Who Are Sufi Muslims and Why Do Some Extremists Hate Them? (Published 2017) (2022)

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Who Are Sufi Muslims and Why Do Some Extremists Hate Them? (Published 2017) (1)

By Megan Specia

See how this article appeared when it was originally published on NYTimes.com.

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Sufism is a mystical form of Islam, a school of practice that emphasizes the inward search for God and shuns materialism. It has produced some of the world’s most beloved literature, like the love poems of the 13th century Iranian jurist Rumi. Its modern-day adherents cherish tolerance and pluralism, qualities that in many religions unsettle extremists.

But Sufism, often known as Islamic mysticism, has come under violent attack in recent years. On Friday, militants stormed a Sufi mosque on the Sinai Peninsula, killing at least 305 people in what officials are calling the worst terrorist attack in Egypt’s modern history. The attack followed several assaults on Sufi shrines in Pakistan over the past year carried out by Sunni extremists. (The vast majority of Sufis are Sunni, though some are Shiite.)

What is this form of Islamic belief, and why has it come under assault?

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The roots and practices of Sufism

Sufism, known as tasawwuf in the Arabic-speaking world, is a form of Islamic mysticism that emphasizes introspection and spiritual closeness with God.

While it is sometimes misunderstood as a sect of Islam, it is actually a broader style of worship that transcends sects, directing followers’ attention inward. Sufi practice focuses on the renunciation of worldly things, purification of the soul and the mystical contemplation of God’s nature. Followers try to get closer to God by seeking spiritual learning known as tariqa.

Confusion about Sufism is common, even among Muslims, according to Imam Feisal Abdul Rauf, an American Sufi cleric of Egyptian descent who preached in New York City for many years and founded the Cordoba House, which promotes a moderate image of Islam in the West.

“It is nothing more than the spiritual dimension” of Islam, the cleric, who goes by Imam Feisal, said in a phone interview. “It is Islam, but we focus on meditation, on chanting sessions, which enable the Muslim to have his or her heart open. The myths people have about Sufis are analogous to the myths people have about Muslims.”

For a time, beginning in the 12th century, Sufism was a mainstay of the social order for Islamic civilization, and since that time it has spread throughout the Muslim world, and to China, West Africa and the United States. As Sufism spread, it adapted elements of local culture and belief, making it a popular practice.

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Alexander D. Knysh, a professor of Islamic studies at the University of Michigan and expert in modern Sufism, describes it as a “very wide, amorphous movement” practiced within both the Sunni and Shiite traditions.

Sufism has shaped literature and art for centuries, and is associated with many of the most resonant pieces of Islam’s “golden age,” lasting from roughly the eighth through 13th centuries, including the poetry of Rumi.

In modern times, the predominant view of Sufi Islam is one of “love, peace, tolerance,” Mr. Knysh explained, leading to this style of worship becoming synonymous with peace-loving Islam.

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Why extremists have targeted Sufis

While some Muslims view Sufis as quirky, even eccentric, some fundamentalists and extremists see Sufism as a threat, and its adherents as heretics or apostates.

In February, militants aligned with the Islamic State attacked worshipers at the tomb of a Sufi philosopher in a remote part of southern Pakistan, killing more than 80 people, whom the militants described as polytheists. Sufis praying at the tombs of saints — a practice core to the group — have also been attacked in India and the Middle East.

The Islamic State targets Sufis because it believes that only a fundamentalist form of Sunni Islam is valid.

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Some fundamentalists see the reverence for saints, which is common in Shiite Islam, as a form of idolatry, because in their view it shows devotion to something other than the worship of a singular God. Some consider Sufis to be apostate, because saints were not part of the original practice of Islam at the time of the Prophet Muhammad, who died in 632.

“The opponents of Sufism see the shrines and these living saints as idols,” Mr. Knysh explained. “Their existence and their worship violates the main principle of Islam, which is the uniqueness of God and the uniqueness of the object of worship.”

Even though Sunni hard-liners have long viewed Sufis as well as Shiites as heretical, terrorist networks like Al Qaeda and the Islamic State have debated whether killing them is justified.

