Saturday, November 20, 2010

Becoming a Friend of God: the Path of Sufism and Quakerism

I have been busy these past few months working on a pamphleet/booklet about Sufism and Quakerism, two mystical paths that I have walked in my life and want to share with others. So far, I've written nearly 15,000 words and plan to keep writing as long as Spirit leads. It's been a joy to plunge into the ocean of mystical writings associated with Sufism and to discover many unexpected affinities with Quakerism. I will post my work as it evolves and would appreciate your feedback. My hope is to publish this work as a follow-up to my pamphlet "Islam from a Quaker Perspective."

Outwardly, Quakerism (the mystical branch of Christianity) and Sufism (the mystical branch of Islam) may seem worlds apart. Sufism is associated with dervish dancing, exotic Middle Eastern music, and the ecstatic poetry of Rumi. Quakerism is associated with peace activists, plain-dressed people sitting in silent worship, and William Penn, the founder of Pennsylvania, and the icon of oatmeal. But there are deep affinities between these two spiritual paths, and it is no accident that Quakerism and Sufism refer to its practitioners as “Friends.”

In this collection of short essays I explore the similarities between these spiritual paths and suggest how they can help us to become more intimately connected with our true selves and with Reality. These mystical paths also have a prophetic dimension—a social witness against materialism and injustice--that is much needed in today’s world. We live at a time when most people in the industrial world inhabit a “virtual reality”—a world of television, movies, and the internet—a world where we are defined by what we buy rather than who or what we are. In this unreal world of compulsive consumerism we become addicted to our desires, and eventually become prey to fears and anxieties. These fears become the seeds of bigotry, violence and war.
Mysticism, as practiced by Quakers and the Sufis, can help free us from our fears and our addictions and lead us onto the path of true freedom. As we come to know who we truly are and become acquainted with our true self, we can also form deep, life-transforming relationships with others, based on the realization that each person is sacred and therefore worthy of our deepest attention and respect. This is the way of Friends.

Sufism is the mystical heart of Islam. It emerged in the 8th century CE as an Islamic ascetic movement. Some scholars see connections between Sufism, Buddhism and Christianity and no doubt such connections exist, but most Sufis see their practice as deeply rooted in Islam. Early practitioners of Sufism include Hasan al-Basri (642-728) and Rabiah al-Adawiay (d. 801), the first great female Sufi teacher and poet. Perhaps the most famous Sufi is Jalal a-din Rumi who founded the Mevlevi order (known as whirling dervishes) and has become the most popular poet in America, thanks to Coleman Barks’ imaginative translations. Sufis played a political role in Islamic history, often standing up for the rights of the poor and oppressed. Sufism has also encouraged women to be spiritual teachers and leaders.

Quakerism began in the 17th century in England as part of the Puritan movement to reform Christianity by restoring it to its primitive roots. Quakers believe that each person can have direct access to God or Christ through the Inward Light and the practice of silent worship. Quakers are perhaps best known for opposing war and for championing the rights of women, African-Americans, homosexuals and other oppressed groups. Like Sufism, Quakerism is a mystical faith that emphasizes the direct experience of the Divine Within rather than outward rituals or the words of scripture.

I became a Friend, that is, a Quaker, in 1984 at about the same time that I encountered my first Sufi, a spiritual teacher from Sri Lanka named Bawa Muhaiyaddeen (who was known as “Bawa” to his followers). Coleman Barks, a student of Sufism known for his brilliant translations of Rumi, described Bawa as “one living in the state of union… and totally present in each moment… It was exhilarating to be there where he sat on his bed in Philadelphia, like breathing ozone near a waterfall” (Rumi, The Book of Love, p. 118).

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 teachers from various faith traditions.

One of my assignments was to interview Bawa, 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 this point in my spiritual journey. I realized that to understand Sufism (or any other mystical practice), it wasn’t enough to ask academic questions. I would need to walk the path, or at least one very much like it.

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 Seyyed Hossein Nasr, Laleh Bakthtiar, Carl W. Ernst, Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee, Idres Shah, Hazrat Inayat Khan, Kabir Helminksi, 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). Fortunately, if you are interested, you can easily find opportunities to connect with Sufism and Quakerism and taste the Truth they seek to embody. The appendix lists some of the leading Quaker and Sufi organizations here in the United States.

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 Truth/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.

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 chance. I also make it a daily practice to read the Qur’an or some other Muslim devotional work along with the Bible.
Prior to 9/11 I didn’t have a single Muslim friend, but today many of my dearest and closest friends are Muslims and I have come to feel a part of the Muslim “family” here in Los Angeles. I owe an eternal debt of gratitude to kindred spirits such as Shakeel Syed, John Ishvardas Abdallah, Sherrel Johnson, Noor Malika Chishti, et al.

