Exploring Sufism

Doreen Walia Gough

I am often asked, what is Sufism? 

And since Sufism is not a religion it can be quite a difficult question to answer. The best way I can answer is to share my interpretation of Sufism.

Basically, it is not a religion, but a philosophy that helps one to find the truth in one’s own faith and to show the commonality between all religions.

Sufism speaks to my being in so many ways. The path of Sufism that we follow, as taught by Hazrat Inayat Khan, has no dogma and no doctrine.  It has teachings that encourage us to think carefully about our actions, and the way we respond to those around us and handle the issues and challenges in our lives, from the point of view of serving God and humanity.

It teaches us to act always with love. Dogma gives us rules and since we are human, we often break those rules.  What follows is guilt and either self-condemnation or a complete rejection of those teachings because we find them so difficult to follow.  Principles are there to guide, not to restrict, says our Murshid, our teacher.

The true heart of any religion is actually, love, not rejection or punishment because we are who God made us.  The heart of every religion is love for God and our fellow human beings

There are several volumes containing our Murshid’s teachings.  And perhaps the best way to study them is not by rote but by letting the meaning reach into one’s subconscious and one’s heart.  It takes time to read these books and often we need to re-read them to really understand and remember.

I have found the simplest way to understand the meaning of Hazrat Inayat Khan’s message of love, harmony and beauty is found in his sayings, in the Gayan, Vadan, Nirtan, the Aphorisms and the Bowl of Saki.

For instance, in the Gayan, the Boulas section:

It is not by self-realisation that a person realises God, it is by God-realisation that he or she realises self.

So, in my understanding, once one is conscious of the presence and omnipotence of God, one becomes aware of one’s own actions and one behaves more consciously, aware of the effect of one’s actions on others. Because, as our Murshid says:

“to offend a low person is like throwing a stone in the mud and getting splashed”.

To me, this means, treat everyone with respect, no matter their position in life.  Love, he also teaches us, manifests as respect.

Christianity teaches us to love our neighbour as ourselves.
Murshid tells us that behind all of us is one spirit and one life; how then can we be happy if our neighbour is sad?

We see this throughout the world, a world that has become far too materialistic.  In many countries, including ours, there is extreme poverty next to a wealth of riches.

Murshid also teaches us poverty is evil – people who are merely struggling to survive certainly don’t have the luxury of ‘finding themselves’ or their path.

Some may do, but they are few.  Rather many are forced to turn to committing acts that harm others and themselves just to put bread on the table.

Fortunately, the act of reaching out to others helps them and the love is spread, creating a positive energy in place of hopelessness and negativity.

There is nothing wrong in being rich – provided you share your bounty and of course, your love for your fellow human being.  Think of Bill Gates and our own Mark Shuttleworth.  They are great philanthropists.  Most if not all of us here, are certainly not in their league, but we can always help in some small way.

Are your bookshelves too full?  Need to get rid of some books?  I can tell you from experience, many people from disadvantaged backgrounds would love to have them.  One of my fellow Rotarians and I have been handing out books at bus stops.  You would be surprised how eagerly they are  taken – and next time the same ‘customers’ ask for more.  We don’t have to give hand outs of food – we can share other things that will make a huge difference in someone’s life.
Hazrat Inayat Khan says:

“He who does not miss the opportunity of doing some good is good; and he who seizes upon such an opportunity when it occurs, is better still; but he who always looks out for an opportunity for doing good, is blessed among men.”

And in any case, much wealth brings a lot of care and responsibility.

Murshid says:

be contented with what you possess in life; be thankful for what does not belong to you, for it is so much less care; but try to obtain what you need, and make the best of every moment of your life”.

In other words, don’t envy, if you have a roof over your head, clothes on your back and food to eat be thankful.  Make the best of what you have. So often we wish for something ‘different’ a new car, a bigger house, that luxurious holiday.  Nothing wrong with that, but are we making the best of what we have?

We need to always learn to take care of what we have, and we so often forget to take care of ourselves.  We neglect ourselves, we judge ourselves, and of course, the result of that is feeling down, maybe depressed and anxious. If you cannot believe in yourself, says Murshid, you are an unbeliever. Furthermore he warns that:

“every moment of your life is more valuable than anything else in this world and that self-pity is the source of all grievances in the world”.

From this I certainly learned that everyone of us has a path to travel – if someone offends you or lets you down it is only right you should stand up for yourself, because we all have to learn our responsibilities, and perhaps forcing someone to take responsibility is the right thing to do.

However, if I interpret these teachings correctly, never hold a grudge – understand we all have weaknesses.  I have seen people change and evolve into loving, responsible human beings.  It doesn’t behove us to judge others – we have no right to criticise another’s personality.  We have to focus on our own and try to be the best we can. As Murshid says:

“Overlook the greatest fault of another, but do not partake in it.”

