RLG 204 Exam Notes: An Introduction to Islam by Frederick
Mathewson Denny pages: 211-259
Done by: Sabrina Kapisaska
Sufism is generally understood by scholars and Sufis to be the inner, mystical, or psycho-
spiritual dimension of Islam. Today, however, many Muslims and non-Muslims believe that
Sufism is outside the sphere of Islam.
Since Sufism represents the inner aspect of Islam its doctrine is in substance an esoteric
commentary on the Qurʾān. Now the Prophet himself gave the key to all Qurʾānic exegesis
in teachings he gave orally which are verified by the concordance of the chains of inter
mediaries.1 Among these sayings of the Prophet some are fund a mental for Sufism and they
are those which the Prophet enunciated, not as a law-giver, but as a contemplative saint,
sayings which were addressed to those of his companions who later became the first Sufi
masters. There are also the “holy utterances” (aḥādīth qudsīyah) in which God speaks in the
first person by the mouth of the Prophet. These latter have the same degree of inspiration
as the Qurʾān, though not the same “objective” mode of revelation, and in the main they set
forth truths not intended for the whole religious community but only for contemplatives.
This is the basis of the Sufi interpreta tion of the Qurʾān. As the Prophet stated, the Qurʾān
contains in each part several meanings.2This is a characteristic common to all revealed texts
because the process of revelation in a way repeats the process of divine manifestation,
which equally implies a number of levels.
ASCETICISM IN ISLAMIC CONTEXTs
Every religion crystallizes after the death of its founder into differentiated exoteric and
esoteric institutional forms. We tend to call the exoteric "religious" or "outer" practice and
the esoteric "spiritual" or "inner" practice, while both strands are organically linked to each
other in the original form as practiced by the founder and his immediate disciples and
followers, as organically linked as body is to soul for a human to be alive and called human.
The exoteric crystallization within Islam became popularly known as the Sharia, Divine Law
or Canon, and the esoteric crystallization as the Tariqa, the Way. The Tariqa's focus and
praxis became known as tasawwuf, or Sufism in English.
Religion's objective as a whole, both exoteric and esoteric practice taken together, is human
perfection according to the religion's existential worldview of the nature and purpose of
humankind. Religion's given is that we humans are imperfect: either inherently at birth--born
with original sin in the Christian worldview, for example--or as in the Islamic worldview born perfect but derailed from the pure state of birth by the urgings of our appointed demons as
we grow older.
Asceticism, or zuhd in Arabic, is not an end in itself in the Islamic worldview but is one of
several tools and aids towards attaining or catalysts to kick--start religious/spiritual
development. The term zuhd embraces a spectrum of meanings including abstinence,
withdrawal, renunciation from pleasure and/or from society; frugality and modesty in
material comforts, clothing, food, being spartan in one's life style, with a presumption of
piety and being devoted to the service of God. Asceticism is therefore not a necessary end
or required permanent practice to attach oneself to but rather a tool to be used for
attainment of these ends. When, whether, how and for how long it should be dispensed by
the spiritual teacher is a function of the individual character and personality, his or her phase
of religious/spiritual development and the context.
Sufism has come to mean a wide range of beliefs that center on the quest for personal
enlightenment in the union with God. Sufis are sometimes described as the mystics of Islam,
but Sufism fits awkwardly in the categories of religions. Technically Sufism is a denomination
of Islam, however there are many Sufis that are not Muslims and there are many Muslims
that are reluctant to consider Sufism part of Islam. One of the few concepts that Sufis seem
to agree on is that all religions offer a path to salvation or enlightenment and that true God
realization, no matter how it is achieved, transcends the limitations and classification of any
religion. Basically, a saint in any religion is equal to a saint in any other religion because they
are inspired by the same Divine source. Initially the term Sufi referred only to those who had
achieved God realization, but it has since come to be applied to anyone who follows that
particular spiritual path. The name Sufi comes from “suf,” the Arabic word for wool or “saf,”
the Persian word for pure. The dervishes or advanced students of Sufism wore inexpensive
wool clothes as part of their life of renunciation.
