Refik Algan: Most of the shaikhs I know in Turkey are very careful not to use the word “Sufi” but rather prefer to be called “people of tassawwuf” or “Islamic mystics,” because the word “Sufi” has become a vague, unclear, obscure term.
In every religion, there is an outside, the outside law, what people call shariah. It tells the human being what to do individually, how to interact with others, how the society should be. Secondly, we come to the orders. Technically an order means something like a school of development, which is guided by a qualified teacher coming from the chain of Muhammad. For Buddhism, for Hinduism, it should be the same way.
Within the orders, a new, deeper, aspect of religion is introduced. You were doing these practices, maybe without inquiring. So let’s go deeper now. These have an effect on the individual. They must bear a result, a fruit; what is the fruit? It becomes a deepening process for the individual. When one is doing this, some people say certain powers may manifest. Usually these are not favored; they are seen as a veil in front of the truth. If one can transcend these powers, if one doesn’t cling to them, then one can pass to the stage of truth. If you use another terminology, one passes into objective truth, objective mind. In other words, the individual’s blurred vision of the world due to the culture, the individual past, etc., drops away. The person gains a healthy vision, and one can surrender oneself to God. In such a way, one reaches the innermost joy in being free.
The real understanding, the fourth state, they say, is to be able to combine the laws of the religion in its outside aspect with the ultimate truth at the end. But there is a tendency in all religions to confuse their folkloric, historic aspects with their innermost meaning. According to the descriptions in the Qur’an, Moses or other prophets or Jesus Christ are all named as part of Islam, meaning those who have surrendered themselves to God. Some people say the word “Islam” comes from three roots which mean “salutation,” “Health,” and “Surrender.” These qualities of the mind have nothing to do with a religion, with an order, or with some other organization of that sort. A person may be with the religion, may follow the path, but still may remain on the outside.
Technically Sufism is only a concept that binds together these different orders and approaches. But throughout the world there is an eclectic tendency — let’s take this from Sufism, let’s take that from this religion, let’s take the other from that religion — so if the Islamic features are prominent, they say this is Sufism. But the mysticism of every religion has its own limits and descriptions and definitions. We have what we call the heavenly religions, the Abrahamic religions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. To create a Sufism apart from them is like forming an eclectic, artificial religion.
Richard Smoley: Some people say that one has to go through the shariah, maybe through an order, and then one approaches this innermost core that you speak of which is beyond those particular forms. Do you feel that seekers have to go in that particular sequence?
Algan: The answer to this question depends on whom one is talking to. If one is too much bound to one’s own culture, one would say “my religion.” But this is always an issue of controversy. Religion is not something that we do. It is God who will accept us, who will open the door. Therefore some might say God is showing the way, and that this way is the most appropriate one for you. We cannot know what God will do. It’s like blasphemy. OK, I accept this religion, and I am knocking at the door, it is an intention which needs to be accepted in the end. But let’s not try to argue — the Muhammadan way, this way, and that way. Who are we to make inquiry to God? “Why do You open this way to this person and not that way?”
There is a verse in the Qur’an that says, “In the eye of God, the religion is Islam.” One of my teachers used to interpret this verse as meaning that according to the understanding of the people, there is Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, or Hinduism, etc., but these are the religions of the people as they received it. But for God, there is only one religion, one criterion: whether we surrender ourselves to God or not. The mystic approach starts here, when the outer form is dropped, when we leave the organization, the outside religion, and try to be one-to-one with God. It is always an attempt to pass beyond form. If there is something to be called Sufism, this is where it is. But on the other hand, according to many people, Sufism is a historical Islamic tradition.
But if we found an organization and call it a Sufi something, or this order or that order, it is like a shop window. If we are in need of something, maybe we go shopping, look at this one and that one, and try to find the one that fits us the most. It fills such a function, but still it is something on the outside. I don’t want to overemphasize this inside aspect; something on the outside is also needed, but it is not Sufism. It never starts from an organization; it starts from the individual.
