Circling the Square

Firelight flickered, footsteps quickened,voices lowered to a hushed whisper, then lowered still further and as heart strings were plucked tenderly the Sufis danced their way through the starlit night; leaving Arabia Felix they danced their way westward across a sea of sand, through Egypt and the desert across to the oases of Morocco and up through Spain as far north as the French Alps. As the Soldiers of Islam sought to convert the world to ‘In Sha Allah’ Sufis danced symbiotically along knowing that Allah was and would always be there to welcome them. Where else? Where else would Allah be; for wherever Allah lives Sufism serves as the call Home.

Sufism, sometimes called a tradition,is also known as the Way or the Path. It emerged into the west during the middle ages as other calls to Divine love were being heard from sea to sky. ‘In God’s name’ and Allah be praised rang across the land as righteous Christians and fanatic Muslims sought to debate the finer points of theology through extreme violence.

Early in the seventh century out of Medina in Arabia rose the Prophet Mohammed, midwife to the Koran, and from nearby Mecca soon rose a viewpoint of the Divine which threatened the very foundation of Christianity. For although Islam is based on the God of Abraham as are Judaism and Christianity, it is lived through Ishmael son of Hagar not through Isaac son of Sarah. It was founded on the concept of ‘complete surrender’ and did not allow it possible for there to be a Son of God. Like the Jews, these Muslims, followers of Islam closed the door at the end of the old testament. For after all ‘There is no God but God … ‘ the first of the five pillars of Islam and so Sons of God…their God…God of Abraham…were not allowed.

And so the beginning of the Middle Ages was heralded by the sons of this new faith riding forth to bring Islam and its call to surrender to the world; and on its coattails Sufism, the inner call to Divine love. Using religion as the means and not the end, Sufism saw Alice’s Wonderland as just so and through the Looking Glass as the next stop. Sufism started where ordinary religious doctrine ends and is predicated on the establishment of a personal relationship with the Divine which need not be mediated by time and space, temple or temple-master.

So the call to prayer, second of Islam’s five pillars, became inseparable from the call to arms. Everywhere it seemed was the sound of the drum, footsteps on the march. Sound and movement, footsteps in a circle, Sufi circles moving with the sound of the drum, moving west as the east exported itself from its very foundations both artistic and spiritual. From the ashes of the Prophet’s death in 632 AD rose the phoenix of Islam spreading almost uncontrollably both east and west so that by the fourteenth century the influences of the heathen Saracen, in fact of the entire Arabic empire had been permanently translated into the more modern contributions of the Moors.

The faith of Mohammed had insinuated itself lastingly into the smoldering ashes of the old Greco-Roman empire as Lyn Wilcox summed up in Sufism and Psychology:

“During the European Dark Ages, Islamic science and literature flourished, and Sufi scholars proceeded in scientific and mathematical experimentation and discovery while Europeans who attempted the same were being tried for heresy. While the richest Christian monasteries then might be endowed with 300 to 400 books, the Muslim University at Granada had 105,000 volumes. Interaction between Judaic, Christian and Muslim scholars was widespread, particularly in Spain, where Muslims ruled from 711 to 1492, and allowed freedom of religion even during the Crusades. Sufi teachings were made known throughout the “Western” world through Spain and provided the foundation for the Christian mystics–St. Theresa, St. Catherine, Meister Eckhart, Richard Rolle and others– who began to appear in the eleventh century. The best known, St. Francis of Assisi, visited the Sufi-influenced court of the Sultan of Egypt in Damietta in the midst of the Crusades.” (13)

And in fact it was the Crusades, the call to reclaim Jerusalem that was the prime catalyst in calling Sufism west. In 1095 Pope Uban II sanctioned the Crusades and the eventual invasion of Jerusalem was to last two centuries after which the converted Ottoman Turks redeemed the city in the name of Allah, and of course where Allah lived Sufism served at the inner altar with reverence and adoration.

