An Extract from The Sufis by Idries Shah, addressing the question, What is Sufism?
The Islanders. Sufi illustrative calligraphy, in the hand of ‘Mohamed son of Shafiq, 1291’, of the Mevlevi (‘Dancing’) Dervishes.
A Sufi, the Sufis, cannot be defined by any single set of words or ideas. Rumi, one of the greatest mystical masters, tells us in a famous passage that the Sufi is:
Drunk without wine; sated without food; distraught; foodless and sleepless; a king beneath a humble cloak; a treasure within a ruin; not of air and earth; not of fire and water; a sea without bounds. He has a hundred moons and skies and suns. He is wise through universal truth – not a scholar from a book.
Is he a man of religion? No, he is far, far more: ‘He is beyond atheism and faith alike – what are merit and sin to him? He is hidden – seek him!’
The Sufi, as we are told in these most famous words from the thirteenth-century Diwan of Shams of Tabriz, is hidden; hidden more deeply than the practitioner of any secret school. Yet individual Sufis are known in their thousands, throughout the East. Settlements of Sufis are found in the lands of the Arabs, the Turks, the Persians, Afghans, Indians, Malays.
The more the dogged searchers of the Western world have tried to dig out the secrets of the Sufi, the more hopelessly complex the task has seemed to be. Their work thus litters the fields of mysticism, Arabism, Orientalism, history, philosophy and even general literature. ‘The secret,’ in the Sufi phrase, ‘protects itself. It is found only in the spirit and the practice of the Work.’
No investigation into the reality of Sufism can be made entirely from the outside, because Sufism includes participation, training and experience.
In ordinary life, certain forms of understanding become possible because of experience. The human mind is what it is partly because of the impacts to which it has been exposed, and its ability to use those impacts. The interaction between impact and mind determines the quality of the personality. In Sufism this normal physical and mental process is engaged in consciously. The result is felt to be more efficient; and ‘wisdom’, instead of being a matter of time, age and accident, is regarded as inevitable. Sufis liken this process to the analogy between a savage who eats everything and a discriminating man who eats what is good for him as well as tasty.
Metaphysically-minded people, and especially those who feel that they are comfortable in the domain of mysticism or ‘inner perception’, have no greater start on the generality of humanity where the acceptance of Sufism is concerned. Their subjectivity, especially where it is linked with a strong sense of personal uniqueness ‘caught’ from other people, can in fact be a serious disability.
Anyone who says, ‘It is all so indescribable, but I just feel what you mean,’ is unlikely to be able to profit by Sufism. For Sufis are working, are carrying out an effort to awaken a certain field of consciousness by means of an approach which is specialized, not fortuitous. Sufism does not trade in airy-fairiness, mutual admiration, or lukewarm generalities. When the ‘bite’ disappears, so, too, does the Sufic element from a situation.
Sufism is not directed to a section of the community – for no such section exists – but to a certain faculty within individuals. Where this faculty is not activated, there is no Sufism. It contains ‘hard’ as well as ‘soft’ realities, discord as well as harmony, the sharp brightness of awakening as well as the gentle dark of a lulling to sleep.
There are imitation Sufis, who try to benefit from the prestige which attaches to the name. Some of them have written books, which only add to a general perplexity among outsiders.
Much of the Sufic spirit may be transmitted in writing. However, if one accepts the fact that Sufism has to be experienced, it does not depend upon the impact only of artistic forms, but of life upon life.
Sufism, in one definition, is human life. It is axiomatic that the attempt to become a Sufi through a desire for personal power will not succeed. Only the search for truth is valid, the desire for wisdom the motive. The method is assimilation, not study…
The Sufic way of thinking is particularly appropriate in a world of mass communication, when every effort is directed toward making people believe that they want or need certain things; that they should believe certain things; that they should as a consequence do certain things that their manipulators want them to do.
The Sufis often start from a non-religious viewpoint. The answer, they say, is within the mind of mankind. It has to be liberated, so that by self-knowledge the intuition becomes the guide to human fulfilment. The other way, the way of training, suppresses and stills the intuition. Humanity is turned into a conditioned animal by non-Sufi systems, while being told that it is free and creative, has a choice of thought and action.
The Sufi is an individual who believes that by practising alternate detachment and identification with life, he becomes free. He is a mystic because he believes that he can become attuned to the purpose of all life. He is a practical man because he believes that this process must take place within normal society. And he must serve humanity because he is a part of it.
The Sufi life can be lived at any time, in any place. It does not require withdrawal from the world, or organized movements, or dogma. It is coterminous with the experience of humanity. It cannot, therefore, accurately be termed an Eastern system. It has profoundly influenced both the East and the very bases of the Western civilization in which many of us live – the mixture of Christian, Jewish, Moslem and Near Eastern or Mediterranean heritage commonly called ‘Western’.
Mankind, according to the Sufis, is infinitely perfectible. The perfection comes about through attunement with the whole of existence. Physical and spiritual life meet, but only when there is a complete balance between them. Systems which teach withdrawal from the world are regarded as unbalanced.