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Understanding Tasawwuf

 by Ibrahim B. Syed, Ph. D. 
Islamic Research Foundation International, Inc.
7102 W. Shefford Lane
Louisville, KY 40242-6462, USA


Tasawwuf (mysticism) which is the esoteric or inward (batin) aspect of Islam, is to be distinguished from exoteric or ‘external’ (zahir) Islam. Exoterism (known in Islam as the Shari’ah), may be likened to the circumference of a circle. The inner Truth, or Esoterism, that lies at the heart of the religion (and is known in Islam as haqiqa), may be likened to the circle’s center. The radius proceeding from circumference to center representws the mystical or ‘initiatic’ path (tariqa) that leads from outward observance to inner conviction, from belief to vision, from potency to act. The tariqa is the doctrine and method to reach the haqiqa. Ordinarily believers are directed towards obtaining a state of blessedness after death, a state which may be attained through indirect and, as it were, symbolical participation in Divine Truths by carrying out prescribed works, Sufism contains its end or aim within itself in the sense that it can give access to direct knowledge of the eternal. The Shari’a, for its part, is the ‘outward’ religion which is accessible to, and indispensable for, all. Tasawwuf, on the other hand, is only for those possessed of the necessary vocation. In practice, therefore, it cannot but be the affair of a minority, though it may sometimes have popular manifestations. 


Sufism is the spirituality or mysticism of the religion of Islam. In Arabic, Sufism is called tasawwuf. Both words come from suf (‘wool’), a reference to the woollen robes worn by the earliest Sufis. Sufism is regarded as the ‘spirit’ or ‘heart’ of Islam (ruh al-islam or qalb al-islam). The origin of Sufism goes to Prophet Muhammad himself. One cannot be a Sufi without being a Muslim. There is no Sufism without Islam. The inner constitution of Sufism has three indispensable elements, first, a doctrine, secondly, an initiation and, thirdly, a spiritual method. 

Tasawwuf is applied in the Islamic world only to regular contemplative ways, which include both an esoteric doctrine and transmission from one master to another. 


Haqiqa-the name given to the ‘inner Truth’ or ‘inner Reality’ that is at the heart of the Islamic revelation. The Sharia (outward law) is in fact their vehicle or statement of the haqiqa, and this is why Sufis are always amongst the most ardent defenders of the Shari’ah.

The Central doctrine of Sufism is wahdat al-wujud, the ‘oneness of being’. This is derived directly from the shahada, which is understood not only as ‘there is no god but God’ but also ‘there is no reality except Reality’. One of the Names of God, indeed, is al-Haqq, which means ‘Reality’ or ‘Truth’. 


To embark on a spiritual path, a rite of initiation is indispensable. In Sufism, the aspirant receives the rite of initiation from a Sufi master (shaikh or murshid) who, in turn, has received it, at the beginning of his spiritual career, from his shaikh or spiritual master, and so on back to the Prophet himself who, by Divine Grace, initiated the first Sufis. The chain of initiation is known in Arabic as silsila. The family tree of Sufi masters, from the earliest times to the present day, is replete with examples of outstanding holiness. Names of these Sufi saints are given to Sufi ‘orders’ or ‘brotherhoods’ and are known as turuq (singular tariqa=’path’) and there are so many paths to haqiqa, the Inward, Divine Reality, or, in other words, to God Himself. The first Sufi order to appear was the Qadiri tariqa, which took its name from its illustrious founder, Shaikh Abd al-Qadir al-Jilani(1078-1166). The other famous turuq is: Suhrawardi, Shadhili, Maulawi (Mevlevi), Chishti, and Naqshbandi. 

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