Sufism and Self-Discovery

If the introductory words of spiritual laws were found and the secrets of the spoken book of self were discovered, then we would be free from the silent books of limitation and would be drawn ever closer to the richness of Being, the wealth of life.– Hazrat Mir Ghotbeddin Mohammad

Every year since 1994, Sufis from all over the world have gathered together to share the knowledge of the heart with one another, to experience the unity of Sufism that underlies its great diversity. The first few of these annual symposia were characterized by the knowledge that something new and radical was taking place: Sufis were, for the first time in fourteen centuries, gathering together in harmony. But with each successive annual symposium, the sense of unity has grown into a feeling of a family gathering of the heart. From an innovation, the annual symposium has become an institution in the space of six short years.


And those who strive in Us
We shall certainly guide
Them to Our Paths

Qur’an XXIX:69

In this, the Sixth Annual Sufism Symposium, the unifying topic of Sufism and Self Discovery created an atmosphere of special intimacy, affording the participants the opportunity to look within and share their own experiences on the path of self discovery. Self Discovery is integral to the Sufi path, but also, as Seyyed Dr. Kianfar observed in his keynote address, plays a basic role in each of the world’s monotheistic traditions.Sufism and Psychology ForumThe conference opened on the afternoon of Friday, April 23, with the Sufism and Psychology Forum, a department of the International Association of Sufism. Arife Ellen Hammerle, a practicing Sufi psychologist, moderated a panel discussion to open the question of the meaning of self discovery within Sufism and the increasingly promising role of Sufi practice and belief in clinical psychology — a trend that led to

The panel brought together a diverse spectrum of contemporary psychologists. Sean Kelly, Ph.D., the Director of the Philosophy, Cosmology, and Consciousness Program at the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco explored metaphors of transpersonalism. Charles T. Tart, Ph.D., is a Professor emeritus of Psychology at the University of California, Davis, and is currently a core faculty member at the Institute of Transpersonal Psychology. Professor Tart spoke of personal growth into spiritual growth. A complementary exposition of the topic of spiritual intelligence was offered by Frances Vaughan, Ph.D., the author of several books integrating psychotherapy and spirituality. Finally, Dr. Roger Walsh, a professor at The University of California, Irvine, whose expertise ranges across the fields of psychology, anthropology, and philosophy, directly addressed the symposium theme of self-discovery. The panel discussion helped impress upon all the participants the seriousness of approaching self-discovery as a discipline.Poetry and MusicFriday evening was devoted to Sufi poetry and music, bringing a lively contrast to the academically oriented discussions of the afternoon, and setting a joyful mood for the weekend to come.

The attendance of Coleman Barks, Professor Emeritus of English at the University of Georgia, and world-renowned as the foremost translator of the great Sufi poet, Rumi, together with the noted Persian musician Mohammed Saeed Nejad, and the well accomplished Sufi music ensemble, Taneen set an evening’s mood of tranquil joyfulness, in a ballroom of several hundreds of audience, an excellent beginning for one of the most outstanding celebrations of Sufism worldwide.SaturdaySaturday morning began with the call of the Azan echoed in the hall and ballroom, as Sheikh Tijani’s impressive, musical voice called everyone for a deep meditation and the appreciation of Unity among Sufis of the world. The symposium was formally opened by Seyyedeh Dr. Nahid Angha, Co-Director of the International Association of Sufism, and one of the principal organizers of this and previous Sufi symposia. Her introductory address touched on many of the issues that the theme of Sufism and self discovery involves. By setting out these issues, Dr. Angha outlined the framework of the presentations and discussions that would occupy the weekend.

Introductory Address by Seyyedeh Dr. Nahid Angha. The essential requirement of approaching the issue of self-discovery with intellectual rigor was a major issue that Seyyedeh Dr. Nahid Angha explained in her address on Saturday. Drawing on examples from many scientific disciplines, Seyyedeh Dr. Nahid Angha made it clear that the path of self discovery is part of the greater wholeness of the knowledge of Being: “Self becomes the Law; and Law must be discovered if Self is to survive. Discovering this essence becomes a necessity. And this fundamental principle is among the essential qualities of Being. All the cells of life growth and growth is developing, advancing, searching — and such searching is a potentiality of all creation, not a unique attribute of humanity. . . .A thoughtful observation shows us that nothing in Being, its surface or depth, is nonessential. All are participants in an extraordinary calculation of essential laws, laws that ensure that nothing is accidental, and with these precise actions is an able, powerful intelligent wisdom governing Being, both the finite and the infinite.” (p10-11, Book of Papers 1999)

