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Defining the Sufi – Heart and Soul

Intoxicated by the Wine of Love.

From each a mystic silence Love demands.

What do all seek so earnestly? ‘Tis Love.

What do they whisper to each other? Love.

Love is the subject of their inmost thoughts.

In Love no longer ‘thou’ and ‘I’ exist,

For Self has passed away in the Beloved.

Now will I draw aside the veil from Love,

And in the temple of mine inmost soul,

Behold the Friend; Incomparable Love.

He who would know the secret of both worlds,

Will find the secret of them both, is Love.

Fariduddin Attar – Translation by Margaret Smith

In the beginning there was Love.

Love, light, longing and the dearly Beloved – the Friend of all. All those who love Him. Sufism enshrines itself as a form of expressing an ancient Covenant: the  Sufis being friends of Allah who strive to leave worldly desires behind and show loyalty to their beloved by engaging in perpetual ‘remembrance’ and ‘zikr’. Synonymous with the ideals of higher ecstatic ‘states’ or ‘ahwal’, the heart of the Sufi longs for final ‘survival’ that is ‘baq’a’ of his ideals.

Sufism is not a simple word to define. Its forms are culturally determined while its traditions have undergone transformations through the centuries and the various nations who came in contact with it. Perhaps it would be simpler to say what it is not.

It is not a form of Islam or a derivative of the Holy Qura’an but there is no doubt that it was an important means of bringing the masses closer to Islam in early days. Sufis were initially approached with something between awe, curiosity and ridicule and later as their influence grew, they managed to capture more than just attention. They captured and captivated hearts.

Sufism cannot even be defined as a religion. Unlike structured religions, while it has a ‘pathway’ or ‘tariqa’ it does not have a single rigid doctrine. Its followers have their own brotherhoods and while they are divided in spirit and practices, their object is the same – the love of Allah.

It is also not a ‘union with God’ as many sources claim, as it gives the idea of ‘the  realization of God’s uniqueness’ rather than a blending or forging. Most Sufis reject the idea of finding Allah within oneself. They rather view the contemplation and appreciation of His beautiful creations as a means of reaching Him.

Some sources have shown the influence of Christian, Hindu practices on Sufism and said that it is an evolution of the desire to mould the oft viewed stern Islamic practices and provide a softer outlook. Yet, there is a major difference. The historical context shows that while the Sufis may have indulged in seemingly libertine practices, they never were dubbed as clergy, or believed in the trinity or in incarnation. Much has been lost in translation. Julian Baldick, the author of several books on Comparative Religion refers to the word ‘Saint’ which, according to him, has been liberally used in translation by British writers for Muslim mystics. While the term has a completely different connotation of heroic piety in Christianity, the closest counterpart is ‘Wali Allah’ which means ‘friend of Allah’ and the patron of those at a lower level of contemplation of His supremacy.

Another reference looks at the etymological roots of the word Sufi, calling it the Islamic continuation of Greek philosophy or the Sophists. There is incidentally quite a bit in common between both Sophists and Sufis. Both strove to teach and were elitist in nature. However, that is where the similarity ends. While Sophists  never tried to reach the masses and remained in minority, rejecting the common’ man, the Sufis did just the opposite by making sure that their message was  comprehensible to all.

An offshoot sometimes confused with the Sufis, takes the form of a Hellenized Islamic Philosophy and is called ‘Hikmat al Ishraq’ or the wisdom of Oriental Illumination. Here the contextual difference is vast. The Sufis, immersed in their ideal of togetherness or a strong bond with the Creator and lacking interest in worldly affairs, have no desire for immediate escape either. The other side lacks interest in attaining the love of the Creator and instead focuses on an ordered perception of the Universe dominated by a mysterious Angel. Their escapist ideology, of ascension and integration into space by means of purifying their thought to gain heights of Spiritual mastery not apparent to other mortals, deviates far from simplistic Sufi notions of life.

So then, what is Sufism and what do the Sufis themselves have to offer as an explanation. The answer lies in the metaphorical content of their sayings and  writings. Sufism is a mystical tradition that has been taken as one of the highest forms of living the ideal of a life filled with ‘tasawwuf’. Tasawwuf – literally ‘wearing wool’ was a term initially used to pinpoint those who were not interested in the material world. Wool in its raw rough form being used to  fashion a rather crude basic tunic or garment known more for its resilience than its comfort. According to the historian Ibn e Khaldun, “This knowledge (Tasawwuf) is a branch of the sciences of Sacred Law that originated within the Umma. From the first, the way of such people had also been considered the path of truth and guidance by the early Muslim community and its notables, of the Companions of the Prophet (Allah bless him and give him peace), those who were taught by them, and those who came after them.” Another connotation lies with the term of ‘As’hab e Sufah’ or the companions of the Prophet Muhammad (S.A.W.) who led simple lives and spent their time learning from him and in prayer.

Hence, Sufism has its leanings towards dedication with a pure heart. Be it the soulful stirrings of poetry sublimated in ‘ishq e ilaahi’ and the ‘love of Allah’, deliberate self abasement in the slightest wrongdoing or even a bid to give up all worldly distractions, Sufism binds the Sufi heart and soul with his Maker. A bond that is only strengthened with time and the only definition it needs is ‘belief’ and ‘intent’.


Baldick, J. (2000) Mystical Islam – An Introduction to Sufism.  Tauris Parke Paperbacks. London, New York.

Keller, N. H. M. (1995) The Place of Tasawwuf in Traditional  Islamic Sciences. Retrieved from http://www.masud.co.uk/ISLAM/nuh/sufitlk.htm

Sieny, M.E. (1989) Muslim Heroes. International Islamic Publishers Ltd. Karachi, Pakistan.

Wahiduddin. Intoxicated by the wine of love. Retrieved from http://wahiduddin.net/sufi/sufi_poetry.htm