Below you can read an excerpt from the Sufi Hazrat Inayat Khan’s paper on what Sufism is, and is not.
Esotericism must be considered something beyond conception. That is, that which is within conception cannot be esotericism, it is exotericism. Often, I am asked by the workers of the Sufi order, “If anyone asks us `What is Sufism?’ what shall we answer? What are its tenets? What are its principles? What are its dogmas? Its doctrines?” We may give the objects of the Movement, the thoughts of the Sufis, the ideas from our publications; but that is not the answer. If Sufism was tangible, then it would not be Sufism.
All different ideas that you receive from your Initiator, they are your Initiator’s ideas, they are not Sufism. You may give them to another because it is something that you have benefited by yourself as Sufism. Yet, for you to understand for yourself, you must know that Sufism is beyond all ideas. Therefore if it came to argue on this point with those belonging to the occult, mystical, esoteric schools of different denominations on the point of the difference between their own philosophy and Sufism, you will find yourself at a loss if you will discuss on comparative doctrines, dogmas, or principles.
For no doctrines, dogmas, or principles Sufism stands, calling them its own. The Sufi says, “Wisdom does not belong to me alone or my sect. It cannot be labeled with the word Sufi. Wisdom belongs to the human race, wisdom belongs to God. I, as any other being, desire to understand better every day more and more. And it is my pleasure and privilege to share what I consider good and beautiful with my fellow men.” …
Now the question is, how shall we make for ourselves intelligible what Sufism is, even if we did not try to tell it fully to the uninitiated? It may be answered that Sufism is the essence of religions. It is like the soul, not body. And as we cannot imagine soul as something material so we cannot imagine the essence, which is spirit. Only what can give us an insight into what is Sufism is the result we attain from it.
And what result is it? It is a gradual unfoldment of our soul. It is the light rising within ourselves and gradually illuminating for us the life outside. It is the joy that we feel at experiencing all the beauty and our horizon of a sublime vision being every day wider. We become more appreciative of all that is good and beautiful, and so we express it in our thought and feeling and action. We feel a greater energy, courage, power, patience, hope. Life becomes for us worth living. We may not find ourselves in this world at home, but Sufism makes our visit here on earth more enjoyable. Nevertheless, the homesickness is felt ever so much more keenly. We feel in ourselves greater power, growing inspiration, greater self-control, and expression of our soul in all things we do. We feel harmonious within ourselves and comfortable in our atmosphere.
It is not the medicine that counts, it is the result that it produces that counts. Sufism is the process by which the above-said result is perceived. By making it doctrines, dogmas, tenets, principles, we only make it what it is not. The simple ones who are not contented with little explanation or with no explanation may be left to please themselves. It is not by any rigid principles that we have to attract humanity, it is by our being.