An image of whirling Sufis.

A Deep Dive into the History of Sufism and Islamic Mysticism

I am not this hair, I am not this skin, I am the soul that lives within.”

Jalal Al-Din Muhammad Rumi

Jalal Al-Din Muhammad Rumi is one of the most enduring poets and thinkers in Islamic history. His deep, beautiful prose – discussing the nature of love, life, and the soul – has made him a lasting figure in both Eastern and Western history.

It is likely because of this that Rumi has emerged as the figurehead of Sufism, particularly in the West. Sufism – a branch of Islam known for its mysticism – has long been regarded as the religion’s most peaceful, apolitical form. With Rumi, the peaceful poet, at its forefront, it is no wonder that this stereotype has taken hold.

However, there is only so much of Sufism that Rumi’s poetry can cover. This article will explore the nature and history of Sufism and Islamic mysticism, as well as its practitioners and their fascinating rites.

What is Sufism?

A painting of Jalaluddin Rumi, one of the most famous Sufi poets and scholars.
A portrait of Jalaluddin Rumi, one of the most famous Sufi poets and scholars. Image credit:


Though people often relate Sufism to mysticism, one can define it more exactly as a school of thought within Islam. It deals with worship in a unique form, typically through music, the decorative arts, and unorthodox ways of living.

The term Sufism likely derives from the practice of wearing wool (suf in Arabic), an act associated with mystics. It may also come from the Arabic word for purity (safa). Others have argued that the word comes from the term “ahl as-suffah” (meaning “the people of the suffah (bench)”). This refers to a group of the Prophet Muhammad’s (PBUH) poor companions who held regular gatherings of dhikr (the repetition of God’s divine names, of which there are 99 in Islam).

Sufism’s most defining characteristics include extreme self-punishment in the name of divine worship. Examples of this include excessive fasting or staying up all night as a form of prayer. The early Sufis would spend their days praying, rejecting the physical world in favour of the spiritual one. Most of them possessed only their clothes, and nothing more.

These traits were a consequence of the Sufi principle of “ma’arifa” (Arabic for “knowledge”), a path to knowing God involving a series of internal transformations. These were aimed at transcending the physical world and body.

What are some Important Religious Practices?

Generally, Sufi practices would not be complete without including typical Islamic rituals (praying five times a day, fasting during Ramadan, etc). These are often completed in addition to the “sunnah”, a list of behaviours completed by the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). This is done with the aim of living a life as close to his as possible.

Naturally, living life like this also requires one to turn away from the temptations of the physical world. This includes even the love of company and food – encouraging a life of solitude, silence, and even sleeplessness. More importantly, purity is required from the inside out. Due to this, Sufi practices focus heavily on overcoming pride, arrogance, and envy.

One example of a Sufi practice is Muraqaba, meaning “observance”. This practice is very similar to common meditation, which exists across all faiths. Sufis turn their focus inwards while chanting three times: “Ilahi anta maqsudi wa-ridaka matlubi” (my God, You are my goal and Your pleasure is what I seek). Then, they focus on the name of Allah and its spiritual meaning – “essence without likeness”. The Sufi remains present and watchful for as long as they can, eventually completing the practice.

Dhikr: One of the Most Central Sufi Practices

Beyond this, Sufism entails several other specific practices, such as dhikr. Meaning “remembrance”, this involves recalling the 99 names of Allah (God). It can also refer to the practice of maintaining awareness of God’s ever-presence. Most Sufi practices require Sufi initiation or the guidance of a Sufi master. However, this practice, which is necessary for all Muslims, does not.

Different Sufi orders practice dhikr in different ways. For some, it is a ceremony known as sema. This involves various forms of worship, such as recitation, singing, meditation, and trance. It is this method that has given rise to the popular Sufi whirling (originating from the Mevlevi order), for which Sufis are perhaps most known for. However, the traditional view of the Sunni Sufi orders (such as the Chisti and Qadiriyya) forbids whirling during dhikr, viewing it as disrespectful to God.

Sufi whirling is a form of active meditation. It encourages one to abandon their nafs (ego, or self) by listening to music, focusing on the essence of God, and spinning repeatedly in circles. The ultimate aim is to realize the source of all perfection – or kemal (wholeness). The spinning motion is intended to replicate the motion of the planets orbiting around the sun.

