The Sufi Book of Life Book Cover
Introduction to the Sufi Book of Life
According to a number of news sources, the bestselling poet in the English language today is Jelaluddin Rumi, a 13th century Persian Sufi. Is this good news for Sufism, or bad news for the state of English poetry?

Both Rumi and Hafiz (who lived a generation later) have entranced readers because they emphasize passionate love. We are all looking for love, and while we may not know what the word means, we know it when we feel it. Sufi poetry speaks eloquently and passionately about the Beloved, about intoxication, longing, lust, misunderstanding and mistaken identity (of both lover and beloved). That is, all the stuff of life and soap opera. What makes Sufi poetry and story different from soap opera, however, is that they take place in a kind of magical universe of long ago and far away, a universe in which some greater, benign Reality encloses everything.

Most contemporary English poets would reject the whole context of Sufi poetry as romantic and idealistic. What matters today is today's world, one in which we construct our own meaning. We can't be anywhere but here, slogging along in the bleak reality of postmodern life.

Try telling that to the millions of people who are reading the Sufis. That's the good news for Sufism.

The bad news is that most people reading Rumi and Hafiz would like to bridge the gap between reading about divine love and actually experiencing it, but don't know how. They have been led to believe (often by some academic or scholarly source) that Sufis only lived long ago and far away, where they wore robes and turbans and spoke with a foreign accent. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Sufism is a living 21st century tradition, with many different approaches and practices. Authentic Sufis speak in all languages and may wear completely ordinary clothing. The word dervish means one who sits in the doorway, or on the threshold of something, ready to move on and transform him or herself. This book is for modern dervishes, people who want to start living the Sufi poetry of love. It is based on this writer's experience following the Sufi path for the past 30 years and applying it to everyday life.

If Sufism is a living spiritual path today, why isn't it better known?

The 12th century Sufi Saadi once said, "You can get ten dervishes under a blanket, but you can't get two kings to share the same continent." However, in the modern era it has seemed more like wherever you have two Sufis together you have three opinions. Since the Indian Sufi Inayat Khan brought a form of Sufism to the West in 1910, many different groups and teachers have arrived.

Most Sufi books have presented academic, historical or philosophical information on the tradition designed to appeal to the intellect. Some contemporary teachers have presented their own work and approach, which often seems contradictory to the work of others. This has actually been a blessing, since unlike some other traditions, Sufism has not been organized to the extent that its wild character has been tamed.

Historically, diversity has been Sufism's strength. It is ultimately a nomadic tradition, one that has constantly deconstructed and transplanted itself, rather than settle and build gigantic shrines, institutions, monolithic rituals, or organizations. There is no Sufi Vatican or Potala. Rumi, for instance, was well positioned to take over his father's business being the main Sufi preacher of Konya, but along came his spiritual soulmate Shams-i-Tabriz. Rumi gave up his ordered way of life, spent all his time with Shams and became ultimately a brokenhearted dervish, who created the greatest oriental poetry in history. Ibn Arabi could have remained in Spain and built up a large following, but instead he chose to spend most of his life moving from place to place. On the other hand, when the Sufis have been co-opted by the establishment (as in the late Ottoman Empire), they have usually experienced serious problems. We Sufis are itinerant and like our freedom, which is probably also why we usually agree to disagree.

Who (or What) is a Sufi?

Sufism is first of all a series of "not's"-not a religion, not a philosophy, not even a mysticism as that word is usually conceived. It's best to call it a way of experiencing reality as love itself. The modern Sufi writer Massud Farzan said it well and succinctly:

Sufism is a unique phenomenology of Reality. The psychology of Sufism is Sufism itself; the art and science of Sufism is the very practice of Sufism.i

