Religions begin with a group of radical Gnostic mystics and end up as authoritarian institutions dominated by Literalists.
– Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy1

Islam, the religion of peace, is constantly linked by the mass media with images of war, conflict and terrorism. On an almost daily basis we are told of ‘Islamic fundamentalists’, ‘Muslim extremists’ and even ‘Islamo-fascists’. Islam is represented as monolithic, austere and conservative, even puritanical. This false and misleading picture of Islam, so vigorously promulgated in the West, is extremely one-dimensional, focusing exclusively as it does on the narrow exoteric side of the religion. Little or no attention is given to Islam’s fluid and multifaceted mystical dimensions.

For just as there is an inner side to Christianity and Judaism, so there is to Islam. This subterranean tradition has always acted to counterbalance the forces of dogmatism and dry formalism. Constituting the inner core of Islam, it has been celebrated by the greatest Muslim poets and sages from al-Hallaj and Ibn Arabi to Kermani, Rumi and Hafiz.

Do not attach yourself to any particular creed exclusively, so that you disbelieve all the rest; otherwise you will miss much that is good, indeed, you will fail to see the real Truth. God the omnipotent and omnipresent is not contained by any one creed, for He says in the Quran, ‘Wherever you turn, there is the face of Allah.’
– Sufi Grand Master Ibn Arabi

The mysticism or esotericism (called in Arabic tasawwuf) of Islam is today identified with the Sufis (a word commonly thought to come from the Arabic suf meaning ‘wool’, after the rough woollen robe worn by early Muslim mystics). However, there are several Muslim communities, such as the Ismailis, Qarmatians, Alawis and Druze, who derive their doctrines and practices from Islamic esotericism.

In the days of the Prophet Muhammad there was no sharp distinction between the esoteric and exoteric teachings of Islam. The Prophet instructed his inner circle, known as the Companions, in both the exoteric (zahir, the outer or apparent) and esoteric (batin, the inner or secret) meanings of the revelations he received from Allah. Although Prophet Muhammad, as the last of the Messengers of God, was the repository of a complete treasure of precepts, he proclaimed only some of them publicly, leaving the rest undeclared. The Prophet is said to have privately entrusted the undeclared precepts to a select few of his Companions, foremost among them Ali, “so that they would progressively reveal them at appropriate junctures according to their wisdom, whether by inferring the particular from the absolute, or the concrete from the abstract.”

Soon after the death of the Prophet the Muslim community was riven with power struggles and a rising tide of legalism which sought to suppress the mystical side of Islam. In the decades following the Prophet’s death, Sufi orders grew in secret as disciples (murids) gathered around an individual master (called murshid, shaykh or pir) to receive personal instruction in esotericism. Thus the inner teachings of Islam survived to become crystallised principally in Sufism.

No man can be said to have originated Sufism. No one knows who the first Sufi was. Sufism is not a religion, and ultimately exists above and beyond all labels. It is said Sufism is older than Islam and that it really had no beginning, being just the latest flowering – taking on the form of Islam – of the ancient secret tradition stretching back to Adam.

A Sufi tradition relates how “the seeds of Sufism were sown in the time of Adam, fermented in the time of Noah, budded in the time of Abram, and began to develop in the time of Jesus, and produced pure wine in the time of Muhammad.” Prophet Muhammad and Jesus are revered as the greatest Sufis. Sufi Masters like Ibn Arabi and Suhrawardi studied Plato and Pythagoras declaring the Pagan sages to be Sufis.

I looked for Him on the Christian cross, But he was not there. I went to Hindu temples and shrines – but nothing. I visited the Ka'aba in Mecca, I did not find Him. I questioned learned scholars, but He outstripped their understanding. Finally, when I peered into my own heart – there, and nowhere else, was His home.
– Jaluddin Rumi, Sufi Master and poet

In the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries many of Europe’s leading esotericists travelled to the Muslim East in search of ancient wisdom. As Joscelyn Godwin, a leading authority on the history of Western esotericism, explains:

