Wilmshurt writes in Chapter 1 of The Meaning of Masonry that the Ancient Mysteries existed “in the East, in Chaldea, Assyria, Egypt, Greece, Italy, among the Hebrews, Mohammedans, Christians, and in Africa.” This article focuses on Sufism which is, in Wilmshurt’s terms, a current of Mohammedan Mysticism.
In his book The Other Islam: Sufism and Global Harmony, Stephen Schwartz defines Sufism as the esoteric, metaphysical, and mystical tradition within Islam, similar to the Kabbalah in the Jewish tradition. Sufis retain a strong teacher-disciple tradition, similar to the ones found in various Martial Arts traditions, while espousing ascetic practices of renunciation of worldly goods and pleasures, much in the style of the Christian mystics. Like with Christian mystics, many Sufis have been great missionaries. Sufis likewise practice repentance, poverty, gratitude, patience, and commit to a life of meditation. Like the mystics of all traditions, Sufis seek a direct and personal experience and communion with the Divine.
Some scholars claim that the word Sufi comes from the Persian word for wisdom, which came in turn from the same root of the Greek word Sophia (also wisdom). Others claim the origins of the word are to be found elsewhere, in the word for wool, for example, which was the garment of choice of early Sufis or in the word denoting purity. The general consensus is that Sufism began in the first centuries following the death of the Prophet (around the year 600 AD), during the Golden Age of Islam somewhere between the 9th and the 10th century. Most Sufis today are Muslim as has been the case throughout history. Yet, there exists claim or understating among Sufis, that pre-Islamic origins of Sufism can be traced back to early Christian mystics of Syria and Egypt, to the Essenes, the Pythagorean school, and the Mystery Schools of the Egyptians and Zoroastrians, among others.
I’ve noticed that the writings of the Sufi poet Rumi, who lived from the year 1207 AD to the year 1273 AD, have become very popular among spiritual practitioners of all kinds in recent years. The BBC reported in 2014 that Rumi was the best-selling poet in the U.S. Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi was a Persian poet, Sufi master, and mystic who began his religious career as a conventional Muslim teacher. Rumi evolved his spiritual practice to include meditation while spinning around in the now well-known Sufi way, often dictating poetry or perhaps merely reciting poetry as the words occurred to him while students made sure to write down every word. This trance-like state, a mystical meditative state of mind to be achieved by spinning around is the signature and best known feature of Sufism.
Like with Freemasonry, deeply philosophical Sufis claim that the true origins of Sufism, being found in Truth itself and our human development, come from time immemorial. In The Origin of Sufism, Sufi Inayat Khan claims that the “germ of Sufism is said to have existed from the beginning of the human creation, for wisdom is the heritage of all; therefore no one person can be said to be its propounder.” The key concept within the school of thought is Divine Inspiration. True Sufis are those who have developed beyond mere religious proficiency into the real of Divine understanding. Inayat Khan goes further in claiming that all true mystics are, in fact Sufis, regardless of their claimed religion. For Sufis there is only one God, the God that is found in all true religions, the God spoken about by all true prophets and teachers, including Jesus, Moses, David, Solomon, and Abraham.
Does this sound familiar? It does to me! How often have Freemasons recognized in a spiritual person a certain quality to their character, an ethical backbone, a mystical light even, that has caused them to say “so and so is not a member but a Freemason at heart.” I am a staunch believer in the universality of Freemasonic values. We have elaborate ritual and complicated language, but the seed of Freemasonry, its purpose and ultimate destination is and ideally should be the development of character into noble qualities that all and any other true spiritual path can develop when honestly followed. Thus, any true spiritually noble person, to make a parallel claim to that of Sufi Inayat Khan, is a Freemason to me, regardless of their claimed religious affiliations. And here, the mystery of Sufism and Freemasonry meet as any True and Noble Freemason can very well be understood to be a True Sufi, beyond the specifics of Sufi teaching and practice; beyond the dress code and the twirling, the noble person stands.
In Origins and Nature of the Sufis, Robert Graves compares Freemasonry and Sufism beautifully. “The Sufis are an ancient spiritual freemasonry whose origins have never been traced or dated… Though commonly mistaken for a Moslem sect, the Sufis are at home in all religions: just as the ‘Free and Accepted Masons’ lay before them in their Lodge whatever sacred book—whether Bible, Koran, or Torah—is accepted by the temporal State. If they call Islam the “shell” of Sufism, this is because they believe Sufism to be the secret teaching within all religions.”
Our Masonic Altars, with the Sacred Books of various traditions resting upon them, have been innovative, controversial, and radical to some since the inception of Freemasonry. Yet, the sentiment of there being a philosophy and practice beyond religious differences is found elsewhere, as in Sufism, making it clear why Wilmshurt includes the Muslim mystical strand in the streams that have led to the foundation of Freemasonry. It isn’t that we can trace a philosophy through the Mystery traditions from teacher to student, from sources, or even from time period to time period. What is it then? It is a vaguely stated yet firm belief and certainty for Wilmshurt that there is a Light, an actual Mystery to human evolution that can be found in the Mystery Schools of old, so varied in their providence, for the simple reason that their shared attributes or system works: it leads to spiritual enlightenment, better living, and a better society. Freemasonry, for Wilmshurt, fits right in, or ought to fit right in, with these mystical and mysterious schools. For Wilmshurt, Freemasonry was meant to continue the tradition of Divine understanding beyond, yet inclusive, of all religions.
