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THE DANGERS OF AUTHORITARIANISM IN SPIRITUAL DEVELOPMENT

by

Abdullah Muzaffer

©2003 Laurence Galian. All rights reserved.

There is a crisis within Sufism. The problem is authoritarianism and the dangers it poses to spiritual development. In short, certain Sufis are deifying various aspects of Sufism. A totalitarianism of the non-essential is being imposed. The ideas put forth in this article are substantiated, authenticated and upheld by many highly respected Sufis and Sufi Saints, and quotations from their teachings are provided. Also, quotations are included from some of the world's most estimable spiritual guides and conscious individuals.

Sa’adi, the Persian Sufi poet and sage, wrote,"The path is the service of others, not prayer beads and dervish robes."

The 'trickster figure' of the 20th Century, Idries Shah, humorously commented,"Follow them [the Sufi Orders of today] and you will produce, perhaps, an excellent replica of a thirteenth-century man, and that is all."

I "took hand" (became initiated into a Sufi Order) in 1980 and for the next three years met several times weekly to study with various Khalifas of the Order. I realized as early as 1983 that I was becoming a 17th Century Turk living in 20th Century America!

 The Prophet Isa (Jesus) A.S. said, "No one sews a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment, for the patch will pull away from the garment, making the tear worse. Neither do men pour new wine into old wineskins. If they do, the skins will burst, the wine will run out and the wineskins will be ruined. No, they pour new wine into new wineskins, and both are preserved." 

During the first few years after taking hand, I bought pillows made from Turkish kilims, purchased an Afghan prayer carpet, brewed and served tea and coffee in the Turkish style using Turkish cups, saucers and utensils, and decorated my home with an array of Turkish and Middle-Eastern ornamentation. This was all in addition to the elaborate ancient Sufi costume of our Order that I was required to obtain and to wear in its entirety when we “performed” a Zikrullah live for the public. The danger in becoming a 17th Century Turk living in contemporary America is that the student of Sufism confuses the appendages with the essence, and comes to believe that the true Sufi recreates 17th Century Turkish culture! What these new students regard as central aspects of Sufism are merely superficialities!

C.S. Lewis wrote in a letter to Arthur Greeves:  It is so fatally easy to confuse an aesthetic appreciation of the spiritual life with the life itself - to dream that you have waked, washed, and dressed & then to find yourself still in bed.”
 

When I first began studying with Sheikh Muzaffer, he welcomed all those in New York City to come and speak with him and participate in Zikrullah. I recall quite a number of ‘spiritual’ New Yorkers disdainfully asking Muzaffer Effendi, “If you are a Sufi, how come you smoke cigarettes and eat meat?” During an interview Idries Shah addressed exactly this issue: “A Sufi lifestyle, is it? No, my friend, not a bit of it. That’s what people crave. That’s what they demand. Recently another man came to interview me, and his first question was, ‘What do Sufis eat? You’re vegetarians, of course.’ ‘No,’ I said. ‘You amaze me!’ he said. I said to him, ‘Now if I can be of any use to you, write that down and see what it means. What it means is that you have been able to elicit from me a reaction which helps you to describe yourself. ‘You amaze me.’ Why do I amaze you? I amaze because you think that all metaphysicians must be vegetarians. Does that tell you anything about me? It tells you things about yourself! Now when are you going to get out of that, and learn things about yourself, and not think that you’re learning things about other people?”

Kabir Helminski, servant of Mevlana, instructs the wise, “Just as Sufism took a particular form beginning in the twelfth century in Khorasan and Anatolia, in the Hejaz and the Maghreb, perhaps it is taking a new form in these times and in this culture. New methods of communication, different economic structures, and different levels of human individuation necessitate change.”

Shah echoes Helminski’s words, “The challenge now is embodied in the Sufi tradition that you must teach people in the way that they can learn. The West has the requirements to learn, but nontraditional approaches – that is, nonoriental approaches – must be made.”

Hadrat Muinudin Chisti (May Allah Sanctify His Soul) confirmed this many years ago when he said, "After my time, as an example, people will continue to use parts of what has been carefully attuned as a means to contact truth, using it as a sort of spell or talisman, to open a gate. They will play and listen to music, will contemplate written figures, will collect together, simply because they have seen all these things done."

It is impossible for anyone to think realistically that he or she can trace his or her silsilah (Chain of Transmission) anytime before the 13th Century! Sufis as we know them today did not exist before, at the earliest, the 13th Century.

