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Cover detail from Idres Shah 1968, The Way of the Sufi, Jonathan Cape Penguin Arkana, London

Toward the One: The Tao of the Sufi

In Sufism is the redeption of Islam. Sufism is the inner garment of the visionary light, free of fundamentalism and unfettered by fixed belief. It is the one in which all outer garments are shed as the layers of the onion and it is the inner garment of which Islam is the traditional outer garment. Its roots are deeper and wider than Islam yet it is the visionary endowment of the prophet's tradition.

Sufis' devotion to realization as a natural state of experience lying beyond all representations including attempts at fixed religious belief and their use of diverse methods of ecstasy and communion from the whirling dervish dance to sheer abandonment to the divine class the tradition as a world source illumination Their independence of outer trappings of belief and the common thread of the unity of knowledge - toward the one give the Sufi tradition a unique heritage of integration of experiential knowing.

Wherever I wandered from Afghanistan to Turkey I was referred to as "Sufi, Sufi". One reflection almost as a completion to the Genesis of Eden, I am now in return paying my respects to the Sufi tradition by carefully selecting these readings from Idres Shah's "Way of the Sufi" to reflect key aspects of my own experential gnosis which I have found more clearly reflected in Sufi wisdom than anywhere else I have found. These are for me Sufism's salient vision.

Sufis as Rough Wool of Integrity

The Sufis, named after their rough woolly garments, are renowned for their love of this inner light and for an inner freedom which stops at nothing to experience the divine in love.

To be a Sufi is to detach from fixed ideas
and from preconceptions;
and not to try to avoid what is your lot.
Abu-Said, son of Abi-Khair (Shah 1968 )

Jesus, Martyrdom and the Sufi Source

Sufis appreciated Jesus' unswerving commitment to true love in healing reality.

An Answer of Jesus

Some Israelites reviled Jesus one day
as he was walking through their part of the town.
But he answered by repeating prayers in their name.
Someone said to him: 'You prayed for these men,
did you not feel incensed against them ?'
He answered: 'I could spend only of what I had in my purse.'
- Attar of Nishapur (Shah 69)

Some Sufis identified Jesus gnostically as the prophet of the interior life and even amended the Shahadah to say "There is no God but al-Llah and Jesus is his messenger" (Armstrong 1993 260).

The 'drunken Sufis' exemplified by Bistami (Armstrong 93 261) desired to become one with the beloved in anihilation ('fana): "I gazed upon al-Llah with the eye of truth and said to Him: 'Who is this?" He said "This is neither I nor other than I There is no God but I" Then he changed my out of my identity into his Selfhood. Then I communed with him with the tongue of his face, saying "How fares it with me with Thee? He said "I am through Thee, there is no God but Thou".

This was taken to its visionary conclusion by al-Hallaj, the 'wool carder'

I am He whom I love, and He whom I love is I:
We are two spirits dwelling in one body.
If thou seest me thou seest Him,
And if thou seest Him thou seest us both"
(Armstrong 1993 263).

However when he preached overthrow of the Caliphate and cried "ana al-Haqq - I am the truth" as Jesus did, he was crucified.

"When he saw the cross of nails he turned and uttered a prayer: 'And these Thy servants who are gathered to slay me, in zeal for Thy rleigion and in desire to win Thy favours, forgive them O Lord, and have mercy upon them; for verily if Thou hadst revealed to them what thou hast revealed to me, they would not have done what they have done,; and if Thou hadst hidden from me what you have hidden from them, I should not have suffered this tribulation. Glory unto Thee in whatsoever thou doest, and glory unto Thee in whatsoever Thou willest' " (Armstrong 1993 264).

