The act of repeating the name of Allah silently or aloud, in solitude or in a group, is known as Dhikr, which is an invocation or remembrance, and for the Sufi it is a means of experiencing a true sense of Allah’s presence. To achieve this sublime state, each Sufi tariqa (order) uses its own individual practices. The word ‘tariqa’ means “pathway” in Arabic. The Sufis’ shaikhs (or sheikhs) and pirs (religious leaders) began meeting together in the community in the 12th century. Every Sheikh can trace his genealogy back to the Prophet Mohammed; if he traces it back to the Prophet through Ali, his sect takes the name Alevi; if through Abu Bakr, his sect is named Bakri. The Sufi master is their role-model and the source of their knowledge. He is revered as a God-inspired teacher, and respected as a person through whom God’s blessing can be passed on to others. Today there are 70 different orders of Sufism, such as Alevi, Bektashi, Burhani, Khalwati, Madari, Mawlawi, Naqshabandi, Qadiri, Rahmani, Rifa’i, Shadhili, Suhrawardi, Tijani and many others, the largest brotherhoods today being the Qadiri and the Shadhili.
Some scholars divide into two the systems of thought governing the sects, according to whether they conform or contravene Islamic rules. With the passing of time, theories were developed which put their own interpretation on Islamic rules, defining the practices, principles and decrees of Sufism, and produced theories bearing the influence of beliefs and traditions from Ancient Greece, India, Iran, and of Judaism and Christianity. They arrived at theoretical ways for the transformation of human qualities into divine qualities. Certain Sufis, for instance al-Hallaj, emphasised the union of the soul with Allah to such an extent that they were impugned for maintaining that the soul and Allah were one and the same. In the year 922, al-Hallaj was condemned to death for stating, “I am the Truth”. Abd al-Karim al-Jili in the 15th century is credited with elucidating the concept of water as the symbol of God and ice as representing the creation, in their apparent differences and hidden identities. Yet another movement came to life which, developing from this line of thought, sought to balance these theories or to reinterpret them in the light of Islamic decrees, and resolved to give as much importance as possible to intelligence and reasoning. In the 12th century, al-Ghazzali, who was an important representative of this second movement, stressed the idea that although Islam was a monotheistic religion, it was not monistic, that is, the belief that all beings, God and soul included, are ultimately composed of a single substance. In a way, the belief in visiting shrines can be interpreted as a violation of Islamic tenets. Beliefs of this kind are supposed to have infiltrated the world of Islam through mysticism (tasawwuf) from the religions of ancient India and from Christianity.
The main methods of training for the Sufi orders are penance and Dhikr. Although fundamentally the same, depending on the tariqa they bear dissimilarities in form. Candidates for the Dervish brotherhood undertake a fast for varying periods, the most common being forty days. During this time, the Dervish candidate renounces wordly pleasures, begins a life of strictest abstinence and spends his time in prayer, invocation, strife against sexual desire and assessment of his life. The life of the hermits is an example of the Muslim mystical ideal, which is to transcend all that alters and degenerates, in order to reach unchanging eternity. A symbol of Sufi endeavour to attain union with the divine is known as the Simurgh.
Each order has its own special costume, such as cloak, belt or crown. A Sufi training centre is named zawiya, or tekye -a lodge, or khanqah- a kind of seminary.
In many of the Sufi orders, team dancing is practised. Muslims generally steer clear of music because it excites the senses, but in the mystical Sufi brotherhoods music has always been highly regarded. They customarily play musical instruments, such as the pipe, the tambourine and the lute, and usually Sufi music includes vocal or choral compositions, using the notation and scales of profane music. Hymns are sung in nearly all Sufi orders. Sufi thought is of great importance in Islamic history. Some of the best examples of Sufi literature are Sufi love poems, written in Arabic, Persian, Turkish or Urdu.