"Take one step towards me, I will take ten steps towards you. Walk towards me, I will run towards you." [From the Hadith Qudsi, or The Holy Sayings of Mohammad, which are believed to come directly from God.]
“But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion for him; he ran to his son, threw his arms around him and kissed him.” Jesus’ parable of the Prodigal Son, Luke 15:21
The First Steps in my Journey as a Sufi Quaker
I became a Friend, that is, a Quaker, in 1984 at about the same time that I encountered my first Sufi, a Tamil-speaking teacher from Sri Lanka named Bawa Muhaiyaddeen. I met this Sufi saint in Philadelphia, where he was well known and much appreciated by many Quakers. Some Friends even joined his Fellowship.
At that time I was editing a multi-faith publication called Fellowship in Prayer (now called Sacred Journey). The pay was modest, but the perks were priceless: thanks to this job, I had the opportunity to interview and worship with a remarkable array of spiritual leaders from various faith traditions.
One of my assignments was to interview Bawa Muhaiyadeen, who who first came to the United States in 1971 and established the Bawa Muhaiyaddeen Fellowship in Philadelphia. This Fellowship grew to over 1,000 followers in the Philadelphia area, with branches spreading throughout the United States and Canada, as well as Australia and the UK. I knew very little about Sufism at this time, but I was eager to learn more about it. Having just earned my Ph. D., I asked one of Bawa’s followers a decidedly academic question:
“I have heard that Eastern religion emphasizes union with God, while Western religion emphasizes communion with God. What does Sufism emphasize?”
The man smiled, paused to reflect, and then replied, “If a plane is flying at 30,000 feet, and another plane is at 20,000 feet, but you are on the ground, what difference is it to you the altitude of the planes?”
This zinger was just what I needed at the point in my spiritual journey. I realized that to understand Sufism, it wasn’t enough just to ask academic questions. I would need to walk the path, or at least one very much like it.
I want to make it clear that I’m not belittling academic studies. I have the utmost respect for scholars of religion, particularly ones like Huston Smith and Karen Armstrong, who have dedicated their lives to promoting interfaith understanding. If you want to know about Sufism, I heartily recommend the work of Carl W. Ernst and Annemarie Schimmel. I have also provided a short list of books by and about Sufis for those who want to delve more deeply into this topic.
But books alone will not give you a taste of Sufism, any more than cook books will give you a taste of haute cuisine. To understand Sufism, or any other religious practice, you must acquire first-hand knowledge and experience. As the Psalmist says: “Taste and see!”(34: 4).
For the past twenty five years, I have practiced Quakerism and had close friendships with Sufis who have opened my heart and mind to what it means to be a “Friend of God.” During this time, I also followed the example of Huston Smith and learned about various religions by practicing them. For nine months, I lived in a Zen Buddhist center in Providence, RI, and practiced meditation. Perhaps not coincidentally, Coleman Barks, one of the most popular translators of the great Sufi poet Rumi, was a student of my Korean Zen master, Soen Sa Nim. The spiritual world is indeed a small one, with many interconnections!
I also spent a year at Pendle Hill, a Quaker center for study and contemplation near Philadelphia, where I studied with many outstanding Quaker teachers, such as William Taber, Sonya Cronk, and William Durland.
Since 9/11, I have adopted many Muslim practices, such as fasting during Ramadan, praying five times a day, and worshipping with Muslims whenever I have the opportunity. I read the Quran daily along with the Bible. Prior to 9/11 I didn’t have a single Muslim friend, but today some of my dearest and closest friends are Muslims, and I have come to feel a part of the Muslim “family” here in Los Angeles. To these kindred spirits, I owe an eternal debt of gratitude for opening my mind and heart to the spiritual dimensions of Islam.
In 2002, I published a pamphlet called “Islam from a Quaker Perspective” which attempts to explain Islam to Quakers, and Quakerism to Muslims, in the most succinct possible way. This pamphlet was co-published by three Quaker organizations—Friends Bulletin, Wider Quaker Fellowship, and Quaker Universalist Fellowship—and circulated over 5,000 copies in 100 countries. It was even translated into German. In this pamphlet, I focused on mainstream Islam and deliberately omitted any reference to Sufism. I did this in part because I wanted Friends to understand what the majority of Muslims believe and practice, and to appreciate what James Michener called “the world’s most misunderstood religion.”
Now I would like to go deeper and explore the inner world of Islam and Christianity as I have experienced it through my study and practice of Quakerism and Sufism. I will explore a wide variety of motifs which are interwoven with the theme of spiritual friendship:
1) Simplicity: how we simplify our lives to become closer to God. This is practice shared by both Sufis and Quakers.
