Monday, 30 April 2012

Origin of the Term 'Sufism'

بِسۡمِ ٱللهِ ٱلرَّحۡمَـٰنِ ٱلرَّحِيمِ

Sufism is generally accepted to be the mystical dimension of Islam.  Imam al-Hujwiri (q.s.), in the eleventh century, presented several views of the origin of the term, ‘Sufi.’  Some scholars say Sufism is derived from the term 'Ahl asw-Swuffah', or the People of the Bench, which refers to the platform on which the Holy Prophet Muhammad (s.a.w.) and the believers used to sit while worshipping Allah (s.w.t.).

Others say that they were named Sufis because of their habit of wearing swuf, wool.  The habit of wearing wool next to the skin dates back to the first master of Sufis.  While this theory of the derivation of the word does have a foundation in the practices of Sufism, the words of Hadhrat Mir Ghotbeddin Mohammad Angha (q.s.) clarify this point: "While every Sufi wears swuf, not every person who wears swuf is a Sufi."  Others have concluded that Sufis were named so because of the swafa, or purity, of their hearts and the cleanliness of their actions.  Therefore, the practitioners of swafa are called Sufis, meaning ‘pure-hearted.’

While this allusion by historians is not incorrect, it is incomplete.  They have presented the outer form of Sufism, while its inner meaning has been beyond their personal experience.  If we look closely at the last three hypotheses, we will note that to be called a Sufi has certain requirements.  To be a companion of the Prophet (s.a.w.) surely requires a different mode of action and behavior.  It requires purity of heart, spiritual awareness, and sacredness of goal.  In essence, the People of the Bench, or the companions of the Holy Prophet (s.a.w.), must have been aware of the significance of the teachings of the Holy Prophet (s.a.w.) and must have been intent on being trained by him, because they wanted to know Allah (s.w.t.).  Thus if wearing wool was one of the conditions, they did so.  Wearing wool was a mere reminder not to surrender to earthly absorptions.  The aim was to reach a state of purity, through which they would be in direct relationship with Allah (s.w.t.), unite with Allah (s.w.t.), be annihilated in Allah (s.w.t.), subsist in Allah (s.w.t.), and then attest to the Oneness of Allah (s.w.t.), as the Holy Prophet (s.a.w.) had declared:, laa ilaha il Allah.  Reaching this state means that no other but Allah (s.w.t.) is in one's heart.  And that is the reality of swafa.

This method of purification through submission to Allah (s.w.t.) and annihilation in Allah (s.w.t.) was termed ma'arifah, meaning acquaintance and cognition.  In this context it refers to the cognition of oneself and the cognition of Allah (s.w.t.).  The one who teaches this method of cognition is known as the ‘arif, or he who has attained the most exalted state of existence through annihilation and permanence in Allah (s.w.t.).  The esoteric wisdom of cognition was transmitted from the Holy Prophet (s.a.w.) to his cousin and son in-law ‘Ali ibn Abu Thalib (k.w.) and the first Caliph of Islam, Abu Bakr as-Swiddiq (r.a.).


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