The initiatic journey to Islamic soil has been a repeated theme of European esotericism, ever since the Templars settled in Jerusalem and the mythical Christian Rosenkreuz learnt his trade in “Damcar” (Damascus). We find it in the lives of Paracelsus and Cagliostro, then, as travel became easier, in a whole host that includes P.B. Randolph, H.P. Blavatsky, Max Theon, G.I. Gurdjieff, Aleister Crowley, Rene Guenon, R.A. Schwaller de Lubicz, and Henry Corbin. There was very likely some element of this in Napoleon’s Egyptian campaign of 1797, when he announced to an astounded audience that he, too, was a Muslim; then returned to Paris to convene the Jewish Sanhedrin and to reinstate the Christian clergy.2

In Egypt during the mid 1800s Madame Blavatsky studied Sufism, Coptic Christianity, and the Druze order which she described as “a last survival of archaic wisdom.” Claiming to be a student of her Master “Serapis Bey,” while in Cairo Madame Blavatsky met Jamal ad-Din al-Afghani, an outstanding Muslim thinker, radical political leader and Sufi teacher. She also travelled widely, often in Muslim dress, in the company of Albert Rawson, who would later write an account of his initiation by the Druze for Blavatsky’s book Isis Unveiled.

Rawson was one of the founders of the Nobles of the Mystic Shrine, a secret society incorporating principles and symbols drawn from Islamic mysticism. He also wrote favourably about Gnosticism and called for a new Church of Humanity that “should be broad and comprehensive, embracing many diverse elements, all working together for the common good. [revealing] to ordinary people the extraordinary attributes of their own nature by exemplifying before them the transcendent heights and depths of the human soul.”

Another influential spiritual teacher who journeyed through Muslim lands in search of hidden knowledge was George Ivanovitch Gurdjieff. He spent much of his life in Central Asia where he encountered Sufi brotherhoods and learnt of their texts, particularly ‘The Walled Garden of the Truth’ composed in the twelfth century by Sufi Master Hakim Sanai of Ghazna. According to the author of The Teachers of Gurdjieff, Hakim Sanai’s book influenced Gurdjieff’s own writings. One of Gurdjieff’s prominent students, J.G. Bennett, believed the origin of Gurdjieff’s system can be traced to the Sufis of Central Asia.

While many people are familiar with Madame H.P. Blavatsky and G.I. Gurdjieff, few are aware of the mystic teacher who is credited with laying the foundation for the spread of Islam among Black Americans.

Early in the twentieth century, Noble Drew Ali (born Timothy Drew), the self-taught son of former Black slaves, took a job as a merchant seaman and found himself in Egypt. According to one legend, Noble Drew Ali traveled around the world before the age of twenty-seven, in an effort to discover all he could about the heritage of his people and the tenets of Islam. It is commonly believed he received a mandate from the king of Morocco to instruct Black Americans in Islam. At the Pyramid of Cheops he received initiation and took the Muslim name Sharif [Noble] Abdul Ali; in America he would be known as Noble Drew Ali. On his return to the United States in 1913 he founded the Moorish Science Temple, “to uplift fallen humanity by returning the nationality, divine creed and culture to persons of Moorish descent in the Western Hemisphere.”

A charismatic leader, Noble Drew Ali taught that the true origin of Black Americans was ‘Asiatic’, and Islam their original religion. “The fallen sons and daughters of the Asiatic Nation of North America,” he wrote, “need to learn to love instead of hate; and to know of their higher self and lower self.” Allah, the one true God, has been known by many names, “but everywhere His is the causeless cause, the rootless root from which all things have grown.” Noble Drew Ali acknowledged Prophet Muhammad as “the founder of the reuniting of Islam” and the promised one foretold by Jesus. All prophets came with basically the same message, and Islam was the original divine faith to which Muhammad called people to return.

