Just like Eastern Orthodox is the Mystical branch of Christianity, Sufism is the like for Islam. Sufis exist throughout the Muslim world, as both Shia and Sunni.
The purpose and focus of Sufism is the quest for knowledge of God, also simply known as the Truth, realized in a series of inner states or experiences. Where religion is the external manifestation of the pathway to God, Sufi – meaning mystic, is the Inner path. It was originally influenced by the ascetics of the Eastern Christian tradition, and they also emphasized the importance of renunciation of worldly things, a celebration of poverty and inner purity.
Sufism originated back with the Prophet Muhammad, a profound mystic, who it is said to have taught his son in law, Hazrat Ali, the techniques and inner truths of this mysticism. After this, Sufism truly came to rise roughly 100 years after the founding of Islam and came as fear of increasing materialism within the Islamic faith. They believed that become materialistic would stop one's connection with the Spirit. The followers of Muhammad, his son, and subsequent followers of the practice, eventually evolved into several Orders of Sufism. Sufi has been controversial in the history of Islam. Not least because their emphasis on the “inner life” has been interpreted as a rejection of the outward observance codified in shari’a law and in ritual observance such as daily prayer.
The 11th-century Persian theologian Al-Ghazali is renowned in part because he sought a “middle way” between the pious theology of shari’a and the experiential devotion to God affirmed by Sufism. Today, many Muslims believe that Sufism is outside of the sphere of Islam. However, one of the foremost scholars of Islam, Seyyed Hossein Nasr, described that Sufism is simply the name for the esoteric, mystical, or psycho-spiritual dimension of the same writings. Followers of it believe it is of the utmost importance for the evolving modern world.
While mainstream orthodox Islam tends to frown upon the use of music in worship, Sufi’s have a long tradition of using music and dance for devotional purposes. Probably the most celebrated example of this are the “Whirling Dervishes”, of the Turkish Mevlevi order – now often witnessed as a tourist attraction – whose dance is said to emulate the revolution of the planets around the sun.
Some Sufi’s have made sense of their connection with the divine as an actual union with God. The sayings of the 9th-century mystic Abu Yazid al Bistami often feature a shift in voice from the third to the first person – Abu Yazid addressing his readers as if he were God. While the Qur’an portrays Muhammad using this same practice, the suggestion that mystical experience leads to an identification with the divine remained controversial, especially among the Ulama, lawmakers, of orthodox Islam.
At the end of the day, the essence of Sufi practice is very simple. It is that the Sufi surrenders to God, in love, over and over; which involves embracing with love at each moment the content of one’s consciousness. Any of your perceptions, thoughts, and feelings, as well as your sense of self, are seen as gifts of God or, more precisely, as manifestations of God.
In March of 2016, India hosted its first World Sufi Forum, in which India’s prime minister Narendra Modi described Sufism as Islam's greatest gift, and a wonderful alternative to more political aspects of the Islamic faith.