Given such a slippery definition, is it possible to talk about any kind of "pure Sufism" today? A person with common sense would say no, but this has not stopped both scholars and Sufis themselves from attempting to answer the question. Even the relationship of Sufism to Islam is fraught and may be another reason why Sufism as a path is not more popular today in the West. Is Sufism, as the more simplistic dictionary definitions maintain, the "mystical side of Islam." Does Sufism (or its philosophy or practices) predate Islam? Is Sufism the "real Islam," just as some people would maintain that Christian mystics like Meister Eckhart or St. Francis of Assisi represent the real teachings of Jesus more than any form of the institutional church? Here is a typically Sufi answer, again by Massud Farzan:

Does Sufism, derived from Koran and Mohammedan tradition, go against the sayings of the Book and the Prophet? The answer is yes and no. Insofar as Sufism strips the dogma from the religion and goes to its heart, insofar as it insists on the reality beyond the ritual, the thing behind the symbol, Sufism is at once Islam par excellence and distinctly apart from it.ii
Inayat Khan had this to say:

[A]ccording to the sacred history which the Sufis have inherited from one another, it is clear that Sufism has never been owned by any race or religion, for differences and distinctions are the very delusions from which Sufis purify themselves. It might appear that Sufism must have been formed of the different elements of various religions which are prominent today, but it is not so, for Sufism itself is the essence of all the religions as well as the spirit of Islam.iii

There is no doubt that Sufism and Islam have an intimate relationship to each other. What people disagree about is how one defines the words "sufism" and "islam." Literally, the word islam means surrender to the one Ground of Reality, not to some thought-form or dogma. The word sufism derives from a word that simply means wisdom, and the Qur'an itself advocates "seeking wisdom, even as far as China." Historically, Sufis have not adhered to any one school of Quranic interpretation or jurisprudence. And this has made the fundamentalists of all ages very nervous, even up to the present day, when some Islamic countries outlaw the practice of Sufism.

Whether this is reassuring or disturbing will depend upon your point of view. Does the history matter? To some it will and to some it will not. It depends upon, in the words of the modern American Sufi Samuel Lewis, whether you want to allow your concepts to get in the way of the solution to your problems. And the main "problem" for most of us is the purpose of life itself.

Purpose and Organization of this Book

This book proposes to take the reader into the living experience of Sufism. It follows a genre that is hundreds of years old, called a "dervish handbook," a companion to life's experience. In one sense, it presents a series of short essays or contemplations, illustrated by Sufi stories and poetry. Each chapter includes meditations and suggestions for further pathways to explore. In a deeper sense, it illustrates a way of approaching life in order to discover fully who we are, as completely human beings.

As you might guess, the Sufi training is not like going through classes in a school room. Although some classical Sufis proposed that seekers progress through certain stages, made up of expanded states of awareness (ahwal), which then settle into the more stable ways of living everyday life (maqamat), life doesn't organize itself in a linear way. All attempts to organize Sufi teachings this way are inherently artificial, or at least up for revision every generation.

This book conveys the most essential practice shared by Sufis of all historical streams-the meditation on the heart qualities of the sacred (called Asma ul Husna, or the "most beautiful names"). In this book, I am translating the same word (asma) as "pathways," in addition to "qualities" or "names," in order to emphasize the dynamic experience of the practice. I have not yet encountered a Sufi tradition, group or order that does not use these practices. Any of these pathways of the heart can lead you to experience life with deeper feeling and more insight if you approach the practice at the right time. You only need one pathway, if you relentlessly follow it to its source.

In the Sufi tradition, as we move towards becoming fully human, we revive an inner ecology and diversity of spirit. We feel and understand more in life, because we can recognize it as a part of our own soul. Both freedom and joy come with being at home in the heart, a heart that is much wider than we thought. The various pathways may seem to contradict each other (just like life). They are not neatly organized and proportional (just like life). They do work, at least in this person's experience.