Through his message thousands of Black Americans were exposed to Moorish history, culture, religion, as well as the Islamic principles of “Love, Truth, Peace, Freedom, and Justice.” But his meteoric success brought disaster. Noble Drew Ali died in 1929, in the words of one commentator, “some say from severe police beatings, others say he was assassinated by his rivals in the movement. In his sincerity and undoubted innocence, Noble Drew Ali met a martyr’s end.”3

One of the most intriguing and mysterious organisations to emerge from the Moorish Science Temple established by Noble Drew Ali is the Moorish Orthodox Church. Founded in the late 1950s by European Americans who had obtained Moorish Science Temple passports as “Celts” or “Persians,” the Moorish Orthodox Church attracted a bohemian element. A Moorish Orthodox Church document posted on the internet states they’re committed to the “universal spirit hidden anywhere, revealed in all cultures, always occult and dissident, an ‘Invisible College’ embracing East and West but rejecting all official stultifying Consensus Reality.”

Today the foremost spokesman for the Moorish Orthodox Church is Peter Lamborn Wilson. A gifted writer and expert on the mystical dimensions of Islam, he is known for his books The Drunken Universe, Scandal: Essays in Islamic Heresy, and Sacred Drift. Wilson writes from experience having spent many years living among Sufis and diverse Muslim communities in Asia and the Middle East.

This writer was first introduced to Peter Lamborn Wilson’s writings and made aware of Moorish Science through my acquaintance with Rashid Bey, an Australian initiate of Islamic esotericism. Back in 1988 I had responded to an advertisement placed in a New Age magazine by “Darul Hikmet” (Arabic for ‘Abode of Wisdom’), an elusive group also referred to as the ‘seekers or people of truth’. I subsequently learnt they were part of a network of radical Gnostics formed around the Master Teacher Rashid Bey.

Rashid Bey had spent much of the 1980s in North Africa where he entered Islam, studied with Sufis, and even befriended some prominent Black American Muslims who imparted to him the story of Noble Drew Ali and the history of the Lost-Found Nation of Islam in the wilderness of North America. As a teenager Rashid Bey took a keen interest in the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran and this led him to discover the work of the martyr Ali Shariati, the Iranian radical and Islamic Gnostic whose pronouncements inspired the Iranian students in their struggle with the Shah. Best described as a revolutionary mystic, Rashid Bey had connections to a number of Arab, African and Asian liberation movements active in the 1980s and 90s.

When I finally met Rashid Bey in 1990 he was preparing to travel to Baghdad at the invitation of the Iraqi government. He gave me copy of Peter Wilson’s Scandal together with The People of the Secret by Ernest Scott. In response to my questions he urged me to study the life of the famous nineteenth century adventurer Sir Richard Burton (1821-1890) – who is regarded as something of a saint and hero by the Moorish Orthodox Church – and find out all I could about the Bektashi Order of Dervishes, a Sufi brotherhood G.I. Gurdjieff claimed to have encountered in his journeys. The Bektashi arose in the Ottoman empire and are rumoured to still be active in Albania. Here I was assured I would find the keys needed to unlock the door to the Secret Path. I was left with the words of the Sufi Master Haji Bektash ringing in my ears: “For those who have Awareness, a hint is quite enough. For the multitude of heedless mere knowledge is useless.”

In his quest for Gnosis, Burton never stopped searching…
– Edward Rice

Sir Richard Burton, a contemporary of Madame Blavatsky, was a British explorer and spy master who fell in love with Islam and with Moorish culture. He memorised huge portions of the Quran, and was so expert in abstruse points of Islamic theology that he could pass as a Muslim scholar.

Remembered today for his incredible exploits and magnificent translations of the Arabian Nights and the Kama Sutra, Burton was also the first European to perform the pilgrimage to Mecca as a convert to Islam. His fellow British officers called him the “White Nigger” and “that Devil Burton,” because of what they considered his ‘odd beliefs’ and ‘strange practices’. The spiritual quest was central to Richard Burton’s life. His biographer Edward Rice tells us:

Burton’s adult life was passed in a ceaseless quest for the kind of secret knowledge he labelled broadly as “Gnosis,” by which he hoped to uncover the very source of existence and the meaning of his role on earth. This search led him to investigate the Kabbalah, alchemy, Roman Catholicism, a Hindu snake caste of the most archaic type, and the erotic Way called Tantra, after which he looked into Sikhism and passed through several forms of Islam before settling on Sufism, a mystical discipline that defies simple labels. He remained a more or less faithful practitioner of Sufi teachings the rest of his life, seeking the mystical heights denied all but the elect, what certain Muslims define as Insan-i Kamil, the Perfect Man, who has attained the most profound spiritual goals.5

