Talk with Dr. Yannis Toussulis Author of
Sufism and the Way of Blame: Hidden Sources of a Sacred Psychology.
By David Paquiot & Dr. Yannis Toussulis
Murshid Mehmet Selim Bey says in your interview with him that “It is imperative that mystics of the world’s religion come together in dialogue in order to share the particular gifts given to their respective traditions.” Through what means can mystics of all traditions come together?
Yannis Toussulis: What Mehmet Selim Bey and I agree on is that there are “core” phenomenological experiences that can be discovered in various forms of mysticism and these experiential structures can be contrasted and compared. Certainly all religious traditions are equally concerned with finding “God” or the source of “Being,” and they are all part of our global heritage as human beings. Mystics who are less parochial can – and have – studied other traditions, but this requires a new form of ecumenical or interreligious dialogue that is less politicized. The mystics of each tradition can still stand as “witnesses” for the efficacy of their own paths without, however, trying to privilege their own ways as the only – or even best – way. Of course, this requires a greater degree of religious humility, and only some, not all, mystics exhibit this quality. Those that do have such humility have come together throughout history with respect for their religious differences; and we would like to see those “meetings of the ways” increase in the interests of reducing inter-communal conflicts like those that we see, for example, between Christians, Jews, and Muslims in the Middle East.
I was curious as to why the Malamatiyya changed their ‘policy’ for lack of a better word, after the formation of the Turkish Republic to accept those seekers who weren’t part of an already existing tariqat?
Yannis Toussulis: By the turn of the nineteenth century, many Malamatis (like others) observed that a many tariqats had become mired in hierarchical, medieval structures that mirrored the power structures of the Sultanate. After the collapse of the Ottoman Empire and as a new, secular republic emerged in Turkey, some Malamatis saw this as an opportunity to re-visit and to reform Sufism as a path. After the formation of the Republic, Malamatis such as Hadji Maksud Effendi and his son, Mahmud Sadettin Bilginer, saw the need for a more adaptable approach that would welcome seekers who had a more secular education. Seekers such as these were often shy of embracing what they saw as the more “backward,” authoritarian style of many of the tariqats. While searching for a new “way,” many Malamatis sought to return to a simpler and less rigidly structured approach to Sufism that was also evident in the earliest years of the tradition in Baghdad and Khorasan. They believed that they found the old ways more malleable than later forms of Sufism, and they applied those old ways anew.
I was wondering if you could shed some light on the saying of Bahauddin Naqshband that appears twice in your book ” Today the doors of Shaykhhood are closed and the door the spiritual friendship has opened”? Mehmet Selim Bey also added his own signature to this saying “The door to Shaykhhood has always been closed, and the door to spiritual friendship has always been open.’ Can you shed some light on the consequences of adopting this saying?
Yannis Toussulis: (I will take these two questions together, since they form a whole). There is nothing new about the saying that you quote above. In ninth century Nishapur (Iran), the earliest Malamatis eschewed outward signs of tariqat affiliation because of the religious wars that were taking place in that region between the adherents of different schools of Islamic law. By the fourteenth century C.E., certain Sufis like Bahauddin Naqshband had also become dismayed at certain aspects of Sufism that they believed were fetishistic and promoted cults of personality. Naqshband believed that Pirs and Shaykhs were being worshipped as divine intermediaries, something which contradicted Islam. Ironically, perhaps, this became a feature of many branches of the Naqshbandiyya later in history, but the earlier Khwajagan and Malamatis always believed that a murshid should act as more of a “spiritual friend” than an authoritarian leader. Simply put, the consequences of applying this approach is that spiritual seekers are challenged to shed their fantastical expectations of Shaykhs and assume more responsibility for their own wayfaring. The murshid in the Malamati Way acts more like a catalyst, and a support, rather than a divine intermediary with miraculous powers.
As we approach the 10 year anniversary of 9/11, what would you like to see for the world over the course of the next 10 years. What role would you like Sufism and also the Malamatis to play in this time?
Yannis Toussulis: There’s a lot I would like to see happen in the world that may or may not occur. For example, I would like to see a greater promotion and acceptance of basic human rights, of equity and justice, of responsible governance and the development of a more highly educated citizenry, etc. These are basic human “goods,” but I believe that the basic greed and avarice of a few prevents this from happening. Sufis refer to this as the dominance of the “commanding nafs,” which is basically power-driven. I think that there are treasures to be found within classical Sufism that offer an antidote to the “nafs (or ego) that inclines towards evil.” The treasures are sometimes obscured by cultural trappings that are less suitable for people living in modern, secular societies. I would like to see a thorough-going critique of – as well as renewed appreciation for – traditional norms and values in Sufism. In short, I would like to see the development of more mature and discriminating form of the quest take place through a renewed interest in the Sufi classics that is far less emotional and far more discerning. Those “classics” include a rich array of poetic and metaphysical insights that can only be plumbed through devoted practice. The path requires seekers with courage and perseverance, but likewise, the path requires better prepared teachers who are better educated, yet forthright and humble. I would like to see Malamatis and other Sufis come “out of the closet” more and challenge people to stretch themselves and grow up spiritually and psychologically.
I was happy to see clear definitive history of it presented in your book and also to read the progressive ideas of Mehmet Selim Bey. ‘What’ or maybe I should ask ‘Whose’ need does your work introducing the Malamati way address, the individual seeker? society at large?
Yannis Toussulis: Properly speaking, there are no “individual seekers. Individuals are formed by – and always remain partly interdependent with – the societies they inhabit. To be sure, there are individual and unique characteristics to every person, but people are basically social creatures. If an individual changes deeply the effects radiate outwards into the rest of society. Likewise if a society is balanced and just, it supports the endeavors of individual seekers. In this respect, the Malamati way addresses societal, as well as individual, needs. If one becomes inwardly balanced, ones relationships with others necessarily changes.