Thoughts on the Nature of Sufism

by Rev. Jacquelyn Sneed, M.A.

August 2010

“Through the stairway of existence
We have come to God’s Door.”
—Hafiz (1)

The Sufis are the mystics of the Islamic tradition. As mystics, they seek direct knowledge of God, an elimination of the veils between the individual and the divine.

Rev. Jacquelyn Sneed

I love the possibilities that God represents in the Sufi tradition: God as the beloved… surrender to God as an expanding process… being consumed by God as joy rather than loss.

The Sufis understand that each of us is a unique individual, and each of us will heed the call to divinity through our unique gifts and talents. They encourage practices that are rooted in various forms of artistic expression. Those who love the written word will marvel at the poetry and teaching stories of the Sufis. Those who love music will delight in their songs and chanting. Those who love prayer will bow their heads and bodies, while reflective meditation summons others to their deepest devotion.

“…For the divine alchemy to work,
The Pitcher needs a still cup…”
—Hafiz (2)

The spiritual starting point for many Sufis, as they become a “still cup,” is orthodox Islam. The spiritual practices of mainstream Islam, which are called the shariah, include bearing witness, daily prayer, fasting, charity toward others, and pilgrimage to Mecca. These practices can set the stage for the soul’s mystical ascent, as well as bring order and harmony to the individual and to society.

Sufis believe that these practices of Islam can have an inner and an outer meaning. An outer meaning can result in the discharge of a religious obligation, while an inner meaning nurtures the spirit.

As Sheikh Safer, head sheik of the Halveti-Jerrahi Order, says about the meaning of inner and outer: “The external forms of Islam are only the beginning. There is an outer form of prayer and an inner prayer, for example. You can do the outer form for fifty years, but prayer is not just this form. You have to develop a heart that can pray as well. Finally as the dervish (Sufi practitioner) evolves, there is a level of continuous inner prayer, not only five times a day. This is the ultimate goal of Sufi practice.” (3).

While the external forms of practice that comprise the shariah can lead to mystical awakening, the tariqah, the second stage of Sufism, is devoted to mystical practice. Upon entering the tariqah, the Sufi still practices the shariah, but he or she has entered a spiritual landscape in order to engage in the inner practices of Sufism.

Tariqah is considered to be like a trackless desert, since mysticism does not lend itself to well-defined paths. While its adherents may engage in practices such prayer, fasting and pilgrimage, the critical focus is upon the internal changes that the budding mystic experiences and the shedding of egoic concerns. The Sufi needs support in navigating this mystical territory and forging a path for himself or herself. The Sufi is supported thorough this stage by a sheikh (teacher) (4).

The third stage of Sufi practice and understanding is haqiqah, or truth (5). During this stage there is a direct experience of the God within. Once God is experienced, the individual has his or her own direct knowledge, with no need to mimic or slavishly follow the teachings of others.

There is yet a fourth stage of spiritual development: marifah, or Gnosis (6). This is the superior level of spiritual attainment associated with Messengers, prophets, saints and sages.

I appreciate the stages of Sufism as a means of expanding the heart and pursuing union with God. Can we pursue anything more pure and worthy?

“At some point
Your relationship
With God
Will become like this:
Next time you meet Him in the forest
Or on a crowded city street
There won’t be anymore
That is,
God will climb into
your pocket.
You will simply just take
Along! “
—Hafiz (7)


1.  Ladinsky, Daniel, tr., The Gift: Poems by Hafiz, the Great Sufi Master, Penguin Compass, 1999, p. 96.

2.  Ladinsky, p. 147.

3​.  Fadiman, James and Frager, Robert, Essential Sufism, Castle Books, 1997, p. 9.

​4​.  Fadiman and Frager, p. 12.

5​.  Fadiman and Frager, pp. 12-13.​

6​.  Fadiman and Frager, p. 13.

7.  Ladinsky, p. 258.