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Sufism and Western Mysticism

[from ]

Subject: Sufism and Western Mysticism
By Gary Mitchell


The intention of this paper is to illustrate the influence of Sufism on
Western Mysticism. Emphasis is placed on three categories: the
Rosicrucians, the Fourth Way of G. I. Gurdjieff, and Sufism as a growing
mystical school in the West.

A clarification of terms is in order. According to *The American Heritage
Dictionary of the English Language*, "mysticism" is defined as: "A spiritu
discipline aiming at union with the divine through deep meditation or
contemplation" (*American* 467). That this definition applies to Sufism is
given; it also will be applied to Rosicrucianism and the Fourth Way.

A more important clarification involves what exactly is meant by "Sufism."

It is commonly refered to as "Islamic mysticism" in the west, and not
without good reason. However, one must be careful in stereotyping it as
strictly an Islamic phenomenon, for Sufism has not always been exclusive
to Islam:

The "body of knowledge" which is Sufism has taken many forms,
depending upon the culture and people who contact it. It has existed
within Hindu, Zoroastrian, Jewish, Christian, and nonreligious frameworks.

It is, of course, best known in the West as a development of Classical Isl
yet one can see that it is not dependent on Islamic study for a
predominantly Western audience (Ornstein 356).

Furthermore, there have been Sufis who were not strictly Muslims. Jalal
al-Din Rumi, for example, had Christian and Zoroastrian disciples (Shah
114), and Khidr, the 'invisible teacher' of the Sufis, is said to be Jewis
(Shah 114). In an account of one woman's studies with a Hindu Sufi
teacher, the teacher (whose name is left out of the account in reverence o
the teacher's memory) states: "Sufism is a way of life. It is neither a
religion nor a philosophy. There are Hindu Sufis, Muslim Sufis, Christian
Sufis.[sic] My Reverend Guru Maharaj was a Muslim" (Tweedie 13). The
inclusion of believers in different religions, it may be pointed out, seem
restricted to the People of the Book -- an atheist Sufi is unheard of. Whi
it is not the intention of this paper to strip Sufism of its historical Is

background, the fact that Sufism is not exclusively Islamic is brought up
an effort to understand how schools of thought disparate and alien to
Islam can acquire Sufi influences, given the religious context of Sufism.

Western Mysticism: Rosicrucian Groups

One of the best known Western schools of mysticism is Rosicrucianism.
Many organizations in the United States today use the name "Rosicrucian"
(McIntosh 29). Indeed, the Ancient and Mystical Order Rosae Crucis
(AMORC) is both one of the largest and one of the best-known esoteric
orders in the modern world (Kinney 33). The name "rosicrucian" is derived
from Latin and means "Rosy Cross." Roger Bacon defined a Rosicrucian as a
"follower of the path of the Rose Cross," which is significant since it ma
have been a mistranslation of the Sufi phrase "Path of the Rose" (Shah
245), which in turn has been associated with the Sufi teacher Suhrawardi
(Shah 223). One of the foundations of Rosicrucianism, as stated by The
Societas Rosicruciana, a European Rosicrucian organization of the 19th
Century, is the study of the doctrine of Hermes Trismegitus (Regardie 19),

i.e. Hermeticism. As it turns out, Suhrawardi has claimed that Sufism's
foundation is "a form of wisdom known to and practised by a succession of
sages including the mysterious ancient Hermes of Egypt" (Shah 28). Robert
Anton Wilson, a popular writer and lecturer on occultism, points out
another common trait of Sufism and Hermeticism as practised in Europe: in
opposition to the West's concept of Free Will as a quality of humanity, an
the East's acceptance of the "robotic" behaviour of humankind, stands both

the Hermetic Tradition and the Sufi Tradition (Hyatt v). Both groups
recognize that human behavior is "robotic" (that is, programmed, in a
sense, by genetic and environmental influences). However, unlike Oriental
philosophies such as Buddhism, both Sufism and Hermeticism maintain
that there are techniques that, when applied properly, can slowly bring
true freedom to individuals (Hyatt v).

The Societas Rosicruciana of Anglia, United Kingdom, was the origin of the

Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn (Regardie 19), henceforth refered to as
the Golden Dawn. Among the membership of the Golden Dawn were the
infamous Aleister Crowley (Hyatt 12), Dion Fortune (Knight 59), and the
poet W. B. Yeats (Knight 59). In a sense, the Golden Dawn is one of the
more influential orders formed in Europe. A fundamental of the Golden
Dawn's teaching is the Qabalah(Regardie 23), a traditionally Jewish system

of magick [sic]. Yet the Qabalah may have roots in Sufism. As Idries Shah
points out, "It is said, with all the authority of the *Jewish Encyclopedi
that Hebrew experts regard the Cabala [sic]I as originating with Sufism or

a tradition identical with it" (*Way* 15). So the Golden Dawn is connected

to Sufism in three ways: through the imagery of the rose, the doctrine of
Hermeticism, and the use of the Qabalah.