The two terrorist groups have clashed over whether to focus on the “far enemy,” powerful Western countries like the United States, or the “near enemy,” repressive governments in the Muslim world. Early in the Iraq war, when the Islamic State’s predecessor organization targeted Iraq’s Shiite majority, in the hopes of promoting sectarian conflict, Al Qaeda criticized the Iraqi group’s leader at the time, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, for doing so.

When a branch of Al Qaeda captured northern Mali in 2012, militants used pickaxes and bulldozers to destroy the ancient mausoleums of Sufi saints in Timbuktu. But documents recovered in northern Mali revealed that the militants in Mali had acted without the permission of their leaders, who wrote to express their dismay, arguing that the destruction — while theologically justified — was unwise because it caused the population to turn against them.

Though Al Qaeda has also targeted Sufi sites, the Islamic State has set itself apart by calling for brutal attacks against Sufis.

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The status of Sufis in Egypt

While no group has yet claimed responsibility for Friday’s attack, it bore some of the hallmarks of previous assaults on Coptic Christians in Egypt. In the fall of 2016, Islamic State’s local affiliate claimed to have executed a Sufi cleric who was about 100 years old.

The religious objections of fundamentalists to the Sufi style of worship may not be the only factor behind the attacks on Sufis.

Experts say the amicable ties between Sufis and the Egyptian government may also be factor, giving the attack a political dimension. Egypt’s president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, who took power after the military overthrew a democratically elected Islamist president, Mohamed Morsi, has vowed to do a better job at protecting religious minorities, who were shunned when Mr. Morsi’s party, the Muslim Brotherhood, was in power. By killing Sufis, the militants may be trying to undermine Mr. Sisi’s authority.

Like its counterparts in several other Muslim-majority countries, Egypt’s government supports the Sufis because it sees them as members of a moderate, manageable faction who are unlikely to engage in political activity, because their priorities are oriented inwardly.

Sufi sheikhs generally accept the legitimacy of the state, leading to tensions with Muslims who oppose their governments and are willing to act on their dissatisfaction — with violence if necessary.

“They think the society is moving in the wrong direction and Sufis are aiding and abetting the authorities on this corrupt path,” Mr. Knysh said. “In ways, their reasons are very much political. They say, ‘If Sufis support this, we will be against them,’ more or less.”

Imam Feisal said that attacks on Sufi worshipers, besides being a “major sin,” are the result of the politicization of religion in the region over the past few decades. Egypt, in particular, he said, is a place where that politicization has fueled extremism.

“When religion becomes politicized,” Imam Feisal said, “it is not good.”

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FAQs

Who were the Sufis and what did they do? ›

Followers of Sufism believe they can become closer to Allah through inner purification and introspection. They do this by meditating and receiving guidance from their spiritual leaders, or "murshid" (guide). Adherents of Sufism follow the five pillars of Islam just as other practicing Muslims.

What is a Sufi in Islam? ›

Sufism may be best described as Islamic mysticism or asceticism, which through belief and practice helps Muslims attain nearness to Allah by way of direct personal experience of God.

Who is called a Sufi? ›

A Sufi is a Muslim who seeks annihilation of the ego in God.

How many Muslims are Sufi? ›

In Egypt, there are about 15 million Sufis, who follow 77 "turuq" (orders). The biggest orders are al-Rifaaiya, which has about two million followers, and al-Azmiya, which has about a million. There are thousands of mosques in the country where Sufis pray, though where not all worshippers are Sufis.

What means Sufis? ›

Definitions of Sufi. a Muslim who represents the mystical dimension of Islam; a Muslim who seeks direct experience of Allah; mainly in Iran. type of: Moslem, Muslim. a believer in or follower of Islam.

What is the difference between Islam and Sufism? ›

While all Muslims believe that they are on the pathway to Allah and hope to become close to God in Paradise—after death and after the Last Judgment—Sufis also believe that it is possible to draw closer to God and to more fully embrace the divine presence in this life.

When did Sufi Islam begin? ›

Despite these general stages, however, the history of Islamic mysticism is largely a history of individual mystic experience. The first stage of Sufism appeared in pious circles as a reaction against the worldliness of the early Umayyad period (661–749).

