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The growth of Sufism (from suf, Arabic for wool; possibly referring to woolen robes worn by early ascetics) was another important development in the history of Islam. The great Sufi orders or brotherhoods (tariqa) were first established in the twelfth century by scholars disillusioned in their search for Truth through the intellectual application of the austere practices advocated by the various schools of Islamic doctrine. A belief in the oneness of man with God is central to Sufism. Sufis seek to achieve a personal communion with God during mystic moments of union brought about by various methods, including meditation, recitation of sacred phrases, breathing exercises, dancing, hymn singing, music, and physical gyrations.

Sufi religious life centers around a learned religious leader or spiritual guide referred to as shaykh (in Persian, pir) whose mystical teachings guide students (murids) along the path (tariqa) that leads each to the ecstacy of his own moment of intimacy with God. Relationships between the master and disciple are very close. Many famous Sufi shaykh attracted large bodies of followers, and the sites of their brotherhoods became not only renowned spiritual institutions, but also popular social and cultural community centers providing medical, educational, and welfare services, including soup kitchens for the poor and hungry. These centers oftentimes amassed considerable wealth from gifts from pilgrims and from endowments (awaqf; singular, waqf), an important institution providing community social services. With wealth they acquired social and political power. This building of a sense of an alternative community within Sufism threatened the status of established religious authorities (ulama), undermining their institutionalized perceptions of an universal, unified Islamic community (ummah) following the Shariah, the "straight path" of Islamic law. The orthodox ulama initially declared Sufism heretical, but over time came to tolerate it as long as its adherents abided by Islamic laws.

Sufi practices are found today among both Sunni and Shia communities, although it tends to be more widespread among Sunnis, perhaps because Shia attach great value to the intercession of saints and most Shia embrace mysticism and encourage emotional responses to God and to Shia martyrs, especially those connected with the tragedy of Karbala which is commemorated on Ashura, the 10th day of Moharram, when dramatic recitations, passion plays (taziya) and street processions, which include self-flagellation, take place.

Sufis describe their personal experiences in a vast variety of poetic expression. The poetry of the Sufis is considered the best in the Persian language, and among the most notable of all poetic styles. Particularly honored are Sadi and Hafiz of Shiraz in Iran, and Baydil from the Persian-speaking Moghal court of Delhi. Universally acclaimed Afghan Sufi poets include Ansari (eleventh century) and Jami (fifteenth century) of Herat, Sanayi of Ghazni (twelfth century) , and Rumi of Balkh (thirteenth century), the founder of the order of whirling dervishes, whose Mathnawi is considered by many to be the greatest poem ever written in Persian.

Data as of 1997