SUFIS: THE MYSTICAL MUSLIMS
(Part Three in a series on Islam from Forward magazine)
A popular expression of Muhammad's religion in the Western world today is Sufism, Islam's mystical way. The current interest in Sufism can be largely explained by pointing to the same factors which account for the popularity of several diverse Eastern mystical traditions among Westerners. These factors include a hunger for lifetransforming spiritual experience, and an attraction to monistic belief systems. British orientalist Martin Lings comments: "A Vendantist, a Taoist, or a Buddhist can find in many aspects of Islamic mysticism, a 'home from home,' such as he could less easily find in Christianity or Judaism."'1
Not only is Sufism making an impact on Western shores in its own right, it has also profoundly influenced such notable founders of new religious movements as George I. Gurdjieff and Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh. Also, several personalities who have made their mark outside of the field of religion acknowledge the influence of Sufism on their lives, including novelist Doris Lessing, actor James Coburn, poets Ted Hughes and Robert Graves, psychologists Erich From and Robert Ornstein, and the late Secretary-General of the United Nations Dag Hammarskjold.
Sufism (Arabic Tasawwuf) is a name which probably has its origin in the wearing of undyed wool (suf) as a mark of personal penitence. The Sufis are also known as fakirs and dervishes, both words originally denoting that these were people who believed in being poor (in spirit).
Sufis do not constitute a separate sect of Islam (as do, for example, the Shi'ites), but can be found within both the Sunni and Shi'a sects (although Sunnis tend to be more tolerant of them). Historically, Sufism has encompassed a wide gradation, ranging from devoutly orthodox Muslims to mystics who viewed their connection with Islam as little more than incidental.
All Sufis stress the supreme importance of religious experience, and distinguish themselves among Muslims by their insistence that experience of God (who is often viewed in Islam as remote and unapproachable) can be achieved in this life.