Philosophies and Beliefs

An illustration of a Sufi order performing Dhikr during the Ottoman Empire.
An illustration of a Sufi order performing Dhikr during the Ottoman Empire. Image credit:

Sufis’ primary desire is a personal connection with God while they are still alive. This contradicts traditional Muslim beliefs, which assert that this connection will occur after their resurrection. This experience is supposedly so amazing that it can only be expressed through metaphors. This fact explains the prevalence of images of alcohol and love within Sufi literature.

In Sufi literature, the joy of divine union often accompanies the misery of being separated from God. This gives rise to one of the main problems in Sufi philosophy – the question of how one mortal being can connect with the infinite God. This connection, called “fana” (“destruction”), occurs in the final stages of spiritual development. One loses their individual identity and becomes aware only of God’s presence within them.

A History of Sufism: From the Prophet to the Present Day

Cave of Hira, where the prophet (PBUH) had his first revelation.
A picture of the Cave of Hira, where the prophet (PBUH) had his first revelation. Image credit:

The origins of Sufism lie in the life of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). Early accounts report that he had a habit of meditating in a cave and living simply and modestly. This behaviour formed the basis of Sufi practices. Alongside the prophet himself, his cousin and son-in-law, Ali, is also one of the first Sufis. As well as being the man closest to the prophet, open to receiving his mystical knowledge, Ali was also the first male Islamic convert. As an official movement, however, Sufism began around 100 years after Ali’s death.

In the late 8th century, a school of the famous mystic known as Hasan al-Basri established a convent at Abadan. Meanwhile, others began to detail specifics of Sufi practices in written documents. Some of the most famous early Sufis include Bayazid Bistami. He was an Iranian Sufi who became known for his “shathiyat” – which were frequent dramatic statements of his connection to the divine entity (God). These, he argued, were the result of lifelong self-purification. In his utmost devotion to the sunnah (living life as close to that of the prophet as possible), he even refused to eat a watermelon, due to his being unable to find any evidence that the prophet ever ate one.

The 10th century: An Early Transitional Period

By the end of the 10th century and early 11th century, a transitional phase began. Before the 10th century, Sufism was defined by its temperance, and the individuality of its followers. During this period, however, it shifted into a more communal practice. This, of course, required greater organization and involved larger numbers of followers. There was also a greater focus on formalizing Sufi doctrine. 10th-century Sufi leaders canonized earlier figures, and attempted to demonstrate the connection between their practices and orthodox Islam.

In this period, one of the most widely circulated contemporary Sufi books emerged: Kitab alta-arruf li-madhab ahl al-tasawwuf. Written by Abu Bakr Kalabadhi, this book explained Sufi terminology, beliefs, and essential practices for learners. Other famous manuals summarizing Sufist philosophies began to emerge, including the Kashf al-Mahjub by Ali Hujwiri and the Risala by Al-Qushayri. Another famous figure, Abu Abd al-Rahman Sulami, wrote many works on Sufism and ethics, particularly the concept of Sufi chivalry (“futuwwa”).

Other famous figures include Khwaja Abd Allah Ansari and Abu Said ibn Aby al-Khayr, both of whom contributed to the development of Sufism as a movement. The latter, an Iranian Sufi, lived a reflective life under the guidance of a Sufi master for fifteen years. After that, he organized two Sufi centers, one in Mehana and the other in Nishapur – an Iranian hub at the time.

The 13th century: Development and Reform

During the 12th and 13th centuries, Sufi orders began to form. They were also called “turuq” (pathways) collectively, and “tariqa” in the singular. Examples include the Qadiriyya, the Shadhiliyya, the Rifa’iyya, and the Chistiyya. Each tariqa, based on the teachings of a saintly founder (typically an Islamic scholar), had its own practices, beliefs, and literature. This period also saw a shift in Sufi practices, until around the mid-18th century. At that point, the role of the prophet Muhammad became viewed as increasingly more central to Sufi practices.

One of the most famous figures of the period is the Andalusian mystical philosopher, Muhyi al-din Ibn al-Arabi. His thoughts and works reshaped many Sufi practices and beliefs. Central to his philosophy was the belief in “wahdat alwujud” (the Oneness of Being). This proposed that the universe is the physical manifestation of God, therefore constituting a part of Him rather than being one of His separate creations.

