Sufi practices have their foundation in purity of life, strict obedience to Islamic law and imitation of the Prophet. Through self-denial, careful introspection and mental struggle, Sufis hope to purify the self from all selfishness, thus attaining ikhlas, absolute purity of intention and act. "Little sleep, little talk, little food" are fundamental and fasting is considered one of the most important preparations for the spiritual life.
Mystical experience of the divine is also central to Sufism. Sufis are distinguished from other Muslims by their fervent seeking of dhawq, a "tasting" that leads to an illumination beyond standard forms of learning. However, the insight gained by such experience is not valid if it contradicts the Qur'an.
The Sufi way of life is called a tariqah, "path." The path begins with repentance and submission to a guide (sheikh or pir). If accepted by the guide, the seeker becomes a disciple (murid) and is given instructions for asceticism and meditation. This usually includes sexual abstinence, fasting and poverty. The ulimate goal of the Sufi path is to fight the true Holy War against the lower self, which is often represented as a black dog.
On his way to illumination the mystic will undergo such changing spiritual states (hal) as qabd and bast, constraint and happy spiritual expansion, fear and hope, and longing and intimacy, which are granted by God and change in intensity according to the spiritual "station" in which the mystic is abiding at the moment. The culmination of the path is ma'rifah (interior knowledge, gnosis) or mahabbah (love), which implies a union of lover and beloved (man and God). The final goal is annihilation (fana'), primarily of one's own qualities but sometimes of one's entire personality. This is often accompanied by spiritual ecstasy or "intoxication."
After the annihilation of the self and accompanying ecstatic experience, the mystic enters a "second sobriety" in which he re-enters the world and continues the "journey of God."
Rituals: Prayers, Music and "Whirling"
A central method on the Sufi path is a ritual prayer or dhikr (“remembrance”, derived from the Qur'anic injunction to remember God often in Surah 62:10). It consists in a repetition of either one or all of the most beautiful names of God, or of a certain religious formula, such as the profession of faith: “There is no God but Allah and Muhammad is his prophet.” A rosary of 99 or 33 beads has been in use since as early as the 8th century for counting the thousands of repetitions.
In the mid-9th century some mystics introduced sessions with music and poetry recitals (sama') in Baghdad in order to reach the ecstatic experience—and since then debates about the permissibility of sama', filling many books, have been written. Narcotics were used in periods of degeneration, coffee by the “sober” mystics (first by the Shadhiliyah after 1300).
Mystical sessions of music and poetry called sama (or sema) were introduced in Baghdad in the mid-9th century with the purpose of achieving an ecstatic experience. Narcotics have sometimes been introduced as part of the method, but this is considered a degeneration of the practice.
The well-known "Whirling Dervishes" are members of the Mevlevi order of Turkish Sufis, based on the teachings of the famous mystic Rumi (d.1273). The practice of spinning around is the group's distinctive form of sama. The whirlers, called semazens, are practicing a form of meditation in which they seek to abandon the self and contemplate God, sometimes achieving an ectastic state. The Mevlevi sect was banned in Turkey by Ataturk in 1925, but performances for tourists are still common throughout the country.
The clothing worn for the ritual and the positions of the body during the spinning are highly symbolic: for instance, the tall camel-hair hat represents the tomb of the ego, the white cloak represents the ego's shroud, and the uplifted right hand indicates readiness to receive grace from God.