THE SUFI SECT

Sufism, often called the "mystical" branch of Islam, is a small tradition in America, though increasing in popularity. The sect, which emphasizes an intense inner religious experience of the divine, transcends the Sunni and Shiite traditions. Sufism's move West started in the10th century in Persia.

Sufi followers in the US tend to be white and middle- and upper-income; many learn of Sufism via New Age networks.

The sect is deliberately unorganized. In recent years, Sufis have tried to enliven Islam by traveling nomadically to local mosques, sharing their views for a time, then moving on.

While some orders say the faith is independent of all religions, most Sufis say their foundations are Islamic. "We are universalists," says Sufi Ahmaddin of the Ruhamiat Society, one of seven San Francisco orders. "We believe all religions are man's attempts to explain the unexplainable."

Sufis are known for their religious tolerance. Unlike Sunni or Shiite Islam, women are allowed a greater role in the tradition. Some women even lead Sufi orders.

Each order is independent. "It is an individualistic belief," says Mohammed Khadri, a Chicago Sufi. The practice of Sufism differs from order to order. In Boston, a Sufi order offers classes in meditation and healing, organizes evenings of poetry reading, and conducts universal worship sessions.

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