Sufism, or Tasawwuf as it is known in the Muslim world, is Islamic mysticism
(Lings, Martin, What is Sufism?, The Islamic Texts Society, 1999, pg 15).
Non-Muslims often mistake Sufism as a sect of Islam. Sufism is more accurately described as an aspect or dimension of Islam. Sufi orders (Tariqas) can be found in Sunni, Shia and other Islamic groups. Ibn Khaldun, the 14th century Arab historian, described Sufism as
|… dedication to worship, total dedication to Allah most High, disregard for the finery and ornament of the world, abstinence from the pleasure, wealth, and prestige sought by most men, and retiring from others to worship alone.
Ibn Khaldun, quoted in Keller, Nuh Ha Mim, The Place of Tasawwuf in Traditional Islam, www.masud.co.uk, 1995
Ibn Khaldun’s words are an accurate description of Sufis today.
Sufis are emphatic that Islamic knowledge should be learned from teachers and not exclusively from books. Tariqas can trace their teachers back through the generations to the Prophet himself. Modelling themselves on their teachers, students hope that they too will glean something of the Prophetic character.
Although Sufis are relatively few in number they have shaped Islamic thought and history. Through the centuries Sufis contributed hugely to Islamic literature for example Rumi, Omar Khayyám and Al-Ghazali’s influence extended beyond Muslim lands to be quoted by Western philosophers, writers and theologians. Sufis were influential in spreading Islam particularly to the furthest outposts of the Muslim world in Africa, India and the Far East.