From this beginning has sprung a continuing faithfullness to the wild vision of these masters which goes beyond all traditional bounds:

The Martyrs

Mansur el-Hallaj was dismembered while still alive, and is the greatest Sufi martyr. But can you name the person who cut him up? Suhrawardi was murdered by the law, but what was the name of his executioner? Ghazali's books were thrown into the flames, but by the hand of whom? Nobody remembers these people's names, for the Sufis decline to reiterate the names of the infamous. Everyone knows the names of Ghazali, of Mansur and of Suhrawardi. But take it in another way. We remember, and we honour, the names of our great teachers. But do we remember what it was that they taught? How many people, not being Sufis, who revere the very mention of any of these three, as paying the highest penalties for their work, trouble themselves to inquire what these men should have been doing which was so important?

We may not know the names of the miscreants, but their successors have avenged themselves upon us; because they have shrugged aside Hallaj, adopted their opponent Ghazali as one of their own, and pretended that Suhrawardi was merely obsessed. They have avenged themselves on humanity for forgetting them. Are we going to allow them to win, once and for all? Who among us is going to follow the path, and in so doing say to the scholastics and clerks: 'Enough, brother, Ghazali, Suhrawardi and Mansur still live!'? - Itibari (Shah 296)

This sense of revolution against religious confinement has never ceased:

What Must Come

To those who seek truth in conventionalized religion:
Until conege and minaret have crumbled
This holy work of ours will not be done.
Until faith becomes rejection
And rejection becomes belief
There will be no true believer.
Abu Said (Shah 239)

Inner Illumiation - Outer Tradition

From this turbulent beginning greviously intolerant of personal illumination, Sufism became the inner garment which confining its transformation to the interior reality while the outer garment remained Islam, although it could equally be any cultural or religious tradition. This interplay of adaptable outer garment and essential inner garment of truth is elaborated in many Sufi passages.

The Meaning of Culture

The Sufi understanding of culture is not that which is understood by the ordinary man, who limits the meaning. Sheikh Abu Nasr Sarraj speaks of these three forms of culture (Shah 262):

To exist in harmony with the outer world the Sufi is like an adaptable guest within reality who may work as a merchant or scholar playing a conventional constructive role in the outer world almost as a disguise.

'The Sufi is a Liar'

The Sufi is in the position of a stranger in a country, of a guest in a house. Anyone in either capacity must think of the local mentality. The real Sufi is a 'changed' man (abdal), change being an essential part of Sufism. The ordinary man is not changed; hence a need for dissimulation.

A man goes into a country where nakedness is honourable, and wearing clothes is considered dishonourable. In order to exist in that country, he must shed his clothes. If he says merely: 'Wearing clothes is best, nakedness is dishonourable,' he puts himself outside the range of the people of the country which he is visiting.

Therefore he will either quit the country or - if he has functions to perform there - he will accept or temporize. If the subject of the excellence or otherwise of wearing clothes comes up in discussion, he will probably have to dissimulate. There is a clash of habits here.

There is an even greater clash between habit thought and non-habit thought. The Sufi, because he has experienced, in common with others, so many things, knows a range of existence which he cannot justify by argument, even if only because all arguments have already been tried by someone at one time or another, and ones have prevailed and are considered 'good sense'.

His activity, like that of an artist, is reduced to that of illustration. (Chisti Order Shah 135)

This inner freedom within the confines of cultural outer garment also allowed for many outer forms:

The Face of Religion

Now I am called the shepherd of the desert
Now a Christian monk,
Now a Zoroastrian.
The Beloved is Three, yet One:
just as the three are in reality one.
Ibn El-Arabi (Shah 87)

In this vision quest it is only the person of true knowing who has achieved realization and this goes beyond all fixed belief and clinging to religious forms.


All religion, as theologians - and their opponents - understand the word, is something other than what it is assumed to be. Religion is a vehicle. Its expressions, rituals, moral and other teachings are designed to cause certain elevating effects, at a certain time, upon certain communities. Because of the difficulty of maintaining the science of man, religion was instituted as a means of approaching truth. The means always became, for the shallow, the end, and the vehicle became the idol. Only the man of wisdom, not the man of faith or intellect, can cause the vehicle to move again. - Alauddin Attar (Shah 261)

The Being of God

No human mind can attain an understanding of the form of being which is called God.

