Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Among the Sarmouni

Excerpts from O.M. Burke's Among the Dervishes (published in 1973)

Kafiristan has never been properly explored. Until Victorian times it was a no-man’s land, unclaimed by anyone at all because it was so inaccessible. Extending through a mountainous area as wild as any on Earth’s surface, it was the home of the oldest people in Afghanistan; both in terms of years and history. It was thought, and it seems likely, that these people were there long before the Graeco-Buddhists who were displaced by the Moslem invasion. When the Arabs over-ran Afghanistan, some of the Buddhists and others fled into the truly inaccessible north-east, and settled among the Kafirs—the ‘infidels’.

The King of Kabul (Afghanistan was not a united state then) at the end of the last century invaded Kafiristan and brought the ‘light of Islam to the heathen’, after an incredibly hard winter campaign. And so it was renamed the Country of Light. Although some accessible parts of the country are open to visitors, the main part of it is almost never visited except by pilgrims and others who have business there. To the modern Afghan it is something of an enigma: and also, of course, a disgrace that such a ‘primitive’ people should exist within the borders of their progressive state.

My interest in Kafiristan was specific. I knew that Afghanistan had been a centre of Buddhist learning and pilgrimage long before there was such a thing as a Dalai or a Panchen Lama in Tibet. Indeed, Tibet took the place of Afghanistan after the latter country was Islamised and the huge sanctuary of Bamian was overwhelmed in the seventh century. According to tradition, the monks of Afghanistan fled to Kafiristan. Some took the road to Tibet, others remained and started their schools of meditation anew in the land of the infidels. The Buddhism of China and Japan today is derived from the Afghan Bamian monastery-complex as evidenced by sculptures still extant.

Some of this information I had obtained from Sufi mystics and others in India, where there were any number of Tibetan refugees. One could not go to Tibet to seek refugee Buddhists from the Kafir area—or their descendants. The country was under the Chinese communists. In any case there would be little left in the monasteries to study; and few lamas would be found there now. Before Kafiristan became Westernised, there was a chance that something might be found.

A friend in a Government department put me in touch with some of the Dalai Lama’s satellites, and after that the picture became a little clearer. Tibet, according to these experts, was not actually cut off from the ‘West’, even if only because refugees continued to arrive. There were Moslems living in Tibet, and had been for a great many years… These Buddhist gentlemen, with gratifying little sectarianism in their make-up, told me something about the Sufi practices which they had heard of in Tibet: but they told me nothing new. Jalu Kambo was my man, it seemed, for he was a ‘very mystical Momatan’ (Mohammedan) who knew Lhasa and other parts of Tibet.

… When I had to some extent convinced him that I was after Sufis, and studying practical mysticism of this particular school, [he said], “You do not want Tibet at all… the mother-house of the Soo-fee-aaa is not in Tibet. You find the mother-house because they will only send you to the mother-house if you go to Llhasa.” And where was the mother-house?

‘Hindu-killer mountains, eastwards, past the Khajakhel, in Afghanistan.’ Afghanistan was, if anything, as tricky as Tibet. Or perhaps it was because I now new something about the Afghans, and very little about the Tibetans.

Jalul’s geography might have been sketchy, but what he said did undoubtedly mean Kafiristan. So I headed for Pakistan again, to collect information as to how a one-man expedition might penetrate through two main screens: the official and non-official curiosity, and the mountains of Kafiristan itself. Not to mention the Kafirs, a completely unknown quantity….

Through my Sufi sources, I heard a great deal… There was not only a way into and out of Afghanistan—there were many ways. This system was called the rahi-gurez (escape route), used by smugglers of men and material of all kinds, including arms.

Kafiristan, according to the Sufis, was the home of the esoteric school called the Sarmoon, the occult branch of the Nakshibandi Order of Bokhara. This was a school which formerly had branches all over the Moslem world. Even today they are quite widespread, but the yoga-like practices which are the core of the teaching are known only to a few in the ‘foreign branches’. My friend… had been as far as the Paghman Range of the Hindu-Kush mountains, and had been present at the meetings of the secret Sarmoon, but could tell me little about their secrets. Fifty or so years ago, a party of Yunanis (this means ‘Ionians’) had been received by the Sheikh of the Azimia who lived in feudal splendour in Paghman; this was the only story of Western contact with the Azimia.

