The Way of the Sufi
What do Shakespeare, Roger Bacon, Chaucer and Dante have in common? Is there anything connecting Hindu philosophy, Kabbalah knowledge, the teachings of Rosicrucianism and Freemasonry, and Japanese Zen stories? In The Way of the Sufi, Idries Shah suggests that these were all influenced by a body of teaching now given the name Sufism. Usually understood as the more mystical and personal dimension of Islam, the author makes a case that Sufi wisdom goes back well beyond the era of Muhammad, possibly to the time of Hermes in ancient Egypt.
Shah's many books expanded awareness of Sufi philosophy and writings in the West, and The Way of the Sufi is perhaps his best known work. An enjoyable introduction to the subject, it includes brief portraits of well-known Islamic figures he believed to be Sufi masters, including Ghazzali of Persia, Omar Khayyam of Rubaiyat fame, Attar of Nishapur (author of Conference of the Birds ), Ibn El-Arabi of Spain, Saadi of Shiraz (author of The Rose Garden), Hakim Sanai and Jalaludin Rumi (author of the famous Masnavi, or Couplets of Inner Meaning). The four main Sufi orders, including the Chishti, Qadiri, Suhrawardi and Naqshbandi, are also described.
The work's real power, however, is an anthology of hundreds of Sufi or dervish tales, riddles and sayings which could take a lifetime to fully appreciate and understand.
The de-conditioned mind
The paradox of Sufism is that although it is usually described as mystical, its purpose is to increase the store of rational truth in the world. Sufis, Shah says, have throughout history been behind many advances in science and philosophy. The theory of evolution was foreshadowed in many early Sufi writings, a fact which until the 19th century had been considered 'fanciful nonsense' by Western Orientalists. The same applies to knowledge of the atom and physics.
There are several possible origins of the word 'Sufi' from Arabic, Greek and Hebrew, but Shah asserts that its etymology is not tied to a particular language but created simply for the sound of the letters, S U F, and their effect on the brain. This gives a hint of the Sufi masters' deep knowledge of how the brain works, and indeed it is their insights into psychology and the human condition that we find most valuable today.
Sufi writings going back to the 12th and 13th centuries speak of certain psychological states and procedures that were only 'discovered' in the 20th century by the likes of Freud and Jung. Shah notes that 'eight hundred years before Pavlov', Ghazzali highlighted the question of conditioning or indoctrination, which was the enemy of genuine spirituality. Most people were not independent because they accepted beliefs given to them without much question; in religion they did not seek real enlightenment, but security.
The Way of the Sufi is not to get bogged down in believing that one religion or philosophy is the truth (this is simply 'conditioning'), but to develop an openness which frees you to be able to reconcile opposing parties and ideas. However, most people feel comfortable within 'religion' because it keeps them within the walls of their own thinking and habits, never tasting the freedom that exists beyond.
Levels of knowing
The author discusses the study of Sufism as a 'cultural' or 'religious' movement, yet contends that it possible to engage in academic research and still come away with nothing meaningful from the effort. He quotes the Sufi master Saadi of Shiraz: "The learned man who only talks will never/Penetrate to the inner heart of man." Sufi wisdom can't be gained from mere scholarship, which is why its form of teaching has always been through stories, legends, riddles and jokes. Like the Japanese koan, it aims to shock or surprise the mind into a sudden realization of wisdom.
The great mystic and poet Rumi said that his poems were so much rubbish compared with the actual self-development of the individual. Academic appreciation of art, literature and religion were all very well, but these could only be aids to the greater task of attaining Sufihood. Ibn El-Arabi told followers that there were three forms of knowledge: intellectual, or the collection of facts; knowledge of states, or having a 'spiritual feeling'; and knowledge of the true Reality which underlies everything. About this third form he wrote:
"Of this there is no academic proof in the world;
For it is hidden, hidden, and hidden."
Shah includes a short and simple quotation from one Ibn El-Jalali which sums up the beyond-religion, beyond-academic nature of this wisdom: "Sufism is truth without form."
The way of Sufism
Today there are many Sufi organizations existing within Islam, but Sufi teachings have always played down the importance of formal structures, including organized religion, instead placing the development of the individual before all else. It is this emphasis on truth before form, on the personal above the institutional, that has allowed Sufi ideas to repeatedly crop up through history.
Sufism acknowledges that people have different capacities to understand esoteric and mystical learning, and its writings commonly have several layers so that different readers will learn at the level appropriate to them. Jalaludin Rumi knew that people loved poetry, so his beautiful poems were like the honey that attracted the bee, but he embedded in them deeper ideas. He noted: 'You get out of it what is in it for you'.
Genuine Sufis do not seek to transcend the culture in which they live, Shah notes, but work through the language, customs, prejudices, even religion of a place in order to have maximum effect. This camouflaged method of instruction accounts for its enduring influence.
Many Sufi stories try to show that the only real wealth a person can have is their knowledge and wisdom; everything else is ephemeral. The Sufi student does not wish to become wedded to dogma, but seeks to have their eyes opened to truth in whatever form it arises.
Sufism tries to show us that what we think is important may be just a façade, that seen from another level of thinking the fundamentals of your life can easily be swept away. To some, this makes Sufi ideas dangerous and unorthodox. Yet the Sufi ideal is the 'completed' person who has seen to the heart of truth, and from this vantage point is able to see the vanities and blinkered vision of the majority.
Even a dabbler in Sufi writings, although they can seem obscure and difficult to grasp, will discover a treasury of human wisdom going back into the mists of time. At the very least, following the Sufi way lessens the chances of our sleepwalking through life.
Source: Tom Butler-Bowdon 50 Spiritual Classics: 50 Great Books of Inner Discovery, Enlightenment and Purpose (London & Boston: Nicholas Brealey)
"Asked why a certain Sufi sheikh did not appear to the outward eye to follow a religiously devout life, Nizamuddin Awliya said: 'Kings bury their treasures in one of two places. The first, and obvious one, is in the strong-room, which can be burgled, emptied or usurped. The other, and more enduring one, is in the earth, in a ruin where nobody would think of looking for it.'"
Idries Abutahir Shah was a controversial figure whose life straddled East and West. Raised in his father's Sunni Muslim faith and claiming a family lineage stretching back to Mohammed, Shah was born in 1924 in Simla, India, to a Scottish mother his father had met while studying in Edinburgh. The family moved to England when Shah was still young, and he attended high school in Oxford.
Shah did not actually come into contact with Sufi dervishes until the age of 30, after which he wrote the books Oriental Magic and Destination Mecca. A polymath, he was active in a range of social and cultural issues, and founded the Institute for Cultural Research. He lectured in many countries. Popular in society circles for his wit and wisdom, Shah attracted literary figures such as Doris Lessing and Robert Graves. In his sixties he made an undercover trip to Afghanistan during the Russian occupation and created a relief organization to help the Afghan people.
Shah wrote over 35 books, many of which were bestsellers. They include The Sufis, The Commanding Self, Wisdom of the Idiots, Thinkers of the East and Learning How To Learn. He died in 1996.
© COPYRIGHT TOM BUTLER-BOWDON, 2023
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