The Good Teacher and The Good Pupil - Sufi Wisdom

Sufi Wisdom

Sufi Wisdom

Sufi Wisdom



In an age where critical reason is said to reign supreme, claims of supra-rational knowledge are apt to be brushed aside as superstition or obscurantism. But recent breakthroughs in science, psychology and other branches of knowledge indicate that human civilization is reaching a point where we can no longer be so dogmatic in our rejection of the claim that beyond ordinary human consciousness lie higher ranges of knowledge, wisdom and power more luminous and more relevant to the contemporary needs of mankind than the knowledge and power of reason.

In Western history, Plato's philosophy marks a great transition between the age of supra-rational knowledge, represented by the mysteries, occultism and mysticism, and the age of reason. Plato made a distinction between perception and reason and argued that the true source of knowledge is reason. Reason, he taught, is made up of mate ideas analogous to the rays of the sun that radiate outward yet point back to the sun as the supreme source of light. In Plato s philosophy, innate ideas could be conceived as intuitions having their origin in a supra-rational source. Nevertheless, the emphasis Plato placed on reason and on dialectical thought is undeniable, and later schools of rationalism have derived their sustenance from Plato.

With Aristotle, who was a pupil of Plato, we have the first comprehensive statement of logic in the history of Western thought. The foundations he laid for logical thought remained unshaken for nearly 2,000 years, until the first decades of the present century, when a new movement started under the influence of some eminent mathematicians and philosophers. After Aristotle, there was an interlude

Sufi Wisdom

Sufi Wisdom

during which theological thought held the field. With Descartes (1595-1650) rationalism again asserted itself with irresistible vehemence. His method of-critical doubt has left an indelible impact on modern thought; his contention that nothing should be taken for granted and that no belief should be accepted unless reason shows it to be irrefutable has a powerful appeal to the contemporary mind. Subsequently, Western philosophy passed through various forms of rationalism enriched by contributions made by great philosophers like Spinoza (1632-1677), Leibnitz (1646-1716), Kant (1728-1804) and Hegel (1770-1831). In the meantime, an opposition against rationalism arose with the empiricism1 of John Locke (1632- 1704). Locke attacked the theory of innate ideas and maintained that all ideas have their origin in sense-experience. Locke s empiricism reached its climax with David Hume (1711-1776), who maintained that sense-experience cannot provide a basis for belief in substance, either physical or spiritual, and hence nothing can be known with certainty. Hume s empiricism ended in scepticism.

It is true that Kant, who was awakened from his dogmatic slumber by Hume, attempted to provide a new foundation for certainty in his famous work, Critique of Pure Reason. But despite its originality and brilliance, Kant's work failed to convince rationalists and empiricists. The empiricists rejected Kantian epistemology2and tried to provide some practicable foundations to scientific knowledge.

Hegel reconstructed rationalism on the foundations of monistic3 ontology4 and this was further developed by Bradley (1846-1924) in his book, Appearance and Reality. Although empiricism has not succeeded in restoring certainty to knowledge, it has made some acute attempts to develop criteria for various degrees of probability of knowledge. Empiricism is also a kind of rationalism, although it rejects Hegelian or Bradley an rationalism which has its foundations in Platonism. Empiricism is rationalism because it contends that reason, although dependent on sense-experience, is our highest faculty; and it dismisses supra-rational knowledge because it collides with the evidence of sense-experience, which is the only evidence empiricism allows.

Thus the contemporary philosophical climate is ridden with the conflict between Platonic rationalism and empirical rationalism. This conflict has stimulated afresh inquiry which questions the validity of the assumption that reason



1. Empiricism: the philosophical-system which, rejecting all a priori knowledge, rests solely on experience and induction.

2. Epistemology: the study of theory of the origin, nature, methods and limits of knowledge.

3. Monism: a philosophical theory that all being may ultimately be referred to one category; thus idealism, pantheism, materialism are monisms — as opposed to the dualism of matter and spirit.