One of the first renditions of these practices in English was Edwin Arnold's Pearls of the Faith, published in 1882. That book took the form of a small volume of Victorian poetry, a format that cultivated English-speaking people of the time could assimilate. We now live in a much different era, one of the internet and mass media, and a Sufi must be adaptable, if nothing else. On its surface, this book appears to fit into the "how-to," self-improvement genre, a format that mirrors Western culture's desire to receive things quickly and easily. We might bemoan this tendency as counterproductive to a spiritual life: what is easy is not necessarily better, and responding quickly often does not leave much time for reflection or feeling. Most self-help books only want to reconfirm what we already know. They aim for an "uh-huh" rather than an "aha!" I would call this more self-hypnosis than self-help.

This book attempts to subvert the simplistic side of the self-help genre by building in various Sufi features, including randomness, paradox and spiritual practice. As noted in the Quick Start Guide, one can use this book as an oracle or search within it to find appropriate wisdom for the moment. What the reader finds under these circumstances may be surprising or even disturbing. Hopefully, it will be illuminating.

Viewed another way, the self-help genre may be perfectly appropriate. For most of its history, Sufism has operated as a kind of do-it-yourself tradition. We have no overall leader, potentate or pope (which is not to say that some people haven't tried to establish themselves, or someone else, as one). The Sufi guide is more a cross between a companion, therapist and trickster, than an almighty guru, and Rumi once said that ultimately the real pir (senior spiritual director) is Love itself.

Updated for the 21st century, the pathways of the heart function very much like a search engine to the internet of life, with our heart acting as the "browser" through which we view the world, inside and out.

Some Words about the Words

In order to cultivate the proper reverence for the divine, most previous books and lists translate the Arabic names or qualities in the pathways using only the language of transcendence. These translations can encourage us to see the qualities of the One as always outside of us, which suggests that we need to ingest them like vitamins. Devotion is an important fuel for the path, but mandatory reverence is not. We have a very different relation to "religion" today than did our ancestors, who mostly lived in societies where behavior was dictated from above. When we only use the language of transcendence, we receive the impression that these practices are magic formulas by which we can compel the divine to fulfill our wishes. Such language, whatever its intent, encourages us to see prayer and spiritual practice as a type of bargaining. The modern Sufi M. R. Bawa Muhaiyaddeen comments on this tendency:

For what purpose are we supposed to recite these names? For what purpose do they tell us to shout in the supermarket? It is to buy the market produce that we desire in our minds….

You may recite His names 1000 times for this, 7000 times for that, and 8000 times for the other, but even if you recite it 50,000 times you will not receive anything. Why? Because God has already given everything to you. You have only to open that treasury within your qalbs (hearts) and take out what has already been given.iv

The classical Sufi tradition contains a very strong emphasis on the divine unity of all life (called tawhid). In this view, shared by Rumi, Ibn Arabi and many others (and justified by a reading of the Quran itself), the whole creation came into existence to express the unlimited, sacred qualities through all beings. In particular, God created the human being as a mirror capable of holding and expressing the totality of the divine reflection, including the whole consciousness of nature and the universe. This is what, in the Sufi view, being fully human means. In this sense, as Bawa Muhaiyaddeen notes, we already have all the pathways of the heart within us.

Despite the emphasis on the unity of being, devotional practice, phrased in an I-Thou manner, is essential on the Sufi path. It teaches us to let go of our own limiting concepts and helps open our hearts to a wider dimension of feeling. Just as in the 12-step programs, we do not really have the impetus to change until life becomes unmanageable, and we decide to let go and try another way.

This development of devotion in what the Sufis call the path of effacement (fana) presents, however, only one side of the picture. We also find a parallel development in the evolution of the self or nafs. The latter word is often mistranslated in versions of Sufi poetry as the "animal self." We can best see the nafs (a term consistent with the old Hebrew nephesh and Jesus' Aramaic naphsha) as a fluid soul-self. This includes what modern psychology calls the "subconscious." Really, the nafs is more a way of looking at the whole self from a subconscious viewpoint than as a separate self inside a self (like Russian matrushka dolls). From this view, we have an inner community of evolving voices within us, some of which contradict each other. Similarly, some modern psychologies work with a male and female inner self, or an inner judge or child. Sufi psychology expands this inner community to include a whole ecosystem including non-human voices like plants and animals. These "basic selves" are here to be transformed, to realize their unity of "one to the One."

