Main Page | See live article | Alphabetical index


Sufism is a Mystic school of thought that includes philosophers and muslims.

Most sufism embraces the Quran and most of Shi'a and Sunni Islam's beliefs. Sufis believe that their teachings are the essence of every religion, and indeed of the evolution of humanity as a whole. The central concept in Sufism is "love". Dervishes -- the name given to initiates of sufi orders -- believe that love is a projection of the essence of God to the universe. God desires to recognize beauty, and as if one looks at a mirror to see oneself, God "looks" at itself within the dynamics of nature. Since everything is a reflection of God, the school of Sufism practices to see the beauty inside the apparent ugly, and to open arms even to the most evil one. This infinite tolerance is expressed in the most beautiful way, perhaps, by the famous Sufi philosopher and poet Mevlana (also known as Rumi) : "Come, come, whoever you are. Worshiper, Wanderer, Lover of Leaving; ours is not a caravan of despair. Though you have broken your vows a thousand times...Come, come again, Come."

Suf (صوف)is the Arabic word for "wool", in the sense of "cloak", referring to the simple cloaks the original Sufis wore, but the Sufis use the composing letters of the words to express hidden meanings, and so the word could also be understood as "enlightenment".

Sufis teach in personal groups, believing that the intervention of the master is necessary for the growth of the pupil. They make extensive use of parables and metaphors, in such a way that the meaning is only reachable through a process of seeking for the utmost truth and knowledge of oneself.

A large part of Muslim literature comes from the Sufis, who created great books of poetry (which include for example 1001 Arabian Nights, the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, the Conference of the Birds and the Masnavi), all of which contain the profound, and hardly graspable, teachings of the Sufis.

Offshoots of Sufism in Africa include, for example, the Muslim brotherhoods of Senegal.

Table of contents
1 Universal Sufism
2 Orders of Sufism
3 Sufi doctrines
4 Famous Sufis
5 Literature
6 Related Topics
7 External links

Universal Sufism

Sufism is usually seen related to Islam. There is a major line of Sufi thought that sees Sufism as predating Islam and being in fact universal and therefore independent of the Quran and the teachings of the Prophet Muhammed. This view of Sufism has understandably been popular in the West. Major exponents of this view were Hazrat Inayat Khan and Idries Shah.

Orders of Sufism

(Add links & info to other orders: such as Bektashi, Nimatalahi, Quaddiri, Rufi, Noori,...)

Sufi doctrines

Sufi cosmology

Although there is no consent with regard to Sufi cosmology, one can disentangle various threads that led to the crystallization of more or less coherent mythic cosmological doctrines. First is based on purely Quranic notions of the Afterworld (Ahiret), the Hidden (Ghayb- sometimes associated with “hidden” or “invisible” dimensions of human existence, but, more frequently with the state of God before creation or Unmanifest Absolute. Another term for the latter is “Amma”, ie. Divine Darkness) and seven-storeyed Universe explicitly referenced in the Qur’an (and cherished in prophet Mohammad’s “Miraj” or ascent to the God’s face- the powerful spiritual motif that inspired generations of later Sufis and ordinary believers). However, these relatively simple Quranic concepts that gave basic structure to Islamic worldview had soon become exposed to Neoplatonist and Gnostic influences, as well as Zoroastrian religious imagery. As a consequence, Sufism developed a welter of frequently contradictory cosmological doctrines. However, one can point out to a few basic features:

This, as well as other, more orthodox variants of Quranic Sufism, also adopted Hermetic scheme of Ptolemaic spherical cosmos with planetary spheres serving as worlds of the created universe. The fixed stars (originating in ancient Sumero-Mesophotamian tradition) were a sort of limit of Hermetic cosmos: beyond lay the Quranic “Arsh” or God’s throne. Such a picture was integrated into Sufi mythic cosmography and is very similar to the image of the universe one can find in Dante’s “Divine Comedy”.

The Sufi cosmology is not a uniform and coherent doctrine. But, reading various authoritative texts, one can see that practitioners of Sufism were not much bothered with inconsistencies and contradictions that have arisen due to juxtaposition and superposition of at least three different cosmographies: Ishraqi visionary universe as expounded by Suhrawardi Maqtul, Neoplatonic view of cosmos cherished by Islamic philosophers like Ibn Sina/Avicenna (and later assimilated into majestic metaphysical edifice of Ibn al-Arabi) and Hermetic-Ptolemaic spherical geocentric world. All these doctrines (and each one of them claiming to be impeccably orthodox) were freely mixed and juxtaposed, frequently with confusing results- a situation one encounters in other esoteric doctrines, from Hebrew Kabbalah and Christian Gnosticism to Vajrayana Buddhism and Trika Shaivism.

Sufi psychology

The term "Sufi psychology" is probably a deceptive one, because it implies that there is a relatively homogenous doctrine of the psyche the majority of the Sufis would subscribe to. It is not the case. However, one can point out the terms most frequently used and expound on the meanings of these notions.

Drawing from Qur'anic verses, virtually all Sufis distinguish between Nafs, Qalb, Sirr and Ruh. These concepts designate various psychospiritual "organs" or, sometimes, faculties of sensory and suprasensory perception.

