Home » Sufism Beyond Rumism
A sculpture of two men sitting

Sufism Beyond Rumism

by Pomy

Navigate to Section

Sufism and Mysticism: A Brief Introduction

In the Western world, Rumi’s mystical works, such as the Mathnawi, have introduced many people to Sufism. However, it is important to understand that Sufism is a much more complex and diverse tradition than the popular depiction of whirling dervishes and Rumi’s poetry.

Sufism and mysticism are often used interchangeably but have different meanings and origins. This article explains the essence of Sufism and mysticism, their ties to Islam, and their resonance across cultures and religions. We also examine the intriguing similarities between Sufism, Buddhism, and Jainism and gain insight into their philosophies and practices. This comprehensive study sheds light on the profound aspects of mysticism inherent in these traditions.

Mysticism in World Religions: Origins, Development, and Influences

Mysticism, as a concept, encompasses the pursuit of heightened consciousness and a direct, personal encounter with the divine reality. Originating in the Hellenistic period, this metaphysical concept evolved through the epochs of medieval Christianity and medieval Islam, gradually permeating regions as diverse as the Indian Subcontinent and Africa. As mysticism traversed different societies, it assimilated cultural influences, incorporating unique elements from each encounter.

It is crucial to distinguish mysticism from any psychotic experiences or mental health conditions such as schizophrenia. As experienced by mystics, we should not inaccurately blend spirituality with pathological phenomena. Mystic experiences are attained through internal practices and profound experiences emphasizing the deliberate pursuit of a heightened connection with the divine.

Human mysticism transcends specific religious or regional boundaries. This philosophical concept can be traced back to the ancient Greek era when metaphysical discussions emphasized “Knowing oneself.”

Ancient Hellenistic (323 BCE) religions’ belief that gods reside inside temples and their longing to attain a vision of these deities gave rise to the concept of spiritual mysticism. The term “mystic” itself is etymologically derived from the Greek word “Muo,” meaning to close or conceal”, reflects the inherently secretive nature of this ancient spiritual tradition.

This primitive spiritual tradition incorporated elements of Egyptian mythical thoughts and supernatural concepts intertwined with alchemy and astrology. Greeks employed diverse methods to construct awe-inspiring temples adorned with intricate geometric designs and meticulously selected materials to pursue a spiritual connection with deities. Such architectural marvels provided a conducive environment to intensifying spiritual experience. Oracles, often associated with such sacred sites, were believed to be channels through which divine guidance could be sought.

Occasionally, they longed for epiphanies, divine experiences, or celestial journeys, revealing the profound spiritual connection between worshipers and deities. To strengthen this relationship, worshipers performed specific actions, such as rituals, prayers, and offerings, to communicate with their divine beings. Occasionally, the use of hallucinogenic herbs or substances to induce a state of ecstasy was also prevalent.

According to Hellenistic religious philosophy, all components of the cosmos are interconnected, and each element has a distinct role. Humans were expected to fulfill their obligations to the gods, and, in turn, the divine entities had a role in shaping and directing human affairs to alleviate suffering and bring happiness. Worshipers considered their priests and priestesses mediators between worshipers and their gods also, granting them high ranks.

The human quest for a direct and personal connection with the divine remained a central focus in spiritual exploration. The early metaphysical concept laid the foundation for the subsequent development of mystical traditions.

Mysticism in the Medieval Era

The same concept traversed through Medieval Christian spirituality, marked by a belief in God’s omnipresence, signifying a shift from visible gods to the invisible God. Christian mysticism often incorporates elements of “negative theology,” an approach that involves describing God by what God is not rather than what God is. In other words, this negation acknowledges the incomprehensible aspects of the divine reality and recognizes the divine mystery.

The Cloud of Unknown,” a classic work of Christian mysticism written by an anonymous author, emphasizes the importance of letting go of intellectual understanding and entering a state of ‘unknowing’ to encounter God on a deeper level. This concept is observed in the later stages of mysticism. This profound letting go of intellectual constraints aligns with the later stages of mysticism found in Buddhism, Jainism, and Islam.

Christian mysticism characterized by the extensive writings of many mystics detailing their divine experiences. These writings offer guidance for followers on how they can transform their divine love into a powerful force through contemplative prayer and meditation—key methods among Christian mystics to achieve unity with God.

In contrast, Buddhism takes a different approach. It does not guide achieving spirituality or adhering to any doctrines. Instead, Buddhism believes that mystic experience is personal and subjective and cannot be taught. It’s worth noting that Islam, positioned between these two perspectives, incorporates its distinct approach to spirituality and guidance.

