Sufism and the Way of Blame: Hidden Sources of a Sacred Psychology

Sufism and the Way of Blame: Hidden Sources of a Sacred Psychology

Yannis Toussulis
Wheaton: Quest, 2011. Paper, xxii + 282 pages, $18.95

Over the last twenty years, many excellent translations of Sufi texts have appeared in English, but few original studies have appeared that could truly be called groundbreaking. Most publications have tended to be extremely academic, or extremely popular and generalized, or specifically written for members of various Sufi schools, or tariqas.

Sufism and the Way of Blame is a unique and engaging original study that transcends all these categories, and is a work that will be valuable both to serious scholars and to general readers. Based on years of painstaking research and scholarship, the book is clearly written, and while presenting a wealth of detail and information, it remains easily accessible to the serious, interested reader. Sufism and the Way of Blame offers much in the way of new material to English-speaking readers, and is a discerning, reliable work, which will remain a serious and thought-provoking resource for many years to come.

What makes this work so unique is that it carefully documents the teachings of the Malamiyya, one of the most important but little-known schools within the Sufi tradition. Originating in Persian Sufism, the term Malamati refers to the “blameworthy ones” who shun the religious idolatry of sanctimonious egoism, in order to draw closer to the divine, even if that draws reproach or blame from others. The Malamatis thus practiced “perfect sincerity” (ikhlas) and “the nothingness of man before God.” In this way, Malamatis emphasize a characteristic of the great Sufis as a whole: an unwillingness to embrace the idolatry of religion at the expense of genuine spirituality.

One irony of the Islamic tradition over the centuries is the unreflective tendency of exoteric followers to make a “god” out of their religion so that religion at times becomes even more important than the experience of divine presence. And once religion becomes a god, so too does the personal ego. As the French novelist Anatole France once wrote, “It is the certainty that they possess the truth that makes men cruel.” However, this exaltation of religion and the self, common enough in all Western religious systems, violates the absolute monotheism and spiritual humility that characterizes both the Qur’an and the original message of the prophet Muhammad.

In this book, Yannis Toussulis provides a short history of the transmission of Sufism to the West, including a critical assessment of figures like G. I. Gurdjieff and Idries Shah and the myths they propagated, which is especially valuable given the author’s access to background information about these figures. In the case of Idries Shah, this information he shares is otherwise unavailable. Toussulis also critically discusses different approaches to Sufism, including those of the Perennialist and Traditionalist schools.

The author then provides a history of the Malamati tradition in Sufism, spanning several chapters, with a particular emphasis on the Turkish tradition of Pir Nur al-Arabi (1813–88). Living at a time when the Ottoman Empire was in decline, Nur al-Arabi worked to adapt Sufism to the contemporary world, an approach that has been a characteristic of the school since his time. While little-known to outsiders and even to academic specialists, in Turkey the Malamiyya has functioned as a kind of Sufi “supra-order”; many members are shaykhs (teachers) of different tariqas, and it has functioned as a kind of Sufi graduate school, if you will pardon the expression. (Nur al-Arabi himself was a shaykh of the Naqshbandi order.) In a chapter on its twentieth-century representatives, several illuminating interviews are offered with Mehmet Selim, a current, English-speaking representative of the Nuriyya-Malamiyya based in Istanbul.

In the last and perhaps most valuable section of the book, Toussulis carefully outlines “The Seven Stations of Wisdom” as taught by the Nuriyya- Malamiyya, which provides a map of human psychospiritual development. Another extremely valuable section is the appendix, which contains the translation of a short work by Pir Nur al-Arabi entitled “The Testament of the Righteous,” which outlines the highest stages of mystical realization. Ultimately, within the Sufi tradition, God’s creation of the world is a continuous, unfolding event; and the realized human being, through purification and training, is able to attain a state in which he or she is able to witness this creative unfolding of the world, not from a human perspective, but from the perspective of the divine.

Sufism and the Way of Blame benefits not only from the author’s meticulous research and critical discernment, but also from his many years of contact with important teachers within the contemporary world of Turkish Sufism, especially Mehmet Selim Öziç, an inheritor of the Malamati Sufi lineage tracing itself back to Pir Nur al-Arabi.

Writing as both a scholar and as someone who knows the field of Sufism as a well-informed insider, Yannis Tossulis provides the reader with a fasci nating, insightful exploration of one of the most important but least understood lineages of Sufism, and one that is still active in the contemporary world. He discusses the contributions that Sufism can make to contemporary spirituality and to interfaith understanding, and he presents with real clarity the classical aims of Sufi training—a clarity that is often lacking in other volumes.

David Fideler

David Fideler is cotranslator of Love’s Alchemy: Poems from the Sufi Tradition. He is currently researching a book about the history of religious pluralism in Sarajevo, Bosnia.