A Pakistani devotee dances at the shrine of a Sufi saint at an annual festival in Lahore, 2014.
Sufism may be best described as Islamic mysticism or asceticism, which through belief and practice helps Muslims attain nearness to Allah by way of direct personal experience of God. While there are other suggested origins of the term Sufi, the word is largely believed to stem from the Arabic word suf, which refers to the wool that was traditionally worn by mystics and ascetics.
Belief in pursuing a path that leads to closeness with God, ultimately through encountering the divine in the hereafter, is a fundamental component of Islamic belief. However, in Sufi thought this proximity can be realised in this life.
Far from being a minority articulation, Sufi orders and Sufi-inspired organisations can be found throughout the Muslim world and beyond, from Marrakech to Manila, London to Lagos, and everywhere in-between.
Not really the same thing – one can be ascetic without being mystic, and vice versa. Many of the most famous Sufis – and I’m thinking Rumi here, were hardly ascetic.
Sufism is often erroneously referred to as a sect or as a fringe minority, however Sufi thought and practice extends beyond the Sunni-Shia sectarian divide, across socio-economic boundaries, geographies, and languages. Sufi orders, known as Tariqas, are found throughout the Muslim world, with each order taking on its own distinct identity based on its practices and structure, and often reflecting the cultural and linguistic context in which it is set.
While structures vary greatly between different Sufi orders, the basic components are that of the murshid, the spiritual guide, and the murid, a follower who pledges allegiance, bayah, to the murshid. These spiritual guides derive their authority and legitimacy from a chain of successive tutelage and instruction, silsilah, which through continuous generations may reach back to a prominent saint or mystic and eventually to the Prophet Muhammad himself. The role of the murshid is to act as a facilitator to the murid, instructing them on how to experience the divine.
A central component of Sufi worship is the rite of dhikr, which involves constant, meditative remembrance of God, done both communally and individually, geared towards cultivating greater connection with the divine.
The concept of dhikr is rooted in the Quran as an instruction to all Muslims to devote time towards specific acts of remembrance and repetition of the names of Allah, praying supplementary prayers, and can be extended to other activities that contribute towards achieving an experiential connection with the divine.
Other practices or rituals that Sufis engage in, which vary from order to order, include prayers and fasting, the celebration of the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday, the visitation of, and performance of rituals at shrines and graves, meditation, and abstinence.
Some Sufi orders use devotional music and ritual movements, akin to dance, to further enhance the experiential nearness to God they are seeking. This practice is most commonly associated today with the Mevlevi Sufi order’s Dervishes of Turkey, often referred to as the ‘Whirling Dervishes.’
Sufi expression is also manifested in written form, with biographical accounts of saints and mystics, poetry, and bodies of instructional and descriptive literature to help guide and coach readers in reaching their ascetic objectives.
One of the most famous Sufi poets is the popular 13th century Persian Islamic scholar, theologian, and mystic, Jalal al-Din Rumi, whose works continue to be translated and sold extensively within and beyond the Muslim world.
Sufi mystics have also made contributions to the wealth of exegetical literature, expounding on the inner dimensions of the Quran. Some of these famous writings include the tafsir works, which offer explanation and commentary on the Quran, by Abu al-Qasim al-Qushayri and Sahl al-Tustari.
Sufi groups and leaders have received criticism from both political Islamist and Salafi quarters, in some cases leading to violence and discriminatory behaviour towards them.
Some political Islamist groups consider the practices and worldview of Sufi orders to be incongruent with the perceived challenges and problems afflicting the global Muslim population. They believe there is a need to move away from, if not discard entirely, the more ascetic elements of the faith and concentrate on political and social action.
Similarly, some Salafi groups have also been critical of Sufi thought and practice as being inventions of faith, often using accusations of apostasy and blasphemy, leading to proclamations of takfir (excommunication), that represent a deviation from the core values of Islam as they perceive it was practiced during the time of the Prophet Muhammad and the earliest generations of Muslims.
In Iran, Shia Sufis have been subjected to harassment, arrests, and imprisonment at the hands of the countries religious administration who consider the Sufis following of their own spiritual leaders to be incompatible with the Islamic Republic of Iran’s theocratic system, Wilayat al-Faqih (Guardianship of the Jurist), which grants religious and political authority to the Supreme Leader.
Sufi leaders, communities, and sites have frequently been targeted by acts of violence perpetrated by extremist groups in different parts of the world.
Pakistan has seen considerable violence aimed at Sufi targets, with dozens of shrines bombed and prominent Sufis attacked. In February 2017, ISIS claimed responsibility for an attack on the Shahbaz Qalandar shrine in the southern Pakistani city of Sehwan in which 88 people were killed and hundreds wounded. A celebrated and popular Pakistani performer of Qawwali devotional music from the Sufi tradition, Amjad Sabri, was gunned down in Karachi in 2016 in an attack claimed by a faction of the Pakistani Taliban.
In Egypt’s restive Sinai region, a deadly assault on a Sufi mosque in the town of Bir al-Abed in November 2017 saw over 300 people killed and at least a 120 injured in what is widely believed to be an attack carried out by the ISIS affiliate that has waging an insurgency in the region. In November 2016, the same group claimed responsibility for the execution of Sheikh Sulaiman Abu Haraz, a symbolic Sufi spiritual leader and elder in the Sinai region.
The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom’s Annual Report for 2017 highlights the challenges faced by Sufis belonging to the Nematollahi Gonabadi Sufi order in Iran, who “continue to face a range of abuses, including attacks on their prayer centres and husseiniyas (meeting halls); destruction of community cemeteries; and harassment, arrests, and physical assaults of their leaders.”