The object of Sufi spiritual teaching can be expressed as: to help to refine the individual’s consciousness so that it may reach the Radiances of Truth, from which one is cut off by ordinary activities of the world. The term used for illuminations or radiances is Anwar.


It is a misunderstanding, as – for instance – the book Zia al Qulub (among many others) emphasizes, to think that a mystic either desires, or can achieve, identification with God in the sense of acquiring divine attributes or powers. Such a concept belongs to magical, not mystical, thinking.
In common parlance, as well as in the minds of many who should know better, ‘mystical’ is bracketed with mystery and mystification in the senses of something confusing or difficult to understand. These secondary meanings, of course, are only due to ‘unconscious illiteracy’.
Sufis require the reduction of the effects of ‘material attributes’, those things which stand in the way of higher understanding. Many things which repetitious or over-simplified religion presents as spiritual are, when examined, found to be simply aspects of materiality. One example is emotionalism.


However widespread and familiar they may be, many presentations of religion are abbreviated and distorted versions of something of which the original is not known to current practitioners. The outlines can be discerned, more often than not, and examples of some parts of these are given later.
A regression of primitive thinking, and the desire for order, never far from the human mind and often (not always) useful, are the chief culprits.
Where the primitive feeling is allied to equally primitive logic, we get a familiar distortion: the belief that if things material are obstacles, then ‘killing or suppressing the material’ should lead to enlightenment. Yet this, far from being useful, is essentially magical thinking.
Omar Khayyam has pointed out this fallacy, when (echoing the foolish) he writes: ‘If wine is the enemy of religion, I shall devour the enemy of religion’. Quite understandably, this phrase has been misinterpreted, due to the narrow mentality of literalists. They have imagined that Khayyam is deriding religion! The poet is a humorist: literalists often, perhaps always, lack this capacity.
Self-mortification, far from producing liberation from material things, is far more likely to cause either an unhinged mind, delusions or masochistic taste for more suffering, experienced, of course, as joy.


‘Polishing the mirror’, or ‘removing the dust’ are terms in Sufic use, referring to the process of liberation from those elements, natural and acquired, with which ‘the world’ insulates humanity from the greater Truth.
Sufis, far from being able to build on the mentality of conditioned beliefs, generally have to help ‘detoxify’ the mind from harmful, deadening or other imaginably important illusions, fixations or emotion-based ideas.
That which is capable of perceiving objective reality is, in Sufism, the human soul (ruh). Materiality is the term employed for that which weighs down the soul.

The soul is conceived of as a part of a single ‘sea’, a ‘Sea of Peace’, on the surface of which ripples, waves and storms constitute the effects of materialism, attachment to objects, and negative thought.
Speaking of the primordial unity of being, Rumi, in the first book of his Mathnawi, says:

We were extensive and we were all one substance
Without head or foot we were, all one head.
We were all one substance, like sunshine:
Without knots we were, and clear, like water.


Materialism, attachment to things of the world, includes pride. Many religious people suffer from pride: taking pleasure or even delight in being good, or religious. In ordinary religious circles it is so common for no real distinction to be made between spiritual people and the self-deceived that a teaching such as Sufism on this point has been considered vital as a constant reminder and corrective. The most prideful dislike this reminder most. As a consequence, following a common pattern, they attack the Sufis, not their own problem.
Their problem is one which psychologists have long recognized; but, when subsumed in rhetoric or theology, it tends to escape analysis. Ranging from shrugging-off to deeply ingenious malevolence, its consequences reduce the likelihood of correct information circulating.
Considerable hostility can be engendered experimentally to demonstrate this malaise. I have, for example, more than once unnerved ‘specialists’ by telling them jokes – and delighted others of their kind by providing an appearance of what it is at the moment fashionable to call gravitas.
Everyone is familiar with sanctimonies people, suffering from the effects of materialism; and also with those who have such pride (and are therefore in Sufic terms not spiritual people at all) that they imagine that they alone are right, or that their form of belief alone is absolutely true.
In a seeming paradox dealing with intellectuals, the Sufi poet Mirza Abdul-Qadir Bedil insists that real knowledge is greater than the mechanical sort – and that even the unregenerate may eventually reach it – if they find the path:
You are better than anything your intellect has understood
And you are higher than any place your understanding has reached.

The Sufi affirms that he perceived the reality beyond outward form, in contrast to those who merely fix upon form. Form is useful, but it is secondary. As the great Sufi exponent Ibn Arabi puts it, in his Interpreter of Desires:
My heart has become able to take on any form
A grazing ground for gazelles, a [Christian] monastery of monks
An idol-house [of the pagans], the [Islamic] pilgrim’s Mecca mosque
The tablets of the [Jewish] Torah and the Qur’an’s pages
I follow the faith of Love: wherever its riding-mounts face, that is my religion and my faith.

This passage illustrates, quite dramatically, that the mystic has a religion and a faith totally different from that professed by those wedded to externals, externals which, to the ignorant, are the religion.
The Sufi way is through knowledge and practice, not through intellect and talk. As Prince Dara Shikoh says, in a Persian poem:

Do you wish to be included with the Lords of Sight?
From speech [then] pass on to experience.
By saying ‘Unity’, you do not become a monotheist;
The mouth does not become sweet from the word ‘Sugar’.

