Islam is the fastest growing religion in the world today yet one of the most misunderstood in the West. However, a spiritual side of Islam is helping bridge the gap while enjoying an unexpected renaissance in Western nations.

It's been called the flower of Islam. Gentle, introspective, and highly spiritual, Sufism is a mystical tradition that promotes universal love, peace and tolerance. The Sufi message of enlightenment is in sharp contrast to Islamic extremism that is so often in today's headlines.

"Sufism is the heart of Islam" says Sheika Fariha, a leading Sufi teacher in New York City. "It is the diamond essence of Islam. Without Sufism, Islam is really only partial. It would be like a dry shell."

She says Sufism distills the Islamic Holy book, the Koran, in a pure and simple message of love and gratitude for God and all beings.

Kabir Helminski, a Sufi scholar whose publications popularized Sufism in the West, says the Koran supports the central ideal of Sufism to constantly remember and praise God in one's heart. He says "the Koran is reminding us in a very simple way to put God at the center of our lives."

"Sufis try to maintain a state where they are aware of being in God's presence at all times" he says. "The practices of Islam have been a support for this state of consciousness through the five daily prayers which punctuate the day and call us back to moments of intense focused remembrance."

Mr. Helminski adds that Sufis strive to maintain spiritual enlightenment without turning their backs on everyday life. Sufis say they maintain faith in God through meditation, selfless service, music and poetry. The Sufi movement didn't begin with a single founder and it wasn't originally recognized as a separate dimension of Islam. In the eighth century, some Muslims began to renounce worldly pleasures as Islamic empires accumulated wealth through trade. They believed worldly possessions, if not kept to a minimum, could take away their love for God and corrupt their soul.

These Muslims emerged as Sufis whose philosophy stressed frugality and simplicity as keys to spiritual wealth. Scholars say "Sufi" comes from the Arabic word for wool, which many of these people preferred to wear instead of silk or other fine fabrics.

Some Sufis also believed that Islamic teachings focused too much on Islamic law and not the spirit behind them. In recent centuries, prominent theologians synthesized Islamic law and spirit to help close the gap of understanding between Sufism and Islam. Sufis now enjoy wide acceptance in the Muslim world.

There are critics, however. Some Muslims say Sufism gives the impression that Islam itself lacks spirituality. Islamic fundamentalists condemn Sufism as too liberal and shun music and dance, activities Sufis say are essential to bringing them closer to God.

Religious analysts say the interpretation of the Koran goes astray when it falls into the hands of those who put special interests above religion.

Akbar Ahmed, director of Islamic studies at American University in Washington D.C., says many Muslim authoritarian rulers promote intolerance in the Koran's interpretation to hold on to power. "Some Muslims have interpreted Islam to mean a rigid drawing of boundaries around themselves, and at times this gets so rigid that they would not even accept people within Islam but who belong to a different sect."

"Not all Muslims understand that Sufism is essentially the heart of Islam. It is not something separate," Mr. Helminski says. "There will always be people whose mentality does not allow them to open up to various levels of spiritual experience. Such people will focus on outer behavior, performing certain duties and rights. The Sufi will also attend to that side of life."

Rejection by some orthodox Muslims has forced some Sufi orders underground, especially in countries ruled by fundamentalist regimes like that of Iran. The former Taleban regime in Afghanistan considered Sufis infidels. Many were beaten and imprisoned during the six years the Taleban enforced their own strict interpretation of Islam. Today, the mystical tradition is undergoing a renaissance in Afghanistan, as Sufis are singing and chanting freely again.

Sufism is strong in many parts of the Muslim world, including South Asia, North Africa, Europe and the Asian Pacific. Turkish Sufis or whirling dervishes spin themselves into a meditative trance that brings, they say, a state of divine ecstasy.

Poetry and story telling have been the primary teaching tool for passing Sufi knowledge through the centuries. Sufi poetry, especially that of the thirteenth century Persian philosopher Rumi, is a source of inspiration for millions of Muslims. It may explain Sufism's growing popularity in the West.

Sheika Fariha says Sufism is filling a spiritual need for Americans. "We see Sufism taking root here in this country in a very powerful and open way. This country has espoused a freedom of worship. America is a natural ground for it is a country with mystical beliefs."

But she says Sufism is not restricted to Muslims. Other religions share a passion for personal closeness to God. Some Christians and Jews belong to Sufi orders.

Observers say Sufism is easily embraced by all religions. In fact, many of Rumi's verses capture this universal human connection to God:

What is to be done, O Believers? for I do not recognize myself.
I am neither Christian, nor Jew, nor Buddhist, nor Muslim.
I am not of the East, nor of the West, nor of the land, nor of the sea;
I am not of Nature's form, nor of the circling heavens.
I am not of earth, of water, of air, of fire;
I am not of the highest heaven, nor of the lowest dust, nor of existence, nor of any entity.
I am not from India, China, Bulgaria, nor Persia.
I am not of the kingdom of Iraq,
I am not of the this world, nor the next, nor of Paradise, nor the Fire.
I am not of Adam, nor Eve, nor of Eden and Rizwan.
My place is the Placeless, my trace is the Traceless;
And it is neither body nor soul, for I belong to the soul of the Beloved.