El-Shah Bahaudin Naqshband of Bokhara (d. 1389), in a reverie, cast himself back in time.
He told a group of visiting seekers:
'I have just seen, and had companionship with, the masters of the most ancient times, thought to be long dead.'
They said to him: 'Please tell us how they appeared to be.'
He said: 'Such is your attitude toward the teaching that they would have thought you demons.
'Matters are such that, had you seen them, you would have considered them quite unsuitable for companionship with you. You would not be asking questions about them.'
 
Many orders have only come into existence in the last 200 to 300 years. There is an authoritarianism of tradition. The faction who have fallen prey to the dangers of this form of authoritarianism state that a Sufi needs proof that he or she is part of some unbroken chain that stretches all the way back to the Prophet Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him and His Family). Saints and teachers, can (and have) been initiated by Allah, without any formal recognition by a teacher. The proof is in the pudding, not in the paper or diploma. These “diplomas” (called ijazet) that Sufi teachers receive giving them permission to teach, are frequently afforded a “magical” quality. In fact, these ijazet were also issued after studying such Liberal Art subjects with a master as calligraphy, painting and illumination.

To quote Rosalie Marsham in "Sufi Orders":

“The ‘orders’ themselves are late (medieval) developments, coming into being many centuries after the early classical Masters to whom their members still look as central figures establishing their legitimacy. In other words, the early Masters did not feel it necessary to claim a connected chain of spiritual succession from one Master to another.”

Silsilah’s are an innovation in Sufism based on the thinking of people who lived in the Middle Ages (not unlike numerous rules, ex cathedra official pronouncements from the pope, and catechisms created by the Catholic Church in the Middle Ages that clearly were the product of patriarchal and institutional belief systems). Ibn el-Farid (1181-1235) stresses that Sufism lies behind and before systematization; that 'our' wine existed before what you call the grape and the vine (the school and the system). To return to Marsham:

“The habit of reciting the names of the alleged Masters of the Way in any particular Order is, however, so deeply ingrained that it is almost a litany, and yet it is a mark of a hidebound, often retrogressive, order to find great importance placed upon these names.”

Certain Sheikhs teach that “true” Sheikhs have formal written papers given them by their Grand Sheikh to “prove” they are true Sheikhs. Do you think the Abdals, the Qalandars, and the Shemsi-Tabrizes had teachers who walked around with formal papers? Be serious, and think clearly. These men barely wore any clothes to begin with . . . in what briefcase might they be carrying the extensive list of the silsilah of their “Order”? Shah writes about this: “A large number of ‘orders’ make much play of their ‘spiritual pedigree.’ Since the late Middle Ages, these silsilahs . . . have become a part of the mythology of virtually all the orders. History shows that this innovation in Sufism came about in imitation of the scholastic habit of invoking higher authority in a succession of transmitters, for the hadith . . .”

Mystical vision of deceased saints was not uncommon in the past in numerous tariqats (although it is pretended by most today to be a highly rare occurrence). Van Bruinessen comments, “The Qadiris only mentioned the most important figures, rather like secular Kurdish genealogies. Sometimes several generations would be missing, but this would be accounted for by traditions that certain mystics had had visions of great sheykhs many generations back. A direct spiritual link was thus created and the intervening generations omitted from the silsilah. Unrelated sheikhs with particularly good reputations from the past might also be adopted to enhance the reputation of the tariqa for holiness or orthodoxy. For example, in one silsilah Junaid of Baghdad, who was particularly renowned for his sobriety and orthodoxy, was included, whilst Abu Yazid of Bistam, an ecstatic, intoxicated mystic, was not included, though the latter was far more influential in the tariqa.”

The Sufi Saint Nur ad-Din Abd ar-Rahman Jami, in his "Alexandrian Book of Wisdom", shows that the Sufi esoteric transmission link of the Asian Khajagan ('Masters') was the same as that used by Western mystical writers. He cites as teachers in the Sufi transmission such names as Plato, Hippocrates, Pythagoras and Hermes Trismegistos.
 
Kingsley notes the connections between Sufism and the classical esoteric tradition, including Hermeticism and alchemy, 'have proved a major source of embarrassment for those interested in maintaining the purely Islamic nature of Sufism and denying its links with previous, non-Arab traditions, but their historical nature can be, and since the start of this century has been, established'.  

Therefore, the reader can now understand that frequently several generations will be missing from an Order’s silsilah, but that these gaps are sometimes filled in by “Uwayssi” type initiations in which contemporary mystics (not formally invested Sheikhs) had visions of long-deceased saints (and pre-Islamic wisdom teachers) who passed the transmission on to them in the spiritual worlds. In addition, it was not unusual to insert the name of a famous Sufi into the silsilah of a different Order to lend authority and enhance reputation. Other saints, we see, were removed if they did not fall into the accepted and respectable point of view of the tariqat.