And there’s another thing. This is the most important problem of our age: Orders were medieval social institutions. When an order founded a school somewhere, the teacher of the order was the most educated, the most knowledgeable person, who brought light to the surrounding environment in the worldly sense also. Uneducated people came, and they were taught how to make music, how to dance, how to cook, maybe some medical information was given, it was like a culture club or a local university.
These orders served a positive function for humanity for a long time. In the medieval ages, we had the type rather than the individual. In a village or a group of villages, people were almost the same as others. They felt almost the same things; they had the same songs, the same food; individual differences meant little. Today the social structure has changed. The individual is getting more developed. Now what’s being done is like trying to fit the foot into the shoe rather than trying to find a new shoe for one’s own foot. Because the logic behind the orders is to provide flexibility according to the external need. But in the orders we don’t have this flexibility now.
Kinney: So their future is in question?
Algan: I think so.
Smoley: Do you have a sense of what form a school may take that would be suited for this time? What would be appropriate to deal with individuals rather than types, to integrate worldly knowledge with esoteric knowledge?
Algan: The religions are already formed. But this flexible approach means to give the individual the chance to leap into formlessness. so I think the demand of the individuals will form that form, rather than saying, “Here is the form, and let’s adapt ourselves to it.” We are in a transition period. The demands of individuals will be effective.
Let’s look at Jesus Christ, for example. The way he taught was according to the demand of his time. He chose a very few people and he taught something to them that had great impact on history. Today we can artificially start the most perfect order, but it won’t survive, because we can’t structure it intellectually.
Kinney: Whereas it really needs to arise organically from the situation.
Algan: Yes. Jesus said you can tell them by looking at their fruit. What is the fruit of these orders? How many people have attained? Or how many people became closer to attainment? Otherwise it becomes something like Sufi dancing, dancing in different clothes or according to a different music.
Kinney: What do you mean when you ask how many people have attained?
Algan: Every religion and every order has a function in the world. And the function has to be towards a goal, and that goal is the realization of the human being, the realization of one’s identity with God, one’s oneness with God. Whether it is implied or stated, this is the goal in every religion.
Kinney: So would you say therefore that much of what occurs today as Sufi activity tends to lose sight of that goal or gets distracted by what should be details of practices?
Algan: I wouldn’t say it only for Sufism or the activity of orders. This kind of activity, whatever name it has, has nothing to do with this going into the inside. It is an individual inquiry. The method isn’t so important; neither is one’s own cultural inclination.
Smoley: you speak of the fruits of the various orders’ teachings. What do you see as the fruit of so-called Sufi teaching in America? You’ve met a number of people who’ve worked with this particular approach, or something like it, here. How is it going?
Algan: Let’s not only talk about Americans; this is a universal problem. Whenever a teaching goes somewhere, there is a tendency to twist or adapt it or to see it as we want to see it. Even if God were to come here Himself and try to help us, people would argue or give ideas. So of course, this outside representation is an effect. At least it brings a flexibility to those who had no idea about these things. Some people look at the songs, the literature of Sufism, and are surprised by them. But they are prejudiced by the historical aspects of Islam, so they say, “Why should we limit Sufism to Islam? Let Sufism represent a wider understanding.” People are trying to play with this concept.
Kinney: But at the same time, in discussions with you, it’s sounded as if you yourself would not limit Sufism to Islam.
Algan: But I wouldn’t call it Sufism. I came here from Turkey, so if the starting-point is a criterion, then people here would call me a Sufi. But the actual process is where the name drops. If I were to answer the question personally, one has to start by inquiring or investigating into the existence of God. Who am I/ Where did I come from? Where am I going? Without this inquiry nothing can be accomplished. It is this process that “cooks” the personality or matures it. Otherwise we accept one form and start to play with it. Shall we stretch it or shrink it? And then the problem starts. One can start with a formless inquiry and then experiment with certain forms, but always keeping in mind the formlessness.
