“Sufism”: A Tradition of Transcendental Mysticism

By Nancy Emara

Sufism ought not to be seen as synonymous to Islamic spirituality, as Western scholars see it through their Christian worldview, but rather it ought to be seen as a movement developing along the social history of Islam. Within this context, Sufism could well be understood and discussed. And it is in this spirit that this essay on Sufism is written

Mysticism Worldwide

Mysticism is a worldwide phenomenon of the human universal yearning for Truth. “Mysticism” is said to be the “immediate and direct intuitive knowledge of God or of the ultimate reality attained through personal religious experience.”1In the Encarta Dictionary “mysticism” is defined as the “consciousness of the transcendent reality or of God through deep meditation or contemplation.” In Oxford Dictionary mysticism is defined as something “having a hidden or symbolic meaning... inspiring a sense of mystery and awe.” A “mystic” on the other hand, is defined as “a person who seeks to obtain union with God by spiritual contemplation.

In his book Sufism: An Account of the Mystics of Islam, A. J. Arberry states that it has been the attitude of his fellow orientalists and historians of religion to deal with mysticism in a univocal manner. Mysticism is seen as a permanent and unvarying phenomenon worldwide. Arberry states:

“It has become a platitude to observe that mysticism is essentially one and the same, whatever may be the religion professed by the individual mystic; a constant and unvarying phenomenon of the universal yearning of the human spirit for personal communion with God.” 2

Contemporary scholars however, struggle to comprehend the diversity and dynamism inherent in the mystical phenomena as manifested in various Traditions. They attempt to pursue the different meanings and various inferences the concept takes in different contexts. Clifford Geertz argues that using concepts should be based on an attempt to study the diversity “as we find it” not to formulate uniform generalizations and an all-encompassing definitions. In so doing, concepts like “mysticism” and “mystic” become powerful and enriched. Geertz states:

“If, however, we use a concept like ‘mysticism’ - or ‘mystic’ or ‘mystical’ - not to formulate an underlying uniformity behind superficially diverse phenomena, but to analyze the nature of diversity as we find it, then pursuing the different meanings the concept takes in different contexts does not dissolve its value as an ordering idea but enriches it... In this area of study, at least, the inherent of facts lies in their variety, and the power of ideas rests not on the degree to which they can dissolve that variety, but the degree to which they can order it.” 3

Other scholars, however, like Rhys Davids, who is specialized in Buddhu studies, become bewildered by the diversity and complexity inherent in concepts like “mystic” or “mysticism” to the extent that makes them give up the terms completely. Rhys Davids reached the conclusion that using such terms are “more hindersome than helpful”. 4

The debate as is apparent from the two schools of thought discussed above, revolves around the pull existent between generalization and essentialization. If we generalize, we fall in the trap of marginalizing if not canceling the idiosyncracies and particularities the concept takes in different contexts and traditions. And if we cease to generalize and resort to essentialization, there will be no common ground on which great religions and traditions meet. And hence, comparison between religions will be impossible. However, in my opinion, it should be declared out loudly that essentialization and generalization are both inevitable and unavoidable human comparative analytical tools. Humanity cannot communicate without generalization, and cannot exist without essentialization. Both analytical tools are thus not only permitted but inevitable and crucial.

With Generalization… Contextualization is a Must

All the more, the definition of the term should be postulated in a manner that serves as a common ground shared by all religions, not carrying within it any bias to a certain religion. The Oxford definition of the term “mystic” for example, carries within it an apparent Christian bias. Defining the term “mystic” as someone seeking “union with God through spiritual contemplation” is an entirely Christian conception of the term. In Islam for example, the idea of the “union with God” (al-tawahud) is unacceptable. Also, the idea of reaching to God through “spiritual contemplation” is also Christian in essence. Again, in Islam religious experience is meaningless if the spiritual efforts were not accompanied with physical and social efforts. Also Mysticism has become synonymous with spirituality, which ought not to be so.

The Euro-Christian bias of the term seems to be overruling in most definitions. 5It is most of the time taken as the benchmark according to which other forms of mysticism, in other traditions and other religions, are measured and understood. If the term “mysticism” was defined as a direct experience with God (or a transcendent Reality) and the yearning for Truth, it would have encompassed all religions.

Islamic Sufism

It is not known when the term “Sufism” was coined. But it seems apparent that the words “Sufism” and “Sufi” became widely used, especially in Baghdad and Khurasan, later on in the second half of the nineth century A.C. Critics even disagreed on the origin of the word.

Some historians assert the Sufi is so called because he wears woolen (sufi) garment. Others assure that it is derived from assuming that he is in the “first rank” spiritual stage (saff-i awwal), others say it is because the Sufis claim to belong to the ashab-i Suffa (the people of the Bench who gathered around the Prophet Muhammad’s mosque). Others, again, declare that the name is derived from safa’ (purity).

It is essential to note that “Sufism” as a movement, in its early stages of development, meant nothing but the “interiorization of Islam” as the German scholar Annemarie Schimmel proposes, emphasizing Qur’an, Sunnah and the implementation of Shari`ah. The French Orientalist Louis Massignon states: “It is from the Qur’an, constantly recited, meditated, and experienced, that Sufism proceeded, in its origin and its development.”6 Holding tight to the Qur’an and Sunnah was truly, the principle definition of Sufism or “tassawuf”.