Around 1200 C.E., Sufism was institutionalized into Sufi orders. Generally, the political atmosphere from North Africa to India was "ripe" for the formation of Sufi orders. Under the patronage of kings and sultans, prominent Sufi masters received financial grants to build lodges and hospices to house the master, his disciples, students, novices and even travelers. Sufism became institutionalized (confined, locked-up, and made similar, mass produced, normalized, regimented, systematized, and catalogued). Many of the Sufi sects of today represent a “deterioration” or “cultural elaboration of the original internal teaching”.

The great Iranian Sufi saint, Abu l-Hassan Kharaqani (May Allah Sanctify His Soul), (d. 425/1034), wrote, “The Sufi is not the one who is always carrying the prayer rug, nor the one who is wearing patched clothes, nor the one who keeps certain customs and appearances; but the Sufi is the one to whom everyone's focus is drawn, although he is hiding himself.” It is important to note that Sayyidn‚ Abu l-Hassan al-Kharaqani took spiritual guidance and initiation in the Naqshbandi Order from the spiritual presence (not the physical presence) of Bayazid Bistami.

Shah seems to agree: "As a general rule, the less the spiritual content, the greater the appurtenances. Tall hats, robes, and music; secretiveness and high-flown titles are very common. Whole orders are sustained on these nutrients. Several groups make much of their Islamic connections, and their Western followers delight in adopting Eastern names and even titles. Among these the favorites are Sheikh, Pir, Qutub . . . outlandish garb is imitative of the past--- something which truly representative Sufis warn is an indication of inner spiritual bankruptcy.”

Clearly, Shah and Kharaqani are warning the student of Sufism not to become trapped into thinking that he or she must dress in a certain way, wear only certain aromatic oils, trim (or not trim) the beard in a particular fashion, wash the arm down and not up during ablution, and so forth. All this takes the Sufi away from the purpose of Sufism, which is to reach the Ocean of Oneness. What Sheikhs are pleased to call the Way of the Masters is merely the record of past method.

In addition to the authoritarianism of “appurtenances” as Shah puts it, there also exists another lurking danger. Many Sheikhs from foreign lands cultivate a persona of continental sophistication, and/or have an attractive foreign accent. Sometimes it is just the exoticness of having a Sheikh from a far-off country that hooks the spiritual aspirant into giving his or her full submission and trust to the Sheikh. It is a known psychological phenomenon that an expert’s perceived expertise is in direct proportion to the distance he or she is traveling to the place of the meeting. If you hear the expert is “flying in” from somewhere, you automatically consider this an important event, much more so than if the person drove his or her car across town. Also, the size of the retinue the expert arrives with is a powerful psychological inducement to granting him or her special status. Thus, besides the authoritarianism of appurtenances, I would include the authoritarianism of "foreign glamor".

Many contemporary Sheikhs are pulling the wool over the eyes of their dervishes. The Sheikhs tell certain stories about the lives of the great Sufi Saints, but leave out their “embarrassing” and “unacceptable” teachings. For example, Al-Hall‚j is held up by many Sheikhs as a paragon of Sufi virtue, yet these same Sheikhs do not tell us that Al-Hall‚j had many clashes with his Sufi Masters. At one point, he returned to Iran to skirt additional communication with the Sufis. Ahmad Zarruq, a 15th century Sufi from Morocco, provides a further illustration. He is widely regarded as a major Saint of the Shadhiliyya lineage across North Africa. His troubled relationship to spiritual Masters challenged the idealized descriptions of spiritual authority. Moreover, as he began to assert his own role as a Saint and Master, he taught a type of “reform-oriented” Sufism that seriously questioned the role, and even the absolute necessity, of the spiritual Master. In this author’s opinion, the Guide is necessary in Sufism. What is not necessary is the “cult of the personality” in which Guides are turned into infallible Sheikhs.

Then we have those who have been directly initiated by Khidr. There was a great Sufi Saint who was born in 1165 C.E. Besides Shi’a Muslims, numberless Sunni Ulemas called him “The Greatest Sheikh” (al-Shaykh al-Akbar). His name was Muyiddin ibn al-‘ArabÓ. Moreover, he was a disciple of Khidr. There is a strong spiritual connection between Hermes of Egpt and Khidr. In fact, some consider them one and the same being. Uwayssi-type initiation was a form of wisdom known to and practiced by Thrice Great Hermes of Egypt! This is attested to by Shurawardi. 