It’s very amazing, for example, for me to see the message of jesus being institutionalized. In his time, there was an outside law, the shariah of Judaism. How he dealt with the shariah, how he was flexible about it, how he taught — in other words, his problem with institutional religion is still the problem of today. It’s a very good example for an order also. The same problem is there. This does not mean we have rejected shariah or outside law.
Kinney: Though it’s my observation that when Americans think of theshariah, they think of uncomfortable strictures on their behavior, and in some cases what seems to modern Western eyes as incredibly harsh punishments for minor things. That seems to be a large stumbling block for a lot of people looking at Sufism or Islam.
Smoley: Another thing that may make it seem harsh is that if you choose to live by shariah here, you’re living by another set of laws and customs and practices on top of the one you already have as part of the Western world. Because in the West there are forms of etiquette and socialized behavior, and we live in them as a fish lives in water. It’s very hard to detach yourself from them. ;If you add another set of laws, codes, and practices on top of them, whether it’s harsh or not, it may seem so because you’ve just doubled the weight.
Algan: The name of the tradition is Abraham’s tradition. And according to the Qur’an, Muhammad also said “according to the religion of Abraham.” This means you have to act or behave according to the structure of the human being. In other words, shariah is the part of the religious orders that point to the structural necessities of the human being. if it is winter and it is snowing, don’t go out in underwear. This isshariah at the level of the individual. Or if it is very sunny, don’t wear your thick coat. or don’t drink alcohol; it’s bad for the liver. Don’t smoke, it damages your lungs. Shariah is something like that. So I think Islam hasn’t been understood yet. But shariah also has its sociological aspect. People look at the application of these universal principles to Arabic society, and they say this is the religion of Islam. If it were so, Jesus Christ, David, and so on wouldn’t be described as being part of Islam in the Holy Qur’an. Of course this creates great controversies. But Sufis don’t make a problem.
Smoley: How would you advise an American practicing Sufism today to live and work and operate?
Algan: This really is very difficult. One can say general things. I recommend that a person not get stuck into any order, keep the objective criteria of science always in mind, keep the scientific inquiry always, and deal with the shaikhs and so on afterward. Every mystic has said that spiritual experience cannot be limited to the activity of one’s life, but this does not mean that we have to decerebrate ourselves. The path to God is not through the intellect, it’s through the heart — everybody knows this — but this does not mean we have to shave off our brain cortex.
Kinney: Why would you suggest trying to maintain a scientific inquiry in particular? That sounds strange to many people following spiritual or esoteric paths, because so much of what is dealt with is unprovable in a scientific sense; these are inner experiences.
Algan: Inner experiences are always prone to doubt. In pure mysticism, these doubts are left behind. But this requires a qualified teacher. So who is a qualified t4eacher? I have to be a qualified teacher to recognize a qualified teacher. This issue is very sensitive.
All through history, this has been a means of abuse. Why were the tekkes closed? Every other activity was in the tekkes besides mysticism. There were certain laws: If someone was a dervish, they didn’t go to the military, or they didn’t pay taxes. There were some social advantages. There were also certain strict principles; for example, someone who came to the tekkecould not be thrown out. Could you imagine having a tekke and all the unemployed people, all the people on the street, coming to you as dervishes, claiming, “We are looking for God”?
Also people at the head of the tekkes were getting degenerate. There were people who claimed that they were the most powerful spiritual personalities of the century. Even so, the tekkes are closed now.
Kinney: Would you characterize the sufism that developed in Turkey as having a unique flavor compared to North African or Arabic orders? Many of the orders can be found in different locations, like the Naqshbandis; they’re all over the place in the Islamic world, even in the West. Are there differences in orders that have developed primarily in Turkey compared to those in, say, North Africa?
Algan: The orders in Turkey mostly originate from Ahmet Yesevi, the great teacher of Islamic mystics. This comes from a non-Arabic, Central Asian branch of Islam. And Turkey being a secular state for a long time, we are not obliged to understand Islam as the Arabic world does. And we are not obliged to understand the Qur’an as Arabs understand it. So this gives a wider space to move.
