What is Sufism? This is by no means an easy question to answer. Sufis famously vary in style, both that of the outer appearance, and of the spiritual practice. Unnervingly for a scientifically minded researcher they seem to be rather chameleon-like, changing their ways according to the time and the society they happen to live in.
Whatever attempt at a definition one were to make, there is one point that is always important to keep in mind. Sufism, whenever it is a real school and not just a family system, is a spiritual path, not a religion. The difference, in essence, is that as a devotee of a religion you believe, and as a follower of a spiritual path you get your own experience. As a Sufi said, “Sufism is based on experiences, not on premises.“
And what might be the purpose of this path? Just as an ultimate goal of any spiritual pursuit, it is rediscovering our true nature, remembering the Reality. To quote an Indian Sufi mystic of the beginning of the last century Hazrat Inayat Khan, “The aim is to find God within ourselves, to dive deep into ourselves, so that we may touch the unity of the whole Being.“
The methods that Sufis use to attain to this goal differ, in their apparent form, according to the specifics of each Sufi group – which is usually called an order. Those orders are organised around a teacher, or teachers, and are/were mostly started by an awakened master. What Sufis call baraka (blessing) would then have been passed on through the initiatic links between a teacher and a student. Those links would then create a lineage. There are dozens of Sufi lineages alive today, with Qadiri, Naqshbandi, Chisti, Mevlevi, Shadhili being just a few names one is likely to come across. Some lineages might have more than one order as a part of its growing “tree.”
“The Sufi Process, at its best, is the conscious development of our human capacities – the renovation of the natural faculties of the Soul to restore spontaneous virtue and a living experience of the Divine.” — Shaikh Kabir Helminski
One practice that unites all Sufis, no matter how irreconcilably different they might look to the eye of an outsider, is their attention on awakening the heart. The chief method of doing that, which is also common to all, is what is known as Dhikr, or Zikr: a rhythmic repetition of the phrase La illaha illa Llah, either within or aloud. This translates from Arabic as “There is no god but God” or, perhaps more plainly, “There is no reality except for the Reality” (and not, as one can sometimes hear, “there is no God but Allah” – such translation can be easily perceived as a statement of the superiority of the Muslim faith, while the point of this statement is to remind the seekers of the illusory nature of this perceived world and point them to the existence of the underlying reality.)
This brings us to the point of the origin of Sufism, which is where one might encounter some differences of opinion even among the Sufis themselves. The most widespread view is that Sufism originates at the same time as Islam, with its roots embedded in the Qur’an and the teachings of the Prophet Mohammed (pbuh.)
For all the purposes of the current day spiritual practice this view is sufficient. Even those involved with Sufism in the West would recognise, if they care to study the original teachings of Islam, that what they might consider to be created from a blank page by their founder has in fact grown from the same root, which is Islamic mysticism.
“You are a Christian because you believe in Jesus, and you are a Jew because you believe in all the prophets including Moses. You are a Muslim because you believe in Muhammad as a prophet, and you are a Sufi because you believe in the universal teaching of God’s love. You are really none of those, but you are all of those because you believe in God. And once you believe in God, there is no religion. Once you divide yourself off with religions, you are separated from your fellowman.” — Bawa Muhaiyaddeen
However, those among Sufis who have achieved the goal of their pursuit showed the light of their realisation, among other things, in their refusal to distinguish between people according to their beliefs and teaching their students without requesting a change in religion. Jelaluddin Rumi is probably the most famous example of that, having taught Jews as Jews, and Christians as Christians. Another is Hazrat Inayat Khan, who came to the West just before the World War I and had a great number of Christian mureeds (Sufi students.)
Still, this is only the outlook that one gets from within a current day Sufi tariqa (order) and while identifying with being a student or a teacher on the path of illumination. If one were to consider the evolution of the humankind through millennia, one would immediately come across the enduring opinion that what we now know as Sufism existed, in its essence although not in the name, for as long as humanity itself, and that the latter would have not been able to endure should there not have been a certain number of highly evolved spiritual beings on earth at any given time.
There has always been a talk of at least one hidden lineage that doesn’t have a name, and never shows itself in the form alike those mentioned above. The roots of that lineage are said to be growing from far beyond the original Islam. Whether one will find such an idea worth considering often depends on one’s background and on the particulars of one’s practice.
“Everyone sees the unseen in proportion to the clarity of his heart, and that depends upon how much he has polished it.” — Jelaluddin Rumi
Here 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.”