Shurawardi, who was honored as 'the Master of Illumination', taught that all the sages of the ancient world had preached one doctrine, originally revealed to Hermes, which had reached him through his teachers al-Bistami and al-Hallaj. He portrayed the sages Pythagoras and Empedocles as Sufis. Shurawardi attempted to create a universal philosophical system which united all spiritual traditions into one. He made it his life's work to link what he called the 'Oriental' religion with Islam. He taught that the original single doctrine  was transmitted through Plato and Pythagoras in the Greek world and through the Zoroastrian Magi in the Middle East. For his noble endeavors the Islamic Literalists had him put to death.

“Khidr {is} experienced simultaneously as a person and as an archetype . . . To have him as a master and initiand is to be obliged to be what he himself is. Khidr is the master of all those who are masterless, because he shows all those whose master he is how to be what he himself is: he who has attained the Spring of Life . . . he who has attained haqiqa, the mystic, esoteric truth which dominates the Law, and frees us from the literal religion. Khidr is the master of all these, because he shows each one how to attain the spiritual state which he himself has attained and which he typifies . . .” writes Henry Corbin in "Creative Imagination in the Sufism of Ibn ‘Arabi".

“He . . . who is the disciple of Khidr possesses sufficient inner strength to seek freely the teaching of all masters. Of this the biography of Ibn `Arabi, who frequented all the masters of his day and welcomed their teachings, offers living proof,” again attests Corbin.

The great saint Ibn Idris wrote, “By God, if there is a veil, it is the tariqa. As soon as a person leaves them, God grants him illumination. Our brother, Abu ‘Majdhub, was one of them, then he left them and God granted him illumination. Our brother, Musa al-Majdhub, left them and God granted him illumination.”

Are Sheikhs even necessary? Maybe they are not necessary for everyone. To hold this opinion is anathema amongst most Sufis. However, Abu’l-Hassan Kharaqani left us the following saying: “I am amazed at those disciples who declare that they require this or that master. You are perfectly well aware that I have never been taught by any man. God was my guide, though I have the greatest respect for all the masters.” I pose the question to those who have fallen victim to the dangers of the authoritarianism of the Master-Disciple paradigm, who insist that only the Sheikh can guide and illuminate the path for the student of Sufism: Does Allah only communicate with officials of spiritual communities, for example Sheikhs and Saints? The adherents of the Master-Disciple standard would have us wrongly believe that Allah is somehow restricted (Astagfirullah) in His communications, exchanges and interactions with students of Sufism, having to rely on Sheikhs and Saints to guide and illuminate the path for the student of Sufism (Astagfirullah).

Jay Kinney in "Sufism Comes West: An Introduction to Sufism (Sufism: The Poles of Love and Knowledge)"

"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 — 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 “friends,” than to build more institutional castles in the sky."

Many Sheikhs are fond of repeating, “If you have no living sheikh to guide you the Shaitan will become your Sheikh.” It concerns me that this seems to be a convenient way to perpetuate a system by scaring students into believing that if they leave their Sheikh they will only have the devil as their guide. I even heard one Sheikh say that if any of his dervishes left the tariqat, the dervish would cut his belly open on a sharp corner of a desk and all his intestines would fall out onto the floor. Reasonable readers will see that this is a cultic system designed to re-enforce and perpetuate itself through intimidation. Marsham writes, “The classical writings of such great Sufis as Ghazzali plainly warn against indoctrination and conditioning, centuries before these dangerous procedures were rediscovered in the West. Today there is no ‘order’ in existence in the East or West which does not in some measure use these methods . . . Few, if any, modern Sufi heads of ‘orders’ would stand for half a day the interrogation of modern psychologists.” Hence, the reader will understand why I am concerned about the dangers of authoritarianism in spiritual development. Cult leaders will resort to all sorts of tactics, including quoting from various religious sources, in order to manipulate the cult members into staying in the cult and not leaving. I am not saying that all Sufis are members of cults. I am saying that some Sufi groups are cults.

"Why would even the most realized of beings want people to become reliant on his wisdom instead of their own?" - "The Guru Papers: Masks of Authoritarian Power" by Joel Kramer and Diana Alstad

“A teacher is someone who is able to connect instructionally with you,” Idries Shah says. “He need not be physically present. You don’t even have to know him. He doesn’t have to have a white beard and sandals. In a sense, a teacher need not even be a person. I was once walking with a group of people including a spiritual teacher, and someone asked him, ‘What is a guru?’ And he pointed to a stone in the road and said, ‘Look, if I fall over that stone and I learn from that event to look where I’m going that stone is my guru.’ The teaching role should be an instrument, not an opportunity for theater, not a source of self-gratification.” A humorous Jerrahi dervish friend of mine once referred to this type of "theater" as "Effendi TV".