In other words, there is a difference between a modern man who eats his rice with a fork and somebody else who thinks that to eat rice with the hand is the traditional way to eat and that in the twentieth century we need to eat rice with the hand to be close to God. Or saying to sit on a chair is a sin, you should sit on the ground, or you shouldn’t have a cupboard, you should have a big wooden box. There is a difference between the two cultures. But a sincere seeker should always be away from political organizations.
Algan: Being a sincere seeker has something to do with oneself and with God. And this is where the real Sufism starts, if we call that attempt Sufism. It’s something private with God. Why should I be interested in politics?
Kinney: But someone could say that well, at the same time I’m on a personal quest for the truth of God, why should that mean I couldn’t be involved in pushing for political reforms or supporting a political movement for peace?
Algan: Let me tell you a Bektashi story, although I am not a Bektashi. A Bektashi is on a shop. There is a great storm. So everybody is affected. They start praying, “Oh my God, save us from this!” and so on. there is also a quarrel in the ship — “let’s anchor,” or “let’s move,” or “let’s turn in this direction.” And the Bektashi is sitting very peacefully in one corner and drinking his raki. So they say, “Why are you not discussing with us? What are you doing by yourself?”
So the Bektashi says, “One day I saw some worms in a piece of manure and asked myself, ‘Oh my God! What’s the use of creating these worms in cow manure?’ So time passed and I forgot this question. I became ill. And they called the doctors, and the doctors said the only remedy for this disease is this specific kind of worm from the manure of a cow. I had to collect them, and wash them, and boil them, and drop by drop I had to drink it!”
“So from then on I never interfere with God’s will, God’s business, because He made me drink it!”
Kinney: Another question that people in the West have is that the Gurdjieff Work is associated by some people with Sufism. Others say it’s esoteric Christianity. I wondered what your perspective was on that from having been in Turkey, talking to people there. What is your take on the work he did?
Algan: Mainly from Bektashihood and Orthodox Christianity; that is obvious.
Kinney: Do you think he is an instance of someone who started his own order, and the essence of his teaching may have died with him?
Algan: Yes. According to the principles of general mysticism, even if he was OK, without a living teacher, the school is empty. It turns into ashariah, it turns into the outside. In other words, the systems don’t work…
Kinney: Without the living teacher there to subtly change things as is appropriate to the moment?
Algan: Yes, the living teacher is the warmth of the school. We have a big block of ice; we can break it into pieces, but still it’s the ice. It’s the teacher that melts the ice.
Kinney: Would that imply that in living Sufi orders, the shaikh has to have successfully attained the level of his teacher, otherwise there’s a degeneration?
Algan: Yes, a degeneration. There is also another point. We are talking about debatable things. The blessed Ali says, “Even if the veil had been removed between the human being and God, sureness and certainty would not necessarily follow.” We wouldn’t become more precisely knowledgeable.
Kinney: Mystical illumination does not bring omniscience.
Algan: Exactly, in the worldly sense. This is where the problem is. Teachers all the way around the world, the Hindu gurus, Buddhists, and so on, very few are educated in the worldly sense. Their understanding goes back to medieval times, and they are presenting mysticism to the moderns. But look at Rumi; Rumi was the head of the university of his time. So do we have a Mevlevi dede who is a university professor? No. But they were the professors in the outside sense of what we call zahir — that is a technical word — zahir is the apparent world. The batin is the inside. So this equilibrium between the zahir and batin is lost. The equilibrium is lost between the apparent and the hidden.
You go to a shaikh, he is not educated, and he says, “Leave the intellect. The Devil was cursed because of his mind. What you know is not knowledge at all. Follow your heart. Love is the greatest” — floating words that make no sense! But if he gets an upset stomach, he takes an antibiotic. Or he likes to drive in a car. People who speak in this way have no right to use the possibilities presented by this civilization. Even so, an uneducated person can also get enlightened.
