Short cuts and grades

Question: I have been warned of frauds who purport to be Sufis but, in fact, present confusion at best and, at worst, lead us away from the Deen of Islam by purporting to present “short cuts” to the teaching. This be done by superficially mixing together ideas from different mystical traditions (for example, Islamic, Hindu, Native American Indian) to present a “Universalist” Sufism. Or it might even be done by presenting lines from a true Sufi Sheikh (such as Sheikh ibn al Arabi), but out of context and at a time when the student is not ready or prepared to grasp the ideas.

I have been advised to join a “proper”, Islamic Sufi school, that emphasizes, first and foremost, complete embodiment of exoteric aspects of the religion and provides, perhaps over years, a course of exercises, each building upon the other (and upon the foundation of the Shariah and Sunnah), eventually reaching the stage where the pupil can dive to the depths of the esoteric — to read ibn Arabi, for example. The “readiness” of the pupil here is determined by the teacher — not by the student’s whims. The idea here is that someone who isn’t prepared to process these ideas might do themselves serious harm.

The Tailor: There are, of course, parallels in other traditions — for example, particular Hasidic schools also prefer to keep schtum about detailed Kabbalah until the exoteric aspects of the law are grasped in detail.

You might be surprised to hear that I’ve come around to this perspective — but with a perverse qualification.

That is to say

  • Anyone who sees the process of reading Qur’an/Revelation as a kind of grade ranking schema (primary school certificate, junior high certificate, senior, BSc, PhD etc) is, in fact, still in primary school.
  • It’s not a question of being able to walk before running. It’s a question of adapting to fly (from here to Jerusalem) before you even know the meaning of what “legs” are.
  • There is a graduation System. But it is not composed of what we commonly think of as “grades” or “stations”: because these terms are taken within a misconceived, rather capitalist sense of “valuation”. The grades of the System are not concrete, fixed certificates of graduation for the seeker-as-student. Rather, the True grades and stations of our System are functors, mappings, transformative movements of change between categories of perception. And grasping this point is what is necessary to graduate from primary school into secondary school. Within our System, there are no values — values are illusion — there are only movements that produce valuation as a side-effect. To take a concrete example, we have shown before that the 7 levels of the nafs characterise movements of change, functions over relational functions.
  • Over the past few years, peddling my wares in the City of profits and losses, I have observed that if people aren’t “ready” for the Solution (any Solution!) — if they are still in primary school — they will either disagree violently without considering component sign of the Solution offered or else emotionally attach themselves to a fetishized, capitalist reading of the Solution as a valuative ranking system. They will either disagree or agree — ascribing value — rather than Reading, obeying the command to iqra, failing to enact the Ritual/Eucharist of Reading (true Ritual is, after all, another name for transformative process here, one that turns water into wine).

    And that previous paragraph could itself so easily be taken the wrong way, and be interpreted as a valuative categorization of an undesirable mentality. The previous paragraph, taken in such a way, might be reacted to as again in agreement or disagreement. But it is not meant to be agreed with or disagreed with! I’m talking to you about “primary school”, “people”, “City”, “agreement” and “disagreement” — but these terms themselves are not fixed valuative signs — they are luminous trajectories, instantaneous enactments of transformation (whose velocities admittedly are a valuative side-effect). When these signs are configured and Read in the right way, they together constitute the means — the System — to graduate from the “primary” to “secondary”.

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    7 thoughts on “Short cuts and grades

    1. I have been advised to join a “proper”, Islamic Sufi school, that emphasizes, first and foremost, complete embodiment of exoteric aspects of the religion and provides, perhaps over years, a course of exercises, each building upon the other (and upon the foundation of the Shariah and Sunnah), eventually reaching the stage where the pupil can dive to the depths of the esoteric — to read ibn Arabi, for example.

      Any joins that one ‘joins’ – whatever else its merits may be – cannot be a Sufi one.

      In the Sufi Way, the master finds the disciple. It has always been like this, it is like this now, and it always will be like this. The would-be disciple is in no condition to evaluate the master – whatever he or she ‘chooses’ will be an expression of his or her own vanity. And, indeed, the very idea of a “proper” school is full of vanity. “Proper”, for whom? (What “proper” means in this context is “one that enhances my sense of myself as someone with the discrimination to choose the best kinds of things, ‘the top people’ etc.)

      What’s more – despite what the would-be disciple might believe – Sufi masters don’t exist to provide a service to all and sundry, convincing the doubtful of their credentials, marketing their wares in the spiritual marketplace. They exist to serve those who can be served. And they will always find those who they can help. They are not looking for those who are looking for a “proper” school.

      The Sufi Way is a rough business, too. Why would anyone who seeks to gain want to engage with it. The Sufi master won’t coach you to “reach a stage where the pupil can dive to the depths of the esoteric”. He will destroy you: he will destroy your self-regard, in ways subtle and obvious, gentle and excruciating, until there is nothing left to prevent ‘the esoteric’ from striking you from every possible direction.

      Go to a real Sufi, and tell him that you want to be sure that Islamic credentials meet with your requirements, that you want to verify his ijaza, that you would like to carry out a spiritual ‘credit check’ on him and his school.

      He will chase you out of his house and down the street!

      The only way a person can become the disciple of a real Sufi is to learn how to be found.