For some, it is even easier to accept the restriction of orthodoxy than to allow themselves to know their full potential. Many teachers will tell you that you should submit to the teacher-student relationship. Nevertheless, look around you. What do you see? Everywhere you see students dependent upon their teachers. Some students who appear the most devout and submissive are secretly gloating over their ‘spirituality’! Many of them develop a superior attitude. This sort of submission is only veiled egotism. After all, how can the student become a Complete Human Being if part of him or herself is still co-dependently attached to a teacher? That fledgling has not reached complete maturity and eventually must leave the nest.

Some Sheikhs will insist that they have earned a sufficient degree of trust from those who come into contact with them, not unlike a surgeon whom one trusts completely with one’s body during surgery. Yet, how many countless cases of medical malpractice do you hear about on the news and read about in the newspapers every year? Medical malpractice is rampant. Blind faith is simply not the answer. I recommend that just as when one prepares for a medical operation, one should thoroughly check out the credentials and references of the Sheikh, and then only (just like with the surgeon) permit the Sheikh to operate in specific areas of your life related to his or her function. In other words, you do not let your surgeon tell you what car to buy or how to invest your money. This is not his or her area of expertise, and he is a manipulative and power-hungry individual if he tries to talk you into accepting his orders regarding aspects of your life that do not fall into the extent or range of his function.

Some students would give their Sheikh an unlimited sphere of authority. When does the time come for you to accept that Allah has made it absolutely clear in the Qur’an that you are His vicegerent upon the earth? How long will you postpone taking up the position which Allah  has Himself given you? Although Allah (Subhanahu wa ta'ala) has the Supreme authority, He has granted man, His Vicegerent (deputy or Khalifa) use of a limited authority on earth. Since accountability presupposes authority, Allah (Subhanahu wa ta'ala) equipped man with all the necessary and appropriate faculties to understand and exercise judgment.

Those who believe that their Sheikh is perfect, in the sense of being infallible, have fallen into shirk. They have also shown that they would rather live in a fantasy world in which they can pretend that they have powerful and perfect parent-figures who can do no wrong and who love them. This is not spirituality. It is pathology. This attitude reveals more about a person’s dysfunctional childhood, lack of psychological insight, and sense of personal irresponsibility, than it does about spiritual submission or surrender. Zealots have problems with one or both parents, so they deify a human being. It is difficult to transfer the parent onto Allah, as Allah is beyond any human conception; therefore the spiritual aspirant needs a human being onto whom he or she can transfer his or her parent. Hence the need for a “perfect” Sheikh to whom perfect obedience is rendered. This is the authoritarianism of psychological transference.

Many Sheikhs would keep all their chicks in the nest long after the time has come for them to learn to fly and leave the nest. These are not Sheikhs; they are cult leaders. Some Grand Sheikhs even have a coterie of servants.

“Don't be deceived by the villas and dresses of dictators, Gardens of their villas are watered by tears of the oppressed!”

Allah’s personal relationship with you is just that, personal. It is your secret. Only Allah and you know the dialogue.

All the “parent-child” jargon in Sufism must be done away with. This kind of language only encourages the student to relate to the Divine and to the Sheikh as a father figure, when in fact, this disposition is an obstacle to a Real Experience of the Divine and a hindrance to being in a proper relationship to the Sheikh. The Sheikh cannot guide you as long as you insist on making your Sheikh your surrogate “parent.” A "real" Sheikh is guided to eliminate the student's dependence quickly. Such a Sheikh does not give the student "meals" to eat but teaches "how to fish". Many true Sheikhs do not use the title “Sheikh” but prefer to be referred to as Brother, Mentor, Preceptor, or Guide.

Love’s way is about taking responsibility, not yielding it up to an authority figure, for unless you find love within, you will never find it without.