And so the cradle of civilization moved westward bringing gifts, this time of science and mathematics, astronomy and poetry, not the usual baggage of a crusading warrior nor the more esoteric gifts of the three wise men those last famous gift bearers out of the east. These were the tools of the new-age yet age old warrior, God’s own self appointed soldiers but not soldiers on the battlefields of Europe and the Holy Land, although the war torn Holy Land, heartland of Christian Jew and Muslim alike, mirrored man’s inner torment. It reflected his need to acquire Truth, to serve righteousness through deed while God’s own spiritual warriors sought to battle another enemy, those seven deadly sins, on another field of truth. And it was here on that inner field of truth that the crucible known as Sufism was born out of man’s desire to live life as a true warrior, impeccable, a man of sincerity, a man of integrity dedicated to life through a love of God; a Sufi. So investigating Sufism somehow leads us into the world of the warrior, intellectual, spiritual, and military.

As above, so below. Like so much of the wisdom Sufism has given to us, this short phrase contains untold truths, particularly a truth about Sufism, that only it’s latest guise is through the theater of Islam. For to understand Sufism’s rise in the middle ages is to see it mirrored in the rise of courtly love and chivalry. But not chivalry by the sword against the enemy; more in a sense of the archetypal heroic, the sword of Inner Truth. For usually what is happening in one level of society is being played out metaphorically in all arenas. ‘Only the names have been changed’… as above, so below.

Despite the fact that Sufism in the middle ages rode into the west on the wings of Islam it is much older as Idries Shah says in his book The Sufis:

“Exactly how old is the word “Sufism?” There were Sufis at all times and in all countries, says the tradition. Sufis existed as such and under this name before Islam. But, if there was a name for the practitioner, there was no name for the practice. The English word “Sufism” is anglicized from the Latin, Sufismus; it was a Teutonic scholar who, as recently as 1821, coined the Latinization which is now almost naturalized into English. Before him there was the word tasawwuf- the state, practice or condition of being a Sufi.” (54)

and he continues:

“The Sufis appear in historical times mainly within the pale of Islam. They have produced great theologians, poets, scientists. They accepted atomic theory and formulated a science of evolution over six hundred years before Darwin. They have been hailed as saints, executed and persecuted as heretics. They teach that there is only one underlying truth within everything that is called religion.” (55)

For whenever man goes out, man goes in; as above so below. As man has explored the planet and encountered the unknown he has sought to explain and classify, his version of “to know”, his logos; but there have been some courageous seekers who have ventured inward not forsaking outward, still seeking to make sense, to know; but through sense itself, through its eros, to know something instead of knowing of it; to know it through connection, relationship, compassion, love.

Love is a word inseparable from the word Sufi, in fact at the very heart of its meaning for a Sufi lives life through acts of love and yet this differs from Christian devotion as Laleh Bakhtiar points out in Sufi, Expressions of the Mystic Quest:

Every spiritual way emphasizes a particular aspect of the Truth. Christianity, for example, is essentially a way of love; the Christian is tied to Christ through love. To the Sioux, on the other hand, the most important element is self-renunciation. Islam emphasizes knowledge. Sufism begins with the way of knowledge, but carries it to its highest form, knowledge which illuminates.

The way to illumination is often described as consisting of three attainments: the Knowledge of Certainty, the Eye of Certainty, the Truth of Certainty. The distinction may be understood by taking fire as the symbol of Truth. To attain the Eye of Certainty is to know fire from seeing the light of its flames. The highest attainment, the Truth of Certainty, belongs to those who know fire from having been consumed in it. (7)

As well as being lovers of God, Sufis are seekers of truth; seekers of truth implying that something is hidden, unknown, a mystery, beyond explanation. These seekers of truth through the lens of true love explored the universe enticing it to yield up its secrets. Searching for the ideal marriage of organic truth and the anonymity of the primal participation mystiques these mystics as they were called lived both inwardly and outwardly. Living in the herd, yet knowing it … the cosmic leap … knowing it and remaining present.

As Judaism, Christianity, and Islam became key players in the How Will You Spend Your After Life Game; each developed its own FBI and CIA. Only this wasn’t just intelligence Logos stuff this was real knowledge, true understanding in fact, when knowledge was still basically revelation-type stuff, like the Earth is not the center of the universe, the Earth is not flat. And in fact a lot of ‘nots’made banner news.

