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A Talk with Dr. Yannis Toussulis Author of Sufism and the Way of Blame: Hidden sources of a Sacred Psychology By David Paquiot

In your book, you say that ‘ Religious teachings are not formed in a political vacuum, and that it is important to investigate their socio-historical context.’ You go on to treat Sufism as a multiplex phenomenon requiring a multidisciplinary approach to understand and appreciate it. Do you feel this takes away from the mystery at the heart of this mystical path, that aspect of Sufism which lies beyond rational study and the mind?

For me, no. The point I make in my book is that Sufism is a cultural manifestation of something that is not exhausted by its multiple or manifold expressions.  The heart of mysticism – any mysticism – is a great mystery because it entails developing a unitive mode of perception; but such a mystery is not the same as the mystification that occurs in many esoteric or occult schools. The greatest mystery is found at the heart of life itself and not in esoterica.  Sufism is one way of approaching that mystery.  No one religion or form of spirituality can capture or encapsulate the sublime (and inexpressible) experience of discovering the unity that lies at the heart of life. The experience I allude to is an event, an encounter between human being and Being Itself. The rational mind (alone) is not sufficient to grasp such an event, but it nevertheless gives shape to it. One should, therefore, refine ones intuitive capacity (“spirit,” “heart,” etc.). One “catches” the experience at the heart of Sufism like a virus if one is intuitively prepared to receive it, but one must work hard to cultivate that receptivity, thus a contemplative discipline is necessary. 

I have seen the sentiment expressed by some Sufis that what can be written or said about Sufism isn’t Sufism, that Sufism is an experience. Is it possible to shed light on this deeper aspect of Sufism while looking at both the sociohistorical settings and actions of some celebrated Sufis of the past?

I have detailed many of the sociohistorical settings and actions of some celebrated Sufis of the past in my book, so I will not repeat myself here. The deeper aspect of Sufism is that it helps catalyze and shape an “event.” The fully developed Sufi encounters something sublime (“God,” “Being,” etc.) in such a powerful way that it shifts his/her basic way of perceiving reality as such.  This shift in perception leads to a transformation in psychological functioning; the “I” that I knew before this event is no longer the same “I.”  Such an event, however, must take on a number of interpretive forms to render it a fully developed experience. These interpretive forms are supplied by the given culture and/or religious tradition that one inhabits; and such symbolic forms are important because they help organize the “event” in a meaningful ways that can be communicated to others intersubjectively (or communally).  Anyone who has an intuitive capacity can thereby attain a “taste” of such an experience, and much of Sufi poetry and metaphysics conveys that momentary impact or impression to a broader community.

 Can one draw a line and say how much of the mystique of Sufism in the west can be attributed to Idries Shah, Gurdjieff, Bennett and just the natural mystique created over something novel. I would imagine given our love for novelty its harder to see things for what they are?

I am sorry, but I have to rephrase your question in order to understand it.  I believe you are asking something like this: “When it comes to spirituality or materiality, many of us in the West have a desire for something novel or exotic.  Given this desire for something exciting and entertaining, are most of us in the West able to understand Sufism in its deeper aspects?”  If this is close to what you are asking, then I have several propositions to make. First of all, mystical experience is rarely understood (on its own terms) by most people whether “Eastern” or “Western.”  The very word “mystical” originally meant “close-mouthed.” In other words, not much can be said about mysticism to those who do not have an experiential reference by which to intuitively grasp its meaning.  So the question you are asking does not pertain only to people in the West.  The consumption orientation that has reached an apex in the West – and which has now spread globally – is definitely a barrier, but so is the assumption that “Easterners” (or traditionalists) understand mysticism far better than secular Westerners. One thing I can say for the “East” is that traditionalist cultures still maintain a deeper interest in mysticism, but often in a deeply conformist way that is reflexive in those cultures. Romantic sentimentalism, for example, is often confused with an appreciation for mysticism in many of those settings, but I doubt that this is necessary to penetrate the deeper secrets of Sufism. In many parts of the Middle East, Sufism is more like a social movement that bears many of the features of a folk-cult that many ascribe to out of habit, but how many people can really grasp the profundity of a great Sufi like Muhyiddin Ibn ‘Arabi, for example?  Instead, Easterners” and Westerners have a marked tendency to follow their own habits, and this is no less true of Muslims than it is true of non-Muslims.  As far as the Islamophobia that is so prevalent in the West, much of it is an unthinking response to the events of 9/11 and the politicization of religion. My point is that one must break through the deep conditioning of the mind and psyche in order to appreciate the transformative qualities of Sufism, and this task requires an understanding of both individual and collective conditioning. As for Shah, Gurdjieff, and Bennett – and not withstanding the fact that I am critical of some (but not all) of their teachings – I think that they were trying to do this in a somewhat haphazard way. Unfortunately, all of these teachers succumbed to their own mystifications in the process, a great danger that all teachers face as they become convinced of their own authority. 

