For many people, whirling dervishes and the works of the thirteenth-century mystic and poet Jelaluddin Rumi are what come to mind whenever Sufism is mentioned. Related to these associations is the not uncommon belief that Sufism describes the mystical branch of Islam. Yet while there is truth to this, it’s an incomplete truth. For as celebrated British author Doris Lessing reminds us, “the Sufis are not a Muslim monopoly [as] the Sufi reality predates Islam [and] has always been introduced, secretly or openly, into every culture.” (1)
Lessing (pictured at left) also notes that the word “Sufism” is not liked by Sufis as “they see it as a typical Western abstraction, away from the living reality of the Sufi Way, which is embodied in people.” (2) Furthermore, the actual word “Sufi,” Lessing observes, “is not necessary for a fresh introduction of Sufi feeling: many an activity or event or series of events has been Sufic, but no one has known it, perhaps not even the people involved. Many books have been for a Sufi purpose, the word never being used.” (3)
The Sufi purpose
Of course, all of this begs the question: what is the “Sufi purpose”?
Well, according to Dr. Alan Godlas of the University of Georgia, the essence of Sufi purpose and practice is quite simple: “the Sufi surrenders to God, in love, over and over; which involves embracing with love at each moment the content of one’s consciousness (one’s perceptions, thoughts, and feelings, as well as one’s sense of self) as gifts of God or, more precisely, as manifestations of God.” (4)
Not surprisingly, like all efforts related to experiencing and comprehending the love that is God, the Sufi Way infuses (and often transcends) the structures and practices of organized religion and is all about transformation and enlightenment; all about recognizing and distinguishing “the light” from the various screens that filter it. In this analogy of Doris Lessing’s, the screens represent various “national or historical cultural patterns,” (including those structures and practices of organized religion) whereas the light stands for “a truth which is central to humanity.” (5) For as Lessing reminds us, “the word ‘light’ has been used in every mystic tradition as a symbol for God, the Absolute, the Beloved, the King, the Simurgh, Truth, Life of the World – a hundred other terms.” (6)
In the 1960s Lessing was a student of the Sufi teacher Idries Shah, who is credited with playing a major role in introducing Western audiences to the Sufi Way as a form of universal wisdom. In many of her writings – both fiction and non-fiction – Lessing addresses questions related to the meaning and purpose of this understanding of the Sufi Way. One of the most direct of these writings is her 1996 article “Summing Up: When Idries Shah Died,” in which she acknowledges that “people are always asking, ‘But what is Sufism, what are the Sufis, surely it can be put into a few words?’”
In response to this foundational question, Lessing notes:
There are some statements, almost aphorisms [that I can offer]: for instance that in every human being is an initially tiny, precious, shining thing, capable of development, which can bring her or him to fulfillment. Or, that the Sufi truth is at the core of every religion, its heart, and religions are only the outward vestments of an inner reality. This last is helpful to people like myself, who find it hard to see religions anything more than systems of indoctrination with perennial tendencies towards the persecution of differently thinking people. (7)
A gradation of understanding
In his book The Way of the Sufi, Idries Shah shares the tale of how Moses rebuked a man for offering to comb God’s hair, wash His robe, and kiss His head. God, however, rebuked Moses saying: “Thou hast driven away a worshipper from the nearest to Me that he could approach. There is a gradation in all men: each will perceive what he can perceive and at the stage at which he can perceive it.” (8)
Lessing takes from this story the message that “one religion is not better than another: each is an expression of local needs,” and that: “beyond religion, most of whose practices are the ethics of the society in which it operates codified, is a range where experience becomes more complex than the rigidities of good/bad, black/white.” (9)
I can certainly relate to these observations, yet when I reflect upon God’s response to Moses in the story told by Idries Shah, I cannot help but think of the inability of the Roman Catholic hierarchy to perceive God in the lives and relationships of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people. Indeed, when it comes to issues of gender and sexuality, members of the hierarchy (along with those who uncritically accept everything they say) seem to be stuck at an underdeveloped stage in a gradation of understanding and perception. I must admit that it’s often a struggle for me to see such entrenched people as “worshipers” of a God of love and liberation.