What religions practice Sufism? ›

Sufi Affiliation

Also known as brotherhoods, Sufi orders represent a mystical movement within Islam that emphasizes the possibility of gaining direct knowledge of God through euphoric worship and other practices. These orders can fall within either Sunni or Shia Islam.

Can Sufis drink alcohol? ›

The Sufi faith does not force devotees to observe the basics of traditional Islam. The Bektashi creed permits the drinking of alcohol — as the dervish explains, “It reveals a man's true character” — and does not demand men and women to be segregated, nor that women wear a veil.

What are the main features of Sufism? ›

Sufism cultivates the inner and the outer dimensions of spiritual practice, the esoteric and the exoteric to establish a religion of intense devotion, love as its passion; poetry, song and dance, worship and passing away from God as ideal” rather than namaz, hajj and celibacy.

Who is the most famous Sufi? ›

Sufi leaders
  • Emir Abdelkader.
  • Izz ad-Din al-Qassam.
  • Mehmed the Conqueror.
  • Omar al-Mukhtar.
  • Saladin.

What is the main aim of Sufi movement? ›

Sufism is the mystical movement against orthodox practice in Islam with an aim to adhere the direct perception of mankind to God without any mediator.

What are the 4 stages of Sufism? ›

Haqiqa (Arabic حقيقة ḥaqīqa "truth") is one of "the four stages" in Sufism, shari'a (exoteric path), tariqa (esoteric path), haqiqa (mystical truth) and marifa (final mystical knowledge, unio mystica).

What was the origin of the Sufi? ›

Abstract. Sufism (tasawwuf) is the name given to mysticism in Islam. The term is taken from the root word in Arabic 'suf' which means 'wool'. 1 It basically denoted the ones who denounced the world, chose a mystic way of life and wore coarse woolen clothes.

Are Sufi Sunni or Shia? ›

Sufism or Tasawwuf is a school of thought (and not a religious sect) which exists both in the Shia and the Sunni faiths. "Sufi" is a person who believes in the principles of Sufism. Sufis in Iran are mainly Shiite. As explained in The New Encyclopedia Britannica, Sufism began in the seventh century (1989, vol.

What role did Sufis play in the spread of Islam? ›

They were triumphant in spreading their faith because they refused to impose their beliefs on non-Muslims. Their places of worship provided protection to wanderers and eventually millions across the subcontinent rallied round the ideology of Sufism which was simple to digest and easy to practice.

What is the synonym of Sufi? ›

A person who follows an ascetic life. ascetic. abstainer. recluse.

In what ways were Sufi Muslims critical of mainstream Islam? ›

In what ways were Sufi Muslims critical of mainstream Islam? Sufism was sharply critical of the more scholarly and legalistic practitioners of the sharia; to Sufis, establishment teachings about the law and correct behavior did little to bring the believer into the presence of God.

Do Sufis pray 5 times a day? ›

Sufis, like all practicing Muslims, pray five times a day and must visit Mecca once in their lifetime if they have the means.

How many types of Islam are there? ›

Sunnis and Shias

Sunni Muslims and Shia Muslims (also known as Shiites) comprise the two main branches of Islam. Sunni and Shia identities first formed soon after the death of the Prophet Muhammad in 632 C.E., centering on a dispute over leadership succession.

Is Sufism similar to Buddhism? ›

Interestingly, Sufism and Buddhism are comparable. Both are practical and they talk about ways of life. The “Path” of Buddhism is same as “Tarighat” in Sufism. Attaining truth in Buddhism is by following the path and practising meditation which is similar to “Moraghebe” in Sufism.

What are the three principles of Sufism? ›

Outlining the four principles of Repentance, Sincerity, Remembrance, and Love, it traces the fundamental stages and states of the spiritual novice's transformative journey, emphasizing the importance of embracing both human limitations and God's limitless love.

Is Sufism older than Islam? ›

In our reference books Sufis are likely to be described as Islamic mystics; at best as "the inner truth of Islam." But this book explains that Sufism predates both Islam and Christianity, and that it is a mistake to equate it with any particular culture or phase of a culture.

What was the impact of Sufism? ›

Sufism helped the assimilation of the Afghani Delhi Sultanate rulers within mainstream society. By building a syncretic medieval culture tolerant and appreciative of non-Muslims, Sufi saints contributed to a growth of stability, vernacular literature, and devotional music in India.