--G. I. Gurdjieff and the Fourth Way

George Ivanovich Gurdjieff, an Armenian mystic that established himself
in Paris, popularized a mystical system known as the Fourth Way in the
earlier half of the 20th Century. (Smoley 12). Its influence on modern
spirituality has been great. "The Gurdjieff Work remains a potent force
today, even though it often operates behind the scenes of modern trends in

psychology, spiritual technology, and the renewed interest in inner
traditions of all ages" (Friedlander 40). The enneagram, a geometric figur
introduced by Gurdjieff as a means to visualize his teachings, has been
incorporated into a psychological system of personality types (Friedlander

37). Gurdjieff's concept of the multiple "I" -- that people have thousands
personalities, each visible at only one given time and only within certain

circumstances, within one uniting identity -- has been expanded upon in
Robert Ornstein's book *Multimind* (Friedman 38). The teachings of
Gurdjieff have even been used in leadership development programs
(Friedman 38).

With the influence Gurdjieff has had on the West, it may come as a
surprise to some to discover that he had been trained by Sufis. Gurdjieff
had several Sufi sheiks among his teachers, including Daud Yusuf (Lefort
33), Hassan Effendi (Lefort 62), Pir Daud (Lefort 93), and Mohamed Daud
(Lefort 133). These teachers imparted in Gurdjieff several basic teachings

that were incorporated into the Fourth Way.

A characteristic of The Fourth Way is that "it does not require withdrawal

from the world, but can be pursued in the midst of ordinary life" (Smoley
13). A similar attitude is found in Sufism. "Sufis do not retire from life
this is a fundamental principle [of Sufism]" (Martin 148). Unlike the naiv
student of esoterica, who feels compelled to be an introvert, the Sufis ar
"in the world but not of it" (Williams 116).

Many key elements of Gurdjieff's teachings seem to have Sufi origins:
 "Anyone familiar with the Nasrudin corpus of Sufi teaching stories will
recognize the same character in Gurdjieff's "Mullah Nassr Eddin." Another
Sufi influence appears, according to J. B. Bennett, who was a discipe of
Gurdjieff, in the character of the Bohkarian dervish Boggo-Eddin, who is
none other than the great Sufi teacher and the founder of the Naqshbandi
order, Bahaudin Naqshband. The central symbol of the Gurdjieff work, the
enneagram, is certainly of Sufi origin, and it is fairly well established
many of the sacred dances done as meditations in movement by students
of Gurdjieff were also inspired by Sufi contacts, most particularly the
Sarmouni" (Riordan 285).

Many spiritual guides try to set up permanent schools of learning, and
have done to the point of having amassed an empire of sorts that
interferes with the lessons. The Unification Church and Baghwan Shree
Rajneesh, for example, may have valuable insights; yet they are buried in
morass of cultishness typical of guru worship. Gurdjieff, on the other han
"does not seem to have been concerned with the empire-building so
beloved of contemporary gurus in the United States" (Smoley 16). This
may have been simply because of the nature of Gurdjieff. However, a
similar line of thought persists in Sufism. For example, the most popular
image of Sufism involves the "dervish dance," a meditative technique
originating with Rumi and practised by many in the West (*Way* 21). Yet
Sufi literature states that "this practise was especially 'proscribed', *f
local reasons*, by Rumi for the people of Asia Minor in the region of
Iconium [emphasis added]" (*Way* 21). In other words, while Sufism may
be universal in a sense (as indicated above), distinct practices are
specifically designed for a particular place. In extension, practices can
said to be specific to a particular time, as well. Thus, Gurdjieff may hav
not intended his teachings to extend beyond its time, despite the fact tha
it has clearly done so. One of Gurdjieff's Sufi teachers,  Sheikh Hassan
Effendi, said to Rafael Lefort, a disciple of Gurdjieff's who wished to
discover the Fourth Way's origins, "Gurdjieff was to teach certain things
a certain circumstance. That his teaching was to be adulterated and carrie
out long after its effectiveness had gone, under circumstances which were
in any case changed, was inevitable and predictable" (Lefort 67).

Sufi Practise in the West

The end of the 20th Century has ushered in a renewed interest in
spirituality in the West, especially non-traditional forms such as astrolo
paganism, and mysticism. Given its oriental flavor and the power of its
teachings, one may expect that Sufism would gain a foothold in Europe
and America. As Seyyed Hossein Nasr put it, "During the past two decades
few fields of classical Islamic studies has attracted as much attention in
West as Sufism... [in part] because of the present spiritual and intellect
needs of Western man" ("Studies" 3). This does not seem to merely be a
cursory interest in Sufism: "There are already some who practise Sufism
seriously in the West, and besides the pseudo-Sufi movements of little
import, certain branches of Sufism have already sunk their roots in the
West and have established authentic branches there" (Nasr 93). There are
now practising Sufis in Europe, the United States, and even South America
(Anderson 216).