We need to consider the authoritarianism of the academic specialist and the dangers to spiritual development he or she represents. There is a movement taking place that views only those who have Ph.D.’s in Islamic Studies, History of Religions, Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations, Comparative Religion, and so forth, as worthy of teaching and writing about Sufism. Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee reminds us that “When Rumi met a wandering dervish in the market place, he fell at his feet and was swept into the currents of love. The presence of this ragged mystic, Shams, changed Rumi from a respected professor of theology into a lover of God, one who summed up his whole life with the phrase, 'I burnt, and I burnt, and I burnt.' "

Rumi wrote in a poem:

“Oh no, an intellectual among her lovers?
a beauty like her?
Faugh! Impossible!
Keep the brainy ones far from her door,
keep the bathhouse dung-smoke from the East Wind!
Sorry, no intellectual admitted here . . . but a lover?
Ah, a hundred salaams!
Intellect deliberates,
Intellect reflects -
and meanwhile Love evaporates into the stratosphere.
By the time Intellect finds a camel for the Hajj,
Love has climbed Mt. Sinai.
Love comes and gags me:
‘Scribbler! Forget mere verse.
The star-ship departs!’ ”

There is often a lack of humility in academia. Many academicians view their intellectual-linear paradigms as the one true way to perceive reality. Molana Salaheddin Ali Nader Shah Angha (PÓr Oveyssi) writes: “One of the basic principles of Sufism is that you cannot know anything that is outside of you, because to know something in its totality requires that you be that entity. Since our recognition of things is based on contracts and our understanding of those symbols, and because our feelings keep shifting and our senses are continuously activated, we cannot know anything outside of ourselves. Therefore, the best place to look for the answers to our being is right within the unbounded reality of ourselves. In this context, each person is the researcher, the laboratory, and the subject of study.”

The academician commonly is more interested in gaining information to swell his or her bag of facts, than to open him or herself up to psycho-spiritual transmutation. This wisdom would be wasted on those whose only interest is to rape wisdom for academic data. Academicians of the arcane fall prey to the illusion that they can label and control that which will always be partially unknowable, fluid and chaotic. To approach spirituality form an academic point of view may yield valuable information about the framework of the spiritual way, but never about the alchemical mysteries themselves. El-Ghazali reveals, "A child has no real knowledge of the attainments of an adult. An ordinary adult cannot understand the attainments of a learned man. In the same way a learned man cannot understand the experiences of enlightened saints or Sufis."

This is because Spirit is as much the Irrational as it is the Rational. Academicians need to show some humility in the face of what will always be Irrational. They only see half the picture. Explaining Sufism to a word-oriented, linear-thinking academician is difficult. The Way does not consist of gathering more knowledge. Abu Madyan Shu’ayb Ibn al-Husayn al-Ans‚rÓ said: “Worship saves you from the tyranny of formal knowledge.” And Rumi divulged: "Of this there is no academic proof in the world; f
or it is hidden, and hidden, and hidden."

Idries Shah, the well-known exponent of Sufism to the West never attended school in the formal sense. He established three successful electronics firms, a carpet factory and a publishing house and served as chairperson of each. Does this sound like the Ph.D. specialists on Sufism that write books today telling us what Sufism is and is not? In a seeming paradox dealing with intellectuals, the Sufis poet Mirza Abdul-Qadir Bedil insists that real knowledge is greater than the mechanical sort – and that even the unregenerate may eventually reach it – if they find the path:

"You are better than anything your intellect has understood And you are higher than any place your understanding has reached."

There are many Sufis today who bow to the god of authoritarianism in the form of blind obedience to past practice. Fares de Logres writes in "Vanity and Imitation":

“Because a certain person did or said something, because a certain group of people followed a certain path, these things – when blindly followed or rationalized – are believed to confer sanctity, to be better than other things, to constitute a ‘Way’. Few things are further from the truth. The truth, of course, is that vanity brings imitation. Imitation is not a way to truth.”

Approximately a thousand years ago, Hazrat al-Hujwiri wrote in his "Kashf al-Mahjub" the following words:

"Once Sufism was a reality without a name, and now it is a name without a reality."

It is as if a man living today were to insist that the woman he is married to, as well as their children, behave similar to the family in the 1950’s sitcom “Father Knows Best”. If this man were to insist that this chauvinistic and archaic paradigm was the one true way of family life because that was the way families behaved for thousands of years, he would still be wrong. Women are not the servants of men who must pass over education and career because they are required to assume the role of cook, housekeeper and head child rearer. The “Honey, I’m home,” days are over. We recall that the leaders of the feminism movement were brutally derided, ridiculed and insulted for many years. The transition to full equality for women has not yet been entirely accomplished.

Right through the times of yore into the present, there has been a sequence of real mentors, fountains of the living spiritual waters of Sufism. Always they present a path that is unforeseen, astonishing and bewildering by those mired in traditionalism (blind obedience to past practice). They speak to the people of each age, and of each geographical quarter, in the language and manner that these people will understand. The true Sufi teacher has this gift. The individuals caught in the trap of authoritarianism regularly attack and revile these real mentors, and while I joked above about a contemporary man trying to recreate the life of a 1950’s sitcom, the fact is that many Sufis have lost their lives to the violence and murderous rage of those who fall victim to the authoritarianism of past method.

