Esoteric Islam

Sufism – Esoteric, Mystical and Hidden Islamic Tradition

In this post, I will talk about 7 main topics of Sufism. Note in here that under each main topics are many smaller sub-topics. Each sub-topic will satisfy your thirst for esoteric knowledge about the true meaning of Sufism:

  1. What is Sufism?
  2. Who are Sufis?
  3. Misunderstanding of Sufism
  4. How to Learn Sufism
  5. Sufism Teachings
  6. Sufism Beliefs
  7. Sufism Practices

I have also made a video about this special topic of Sufism, so please check out this Youtube video! Although it doesn’t include all the contents on this post, it does contain some other important information that are not on this website:

What is Sufism?

1. What is Sufism?

  1. Sufism Definition
  2. Wisdom
  3. Mystical dimension of Islam

1. Sufism Definition

In the book named The way of Sufi by Idries Shah, “Sufism” is traceable to the sounds of the letters S, U, F, which are the Arabic signs for Soad, Wao, Fa. Idries states that when these sounds are pronounced, they are capable of transcending the potentiality of the human mind.

The idea of Islamic sound effect is similar to that of the Sanskrit mantra, which is the practice of uttering sacred sounds such as Om Mani Padme Hum. These sounds produce resonance in the body that can ignite the positive, uplifting, and peaceful state of the mind.

Uttering mantras is an ancient practice and it still exists today in many traditions such as Buddhism, Hinduism, and Taoism. This is because the ancients believe that the universe is made up of sounds, energy, frequency, and vibration, which are unseen to human eyes.

In Sufism, this practice is called “Dhikr“. When you utter the sounds that harmoniously match with the vibration of the universe, your mind will be transcended and dance with the vibration of the universe. The subtleties of the heart called “lataif” (chakra, energy center) will start to open, which allows you to enter the realm of the Unseen.

Therefore, the definition of Sufism is the way, path, or technique that can transcend a human being into what he is truly capable of doing.

We cannot define Sufism within the framework of religion. The path of Sufism is compatible with every religion, and it is not time-bound to a particular period. The outer form of religion may be different, but its inner essence remains unchanged as stated in Sufi wisdom:

“The clothes may vary, the person is the same.”

2. Wisdom

According to Idries, Sufism means Wisdom. This is because the word “Sufi” can be linked to the Greek word “Sophia”, which means “wisdom”. You see, what the name represents depends on the quality of the sounds produce. We can also see a similar concept in Gnosticism with the word “Sophia” meaning “wisdom” and “Gnosis” meaning “knowledge”.

The word “Sufi” can also be traced back to the Hebrew cabbalistic term “Ain Sof”, understood as the Reality before any material manifestation – that which is endless, absolute, and infinite.

The Sufi denies that “Sufism” is a word derivative from the ancient cultures, but it is an equivalence or even exists prior to the Hermetic, Pythagorean, and Platonic traditions. In other words, Sufism has existed a long time before these esoteric mystic schools started. It is these esoteric schools that borrow the ideas and teachings of Sufism, not vice versa.

3. Mystical dimension of Islam

Sufism is defined in the Western world as “Islamic mysticism” or “the esoteric dimension of Islam“. The Arabic word for Sufism is “Tasawwuf”, which means “to become a Sufi”. According to some Western authors, the meaning of the word “Sufi” comes from the word “Suf” (soof) in Arabic, which means “the one who wears wool”.

Let me tell you that, all of these definitions are adopted language to the Western culture. They really do not explain the true nature and meaning of the word “Sufism”.

To learn the real meaning of Sufism, we need to learn from the authentic Sufi masters who really walk on the path of Sufism.

One thing to note that the Sufis are not necessarily Muslims, which means that they may not practice the Islamic religion. According to Sufi teachings, religions are just the tools for the masters to deliver their knowledge. That is, we are the drivers (human beings) who drive the cars (religions) to reach our final goal. The cars can be Islam, Buddhism, or Christianity, yet our human destiny is only One.

2. Who are Sufis?

 “He who calls himself a Sufi is not one”.

Everyone thinks that they are Sufis except the Sufis themselves.

Idries indicates in his book that the real Sufi is an al-insan al-kamil (The Perfect Man), who attains the highest degree of human development, endowed with mystical power from within himself. A seeker must go through 4 stages of Sufism to attain this level.

He is the one that can perform miracles, read other people’s thoughts, walk on water or see events at a far distant place.

We cannot define a true Sufi because a real Sufi is the one who attaches to nothing, who lives in this world but does not belong to this world, who is free, wise, and creative. Sufism is based upon love, so you will usually see them as poets or lovers. They are not people of religion, but the people who use religion to teach universal truths to the mass.

3. Misunderstanding of Sufism

In Western culture, the misinterpretation of the word “Sufi” “as the one who wears wool” is caused by unproven theories and opinions of those who call themselves scholars with master or PhD degree. They are intellectual people who understand Sufism by books but not by experience, by the mind but not by the soul, and by the intellect but not by intuition.

To learn Sufism, we need to have direct experience with the Sufi master called “Sheikh”. Sufi masters will teach us in unusual ways, such as through trials, symbols, poems, stories, and analogy.