I looked up Kafiristan in the best map I could find. The place was virtually unmapped… Kafiristan might almost not have existed, though some glaciers and heights of the order of fourteen and twenty thousand feet were marked.

What about the people? And the language? My previous trips had started in a different way. At least one had had introductions for one stage of the journey. It was when I was pondering thus that I suddenly realised how very much early encouragement means. A little more traveling, more talking with people who knew Afghanistan, and I realised that I must have contacts of there were to be any real chance of success.

In talks with Sufi mystics in Pakistan, India and other countries, I had come to realise one curious fact about the way in which they were thinking.

 In the first place, your average Sufi who was not a mere imitator of mystics, was deeply concerned about humanity as a whole. Those who were higher up than the average in the invisible hierarchy seemed to have another basic bent of thought. This was that it was necessary for the Sufis, and the Sufis alone could do it, to bridge the gap between the developing cultures of the East and West. Since I had joined their ranks, I, too, had a similar sensation. The reason seems clear enough: there was no other meeting-ground. All the cooperation in politics, in education and economics, between the Orient and Occident, was not bringing the two together at all. And deep down inside of us, most people knew this. We had accepted that there was no meeting-ground in religion: this had been established as early as the time of the Crusades. That there was no deep co-operation in material fields was clear to those who had seen the downfall of one attempt after another to bridge the gap.

Nationalism and independence in the East had not brought about widespread harmony between the firmer ruling countries and the formerly ruled. People had claimed that the granting of independence to the East would be a sort of panacea. All would be well and cordial relations would be bound to return when people were ruled by their own nationals. This had not happened. In some cases the reverse had taken place.

In orthodox philosophy the East and West had taken leave of one another centuries ago. There was no basic unity of ideas at all, partly because, deep down, there was disharmony between peoples of different cultures, different nations. We had diagnosed the problem as due to one disease. When the remedy fot he diagnosed ailment was applied, the illness did not cease, was not even ameliorated. The people who thought that the cure lay in granting independence, economic help and so on, refused to look at the instances of the countries in which these measures had not worked. Why? They were too busy looking for other countries to grant independence to. They had no time to see whether they were curing what they though they were curing.

I was no opponent of independence for anyone. But I could see that independence was not enough. As with many other things, the reformation had to start with the individual, had to start from within. The materialists continued to reassure us and themselves that ‘things would shake down’, that as soon as the first wave of patriotic fervour had passed, the East and the West would respect one another, and all would be well. But my travels and talks with people at all levels showed me that people in the Asian countries which had been independent for generations were still not reconciled with the West. What did this mean?

It meant the world was still waiting for a development within humanity which would make humanity one, one body, one heart. Plenty of people said that they had the answer. Nobody, as far as I could see, was applying it.

I had traveled and lived among the Sufis in Asia and Europe, in Africa and India. Sharing their lives and talking to them, becoming a member of their fraternities, I had found a group of people who were as worried about the future of the human race as I was. The difference between this group and those who talked a great deal about it in mass-communications media was, that the Sufis were trying to live that kind of life.

Their trusting me, as a member of another type of community, was to them a practical expression of that actual living of human unity. None of them, I am sure, thought that I wanted to associate with them for cheap sensationalism: although they were strongly resistant to the approaches of Western occultists and even anthropologists. They got to know me, decided that I wanted to be like them, and accepted me, in an amazingly short space of time.

… Did the Sufis as a whole want to project their message in the West as well as in the East? How did they think it would be done, if it were done? How could they avoid making themselves into just another ‘cult’ followed—for a time—by every crank intellectual and occultist at any given time or place?

Yunus [a Pakistani merchant who had been Abbot of a Sufi monastery in Iraq] understood me at once. ‘Your question is not as simple as it seems it might be. We can put a question, but we cannot always find the answer in a couple of words.

