Sufism and Sufi Saints

What the mystery religions are to Rome, what the Gnostics are to early Christianity, Sufism and the Sufi Saints are to Islam. It is the mystical element and the Saints are the teachers who pass the esoteric knowledge from generation to generation. The substance of Sufism is the Truth and the definition of Sufism is the selfless experiencing and actualization of the Truth. The practice of Sufism: the practice of Sufism is the intention to go towards the Truth, by means of love and devotion. This is called the Tariqat, the Spiritual Path or way towards God.

The definition of the sufi: the sufi is one who is a lover of Truth, who by means of love and devotion moves towards the Truth, towards the Perfection which all are truly seeking
The origins of Islamic mysticism can be traced back to the 8th century. A consequence of the rapid spread of Islam under the Ummayad dynasty was the exposure of Muslims to a large number of different ethnic groups and the acquisition of considerable wealth that was the fruit of military conquest. The growing opulence of Islam was symbolized by the relocation of the capital of the empire from Medina to the more cosmopolitan city of Damascus. In reaction to the more worldly outlook of the Ummayads various groups and figures emerged who encouraged a return to the pure values of the Prophet and the Qur'an. One such figure, Hasan al-Basri (642-728), preached a rejection of the world and courageously criticized those in power when he felt that they were not conducting themselves according to the ethical standards of Islam. A second figure, Rabi'ah al-Adawiyah (d.801), cultivated the attainment of mystical union with God through the love of God. A third, and controversial, mystic, al-Hallaj (857-922), lived as a wandering preacher who gathered around him a large number of disciples. Such was al-Hallaj's sense of the intimate presence of God that he sometimes appeared to be identifying himself with God. He is reported to have made one statement - "I am the Truth!" - which caused such outrage that he was imprisoned for eight years and in 922 crucified by execution. Al-Hallaj's death illustrates in an extreme way the tensions that would characterize the relationship between Sufi mysticism and the Islamic legal authorities.

The kind of loose master-disciple relationship characteristic of 9th century mystical Islam gradually evolved into organized establishments. By the 11th century there were distinctive groups associated with a particular master. These groups, however, were often not cohesive enough to survive the death of the master. It was only in the 12th and 13th centuries that orders emerged which were stable enough to continue after the death of the founder. This continuity was achieved through the current master nominating a successor who would lead the order following the current master's death. Thus, these orders were able to trace their origins through a chain of masters. Such orders were called tariqahs.

Sufis believe that their teachings are the essence of every religion, and indeed of the evolution of humanity as a whole. The central concept in Sufism is "love". Dervishes -- the name given to initiates of sufi orders -- believe that love is a projection of the essence of God to the universe. God desires to recognize beauty, and as if one looks at a mirror to see oneself, God "looks" at itself within the dynamics of nature. Since everything is a reflection of God, the school of Sufism practices to see the beauty inside the apparent ugly, and to open arms even to the most evil one. This infinite tolerance is expressed in the most beautiful way, perhaps, by the famous Sufi philosopher and poet Mevlana (also known as Rumi) : "Come, come, whoever you are. Worshiper, Wanderer, Lover of Leaving; ours is not a caravan of despair. Though you have broken your vows a thousand times…Come, come again, Come."


Jalaluddin Rumi was born in 1207 C.E. ( i.e. Common Era aligned with A.D.) in Balkh. This city was then in the Persian province of Khorasan but is now in Afghanistan. Balkh was then a prominent city and his family had a tradition of service there in legal and religious offices. Despite this background he moved, in his youth and with his family about 1218 C.E., away from Balkh in order to avoid the warlike Mongols who were then conquering extensively under the leadership of their Khans.

The family travelled to Baghdad, to Mecca on pilgrimage, and to Damascus and eventually settled at Karaman near Konya in what is now western Turkey. Following this move to Konya, then the capital of the western Seljuk Turks Jalaluddin's father was busy as an Islamic theologian, teacher and preacher. Jalaluddin followed in this tradition and, upon his father's demise in 1231 C.E. succeeded to his post as a prominent religious teacher.

This part of the world was then known to its inhabitants as Rum, a name derived from the Byzantine Roman Empire that had formerly held it. Jalaluddin's name in religion and literature - Rumi - is itself derived from Rum. Rumi is today thought of being a Persian mystic and poet and is closely identified with Sufism and Sufi mysticism. This Sufism being a mysticism within Islam where devotees sought a mystical union with God.

In about 1244 C.E. Rumi befriended Shams ad-Din (Sun of Religion), a wandering dervish or Sufi devotee who was formerly from Tabrìz, who became his mentor. For over two years he and Shams ad-Din were very closely associated in a platonic friendship and living in the same house.
Sufis had a tradition of such close platonic friendships based on a commonality of spiritual endeavors.
Rumi had previous to this all absorbing friendship been busy as a teacher and leader of a Mevlevi discipleship. His former pupils were most discomfited by the friendship with Shams and threatened violence.