For Burton, Sufism was the most pure form of Gnosis, the secret knowledge passed down from the ancients, the Zoroastrians, the Hindu yogis, the Platonists, and the Essenes, the followers of the Secret Path having continued “up to the present time, under diverse mystical appellations, with tenets modified by the ages in which they live… They formed from the ‘archetypes’ of existence, a regular system of spiritual creation anterior to the material.”6

Early in his military career Richard Burton learnt to keep certain opinions and interests to himself and became a master of the Shia Muslim practice known as taqiya – dissimulation or concealment – in which one’s private religious practices are kept hidden. This practice can be traced back to the Prophet Muhammad and even further to the Gnostic communities of the early centuries of the Christian era. Many of Burton’s biographers ignore or play down his spiritual pursuits, principally the several years he spent among the Ismailis (who derive from the medieval ‘Assassins’) and his initiation into the Qadiri order, a Sufi brotherhood.

Burton was the first European to publish accurate material about Sufism based on an insider’s training and direct experience, gained under the guidance of Sufi Masters in India and the Middle East. Burton wrote:

The merit of Tasawwuf [Sufism], is its beau ideal of goodness as connected with beauty, and universal charity and love as flowing from the source of all goodness…. The Koranic ideal of the human soul or spirit, for instance, is similar to [the Christian]; but the Sufi, deducing the doctrine of the soul’s immortality from its immateriality… and convinced by reason that nothing can be at once self-existent, immaterial, and unbounded by time except the Deity, concludes that the spirit of man is nothing but the breath, the particle of the Divine soul lent to mankind, the noblest of God’s works.7

In the last two decades of his life Burton found other esoteric subjects to investigate: Theosophy, Spiritualism, Hermeticism, and Extrasensory Perception (Burton was the first to use the term “ESP”). Despite his private studies, Islam (what he called “the Saving Faith”) dominated his writings. In his essay “El Islam” Burton explained why he embraced Islam and Sufism:

“The world is the Muslim’s prison, the tomb his stronghold and Paradise his journey’s end.”… To the Muslim, time is but a point in illimitable eternity, life is but a step from the womb to the tomb…. He has no great secret to learn. The Valley of Death has no shadow for him; no darkness of uncertainty and doubt horrifies his fancy…. As in Christianity as in El Islam, eye hath not seen, nor hath ear heard, nor hath fancy conceived the spiritual joys of those who in mundane life have qualified themselves for heavenly futurity.8

As for the Sufi Path, Burton says:

The whole practice of the Sufi consists of seeking the Divinity, not as the “popular prudential and mercenary devotee,” but from fervency of love to God and man. He “proclaims the invisible truth above visible comfort”; his entire resignation can face the horrors of eternal death inflicted by divine Will; “he has something higher even than everlasting gain.”9

Burton’s spiritual quest often bewildered his family, friends, critics, and admirers. Indeed, his religious pursuits can only be understood in the light of his life-long commitment to Gnosis. In the words of Edward Rice: “He wanted Gnosis, the secret knowledge that unlocked the mysteries of the universe, and if it came in his teenage investigations of the Kabbalah or a Bombay cage or a Catholic chapel in primitive Baroda or the Arabian desert, it did not matter.”10

God brings upon those that love Him, a kind of sudden and supernatural madness, in which a man may speak and act against the directions of religion which He has revealed from Heaven.
– Junayd (tenth century Sufi Master)

The Order of the Bektashi Dervishes is a Sufi movement instituted in the fifteenth century by Haji Bektash Veli, a wandering holy man. From the beginning the Bektashi Sufis took a strong stand against hypocrisy and the literalist obsession with ancient texts and outward forms. After the manner of the greatest Sufi scholars, the Bektashi sought out wisdom wherever they could find it, recalling the admonition of the Prophet: “Seek knowledge even unto China (the furthest ends of the Earth). They are said to have synthesised Shia Islam with shamanic elements along with Christianity, and other sources, including possibly Buddhism.

