This has got to be the quintessential book about the Sufis, their lore, and their history. It is quite comprehensive and represents an admirable survey of a vast topic. The Sufis are hard to confine into an easy classification. They are often considered an Islamic sect but as Shah points out they are not exclusively associated with Islam. It is just that they so happened to reach their greatest flowering among Islamic societies. There are Christian Sufis and secular Sufis and Sufis influenced by various paganisms, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, and even shamanism. The Sufis inherited much of the Neo-platonic tradition and alchemical lore of
This book is a gem of lore, of keys to cryptic Sufi customs, of teachings, and of the little know influence of the Sufis on various Western traditions – particularly those that came through the Spanish Arabs known as the Saracens. The Sufi traditions and literature are extensive, appearing in many places and times from the Islamic period onwards and having sources previous to the Islamic period. Though Shah suggests Sufism as a kind of Universal Esotericism there are quite potent cultural and religious influences as well in various places and times. In most cases it accords with an inner version of Islam but often there was discord between this inner form and the outer exoteric forms of Islamic theology. Some Sufis were beloved of Islamic rulers and scholars, others were persecuted and martyred. According to Shah in the early days of Sufism it was important to speak allegiance to Islamic theology in order to be left alone. The Wisdom traditions of the Egyptian, Persian, and Byzantine empires were able to reconfigure at least somewhat in Sufic forms. Sufism certainly re-gathered the alchemical and Neoplatonic traditions that would later fuel the Renaissance.
Shah warns against classifying Sufism in specific ways, suggesting that it is an esoteric form that appears to fill a need, arising, flourishing, and disappearing as needed. Throughout the book he examines and expounds various Sufi word plays based on multiple and alternative word meanings in Arabic, but occasionally extending to other languages as well such as Persian and Spanish. Indeed the word ‘sufi’ seems to have a resemblance to the Greek word for wisdom ‘sophia.’ Even so, Sufism is more mystical than philosophical so preaching and debating about concepts and precepts are typically not a feature. Sufism is esoteric and mystical and so symbolic and suggestive rather than a literal tradition as the main forms of both Islam and Christianity have become. He suggests Sufism as a perennial tradition where comparisons were made among mystics of different types and sects. Shah notes the Sufi psychological views of Ghazali and Ibn El-Arabi as being legitimate precursors of the ideas of Freud and Jung. It cannot be denied that the Sufi schools and wisdom societies were the models for freemasonry and other traditions of the Middle Ages.
A pasture for gazelles, the votary’s Ka’ba (temple),
The tables of the Torah, the Quran.
Love is the creed I hold: wherever turn
His camels, Love is still my creed and faith.”
“A torch between goat horns (“the devil” in
He equates the Bedouin tattoos with so-called witch’s marks and the use of the symbol of the goosefoot to represent a secret meeting place. Other strange relations of Sufi and European lore are the practice of the code of Chivalry which is well known to have come from the Saracens. The troubadours of the Middle Ages brought Arabian musical forms and love poetry. The Order of the Garter (of St. George) or the Sufic St Khidr is a cult that originated in
Shah traces the influence of Sufi teachers and Saracen troubadours on St. Francis of
Shah devotes a chapter to the Western Sufi – Sir Richard Burton – who also used an Arabic pseudonym. He translated works but is thought to have written some as well including the Kasidah – The Tinkling of the Camel Bell. He says
“You are all right, you are all wrong,” we hear the careless Sufi say,
For each believes his glimm’ring lamp to be the gorgeous light of day”
Sheikh Shahabudin Suhrawardi (1145-1235) was a great teacher and organizer of Sufi Dervish methods and originator of the Suhrawardi Order. Colonel Wilburforce Clarke translated one of his works – The Gifts. Clarke gives one Sufi saying meaning that Sufis tended to shun asceticism and monasticism but to practice within every day life:
“Neither fear we hell, nor desire we heaven.”
Sufis are respected and associated with the ‘sincerity’ of the wise – by the common people and so the teacher is said to encourage the development of this sincerity among the students. He lists three stages of Dervish dwellers: People of Service who serve other dwellers, People of Society who work and bond through assemblies, and People of Retirement – those of age who spend more time in solitude. Dervishes traditionally spend time traveling: travelling within, traveling in one’s own land, and traveling to other lands.
