What is Sufism?

Properly understanding what is Sufism is essential in our current age, more important now than ever before, for it is within the sacred tradition of Sufism that humanity will fully flower in consciousness, nearness to the Divine, and awaken to the next stage in human development and the evolution of consciousness.

Although Sufism is nearly universally misunderstood by both Muslims and non-Muslims, it is an extremely important field of knowledge for both.

Due to a lack of proper education and a loss of classical learning, Sufism is often perceived as a fringe movement on the edge of Islam. However, nothing could be further from the truth.

In this article and video, I will answer the question, What is Sufism, by explaining that Sufism is essentially spirituality, its primary purpose self-purification and the evolution of consciousness, and an essential field of knowledge that is in fact the essence of Islam.

I explain that the word or label can actually be counterproductive, that it is more conducive to the realization of Islam and the Way of the Prophet Muhammad (saws) to avoid labels and stereotypes, and to instead continually seek true knowledge, learning, understanding and wisdom.

What is Sufism?

  • The Inner Dimension of Islam
  • Spirituality
  • Self-Purification
  • A Word

What is Sufism?

What is Sufism? The Inner Dimension of Islam.

Some have gone so far as to proclaim that Sufism is not Islamic at all. This, of course, is absurd, as will become clear in this article and video.

Sufism is in fact the essence, the heart and soul, of Islam. There cannot be Islam without Sufism, just as there cannot be a body without a soul.

What is Sufism? Sufism is simply the inner dimension of Islam.

What is Sufism? Spirituality.

Sufism is but “Islamic Spirituality.” The term spirituality can be used to describe the inner dimension of the Way, and the word religion can be used to describe its outer expression.

One cannot have one without the other, and both the inner and outer dimensions of Islam are necessary for balance and harmony.

The word “religion” has come to mean but the rules and regulations of the Path, yet a more complete and whole understanding of the Way must connotate its purpose and essence as well.

What is Sufism? Sufism is but a term used to describe the spirituality of Islam.

What is Sufism? Self-Purification

There is but one veil between a human being and his or her Creator, and that is the self, the ego. It is but the ego-mind which creates separation and results in the experience of isolation and loneliness that dominates common human consciousness.

Yet God is eternally Here, Now. The Divine Presence, however, is commonly not felt nor experienced because ego-consciousness, which necessitates perpetual obsession with past and future to perpetuate its existence, is not Here and not Now.

Sufism is the path of self-purification, and in the original Arabic was referred to by the Prophet Muhammad (saws) as tazkiyyah.

In fact, the Prophet (saws) first called the Way tazkiyya, meaning purification, before Allah Almighty revealed in the Holy Qur’an its proper name, Islam.

Islam, which means surrender, originates from the root word meaning peace and purity. Sufism is thus the Path, the tariqa, that leads to the deepest dimension and experience of Islam — awakening to the Divine Presence by transcending the ego-mind and ego-consciousness.

What is Sufism? Sufism is the Path of Self-Purification taught by the Prophet Muhammad (saws), and by all prophets, to elevate humanity to transcendent consciousness and nearness to the Divine Presence.

What is Sufism? A Word.

The word Sufism is but a label in itself and nothing more. Such a label is non-conducive in terms of an identity, and in fact but serves ego.

Labels, at best, create stereotypes, separation and division, and at worst ignorance and enemies. It is incorrect to either identify with Sufism as a “Sufi,” as well as to label an individual as such. Sufism describes the highest state of spiritual excellence, and rather than a label, is in fact a description of a state of great attainment.

In its deepest sense, the word or label of “Sufi” becomes non-conducive to its goal. For one committed to the Path, Tazkiyyah is a better description, and more accurately describes Sufism.

Etymological Roots and Origins of the Word “Sufi”

What does Sufi mean? There are several etymological root origins for the word “Sufi.”

1. Safaa

Safaa literally means “pure” and “clean.” Purification of consciousness is the goal of the “Sufi,” and one who practices tasawwuf, or tazkiyyah, seeks the attainment of Maqam al-Ihsan, the “Station of Spiritual Excellence.”

2. Safa

Safa means “wool,” and was used to describe the dress of the early mutasawwafeen, or “Sufis,” who often wore but a simple woolen cloak, symbolizing non-attachment to the world.