From my experience, the practices of the pathways of the heart, when approached with devotion, can radically transform one's subconscious reality. This new translation therefore approaches these pathways as though they are all already within us, waiting to be recognized and reunited in the circle of the heart's unity with the divine Beloved.

Personal Background

I grew up in a multi-cultural American family, hearing German, Yiddish, Polish, Russian and English. Perhaps this made it easier to work with foreign languages later. In addition, even though my brothers and I were raised outwardly as protestant Christians, my parents were both interested in spirituality, ecology and holistic healing. When I went on my own spiritual search in my 20's, I felt I needed to find something that would include everything I had already experienced and allow me to continue to explore the depth of my being. Because Sufism honored all the prophets and messengers who had preceded Muhammad, I found that I could include my deep love for Jesus in my own developing way of spiritual practice.

I have had the benefit of studying or receiving teaching from a number of Sufis, East and West, over the past thirty years, including Pir Vilayat Inayat Khan, Pir Hidayat Inayat Khan, Pir Shabda Kahn, Murshida Fatima Lassar, Murshid Wali Ali Meyer, Murshida Vera Corda, the Rev. Frida Waterouse, the Rev. Joe and Guin Miller, Irina Tweedie, Sheikh Suleiman Dede of Konya, Sheikh Muzaffer Ashki al-Jerrahi, Pir Sufi Barkat Ali, Shah Nazar Seyed Ali Kianfar and Nahid Angha and others.

My primary teacher was Hazrat Pir Moineddin Jablonski, the spiritual successor of Hazrat Murshid Sufi Ahmed Murad Chishti (Samuel L. Lewis, d. 1971), who was himself a student of Hazrat Inayat Khan (d. 1927). My teacher exemplified a complete approach to spiritual practice in his work with students. He realized that an unbalanced emphasis on transcendence in spiritual practice delayed spiritual growth. He built upon the work of another one of his teachers, Frida Waterhouse, and developed what he called "Soulwork,"a new way to do psychospiritual counseling based on the ancient path of Sufism.

Although I have written a number of other books on Middle Eastern spirituality and an Aramaic approach to the words of Jesus over the past 15 years, I didn't feel that it was appropriate to write a book on Sufism while my own teacher was still around in the body. When Moineddin left his body behind in 2001, my inner life shifted. He had encouraged me in all of my translation work, and it then seemed time to reap the harvest of the work I had done on the pathways of the heart since 1976. Through his friendship, counseling and wisdom, Moineddin showed me a way to live an ordinary human life, unaffected by the world of "hype" that today surrounds even spirituality and spiritual teachers. In many ways, he saved my life, and I have dedicated this book to him.

The translation work in this book is also inspired by Hazrat Haji Shemsuddin Ahmed, my Pakistani Quran teacher, who passed away about 20 years ago. A friend of Samuel Lewis, Shemsuddin taught traditional methods of interpreting and translating the Quran on various levels of meaning. Because Semitic languages like Arabic use a root-and-pattern system, one can literally--that is, by the letters--translate various words in a number of different ways. In addition, through these roots, sacred words like those in the pathways of the heart show their affinity to each other through families of meaning.

So this type of translation is not simply a matter of looking a word up in a dictionary. It is both sacred science and art. The translations here result from three decades of practice and more than 15 years of conscious work, in which the author has experienced all the pathways many times and worked to refine translations from the roots. The main difference between these translations and previous ones is that they presume that the names describe living spiritual experiences rather than simply metaphysical categories of a thought-form called "God."

Past translations have also used exclusively masculine language, which the Arabic original does not justify. For instance, even though the Arabic word Allah is usually gendered masculine, both the words sifat (referring to each divine quality of the One) and dhat (the divine essence, a sort of homeopathic combination of all possible qualities) receive the feminine gender. A number of classical Sufi writers have commented on this gender play in the Arabic of the Quran, which is virtually impossible to translate, given that English tends to make qualities and concepts grammatically neuter and only gender "persons."