Sufism, the so-called “Islamic mysticism”, is looked at and discussed by “Orientalists”, as well as most Western scholars through Christian lenses. It is seen as an Islamic “spiritual” movement, ridding the movement from its practical essence, which is bipolar as will be discussed later. Though Mysticism is presented as a worldwide phenomenon that is part of all religions and Traditions such as Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, Buddhism...etc , interestingly, the approach to “mysticism” takes on Christian notions and conceptions. Sufism is then presented as the “Islamic” version of mysticism. It is no wonder then, that the reader soon realizes the Christian impositions that had inflicted Sufism. Sufism becomes spoken about through a Christian tongue and via a Christian soul. Pantheistic experiences of figures such as al-Hallaj and al-Bistami become strongly emphasized and highlighted in these studies, since they touch upon Christian notions and inceptions of union with God. Sufi orders are perceived as “monastic communities” like the Church of the Middle Ages. And most important of all, Sufism is conceived as a mere spiritual movement, hence always discussed in alienation from Shari `ah, the Islamic code of social ethics and practices. M. Hodgson in his book The Venture of Islam differentiates between what he calls a Sufi minded person and a Shari `ah minded person, since to his Christian mentality the two trends are incompatible.

The Islamic approach is bipolar. “Bipolar unity”, as was coined by Ali Izet Begovic, is the fact that Islam is a religion that unites in its path the spiritual and the material, the individual and the social, the soul and the body. Unlike other religions such as Christianity or Hinduism in which the emphasis is only on the spiritual and the non-material. According to the logic of certain monastic orders in the latter religions, the disregard and neglect of the body reinforces spirituality. It assumes that the less the physical is present, the more the spiritual is stressed. In Islam, body and soul, physical and spiritual, individual and social, are united in the Muslim way of life. Take Prayer (salah) as an example. There is no prayers without cleanliness and no spiritual efforts without the accompanying physical and social efforts. Salah is useless without wudu’ (ablution). The movements of ablution constitute the rational side of salah. Because of them, salah is not only a prayer but a discipline and hygiene as well; it is not only mysticism but also a practicality. And if we focus upon the rational aspect of salah we will also find it dual. “The duality is repeated: ablution is hygiene, but hygiene is not only a practice but also a virtue”. The statement that physical cleanliness is one aspect of faith could only appear in Islam. In all other religions, the body is “out of grace”. The fact that salah is connected to a definite time and day and a geographical direction means that prayer is bound – contrary to religious logic – to nature and its movement. All the more, the individual act of salah is accompanied by a social one. The social tendency of salah is demonstrated in the collective practice of prayer jama`h. The jama`h prayer includes a gathering of people and a sort of socialization. Opposite to conceiving prayer as only an individual ritual, here we see that “life segregates people, mosques bring them together”.7It is within this dual framework that Sufism, the so-called “Islamic mysticism” should be understood, disregarding the unipolar property the term “mysticism” takes in other religions.


1- "Mysticism," Microsoft (R) Encarta. Copyright (c) 1994, Microsoft Corporation. Copyright (c) 1994 Funk & Wagnall's Corporation.

2- Arberry, A. J. Sufism: An Account of the Mystics of Islam.London : George Allen and Unwin, 1950. p. 11

3- Geertz, Clifford. Islam Observed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1971. pp. 23-24

4- Awn, Peter. Satan's Tragedy and Redemption: Iblis in Sufi Psychology. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1983. p. 3

5- This is maybe because the term itself is European in application. Realize that the derivation of the term is one, in Italian, Spanish, English and French, all coming from the same Greek origin which is not the case in other languages such as Arabic for example.

6- Massignon, Louis. Essai sur les origines du lexique technique de la mystique musulmane. Paris: Vrin, 1954. p. 104.

7- Izetbegovic, Alija Ali. Islam Between East and West. Indiana : American Trust Publications, 1994. pp. 203-205


  You can reach the author on nunu297@hotmail.com

  • Arberry, A. J. Sufism: An Account of the Mystics of Islam.London: George Allen and Unwin, 1950.
  • Awn, Peter. Satan’s Tragedy and Redemption: Iblis in Sufi Psychology. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1983.
  • Geertz, Clifford. Islam Observed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1971.
  • Graham, Terry. “Abu Sa`d ibn Abi’l-Khayr and the school of Sufism ” in Lewisohn Classical Persian Sufism.
  • Hodgson, M. “The Sufism of the Tariqa Orders, c. 945 - 1273” in The Venture of Islam v. II.
  • Massignon, Louis. Essai sur les origines du lexique technique de la mystique muslulmane. Paris: Vrin, 1954.
  • “Mysticism,” Microsoft (R) Encarta. Copyright (c) 1994 Microsoft Corporation. Copyright (c) 1994, Funk & Wagnall’s Corporation.
  • Schimmel, Annemarie. The Mystical Dimensions of Islam. Carolina: The University of Carolina Press, 1975.


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