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What is Sufism

What is Sufism

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Published by: Andrew Sanders on May 13, 2011
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06/17/2012

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 www.IslamicCentre.Org
What is Sūfism?
1.0 Where does the term originate from? 
The exact origins of the word
S
ū
 f 
ī 
and why the discipline is so-called have beendiscussed in detail by the Muslim scholars for centuries. Here we will explore justsome of these opinions and evaluate the validity of each.
1.1. S
ū
fism comes from
Saf 
ā 
(

), which means ‘purity’.
In a Had
 ī 
th recorded by al-D
ā
r al-Qutn
 ī 
, the Prophet (peace and blessings of All
ā
h beupon him) was reported to have said:‘The earth’s purity (
Saf 
ā
) has gone and only impurity remains. Death, today, isa blessing for every Muslim.’
1
 Some scholars, such as Bishr al-H
ā
rith, believe that the origins of the term S
ū
 ī 
can beascribed to this Had
 ī 
th. On this basis, the word S
ū
 ī 
has derived from ‘
Saf 
ā
’ whichmeans cleanliness. The aim of the S
ū
 ī 
is to attain cleanliness, of mind, spirit andbody.The drawback to this interpretation is that linguistically,

does not stem from thesame word from which we take the term

.
1.2. S
ū
fism comes from S
ū
f (

), which means ‘wool’.
The majority of scholars
2
believe the word derives from the Arabic word ‘
S
ū
 f 
’ whichmeans wool. The S
ū
 ī 
s were known for their simplicity and wore simple clothing.This opinion is makes sense from a linguistic point of view too; the word
S
ū
 f 
ī 
derivesfrom
and so does the word for wool in Arabic.There are countless Ah
ā
d
 ī 
th that indicate the Prophet (peace and blessings of All
ā
h beupon him) and his Companions would wear wool. For instance:•Ab
ū
M
ū
s
ā
(may All
ā
h be pleased with him) reports that the Prophet (peace andblessings of All
ā
h be upon him) would wear wool, ride donkeys and respond to theinvitation of the weak.•Al-Hasan al-Basr
 ī 
once remarked: ‘I met seventy Badar
 ī 
s
3
, their clothing wasnothing but wool.’In other words, wearing wool is a sign of humility and simplicity.
1.3. S
ū
fism takes it name from the
 As’h
ā 
 b al-Suffa
.
A third explanation is that the term derives from the word ‘
Suffa
’, or the bench. Thisrelates to the bench that existed in the Prophet’s mosque. This area was occupied bythe simple, poor and ascetic followers of the Prophet, like Ab
ū
Huraira (may All
ā
h bepleased with him). From a lingual perspective, this opinion does not make sensebecause the root word for S
ū
fism is
whereas the root word for bench is
1
 
Sufi Book of Spiritual Ascent 
(
al-Risala al-Qushairiyya
) Abu al-Qasim al-Qushairi. Translated byRabia Harris. ABC International Publishing, Chicago 1997. p. 279.
2
This includes Tusi, Suharwardi, Kalabazi, Abu Nu’aim, Ghazali, Ibn Khaldun, Ibn al-Jawzi andAbdul Halim Mahmud.
3
In other words, the Companions who participated in the Battle of Badr.
 
 www.IslamicCentre.Org
. However, in terms of meaning, this interpretation does carry someweight. The Companions of the Bench spent most of their time in the mosque in thecompany of the pious, something which all S
ū
 ī 
s aspire to and practice.
1.4. S
ū
fism comes from the word for ‘line’.
Some ascribe the term to the word
Saff 
, which means line or row. The advocates of this position assert that S
ū
 ī 
s line themselves in the presence of All
ā
h Almighty withdiscipline and equality, rather like Muslims do in congregational prayer.
1.5. Other minority opinions.
i. There are a handful of scholars who believe that the term S
ū
 ī 
does not in fact haveits origins in the Arabic Language. Rather the term evolved from the Sophists. Thesewere philosophers who existed in Ancient Greece, in the time of Aristotle. Because of their love of wisdom (which is the literal meaning of 
 philosophy
) and desire to seek the truth, the term was later adjusted and applied to the Muslim ascetics.ii. Ab
ū
Nu’aim in
 Hilya al-Awliy
ā
 
and T
ū
s
 ī 
write that before Islam, there was acertain period when there was no-one to circulate the Ka’ba. A man called S
ū
fa(
 
) came from a far-off land and would perform Taw
ā
f. If this opinion is accepted,then it shows that this term was known before the appearance of Islam.iii. Another minority opinion is that S
ū
fism comes from the word Suf 
ā
na (
 
