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Religion Library: Sufism


Written by: Nancy Khalek

Sufism first developed in Arabia. Although Muhammad was eventually seen as the model for religious practice and moral behavior par excellence by the early Muslim community, a number of early Muslims sought for ways in which to carry their religious practice beyond the observance of the law or daily rituals required of all Muslims. To do so, these early Muslims drew from the deep well of Near Eastern traditions, including Judaism and Christianity, in order to develop practices and philosophies that centered on cultivating their souls. In the Near East there was a developed and long tradition of asceticism and contemplative practices centered on abstention from excessive food, an emphasis on prayer, and the cultivation of an inwardly-directed mode of devotion.

Most immediately, this meant combining elements of Islamic practice, like prayer and supplication, with modes of asceticism as they found them practiced in the Near East. New habits, including a reduction in physical comfort in the form of food, sleep, and wealth constituted a form of worldly renunciation characteristic of Christian asceticism. Such renunciation was not foreign to the tradition of Muhammad, whose humble lifestyle and approval of such was a feature of the hadith. Early Muslim ascetics actually believed that a simple life of material renunciation was more in keeping with the true message of Muhammad, an issue which could potentially become complicated by the rising fortunes and increasing wealth of the Islamic empire over the 8th century C.E.

The term "Sufi" has become commonplace today and is a catch-all term for all Muslim mystics, but the origin of the word Sufism, let alone the definition of the term, remains somewhat controversial. On the one hand, it may derive from a group of people known as Ahl al-Suffah (the people of Al-Suffah) who lived during the lifetime of Muhammad, in the 7th century. This group consisted of a number of poor émigrés who had accompanied Muhammad to Medina after facing persecution in Mecca. Destitute after having been cast out by their families, and without homes of their own, they lived in the courtyard of Muhammad's mosque. This was a group united by their status as semi-itinerants more than any coherent ideology, but their relative state of poverty resembled an ascetic lifestyle, although they were heavily engaged with the early Muslim community, not isolated from it.

Other interpretations of the term "Sufi" derive meaning from the word "saff" or row, in Arabic, which refers to the "first row standing before God" or the spiritual elect. This is a fanciful etymology, but it reflects the interiority of some definitions of Sufism. Another popular conception held by historians as illustrious as Ibn Khaldoun (1332-1406) and which is related to asceticism is that the term derives from rough woolen garments (the Arabic for wool is "suf") worn by Sufis.