What need do you feel that Sufism is addressing currently in America given its sometimes anti religious, anti-Muslim climate and its entrenched materialistic propensities?

Given most sociological studies, it is actually surprising to find that the United States is one of the most religious societies on the planet.  For example, one study found that approximately 84% of the people in this nation profess a belief in God and most of them are nominally Christian. Many in the Middle East also profess a belief in God but that doesn’t necessarily mean that they are any less egocentric or “materialistic.”  Over several years of traveling in the greater Middle East I found that there is a collectivistic form of ego-centricity that is no less problematic than the hyper-individualism that one finds in America.  A collectivistic form of egocentricity simply presents different problems than the hyper-individualism. Being “religious” may be a starting point, but how many people become intelligently religious? One must question what it means to be religious in the first place. 

What does it mean to be religious?

I use the word “religious” in its original sense, from the Latin religare, “to be linked together.” A “religion,” therefore is a vehicle for linking people together and reminding them of their interdependence. We can become more interdependent in an intelligent way or we can link up as an unthinking herd. Much of what passes for religion is actually reflexive habit or cultural conditioning. The Prophet Muhammad (sas) once said, “Prayer without knowledge is useless.” For me, being religious means that one must learn to think with both ones head and ones heart; one must unite the two in a form of intuitive-intellection. Sufism, in its classical forms, educates this ability in a very direct manner that is applicable to every-day life. 

While reading your book I wanted ask you, ‘What is a Sufi’ and ‘How does one identify an authentic Sufi teaching or teacher?”

The most important question to ask is whether or not I have an authentic desire to know God — in and for Himself.  In my estimation, most seekers are actually masking other needs that they have with a need for closeness to God or Reality.  These needs include a deep desire for psychological healing, a need for community, and a need for simple solace and meaning.  Of course, all of these needs may be genuine in their own right, but they are not the same as a burning desire to know God or to know Being in its own right.  If I am genuine in my desire for a true form of existence, then I will see-through any partial or false teacher or teaching sooner or later. Of course, one may encounter many falsehoods along the path, but suffering them and learning and finding ones truer compass is all part of ones spiritual education. As William Blake once said, “the fool who persists in his folly will become wise.” You ask, “what is a Sufi?”  A simple answer would be that a “Sufi” is one follows a premise – such as “God may exist” to its final conclusion. Simply put, the “I” (in the form that we imagine) does not truly exist. Instead, it may become immediately apparent that Existence is suffused with an intelligence and compassion that was formerly inconceivable. In the process – as one of my teachers once said, “you must be crazy without truly becoming insane.” To be a Sufi, it is often said, one must balance (mystical) intoxication with sobriety. Mystical intoxication must first be found and then tamed. Sufism is one way of doing that: it can enable one to find an “intuitive” form of intellection that, nevertheless, requires a greater form of rational intelligence to succeed in its enterprise. 

You said “During the Rumi craze the premises of Sufism were almost completely reversed in the interests of spiritual consumerism.” What is spiritual consumerism? Where do we see it at work today? What can be done to change one’s understanding of the basic premises of Sufism?

As long as I have an untamed form of egotism, I will seek to consume.  Feeling that my sense of ego is ultimately empty, I will seek to fill it up. Finding that I cannot fill it up sufficiently to ease my sense of ultimate emptiness, I will seek to replace one object with another. It doesn’t matter what form such an object may take, whether spiritual or material.  My desire will be to shore-up my sense of a substantive ego no matter what it takes. One of the fundamental premises that we find in classical Sufism is that only God (or Being) truly exists. One must place a wager or gamble with ones life to find out if this is truly so. In this sense, Sufism is a disciplined form of inquiry that seeks to directly verify whether or not “I” truly exist in the form that I imagine. If not, what truly exists?  Do I simply disappear, and if so what will replace me? Is the universe ultimately empty, or is there a greater intelligence that suffuses all of Existence? If I am too busy trying to simply survive (the condition of much of the planet), or if I am too busy trying to fill myself up with added “goods” – the condition of most of the “developed” world — then I may never get around to seriously asking such questions, let alone set about trying to answer them. 

Looking at the way that Rumi and Sufism has been fashioned in the West what if anything can you infer about the West, its understanding of love, the mystical Path, and Islam?

