Bookstore Glossary Library Links News Publications Timeline Virtual Israel Experience
Anti-Semitism Biography History Holocaust Israel Israel Education Myths & Facts Politics Religion Travel US & Israel Vital Stats Women
donate subscribe Contact About Home


SUFISM (Ar. Taṣawwuf). The Arabic form Taṣawwuf is the name by which Islamic mysticism has been known since the early 9th century C.E. and to which many paths (ṭarīqa, pl. ṭuruq) and individuals still adhere today. The name derives, most probably, from ṣūf, wool, and refers to the rough woolen garment (jubbat ṣūf) with which ascetics, mystics, and prophets have been associated since biblical times. Sufis themselves prefer to point to another derivation: the root ṣ-f-w, which, in various verbal forms, denotes "purity" (ṣafā) and "[divine] choice" (ṣafwa, iṣṭifā). In their self-appraisal Sufis see these latter principles as more crucial than ascetic practices such as wearing wool. Primarily, Sufis see themselves as seekers (murīdūn) and wayfarers (sālikūn) on the path to God. The search for God (irāda, ṭalab) and the wayfaring (sulūk) on the path (ṭarīq) involve a gradual inner and ethical transformation through a number of stages or stations (maqāmāt). These include repentance (tawba), scrupulous performance of the divine commandments (wara'), abstention (zuhd), poverty (faqr), perseverance (ṣabr), trust in God (tawakkul) and surrender (riḍā). Although some of these stations are ascetical in nature, their primary functions are ethical, psychological and educational: they are designed as a means for combating the lower-self (mujāhadat al-nafs) and as a tool for its training and education (riyāḍat al-nafs). The lower-self (nafs), being the seat of personal will and desire, is seen as the main obstacle for attaining God. In order to combat and train the lower-self, Sufis practice fasting (ṣawm), food and drink deprivation (jūʿ'), wakefulness at night for the recitation of koranic passages (qiyām al-layl), periods of seclusion (khalawāt), roaming uninhabited places in states of poverty and deprivation, and lengthy meditations (murāqaba, jam' al-hamm). The effortful path of self-denial and transformation through gradual stages (maqāmāt) is interwoven with effortless mystical experiences (aḥwāl). These are seen as spontaneous and intense inner occurrences in which divine truths are revealed to the heart (qalb, sirr). They portray the dynamic and ecstatic aspect of the mystical life and are richly depicted in Sufi literature, poetry and vocabulary. The culmination of the mystical states is the self-absorption, or annihilation (fanāʾ) in God. Mystical experiences often produce states of ecstasy (wajd) and drunkenness (sukr), which may result in the exclamation of poetic verses, uncontrollable utterances, involuntary bodily movements, fainting and even death. The ecstatic exclamations (shaṭaḥāt) are at times shocking and seemingly blasphemous. The most notorious among the latter are attributed to Abū Yazīd al-Bisṭ1tāmī (d. ca. 875) and to Manṣūr al-Ḥallāj. One of the most traumatic events in the history of Sufism is associated with the ecstatic utterances of al-Ḥallāj, in particular his "I am the Truth" (anā al-ḥaqq), for which, among other accusations, he was publicly executed in *Baghdad in the year 922.

For their proper training Sufi seekers are urged to put themselves under the guidance of a master (murshid, shaykh). Spiritual masters are revered men, and occasionally women, who constitute a "sacred hierarchy" and are known as "the Friends of God (awliyāʾ allāh). These are the protagonists of many edifying stories, recorded in Sufi compilations, which narrate of their miraculous acts (karāmāt al-awliyāʾ). The master directs the disciples in religious, ethical, psychological, and spiritual matters, including the interpretation of their dreams, perplexities and mystical experiences. Under the guidance of the master, or his deputy, the disciples perform the ritual known as "Remembrance of God" (dhikr allāh), in which God's names, as well as certain sacred formulae, are invoked repeatedly. Another practice that is often associated with Sufism is the spiritual concert, or "listening," samā', in which poetic recitations, music and dances are performed by the participants, sometimes in states of ecstasy and elation.

The early Sufi circles of the 9th–11th centuries became the nuclei for the large Sufi Paths, or Brotherhoods (ṭarīqa, ṭuruq), which emerged from the 12th century on. The Brotherhoods are named after their believed founders, who had passed the teaching down to their disciples; they, in turn, pass it on to their own disciples in an uninterrupted "chain of transmission" (silsila). Currently, in spite of the general decline of Sufism due to disapproval from both modernists and fundamentalists, Sufi Brotherhoods and their local branches are still active throughout the Muslim world, as well as in the West. At present, as in the past, Sufism is an important factor in the spread of Islam, especially among Western seekers.

In the Middle Ages, especially in Muslim *Spain and later on in *Egypt, Sufism left its mark on some Jewish pietistic writers and circles. The most popular Sufi-inspired Jewish work, written in *Judeo-Arabic in 11th-century Saragossa, is *Baḥya ibn Paquda's "The Duties of the Heart" (Ḥovot ha-Levavot). In Egypt, Sufism was highly regarded by the Pietist Circle of the Egyptian ḥasidim and their masters, in particular R. Abraham *Maimonides and his descendants, who saw in Sufi practices the continuation of biblical prophetic traditions.


S.D. Goitein, Jews and Arabs (1964), 148–54; A. Schimmel, Mystical Dimension of Islam (1975); G. Böwering, The Mystical Vision of Existence in Early Islam (1980); P. Fenton, The Treatise of the Pool (1981); C. Ernst, Words of Ecstasy in Sufism (1984); J.S. Trimingham, The Sufi Orders in Islam (19982); R.E. Cornell, Early Sufi Women (1999); L. Lewisohn (ed.), The Heritage of Sufism, 3 vols. (1999); A. Knysh, Islamic Mysticism. A Short History (2000). A new periodical, researching Sufism, The Journal of the History of Sufism, has started publication in English and French.

Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2007 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.