Nafs is usually translated as soul or psyche. Its etymology is rooted in "breath" (similar to Biblical or Kabbalistic nefesh and is common to virtually all archaic psychologies where the act of breathing was connected with life, animating otherwise lifeless object. In this respect, ancient notions of "Atman" in Hinduism (cf. German noun "Atem", breath, respiration) or Greek "pneuma" (as well as Latin "spiritus")-all equate the basic visible process of breathing with energizing principle that confers existence to an individual human being. Some Sufis consider under the term "Nafs" the entirety of psychological processes, encompassing whole mental, emotional and volitional life; however, the majority of Quranic-based Sufis are of the opinion that Nafs is a "lower", egotistical and passionate human nature which, along with Tab (literally, physical nature), comprises vegetative and animal aspects of human life. Synonims for Nafs are devil, passion, greed, avarice, ego-centredness etc. The central aim of the Sufi path is transformation of Nafs (technical term is "Tazkiya-I-Nafs" or "purgation of the soul") from its deplorable state of ego-centredness through various psychospiritual stages to the purity and submission to the will of God. Although the majority of the Sufi orders have adopted convenient 7 maqams (maqams are permanent stages on the voyage towards spiritual transformation), and some still operate with 3 stages, the picture is clear: the Sufi’s journey begins with Nafs-I-Ammare (self-accusing soul) and ends in Nafs-I-Mutma’inna (satisfied soul)-although some Sufis’s final stage is, in their technical vocabulary, Nafs-I-Safiya wa Kamila (soul restful and perfected in God’s presence). In essence, this is almost identical to Christian paradigm of "vita purgativa" and various stages the spiritual aspirant traverses in the journey towards God.

The next term, Qalb, stands for heart. In Sufi terminology, this spiritual heart (not to be confused with the pump in the breast ) is again variously described. For some, it is the seat of beatific vision. Others consider it the gate of Ishq or Divine love. Yet, for the majority, it is the battleground of two warring armies: those of Nafs and Ruh or spirit. Here, one again encounters terminological mess: for the Sufis influenced by Neoplatonism, a "higher" part of Nafs is equated to the Aql or intellect (called Nafs-I-Natiqa) or "rational soul" and is the cental active agens in spiritual battle: Ruh or spirit, notwithstanding its name, is rather passive in this stage. In short, cleansing of the Qalb or heart is a necessary spiritual discipline for travellers on the Sufi path. The term for this process is Tazkiah-I-Qalb and the aim is the erasure of everything that stands in the way of purifying God’s love or Ishq.

The third faculty is Sirr, or "the secret", located for the majority in the middle of the chest. Emptying of the Sirr (Taqliyya-I-Sirr) is basically focusing on God’s names and attributes in perpetual remembrance or Dhikr, hence diverting one’s attention from the mundane aspects of human life and fixing it on the spiritual realm. The "emptying" signifies negation and obliteration of ego-centred human propensities.

Ruh or spirit is the fourth "entity" and the second contender in the battle for human life. Again, opinions on Ruh differ among Sufis. Some deem it coeternal with God; others consider it a created entity. Be as it may, Ruh is the plateau of consensus for the majority of Sufis, especially the early ones ( before 11th/12th century C.E. ). For those Sufis with Gnostic leanings (which can be found in Bektashi or Mevlevi orders), Ruh is a soul-spark, immortal entity and transegoic "true self", similar to the Christian concepts of "synteresis" or "Imago Dei", or Vedantist notion of "jiva", as well as Tibetan Buddhist "shes-pa", principle of consciousness and Taoist "shen" or spirit. But, the majority of the Sufis would consider this an unnecessarily extravagant speculation and would stick to the more orthodox notion of dormant spiritual faculty that needs to be worked upon by constant vigil and prayer in order to achieve the Tajliyya-I-Ruh, or Illumination of the spirit. Ironically, this spiritual faculty is frequently referred to in terms one encounters in connection with Nafs- "blind" life force or life current that needs to be purified by strict religious observances in order to achieve illumination.

So, in these four "organs" or faculties: Nafs, Qalb, Sirr and Ruh, and the purificative activities applied to them, the basic orthodox Sufi psychology is contained. The purification of elementary passionate nature (Tazkiya-I-Nafs), followed by cleansing of the spiritual heart so that it may acquire a mirror-like purity of reflection (Tazkiya-I-Qalb) and become the receptacle of God’s love (Ishq), fortified by emptying of egoic drives (Taqliyya-I-Sirr) and remembrance of God’s attributes (Dhikr), gloriously ending in illumination of the spirit (Tajjali-I-Ruh)- this is the essential Sufi spiritual journey. Other spiritual faculties, like Khafi (the arcane) and Akhfa (the most arcane) are employed in other Sufi orders like Naqshbandi, but this is beyond general basic consensus.

Famous Sufis


Mir Valiuddin: Quranic Sufism
Titus Burckhardt: Introduction to Sufi Doctrine
Henry Corbin: The Man of Light in Iranian Sufism
Sayyed Hossein Nasr: Introduction to Islamic Cosmological Doctrines

Related Topics

Dances of Universal Peace A system of spiritual practise through dance originally based on Sufi teaching but expanded to include all spiritual paths.

External links