Tariqa (Ar.) or Tariqat (Pers.) means path, way, or means. Tariqa is the institutionalization of tasawwuf, the science of the sublime, the science of the heart, the mind, and the spirit. Yet, this science is not an academic discipline of abstraction; rather it is a performative praxis whereby the aspiring adherent (murid) is purified and elevated by means of a supervised regime of worship (‘ibada) and self-interrogation (muhasaba). The supervisor is the shaykh or the murshid, under whose tutelage and direction, the murid engage in self-effacing and self-controlling practices (mujahida).
Tariqa itself revolves around distilling the inner Sunna to complement the outer Sunna. Just as the Sahaba were spiritually trained, and spiritually perfected, by the suhba (companionship) of the Prophet (may peace and blessings be upon him and his kin!), the suhba of the murshid functions to refine the character and the spiritual aspiration (himma) and attainment (maqam) of the follower. Tariqa thus derives from the revelation within the deen, described in the famous hadith of Gibril as consisting of faith (iman), practice (islam) and spirituality (ihsan). The expert practitioners in the first field became the theologians, the experts in the second field became the jurists and those who mastered the third field became the Sufis, their knowledge known as ‘ilm al-ihsan or tazkiyya (self-purification), and their religious form the tariqa.
Throughout the history of Islam, the turuq (plural of tariqa) have safeguarded the integrity of the religion when under attack from outside forces (such as the Mongols or the Soviets in recent history) or by internal forces (such as faithlessness and materialism). Formal dogmatism and learning in the exterior sciences have never been a guarantee of temporal or celestial success. Indeed, the Scripture reminds, “Nay, he who purified himself prospered!” (qad aflaha man tazakka) and Imam al-Shafi’i himself noted in his Diwan, “Be both a faqih and a Sufi, not merely one of them”: Faqihun wa sufiyun, fakun laysa wahidun.