Why do Sufis dance? ›

What does Sufi whirling represent? Popular across the Middle East and Turkey, whirling is a sort of moving meditation through which Sufis seek to commune with the Divine. The performers twirl to the hypnotic rhythm of prayer until they reach a trance-like state.

How many types of Sufism are there? ›

The four main Sufi orders – Chisti, Qadiriyya, Suhrawardiyya and Naqshbandi order were practiced in India.

Is Turkish a Sufi? ›

Though only a minority of Turks belong to Sufi orders, Sufism nonetheless impacts Turkish Islam, particularly through the works of popular Muslim leaders such as Said Nursi and Fethüllah Gülen.

Do Muslims smoke? ›

A tobacco fatwa is a fatwa (Islamic legal pronouncement) that prohibits the usage of tobacco by Muslims. Arab Muslims tend to prohibit smoking (despite Saudi Arabia ranking 23rd in the world for the percentage of its population that smokes) and, in South Asia, smoking tends to be considered lawful but discouraged.

Why can't Muslims drink? ›

Bushra Nasir from Muslims Down Under explains: “The holy Qur'an describes different categories of foods, and alcohol falls under the category which is prohibited because it is harmful to the body, and that which is harmful to the body is harmful to the spirit.”

Can Muslims drink beer? ›

Alcohol in Islam

prohibited by specific texts of the Quran (see 5:90). Therefore alcohol is categorically unlawful (haraam) and considered impure (najis). Consuming any amount is unlawful, even if it doesn't create any drunken effects.

Is Sufism part of Islam? ›

Sufism is a mystical form of Islam, a school of practice that emphasizes the inward search for God and shuns materialism. It has produced some of the world's most beloved literature, like the love poems of the 13th century Iranian jurist Rumi.

Who was the first Sufi in India? ›

Khwaja Muinuddin Chishti presented the Chishti order in Ajmer, Rajasthan at some point in the twelfth century. The four orders of Sufism are Chishti, Qadiri, Suhrawardi and Naqshbandi.

Who are known as Sufi saints? ›

Pages in category "Indian Sufi saints"
  • Abdul Rehman Jilani Dehlvi.
  • Abdur-Razzaq Nurul-Ain.
  • Akhund Darweza.
  • Mir Mukhtar Akhyar.
  • Nur Qutb Alam.
  • Alauddin Sabir Kaliyari.
  • Shah Amanat.
  • Yuz Asaf.

What was the name of woman Sufi saint? ›

Bibi Fatima: The first woman Sufi saint of India.

How do you give a girl Aqiqah? ›

For a baby girl, one animal is sacrificed. The sacrifice is then divided between the family members who are carrying out the sacrifice. It's then handed out to the poor and needy. For family and friends, a party it's often arranged to celebrate and share the meat.

What are the seven stages of Sufism? ›

The spirit has seven levels or facets of the complete spirit. These levels are: mineral, vegetable, animal, personal, human, secret and secret of secret souls. Each level represents the stages of evolution, and the process that it goes through in its growth.

What is Sharia in Sufism? ›

Shariah is the prophetic “framework” based on the sacred sources of Islam, i.e., the Qur'an and the Sunna that seeks to regulate all contingencies of Muslim life. As such it is not a monolithic structure or a rigid set of rules that can be filtered only through fiqh.

What is the symbol for Sufism? ›

The symbol of the soul-bird—in which the human soul is likened to a flying bird—known everywhere, was the centre of ʿAṭṭar's Manṭeq al-ṭeyr.

What is the difference between Wahabi and Sufi? ›

The Wahabi stream exhorts Muslims to adopt the more "puritanical" form of Islam while Sufis - also known as Barelwis - maintain that teachings of saints cannot be ignored. The tussle between the two has also manifested in many mosques across the region where both schools have tried to wrest control of administration.

What is the difference between Sufi and Salafi? ›

In legal matters, Sufism has fixed rituals and traditions with limited capacity of development or transformation. However, Salafis consider themselves to be reformist and revivalist, regularly debating on legal issues and differ with each other over various rituals, traditions and even creedal doctrines.

