Sufism: Meditation & Mysticism

Instructor: Benjamin Olson
This lesson will define Sufism and explain its basic characteristics. The most important movements within Sufism will be detailed and contemporary repression directed towards Sufis will be discussed.

Sufism: Definitions and Overview

Sufis at the First Parliament of Religions, held in Chicago in connection with the Colombian exposition of 1893

Islam is sometimes perceived as a somewhat austere, conservative religion; however, this characterization is frequently not accurate. No branch of Islam more clearly illustrates the joyous, celebratory, and colorful aspects of Islam more than Sufism.

Sufism is a branch of the Islamic religion that emphasizes mysticism. The term mysticism refers to a tendency found within numerous world religions in which practitioners attempt to attain closer spiritual proximity to the divine and, at least temporarily, transcend the everyday world. Within Sufi traditions, meditation and prayer frequently take the form of singing, dancing, poetry, or other forms of artistic expression. Sufi mystical traditions often accentuate notions of rapture, ecstasy, and intoxication.

Different branches of Sufism can be found all over the world, from West Africa, to India, to Turkey, and the United States. Conservative branches of Islam sometimes perceive Sufism as heretical and non-Islamic. In Pakistan, where some of the most vibrant and distinctive Sufi communities can be found, Sufis have been subjected to violent acts of terrorism inflicted by Muslims influenced by Wahhabism and/or affiliated with the Taliban.

Origins and Proliferation

The earliest origins of Sufism are somewhat obscure, but it is generally believed to have originated sometime during the 8th and 9th centuries C.E. in Persia and modern day Iraq. Early Sufism took the form of theological treatises stressing the need for inner exploration and the importance of perceiving the presence of God in the world. The early Sufi theologians linked their mystical exegesis directly to the Quran, arguing that mysticism is not only compatible with Quranic teachings, but is truly the full realization of the Quran.

Beginning in the 12th century C.E., Sufi Tariqahs (orders) begin to form. Sufi Tariqahs were established throughout the Islamic world as communities for like-minded seekers to explore mystical practices, conduct missionary activity, and provide assistance to the poor. The 13th through the 16th centuries C.E. are known as the Golden Age of Islam, due to the proliferation of Muslim intellectual life during this time. Sufis were at the forefront of this intellectual renaissance, composing music, poetry, and philosophy expressing Sufism in its most enduring forms. In the 13th century the Persian poet Rumi composed a large body of mystical Sufi poetry expressing his longing for closeness with God. Rumi's poetry is accessible, compelling, and wildly popular all over the world into the present day.

During the Golden Age of Islam, Sufism made its way to many parts of Africa, Central Asia, Southern Europe, and South Asia. Folk religious practices fused with Sufism in different ways in different locations, taking on regionally specific traditions of Sufism. Generally, all branches of Sufism are characterized by a sense of euphoria and intoxication in experiencing the sacred.

A Turkish Example: the Whirling Dervishes

Whirling Dervishes in Turkey, 1895

After the death of Rumi, many of his followers established a Sufi order in Konya, in what is today Turkey. This order came to be known as the Mawlawi Tariqah, popularly known as the Whirling Dervishes due to their distinctive style of dance. The Mawlawi Tariqah conducted sama, ritual performances, in which sacred music was performed and Sufi dancers would whirl in graceful circles as a form of prayer and meditation, hence the name Whirling Dervishes.

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