This belief in the essence which goes beyond all forms and representations goes much deeper than the traditional Islamic adherence to an abstract God which cannot be represented under pain of death to a koan-like paradox in all religious attempts to define God by name or worship.

The Madman and the Muezzin

"A muezzin in Isfahan had climbed to the top of a minaret and was giving the call to prayer. Meanwhile, a madman was passing by, and someone asked him: 'What is he doing there, in that minaret?' The madman said: 'That man up thcre is in fact shaking a nutshell which has nothing within it.' When you speak the ninety-nine Names of God, you are, similarly, playing with a hollow nutshell. How can God be understood through names? Since you cannot speak in words about the essence of God, best of all speak about nobody at all." - Kitab-Ilahi (Shah 72).

This position acknowledges the relativity in all fixed religious belief in realtion to the essential truth, both traditional Islam and pagan idolatry:

Those Who Worship the Externals

If the Muslim knew what an idol was,
He would know that there is religion in idolatry.
If the idolater knew what religion was,
He would know where he had gone astray.
He sees in the idol nothing but the obvious creature:
This is why he is, in Islamic Law, a heathen.
Shabistari (Shah 207)


Everyone in the ordinary world is asleep.
Their religion - the religion of the familiar world -
is emptiness, not religion at all. - Sanai, Hadiqa (Shah 208)

A key point of enlightmenment is the paradox of the divine. While Buddhism denies God as athiest spirituality and traditional monotheism insists on God, the realized Sufi knows the paradox of either position:


Mankind passes through three stages.
First he worships anything: man, woman, money, children, earth and stones.
Then, when he has progressed a little further, he worships God.
Finally he does not say: 'I worship God'; nor: 'I do not worship God.'
He has passed from the first two stages into the last- Rumi

The Sufi position leads almost to an indifference to outer religious form which is freely conceded:

On Your Religion

Throughout the dervish literature you will find us saying repeatedly that we are not concerned with your religion or even with the lack of it. How can this be reconciled with the fact that believers consider themselves the elect?

Man's refinemcnt is the goal, and the inner teaching of all the faiths aims at this. In order to accomplish it, there is always a tradition handed down by a living chain of adepts, who select candidates to whom to impart this knowledge.

Among men of all kinds this teaching has been handed down. Because of our dedication to the essence, we have, in the Dervish Path, collected those people who are less concerned about externals, and thus kept pure, in secret, our capacity to continue the succession. In the dogmatic religions of the Jews, the Christians, the Zoroastrians, the Hindus and literalist Islam this precious thing has been lost.

We return this vital principle to all these religions and this is why you will see so many Jews, Christians and others among my followers. The Jews say that we are the real Jews, the Christians, Christians.

It is only when you know the Higher Factor that you will know the true situation of the present religions and of unbelief itself. And unbelief itself is a religion with its own form of belief.

Ahmad Yasavi - Naqshbandi Order (Shah 171)

This approach also cuts through the trappings of asceticism as merely a way station on the road to enlightmnment, thus also espousing creative knowing which transcends ascetic limitations:


First there is knowledge. Then there is asceticism. Then there is the knowledge that comes after asceticism. The ultimate 'knower' is worth a hundred thousand ascetics. - Rumi (Shah 207)

We see the same attitude of active creativity in the context of prayer as an activity rather than as pious ritual. This is a concept of healing activism:


People sated with themselves are so because of their hunger for something else.
They are therefore hungry. Those who turn back from wrongdoing,
they are the ones who are at prayer; not those who mercly seem to bend in prayer.
Prayer is an activity. - Sanai, Hadiqa

Toward the One: The Essential Truth in the Many Cultural Traditions

This adaptability comes from a devoted pursuit of the essential core of experiential knowing the type of personal illumination gnosis means in the early Christian tradition. It is a convergent essence in shedding the layers of the external conditioned reality and fixed belief and moral conformity for the essence.

