Islamic mysticism, often referred to as the internalization and intensification of Islamic faith and practice. Sufis strive to constantly be aware of God’s presence, stressing contemplation over action, spiritual development over legalism, and cultivation of the soul over social interaction. In contrast to the academic exercises of theology and jurisprudence, which depend on reason, Sufism depends on emotion and imagination in the divine-human relationship. Sufism is unrelated to the Sunni/Shii split, schools of jurisprudence, social class, gender, geography, or family connections. It is closely associated with both popular religion and orthodox expressions of Islamic teachings. It has been both opposed and supported by the state.
Sufi rituals typically consist of the recitation of prayers, poems, and selections from the Quran, and methodical repetitions of divine names (dhikr) or Quranic formulas, such as the shahadah. In communal gatherings, Sufis perform dhikr aloud, often with musical accompaniment. The specific structure and format of the daily devotional exercises and activities were set by each order’s founder as a special spiritual path. The founder was the spiritual guide for all followers, who swore a special oath of obedience to him as their shaykh (teacher). The record of the transmission of the ritual was preserved in a formal chain of spiritual descent (silsilah) extending back to the founder and then usually to Muhammad . Leadership was passed down either within a family line or on the basis of spiritual seniority within the tariqah (order). The typical initiation rite transmits a blessing (barakah) to the disciple, transforming his or her soul.
Tariqahs had become major social organizations by the twelfth century and enjoyed mass popularity by the fifteenth or sixteenth century. Orders range in form from simple preservation of the tariqah as a set of devotional exercises to vast interregional organizations with carefully defined structures. Historically, Sufi orders have facilitated interregional interaction, education, and travel, and have supported reform, spiritual revival, and missionary activities. They have also provided organization and support for movements resisting foreign rule throughout the Islamic world.
Written expressions of Sufism include hagiographies, poetry, and literature describing the stations (maqamat) of spiritual ascent on the path to God and their accompanying psychological transformations. Sufis use terms such as sukr (intoxication) and sahu (sobriety) to describe their experiences. “Intoxicated” expressions of Sufism predominate in Sufi poetry, expressing joy and ecstacy. “Sober” Sufism offers methodical, specialized discussions of ritual, behavior, morality, Quranic exegesis, and the nature of God and the world. Intoxicated Sufism is popular among Muslims of all classes and persuasions. Sober Sufism tends to appeal to intellectuals.
Some modern observers have proclaimed the effective end of the Sufi orders, claiming that mystical religious experience and modernity are incompatible. Politically minded Muslims have made Sufism the scapegoat for Islam’s alleged backwardness in comparison with the West, claiming that Sufism, as the religion of the common people, embodied superstition and un-Islamic elements adopted from local cultures. Eradication of Sufism was believed necessary in order for Islam to reclaim its birthright, including modern science and technology. However, by the end of the twentieth century, it was clear that Sufi orders remained a dynamic part of the religious life of the Islamic world and were active in the expansion of Islam in both rural areas and modern societies in the West and among the modernized intellectual elites within the Muslim world. Sufi organizations provide social cohesion in an increasingly mobile society, emphasizing communal activities such as dhikr. They have helped to shape responses to the challenges to Muslim faith in the modern era by providing organizational bases for activist reformist programs and modern-style political parties. They have assisted in developing modernization programs and providing a framework for Islamic communal identity in the face of official efforts to suppress religion. Popular participation in Sufi gatherings and support for various types of tariqahs remain high throughout the Muslim world. Estimates of membership in Sufi orders in Egypt alone are in the millions, in contrast to the hundreds or thousands in the more militant Islamic revivalist organizations.