Words alone may not be enough to convey their teachings because their teachings are transformational in a way that they will transform who you are. It’s like a caterpillar turning into a butterfly and never returning to its old form again. That’s why the way of the Sufi is the way of wisdom, of extracting knowledge from experience instead of reading books and theories.

Nowadays, wisdom is not a popular word because people rely too much on their intellect and knowledge to solve problems. What is real becomes veiled what is false becomes prevalent.

The people who practice Sufism such as whirling and chanting are not Sufis. They are called Sufis but they are actually not Sufis because the real Sufis are the ones who possess wisdom.

To become a Sufi is much more about developing the inner qualities that you have rather than doing the practices that you religiously do.

4. How to Learn Sufism

If you want to learn more about Sufism, you really need the correct information, authentic books, and the right Sufi teachers. These factors will make the difference between what is secret and what is on the surface, what is seen, and what is hidden. Usually, books written by western authors only touch the surface of Sufism and is prone to misconception and misunderstanding.

Although the Sufi does not rely much on books to teach, I would suggest you to read the book called The way of Sufi by Idries Shah (available to read for free). Contemplating your thoughts on Rumi poems can also give you a sense of what Sufism is really about. They are the real Sufi masters who teach their students by knowing instead of thinking.

Remember that Sufi masters will teach you in unusual ways such as through poetry, music, and stories rather than by reading mere words. These are the best ways to develop wisdom, and you will see their teachings are sometimes incomprehensible as they require you to reach a certain stage of nafs (soul development).

We learn things better through stories of wisdom and with rhythm of poetry.

Once you try to develop wisdom, intuition, and the knowledge coming from the within, you are on the path of Sufism – the path of becoming who you truly are.

5. Sufism Teachings

Sufism teachings contain a great deal of wisdom that words can’t even describe how wise they are. I have read so many books on Sufism, and their teachings touch all 3 levels of my beings: physical, mental, and spiritual.

I have concentrated many of their teachings in the list below. This list is meant to be for contemplation, which means you should spend some time pondering what they truly mean.

  1. The first knowledge is the knowledge of self: “Know thyself, and you shall know who God is”.
  2. God is the only Reality, who is in us and we are in Him.
  3. Hell and heaven exist in “now”, at the present moment. You don’t need to die to go to the heavens; you are able to “die before death” to realize the true power from the within.
  4. Attachment to worldly desires is the root of all suffering. Thus, detachment to sensual pleasures is the first level of achievement in Sufism.
  5. Spirituality is not about feeling good about yourself. You are the seeker of enlightenment, not of sensation or intensity.
  6. Man as the microcosm is the reflection of the macrocosm – the heavenly world: “As above, so below”.
  7. Time, space, and form are not absolute but are relative and local. Human beings are able to go beyond the limit of time, space, and form (Our true power).
  8. Habits, automation, and mechanical teachings can cause people to become indoctrinated. Religions are just vehicles to get access to the Truth. Humans worship truth, not religions.
  9. We cannot cause “trust” but develop “trust”. People who cannot trust are themselves not trustworthy, and therefore cannot be trusted with important things.
  10. Sacred texts (the Quran, Bible, etc.) cannot be taken literally as symbolism is the language of the soul.

6. Sufism Beliefs

I separate Sufism beliefs and teachings into 2 sections just for the simplicity of organizing ideas. The Sufis are the ones who practice what they preach, so their beliefs go hand in hand with their teachings. Down here are just a few examples of Sufi’s main beliefs and teachings.

  1. God is One (Tawhid)
  2. Perfect Human Being (Al-Insan al-Kamil)
  3. Master-Initiate relationship

There is an alternative way if you prefer to watch Youtube video about the teachings and practices of Sufism in the West:

Sufism teachings and practices in the Western world

1. God is One (Tawhid)

Like Sunni and Shia Islam, the Sufis believe that God is One: there is no God but God. In Islam, Tawhid is the principle of monotheism, representing the oneness of God in everything. To them, God is the Absolute, Eternal and Self-sufficient, who has no sons or partners associated with Him.

He is the Highest of all: All-knowing, All-hearing, and All-seeing. Everything comes from Him and to Him, everything shall return.

He is the final destination of everything. On the Day of Judgement, every man shall be judged according to his deeds when he comes face to face with his Lord.

According to Al-Ghazali, one of the most influential Sufi masters, the knowledge of God only comes after the knowledge of Self. This is stated in a hadith as followed:

“He who knows himself knows God.”

2. Perfect Human Being (Al-Insan al-Kamil)

One of the most important doctrines of Sufism is the concept of al-Insan al-Kamil (“the Perfect Man”). In Sufism, prophet Muhammad is an example of a person who has reached perfection – an archetype of pure consciousness who can guide them towards to path of Absolute Reality.

According to Sufi teachings, to be a Perfect Human Being is the reason why human beings exist on earth. It is our mission, life purpose, and true meaning of life because we are all born here for this reason. We are originally created perfect, but we fall down from Heaven as precisely narrated in the story of Adam and Eve.

