What is Sufism?
Sufism is the mystical practice of Islam. Early Western scholars of Islam saw Sufism as a “sect” of Islam that was largely derived from non-Islamic sources, such as Christian mysticism, Neoplatonism, and even Buddhism and Indian religions. More recently, scholars have returned to the traditional Sufi perspective that sees Sufism as essential to Islam and having its roots in the Qur’an, Islam’s holy book, and the life of Muhammad, the founder and prophet of Islam.
Sufism presents a way or path (tariqah) that provides the Sufi with a religious cosmology and worldview for living a mystical life within a Muslim context. A prominent feature of Sufism is a heightened awareness of the role of spiritual practices above and beyond the required five pillars of Muslim life: the five daily prayers, alms giving, testimony of faith, fasting, and pilgrimage. For example, Sufis teach highly developed meditation practices that include special chanting and breathing techniques. Other Sufi practices include special retreats for additional fasting, prayer, and chanting, or the practice of music and dancing as seen in the whirling dervish followers of Rumi, the most popular of all Sufi poets who is also the best selling poet in America.
Sufism offers a comprehensive religious vision for men and women seeking God. With its focus on inner, spiritual experience, Sufism is controversial because it teaches a view of God and Islam that is less literal and is often less concerned with the strict adherence to some Islamic shariah (law) decrees, instead being more concerned with the right actions and inner motivations of the believer.
Sufism in Morocco
Sufism is very much alive today throughout the Islamic world, though in many of the more rigid Muslim countries, particularly in the heart of the Arab world, Sufis are not allowed to openly practice. The Sufi scene in Morocco is unique within the Arab world. Sufism has been a major element in Morocco since the arrival of Moulay Idris I, the great-grandson of the prophet Muhammad, who fled Baghdad in 788. Heir to the caliphate in Baghdad, Moulay Idris I established his new kingdom in the ancient Roman city of Volubilis, not far from Fes. His son and heir, Moulay Idris II, was regarded as a genius, saint, and king. The burial sites of these two founders of Morocco began the Moroccan practice of veneration of saints.
Morocco is dotted with the tombs, or marabouts, of Sufi saints. For the more prominent saints, the tomb complex includes other buildings and institutions, known as za’wias, which provide educational and religious teaching for the community. Sufism is also very visible in Morocco through the public performances of Sufi music. Sufi musicians dominate the Moroccan music scene and the richness of this tradition has been given a special showcase at the World Sacred Music Festival.