‘You will find out, I think, if you spend more time among the Sufis, for you have to absorb their characteristic "flavour". Once you have been with the Sufis, really of the Sufis, you cannot believe that their Way will ever become degenerated as you describe.’


Sufi Abdul-Hamid Khan, Master of the Royal Afghan Mint and something of a polymath—military engineer, calligraphist, sage and expert on rhythmic exercises—must have been over ninety years of age. A follower of the Mir of Gazarga, he could remember in considerable detail the events which had taken place eighty or more years ago.

A frequent visitor to Kunji Zagh, he had spent many years in Bokhara, and it was there that he had come across the redoubtable Gurdjieff, whose studies of Eastern metaphysical systems were introduced into Europe about the time of the First World War.

Although the people of Kunji Zagh called Gurdjieff ‘The Russian Tatar’, Sufi Abdul-Hamid said that he was in reality partly Mongolian, part-Russian, part-Greek. According to the Sufi, this Jurjizada (Son of George) had once been a Theosophist, had also studied in an Orthodox seminary, and ‘was responsive’ to the Sufic ‘waves’—could, in other words, contact the mental activity which emanated from the ‘work’ of the dervishes. This, together with a curiosity about the occult, led him to the shrine of Bahauddin, the Naqshbandi teacher in Bokhara.

Here another Bahauddin, known as Dervish Baha, had taught him certain ‘secrets’. Among them were the ‘sacred dances’ or movements made by dervishes, the rules of the Order and the ‘inner interpretation’ of the Sufi texts. Then he sent him on a tour of the centres of the Sufis, some in Egypt, some in Syria, some in India.

Seeing the strange effects of the Sufi practices, Gurdjieff decided that he would find out how they worked. In order to do this, he and a number of friends collected as much of the material used by the Order as they could, and fled with it ‘to the West’.

Unfortunately, continued Abdul-Hamid, Jurjizada was at too early a stage to do anything final with the material. He had not yet learned, for instance, that the exercises and the music had to be carried out with special people at certain times in a special order of events. As a result he propounded the theory of the Complete Man without being able to take it into practice.

Further, Gurdjieff tried to make the method work by trying out the exercises on a large number of people. The result?

‘Here in Afghanistan we still receive, like faint radio messages, the influence of the minds of the pupils of Gurdjieff, coming from far away. They must still be carrying on the exercises, but they don’t know how, when or with whom to do them.’

As soon as I got back to Europe, I found that some at least of this information might be true. After the first War, the Russian and a disciple of his, the philosopher Ouspensky, settled in France and England respectively. They set up teaching groups, and – I was told—several of these still existed. But they remained fully secret. Probably, like the custodians of any secret knowledge which had become reduced in quality, they would continue to operate, perhaps for generations.


Amu Daria is, of course, the name of the immense river which forms four hundred miles of the northern frontier of Afghanistan. Beyond it lies the Soviet Union and the lost territories of Turkestan, once the site of ancient Sufi strongholds.

Russian penetration into the Central Asian khanates is no new thing, and faced with the encroachment of the ‘West’ in the form of Czarist advance, and the need to develop Sufi teachings further in order to coincide in some way with modern technology—the Sufis started to move into the hinterland of Afghanistan during the early part of [the 20th] century. Some of the oldest foundations were already established in the Hindu Kush area. Those who migrated into Afghanistan began to use the name of Amu Daria, run into one word, as the designation of their teaching. Thus they perpetuated the crossing of the river and the tradition of their trans-Oxus origins in their name.

The River Amu (Amu Daria in Persian) appears on most maps as the Oxus. It will be convenient to refer to the √©migr√© Sufi groups as Amudaria ones, because such a phrase as ‘the Oxus Sufis’ does not sound anything like as felicitous. They are also known as the Sarmoon (a code-word for ‘bee’, a reference to one of their exercises).