She summed up the strength of Sufism in world today: “The School of Sufism, now embracing the world, free of limitations to any national culture, is a school founded upon the knowledge of those Muslims who spent a lifetime of learning and teaching, devotion and sacrifices, in their search of essential discovery of the essence and the reality of the human being. They have lit the light of knowledge and understanding.” (p11) By reminding the participants in the symposium that they were all heirs to the great heritage of the path of Sufism, Seyyedeh Dr. Nahid Angha reinforced the sense of rare achievement that has permeated each of the annual symposia. Members of the audience were made aware of one another, not just as random strangers brought together for a single weekend, but as a group whose shared goals and understanding stood forth through the differences of culture, language, and background. No one could removed unmoved when Dr. Angha spoke of the heritage of the teachers of Sufism, passed down through the generations, and celebrated through the symposium: “These heroes of civilizations, and the teachers of humanity, have smoothed the road for the future travelers . . . We must learn from their teachings and be honest enough not to clothe sacredness and holiness with our own thoughts, opinions, culture ambitions and personal relationships. Their sacrifices for the sake of humanity should not be sacrificed at the footsteps of our selfishness….” (11)

The Opening Statement was followed by a zikr by Shahzade Alhaji Shah Sufi Syed Moinuddin Ahmed al-Hassani wal-Hassani Maizbhandari , the leader of Maizbhandari Sufis of Bangladesh, a memorable zikr of nuri Muhammad.

Saturday afternoon and all day Sunday were filled with an abundance of panel discussions and individual presentations. Yet the diversity of perspectives within Sufism that all these speakers brought to the symposium complemented one another, creating a sense of harmony rather than dissonance, of unity instead of fragmentation. And this unity was, in the deepest sense, a unity of common purpose. As Dr. Sharon Mijares observed: “What brings us together? Why have so many persons traveled great distances to participate in this symposium? I would guess that we have gathered to share our love of Allah, to further our learning, deepen our humanity, and heal our world. The best way to assimilate the variety of teachings and previous moments we received during this gathering is to return to our homes and communities with the intention of applying the experience of this weekend in our everyday lives — in our relationship with our selves and with other human beings.” (p66)

A similar message of unity was offered by Preminder Bawa Jain, the Director for International and United Nations Affairs at the Interfaith Center of New York, who expressed the unique perspective of the Jain people of India towards the life of tolerance and nonviolence, recounting traditional Jain stories that serve as metaphors for the difficulties in the pursuit of knowledge and wisdom.

The ordered nature of the path of self-discovery in Sufism was emphasized by several speakers in the course of the symposium. The foundation of Sufism is found directly in Allah, as Shahzade Alhaji Shah Sufi Syed Moinuddin Ahmed al-Hassani wal-Hassani Maizbhandari reiterated in his presentation: “Allah is the supporter of the believers; He will show them the way — and that is the way of the Sufis.” Feisal Abdul Rauf, Imam of Masjid al-Farah in New York, spoke on the Qur’anic basis of Sufism, stressing two fundamental elements of the path of Sufism: Divine remembrance and the companionship of an authentic teacher. The Imam emphasized that the path of Sufism was not an easy one, but rather a path requiring dedication and courage: “There are spirits which are driven to take this path of Initiation. These are the Chosen who wish to attain the goal faster so that they can help others forward and onward. They lead a difficult life, full of sadness and problems, but also rich in insight and silent joy, because it is problems that give us insight.” (p74)

Sheikh Kabir and Camille Helminski discussed the discovering the self through Sema, an exploration of the inner meaning of Mevlevi ritual. Both are well qualified in this field; Camille Helminski has been working with the Mevlevi traditional of Sufism for over two decades; Sheikh Kabir is the Director of the threshold Society and the American representative of the Mevlevi Order, which is based in Turkey.The exploration of practices that aid the Sufi on the path of self-discovery extended beyond the practices of particular orders to include special techniques that are the specialty of several of the symposium presenters. Sonia Gilbert, the President of the Bawa Muhaiyaddeen Fellowship, spoke on gifts of inner self-reflection that may be obtained through the grace of Divine light, and Judith Hill discussed self-discovery in the context of each individual’s unique astrological birth-map.

