Sufism is the English rendering of the Arabic word tasawwuf, which derives from suf, meaning "wool." Tasawwuf in early Islamic history refers to the attitude of people who used to wear a white woolen garment as a sign of renunciation of worldly possessions. To be properly understood, the emergence of Sufism must be situated in the context of Islamic expansion. During the first and second centuries of Islamic expansion, Muslims conquered vast tracts of land that were part of the Byzantine or Persian Empires. They acquired huge amounts of wealth. Many of them became obsessed with mundane things. At that moment, a few believers, haunted by the Prophet's model of perfection and remembering the description of the hereafter in the Koran and the punishment reserved to those who went astray, did not only content themselves to follow the commandments of God and abandon his prohibitions. They devoted much of their time to praying, fasting, and nightly vigils. These are the first people who practiced what has come to be known as tasawwuf or Sufism. Sufism became one of two dominant paradigms in Islamic theology as to how Muslims might interpret the teachings of the prophet Muhammad.
The other paradigm is based on the premise that the prophet Muhammad was sent to deliver the Koranic message to the whole of humanity. In addition to the Koran, the deeds and sayings of the prophet Muhammad (known as the sunna) would provide guidance to Muslims who lived during his lifetime as well as to subsequent generations of Muslims until the day of the Last Judgment. But, according to this paradigm, no communication with the Prophet was possible after his death. This understanding led to a perspective labeled legalistic, fundamentalist, or scriptural based on the dual premise of the immediate readability of religious texts, which govern their rights and duties, and of the conceptual equality of all Muslims. This perspective also developed an individual approach to salvation.
Conversely, the Sufi paradigm is based on the belief that, after the passing of the prophet Muhammad, communication with his soul remains possible. As Islam spread and Islamic theology became more and more elaborated, Sufis developed very complex sets of doctrines and worldviews, some of which bore a similarity to other forms of mysticism. One of the most fundamental Sufi ideas is that the Koran, in addition to an apparent meaning (Ar., zahir) that is accessible to all, has a hidden meaning (Ar., batin). To have access to the latter, one must follow a path (Ar., tariqa; pl., turuq) that leads to spiritual fulfillment. This was the justification for the creation of Sufi orders, which quick became and still remain a dominant form of spirituality in the entire Muslim world.
Another fundamental Sufi idea is that there exists a conceptual inequality among believers, some of whom are closer to God by virtue of enjoying a higher rank in His eyes in relation to others. The Arabic word wali, "friend of God," which suggests the idea of proximity and friendship, renders the notion of proximity to God. It occurs several times in the Koran either in the singular (wali) or in the plural (awliya) but is interpreted differently within each of the two above-mentioned paradigms. For legalist Muslims, every pious believer is close to God, whereas in the Sufi tradition, the status of wali is accorded exclusively by divine grace to certain individuals. Sufis believe that the awliya have extraordinary powers, because they are close to God. For example, they have the power to secure happiness in this world and in the next for their disciples and their descendants by blessing them. They have retaliatory powers over their enemies, whom they can curse and punish. They have the mystical power to heal the ill, and so on. These desires for happiness and healing constitute the basis of the veneration of Sufi awliya in the Muslim world. Sufis have successfully established themselves as mediators between God and believers throughout the Muslim world.
The commitment to Sufi Islam is marked by a formal introduction in the course of which a disciple is initiated by a master. The master was himself initiated by another master through a chain of initiation (Ar., silsila) going back to the founder of a Sufi order, who usually claims to have started his order subsequent to prophetic revelation. Once initiated, the disciple is expected to obey the master. Moreover, on his or her way to spiritual fulfillment, the disciple is believed to be in the hands of the master as a cadaver is in the hands of a mortician. In other words, there is an assumed relationship of utter dependence of the disciple on the master.
Islam in Africa was greatly influenced by Sufi ideas and understanding of salvation. The majority of African Muslims practice Sufi Islam. Historically, the two orders of the Tijaniyya and Qadiriyya spread in the whole Islamized part of the African continent during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. These orders provided a paradigm of salvation based on the belief that certain persons have supernatural powers. But there are also orders that were founded locally, such as the Muridiyya established by the Senegalese Shaykh Ahmadu Bamba (1853 or 1854–1927).
The book Rimah hizb al-rahim 'ala nuhur hizb al-rajim (1863), written by 'Umar B. Sa 'id Tall (1797–1864), is one of the most elaborate expositions of the doctrine of the Tijaniyya Sufi order. It is a good illustration of the special privileges that God bestows on followers of Sufi orders. According to the Rimah, all disciples of the Tijaniyya will be spared from the agonies of death, they will not be persecuted in their graves by angels, and they will be safe from all tortures in the grave from the day of their death until the day they enter Paradise. God will forgive all their sins and they will not have to account at the Day of Judgment. They will be among the first group of believers to enter Paradise together with the prophet Muhammad and his Companions. They will die as awliya (friends of God) because of their love for the founder of the Tijaniyya, Shaykh Ahmad al-Tijani (1737–1815). Finally, because, they are members of the Tijaniyya, not only will they go to Paradise, but members of their family will also go to Paradise.
More than just religious fraternities, Sufi orders have often been vital economic, political, and social organizations that perform many social functions. They are organized around zawiya (lodges), which are centers of religious learning, initiation places for disciples in search of spiritual realization, shelters for fugitives, and locations of saintly shrines where disciples go to seek healing and blessing.
In Africa, there were times when some Sufi sanctuaries were virtual states within states, for example the Senusiyya in Cyrenaica (modern Libya) and the Tijaniyya in Algeria, and the Mourides in Senegal. Since the tenth century, Sufi orders have constantly risen, declined, regenerated, and split. Sufi orders exist in all Muslim countries.
Sufism provides ingredients through which many Muslims—educated and uneducated, "modern" and "traditional," men, women, and children—understand their universe.