When India held the first annual World Sufi Forum in March, Prime Minister Narendra Modi called the tradition "Islam's greatest gift." What's more, he suggested that the faith was a powerful alternative to the violent extremism that plagues the Muslim world.
Sounds promising, but exactly what is Sufism?
As Jules Suzdatlev explains in today's Seeker Daily report, Sufism refers to the core mystical or spiritual philosophy of Islam. It isn't a sect or denomination, like the Sunni and Shia branches, but rather an ascetic discipline that focuses on non-violence, meditation and a direct connection with Allah.
All versions of Islam incorporate elements of Sufism, to differing degrees. But the actual designation Sufi is reserved for those who practice the faith's particular regimen of meditation, repetitive prayer and renunciation of material concerns.
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Held in New Delhi on March 17-20, the World Sufi Forum listed as its first major objective the strengthening of global peace by rejecting violence and extremism. This is entirely in keeping with the Sufi tradition, which stresses tolerance, personal sacrifice, philanthropy and non-violence.
Some history: The word Sufi itself comes from the Arabic term for mystic, "soo-fi," which is it turn derived from "soof" or wool. Sufis have traditionally worn simple wool garments as a symbol of renunciation.
Sufism rose to its greatest prominence in the larger Muslim world during the 13th century, known as the Golden Age of Sufism. Islam's greatest mystical art and literature was created in this period. By the 16th century, Sufi principles had spread throughout Persia, India and central Asia, ingrained in both Sunni and Shia Islam.
With the inaugural World Sufi Forum, Islamic leaders are hoping to rekindle the influence of Sufism in both Islam and the world at large. Addressing the gathering, Prime Minister Modi said, "At a time when the dark shadows of violence are becoming longer, you are the noor or the light of hope."
-- Glenn McDonald
Encyclopedia Britannica: Sufism
PEW: Chapter 1: Religious Affiliation
Al Jazeera: Somalia's Sufi revival