Yet regardless of what I think, these folks (my brothers and sisters, I constantly remind myself) definitely see their efforts to, for instance, promulgate teachings that malign homosexuality and its expression by insisting that they are the results of humanity’s “fallen” state, as a way of displaying their obedience to what they actually believe to be God’s truth. Such unquestioning obedience, I’ve discovered, is what they understand as the hallmark of faithful worship of God. Of course, such a hallmark implies that we have all the answers – here and now; and that the human endeavor isn’t about journeying and developing, but about hankering down and safe-guarding “the (one and only) truth.”
Don’t get me wrong, there will always be aspects of our experience – certain insights, developments, and truth claims – that are worth safe-guarding. That being said, I have to say that much of the Roman Catholic Church’s stated understanding of gender and sexuality is definitely not something I consider worth supporting or defending. (For a start, such understanding is unreasonable – and any understanding or teaching that claims any kind of respect, or claims its authority in the concept of “natural law,” must be reasonable.)
A catholic reality
I’m not in the least bit interested in circling the wagons and unquestioningly defending the hierarchy’s unreasonable theology of human sexuality – one that in its intentional failure to be mindful of, and informed by, the collective wisdom of the people of God, is not only unreasonable but also immoral. No, I’m much more interested in moving the caravan forward; in acknowledging and getting on with our journey as a pilgrim church - a community still very much in process, still very much discovering the ever-unfolding truth of God within, among, and around us.
This probably accounts for my growing interest in the Sufi Way, that way of perceiving and being in the world that understands true worship of the Sacred as an openness to growth and change, as a trusting willingness to engage with “the light” as manifested in the lives and relationships of all.
Of course, those fearful of growth and change may angrily dismiss the Sufi Way as some kind of “New Age” fad. Yet, in reality, the Sufi Way is the life force of all authentic religion. For as Rumi scholar and translator Coleman Barks reminds us, the Sufi Way, the “love way” is not religious; rather, it’s the “origin and longing inside religiousness.” (10) Thus one way I’ve come to understand the Sufi Way is as a religious sensibility, a way of engaging self, others, and the Sacred. It's a way that, as Shah, Lessing, Coleman, and others have noted, is at the heart of all religions. (It brings a smile to my face to think that this universality makes the Sufi Way a truly catholic reality – “catholic,” after all, means “universal.”)
Consciousness, conscience, and compassion
In light of this universality of the Sufi Way, Doris Lessing writes:
A question like: “But what about a personal God, and the importance of this to so many people?” falls away. St. Theresa of Avila experienced “his Majesty.” St. Theresa the Little Flower talked of “My little Jesus.” A crazy person may say “I am God” – but so did Hallaj, one of the greatest Sufis of all time, who was judicially murdered because he said, in a mystic state: “I am the Truth.” A Spanish peasant girl sees a vision of the Virgin. Sorcerers raise the Devil, horns and all – Spanish St. Theresa saw the Devil until she had got past that stage. Adam and Noah, Abraham and Moses talked with God, in a way which sounds like son with loving father. In India there is a hierarchy of deities which are experienced in the stages of the Hindu disciples. An African witchdoctor experiences God according to the realities of his part of the continent. The modern astronomer has his moments of vision when the skies his mind inhabits become a mirror for something beyond. The light can do no other than fall in the patterns of the screens – the mind of the experiencing person, which has been formed, been set, by his culture, his experience, his prejudices.
Again and again one is returned to this point: one can do no more than start from where one is. And it is not an unuseful exercise to use this thought in an effort to find out where that is.