Panel discussions included traditional medicine, Sufism and youth, and interfaith engagement. Dr. Shahid Athar, M.D., Director of Endocrinology at St. Vincent Hospital, Indianapolis, spoke on the subject of self-discovery from the unique perspective of a practicing physician. Dr. Athar recounted the experience of his own religious awakening as a medical student, and explained how the Quran serves both as his inspiration and his daily practical guide as a doctor, concluding that “Islam and Sufism has made me a better human and a better physician.” (p4). Dr. Athar was joined by co-panelist Dr. Elson Haas, MD, a specialist in the emerging field of integrated medicine, which blends traditional and modern medical approaches. Dr. Haas founded the Preventive Medical Center of Marin in 1984, and is well known to readers of the I.A.S. quarterly journal, Sufism: An Inquiry, for his many helpful articles on the subjects of nutrition, fasting, and detoxification.Youth and SufismYouth and Sufism was the subject of two panel discussions. Sheikha Muzeyyen Ansari opened the Youth Panels with beautiful words of encouragement to our young Sufis. She introduced Sahar Kianfar who moderated both panels.

On Saturday afternoon, the participants included Shahzade Syed Shaheeduddin Ahmed, from the Maizbhandari Sufi Order, Bangladesh; Pranshanthi Ganesan Bivins, from the Bawa Muhaiyaddeen Fellowship; and Seyyedeh Hamaseh Kianfar, from Uwaiysi Tarighat On Sunday, Seyyedeh Sahar Kianfar was joined by Maryam Brown, from World Community; Jacob Ellenberg, from the Sufi Order International; Ali Vargonen, from Qadri Rifai Tariqa. The youth of today are the future of Sufism, and youth was well represented at the symposium, both among the conference participants as a whole, and in the two youth panel discussions. The panelists spoke from their own unique perspectives, yet there was among them a serious spirit of intense commitment that bodes well for the future, for the youth panelists agreed among themselves to form their own permanent organization.

Youth Panel One: “In the Name of Allah, Most Gracious, Most Merciful. Oh Allah, thank you. Thank you Allah that, amidst this world of chaos and confusion, of destruction and uncertainty, You have given us hope and faith. You have warmed our hearts with the light of Your glory and encompassed us in Your love and beauty. Amen.Welcome to the first Youth Panel for the Sufism Symposium. We live in a world in which the youth are sent to die for bad politics. A world in which the youth are destroyed by the evils of society. A world that has deemed the youth the lost generation.So, it is very timely that we gather here today to listen to the future. I am pleased to introduce a panel of individuals who are well accomplished for their age. Who strongly believe in peace and faith and understanding. A panel which represents the seeds of the future, who will flourish to prove that our generation is anything but lost. Saturday panelists included: Shahzade Syed Shaheeduddin Ahmed, from the Maizbhandari Sufi Order, Bangladesh; Pranshanthi Ganesan Bivins, from the Bawa Muhaiyaddeen Fellowship; and Hamaseh Kianfar, from Uwaiysi Tarighat”

Youth Panel Two: “In the Name of Allah, Most Gracious, Most Merciful.The Holy Prophet (Peace and Blessing Upon Him) said that before the age of forty, this is the best time to access spirituality and discover one’s self. The energy of youth is very powerful. So, it is better to concentrate this powerful energy, which has been given to us by Allah, to understand Allah (and, subsequently, ourselves) rather than wasting this energy in a direction which does not give us such a great result. This is the best investment for the youth: the pursuit of real knowledge, which if the duty of every Muslim.”

Interfaith engagement was the subject of a panel discussion, with Rev. Cn. Charles Gibbs, Executive Director of the United Religions Initiative, and Michael Newman of the I.A.S. Michael Newman’s presentation approached the theme of self-discovery from the perspective of the revelation and inspiration as a science; like many of the speakers at the symposium, Newman spoke of self-discovery as an in-depth process that embraced both science and religion. Rev. Cn. Gibbs added his perspective on the universality of self-discovery: “We are, each of us, called to journey into the wounding , healing, undying love of God. It is the journey of self-discovery that leads to fullness of life.” (p28)

The sense of science and religion coming together in the Sufi path of self-discovery appeared again and again throughout the symposium in the remarks of many speakers. The need for intellectual rigor in the pursuit of self-discovery was directly addressed by Arife Ellen Hammerle, who related observations on principles of physics to discoveries in psychology, setting forth a logical framework for the analysis of self-discovery that she illustrated with quotations from great Sufi masters, including several other participants in the Symposium.Shah Nazar Seyyed Ali Kianfar, Ph. D. Before a rapt audience ranged round three sides of the great ballroom of the hotel, Seyyed Dr. Kianfar spoke extemporaneously as is his invariable custom, speaking not from a written text, but directly from the heart.

In his address, Seyyed Dr. Kianfar looked beyond the surface manifestations of self-discovery to get at the basic logical principles that must guide us on the path. Dr. Kianfar began by pointing out that the truth of self-discovery, and thus also of Sufism, had to be eternal and unchanging. Thus, self-discovery is never the discovery of something new, but rather the recollection of the self, the rediscovery of the reality of God within.

