Friday, March 13, 2009

A Living Twenty-First Century Tradition

Over the past few weeks I’ve been continuing my study of Sufism, primarily by reading and reflecting on Neil Douglas-Klotz’s insightful, The Sufi Book of Life: Ninety-Nine Pathways of the Heart for the Modern Dervish. (Interestingly, I first became aware of Douglas-Klotz via his fascinating and illuminating Prayers of the Cosmos: Reflections on the Original Meaning of Jesus’ Words.)

In the following excerpt from the introduction to The Sufi Book of Life, Douglas-Klotz explains what Sufism is, defines the word dervish, and explores the relationship between Sufism and Islam. I find it all very interesting. Perhaps you will too.


Sufism is a living twenty-first-century tradition, with many different approaches and practices. Authentic Sufis speak in all languages, and may wear completely ordinary clothing. The word dervish means one who sits in the doorway, or on the threshold of something, ready to move on and transform him- or herself. This book is for modern people who want to start living the Sufi poetry of love. It is based on [Neil Douglas-Klotz’s] experience following the Sufi path for the past thirty years and applying it to everyday life.

. . . Historically, diversity has been Sufism’s strength. It is ultimately a nomadic tradition, one that has constantly deconstructed and transplanted itself rather than settle and build gigantic shrines, institutions, monolithic rituals, or organizations. There is no Sufi Vatican or Potala.

. . . Sufism is, first of all, a series of “not’s” – not a religion, not a philosophy, not even a mysticism, as that word is usually conceived. It’s best to call Sufism a way of experiencing reality as love itself. The modern Sufi writer Massud Farzan said it well and succinctly:

Sufism is a unique phenomenology of Reality. The psychology of Sufism is Sufism itself; the art and science of Sufism is the very practice of Sufism.

. . . Is Sufism, as the more simplistic dictionary definitions maintain, the “mystical side of Islam”? Does Sufism (or its philosophy or practices) predate Islam? Is Sufism “the real Islam” (just as some people would maintain that such Christian mystics as Meister Eckhart or St. Francis of Assisi represent the real teachings of Jesus, more than any form of the institutional church)? Here is a typically Sufi answer, again given by Massud Farzan:

Does Sufism, derived from Koran and Mohammedan tradition, go against the sayings of the Book and the Prophet? The answer is yes and no. Insofar as Sufism strips the dogma from the religion and goes to its heart, insofar as it insists on the reality beyond the ritual, the thing behind the symbol, Sufism is at once Islam par excellence and distinctly apart from it.

Inayat Khan had this to say:

[A]ccording to the sacred history which Sufis have inherited from one another, it is clear that Sufism has never been owned by any race or religion, for differences and distinctions are the very delusions from which Sufis purify themselves. It might appear that Sufism must have been formed of the different elements of various religions which are prominent today, but it is not so, for Sufism itself is the essence of all the religions as well as the spirit of Islam.

There is no doubt that Sufism and Islam have an intimate relationship. What people disagree about is how one defines the words sufism and islam. Literally, the word islam means “surrender” to the one Ground of Reality, not to some thought-form or dogma. The word sufism derives from a word that simply means “wisdom,” and the Qur’an itself advocates “seeking wisdom, even so far as China.” Historically, Sufis have not adhered to any one school of Quranic interpretation or jurisprudence, and this has made the fundamentalists of all ages very nervous, even up to the present day, when some Islamic countries outlaw the practice of Sufism.

– Excerpted from The Sufi Book of Life: Ninety-Nine Pathways of the Heart for the Modern Dervish by Neil Douglas-Klotz (Penguin Compass, 2005).

See also the previous Wild Reed posts:
The Sufi Way
In the Garden of Spirituality: Doris Lessing
Oh, Yeah!

Recommended Off-site Links:
Ninety-Nine Reasons to Read The Sufi Book of Life – Joanna Young (, 2008).
The Sufi Book of Life: A Review – Clarey Clifford (Infinite Beloved, February 24, 2006).

1 comment:

Janet said...

NDK is an amazing Aramaic scholar. see for his books and CDs.