Mysticism in Islam- Sufism

Mysticism, a general term, takes a specific form within Islam known as Sufism. Islamic Sufism incorporates the previous concept of mysticism, characterized by direct communication with God.

Nevertheless, Islamic Sufis maintain the belief that communication with God is attainable through love for Prophet Muhammad. This belief has evolved, giving rise to the idea that such communication is achievable through a pious Sufi, whether living or deceased, who maintains a spiritual connection with Muhammad. In Shia Sufism, Ali, Hussain, and Fatima are included in this spiritual lineage.

Before diving further into the discussion on Sufism, it is crucial to examine an incident that occurred in Iraq approximately 200 years after the Prophet’s death. Mansour Hallaj, a Persian Sufi and poet, faced execution for proclaiming ‘Ana al-Haqq’ (I am the Truth). On philosophical grounds, he asserted the extreme idealism of self-annihilation (ego), known as fana, in pursuing God, reaching the height where a believer becomes superhuman, a God himself.

Mansour Hallaj’s utterance, ‘I am the Truth,’ was interpreted literally and considered one of the most theopathic expressions in the entire Sufi world. This philosophy was deemed blasphemous during a time when Iraq was under the influence of the Umayyads, challenging Arab elitism and the orthodoxy of these caliphates.

In contrast to the Umayyads‘ focus on military expansion, the Abbasids favored the expansion of knowledge and translated Greek, Persian, and Indian works into Arabic during the Abbasid period. The Golden Era of Islam, spanning the 10th to 12th centuries, witnessed flourishing scientific and philosophical ideas. Muslim philosophers and theologians revisited Greek philosophies, leading to a clash between theology and philosophy in Baghdad, the center of learning at that time. This intellectual struggle gave rise to doctrines such as Wahdat tul Wajood and Wahdat tul Shahood.

Avicenna, also known as Ibn Sina (980–1037), a renowned Islamic philosopher and physician, embarked on a quest to establish the existence of God by introducing metaphysical elements into discussions surrounding Islam and the divine. His approach, suggesting that God is an abstract form and that eternity existed before God, was notably influenced by Neoplatonism, a philosophical system appreciated by scholars in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam during that era.

However, Ghazali, Ibn Sina’s counterpart and the head of Nizzamiyya University in Baghdad, criticized Avicenna’s utilization of metaphysical abstract concepts concerning the existence of God. Ghazali, in contrast, adhered to Aristotelian philosophy, asserting that God encompasses both the idea and the living being.

Al-Ghazali perceived Ibn Sina’s notions as heretical and disbelieving. Ghazali’s own spiritual and intellectual crisis, led him to leave his teaching position, embark on a pilgrimage to holy places, adopt an ascetic lifestyle, and engage in extensive writing. Among his approximately 40 works are notable titles such as “Incoherence of the Philosophers,” “Revival of the Religious Sciences,” and “The Alchemy of Happiness.”

In his final book, “The Alchemy of Happiness,” Al-Ghazali aimed to provide a middle way in the discussions surrounding “Wahdat tul Wajood” (the unity of existence, where the existence of God is objective) and “Wahdat ul Shahood” (the existence of God is subjective, occurring only in the mind of the believer). He proposed a four-stage purification process: the first stage involves purification from bodily discharges, followed by purification from crimes and sins, then purification of the heart from blameworthy and vile thoughts, and finally, purification of the inner self from everything except God.

In essence, Al-Ghazali advocated blind trust in God and the Prophet without questioning while allowing worshipers to follow their own paths to God. Al-Bukhari has reported that Al-Ghazali mentioned that singing and playing are not haram, and many Sufis have adopted these to express their mystic feelings and ideas. Al-Ghazali is credited with rescuing Islam from intellectual challenges and providing a nuanced perspective within Islamic philosophy.

Etymology of Sufism, its Influence and Spread

One possible derivation for the term ‘Sufi’ is from the Arabic word ‘taṣawwuf,’ meaning ‘to dress in wool’ or ‘to be a wool-clad one.’ ‘ suf,’ found in ‘taṣawwuf,’ translates to ‘wool’ in Arabic. Early Sufis, often called ‘faqeer’ or ascetics, would habitually wear modest and unrefined attire as part of their ascetic lifestyle. It’s interesting to note that a rug used for offering prayers, also known as a ‘suf,’ is typically made of date palm leaves, providing a humble and natural surface upon which Sufis would sit to meditate or pray.

