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Leatham, Jeremy, et. al"Sufism" Faithology, LLC. Last modified March 6, 2013. http://faithology.com/denominations/sufism

Leatham, Jeremy, et. alSufism. Faithology, LLC, 2012. http://faithology.com/denominations/sufism (Accessed Sep 1, 2014).

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  • Last Updated: March 6, 2013
  • Originally Published: July 23, 2012
  • Sufism


Although numerous Sufi orders exist, reliable estimates of Muslims who practice Sufism are extremely difficult to obtain. Sufis can be Sunni, Shi'a, or neither, and they are distinguished more by their mystic approach to Islam than adherence to an official system of doctrine or practice. This makes it difficult not only to estimate worldwide adherents to Sufism, but also, in some cases, to identify Sufis at all since they do not comprise a separate sect within Islam.11The term Sufism most likely derives from ṣūf , referring to the course, uncomfortable clothing that Muslim ascetics would often wear as a rejection of materialism.


al-Ghazali, an important Muslim theologian, defends the notion of Sufism within Islamic belief through his writings


Muslim ascetics from Arabia and Persia founded Sufism during the 7th century CE. As with Sunnism and Shi'ism, historians find it impossible to point to the precise moment of the founding of Sufism. Sufis also trace their belief system to Muhammad, either through 'Ali or Abu Bakr, and they believe that their practices conform to true Islam; however, as a distinct group within Islam, Sufism began to emerge in the latter half of the seventh century in opposition to the materialism, greed, and corruption perceived in the Umayyad dynasty (661–750 CE).

Sufism grew from asceticism to mysticism nearly a century later with an increased emphasis on the concept of divine love.2Every single action that Sufis take is performed only with the utmost respect for the divine. This unfailing love for God is the primary motivation for Sufis. As Sufism spread throughout Islam, it became recognized for its piety, psychological insight, emphasis on a personal relationship with God, and reflection and meditation as a way to God. For years, Sufis were organized into small, close circles, often led by a leader noted for particular insight. In the 12th century, however, formal orders began to take shape, some of which remain today.

Distinct Beliefs

Sufis may consider themselves Sunni or Shi'a (or, in some cases, neither), and they may hold any of the same major beliefs as those of either branch. However, Sufism is distinguished by its emphasis on divine love and view that mysticism3Mysticism is "the belief that direct knowledge of God, spiritual truth, or ultimate reality can be attained through subjective experience " is a path to God. Sufis also tend to practice a high level of self-denial, frowning upon materialism and lack of discipline. Although Sufis compose a relatively small movement within Islam, at least in terms of numbers, they have had a significant impact on Muslim history through their beliefs, literature, and missionary efforts.

Although Sufism as a whole lacks its own unified clergy or system of doctrines and practices, members of this movement are generally united in their belief that God and his love can be accessed most completely through self-denial and complete devotion. In their view, individuals must purify themselves from worldliness and selfishness through sacrifice and meditation. The path to God includes repentance, asceticism, and remembering him through chanting or singing certain names of God and passages from the Quran.

Because of their emphasis on direct contact with God, many Sufis eschew the formal and rigid sets of Islamic religious law, which have been established over time by the efforts of Muslim scholars to interpret the Quran, hadith, and Muslim traditions. Instead, they strictly adhere to their own view of divine law, which they believe gives them access to and knowledge of the divine without the distractions or potential errors of human interpretation.

Sufism is also well known for its poetry, which has influenced the literature of Islam as well as some of its primary languages, including Arabic and Persian. Much of Sufi poetry focuses on the loving relationship between man and God. In addition to being used as a means of personal expression, it has also been written, recited, and sung as means to access and praise God.

Historically, the Sufis have had an enormous impact on the expansion and establishment of Islam through their missionary efforts. As formal Sufi orders gained footholds in places like India and North Africa, they became involved in politics, and members of the orders exerted an influence on the members of their communities. To this day, missionary efforts remain an important part of Sufism.