2) Importance of women in both traditions. Both traditions honor the spiritual power and wisdom of women and produced great women teachers/saints.
3) Ecstatic devotion to God. Thomas Kelly (who wrote "Testament of Devotion") is the Quaker I consider to be closest in spirit to the Sufis. In this section I will discuss how we can imagine God as both Friend and Lover.
4) Social witness. Sufis, like the Quakers, often stood in solidarity with the poor and oppressed, and challenged the rich and powerful. To be a Friend of God means to be a Friend of “the least” among us.
5) "Universal" vs. Islamic Sufism.
6) Methods of enhancing God consciousness through ance, chanting, and silent meditation. Techniques for developing intimacy with God.
7) Story telling/parables. Both Sufis and Quakers avoid theologizing, preferring instead to convey their theology through stories and narratives.
8) Attitude towards scripture. Both Sufism and Quakerism lay more emphasis on direct experience of the Divine than on the written word about the Divine.
9) "Hidden saints." In both traditions, there is the recognition that some of the most enlightened souls are not necessarily widely known. They do their work quietly, behind-the-scene, as it were. Cf. the sage in Taoism. Being a Friend of God means a willingness to embrace anonymity.
10) Intellect and spirit. Both traditions take non-dogmatic approach and welcome seekers who question traditional ideas about religion.
11) The "double search," as Quaker theologian Rufus Jones called it. We are seeking God, but God is also seeking us.
My hope is that what I have to share abut Sufism and Quakerism will inspire you to go deeper in your spiritual life and to become more intimate with the source of truth within you and within others.
Mysticism and the Path of Friendship
Sufism and Quakerism are often regarded as mystical branches of their respective religious traditions. Mystics are usually solitary individuals who have had compelling inward experiences of the Divine. But Quakerism, with its emphasis on silent worship and the direct experience of God/Christ through the Inward Light, has been described as a form of “group mysticism.” Sufism has also been regarded as a form of “group mysticism” since many of its practices—chanting the names of God (also called zikr) and dervish dancing—are corporate, not individualistic. Sufism and Quakerism also refer to its practitioners as “Friends,” or more precisely, as “Friends of God/Truth.”
I don’t want to engage in an academic comparison of Quakerism and Sufism, however useful and interesting that might be for scholars of religion. Instead, I would like to suggest how Quakerism and Sufism can help bring us into an intimate relationship with God/Truth. Such a close, intimate and loving relationship with the Divine is, I believe, at the heart of both religious faiths, and the ultimate source of our inner peace and happiness.
I also want to explore questions such as: What does it mean to be a “Friend of God”? And how does one become a Friend of God? And how does being (or seeing oneself as) a Friend of God influence how one lives one’s life?
I realize that some may find the word “God” or “Truth” off-putting. Some may doubt or deny existence of a transcendent being, while others may imagine God as an impersonal force (“Light” of “Eternal Goodness”) and find the idea of “befriending” God to be strange or naïve.
Depending on our beliefs, we can relate to the universe or Ultimate Reality in a virtually limitless variety of ways. At one end of the spectrum, we can see the universe as a hostile place governed by impersonal forces with which we can have no relationship. Such, for example, was the tragic vision of Thomas Hardy. At the other end of the spectrum, we can see the universe as a benign place from which human beings emerged for a reason or were created for a purpose. Walt Whitman (who was a great admirer of the Quakers, particularly the famous Quaker preacher Elias Hicks) had this optimistic view of the universe. One of the goals of religion is to help us find and embrace a life-enhancing relationship with the universe, and with its Creator/Sustainer.
Early Friends called themselves “Friends of the Truth,” which was another way of saying “Friends of God” since Friends used the word “God” and “Truth” interchangeably. Quakers later adopted the name the “Religious Society of Friends.” (“Quaker” was a derisive name given to early Friends by their opponents, but it has come to be accepted and widely used without its negative connotation.)
The term “Friend of God” (wali or waliullah) has been used by Muslims to describe those who demonstrate a high degree of God-consciousness. The term “Friend” has also been applied to Sufis in general. (Indeed, in Sufi writings, God is often referred to a “The Friend.”) A website from the Chishti Sufi order makes clear that becoming a friend of God is, or should be, the goal of our spiritual life:
A dervish [Sufi] is a friend of GodAnd a friend of a friend is a friend,So if you don't know how to be a friend of God,Try to be a friend of a dervish.
Friendship is of course a key component in many religious traditions, not simply of the Abrahamic faiths. The Buddha was once asked by one of his students if friendship is an important part of the spiritual life. “No,” replied the Buddha emphatically. “Friendship is everything in the spiritual life.”
