arabi, emerged to described Prophet Muhammad as the Perfect Man. Also he wrote about the Prophet's ascent into Paradise, which influenced Dante Alighteri's The Divine Comedy. Other medieval Christian writers influenced by Sufism included Roger Bacon, Cervantes, Averroes, St. Francis of Assisi, Avicebron, and Chaucer.
What is known as modern Sufism reached its peak during the Mogul and Ottoman empires, in the 1500s to 1800s. Sufi increased the ranks of the Moslem armies during the Islamic expansion of the Middle and Far East during the 18th and 19th centuries; they infiltrated the trade unions and married royal princesses. Then they bravely fought against the European expansion on Islamic lands during the holy war.
Currently Sufism has lost some of its influence by being criticized for its mystical excesses and for worshipping the sheikhs and other holy men. This is largely due to a puritan revival of the Moslem movement in Islam. However, many Moslems continue practicing Sufism, but in secret societies keeping mostly to themselves. Sufism has wide followings in India, England, and the United States.