Quakers and Sufis and…

“Move beyond any attachment to names.

Every war and every conflict between human beings
has happened because of some disagreement about names.

It’s such an unnecessary foolishness,
because just beyond the arguing
there’s a long table of companionship,
set and waiting for us to sit down.

What is praised is One,
so the praise is one too,
many jugs being poured into a huge basin.

All religions, all this singing, one song.
The differences are just illusion and vanity.

Sunlight looks slightly different on this wall
than it does on that wall
and a lot different on this other one,
but it is still one light.

We have borrowed these clothes,
these time-and-space personalities,
from a light,
and when we praise,
we pour them back in.”

– Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi, 13th century Sufi Muslim poet

“There is a principle which is pure, placed in the human mind, which in different places and ages hath different names: it is, however, pure and proceeds from God. It is deep and inward, confined to no form of religion nor excluded from any, where the heart stands in perfect sincerity.” – John Woolman, 18th century Quaker

“The humble, meek, merciful, just, pious, and devout souls are everywhere of one religion, and when death takes off the mask, they will know one another though the diverse liveries they wear here make them strangers.”
– William Penn, 17th century Quaker and founder of Pennsylvania

As a student of world religions, it interests me to learn how people in various times and places have dealt with the questions that seem to perpetually and universally occupy humans, such as: How do we explain evil and suffering? Why are we all painfully aware of our propensity to fall short of our own moral ideals? What is the meaning of life, the universe and everything?

In the course of my studies, one of the many intriguing things I’ve stumbled upon are the parallels between Sufism and Quakerism. It strikes me that Sufis are to Islam what Quakers are to Christianity. Sufism and Quakerism are both based on the core idea that it is possible to directly and experientially encounter God. Both tend toward the inward and mystical in practice yet lead to compassionate engagement with the outer world. Both emphasize peace, equality, truth and simplicity. Both see God as loving, kind, merciful, gracious and always present. Both have often been viewed with suspicion or even contempt by the guardians of orthodoxy.

Of course, there are differences between Quakerism and Sufism. Each was born in a different place, time and culture, with a different religion as its seedbed.  Yet the affinities strike me as remarkable. I think it is a subject worthy of further investigation.

Some Muslims and non-Muslim observers see Sufism–or something like it–as the future of Islam. What if, likewise, Quakerism–or something like it–(such as a Buddhist-Christian hybrid) is the future of Christianity? Christianity and Islam, in their more mystically oriented expressions (such as Quakerism and Sufism), see each other as fellow travelers (or even beloved siblings) together on the same journey home.

Maybe it’s a bit pie-in-the-sky-I’d-like-to-teach-the-world-to-sing, but imagine the implications if, someday, two-thirds of the world’s population–the Christians and Muslims–found common ground in the inwardly-experienced living presence of the God of Love–far above doctrinal barriers?  As Rumi wrote, “Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing there is a field. I’ll meet you there.”

Expanding beyond just Quakers and Sufis, there are similar sects with similar values within Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, etc.  The mystics.  The esoterics.  Every religion has it mystics, who tend toward inclusivity and openness, as well as its non-mystic exoterics who tend toward exclusivity and literalism and fundamentalism.  The fundamentalists see other faiths as competitors while the mystics of various faiths recognize one-another as kindred spirits.

What if the trajectory of our human story is toward interdependent unity with each other within God’s presence (in whom we “live and move and have our being”) without losing our wondrous variety? I find that narrative much more compelling–and indicative of the God whom Jesus revealed–than the doom and gloom Armageddon narratives espoused by so many literalists within both Christianity and Islam.

Is it possible for a Christian or a Muslim or a Buddhist or a Hindu or a Sikh or an atheist or whatever to entertain such ideas of non-exclusive access to the Truth while remaining true to their own belief system? I believe it is.  In fact, I think doing so is truer to the heart of all the world’s religions and to the best in human nature.  It is how we were meant to be and how we will survive as a species.

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  • jekylldoc

    It seems to me pretty much all the various mystical visions perceive the presence of God in ordinary life, even if we may have to physically remove ourselves from that life to learn to experience God’s presence. Would it be too radical to suggest that the various ways of being better than ordinary amount to just (green) eyeshades obscuring the ability to see the signs of God’s presence?

  • I’m a Christian who loves Rumi and the other Muslim mystics (as well as the Hindu Rabindranath Tagore). If I believe the Bible, that “those who seek me will find me,” how could I not expect seekers like Rumi and Tagore to find Him? The true seeker can discern those who only want to argue about dogmas and forms, and those who hunger and thirst for God. I want to be a true seeker of God, and will happily pray with anyone else who hungers and thirsts with me.

  • Molly Wingate

    Really enjoyed your reflections here. I am a Quaker and your comments ring true. I think that the observation that these traditions come from different seedbeds is important. A Quaker isn’t a Sufi or Jain. But the common experiential experience is profound.