What is a Sufi?

Malcolm Tatum

Sufis are adherents of the religion of Islam who emphasize and promote the mystical form of Islamic faith that is known as Sufism. This expression of Islam is based on the writings of Shaykh Adhmad Zarruq, considered by many to be the mystic master of the Sufi faith. His 15th century work The Principles of Sufism continues to be an important work for all practitioners of the Sufi discipline.

Sufis seek an individual connection with God in a way that resists outside influences.
Sufis seek an individual connection with God in a way that resists outside influences.

While all Muslims understand that it is possible to become close to Deity after physical death, persons who seek to connect with God through Sufi belief understand that it is possible to become close with the Divine while still in this life. To that end, Sufi mystics tend to practice a form of Islam that is very contemplative in nature. Sufi brotherhoods, known as Tariqa, provide opportunities for individuals to live and worship together for the purpose of practicing this form of mysticism.

Sufis adhere to Sufism, a mystical form of Muslim faith and belief.
Sufis adhere to Sufism, a mystical form of Muslim faith and belief.

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Sufi masters and practitioners tend to make use of parables or stories to illustrate points of the faith. Along with parables, the use of metaphors and allegory are also very common. The goal is to help individuals transcend the temporal aspects of existence and begin to see existence as not strictly divided into temporal and spiritual aspects. By abandoning these artificial boundaries, the Sufi believes it is possible to see life in the here and now as part of eternity and recognize the deep connection with the eternal.

The underlying principle of Sufi faith and practice has to do with seeking to not only acquire understanding but to personally experience a connection with God that is enduring and not subject to corruption by outward influences. This is often considered to be a lifelong pursuit for the devout Sufi that will continue once the individual passes from life on the earth and enters into the spiritual realm. The faithful Sufi will engage in a series of personal learning experiences that are linked by periods of contemplation and prayer so that a greater understand can be achieved. From this perspective, a Sufi can be said to have some common ground with mystics in other world religions, such as Hinduism, Buddhism, and Christian denominations that contain elements of mysticism and gnosticism.

Sufi mystics dance themselves into an ecstatic state.
Sufi mystics dance themselves into an ecstatic state.

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Discussion Comments


I ran into an article in one of my magazines which was talking about the similarities between Sufism and Buddhism. I was interested because I have been reading about Buddhism since my college days, but I had never read about Sufism.

The author was talking about how both are interested in existence and killing the ego to be closer to the Divine. I think the difference between mainstream religion like mainstream Hinduism and Buddhism or mainstream Islam and Sufism is that the latter is more concerned about the inner status of an individual, more so than specific practices. Mystics like Sufis and Buddhists want to be closer to the reality and reason for existence rather than the illusion of world affairs or materialistic gains. I wouldn't want to make any generalizations because I'm sure there are Muslims who care about these as well.

But maybe Sufism as a sect of Islam tries to distinguish these lines between everyday life and spiritual goals more clearly. I kind of see Sufi Islam as more devoted to this spiritual journey than the mainstream religion.


It's so interesting how things that once were harshly criticized and even condemned are later liked and promoted. When I visited Turkey, I also visited the city of Konya. Konya is said to be the place where Rumi, the famous Sufi poet, lived. From what I read, the region was ruled by the Seljuks at that time who were not too fond of Sufism. They refused to accept Sufis as Muslims and tried to prevent their practices and perhaps even get rid of them altogether.

Today, Konya is a place of attraction for tourists from all over the world. Everyone I spoke to was extremely proud to live in the land known for Sufism and Rumi. Most Muslims now are very much accepting of Sufism, the whirling dervishes are known by many cultures. The poetry of Rumi is in bookstores all over the world and it's probably one of the most widely translated writings of all time.

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