“The world needs its spiritual lovers”

Marian Brehmer from Qantara.de, a German news site, interviewed Shaikh Kabir about the role of Sufism in the modern world and the dangers of religious extremism.

This March, you took part in the first World Sufi Forum in Delhi, an international gathering of shaykhs and Sufi scholars. What was the idea behind this get-together?

The Sufi Forum was a historic event held in a place that is important to world peace, namely India. The Forum was conceived on the idea of bringing Sufis from all over the world together. Sufis exist around the globe. But they don’t know each other and haven’t yet discovered a common sense of solidarity. We usually meet in small circles and tend to think of ourselves as a minority in today’s world. But in fact there are tens of millions of Sufis around the world. I feel it is important for Sufis to know each other and learn from each other.

Who is a Sufi?

Strictly speaking, a Sufi is someone who has committed oneself to a lineage and a teacher. That’s the strict definition. But we can include many more people who are Sufi in temperament or Sufi-inclined, who are at home in Sufi thought and teaching. There are hundreds of millions of them in India and Pakistan alone. We can only guess at the number of Sufis who are actually engaged in Sufi practices in an organized way. But we have records from 19th century Istanbul where about 10 per cent of the population had some kind of affiliation with Sufi Orders. That would mean that virtually every family had members who were practicing Sufis.

Why do we need a global alliance of Sufis today?

Today there is so much propaganda and misinformation on Sufism in the Islamic World. This misinformation has been spread through organizations associated with Salafism, Wahabbism and the Muslim Brotherhood. They have attempted to marginalize Sufism and in this process distorted what Sufism is. Adherents of these groups do not understand Sufism themselves. Typically, the critiques offered by Salafists and extreme sources are an imaginary criticism of Sufism which is based on stereotypes they themselves have invented. It is important today that Sufis themselves can offer clarification on the values and purpose of Sufism; both to combat the misinformation and distortions that have been propagated – often with the help of great financial resources – and to present Sufism as the heart of Islam, as a teaching and view of the world that unites humanity and also contributes to the development of human beings in the most important ways.

How would you define Sufism?

Sufism, above all, is a process of human development that takes place with the support of divine grace and inspiration. Sufism views human development as a cooperation between heaven and earth, between the divine and the human. From a Sufi perspective we can only reach our full human development through higher consciousness and spiritual love. This is a message that is universal, even though the language and practice of it are essentially Islamic. The Islam of the Sufis, however, is not a narrow Islam. It is a very broad Islam that offers a wide open door for humanity. Rumi is a great example of this. He has become a wide open door through which many people have come to experience Islamic spirituality. They find his message very universal and easy to accept, because it’s a message of divine compassion and mercy that focuses on the most positive elements in the human being, rather than focusing on sin and punishment, as it is all too common in mainstream religion of all kinds. Sufism is a religion of love. It teaches people how to reduce their egoism, purify their hearts and make a contribution to peace and well being, even in this world.

Is there something that particularly touched you during the World Sufi Forum?

I was perhaps most touched by the address of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. To hear a major world leader speak positively about Sufism and send that message out into the world – with seeming sincerity – was unprecedented. His address brought Sufism onto the world stage in a new way. It hoisted the banner of Sufism for the world to see. It is important for Sufis today to not be shy and reluctant, to name themselves as Sufis. There is so much misunderstanding about and negativity toward Islam today. Yet, Sufism has a very positive image in the wider world. It is important that humanity become more aware of Sufism and its spiritual contribution.

Can Sufism also be a force that contributes to world peace?

Those who initiate and perpetuate violence in the name of sectarianism, under any rationale, are living at a very low level of human development. They’re living in an illusionary reality in which they feel compelled to create enemies and to divide humanity. The struggle for the soul of Islam is a struggle between levels of consciousness. Any religion can be taken over by egoism, it can be made toxic by human egoism. Then it becomes a weapon and a tool for divisiveness. Sufism is about raising the consciousness of humanity. It’s about healing the fears and hatred that sometimes arise in the human ego. The remedy is love and consciousness. They have to work together. Sufism helps people to step out of the compulsions of hatred, mistrust and resentment. In other words, Sufism is about human transformation. We may not be able to transform those who are the most hateful or those who are certifiably psychopathic. But we can reduce their influence by helping humanity to be less suggestible, less manipulated by the psychopaths who are sometimes the loudest voices.

 How does the Threshold Society work towards creating peace?