Farid al-Din Attar (c. 1145 – c. 1221), a renowned Sufi mystic and poet, encapsulated the austere attitude of Sufism in his work ‘Memorial of God’s Friends ‘: ‘If a dervish hovers around the wealthy, know that he is a hypocrite. If he hovers around the sultan, know he is a thief.’ This quote underscores the Sufi emphasis on spiritual wealth over material wealth and the pursuit of divine love over worldly power.

Furthermore, thetariqas, Sufi orders, were crucial in integrating local customs and traditions into the Islamic framework. This adaptability made Islam more accessible to diverse cultures and societies, such as those in India, North Africa, and Southeast Asia, significantly contributing to its spread in these regions.

It is intriguing to observe that Sufism is more widespread in Islam than Christianity and Judaism, possibly influenced by the regional presence of Buddhist philosophical elements in areas where Muslims are more prevalent.

Sufism and Various Cultures

Sufism is part of the Silk Road in Persia, Central Asia, Northern Africa, and the Middle East. Some early renowned Sufis, such as Hussein Ibn Mansur Al Hallaj (858-922), Abd al-Qadir al-Jilani (1077-1166), Farid al-Din Attar (1145-1221), and Rumi (1207-1273), were born in Persia and later moved to Iraq. This migration occurred because Basra was one of the early centers of learning and Islamic Jurisprudence during the peak of Islamic philosophy in the Golden Age of Islam from the 9th to the 12th centuries.

They mainly wrote in Persian and are considered pioneers of Sufism, which influenced the culture of Turkey, Persia, North Africa, and Central Asia. Love for God is the central concept of Sufism that leads to the union with God following a path of annihilation. The common theme among all Sufi orders is the idea that the path to God can be found in the guidance of Murshid (saint or master), by Dhikr/Zikr that can be done through prayers, dances, spins, and chanting that helps induce trance the ultimate state of annihilation that is the goal.

Whether Sufism originated in Iraq, Turkey, Persia, or Central Asia is debatable, but if we look at the similarities between Zen masters and Sufi dervishes, we will find many similarities in their philosophy and worldview.

Notably, Sufism flourished and took on a new dimension in the regions that were the birthplaces of Jainism, Buddhism, Zen, and Hinduism. These religions shared a spiritual worldview that Islam embraced upon encountering them.

Buddhism and Sufism

Sufism, Buddhism, and Jainism each emerged as reactions to their times’ prevailing religious and social orders. Sufism arose as a counter to the worldliness of the early Umayyad period, seeking a more spiritual and less materialistic approach to Islam. Similarly, Buddhism revolted against Brahminic Hinduism, characterized by a rigid caste system, elaborate sacrifices, and complex rituals.

Jainism, which emerged before Buddhism, introduced the metaphysical concept of liberating the soul from matter, offering a distinct spiritual path in the religious landscape of the time. Buddhism offered a middle way, advocating for the cessation of worldly pleasures and desires and adopting simplicity, thus providing a spiritual experience accessible to commoners.

Upon evaluation, we find that Zen Buddhism (Mahāyāna Buddhism) is more closely aligned with the philosophy and practice of Sufism.


The Mahayana Buddhism’s concept of “emptiness” in is similar to “selflessness” in Sufism.

  • Both practices involve meditation. In Zen Buddhism, this practice is called zazen, which is characterized by sitting without any purpose or goal and focusing on one’s breath.
  • In both Zen (Mahāyāna Buddhism) and Sufi teachings, words are used in a presentational way rather than a literal way. Understanding these teachings requires mastering the language and understanding the context.
  • Both Zen and Sufism emphasize the cultivation of mental clarity through meditation and with the support of a teacher (a master or sensei in Zen and a Murshid in Sufism).
  • Both Zen masters and Sufi Murshids guide their followers and emphasize the idea that the answers to many questions are within us.
  • The outcome of spiritualism in both schools of thought is compassion, empathy, and service to others.


  • Buddhism teaches the concept of Nirvana (Fana), which is liberation from the cycle of rebirth. On the other hand, Sufism introduces the idea of permanent union with God, known as Baqa, with the permanent annihilation (Fana) of ego.
  • Unlike the Buddhist worldview, Sufism does not just advocate annihilation and emptiness but is more about human values and knowing and loving God.
  • Zen meditation, or Zazen, is a passive practice that involves sitting quietly and focusing on one’s breath, while Sufi meditation, or Dhikr, is an active practice that can include music, dance, and the chanting of divine names.

Hadith in Sufism

The basis of Sufism is “Hadith Qudsi,” which is often cited in Sufis’ literature. Hadith Qudsi, or Sacred Hadith, refers to sayings or actions of the Prophet Muhammad that he attributed to Allah but are not part of the Quran. Unlike regular hadiths, these have divine content that covers various aspects of guidance, morality, and the sacred relationship with humanity.

