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Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History Essays

Art of the Sufis

Over the centuries, the spiritual beliefs, rituals, and practices of Sufis (mystical adherents of Islam) have inspired poets and artists to create extraordinary verses and artworks. Sufis have also made important contributions to Islamic art and culture as patrons, artists, builders, and poets. The term Sufi comes from “suf,” the Arabic word for wool, and refers to a garment worn by ascetics and mystics, which is often visible in depictions of such figures (57.51.30). Sufis typically wore simple attire that demonstrated a renunciation of the luxuries of the material world. A follower of Sufism is also referred to as a faqir or dervish (57.51.27), from the Arabic and Persian terms meaning poor.

From the advent of Islam through the present, Sufis and their rituals have coexisted alongside more mainstream and orthodox Muslim practices. Sufism was never a unified movement, but rather a range of beliefs and devotional practices in regions where Islam was the dominant religion. It was widely practiced throughout the Islamic world—from Morocco to India—and took a variety of forms ranging from near-total isolation and asceticism to complete integration with the royal court. Sufis served as advisors and spiritual teachers to young princes (11.84.13), and were even the founders of certain powerful empires, including the Safavid dynasty in Iran (1501–1722). Illustrations of Sufis, as well as objects used by followers of Sufi traditions, offer great insights into the beliefs and practices of these mystics.

Sufi orders still exist today throughout the world, though several groups and individuals have faced persecution in changing political climates. This includes the forced exile of Senegalese Sufi saint Ahmadu Bamba (1850–1927) by the French in the late nineteenth century, as well as the dissolution of all Sufi orders in Turkey by Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, first president of the Turkish Republic (1923–38), in 1925. In other cases, shrines and tombs of important Sufi leaders remain popular sites for throngs of devoted visitors from near and far, seeking spiritual guidance and blessing (

Throughout history, various orders or tariqas were gradually organized, including the Mouride, Naqshbandi, Mevlevi, Chishti, and the Bektashi. These groups followed specific practices and used particular objects in their rituals. One rite that is consistent in all tariqas is an extensive initiation process. New members, known as murids (aspirants), would be required to take an oath to demonstrate their commitment to a path of purification, leading to a “lifting of the veil of ignorance.” Once accepted to an order, murids would receive guidance from an experienced master, known as a sheikh or pir. The transmission of knowledge from master to student formed a silsila, or chain, in which sacred lessons and practices could be traced back through past generations, all the way back to the Prophet Muhammad. The Sufi tradition places a strong emphasis on master-disciple relationships (11.84.13), and an initiate and his elder would embark together on the tariqa, a term also denoting path, leading to a higher level of consciousness. The path of becoming a dervish was not something that could be achieved alone. Instead, aspirants needed to closely follow the guidance of their sheikh or pir.

The sheikh or pir would guide the murid passing through various stations (maqam) of ascetic and spiritual development in search of union with the divine. Different Sufi orders recognize slight variations on these maqams, but generally there are seven or eight stages that the murid must visit before achieving his ultimate goal. The first station on the path is repentance (tawba), a turning away from sin, and a renunciation (zuhud) of the material world and anything that distracts the heart from God. Other stations include abstinence (wara‘) from the desires of the lower self or the flesh; commitment to a life of poverty (faqr); patience (sabr) in pursuing the long and difficult path; and gratitude (shukr) for everything that he encounters along the path, however challenging. The Sufi eventually reaches a state of joy for love of the divine (rida) followed by complete surrender to God (tawakkul), before moving on to reach unity with the divine (tawhid). The final station is fana, which is an essential goal of a Sufi, and is the moment in which he becomes utterly immersed in the existence of God.

Certain objects and garments were central to Sufi initiation and rituals, especially in the regions of Iran and Turkey. Garments, such as the long-sleeved robe known as a khirqa (13.228.35), indicated that a member had reached a certain point in his initiation to the order, and was considered a full member. Such garments were bestowed upon a disciple by his sheikh or pir, and fortified him with his master’s spiritual blessing. Dervishes also commonly carried a kashkul, or begging bowl (09.202.2), in order that strangers and other Sufis would recognize, embrace, feed, and give alms to him. When unfilled, kashkuls could also sometimes be interpreted as a metaphor for the void of the Sufi’s ego, which has been emptied through a rejection of worldly desires, and which can only be filled and nourished with divine knowledge. Such kashkuls were an especially important possession of wandering dervishes ( who lived off the earth and carried only the most minimal and necessary items. An axe (tarbar or tabarzin) (04.3.467) served both practical and symbolic purposes, as a weapon and, metaphorically, as a reference to severance of ties to the material world. The tabarzin was often associated with a sheikh or other high-ranking member within a Sufi order.