There are those who believe that the attainment of the perception of Truth can be carried out by unaided effort. They imagine that by unswerving dedication to certain practices, by adherence to rules which are laid down by experimenters or are really only fragmentary, one can complete – or get some way along – the Journey of the Soul.
But one may say something and yet not be able to do it. Try, for instance, lifting yourself up by the bootstraps.
Studying appropriate parts of some literature can provide a basis: it can be an essential prerequisite, a preparation. Beyond a certain point, however, as with every other specialization, someone must diagnose, someone must prescribe, and the prescription must be properly carried out.
Some useful counter-thinking to the ‘magical’ attitude has indeed been done. If there are magical procedures, why the variety of formulations? If the path has been laid down, why the successive appearance of different teachers? Why would anyone reinvent the wheel, if everything were as cozy and sequential as primitive longing so easily convinces us?
Constant reformulation, repeatedly bringing the teaching back to its centre of gravity, is so consistent a pattern that those who have overcome greed and narcissism enough, have learnt from the pattern’s existence that this is central.
It is revealing of the mentality of many would-be metaphysicians that, when faced by this statement, they so often clamor for the stage after reading or formal study, instead of applying to a Sufi to discover whether they are yet fit for further development. And whether their study has been along the right lines, or whether reading and familiarization with certain concepts has been adequate.
Jalaluddin Rumi speaks of the ‘line’ towards Truth, leading to the ‘dot’ which is Truth, in his Mathnavi:

The Knowledge of the Truth is a point and the wisdom of the Sufi a line
From the existence of the point is the being of a line.


Scholars and popularizes alike, relying on observation or records of specific Sufi procedures, (and trying to asses the Sufi development ‘system’) have lumped these together and imagined them to be constants. But this approach is ineffective. It renders both narrative and academic materials useless. The scholars and other outward observers do not discriminate between real and impoverished procedures, between essential and local or time-centered practices or concepts. They cannot, either, see the personal element, how the student may vary from time to time, in potential or attitude.
It is easy to see how this misunderstanding has arisen. The mentality and methods of scholasticism and linear thinking have been employed to approach something which is of a completely different nature.


The aspirant has to be guided by a mentor. The stage at which this guidance can take effect is seldom, if ever, perceptible to the learner. Those who say ‘I am ready to learn’, or ‘I am not ready to learn’ are as often mistaken as they are correct in their surmise. Yet the aspirant must try, neither thinking that he is nothing, nor ‘trying to sit on a throne’. I found this couplet in the Persian text of Rumi’s Letters :

If you cannot sit on the throne like a king
Seize, like a tent-pitcher, the rope of the Royal tent.

The Sufis are unanimous that a Guide (Sheikh) is absolutely essential, though never available on demand: ‘the Sufis are not merchants’. Many Sufis are not guides. As with any other specialization, teaching is a vocation, open only to those who are truly capable of discharging its functions.
A Sufi may be carrying out functions ‘in the world’ which are not perceptible to others. He (or she) may be of a higher rank than a teacher and yet have no teaching mission.
The very concept that the teacher is the highest stage of human being is taken from somewhere other than Sufism. Sufis do not exist only to lead others to enlightenment; where they have a hierarchical function, this is for purposes other than teaching. Perhaps it is the never far distant human feeling of self-importance that assumes that the Sufi teacher is the greatest human being? If the assumption is that the individual is the most important thing there is, and that no other function than his or her wellbeing exists, then we can understand this unfounded assumption.
Some hold that the Sufi way is not distinct from that of Islam, but that it follows the esoteric meaning of the Qur’an, of which the exoteric meaning is in the overt text. Hence Ghazzali or Abu Hanifa (the fonder of one of the major Islamic orthodox Schools) could be both Moslems and Sufis at the same time.
Some Sufi writers draw attention to the non-timebound nature of Sufism (‘before man was, we were’) and none regards Sufi thought as absent from any legitimate religious framework.
There are many mystical passages in the Moslem’ holy book, as well as in the Traditions of the Prophet. One is ‘We are nearer to him [man] than his jugular vein’; another, ‘He is with you wherever you are’; and ‘He is in your own souls: you do not perceive Him’.
Those are general statements; but Sufi exponents draw attention to Sura XVIII (verses 65) for a close analogy with Sufi teaching and teachers. In this chapter, a teacher with special knowledge (whom many call Al Khidr, the wandering guide) meets Moses and teaches him that there are meanings in life beyond appearances – a classical Sufi contention.
Moses asks to be taught the truth, but the man answers, ‘You will not be able to have patience with me!’ Moses, however, persists, and undertakes to obey the stranger in everything.
They start on a journey, just as the Sufi call the following of the Path ‘a journey’, with the compact of obedience and Patience, and that Moses will ask no questions.
First they came to a boat, which the teacher scuttles. Moses asks why he should do this, since it might drown the people in it. ‘Truly, thou hast done a strange thing!’
The guide replies, ‘Did I not tell thee that thou canst have no patience with me?’
The text continues:
Moses said, ‘Rebuke me not for forgetting, nor grieve me by raising difficulties in my case’.
Then they proceeded until, when they met a young man, he slew him. Moses said, ‘Hast
thou slain an innocent person who had slain none? Truly a foul thing hast thou done!’
The teacher answered, ‘Did I not tell thee that thou canst have no patience with me?’
Moses again agreed to keep silent, adding that if he were to question any of his mentor’s
acts in future, he could cast Moses aside.
Then they proceeded: until, when they came to the inhabitants of a town, they asked them
for food, but they refused them hospitality. They found there a wall on the point of falling
down but he set it up straight. Moses reproached his teacher with helping those who had
been unkind, for he could not contain himself.
The mysterious teacher said, ‘This is the parting between me and thee. Now will I tell the
interpretation of that over which thou wast unable to hold patience.’
He explained that the boat belonged to poor people. By rendering it unserviceable, sinking
it bellow the water, he had ensured that an usurping king who was seizing all boats would
not find it. When the tyrant had gone away, the poor men would be able to salvage their
boat, and earn their living with it.
The youth, if spared, would have grown up to be a danger to others. ‘As for the wall, it
belonged to two youths, orphans, in the town. There was, beneath it, a buried treasure to
which they were entitled. Their father had been righteous man. So thy Lord desired that
they should attain their age of full strength and get out their treasure… I did it not of my
own a accord. Such is the interpretation of that over which thou wast unable to hold

This metaphor conveys precisely the way in which the Sufi teacher carries on his function in life. Note that the disciple, if he is unable to keep up with his master, will have to be dismissed. However much he tries, he will remain at his own level.
Theologians might argue that Moses has to be illuminate in order to carry out a prophetic function, and pass on divine commands relating to spiritual practices and worldly behavior, the essence of familiar religion. But such would only be those who accept mysticism. To many orthodox theologians in most religions, mysticism is anathema. As the Akhlaq-i- Mohsini has it:

The bird which has no knowledge of pure water
Has his beak in salt water all year round.