Smoley: From what you’ve been saying, it seems we have an enormous task, which is to get this inner knowledge while still making use of outer knowledge, and if you look around at schools, there are really not many that answer to this criterion. Do you see any hope for changing this picture, or do you see any place where this is changing?
Algan: Yes, I am extremely hopeful, because despite the disadvantages of technology, the Western man and woman have learned to be precise about the material world. A train, for example, comes at a certain hour. Dealing with the material side is giving a different quality to the mind of the modern person. One might have criticisms about technology, but still this precision is also something which is happening. So if more Western people really start inquiring with this precision, their demand will cause a change in the Sufi orders, in the Hindu orders, and so on. But I see the present phase as a vaccination phase. If somebody is coming from the East in different clothes, immediately people say, “Well, this is not contaminated by technology.” But if somebody wears a necktie or modern clothes, he can’t be spiritual. We are over- and underestimating each other’s qualities.
Smoley: There’s another game that’s being played. Most traditions strongly discourage self-advertisement, so a teacher wouldn’t be going out there and claiming, “I’m this and I’m that,” but in America, self-promotion is highly esteemed. To be a spiritual teacher in America, it seems you either have to promote yourself or hire flunkies to go out and promote you. Yet in my experience, the better teachers in any tradition don’t advertise themselves very much.
Algan: If we define Sufism as getting closer to God in the inside through the methods of Islam, then these activities have nothing to do with Sufism. If a fruit is ripe, if it is the right time, then there will be an attraction, and something will start. I don’t believe in large group workings, large amounts of people. Whatever it is, it is not Sufism.
Smoley: That’s another issue, because a lot of teachers — and I’m not even speaking of Sufis here — are flying all over the place all the time, speaking, teaching, lecturing. They supposedly have students, but I wonder what kind of relationship they can have with them, because they can’t possibly know all these people intimately. It’s a common phenomenon in many traditions as they’ve been transplanted here.
Kinney: Do you think the people here have the capability or the context to pursue the essence of Sufi work without having to go abroad or finding a teacher from another culture where Sufism has a longer tradition?
Algan: There are two opposing poles. One is the approach of the orders, if we take their positive aspects. Trying to gather people and then focusing them, trying to give them a higher quality. And there is also an individual approach on the other side. So the variations are between these two. It depends on one’s style, one’s mode of life. My teachers were never in large groups, and they never charged anything. And they shared what they had.
So there are certain principles, and this is why I said one has to have a scientific mind. Who knows which one is best for a person to go to? One who doesn’t want to become embedded or imprisoned within a form should never be comfortable with large numbers. This attitude goes back to early years of Sufism in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, there was a movement that rejected all the orders and wore ordinary clothes. So the problem of degeneration goes back to those periods. One can read Shems-i-Tabriz’s conversations; he was complaining about the shaikhs of his time. Traveling all the way from Iran to Anatolia, he says he hadn’t met a single shaikh that fulfilled the requirements of a shaikh or a spiritual teacher.
Kinney: What were those requirements?
Algan: Well, he was a realized human being; he didn’t see anybody who was realized.
Smoley: Speaking of realization, could you describe some of the types of spiritual practices you’ve found useful, such as meditation, prayer, or movement?
Algan: This question is very good to ask, because what I see today here in America, the most prominent feature of Sufism, is this. What is being given to the people is like a medical education without clinical training. Sufism or mysticism in general is an internal process. Coming together, making dhikr, and dancing are considered to be Sufism, but actually this is the advertising. How does one deal with these exercises, how do they function? This is something like clinical education, which is learned at the bedside of the patient. I don’t think that most of these gurus, the so-called spiritual teachers of shaikhs and so on, I don’t think they can handle any important case.
Smoley: What are they missing?
Algan: Let’s say you became fully enlightened, you became realized. And you choose me as a representative because of my good manners and my skill or the possibility of my also being able to attain. And I come to the United States. I also have agencies, I assign people around. No one knows who is the enlightened one. Most of these organizations are represented second- or third-hand; somebody who would never be considered as an authority becomes a shaikh or baba or guru or swami because there is a vacancy in the market.