“The West” is a rather broad category, and usually by using that term we are indicating a region of the world that has embraced secularism and rejected traditionalism.  But is that true of most of Europe and North America? Certainly those regions have been most affected by industrialization and capitalism, but the rest of the world is catching up. With the “triumph” of industrial capitalism, many social philosophers exclaim that most of the world is entering a period that is referred to as “high modernity.” With the latter comes a higher degree of individuality, the breakdown of many traditional norms, etc.  Islam holds many meanings for many people, and with the process of globalization, these meanings are being increasingly deliberated – and often with a greater sense of urgency and attendant conflict.  So the broader question that interests me is how will love and the mystical path be understood as we are entering this period?  “Islam,” “love,” and “the mystical path” are not unchanging categories with preset understandings that are set in stone.  It may be convenient to think that all of these things were more fully understood in the past, but I rather doubt it.  Islam and the mystical path are in a continuous process of evolution and adaptation. Perhaps that is a “Western” view, but I find this view reflected in some of the classical Sufis as well.  The question you ask, therefore, is an open question. First one must endeavor to follow a path, and then to gauge its results. I believe that it is better to seek Sufism in its more traditional form, learn from it and then question its fundamental premises again-and-again in an increasingly intelligent and experienced way that gradually unfolds.  Suffice to say, Sufism will not remain the same, although its fundamental structures and discoveries will remain intact. 

You use the term ‘sacred psychology’ in the subtitle of your book. For those who may be unfamiliar with that term, can tell us what you mean by ‘sacred psychology’, how is it similar to what we know as psychology, how does it differ?

Perhaps the term “psychology of the sacred” might be more apt; and I certainly don’t mean “psychology” in the modern sense of the word. The origins of psychology can be found in the Neo-Platonic tradition where the former was joined with philosophy and religion. This tradition of psychology was passed on to the three great monotheisms, including Islam, and it had to do with investigating the meaning of the psyche (or soul) and how it connects with the sacredness of existence itself. For Neo-Platonists, the origin of the soul was to be found in the “One,” so the meaning of existence was bound-up with rediscovering the divine origins of human being. A psychology of the sacred, today, would concern itself with the same quest, but in the main, most of psychology no longer concerns itself with that. Exceptions can be found in the analytical psychology of C. G. Jung, the existential-phenomenologists, and transpersonal psychologists, but they are rather on the fringe of mainstream psychology, so we must “dig out” those central concerns from ancient traditions like Sufism and rediscover their relevance for people today. In the process, of course, the study and practice of sacred traditions like Sufism will change and become more psychological or highly individuated, but that should be expected. An authentic form of individuation leads us back to our basic, human interrelatedness, and this is one of the goals of Sufism. 

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?

What Mehmet Selim Bey and I agreed 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?

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?

(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?

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 a 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?

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 change.


Yannis Toussulis Ph.D.

