by Bijan Omrani 

In The Sufis, Idries Shah devotes a chapter to the Gifts of Deep Knowledge (the Awarif el-Maarif), a thirteenth-century work which he describes being the de facto ‘standard dervish textbook’.

Shah’s interest ranges, however, not just over the work itself or its original author, Sheikh Shahabudin Suhrawardi, but also over its first English translator, Lieutenant-Colonel Wilberforce Clarke, who first published sections of the work in 1891.

The name might conjure up a stuffy and be-whiskered Victorian, but the reality was quite different. Colonel Clarke, according to Shah, was a dervish himself, probably of the Suhrawardi order, and he showed great boldness in attempting to present dervish ideas to a hostile English audience which would have regarded dervishes as ‘insane, bloodstained fanatics’. Public opinion had been influenced by the heroics of General Gordon at the Siege of Khartoum, and a shortly afterwards by the ‘Mad Mullah’ and the ‘Dervish State’ of Somaliland.

If Colonel Clarke’s embrace of dervish ideas had riled his brother officers, another of his statements is likely to have astonished the Classical scholars of the age: his claim that Sufi ideas existed in the philosophies of ancient Greece.

Shah’s discussion of Clarke’s work does not elaborate on the point, and although it is an idea which is repeated in passing elsewhere in The Sufis, it is not discussed in greater depth. Here, I shall try briefly to suggest what might have been in the mind of Clarke, and later Shah.

The first known Greek thinkers who were considered to be philosophers came from the city of Miletus on the coast of Asia Minor, in modern-day Turkey. Miletus was a rich and well-connected trading city, looking west to the wider society of Greeks around the Aegean, but also east to the ancient civilisations of Mesopotamia, and also south to Egypt. As such, it was very likely a cosmopolitan melting-pot of ideas.

The first of the Milesian School of thinkers, Thales, flourished around 650 BC. It is not known whether he wrote any books, but a number of Nasruddin-like stories have crystalized around him. One, which is later repeated by Chaucer, speaks of him wandering about and staring at the sky so intently in his astronomical investigations that he carelessly fell into a cesspit. Another is that after being lambasted for the uselessness of his philosophy, he used his understanding of the weather to predict a bumper crop of olives, and buy up all the olive-presses in the city in advance of the harvest, thus making a fortune.

It is perhaps no wonder that their contemporaries found the Milesian philosophers unnerving. These thinkers, unlike the poets who had gone before them, tried to explain the world not in terms of legends and the gods – as, for example, Hesiod (7th century BC) had done before them. They tried to give an explanation of the creation based in physics. Thales said that all things were made of water; this was his first element. His pupil, Anaximander, said that things were not made of water, but a boundless stuff (in Greek, ‘apeiron’) which lay beneath the creation. After them, a third Milesian, Anaximenes, said that the first element was air. There was no separate metaphysical space in their ideas for the gods, no Olympus set aside on another plane. The material world was all that could be had.

But this emphasis on the material did not mean that they had abolished the gods or the divine; quite the reverse. Everything in the visible and created world was ultimately made from the first element. Created things were transitory and fallible. However, behind them lay the first element, which was eternal, omnipresent and all-powerful, capable of turning into every form. As such, they thought of it as being the divine. Thales, according to Aristotle, said that ‘soul’ was present everywhere, and that all things were ‘full of gods’. A later thinker and poet, Xenophanes (c. 570-475 BC), is characterised by Aristotle ‘gazing up at heaven as a whole, [declaring] that the One is God.’ As such, common to these early thinkers are ideas of the divine unity of creation.

A sense that a grand unity underlay all creation presented these thinkers with a problem, that of perception. Truth and eternity were so present and so close that you could lay your hands on them and gaze on them by touching or looking at the created world. Everywhere, there was sanctity, if one could see properly. Yet, to rest in the created world was not enough; one had to understand it at its real value, and pass beyond it to the unity that lay beneath.

The underlying unity was like a chimera. It never showed itself as a single thing. Being the substance of all creation, it bore all opposites within itself: earth and air, fire and water. It even seemed to transcend categories of sacred and profane, and even living or dead. One story of Thales, repeated by a later author, says that ‘Thales held there was no difference between life and death. “Why then,” said one, “do you not die” “Because,” said he, “there is no difference”.’