Pure water is a technical term, with a specific meaning among the Sufis.
When they hear or read this story, a proportion of people will always wonder, inwardly or otherwise, why they should trust a teacher to such an extent. Some will question whether they should trust at all. The Sufi’s answer to this is simply that, without such trust, no learning is possible. Husain Waiz Kashifi, in the Lights of Canopus says:

The person who has not seen the face of trust – has seen nothing
The person who has not found contentment – has found nothing.

Some writers have gone further in explaining. The human being, whether he realizes it or not, is trusting someone or something every moment of the day. He trusts the floorboards not to collapse, the train not to crash, the surgeon not to kill him, and so on.
But, one might answer, we trust these people and these things because we have reason to believe that they will not let us down. But that, say the Sufi’s supporters, is exactly the position in Sufism. Only unthinking, heedless people fail to observe it.
Sufis, traditionally, dwell among those whom they teach, living good lives as people of probity, acting according to their words, fulfilling undertakings: until, as with the floorboards, the train or those who come in contact with them. According to the nature of the individuals among whom their lot is cast, this time put in by the Sufis will vary. None of them complains if it is measured in decades – though the would-be learners may complain. The latter, like Moses, may lack patience when only this will overcome their suspiciousness. If the teacher does not dismiss them, they effectively dismiss themselves. One cannot learn from someone whom one distrusts. Yet plenty of people, again perhaps because of self-flattery, ‘follow’ those whom they do not entirely trust. To the Sufi, such people may be followers: hey cannot, in that condition, be pupils.


The Sufis have some striking allegories designed to indicate both the Path and the situation of humankind when ignorant of the Path. How, for instance, does the Sufi see the ordinary individual, trying to make his or her way through life?
…A word often used for the aspirant is Seeker (salik). Those who, though practicing Sufic exercises or otherwise concerned with Sufic matters, are not the end of the Path, cannot call themselves Sufis. ‘Sufi’ is the name for the Realized Human Being. In the Sufic phrase, ‘He who calls himself a Sufi is not one’. Yet the world swarms with people who call themselves Sufis. They have been numerous for centuries.


There are four major conditions of humans, according to the Sufis. These stages are variously named, but the following are representative:

HUMANITY (the ordinary state)
DISCIPLESHIP (being on the Path)
REAL CAPACITY (when progress starts)
ATTUNEMENT WITH THE DIVINE (the final condition).

These conditions have also been allegorized as:


The stage of Humanity is that the ordinary man or woman, lacking flexibility, given to ‘earthly’ behavior and also fixed by habit or training into certain beliefs. Hence its symbol, EARTH: a static condition. It is also known as the Condition of Law, in which people act according to almost inescapable rules. These rules may be seen as the interplay of everyone’s susceptibility to training and the training itself. This is the stage of most people, characterized by its relative immobility as ‘Mineral’. It includes many, if not most, of the people who imagine themselves to be spiritually-minded: the heavily-conditioned ones.
WATER is the stage when the individual is taken onto the Path, and can exercise some capacities towards self-realization. It is also the stage of potentiality. Since some growth and movement takes place at this stage, the Sufis also call it ‘the Vegetable stage’ – just as a vegetable, moving, grows from the earth.
AIR is the condition in which real capacity develops. Real capacity is as different from simple movement (as of a vegetable) as an animal is from a vegetable. Hence its symbol is ‘Animal’.
Beyond ‘Animal’ comes ‘Man’. The Forth Stage is therefore dubbed ‘Human’, and its analogy is FIRE.
This very ancient formulation, till employed by the Sufis, is said by some to be referred to in the New Testament, with the concepts of Water, Spirit and Fire. Their understanding of the categories is very different from the interpretation generally and usually unexamined among Christian theoreticians and scholars. For them, the baptism of water is the ceremony which testifies potentiality for the First Experience (‘Water’). A relic of this rite is said to be preserved – though in abbreviated form – in the words of John the Baptist: ‘I baptize you with water…’
John continues, in the same passage, with:’…but he who comes after me shall baptize you with pneuma [air, the Holy Ghost] and with fire…’
That the experiences come in a necessary succession is testified in John, iii, 5: ‘Except that man be born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the Kingdom of God.’ So the sentence, in Sufi terms, gives the names and order in which the successive initiations, corresponding to ever-improving perceptions, take place: water (purification from ‘the world’), air ‘Holy Spirit’ (understanding), and fire, ‘Kingdom of God’ (higher consciousness, awareness of Truth).
In Sufi parlance, the four Stages are conceives as:

1 Being in contact with, and partaking of the nature and behavior of, ordinary humanity
2 Being in harmony with a Teaching Master
3 Being in contact with the Founder of the Teaching
4 Being in harmony with Absolute Truth.

It is possible because of the correspondence between the Sufi ideas and this conception of the meaning of Christianity that the Sufis have often been accused of being ‘secret Christians’ – and perhaps also because Jesus has their high respect and is regarded as a Master of the Way. But the Sufis do not accept that there is a correlation at the low level of ritualism, approximate ideas and outward formulation.
Sufism, they say, is that which enables one to understand religion, irrespective of its current outward form.
Hindu and Jewish mystics have also claimed that they have found a similar ‘internal dimension’ in their own religions which corresponds with the Sufic one. This is the reason why, in the Middle Ages and afterwards, people reared in these traditions have adopted Sufic formulations in their writings.
The characteristic and sequential cast of mind of the professional scholars has caused such good people to spend much time in puzzling out the ‘Sufi influences’ upon various thinkers of the past, assuming culture-creep or familiar literary influences. They have succeeded better in describing their own way of thinking than in illustrating their theses.


