God is the direction (qibla) of the intention (niyya), the intention is the direction of the heart (qalb), the heart is the direction of the body (jism), the body is the direction of the members, the members are the direction of the created universe (kawn).
This saying, attributed to Sahl al-Tustarî (m. 283/896), expresses well the dynamic of all the history of Islamic spirituality, called Sufism. It indicates a deep tension towards God, a tension that goes from outside to inside and from there transcends into God. This dynamic has its primary root in the same profession of the Islamic faith which is the witness to the absolute Unity and Uniqueness of God (tawhîd): ‘There is no god but God (Allâh)’. That faith, profoundly lived by the Sufi, was articulated through the formulations of the sacred writing of Islam, the Koran. One must rather speak of a real ‘Koranisation’ of the religious language of Islam and, first of all, of the entire Arabic language but later also of the languages of the peoples who adopted Islam as their religion.
Alongside the Koran there are the traditions attributed to the prophet Mohammed. They too are important sources of the experience and thinking of the Sufi. These are the first foundations of Sufism and they are not always taken into account by those who approach Islam from outside using more or less faithful translations of some Sufi texts.
It is also true to say that Islam, in the course of history, has been subjected to much influence by the various cultures with which it came into contact: primarily Christianity, Judaism and others.
Despite the variety of its historical events, Islam, and with it Sufism, has kept its basic dynamic or, one could say, its foundation self-awareness: the tension towards the unity of God through the formulas of Koranic faith. It is precisely this internal dynamic that is the unifying centre of the entire religious movement of Islam and Sufism in particular
It is therefore necessary to overcome the many and very widespread prejudices that see Sufism as either a product brought in from outside or purely as an internal fruit of Islam itself. Sufism, like other aspects of Islamic civilization, has been a complex phenomenon, the fruit of the interaction of different elements, both internal and external.
If we wish to know the content of Sufism, the best way to do so should be to take into consideration its historical achievements. In a word, it is only through reading the historical Sufis that one may know what Sufism is and not through abstract deduction. The history of Sufism presents itself as the true phenomenology of Sufism or the deployment of its interior potentialities. (J.S.)