The Threshold Society is focused on spiritual transformation, self-knowledge and applied spirituality. Our focus is not on world peace explicitly, although many of us are activists outside the Threshold Society. Within Threshold Society, our focus is on the state of our own souls. Inevitably, souls that are transformed and hearts that become purified have an influence – both seen and unseen, both in practical ways and in ways that are described as “spiritual influence”. Every human soul that frees itself from the toxicity of egoism is contributing vibrationally to the state of humanity, often much more than it is apparent. This is difficult to quantify, because the development and purification of the soul proceeds with an almost logarithmic power. Seen in this light, someone in the physical world who is a leader and inspires others can influence many people; but someone who acquires inner Being and inner light may have an even greater effect on other human beings through an inner psychic and telepathic spiritual influence. So the true effect of contemplatives – people who are remembering God – may be much greater than it is outwardly apparent. Individual spiritual practice is not a self-serving activity, but in fact it can be a great service to humanity as well. The world needs its contemplatives, the world needs its saints, the world needs its spiritual lovers.

 Most people associate Sufism with the East. How, in the past decades, has Sufism taken roots in the West?

Western Sufis, some of whom are scholars and some of whom are practitioners adapting Sufism appropriately to the contemporary world, have a major influence in Sufism. As Western Sufis, we have been drawing from the pure springs of Sufism in the East for decades now. However, a new expression of Sufism is being born through the contact of those educated in the critical thinking of the West with the best of traditional wisdom. As someone fittingly put it: the abrasiveness of the West can polish the rust from the mirror of the East. I think there is a very productive and creative relationship going on. Sufism is not predominantly of the East anymore – it is now international. Also, humanity is living at many different levels of cultural development. The level of cultural development in a village in Sudan is not the same one might find in Silicon Valley, California. So we need expressions of Sufism that are appropriate to the level of cultural development in which human beings live.

Which elements within the Mevlevi tradition that was founded on Rumi’s teachings are important for the modern day?

This question is extremely important. In Rumi, we find a creative intelligence that operates in the context of the Qur’anic revelation, but expresses itself with extraordinary creativity and freedom. Over the centuries, Islam, which began as a force of freeing the human imagination, has more and more become dogmatic and anti-imagination. Rumi is an example of how one can live creatively within the context of the universe described by the Qur’an. The effect of living in Rumi’s universe is that we begin to see how all the elements of this life – some of which seem to be opposed to each other, some which seem dark and some which seem light – are all serving the divine purpose. And we begin to see how the divine grace operates through all the details of existence. Rumi takes us to a very high level, which is the true perspective of towhid. He transforms our mentality so that we can see the oneness of grace operating in all conditions of life. Just as importantly, he makes us aware of the generosity and beauty of the divine.

What exactly is this divine beauty?

Rumi was drunk with divine beauty and the path he has laid out is the path of beauty. Beauty is a way to God and human beings are meant to love God. We will only love God to the extent that we can perceive God’s beauty in this existence, by seeing the purposefulness of existence, by seeing the grace and generosity of the unseen operating in human affairs. In this way, Rumi is indeed a remedy for many diseases of religion, many pathologies of belief. He provides many antidotes to fanaticism, sectarianism, human fear, and finally, to human arrogance. Rumi is almost unique, even among the Sufis, in the degree of his freedom and in the breadth of his creativity.

How does Rumi’s mysticism of divine love relate to Muhammad, the Prophet of Islam?

I believe Rumi is a true heir of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). Rumi follows the true sunnah of the Prophet. The sunnah of the Prophet is deeply misunderstood when people turn it into a set of rules, behaviors and outer forms. The true sunnah of the Prophet is about preference for meaning over form, preference for the essence of spirituality, leading to flexibility rather than rigidity. The Prophet always solved human problems by getting to the essence of people’s needs and usually he did so in a merciful and flexible way. In that regard, the Prophet is virtually the opposite of many of those today who claim to return to the original sunnah of the Prophet, but see that sunnah primarily in terms of how we shall trim our hair, how long our trousers shall be and similar outer things. Many of those who claim to follow the Prophet maintain an obsessive, compulsive focus on the outer, to the neglect of the inner. But it’s the inner that’s all-important. The inner is a concern for sincerity in direct experience with the divine. It is what allowed Islam to expand as it did in the first century. Islam, when it was born, was a radical interfaith movement with a powerful moral magnetism. Much of that has been lost. So we need to return to the true spirit of Muhammad, which – in my experience – I have found primarily through the living examples of the mature ones of Sufism.

One of the key teachings of the Mevlevi tradition is the teaching of adab, which you have translated as courtesy, respect and appropriateness. What is the importance of adab for the modern individual?

Adab is one of the most important practices in the Mevlevi tradition. It results in the beautification of a human being. The quality of relationships in Sufism immediately attracts people to it. When adab is practiced with sincerity and affection it establishes a transformative atmosphere of friendship and love among human beings. Of course it goes much deeper because other practices are added to it, like contemplation, zikr and knowledge. But it all seems to begin with adab. At a gathering of Western Sufi shaykhs about 20 years ago someone asked us: What is the most important practice you have learnt from Sufism? Within a few minutes all of us, coming from different orders, agreed that the most important practice was adab, because adab is what made anything else possible. Adab is continuous learning. And I’m still learning. I’m learning from other Sufis, from Rumi’s family, from my Sufi friends and I’m learning from my own students.

