Whirling Devotion: Sufism in North Africa

Culture Facts

Who: An esoteric religious sect of Islam influenced by black slaves
Where: Across North Africa, centred in Nefta, Tunisia
Beliefs: Whirling to become closer to god, devoted to spiritual purification

Best known in the west as the whirling dervishes, Tasawouf, or Sufism, is the esoteric school of Islam founded on the pursuit of spiritual truth as the highest goal of attainment. The pupil works to achieve ma’arefat – understanding reality as it is – which is the understanding of the Divine. In search of the inner path, Sufes devote themselves to spiritual purification and meditation. They incorporate old belief systems brought to the North of Africa by the black slaves. The centre of the religion is Nefta, a small town in the Chott el-Jerid region of Tunisia, close to the Algerian border.

Fundamental to an understanding is knowledge of the heart, unlike philosophers and scholars whose knowledge relies on tradition, assumptions and words. Based on the teachings of the Koran, Sufes believe no gulf should exist between the creator and his creations and man should be free from limitations of matter and material existence, believing purely in the existence of the inner spirit.


The Sufes whip themselves into a frenzy to become closer to god. Sufes undergo a variety of sometimes startling rituals to elevate their minds. The Fakir, the Sufe at the heart of the ritual, dances himself into a state of semi-delirium which Sufes describe as a way of understanding reality.

How They Were Named ‘Sufes’

History tells us that followers of the prophet Mohammad 15 centuries ago sought direct experience of the divine. They met on a platform, or sufe, in the mosque where the Prophet prayed in Medina. This sufe or platform became the first gathering of some of the most influential moments in the history of spiritual civilisation. After the Prophet died, his students returned to their homelands eager to instruct and they became the great missionaries of Islam.

Pillars of the Faith

The main principles of Sufism are the three practices of abandonment, repentance and virtue, the qualities of patience, truthfulness and purity, a devotion to love, remembrance and faithfulness and finally the melancholy experiences of solitude, poverty and destruction.

More Information

International Association of Sufism
Global organisation promoting peace in the spirit of Sufism.

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