The Four Levels of Perception, again corresponding to the above-cited Four Stages, are in the Sufi formulation: CONCENTRATION, RENUNCIATION, PERCEPTION and ABSOLUTE KNOWLEDGE. The aspirant’s description changes as he climbs the ‘Ladder of Four Rungs’: first he is an Abid [a worshipper], then a Zahid [renouncer], then an Arif [knower] and finally a Muhibb, [lover]. LOVE is the word used for the highest stage of development.


The use of the word ‘Love’ by Sufis and others has misled verbal literalists and emotionalists alike into imagining that a state of bemusement akin to romantic love, or ‘being in love’ is what the Sufis mean when they use the term.
The use of the technical term ‘Love’ in formal religion may even be, according to the Sufis, part of a ‘test’. This test may become apparent when one interrogates the injunction ‘Thou shalt love thy God...’ It soon becomes evident (even with a little thought) that nobody can possibly love as the result of a command. Hence it is said that ‘Love’ here means something other than a command. It is believed to mean that the goal is ‘Love’.
A similar ‘test’ is contained in the adjuration to ‘Love thy neighbor as thyself’. Since it is not a particularly creditable thing to love oneself, the phrase cannot mean what its overt words convey – unless addressed to a pretty hopeless case.
Again, to do unto others what one would wish them to do unto oneself is a further example of this kind of approach. Since anyone’s experience will tell, nobody can wish for anything which he or she can be certain will be the best; the command must have a different meaning. And supposing one wished to die: would one be right in wishing that upon another?


Sacred texts are rich in what were formerly instructional materials intended to be thought about. They have deteriorated into mere slogans attracting righteous approval and perplexity, according to who meets them. Another such is the Judgment of Solomon, this time from Old Testament lore. In spite this tale being taken literally, a moment’s thought will tell anyone (especially any woman) that such an event could never have taken place. Is there, has there been, anyone, particularly a woman, on earth who would hold out her skirt for half a dismembered baby? If so, the instance, given as a universal, is surely nothing more than an isolated incident, best consignment to morbid psychology. The meaning is, obviously when one thinks about it, bound to be something else.
These examples could be multiplied; but they are only offered here as illustrations of how easily one may be indoctrinated with the most bizarre concepts, and suspend thought about them; accepting them as significant when, in the repetition, they are absurd.
A Sufi exemplary text, The Meaning of the Path, by Qalimi, deals with this area thus:

The Way of initiation, in which the individual can reach, if his desire is pure, the status possible to him, has been called the Idkhal, the Causing to Enter (on the Way).
The Way has three parts. It must begin with an individual who has already traveled the Way. This individual must come into contact with those who are at the lowest stage, in order to conduct them higher. He explains absurdities in formerly respected formulas. The lowest stage is called ‘Earth’, denoting the passivity and fixity of the stage of the participants. The other Stages, successively, are known as water air, and Fire.
These terms are chosen partly because they consecutively represent items in increasing degree of refinement or decreasing density. The use of them by the spiritual alchemists is too obvious to need comment.
At the stage of ‘Earth’, people are still in touch with the grosser substances of materiality, thought and deed, as well as with the coarseness of one another in a manner which precludes much understanding. These include conventional scholars and others prone to petty emotions such as jealousy and other subjective feelings which the Sufis (for this and not only for social or pious reasons) deplore.
The stage of’ ‘Water’, also symbolizing purification in some traditions, takes place when the Teacher is in a position to amalgamate the watery (that is, the mobile and purified) element in the postulant with ‘water’ in another sense. This latter ‘water’ is finer substance of a spiritual kind, partaking of the nature of an energy. When this is possible, a certain kind of ‘mobility’ can take place. In proceeding terms, it means the stage when the higher elements of the mind and individuality are connected through the intermediary of the Teacher. This is what is attempted in faiths which possess a priesthood; though the initiatory lore of this procedure is now universally lost among organized religions.
The stage of ‘Air’ is reached after completing the Water daraja [grade]. In this, the consciousness of the individual (or the group, if there is one) rises to a perception of true Reality higher than is possible at the ‘Water’ stage. In other words, the experiences will be such as to cancel out, supplant, make irrelevant, the earlier ones.
In all the degrees, candidates cannot proceed from one range of perceptions to the next they are ‘ready’. Readiness is a mark of worthiness, and does not depend upon minor criteria, such as the time taken or the seniority of the individual.
At the same time, Sufis select disciples in such a manner as to enable one to affect the other and make the process more effective. The Sufic ‘current’ can also be conveyed between members of a group who do not formerly meet.
‘Water’ cannot truly purify without the deliberate effort of the person to be cleansed. As the degrees proceed, the effort becomes to be cleaned. As the degrees proceed, the effort becomes greater. Although the effort may appear continuous or otherwise, the true harmonization which is taking place at each stage requires the correct attunement of all the members of a group (taifa, halqa) involved.
Immature (kham) individuals, still suffering from too much material thinking, may be found resenting the fact that they have to wait for others to make a certain kind of progress before they can benefit from it. They have failed to note that others, too, are waiting for them to progress.
From ‘Air’, where the consciousness has been transferred by the Teacher from himself as a conductor to that of all substances of the ‘Air’ level, of all teachers and saints, the process continues to that of ‘Fire’. This, highest, consciousness - gnosis – is represented in ordinary words as contact with the Divine. This is the stage referred to, as the ‘Death before death ’. Unless the Teacher has been through this ‘death’, as it were on behalf of his pupils, so that he is enabled to bring its possibilities to them, he cannot lead them to it.
Did they but know it, the very greatest effort and sacrifice has to be undertaken by the Teacher first of all to endure this ‘death’ on their behalf.

Shabistary, in The Secret Garden , says:

He is the Completed Man who, from his completeness
Performs, with his Mastership, the work of a slave.


