You may have seen videos of men and women spinning in billowing white gowns wearing cylindrical caps. Though they may seem like eager artists in an interactive installment, these men are women are actually participating in “whirling,” a meditative tradition in the religion of Sufism.
Sufism, a mystical interpretation of Islam, features doctrines that stress moral consciousness and purification from selfish thoughts. It’s also a religion that’s becoming more popular in the U.S. after being forced into secrecy for centuries. How exactly does Sufism relate to, and differ from, Islam? What basic beliefs do Sufis hold? And where the heck did the term “Sufism” even come from?
Whether you’re curious about all of those answers or just want to explore the tenants of another religion, here’s a quick summary of the theologies and practices found in Sufism.
You’ve probably heard the Shakespearian phrase, “What’s in a name?” When it comes to Sufism, this question isn’t easy to answer.
Some researchers believe that “Sufi” relates to the word for “purity,” or to the Greek term “sophia,” which means wisdom. Others argue that “Sufi” derives from sufi, the Arabic word for a mystic, which itself originates from the word suf, meaning “wool.” Of course, this connection makes more sense when you consider that early Sufis commonly wore woolen garments.
Wool even makes an appearance when talking about Islamic mysticism in general. Speakers use the term tasawwuf, which means “to dress in wool.” Who knew that fashion and religion were so closely tied?
Before we talk about what Sufism looks like today, let’s take a quick trip through history to see where Sufism began. And, let’s mention one caveat: The use of the world “God” in this article is merely a translation of the world “Allah.” It is meant to reference the almighty being that followers of Islam worship, and not necessarily the “God” mentioned in other religions.
Sufism first emerged under the Umayyad Dynasty, which was the first Muslim dynasty to rule over the Caliphate (a Muslim empire that later expanded to include much of Southwest Asia, North Africa and Spain). The Umayyads were known for their “worldliness,” and early Islamic ascetics – the first generation of Sufis – reacted against those values. During this time, Sufis were known for strict obedience of the scriptures, nighttime prayer, and an absolute trust of God.
Also known as classical mysticism, classical Sufism evolved to have a stronger focus on self restraint and psychological insight. The person credited for this change? A woman called Rābiʿah al-ʿAdawīyah, who first promoted the Sufi ideal of loving Allah without being self-interested (i.e., without fearing hell or craving heaven).
Throughout the classical age, Sufism focused on ideas like the annihilation of self, discovery of interior knowledge, rumination on the nature of man, and production of hymns and poetry. Sufism figureheads like Abū Hāmid al-Ghazālī also started to write handbooks defending their religion and outlining its tenants.
The 13th century is considered the apex of Sufism. One of its most important contributions to Sufism was the establishment of fraternal orders, in which members would follow a leader-founder. One of the most prominent orders during this time was the Qadiriyya in Iraq, which was started by the well-known Sufi master, Abdul Qadir Jilani. As more orders were established in different parts of the Middle East, Sufism began to spread. In fact, as the Mongol empire expanded from Persia into Central Asia, Sufis often acted as the “glue” that bridged the gaps between different cultures and local peoples.
This time period garnered some of the most memorable mystical poetry for Sufism. Perhaps the greatest Sufi poet is Rūmī, also known as Mawlānā, who was born during the Golden Age in what is now Afghanistan. He is especially famous for his epic “Mas̄navī-yi Maʿnavī,” or “Spiritual Couplets,” which contains over 26,000 couplets. Rumi impacted more than just followers; he has been quoted by Western philosophers, writers and theologians for centuries.
Today, it is not easy to count how many followers of Sufism exist. However, Stephen Schwartz from the Center for Islamic Pluralism believes Sufis make up a “large plurality, at least, of the world’s 1.3-plus billion Muslims.” In 2012, Pew Research found that the most Muslims – 92 percent – who identify as members of a Sufi order live in sub-Saharan Africa. Other areas in which more than one-in-ten Muslims identify as Sufis include Bangladesh (26 percent), Russia (19 percent), Tajikistan (18 percent), Pakistan (17 percent), Malaysia (17 percent), Albania (13 percent) and Uzbekistan (11 percent). Sufism has even spread to the Western world through organizations like Sufi Foundation of America and Sufism Reoriented.
Perhaps the biggest developments in Sufism during this time period are is small adaptations to modern society. For instance, Dr. Javad Nurbakhsh explains that, while ancient Sufis emphasized isolation and quietism, modern Sufis have “active professional lives.” Moreover, Sufis are expected to “service creation” not by giving up their belongings to break down their ego, but by helping others and benefiting society in the name of God.
Rather than learning about the faith through religious texts, Sufis emphasize learning with a teacher’s guide. These teachers’ origins can be traced back to the prophet, Muhammad. As a result, students often try to adopt traits of their teacher in hopes of mirroring the original prophet.
So, what do these teachers, well, teach?
So what’s the one fact you should take away from this article even if all the foreign terms or names of historical figures fly out of your mind? Basically, Sufism is a credible religion with its own beliefs, practices and history. As Sufism has become more popular in the West, it has gained the reputation of being a home for “spiritual vagabonds,” who try on and shed religions like new fashion trends. Perhaps even worse, Sufism is often seen as no different than the radical Islam that triggers terrorist attacks like 9/11; a crime report by FBI states that anti-Muslim hate crimes rose by 67 percent from 2014 to 2015.
Sufism is more than just a trend or a stereotype. For millions of people around the world, Sufism is a way of life. And while Sufism may not be the religion for you, that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to understand and respect those who follow it.
Hopefully, this comprehensive breakdown of Sufism’s history and tenants makes understanding those who do follow Sufism even easier. If anything, you’ve explore a religion you may have never heard of before. And let’s be honest: a more well-rounded worldview never hurt anyone.
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