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 showed that there are many parallels between mainstream Islam and Quakerism. I deliberately omitted any reference to Sufism, however. I did this in part because I wanted to explain what the majority of Muslims believe and practice, and thereby help readers appreciate what James Michener called “the world’s most misunderstood religion.” In this current work I 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 examine a wide variety of motifs which are interwoven with the theme of spiritual friendship:

· Mysticism and the path of Friendship.
· The scriptural basis for becoming a Friend of God.
· What is the “Word of God” according to Sufis and Quakers?
· Yearning for the Divine and the Double Search.
· Simplicity, silence and becoming intimate with one’s true self.
· Find a balance between the male and female.
· Stories and Narrative Theology.
· Befriending the poor, the sick, the oppressed to become God’s Friend.
· Becoming a nobody in order to become a true Friend

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 every living being you encounter.


  1. Hi Anthony,

    Thanks for the info on the simillarities/differences between Sufism and Quakerism.

    I haven't studied Sufism, but it does seem very different from the Islam of killing.

    If you remember last time I posted a comment about how I was surprised that you were supportive of the Islamic tradition.

    You responded by saying Islam is peaceful.

    Below is an example of why I still disagree. Notice this tragic evil isn't a case of insurgents but of the very government of Islamic Pakistan persecuting and planning to execute a Christian. Very tragic...

    >>Muslim men working in the nearby fields ran over and began harassing Asia, pressuring her to renounce Christianity. When Asia refused, the men forced themselves into her home where they tortured Asia and her four children. Among other allegations, Asia was accused of denying that Muhammad was a prophet and was sent to prison. She has been condemned to die for her actions.

    >>Her offense? She is Christian. According to a CNN reporter, “A town cleric in her home town declared Asia’s death sentence as one of the happiest moments of his life.”

    Any comment?

    Of all the Muslims I have known, I only knew one who was committed to peacemaking. All of the others were nice, but committed to Islamic war against Jews. And now more and more against Christians.

    Any response?

    In the Light of God,


  2. Dear Daniel, I cannot condone the behavior you cite, nor would most Muslims I know. My Muslim friends would be the first to admit that there is deplorable amount of ignorance and bigotry in the Muslim world, but most of it is cultural, not intrinsic to Islam. There was a time when Christians behaved as badly, if not worse, than the Muslims you describe. Look at how the Catholic Church treated Jews and Muslims in Spain during the "reconquista." And look at the withhunts, inquisitions, witchhunts and religous wars. Even today many of those who fight under the American flag see themselves as Crusaders.

    For a historical view of Islam during its golden age, I recommend Maria Menocal's book "The Ornament of the World" for a look at Muslim Spain as a model of what Islam could be.

    I know of no Muslims who are committed to war against Jews per se, but many who oppose Zionism and support the legitimate rights of Palestinians.

    Finally, when troops who are predominantly Christian invade Muslim countries, occupy their lands, and kill and torture many Muslims (with pictures for all to see), it is not surprising that poor, oppressed Muslims would resent Christians and treat them badly. If the United States were occupied by a Muslim army that killed those who opposed the occupation, I'm sure many Christians would retaliate against innocent Muslims. Sadly, that is what happens when empires wage war, or try to keep the peace, Roman style.

  3. There is nothing that exists, save The Divine One. There is nothing beside The One.
    We are all, therefore, within this Oneness.
    The major religions agree on this. It is in the scriptures.
    The same message has been delivered, time and again, at different times, in different languages. Please, let us stop arguing about the languages, and heed the message.
    And let us not heed those who would distort the message to further their own ambitions.
    Peace, in every language.

  4. Hi Anthony,

    Thanks for the book recommendation. I'll check it out.

    I am glad you have met different Muslims than me:-) The ones I knew (who were nice persons) were dedicated to killing.

    I certainly agree that Christians in history have been intolerant and killers in the name of God. And most of the Christians I know still are for killing:-(

    But that is not reason for Muslims to kill hundreds of unarmed Christians his last year and with Muslim governmental support.

    As for Palestine/Israel, I lived there. What all the religious people there need to learn to do is to SHARE. They are all so vindictively self-centered.

    The place for them to start is for the Israeli government to stop stealing Palestinian land, to even offer back some of the land that they took in 1948.
    And for the Palestinians to ask forgiveness for all the innocent civilians they've killed in cold blood (not in a battle but in markets, weddings, etc.).

    Once the two groups start living by basic human caring they wouldn't need weapons.

    The place for them to start is to ask forgiveness.

    As for Muslim Spain, the last scholarly book I read on Islamic Spain was critical of the intolerance of the Islamic government.

