Sufism is a branch of Islam, defined by adherents as the inner, mystical dimension of Islam; others contend that it is a perennial philosophy of existence that pre-dates religion, the expression of which flowered within Islam. Its essence has also been expressed via other religions and metareligious phenomena. A practitioner of this tradition is generally known as a ṣūfī. They belong to different ṭuruq or “orders” – congregations formed around a master – which meet for spiritual sessions (majalis), in meeting places known as zawiyahs, khanqahs, or tekke. All Sufi orders (turuq) trace many of their original precepts from the Islamic prophet Muhammad through his cousin and son-in-law Ali ibn Abi Talib, with the notable exception of the Sunni Naqshbandi order who claim to trace their origins through the first sunni Caliph, Abu Bakr. However, Alevi, Bektashi and Shia Muslims claim that every Sufi order traces its spiritual lineage (silsilah or Silsila) back to one of the Twelve Imams (even the Naqshbandi silsilah leads to the sixth imam Ja’far al-Sadiq and Salman the Persian, a renowned follower of the first imam Ali ibn Abi Talib), the spiritual heads of Islam who were foretold in the Hadith of the Twelve Successors and were all descendants of Muhammad through his daughter Fatima and Ali. Because of this Ali ibn Abi Talib is also called the father of Sufism
Eminent Sufis such as Ali Hujwiri claim that the tradition first began with Ali ibn Abi Talib. Furthermore, Junayd of Baghdad regarded Ali as the Sheikh of the principals and practices of Sufism.
Practitioners of Sufism hold that in its early stages of development Sufism effectively referred to nothing more than the internalization of Islam. According to one perspective, it is directly from the Qur’an, constantly recited, meditated, and experienced, that Sufism proceeded, in its origin and its development. Others have held that Sufism is the strict emulation of the way of Muhammad, through which the heart’s connection to the Divine is strengthened.
More prosaically, the Muslim conquests had brought large numbers of Christian monks and hermits, especially in Syria and Egypt, under the rule of Muslims. They retained a vigorous spiritual life for centuries after the conquests, and many of the especially pious Muslims who founded Sufism were influenced by their techniques and methods. According to late Medieval mystic Jami, Abd-Allah ibn Muhammad ibn al-Hanafiyyah was the first person to be called a “Sufi.”
Important contributions in writing are attributed to Uwais al-Qarni, Harrm bin Hian, Hasan Basri and Sayid ibn al-Mussib. Ruwaym, from the second generation of Sufis in Baghdad, was also an influential early figure, as was Junayd of Baghdad; a number of early practitioners of Sufism were disciples of one of the two.
Sufism had a long history already before the subsequent institutionalization of Sufi teachings into devotional orders (tarîqât) in the early Middle Ages. The Naqshbandi order is a notable exception to general rule of orders tracing their spiritual lineage through Muhammad’s grandsons, as it traces the origin of its teachings from Muhammad to the first Islamic Caliph, Abu Bakr.