These medieval seekers of Truth, ultimate Truth, Truth as the divine metaphor became known as mystics and each served at the alter of Love, in each case a form of bhakti with relentless devotion to the Father, the Son and the Teacher. Although Sufism is known to be a mystical tradition of Islam, it has been said as Idries Shah pointed out, to be much older than that. In fact, it might be said in modern terms that Sufism is the birth of the I/Thou relationship, assuming a continuous personal dynamic with the Divine. While it is true that Sufism is tied to Islam by its present environment it would seem that Sufism is much more archetypal – the essence of the primal longing to know God intimately; a longing which crosses all boundaries, all faiths, all dogma – or as Idries Shah in The Sufis puts it “In addition to the unscalable wall of Sufi experience, there is the problem of the Sufi personality. Any ordinary survey of Sufic writings and careers would be enough to bewilder the least doctrinaire investigator. Among the Sufis have been former Zoroastrian, Christian, Hindu, Buddhist and other priests; Persians, Greeks and Arabs, Egyptians, Spaniards and Englishmen. There are in the ranks of the Sufi masters theologians, a reformed captain of banditti, slaves, soldiers, merchants, viziers, kings and artists. Only two are well known to many contemporary Western readers. They are the poet and mathematician Omar Khayyam of Persia, and the prince Abu ben-Adam of Afghanistan– the subject of a poem by Leigh Hunt : “Abu ben-Adam, may his tribe increase….” (47)

Sufism is endemic, here to stay and wherever There is it goes. In fact Sufism causes from here to there. It is the ability to access an expanded sense of consciousness, a bigger universe, a wider view of life, always as seen through the desire to serve the Beloved.

Sufis are in the true sense of the word Hermetic for although strict monasticism, asceticism and isolation are not practiced, Sufis are frequent visitors to the liminal space of Hermetic fame. Finding silence within the throng is much more Sufi, combining inward and outward, attempting the balance betwixt and between.

While Sufism itself has been called a tradition it has an underlying structure; albeit an extremely dynamic one. For to be a Sufi implies a decided sense of discipline in support of a commitment to inner truth. To live within such a framework requires guidelines and in fact a guide or teacher is an absolute prerequisite.

To be Sufi one must be willing to explore the farthest corners of one’s own empire taking all it’s citizens to heart both inwardly and outwardly. Trying to live life in the moment and paying attention, suspending judgment and expectation, being accountable and responsible for one’s own actions; these are basic requirements of an aspiring Sufi.

Like all ‘isms’, Sufism has a clear subdivision into several families, each with its own bias. But the underlying principal is always the same, an I/Thou relationship. And this relationship is to be viewed from two levels, inner and outer…whether it is our extroverted relationship to the Divine or our introverted relationship with the Self, Sufism is the call to dance with the Beloved.

As man searches Life for a sense of meaning, man searches for the Beloved; and it is this archtypal longing which gives us story, which gives us history; and behind every good history is the search for the Beloved…and Life goes on circling out of the dark into the next well lit campfire, settling comfortably in the starlit night as Sufis dance their hearts into being.

Works Cited

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  • Translated Barks, Coleman. With Arberry, A.J., Moyne, John; Nicholson, Reynold. The Essential
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  • Burchhardt, Titus. Translated by Matheson, D.M. An Introduction to Sufism. London, England. San Francisco, California. Thorson’s, an imprint of Harper Collins Publishers.
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  • Platt, Richard. Foreward by Lubar, Steven of National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution. Smithosian Visual Timeline of Inventions. London. Dorling Kindersley Ltd. 1994.
  • Shah, Idries. The Sufis. Introduction by Robert Graves. New York. Doubleday. 1964.
  • Edited Spiegelman, J. Marvin Ph.D. with Khan, Pir Vilayat Inayat, and Fernandez, Tasnim.
  • Sufism, Isam and Jungian Psychology. Scottsdale, Arizona. Falcon Press. 1991.
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Wilcox, Lyn. Sufism and Psychology. Chicago, Illinois. ABJAD Book Designers and Builders. 1995.