Although the Sufis do not like to engage in historical or geographical discussions of their cult, there seems little doubt that the Amudaria elements concentrate upon practices and ideas which differ from those found elsewhere, with the exception of the old Afghan Orders. In some ways their rituals and methods are quite like those of other Sufi Orders, but more organised. As an example, the habit of compiling multiple words taken from the syllables of other words is a fine art with them. The concentration upon the belief that the Sufi way is the only suitable one for propagation throughout the world is another characteristic. Then there is the teaching that it is from here that the Sufi message must be diffused, and that it will have to be naturalised in each community.

I spent one week in each of four Amudaria communities. The organisation of the monastery, according to this group, is ultimately a spiritual entity : the building or the location is secondary. Thus two of the ‘monasteries’ actually had no premises of their own. Meetings were held in the open, or in houses. In one village when the gun which marks noon was fired, virtually the whole population started repeating formulae under their breaths. This was a ‘meeting’ of the Amurdarists: no monastery, not even a physical meeting.

This principle is carried even further in Afghanistan. Although monasteries exist and halka meetings are held, and discipleship as I had seen it elsewhere was carried on, the whole community is considered to be in a special kind of rapport. This means that constant spiritual communication between the members is thought to continue, especially at designated times.

The four leaders of the trans-Oxus communities, Shiekh Jalal, Ahmad Baba, Ishan Ali and Pir Turki, all accepted the authority of the Naqshbandi chief of the Hindu Kush Sufis. This is the representative of the Studious King, who is the overall leader, and who may be ‘found in disguise, in almost any country in the world.’

Ahmad Baba showed me the method of sewing the patchwork cloak which some Sufis wear, and which was until quite recently the uniform of those who were going through a period of retreat from the world. It is not known when this custom started, but I was reminded of the ‘coat of many colours’ and wondered whether the robe originated in Syria. Ahmad was about seventy years of age, but might have been older. He was in astonishing health for a man who could clearly remember pre-Revolution Russia, and attributed this to his carrying out the longevity exercises which are a part of the Sufi training. ‘Nobody,’ he said, ‘would get feeble if he carried them out regularly. Certainly they would live, as the Sheikhs of our Order do, up to a hundred or twice as many years of age.’

In addition to most of the usual Sufi exercises, the Baba’s community practiced healing, and Sufis came from various places to receive this part of their ‘enlightenment’. ‘Of course,’ said the sage, ‘we can also send it out to those who are ready to receive it. You see, we only have a portion. It is like having a … (underground water channel) connected to the source. But we cannot transmit to those who are not ready. If they are only slightly developed in the requisite ways, then they must come here.’

I was interested to know what these Sufis felt about the possibility of making their cult known in the West. Ahmad was not to be drawn. ‘That is a matter for the Studious King.’

Ishan Ali was a Turk, and half the age of the Baba. His ministry extended through the wild north-east of Afghanistan, right up to the Chinese border in the thin tongue of land which sits astride the Pamir mountains. He was forthright, greatly loved, and yet difficult to approach. He received me in a Western-type suit, with a small karakul lambskin hat on his shaven head, something like a kalpak cap, but more stylish. ‘You must not force the pace,’ he told me so many times. ‘You are anxious to learn a great deal of things about us. But you must remember that if you allow yourself to be blinded by curiosity, by the collecting of facts and little snippets of information—you may write a good book, but you will slow down your spiritual progress. ‘

I saw him apply this teaching to a party of young men, not long out of the Army, who had come on a pilgrimage to meet him. ‘Remember what I say, ‘ he admonished them, ‘for you will not be told again but sent home. What you have learned in the Army will be of inestimable value to you, although you are still cursing the day the pishk (conscription) caught you, and blessing the day you were discharged. Both are wrong: but I cannot expect you to understand this yet. Pay attention to everything that you are told, and no not take an interest in things that you are not told or shown. At your stage your so-called human abilities can often be a curse to you. Plenty of time for changing back when you get to the outside world again.’

