Most people who come to Sufism have preconceptions as well as questions about what Sufism is. What does the practice consist of and how will I learn and develop? Is there a detailed curriculum? Or hidden knowledge? What should I expect of my shaikh and what kind of relationship is possible? Some people might imagine that the shaikh has a detailed, objective technical knowledge of various inner states, spiritual energies, planes of reality, spiritual powers, etc. While there is some truth in this, it has been our experience that among the best teachers these subjects are seldom emphasized or talked about directly. An emphasis on secret, privileged knowledge, or encouraging a mystique or building a cult of personality, or intimations of end-time scenarios, have proven time and time again to be counter-indicators of spirituality. In other words, the more such tendencies surround a teaching, the less likely it is that the teaching will be balanced and authentic. If we look to the Qur’an and the example of the Prophet Muhammad, we see a sane and balanced presentation of the Way. Our approach, therefore, places a strong emphasis on developing our capacities for presence, remembrance, service, and humility.
Over more than forty years of spiritual practice and thirty years of teaching, we have received, learned, and practiced various systems of spiritual development within the classical Sufi framework. Over the years we have been entrusted with the spiritual practices from many of the branches of Sufism: systems of latifa development, zhikrs, meditation techniques, and other practices. In time, however, one comes to realize the limitations of all systems and techniques and what these systems have to offer in terms of real freedom and spiritual development.
At the same time, there are many directions a student might be inclined to take that have been observed to be fruitless or even counter-productive. It is a question of where to place one’s emphasis. Some people, upon meeting the way of classical Sufism, become enthralled with the richness and depth of Islamic practice. While we would never want to discourage anyone from fulfilling their spiritual longing through a fastidious and disciplined practice, indeed we would encourage it, there is, nevertheless, a trap to be aware of. The danger here is that one’s attention moves in the direction of outer form at the expense of one’s spiritual state (i.e. one’s essential sincerity, inner purity, and selflessness). In other words, the spiritual path degenerates into another game of ego achievement. Worse yet, some people may begin to feel superior to others because of their performance of ritualistic activities. Therefore, we offer a caution regarding a preoccupation with such matters. It would be a mistake to think that the more detailed knowledge one attains, the stricter one is in matters of observance, the holier one is. It has been our experience that the people of spiritual attainment that we have personally known have not been examples of this kind of religiosity. And, indeed, religiously obsessive behavior, sometimes mistaken for virtue, may not be a healthy disposition. The Prophet Muhammad, himself, said, Woe to anyone who makes this religion difficult for others. And the best practice is that which you can sustain with regularity. We could quote at length various Hadith that make it clear that for the Prophet fastidiousness in matters of the heart take precedence over mere religious form.
The great Sufis we have known have been quite practical and humble human beings. In some cases the inclination to religiosity may be a matter of temperament, having neither more nor less relevance to what we mean by spirituality than being athletic, bookish, or musical although any temperament can be transformed and fulfilled by spirituality.
We encourage, therefore, a simple but disciplined practice and call for some cautions about some of what is proposed in the name of shari`ah. For us shari`ah is the broad way that leads to spiritual well-being. It is a true blessing for the human being to conform one’s life to the Divine Order. Salaat, zhikr, fasting, and reading the Holy Qur’an have always been the foundation of Sufi practice: these outer practices polish our Essence. The problem, however, is that certain formulations of centuries past have come to be accepted as if they were the word of God, and newcomers to this path are often not acquainted with the full range of options and interpretations, the freedom of conscience, the breadth and universality of the original inspiration at the core of the Holy Qur’an. In other words, a religiously justified authoritarianism is presented as if it were the Way itself. It’s the same old story of the human muddling of Divine inspiration, the substitution of beliefs and religious authority, for inner work and a direct relationship with the Divine.
We don’t deny the elegant reflections and good intentions of many scholars of Sacred Law throughout history. For specific concerns requiring detailed knowledge of precedents, hadith, and Qu’ran, one may choose to go to an expert for an opinion. But in Sufi tradition generally, when in doubt, one’s shaikh has often been the interpreter of shari`ah for everyday purposes.
Therefore, for most seekers, we do not encourage as a primary concern a preoccupation with matters of Fiqh (Law). This, by the way, is supported as well by Mevlana, and many of the great saints of our tradition. We are always and continually trying to keep in mind the original pure inspiration of revelation, the essential transformation of the ego (nafs), and the fully mature development of the human being’s capacities for service, relationship, and creativity in cooperation with the grace and guidance of God.
To summarize, we have come to trust wholeheartedly in some rather simple propositions. Among the means that we would stress are: awakening presence, cultivating an inner spaciousness, purifying the heart, increasing our capacity for love, seeing service as an opportunity, developing our communication and reasoning skills. Of course, such spiritual development cannot happen without some metaphysical framework and the inspiration of human exemplars. It is clear that the classical Sufi tradition is guided and inspired by a coherent teaching and practice, in other words a tradition that draws from the teachings of the great Sufi saints (may God be pleased with them), the example of the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings upon him), and the Holy Qur’an. In particular, the Pirs (founders of the Sufi lineages) provide an approach to the Qur’an and Hadith that we rely upon. In other words, these great beings who attained intimacy with the Divine help us to grasp the true and universal dimensions of the Revelation.
With the above observations in mind, we suggest that within the framework of the Threshold Society certain practices have been taught and demonstrated, at public events or in private, which can form the foundation of a spiritual practice:
Establish a regular, disciplined spiritual practice consisting of:
- Basic Mevlevi Zhikr: Recite the Fatiha, 100 Estaufrullah, 100 La illaha il Allah, 300 Allah, 11 Hu.
- Observance of salaat (ritual prayer) or an additional ½ hour meditation through the day.
Study Living Presence & The Knowing Heart.
For the study of the Qur’an rely primarily on The Message of the Qur’an by Muhammad Asad. In the coming months we hope to publish a more thorough bibliography of spiritual texts.
Register for and complete the 99 Day Program.
Practice the forms of Zhikr that are taught at our various gatherings or given by a teacher.
Keep a daily Journal using any one of the daybooks that have been published: The Light of Dawn and The Rumi Daybook.
Develop in the art of spiritual inquiry through sohbet (spiritual conversation) where possible.
Join the monthly online meditation.
Be receptive to directions given directly and indirectly for the development of character.