Wednesday, December 5, 2012

The Mystical Tradition in Islam: Sufi

My article “Ecstasy of Love” became very popular among readers from 21 countries. Nevertheless, people feel somehow ashamed to write comments openly and I receive their questions by email. I’m really happy that conceptual information in my articles causes people from different spiritual traditions to ponder, think abstractly and enrich their intellectual worlds. As far as Sufi tradition is of special interest, I decided to site a chapter from Dr Richard Bolstad’s book “Integration: NLP and Spirituality”. This beautiful book opened my eyes to the nature of love, origin of religion and spirituality.  Several years ago I translated the book  into Russian and richly illustrated it.

Sufi Dancing

I was lucky to see dancing Sufi in Istanbul, The feeling of quietness and admiration takes you…

The Mystical Tradition in Islam

In 610AD, when the Arabic teacher Muhammad first had the visions that led to the creation of Islam (the name Islam means “submission”), the nomadic Arab tribes worshipped a multitude of gods, goddesses and spirits along with Allah (Allah is “the high one”; this is the name that Jesus, speaking Aramaic, used to refer to God as well). Muhammad taught submission to Allah as the only God. From the beginning, there were mystics in Islam, including Hasan al-Basri in Iraq (died 728AD), Dhu al-Nun al-Misri in Egypt (died 861AD) and the woman teacher Rabi’a al-Adawiyya in Iraq (died 801AD). As in Christianity and Judaism, these “Sufi” (the word suf means wool, and these mystics wore rough woollen clothes) often incurred the wrath of the orthodox authorities. The Persian teacher Mansur al-Hallaj, for example, was executed in 922AD for claiming to be one with God and stating “I am the truth.” By the twelfth century, there were several Turuq (schools) of Sufi, each named after the teacher who had founded it. (Johnstone, 2002, p 285-287).

The Sufi themselves, while accepting the six pillars of Islamic faith, often also say that their teachings predate Islam and are the same as the core teachings of the ancient Egyptian mystics, the Kabbalists and the Christian Gnostics. Idries Shah explains “Sufism has always existed…. Sufism is the knowledge whereby man can realise himself and attain permanency. Sufis can teach in any vehicle, whatever its name. Religious vehicles have throughout history taken various names.” (Shah, 1974, p 312).

Sufi teaching is often done using metaphors like the parables with which Jesus the Nazarene taught. Consider this delightful tale of the Sufi teacher Bayazid, about the illusory nature of the self (from Shah, 1974, p 274). “When someone knocked on the door, Bayazid called out: ‘Whom do you seek?’ The caller answered ‘Bayazid’. Bayazid replied ‘I, too, have been seeking “Bayazid” for three decades, and I have not yet found him.’” The other vehicle used in Sufi teaching is poetry. Amongst the great Sufi poets is Jalal-ad-Din Rumi who died in 1273. The following verses exemplify his poetry, which transcends the division between sacred and “profane” love (from Rumi, 1997, p 16).

“When the lover breathes,
Flames spread through the universe.
One breath shatters this illusory world
Into particles.

The world becomes an ocean
From beginning to end,
And the ocean disappears in its majesty.
If this were made manifest for even a second
To the people
There would be no humanity left.”

Sufi ideas and practices also circulate outside of Sufism in the work of teachers such as Gurdjieff.

George Ivanovich Gurdjieff

George Ivanovich Gurdjieff (1877-1949) was a Russian who searched Asia and the middle east looking for the ancient mystical teachings. He studied with Sufi and other teachers, learning both Sufi sacred dancing (a form of meditation akin to Chinese Tai Chi) and Sufi mystical thought. By 1914 when Peter Ouspensky met him (Ouspensky, 2001) and began introducing his ideas to the west, Gurdjieff said that he was teaching the fourth of four ways to attain oneness.

1)      The way of the Fakir. Indian Fakirs gain extreme control over their physical body.
2)      The way of the Monk. Monks gain control over their emotions by “submission”.
3)      The way of the Yogi. Yogis gain control over their mind by meditation.
4)      The way of the Sly Man. Gurdjieff’s fourth way involves living in the world rather than withdrawing from it, and using all experiences to assist “the work” of waking up from the sleep of normal consciousness.


  1. Bolstad, R. Integration: NLP and Spirituality. Christchurch, 2003, New Zealand
  2. Johnstone, P. “Islam” p 270-303 in Bowker, J. ed Religions Cambridge University, Cambridge, 2002
  3. Ouspensky, P.D. In Search Of The Miraculous Harvest, New York, 2001
  4. Rumi, M.C. (Translated by Ergin, N.O.) A Rose Garden Echo Publications, Lake Isabella, California, 1997
  5. Shah, I. The Way Of The Sufi Penguin, Harmondsworth, Middlesex, 1972

Natalia Levis-Fox

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