Only Breath – Poem by Sufi Master Jelaluddin Rumi
(as translated by Coleman Barks)
Not Christian or Jew or Muslim, not Hindu
Buddhist, Sufi, or Zen. Not any religion
or cultural system. I am not from the East
or the West, not out of the ocean or up
from the ground, not natural or ethereal, not
composed of elements at all. I do not exist,
am not an entity in this world or the next,
did not descend from Adam and Eve or any
origin story. My place is placeless, a trace
of the traceless. Neither body or soul.
I belong to the beloved, have seen the two
worlds as one and that one call to and know,
first, last, outer, inner, only that
breath breathing human being.
Unlike Freemasons, Sufis do not have a hierarchical, gradated, or degree structure although they have established Sufi Orders with rituals. Recognition among Sufis is more a matter of sharp appreciation of one’s character, much like Freemasons are said to recognize each other on intuitive levels. Yet, Sufism is a path, with each disciple attaining progressively deeper inner states, culminating in a fusion with or total immersion in God. Sufism’s formal organization originally consisted of a Master surrounded by a few disciples. Larger congregations of Sufis then began to spring, which required more organizational oversight, which came with each disciple having more than one Teacher. Sufi rules are sophisticated and strict and vary from region to region.
Like Freemasonry, Sufism focuses tremendous attention on seeking Truth. In fact, the true Sufi practitioner renounces everything except for Truth and practices the Divine Ethics leading to it. Truth for the Sufi often involves receiving wisdom in dreams, colors, sounds, and visions; we truly are talking about a mystical Mystery path. Also like Freemasonry, Sufism considers Love to be a crucial element of what one must develop as a human being. Unlike Freemasonry, which I will venture to say is more rational and methodical than Sufism, Sufism seeks to experience inspiration to which reason has no access, it is intuitive and spontaneous. To understand this, one only needs to envision Rumi, twirling in trance while composing poems, without care to whether his disciples were jotting them down or whether they would be lost to the winds. Certainly not how one finds our Worshipful Masters in our Lodges. This is not to suggest, however, that Sufis have no rigurous ritual practices. They do. Prayer, for example, with the aid of rosary beads for counting repetitions of verses has been a common practice among Sufis since at least the 8th century according to the Encyclopedia Britannica.
It is difficult to estimate how may Sufis are found in the world today for various reasons. In the West, many people have adopted Sufi techniques and philosophies to varying degrees, making it unclear who is a Sufi and who merely likes to delve into Sufism on occasion. In the Middle East, many Sufi teachers face skepticism and, in some cases, persecution. Pew Research Center for religion and public life reports that “few Muslims describe themselves as Sufis or say they belong to a particular Sufi brotherhood [and that s]elf-identified Sufis [today] are most prevalent in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia.” Some researchers have estimated that there are about nine million Sufis in the world today.
I hope Freemasons reading this can recognize an affinity between Sufism and Freemasonry. While both philosophies are very different from one another, culturally and in their practices, there are core elements that both claim, such as an adherence to Truth, reverence for all Religions, and an aspiration towards the Divine through ethical living. I will end by stating once again that, although Wilmshurt included the Mohammedan mystical Mystery schools as a source of Freemasonry in his The Meaning of Masonry, this should be understood on a philosophical and inspirational level, rather than a tradition passed down through documents or specific teachers, finally reaching Freemasonry. Wilmshurt refers to a historic, worldwide, and pervasive occurrence of spiritual development through Mystery Schools of which Freemasonry was intended to be a beneficiary.
I apologize again to my readers for the interruption in the frequency of these The Meaning of Masonry studies. I encountered some personal matters that called me away but all that has been resolved now. I will continue to post bi-montly studies and I thank each of you for reading!
Phoenix St. John
Sources: The Origins of Sufism: The Open Path, the Sufi Way, Why is Rumi the Best Selling Poet in the U.S.? BBC, Robert Graves: Origins and Nature of the Sufis (introduction to Idries Shah’s “The Sufis”), How Many Sufis are there in Islam?: The Huffington Post, The World’s Muslims: Unity and Diversity: Pew Research Center: Chapter 1: Religious Affiliation, Paying Attention to the “Other Islam:” The moderate voices of the Sufi tradition, by Jay Tolson: U.S. News and World Report, BBC: religions: Sufism, Nimatullahi Sufi Order: What is Sufism?, Encyclopedia Britannica: Sufism Islam, Practical Sufism and Philosophical Sufism: Seyyedeh Dr. Nahid Angha: Journal Sufism: An Inquiry, Patheos Library: Religion Library: Sufism, The Threshold Society: What is Sufism?: Living Presence: A Sufi Way to Mindfulness & the Essential Self.