Sufism: The Poles of Love and Knowledge
Reprinted with permission from Richard Smoley and Jay Kinney, Hidden Wisdom: A Guide to the Western Inner Traditions (New York: Penguin / Arkana: 1999). See the end of this article for copyright information and permitted usage.
Sufism is an enigma for most people in the English-speaking world. The origin of the word Sufi itself is enigmatic. Some say it comes from the Persian word for pure,Ӕ others claim it is derived form the Arabic word for wool,Ӕ a reference to the simple woolen garments worn by early Sufis. Many people have witnessed Sufi dancing,Ӕ or read some of the poetry of Rumi, the great Sufi mystic, or come across the numerous books of Idries Shah, but such fleeting contacts often leave us with more questions than answers. Certain authorities insist that all true Sufis are Muslims; others insist that Sufism teaches the fundamental unity of the worlds religions.
Even if one has actually encountered students of Sufism, things may be no less confusing. Members of different Sufi lineages or orders have wildly varying customs of dress, behavior, and outlook. Some seem like hippie survivors of the sixties; others seem as if they would be more at home in sixteenth-century Baghdad. Most are indistinguishable from the average person on the street. All this leaves one wondering whether there is a common thread that ties all Sufis together. Are Western followers of Sufism just caught up in a love of the exotic? Or is Sufism a spiritual path that can speak to the concerns of our everyday lives?
The Roots of Sufism
Whether Sufism is a strictly Islamic approach to mysticism or not is a point of debate among Western scholars. Less debatable is that the first historical traces of Sufism as a mystical path appeared within two centuries of the founding of Islam in the seventh century A.D. The Prophet Muhammad was a profound mystic, and it is said that the Prophet instructed his son-in-law, Hazrati Ali, in the techniques and inner truths of his mysticism. Ali in turn personally instructed other early Muslims before he was killed in one of the power struggles that overtook Islam in the decades after the ProphetҒs death. Today nearly every Sufi order traces its lineage back to Ali and the circle of Muhammads closest intimates.
The earliest known Sufis were solitary mystics who attracted followers on the strength of their personal saintliness. These illumined beings taught their students the techniques they had employed to become ғfriends of God, and those who attained spiritual realization in turn taught others. By the ninth century, what had originally been informal teacher-student relationships formalized with the founding of tariqas, or orders, each originating from a different Sufi saint. Thus the Qadiri order descends from Abd al Qadir Jilani, the Rifai order descends from Ahmad Rifai, and so on.
Significantly, Sufis were generally accepted and respected within their surrounding communities. Thus their mysticism was seen as an extension and deepening of Islamic practice. Although individual Sufis were punished within Islam for statements and teachings that challenged the religious authorities, Sufism as a whole was allowed to flourish, and in many cases traveling Sufis were influential in introducing Islam to new cultures.
What About Islam?
Despite the enthusiasm with which Westerners have embraced various ԓforeign religions in recent decades, there is still something threatening about Islam. The Crusaders fought with Muslims over the Holy Land, and a defining moment in European culture was the victory over Ottoman forces on the outskirts of Vienna in 1683.
For a millennium EuropeԒs great rival was Islamic civilization, ruled over by a succession of sultans and caliphs, who were at various times Arab, Persian, and Turkish. Even today we hear echoes of its challenge to the West in the militant voices of Khomeini, Hezbollah, and other radical Islamists. Yet the inner essence of Islam, like the inner essence of Christianity or Judaism, has little to do with the clamoring of those who jockey for power in the name or religion. This heart of Islam, which is perhaps best exemplified by the Sufis, transcends categories of East and West as well as cultural idiosyncrasies. Nevertheless, in order to understand Sufism and the essence of Islam, we must first examine the religious context in which Sufism developed.
There is no god but God, and Muhammad is his MessengerӔ (La ilaha ill Allah, Muhammad rasul Allah) is the fundamental statement of Islamic belief. The Prophet affirmed, above all else, the oneness of God and the unity of all life. He saw himself as the renewer of the monotheistic faith that the Prophet Abraham had taught and from which Judaism and Christianity had evolved. According to the Quran, the poetic scripture that Muhammad recited in installments over a twenty-three-year span, God (Allah in Arabic) sent 124,000 prophets to humanity over the course of history. Interpreted liberally, this statement implies that the founders and maintainers of the numerous religions worldwide share their roots in the same God. But Muhammad is called the ғSeal of the Prophets, that is, the crowning advocate of this primordial tradition.
Unique among the worldԒs scriptures, the Quran was memorized by those in the ProphetҒs circle as each new portion was recited aloud, resulting in an unaltered text as the Quran was written down. Even today, there are literally hundreds of thousands of Muslims who have committed the whole QurҒan to memory, still pristine in its seventh-century Arabic.
So what? we might be tempted to ask. Isnt this a recipe for fanaticism? The ғfinal prophet delivers an unaltered scripture and his followers ever after are ripe to transmogrify into what Eric Hoffer called ԓtrue believers, defenders of a single truth. To be sure, many Muslims are given to rigid and literal readings of QurԒanic verses, just as Christian fundamentalists do with the Bible, resulting in a monolithic approach to religion. Yet an antidote to this tendency is embedded within Islamic tradition, and it is the Sufis who provide this.
Layers of Meaning
Arabic is a poetic language whose alphabet consists of twenty-two consonants supplemented by diacritical markings that serve the function of vowels. Most Arabic words stem from roots that consist of three or four consonants. Thus the meaning of any one word is related at its root to many other words. Even taken alone, an Arabic word can have multiple meanings.
For instance, qalb, the word for heart,Ӕ can be read as the root word QLB in the original Arabic. Other variants on QLB include taqallab (to be restlessӔ), munqallab (one who transformsӔ) and qalab (to extract the marrow of a palm treeӔ). Thus, in the original Arabic, the human heart implies both the core and something changeable or changing.
In this way, the Quran has multiple implications built into every verse, including the literal meaning in the Arabic of the ProphetҒs era; a literal meaning as understood by Arabic speakers today; metaphors that suggest themselves to the poetic imagination; mystical readings that unveil themselves in quiet contemplation; and rhythmic shadings that come forth as the verses are sung. It is no coincidence that many of the greatest Sufis have also been great poets Rumi, Attar, Saadi, and Hafiz come to mind ח and it is often through the vehicle of inspired poem and song that Sufism has captured the essence of Islam and spoken to Muslims and non-Muslims alike across the centuries. However, the mystical interpretation of the Quran is but one facet of mystical Sufism, and for Westerners it is frequently far from the most appealing.
Sufism Comes West
Sympathetic interaction between Westerners and the Islamic world was scarce prior to the twentieth century. Moorish Spain may have represented the height of Spanish culture, but the expulsion of Muslims and Jews from Spain by the end of the fifteenth century was a cause for celebration among Catholic Europeans. The British encountered Islam as the British Empire expanded into Egypt, India and Asia, but their interaction with it often consisted of manipulating various religious groups and nationalities as a means of dividing and conquering. An adventurous few such as Richard Burton, translator of the Arabian Nights, delved into Islamic culture. Burton himself was initiated as a Qadiri Sufi during a stay in India. But it wasnҒt until the arrival of Hazrat Inayat Khan in Europe in 1910 that Sufism began to attract attention in the West.
Inayat Khan, a talented musician, had been sent to Europe by his Master in the Chisti order of Sufism in order to introduce Sufism to the West. In view of the generally negative feelings of Europeans towards Islam, Khan strategically downplayed the Islamic roots of Sufism and emphasized its universalistic elements instead. He was in a good position to do so, since the Chisti order had flourished in multicultural India by avoiding Islamic sectarianism and embracing sincere mystics of various faiths. The Sufi custom of a close relationship between teacher (sheikh or murshid) and student (murid) was very close to that of the yogic guru and chela (disciple), and seekers in India were often attracted to great mystics regardless of their religious affiliations.
Thus the Sufism that Inayat Khan brought West accepted the love of God expressed by non-Muslims as a valid point of departure for studying Sufism. Khan was a great exponent of what Aldous Huxley called the perennial philosophy,Ӕ and went so far as to create a Universal Worship service that acknowledged the unity behind the great world religions. In his view,
There is one religion and there are many covers. Each of these covers has a name: Christianity, Buddhism, Judaism, Islam, etc., and when you take off these covers, you will find that there is one religion, and it is that religion which is the religion of the Sufi.
In addition to his Chisti background, Khan had also been trained in the three other major Sufi orders of northern India, the Naqshbandi, Qadiri, Suhrawardi. Perhaps because of his multiple lineages, Khan dispensed with the usual Sufi practice of identifying with one primary order and gave his expanding circle the generic designation The Sufi Order in the West.Ӕ After his death in 1927, his followers continued to spread his message of Sufism as the religion of the heart.Ӕ
This was the Sufism that most Westerners knew of with the exception of some Sufi poetry translated by R. A. Nicholson and A. J. Arberry ח until the arrival of Idries Shah in the sixties. Shah, whose father Ikbal Ali Shah, had immigrated to England from northern India in the twenties, first achieved some notoriety when he announced himself as a representative of the People of the Tradition,Ӕ a remote top echelon of Sufism supposedly located in the inaccessible Hindu Kush of Afghanistan.
Like Inayat Khan, Shah presented Sufism as a path transcending specific religions and adapted it to Western ways. In distinct contrast with Khan, however, he downplayed any religious or spiritual trappings and instead emphasized Sufism as a psychological technology leading to self-realization. This approach seemed especially pitched to followers of Gurdjieff, human-potential movement students, and intellectuals well versed in modern psychology. For instance, Shah wrote:
Sufism . . . states that man may become objective, and that objectivity enables the individual to grasp higherӔ facts. Man is therefore invited to push his evolution ahead towards what is sometime called in Sufism real intellect.Ӕ
Shah dismissed other forms of Sufism in both the East and West as watered-down, generalized or partial,Ӕ including not only Khans version but the overtly Muslim Sufism found in most Islamic countries. A prolific author, Shah popularized Sufi teachings stories and jokes as primary ways of imparting wisdom, and oversaw the publication of numerous reprints of translations of classic Sufi texts in English. His associates also produced a number of books that included passages implying that Shah was the ғGrand Sheikh of the Sufis, an exalted position of authority that was undercut by the failure of any other Sufis to acknowledge its existence.
In the early 1970s, Sufism entered a new phase in the West. Where previously the followers of Inayat Khan and Idries Shah had the field pretty much to themselves, now a stream of sheikhs and teachers from Turkey, North Africa, the Middle East, and even Sri Lanka began to visit or move to Europe and North America. Each formed by the Sufism of their own particular culture, these Sufis tended to promulgate teachings and practices that were more traditionally Islamic.
The Point of Sufism
The point of Sufism was not, and is not, the promulgation of organizations or of theological positions, or even of mystical poetry, no matter how universal. Rather, as in Gnosticism, at the heart of Sufism lies the cultivation of gnosis. Maԑrifa, in Arabic (or irfan in Persian), a term often translated as ѓgnosis, is the culmination of the SufiԒs quest.
Unity is the preeminent principle of Islam, and this is often interpreted as referring to the monotheistic Oneness of God or, in a slightly broader scope, the intimate relationship between God and Creation at all levels. However, for the Sufi, unity (tahwid in Arabic) is the fundamental mystical experience of reality: beneath all appearances to the contrary, the Being of God and our own being are one. We arise form God and return to God, and this truth can be experienced and known.Ӕ
Sufi practices, which can include chanting, singing, group movement or dance, or more interior meditations, are all intended to lead the student toward the experience of annihilation (fana) of the ego in God. Unlike some Eastern paths where this bliss is often an end unto itself, however, Sufism teaches that the ideal state of realization is in the descent from this exalted state in to one of subsistenceӔ (baqa), wherein the mystic maintains consciousness of this unity and of individual identity simultaneously. Baqa is often associated with sobrietyӔ meaning the ability to function unobtrusively in daily life while maintaining the ecstatic connection with the Infinite.
Neither fana nor baqa can be forced; they are ultimately given to some and not to others, by the grace of God. However, Sufism preserves a body of techniques and practices that help purify the consciousness of the seeker, leading to a state of receptivity and דnearness to God, where the spark has, perhaps, a better chance to make the leap.
Within on ongoing teacher-student relationship, a sheikh will likely give his students such individualized practices as specific numbers of prayers or Names of God to chant; meditations on subtle energy centers within the body; and tasks of service within the community. Through the studentsԒ reports of dreams and of colors and sounds experienced within meditation, as well as by personal observation, a skilled sheikh is able to track his students progress.
Over the centuries, a system of temporary inner states or more permanent ғstations on the path of illumination has been delineated, and here too the skill of the sheikh may prove crucial. Since the studentԒs original personality and habit patterns are progressively destabilized, psychological crises are likely to arise, calling for sensitivity and a sure-handed response. Sufism teaches that Gods grace or blessing (baraka) may flow through the teacher, if the spiritual bond between teacher and student is strong, helping to energize and guide the process.
Since Sufism presumes a long-term commitment on the part of its followers, with no guarantee of gnosis, part of the wisdom the student must acquire is accepting the spiritual path regardless of outcome. God is often referred to as ғthe Beloved in Sufi poetry, and the seeker is encouraged to experience a love of God, as if Allah Himself were oneԒs ravishing lover. The remembrance of God from moment to moment becomes its own reward.
Two Great Sheikhs
According to Sufi tradition, there is at any given moment on Earth one highly spiritual person (known as the PoleӔ or Qutb) who anchors the spiritual affairs of humanity. Although the disciples of the various Sufi orders and circles through the centuries have commonly considered their own master to be the Qutb of the age, still it is possible to identify certain great sheikhs as extraordinary mystics and teachers.
Jelalludin Rumi (commonly referred to as Mevlana or MasterӔ), sometimes called the Pole of Love,Ӕ was born in Balkh in 1207, in what is now Afghanistan. He traveled west across the Islamic world and eventually settled in the Anatolian city of Konya, now in central Turkey, which was at that time the capitol of the Seljuk Dynasty. Rumi is arguably the greatest Sufi poet, and his works in English translation have become immensely popular over the last twenty years.
Friends, dont be discouraged.
Compassion comes after trouble.
DonҒt put on any dress but Love
Dont cover yourself with any garment but Love. . . .
The day I met my Beloved,
I screamed, I lost my mind.
My trials to avoid guilt all disappeared.
But this is Absence inside of Presence.
This is eternal blessing.
If Love slips out of your hand
DonҒt fall into despair. Keep searching.
Fight to find it.
Until you reach Him, see Him,
Dont sleep, donҒt eat, dont relax.
In verses such as these, Rumi shows a generosity of spirit and encouragement that crosses cultural boundaries and centuries. His paeans to the Beloved work both as great love poems and as descriptions of the mystical state of annihilation.
RumiҒs mentor and master was a remarkable dervish known as Shams-i Tabriz (named for Tabriz, a great city in Persia). Shams was something of a malamati (literally someone on the path of blame,Ӕ a category of Sufis usually operating outside of formal orders who often courted criticism from others as a way to diminish their egos). Rumis followers were aghast when their teacher found ShamsҒ company more irresistible than their own. Shams provoked Rumi to now heights of mystical love, inspiring some of Rumis greatest poetry:
A soul which is not clothed
with the inner garment of Love
should be ashamed of its existence.
Be drunk with Love,
for Love is all that exists.
Where is intimacy found
if not in the give and take of Love.
If they ask what Love is,
say: the sacrifice of will.
If you have not left your will behind,
you have no will at all.
Tradition has it that RumiҒs jealous followers eventually murdered Shams, but the intensity of Rumis love for the Beloved (both as God and in the guise of Shams) has been immortalized in his works. The whirling ғturn that Rumi prescribed to his students as a form of moving meditation become one of the central practices of the Mevlevi order that was founded soon after RumiԒs death. The whirling dervishesӔ of Turkey have gone on to become possibly the most famous Sufis in the West, although, at this late date, not all public practitioners of the turnӔ are in fact active Sufis.
Muyhiddin Ibn al-Arabi (Ibn ёArabi for short) followed a path quite different from Rumis. Born in twelfth-century Moorish Spain, he traveled eastward across North Africa, eventually settling in Damascus in Syria. If Rumi, the ғPole of Love, exemplifies what is called in yoga the bhakti (devotional) approach, Ibn ԑArabi is Sufisms greatest exponent of the way of knowledge or pure consciousness and he has been called the ғPole of Knowledge or, more commonly, ԓSheikh al-Akbarє (The Greatest SheikhӔ).
Ibn Arabi, who wrote over two hundred works, had an enormous impact on the development of Sufism. He was an exponent of the philosophy known as ѓthe Unity of Being, an all-encompassing perspective that holds that Allah is the Being from which everything manifests and that the countless qualities (or ԓNames) of God are the root of all created things. The human being, as the reflection of the divine, has the capacity to experience the Names and trace his or her own consciousness back to the Source.
In Ibn ԑArabis system, GodҒs Being is both transcendent and immanent, and we are born with this innate knowledge whether we realize it or not. To truly know ones self, then, is to know God and vice versa. The whole of the universe can be found within ourselves, as Ibn ґArabi indicates in his typically dense prose: Every time that an intuitive person contemplates a form which communicates to him new knowledge which he had not been able previously to comprehend, its form will be an expression of his own essence and nothing unknown to him.Ӕ
One of Ibn Arabiђs most important teachings was that of the Perfect ManӔ (or Complete HumanӔ). (PerfectӔ is used here in the sense of perfectedӔ or complete,Ӕ not in the sense of flawless.Ӕ) Existing both as a primordial template for the human being (akin to Adam Kadmon in Jewish mysticism) and as the potential destiny of each of us, the Perfect Man has realized all of Allahs Names, or qualities, within himself. The Prophet Muhammad is perhaps the quintessential example of the Perfect Man. He represents the model of nobility, generosity, and mercy that Sufis (and all Muslims, for that matter) are urged to emulate.
In contrast to Rumi whose forte was poetry and story, Ibn ґArabi set out his rather complicated system in a series of demanding philosophical works and commentaries on the prophets, the Quran, and shariґa, the Islamic law. Although Ibn Arabi did not found a formal tariqa, or order, his ideas and realization had a seminal influence on the early masters of the Naqshbandi order, on the Shadhili and Qadari orders, and on numerous others. In addition, lines of ѓAkbari teaching (a name derived from Ibn ԑArabis title ғSheikh Al-Akbar) and oral traditions survived the centuries.
The Status of Women
Interestingly, Sufism has attracted as many women as men in the West, if not more. At first glance this might not seem to make sense, since the Islamic matrix within which Sufism operates is popularly considered to be male-dominated. Yet if we look beneath the surface, there is a logic to its attractiveness for women.
In emphasizing SufismԒs universal aspects and downplaying its Islamic roots, Hazrat Inayat Khan and Idries Shah successfully disengaged their versions of Sufism from the cultural restraints that had previously shaped Sufism in traditional Islamic cultures. While Islam as originally promulgated by the Prophet actually widened womens options in Arabic society and brought them far more respect than they had enjoyed before, this liberating impulse was increasingly reined in over succeeding generations as cultural norms reasserted themselves. Thus exoteric Islam tended to support traditional gender roles and a strong family life as stabilizing forces within Islamic civilization.
Freed of those restraints in the modern West, Sufism was able to unfold as a path equally open to men or women. Sufism had always had its share of women saints ғsheikhahs, and disciples ԗ two of Ibn Arabiђs most important teachers were women, for instance although they tended to be segregated within the sphere of women, out of the public eye. Western Sufism had significantly altered that custom.
Thus, after Inayat Khanגs death, his North American successor was a woman, Rabia Martin, and Idries Shahs sister, Amina Shah, achieved some prominence as an anthologizer of Sufi stories and folk takes. Irina Tweedie emerged as a teacher in the ғGolden Sufi tradition, and exponents of the Mevlevi way in North America have pioneered the practice of male and female dervishes performing the whirling ԓturn together. Samuel L. Lewis (ԓSufi Sam) created what have become known as the Dances of Universal Peace (sometimes labeled ԓSufi dancing), which were open to both men and women. In a sense, as it had in other cultures, such as Turkey or India, Sufism in the West accommodated itself to the local norms.
Moreover, with its emphasis on the heart and God as the Beloved, Sufism has always fostered qualities that have traditionally been considered feminine. As such, it helped balance the more overtly masculine qualities within Muslim cultures. (This pattern has been shared by other esoteric and mystical currents in relation to their surrounding cultures.) However, it may only be in modern times that this aspect of Sufism has reached its fullest potential.
In Defense of Tradition
No survey of contemporary Sufism is complete without a mention of one of the most influential currents in esoteric spiritual studies: Traditionalism. Here we mean not just the general idea of defending or preserving traditions, but a specific metaphysical outlook that was first delineated by a Frenchman named Renԩ Gunon.
Gunon was born in 1886 and raised a Catholic. Early in life he developed an aversion to both the West and modernism. In 1911, in the midst of a period of delving into Theosophy, Masonry, and other esoteric and occult teachings, he was initiated into a Sufi tariqa under the leadership of an Egyptian sheikh, Abder Rahman Elish El-Kebir, who had been trained in the teachings of Ibn 驑Arabi.
Gunon moved to Egypt in 1930 and formally embraced Islam. But well before this, he had already begun to develop an outlook based on pure metaphysics, independent of any single religious system. This outlook has come to be known as Traditionalism.
The Traditionalist perspective holds that all revealed religions are relatively true, united beneath their cultural differences by universal metaphysical truths. This may sound similar to Hazrat Inayat Khans teachings; Gu钩non, however, held that it was necessary for the seeker to align with one of the revealed religions and channel his or her efforts within its laws and rituals. This has come to be distilled in the Traditionalist slogan No esotericism without exotericism.Ӕ
The rigor of Gunons thought attracted other thinkers such as Ananda K. Coomaraswamy, Frithjof Schuon, Titus Burckhardt, and Marco Pallis, who expanded on Gu钩nons perspective in their own writings, both before and after Guҩnons death in 1951. In due course, Martin Lings and Seyyed Hossein Nasr joined the Traditionalist camp and came to prominence as exponents of Sufism to Western readers.
The impact of Traditionalism has been felt most strongly in academic circles, with Nasr in particular influencing the course of Islamic studies in the West. Huston SmithҒs works, such as Forgotten Truth, reflect Traditionalist ideas and in many ways are the most accessible presentation of that perspective.
The seeker who feels inclined to undertake further investigation into Sufism or Islam has several options, none of them entirely satisfactory. First, we would suggest reading a selection of books about Sufism and the mystics of Islam, to acquaint oneself with the vocabulary and conceptual framework within which Sufism operates. The universal poetry of love and devotion is a good starting place, but behind this accessible exterior one soon discovers Arabic names, Quranic verses, and anecdotes from other times and cultures that will probably be unfamiliar and require a bit of study.
Recent years have seen a proliferation of local groups across North America attached to various Sufi orders. In any large American city, there are likely several different orders that can be visited in a spirit of sincere inquiry. We would suggest seeking out at least two or three in order to taste the different approaches and styles. There is no need to make a hasty decision to join or affiliate with one particular group, although some eager initiates might encourage you to do so.
A far better approach than diving in head first is to strike up a friendship with a student of Sufism who seems both approachable and knowledgeable. If he or she in turn can refer you to another friend who works with a different order or teacher, so much the better. Despite what some enthusiasts will say, no one order is the best for everyone, and it is not necessary to affiliate oneself with any order during initial investigations. It is far more important to discover a teacher or friend who exhibits those qualities that one would like to foster in oneself. The interaction with such a mentor is the best basis for studying Sufism.
Special care needs to be taken in ғtaking hand (undergoing initiation and pledging allegiance) with a sheikh. Sadly, many sheikhs seem more interested in building organizations and perpetuating the ethnocentric idiosyncrasies with which they grew up than in encouraging the spiritual growth of individual students. If you feel a special affinity with Turkish or Persian or Arabic culture, then immersing yourself in that culture might be an attractive point of departure. However, it is easy to get lost in the minutiae of an adopted culture only to wake up years later with the realization that the work of Sufism has barely begun.
Some Sufi teachers, themselves the product of training within the traditions of particular tariqas, have come to the conclusion that the era of the orders is rapidly passing. They point to the phenomenon of self-aggrandizing sheikhs with hundreds or thousands of followers ԗ many of whom are lucky to spend ten minutes a year in the personal company of their master as evidence of the degeneration of Sufism. In their view, the organizational hierarchy that such groups perpetuate nearly eliminates the possibility for the subtle interplay and guidance between teacher and student which is the crucial component of Sufi instruction. They suggest that it is better to forgo the formal role of sheikh and student altogether, to be replaced by the synergy between דfriends, than to build more institutional castles in the sky.
This is a controversial view, but the would-be student of Sufism would do well to give it serious consideration. There is still vital work being done within orders, to be sure, but the way of the formal Sufi order is not the only option.
Must one become a Muslim in order to pursue Sufism? Historically, it is an acknowledged fact that some sheikhs living in areas shared by several religions had Christian and Jewish students who maintained the religions into which they were born. Similarly, as mentioned before, some sheikhs in multicultural India had Hindu disciples. Islam counsels respect for all ԓreligions of the book, that is, revealed religions with sacred scriptures that ultimately point to one God. This allows for a fair amount of latitude if a teacher is so inclined.
Yet the fact remains that the vocabulary and theological underpinnings of Sufism are Islamic. The Prophet Muhammad is regarded as the exemplar par excellence of the Sufi path, and the founding sheikh of every Sufi order was a Muslim. Sufi teachings commonly interweave sayings of the Prophet, QurԒanic verses, and Islamic prayers in Arabic amidst the haunting poetry and mischievous anecdotes and teaching tales. Unless one feels at least some basic resonance with Islam, the pursuit of Sufism may not be a good idea.
Above all else, Sufis prize sincerity, and one approaching a teacher with an open heart and sincere intent is not likely to be turned away. On the other hand, if ones participation in a group zhikr (a series of chanted prayers) is to be anything more than the mere mouthing of Arabic words, the heartfelt chanting of ғLa ilaha ill Allah (common to most zhikrs) means that one has internalized the most basic declaration of Islamic faith.
Whether embracing Islam in this simple fashion implies the necessity of following every jot and tittle of shariԑa (Islamic law) remains a matter of some dispute. Some sheikhs view strict adherence to sharia as a crucial building block for spiritual growth, while others take local cultural norms and individual studentsђ circumstances into account and try to discern what aspects of sharia are most relevant to each stage of spiritual growth.
The Present Challenge
A truly Western approach to Sufism remains embryonic. The sheer variety of the orders and groups that have come West is testimony to the way in which Sufism has accommodated itself to those cultures in the past. However, to advocate the slavish reproduction of particular Sufi centers ї Turkish tekkes, Iranian khanaqahs, or Moroccan zawiyas in North America or Western Europe betrays the dynamic creativity that has always characterized the essence of Sufism.
While Sufism is rightfully proud of the unbroken chain of saints and masters though whom its teachings and methods have been passed, every worthwhile teacher has met the challenge of finding new ways to present that heritage within the context of their time and place. To their credit, both Hazrat Inayat Khan and Idries Shah confronted this challenge and developed unique responses to it. But if Sufism is to survive today as a living tradition of mysticism in the West, it will further require the spiritual דopening of homegrown Sufis who have scaled its heights and returned to daily life in this culture, able to convey to a skeptical world the reality of illumination and gnosis.
Yasar Nuri Ԗztrk. The Eye of the Heart. Istanbul: Redhouse, 1988.
This fine little book provides authoritative information on the northern쓔 Sufi orders of Turkey and the Balkans; has numerous historical plates, many in color; and is translated into good clear English.
Inayat Khan and Coleman Barks. The Hand of Poetry: Five Mystic Poets of Persia. New Lebanon: Omega Publications, 1993.
A new collection of poems form five of the most eloquent poetic voices of Sufi mysticism. Saadi, Rumi, Hafiz, Attar, and Sanai, all represented I contemporary translations that read quite nicely. The accompanying talks by Inayat Khan provide an introduction both to the poets and to Khans own style of poetic discourse.
Field, Reshad. The Last Barrier and The Invisible Way. Rockport: Element, 1993.
Slightly fictionalized and quite romantic, these two autobiographical books are delightful accounts of the authorҒs encounter with Sufism. The Last Barrier in particular can arouse a strong desire to fly off to a Turkey that is rapidly disappearing.
Hilmi, Ahmet. Awakened Dreams. Translated by Refik Algan and Camille Helminski. Putney: Threshold Books, 1993.
This book is a modern classic Sufi teaching text written in Turkey at the turn of the century. Marvelous allegorical stories trace the seekers quest. The translation is extremely elegant and flowing.
Arasteh, A. Reza. Growth to Selfhood: SufiҒs Contribution to Islam. New York: Arkana, 1990.
This short book lucidly relates Sufi teachings about the psyche to the concepts of modern psychotherapy. The author writes both as a psychiatrist and a student of Sufism, combining personal anecdotes with historical background and observations on human creativity.
Helminski, Kabir. Living Presence. New York: J. P. Tarcher/Perigee, 1992.
In careful, measured prose, Helminski leads the reader into the practice of self-observation and heightened awareness associated with the Sufi path. There is some overlap with Fourth Way work, with which Helminski is also familiar.
Idries Shah. The Sufis. Garden City: Anchor/Doubleday, 1971.
This is an extremely readable and wide-ranging introduction to Sufism. Shahs own slant is evident throughout, and some historical assertions are debatable (none are footnoted), but no other book is a successful as this one in provoking interest in Sufism for the general reader.
ShahҒs Learning How to Learn (New York: Penguin/Arkana, 1996), is a collection of interviews, talks and short writings. It is one of his best and provides a solid orientation to his psychologicalӔ approach to the Sufi work. At his best Shah provides insights that inoculate the student against much of the nonsense in the spiritual marketplace.
Schimmel, Annemarie. Mystical Dimensions of Islam. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1975.
An authoritative and wide-ranging investigation of the history and teachings of Sufism. If one were to read only one in-depth book providing an overview of Sufism, this would be the leading candidate. Schimmel writes as both a scholar and a sympathizer who resonates with the Sufi work.
Nasr, Seyyed Hossein. Islamic Spirituality. 2 vols. New York: Crossroad, 1987, 1991.
These two hefty collections of scholarly essays are truly encyclopedic in their coverage of the doctrines and details of Islamic Sufism. The writing is generally clear and authoritative, and the selection of contributors is salutary.
Ibn Arabi, Muhyiddin. The Kernel of the Kernel. Interpreted by Ismail Hakki Brusevi. Sherborne, Gloucestershire, England: Beshara Publications, n.d.
Possibly the most profound mystic and philosopher to ever walk the path of Sufism, Ibn ёArabi is also the most distinguished proponent of the metaphysics of the Unity of Being.Ӕ Considerable familiarity with Sufi and Islamic concepts and vocabulary is crucial to penetrating his message. This book represents the most concise presentation of his mystical teachings.
Schuon, Frithjof. The Essential Writings of Frithjof Schuon. Edited by Seyyed Hossein Nasr. Rockport: Element Books, 1991.
The most prominent traditionalist since Gunon, Schuon delivers metaphysical declarations as if from on high. Once past that stylistic challenge however, there is much to be gained from aquatinting oneself with his wide-ranging writings, which cover everything form the nature of religion to aesthetics and epistemology.
Schuons Understanding Islam (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1981) is one of his most readable books, full of startling insights into Islam from an esoteric perspective.
Copyright and Permitted Usage
钩 1999 by Jay Kinney. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission of the author from Hidden Wisdom: A Guide to the Western Inner Traditions (New York: Arkana / Penguin, 1999). You may print out one copy of this article for personal use, but it may not otherwise be reproduced or distributed.
Further material on Sufism can be found in issue #30 of Gnosis Magazine. For more information see: http://www.gnosismagazine.com/issue_contents/contents30.html.