The acceptance of a Seeker, in traditional Sufic circles, starts with the taking of the pledge, the Bayat. The Seeker places his hands between the hands of the Guide. This is the start of the Dual Pledge: the Seeker, for his part, undertakes to accept the Guide, and the latter agrees to accept the Seeker as a pupil.
Many people have a superficial, or sentimental, concept of the Pledge. It is no mere formality, not something which is entered into lightly, emotionally or on demand. The aspirant may approach a guide for acceptance: but the Guide, for his part, cannot accept the Seeker until he is sure that the Seeker is in a state to carry out his undertaking.
This state may take a long time to arrive; or it may not develop at all. The Seeker may be convinced that he can carry out any directions of a guide; but the responsibility is on the Guide to make sure that this possible. If either party is not competent to carry out the respective undertakings, there is no contract. For the Guide to accept the Seeker on any other terms would be improper. Worse, it would demonstrate the incompetence of the alleged guide.
Hence, the stage before the acceptance is most important, and may be the longest part of the novitiate. The Guide may agree to provide the would-be Seeker with opportunities of becoming a
disciple. He may require him (or her) to read, to carry out exercises, to make journeys, to do various kinds of work, to give written or spoken reactions to teaching materials. Unlike the purpose of other systems, this is not a form of training. It is a means of exercising a flexibility which almost everyone has lost due to the twin effects of nature and conditioning: the effect of ‘the world’, sometimes called Earth Sickness.
It is during this initial period that many people fall away or lose interest, to follow more alluring ideas. People who have set up cults of their own are generally from this category. Starved of nutrition for their vanity, deprived of a sense of importance to inflate the secondary self, not allowed scope to dominate or to be dominated, most people crave one or more of these things to a greater or lesser degree.
Systems, allegedly Sufic, which plunge the aspirant straight into exercises, are either bogus or imitative. They are not Sufistic, though they are so numerous and widespread as to have created the belief (among both Eastern and Western scholars) that they represent Sufism. Orientalist and historical literature is full of accounts of them. Though their provenance is suspect or even obvious, even ‘specialists’ take them seriously; perhaps because their intellectual or emotional character attracts he pedantic mind subconsciously.
The Sufi has the knowledge of states, and he has to help the aspirant to harmonize with objective reality, stabilizing these states. Al Muqri, quoted by Hujwiri, (in The Revelation of the Veiled) therefore says:

Sufism is the maintaining of State in relation to Objective Truth.

There is no standardized series of practices among the Sufis. The reason for this is that the teacher will prescribe exercises (or prescribe none) according to the state and nature of his pupil and the character and condition of his ‘work’.


Congregations of supposed Sufis who simply perform spiritual practices in unison are not genuinely Sufic, though they may be practicing religious excitation. In the East, they are often called Dervishes. Since this kind of activity is widely believed (in a number of faiths) to be sufficient, one cannot deny them the name ‘religious’. The Latin word religare, - if this is, as some authorities believe, the origin of ‘religion’ – effectively portrays the non-Sufic sense of ‘being conditioned by, tied to, a belief’. Such a form of religion is, on its own incompatibles with the flexibility of Sufism, which breaks through the ‘bind’, or ‘knot’, as it is called in Sufism terminology.
Where conditioning the binding force, is active, something more is occluded. Haji Bektash of Khorasan noted the following problem, and which of us has not seen it in many an instance where much lesser matters than Sufism are concerned? :

To him who has sense, a sign is enough
For the heedless, however, a thousand expositions are not enough.


The Pledge or Acceptance is not to be regarded as an initiation. Initiation takes place when the Guide perceives that the aspirant is ready for it.
The teacher is called Sheikh in Arabic, Pir in Persian, both roughly approximating to ‘Elder’.
Other titles: Shah [King, especially if the Sufi is a Sayed, descendant of the Prophet], Murshid [Guide] or Hazrat [Presence].
When the time for initiation comes, the guide takes the disciple to the Hujra, a room set aside for private exercises; usually an isolated apartment in a Khanqah [monastery] or elsewhere. None but the teacher is allowed into this room without permission. It is usual for the place to be guarded by disciples stationed outside or in an anteroom.
It is customary in some formulations, for the initiations to take place on a Thursday morning or Friday before midday. The disciple to be admitted will have carried out the instructions and preparations already given him, which includes taking a bath and freeing his mind, as far as he can, from worldly concerns, signaling, to himself an others, his intention (Niyat).
The individual sits facing the Master, and takes his hands. The teacher then recites a holy text, and the two in unison repeat an invocation which includes their pledge and intention.
Immediately after the ceremony, the disciple fasts for three days, taking neither food nor water from sunrise to sunset. He repeats five prayers a day, and concentrates upon the meanings of texts given him by the Master.
After the third day, the disciple presents himself before his teacher, in a similar posture, to receive the Tawjjuh [protection of spiritual powers into his mind]. This may take the form of an audible or silent recitation.
The process may be repeated every alternate day.
The next stage is the prescription by the teacher of a recitation by the learner of the Zikr, the repetition of YA HAI, YA QAYYUM. These words stand for ‘O living One! O Eternal!’ This is carried out in a small room, with the disciple alone, where he sits with knees folded and hands on knees, the fingers in a special posture. The forefinger and thumb of each hand are joined in a circle, with the other fingers splayed out.
The number of times of this repetition, and other matters, are stipulated by the teacher in accordance with his perception of the pupil’s needs.
This process may occupy any period of time. From time to time the master will assess the disciple’s progress and may prescribe fasting or other practices.
These actions may have effects upon the disciple’s mentation; in the Sufi phrase, ‘Gold needs bran to polish it.’ Arbitrary adoption of exercises, though, without ‘special measure’ is alluded to thus:

Whoever makes himself into bran will be eaten by cows.