Most recently, we are faced with the danger of the authoritarianism of “feel-good” Sufistic groups. Many versions of Sufism being practiced in the West are, as Christian Caryl puts it, bowdlerized versions of the real thing. In large-part, these are the non-Islamic Sufi organizations. These groups teach various Sufi doctrines and practices but, in contrast to nearly all Sufi orders in the Muslim world, have disconnected their teachings from Islam. Their schools are said to exist solely for realizing esoteric truth. There are also schools that are independent of religion, schools that do not believe the practice of a religion is important. This is like saying that the carpenter may dispense with his ladder and hammer when he becomes a master carpenter. The vine of spiritual training requires a trellis of religion on which to grow. Structure and framework are necessary to provide a living vocabulary for spiritual growth. If there's no vocabulary, then how's the story told? The Path of the Sufi is Islam, and it is not Islam. It is religion and it is not religion. Because Sufism is the reality within all religion. How can one distinguish between one religion and another? You cannot compare the different kinds of butter by tasting the milk from which they come. But, nevertheless, you must butter your bread.

The adherents of the "feel-good" Sufistic groups “gut” Sufism of its central organs and foolishly stand up this “taxidermy” work and expect life to flow from it. True Sufism is a timeless spiritual stream that continues to be taught in a few places today.

Within these “feel good” Sufistic groups, there is an authoritarianism that results in throwing the baby out with the bathwater. In a well-intentioned effort to offer a teaching appropriate to a time and place these teachers mistakenly offer merely comforting platitudes and “feel good” seminars (however intriguing in a superficial way the topics of these seminars may be), and completely neglect the essence of Sufism. The weekend seminar types are victims of an authoritarianism of emotionalism, in other words, if it feels good, it is Sufism.

The cult of Rumi poetry is one such example. Rumi himself told his audiences that like a good host he gave them poetry because they demanded it; providing what was asked for. But, he continued, poetry was tripe compared with a certain high development of the individual. Rumi writes, "I am giving people what they want. I am reciting poetry because people desire it as an entertainment. In my own country, people do not like poetry. I have long searched for people who want action, but all they want is words. I am ready to show you action; but none will patronize this action. So I present you with - words." 

Sufism must vary in its outward aspects according to cultural differences, but it remains essentially the same in it inwardness. As the saying goes: “The clothes may vary, but the person is the same.” These “feel good” groups focus more on the varying clothes than the person inside the clothes. These groups offer a plethora of vocabularies involving various samplings of practices from the world’s mystical traditions, music, dance, breathing techniques, Macrobiotics, movement, poetry recitals, and so forth . . . but lack any unifying framework which guides the student to an experience of the Ocean of Unicity.

There are those, who by virtue of true dedication to a non-religious framework (not weekend 'samplers'), can still be considered "dough" to be made into "bread". Wandering in a patchwork robe, his face blackened by the sun, a certain dervish arrived at Kufa, where he was seen by a merchant. The merchant spoke to him, and decided that he must be a lost slave. 'Because of your mild manner, I will call you "Khair" [good],' he said. 'Are you not a slave?' 'That I am,' said Khair. 'I will take you home, and you can work for me until I find your master.' 'I would like that,' said Khair, 'for I have been seeking my master for such a long time.' He worked for many years with this man, who taught him to be a weaver; hence his second name: 'Nassaj' ('weaver'). After his long services, feeling guilty of his exploitation, the merchant said to him: 'I do not know who you are, but you are now free to go.' Khair Nassaj, the great Master of the Way, traveled onward to Mecca, without regrets, for he had discovered how to continue his development in spite of having no name and being treated like a slave. He was the teacher of Shibli, Ibrahim Khawwas and many more of the great Teachers of the Sufis. He died over a thousand years ago, at the age of one hundred and twenty.

