What is Sufism?
Tassawuf (Sufism) is a holistic and deeper understanding of Islam with consistent focus on sincere practice of Sharia(Islamic Law). Even during the Prophet (saws)’s time some of the followers desired to enter into a more intimate relationship with God, in addition to performing the required ritual practices.
Over the next three centuries a discipline of pious self-examination and refined religious psychology came into existence.
The specialized technical vocabulary of this discipline, now known as Tasawwuf (Sufism), came directly from Quran. Muslims who engaged in these pious activities, in addition to the required religious practices of the wider community, became known as Sufis, presumably because they wore woolen (sufi) robes as token of their interiorized piety. In short Tasawwuf (Sufism) can be both Islamic religious science and the collective spiritual practices of a person who desires to have a more encompassing experience of submitting to God (the literal meaning of Islam). The English version “Sufism” is a problematic translation of Tasawwuf since the “-ism” of Sufism has allowed misconceptions, all too prevalent today in Western countries, to consider Tasawwuf and Islam as separate religious paths. The other inappropriate terms used in English are “Islamic Mysticism” and “Islamic Esotericism”. Unfortunately each of these attempts to define such a comprehensive dimension of religiousity only illuminates one narrow aspect of Tasawwuf at a time, a partial distortion at best. Reports from the earliest Muslim sources communicate what the Sufi enterprise entails in a more holistic manner. Tasawwuf represents works (Islam), faith (Iman), and perfection (Ihsan) as described in an early hadith of Prophet (saws) known as “Gabriel Hadith.”
It is related that one day a man came walking from desert into the presence of the Prophet (saws) and his companions (radiya Allahu anhum). He proceeded to ask the Prophet (saws) a few questions. He asked first about submitting to God (Islam), and the Prophet (saws) replied that Islam consists of the five pillars: attestation of one God and Muhammad (saws) as the messenger of God, prayer, fasting, alms, and pilgrimage. He then inquired about faith (Iman) and the Prophet (saws) responded by listing the articles of faith mentioned in Quran: God, His messangers, angels, scriptures, and the Day of Judgment. His last question was about virtue or perfection (Ihsan) and the Prophet (saws) answered that Ihsan was worshipping God as if you see Him, though if you do not see Him, He sees you.
Such a three-fold conception of religion assumes that persons have varying potential, inclination, and ability for spiritual activities. The vast majority of Muslims seek salvation through their daily practice of Islam, informed by faith commitment (Iman). Anyone who desires to proceed further into either of these dimensions of Islamic tradition can spend a lifetime studying each respective field of knowledge guided by a teaching-shaykh. Tasawwuf encompasses the activities working toward the field of consciousness and experience represented by perfection (Ihsan). Such an enterprise, explicit in the Naqshbandi context, assumes a firm foundation in the practice of submitting to God (Islam) and in faith (Iman) before achieving an extraordinary degree of proximity to God (Ihsan).
Another oft-mentioned triad associated with explicating Tasawwuf is Sharia (Ar. original meaning: path leading to the water hole, but now commonly meaning Islamic Law), Tariqa (Ar. path or method) and Haqiqa (Ar. Truth or reality). For Muslims the Sharia represents the wide path outlining the timeless God-given rules that govern everyday life for all humans. It is the path leading to Salvation. The Tariqa is a narrower path, often associated with the Sufi path, leading to Haqiqa, the experience of the Ultimate. These thre interrelated aspects of Islam have been depicted as the one circle of Sharia with multiplicity of radii or paths (the Tariqas) leading to the center (Haqiqa).
Naqshbandiya Foundation For Islamic Education (NFIE): http://www.nfie.com/welcome/index.asp