What is Sufism?

بِسۡمِ ٱللهِ ٱلرَّحۡمَـٰنِ ٱلرَّحِيمِ

The following is taken from What is Sufism?

Sufism is a path of spiritual advancement.  By a process of purification, Sufi practices allow light to enter our hearts and our faculties of perception.  This may lead to the development of our innate spiritual and intuitive abilities, in the same way that when you open a window to a dark room light floods in and you can suddenly see more.

Thus, the practice of Sufism leads to an expansion of consciousness - an increase in our self-awareness and our awareness of the universe we live in.  We become less prone to acting and thinking in conditioned ways.  This in turn leads to a self-transformation - a transformation in the way we conduct ourselves and interact with the world.  We find peace and contentment and a growing awareness of a Higher Plan.  Ultimately, the Sufi path brings us closer to the Supreme Reality, which is Allah (s.w.t.).

According to the Sufis, man is asleep.  By this, they mean than the vast majority of us are oblivious to the realities of life and death, existence and Allah (s.w.t.), and we live life as if in a dream or a metaphor.  And yet the other side of sleep is wakefulness, and Sufis also teach that mankind is equipped with subtle centres of consciousness which are largely unused, but which can gradually be awakened through practical guidance and sincere effort.  Once awakened, these inner faculties of perception enable us to witness realities which previously appeared to us as obscure mysteries.  It is possible to move into the light when previously we were in the dark.  Sufism is the path of the gradual awakening of the heart, whereby we turn away from all that is illusory, and subsist in Reality.  This was the condition that Muhammad (s.a.w.) described when he said, "My eyes sleep but my heart does not sleep," as recorded in Swahih al-Bukhari.

Sufism is the spiritual aspect of Islam.  Those who follow the Sufi path strive to follow both the inner and the outer aspects of Islam with ever-increasing sincerity.  Indeed, another name for Sufism is simply ihsan, or sincerity.  The most widely accepted origin of the word “Sufi” is from the Arabic word, “swuf” which means “wool”, referring to a group of sincere worshippers who lived during, and shortly after, the time of the Prophet Muhammad (s.a.w.) and who became known for their tendency to wear coarse woolen clothes.  Another possible derivation of the word “Sufi” is from the “ahl asw-swuffah”, literally, “The People of the Bench”, a group of early Muslims who lived in the first mosque at Medina in close proximity to the Prophet Muhammad (s.a.w.).  Yet another derivation is from the Arabic word, “swafah”, or “purity”.

After the departure of the Prophet Muhammad (s.a.w.) from this world in 632 CE, those who were closest to him passed on his teachings to the sincere seekers of the next generation, who in turn became the perfected guides, or shuyukh for the generation after them.  This process has continued down to our present time by the Mercy of Allah (s.w.t.).  In this way, every authentic Sufi guide has a chain of teachers which leads directly back to the Prophet Muhammad (s.a.w.).  Such a chain of teachers is known in Sufism as a silsilah or a shajarah.

Often, one of the shuyukh may be so prominent, or become so well-known, that his students will identify themselves by saying they follow the way of such-and-such a shaykh.  The Arabic word for way is thariqa'.  So, for example, students of the great shaykh, Shaykh Baha’ ad-Din an-Naqshband (q.s.), and his successors down to the present day are said to follow the Naqshbandi thariqa’.  Similarly, Shaykh ‘Abd al-Qadir al-Jilani (q.s.) gave his name to the Qadiri thariqa’, Shaykh Mu’in ad-Din Jisti (q.s.) to the Jisti thariqa’, Shaykh Abu al-Hasan ash-Shadzili (q.s.) to the Shadzili thariqa’, and Shaykh Ahmad Faruqi as-Sirhindi al-Mujaddid (q.s.) to the Mujaddidi thariqa’.  In the English language, each of these thuruq is known as a Sufi Order.  Ultimately, all of these orders lead directly back to the Prophet Muhammad (s.a.w.), and their differences are mostly geographical and superficial.

We live in an age when science and technology have brought mankind not only great material advances, but also a deep cynicism towards the religious and spiritual aspects of life.  On the one hand, the success of the scientific method has set limitations on what are considered to be useful and practical fields of study.  We are taught to believe that only that which the outer senses can perceive, and which the rational mind can analyse, are worthy of being called ‘the truth’.  And on the other hand, it is very easy to become disillusioned with the various religions’ claims that they have access to absolute truth and goodness, when these claims are rarely actualised by experience.  Yet human nature is such that questions regarding the deep mysteries of life continue to arise in individuals, and there will always be some for whom the thirst to find answers to these questions is so great that it will not easily be quenched by rationalistic philosophical constructs or by literal readings of religious texts.

Sufism teaches that it is possible for us to see beyond the veils of darkness which enclothe our belief systems.  One who sincerely devotes himself or herself to a program of Sufi training may eventually approach the state where one can see things as they truly are, when one can worship Allah (s.w.t.) as though we can see Him, and when one can truly realise that one is in the world, but not of the world.  For many people in the modern world it may seem that such teachings are alien to their culture or are a thing of the past - if indeed they ever existed.  Others may instinctively recognise that their destiny lies in the unfolding of these teachings in their lives, but are faced with overwhelming difficulties in finding a trustworthy and authoritative teacher who can show them the way out of the darkness.

Although there is no evidence that the word “taswawwuf”, the Arabic word for Sufism, was used by the Prophet (s.a.w.), he certainly used the word “ihsan” or spiritual sincerity.  Sufi shuyukh have said that Sufism itself is nothing other than this sincerity, or the perfect following of the way of Muhammad (s.a.w.), both inner and outer.  Therefore, taswawwuf, or Sufism, can in no way be divorced from the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad (s.a.w.).  Anyone who acts contrary to the principles of Islam cannot be considered a Sufi, in spite of their claims.  Care must be taken when choosing a guide, for as Shaykh Hasan al-Baswri (q.s.), a shaykh of the 7th century said, ‘Association with the wicked produces suspicion of the good.”


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