    2. I don’t know James, the “real” sufi master’s promise sounds close to the promise of gurus in 70’s.
      “He will destroy you: he will destroy your self-regard, in ways subtle and obvious, gentle and excruciating, until there is nothing left to prevent ‘the esoteric’ from striking you from every possible direction.”

      Now I believe that only One can be that close to me. With One I am blessed to continue to seek beauty in the body and the mind.

      But if it works for you with your master then that is so wonderful.

    3. How does one learn to be found? My inclination is to link this question to babkalush’s belief that ‘only One can be that close to me’.

      If one begins with the belief that there is only One, Single, Unique, Absolute Existence – and that all guidance is an expression of the guidance of The Guide – then one will be prepared to accept that everything is connected, any coincidence potentially meaningful, and that a request will be heard and answered.

      So, one begins by being clear in one’s intention. Then, one has to ask – with as much sincerity as one is capable of. And then, one waits, paying attention to anything and everything that happens, because “the question is about the sky, but the answer may be about a rope”. And, of course, one has to work to be able to be able to benefit from guidance, when it comes – there is no point in devoting one’s life to the search for a master if, when one finally encounters him, one rejects what he says.

      The difference between this and the guruism of the 70s is that it is not ‘shopping’. The gurus set out their wares in the marketplace, and promoted them in the best traditions of Madison Avenue – “sell the sizzle, not the steak”, and so forth. Those who bought them, bought them because they were first and foremost consumers looking for a product (even if they thought themselves to be ‘spiritual seekers’). As the Sufis have always maintained, people will find the ‘teachers’ that correspond to their own degree of sincerity. But the teacher who finds you will challenge you, because he won’t correspond to what you want. And his (or her) appearance in your life will always be ‘from left field’ – from where you least expect it.

      Now why does one need such a teacher, if “With One I am blessed to continue to seek beauty in the body and the mind”? Because, whether we are willing to admit it to ourselves or not, that One is imprisoned by our own whim. God speaks to us, for sure. But we also put words into His mouth, when it suits us. How can we really be sure that we are drawing the lessons from life that help us to really grow, rather than the lessons that confirm our desires and prejudices? And, of course, we only remember the Divine presence every now and again, when something prompts us. For the rest of the time, we are as preoccupied with our own self-regard as everyone else.

      The teacher, on the other hand, is an unforgettable presence, who can intrude into our consciousness when he perceives that we need it – not when it suits us. He is beholden to no man or woman, and can point out what is correct perception and what is self-delusion – thus building a capacity for discrimination within us. And we cannot avoid or resist his lessons in the same way we avoid Divine guidance – and we have that choice – convincing ourselves, in a self-flattering manner, that ‘this is what was really meant’.

      1. Peace all,

        I’m in the middle of a consulting gig so am having difficulty replying to the very nice points being made by everyone on this and the other post. Some things might have to wait until later in the week (or maybe I might forget, always a danger).

        So I’m going to cannibalize an addendum I wrote for another forum. Basically, I agree with James that we are talking about something a world away from the marketplace of the 70s — which is/was basically a kind of repetition of the current marketplace I work within professionally (the UK university system). You get way you pay for, essentially: a theologico-economic-pedagogical assemblage (in the former) or a semantic-economic-pedagogical assemblage (in the latter), in the Deleuzian sense of assemblage (machinic combination of world views/identities/symbolic production).

        James is, I believe, talking about the Sufic/Islamic concept of sabr , sometimes translated as endurance or steadfastness in the Qu’ran. As in: “Verily man is in loss, except such as have faith, and do righteous deeds, and join together in the mutual enjoining of truth, and of patience and constancy.” (103:2-3)

        @Theophanic: Sabr/endurance is definitely the “route” to finding the “teacher”.
        The Prophet Musa (and his journey) is associated with this quality, which is a meta-referential in-joke behind the story of Musa and his teacher Khidr. (Remember that when I think of the Prophet Musa, I am thinking of a particular kind of symbolic function that regulates the space of all symbolic functions, a sort of differential of differentiation, a meta-curvature of the curvatures that run and interconnect the plateaus of reality. It is the “curvature” of embodied sabr. Anyway when that “curvature”/function turns in upon itself, self-applies, and gets put onto paper, crystalized, we find precisely the story of Khidr, with its weird stages. See the end of my Miraj talk at City Circle on youtube for a less succinct version of this point.)

        Anyhow, to cut a long story (too) short, before asking how to find a teacher, we must first ask what a teacher is, and whether teaching, teachers and students can even be said to have (some kind of) existence.

        I am glad to inform all and sundry of the affirmative: there are indeed “students” and “teachers”, but these terms are themselves widely misunderstood. But once you understand them, then you find yourself transported within the student-teacher nexus . That is, the process of understanding works somewhat counterintuitively: once we understand learning, the teacher comes to us, rather than the teacher coming to us to instruct us on what is right and wrong (and what learning is). In particular, comprehending what the “role” of a teacher is constitutes the teacher’s very arrival! This is why the previous Qutub used to bang on about the role of a teacher so much in his books.

    4. Dear Tailor I like that “once we understand learning, the teacher comes to us, rather than the teacher coming to us to instruct us on what is right and wrong (and what learning is)”.

      Thanks James for clarifying my second sentence. Really appreciate that. It made me think about it for a few hours. 🙂

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