After Seyyed Dr. Kianfar concluded, the participants of the symposium did not stir from their seats. Everyone remained in a state of silent wonder, listening within to the truth that he had, somehow, revealed in the heart of each of those who heard him. Nobody spoke; nobody got up to leave — it was as if his words had been individually addressed to each of us, and all we could was reflect upon them.Sema and ZekrThis period of listening silence brought together into a sense of unity all of the participants in the symposium. Appropriately, there were no more spoken presentations that evening. Instead, it was followed by the impressive turnings of the Whirling Dervishes of the Mevlevi Order of America, led by Postneshin Jalaluddin Lores. Beginning slowly and with great solemnity, little by little the dervishes reached a state of ecstasy, as their whirling white cloaks filled the great ballroom like enormous flowers. The evening concluded with a solemn Zekr held in the grand ballroom of the hotel.

On Sunday morning, the final day of the symposium was opened with prayers and greetings from Sheikh Ahmed Tijani Ben Omar of Ghana, setting an enthusiastic mood for the full day of presentations and panel discussions that followed. In the morning session, Dr. Rapiq Frager spoke on the subject of the path of Sufism, explaining its successive stages in terms of the relation between the Salek — the seeker — to the teacher, in which the end of the path involves the seeker becoming, in turn, a teacher of others. In the same session, Sheikh Abdur Rashid spoke on the process of choosing to become a Sufi, a choice with the potential to be a truly life-changing experience. Dr. Nevit Ergin, who came all the way from Turkey, spoke on the topic of the way of Itlak and Sufism. Each of the morning speakers highlighted the importance of the Sufi path as a central life-choice, a dedication of the self to the service of Allah through commitment to the responsibilities of service to other seekers that the path of truth demands.Following lunch, the first afternoon session focused on practical aspects of the Sufi way of life. Dr. Arthur Buehler presented an analysis of the different institutional embodiments of Islam, distinguishing between the public side of Islam, represented by the Mosque and a literalist interpretation of the Koran; and the esoteric aspect of Islam, represented communally by the Sufi lodge and individually by the Sufi shrine. Examining the state of Islam in the modern world, Dr. Buehler showed how “Islam of the Mosque” had, under state authority in some countries, sought exclusive primacy. He observed that in the United States in particular, there is today a great potential for a redress of this imbalance, and a special role for Sufis.

Devi Tide, of the Sufi Order International, from Seattle, Washington, spoke insightfully on the topic of awakening the God within, a central goal of all Sufis. By looking within for the divine, Devi Tide evoked the great blessings of inner seeking that are too often overlooked in the everyday world we dwell in. She called on us to awaken ourselves to our purpose, not just for our own sakes, but to allow the Divine desire to expressed within and through us.Sheikh Taner Ansari Tarusi er Rif’ai el Qadiri , of the Islamic Sufi Order of Qadiri Rifai Tariqa of the Americas, explored the apparent paradox of the aphorism “Keep your friends close and your enemies closer.” The enemies that Sheik Taner referred to are the unpurified nafs. He emphasized the need to keep a close watch and control over the nafs, and explained how Allah has given us tools to do so. By focusing on Allah, and following the way of the Prophet, we come to the realization that only Allah matters, and that our relationship with Allah must always be foremost: “While we are on earth and of earth, we can learn to manifest our true potential. This is the arena, the laboratory, where we learn to turn earth into gold. By knowing ourselves, we know Allah.”Finally, Sheikh Abdoulaye Dieye spoke on the subject of Sufism and self-discovery from the unique perspective of African Sufism. The Sheikh is the leader of the Khidmatul Khadim of Mauritania, of the Muridiyya movement, and is a member of the French association of Islam et Occident. The fact that he had traveled all the way from Senegal to speak to the symposium underscored the truly international character of the gathering.

As the sixth Annual Sufism symposium concluded on Sunday Afternoon, each participant was left with more than simply the sum of his or her impressions and ideas. Everyone who contributed to the symposium added a chapter to a book that was, in of itself, too big for any one person to fully understand; indeed, only by later reading through the printed collection of talks and by listening to tapes of presentations can the symposium be fully appreciated. But at the time, participants left the conference with the realization that their own paths of self discovery had been enriched and advanced. In this way, the experience of the symposium and its theme of self-discovery came together into a greater whole. As Dr. Nahid Angha said: “The book of self is an eternal book — innate and essential, it is entrusted within the being of humanity. Its letters are woven in the creation of human being.”

“I was a hidden treasure,
I wanted to be known,
so I created the creation,
so I would be known.”

Quotations are from Book of Papers ’99.


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