A major influence on the Western adaptation of Sufism is Saiyed Idries
Shah. As pointed out by Mir S. Basri in a symposium in honor of Shah's
contribution to Sufi studies:
"Idries has studied deeply the knowledge of the East, and he has conveyed
it to the West by means of his works, astonishing and delighting Western
as well as Eastern literary men and critics. His writings and treatment of

Sufism have succeeded in simplifying, through artistry, those principles
that Sufi authors have perennially employed to reach and transmit ever-
renewing spiritual experience" (p. 31).

The influence Shah has had can almost be described as fanatical in some
circles. Shah relates a tale of an experience he had in Greece while askin
g a
Westerner about holiday prospects: "Brandishing a copy of one of my
books, he said: 'You are wasting your time thinking about a holiday, and
trying to waste the time of a man who is reading this book: something
more important than all your holidays!'" (*Way* 34).  Besides his many
books, including *The Sufis*, *Tales of the Dervishes*, *The Perfumed
Scorpion*, and *Seeker After Truth*, Shah's work has been commissioned
for use in BBC educational programs, recorded for in-flight listening for
major international airline,  and, as mentioned above, the subject of a
symposium (Williams 101). His main contribution has been in the relation
of Sufi ideas that are useful to the West, and in the modernizing of Sufi
parables so that Westerners may understand the teachings. As Shah put it,
"I am interested in making available in the West those aspects of Sufism
which shall be of use to the West. I don't want to turn good Europeans int
poor Asiatics" (Williams 102). As a result of Shah's publishing, people no
view Islam in ways they had not previously considered; in this sense,
"Saiyid Idries Shah... [is a link] in the chain between Europe and the Eas
(Basri 32).


Considered archaic not too long ago, Sufism has yet proven itself to be bo
alive and pervasive. Many of the "indigenous" forms of Western mysticism
have been shown to be indebted to Sufism. Even more so, as mystic
revelations become psychological theories (as in the case of Gurdjieff) an
philosophical statements, Western intellectualism is also indebted to
Sufism, if indirectly. The books of Idries Shah have encouraged much deep
meditation and contemplation -- as used in the definition of "mysticism"
quoted above. As the West struggles to understand and appreciate Islam
as a political and social force, the knowledge of Sufism may serve as one
many threads that bring Islam into fuller contact with the West... and vic


*Works Cited*

*The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Paperback
Edition*. Peter Davies, Ed. New York: Dell Publishing Co., 1979.

Anderson, Walter Truett. *Reality Isn't What It Used to Be*. San Francisco
Harper and Row, 1990.

Basri, Mir S. "Idries Shah: Bridge Between East and West -- Humor,
Philosophy, and Orientation." In: *Sufi Studies: East and West*, edited by

Professor L. F. Rushbrook Williams. New York: E. P. Dutton & Co., 1973.

Friedlander, Joel. "The Work Today." *Gnosis*, Summer 1991, pp. 37-40.

Hyatt, Christopher S., Ph.D. *Undoing Yourself*. Phoenix, AZ: Falcon Press

Kinney, Jay, and Timothy O'Neill. "The Imperator of AMORC: An Interview
with Gary L. Stewart." *Gnosis*, Summer 1989, pp. 33-35.

Knight, Gareth. "Dion Fortune -- The Seer of Glastonbury." *Fate*, Vol. 45
No. 5 (May 1992), pp. 55-64.

Lefort, Rafael. *The Teachers of Gurdjieff*. London: Victor Gollancz Ltd.,


Martin, Desmond. "A Session With a Western Sufi." In: *The Elephant in the

Dark*, edited by Leonard Lewin. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1976.

McIntosh, Christopher. "The Modern Rosicrucians." *Gnosis*, Summer 1989,
pp. 26-32.

Nasr, Seyyed Hossein. "Sufism and the Spiritual Needs of Contemporary
Man." In: *Sacred Tradition and Present Need*, edited by Jacob Needleman
and Dennis Lewis. New York: The Viking Press, 1975.

________. "Studies in Sufism in the 1950's and 60's." *Hamdard Islamicus*,

Vol. XII, No. 2 (Summer 1989), pp. 3-9.

Ornstein, Robert E. "Contemporary Sufism." In: *Transpersonal
Psychologies*, edited by Charles T. Tart, pp. 353-388.

Regardie, Israel. *The Golden Dawn*. St. Paul, MN: Llewellyn Publications,


Riordan, Kathleen. "Gurdjieff." In: *Transpersonal Psychologies*, edited b
Charles T. Tart, pp. 281-328.

Shah, Idries. *The Sufis*. London: The Octagon Press, 1982.

________. *The Way of the Sufi*. New York: E. P. Dutton & Co., 1969.

Smoley, Richard. "Meetings with a Remarkable Paradox." *Gnosis*, Summer
1991, pp. 12-17.

Tart, Charles T. "Introduction." In: *Transpersonal Psychologies*, edited
Charles T. Tart, pp. 1-7.

Tweedie, Irina. *The Chasm of Fire*. Longmead, Saftesbury, Dorset, U.K.:
Element Books, 1986.

Williams, Pat. "An Interview with Idries Shah." In: *The Elephant in the
Dark*, edited by Leonard Lewin. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1976.

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