What is Sufism

Sufism (Arabic: tasawwuf) is the mystical view and the inner dimension of Islam. For sufis themselves it means the complete religion, the realisation of devotion to God, the experience of love in the heart. The word sufism derives from the Arabic word for 'pure' (safa). In addition to the Islamic way of life, sufi followers engage with practices and prayers for the purification of the heart and improving one's character (adab). The loving guidance of the sheikh (the spiritual master) provides for certitude and clarity on the sufi way (tariqa). Thus, the follower experiences the appropriate challenges and adolescence in due time.
Sufism starts with the Prophet Muhammad saws*. The love of and relatedness to Muhammad saws* and his family constitute the foundation of the sufi path, holding some secret for those searching this way. The early times, sufism centered around scholars such as Junaid, Rabbia, Ibn Arabi and others. Since the 12th century sufi orders emerged (turuq) of which many are still prosperous today. All sufis have in common the exercise of dhikr (remembrance of God) which may be practiced through individual meditation or collectively during the hadra. The dhikr opens the heart for the love and the experience of God's presence .
*saws or (s) is the abbreviation of salla-allahu alaihi wa sallim. This is the salutation for the Prophet Muhammad.

Sufisms and Islam

What is the relationship between Islam and Sufism?

Sufism is the heart of the Islamic revelation. Islam and Sufism are undividably connected like the spokes and the hub of a wheel. Islam is the outer (exoteric) side of the religion, the wheel, and sufism is the hub around which the wheel rotates. The spokes connecting the outer wheel to the hub are the different paths (Arabic: tariqa, pl. turuq ) upon which the seeker may discover the inner reality of religion.

Are there any indications of Sufism in the Quran?

  • Many Quranic verses are hinting at deeper and mystical knowledge. A number of comments and papers of great Sufi masters deal with these hidden treasures. In particular, there are many Quranic verses alluding to Dhikr (remembrance of God) as the main Sufi practice, e.g. (approximate translation):
  • "And commemorate your Lord in your heart in humility and anxiety with audible utterances in the morning and the evening". (sura 7, verse 205) "Verily, the prayer prevents one from the wicked, and remembrance of God is the utmost". (sura 29, verse 45)

Sufi Order

What is a Sufi order?

Sufi orders are communities of persons following a spiritual path under the guidance of a teacher (master, sheikh). Members of Sufi orders follow this path integrated in normal life, there is no celebacy nor living in monasteries required. The Sufi orders apply different methods on the One Way to Allah, to purify the soul. They all have in common the Islamic way of life, the love to the Prophet Muhammad (s), and the practice of Dhikr (remembrance of God).

Since when have there been Sufi orders?

Sufism exists since the time of the Prophet Muhammad (s) but the orders themselves developed in the 12. and 13. century A.D. Some important founders are Sayyidi Ahmad al Rifai, Sayyidi Ahmad al Badawi, Sayyidi Abdulqadir al Gilani and Sayyidi Ibrahim al Qurashi al Disuqi. From these main branches have stemmed many smaller branches, many of which are still flowering in our days.

What obligations does a member of a Sufi order have?

Most important is that the follower must accept the Sheikh as his teacher by inner decision and outward declaration. All other obligations arise out of this initial one but must always root in the follower's free decision.

Master and Followers

What is the relationship between master and follower?

The relationship of a follower to the Sheikh is like that of an apprentice to his master and should be characterized by obedience and devotion. An apprentice who wants to learn a handicraft must obey his master even though a given task might appear pointless at the time being and he must trust in the master as to it being useful for him in the long run. If the apprentice refuses, nothing will happen except for the fact that the he will learn nothing. The Sheikh's embodiment in Islam and the laws of Islam function as a safeguard for the follower.

What do we need a master for?

Any follower of a mystical path needs a teacher who guides him through the ups and downs of inner experiences, who lovingly encourages him, and who arranges for the suitable experiences at the right time.

Who becomes a Sufi sheikh?

The leadership of a tariqa is traditionally transmitted from the living sheikh to his successor. This is how the 'silsila', the chain of sheikhs within each classic order, is created reaching back to the Prophet Muhammad (s).

Practicing Sufism

What must a Sufi follower do?

The followers of Sufism are preoccupied with the inner aspects of Islam and try to realize these principles within their own lives. An important aspect is the love for the Prophet Muhammad (s) and his family. When entering an order the follower is given special prayers and exercises specific to his/her Tariqa which are performed independently. The central exercise is the dhikr, the commemoration of God. The follower of Sufism passes through many states and stages on his/her inner path - processes of self-knowledge and nearness to God following the old holy tradition: "Know yourself and you know your Lord".

How can you combine Sufism with the 'Western' way of life?

In Sufism, daily life is a challange to develop the heart and the soul. The follower seeks to recognize and praise God in all aspects of His creation - while interacting with humans and with nature, in the family as well as in business. Since most of the Sufi orders spreading out in the West strive for integration in society, their members are not noticable by special clothing or behaviour.

Can I practice Sufism alone?

The practices of the individual orders are directed towards different spiritual goals and inner experiences. Some of these practices can be performed by anyone, supporting his personal development for a certain time. However, Sufi excercises without the guidance and protection of a Sheikh is not recommended, it may even turn out to be harmful. The Sufi Path is like a high mountain range which cannot be crossed safely without a guide.

What do we need the community for?

The community (umma) plays an important role in Islam and Sufism. It offers closeness and security, uphold and support in critical phases. Social learning within the group aids each individual in purifying the heart and improving his own character. E.g., a Sufi tries to correct a fault he/she remarks in another within him/herself - according to the traditional saying "the believer is a mirror for the believer".

Men and Women

Which role do women play in Sufism?

There have been many female saints in the history of Sufism teaching male followers. The most famous one is Rabi'a of Basra (often compared with Saint Teresa of Avila). The great Sufi Sheikh Muhyidin ibn al Arabi accounts of two women who instructed him and who were greatly revered during their time. In Sufi poetry man's love of woman is often used as a symbol for the love between humans and God as in the well-known love tale of Leila and Majnun.

Are there women in Sufi orders?

Yes, especially in those orders spreading out in the Western world. In former times, female members of Sufi orders in Islamic countries did not appear in public. This has changed significantly. Tariqa Burhaniya has many female followers in Islamic countries. In Germany, e.g., about half of the members are women.

Passage to the Path

How do you become a part of the Sufi community?

The outer process is to find an order and a Sheikh and to declare one's membership. The inner processes leading to this are as diverse as people themselves. Some search consciously and with a goal, others are led to the path in dreams and others are guided by strange coincidences and providence. Some experience this suddenly and dramatically, with others it is the result of a long development.

How do I find a teacher?

Our tradition says that the master chooses the follower and not the other way around. Many Sufi followers can tell of dreams in which they were distinctly called. This outward search can be sometimes very confusing, even more so because one often meets teachers that are useful at certain times and circumstances and can ease the longing for a time being. The teacher's commitment to Islam and the laws of Islam are an important guideline for the seeker, as well as sobriety and patience along the way.

The Tariqa Burhaniya was renewed by the Sudanese Sheikh Mawlana Mohamed Osman Abdu al Burhani (1902-1983). Its leadership has been brought forward from Sheikh Mohamed Osman Abdu al Burhani to his son Sheikh Ibrahim († 2003) and thereafter to his grandson Sheikh Mohamed.

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