Rather than focusing on religious law, theology, philosophy, and other written proscriptions, Sufis understand and experience God by turning inward and experiencing the divine within themselves. “To break the ink-pots and tear the books” was metaphorically considered by many mystics to be the first step in becoming a Sufi. The difficult path of self-exploration to find God could be sought in several ways, including the custom of khalwa. This practice was originally thought to have been undertaken by the Prophet Muhammad, who would retreat to caves in the Hira Mountains near Mecca to eliminate distractions and meditate. Sufis emulated this act and created the custom of khalwa, a period of seclusion that could last up to forty days. As a reference to this practice and lifestyle, which involves long durations of prayer, meditation, and fasting, Sufis often appear in drawings and paintings as emaciated and disheveled, with ragged garments and knotted hair (45.174.6)—physical manifestations of their arduous path.

Other Sufi rituals—notably the sama‘ (17.81.4), a dance-like ceremony in which participants attempt to reach an ecstatic state through music and movement—are communal and celebratory. In the sama‘, participants play instruments such as the ney (flute), daf (tambourine), and drums, while others sing and dance. The sama‘ had the effect of inciting a euphoric condition known as wajd (literally, “finding”), which enabled practitioners to momentarily forget earthly and physical ties, allowing them to achieve a heightened state in which they felt encompassed by the divine (1988.430). While engaging in the sama‘ or khalwa, Sufis often meditatively repeat a dhikr (a remembrance or devotional act), which may be the name of God, the Shahada (“there is no god but God”), or verses from the Qur’an.

Sufi ideas and beliefs came to be recorded in metaphorical terms by poets such as Rumi (1207–1273), Hafiz (1315–1390), Farid al-Din ‘Attar (ca. 1142–1220), Nizami (ca. 1141–1217), and Amir Khusrau Dihlavi (1253–1325). These Sufi master poets used lyrical verse to educate their followers, narrating tales that could be understood as allegories. ‘Attar’s story of the Mantiq al-tair (Langage of the Birds), for example, describes a journey by a group of thirty birds in search of the Simurgh, a large mythical bird they hoped to make their king. The voyage of this group of birds in search of their leader is both physically and spiritually strenuous, and the group travels through a series of difficult episodes that largely resemble the Sufi maqams, or stations as described above. When they finally reach the Simurgh, the birds see a reflection of themselves, and realize what they had sought is indeed present within themselves. This poem is an allegory for a Sufi in search of God who eventually finds the divine within himself.

Richly illustrated manuscripts of the Mantiq al-tair were created as early as the fifteenth century. An extraordinary manuscript from the turn of the seventeenth century contains several paintings illustrating Sufi narratives (63.210.11). Another common Sufi trope in poetry and painting is the longing for a beloved, such as in the story of Majnun pining for Laila (, often understood as an allegory of a Sufi yearning for union with God. Poetry about wine and its intoxicating effects are also prevalent among Sufi circles. In this context, wine references both the inebriating beverage that helps Sufis attain an ecstatic state, but also symbolizes heaven’s divine love and light. The altered state caused by wine can be considered both physical and metaphysical (1988.430).

By the nineteenth century, the poems of these important mystics were translated into English and other languages. These texts continue to be popular today, and a translation of Rumi’s work by American writer Coleman Barks (b. 1937) in the 1970s has had a wide-reaching impact, originating in New Age spiritual movements and spreading to a broader general public. Many of these twentieth-century poetic translations of Sufi texts dilute the original Islamic religious meanings and detach texts from significant references to God and the Qur’an. Only versions of the texts in their original languages sustain the fundamental Islamic-specific meanings. Rumi’s Masnavi, sometimes referred to as the “Persian Qur’an,” is one such example that often loses religious references in translation (13.228.12).

Sufi practices and rituals first came to be recorded and illustrated in travelogues by Europeans when explorers and merchants began visiting Persia, Turkey, and India in the late seventeenth to eighteenth centuries. Fascinated by these mystical practices, travelers such as François Bernier (1620–1688), Jean-Baptiste Tavernier (1605–1689), and Aubry de La Mottraye (1674–1743) made careful observations of Sufi rituals while visiting dervish lodges, known variously as tekke, khanaqah, dargah, or zawiyya. The adventures recorded by Aubry de La Mottraye were published in English and in French in the late seventeenth century, and famously illustrated by the English artist William Hogarth (1697–1764) in the eighteenth century (32.35[234]). Such texts and illustrations were widely disseminated in Europe and exposed new audiences to the lives and ways of these fascinating mystical groups.

In contemporary art, Sufi themes and imagery continue to inspire artists, including Parviz Tanavoli (b. 1937), who explores the suppression of the ego in his sculpture Poet Turning into Heech (2012.39). Y. Z. Kami (b. 1956), in his work Endless Prayers XXVIII (2014.62), uses abstracted spirals and text from Rumi’s poetry to reference the spinning circumambulations of the sama‘, the ecstatic dance of the dervishes. The beauty and meaning of these artworks maintain a wide appeal to many audiences and serve as a continuation of the ideas and practices of the earliest Islamic mystics.