When reading up on Murshid’s life – and for those here who don’t know, he was born in India in 1882 from a good family.  He was a musician as well as a spiritual man.  He was advised by his teacher to go to the west and his work was to try to unite the east and west.  Not alone of course, but his was the work of one and his teacher knew he could open minds.  He went to America and gradually the following of his teachings began.  He married and had children, his legacy lives on in his family today. His sons and his grandson continue the teachings of Hazrat Inayat Khan.

He taught us to be of this world yet above it – a very difficult lesson, I believe.  We have to participate in the world as fully as we can, each according to his or her path, yet the world distracts us.  We get caught up in politics, in economics, in the constant struggle to find ways to be happy.  Yet, if we listen to the Sufi teachings, it is exactly in these struggles that we learn the lessons our soul needs to travel further along the path, closer to our divine creator.

We don’t fail, Murshid tells us – we learn from our mistakes, we learn from hardships.  Often it doesn’t make sense – especially when we lose a loved one or we witness the cruelty in the world towards humans, animals and the environment. Yet, at the same time also look at what else is happening, the awareness of the importance of the creation around us – a movement towards making people ever more aware of treating this earth with kindness; the recycling, the creating of green open spaces where people can enjoy themselves.  We see the negative in the media but that is only a part of it.  There are people out there doing amazing work – Christians and Muslims protecting each other – there isn’t just hate – there is also love and tolerance.

Again, in the Vadan we read:

“The purpose of life is fulfilled in rising to the greatest heights

and in diving to the deepest depths of life.”

Take time to read the prayers carefully that we say at the altar – they are all about love, harmony and beauty.

Saum speaks to a merciful and compassionate God, we ask:

open our hearts towards thy beauty,

illuminate our souls with divine light

– O Thou, the perfection of love, harmony and beauty.

In Salat we acknowledge God’s light in all forms:

….. in a loving mother, in a kind father, in an innocent child,

….. in a helpful friend and in an inspiring teacher.

In this prayer we ask that we are able to recognise God in all his holy names and forms  – in all faiths, – whether known or unknown to the world.

For me, Khatum, the prayer at the end of the service epitomises the message.

Open our hearts, that we may hear they voice, which constantly cometh from within. Disclose to us thy divine light, which is hidden in our souls that we may know and understand life better.

We ask that we may learn God’s loving forgiveness and that we may be raised above the distinctions and differences that divide all of us, that we may know his peace and be united in the perfect being of God.

May the blessing of God rest upon you,
May His peace abide with you,
And may His presence illuminate your heart,
Now and forever more.


These passages were read at the beginning of this service:

Starting with the Hindu scriptures we read:

And Krishna said:  Know this, O Arjuna, and note it well, for it is difficult of understanding among those who are bigoted, fanatical and now of mind and sympathy …… the Truth is this: that though men worship many gods, and images, and hold many conceptions of Deity, which they reverence as objects of worship, yea, even though these men seem utterly opposed to each other and to Me – yet doth their faith arise from a latent and unfolded faith in Me.

– The Bhagavad Gita. Discourse 7 v 20


In the Buddhist scriptures we read:

And whatever men do, whether they remain in the world as artisans, merchants and officers for the king, or retire from the world and devote themselves to a life of religious meditation, let them put their whole heart into their task; let them be diligent and energetic, and if they are like the lotus, which although it grows in the water, yet remains untouched by the water, if they struggle in life without cherishing envy or hatred, if they live in the world not a life of self, but a life of truth, then surely joy, peace and bliss will dwell in their minds.

– Anathapinka – The Man of Wealth  


In the Zoroastrian Scriptures we read:

The man of devotion is beneficent to all.  He is beneficent because of his hallowed wisdom, because of his realization of Truth, because of the goodness in his thoughts, in his words, in his actions.

– Yasna 51: 20 


In the Hebrew Scriptures we read:

The Lord is gracious, and full of compassion; slow to anger, and of great mercy.

The Lord is good to all: and his tender mercies are over all his works.

– Ps 145: 8- 9


In the Christian Scriptures we read:

Rejoice evermore.  Pray without ceasing.

In everything give thanks:  for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus concerning you.

Quench not the spirit.  Despise not prophesying.

Prove all things: hold fast that which is good.

Abstain from appearance of evil

And the very God of peace sanctify you wholly;

And I pray God your whole spirit sand soul and body be preserved blameless unto the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.

– 1Th 5: 16-23


In the Scriptures of Islam we read:

We have given to each one of you a law and an open path.  If it had pleased Allah he would surely have made one people of all men, but He chose to give you several laws, so that he may test you in that which He gave you.

Try, therefore, to surpass one another in good deeds.  To Allah wilt thou return and then he will make clear to you all things on which you differ now.

– The Table v 48    


In the Sufi teachings we read:

Life is a fair trade wherein all adjusts itself in time. For all you take from it, you must pay the price, sooner or later.  For some things you may pay in advance; for some you may pay on delivery, and for some, later on, when the bill is presented.

Be contented with what you possess in life; be thankful for what does not belong to you, for it is so much less care; but try to obtain what you need and make the best of every moment of your life.
– The Gayan – Talas

From a talk given by Doreen Walia Gough, November 2014

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