Islam.  What is Sufism?

Islam. What is Sufism?

Sufism is the mystical path of Islam.

Sufis favor personal experience over community approach. The God they discover is a God of love, accessed through love. “He who knows God loves him; he who knows the world renounces it.” Islam has had its mystical experience since the 8th century. Some Muslims, wanting to experience the inner encounter between the believer and his God, will retreat to the confines of the desert, particularly in Syria and Egypt. Doctors of the law and jurists are wary and worried about it. They will see it as a deviation from Islam, at least from that of Mohammed which favors the community over the individual, while these “Sufis” – named after the coarse white woolen fabric (wool is souf in Arabic) with which they cover themselves – want to achieve salvation individually. They are also called raheb, from the name given in the East to Christian monks; or even fakir or derwish, terms which designate the poor because of the state of deprivation to which they are subjected. Isn’t this a “specifically Christian” ideal, the great Syrian fundamentalist polemicist Ibn Taymiyya said with contempt in the 14th century?


In their quest for God, Sufis advocate detachment from the things of life, fasting, silence, meditation (al-tafakkour)… all elements which go against community life. But what worries doctors of the law even more is the meeting of mystics under the authority of a sheikh, a master who develops a liturgy of his own and particular meditation techniques, which puts jeopardized their religious authority and their competence as theologians. Their distrust is great with regard to this path that must be followed, these steps that must be taken to achieve total intimate union (ittihad) with God, which provides ecstasy. This approach is done under the authority of a master whose role is fundamental in the initiation. According to one of the hadith, there are ninety thousand veils between the believer and the Higher Reality, God. Initiation allows one by one to lift these veils which prevent access to divine light. And the master offers guidelines to get there. “He who has no master has Satan as his master,” said a great Sufi, the Andalusian Ibn ‘Arabi. In turn fought, condemned, rejected and finally recovered, at least by the powers in place, Muslim mysticism is tolerated as long as it fits politically and socially. It was undoubtedly the encounter between Islam and Persia that gave rise to Islamic mysticism. Many great Sufis are also Persian, such as Nizami, Jalal Eddine Roumi, Farid Eddine Attar and especially Abou Hamid al-Ghazali, the Algazel of the Christian Middle Ages.


Around the master, the sheikh, revolves the hierarchy of lieutenants, disciples, and aspirants who obey strict discipline. Thus was born the brotherhood, tariqa in Arabic, literally “the way”, which translates the idea of ​​the initiatory journey towards God. Each brotherhood has its initiation methods, benchmarks set up by the master. This can be prayer, meditation, music and dance, travel… Dhikr, for example, is a collective prayer around the master which consists of tirelessly repeating the names of God, or the name of God, or even incantatory formulas. The influence of the brotherhoods, which expresses a popular Islam far from theology and scholarly explanations of doctors of the law, is not only religious, but also political. It is practiced both in cities and in the countryside.

Sufism and brotherhoods today

Among the great brotherhoods, some, very old, remain very much alive and have ramifications in all regions of the Muslim sphere. They generally have a name derived from that of their founder.

  • The Qadiriyya was founded in 1166 in Baghdad by Abdel Qâder Jilani.
  • The Mawlawiyya (or Mevleviyya) was created in Konya in the 13th century by Jalal Eddine Roumi. This is the famous brotherhood of whirling dervishes.
  • The Senoussiyya, founded at the beginning of the 19th century in Libya, played a key role during the battle for independence.
  • Tijjaniyya was founded in the Maghreb at the end of the 18th century.
  • The Rahmaniyya, organized in the 18th century by a Kabyle sheikh, sparked the Kabyle insurrection in the following century.
  • The Rifa’iyya, omnipresent in the countries of the Arabian Peninsula and in Jordan.
  • The Mourides are a brotherhood created in Senegal in the 19th century. Very powerful thanks to the personality of its founder, Amadou Bamba, it is also very rich thanks to the cultivation of peanuts.
  • The Naqshabandiyya, founded in the 14th century, is very active in Russia and in the Muslim republics of the former USSR.
  • The Khelwatyyah operates under the rule of Mohamad Tayeb in Egypt, in the Luxor region, in Gorna. Unlike the others, it is rather “temporal”.

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