The secondary must never be mistaken for the primary. Rumi says, of a servile imitator, ‘He saw the mountain, he has not seen the mine within it.’
During this period, the disciple does not yet see the mine within the mountain. He may experience what he thinks are spiritual states, ‘illumination’, all kinds of thoughts, feelings, and experiences. These, however, are illusionary. What is happening is the ‘wearing out’ of the spurious imagination.
The spiritual cannot act effective on the non-spiritual. As Saadi puts it, ‘If dust ascends to the skies, it is not made more precious.’
Such states often occur in people in people who, lacking proper guidance, believe that they are having spiritual experiences. These illusions can happen even to people who are not in discipleship, and they account for the many reports of supposedly ‘higher’ experiences from those who have no specialized knowledge of these matters, and who are still ‘raw’. Indeed, such experiences are relatively common among the ‘raw’, and rare in those who are already on the Path.
This state is equivalent to that of ‘random seekers’ who so often plague truly spiritual people with accounts of their ‘spiritual experiences’. The Sufis see such people as displaying mainly vanity: they like feel that they have undergone a mystical or occult experience.


Shabustari, among many others, warns against the false experience, which is accompanied by physical signs imagined by the subjects to be significant:

Everyone does not know the secrets of Truth
The States of Truth are not evidential.


The Second Stage, which can be entered into only after the disciple has shown that he has ‘worn out’ the imaginary experiences and no longer has them, concerns the Activation of the Lata’if, (Subtleties) the Special Organs of Perception.
Before considering these, we shall look at two developmental practices which may be used before the Second Stage, at the discretion of the Guide, since simply carrying out experiences without being in the corresponding condition to benefit from them is worse than useless:


Muraqiba is an exercise which can be called Concentration. It also stands for ‘casting the head down in intense thought’. The head is held down, and the individual tries to banish from the mind all thought of anything but God.


Zikr (literally meaning ‘repetition’) consists of the Seeker repeating, as many times as prescribed by the Guides, a word which embodies a concept. Also called Wird, it must not be randomly indulged in; otherwise the result will simply be obsession with that concept. In the East, one often comes across dervishes, fakirs and others such as random experimentalists, who are trapped at that stage. They may constantly repeat a single word, and are unable to do much else. Many people imagined to be Sufis in fact merely teach this obsession.
According to the Sufis, the reason why people become obsessed with single ideas (and thus actually reverse the intention of the Zikr) is that the word acting on the inadequately prepared mind will work on the superficial (emotional-intellectual) level, causing obsessions or monoideism.
The mind has to be in a condition to benefit from a Sufi exercise. Adnan Wakhani says:

You would never put pure nectar into a filthy glass.
But you will try to put a sacred thing into your head.
The result is that you become even odder than you were before;
Your imaginings becomes worst.
You believe that you have been in touch with the Divine.
You say to me ‘What! Can the performance of the pious act,
a good attempt
Have evil as a result?
Deluded one! Real goodness, piety and true faith never
approach you.

More succinctly, another Sufi says ‘Sufi practices can lead anyone to paradise. But such a person would have to be already innocent. When a Sufi spiritual practice is attempted by one who is still unworthy, that individual will actually suffer. The reason is that such a person cannot really practice such things. What is being attempted is not what a sincere person can practice.’
The Latifa is conceived of as ‘a sensitive spot which may become illuminated or activated’. It is also known as the Organ of Spiritual Perception, and its plural is Lata’if. This is (for practical purposes only) conceived of as a physical location on the body of the Seeker. It is nor regarded as having a true corporeal location, but experience has shown that the act of directing the attention, under appropriate circumstances, to certain parts of the body, helps in the attainment of states of the mind are termed ‘Illumination’ (Tajalli).
The activation of one or more of the Lata’if (there are five) is conceived of as an awareness of the Attributes of God, sometimes called the Ninety-Nine Names, though it is not held that there is an actual arithmetical, limited, number of such attributes. Again, the figures are a conception enabling the mind to approach the reality.
Some Sufis have been accused of apostasy, being alleged to forbid disciples to use the name of God from the beginning of their novitiate. The reason for his stricture, however, is clear and evident to those who look at the matter with sufficient reflection. So many people have a totemistic, a primitive, a superstitious attitude towards deity that when the word is mentioned, they immediately enter a psychological frame of mind which is lower, not higher, than the ordinary. To them, God s a sort of idol: the concept means for them nothing more than something to be propitiated, from whom to beg favours.
For this reason Bayazid Bistami has said ‘Whoever knows God does not [any longer] say “God”.
Another Sufi has said, “The idolator is also found among those who cry “I worship no idol!”’
There is a story of a revered Sufi who was arrested for saying ‘Your god is under my feet!’
When brought to trial, this teacher showed that he had a coin in each of his sandals. The ‘god’ of the people of the town which he was visiting admitted to be Mammon – and the judges there had the good sense to acquit him, admitting that the people were materialists before anything else.
The idea of God for them had become totemistic, a barrier to understanding, and the Sufi approached the problem by shock tactics, in the manner adopted in the Divan of Shamsi-Tabriz, where it is said:

Though the Kaaba (building) and the Zamzam [well in Mecca] exists: and although paradice and [heavenly river of] Kauthar exists – because this has become a screen to the heart, it must be torn aside.

The term ‘Heart’ (qalb) stands for a theoretical site in the body conceived of as located to inches under the left nipple. A pulsation may be felt at this spot.
The activation of the Lata’if leads to Major Saintship (walayat kubra) in which the Sufi has not abandoned the world, but has acquired the qualities which enable him to detach from it and to operate in higher dimensions. It is at this stage that he is said to gain spiritual powers, capacities which are beyond the reach or ken of the ordinary individual.
This powers are said to include the control of certain physical phenomena. The Sufi known as a Perfect Saint (wali kamil) can cure disease, can influence individuals and gatherings, can transport his consciousness from one place to another, and so on. These acts are regarded by outward observers as supernatural. They are indeed such in the sense that they are not to be accounted through conventional logic or physical laws. But they are not seen as central by real Sufis.


