Category: Latest Issue


A Discourse

by Alireza Nurbakhsh

Our experience of beauty and the sublime in the world is a gateway to our experience of the divine, which in turn gives rise to our love for God. Though they are often spoken of together, beauty and the sublime can produce different effects in the human heart and mind. For the Sufis, beauty and the sublime are two aspects of the same Reality. Loving God means loving both aspects of this Reality.

We need a critical approach to our experience to make sense of it and avoid any pitfalls set by our own emotions and self-interest. A blind acceptance of our experience and its spiritual significance could push us towards fanaticism. In some spiritual schools, including Sufism, it is the community and ultimately the guide or the teacher who can provide the correct insight to unravel such experiences and ultimately help people to make a positive change in their lives. The validity of such experiences rests in how they can help us through the process of purification of the self and spiritual advancement.

This can happen only when we see the beauty in others, and following the example of the Sufis, we let the experience of beauty take us to the state of perpetual and unconditional love.




by Mary Gossy

About five hundred years ago, in a medium-sized city in Spain, there was a woman who was desperate, if sometimes afraid, to be alone with her Beloved. In her case, which is, admittedly, somewhat unusual, her Beloved was what she called God. But nobody would let her have any time alone with her Beloved.

The nun in question, who wanted to be alone with her Beloved, is Teresa of Avila.

… she found a way to start a new kind of monastic life, one in which the nuns would live together and apart at the same time. They would earn their own living by spinning wool, they would not accept endowments so they would not owe anybody anything, they would stay in their enclosure, and they would do everything they could to stay focused on the one thing they all had in common. There were only a few of them, but every one wanted to be alone with her Beloved.

Teresa founded this order, called the Discalced (or “barefoot”) Carmelites, with a young priest who was to become her close collaborator, and who is known as Spain’s greatest lyric poet. His name is John of the Cross. It is he who invented and theorized the oft-mentioned phrase, “the dark night of the soul.” Like Teresa, John was completely in love with God.

Unoccupied prayer is the straight route John of the Cross drew up the middle of his map of spiritual ascent (Collected Works, 110). This way is paved with the word, “nada,” (nothing,) and nothing else. There is no room on the trail for anything except whatever breath of grace there is that moves the foot to take a step into empty air. Gimmicks? Nothing doing. Nothing is not for the faint of heart.




by Jawid Mojaddedi

Rumi’s life-story corroborates the comment that he makes here, in that it involves not only a geographical uprooting from Balkh to Konya, but also subsequently an inner uprooting from the seminary of his father to the mysticism of Shams-e Tabrizi. Since Rumi produced all of his writings that one can safely date after both of these uprootings, thirteenth-century Konya would seem to have a bigger claim for shaping them than Balkh, although the most important factor was his spiritual master. However, Rumi’s account of his own poetry here is not very accurate, because it is not simply a vehicle for “subtleties, obscurities and rarities.” In fact, the unusually high degree of scriptural citations and allusions to seminary scholarship in his poetry are themselves lingering signs of the influence of his upbringing and education, when he was being groomed as a successor by his preacher father Baha al-Din Walad (d. 628/1231), who represents the Balkh tradition he refers to. At the same time, his poetry also includes many philosophical, literary and scientific allusions as well—which were presumably for the benefit of intellectuals in Konya—in addition to the high literary standards of his poetry, but these aspects are never as a display of learning or an end in themselves.

In conclusion, one could argue that the intellectual tradition in Konya captivated Rumi more than the more religiously pious tradition of Balkh. However, the intervention of Shams at a time when he was perhaps already growing weary of both traditions, made him see their limitations through hurling him into the maelstrom of spiritual illumination. After Shams’ disappearance, Rumi returned to his former audience and used his accumulated intellectual and religious knowledge as appropriate vehicles through which to teach them the mystical knowledge he had acquired while absent, taking special care to divert them away from a merely intellectual approach by breaking up his stories and giving his Masnavi an “unstructured” appearance that bamboozles those who wish to see a rational explanation and a linear mathematical logic to it. Rumi seems therefore to have viewed the intellectual approach as the most threatening temptation that could distract one from the mystical way, as someone who was himself more of a former intellectual turned mystic, than a pietist turned mystic, and did not see blind faith as constituting valuable knowledge about the world.




by Sholeh Johnston

“I am what I am because of who we are.”

This proverb from the Nguni people of South Africa describes the essence of Ubuntu, a word literally translated as “humanity.” It is an African philosophy that believes humanity to be an interconnected, universal bond. According to Ubuntu, fulfillment is achieved in behaving kindly towards others and acting in the best interests of the community, not the individual. Ubuntu was at the heart of the fight to end apartheid, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that followed, and Nelson Mandela’s bold constitution for the new South African’s state in 1994. Speaking at Mandela’s memorial service, Barak Obama said, “Ubuntu… captures Mandela’s greatest gift: his recognition that we are all bound together in ways that are invisible to the eye; that there is a oneness to humanity; that we achieve ourselves by sharing ourselves with others, and caring for those around us.”

Time is fluid here compared to Europe. Eventually, Madala Kunene, an elderly guitarist and godfather of South African indigenous blues music, takes his seat on the grassy stage and begins to play. After each line he sings, the black audience members answer his call and sing his lyrics back to him. It drives a meditative melody that gathers pace and intensity as the audience and singer pass words, emotion and the history of this tradition back and forth over the stream that separates the stage from the audience. His song is only complete when they participate. Every line of song he ends brings their voices into existence. The song is not his alone, he is a facilitator for collective expression.

