The word 'Sufi' has come to denote an Islamic gnostic or mystic, although its derivation is a matter of controversy. The two principle sources are thought to be either a derivation from the Arabic 'suf' meaning 'wool' or from the Aramaic/Arabic forms of Greek derivatives of 'sophos', e.g. 'philosophos' or 'sophistes' meaning 'wise', although the root form is not found in either. The former derivation is the one given in the oldest extant treatise on Sufism by Abu Nasr Al-Sarraj (Ketab Al-Luma: ed. R.A.Nicholson, London, 1916 p. 20), and it is preferred to the latter because the greek letter sigma is invariably transliterated by the Arabic letter sin glyph, while the word 'sufi' begins with the Arabic letter sad glyph. Abu Nasr writes as follows:
"...the woollen raiment is the habit of the prophets and the badge of the saints and elect, as appears in many traditions and narratives."
His assertions are borne out by the following two expressions

Both of these expressions refer to those who wear woollen clothes. Arabic and Persian
Also the wearing of woollen garments was associated with Christian asceticism, e.g. 'ziyy al-ruhban', following a hadith of Muhammad who stated that Jesus wore woollen clothes. This is echoed in the following account:

"By reliable account, Jesus, son of Mary, had a patchwork cloak, which he wore when he ascended into heaven. One of the masters of the Path once said that he had seen him in a dream, wearing that same old patchy wollen cloak, and that beams of light shone from every patch. He explained, 'I cried, "O Christ, how come these beams of light from your dress?" And he replied, "These are the rays of my misery. Every rip and tear which I had to mend, the Good Lord turned to light, representing all the pangs of suffering which have stung my heart." '" Hojwiri, 'Ali ibn-Osman, Kashf Al-Mahjub: ed. V.A.Zhukovtsky, Leningrad, 1926, trans R.A.Nicholson
We are led to the inexorable conclusion, therefore, that the original Sufis were more famed for their asceticism than their knowledge, and that the term was more often used to denote someone who forswore worldly wealth to pursue the riches of heaven, than a master of philosophy.
The first person to be called a Sufi was Abu Hashim of Kufa who lived during the middle of the 8th century CE. This is interesting since Kufa is closely associated with the Son-in-Law of Muhammad, 'Ali. It was certainly in common usage before the start of the 9th century CE and Abu Nasr further affirms that the word was first coined in Baghdad. Amongst these various assertions it is possible to deduce that there was a transition between asceticism and mysticism and by the middle of the ninth century the arab, Jabiz of Basra numbered "the Sufis amongst the pietists", a reputation which was to endure until the time of Hafez. The latter's view of Sufis as "hypocritical pietists" probably masks his own adherence to the beliefs of Sufism while eschewing the asceticism that some other Sufis adopted.
The movement seems to have taken root in Basra and provided an outlet to those who found the social precepts of Islam difficult to cope with while adopting the religious principles with enthusiasm. It is frequently said that the urge towards hermetism was the result of Christian influences, but there is nothing in early sufic literature to support this. The concept of alienation is not restricted to any particular religion or culture and in the author's view any ascetic, antisocial or alienist tendencies were more likely to stem from an inner personal need than any external influence.
A parallel can probably be drawn with Catharism or Bogomilism in Christian terms, in which the emphasis on the unworldliness of God, and the need to separate oneself from material and human concerns and beliefs, leads to anomic tendencies which in turn can produce both the hermit and the anarchist. In this connection it may be appropriate to cite the first definition of Sufism by a Sufi, Ma'ruf of Baghdad: "to grasp the verities and to renounce that which is in the hands of God's creatures."
The transition from asceticism to mysticism which occurred during the latter part of the ninth and early tenth centuries cannot be attributed solely to an influx of Christian or Buddhist ideology, since the germ was already inherent in Islam itself, as shown below:
There is no God but He. All things are perishable but He
Koran 28:88.
Koran 28.88
As a result of this Sufism developed into a mixture of fundamentalism and pantheism in which God was perceived as being present in every aspect of his creation.
Last Updated 05 December 1998
There is an excellent German site for Sufism at: