The WHAT'S NEW! page contains the latest medical updates. If you're wondering how I'm going as far as health is concerned, this is the place to start. Latest: Wed 27 Nov 2013. 7.20AM

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Learning from the Sufis

(NOTE: Please be aware that this is a longer posting than normal. They are very rarely this long, but I think you will enjoy it nevertheless, if you have a little more time and stamina than my postings usually demand. At least, read some of the little stories embedded in it!)

The Sufi philosophy has always been the bridge between Islam and the religions of the East. In that sense, the contribution of the Sufis to worldly and esoteric wisdom has been enormous, but only to those who appreciate the connection. It helped to link the mystical forms of the three Semitic religions – Judaism, Christianity and Islam – with that of Hinduism, Buddhism, Daoism (Taoism) and Zen.

I wrote this article originally for a coffee-table journal called Hemisphere, which long ago succumbed to Australian Government funding cuts. You would still be able to find it in the main libraries round the country, though no doubt a bit tatty!

Oddly perhaps, I think this is one of the most satisfying articles of mine that was ever published. Even if you don't read my explanation, do read the Sufi stories, many of which are self-explanatory.

“Learning from the Sufis,” Hemisphere, vol. 26 no. 4, Jan-Feb 1982, pp. 194-199.

Learning from the Sufis - Truth without form

Divine knowledge is so profound that it is really known only to those who have it. A child has no understanding of the attainment of an adult. In exactly the same way, an educated man cannot yet understand the attainments of the Sufis.

This is but one small gem of wisdom from the twelfth century philosopher and Sufi, El‑Ghazali. Sufi sayings, stories, aphorisms and parables abound with enormous insight and perception, yet little is known about Sufism in the west, and what is known is generally misunderstood. It may extend to mental pictures of 'whirling dervishes' dancing themselves into some state of religious frenzy, or to the tricksters and frauds so amusingly portrayed in James Morier's Hajji Baba of Isphahan. Neither of these conceptions has very much to do with Sufi wisdom, the brilliance of which comes through the surviving literature handed down, not only from the great masters, such as Jalaludin Rumi, Omar Khayyam and Kahim Jami, but un‑named and shadowy illuminates who avoided rather than sought fame.

The Sufis are known by many names, such as Dervishes, Qadris, People of Truth and the Masters. Sufism developed out of Islamic unorthodoxy, but is based firmly on the essence of the Qur'an (Koran). Because of this, its terminology is familiar to the Jews and Christians as well, while its concepts are similar to Hindu Vedanta or Buddhism. 

Its links with the former are exemplified beautifully in the following parable:

The true seed was made in Adam's time. The miracle of life, existence.
It germinated in the period of Noah. The miracle of growth, rescue.
By the time of Abraham it had sent forth branches.
The miracle of spreading, maintenance.
The epoch of Moses saw the making of the grapes.
The miracle of fruit.
The time of Jesus was that of the ripening of the yield. The miracle of tasting, joy.
Muhammad's time saw the pressing of clear wine.
The miracle of attainment, transformation.

Sufism calls itself 'truth without form'. The problem with organised religion, says the Sufi, is that it has become empty of meaning through reliance on hollow ritual:

Cross and Christians, end to end, I examined. He was not on the Cross. I went to the Hindu temple, to the ancient pagoda. In none of them was there any sign … I went to the Kaaba of Mecca. He was not there … I looked into my own heart. In that place, I saw him. He was in no other place.

Yet the Sufis recognised that many of the earlier religious teachers were great sages imbued with all the best Sufi qualities. The behaviour of Jesus, for example, has been used to instruct Sufi disciples, as may be seen in a story related to Attar:

Some Israelites reviled Jesus one day as he was walking through their part of the town, but his only answer was to repeat prayers for them.
'Why do you pray for these men; don't you feel angry with them?' he was asked.
He answered, 'I could spend only of what I had in my purse.'

As it comes through the literature, Sufism is in the mainstream of mystical philosophy, and thus has close ties with the mysticism of Hinduism, Buddhism and Christianity. Contrary to popular belief, pure mysticism has nothing to do with visions, telepathy, telekinesis, witchcraft or the occult, but is a direct experience of reality unfettered by words and ideas and symbols. It is not just an altered state of consciousness, but a state of total consciousness of which our present consciousness is just a part. 

In the religious sense, it is the point at which communion with an Ultimate Truth, or 'God' (or, in the Sanskrit terminology, attainment of moksha, or nirvana) is possible. 

This gives its message a universal character, and some of the aphorisms are as familiar to Hindus or Buddhists as they are to Christians or Muslims:

Love becomes perfect only when it transcends itself —
Becoming One with its object;
Producing Unity of Being.

The Chinese Taoist warning about the essence of Truth is that those who say, don't know; those who know, don't say. Rumi echoes this epithet in his own version:

Whenever the Secrets of Perception are taught to anyone,
His lips are sewn against the speaking of the Consciousness.

In other words, mystical awareness has to be experienced directly, not described in words.

One of the delights of Sufi stories and sayings, apart from their incisiveness, is their wonderful humour and liveliness, yet every story has at least one important point to make. One such story comes from the Chishti order of Sufis, and warns against the danger of accepting the word of so‑called experts:

A man was believed to have died, and after being put in a coffin, was about to be lowered into his grave when he revived. 'He must be dead,' said the mourners, 'because he has been pronounced so by competent experts.'
'But look, you can see I'm alive,' gasped the man'
A well known lawyer faced the crown of mourners.
'Now, you have heard what the alleged deceased has had to say, but what do you regard as being true?'
'He is dead,' said the mourners.
'The bury him,' said the lawyer. 
And so he was buried.
(It's all right - it's just a story!)

Apart from instances such as this, Sufi sayings make constant reference to academics who are full of their own knowledge and importance but have never mastered real wisdom:

He who has self‑conceit in his head —
Do not imagine that he will ever hear the truth.

And with grim jest:

Give money to the scholars so that they may study more.
Give nothing to the recluses, so that they may remain recluses.

Nevertheless, the recluse can be trapped in selfishness as well, when mortification or austerities become the fulfilment of a desire; a form of self‑indulgence:

He has established himself on a mountain
So he has no Work to do.
A man should be at the market‑place
While still working at the true Reality.

First there is knowledge. Then there is asceticism.
Then there is the knowledge that comes from asceticism.
The ultimate 'knower' is worth a hundred thousand ascetics.

Nor are the greatest sages necessarily those who are most well known, and we are reminded of this by El‑Ghazali:

If someone is saving me from a fierce lion, what do I care whether my saviour is an unknown or a celebrity?
Why must people seek knowledge from celebrities?

Apart from a deep mistrust by Sufis of 'experts', the story about burying the live man illustrates another favourite Sufi theme; that truth is readily available to those who are prepared to face it directly. Another story is this vein recounts that one Sufi master was teaching his disciples, 'Whoever keeps knocking at the door finds that the door will be opened to him.' A greater sage, Rumi, overheard this teacher preaching, and gently chided him, 'Why do you say, "It will be opened?" The door has never been shut!' 

But the process of attaining one's salvation is an inward process, which is illustrated by a tale with a slightly different twist:

A man went to the door of the Beloved and knocked.
A voice asked, 'Who is there?'
He answered, 'It is I'.
The voice said, 'There is no room here for me and thee'.
The door was shut. After a year of solitude and depreivation, the man returned to the door of the Beloved. He knocked. A voice from within asked, 'Who is there?' The man said, 'It is Thou'.
The door was opened for him.

Truth, or God, or Ultimate Reality is beyond all conceptualising, and this statement is often repeated in Sufism, as it also is in the Indian religions. 'What appears to be truth is a worldly distortion of objective truth.' 'The essence of truth is beyond the terminology of "How?" and "Why?"' Sufism is concerned with the self — the real self which is obscured by mundane personality. Salvation is achieved by turning inwards, towards the self which is hidden, and realising that self as the centre of one's being. 

Once again, this is a theme very familiar to Indian religion, and it is little wonder that, when the Sufis came to India during the Islamic invasions of medieval times, the Hindus found the Sufi ways and ideas to be quite familiar. 

India already had its tradition of the wandering ascetic, the guru, and the mystical philosophy of man's oneness with the ultimate reality. Likewise:

Sufism teaches how to purify one's self, improve one's morals and build up one's inner and outer life in order to attain perpetual bliss. Its subject matter is purification of the soul and its end or aim is the attainment of eternal felicity or blessedness. It is the emptying of the heart of all things other than the search for completion. This resembles a visualisation that the body is empty, and that all thoughts have left it for a moment, during which time true thoughts flood in.

Hindus and Buddhism will readily identify these notions with yoga, or meditation. 

An instructive story on this idea of self comes from Shibli, who was asked how he became a Sufi. He said that it was a dog which had shown him the way. The animal was standing by a pool, almost dying of thirst, but afraid to drink because he saw his own reflection in the water and thought it was another dog:

Finally, such as he necessity, that he cast away fear and leapt into the water, at which the 'other dog' vanished. The dog found that the obstacle, which was himself, the barrier between him and what he sought, melted away. In this same way, said Shibli, my own obstacle vanished, when I knew that it was what I took to be my own self. And my Way was first shown to me by the behaviour of — a dog.

The Sufi, or perfected man, has no need of possessions, for he sees them as an obstacle to salvation. There are two very good illustrations of this point. 

The first concerns a follower of Junaid, who came to him with five hundred gold coins, which he proudly presented to Junaid. 

The Sufi surprised the disciple by asking him if he had any more money. 'Yes,' said the disciple. 'And do you wnat more?' asked Junaid. 'I do,' said the man. 'Then you'd better take this back,' said Junaid, 'because I have none and I want none, while you have a lot and want more. You need it more than I do.' 

The second story illustrates a further point that the disciple can teach his master a lesson, and that genuine humility is a virtue.

A Sufi once said to his disciples, 'I put my confidence in God and went through all my travels with only a small coin in my pocket, and the coin is still with me'. One of the youths asked, 'If you had a coin in your pocket, how could you say that you relied upon anything higher?'
The Sufi thought for a moment, and then said humbly: 'You are quite right. When you rely on God, there is no place for anything, however small, as a provision.'

A rather touching story about a Sufi's lack of concern for self or possessions concerns a thief, who was disappointed, on entering a Sufi's dwelling, to find nothing to steal. Perceiving his disappointment, the Sufi threw him the blanket in which he had been sleeping, so that he would not go away empty‑handed. 

But the most moving tale about the power of proper humility to enlighten concerns Osman El‑Hiri, who was asked to dinner by a malicious man:

When the sheikh arrived, the man drove him away. But when he had gone not more than a few steps, he called him back again. This happened more than thirty times, until the other man, overcome by the Sufi's patience and gentleness (as he took it to be) broke down and begged his forgiveness.
'You don't understand,' said El‑Hiri, 'What I did was no more than a trained dog would do. When you call him, he comes. When you shoo him, he goes away. This behaviour is no mark of a Sufi, and not a difficult thing to do.'

Just as Shakespeare often used the Fool to pass the most accurate judgment on what was happening around the King, the Sufi often used the wisdom of the insane to gain an insight into truth. 

Sanity in any case is, like beauty, in the eye of the beholder; and truth, as we normally understand it, is a relative matter, as is shown by this lively tale:

A certain wise man was widely reputed to have become irrational in his presentation of facts and arguments, so it was decided that he should be tested, in order that the authorities could decide whether he was sane or not.
On the day of the test, he paraded past the court room on a donkey, facing the rear of the animal. When the time came for him to speak for himself, he asked the judges; 'When you saw me just now, on the donkey, which way was I facing?'
The judges said, 'Facing the wrong way'.
'You illustrate my point,' he answered, 'for I was facing the right way, from one point of view. It was the donkey which was facing the wrong way!'

Although many accounts from West Asia relate tales of trickery and guile of false dervishes (Sufis), there was another problem which affected the good reputation fo the Sufis. This was the proliferation in numbers of the many would-be Sufis who thought they were sages themselves, and who were inflicting their misguided teachings upon others, thus distorting the truth of Sufism through their ignorance. 

An amusing illustration of this concerns a dervish, who one day noticed a devil sitting quietly next to him. 'Why aren't you out making mischief?' asked the Sufi. 'Isn't that what you are supposed to be doing?' The devil sighted wearily. 'Now that there are so many theoreticians and would‑be teachers of the Path around, there is nothing left for me to do!'

The insight available to the ancient mystics, whether from the east or west, is a startling revelation about the nature of man and the universe. We are accustomed to crediting modern science with discoveries is psychology, evolution, and the nature of matter and energy. Yet there is ample evidence (in the ancient Indian texts, for example) that 'modern' conceptions in these fields are as old as mysticism itself, and have been arrived at by what can only be described as an intuitive process.

The Sufi literature of eight hundred years ago also reveals these insights:

Originally, you were clay. From being mineral, you became vegetable. From vegetable, you became animal, and from animal, man. During these periods man did not know where he was going, but he was being taken on a long journey nevertheless. And you have to go through a hundred different worlds yet. (Rumi)

Crack the heart of any atom: from its midst you will see a sun shining. If you give all you have to Love, you will not suffer a molecule of loss. The soul passed through the fire of Love will let you see the soul transmuted. If you escape the narrowness of dimensions, and will see the 'time of what is placeless', you will hear what has never been heard and you will see what has never been seen; until they deliver you to a place where you will see 'a world' and 'worlds' as one. You shall love Unity with heart and soul; until, with the true eye, you will see Unity. … (Sayed Ahmad Hatif)

It is notable here that the unity of all things is emphasised once again, and this is always the perception of the mystic. The artificial distinctions which are made in the normal level or channel of consciousness are cast aside, so that pure perception is possible. Was it such awareness as this which enabled Ibn el‑Arabi around 1200 AD to remark that thinking man was probably forty thousand years old? It's a conservative estimate by modern standards, but extraordinary in the face of a belief that humans were created by God so much later!

The psychological aspect of Sufi wisdom is demonstrated by the many stories which tell of the various ways the masters instruct their disciples. Sufi knowledge is usually passed on from master to disciple, with the master determining the most suitable way for a pupil to understand, according to the personality and temperament of the latter. The 'masters' (amongst whom were women, whose voices were heard) rarely taught more than a handful of disciples at one time, and often the relationship was one to one. 

A large number of stories relate not only a variety of teaching methods, but also distinguish between genuine and unsuitable pupils. Yet others illustrate that a particular person may require the sort of 'shock treatment' sometimes used in Zen Buddhism:

One day a man came to the great teacher Bahaudin, asking for spiritual guidance. Bahaudin told him to abandon spiritual studies, and to leave his court at once.
A kind‑hearted visitor began to remonstrate with Bahaudin.
'You shall have a demonstration,' said the sage.
At that moment, a bird flew into the room, darting hither and thither, not knowing where to go to escape. The Sufi waited till the bird settled near the window, and then suddenly clapped his hands. Alarmed, the bird flew straight out of the window, to freedom.
'To the bird that sound must have been something of a shock; even an affront — don't you agree?' said Bahaudin.

The stories which have served as illustrations here represent only a minute fraction of the literature available, much of which is contained in longer tales and discourses. But no account could be classed as even vaguely representative without some examples of Sufi aphorisms, which so often deliver a striking insight into truth. Here are just a few of them.

        People oppose things because they are ignorant of them.

Speed, which becomes a virtue when it is found in a horse, by itself has no advantages.

You possess only whatever will be lost in a shipwreck.

I have never seen a man most who was on a straight path.

Child, look for no reward from A,
If you are working in the house of B.

Make no friendship with an elephan keeper,
If you have no room to entertain an elephant.

Tie two birds together.
They will not now be able to fly, even though they now have four wings.

Self‑justification is worse than the original offence.