    True, Jewish persons had it better there than in Christian Europe, but Muslim Spain wasn't the nice place that so many think it was (at least not according to the last couple of books I read).

    But I look forward to reading Menocal's book.

    Thanks for the dialog,


  5. As a Quaker married to a Sufi I look forward to reading your work. Would you be willing to publish some excerpts or share some resources for further inquiry/reflection?

  6. An interesting site to have stumbled upon.

    I was brought up in a Quaker family, lived in an English Quaker town and went to a Quaker school. Good, impressive people but who ultimately couldn't answer the urgent questions of an 18 year old who wasn't going to take silence for an answer. Quakerism seemed to me like a sanctuary for principled souls who saw nothing they liked in the big wide world out there - of Royalty, Catholicism and Wars etc.

    In the early 1970s Islam was a natural step for me, fresh from the 60s excesses but still protected somewhat by a Quaker childhood, although the inherited suspicions about holy war, oppression of women, prejudice about Turks and Arabs etc., had to be first laid to rest. Sufism is integrally part of Islamic law and very misunderstood (by Muslims as well). I have met other muslims like myself who came from Quaker families and who have said the same....Islam is the logical next step - it's the completion of true Christianity. A return to the primordial religion.

  7. I have studied Islam with Timothy J Winter (Cambridge University) and in Istanbul on an MA program me there. I cannot agree with the positive assessment of Islam expressed by the author of this piece. Islam has always been committed to offensive war in order to expand the boundaries of Islamic rule. This is well documented. Those who do not submit to this rule are killed. The Christians and Jews who did unwillingly submit to Islamic rule in places like Spain, Syria and Turkey (the once Byzantine Empire) were put under a tremendous social pressure so that lots of Christians converted to Islam in order to alleviate these social constraints. Non~Muslims were humiliated when paying the jizyah tax (read All Ghazali on this). As for women in Islam: women do not have social equality with men. Worse is the fact that Islamic society condoned sexual slavery. Even the Sufi All Ghazali mentions that it is permissible to have sex with ones wive or wives and ones "slave captive". According to one academic source most slavery in the Muslim world was for this purpose. Indeed the Sultan in Constantinople had 1000 concubines! Many well known Sufis hasd slave captives who were obliged until sale to satisfy their master. This was all sanctioned by verses from the Qur'an. In short: I can see very little similarity between a religion that condones offensive war, social inequality of men and women, and sex slavery and Quakerism! ~ The author also described Quakerism as _"mystical Christianity"; but I would argue that both Orthodoxy and Catholicism are mystical in their deepest roots. All of the great saints who built these faiths were mystics. Mount Athos is the heart of modern Orthodoxy and its a mystical heart! The Jesus Prayer, etcetera. Most Catholic thinkers regard the Carthusian vocation as the highest and they are pure mystics. I spent some time in a Carthusian monastery and it is a life given over to prayer, asceticism and love of God. Quakerism in my opinion has yet to produce a mystic as pure or profound as Gregory Palamas or St John of the Cross.

  8. Hello!

    I just stumbled on to this site, and would love to know if you ever finished this pamphlet. And if so, how might I get a copy?

    I'm a Sufi, and am currently researching the Quakers in the context of a piece I'm writing for on the poet Basil Bunting and how his lifelong relationship with the Friends informed his experience in terms of his long "Sonata" poems. But I am also personally very interested in that intersection where I believe I see Quakers, Catholic Workers, Sufis, Ismaili Muslims, radical mystic Jews, engaged Buddhists, and progressive (Neo)Confucians meeting. I'm fascinated by this this deeply ecumenical intersectionality, and multi-religious expressions of it in particular. I would love to hear any thoughts or experiences you'd like to share.

    Please contact me, if you like, at xishraqx [at] gmail [dot] com.

    Thank you!!



  9. Hello. Janis Ian posted a Sufi quote on facebook about how words should go through three gates before leaving the mouth: 1)Is it true? 2)Is it necessary? 3)Is it kind? And immediately I thought how lovely & familiar it was to me even though I had never heard it before.

    I'm Catholic, but always had an affinity with the Quakers and since the Sufi quote sounded Quaker-like, I wondered whether the Sufis were the Quakers of Islam in desperation, trying to find ways to make people understand that Muslims are not the monsters they are made out to be in the media. I often try to love and understanding against the hatred and incitements I encounter online so this page you have kindly maintained was a delightful find. Thank you & all the best. YC, London.UK

  10. Islam is not the Gospel of Jesus Christ. It comes not even close to it.
    A common name in Islam is Abdullah. It comes in many form and languages. It means: slave of Allah. A slave has no rights. If he does not do his job he is thrown out. He does not inherit.
    Christians are Children of God (and that through Jesus Christ) Christians inherit the Kingdom of God.
    Hans, a Quaker.