4. Ontology: that part of metaphysics which treats of the nature and essence of things.

Sufi Wisdom

Sufi Wisdom

and reason alone is man's highest faculty. As a result, movements such as pragmatism5, existentialism6 and phenomenonology7 have begun to flourish and make some impact on the modern seeking mind. There is a sharp return to subjectivism, and even some eminent scientists have manifested a tendency to look more deeply into the inner self of man as the subjective knower of the objective universe. Hegelian or Bradleyan rationalism, which had for some time remained subdued, has also begun to reassert itself. But it is not likely that this movement will seize the contemporary mind unless it makes room for the profounder experiences of the self that lie beyond the ken of reason.

It seems that we are poised for a new movement. This is evident from the reawakened interest all over the world in supra-rational knowledge and in such traditions as Vedanta, Yoga, Zen and Sufis m. Emerging from a triumphant period of science and empirical reason, this new movement will be highly critical of any purely speculative or unverifiable claim of knowledge. On the other hand, it will also be critical of reason, and will reject the dogma that sense-experience is the ultimate source of all knowledge. The new movement is likely to be synthetic in character, reflecting various levels of consciousness which have come to be increasingly ' accepted during recent decades as East and West began to meet each other with fresh eyes of sympathy and understanding.

 This new movement is bound to influence our educational thought and experience, and it will be reinforced by the new trends in education which have emphasized the total education of the complete man and the methodologies which comprehend not only the domains of cognition but also those of affection and volition.

It is against this background that we need to look afresh at the insights of teachers who were adepts in supra-rational knowledge. The attitudes that they advocated for teachers and pupils seem to be particularly in harmony with some of  the progressive ideas now developing in the educational scene. We have considered some of the insights of the ancient Indian tradition and, to some extent, the insights of the Chinese and Japanese Zen masters. We shall now turn to the Sufi tradition.

  There is some controversy over the exact etymology of the word Sufi. According to some, the word is derived from suf (wool), and was originally applied to those Muslim ascetics who, in imitation of Christian hermits, clad themselves in woollen



5. Pragmatism: a system of philosophy which tests the validity of all concepts by their practical results.

6. Existentialism: a literary-philosophic movement which holds that each man exists as an individual in the universe, and that he must struggle through the exercise of his tree will.

7. Phenomenology: a movement of philosophizing on the basis of analysis of experience.

Sufi Wisdom

Sufi Wisdom

garb as a sign of penitence and renunciation. However, Hujiwiri's eleventh century' Persian work, Revelation, one of the earliest and most authoritative Sufi texts, specifically states that sufi has no etymology. It is contended that the Sufis regard the sounds of the letters S U F as significant in their effect upon human thinking and other mental and psychological operations. According to others, the word sufi is linked with the Greek word for divine wisdom (sofia) and also with the Hebrew Cabbalistic term am sof (the absolutely infinite).

Whatever the etymological origin of the word sufi, our aim here is to look for those insights in Sufism which are relevant to our examination of the relationship between the teacher and the pupil, and of the different levels of this relationship. But first it might be worthwhile for us to arrive at some idea of how Sufism developed and what Sufism means. Some say that Sufism developed out of historical Islam. Some say it developed as a reaction against Islamic attitudes. Others speak of Christian or Chinese or Indian influences. It is, however, widely believed that Sufism is like the breath that animates the entire body of Islam in both its social and intellectual manifestations,  

The orders of the Sufis are well organized bodies within the larger context of  Islamic society and have exerted influences of an enduring and profound nature upon the whole structure of that society. Their primary function has been to safeguard certain Islamic spiritual disciplines and make possible their propagation from one generation to another. At the same time, Islam admits that there is something corresponding to Sufism in every other religion and that Sufism can open an easy door for mutual understanding among the many religious and spiritual movements in the world.

It is well known that Sufi ideas and even literary texts were borrowed by or lay behind teachings as diverse as those of St. John of the Cross, St. Theresa of Avila, Roger Bacon and Guru Nanak, as well as the Vedas. Many Sufis claim that their knowledge has existed/or thousands of years and has links with the Hermetic, Pythagorean and Platonic streams. This view reiterates the idea that Sufism is both perennial and universal. Although four major Sufi orders have developed within the. , framework of Islam, the masters of Sufiism speak of their unity and of their common "work", and they believe in the unity of knowledge. This explains why the Muslim  Rumi had disciples with Christian, Zoroastrian and various other backgrounds. The v great Sufi "invisible teacher" Khidr is said to be a Jew. The Moghul Prince Dora  Shikoh identified Sufi teachings in the Vedas and Upanishads. Even Pythagoras and Solomon are sometimes referred to as Sufi teachers.