Miracles, to the Sufi, are not evidential, they are instrumental.
When she had nothing with which to make soup, a number of onions suddenly appeared, from the sky, in the kitchen of the great woman Sufi Rabia. People were astonished at this ‘miracle from God’. Rabia, however, chastised them, saying, ‘My Lord is not a grocer!’
This instance clearly displays the difference between Sufi thinking and the simplistic, hope-fear, attitudes of shallow religiosity; where lower levels are accepted as higher ones. Another account, also from Rabia, illuminates the different between Sufic and ‘religious’ thinking. She prayed, ‘O Lord, if I worship Thee from desire for Paradise, deny me Paradise; if I worship Thee from fear of Hell, cast me into Hell!’
An important test of a suitable Sufic disciple is if, when he performs ‘miracles’ or when such things happen to him, he conceals them utterly, and is not affected by them.
The sublime nature of this conception – that desire and fear, excitement and publicity exists only on low, emotional, not a perceptively spiritual, level, is the hallmark of the Sufi work. At most, hope and fear act in the human being as a prelude, a preparation. Yet hope and fear are considered by many supposedly spiritual people as the very means of achieving salvation.
Some allegedly Sufi communities place great emphasis on the festivals and burial-places of certain saints. This is a distortion of understanding, and it is useful to recognize its origin. Initially, it was noted that concentration upon the ‘being’ of a saint would conduce towards perception of his nature. This practice needed, however, to be allied to a certain degree of perception. When this practice was copied by those who did not have the necessary capacity or preparation, ‘the world took over’, and some people started to worship graves. Effectively, something more primitive, imagined to be less so, had supervened. Such people did not cease to be Sufis – they never were. The Sufi name for them is ‘Sufists’, those who try to be Sufis. Many such people will swear that they are not performing worship, but merely showing respect. The reality is that they are totemists, whatever they imagine.
This may be taken as an illustration of the action of the ‘secondary self’, the one which will doggedly convert real religion into idolatry. Far from being a way to enlightenment, it causes a lapse into superstition.
With regard to supposed miracles, whether associated with the living or with long-dead saints, these are most often emphasized be secondary sources or by untutored amateurs. Indeed, one of the Sufis’ principles, relating to discipleship, is ‘that the disciple shall conceal his Master’s miracles’. How different from what passes for religion even among some of the best-respected religionists!
Shallow thinkers have wondered how Sufi spirituality can be reconciled with religion as they know it. Indeed, some Christian, Jewish and Islamic theorists have claimed – and some still do – that such reconciliation is impossible.
They ignore history and have neglected to read the works of their predecessors: for the battle was waged and won centuries ago, when inquisitors and others assailed the Sufis for being heretics, idolators or freethinkers.
Great Sufis, like Ibn Arabi of Andalusia, were called apostates from Islam. This question was thrashed out when Al Arabi was brought before an inquisition and easily proved, even to the satisfaction of his critics, that his writings were allegorical, and that the clerics had been too superficial to understand them.
The battle with the literalist Moslem theologians was won when, though Sufis were called heretics, the great Iranian theologian Al Ghazali was recognized as a major Islamic reformer and authority, gaining him the title of ‘The Proof of Islam’ nearly a thousand years ago.
The acceptance of Sufis among Christians was assured when for instance, a myriad Christians followed the Afghan sage Jalaluddin Rumi, when medieval Christian theologians were fond to have adopted Ghazali’s methods and ideas, and when Christian mystics were noted to have been stimulated by various Sufi sources. And the Hebrews, too, long ago determined the debt of some of their mystical thinkers to Sufic origin. These facts, and many others, are well documented in the secular, academic literature.
That it should be necessary for Sufis to defend themselves in the religious field against experts who could understand says much about Sufis – and more than a little about the quality of thought of their detractors.
Nowadays, happily, the picture is becoming clearer. The accumulation of knowledge about the Sufis is greater, and they have numerous admirers among people of all faiths, many of whom have written extensively on them: though always with their own bias and over-simplification. The Sufi heritage in, especially, monotheistic religion, is widely, if not universally, appreciated. The ancient Sufic contribution to the knowledge of conditioning, sociology and psychology (only now being retrieved in the West) has made it possible for members of many faiths to see which aspects of their beliefs and practices are superficial and unessential, and how they may be manipulated, their trained reflexes animated, by external superficialities. As Khayyam says:

Ringing bells are melody of slavery
The sacred thread and church, and the rosary and the cross:
Truly, all of them are the mark of servitude.

It remains for Sufic insights to be drawn into non-Islamic religions, as well as to act upon (and to penetrate beyond) the superficiality of many Moslem enthusiasts and clerics. It also remains for the ‘lunatic fringe’ of bogus or self-deceived people who operate or belong to imitative cults miscalled Sufic, to be ousted. In a free society, with the current rapidity of communications, both developments are not only likely, they are surely inevitable.
Due consideration for humanity is essential, but vague solicitude for happiness of the deluded or superficial, in Sufism as in anything else, will serve no useful purpose. As the Sufi saying has it, ‘Too much kindness towards the fox may mean doom for the rabbit.’
I add this because, at a recent lecture, a well-meaning but insubstantial devotee cried out at me
‘Don’t shoot the pianist – he’s doing his best!’ No assassination had, of course, been proposed. Neither, though, did my critic seem to have any concern for the need of instruction for the pianist, which might surely have shown concern for his welfare…
In other words, leave an unsatisfactory situation as it is!
But one becomes accustomed to the ‘commanding self’s’ habit of fishing out false analogies, to protect an empty house against burglars, in the Sufic phrase.
Just as the Sufis have always claimed that their path is reconcilable with all true religion, they assert that it is not time-bound, having been represented among humanity from the earliest times.
As Ibn Al-Farid puts it:

Continuously, in commemoration of the Friend
We drank wine, even before the creation of the vine.

