Islam is one of the four largest religions of the world. It is the fastest growing and has the second most followers of any religion. Islam is the larger branch of its religion, just as Christianity is the larger idea of a religion which has numerous sects which have slightly varying beliefs and practices. One of Islam’s sects is Sufism, a mystical sect which focuses more on the fundamentals of Islam and it’s deeper meaning spiritually. Sufism is found primarily in the Middle East but specifically in Iran, Iraq, Turkey and India. Sufis value learning and within Sufism there are Masters and Seekers. The teacher and student relationship in Sufism is not akin to that of a typical classroom setting; it is more personal and spiritual.
All Muslims believe that their purpose is to adhere and become closer to God, hoping that they become closer to God and to paradise after death or after the final judgment. Sufis believe that it is possible to not only be closer to God in death but also in this life; they believe that closeness to God and embrace His Divine Presence is possible in the earthly life. A Sufi’s aim is to please God by restoring themselves to the state of fitra through hard work and devotion to God. Fitra is a primordial state which is described in the Qu’ran and is a state where nothing one does defies God. In Islamic theology human beings are born with an innate inclination of oneness, which is personified and enclosed in the fitra along with compassion, intelligence and all other characteristics that embody what it is to be human. The fitra of the human body is its beauty and perfection as created by God. Fitra is the origin of the human body, it is what God created in perfection and it is a Sufi’s desire and chief aim to restore themselves to the state of fitra.
A Sufi is a practitioner of Sufism which is known as a mystical dimension of Islam. Sufis believe in the inner or esoteric dimension of Islam believing that the Qu’ran has an inner meaning. One of the practices which the Sufi adhere to is the dihkr which is a process of reciting all of the names of God of which there are 99. Sufis also recognize the Divine Unity; they must let go of all dualism and recognize God is one and the only one. A practitioner of Sufism begins as what is known as a Seeker.
In order to enter the way of Islam, the Seeker first must begin by finding a teacher, also known as a Master. Teachers have become one to show Seekers the way of Sufism by receiving the authorization to teach by another Master of the Way. The teacher and student relationship in the Sufi Seeker/Teacher sense is not simply the teacher giving their student all of their knowledge and information. The teacher and student in Sufism must have a connection on a deeper level. The connection of the seeker and teacher is considered necessary for the growth of the student. An accomplished member of the Order who has completed his training is called a Dervish. The Dervish traveled across villages, towns and sometimes countries, (usually by foot) spreading the teachings of Sufism. Even today, it is not uncommon to encounter a traveling Dervish when one visits the countries in the middle-east. They spread the message of love and mercy, helping the needy and poor people. The Dervish have no earthly possessions other than the clothes on their back.
Their lifestyle is dominated by teaching through story-telling, singing, fortune- telling (using astrological calendars) and healing the sick with herbs and extracts. It is important to realize that there are many sects within Sufism, which reflect its evolution similar to other religions or ways of life. A qualified description of Dervish is provided by Kabir Helminski an author and translator of three books of Sufi poetry and a recognized leader in the Sufi Order. “A dervish is an apprentice, one who is learning the profession that will provide eternal livelihood. This profession is still taught in certain “schools of higher learning.” While there are many skills that can be self-taught or learned alone, the skills of dervishhood are learned by being in relationship to a sheikh, or guide, and within a spiritual family, a Sufi circle. There will always be much to learn on one’s own, through one’s own efforts, and within one’s own understanding”(Helminski).
A dervish who teaches students, is called “Sheik” or guide. Each Dervish with his student is a member of a spiritual family a “Sufi Circle”. Each Dervish works with one student at a time. The student makes an unconditional commitment to the teacher to go where the teacher goes and learn along the way. The student starts a new life as a “Mystic”. Someone how wants to be a Dervish himself. Kabir Helminski describes that as following. “A Dervish is one who has made truth his or her master desire and is willing to submit all other desires and aims before this aim” (Helminski).
A fundamental component in the teaching methodology is student’s obligation to review and analyze the occurrences of each day and hears the teacher’s interpretation through examples and stories. The British novelist and short-story writer Doris Lessing states the following about the Sufis learning methodology. “What Sufis offer is learning through experience”(Lessing). The learning experience of the student occurs not in a classroom but the entire world. As an essential part of the educational content the students learn the native languages of places they travel through, math, physics astronomy and theology. Another learning experience is the identification, harvesting and utilizing the herbs in the healing practices by the Dervish. From time to time, the Dervish may direct their student to study at a university or a religious institution for a period of time. This may include enrolment in prestigious European universities and after graduation return to the same simple Dervish life. The basic philosophy requires that the learning occur through interaction with common people in daily life, which teaches the student respect for people of various cultures and the communities they visit.
There is no fixed curriculum, which provides for flexibility in the learning process. Each student may desire a certain order of progression for the subject matter, but the objective is to become educated. Some teachers, especially when addressing more general audiences, or mixed groups of Muslims and non-Muslims, make extensive use of parable, allegory, and metaphor. Although approaches to teaching vary among different Sufi orders, Sufism as a whole is primarily concerned with direct personal experience, and as such has sometimes been compared to other, non-Islamic forms of mysticism. To have education is to receive information and skills intentionally for a specific use. But to be educated, one must have a rich and multifaceted collection of experiences intended for one’s spiritual and mental growth towards fulfillment and excellence.
An effective and fruitful student-teacher relationship must incorporate the philosophy that the teacher is the central figure in the educational process and should have the freedom to organize the curriculum free of formalities. It is the teacher how harmonizes the educational content with real life and shapes the teacher-student relationship. An effective methodology must be based on teacher’s will to guide the student through his journey towards real education with real applications in life and the student’s respect and admiration for the teacher in addition to having a keen interest in the subject matter.
In Sufism, the teacher is a facilitator, one who has experienced the path, who is aware of the downfalls and the benefits of Sufism. The Seeker and teacher relationship is incredibly spiritual; the teacher should know what the student thinks and feels. The student and teacher must have a connection of the soul. The students must make a serious commitment as they typically stay with the teacher learning the way for long amounts of time, studying with their teacher for many years. The way in which the Seeker is taught is that it is a transmission of the Divine Light from the teacher’s heart to the student’s heart. The teacher will be very strict in his adherence to the Divine Law. The seeker must turn away from all sins; love of this world, the love of company and renown, obedience to satanic impulse and the promptings of the lower self. Sufi practices are not a means for gaining knowledge but the practice of techniques are instead the occasion for knowledge to be obtained.
Helminski, Kabir. “Derishhood”. http://www.sufism.org/books/sacred/dervish. (3
Lessing, Doris. “On Sufism and Idries Shah’s The Commanding Self (1994)”.
1999. http://www.sufis.org/lessing_commandingself.html. (3 December
Brantmeier, Edward J., ed. Spirituality, Religion, and Peace Education. N.p.: Information Age, 2010. Print