Sufi Wisdom

Sufi Wisdom

But what is at the core of Sufism? It can be said that to follow Sufism is to die gradually to oneself and to become one-Self, to be born anew, and to become aware of what one has always been from eternity (azal) without having realized it. In metaphorical terms, Sufism means to glide out of one's own mould like a snake peeling off its skin. Sufism may be regarded as a process of change or a profound conversion through the effect of the Divine Presence (hudur) This effect, according to Sufism, is brought out through initiation by a teacher. In order to bring about this change there has to be a discipline or method of training the pupil, a master who can apply the method and guide the pupil through the stations of the journey, and a knowledge which will give direction to the pupil during the journey. Sufism is neither religion nor philosophy; it is neither belief nor a set of rituals; it is a discipline and a process of supra-rational knowledge.

Throughout the ages, the teachers of Sufism have all said essentially the same thing, yet their words are different. As pointed out by Seyyed Hossein Nasr, "They are creations suited for the different people addressed and based upon afresh vision of spiritual reality by their creators. They are like the new day, which is the same as the day before yet fresh and inspiring. "1 Sufism has greatly influenced the development of literature in various languages. It was the spirit of Sufism that raised local Arabic and Persian literature to a didactic and mystical literature of the most universal dimensions. The very genius of Sindhi reached its full fruition through a single Sufi poet, Shah Abd al-Latif. Many of the Muslim languages owe their development to the genius of Sufi poets. Among the classical Sufi authors, we may mention El-Ghazali, Omar Khayyam, Attar, Ibn El-Arabi, Saadi, Hakim Jami, Hakim Sanai and Jalaludin Rumi.

Sufism lays special stress on the relationship between teacher and pupil. In the following pages, we present a few stories that deal with this theme. All are taken from the books of Idries Shah. Idries Shah has long been recognized as the leading interpreter of Sufi methods and practice to the Western world. He is the author of Thinkers of the East, The Way of the Sufi, Tales of the Dervishes, and other works. in his writings, Idries Shah has revealed the secret of Sufism and explained some of the startling achievements of great Sufis. He draws from a wide selection of Sufi teachings and offers a unique and readable introduction to a body of thought which is widely relevant to the contemporary world.


1. Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Living Sufism (London: Unwin, 1983), p.8.

Sufi Wisdom

Sufi Wisdom

Sufi Wisdom

Sufi Wisdom

Dividing Camels

There was once a Sufi who wanted to make sure that his disciples would, after his death, find the right teacher of the Way for them. He therefore, after the obligatory bequests laid down by law, left his disciples seventeen camels, with this order: "You will divide the camels among the three of you in the following proportions: the oldest shall have half, the middle in age one-third, and the youngest shall have one-ninth."

As soon as he was dead and the will was read, the disciples were at first amazed at such an inefficient disposition of their Master's assets. Some said, "Let us own the camels communally," others sought advice and then said, "We have been told to make the nearest possible division," others were told by a judge to sell the camels and divide the money; and yet others held that the will was null and void because its provisions could not be executed.

Then they fell to thinking that there might be some hidden wisdom in the Master's bequest, so they made enquiries as to who could solve insoluble problems.Everyone they tried failed, until they arrived at the door of the son-in-law of the Prophet, Hazrat Ali. He said: "This is your solution. I will add one camel to the number. Out of the eighteen camels you will give half — nine camels — to the oldest

Sufi Wisdom

Sufi Wisdom

disciple. The second shall have a third of the total, which is six camels. The last disciple may have one-ninth, which is two camels. That makes seventeen. One — my camel — is left over to be returned to me." This was how the disciples found the teacher for them.1