), aplant that grows in the desert. In the same way this plant suffices on the smallest of provisions, so does the S
ū
 ī 
in this world.
1.6. Summary.
From a grammatical perspective, the opinion that the term came from the word for woolis the strongest. Perhaps the weakest opinion is that it came from the Sophists. This isbecause though the Sophists were known to be keen philosophers, they often debated andphilosophized without purpose and direction. As Plato comments in
The Republic
, theywere happy to play the role of the ‘devil’s advocate’ rather than aim to derive some goodfrom their endeavours.Nevertheless, all opinions certainly are useful in helping us to understand whatS
ū
fism is. Undoubtedly, S
ū
fism does entail purity and the need for simplicity, as reflectedin wearing wool. There is an ideal role model in the Companions of the Bench for the
S
ū
 ī 
greats and S
ū
fism does preach equality and discipline. Also, the
S
ū
 ī 
s are known toengage in philosophy and certainly love wisdom.
1.7 Defining S 
ū
fism 
Offering a terminological definition of S
ū
fism is just as difficult. In short, we can say thatthe discipline:-strives for human perfection, by following the model of the Prophet (peace and blessingsof All
ā
h be upon him).-makes the soul the focus of attention.-belittles the worth of this world.
 
 www.IslamicCentre.Org
-encourages love and affection between all humans.-encourages spiritual contemplation over the works of All
ā
h.
2.0 S 
ū
fism in Islam.
2. 1 References to S
ū
 ī 
teachings in the Qur’
ā
n
The word ‘S
ū
 ī 
’ or ‘Tassawuf’ is not mentioned anywhere in the Qur’
ā
n, thoughindirectly, countless verses refer to its teachings and ideals.
4
 Here are just some of the verses which refer to what can be termed ‘S
ū
 ī 
’ teachings:a. ‘The believers are only those who, when All
ā
h is mentioned, feel a fear in theirhearts and when His verses are recited unto them, the verses increase their faith; andthey put their trust in their Lord (alone).’ (Qur’
ā
n, 8:2).b. ‘Those who remember All
ā
h standing, sitting and lying down on their sides, andthink deeply about the creation of the heavens and earth (saying): ‘Our Lord! Youhave not created all this without purpose. Glory be to you! So save us from thetorment of the fire.’ (Qur’
ā
n, 3:191).c. ‘Those who believe and whose hearts find rest in the remembrance of All
ā
h; verily,in the remembrance of All
ā
h do hearts find rest’ (13: 28).d. In the Qur’
ā
n, All
ā
h praises the Companions of the Bench:‘And do not turn those away who invoke their Lord, morning and face seekingHis face. (6:52).e. Moreover, S
ū
 ī 
s gave great weight to concepts such as dependence (
Tawakkul
),patience (
Sabr 
), striving with the soul (
 Muj
ā
hada al-Nafs
), piety (
Taqwa
),
 Zuhd 
 (renunciation),
 Mahabba
(love), remembrance (
 Zikr 
) and
 Du’
ā
(supplication). All of these ideas and concepts originate from the Holy Qur’
ā
n directly.
5
 
2.2 References to S
ū
 ī 
teachings in the Sunna.
For the S
ū
 ī 
s, the Prophet (peace and blessings of All
ā
h be upon him) is the perfectrole model and teacher.
In fact, the Prophet (peace and blessings of All
ā
h be upon him)
4
Unfortunately, this has given some weak-Muslims an opportunity to undermine its importance, andeven suggest that there is no place for S
ū
fism in Islam. To answer such an objection is simple; we allknow as Muslims that perhaps the most important belief in Islam is Tawh
 ī 
d, or the oneness of All
ā
hAlmighty. In fact, this forms the basis and foundation of Islam. But there is no mention of the wordTawh
 ī 
d in the Qur’
ā
n at all. Just because this word has not been mentioned in the Qur’
ā
n, no one canclaim that this implies it is not important, or that Tawh
 ī 
d is not a part of Islam. The word Tawh
 ī 
d issimply not mentioned by word; but in meaning, the entire Qur’
ā
n is a direct or indirect reference to theTawh
 ī 
d of All
ā
h. In exactly the same way, Tassawuf does not appear in word in the Qur’
ā
n, but Islamteaches it in many areas of our lives.
5
In the
al-Ris
ā
la
of Imam Qushair
 ī 
, we find detailed discussions on themes such as repentance(Tawba), Fear (Khawf), Hope (Raj
ā
), Humility (Khush
ū
’), Envy (Hasad), thankfulness (Shukr),satisfaction (Rid
ā
), servanthood (Ub
ū
diyya), steadfastness (Istiq
ā
ma), sincerity (Ikhl
ā
s), shame (Hay
ā
),sainthood (Wil
ā
ya) and so on. All of these concepts are derived from the Qur’an.

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