Following are a few Hadith Qudsi:

My profits are beneath My domes; none knows them but Me.” Emphasis on the special relationship between God and his chosen saints

I created the creation so that I may be recognized.” Hadith emphasizing the divine desire for the creation of the world and to be recognized.

Neither My earth nor My heavens can contain Me, except the tender and humble heart of My believing servant indeed contains Me.” Allah manifests in the hearts of humble and sincere believers.

The above Hadiths highlight the intimate and personal relationship that believers can have with Allah, emphasizing qualities like humility, sincerity, and love as crucial elements in fostering this connection.

Sufi’s motivation behind creating such literary works on Hadiths is traced back to a HADITH in which the Prophet Muhammad promised that individuals who memorize forty of his traditions, aka “Hadith of Forty,” would be acknowledged as scholars on the day of resurrection.

Sufism and Orthodox Traditions in Islam

While many Muslims, including those following orthodox traditions, embrace Sufism as a legitimate and integral part of Islamic spirituality, some express reservations or opposition to certain Sufi practices or beliefs. Here are a few reasons why some within orthodox Islam might have reservations about Sufism:

Some critics within orthodox Islam argue that certain Sufi practices, especially those involving elaborate rituals, music, or dance, may be considered innovations (Bid’ah) because the Prophet Muhammad or his companions did not practiced that.

Sachal Sarmast, 18th Century Sindhi (now in Pakistan) Sufi poet, warns that “religion (Din) and irreligion (kufr) can entrap” the heart in the following lines.

Cast them into the waves of Divinity, and only then, Sachal, will your influence pervade everywhere.

He again declares, “I’d be a disbeliever (Kafir) if I recite the kalma, unwilling to plunge into that abyss, refusing to heed the Prophet’s guidance—a deliberate deviation from traditional religious practices.

Similarly, Orthodox muslims, may express their reservations about Sufism, which emphasizes spiritual aspects over traditional rituals like prayers, pilgrimage, and “Ibadats.” Orthodox critics may argue that such an emphasis on mysticism and personal experiences could be perceived as a departure from established Islamic practices and beliefs.

Bulleh Shah emphasizes the emptiness of religious rituals in these lines:

“Recite prayers a thousand times; they won’t touch the heart,
Read Quranic verses on Fridays, but the essence won’t be grasped,
Take ritual baths in the Ganges, yet the core remains untouched,
Wear countless sacred threads, but the depth eludes,
Engage in scholarly studies endlessly, still missing the mark,
Bulleh Shah advises you to open your heart truly,
When from the soul, the melodies of devotion play.”

Sufism frequently incorporates the veneration of saints or spiritual leaders, referred to as “Awliya Allah.” Some orthodox Muslims may approach such practices with caution, as they may appear to elevate individuals to a status beyond what is considered appropriate in Islamic theology.

Sachal Sarmast, for example, expressed a perspective in his poetry:

“The faces of Dervishes reflect God’s essence; They alone are timeless, while everything else is fleeting”.

“Dervishes guide the entire universe; Even God seeks the desires and will of Dervishes.”

In another instance, Sachal expressed admiration for the Persian mystic poet Attar and elevated him to the divine level. Attar is renowned for his deep spiritual themes and allegorical tales in Sufi literature, influencing Rumi as well.

“He was not Attar because he was God; he was God;”
           “He was a Pure Being because he was God; he was God”.

Sufism places a strong emphasis on personal experiences of the divine, which some orthodox Muslims might view as putting too much importance on subjective, individual spiritual experiences rather than strict adherence to traditional Islamic teachings.

The following verse by Hazret-i Uftade (1490-1580 CE) encapsulates the essence of the inner journey of the soul in Sufi mysticism.

“If you desire union with the Beloved
Oh Uftade! Find your soul
That the Beloved may appear before you
Say Oh He and You who is He”

Below are a few verses from a Persian poem by the Sufi poet Farid ud-Din Attar’s book “The Conference of the Birds” or “Speech of the Birds” conveying the same message of self-discovery:

“In the end, however, what they find
 is not a ruler but a lake, wherein they see their reflection.
They have found within themselves the sovereign that they were looking for.”

Sometimes, reservations arise due to misunderstandings or misinterpretations of Sufi practices. Critics might need to understand the symbolic or metaphorical aspects of certain Sufi rituals entirely; otherwise, they may perceive them as incompatible with orthodox Islamic beliefs.

