The practice of Sufism is seen first and foremost as a path to union with God, or the beholding of the Face of God. For this reason, Sufism cultivates both the inner and the outer dimensions of spiritual practice, the esoteric and the exoteric. Taking seriously the Quranic verse that states that "Wherever you turn, there is the Face of God" (2:115), the Sufi dedicates the self to a practice in which the outer and inner dimensions of everything in the universe lead to the realization of God.
Along the path of Sufism, each disciple has an intimate relationship with a shaykh, or Master. This relationship also has a Quranic basis, in the story of Moses' apprenticeship at the hands of the figure known as Khidr, who is associated with the spiritual guidance of the biblical patriarch in the eighteenth surah of the text. In the story, which serves as a type for all master/disciple relationships, Khidr guides Moses through a series of apparently distressing or confusing situations in order to teach him lessons about reliance on God and the difference between the outer appearance of the world and the true reality. The verses in the Quran that relate the story begin:
Moses and his servant found one of Allah's servants whom Allah had honored uniquely and had taught knowledge from His Own Presence. Moses said to him, "I would like to accompany you." He answered him: "You cannot bear to accompany me."
Moses was surprised and insisted he was able to do so. Khidr said: "You cannot, but if you do, do not ask about what I am doing no matter what you see me do. On that condition alone you may follow; but if you wish to ask questions, don't follow me."
When Khidr seemingly inexplicably sinks a boat, for example, and Moses expresses his surprise at the act, Khidr explains: "O Moses, what we do is what Allah tells us to do. I caused this boat to sink because there is a tyrant who is seizing every boat from the poor people on this side of the city. In order for these people not to lose their boat, I made it sink. That tyrant is going to die tomorrow, and tomorrow they can retrieve their boat and use it safely."
Accordingly, a master reveals and instructs a disciple, each according to the spiritual knowledge they achieve at various points in their path. According to Seyyed Hossein Nasr, the disciple is as a vessel into which the master, called a saki (from the word "one who pours"), pours wine (Garden of Truth, 109). In daily practice, the master acts as an intermediary who guides the disciple but does not stand in for God, or act as a priest. Because the disciple puts his or her practice into a daily discipline, the master is in the role of assigning various practices according to the nature and state of the disciple.
These additional practices are in addition to the general requirements incumbent on all Muslims. In addition to the dhikr and sama, the hadith serve as a source for various invocations and superogatory prayers performed by the Sufi disciple. Additional fasting and charity may comprise additional aspects of Sufi daily practice. On a daily basis, the goal of these activities is the remembrance of God. In the long run, the goal is to have internalized that remembrance to such an extent that it exists at all moments in the life of the Sufi, whether in prayer, at work, or at rest.
The aim of daily discipline is the purification of the Sufi's soul (tazkiyat al-nafs). The purification of the soul entails the abandonment of material luxury, pride, individual desire, and distraction from God. Contemplation, dhikr, and training of the body through abstinence from excessive amounts of food or sleep may all factor into the daily life of the Sufi. In this, Sufis have long relied on the example of Muhammad, whose abstemious example and simplicity of attire, abode, and living standards represents the best and original model for a disciplined life.
Although there is no formal monasticism in Islam, Sufis echo monastic practices of poverty, faqr, in a material and a spiritual sense, in that the Sufi is impoverished by distance from God and uses daily practices to bridge that distance. And while Sufis do not join monastic orders as such, they do swear an oath of allegiance to their shaykhs, who are mainly male, called the bay'a.