Sufism is an enormously diverse collection of Islamic beliefs and practices which inspire devout Muslims to progressively turn their hearts away from everything but Allah as they seek Allah and his love. Sufism is practiced by both orthodox Muslims and Folk Muslims.
There is much controversy as to the origins of Sufi beliefs and practices. History suggests that Sufism arose in Islam’s early centuries as Muslims expanded into Christian lands and encountered Christian mysticism. Some Christian mystics’ practices and beliefs were adapted by Muslims and influenced the formation of Sufism.
By the eleventh century Sufi devotees were organizing into orders, and Sufism was becoming well established. Sufism spread throughout the entire Muslim world and continues to shape the experience of millions of Muslims.
Sufism typically involves:
a recognized Sufi master.
a set of rituals and practices that devotees follow.
fraternities or groups of devotees belonging to a particular order (taraqah).
belief in a demanding path through seven stages in which the self (nafs) strives for purity through mystical union with Allah.
Sufis seek heart purification, overcoming of the lower self, extinction of the individual personality, ecstatic experiences, and communion with Allah.
Sufi rituals revolve around reciting prayers, poems, Quranic verses, and repeating the divine names of Allah (dhikr). Most Sufi orders make extensive use of music and poetry. Each order’s practices are set by its founder, to whom people swear obedience. These masters are often revered as saints, and their tombs become places of pilgrimage.
There are thousands of Sufi orders. Three influential orders are the Naqshbandi, which is very strong in South Asia, Syria, and Egypt and has some 60 million devotees globally. The Mevlevi, or “Whirling Dervishes,” were founded by the followers of Rumi in 1273 and are strong in the Middle East. The Tijanniyya began in Morocco in the 1780s, spread throughout North Africa, and now dominates in West Africa.
Because of Sufi emphasis on the love of God, many Christians see them as being very close in theology to Christians, and expect that Sufis will easily be drawn into Christian faith.
Lilias Trotter, a missionary to North Africa, wrote The way of the Sevenfold Secret, in which she showed Sufis that the path to communion with God is Jesus.
In South Asia, Christians are using Psalms set to music as bridges to Sufis who use poems in worship. However, Sufis’ deep devotion to Muhammad and the Quran and frequent encounters with supernatural powers usually close them off from encountering the Truth Himself. Sufis are remarkably firm in their commitment to Muhammad and Islam.
Much remains to be done in Spirit-led creative outreach to Sufi Muslims.