While the different expressions of collective humanity that I encountered in South Africa were distinct and diverse, a common thread ran through all of them: a belief in togetherness, collectivism, generosity and a shared notion of humanity. Ubuntu is more than a South African cultural experience: it mirrors so many other notions of a common humanity in cultures around the world, not least the Sufi concept of wahdat al-wujud, “unity of being.” In the call and response of Kunene’s song, I recognized a stir in the heart. A familiarity. A desire to participate, to be one; a reminder of the power of art to unlock our capacity not only to understand Ubuntu intellectually, but to sense its truth in our deepest selves.




by Mark Nepo

Life is the greatest storyteller. No matter what we’re going through—sick or well, in despair or wonder—faith in life means believing that there’s always more beyond the condition of our understanding—the way the rest of the Universe whirls beyond the light of any given star. In just this way, we’re always part of something larger than our condition, and the circumstance we’re in—real and consuming as it can be—is not the condition of the Whole. Faith in this distinction allows for healing.

It helps to tell stories. I share this one because Tom’s story is our story. Tom is an architect who feels very lost. Today, he’s leaving work, entering the elevator on the fiftieth floor, alone in the metal box taking him back to the ground, stopping along the way to gather others. As he descends, he leans against the wall of the elevator, wondering how he came to be so tired and lost. Tom is a man who started out in innocence, but as he tried to love, he was hurt. As he tried to help others, he was manipulated and betrayed. Tom began with a sublime trust in life, but became jaded and fearful. What he doesn’t know is that when he’s afraid, he forgets what he knows. When he fears situations, he forgets what he’s learned about moving through the world. When he fears he’s lost his way, he forgets who he is. When he fears the world is lacking, he forgets the gift of life.

Each of us struggles between being insular and making our way in the world. One more story that is our story. On a dreary day, a vital, thoughtful woman hurries to live behind a tall, thick wall. She thinks she’s building a castle, but it soon becomes a prison. Though she thinks the wall keeps everything painful out, surprise curls over the top like a cloud and circles her head like a fog. And sorrow seeps through the cracks in the wall like a distant memory that lodges in her ear. In time, she puts her sad ear to the wall and listens for life on the other side.

Those who love her pound on the wall for her to come out, but she just backs away and hides. No one knows what pain or argument with life had sent her into exile within herself. But after a while, life leaves her alone.




CHRIS ELLERY is the author of four collections of poetry, most recently Elder Tree and The Big Mosque of Mercy, which include poems based on his encounters with Sufis in Syria, where he was a Fulbright professor at the University of Aleppo. He is co-translator (with Asmahan Sallah) of Whatever Happened to Antara, a collection of short stories by award-winning Syrian writer Walid Ikhlassi. He has received the X.J. Kennedy Award for Creative Nonfiction, the Dora and Alexander Raynes Prize for Poetry, and the Betsy Colquitt Award. A member of the Texas Institute of Letters, he teaches film and creative writing at Angelo State University.


MARCELA TABOADA is a freelance photographer based in Oaxaca, Mexico since 1986. Her work has been published in various newspapers, magazines, numerous books and art catalogs of Mexico, and abroad. She has taught photography at universities, high schools, workshops for children and blind photographers, and has taught photography for Santa Fe Photographic Workshops and National Geographic Photo Camp. Her work is held in many collections including The Hasselblad Center, Sonoma Museum of Art, Throckmorton Fine Art, NY, The Museum of Contemporary Photography, Chicago, The Wittliff Collection, the Centro de la Imagen in Mexico City, and the Museo de Arte Contemporaneo de Oaxaca (MACO), among others.

93 Editors’ Note

Truth Matters. That’s a complete sentence. It would take millennia to unpack it. Nimatullahi Sufi Order Master Alireza Nurbakhsh explains why and how truth matters, and the difference truth makes for science and the soul.

This issue of SUFI engages connections between experience and experiment. Evolutionary game-theorist Donald Hoff man makes a good argument that “evolution has not shaped us to see reality as it is.” He also speaks from a strong conviction that the scientific method is the way to get closer to the truth—the whole point of science is to create a proof, and then to be willing to be proven wrong. Using the language of mathematics and experiment, Hoffman assures us that, in the search for truth, “if we don’t have the arguments, we don’t have a prayer” of arriving anywhere near the truth. Practice, if not prayer, might lead the way.

Good training, for a long time, says Fred Cooper, can open the scientist to grace, and the mystic to precision—practice makes clear-seeing possible, and thus meaning arises. The scientists in this issue say that we have to practice, practice, practice: but the Carnegie Hall of spiritual experience is somewhere the taxi of grace drops us, not somewhere we get ourselves to.

Andrew B. Newberg’s neurological experiments on mystics show that surrender does what no exertion can—and also that exertion is necessary. What we decide to do matters. Truth matters—matter, material, mother—the words are leaves of the same plant, and Dani Kopoulos’s story unfurls them. Grandmothers and spiritual masters know things. They know how to turn on the light so that yellowing life can thrive again. It turns out that Grandmother and Master can see in the dark.

After performance artist Ansuman Biswas enters a black box and becomes Schrodinger’s cat for ten days, his eyes need to adjust to the light when he comes out; his ears hear stories from others about his experience that have nothing to do with what he knew in there, by himself, where he wasn’t, after all, alone. Truth shows itself in relationship. Love might come in there, but that’s another matter.

—The Editors of SUFI