Pir Turki, who in spite of his name was not a Turk but of Indian extraction, ran the strangest school of all. Everything was based upon gymnastics. Pits had been dug in the circle which had been marked around his miniature castle. In these depressions, some twelve feet deep, disciples had to wield heavy clubs, often to music, sometimes accompanied by the voice of the teacher. They were reputed to develop occult powers; and I heard many tales about how they could make things float on water, see at a vast distance, and so on.

I was said by local villagers that one of Pir turki’s teachers had, by the power of his glance, held up an army for three days in the passes of the Khyber. Be that as it may, Pir turki the ascetic was a martinet. Shunning over-eating or loose talk like the plague, he provided plenty of food for his disciples, though nobody knew where the money came from. He did not make collections. There must have been a source of his income, of course, but it was never visible. One of the first things that he said to me was: ‘If you revere any man, forget him, for all that matters is the Work.’

I have never seen anyone who impressed me so much. When I told this, he took hold of a beautiful lamp which stood on his desk-table and smashed it. ‘I have destroyed a thing of beauty. Do you respect me less now? I hope so.’

Then he called a disciple, accused him of theft, and sent him to wash out the assembly-room. “Must he suffer so that I can see that you have defects?’ I asked him.

‘I hope that you think that I have been unjust in making him suffer, ‘ was the answer.

Unfortunately for the lesson’s permanency in my case, I learned later that the disciple who had been unjustly treated had committed some grave breach of regulations and merited punishment in any case. ‘You don’t understand, ‘ said a disciple, when I mentioned this; ‘the lesson has sunk in where it counts. That is all that counts.’

Yet punishment was something which seemed to happen very rarely among the Sufis. I would not say that they were immune to it, but as they had been taught that personal dignity was sometimes a grave disadvantage, they were not able to suffer much through being made fun of in front of each other. Manual labor on the three farms which the community owned gave many opportunities for exercises in self-development. All the income from the farms was collected by an administrator and sent to the women’s welfare association, for some reason, so the Sufis did not benefit directly. And yet the Sheikh, as I have said, did not seem short of cash.

Sheikh Jalal was a feudal-type chief, a man of towering personality within a slight and delicate frame. He lived in considerable style from the income of vast inherited flocks of some of the best sheep in the country. He smoked a little, but did not seem to eat much. He always wore similar clothes, the robbers and turban which old-fashioned judges assumed in Afghanistan.

He was about sixty-five years old. Although surrounded by servants and a great deal of luxury, he personally partook of it little. When, for instance, we went out shooting and brought down several hundred wild duck and grey geese, none was served at his table. The birds went as gifts to the surrounding villages.

Jalal, it was rumoured, could neither read nor write. This idea must have gained currency because he was never seen with a book or a pen. His teaching was done in the normal Sufi way: through short addresses, exercises, meditations. Going with him several times on long walks, which he embarked upon without any prior notice whatever, I realised that he spent a great deal of his time in silent communion and commemoration (called Zikr) and that this had become almost second nature to him. He had several sons, all of them, I believe, in the Army.

He often showed small signs of a sense of perception which is repeatedly mentioned in Sufi writings as a sign of ‘saintship’, but which would hot have been noted except by an attentive disiciple or someone else very close to him. One day, for instance, he picked up a cooking-pot and took it on a walk on which I accompanied him. Stopping at a poor small house he saluted the occupant and handed in the pot. The old woman was amazed. She said that she had just broken the earthen dish in which she cooked. Again, he handed me a box of matches when I had come out without any, in spite of the fact that I could not be sure he realised that I had left them at home. It should be mentioned that he could not have observed that I brought none with me, for I had met him in his garden, on the way from my quarters to his.

I mentioned these small indications to him. But he would not discuss them, merely saying: “Would you make me a saint, and rob me of the power of becoming?”
There were many of these little instances. Some were observed by me, others reported by disciples. It was interesting to note that among the disciples stories were never exaggerated; they would often hinge upon the smallest event. This indicated to me that many of the wilder tales current among the country-folk and others outside Sufism were elaborations of actual happenings.

It was Sheikh Jalal that I questioned on this subject in a more general way, when I referred to the tales my mother had told me about Scottish highland and country folk being ‘fey’ and having insights which others did not have.