All translations of Semitic languages like Arabic, Hebrew or Aramaic into English are by nature limited. Likewise, no one translation in any other language can hold all of the meaning of the pathways of the heart in Arabic. These translations are also limited by my own experience. They do offer the benefit of being internally consistent (the same roots are translated the same way) and linguistically sound (different Arabic words are not translated using the same English word as they are in some previous translations).

When you use this book with an attitude of devotion, you benefit from a very strong line of transmission for these practices. In many of these sacred names, we see forms of phrases used for thousands of years in the Middle East, including by the Hebrew Prophets and Jesus. According to one scholar, early Middle Eastern Christians used as a similar practice 130 different names or attributes of Jesus in Syriac Aramaic, a language related to Arabic.

Normally, lists of the pathways of the heart are limited to 99 qualities. Because the Quran contains more than 99 such qualities of names of the One, different lists vary. This collection uses one of the most common lists as a basis. In addition, I have added chapters for the Arabic name of unity itself (Allah) and for the traditional phrase with which one begins an endeavor (bismillah). By one tradition, the names of Reality are countless, but starting with 99 different ways of knowing yourself makes a good beginning.

Do I Need a Teacher?

The book intends to serve as both a handbook for those on the path and a way to begin for those who are not. The effects of a spiritual practice vary according to whether it is intoned, spoken, sung, chanted or breathed; whether it is done sitting, standing, walking or lying; with a definite rhythm or tempo or without. The best way to do a spiritual practice is the way in which one's spiritual guide has given it, and in no way is this book meant to be a substitute for seeking this personal guidance. The relationship with a teacher and the blessing (or baraka) created by two people in a spiritual relationship remain the most active forces on the Sufi path. In the form we have them, the direct transmission of the Arabic sacred names that appear in the Quran is through the Prophet Muhammad. This provides both a blessing and a protection, and some Sufis believe that one can directly receive a transmission from a teacher whom one has never met in the flesh.

Many different Sufi teachers and groups now reside in the West. In one appendix, I have listed brief biographies of all the Sufis mentioned in the book. In another, I have detailed some of those Sufi groups, with which I am personally familiar, that carry on the transmission of these teachers today. In addition, the bibliography mentions a few of the many books on the various viewpoints on the background of Sufism. If this book is your first exposure to Sufi practice and you find some affinity with it, then I would recommend going further. If you are already a practitioner, haven't been put off by what I have said so far, and want to renew your practice, you are welcome-marhaba! If you come with an eye to criticize, you will no doubt find many deficiencies, all of which are due to my limitations and not those of my teachers.

How does one go about looking for a teacher? First, do not imagine that a Sufi teacher will "fix" all your problems. A Sufi teacher does not operate the same way that a psychotherapist would (although many teachers today are also trained in some form of Western therapy). Rumi illustrates the way of the Sufi teacher in the following story:

A man goes to a barber and says, "I have to go for a job interview. Can you cut all of these white hairs out of my beard?"

"Certainly," says the barber, and proceeds to cut off the man's whole beard and wrap up the hairs. "Now take this home. You can sort out the white hairs for yourself."

The Sufi teacher does not analyze you; she or he is dedicated to transformation. In this regard, I usually tell people, "Go as far as you can on your own. When you've come to your limit, then look for a guide."

Back to Excerpts

Farzan, Massud. (1974). The Tale of the Reed Pipe. New York: Dutton, p. xv.
Ibid., pp. 63-64.
Khan, Hazrat Inayat. (1926). Gathekas for Candidates by Pir-o-Murshid Hazrat Inayat Khan. PDF edition. Eugene, OR: Sufi Ruhaniat International, p. 11.
Muhaiyadden, M. R. Bawa. ((1979). Al-Asma'ul-Husna: The 99 Beautiful Names of Allah. Philadelphia, PA: Fellowship Press. pp. 155, 157.
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