Shams ad-Din disappeared unexplainably in 1247 C.E. and Rumi subsequently composed approaching to 30,000 verses of poetry, the Lyrics of Shams of Tabrìz, expressing his feelings at the disappearance of his friend. He later formed other deep spiritual friendships that were not really welcomed by his disciples in the Mevlevi Order.
One of these friendships again inspired poetry, notably the epic poem Masnavi I Ma'navi (Spiritual Couplets), which has had an immense influence on Islamic literature and thought.
This friend, Husam ad-Din Chelebi, became leader of the Mevlevi Order upon Rumi's death in 1273 C.E.
Rumi had taught that "Muslims, Christians, Jews, and Zoroastrians should be viewed with the same eye" and it is said that people drawn from five faith backgrounds followed his funeral bier. His mausoleum, the Green Dome in Konya, is today a place of pilgrimage for many thousands.

Al-Ghazálí (1058 - 1111) was an outstanding Islamic theologian, regarded by many as 'the greatest Muslim after Muhammad'. Born in Iran, at the age of thirty-three he was appointed to teach at one of Baghdad's most important theological schools. Four years later, however, he experienced a religious conversion that called into question the value of worldly success, demanding instead a life of devotion. For the next ten years Al-Ghazálí withdrew from worldly affairs and lived the life of an ascetic Súfí mystic. Eventually he gathered a circle of his own following, and it was during this period that he composed some of his most influential works.

Omar Khayyam born May 18, 1048, Neyshabur [also spelled Nishapur], Khorasan [now Iran]
died December 4, 1131, Neyshabur He was a mathematician, astronomer and poet. He created a calendar and determined the length of the year to six decimal places. He is also known for many mathematical proofs. But, he best known for 1000 or more quatrains best known from a English transalation by Edward Fitzgerald titled Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam

Sufism and the West

The British encountered Islam as the British Empire expanded into Egypt, India and Asia, but their interaction with it often consisted of manipulating various religious groups and nationalities as a means of dividing and conquering. An adventurous few such as Richard Burton, translator of the Arabian Nights, delved into Islamic culture. Burton himself was initiated as a Qadiri Sufi during a stay in India. But it wasn’t until the arrival of Hazrat Inayat Khan in Europe in 1910 that Sufism began to attract attention in the West.
Inayat Khan, a talented musician, had been sent to Europe by his Master in the Chisti order of Sufism in order to introduce Sufism to the West. In view of the generally negative feelings of Europeans towards Islam, Khan strategically downplayed the Islamic roots of Sufism and emphasized its universalistic elements instead. He was in a good position to do so, since the Chisti order had flourished in multicultural India by avoiding Islamic sectarianism and embracing sincere mystics of various faiths. The Sufi custom of a close relationship between teacher (sheikh or murshid) and student (murid) was very close to that of the yogic guru and chela (disciple), and seekers in India were often attracted to great mystics regardless of their religious affiliations.
Thus the Sufism that Inayat Khan brought West accepted the love of God expressed by non-Muslims as a valid point of departure for studying Sufism. Khan was a great exponent of what Aldous Huxley called “the perennial philosophy,” and went so far as to create a Universal Worship service that acknowledged the unity behind the great world religions.

Dances of Universal Peace

The Dances (in some Sufi groups they are called Sufi dances) were created by Samuel Lewis (Sam),  who studied the main world religions. Murshid Samuel Lewis was recognised as a Sufi master by 8 different orders; he was also a Zen master, a chassidic Rabbi and by Christians respected as a teacher of the message of the Bible. He successfully brought drug-addicted people off their drugs, because they felt "high" after dancing with him. He was a spiritual master with a good sense of humour. The Dances were inspired by Ruth St. Denis (a famous feminist avant-garde dancer), who amazed spectators by embodying goddesses from India and Hazrat Inayat Khan who brought Sufism to the west
From his rich life experiences, Lewis in his early 70's began to envision and create the Dances as a dynamic method to promote "Peace through the Arts". From the early days and his original body of about 50 dances, the collection has grown since his passing to more than 500 dances which celebrate the sacred heart of Hinduism, Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, Sikhism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, and the Aramaic, Native American, Native Middle Eastern, Celtic, Native African, and Goddess traditions.
During the past 25 years, the Dances have spread throughout the world, touching more than a half million people in North and South America, Europe, the former Soviet Union, Japan, India, Pakistan, Australia, and New Zealand. Further networking and citizen diplomacy through the Dances are also beginning in South Africa and the Middle East. New grassroots Dance circles are continually springing up around the globe, with anywhere from 40 to 60 meeting weekly or monthly in the United States alone.