Or as [Idries] Shah puts it: “If you are uninterested in what I say, there’s an end to it. If you like what I say, please try to understand which previous influences have made you like it. If you like some of the things I say and dislike others, you could try to understand why. If you dislike all I say, why not try to find out what has formed your attitude?” (11)
Yes, it’s all about growing in consciousness, in self-awareness; all about seeking the light beyond all our humanly-constructed (and often arrogantly and fearfully defended) “screens.” I'm drawn to what teachers such as Idries Shah have to say. I also appreciate the efforts of folks like Doris Lessing and Coleman Barks to articulate in everyday language the wisdom of the Sufi Way. I plan on further exploring this way in an ongoing series of posts at The Wild Reed. In particular, I want to explore the Sufi Way and its connections to Christianity (including the idea of Jesus as a Sufi Master*) as well as the Sufi Way and homosexuality.
Interestingly, I was originally going to title this series, “Contemplating the Sufi Way,” but once I began researching and writing, I soon realized that I’m doing much more than contemplating. I’m already walking the Sufi Way, as are all of us who are striving to live lives of consciousness, conscience, and compassion; we just may not have realized that this term, one among many, exists to name this journey toward union with the Sacred - a journey that is both intimately personal and universal.
One 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 deprivation this 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 to him.– Rumi
* Chuck Lofy touches on these interesting questions about Christianity and the Sufi Way when, during the interview I conducted with him in 2005, he noted that Jesus said, “I come to cast fire on the earth,” and how, in Christian terms, “this ‘fire’ is the symbol of the Holy Spirit, the guiding and illuminating Spirit that according to the great religious traditions, is deep within all of us. The ‘spark’ comes when we recognize and affirm ourselves as one with this Spirit.”
1-3. Lessing, D. “Summing Up: When Idries Shah Died.” Daily Telegraph, November 23, 1996. (Also reprinted in Lessing, D. Time Bites: Views and Reviews. Harper Perennial, New York, 2004.
4. Godlas, A. “Sufism’s Many Paths” at http://www.uga.edu/islam/Sufism.html.
5-6. Lessing, D. “The Sufis” (first published in Books and Bookmen) in Time Bites: Views and Reviews. Harper Perennial, New York, 2004.
7. Lessing D. “Summing Up: When Idries Shah Died.” Daily Telegraph, November 23, 1996.
8. Shah, I. The Way of the Sufi. Penguin Books, 1991 (reprint).
9. Lessing, D. “The Sufis” (first published in Books and Bookmen) in Time Bites: Views and Reviews. Harper Perennial, New York, 2004.
10. Barks, C. Rumi: The Book of Love – Poems of Ecstasy and Longing. Harper San Francisco, 2003.
11. Lessing, D. “The Sufis” (first published in Books and Bookmen) in Time Bites: Views and Reviews. Harper Perennial, New York, 2004.
Recommended Off-site Links:
The International Sufi Movement
Sufi News and Sufism World Report
Sufis Without Borders
The Threshold Society
Recommended Online Articles:
Rumi and Sufism: Examining Islamic Spiritual Science in the Modern Age - Wajahat Ali (Goatmilk, June 10, 2008).
Christian and Islamic Mysticism - Thom Curnutte (Ad Dominum, January 2, 2009).
A Glimpse of Oneness for a Change - Joan Chittister (National Catholic Reporter, November 26, 2008).
Gay Muslims Reveal Different Evolutionary Stages of Faith Development - Joe Perez (MyOutSpirit.com, November 8, 2007).
The Mysterious Potential Hiding in Our Pain - Tom Esch (Progressive Catholic Voice, April 2008).
See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
In the Garden of Spirituality: Doris Lessing
My Travels with Doris
Keeping the Spark Alive: Conversing with “Modern Mystic” Chuck Lofy
In the Garden of Spirituality: Paulo Coelho
The Road to Love: Coming Out in Africa and the Middle East
The Many Manifestations of God’s Loving Embrace
The Sacred Heart: “Mystical Symbol of Love”