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Sufi Wisdom: What the Sufis Do Not Want Us to Know


As militant Islam does its best to discredit the religion, it is important to remember that there are other voices within the faith. One such is the Sufis, a branch of Islamic mystics with roots in many religious traditions. The lessons of Sufism are often communicated through humorous stories and mystical or romantic poetry. As a part of Joe's Good News Saturdays, we spend some time each week with the Sufis and their "wisdom of idiots."

In Shah's essay collection Sufi Thought and Action, Edwin Clitheroe discusses the Sufi approach to knowledge, and how it differs from other teachings...and indeed, how true Sufi teaching differs from what often passes for "Sufism":

"The clue lies in the the Sufi phrase, going back to ancient times, to the effect that 'The ignorant are better than those who do not use their knowledge.' Theoretical, or incomplete, knowledge has functions and characteristics which are unsuspected by those for whom 'knowledge' means narrow specialisation. Sufis assert that people should have a wide range of knowledge and experience, because, quite obviously they understand that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing. Those who follow a narrow line are more likely to think that they know more than they do. The Sufis want us not to know, too, things which disturb the development process because they can be given an untoward degree of importance in the wrong rhythm or succession of learning.

'It is not what you know, but when you know it; it is not how much you know, but how you can use it; it is not what you think that you know, but what you really do know.'

If the wrong kind of knowledge prevents access to true knowledge, what is this wrong kind of knowledge that the Sufis don't want us to have?


If I understand the history of Arabs, the Sufi, along with Jews and Christians, were the Arabs who actually did all the academic work Muslims in general now want to credit to Islam. Am I correct?

Sufis have often been numbered among the most learned people of their age, bu your description is an exaggeration.

Many of Persia's greatest poets were Sufis, for instance, and this sect has contributed a great deal to Islamic culture and civilization. Nevertheless, there are many non-Sufi Muslims who have done likewise over the centuries.

The complex and varying relationship between the Sufi sect and other branches of Islam deserves a post all its own.

Islam, whatever its strain, is Islam. The plight of Hindus under Sufis is no different from that of Jews and Christians under Salafis and the other assorted brands of this blood thirsty ideology.

Joe, it sounds to me like the Sufis emphasized the idea of connection - people should have a wide range of knowledge and experience, they should not be narrow.

Knowledge should not be in the form of a random list of facts about trees, the sky, insects, pottery, and so on. Rather, knowledge should be in the form of a skein of connected ideas and observations. That skein reflects the structure in the world and in society. That structure can be used to understand what has happened and to predict what will happen in the future.

Part of that prediction involves other people's mental states - knowing their beliefs and desires and purposes - which is a skill we call theory of mind. Human brains have a set of neurons called 'mirror neurons,' the primary function of which appears to be mediating this ability to understand other people - this connection to other people at a deep level.

So, there you have what looks like a tree in autumn - a network of knowledge (e.g., roots) extending down into the past and a reflected network of expectations (branches) extending up into the future. On this view, perhaps the Sufis were saying, if your root system is too small, or if your branches develop too quickly, your tree will not survive.

I'm new to this site, so excuse me if I misunderstand, but what's it really matter what some dead guys believed? I'm glad that there is a thread of rationality in Islamic tradition, for everyone's sake, but that's just history.

Make up your own minds what is good knowledge. Dead people don't know anything anymore. They aren't wise. They aren't learned. They don't have insights or ideas. They are DEAD. Learn from what they left you but don't try to bring them back from the dead.

One of the great problems of human culture is the belief that dead people are in some sense still around and can help us. They are nothing but constructs in our minds. Just use your own mind without the constructs; it will work better.

Ancestor worship is the main source of blind acceptance of traditional belief. Just because certain dead people (your ancestors or someone else's) wrote or said some things that still hold up to rational or emotional analysis does not imply that everything they did or said was right, or that they are in any way less dead and gone.

If you want to know what a Sufi thinks, ask a Sufi. If you can't find one, then it doesn't matter what he thinks.

Helen: can you point to some evidence of this Sufi maltreatment of Hindus?

Keep in mind that this feature is not about glorifying Islam or apologizing for the behavior of Muslims generally. It is about avoiding the temptation to paint Islam with the broad brush that you have used here. Also understand that not all who claim to be Sufis are actually Sufis (according to the Sufis themselves) -- Shah wrote hundreds of pages on this topic alone, and it is a subtext of the passage I quoted at the top of this post. If they are oppressing Hindus, chances are very good they are not practicing the tenets of the religion they ostensibly represent.

Brent: Sufism is not "just history", it exists in the modern world. I'm not sure what you're referring to when you complain about "ancestor worship" and bringing "them" back from the dead. Could you elaborate?

If anything, the Sufis argue against the "blind acceptance of traditional belief", and work hard to overcome the conditioning that 'the traditional ways are best'. Shah frequently argues that one way to discern a true Sufi school or teacher from one which is Sufi in name only is the degree to which they adhere to the old traditional methods (whirling, for instance) without regard to the time, place, and people involved.

If you strip away the religious elements, Sufism is a technique for learning to properly use the mind (for example, by teaching it to recognize and root out prejudices, undigested received wisdom, habits of thought, etc.). How exactly does one go about "just [using] your own mind" or "[making] up your own minds what is good knowledge" without somehow learning how to do so? I'm keen to discover this trick, even if it does come too late to spare me spending eight years and umpteen thousand dollars on higher education.

Yes, that's it! That is precisely the kind of knowledge the Sufis don't want you to have.

I didn't know until I read all these comments!

Thank you!

Brent, most of your comment seemed to me to be beside the point, since no-one was urging any form of ancestor worship. Rather, Joe's use of the Sufi lesson reflects a primary purpose of the skills of writing and reading: storing knowledge to make it available in the future. And Joe explicitly invites readers to read their own lesson into the Sufis' words, rather than offering a literalist or fundamentalist interpretation.

There is a distinction between 'ancestor worship' and the simple recognition that some people who lived long ago were very wise, and that there is a reason we still read their words, that all gnerations between their time and ours have read their words, while the writings of other, lesser minds have been forgotten.

Confucius: To know what you know and to know what you don't know, this is knowledge.

Does that make Rumsfeld a Sufi? Consider his remarks:

"As we know,
There are known knowns.
There are things we know we know.
We also know
There are known unknowns.
That is to say
We know there are some things
We do not know.
But there are also unknown unknowns,
The ones we don't know
We don't know."


Rumsfeld... not a Sufi, more like a Bushido Zen Sensei.

My sister's ex-boyfriend was a Sufi Muslim. He was a very intelligent and liberal person, and he explained his Sufi beliefs as non-violent and accepting. And judging by the fact that he was willing to date my Jewish sister, he wasn't the virulent anti-Israel, anti-Jewish bigot that many people assume all Muslims are.

That statement by Rumsfeld is Confucian!

It means don't teach singing to pigs or kundalini yoga to toddlers.


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