Yannis Toussulis Ph.D. is the primary successor of Mehmet Selim Ozic of Istanbul and a traditionally authorized murshid in the lineage of Pir Nur al-Arabi, the Nuriyya-Malamiyya. He is an inheritor of six lines of ascription from the following Sufi Orders: Naqshbandi, Qadiri, Rifa’i Khalwati, Mawlawi, and Uwaysi. Dr. Toussulis is also the sole surviving successor of the late Hasan Sari Dede (d. 1997), a Qadiri-Rifa’i Shaykh and a great lover of Mawlana Jalauddin Rumi.
Author of Sufism and the Way of Blame: Hidden Sources of a Sacred Psychology (Quest Books, 2011), Dr. Toussulis serves as the spiritual director of the Itlaq Foundation which was named after the spiritual approach of Hasan Lutfi Susud, a malamati Sufi who influenced the later work of J.G. Bennett.
Dr. Toussulis’ formal education includes an M.A. from Lone Mountain College in Existential Counseling Psychology (1977) and a Ph.D. in Psychology with an emphasis in human science research from Saybrook University (1997). Dr. Toussulis’ doctoral thesis examined the faith experiences of a Sufi Shaykh, Hassidic Rabbi, and a Catholic monk while pioneering the use of Dr. Amedeo Giorgi’s “empirical-phenomenologial” method as applied to the psychology of religious experience. While at Saybrook University, Dr. Toussulis also studied hermeneutics and critical theory having been prompted to do so while serving briefly as a research design and program development specialist at The Sadat Peace Foundation between 1983-1984.
Both before and after receiving his doctorate, Dr. Toussulis taught graduate and undergraduate courses in psychology for over 35 years. Between 1975-1989 he taught graduate courses on psychology, religion and comparative mythology at Antioch University/West and directed its graduate program in Consciousness Studies. Alarmed by increasing conflicts between “Islam and the West,” Dr. Toussulis served as an adjunct professor in cultural psychology at the Monterey Institute of International Studies between 1996-2008. While at that institution, he focused on the psychology of intercultural conflict and democratization processes throughout the greater Middle East.
During the same period, Dr. Toussulis was a key speaker at the UNDP’s “Conference on Good Governance, Empowerment, and Participation” (2005), and he lectured on “Cross-Cultural Negotiation in Muslim Majority Nations” at the Inaugural Conference of the Global Majority (2007). He was also a key presenter at “Religion and Society: A Dialogue between Indonesia and the United States,” a seminar co-sponsored by the U.S. Department of State and Legacy International. During the same time, he co-authored an article for the Journal of Policy Studies on “Religion and Conflict” that was subsequently published in the anthology, Islam and Tolerance in Wider Europe (Budapest: Open Society, 2007).
Dr. Toussulis’ attraction to Sufism resulted from his parental upbringing. Both sides of his family included ethnic Greeks from Anatolia, and he became fascinated with the Middle East in his childhood. His mother was born in Izmir and his father in Istanbul. The paternal side of Dr. Toussulis’ family included minor Byzantine nobles who served as functionaries in the Ottoman Empire after the fall of Constantinople. On his maternal side, the family originated in Cappadocia, a center of early Christian monasticism and qalandari Sufism in central Turkey. While first reading Idries Shah’s The Sufis in 1968, Dr. Toussulis immediately recognized a familial resonance, and after a brief hiatus in which he studied the comparative practices of Advaita-Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity and Judaism, Dr. Toussulis traveled to Turkey in 1978 and met Hasan Lufi Susud who encouraged further studies in Sufism. Returning to the United States, Dr. Toussulis met and studied with Dr. Javad Nurbaksh. After spending two years with the latter as a novice dervish, Dr. Toussulis became the dedicated murid of a Syrian-born professor of international relations who was also a Rifa’i Shaykh. The latter (who shall remain unnamed) was associated with a circle of Qadiris, Naqshbandis, and Rifa’is in Damascus who focused on the study of Muhyiddin Ibn al-Arabi. Having practiced with this Shaykh for eight years, Dr. Toussulis was instructed to work with tariqas arriving in the United States to help them to adjust to the cultural psychology of Americans. In 1991, as part of his preparation to fulfill this aim, Dr. Toussulis traveled to Turkey where he was appointed by the Board of Directors of the Ayni Ali Baba Tekke to serve as a khalifah of the Qadiri-Rifa’I Order in the United States.  He served in that capacity for the next four years.
In 1995 Dr. Toussulis met his recently deceased Murshid, Mehmet Selim Ozic, and the latter advised him to step down as a formal Shaykh and work on a malamati (or “blameworthy”) approach that was better adapted to a secular environment. This approach, which emanated from Pir Nur al-Arabi (d. 1878), led to an Akbarian “school” which had undergone modernizing reforms after the formation of the Republic of Turkey. 
As a result of his fifteen-year-old collaboration with Mehmet Selim Ozic, as well as his professional academic research and teaching, Dr. Toussulis restricted his activities as a murshid to a small circle of students in the greater San Francisco Bay Area as well as in Istanbul. The focus of this pilot group was to gradually synthesize the findings of human science with those of the classical Sufi tradition and to offer that combined approach to those who were best suited for it.
While focusing on the Akbarian tradition of Ibn ‘Arabi, Dr. Toussulis discovered that the methods used by malamatis in Turkey and the Balkans were directly derived from the Khwajagan-Nashbandiyya of Central Asia. This hypothesis had already been proposed by Hasan Lutfi Susud, but Dr. Toussulis wished to confirm it for himself.  Conducted with the help of Robert “Abdul Hayy” Darr, the resulting research that confirmed this hypothesis is presented in Dr. Toussulis’ book, Sufism and the Way of Blame.
While focusing on the methods of the malamatiyya who were influenced by the Khwajagan, Dr. Toussulis co-developed a streamlined approach to Sufism with Mehmet Selim Ozic over a twenty-three year period of close collaboration. This approach combines the insights of Western psychology with “bare-bones” Sufism. Although seemingly novel, Dr. Toussulis stresses that his work is a continuation of the two hundred year old legacy that was passed down from Pir Nur al-Arabi, through Hadji Maksoud Pristinevi, to Hasan Lutfi Susud, and thence to Mehmet Sadettin Bilginer and Mehmet Selim Ozic. The combined legacy of these murshidun, moreover, link back to the earlier malamatis of Anatolia, Central Asia, and Ninth Century Khorasan.
Dr. Toussulis maintains that classical Sufism is a dynamic and unfolding tradition that is capable of adapting to conditions of globalization and “post-modernity” without losing its inner substance. His next book will be dedicated to exploring that approach in detail. In the meantime, Dr. Toussulis continues to conduct a part-time practice in family psychotherapy (MFT #11962) as well as working as a lecturer and occasional adjunct professor. Several of his earlier articles on Sufism were featured in Gnosis Magazine in the late 1980s and early 1990s during which time he lectured at the Egyptian Scientific Society in Cairo and the International Association of Sufism’s Annual Symposium.

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