Sufi historians trace their foundation to Muhammad himself, but it has been stated that this esoteric cult stems from man’s earliest strivings to liberate his ego from material things. This, in fact, is the main aim of the movement. Sufism is a distinct and very complete way of life, setting as its goal the realisation of man’s (and woman’s) believed role in life.
Man, argue the Sufi saints, is part of the Eternal Whole, from which everything is derived, and to which all must return. His mission is in preparing himself for that return. This can only be achieved through purification. When the human soul is correctly harnessed to the body, and has obtained complete control over it, then man appears in his perfect form: the Perfect Man, in fact, emerges as closely resembling the superman, possessed of amazing powers, who figures in the aspirations of Eastern and Western occultism alike.
There are distinct steps by which a “seeker” progresses towards this end. Organised in Orders resembling the monastic orders of the Middle Ages (alleged by some to have been modelled on Sufism), the first condition of enrolment is that the recruit must be “in the world but not of it”. This is the first important respect in which the cult differs from almost every other mystical philosophy. For it is fundamental that every Sufi must devote his life to some useful occupation. His aim being to become an ideal member of society, it naturally follows that he cannot cut himself off from the world. In the words of one authority:
Man is destined to live a social life. His part is to be with other men. In serving Sufism he is serving the Infinite, serving himself, and serving society. He cannot cut himself off from any one of these obligations and become or remain a Sufi. The only discipline worth while is that which is achieved in the midst of temptation. A man who, like the anchorite, abandons the world and cuts himself off from temptations and distractions cannot achieve power. For power is that which is won through being wrested from the midst of weakness and uncertainty. The ascetic living a wholly monastic life is deluding himself!