The Unity of Knowledge

What I have learned as a Sufi is something that man cannot credit because of what he has already been taught. The easiest thing to grasp in Sufism is one of the most difficult for the ordinary thinker. It is this: All religious presentations are varieties of one truth, more or less distorted. This truth manifests itself in various peoples, who become jealous of it, not realizing that its manifestation accords with their needs. It cannot be passed on in the form because of the difference in the minds of different communities. It cannot be reinterpreted, because it must grow afresh. It is presented afresh only by those who can actually experiencee it in every form, religious and otherwise, of man. This experience is quite different from what people take it to be. The person who simply thinks that this must be true as a matter of logic is not the same as the person who experiences that it is true. - Khwaja Salahudin of Bokhara (Shah 287)

The Three Forms of Knowledge

"Ibn El-Arabi of Spain instructed his followers in this most ancient dictum (Shah 85):

There are three forms of knowledge.

Scholastics and scientists concentrate upon the first form of knowledge. Emotionalists and experientalists use the second form. Others use the two combined, or either one alternatively. But the people who attain to truth are those who know how to connect themselves with the reality which lies beyond both these forms of knowledge. These are the real Sufis, the Dervishes who have Attained.

Path of the Heart

Sufism is very much a path of the heart, of the love of God as the Beloved. This is a passionate relationship of ecstatic and sometimes tortured love in which the fulfillment is complete union with the divine.

The Heart

Someone went up to a madman who was weeping in the bitterest possible way. He said: 'Why do you cry?' The madman answered: 'I am crying to attract the pity of His heart.' The other told him: 'Your words are nonsense, for He has no physical heart." The madman answered: 'It is you who are wrong, for He is the owner of all the hearts which exist. Through the heart you can make your connection with God.' - Attar of Nishapur (Shah 69).

My Heart Can Take on Any Appearance

My heart can take on any appearance. The heart varies in accordance with variations of the innermost consciousness. It may appear in form as a gazelle meadow, a monkish cloister, an idol-temple, a pilgrim Kaaba, the tablets of the Torah for certain sciences, the bequest of the leaves of the Koran. My duty is the debt of Love. I accept freely and willingly whatever burden is placed upon me. Love is as the love of lovers, except that instead of loving the phenomenon, I love the Essential. That religion, that duty, is mine, and is my faith. A purpose of human love is to demonstrate ultimate, real love. This is the love which is conscious. The other is that which makes man unconscious of himself. -Ibn El-Arabi (Shah 87)

Central to this path of heart is such identification with the divine that union is the reality as it is with the Vedantic self and in Christ nature - the very claim made by al-Hallaj:

The Beloved

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 for him.
Rumi (Shah 207)

Divinity, and the Feminine

This communion of love extends into a frank sexually intoned love mysticism in which the femine plays the role of spiritual lover. Sufis are also noted for their clandestine toleration of the feminine spirituality (Armstrong 1993 454).and the term fravashi or 'spirit of the way' represents the female sacred whore who teaches sexual illumination. Elements of the femine appear in surprising and refreshing ways in poetry and in truth.


She has confused all the learned of Islam,
Everyone who has studied the Psalms
Every Jewish Rabbi,
Every Christian priest.
Ibn El-Arabi (Shah 86)

The Special Love

As the full moon appears from the night, so appears
her face amid the tresses.

From sorrow comes the perception of her: the eyes
crying on the cheek; like the black narcissus
shedding tears upon a rose.

More beauties are silenced: her fair quality is
Even to think of her harms her subtlety (thought is
too coarse a thing to perceive her). If this be
so, how can she correctly be seen by such a clumsy
organ as the eye?

Her fleeting wonder eludes thought.
She is beyond the spectrum of sight.
When description tried to explain her, she overcame it.
Whenever such an attempt is made, description is
put to flight.

