Sofi is a term used to name the followers of tasawwuf (particularly by those speaking Persian and Turkish). According to some, it is Sufi. I think the difference arises from the different views of the origin of the word. Those who are of the opinion that it derives from ‘sof’ (wool) or ‘safa’ (spiritual delight, exhilaration) or ‘safwat’ (purity) or sophos, a Greek word meaning wisdom, or that it implies devotion, prefer the word Sufi. Others who hold that it derives from ‘suffa’ (chamber) and stress that it should not be confused with ‘sofu’ (religious zealot), use the word Sufi.
The term sofi has been defined in different ways, some of which are as follows:
- A sofi is a traveler to God who has been able to purify his self and acquired inner light or spiritual enlightenment.
- A sofi is a humble soldier of God whom the Almighty has chosen for Himself and freed from the influence of his carnal, evil-commanding self.
- A sofi is a traveler to the Muhammadan Truth who wears a coarse, woolen cloak not for show but as a sign of humility and nothingness and renounces the world as the source of vices and animal desires. Sofis wear a coarse cloak made of wool and therefore are called ‘Mutasawwif’ in order to emphasize their states and their belief, conduct and life-styles. For it has been the characteristic of the Prophets and their followers and men of sincere devotion to wear a coarse, woolen cloak.
- A sofi is a traveler to the peak of true humanity who has been freed from carnal turbidity and all kinds of human dirt to realize his essential, heavenly nature and identity.
- A sofi is a man of spirit who deserves to be called a sofi because he tries to resemble the people of the Suffa—the poor, scholarly Companions of the Prophet who lived in the chamber adjacent to the Mosque of the Prophet—by dedicating his life to deserving that name.
Some are of the opinion that the word sofi is derived from ‘saf’ (pure). However, although their praiseworthy efforts to please God and continuous services of God with their hearts set on Him are enough for them to be called pure ones, it is grammatically wrong that sofi is derived from saf. Some have argued that sofi is derived from sophia or sophos, a Greek word meaning wisdom. I think this is a fabrication of foreign researchers who seek to find a foreign origin for tasawwuf.
The first to be called a sofi in Islamic history is Abu Hashim al-Kufi, a great ascetic of his time. Abu Hashim died in 150 after hijra, which means that the word sofi was in use in the second century of hijra after the generation of the Companions and their blessed successors.
Sufism which we encountered for the first time in Islamic history with Abu Hashim al-Kufi appeared as a way of the people of spirituality following the footsteps of our Prophet, upon him be peace and blessings, and his Companions in their life-styles. This is why sufism has always been known and remembered as the spiritual dimension of the Islamic way of life. With respect to its original purpose, sufism has sought to educate people to set their hearts on God and burn with love of Him. It has concentrated on good morals and mannerliness in conduct in the footsteps of the Prophets. It may well be claimed that some slight deviations have appeared in it over time, but these deviations should not be exploited as an excuse to condemn that way of spiritual purity.
While describing the sufis who lead a purely spiritual life, Imam Qushayri writes:
The greatest title in Islam is Companionship of the Prophet, upon him be peace and blessings. This honor or blessing is so great that it cannot be acquired by any one other than the Companions. The second rank in greatness belongs to Tabi‘un, the title of the fortunate ones who came after the Companions and saw them. This is followed by Taba-i Tabi‘in, those came after the Tabi‘un and saw them. Just after the closing years of this third generation, and coinciding with the outbreak of some internal conflicts and deviations in belief, together with the Traditionists, jurisprudents and theologians who rendered great services to Islam each in their own field, the sufis realized significant accomplishments in reviving the spiritual aspect of Islam.
Especially the early sufis were distinguished, saintly persons. They led an upright, honest, austere and simple life, free from all kinds of blemish, far from seeking bodily happiness and gratification of carnal desires, and followed the example of the Prophet, our Master, upon him be peace and blessings. They were so balanced in their belief and thinking that it is not possible to regard them as followers of either ancient philosophers or Christian mystics or Hindu fakirs. For, first of all, tasawwuf was considered by its early followers and representatives as the science of the inner world of man, the reality of things and the mysteries of existence. A sofi was a student of this science, determined to reach the final rank of universal or perfect man.
Tasawwuf is a long journey leading to the Infinite One and demands unending efforts. It is a marathon to be run without stopping with an unyielding resolution and without anticipating anything worldly. It has nothing to do with Western or Eastern types of mysticism or yogism or philosophies. And a sofi, who is the hero determined to run this marathon and reach the Infinite One, is neither a mystic nor a yogi nor a philosopher.
It is, however, a fact that prior to Islam some Hindu and Greek philosophers followed a way leading to self-purification and struggled against their carnal desires and the attractions of the world. But the way they followed and tasawwuf are essentially different from each other. For, first of all, while the sofis seek to purify their selves through invocation, regular worship, utmost obedience to God, self-control, and humility, and continue to follow their way until death, the ancient philosophers did not observe any of these rules or acts. Their self-purification—if it really deserves to be considered as such—usually caused conceit and arrogance in many of them rather than humility and self-criticism.
The sofis can be divided into two categories with respect to the path they follow:
The first category comprises those who give priority to knowledge and seek to reach their destination through knowledge of God (ma’rifa).
The second category consists of those following the path of yearning, spiritual ecstasies and spiritual discoveries.
The former spend their lives by continuously traveling toward God, progressing ‘in’ God and progressing from God on the wings of knowledge and knowledge of God, and try to realize the meaning of There is no power and strength save with God. Every change, alteration, transformation and formation they observe in existence and every event they witness or themselves experience, is like a comprehensible message from the Holy Power and Will experienced in different tongues.
As for the second category, although they are serious in their journeying and asceticism, they may sometimes, since they are in pursuit of discovering hidden realities or truths, miracle-working, spiritual pleasure and ecstasies, suffer deviations from the main destination and fail to reach God Almighty. Although it is grounded on the Qur’an and Sunna, this second path may yet lead some initiates to cherish certain desires and expectations such as having a spiritual rank, being able to work miracles, being known as a saint, etc. That is why the former path, which is the path leading to the greatest sainthood under the guidance of the Qur’an, is safer.
The sofis divide people into three groups.
- The first group comprises those they call the perfect ones who have reached the destination. This group is divided into two sub-groups, namely the Prophets and the perfected ones who have reached the Truth by strictly following them. It is possible that some among those perfected ones are not guides; rather than guiding people to the Truth, they remain annihilated or drowned in the waves of the ‘ocean of union and bewilderment.’ Their relations with the visible, material world are completely severed and therefore they live unable to guide others.
- Those belonging to the second group are called initiates. They are also divided into two sub-groups. The first sub-group are those who completely renounce the world and, without considering the Hereafter, seek only God Almighty. The second group consists of the initiates who aim to enter Paradise and do not completely give up tasting some lawful pleasures of the world. They are called by different titles such as ascetics, worshipping ones, the poor or the helpless.
- As for the third group, since their aim is only to live an easy, comfortable life in the world, the sofis call them the settling or clinging ones those who cling heavily to the earth. They are evil, unfortunate ones belonging, according to what the Qur’an calls them, to ‘the group on the left’, who are ‘blind’ and ‘deaf’ and do not understand.
Some have also referred to the three groups mentioned as the Foremost or those brought near to God, the people on the right, and the people on the left.