What is Sufism?

What is Sufism?

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By Dr. Stewart Bitkoff & David Paquoit

Traveler:         When friends ask me what I study, and I try to explain, I find it hard to put into words, what is Sufism? Help me understand so I can give a clearer answer?

Master:           One of the great teachers offered, ‘long before there was a name (Sufism) there was a reality. Now there is a name without a reality.’ What is meant by this is that there has always been a way to connect with and experience ultimate Truth; this spiritual path of learning existed long before travelers, in the late 1800’s, gave this way of learning its present name- Sufism. At the time, local ascetics wore a distinctive woolen (Soof) robe and became known for this. Now this name, or spiritual form, for many followers exists without a corresponding inner reality. Often today, what you see in the world represented as Sufism is an empty shell of its former self.

Fools gold exists because there is real gold.
Rumi 1

This ancient Path of spiritual development is based upon connection with and experience of the Divine. It involves study with a teacher and the awakening, through direct contact with Truth of latent spiritual capacity; this is done so the traveler can help others.  This Truth or universal essence, the spiritual traveler seeks and experiences, is the underlying energy or fabric of created forms.

If I had known of any science greater than Sufism
I would have gone to it, even on my hands and knees.
Junaid 2

The Sufi’s task is to recognize the end at the Beginning.
He has gone beyond. He has rolled up the cosmos
In its turn and obliterated it.
He has reduced and then eliminated the marks
Of selfhood to allow a clear view of Cosmic Reality.
Junaid 3

This Path, existed long before there were religions; this way of learning is at the heart of the great religions; it is the underlying spiritual energy that gives everything in the universe its form and substance. Inside each of us is an aspect of this wondrous element. Through preparation, practice developing our inner spiritual awareness, and Grace we unite with and serve Ultimate Reality every day.

For so long did the Beloved
Face my open heart
That except for His Attributes and Nature
Nothing remained of that heart.
Maghribi 4

My teacher called this Path – the Superhighway to God. For those who wish to connect with Truth and use their inner spiritual capacity to help others; this form of learning is available in every town and city.

Worshipping God is not done with
Rosary beads, prayer carpet, or robe.
Worshipping God is serving others.
Saadi 5

Sufism is not something talked about or described in written words; it is a universal essence that is experienced and known through inner spiritual contact. Much like love; no matter how many words you use- the description is not the same as the actual experience. And like love which ebbs and flows, Sufism changes to fit the learner, time and place.

Sufism is a school of spiritual state, not discourse, and a Sufi is something to become, not something to merely read about. Since spiritual states cannot be expressed in words, Sufi sheikhs have declared, “Whatever can be expressed in words isn’t Sufism.” As Rumi has stated, “When I came to love, I was ashamed of all I have ever said about love.”

Whatever great Sufis have said in explanation of Sufism was the result of and appropriate to their particular situation and states. Such explanation, therefore do not constitute general definitions of Sufism. Rather they refer to some of its characteristics.

Javad Nurbakhsh 6

Traveler:        This helps a little.  Sufism is difficult to put into words because it is a spiritual experience and changes with each person. Yet, I have been in love and know there are different forms of love with many peaks and valleys that are impossible to describe; and no matter how pretty a poem or love song, I know it is not the experience of love itself.

Master: Remember, everyone is a spiritual traveler and in their long journey through this universe, experiences many wondrous things.  Countless experiences go beyond words and cannot be written down- changing with each moment and person. This dimension is one of the elements that make life multi-level and beautiful.  If this is too difficult for those who ask about us to grasp, ask them to define love or even life itself. As they ponder all the possibilities, then, they will begin to understand.

Although Sufis live outwardly among people, inwardly they are constantly occupied with God. Their bodies and mind exist with others, whereas their hearts are far from them. Externally, they are congenial with everyone. Inwardly, however, they themselves are strangers to all. They are at peace with all people, yet within them selves tranquility is to be found only in Divine Love. Though they live among people they are truly alone.

Javad Nurbakhsh 7

Thanks to David Paquoit for supplying the different quotes of the great Sufi Masters. To reach David go to www.caravanofdreams.wordpress.com.

Also by Dr. Bitkoff, A Commuter’s Guide to Enlightenment (Llewellyn, 2008) and Journey of Light:Trilogy (Authorhouse, 2004); these books are available on Amazon.com or from the publisher.  To contact author go to www.stewartbitkoff.com.


1 Rumi quote found in: Idries Shah, Learning How to Learn: Psychology and Spirituality in the Sufi Way, Penguin Compass, 1978.

2 Junaid quote appears in: Fadhalla Haeri, The Elements of Sufism, Barnes and Noble, 1999.

3 Junaid quote appears in: Shaiykh A. Al-Murabit, The Hundred Steps, Madinah Press, 2nd edition, 1998.

4 Maghribi quote appears online: http://www/nimatullahi.org/sufism/path.

5 Saadi quote appears in Javad Nurbakhsh, The Path: Sufi Practices, Nimattullahi Publications, 2003.

6, 7 Both Nurbakhsh quotes appear in J. Nurbakhsh, The Path: Sufi Practices, cited above.

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