Dispute with Academics


It is recorded that Bahaudin Naqshband was asked: "Why do you not dispute with scholastics? Such-and-such a sage regularly does so. This causes the scholars' total confusion, and his own disciples' invariable admiration." He said: "Go and ask those who remember the time when I myself used to contend with academics. I regularly refuted their surmises and their imagined proofs with relative ease. Those who were then present on numerous occasions will tell you that. But, one day, a wiser man than I said: '"You so frequently and predictably shame the men of the tongue that there is a monotony in it. This is especially so because it is to no final purpose, since the academicians are without understanding, and continue to wrangle long after their positions have been demolished.' He added: 'Your students are in a constant state of wonderment at your victories. They have learned to admire you. Instead they should have perceived the comparative worthlessness and lack of significance of your opponents. You have thus, in victory, failed by, let us say, a quarter. "'Their wonderment, too, takes up much of their time, when they could be appreciating something worthwhile. So you have failed by perhaps another quarter. Two quarters are equal to one-half. You have one-half of an opportunity left.' "That was twenty years ago. That is why I do not trouble myself or others with scholars, whether for victory or defeat. "Now and again one may strike the self-appointed scholars a blow, to demonstrate their hollowness to students: as one hits an empty pot. To do any more is both wasteful and tantamount to giving intellectuals an importance, through granting them gratuitous attention, that they certainly could not attain by themselves."2

Sufi Wisdom

Sufi Wisdom

A prince meeting a holy man, circa 1640

Sufi Wisdom

Sufi Wisdom

Akbar visits the shrine of Khajah Mu'inuddin Chishti at Ajmer.

The Story of Hiravi

At the time of King Mahmud the Conqueror of Ghazna there lived a young man by the name of Haidar Ali Jan. His father, Iskandar Khan, decided to obtain for him the patronage of the Emperor, and he sent him to study spiritual matters under the greatest sages of the time. Haidar Ali, when he had mastered the repetitions and the exercises, when he knew the recitals and the bodily postures of the Sufi schools, was taken by his father into the presence of the Emperor. "Mighty Mahmud," said Iskandar, "I have had this youth, my eldest and most intelligent son, specially trained in the ways of the Sufis, so that he might obtain a worthy position at your Majesty's court, knowing that you are the patron of learning of our epoch." Mahmud did not look up, but he merely said: "Bring him back in a year." Slightly disappointed, but nursing high hopes, Iskandar sent Ali to study the works of the great Sufis of the past, and to visit the shrines of ancient masters in Baghdad, so that the intervening time would not be wasted. When he brought the youth back to the court, he said:

"Peacock of the Age! My son has carried out long and difficult journeys, and at the same time to his knowledge of exercises he has added a complete familiarity with the classics of the People of the Path. Pray have

Sufi Wisdom

Sufi Wisdom

m examined, so that it may be shown that he could be an adornment of your Majesty's court." "Let him," said Mahmud immediately, "return after another year."During the next twelve months Haidar Ali crossed the Oxus and visited Bokhara and Samarkand, Qasr-i-Arifin and Tashqand, Dushambe and the turbats of the Sufi saints of Turkestan. When he returned to the court, Mahmud of Ghazna took one look at him and said: "He may care to come back after a further year." Haidar Ali made the pilgrimage to Mecca in that year. He travelled to India; and in Persia he consulted rare books and never missed an opportunity of seeking out and paying his respects to the great dervishes of the time. When he returned to Ghazna, Mahmud said to him: "Now select a teacher, if he will have you, and come back in a year." When that year was over and Iskandar Khan prepared to take his son to the court, Haidar Ali showed no interest at all in going there. He simply sat at the feet of his teacher in Herat, and nothing that his father could say would move him. "I have wasted my time, and my money, and this young man has failed the tests imposed by Mahmud the King," he lamented, and he abandoned the whole affair. Meanwhile the day when the youth was due to present himself came and went, and then Mahmud said to this courtiers: "Prepare yourselves for a visit to Herat, there is someone there whom I have to see." As the Emperor's cavalcade was entering Herat to the flourish of trumpets, Haidar Ali's teacher took him by the hand. He led him to the gate of the tekkia, and there they waited.Shortly afterwards Mahmud and his courtier Ayaz, taking off their shoes, presented themselves at the sanctuary. "Here, Mahmud," said the Sufi sheikh, "is the man who was nothing while he was a visitor of kings; but who is now one who is visited by kings. Take him as your Sufi counsellor: for he is ready." This is the story of the studies of Hiravi, Haidar Ali Jan, the Sage of Herat.3

Sufi Wisdom

Sufi Wisdom


Q: How should a teacher appear to the students, according to the Sufis?


