Meeting with Jalal al-Din Rumi
Meeting with Jalal al-Din Rumi

Sufism is Islamic mysticism. The word derives from the Arabic tasawwuf meaning “to wear wool” or “to seek purification.” Early Sufis, or practitioners of Sufism, often wore simple wool capes and sought knowledge of the higher being using both their bodies and minds.

Sufism is in the same tradition as Christian and Hindu mysticism. Many became ascetics and developed a number of different rituals to achieve closeness or unity with God. These included the use of prayer beads, similar to a rosary in Catholicism, and fasting, chanting, and dance.

The most famous of those using dance were known in the West as the whirling dervishes, an order of Sufis founded by Jalal al-Din Rumi. The dance involved the acolytes spinning in circles around the master much as the planets revolve around the Sun.

The ulema were highly skeptical of Sufi practices and often persecuted Sufi followers. Seeking to bridge the gap between the religious formalism of the ulema and Sufi practices, the philosopher al-Ghazzali argued that the two were not irreconcilable. Muhyiddin ibn ‘Arabi (1165–1240), who was born in Andalusia and died in Damascus, was another Muslim scholar who wrote on Sufism.

A master or shaykh mentored students of the Sufi orders. Much like fraternal orders, the Sufis were open to all; however, initiates often had to give up their personal property and pledge obedience to the shaykh.

They then embarked on a journey or road through various stages of membership. Religious endowments enabled some Sufi orders to establish their own complexes with a mosque, school, kitchens, and social welfare programs. Sufi complexes were established in Baghdad by the 12th century.

These were often built around the tomb of the founder of the order and the tombs of Sufi shaykhs often became sites of pilgrimage and veneration among both the Sunni and Shi’i.

Many Sufis were prolific poets as well as musicians and made major contributions to Islamic literature as well to classical Islamic music. Hafiz and al-Rumi were among the most well known and beloved of the Sufi poets. Sufis also traveled across the Muslim world as teachers and missionaries and were instrumental in the spread of Islam, especially in Africa.