Sufi Wisdom: an introduction

Listen to this story:
When the soul left the body,
it was stopped by God
at heaven’s gates:
“You have returned just as you left!
Life is a blessing of opportunity:

Where are the bumps and scratches
left by the journey?”

Poem by Rumi, translation Neil Douglas-Klotz

A few people are seeking a spiritual thread to help them find meaning and purpose in life, but many feel lost, confused.  What’s the point of my life? How do I respond well to the pressures of our times? These are hard questions, and Sufi wisdom may be helpful. There’s no easy definition of Sufis or Sufism.  It’s certainly not a religion: there are no temples, no one holy book or teacher.  Yet a best-selling poet in the UK for years has been Rumi, a Sufi poet from the thirteenth century.  The quote above gives you an idea of his approach.

No one  is sure how Sufism began: the story I like is that the early Sufis were a mystical Christian group, who later adopted the Arabic language and Islamic practices, as Islam swept across the Middle East. 

One of the first Sufi teachers I met was asked, “What is Sufism?”.  He replied, “it’s a way of meeting life from the heart, seeing the divine unity in all beings”.  Many years later, I’d still call this a good summary.  The relevance for our times is to stop meeting life from the head, stop trying to understand and control everything, and start treating yourself and all beings with compassion.

The sacred phrase most used by Sufis is la illaha illallah. Literal translation may not help: I’d say the meaning is there is no reality except for divine unity. Allah is not just the Islamic word for divinity: forms of it occur in other faiths, and in his native Aramaic, Jesus prays to Alaha. The root meaning is the yes and no, the everything and nothing of existence, which feels more inclusive to me than God, with its connotations of an individual patriarch.

The theme of surrendering to a greater power, within yourself and the universe, is a key Sufi teaching.  One of my favourite Sufi books is The Last Barrier by Reshad Feild.  It’s the story of an English man who travels to Turkey, searching for Sufi wisdom, learning that he needs to unlearn and surrender in order to receive.  It has the wonderful line, “the purpose of the path is to bring a man to the point of bewilderment”.  True surrender is nothing to do with despair or abdication: it means knowing your limitations, and playing the part in life that’s appropriate.

Some of the best Sufi teachings come from poets like Rumi or Hafiz:

There is a community of the spirit.
Join it, and feel the delight
of walking in the noisy street
and being the noise.

Drink all your passion,
and be a disgrace.
Close both eyes
to see with the other eye.

From Essential Rumi by Coleman Barks

They show how our love for earthly things, especially romance, wine, flowers and song, express our deeper longing for union with the One, the Beloved.  We can get lost in speculating on our past or our future, so these reminders to take total delight in the present are good for us.

Whilst you can get a flavour of the Sufi path by reading poems and websites, to find the real depth, you need to spend time face-to-face with a teacher.  Most Sufi orders emphasise the line of personal transmission, from the great Sufi teachers of earlier generations, through to the many talented ones of today.  If you really want to explore this path, the best way is to commit to a specific teacher and Sufi order, and to seek initiation.  One of the first initiated Sufis I ever met was also an Anglican vicar, who had his Bishop’s permission to be a Sufi too.  This is one of the great features of Sufism, that it can weave along with many other spiritual paths.

Sufi orders vary greatly in their flavour, and their preferred devotional practices. There are two broad groups: liberal Western orders, mostly in Europe and America, open to people of any faith or none, and Eastern orders, where the links to Islam are closer, and being a Muslim is a prerequisite to joining.

The Sufi teacher who has been my mentor for twenty plus years is Neil Douglas Klotz, whose approach brings in a lot of devotional chant and dance, and what he calls body prayer: this helps me to feel I am fully embodying my connection with divine unity. A favourite prayer of mine, used by many Sufis, is ihdina sirat almustaqim, translated by Neil as:

We ask you to reveal our next harmonious steps,
Show us the path that says, “Stand up, get going, do it!”
That resurrects us from the slumber of the drugged
and leads to consummation of Heart’s desire,
like all the stars and galaxies in time, in time, straight on.

The joy in life which we find in the Persian Sufi poets still lives on: here’s a song by a contemporary American teacher, Alauddin Ottinger. You’ll find a link to a YouTube video of this below.

We’ll drink the wine down to the last
Drink with the Beloved
Take this breath like it’s your last
Drink with the Beloved
We’re a caravan you see
Moving towards our destiny
You must find the eyes to see

Drink with the Beloved
Go to the East, go to the West
Drink with the Beloved
You can’t escape this birth and death
Drink with the Beloved
Watch the drunkards reel and spin
Feel the presence from within
Toasting to the dearest friends
Drink with the Beloved


The Sufi Book of Life, by Neil Douglas-Klotz.  ISBN 0-14-219635-5.  This is a useful book for those starting to explore the Sufi tradition, with a helpful introduction, and a list of 12 organisations you could contact about Sufi teachings: not all of these are active in the UK.  The main part of the book includes teaching stories and meditations so that you can start to experience some of this for yourself.

The Essential Rumi, by Coleman Barks.  ISBN 978-0785808718.  This is one of the best collections, by one of the best translators, and there are many of both.  It has some helpful commentary, and is delightfully organised, with sections like On Bewilderment, On Spring Giddiness, On Being a Lover. 

The Last Barrier, by Reshad Feild.  ISBN 978-0060625863.  As mentioned earlier, this is the story of one man’s search for Sufi wisdom.  Beautiful, moving, and a powerful way of conveying the nature of the Sufi path.

The Sufis, by Idries Shah.  ISBN 978-0863040740.  There are various introductions to Sufism: I recommend this one because it is not a mere tour guide or description from the outside.  This is written from the inside, by a man immersed in the tradition, and it offers you the chance to experience, not just observe. 

For a performance of Drink with the Beloved, see Allaudin Ottinger You Tube clip :

Teachers and Sufi orders

If you want to make contact with Sufi teachers, and experience Sufi practices, it is best to get in touch with one of the teachers or Sufi orders.  Some of these orders, like the two for which websites are given below, are more Western-oriented, and are quite active in the UK.  Others are more Eastern, more focussed on Islamic practices, and may be harder to access. This is the website of Neil Douglas-Klotz, a leading international teacher of Sufi, Christian and other middle eastern spiritual traditions.  The website contains some useful audio and video material, details of all his books, and listings of events. Philip is one of the most accessible Sufi teachers active in the UK, and some of his events would be a good initial experience of Sufi teachings.  The website contains masses of teachings, access to books and CDs, and a calendar of events in various countries.  The website contains a range of teachings, and contacts for a number of local groups around the UK.