A: This question, like so many others which assume that they can be usefully answered in a few words, reminds me of a story about Mulla Nasrudin. Someone asked him what his house was like, basically. In reply he brought this man a brick, saying: "It is just a collection of these." What the fool may do without realising it is foolish, the wise man may have to do or say in order to show how unthinking the question is. How can you say what a teacher should look like? The most one can do is to make a few remarks about it.

What is so perplexing to conditioned attitudes about the Sufis is that, unlike teachers of other kinds, they refuse to stick to one kind of appearance. As an example, if you go to see a Sufi divine, he may not look, talk or act like a mystical master at all. This is because he says either: "You can teach only by the method indicated for each pupil, and you may have to teach by what seems to him unlikely"; or else because he says: ''There is a time and a place and certain company. According tothese, we will teach. When it is a time to be serious, we will be serious. When it is a time to work through what looks like ordinary things, we have to do so."

So important is this lesson that it can be said to go before all others: in the sense that failure to know this can prevent you from learning more — and can leave you attached to the externals of hypocrites. This includes, of course, unconscious hypocrites. If the Sufis are right in their claim that time affects behaviour, and thatpersonal appearance should change (and even temperament) then obviously all the people who cultivate a reverend appearance, and all those who acquire it, mistaking this for spirituality, are wrong. It is this unspoken contradiction which makes it almost impossible for people who want continuity and easily identifiable teaching figures, to accept the change in circumstances and attitudes which the Sufi Way demands.

These people, of course, will not have thought it out like this. All they

Sufi Wisdom

Sufi Wisdom

know is that "A holy man must seem holy to me"; or "If he always behaves in the same manner, or always exhorts me to the same things, I believe that he maybe right". The other problem is that the observer is confusing, as he is bound to confuse without having understood, continuity and consistency with reliability or truth. Because butter always tastes the same when it looks the same, he expects a similar "reliability" in his spiritual teacher. He is, of course, self-deceived in this assumption. The genesis of the attitude adopted by the people of externals is that their inward drive is for finding tidiness, order. This is not a spiritual activity, it is perhaps, rather, a therapeutic one. Order is essential for disordered people. Looking for it as a major factor in "esoteric" directions is the mistake.

In trying to make what — for them — is order out of what they imagine to be the disorder of Sufi tradition, they have to oversimplify. They ignore parts of the teaching and succeed only in creating an imitation of Sufism. Because so many people desire order so strongly, you will find more imitations than reality. One cannot blame anyone for this. But pointing out facts can help.4

What a Teacher Should Be

Ibn Arabi's dictum on this matter has not been bettered:

"People think that a teacher should display miracles and manifest illumination. But the requirement in a teacher is that he should possess all that the disciple needs."5

Sufi Wisdom

Sufi Wisdom

Beyond Appearances

In order to possess what a disciple needs, the Teacher must be one who has gone beyond appearances and has realised his innermost self, after transcending the barriers imposed by attachment to secondary factors. He really exists and is aware of this existence. As Ibn Arabi says: "Absolute existence is the source of all existence". Hallaj put it in this way, indicating the peculiarity of the realised individual: "I am the Real, for I have not ceased to be real — through the Real." Sufi teachers who have reached stages where strange things happen in their vicinity, generally called miracles and wonders, due to actions other than any attempt to impress, have to try to compensate for this. Otherwise people are attracted to them or to the Sufis in general because of a craving for wonders.6

The Onion Shop

One example of this is when the great woman Sufi Rabia had no vegetables in the house, and mentioned it. Suddenly a string of onions fell from the sky, it seemed, and people cried out that this was a proof of divine blessing. Conversions through miracles, Rabia realised, are only emotional happenings and have no essential spiritual reality. So she said, in a famous phrase: "A miracle, you say? What, does my Lord therefore keep an onion shop?"7

The Master

It is related by a Sufi master that, when he was a youth, he wanted to attach himself to a teaching master. He sought the sage, and asked to become his disciple.The teacher said: "You are not yet ready." Since the young man was insistent, the sage said: "Very well, I will teach you something. I am going on a pilgrimage to Mecca. Come with me."