“Ana al-Haqq” (أنا الحق), meaning “I am the Truth” or “I am God.”Abandoning the mosque, we get drunk in the Tavern;All this beauty and splendor that encircles us is ours;Exempt from righteousness and unrighteousness,

In these lines, Mansur al-Hallaj appears to advocate for a transcendental spiritual experience outside conventional religious boundaries.

Intriguing Sufi Practices

Dhikr or Zikr

The term “Dhikr/Zikr” signifies remembering or praising. In Sufism, practitioners engage in two primary forms of Dhikr: silent and vocal. Like meditation, Silent Dhikr is considered superior and performed privately without body movement. Vocal Dhikr involves using the tongue and, at times, includes body movements done personally or in a group setting. Sufis participate in ritualized dhikr ceremonies called “sama,” incorporating recitation, singing, music, dance, meditation, ecstasy, and trance.

Sufis frequently gather in circles, known as “dhikr circles” or “halqa,” for collective remembrance, creating a communal atmosphere that amplifies spiritual energy and fosters a shared sense of closeness to Allah. At times, rhythmic repetition of the same word, accompanied by loud vocalization and body movements, is employed to intensify their emotional experience.

Dervish Whirling

Dervish whirling (Sema) is a form of active meditation that seeks to synchronize the body’s movements with the rhythm of the cosmos. The concept is that everything in the universe is moving in love of God, and by spinning, dervishes can connect with this divine energy. Rumi, the founder of the Mevlevi order, was inspired by this movement to develop his philosophy of longing for God, which teaches that spinning is a way to move away from the pull of gravity and join with God. One arm is pointed towards the earth, the other towards heaven, and the body is tilted and turned on its left foot. With the whirling accompanied by music and chanting, dervishes enter a state of divine ecstasy that is both euphoric and spiritual. In Sufism, this state refers to annihilation, i.e., extinction of one’s self or ego. The idea is that this practice will develop a connection between human and divine.

“The small particles are dancing.
The universe is dancing; Thanks to Him. 
All the souls are dancing, in ecstasy.
I’ll whisper in your ear where their dance is taking them.
All the atoms in the air and the desert know well they seem insane.”

And those seen dancing were thought insane by those who could not hear the music.” ― Friedrich Nietzsche.

Intimate and Metaphorical Poetry

Sufi poets convey their message using symbolic language, allegories, and metaphors. This emotionally rich poetry is characterized by spiritual symbolism and an intimate exploration of the soul’s relationship with the divine. Renowned Sufi poets, such as Rumi, Hafez, Bhulay Shah, and Attar, have left a legacy of personal and metaphorical poetry, inviting readers to delve into divine love, unity, and transcendence. 

Mansur al-Hallaj, a Persian Sufi of the 9th Century:

“In love, nothing exists between breast and Breast.”
The one who tastes, knows;the one who explains lies”

Bhulla Shah, a subcontinent sufi of 17th Century:

“I have been blessed, people, since the eye has engaged with the yogi (Ascetic ).”

In conclusion, this exploration has provided a nuanced understanding of mysticism, specifically its embodiment in Sufism within the context of Islam. We have traversed through historical epochs, from the Hellenistic period to medieval Christianity and Islam, witnessing the evolution of mysticism and its assimilation of cultural influences. The geographical spread of Sufism along the Silk Road, its adaptation through diverse Sufi orders, and the enduring parallels with Buddhism and Jainism underscore its cross-cultural resonance. The article has shed light on Sufi practices such as dervish whirling and metaphorical poetry, offering insights into this mystical traditions’ spiritual depth and cultural richness. Furthermore, the examination of Sufism’s interaction with orthodox traditions in Islam highlights the importance of understanding symbolic aspects. This exploration invites contemplation on the diverse facets of mysticism and its profound impact on cultural and spiritual landscapes across centuries.

Sources and Links

    • Ridgeon, L., ed. The Cambridge Companion to Sufism. Cambridge University Press, 2014.

    • “Al-Hallaj.” Wikipedia, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Al-Hallaj.

    • “The Revival of the Religious Sciences.” Wikipedia, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Revival_of_the_Religious_Sciences.

    • Al-Ghazali, Abu Hamid. The Book of Purity. ghazali.org/books/purity.pdf.

    • Al-Ghazali, Abu Hamid. “Imam Al-Ghazzali on Music.” Rumi’s Garden, rumisgarden.co.uk/blogs/traditional-meditations/imam-al-ghazzali-on-music.

You may also like

Leave a Comment

*By submitting this form, you recognize and give consent for this website to store and manage your information.

Translate »