Sufism and Islam
Sufism began as religious teachers in the Middle East came to learn the Truth of Islam
directly from Mohammad. Masters who were “ordained” directly by Mohammad founded
three major Sufi schools or orders. The most essential mystical knowledge was then passed
down from each master to a disciple selected to follow as the leader of the school. Other
disciples were sent out as masters to establishnew schools. A Sufi school (ashram or
convent) is often a community center that may include a residence for the students and
master, a school, hospital, orphanage or any number of community services. Some of these
services may be very modest and others may be very extensive, but they are often a vital
part of the local community. Schools are sometimes set up near the tomb of a Sufi saint in
order to maintain the shrine and provide services to pilgrims, including places to retreat and
meditate. While mainstream Islam promotes community service, mosques rarely umbrella such services beyond theological schools since mainstream Islam distinguishes the needs of
the spirit from the needs of the body.
There is no firm historical source for Sufism. Many of the early orders were considered an
integrated part of Islam, but as teachings were codified and the elements of Shi’i and Sunni
Islam became more distinct, Sufism emerged with an identity. One of the basic ideas of
Sufism is to minimize the self or individual identity. Belonging to a particular group with a
unique name is contradictory to this effort. It is said, “a Sufi is one who is not,” and with a
philosophy that seeks the destruction of self-identity it is thought that Sufi’s received their
name from outsiders. Initially the term Sufi referred only to those who had achieved God
realization, but it has since come to be applied to anyone who follows that particular
While Sufism did not exist prior to Islam, Sufi doctrine contains many elements that go
beyond the teaching of Mohammad. Islam is an external structure in which the individual
exists while the internal quest for enlightenment belongs to a realm of Sufi knowledge. This
knowledge integrates Islam and ancient doctrine that resembles elements of Greek
Philosophy, Zoroastrianism and Hinduism that are part of the Sufi path to God-realization.
The most sacred knowledge of the Sufi masters is not written and is passed to each
generation orally, which makes it somewhat difficult to historically trace the evolution of
Sufi doctrine. Nonetheless, it seems reasonable that the Sufi doctrine that differs the most
from the rest of Islam had its beginnings much earlier (although this is a very non-Muslim
view of Sufism). For many years these extra qualities created a great deal of friction
between mainstream Islam and the Muslim mystics. After centuries of falling in and out of
favor, Sufis became integrated and an important central part of Islamicculture and society.
A cornerstone of mysticism is that true knowledge of God is achieved directly and not
through an intermediary like a prophet, saint or priest. Over the centuries this has led to a
great deal of political conflict between mystics and non-mystics. If a cleric or Priest behaves
or commands something that seems in conflictwith dogma, the individual is not in a position
to disagree as long as there is no direct relationship between God and the individual.
Many Sufi orders encourage honoring Saints and Prophets by visiting them if the are alive
or their tombs if they have passed on. Pilgrims often will go to ask for favors in the form of
miracles or prosperity. In many communities the pilgrims are people from other religions
who come to the tombs in hopes of finding favor or receiving miracles.
The high status afforded saints in communities influenced by Sufism implies an alternative
means to communicate with God other than through the Imam, the Islamic clerics. In a
fundamentalist Islamic community the highest-ranking Imam is the supreme authority, both
politically and religiously, and Sufism presents a potential conflict to this authority that has
over the centuries led to persecution of Sufis in several Arab countries. Saudi Arabia and Iran
are two countries where the tombs of Sufi saints have been destroyed. In some areas
teachings of the Sufi masters are held in high regard practicing Sufism is discouraged or even criminalized.
Sufism Outside of Islam
The difference between Sufis and Islam is sometimes as extreme as the difference
between Mormons and Catholics, depending on the particular order. Some Western Sufi
orders have even completely divorced themselves from Islam altogether. Yet, Sufism is
integrated in Islam. The mystical aspects of Sufism may have ancient influences, but these
traditions center on what goes on within a individual. Islam stresses service, virtue, honesty
and charity, the essence of Sufism and a foundation that is necessary for the inner
spirituallity of Sufism. It may seem that either Sufism influenced Islam or the other way
around, but there is little surviving recorded history that sheds light on this. Even when an
order does not incorperate Islam for the laws and practice of daily life, there are disciplines
and doctrine to the place of Islam.
Islam recognizes Abraham, Moses and Jesus, but they credit Mohammad for reintroducing
the true religion without contamination. Sufis extend this, believing that all prophets and
saints of all religio