This simple woolen dress of the zahideen, spiritual ascetics and spiritual warriors is not unlike the Jedi of the Star Wars Universe, who are the guardians of peace and purity in the galaxy.

George Lucas was in fact inspired by the Sufis in creating his archetypal spiritual warriors, the Jedi, servants of the Light committed to knowledge, learning, truth and justice.

What is Sufism : Jedi Spiritual Warriors

3. As-Hab as-Suffa

As-Hab as-Suffa, the “Companions of the Bench,” were an elite group of spiritual ascetics primarily devoted to spiritual development in the time of the Prophet Muhammad (saws) who earned the monicker because they often sat in meditation and remembrance on a bench outside the home of the Prophet (saws).

4. Sofia

Sofia is the Greek word for “wisdom,” and resonates with the Sufi’s lifelong quest for knowledge, wisdom, learning and true experience.

The goal of the Sufi, the devotee of the internal science of self-purification within Islam, is to seek true experience, beyond concept, theory and ideology. They are the seekers of Reality, and strive to truly know God, rather than to simply know of God.

Others Synonyms for Sufism

The word Sufism which points to the inner dimension of Islamic Spirituality has several synonyms in Arabic.

1. Tasawwuf

Tasawwuf is simply the original Arabic word for Sufism.

2. Tazkiyyat an-Nafs

Literally “Purification of the Self,” Tazkiyyat an-Nafs is an apt and perfect description of the spiritual path, and is in fact the original description of the Way by the Prophet Muhammad (saws) himself.

3. ‘Ilm al-Ihsan

‘Ilm al-Ihsan means the “Knowledge of Spiritual Excellence,” and is but a description of the Islamic science of spirituality.

4. Tariqa

Tariqa means the “Way,” or the “Path,” and denotes the path Home to the Divine Presence, and to the presence and reality of the Prophet (saws), who is the means to Allah, without which humanity in darkness.

Without the light of prophecy, humanity remains lost in confusion and conjecture. And this is why traditional schools of Islamic Spirituality, or “Sufi Orders,” must have a living lineage that can be traced directly back to the Prophet Muhammad (saws) himself.

Traditionally, there are 41 Sufi Orders, or Tariqas, and they all lead to same goal just as many rivers lead to the Ocean.

Historically, one would adopt a school of external practice (madhhab) and a school for internal development (tariqa). We the same model manifest in, for example, the University system, in which one can attain a degree and specialization in any particular field such as medicine, law, engineering, literature, history and the like.

Although some universities are more prestigious than others, some more widely known and recognized, and that there will be slightly different emphases in the various institutions of higher learning, they are all nonetheless valid, in harmony and enable an individual to practice in his or her given field.

Again, the movement towards psychological separation is from ego-consciousness. It is important to remember that it is a mercy from God there exists different manifestations and expressions of the Way to suit different cultures and different individuals.

The Islamic goal has always been unity in diversity. And this then the goal of Sufism, the transcendence of self, and thus the experience of true love and unity. If a particular manifestation of “Sufism” is not serving this purpose, then it is likely not Sufism at all, and may better be described as a cult, the very antithesis of Tasawwuf and of Islam.

5. Jihad an-Nafs

What is Sufism : Spiritual AsceticismJihad an-Nafs means the “Struggle Against the Self,” and is a description of the inner battle, the inner struggle, to rise above the lower self and its tendency towards negativity.

Jihad an-Nafs is to transcend anger, fear, hatred, bitterness, jealousy, envy, pride, arrogance, hopelessness, despair, despondency, depression, and all negative qualities and characteristics that are necessary for the ego to survive.

And so the Path of Sufism, of Islam, is the path to truly believing, to become a true believer. It is to become self-less, to “die” to the lower self, and to be reborn in the Light of the Divine Presence.

Tariqa is to become progressively pure, clean and free. It is to be filled with light, love and compassion.

This is the goal of Islam, and the goal of Sufism. It is nothing short of absolute and total enlightenment.

What is Sufism?

The inner dimension of Islam. While the word religion can be used in the context of this discussion to denote the outer, physical and external aspects of the Way, spirituality can be used to denote its inner, spiritual, internal aspect.

For example, while the field of knowledge of Shariah teaches you how to pray with your body (where to place your hands, what to recite, how to stand, which postures to take), Tariqa teaches you how to pray with your heart and soul. Tasawwuf teaches you how to surrender not just your body, but your mind as well in the state of Islam.