Lastly, we find dangers of authoritarianism lurking amongst those (usually individuals from the Middle East, but not limited to them) who deem themselves police or sentries of the SharÓ’ah. There may be an element of cultural chauvinism in their self-appointed roles. They feel an overwhelming need to correct and interrogate all Muslims with the goal of correcting any seeming “mistakes” in the Muslims practice of their religion. Often members of this SharÓ’ah police think they are Sufis themselves, but really they are only pompous fools taking prideful pleasure in “being good”. Regarding the necessity of rigorous (read: perfect) adherence to the SharÓ’ah, consider the great Sufi exponent Ibn al’ ArabÓ who writes in "Interpreter of Desires":

"My heart has become able to take on any form ,
a grazing ground for gazelles,
a Christian monastery of Monks
an idol-house of the pagans,
the Islamic pilgrim’s Mecca mosque
the tablets of the Jewish Torah
and the Qur’an’s pages
I follow the faith of Love:
wherever its riding-mount face,
That is my religion and my faith."


Therefore strive each day to have a good laugh, to do something silly, sing a song, and to feel the joy of life. These are hallmarks of true spirituality. Solemn, gloomy and grim approaches to spirituality are paths that lead you away from the Glory of the Presence of Life. In fact, funny Sufi stories are found at the very core of Sufi teaching.

I conclude with a summary of the dangers of authoritarianism in spiritual development:

1. That we accept that Allah does not limit His communication and work to only Sheikhs and Saints, embracing a new paradigm of initiation that comprehends that initiation can occur, at times, without the recognition, intermediation and preparation by a Sheikh.

2. That becoming obsessed with silsilahs and Orders leads to a loss of focus on the essential and a preoccupation with the external trappings of Middle Eastern culture.

3. That in many Sufi Orders (groups), students who had problems with their parents often project their “parent” onto the Sheikh. There are also too many Sheikhs consciously or unconsciously participating in this transference. The solution: a period of rigorous self-examination (usually referred to as psychotherapy) before setting out on the Sufi Path with a Sufi mentor.

4. That the contemporary Sufis who believe that those with Ph.D.’s are somehow uniquely qualified to write and lecture (and even teach) about Sufism is a fallacy that has crept into Sufism and is in direct contradiction to the teachings of the Greatest Saints. It is only Allah who bestows wisdom. Those who are primarily interested in increasing the amount of information their brain contains regarding the subject of Sufism, may resort to the academic literature on the subject. However, these academicians should be aware that most of their research is flawed with regard to the study of Sufism, presenting it as a cultural relic rather than as a living and fluid system of spiritual study.

5.  Acupuncture, affirmations, nutrition, trainers, life coaches, essential oils, lit scented candles, soaking in energetically balanced baths, listening to harmonically soothing music, burning incense, putting magnets under your pillow, wearing amulets around your necks, reading angel cards - - none of these are Sufism.

6. That dressing like someone from the Middle East, and grooming yourself in various ways (long mustaches, long beards, shaving the head, etc.) does not make you a Sufi.

7. That joy, silliness and laughter are often more potent teaching tools than gloomy and grim approaches to spirituality. Silliness helps to dispel pride and pomposity, and teaches humility.

8. That “proto-Sufis”, “Islamic mystics”, “antinomian dervishes” (whatever you wish to call them) existed prior to what we know of as Sufism today, and they bore little resemblance to Sufism as it is practiced today. Today’s Sufi tariqats are not a refinement, but an erosion of the original impulse and practice of Sufism. The Orders "seem very likely to be highly organized derivations from the originally flexible teachings of the first or other early teachers of the system. Because we have the writings of Rumi, Saadi, Ghazzali, Jujwiri and others, we can see the ‘orders’ as nothing more than a living palimpsest.” - Marsham

9. Mystical vision of deceased saints was not uncommon in the past in numerous tariqats and it is an act of authoritarianism (and a sign of their own lack of ability as teachers) that most Sheikhs today teach that mystical vision is a rare occurrence.

10. In even orthodox Sufi tariqats today, a kind of “cleaned up” version of the lives and teachings of the great Sufi Saints is being disseminated. Only those parts of these Saints’ lives and teachings, which are deemed “respectable”, are related to the students. The controversial and antinomian aspects are hidden under the kilims (rugs).

11. Khezr is a living presence and a divine archetype who frees the Sufi from literal religion and delivers the Sufi into the hands of Haqq. Khezr reveals the Spring of Water hidden inside the dry SharÓ’ah, namely the esoteric truth of Islam which is the Water of Eternal Life.

12. The word “past” is not synonymous with the word “perfect” or “correct”. Too many Sufis fall prey to the authoritarianism of the past, believing the record of past method to be superior to present practice which addresses the needs of an individual living in the current time and place. The danger lies in following practices that were specifically designed for another time and place, and which no longer hold potency for the contemporary Sufi.

May Allah forgive me for anything I have written that is wrong or misleading. I assume responsibility for any mistakes in this article. Allah knows best!

©2003 Laurence Galian. All rights reserved.