As such, it was not uncommon for these early thinkers to gravitate towards riddles and paradox. The most conspicuous, Heraclitus (c. 535-475 BC), was famous for his ‘dark sayings.’ Holding the first element to be fire, he spoke of the paradox of all things seeming different, but showing that although they were superficially opposite, beneath them lay unity: ‘God: day/night, winter/summer, war/peace, fullness/hunger. He changes like fire which, when mixed with spices, is named according to the savour of each.’

Heraclitus showed that to perceive the divine, underlying unity of creation, one had to embrace the transitory nature of the visible world and not cling to it. To find what was permanent, one had to seek it through accepting impermanence and the flux of contraries: ‘Things taken together are wholes and not wholes, something which is being brought together and being brought apart, which is in tune and out of tune; out of all things there comes a unity, and out of a unity all things.’

A later fifth-century thinker, Diogenes of Apollonia, puts it rather more directly than Heraclitus: ‘And this very thing is both eternal and immortal body, but of the rest some come into being, some pass away.’

As such, the challenge for humans was to break through the conventions of everyday thinking: ‘If you do not expect the unexpected,’ said Heraclitus, ‘you will not find it, since it is trackless and unexplored.’ The seekers should always be ready to challenge what they saw, look at life from other angles: ‘Sea – water most pure and most tainted, drinkable and wholesome for fish, but undrinkable and poisonous for people.’

Always, one strove to break through paradox to a right perception: ‘For God, all things are beautiful, good, and just, but humans have assumed that some things are unjust, others just.’ For Heraclitus, to get to this level of right perception was like an initiation, waking up from darkness and moving to the light: ‘the universe for those who are awake is single and common, while in sleep each person turns aside into a private universe.’

To call this attainment of a right perception an ‘initiation’ is not just a metaphor. The ideas of these early thinkers seem to have been reflected by concepts in mystery cults of that period, and even of Greek tragedy. The mystery cults, dedicated to gods and goddesses such as Orpheus, Demeter and Persephone, or Dionysus, required their devotees to be initiated into the mystery cult, and thus to attain a personal communion with the god or goddess. The road to this communion was also accompanied by paradox. Fragments of mystery liturgy include the formula ‘life death life’, or ‘now you have died, and now you have come into being.’

The greatest expression of these ideas in Classical Greece is perhaps to be found in Euripides’ tragedy the Bacchae (c. 406 BC) where he portrays many of the mystery rites surrounding the god Dionysus. The god appears at the beginning of the play, having travelled across India, Central Asia, Persia and the near east, to reach the west and ‘make [himself] a visible god for the Greeks.’ Every appearance of Dionysus is surrounded by contraries and paradox. He transcends the east and the west. He appears masculine and feminine, animal and human. When present, he seems absent, and when absent, he seems present. His presence causes the physical world to change its form: the ground gushes with wine, milk and honey where he is seen. He misleads Pentheus, the King of Thebes, with riddles which require the knowledge of an initiate to understand properly. He drives people mad, but he also gives clarity of sight. He is playful and benevolent, yet capable of unbounded savagery if his holiness is denied. He overturns all conventions, and can upset lives which are settled or staid.

It was perhaps this vision of the unity of all things that occurred to Colonel Clark when he spoke of Sufi thought being present amongst the Greeks, but perhaps also its paradoxical and disruptive quality which called it to his mind. The mystical ideas of these early thinkers, like Dionysus himself, were seen as dangerous for the established order of Greek religion, perhaps as dangerous as some later Sufis were seen in the context of their own societies; theirs were the ideas of outsiders. Colonel Clarke himself would have faced a not dissimilar prejudice in his own time. As such, he behaved not only with courage to write of the dervishes in his own age, but in the proclamation of these outsider views about dervishes and the Greeks, he also showed himself worthy of these masters.

Bijan Omrani is the author of Caesar’s Footprints: Journeys to Roman Gaul. He is currently a guest lecturer at the University of Miami.