The messengers such as Jesus or Muhammad are only examples of the ones who have reached the end of the path. We should not worship but learn from them and find our ways to come back “home”.

3. Master-Initiate Relationship

To the Sufis, the relationship between the teacher (Sheikh) and the student (Murid), or the master and the initiate is very important.

Let say you are a seeker of gold, yet you never see gold in real life. Thus, it is reasonable that you (the Student) should ask someone (the Teacher) who has actually seen and possessed gold to teach you how to acquire gold for yourself. Otherwise, you are prone to pick up dust and believe that they are gold.

From this analogy, we can learn that Sufi teachers are the ones who have already achieved what you desire (enlightenment). Without this factor, he literally cannot lead others to the path which he has not himself gone through, and therefore he should not be called a teacher.

In Sufism, the sheikh can transfer his divine power called “Baraka” to his students. It’s like when you have an apple and you share half of it with your students. Baraka is the blessing power coming only from God. Those who receive it are able to perform mystical abilities such as reading other people’s thoughts, healing illnesses, and reviving the dead.

The only time the Sufis teach is when circumstances are favorable. In other words, the disciple has to wait until the teacher perceives that the right time has arrived for him to learn.

The teachers are those who have the knowledge of stages of nafs development. Patience is necessary at every level because that is how the turtle beats the rabbit.

Sheikhs will not teach their students what they desire to learn, but what is rendered as useful and effective for the development of stages. That is, their teachings focus on development instead of stimulation/excitement.

7. Sufism Practices

The goal of most Sufi practices is to develop “Taqwa”, which is an Arabic word for “God-awareness, God-consciousness or God-fearing”.

  1. Dhikr
  2. Muraqaba
  3. Asceticism
  4. Sufi Whirling (Sufi dancing)
  5. Qawwali (Sufi singing)

1. Dhikr

Dhikr (or Zikr) is the practice of uttering mantras or phrases to increase one’s Taqwa. It literally means “repetition”, representing the act of repeating a word or phrase embodying a concept. Dhikr is also called “Wird” (invocation).

It is said that this practice is not supposed to be randomly indulged in, otherwise one will become obsessed with the practice.

Sufi disciples can practice Dhikr by repeating phrases or prayers or counting a set of prayer beads. Common phrases which are used for recitation are:

  • Glorified is God.
  • I seek refuge in Allah from the cursed Satan.
  • All praise is due to Allah.
  • There is no God but God.
  • I seek Allah’s forgiveness.

As I have stated in the introduction, the power of Dhikr lies in the activation of lataif, which are the subtle energy centers (chakra). Once you open lataif of the heart, you are able to enter the realm of essence – the world of jinns and angels.

*This practice means that the seeker just simply repeats these sentences 10, 50, or 100 times as prescribed by the Teacher. As stated above, these sounds can create certain vibrations that can transform the potentiality of our human mind.

2. Muraqaba

Muraqaba is the concentration exercise, standing for “casting the head down in intense thought”. The head is held down in this practice while the individual frees his mind from all thoughts and concentrates on only God.

In Arabic, “Muraqabah” means “to observe”, which is a kind of observation during meditation. Most of the Muraqaba practice requires a student to have a Sheikh, through which he will imagine the transmission of divine light from the Sheikh towards himself.

3. Asceticism

Sufi masters believe that asceticism is essential for an initiate to purify himself for the pursuit of spiritual redemption, salvation, and perfection. Asceticism includes restraining oneself from worldly pleasures, adopting a frugal lifestyle, renunciating material desire for possessions, and observing fasting.

This is because the Sufis believe that by purifying the body, the mind and the soul can also be purified.

In some hidden Sufi traditions, only the adepts are allowed to practice the path of blame (Malamatiyya). It is the path that focuses on exposing one’s blameworthiness while hiding one’s virtues for the sake of God.

4. Sufi Whirling (Sufi dancing)

Sufi dancing
Sufi dancing. Istockphoto.

This is done so by listening to music, whirling around the body while concentrating the mind on God. The Sufis believe that by spinning around one’s body in repetitive cycles, one can abandon the nafs (the ego) that can eventually result in mystical state of ecstasy.

Another Sufi practice is called Sufi whirling or Sufi dancing. It is a form of physically active meditation, which is still practiced by the Sufi Dervishes. Its aim is to reach a state of perfection.

5. Qawwali (Sufi Singing)

Qawwali is a form of Islamic devotional singing.

Although orthodox Sunni schools have traditionally prohibited musical instruments, Qawwali is still popular in South Asia. A Qawwali song usually lasts for about 15 to 30 minutes. The central themes of the songs are love, devotion, and spiritual longing for the Divine.

Their contents are grouped in many different categories such as:

  • A hamh – a song to praise Allah
  • A na`at – a song to praise Prophet Muhammad
  • A manqabat – a song to praise Imam Ali or other Sufi saints

The Sufis believe that by singing songs to praise Allah and his messengers, they engage themselves in spiritual devotional acts, which then increase their Taqwa (God-consciousness).

A Seeker Of Truth - A Student Of Life - A Master Of Self

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