This doctrine opposed orthodox Islamic belief, which asserted that God is separate from His creations. This contradiction, therefore, made it one of the most controversial doctrines within Sufi philosophy. Resultantly, the two centuries following his death saw a modified version of this doctrine appear. Known as “wahdat al shahada” (Oneness of Witnessing), it was an attempted compromise between al-Arabi’s philosophy and common Muslim beliefs.

The 20th century: Sufism in a Period of Development

Over the 14th to 18th centuries, Sufis began to solidify and spread their ideology throughout the continent. Though the mystical nature of Sufi practices and orders appealed to many and contributed to widespread conversions to Islam, the ideology also received a lot of pushback. In the eighteenth century, this resistance took on a violent form with the appearance of the Wahhabi movement, a conservative movement within the Sunni branch of Islam.

At the turn of the 20th century, reformists and socialists in the Muslim world began criticizing Sufi rituals and doctrines. Sufi orders were accused of sustaining superstitions, being too outdated, and holding nations back from progressive reform. Westernizing national governments were often responsible for the political and educational reforms that maintained attacks on Sufism. This was done with the intention of weakening the Sufi orders’ economic foundations. As a result, many Sufi orders in largely Islamic countries began to decline.

Despite these developments, however, Sufism has continued to play an important part – both in the Muslim world and, more recently, the West.

Modern Day Sufism: Neosufism

Coined by Fazlur Rahman (a Pakistani scholar and Islamic philosopher), the term neosufism refers to the reformist currents among 18th-century Sufi orders. These reformers attempted to remove some of the more pantheistic elements of the Sufi tradition. Instead, they aimed to reassert conventional Islamic law, suggesting its role as the basis of inner spirituality and social activism.

More recently, however, the term’s meaning has evolved. It now refers to forms of Sufi-influenced spirituality in the West, particularly those which emphasise the pantheistic elements of Sufism by taking it out of its Islamic context. Examples of this include Sufism Reoriented, an offshoot of traditional Sufism, and The Golden Sufi Center. The latter, located in the US, England, and Switzerland, combines the traditions of Hinduism and neo-Sufism. There is also The Sufi Order in the West. Founded by Inayat Khan, it emphasises the oneness of all faiths and is open to members from all walks of life.

Currently, active Sufi academics, publishers, and writers include Timothy Winter, Hamza Yusuf, Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee, Nuh Ha Mim Keller, and Zaid Shakir, among others.

Sufism’s Impact on Literature, Art & Culture

The portrait of the Battle of Karbala, now at the Brooklyn Museum..
The painting of the Battle of Karbala, now at the Brooklyn Museum. Image credit:

Some of the most famous and talented figures in Islamic history have been Sufis. This includes Rumi, a 13th-century Persian poet, often considered to be one of the greatest poets of all time. As a testament to his enduring legacy, he has become one of the most widely read poets in the United States. His personal history with the Persian dervish Shams Tabrizi was even fictionalized and included in Elif Shafak’s The Forty Rules of Love.

The visual arts have also explored the famous tenets of Sufism, as illustrated in the picture below. The Battle of Karbala, the subject of the painting, was a result of a violent disagreement between the Sunni and Shia branches of Islam. During the battle, Husayn ibn Ali, a grandson of the prophet Muhammad (PBUH), died and became an Islamic martyr. This, of course, is part of a larger history of beautiful Islamic visual art, calligraphy, and design.

Significance of Sufism

Despite its conflicts with traditional Islam, Sufism remains an important part of Islamic and Eastern history. Though it is widely known as Islam’s mystical brother, it is important to recognize it within the Islamic context and not distort its message, as some scholars have done, as a pantheistic or even anti-Islamic one. Without Islam, Sufism might never have been born. And without Sufism, the beautiful artworks and traditions curated by practitioners over centuries of worship may never have existed.


Islamic Mysticism in Asia. 08 08 2016. 03 08 2021. <>.

Shihadeh, Ayman. “Introduction.” Shihadeh, Ayman. Sufism and Theology. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2007. 1-12.

Sufism. n.d. 03 08 2021. <>.

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