What religion was Elijah Muhammad? ›

Elijah Muhammad, original name Elijah Poole, (born Oct. 7, 1897, Sandersville, Ga., U.S.—died Feb. 25, 1975, Chicago), leader of the black separatist religious movement known as the Nation of Islam (sometimes called Black Muslims) in the United States.

Who were the Sufis Class 7? ›

Answer: The Sufis were Muslim mystics who rejected outward religiosity and emphasised love and devotion to God and compassion towards all fellow human beings. The Sufis often rejected the elaborate rituals and codes of behaviour demanded by Muslim religious scholars.

What are the main Sufi beliefs? ›

Sufism, mystical Islamic belief and practice in which Muslims seek to find the truth of divine love and knowledge through direct personal experience of God.

What did the Sufi saints believe in? ›

Answer. Explanation: Sufism, mystical Islamic belief and practice in which Muslims seek to find the truth of divine love and knowledge through direct personal experience of God.

Who is the most famous Sufi? ›

Sufi leaders
  • Emir Abdelkader.
  • Izz ad-Din al-Qassam.
  • Mehmed the Conqueror.
  • Omar al-Mukhtar.
  • Saladin.

Who were the Sufis very short answer? ›

Sufis were Muslim mystics.

What do the Sufi saints believe class 7? ›

Answer: The Sufis believed in union with God as a lover seeking his beloved. They also believed that the heart could be trained to look at the world in a different way. They rejected the elaborate rituals and codes of behavior demanded by Muslim religious scholars.

Is Sufism a branch of Islam? ›

Sufism, known as tasawwuf in the Arabic-speaking world, is a form of Islamic mysticism that emphasizes introspection and spiritual closeness with God. While it is sometimes misunderstood as a sect of Islam, it is actually a broader style of worship that transcends sects, directing followers' attention inward.

What is God in Sufism? ›

Sufism is not a separate sect of Islam, but rather a stream of interpretation emphasizing the interior path, or tariqah, of mystical devotion to God. A tradition describes the Prophet's spiritual journey, the Mi'raj, in which he ascended into the highest heavens and came face to face with God.

Can Sufis drink alcohol? ›

The Sufi faith does not force devotees to observe the basics of traditional Islam. The Bektashi creed permits the drinking of alcohol — as the dervish explains, “It reveals a man's true character” — and does not demand men and women to be segregated, nor that women wear a veil.

What are the 4 stages of Sufism? ›

Haqiqa (Arabic حقيقة ḥaqīqa "truth") is one of "the four stages" in Sufism, shari'a (exoteric path), tariqa (esoteric path), haqiqa (mystical truth) and marifa (final mystical knowledge, unio mystica).

Does Sufi saints believe in one God? ›

Sufi saints preached tolerance, brotherhood and oneness of God. With respect to devoution to God, they believed in fundamental unity of all religions.

Who are known as Sufi saints? ›

Pages in category "Indian Sufi saints"
  • Abdul Rehman Jilani Dehlvi.
  • Abdur-Razzaq Nurul-Ain.
  • Akhund Darweza.
  • Mir Mukhtar Akhyar.
  • Nur Qutb Alam.
  • Alauddin Sabir Kaliyari.
  • Shah Amanat.
  • Yuz Asaf.

Who is the famous Sufi saint? ›

Who is the greatest Sufi Saint? Khawja Moin-ud-Din Chisti (1143 A.D – 1234 A.D) – He settled at Ajmer. Baba Farid-ud-Din Ganj-i-Shakar – His tomb is located at Faridkot in Punjab. Nizam-ud-Din Aulia – His tomb is located in Delhi.

Where is Sufism practiced today? ›

Self-identified Sufis are most prevalent in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. The overwhelming majority of people who identify as Muslim today were raised within the Islamic faith.

Who was the first Sufi in India? ›

Khwaja Muinuddin Chishti presented the Chishti order in Ajmer, Rajasthan at some point in the twelfth century. The four orders of Sufism are Chishti, Qadiri, Suhrawardi and Naqshbandi.

What was the name of woman Sufi saint? ›

Bibi Fatima: The first woman Sufi saint of India.

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