Just as the teaching may vary in outward aspect according to cultural differences, so it remains essentially the same in its inwardness: ‘The clothes may vary, but the person is the same.’
This contention is useful in distinguishing Sufic imitators from the real thing. The deteriorated or repetitious cults purporting to be Sudic tend to use outdated or irreverent techniques, regalia, even clothes and languages, when they drift – or are imported – from one time or culture to another. This trend itself explains the many different forms or Sufic practice (and theory) which persist, long after their applicability has ceased, to the present day.
One of the marks of the Sufi is that he dresses in the garb of the country in which he lives. The disciple should not assume rags as a sign of humility. Saadi says, in his Rose Garden ‘Be a true denouncer, (zahid) and [you can even] wear satin.’ The aspirant should not attract attention to himself by odd costumes, even though his ‘nutrition’ is other than the intake of others. Hence the motto, one of many on this subject, current with Sufi teachers:

Eat what you desire, but dress like other people.

The exotic appurtenances of these cults usually guarantee their attraction and a plentiful recruitment, especially among the gullible of the West. It also illustrates, to others, their barrenness. Further, the reluctance of the scholar to believe that anything from long ago could be once fruitful but now superseded helps in the process. He has become confused by the archeologist’s or historian’s unspoken bias: ‘the older the better’. There may also be an element of cultural chauvinism.
Hence the present-day scholar unwittingly helps the cults and not the reality: the false rather than the true. Sufism is imagined by the academics, in effect if not in theory, to be exotic, culture-based survival, not (as Sufis have always known it) as a living entity, able to operate within any culture, in any language, and at any time.
Indeed, the developmental role of the Sufi and his Way depends upon its applicability to all times and in all circumstances. This approach is very different from trying to turn reasonably good Westerners of today into second rate Middle Easterners of the Middle Ages.
Why second-rate? Because, even if the repetition of materials from centuries ago were able to cause any effect on students, that effect would only be successful in producing insight if it were progressed by genuine mystics. And no genuine mystic would employ such materials out of time and place in the manner advocated by imitators. Time, and its demands, are central to Sufi capacity. As the ancient teacher Amr ibn Usman al Makki says:

A Sufi is alive to the value of time, and is given, every
moment, to what that moment demands.

It need not be contended that the contemporary imitators are frauds. But the sincerest man or woman on Earth will be quite useless if he or she substitutes mechanicality for knowledge and harmonization with ultimate reality.
So, with Sufi spiritual studies, the essential prerequisites are fundamental, and must be observed: even if the aspirant is as eager as Moses was: perhaps especially if he is as eager as that.
Above all, the spiritual candidate must start with right conduct. Hafiz, in one of his most beautiful passages, gives this guidance:

On parent knees, a naked new-born child
Weeping thou satst, when all around thee smiled;
So live, that sinking in thy last long sleep,
Calm thou mayst smile, when all around thee weep.

But what is ‘right conduct’? Social and cultural conventions in all societies allow disguised delinquency to prevail in the ‘mental gymnastics’ area. Sheer intellectuality, playing games purporting to be sincere thought, can soon degenerate into dishonesty.
I was once present when a Sufi outlined the tale of the Monkey and the Cherry to a certain guru. A monkey, he said saw a bottle with cherries inside. Putting its hands inside the bottle, it grasped the cherry – but the fist which the monkey tried to withdraw was too big. So the monkey had the cherry but did not have it. This, the Sufi continued, was the condition of those who have the exterior of things, and cannot get out of the trap of greed and ignorance set by themselves.
This was, of cause, a perfect description of the guru himself.
But the guru’s invincible vanity dealt with that one. ‘Ah,’ he said, ‘but what if I myself am the cherry, and you are the bottle, preventing me from being extracted and enjoyed?’
That seems to me to be a good illustration of why humility has to precede instruction…
The guru was, in reality, moving between the first two stages of spiritual learning, called by the Sufis INSTINCT and RITUALISM. Virtually all conventional religionists are still at those stages.
The four stages which constitute the whole range are as follows:

1 INSTINCT, automatic emotional or mental action.
2 RITUAL, where beliefs are systematized and give people emotional stimuli according to a
3 PREPARATION, the first Sufic stage, when the outlook becomes flexible. Now the person
can really benefit from reading and interaction with a teacher.
4 EXERCISES, never applied on undeveloped people.

These are the steps which lead to ‘enlightenment’.
The problem for would-be Sufis is that is that most people have been taught to operate only in Stages 1 and 2. Indeed, they imagine that this is all there is to religious activity.
For others, the appeal to their vanity by imagining that Stage 4, exercises, can operate without knowledge or preparation is a total barrier to learning.


Sufis aim to refine human consciousness. This is Sufi mysticism: not mystification or magic, but a specific Path.
Much religious teaching in the world is in reality a confused or deteriorated form, very different from its roots.
Inheritance and culture obscure people’s higher capacities. Well-meant techniques such as arbitrary self-mortification are useless.
Sufis (the name for realized individual, not the learner or follower) are reunited with objective Reality and Unity.
Theologians, scholars and morbid religionists indulge subjective emotions or ideologies in their life and thought. Hence their religion is not perceptive but self-indulgent. Yet they lack humour.
The perception of reality beyond outward form is essentially foreign to the self-indulgers.
This reality is the essence beyond form of all genuine religions.
Familiarization with current Sufic presentation is essential preparation for the student, but a mentor at a certain point is absolutely necessary.
Self study is instrumental, not informative or manipulative. Hence both scholars and popularists (often called Sufis or Sufi specialists) are useless as guides – even to convey what Sufism is.
Characteristics of the Sufi. Sufism and Islam; and Folklore: Nasrudin; and other formulations earth, water, air, fire; Christianity and the New Testament; Hindu and Jewish mystics.
Four levels of perception: concentration, renunciation, perception and knowledge.
Sufic understanding of ‘Love’.
Deterioration of sacred texts.
Pledge and discipleship.
Irrelevance of certain exercises.
Religious excitation; the Initiation (traditional form).
False experiences; activation of the Subtleties.
Miracles, saintship and the ‘Secondary Self’.
False and imagined Sufis.
The Four Stages in the light of the foregoing.