The word 'Sufism' has no original meaning in English. It appears to be a symbolic representation (and sometimes trivialization) of a significant and meaningful word in Arabic (Tasawwuf, self-purification). This Arabic word denotes, among other things, the purification process deriving from, and whose existence is solely dependant upon and the sole point of, a definable and observable activity, i.e. the study and practice of Islam under the directorship of an authorized and truly matured spiritual master.
The study and application of the above mentioned purification process, including its practices, analysis and documentation, became the domain of the Sufi masters and students, and it came to be recognized as the esoterics, or inner knowledges, of Islam. Hence the similarity of Sufism to western psychology and the derivation of its claim to the title 'Islamic Psychology'.
There are of course obvious and glaring differences between Sufism and western psychology, most notably in intention. But it is a part of the hope and work of the sufis that as western psychologists continue their leading edge search into the spiritual traditions of other cultures, they will be able to unify with and utilize the common intentions and goals of most spiritual teachers.
Although sufis do not claim their system to be the only way, (as it is both obvious and very respectfully noted that many effective systems have come before it), we do point out that Islamic Sufism is the most recent and complete emergence of the principles of spiritual liberation and certainly famous for it's efficacy.
Liberation implies 'being set free'. It is not to be equated with rebellion, revolution or self-assertiveness. It can only be accomplished by an unconditional surrender, the reality of which must be tested. The only true test of a master is by another master. A sufi adage goes "call no man master lest he set you free." This kind of spiritual freedom only increases the love, respect and service one has for one's teacher, much the same as one reaches maturity and goes about one's life independently never losing the love and respect for one's caring parents.
All spiritual traditions (religions) have their exoteric disciplines (practices) and their esoteric sciences. These sciences have evolved like any others as a result of study and observation of the beneficial effects of devotion to the practice of the outward disciplines.
The true point of all religions is to provide a formula (teaching) and catalyst (teacher) for alchemy (the spiritual transformation of the student); the guided transformation of lead (the childish ego) into gold (the spiritually mature adult). So all teachings must have their outward formulas, but without the chemist, the alchemist, the transformed teacher to act as guide, these laws are without reality, meaningless and ineffective. Under mature guidance, Islam is a spiritually and socially transformative influence par excellence, and the sufi way is widely known as an alchemy for spiritual evolution.
There are three stages to the perfection of awareness (at the end of which you are no longer aware, it is only Allah who is aware). They are:
Islam - Acceptance and Surrender (to the way of the peace and the love) - Surrender begins with the realization that guidance cannot be and should not be 'self-provided', that it must be sought at the hand of a realized spiritual master; and acting in accordance with that knowing. At this point, according to your level of Himma (willingness), you will be put into contact with the classical Islamic learning process.
Iman - Correct faith (with experientially verifiable certainty). The perfection of faith is its conversion to certainty (Yaqin) yielding correctness in behavior and knowledge coming from the complete realization of Truth and a deep understanding of the human situation. This process has three phases: Hearing the Truth, Seeing the Truth, and Being the Truth.
`Ilm ul Yaqin - Hearing about this Knowledge. Knowing that there is a certainty. Seeking out and studying this knowledge.Realizing that there must be people and masters of this science and seeking them out.Ihsan - Perfect guidance (finished, liberated, able to guide others). Spiritual Liberation implies the perfection of one's understanding of purpose and purity of intention. It does not imply the kind of liberty that supports childish behavior and undisciplined carelessness. This is the holy station of 'Salik al Majdhubi", the contained and sober intoxicated; the Sufi who is the union of the way of the walking (Shari`at - Muhammadun Rasulullah) and the Ultimate Reality (Haqiqat - La ilaha illa 'llah).
The completion of this process of alignment is the ultimate fulfillment and the end of personal desire and hence the end of the ruling power of the perverse ego (both your own and others'), since ego is the defensive aggressive tool constructed for the purpose of attaining personal desire. Personality is thence put to the uses that Allah intended for it in the first place, namely service, friendliness and education.