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A precise and inclusive definition of tasawwuf (Sufism) has evaded experts for many centuries, a problem which continues to persist and which renders an accurate discussion of the concept a well nigh impossible task. Ancient works, such as Kashf al-mahjub or Shrah ta`arruf, contain the sayings of numerous Sufi masters on the subject of tasawwuf, none of which – a thousand, by some accounts – provides a precise definition of the notion, and all which are but personal descriptions of the states of their authors. The multiplicity of these accounts – which at times are in conflict with one another – may be taken to imply a number of things: the cognizance of these shaykhs regarding the difficulty of the matter at hand, i.e. a single and all-inclusive definition of tasawwuf; their belief that tasawwuf is not a single, unified entity, i.e. that there are several forms of tasawwuf; or that these masters have focused on various aspects of the issue, i.e. Sufi customs, Sufi rituals, or the reality of Sufism itself. None the less, the thrust of these remarks provides the material for the extraction of a number of points with regard to the nature of Sufism as well as the rituals performed by its practitioners. 

There has also been controversy regarding the derivation of the term Sufi. Some, including Biruni, are of the contention that the term stems from the Greek word sophia (wisdom) or sophos (wise man), a conjecture which is in discord with what has been asserted in historical sources as well as with the rules of grammar. Other suggestions, mainly by the members of the sect themselves, regarding the derivation of the term from safwat, safa, and siffah are just as farfetched. What is by now a matter of near universal consensus is the view which claims the term Sufi to have derived from the Arabic suf (wool), an allusion to the woollen garment worn by many early Sufis. The latter opinion is shared by such early Sufi masters as Abu al-Qasim Qushayri, Abu Nasr Saraj, the author of al-Luma`, Shihab al-Din `Umar Suhrawardi, the author of `Awarif al-ma`arif, and others. Tasawwuf in its connotation of “wearing woollen outfits” is a symbolic declaration of asceticism and detachment from worldly values, a fully justifiable derivation of the term from the word suf, which precludes any other possible option. The fact that the donning of woollen attire has been denigrated by certain Shi`ite imams (PBUT), together with the criticism levelled against Sufis by religionists (mutisharri`ah) regarding their woollen dress resembling those of Christians monks, are further evidence for the widely acknowledged derivation of the term tasawwuf.

source: Zarrinkoob , Abdol Hossein "Islam Entry" The Great Islamic Encyclopedia. Ed. Kazem Musavi Bojnourdi.Tehran: The Center of Great Islamic Encyclopaedia , 1989-, V.8 , pp.467- 468


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