Shah goes through many dervish customs and mystical philosophy. He mentions the Science of State (hal) where various ecstatic states are catalogued and practiced. The Baraka, or mystical grace-force-essence is key to the dervishes. There is also the Baraka of the Order or School itself – mostly carried by the teachers. The ten veils, or ‘blameable qualities’ are given as: desire, separation (rationalization), hypocrisy, desire for praise and love, illusions, avarice and parsimony, greed, irresponsibility, haste to fatigue, and negligence. One may be encumbered by mystical states (hal), stuck in the rapture, being a mere inebriation mystic:
“A Complete Sufi may be called a Master of Time, meaning master of starting and stopping, of modifying cognition”
Outward detachment and interior solitude are goals of dervish practice. Suhrawardi was eventually executed for political reasons but managed to mold a vast tradition. Other Schools are the Chishti (musicians), the Naqshbandi (silent), the Kubravi, the Rifa’I (howling), and the Mevlevi (dancing). The styles refer to methods of development. Sufi organizations are said to be deliberately temporary and meetings without great regulation. Each school had markers like types of patchworked garb. Some meeting places had checkerboard floors – perhaps a precursor to the OTO Gnostic Mass temple format. Although Sufism is not associated with asceticism there seem to be many exercises of a mystical sort – similar to yoga and visualization yoga. Each school specialized in various techniques and one could be sent from one school to another according to one’s abilities.
Shah includes a chapter of a more modern inquiry of a Western seeker to a Sufi master that is quite interesting. The master points out the preconceived notions always apparent in intellectual approaches to knowledge and suggesst openness and detachment as a better starting point. This seems akin to the Zen ‘Beginner’s Mind.’
He devotes a chapter to the ‘creed of love’ brought to
There is a section on – Miracles and Magic. Miracles are seen in the context of how they affect the development of the student. One of their functions is to inspire in story. Magic is subordinant to the Great Work of spiritual development:
“Magic is worked through the heightening of emotion… Magic is a training system as much as it is anything else…. Magic not only assumes that it is possible to cause certain effects by means of certain techniques; it also schools the individual in those techniques.”
Shah mentions his view of the development of Cabala and Markabah Jewish mysticism as strongly influenced by Sufi ideas. The Jewish Yudghanites of the 8th? century were aligned with Sufism. Hebrew grammar was first written in Arabic under Arab philological rules. So there is very strong evidence that Hebrew grammar and Cabalistic attributes are founded on earlier Arabic models. Shah says that the 10 sephira were originally 8 in the Arabic system. This period beginning in the 900’s? AD is called the Judeo-Arabian period. The Arabized Jews of Spain were plentiful.
Other topics include more famous teachers, hidden Sufis, esoteric interpretation of the Koran, and Malak Taus and the Yezideh cult of the Peacock Angel. Shah gives specific Sufi symbolism to the Peacock Angel cult rather than the pre-Islamic Babylonian paganism sometimes attributed to it. He thinks that the Catholic rosary was adopted from the Saracens.
Tariqa is the Arabic word for path, way, or dervish order. It has many other meanings but it mostly refers to the Sufi habit or ‘rule of living.’
Shah mentions the Tarot as having an Arabic or Sufi origin – and subsequently playing cards as well. He says some current attributes are incorrect to the original system. Certainly the Sufis carried the Tarot lore and if this lore did not originate earlier in
An Egyptian Sufi from the 800’s is thought to been in the succession of the Sufi Solomon and the Solomon Temple of the Masons may not have referred to the Hebrew Solomon and Temple but to this more recent Sufi Solomon and the 8th century octagonal Sufi – Dome of the Rock temple. This Egyptian Sufi mentioned founded the Malamati Sufi Order which like ‘the Builders’ has apparently been pointed out as quite similar to the Freemasonry.
Overall this is a fantastic book. Shah sometimes seems too Sufi-centric, giving the Sufis credit for the origins of nearly everything it seems. The level that he suggests that they influenced the Hindus and even the Zen Buddhists does not seem likely though certainly these currents cross-pollinated one another here and there. I would say that Sufi influence on European culture was considerable and has not been properly acknowledged and is not at all widely known. Shah wrote several books but I am guessing this is his Magnum Opus – for he was certainly a formidable Sufi as well.