Sufi Wisdom

Sufi Wisdom

The disciple was overjoyed. "Since we are travelling companions," said the teacher, "one must lead, and the other obey. Choose your role. " "I will follow, you  lead, "said the disciple "If you know how to follow," said the master. The journey started. While they were resting one night in the desert of the Hejaz, it started to rain. The master got up and held a covering over the disciple, protecting him. "But this is what I should be doing for you," said the disciple. "I command you to allow me to protect you thus," said the sage. When it was day the young man said: "Now it is a new day. Let me be the leader, and you follow me." The master agreed. "I shall now collect brushwood, to make a fire," said the youth. "You may do no such thing; I shall collect it," said the sage. "I command you to sit there while I collect the brushwood!" said the young man. "You may do no such thing," said the teacher, "for it is not in accordance with the requirements of discipleship for the follower to allow himself to be served by the leader." And so, on every occasion, the Master showed the student what discipleship really meant, by demonstration. They parted at the gate of the Holy City. Seeing the sage later, the young man could not meet his eyes. "That which you have learned," said the older man, "is something of the nature of discipleship."


The disciple must know how to obey, not merely that he must obey. The question of whether to become a disciple or not only comes after the person knows what discipleship really is. People  spend their time wondering whether they  should be disciples— or  otherwise. Since their assumption (that they could be a disciple if they wished it) is incorrect, they are  living in a false world, an intellectualist world. Such people have not learned the first lesson.8

Sufi Wisdom

Sufi Wisdom

I said to them:


"What seems to you to be many is one;

What seems to you simple is not;

What seems to you complex is easy.

The answer to you all is: 'The Sufis'."15


Three Candidates

Three men made their way to the circle of a Sufi, seeking admission to his teachings. One of them almost at once detached himself, angered by the erraticbehaviour of the master. The second was told by another disciple (on the master's instructions) that the sage was a fraud. He withdrew very soon afterwards. The third was allowed to talk, but was offered no teaching for so long that he lost interest and left the circle. When they had all gone away, the teacher instructed his circle thus: "The first man was an illustration of the principle: 'Do not judge fundamental things by sight.' The second was an illustration of the injunction: 'Do not judge things of deep importance by hearing.' The third was an example of the dictum: 'Never judge by speech, or the lack of it.'" Asked by a disciple why the applicants could not have been instructed in' this matter, the sage retorted: "I am here to give higher knowledge; not to teach what people pretend that they already know at their mothers' knees."16

Ghazali on the Path

A human being is not a human being while his tendencies include self- indulgence, covetousness, temper and attacking other people. A student must reduce to the minimum the fixing of his attention upon customary things like his people and his environment, for attention-capacity is limited.

Sufi Wisdom

Sufi Wisdom

The pupil must regard his teacher like a doctor who knows the cure of the patient. He will serve his teacher. Sufis teach in unexpected ways. An experienced physician prescribes certain treatments correctly. Yet the outside observer might be quite amazed at what he is saying and doing; he will fail to see the necessity or the relevance of the procedure being followed. This is why it is unlikely that the pupil will be able to ask the right questions at the right time. But the teacher knows what and when a person can understand.17


1. Idries Shah, Thinkers of the East (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1979), p. 111.

2. Idries Shah, Wisdom of the Idiots (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1971), pp. 37-38.

3. Ibid., pp. 3 9-41.

4. Idries Shah, Learning How to Learn (Harmondsworth: Penguin Bks, 1985), pp. 53-54.

5. Ibid., pp. 54-55.

6. Ibid., p. 55.

7. Ibid., p. 55.

8. Idries Shah, The Way of the Sufi (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1970), pp. 175-76.

9. Ibid., p. 221.

10. Ibid., p. 240.

11. Ibid., p. 244.

12. Ibid., pp. 263-64.

13. Ibid., pp. 145-46.

14. Ibid., p. 146.

15. Ibid., p. 147.

16. Ibid., pp. 139-40.

17. Ibid., p. 53. 

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