Because it is trying to circumscribe.
If someone seeking her lowers his aspirations (to
feel in terms of ordinary love),
there are always others who will not do so.
Ibn El-Arabi (Shah 86)

Evolving Creation

Sufis also conceive of creation as an ongoing process. This is illustrated delightfully in the following passage on the evolution of man. This is a truly cosmic Adam wandering through evolutionary time and into a cosmic future not yet fully revealed. This is truly a creative vision in the imminent feminine in space-time:


First of all he came into the inert world. From minerality he developed, into the rcalm of vegetation. For years he lived thus. Then he passed into an animal state, yet bereft of any memory of his being vegetable - except for his attraction to Spring and to blossoms.

This was something like the innate desire of an infant for its mother's breast. Or like the affinity of disciples for an inus- trious guide. When the shadow is no more, they know the cause of their attachment to the teacher ...

From realm to realm man went, reaching his present reasoning, knowledgeable, robust state; forgetting earlier forms of intelligence.

So too shall he pass beyond the current form of perception. There are a thousand other forms of Mind. . . But he has fallen asleep. He will say: 'I had forgotten my fulfilment, ignorant that sleep and fancy were the cause of my sufferings.' He says: 'My sleeping experiences do not matter.' Come, leave such asses to their meadow.

Because of necessity, man acquires organs. So, necessitous one, increase your need.

Rumi (Shah 272)

Life as Chaos and Transformation

Sufis have correctly identified life as a state of chaos and transformation never quiescent except in death. This correctly identifies life as an endless struggle with entropy, on the edge of chaos through which comes verdant change and unfolding:

We are Alive

We are waves whose stillness is non-being.
We are alive because of this, that we have no rest.
Abu-Talib Kali (Shah 275)

Coeval Souls

A key point of the Sufi vision of incarnation is similar to the of Christ nature - the concept of the eternal soul or nagaual - an Elhoistic spirit co-eval with creation and incarnate in man as the soul and the essence of this soul is complete union with the divine gaining everything in union with the divine in losing everything in selfless devotion that goes beyond all hunger and fear of death.

Souls Before the Creation of the Body

Know about the time when there were souls and no bodies. This was a time of a few years, but each of those years was one of our millennia. The souls were all arrayed in line. The world was presented to their sight. Nine out of ten of the souls ran towards it. 'Then paradise was presented to the remaining souls. Out of these, nine out of ten ran towards it. Then hell was shown to the remaining souls. Nine out of ten of them ran away from it in horror. Then there were only a few souls, those who were affected by nothing at all. They had not been attracted by the earth or by paradise, nor had they feared hell. The Celestial Voice spoke to these survivors, saying: 'Idiot souls, what is it that you want?' The souls answered in unison: 'You who know all know that it is You whom we desire, and that we do not desire to leave Your Presence.' The voice said to them: 'Desire of Us is perilous, causes hardship and innumerable perils.' The souls answered him: 'We will gladly experience anything for the sake of being with You, and lose everything in order that we may gain every- thing.' - Ilahi-Nama (Shah 74)

Four Sufi Sayings

The Two Rings

A man loved two women equally.
They asked him to tell them
which one was his favourite.

He asked them to wait for a time
until his decision should be known.
Then he had two rings made,
each exactly resembling the other.

To each of the women, separately, he gave one ring.
Then he called them together and said:
'The one whom I love best is she who has the ring.'
Attar of Nishapur (Shah 80).

Attainments of a Teacher

People think that a Sheikh should show miracles and manifest illumination.
The requirement in a teacher, however, is only that he should possess all that the disciple needs.
- Ibn El-Arabi (Shah 87).

Dark and Light

Evening precedes morning, and night becomes dawn. - Hafiz (Shah 272)


The honour of man is his learning.
Wise people are torches lighting the path of truth.
In knowledge lies man's opportunity for immortality.
While man may die, wisdom lives eternally.
- Ali (Shah 272)