Sinning against God is one thing; but sinning against man is worse.

The candle is not there to illuminate itself.

We wrote you a hundred letters, and you did not write an answer.
This too, is a reply.

The appeal of Sufism is its universality. It relates to every civilisation, every religion, and every epoch in human history. All attempts to categorise it inevitably break down if the standard criteria for religion are applied. Like yoga or meditation, it does not fit neatly into philosophy, or religion; its discipline rises above attempts at definition. But its essence is always present in the words of the sages, and there is no more perfect example of this than the dictum passed down by Ibn el‑Arabi:

There are three forms of knowledge. The first is intellectual knowledge, which is in fact only information and the collection of facts, and the use of these to arrive at further intellectual concept. This is intellectualism.
Second comes the knowledge of states, which includes both emotional feeling and strange states of being in which man thinks he has perceived something supreme but cannot avail himself o it. This is emotionalism.
Third comes real knowledge, which is called Knowledge of Reality. In this form, man can perceive what is right, what is true, beyond the boundaries of thought and sense.
Scholastics and scientists concentrate upon the first form of knowledge. Emotionalists and experientalists use the second form. Others use the two combined, or either one alternatively.
But the people who attain the truth are those who know how to connect themselves with the reality which lies beyond both these forms of knowledge. These are the real Sufis, the Dervishes who have Attained.


  1. I once wrote a paper comparing fana in Sufism to pure consciousness in the Zen tradition. My thesis was that the two experiences were the same but arrived at in independent traditions, hence were not culturally conditioned states of mind.

    I got a very low mark because the lecturer stated that the mystical experience in Sufism originally derived from Hinduism as taught in Persia. Hence, the state achieved was culturally determined by Hindu texts and teachings, as passed on to Buddhism and on to Zen. Therefore they were not independently arrived at states of pure consciousness. He did not accept that consciousness could be experienced without thought, i.e. without being culturally conditioned.

    Denis, I wish you would have marked my paper.

    I give you an HD, with one comment. Fana, as the experience desired during the Sema performance, i.e. the whirling dance, is not a state of frenzy, but a state of silence and emptiness. One mutual friend of ours engaged prematurely in the Sema and had a terrifying negative mystical experience, leading to a kind of breakdown.

    Fana/pure consciousness can be terrifying if you are not prepared for it. I know of several people who have been frightened by it and did not continue with the practice that led them to it. Pity.

  2. I find your assessor's comments and grade utterly appalling. Cultural conditioning is irrelevant. What he said, in effect, was that laughter isn't universal just because we don't always laugh at the same things. Or music isn't universal. Or art.

    I agree with you about 'frenzy'. As you see, I said, "It may extend to mental pictures of 'whirling dervishes' dancing themselves into some state of religious frenzy" but that may be someone else's mental picture. On the contrary, the dances I've seen are beautifully controlled, elegant even. Quite extraordinary.

    I can't comment on our friend's experience of fana but I would guess there was an underlying condition that set off the negativity.

    Thanks for the comment and the HD! Great minds give each other HDs - agreement's a powerful thing. :)

  3. Carl and I were so lucky to be invited to a Sema ritual in Konya, Turkey. Of course, you can't get much closer than that to the real thing, given that's Rumi's burial location. We also saw his "tomb". Very lush, extravagant, and glittering with lustrous paint and jewels.

    Yes, I wonder what causes a negative mystical experience. I have another acquaintance with a similar problem, and who has been on medication since her experience about 35 years ago. Another person I know of had such an experience, the first and only time she ever meditated, and was so terrified she went on to become an alcoholic.

    The "cultural conditioning" interpretation is still prevalent in philosophical circles. Somehow because the concept of pure consciousness is not logical, therefore anyone who claims the experience is mistaken, and hundreds and thousands of years of texts and practices are misguided. Now that's hubris.


Some iPads simply refuse to post responses. I have no idea why, but be aware of this.
Word verification has been enabled because of an avalanche of spam. SAVE or compose a long comment elsewhere before posting; don’t lose it! View in Preview mode first before trying to post.

Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.