The Origin of the Word Tasawouf


Seyyedeh Dr. Nahid Angha

The following article is taken from the journal Sufism: An Inquiry.

A majority of scholars believe that the word “Tasawouf” derives from the word “suf”, which means wool. This assumption is based on a story told regarding the reason for wearing woolen garments by the pious people of the first century of Islam. It has been narrated that the Prophet and faithful Moslems wore garments of wool to denote their detachment from the world and simplicity in living. Within a century after the emergence of Islam, Arabs, who were mainly desert peoples, had conquered great empires such as Persia and Egypt. These conquering Arabs surrounded themselves with a luxury hitherto unknown to them in their spartan desert lives. The more pious individuals of the Moslem community feared that the message of Islam was in danger of being completely lost through the decadent example of these Arab conquerors who professed to spread the Prophet’s words. Looking back to the severe simplicity of Islam’s beginnings, and remembering those early pious Moslems of Medina, they decided to clothe themselves in rough wool as a gesture of protest against the profligacies of their leaders. Guarding themselves against the temptations of luxury, they set themselves apart from the lower material life. These pious ones performed fasting, mortification, and denied themselves the pleasures of material life to the greatest extent possible. Wearing wool thus became a part of the discipline connected to Sufism. But even though Sufis wore suf, wool, from the very beginning of Islam, the word “Sufism”, according to Arab grammar, is not a derivative of the word suf, and not whoever wears suf is a Sufi. Or as Sheikh Saadi, a great Persian poet and sage said:

The goal of the people of the inner path is not their outer garments
Serve the King yet remain a Sufi

Other scholars believe that the word “Sufi” derives from the word “sufateh”, the name of a thin plant. Sufis were usually thin because of extreme mortification and fasting. Thus they were likened to sufateh as symbol for their emaciation. But, as in the preceding theory, this assumption is not linguistically or grammatically correct.

Another group of scholars claim that the word “Sufism” is a derivative from the Greek word “Soph”, meaning wisdom or knowledge. But this assumption does not seem right either. Aside from the different spellings, Sufis, and especially the Sufis of the first few centuries, denied that philosophy could be a fitting tool for understanding reality, since through its reliance on verbal descriptions and limited reasoning philosophy would actually obscure rather than reveal the truth or reality.

For example, Rumi says:

Those who only reason have wooden legs
And wooden legs give an unsteady gait.

Or Sanai, another great Sufi (12th century) says:

Do not call philosophy religion
And do not call the ignorant wise.

Even though Sufis were learned individuals, still we cannot equate “Sufism” with “philosophy” and “Sufi” with “philosopher”, for their foundations of knowledge and practices were very different. And as well, linguistics reveals that this attempted derivation is mistaken. Unfortunately, this mistake has perpetuated itself throughout much of the research regarding the origin of the word “Sufism”, recurring over and over again. The reason lies in the unfamiliarity of the researchers not only with the beliefs and mentality of the Sufis, but also with the nuances of the Arabic language.

There is also yet another idea regarding the word Sufism. It seems that before the time of the Prophet Mohammed there was a group of very pious people who worked as the servants of the Kaaba. These people were called “Sufe”. Their practices included mortification and the avoidance of any physical pleasures. Some assume that the word “Sufism” is a derivative from the word “Sufe”, but this assumption does not bear close examination, as the rules of Arabic grammar as well as the different styles of the practice make its fallacy evident. Some Sufis have practiced mortification, but this discipline has not been a general rule in Sufism, while others disapprove of any kind of mortification. Etymologically, “Sufi” is not a derivative of the word Sufe; historically Sufis were a group of Moslem intellectuals forming a School of an inner path based on the instructions of the Prophet Mohammed and the teachings of the Koran. Necessarily, this school had to be established after the advent of Islam and not before.

Even though many efforts have been made to discover the origin of the word, they do not give us a clear understanding about the word Tasawouf. It would seem that understanding the origin of Sufism, either the school or the word it denotes, is as mysterious as the whole practice of the Sufis. There are also other explanations about Sufism which are all literary descriptions based on the practices of the Sufis. I will mention some as follows: Sufism is piety and the purifying of the heart; it is avoiding bad temper and base qualities; it is remembering God; it is an essence without form; it is annihilation in the Almighty; it is secret; it is inner purity; it is closeness to reality; it is eternal life. The Sufi is a person of principles; or he is absent from himself and present with God. Each one of these descriptions refers to a discipline and practice performed by Sufis; none embraces all the essence of Sufism.

