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Islamic mysticism, also known as Sufism, is a complex of beliefs and practices which aims to find the divine knowledge through the direct personal experience of God. The term Sufi may have derived from suf ("wool"), referring to the rough woolen garments which early ascetics used to wear. The Sufis are also known as fakirs and dervishes. Although Sufism was deeply influenced by various non-Islamic sources, it is mainly rooted in Islam and may have grown out of early asceticism that developed as a counterweight to the increasing worldliness in ruling Umayyad circles in the 8th century A.D.

The first Sufis emphasized the fear and awe of God, as well as ascetic self-denial. However, by the end of the 8th century, the Sufi-woman Rabiah of Basra had already changed Sufi asceticism into mysticism, which became centered on the ideal of loving God "for his own sake”, not out of fear of hell or hope for heaven.
During the 10th and 11th centuries, the first handbooks were written about the tenets of Sufism in order to attract new followers, on the one hand, and to soothe the growing suspicions of the orthodox clerics, on the other. At the end of the 11th century, Abu Hamed Ghazali formulated an orthodox brand of mysticism by combining a traditional theological position with a moderate form of Sufism. His younger brother, Ahmad Ghazali, wrote one of the most beautiful treatises on mystical love, Sawanih, the subject which has become the main theme of Persian poetry.
A little later, mystical orders (fraternal groups centering on the teachings of a leader-founder) began to crystallize. The foundations of this monastic system were laid by the Persian Abu Said Abi al-Kheir, but real fraternities came into existence only from the 12th century onward. Each order had peculiarities in its rituals, and some, such as the Safavids, were even militaristic.

Sufism reached its golden age during the 13th century, in the turbulent times of the Mongol invasion. The Spanish-born Ibn Arabi, the Egyptian Ibn al-Farid, the Central Asian Najm al-Din Kobra, and free the Persian greatest mystical poet Jalal al-Din Rumi produced their famous poems and treatises during this epoch. In the ensuing years, new orders came into existence, and most literature was still tinged with mystical ideas and expressions, The Sufis developed a special vocabulary for conveying to others the ineffable experiences of a mystic in his search for the divine truth; its profound symbolism of wine and cupbearer, lover and beloved, rose and nightingale, etc. was often objectionable from the orthodox viewpoint. If at first mystical life was generally restricted to the relation between a master and a few disciples, gradually Sufism ceased to be the way of the chosen few, and influenced the masses. Sufis began large-scale missionary activity all over the world; this activity still continues, although it is mostly restricted to spiritual education.
While all Muslims believe that they are on the pathway to God and will become close to Him in Paradise - after death and the Final Judgment - Sufis believe as well that it is possible to become close to God and to experience this closeness while one is still alive. Each individual has his or her own personal, private way to the Divine Presence. In Sufism, the spiritual journey toward God is referred to as tariqah ("the path”). The path begins with repentance. A Sufi sheikh*, or mystical guide, accepts the seeker as a morid ("disciple”). He orders him to follow strict practices and suggests certain formulas for meditation. The disciple is often ordered to perform the lowest work in the community and to go out to beg (many of the old monasteries subsisted upon alms). A seclusion period of forty days under hard conditions is common for the adepts in most orders. One of the means used on the path is the ritual prayer, or zekr ("remembrance"), which consists of the repetition of the names of God, or of a certain religious formula, such as the profession of faith. In the mid-9th century, some mystics introduced sama, sessions with music and poetry recitals in order to reach the ecstatic experience. Only a few members of the fraternity remain in khaneqah*, the cloisters, while most of the initiated return to their daily life and join mystic services only during certain periods.

In general, the master teaches his disciple the ways of fighting his nafs or selfor. The mystic dwells in a number of maqams (spiritual stations), which, after the initial repentance, comprise abstinence, renunciation, and poverty. Patience and gratitude belong to higher stations of the path, and consent is the loving acceptance of every affliction. On his way to illumination, the mystic will experience hals  (changing spiritual states), which are granted by God. The way culminates in Mariah or in mahabbah (love).

There came one and knocked at the door of the Beloved. And a voice answered and said, Who is there? The lover replied It is I. Go hence, returned the voice, there is no room within for thee and me? Then came the lover a second time and knocked, and again the voice demanded, Who is there? He answered It is thou. Enter, said the voice, for I am within Investiture with the kherqeh, the frock of the master, was the decisive act by which the disciple became part of the chain of mystical succession. Some mystical leaders claimed to have received their kherqeh directly from Khezr, a mysterious immortal saint. Today, the Sufi brotherhoods are regarded suspiciously, and generally, keep a low profile in Iran. The modern Iranian dervish is a strolling storyteller, with long, disheveled hair, a close-fitting skullcap, sometimes embroidered with a verse from the Koran; and a kashkul, a collection box.