‘These are normal, not abnormal developments,’ he said. ‘they are of no value in themselves, partly proved by the fact that the experiences seldom have practical value. For every happening of this kind that is a warning or can be turned to practical use, there are a hundred which are not of any use. Why is this? Materialists would say that it merely proves that the power is fitful, partial, something of little account. What they do not know is that these are signs. They are encouragements, they show that the recipient has a real chance of developing his ‘gifts’. They are signs that the time has come for self-work. Most people cannot use them, because they do not know that this is the alif (letter A) and that the be (letter B) follows, until there is a iaa (last letter of the alphabet).’

I entertained all the four Amu Daria sheikhs at one time or another by describing to them something of the life and thinking of Europe, even going back as far as I could to the days of the Middle Ages, when the East and the West had been closer together in so many ways.

Pir Turki’s reaction to this information was interesting, because it showed me that there was something in his mind on this subject. ‘A century and a quarter has passed,’ he said, ‘since the message of the Great Khan about this subject, but the work has gone on uninterruptedly.’ The Great Khan was Jan-Fishan, the chief of the Hindu Kush, who was a descendant of the Prophet Mohammed, and in whose family the leadership of the Sufis is believed to reside.

‘The Great Khan was the first to be in touch with the West since the time of Sultan Yusef Saladin. He actually went to India and settled there for a time. His message, which was given out just before the War of Shah Shuja (1838) was concerned with the West. From what I have heard from you and otherwise, it is still as fresh today.’

He did not revert to the message of the Great Khan for some time, and we discussed other topics. Then he told me that the Khan had said that the West was material, had lost the force of religion. This materialism was not the materialism which we understood, but was acquisitiveness pure and simple. There would be a growth in sceptical philosophy. There would have to be a great deal of suffering in the West. ‘And the rule of logic and intellect will have to become so severe that there is almost nobody who will listen to truth.’

When that happened, he said, people would start to look for truth. Then the message of the Sufis would be heard.

‘But the people in the West are Christians,’ I objected.
‘So are we!’ He turned sharply to me. ‘In the West there are materialists, but of the worst possible kind. They are free, free to destroy themselves; but they should not be allowed to destroy themselves, any more than a child is allowed to do so. If I insult Jesus in a Moslem country I shall be punished by law and by the people. But you have told me that people use the name of Jesus lightly, even in swear-words in the West. Is it true?’

‘It is true. But I still think that there are good people, and well-meaning ones.’

‘No doubt. They will probably be considered stupid by the others. And many of them will be stupid; they will follow anyone and think that he is a prophet, because they will not be able to discriminate as to what a prophet is.’

‘They are very self-critical,’ I hazarded.

‘Self-criticism is useless without self-work. And who is to reach them?’

I tried to turn the conversation into more illuminating channels. ‘Can you apply the concentration to the problem, in the way which you were telling us yesterday,’ I said, ‘ and tell me, as one who has come from the West to learn, whether there will be a growth of a community of Sufis in Europe, strong enough to have any effect on the evolution of man?”

He did not seem to concentrate at all. ‘There will.’

‘And will it be led by anyone?’

‘It will.’

‘And will this be a Westerner?’

‘It will not. It will be one who is of the East, but he will make the teaching a part of the teaching of the West, as it once was, in ancient times.’

‘When will the activity start?’

‘It has started, slowly. Some will come and try to force another teaching into the shape of the original one, and many will follow.’

He cut the conversation short. ‘Only the Sheikhs can influence this development; it cannot be discussed. It is a matter of the contact of minds. Some who have fixed ideas may have to die to make way for someone who is younger by many years.’

In many ways my time with the Amudaria was the most interesting of all my life. There was something un-oriental about them; and they were so obviously intent upon some activity which was not the rarefied nature which characterises Indian and Far Eastern thought and makes it unacceptable to any but a small minority of Westerners. There was a very great deal that one could get hold of, as it were, and very obviously no attempt at mystification.

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