Smoley: You speak of a lack of clinical training. What would that training consist of?
Algan: There are many methods. And these methods are not to be worshiped but to be seen as medicines. So maybe I need dhikr, you need fasting. For another, it’s meditation, still another has to go to contemplation. In other words, to work with a person requires the attention and time of a mother who is trying to raise her baby. So it’s always at the level of the individual.
Kinney: And it’s only from work with individuals that that clinical experience arises, knowing — “Aha! I’ve dealt with people who’ve had this psychological disposition; it was helpful to suggest they do this,” rather than a rote “Here is a mantra, everybody do it.”
Algan: Yeah. It’s as if there is a big pool. You feed the fish, some of them become greater than the others, and you choose among them, move them to another pool, and then to another pool. If we are really serious, it has to start with the individual. And the other approach is first one becomes a member of a group, with its disappointments and satisfactions, its group psychology.
Smoley: The question of individuality seems to be a major issue today, because what many seekers really want is some little tape they can play in their minds. and do all their thinking for them. Sometimes I sense that various seekers want to have Gurdjieff’s search and Gurdjieff’s answers or Jung’s search and Jung’s answers or Rumi’s search and Rumi’s answers rather than their own. But I would say the most impressive people I’ve known or read about always had very much of an individual approach.
Algan: We defined our function and goal. To reach the point of Islam in the sense of surrendering, which is the criterion for all the prophets. It’s a quality of being. The religions are there, the orders are there; one has to start directly with direct experience, and with the individual in their situation. One is starting from zero. One has to put everything into question: Does God exist? Are these religions right? How do I feel? Are my feelings right or wrong? It takes courage to be able to ask these questions. Otherwise one is caught in intellectual belief.
This is why this approach, by its nature, cannot be popular. Everybody isn’t prepared to do this. When we define our function and goal in this way, it’s like we are talking about a group of scientists. Is it possible in a society to have one million physicists, or ten million physicists, at the very edge of science? It’s impossible. But there is a place for primary-school teachers, high-school teachers, university professors, and so on; there is such a hierarchy. We are talking about those who are most out on the edge. But that point has to be described, or at least pointed to, so that those who are on the path might have a broader map in their hands. One goes to an order and says, “OK, this is the end, etc.,” and gets stuck there. Because God has no religion, no order, no anything.
Smoley: How in your experience do you keep from getting stuck? Because a religion or an order may have a certain use for a certain time, just as a primary school, secondary school, and so on. In the world it’s possible to know you’ve gone through so many grades of primary school and then you go on. But in esoteric work it’s not obvious, because you may not know when you’re finished. You may not want to recognize it, because you have nowhere else to go.
Algan: Because we have a body, we all get stuck. There is no superhuman being. If we accept that we live together in society, then all the time we come face to face with our shortcomings and our problems. But the thing that differs is our attitude to these problems and shortcomings. If I get stuck and it is too strong, one has to be able to accept it. Or one has to have that question about it: “Am I getting stuck?”
But if we look at the books, how the gurus, how the shaikhs, how all these mystic figures are presented, it’s like a god living among us, a supernatural human being. The main difference in the Sufi approach is to be able to fit into society, to accept these shortcomings, these crippled sides of ourselves. Now it’s always said that it’s very difficult to come back to society. If these teachers of the orders were so perfect, they could get married, they could have children, they could be within the society, they could try to earn a living, they could be rebuked by their boss, they could be bosses by themselves. That they are presented at the top also tells us that they can’t live at the bottom. Which is an imperfection, a limitation, by definition.
Smoley: It’s true; it’s often said in various teachings that the hardest discipline is life in the world.
This article first appeared in Gnosis #30 (Winter 1994).
A copy of the issue is available for $9 postpaid from Gnosis, P.O. Box 14217, San Francisco, CA 94114.