Our examination of the various attempts to account for the origin of the word Sufism shows the limitations of traditional scholarly inquiry when it attempts to approach the Divine. This reflects the greater difficulty of academic research in attempting to explain a way of understanding that transcends the limits of human knowledge. It would seem that despite the efforts of many scholars, we come to the understanding that actually no one knows the origin of the word Tasawouf — and , it might be added, the full reality of Sufism as well. Just as Sufism cannot be explained in terms of earlier Gnostic schools, so it appears that Sufism is not a word derived from a preexisting root word; the school of Sufism is not an explanation of a practice. And its believers are those who have mastered profound and mysterious principles introduced by Islam, principles never classified before.

The attempt of this brief work is to outline some of the doctrines that are essential to Sufism and most especially those principles which, when practiced and perfected, can make an individual cognizant in the realm of inner traveling. Sufism is best understood when we learn about it through the explanation of one of the most influential figures among Sufis. He reveals the mystery of the word Sufism (Tasawouf) as well as introducing those principles which make a seeker a Sufi. This teacher, Imam Ali, was the cousin and the son- in-law of the Prophet Mohammed.

Historians have recorded that he was the only child born in the House of God, Kaaba. In the same house, he died with equal grace and dignity. Amir-al-Moumenin Ali was the first man who believed in Islam. He was the heir of the heritage of the prophecy whose guidance throughout the fifteen centuries of the life of Sufism has been the greatest inspiration for many. It has been narrated from the Prophet who said, “I am the City of Knowledge and Ali is the Gate.” To Moslems, he is the King of the believers; to the Sufis he is call Valli, the Guide. He is the Light of the way, without which the realization of reality would be an impossible task.

Sufism is best described by the words of this mysterious teacher. It is narrated from Amir-al-Moumenin Ali (as well as Imam Sadegh, his grandson) who said that Tasawouf is an acronym of four letters. (Tasawouf is a four letter word: TSVF and pronounced Tasawouf in its original language.) Each letter holds a secret representing one stage or quality of a Sufi. Together the word TSVF makes the twelve Principles; one who perfects these principles is a Sufi.

T, the first letter stands for three practices of Tark (abandonment); Tubeh (repentance); and Tugha (virtue)

S, the second letter of the word stands for another three qualities to be perfected by a salek: Sabr (patience); Sedgh (truthfulness and honesty); and Safa (purity).

V, the third letter stands for: Vud (love); Verd (Zekr and remembrance); and Vafa’a (faithfulness).

F, the final letter, represents another three qualifications: Fard (solitude); Faghr (poverty); and Fana (annihilation).

During a life of learning, practicing, and teaching Sufism under the guidance and instruction of one of the greatest Sufi Masters of all time, Moulana Shah Maghsoud, my physical and spiritual father, I came to the realization that the door toward knowledge may open to afford a glimpse or two of reality to a seeker, but without mastering these twelve principles, such understanding will not remain clear for long. After passing through many chelleh, I discovered that each stage of these disciplines opens up a new door to the eternal graceful knowledge, and so reveals a new secret. It is only through perfecting these stages that the seeker can break the boundary of the limited self and remain not a solitary drop from the ocean of life, but become one with the ocean itself and experience the meaning of the magnificent Message of the la illaha illa Allah: that there is no limited self, everything is the Existence, the Eternal, God, Allah. It is then that Existence after complete annihilation of the Sufi remains as it truly is, without cover, without secret.

When the curtain of illusion fell there was only One,
no one but God.

Many times I have been asked what exactly each practice means and what are the appropriate manners, disciplines, and qualities that a salek must have in order to attain mastery and so become a part of this spiritual path. Therefore, in each chapter I have explained the meaning of each practice and related disciplines and manners. Many times I have referred to the wisdom of the ancient Sufis, since without the guidance of the teachers no path can be successfully traversed. Each principle directs the individual towards the path of recognition of the essence within, the essence hidden behind the veils of change and the curtains of uncertainty. The aim of any intelligent human being should be found in the foundation of the truth of stable tranquillity and undisturbed survival, the goal of the final quest. To achieve such a goal one must free oneself from the imprisonment of the boundary of change and find a way to return to one’s essential being and find the source of the infinite knowledge within.

It is only that pure essence of the self that is made manifest in the book of Being, where each word reveals a secret and every letter is engraved upon the face of Being, illuminating the image of the perfect human. As movements do not represent life, likewise change is not the being of existence, and whosoever stands on his feet is not necessarily the “Perfect Human”, the Perfect Human who stands upon the heights of Sufism.

I have attempted to explain each Principle as completely as the limitation of words and space permits; the rest depends upon you who have to search within yourself.

You are the subject
of the Divine Book,
Ask for yourselfIt is you
Whom you are looking for …

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