Some Sufis say that wherever Haji Bektash travelled he was accompanied by two angels, one hovering above his left shoulder and the other above his right. These, it is suggested, may be the spirits of Islam and Christianity. The Bektashi allowed women to participate in their rites and gave them a considerable degree of equality. All this made the Bektashi suspect to the so-called ‘orthodox’ religious leaders who were quick to accuse them of disregarding various precepts of Islam.

Renowned for their love of justice and dislike of dogmatism, the Bektashi order quickly gained the respect of the Turkish people. An Ottoman Prince attributed many of his victories to the presence in his army of Haji Bektash. He built for him a monastery (Tekke) and college, and sought his approval and blessing on every undertaking. And when Sultan Murad formed the elite military units known as Janissaries from Christian children of the Balkans, Haji Bektash was asked to bestow his blessing upon them. Haji Bektash declared, “The troop which thou hast formed shall be called Janissary (“New Troops”). Their faces shall be white and shining, their right arms strong, their sabres keen, and their arrows sharp. They shall be fortunate in battle, and shall never leave the field save as victors.”

True to the Master’s blessing the Janissaries were destined to develop into the “strongest and fiercest instrument of imperial ambition ever devised upon earth.”11 Bektashi Babas (celibate spiritual advisors) accompanied the Janissaries as chaplains. Following the decline of the Janissary Corps many Bektashi Sufis fled to the remote areas of the Balkans, gaining a sizeable presence in Albania.

The Bektashi order resembles in many ways the Knights Templar, the once powerful order of Christian knights accused by the Roman church of antinomianism and heresy. Both the Bektashi and the Templars preserved occult teachings and served as a link between Islam and Christianity, East and West. And both orders met with persecution from the combined forces of church and state.

The purpose of this article is to present a simple introduction to a side of Islam rarely discussed and offer a little light to those readers sincerely seeking the Secret Path. At a time of growing religious intolerance and when certain forces are furthering a divide between Christians and Muslims, it is important to highlight the inner dimension of religion. In closing I would like to quote from a booklet issued by the secretive and elusive ‘Darul Hikmet’ over fifteen years ago.

The student must grasp one very important point to do with the presentation of the Teachings of the Ancient Secret Tradition. We have no hesitation in utilising different and often times quite varied forms in setting forth certain concepts. Forms differ from people to people, faith to faith, culture to culture, but they are only different expressions of the same thing. One superficial reader may see in our writings an emphasis on Christian terms, while another sees in us a purely Islamic position, while a third person may see our arguments sacrilegious altogether. One may see us the most conservative while another will declare us ultra radical and libertine. They have not seen the total picture. What we are aiming at is the presentation of the Truth beyond the form. Truth is One and is the same for all who have attained to its understanding by whatever way. At this table assemble the inner circle of humanity each having passed through the forms of all the celestial religions. “Words cannot be used in referring to religious truth, except as analogy” wrote Hakim Sanai.

1. Timothy Freke and Peter Gandy, Jesus and the Goddess

2. Joscelyn Godwin, The Theosophical Enlightenment

3. Peter Lamborn Wilson, Sacred Drift: Essays on the Margins of Islam

4. Edward Rice, Captain Sir Richard Francis Burton

5. Ibid.

6. As quoted in Captain Sir Richard Francis Burton

7. Ibid.

8. Ibid.

9. Ibid.

10. Edward Rice, Captain Sir Richard Francis Burton

11. Edward Creasy, History of the Ottoman Turks

© Copyright 2004 by New Dawn Magazine. The above article originally appeared in New Dawn No. 85 (July-August 2004).

Mehmet Sabeheddin is a researcher, writer, spiritual teacher and global traveller. He is a longtime contributor to New Dawn magazine. A “spiritual swaggie”, his areas of interest are wide ranging and include Sufism, Islam and esoteric Christianity. He can be contacted c/- of New Dawn Magazine, GPO Box 3126FF, Melbourne VIC 3001, Australia

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