The relationship between Sufism and Islam is complex and ever evolving, and there are many different understandings and perspectives on what exactly Sufism is.
Sufism emerged as a tendency within Islam, and is different than Islam in that it preaches an ascetic lifestyle, and is focused on achieving a personal mystical connection with God, often through the practice of repetitious recitals of chants, as well as dancing.
Often called Islamic mysticism, but sometimes seen as being separate from Islam, Sufism’s role in human consciousness is evolving, as Sufism has been rejected by many aspects of Islam, while at the same time embraced by the west. Many contemporary spiritual movements have recognized the profound richness that Sufism has to offer, and incorporated it into their philosophies.
Sufism is About a Mystical Personal Connection with God
The Sufis believe in attaining union with God through a state of ecstasy. In contrast, Islam teaches that only Mohamed the prophet could directly experience God.
Sufism is known as Tasawwuf in Islam, and started in the 8th century. By the 12th century, Sufism had become very widespread and popular, as it formalized some of its teachings, and formed orders around Sufi saints and teachers. Sufism emerged within an Islamic framework, though aspects of Sufism did already exist prior to Sufism, such as in Neoplatonism and Hermeticism.
Sufism Practices Asceticism and Rejects Material Wealth
The early Sufis of the 8th century took the Quran and the Hadith as their starting point, and added ascetic practices in order to deepen and purify their connection with the divine. The Sufis believe in finding the truth of divine love through direct experience of God.
This may have been partially also due to Sufism disenchantment with the luxurious lifestyles of the wealthy Muslims, in particular Umayyad Caliphate the dynasty who ruled the empire at the time, and enjoyed massive wealth as their empire quickly expanded.
During the 7th century, the Arabs conquered vast areas of land in the Middle East, as well as North Africa, and even to India. This meant that their society came into contact with many religious and philosophical traditions. The Christian monastics who lived in the middle east at the time were probably an influence on Sufism.
Sufism Practices Music and Dance as Ways of Worship
Through the practice of Dhikr, which is a Sufi form of meditation that involves repeatedly chanting phrases or prayers, the Sufis attempt to achieve the state of ecstasy that will bring them into direct connection with God.
Along with Dhikr, they also practice Sama, the spiritual audition, involving songs and dance. Other Sufi practices include chanting called “Muraqba”, and “Zikr”. To mainstream Islam, dancing and chanting is not a part of their practice, however, they do pray five times a day.
Sufism is Famous for Its Exquisite Poetry
Out of the Sufism movement came a large body of literature, whose appeal and critical acclaim has reached an even larger audience than the over one billion Muslims in the world. While there are many examples of master writers in Arabic throughout history, for some reason the Sufi poets produced a body of work regarded as amongst the greatest art ever created.
The Sufi poetry emerged as devotional religious writings, exploring themes of personal connection with God, and divine love. Perhaps the most well-known Sufi poet in the western world is Rumi, whose writings have been translated to many languages. There are other legendary Sufi poets as well.
Sufism is Rejected by Islamic Reformists and Fundamentalists
Since the 12th century, Sufism was a big part of mainstream Islam, in fact being the mainstream form of religious experience most Muslims were having. But in recent times the role of Sufism within Islam has greatly diminished,
After the influence of colonialism, the Islamic world wanted to catch up to the west in terms of modernization. Influential Arab thinkers began to question aspects of Islam, and see how their society could become more productive. They started to view Sufism as superstitious and outdated, and that their society could move forward better if they dropped those aspects from their faith. The role of Sufism has diminished greatly in the last century, even being viewed as a fringe sect by some nowadays.
While the Reformists were critical of Sufism, the Fundamentalists of Islam have become outright hostile towards it. The Wahhabis, who appeared in the 18th century and become popular in starting in Arabia, as well as the Salafis totally reject Sufism and are hostile towards Sufism and actively oppose it.
Sufism Has Been Embraced by Esoteric and Contemporary Religious Movements
The attitude of Sufism is to love all of God’s creatures. This is in contrast to other parts of Muslim that at times has been in conflict with other countries, ethnic groups, and religions.
Contemporary new spiritual movements that incorporate aspects of Sufism like to portray Sufism as being a universal wisdom tradition rather than a part of Islam.
As Western and Arabic cultures came into contact, Western academics and intellectuals started to get interested in Sufism. These scholars contributed to the perception that Sufism is a distinct thing from Islam because the rich poetry of Sufism seemed so different from their perception of what they thought Islam is. Also, as Sufi teachers started travelling to other countries, they began presenting their faith as a more universal and open wisdom tradition, rather than as Islam.
During the 1800s there was a general trend of looking for a universal religion, or of finding truth in all faiths and trying to bring them all together in a new system of philosophy. The Theosophical Society, founded by Helena Blavatsky, is an example of this.
Sufism was found to be of great interest to newer religious movements, making Sufism more aligned with these universal styles of beliefs. The cultural movement of the 1960s in the west, who discovered Buddhism and Hinduism, also to a lesser extent embraced Sufism
Sufism and Islam Have Different Attitudes Towards Sharia Law
Islam believes that Sharia Law is to be strictly followed in order to attain union with God. Part of Sharia Law is the rejection of other legal systems.
Sufism believes that adhering to Sharia law does not guarantee union with Allah, and that rituals and meditation are also important components. They are also more open minded in regards to legal systems that are alternatives to Sharia Law.
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