Sufism is the path followed by Sufis to reach the Truth: God. While this term usually expresses the theoretical or philosophical aspect of this search, the physical or practical aspect is usually referred to as "being a dervish."
What is sufism?
Sufism has been defined in many ways. Some see it as God's annihilating the individual's ego, will, and selfcenteredness and then reviving him or her spiritually with the lights of His Essence. Such a transformation results in God's directing the individual's will in accordance with His Will. Others view it as a continuous striving to cleanse one's self of all that is bad or evil in order to acquire virtue.
Junayd alBaghdadi (d. 910), a famous Sufi master, defines Sufism as a method of recollecting "selfannihilation in God" and "permanence or subsistence with God." Shibli summarizes it as always being together with God or in His presence, so that no worldly or otherworldly aim will even be entertained. Abu Muhammad Jarir describes it as resisting the temptations of the carnal self and bad qualities, and acquiring laudable moral qualities.
There are some who describe Sufism as seeing behind the "outer" or surface appearance of things and events and interpreting whatever happens in the world in relation to God. This means that people regard every act of God as a window through which they can "see" Him, live their lives as a continuous effort to view or "see" Him with a profound spiritual "seeing" that is indescribable in physical terms, and with a profound awareness of being continually overseen by Him.
All of these definitions can be summarized as follows: Sufism is the path followed by individuals who, having been able to free themselves from human vices and weaknesses in order to acquire angelic qualities and conduct pleasing to God, live in accordance with the requirements of God's knowledge and love, and experience the resulting spiritual delight that ensues.
Sufism is based on observing even the most "trivial" rules of the shari'a in order to penetrate their inner meaning. An initiate or traveler on the path (salik) never separates the outer observance of the Shari'a from its inner dimension, and therefore observes all of the requirements of both the outer and the inner dimensions of Islam. Through such observance, this person travels toward the goal in utmost humility and submission.
Sufism, being a demanding path that leads to knowledge of God, has no room for negligence or frivolity. It requires the initiate to strive continuously, like a honeybee flying from the hive to flowers and from flowers to the hive, to acquire this knowledge. The initiate should purify his or her heart from all other attachments; resist all carnal inclinations, desires, and appetites; and live in a manner reflecting the knowledge with which God has revived and illuminated the heart, always ready to receive divine blessing and inspiration, as well as in strict observance of the Prophet Muhammad's example. Convinced that attachment and adherence to God is the greatest merit and honor, the initiate should renounce his or her own desires for the demands of God, the Truth.
Sufism requires the strict observance of all religious obligations, an austere lifestyle, and the renunciation of carnal desires. Through this method of spiritual selfdiscipline, the individual's heart is purified and his or her senses and faculties are employed in the way of God, which means that the traveler can now begin to live on a spiritual level.
Sufism also enables individuals, through the constant worship of God, to deepen their awareness of themselves as devotees of God. Through the renunciation of this transient, material world, as well as the desires and emotions it engenders, they awaken to the reality of the other world, which is turned toward God's Divine Beautiful Names. Sufism allows individuals to develop the moral dimension of their existence, and enables the acquisition of a strong, heartfelt, and personally experienced conviction of the articles of faith that before they had only accepted superficially.
This article originally appeared in Emerald Hills of the Heart: Key Concepts in the Practice of Sufism Vol. 1, The Fountain, New Jersey, 2004, Revised Edition.