Islam is the fastest growing religion in the world, and one branch of it has taken hold in the West and is seen as the mystical side of this faith. Sufism came about early on in the history of Islam, and is even said to have begun with Prophet Mohammad himself. In a world of terrorism, Sufism is usually pointed to as a peaceful alternative to dogma. If focuses more on the inward dimension of a person than outward actions and rituals. Also, it centers more on a personal relationship with Allah and Prophet Mohammad, love, and achieving divine knowledge. In the following paragraphs, we will explore some of the history, philosophy, and influence of Sufism.
This branch of Islam has had a long history, and is founded on the “bay‘ah,” or pledge to prophet Mohammad. This allegiance ultimately means a devotion to doing God’s work, and Sufis pledge themselves to certain masters that are seen as people in direct lineage with the prophet. According to Britannica, “Islamic mysticism had several stages of growth, including (1) the appearance of early asceticism, (2) the development of a classical mysticism of divine love, and (3) the rise and proliferation of fraternal orders of mystics. Despite these general stages, however, the history of Islamic mysticism is largely a history of individual mystic experience” (Schimmel, Annemarie).
In the first stage, Sufism became prominent in the Umayyad period (661–749) as a response to the materialism that started to rise up in early Islam. Sufis at that time were known for reflecting on the Quranic doomsday, doing night prayers, and many acts of devotion.
The major step into classical mysticism began with the concept of divine love. As stated by Britannica, “The introduction of the element of love, which changed asceticism into mysticism, is ascribed to Rābiʿah al-ʿAdawīyah (died 801), a woman from Basra who first formulated the Sufi ideal of a love of Allah (God) that was disinterested, without hope for paradise and without fear of hell” (Schimmel, Annemarie). Ultimately, this love for God was about shedding the self, or the ego, in order to become one with the divine.
Even before the period of fraternal orders, there were many different teachers and groups of Sufis. However, “The 13th century, though politically overshadowed by the invasion of the Mongols into the Eastern lands of Islam and the end of the ʿAbbāsid caliphate, was also the golden age of Sufism: the Spanish-born Ibn alʿArabī created a comprehensive theosophical system (concerning the relation of God and the world) that was to become the cornerstone for a theory of “Unity of Being.” According to this theory all existence is one, a manifestation of the underlying divine reality” (Schimmel, Annemarie). In this period, many famous poets became known, such as Jalāl al-Dīn al-Rūmī, Ibn al-Fāriḍ, and Farīd al-Dīn ʿAṭṭar. Sufism began to influence all branches of Islam through its widespread reach. This is especially seen in India, where Sufism carved out a strong niche in its society and culture.
Sufi philosophy has a wide range of beliefs due to its long history. However, there are around eight or so essential concepts that devotees gravitate towards: 1) Demonstrate and develop love towards Allah and Prophet Mohammad; 2) Surrender to Allah fully; 3) Chant the names of Allah and divine figures; 4) Use your dreams (physical ones) to be guided by Allah; 5) Remember about Allah as often as you can and serve others; 6) Use music, poetry, and other arts to express your devotion to Allah and his servants; 7) Live as if you could die at any moment, and be in the present; 8) Awaken your heart and do things with compassion and care (“Seven Sufi Teachings to Light Your Way”).
Sufism also has a wide reach in terms of how it has influenced cultures, the arts, and Islam itself. Many Sufis have fought against inequality and injustice in many countries, and has made mainstream Islam less dogmatic through its influence. According to Brittanica, “The importance of Sufism for spiritual education, and inculcation in the faithful of the virtues of trust in God, piety, faith in God’s love, and veneration of the Prophet, cannot be overrated. The dhikr formulas still preserve their consoling and quieting power even for the illiterate. Mysticism permeates Persian literature and other literatures influenced by it” (Schimmel, Annemarie). On the other hand, Sufism has been popularized in the West, where it has influenced countless individuals to change to a more mystical view of life, and has colored poetry, music, fiction, and art.
To reiterate, Sufism is the mystical branch of Islam. It focuses on the devotees’ love for Allah and those faithful to him, and shedding one’s identity to completely unify with God. Throughout its history, Sufism has grown into several sects with many masters linked to the Prophet Mohammad and his lineage. The main philosophy behind this faith is that one should surrender oneself completely to Allah, express one’s devotion to God and his great servants, and live in the moment with an open heart. Since Sufism has permeated into the West and all branches of Islam, its concepts have greatly influenced the arts, different cultures, and even the dogma within traditional faiths.
Schimmel, Annemarie. “Sufism.” Encyclopædia Britannica, Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc., 20 Dec. 2018, www.britannica.com/topic/Sufism/History.
“Seven Sufi Teachings to Light Your Way.” UPLIFT, 17 Feb. 2017, upliftconnect.com/sufi-teachings-light-your-way/.