This of course is the perfection of personal excellence, known as Maqam al-Ihsan, which is the very goal of Islam.


Rediscover Islamic Spirituality

It was Islamic Spirituality, sincerity, piety and purity, that brought a great light into the world the likes of which it had never seen before or since.

And it has been the loss of Islamic Spirituality that has led to the demise of Islamic culture, for without spirituality, religion fails to serve its purpose.

By rediscovering Islamic Spirituality and applying its principles and practices in your life towards self-purification and personal excellence, you heal not only your own life, but you become a source of divine light and energy for all around you. You become a force for good, a true divine deputy, khalifah, of the Eternal.

Click on the link below to rediscover the depth of Islamic Spirituality, and to rediscover the depth of your own being.

Rediscover Your True Self



17 Comments on “What is Sufism?”

  1. Asalaamu’alaykum !

    “If one practices Shariah but does not practice Sufism, he or she will corrupt their soul. And if one practices Sufism but does not keep to the Shariah, he or she will corrupt their religion. Only by keeping to both Sufism and Shariah can one attain to the Truth.”

    — Imam Malik (ra)

    I believe in that the above quote represents the “Purpose and Truth of Human Existence and Life” in totality.

    Mr Ihsan Alexander is a great human being who is serving mankind through seeking of Allah’s blessings.

    Best regards and love always,

    Irfan Ahmad (Your Dad)

    1. Thank you, Irfan. Indeed, the above quote from the great Imam Malik (ra) points to the balance necessary for a true and full life of divine purpose.

      To your divine success.

  2. A brief and thorough introduction Ihsan. I have often heard fellow Muslims claim “Islam is not a ‘religion'” but unable to complete what it actually is. I believe you touch on this indirectly in your video by highlighting the central role of the ‘interior’, indeed of Sufism, in Islam. I like the way you explain the difference between being religious and being spiritual, for religion can indeed be the source of imbalance and corruption while spirituality, Sufism, is the source of healing that deep wound formed by being human. Only when religion and spirituality are balanced can we really start being Muslims. Thank you for this. It is simple and wonderful.

    1. Blessings and light, always, Jacqueline, yes, may the Almighty keep us on the straight and balanced path which leads to His Holy and Divine Presence. To your eternal success and bliss.

  3. Idries Shah say’s (& I totally agree): –

    “People frequently bemoan their inability to understand the Teaching, or this or that part of the Teaching.

    “Their problem is in reality simple: it is they (YOU) who make it complicated.

    “These are the two major complications which these people introduce, and which can be resolved only by the right kind of contact with a real Sufi group:

    “1. YOU must know whether a given thing is comprehensible at your level, and whether you are trying to understand something out of due phase and relevancy. To assume that you should always be able to understand everything without the preparation necessary for it is an absurdity.

    “2. YOU could understand almost infinitely more than you are at present capable of understanding if you would only surrender your taste for minor satisfactions or bring this taste under control. By this I mean that man has to be able to detach from greed for knowledge, greed for such things as attention by others, greed for being thought something or somebody. Man must detach, if he is a real student, from playing psychotherapeutic or social games and calling these ‘trying to learn’, or ‘associating with people of wisdom’, or ‘performing initiatory rituals’. Students can start to understand esoteric matters when they stop feeding their superficial ‘selves’ omnivorously with superficial materials and calling them significant ones. People can start to learn when they are willing to accept the possibility that the very evidences of ‘something higher’ in themselves may in fact not be reliable, and may even be screening them from real perceptions.

    “If YOU want to learn, and not just to play at it(HERE ONLINE), start to conceive the possibility that the foregoing remarks may be true, and could be as reliable as, or more reliable than, the simplifications of the systems with which you are familiar.”

    – this definitely MEANS YOU IHSAN!

  4. i feel humbled and thankful to ALLAH swt forletting me know you,iwas practising muslim from a long time,but the softness and light that has entered my heart after llistening to you is incredible…i have embarked on the path of meditation led by your helping hand,may the divine grace of ALLAH swt shower innumerable blessings on you and your loved ones….

  5. i feel humbled and thankful to ALLAH swt forletting me know you,iwas practising muslim from a long time,but the softness and light that has entered my heart after llistening to you is incredible…i have embarked on the path of meditation led by your helping hand,may the divine grace of ALLAH swt shower innumerable blessings on you and your loved ones….

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