When did you first have a living experience with adab?

That was on my first trip to Turkey back in 1980, where I experienced such a beautiful way of life among the Mevlevis and other Sufis that all I really wanted to do was to bring that way of life back to the West. Through this encounter I experienced being loved by my teachers in a way that I had never experienced love before. That was the beginning of the transformation that Sufism brought into our lives.

Can you tell something about the interfaith activities you’ve been involved in?

I make a distinction between “interfaith” and “interspiritual”. I am more interested in “interspiritual”. What I mean by “interspiritual” are people who are practicing contemplatives from various traditions. When they come together there are no arguments and no disagreements. There is only an extraordinary amount that we have in common. This realization is extremely rewarding. I have been at gatherings with Buddhist, Hindu, Jewish, Christian and Sufi spiritual practitioners. We taught together, compared our systems and experienced each other’s practices. In these gatherings I experienced how elements of Sufism were embraced by people from the other traditions. It confirmed for me that there’s a completeness about Sufi teaching. It is integrated with life, with our humaneness. In that way it can be an example even for these other very great and beautiful traditions.

What about the more conventional, dialogue-based interfaith gatherings?

We have done various interfaith zikrs in which people from other traditions experienced the resonance of the divine names in Arabic. Such experiential gatherings are very powerful. The reason why I said I’m not so interested in “interfaith” is that in most of the interfaith events I’ve witnessed I found people just talking about their different beliefs and practices, trying to understand and tolerate each other. Such a dialogue is usually limited to intellectual engagement. Often, each religion subtly competes with the others. But when we do something active like a zikr, we put the conceptualisation aside and enter into a sacred vibration. I think that’s what people are really longing for and that’s where we can meet in a kind of unity. The intellect is good at saying no, at dividing and making distinctions. It’s the heart that can truly say yes and unite.

For years we are experiencing waves of Islamophobia in the West. The refugee movement into Europe has brought bias against Islam to a new level. How can Sufis react to this challenge? Can Sufism have a role in countering these images?

First of all, if the Europeans can embrace these refugees compassionately and generously, they are doing something great for world peace both locally and globally. They become an example of altruism and contribute to peace and understanding. Some Islamophobia is based on critiquing a form of Islam which is in itself a deviant form of Islam. We need to acknowledge that this is not traditional Islam and that the values of traditional Islam are essentially in harmony with the best values of Western civilization. Islam basically teaches human brotherhood, freedom of religion and conscience, altruism, generosity, hospitality, forgiveness, compassion, truth and justice. There is a very important verse in the Qur’an: The word of your Lord is fulfilled in integrity and justice. Thus, every Muslim is called to truthfulness and fairness. So, Islam does have these values and one should never forget that. The demonization of Islam has been made possible because a deviant form of Islam has been propagated. It has grown and spread, like a cancer and hopefully we will find the remedy for it. But the remedy is certainly not hatred or prejudice. Obviously, the refugees coming to Europe are not examples of this corrupt Islam. The people driving them to Europe are an example of it. This is especially true for Syrians, who are such lovely people and very friendly to the West. I only experienced love and acceptance on my travels in Syria. People were so kind, sweet and generous.

Some see the world crisis we are in as something inevitable. They say: We need to experience a massive collapse for something new to arise. Thus, there is a greater purpose in all the suffering and wars. Would you agree with this view?

What is based on untruth cannot stand. We have a financial system that cannot survive and needs to collapse. It may be painful, but it needs to collapse. Are the wars necessary? No, I don’t think so. The wars are very unfortunate. They are really the result of shaytan’s influence on humanity. There is no good in them. Nevertheless, the divine mercy can be found in every circumstance, in every suffering and pain of human condition. There is always a channel back to the rahim, the divine mercy. The divine mercy is never absent. Sometimes these negative conditions, these injustices, these imperfections of human life become the means by which the soul gains maturity and wisdom. There is a reason why we don’t live in a perfectly pleasant world. There is divine wisdom in all the conditions that have been allowed to occur. Human beings have a free will and therefore the freedom for cruelty and injustice. At the same time, the rahma is always offering us a channel back to truth and blessing. Not so long ago Europe has passed through its half century of insanity. One can hope that what the Islamic world, in particular the Arab world, is going through will pass more quickly and with many fewer millions of deaths.


Questions: Marian Brehmer. Originally published on Qantara.de

Based in Istanbul, Marian Brehmer is a freelance writer focusing on Islamic culture and Sufism. marianbrehmer@gmail.com

This interview is also available in German.