The spiritual life is about being in a healthy, life-enhancing relationship with oneself, other people, life in all its forms, and the Divine. There are many names for such a relationship: spiritual friendship, agape, or simply love.
Jesus summed up the spiritual life with two commandments: “Love God and love your neighbor.: These two commandments can be a bridge for the three Abrahamic faiths, as a group of Muslim scholars recently pointed out in a document called “A Common Word.” In the Gospel of John, Jesus went a step further and gave his students a single commandment: “Love.” If we love selflessly, Jesus said, and if we are willing to sacrifice our lives for our friends, then we become Friends of Christ and of God. It is this passage that inspired George Fox to call his followers “Friends of Truth.”
Members of the Religious Society of Friends regard friendship, in its deepest sense, as the core of our faith. The 17th century Quaker William Penn (founder of Pennsylvania) spoke eloquently about friendship: “A true friend unbossoms freely, advises justly, assists readily, adventures boldly, takes all patiently, defends courageously, and continues a friend unchangeably.” Friendship for Penn was a spiritual bond that enhanced life and transcended death: "Friendship is the union of spirits, a marriage of hearts, and the bond thereof virtue… Death is but crossing the world, as friends do the seas; they live in one another still.”
With these words in mind, let’s look at the nature of spiritual friendship as it was understood by Sufis and Friends.
The Scriptural Basis for Being “God’s Friend”
Sufis describe their saints as “Friend of God” (waliullah) in part because this epithet was used to describe Abraham, who is considered the first Muslim, i.e. the first human being to surrender to and find peace with God.
Yet the idea of being a “Friend of God” is problematic to those who think of God as the Creator of the Universe, the “Lord of Lord and King of Kings,” the transcendent Other. As Aristotle pointed out in the Nichomachean Ethics, friendship implies equality and likeness. It is hard to imagine being friends with one’s boss, or even one’s parents, much less with the transcendent Creator.
Yet Abraham is called “a friend of God” in the Quran as well as in the Bible (see Surah 4.125). In the Bible Abraham is called a "friend of God" three times (2 Chroni. 20: 7, Isa. 41: 8; and James: 2, 23). The bond between God and Abraham was so close that God called him "My friend" (Isaiah 41:8). Abraham is also called a Friend of God in the New Testament: “And the scripture was fulfilled that says, "Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness," and he was called God's friend” (James: 2, 23).
Was this bond of friendship based on obedience? Or love? Or both? Conservative theologians (whether Christian or Islamic) tend to emphasize that Abraham became a friend of God because he obeyed God’s will. Certainly Abraham was faithful to God, but so were other prophets, such as Noah and Moses. What made Abraham different from these other prophets was not his obedience, but his intimacy with the Divine. He and his wife entertained three angels in their tent who were emissaries from God (in some Christian traditions, these angels are regarded as manifestations of the Holy Trinity and are depicted as such in iconography). When God wanted to destroy the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah, Abraham was able to bargain with God. It is clear that Abraham enjoyed an intimacy with God that no other prophet, except Jesus, experienced.
For this reason, Muslims refer to Abraham with the special epithet Khalilullah (“Friend of God”). The term “khalil” has a much deeper meaning in Arabic than the word “friend” has in English, as one commentator explains:
But the English word 'friend' does scant justice to the idea of khalil which, in Arabic, denotes the dearest or most sincere friend who has no rival in the love and reliance placed upon him. (Daryabadi, The Holy Qur'an, Vol. 1, p. 91A).
This is the kind of intimacy that Sufis strive to achieve in their relationship with God. As the Quran makes clear, God is not only transcendent, beyond whatever we can know or even imagine, God is also immanent: “nearer to [us] than [our] jugular vein” (Sura 50:16).
Jesus also conceived of God as immanent and accessible, like our “papa” (as “Abba,” the homely Aramaic term for “father,” has sometimes been translated). Jesus does not refer to God as a Friend, but he does call on his disciples to become his friends and, by extension, friends of God. Jesus said, "Ye are my friends, if ye do whatsoever I command you" (Jn. 15: 14).
Becoming a “Friend of God” may seem like a impossible goal, like becoming a saint. But Sufism and Quakerism both teach that everyone has the potential to become a Friend of God. Indeed, becoming intimate with one’s true self, and with the universe, is the goal of our spiritual life; and these traditions teach us it is not as difficult as one may think.
As the Tao The Ching teachers, a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. And as the Jesus and Mohammad both make clear, if we take a single baby step towards God, God will rush to embrace us with love and friendship deeper than anything we can imagine. I will now examine some of the steps that can lead us closer to friendship with God.